There are those among us who — brace yourself for this — dislike musicals. Perhaps they hate them, with an active, withering passion, but more likely they simply dismiss the form altogether as sentimental or soapy or sappy or just stupid.
Theater folk understand how much craft and care and sheer intelligence of various sorts it takes to make a musical actually work, but anyway … The form’s detractors can find plenty of ammo for their view (Cats, anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber, etc., etc.). A bad musical can be as dreadful as art gets.
Do it right and the thrill is magnificent. Do it boldly and creatively, taking the form in new directions, and the overall effect is something that I’d argue is hard to duplicate in any sort of entertainment.
This week in Portland we get new local productions of two of the most boldly creative, and thrilling musicals of the past 20 years.
Beyond that critical assessment — and that both feature central characters struggling with the challenges of being different — the two shows are markedly different. Yet each represents a fruitful departure from the conventions of American musical theater tradition in terms of narrative themes, emotional tenor and musical style.
Musical theater and rock & roll often have seemed at odds, both aesthetically and culturally, and attempts to meld the two have often as not proved disappointing (I’m looking at you, Rent). Hedwig and the Angry Inch, written by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, has the advantage of being a rock musical in story as well as style. It’s the twisted tale of a young East German “slip of a girly boy” whose passage across the Iron Curtain costs him dearly. Abandoned in Kansas in the aftermath of a botched sex-change operation (“Six inches forward and five inches back,” goes the anthemic description. “I got an angry inch!”), Hedwig mentors a young musician, is betrayed, and then stalks him in pursuit of the credit and fame he’s stolen. The transsexual angle hardly seems transgressive anymore, but Trask’s sharp punk/pop/glam-rock songwriting loses none of its punch, nor do the story’s deeply relatable emotional dimensions of love, loss and frustration. As the Triangle Productions website aptly puts it, “It’s a rocking ride, funny, touching and ultimately inspiring to anyone who has felt life gave them an inch when they deserved a mile.”
Portland actor turned Broadway producer Corey Brunish directs and Dale Johannes stars as Hedwig. Johannes is a terrific singer and actor, but he has big shoes to fill here, and not just for anyone familiar with the John Cameron Mitchell original (which debuted Off Broadway in 1998 and was adapted for a 2001 film) or the 2014 Broadway production that earned Neil Patrick Harris a Tony Award: Triangle produced Hedwig here more than a decade ago, with the title role made memorable by Wade McCollum.
If Hedwig shook up the form with a finger in the eye of conventional propriety, The Light in the Piazza goes the other direction entirely, emphasizing beauty, subtlety and depth, straddling the line between musicals and light opera and refusing to spoon feed its audience either rote melodies or simplistic emotions. As a writer for Variety once put it, “Its story, while romantic, is not at all sentimental. Its music, while lovely, is not easily hummable. And these are to be counted among the show’s many, many charms.” Better yet to quote the estimable critic John Lahr from The New Yorker: “The Light in the Piazza doesn’t want to make theatergoers feel good; it wants to make them feel deeply.”
Based on a 1960 novella by Elizabeth Spencer (which also was made into a 1962 film starring Olivia de Havilland and Yvette Mimieux), the story concerns a well-to-do American housewife taking her young adult daughter on an Italian vacation. Clara — sunny and sweet, but more than merely naive — falls into a passionate love with a young man she meets in a Florentine square, presenting her mother with a passel of dilemmas, practical, emotional and ethical. Should she — can she — thwart the budding relationship? Should she reveal Clara’s secret, an intellectual disability, to the young man’s family? Should she let Clara try to steer her own life according to her own heart, however risky her own mind might make things?
Craig Lucas’s book renders this story with sensitivity and clarity, but it is the music and lyrics by Adam Guettel that raise the emotional pitch toward the heavens.
Mocks Crest Productions, the semi-professional company that usually performs the clever froth (meant as a compliment, here) of Gilbert & Sullivan at this time of year, presents Light, directed by Bruce Hostetler. The show last was produced locally four years ago at Portland Playhouse, with a stripped-down approach that relied on a great cast of voices and Eric Nordin’s deft piano. Here, expect some of the artful orchestrations that also made the Broadway version (which toured here in 2007) so lush.
A poignant show might often touch the emotions, but it isn’t often that a playbill does.
But if you go to the Portland Center Stage production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill — and you happen to be a follower of the local jazz scene — be prepared for a sad moment looking at the show’s credits.
Andre St. James, the estimable Portland bassist, is listed as a member of the onstage band supporting Deidrie Henry in the role of Billie Holiday. But St. James died unexpectedly (reportedly of cancer) only about a week before the show’s opening. A loose sheet tucked into the playbills informs audiences of the necessary substitution. The note of a more personal loss adds emotional weight to an evening that already asks us to ponder the passing of great talents from our midst.
Openings, readings and other twists
Twilight Theater Company presents David Belke’s The Maltese Bodkin, a “comedy mystery” that mashes up characters and styles from Shakespeare and detective fiction.
The small theater company Jane has teamed up with Art From the Heart, the Albertina Kerr Center’s arts program for adults with disabilities, to present a free reading of Daniel Pearle’s A Kid Like Jake, accompanied by a gallery showing of art inspired by the play. It’s 7 p.m. Friday at Art From the Heart, 3505 N.E. Broadway.
What counts as theater in the popular conception changes over time, but it’s hard to deny that clowning, contortions and the like have their place within the history, and perhaps the essence, of the art. Whether they’re your current cup of tea is another matter, of course. But if they are, Oddville: a New Vaudevillian Tradition provides something to sip. The monthly 2nd-Sunday series at the Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven features four performers this time around: contortionist Mel Michelle, clown Summer Olsson, comedic singer-songwriter Shirley Gnome, and Zoe Stasko, whose act is described as “hand balancing.”
Theatre Vertigo closes its season 20 reading series with < 3, a play about growing up, by Sara Jean Accaurdi. Emilie Landmann directs.
Gabriel, blow your horn (a little longer)!
If you’ve been worried that you might not make one of the last few performances of the August Wilson masterpiece Fences at Portland Playhouse, you worries are over. At least for another couple of weeks. The enthusiastically received production has been extended to July 1.
There’s lots of great work going on, well-shaped by the renowned director (and longtime Wilson collaborator) Lou Bellamy. But — as I wrote about in last week’s DramaWatch column — Bobby Bermea’s performance in the seemingly small yet crucial role of Gabriel, brain-damaged brother and unlikely redeemer to the play’s towering protagonist, Troy Maxson, is superb.
Last time to make plans!
Productions due to close in the next few days include Rich Rubin’s Portland history play Left Hook at IFCC; Carol Triffle’s apocalyptic comedy Fallout at Imago; and the PAMTA-winning musical Sister Act at Lakewood.
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.