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DramaWatch: Will Vinton’s stage ‘Kiss’

The late Claymation master's musical-theater adaptation of "The Frog Prince" debuts at Lakewood, Twilight opens the Portland premiere of an E.M. Lewis play, "Hadestown" hits Puddletown.

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Music, maestro: Will Vinton at the piano. Photo: K.B. Dixon/2017

WILL VINTON, THE CELEBRATED Portland animator and filmmaker, enjoyed many triumphs in his creative career – winning an Academy Award and a handful of Emmys, founding an innovative and influential studio, making his mark in everything from art-house shorts to commercials, TV series to feature films. Yet when he died in 2018 of myeloma, his last grand project remained unfinished.

Vinton spent part of his final years exploring a different realm than the one in which he’d made his name, working not on film but on a stage musical called The Kiss,  a loose, playful adaptation of the classic folktale most commonly known as The Frog Prince, in which only the willing kiss of a fair princess can break an evil spell that has turned a young prince into a pondhopper.  

“Most of Will’s guiding light was the word ‘transformation’,” says theater director Greg Tamblyn. “The story of the princess and the frog had all the elements he loved: colorful people, animals, and transformation. As I understand it, originally it was to be an animated feature, but at some point Will really fell in love with the idea of making a musical.”

Creating a stage musical, though, is a devilishly complex and tricky endeavor. And even for a brilliant artist with a track record of pulling off large-scale projects full of painstaking detail, completing The Kiss proved a challenge. In the end, getting the show ready for opening night – Friday’s kickoff to the 70th anniversary season of Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Theatre – required a transformation of the thing itself, completed in tribute to Vinton by his son Jesse Vinton and Tamblyn.

Both the form and content of The Kiss feel of a piece with the Vinton we already know. “When I was a kid I was probably more enthused by musical comedy, musical theater, than I was  filmmaking; because my parents were into theater,” Vinton told KBOO’s “Stage and Studio” in an interview about an early version of The Kiss presented just for two nights at Lakewood in 2014. “And so in some ways I feel like I cut my teeth – at least my comedic teeth – on stage musicals, and applied that to animation.” After he launched Will Vinton Studios in 1975, fairy tales were the basis of much of the first few years of the company’s “Claymation” work.

Arro (Keaton Fields) a frog and the Princess Ember (Sophie MacKay) in the “The Kiss,” at Lakewood Theatre Company. Photo by Triumph Photography

Just before that 2014 showing of The Kiss, Tamblyn recalls, he happened to stop by a rehearsal to say hi to a friend who was working on the production. Vinton asked him to watch the show and provide some feedback. Tamblyn responded with several pages of notes.

“It was a great concept, but it felt more like a bunch of episodes – like ‘Saturday Night Live’ skits – than a musical. A lot of the elements were there, but it wasn’t connected very well; a lot of entertainment but too little character development.”

Vinton thanked Tamblyn but said he thought the show actually was in pretty good shape. Then a year later, Vinton called and said, “I’ve been shopping this around and people are telling me the same things you did. Can you work with me on fixing this?”

Vinton and Tamblyn began meeting periodically to finesse the story, paying greater attention to character arcs and the timing of the small but crucial emotional moments that help build them. After Vinton’s death, Tamblyn assumed that was the end of the project, but then he got a call from Vinton’s sister, Northwest Academy founder Mary Vinton Folberg, who told him that one of Vinton’s final requests was for The Kiss to be staged and for Tamblyn to be a part of it.

And so the work resumed, with Jesse Vinton stepping in to help Tamblyn refine the libretto. (The show’s music and lyrics, from the start, have been the work of David Pomeranz, a music industry vet whose work ranges from writing the Barry Manilow hit “Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again” to co-composing the Kathie Lee Gifford Broadway musical Scandalous to contributing to an album called The Road to Freedom by L. Ron Hubbard & Friends.) “We want it to be faithful to Will’s concept, and we’ve been working on it for three-plus years,” Tamblyn says. 

Claymation pioneer and Academy Award winner Will Vinton, who died in 2018. His stage musical comedy “The Kiss” is opening at Lakewood Theatre. Photo: K.B. Dixon/2017.

Vinton’s concept gives the downgraded prince some pond-dwelling pals – a snail, a beaver and a racoon who ease his transition to wildlife and support him along his quest to regain his courtly form. The witch who sentences him to his, er, green new deal also introduces a rival suitor for the princess, magically disguising a rat as a princely rake called Raoul. And instead of just being two creatures who meet at random, here the frog/prince and the princess have a joint backstory: As scions of neighboring kingdoms, they were childhood pals who’ve grown to loathe each other.

In many versions of the story, a key plot complication is the princess reneging on her promise of the redeeming kiss. That’s too simplistic an obstacle to work in Vinton’s reformulation of the tale. But the lesson about honorable behavior still has its place.

“My perception of him was that he was the kind of person who wasn’t just gonna put a foot in the water and see how it went,” Tamblyn says of Vinton and his late-in-life leap into the thorny realm of musicals. “If he was going to do something, he was gonna jump in all the way. He invested a ton of his life and his money into this show. He never gave up on it. And that inspired me to keep going. So, with what we have now onstage, I feel like I’ve kept my promise.”

Opening

Playwright E.M. Lewis, author of “Song of Extinction” at Twilight Theater. Photo: Russell J Young/2017

“THERE WAS A MOMENT in which things came together,” E.M. (Ellen) Lewis recalls about the origins of her 2008 play Song of Extinction, which is getting its first Portland production from Twlight Theater Company. “I was living in Santa Monica, in my teensy apartment where you could barely turn around, and I’d seen a call asking for science plays. I thought, ‘Well, I could do that,’ because at one point I had thought I might become a nurse and so I took a lot of science courses before I decided instead to become an English major. So I thought, ‘If I was going to write a science play, what kind of science play would I write?’ And with a tumble and a clunk, all these characters dropped into my head.”

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Those characters included a talented but troubled teen failing a biology class; his mother, who is dying of cancer; his willfully distracted fathe,r who is obsessed with the plight of an endangered species of beetle; and a high school teacher whose lessons about extinction are shadowed by his own experiences in the Khmer Rouge “killing fields” following the Cambodian Civil War.

“Extinction is a very messy business,” the teacher says. “In books it looks clean.  But I remember extinction and it was not clean.”

The play that Lewis built around these characters went ON to numerous accolades, including winning the 2009 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award from the American Theater Critics Association. Wrote a reviewer in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, “…no point is belabored, no audience member bludgeoned with a message. For a work with so many layers, it’s nevertheless almost minimalist in structure, its dialogue convincingly realistic, its tone admirably restrained.”

Lewis’s own path eventually brought her back to her native Oregon, where she’s had striking success with productions of her plays such as the semi-autobiographical The Gun Show at CoHo Theater and the polar epic Magellanica – another science play – at Artists Rep.

“This one has a lot of deep threads that I continue to explore and play with,” Lewis says, talking recently by phone, about Song of Extinction. “One is ecological issues, and that goes back to my childhood as an Oregon farm girl. Song has threads of the importance of biodiversity and about the danger of thinking that the natural world – and the people around us – are disposable.

“Another thread is the question of how to go on. Not so much about the big events that happen in our lives but how we respond to them, how we keep our courage and move forward in the wake of the terrible things that happen.”

Lewis says that Michael Griggs, who is co-directing the Twilight production with Kathleen Worley, encountered the play through a staged reading several years ago at Willamette University and has been looking ever since for an opportunity to stage it.

“This is a play I care about deeply and to have a local production is really meaningful for me,” Lewis continues. “In a lot of ways, this play taught me how to be a writer. There’s big magic in it. There’s a boldness of form and content that’s much larger than what I’d done before – going out onto the thin ice, trusting myself as a storyteller.

“Going to rehearsal the other night was a lovely gift. I could feel it mattering deeply to them: this story, these characters. It’s a real pleasure having my play in the hands of people who really care about it.”

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Chibueze Ihuoma and company in the “Hadestown” national tour. Photo: Kevin Berne

Hadestown, a musical by the singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, revisits the enduringly resonant legend of Orpheus and Eurydice with overlays of contemporary concerns about industry, labor relations and climate change. And does so effectively enough to have won Tony Awards for best musical and best original score. A touring version visits the Keller Auditorium as part of the Broadway in Portland series.

One night only

The kind of theater produced by the Portland troupe the Reformers isn’t of a sort that lends itself to press previews. Immersive, experiential and participatory, their shows – if that term applies – are little group adventures, shrouded in mystery until the planners/performers guide you through the thing itself. This Saturday’s The Landlord’s Game promises a further twist: a fundraiser, it ups the ante on the usual fun with food, drinks and “handmade…upcycled art” pieces.

Closing

PETE’s splendid adaptation of “The Cherry Orchard” closes soon. Photo: Owen Carey

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s production of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard – from a translation by Stepan Simek, adapted by director Alice Reagan – endured a couple of Covid-related delays to open last month and earn (so far as I have seen) universal raves from critics and audiences. Then Covid reared its spikes again, costing PETE a week’s worth of performances. But at least that last setback occasioned an extension of the show’s run, providing a few more chances for you to see what the esteemed theater professor and journalist Daniel Pollack-Pelzner called “the funniest, fastest, most wrenching Chekhov I’ve seen.”

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Lauren Allison (Bella Rose) and Dave Cole (Johnny Blood) in Clackamas Rep’s “Desperate Measures.” Photo: Travis Nodurft

Time is running out as well on Desperate Measures, a musical comedy loosely adapted from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, at Clackamas Rep, and Lady Be Good, an early Gershwin hit being staged at the Shedd Institute in Eugene.

The flattened stage

The 1980s Showtime TV show Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre (which had escaped my awareness entirely, until some recent rooting around on YouTube) apparently considered the “Frog Prince” story important enough in the folktale canon to serve as the series premiere. This version was written, directed and narrated by Eric Idle, and features Robin Williams, the wonderful Teri Garr, and even the musician Van Dyke Parks:

The best line I read this week

“Two phrases only are necessary for a whole evening of English conversation, I have found: ‘Scotch-and-soda?’ and ‘Why not?’ By alternating them, it is impossible to make a mistake.” 

Jean-Paul Sartre, speaking to the writer A. J. Liebling, in 1946, as reported in The New Yorker

Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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One Response

  1. I’m so glad to see (next week!) a staged production of “Song of Extinction” by EM Lewis. At the Portland Civic Theatre Guild, we featured the play, directed by Michael Griggs, in our season of readings in 2017 (I think!). The piece is truly magical and deeply evocative. Even the stage directions are a fully realized character! We at PCTG are particularly proud that the current production features Benicio Delgado, the fine young actor who appeared in our 2022 New Play Award production, Dorothy’s Dictionary, also by EM Lewis.

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