Meredith Kaye Clark

DramaWatch: a friendship in song

Meredith Kaye Clark and Katherine Murphy Lewis launch a show at CoHo. Plus: JAW weekend, new in Ashland, 100 fires this time, last call.

“And remember your main relationship to everything you bring is that you’re gonna have to carry it, so choose wisely.”

That sounds like a good bit of practical travel advice. But because it is a line from a play, it also has other meanings, greater resonances within a story, and perhaps within the lives of those who come to see that story unfold onstage. 

Meredith Kaye Clark (left) and Katherine Murphy Lewis: in Tonight Nothing, a friendship to unpack. Photo: Steve Brian

In Tonight Nothing, by Merideth Kaye Clark and Katherine Murphy Lewis, one of the characters, called K, is prone to packing up and heading off — to find adventure, to find herself, to escape some disappointment or other, vague or acute. Yet she is loathe to choose, to leave things behind, whether that’s a stuffed animal, an electric wok or something less tangible, something she’ll have to carry not in her backpack but in her heart or her psyche. 

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What are you up to this week? Any family coming to town? What do you eat and not eat these days? And what theater might you and your familial crew wish to see?

At The Armory this weekend, Mojada closes and the holiday spirit gets crackling between A Christmas Memory and Winter Song, a double header that would seem the sentimental alternative to the barn-burning Scrooge-buster Twist Your Dickens. A Christmas Memory revives a Truman Capote short story about a young boy with an unlikely best friend, an elderly female cousin who matches his emotional maturity and assists him in his games and schemes, including their darling caper of secretly making presents for their other relatives. (Say it with me: “Awwwwwww!”)

“Winter Song” at The Armory: Mont Chris Hubbard (left), Merideth Kaye Clark, and Leif Norby. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye, courtesy Portland Center Stage at The Armory

Winter Song is a warmhearted holiday song revue performed by Portland’s premier Joni Mitchell cover artist Meredith Kaye Clarke (Snuggle in and go “Ahhhh.”) This show gets a head start on Dickens, but once both get going, ushers might as well leave signs in the lobby to sort attendees: “Humbugs, main house; saps downstairs.”

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Songs for America, bother from another planet

In review: Irving Berlin's "The Melody Lingers On!" at Clackamas Rep and Gore Vidal's "Visit to a Small Planet" at Lakewood

If we really wanted to make America great again, we’d skip all the nonsense about building walls and stoking resentments and keeping out foreigners and just bring back Irving Berlin. Oh, wait: Looks like Clackamas Repertory Theatre’s already done that.

Berlin, who was born in 1888 as Israel Beilin, became an American icon the old-fashioned way: He immigrated to the U.S., from the old Russian Empire. By age 5 he was settled with his family in New York City, and grew up on the Lower East Side when it was cheap and crowded with people from other places, seeking what was once known proudly as “a better life.” He hawked newspapers on the streets and became a singing waiter and started writing songs and had his first big hit on Tin Pan Alley in 1911, when he was 23 – the still familiar Alexander’s Ragtime Band. From there he just kept going and going, through war and peace and the Depression and another war and some boom years and the nation’s evolution from isolationism to internationalism, creating a big slice of the American popular soundtrack from the days of the Charleston through the Broadway musical’s golden age. He died, finally, at age 101, when rock ‘n’ roll had pretty much killed off his kind of music – except, of course, it hasn’t, because it’s with us still.

Meredith Kaye Clark in “The Melody Lingers On!” Photo: Sam Ortega

The proof of that particular pudding, if you need proof, is onstage at Clackamas Rep, where the upbeat and winning revue of Berlin tunes The Melody Lingers On! opened over the weekend and continues through August 27. A mostly bright selection of almost fifty of Berlin’s roughly 1,500 songs presented by a snappy cast in a sharp-looking production, it’s a brightly rhythmic show of song and dance about a composer who made people feel good about being part of America, no matter where they might have come from or where they stood in the national pecking order. Berlin could be dark, but even then he was dark in an enthralling way; mostly he wrote catchy, hummable, optimistic songs that helped project the myth of a can-do country and a people on the rise.

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Clackamas Rep plays its trump card

J. Pierrepont Finch learns how to succeed in business in the Rep's revival and becomes a man for all political seasons

To anyone convinced that government ought to be run like a business, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying has arrived just in time to slap that silly idea right out of your skull. It does run like a business, and lord help us all.

As we hurtle willy-nilly into the depths of the national political season, we’ll be hearing that business trope a lot. Goodness, we even have a billionaire businessman leading the charge toward the ballot box, building his campaign on bluster, bullying, and the quaint notion that he’s a populist outsider crashing the gates of the establishment in the name of the people. And The Great Hairscape is nothing new. “After all, the chief business of the American people is business,” declared Calvin Coolidge, the man who presided over the giddy buildup to the Great Depression.

Jameson Tabor as J. Pierrepont Finch, Sydney Weir (center) as Smitty, Cassi Q. Kohl as Rosemary. Photo: Travis Nodurft

Jameson Tabor as J. Pierrepont Finch, Sydney Weir (center) as Smitty, Cassi Q. Kohl as Rosemary. Photo: Travis Nodurft

How To Succeed, which is playing through August 23 in a generally handsome and well-sung revival at Clackamas Repertory Theatre, sees things differently. A hit 1961 Broadway musical based on a best-selling 1952 satirical book written in his ample spare time by a successful and somewhat cynical Madison Avenue ad man, it declares a different truth about the modern corporate world: nobody’s in charge, the place is full of yes men, inertia and the covering of one’s posterior are the chief orders of the day, nobody in management knows the slightest thing about the actual product, and no amount of sucking up can be considered shameless if you want to rise to the top.

It’s not business itself that’s in question, mind you: wickets, we can rest assured, the manufacture and sale of which are the core concern of the corporate world of How To Succeed, are vital little doodads, and everyone should have a few spares stashed away in the old croquet set. The worm in the apple’s the ineptitude of the whole process. A bureaucracy, apparently, is a bureaucracy, whether it’s government or business, and the person who figures out how it doesn’t work can scramble to the top of the heap. Not that he or she will be able to do much of anything but sit up there, emperor of futility. But sitting there has its rewards. Dilbert for president!

Or J. Pierrepoint Finch, the eager-beaver hustler at the center of How To Succeed, whose dizzying two-week ascent from window washer to chairman of the board of World Wide Wicket Company is aided and abetted by his scrupulous attention to the advice of a business how-to book. That that’s the only thing he’s scrupulous toward is part of the comedy’s joke, and excellent preparation for a career in politics. The play ends with speculation about Pierrepoint and the U.S. presidency, a position that would trump even chairman of the board.

The company: a little song, a little dance, a little satire. Photo: Travis Nodurft

The company: a little song, a little dance, a little satire. Photo: Travis Nodurft

Jameson Tabor stars as Finch at Clackamas Rep, playing the little schemer like a knife with an ingratiating edge, and a demeanor that falls somewhere between Matthew Broderick (who starred in the 1995 Broadway revival) and a googly-eyed Don Knotts. Finchie’s supposed to be shallow and irritating: nobody notices, or minds, until it belatedly becomes clear that he’s aced almost everyone out.

How To Succeed is a period piece, very much of its Mad Men times, and there are things that go along with that beyond Alva Bradford’s sharp costumes and Chris Whitten’s art-deco, Miami-colored set. There are no persons of color darker than a light tan in the executive headquarters, and no women executives. The women are secretaries or bimbos or both, and even the most ambitious among them aspire to marry a successful executive and preside over a suburban household while their husbands go into the city to slay dragons every day. On the other hand, what’s old is new: the remnants of that idea are likely to pop up during this grueling presidential-nomination campaign, too. (Or have already: even Fox News woman broadcasters, it seems, will be put in their place if they get too uppity with their questions.)

It’s key to remember that How To Succeed, created by the Guys and Dolls team of composer Frank Loesser and writer Abe Burrows (with a couple of others), is a comedy and was never meant as an exposé of American business. As a new Broadway musical, it played to houses packed with people who worked at corporations like World Wide Wicket: the audience was in on the joke. Like all good satire, How To Succeed was only a slight stretch of a broadly perceived reality. The play dug deep into the weak spots of the corporate system, and laid out an extreme-case scenario of how to manipulate it, and it was funny because everyone knew that even if it wasn’t quite plausible, it was possible. Decades later, anyone who paid even an ounce of attention to the Wall Street meltdown of 2008 can see the seed of the disaster right here, planted with a song and a smirk and a dance.

Jonathan Quesenberry as Bud Frump: it's not easy being green with envy. Photo: Travis Nodurft

Jonathan Quesenberry as Bud Frump: it’s not easy being green with envy. Photo: Travis Nodurft

Director Don Elias’s cast at Clackamas Rep is blessed with a solid crop of musical comediennes and reliable character actors. Cassi Q. Kohl as the secretary Rosemary, who falls at first glance for Finch and seems too smart to be so dumb, turns in yet another appealingly polished performance, as do Sidney Weir as her sidekick Smitty, Amanda Valley as super-efficient Miss Jones, and Teresa Renee as the bundle of trouble Hedy LaRue, who’d be the sadder but wiser girl except she’s not sad about a bit of it, and not so wise, either. Jon Quesenberry is a lightly and likably detestable villain as ineffectual mama’s-boy Bud Frump, nephew of the big boss Mr. Biggley (Mark Pierce); good comic turns also come from Britton Adams as Bratt, the personnel guy (these days he’d be “human resources”) and Tony Stroh in the dual roles of nibbly Mr. Trimble and brassy Wally Womper, chairman of the board.

How To Succeed is a clever play, but it’s dated in ways that Loesser and Burrows’ brilliant Guys and Dolls, which has the sophisticated structure of a Shakespeare comedy and the sass of a purely American style, isn’t. The songs are tuneful but, unlike the hit-fest score of Guys and Dolls, more efficient than memorable (the closest thing to a standard is probably I Believe in You). And even with all the rapid action – and, in this production, Megan Misslin’s energetic choreography that assures a constant flow of physical action – the story’s a little brittle; you might find yourself after a while checking in and out.

But not too much. In its own way, this is a classic American tale, too, if not quite a classic of American theater, and its time has circled back again. It’s not hard to imagine a ticket of J. Pierrepont Finch and Professor Harold Hill from The Music Man, though Finch might have to settle for the vice presidential slot. Prof Hill’s proven that if you’re brash enough, you don’t even need to know the territory. And that brand seems to be selling like hotcakes in the political marketplace these days.

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How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying continues through August 23 at Clackamas Rep. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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In a welcome trend, cabaret’s been popping up here and there in town lately, and Clackamas Rep has a good one lined up for Aug. 16. Singer and actress Meredith Kaye Clark will perform Joni Mitchell’s classic album Blue in a concert setting, accompanying herself on guitar and with Mont Chris Hubbard on piano. The same show sold out a trio of recent performances at Portland Center Stage. Info here.

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Clackamas Rep will close its season September 10-October 4 with the Northwest premiere of One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean’s smash 2011 adaptation of Carlo Goldini’s 18th century farce The Servant of Two Masters. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival scored a massive hit in 2009 with its own freewheeling adaptation of The Servant of Two Masters. This material’s a potential gold mine.

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Lies & misdemeanors: ‘Latina’ and ‘The Last Five Years’

Reviews: Milagro's wild 'Learn To Be Latina' and Center Stage's Jason Robert Brown musical measure the depravity of mendacity

Like politics, the theater relies on lies.

 It’s your lucky day, Macbeth. Grab the ring!

 My name? It’s, um, Ernest.

 Have you ever heard of the word mendacity?

 Honest, Jamie and Edmund, I’m totally off the morphine.

 I’m pretty sure Desdemona gave your handkerchief to Cassio.

Without lies, where’s the conflict? Without conflict, where’s the drama – or the comedy?

There are lies, damned lies, and statistics, as Mark Twain famously quoted Benjamin Disraeli on the three degrees of falsehood, although no one’s been able to nail down whether Disraeli ever actually said it or not, suggesting the distinct possibility that Twain lied about lying, or at least misspoke the truth. Wheels within wheels, and that’s how stories get spun.

Two shows new to Portland stages – Enrique Urueta’s comedy Learn To Be Latina, at Milagro Theatre, and Jason Robert Brown’s two-person musical The Last Five Years, at Portland Center Stage – get their knickers in a twist over some great big whoppers. One wallows in the lie of the vow of eternal love, keeping things close and personal. The other mucks around in the mendacity of marketing, sprawling satirically all over the cultural map. Let’s sprawl first.

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 It’s not easy being brown. Especially if you’re the wrong kind of brown. But then, as the young singer Hanán discovers in Urueta’s satirical comedy Learn To Be Latina, you can always lie about it. Well, why not? Doesn’t everyone? 

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‘The Light in the Piazza’: It’s love, actually

Portland Playhouse's version of the sublime musical captures its sweetness and pain

A friend of mine is an avid fan of the composer Adam Guettel, and so in 2007 when a touring production of the musical The Light in the Piazza came to town in the Broadway Across America series, I got tickets for my friend and his wife. The show was marvelous. It even accomplished the rare feat of turning the cavernous Keller Auditorium, usually such an inert space, to its advantage, creating a sense of visual and emotional expansiveness.

As I sat next to him during the show, I was certain he was enjoying it as much as I was. That was an underestimation. When the house lights went up after the poignant finale, I saw that he was a mess. The man — hardly someone prone to effusiveness or extremes of mood — had been sweating and crying so much that he looked like a puddle wearing a shirt.

Cross-cultural awareness: Meredith Kaye Clark, Michael Hammack. Photo: Brud Giles

Cross-cultural awareness: Meredith Kaye Clark, Michael Hammack. Photo: Brud Giles

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