Musical Theater

Saints and sinners toss the dice

Broadway Rose's bright and brassy "Guys and Dolls" revives an American ritual and plays it out with splendid comic verve

During intermission Sunday afternoon at Broadway Rose’s mostly swell revival of Guys and Dolls, a high-powered musical-theater vehicle driven deftly by Ryan Reilly’s mellifluous Sky Masterson and Emily Sahler’s comic knockout of a Miss Adelaide, I found myself thinking, oddly, of the opening paragraphs of Katherine Dunn’s grand and slyly heartbreaking novel Geek Love, the story of a family of genetically mutated circus-sideshow performers and their adventures in the world.

The Binewski kids would sit around enchanted as Papa told the family story, a tale both bizarre and familiar, and would make sure Papa stayed the course:

“We children would sense our story slipping away to trivia. Arty would nudge me and I’d pipe up with, ‘Tell about the time when Mama was the geek!’ and Arty and Elly and Iphy and Chick would all slide into line with me on the floor between Papa’s chair and Mama.

“Mama would pretend to be fascinated by her sewing and Papa would tweak his swooping mustache and vibrate his tangled eyebrows, pretending reluctance. ‘Welllll …’ he’d begin, ‘it was a long time ago …’

“ ‘Before we were born!’

“ ‘Before …’ he’d proclaim, waving his arm in his grandest ringmaster style, ‘before I even dreamed you, my dreamlets!’”

I thought of Dunn’s novel not only because both Geek Love and Guys and Dolls are uncanny dreams, tales of outrageous characters and situations in search of a normalcy they can call their own, but also because the Binewski kids, wrapped and rapt in the magic of a familiar story that is also their story, seem like stand-ins for almost any audience at a show like Guys and Dolls.

Brandon B. Weaver, Will Shindler and Jesse Cromer in “Guys and Dolls.” Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

By this point in its life – the musical debuted on Broadway in 1950, based on already familiar stories by the wise-guy story spinner Damon Runyon – there is no surprise to be sprung; or rather, the surprises come not in the tale itself, which most everybody knows (and bless you if you’re a newbie: there’s nothing like the first time), but in the unveiling of the particulars of this particular production in this particular performance. The warmth and pleasure come not in the shock of the new, but in the communal ritual of revisiting a story known and loved. In a theater world possessed by an overwhelming and necessary urgency to create something new, it’s a good reminder that theater is also built on ritual and repetition, on the familiar fascination of listening once again to a well-told tale. Even if it’s about gangsters or geeks. Tell us again, Papa.

Continues…

Long story short: ‘Hedwig’ rocks

20 years in, Triangle's lean and direct production starring Dale Johannes brings a landmark musical back to life

Long story short: Hedwig and the Angry Inch has been around for 20 years, has been staged four times in Portland by Triangle Productions, and its once edgy ideas about gender fluidity, social acceptance and self-actualization now seem pretty unremarkable.

All of this is all to the good. So is the fact that the show remains tart and sweet, funny, touching, energetic and a hell of a good time.

Created by librettist John Cameron Mitchell and composer Stephen Trask (Triangle’s playbill lists both book and lyrics as by Mitchell, but other sources, including the show’s official Broadway website, credit the lyrics to Trask), Hedwig is a rock musical that actually rocks, and this version stars a performer — Dale Johannes — who brings the right balance of punch and polish to the vocals.

Dale Johannes as Hedwig. Triangle Productions photo

Johannes struts his stuff here — or, well, maybe it should be struts her stuff, in this case — as Hedwig Robinson, a commercially underachieving rock singer with a snippy attitude, a sharply delineated backstory and a potent blend of resentment and yearning. Hedwig once was Hansel Schmidt, a boy growing up in East Germany, but in order to pass over to the West has undergone an unsuccessful operation, summed up in the most forceful and memorable chorus here: “Six inches forward and five inches back: I got an angry inch!” So, not quite trans. If this were written today, no doubt there’d be some nongendered, or at least nonbinary, pronouns going on, but in this show’s linguistic frame, Hedwig is a she.

Continues…

Lady Day, in a bar, with a band

Deidrie Henry is terrific as the great Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," a musical bio that isn't quite fish or fowl

Near the beginning of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, which opened last Friday at Portland Center Stage, Deidrie Henry, portraying the great jazz singer Billie Holiday, ascends a staircase in the middle of the stage, wearing an elegant white dress, long white silk gloves and a black fur coat, moving slowly, wearily, like an apparition with bad knees. She coughs. Then, still pushing up the last steps, she begins to sing: “All I know is that I love you…”

A couple of hours later, the opening-night party was well under way in the Armory’s second-floor lobby as Henry ascended another staircase. Before she could wade into the crowd, the entire place seemed to turn toward her at once and break into a fresh round of applause, even after the standing ovation at show’s end. All they knew — or at least one salient thing they knew — was that they loved her.

Deidrie Henry, up close and personal. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

And that’s as it should be. Henry is a well-traveled actor familiar to Northwest audiences from a handful of seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and previous shows at PCS. Her performance here is strong, polished, nuanced, affecting, pretty darn hard not to love. She expresses a variety of facets of what we might expect Billie Holiday’s character and affect to have been — by turns charming, willful, sarcastic, aggrieved, flirtatious, caustically funny, melancholy, tired, sick, and both emotionally and pharmacologically messed up. Her singing is rich, warm, expressive.

Continues…