Stumptown Stages

The Little Engine That Does

Starting small but thinking big, the musical-theater company Stumptown Stages has made itself a leader in equity and diversity

What do you know about Stumptown Stages? 

A regular Portland theatergoer might reasonably be assumed to know that Stumptown Stages has now been around for a decade and a half or so, that its forté is musicals, both new and old, and that it’s led by two of the more accomplished names in Portland theater, Kirk Mouser (producing artistic director) and Julianne Johnson (associate artistic director and board chair), both of whom are seasoned veterans of stages from New York City to the Rose City. 

What might not be so well known is that Stumptown Stages is one of the Portland theater scene’s leaders in doing equity and diversity work, and that this was a company focus long before the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing civil unrest. One might be forgiven for not knowing that years ago, when Johnson and Mouser were looking to mount their first production together, Dreamgirls, a prominent director/producer (who shall remain nameless – “a quick disclaimer,” says Mouser, “it is not Corey Brunish”) said to Mouser, “Good luck, you’ll never find the Black talent here in Portland.” 

Julianne Johnson (left, with Shahayla Onanaiye and Kristin Robinson) in Stumptown’s hit production of “Dreamgirls.” Photo courtesy Stumptown Stages

Johnson, naturally, took umbrage at this comment. “Okay, well, that would be me,” Johnson thought at the time, “and everybody I interact with.”  Neither Mouser nor Johnson has any idea what that director thought when Stumptown Stages did, in fact, produce a sold-out run of Dreamgirls at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, but that was the spark that ignited the proverbial forest fire. Mouser and Johnson formed an unbreakable bond, and together they now had a mission. Johnson joined Stumptown Stages as board chair and associate artistic director. Together they realized that they “had an important role to play,” says Mouser, a mission “to change the institutionalized racism that existed and exists in the Portland theater community.”

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ArtsWatch Weekly: past imperfect, present tense

In the Northwest, images of horror and hope from the past and present. Plus a West Side story, a flamenco flourish, and a divine voice.

ARTSWATCH IS ABOUT ARTS AND CULTURE IN OREGON: It’s embedded in our name. But culture is a fluid thing, coming at us from all corners of the world, and, through our libraries and museums and musical notations, from the enduring fragments of previous times and places. It comes to us. We go to it. Everything mingles in the process. One of our number is on the nothern tip of the Olympic Peninsula right now, a ferry ride across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, where depending on the weather she might be greeted on the shoreline by a bagpiper in a kilt (although the Unipiper remains a resolutely Portlandian attraction, rain or shine, sleet or snow). Another ArtsWatcher is working her way across Andalucia, taking hundreds of pictures as she goes. Our music editor is settling back into the gentle rains of the Pacific Northwest after a sojourn in Bali with some masters of the gamelan.  

Parmigianino, Antea, ca. 1535, oil on canvas, 53.7 x 33.8 inches, Museo di Capodimonte, Naples; at the Seattle Art Museum through Jan. 26, 2020.

On occasion we indulge in a quick trip north to Seattle, and in case you do the same, you might want to drop in on the Seattle Art Museum, where the exhibition Flesh & Blood: Masterpieces from the Capodimonte Museum opens today and hangs around through January 26. It time-travels through Renaissance and Baroque Europe, and includes 39 paintings and a single sculpture from the collections of the Naples museum.

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Go West, young fans

Stumptown Stages’ energetic, exhilarating production of "West Side Story" makes some missteps but still has the moves.

In the most iconic scene from West Side Story, Tony, the show’s neo-Romeo, climbs a ladder to a fire escape where Maria, his Juliet, awaits. By now, it’s an overly familiar moment, but Stumptown Stages’ production of the 1957 Leonard Bernstein-scored musical, in the Winningstad Theatre through Oct. 27, injects it with fresh visual life. As Tony (Alexander Trull) ascends toward Maria (Tina Mascaro), lights illuminate his silhouette on a vast backdrop that features a sweeping cityscape. It’s as if Tony’s passion has given him the power to soar among the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

West Side Story struts maximalist energy and visual appeal in a production from Stumptown Stages. Photo: Paul Fardig.

That image beautifully taps into the play’s maximalist appeal. Nothing in West Side Story—not love, not friendship, not anger—is small. The production’s director, Patrick Nims, understands that, and while his retelling is occasionally unsteady (especially when it attempts to blunt the accusations of racism leveled at the play), it is also energetic and exciting enough to entice newcomers and charm steadfast fans.

West Side Story almost wasn’t west at all. An early iteration called East Side Story applied the Romeo and Juliet model to a romance between a Catholic boy and a Jewish girl. Eventually, the title changed and the story was restyled as a tale of turf warfare between between an Anglo gang (the Jets) and a Puerto Rican gang (the Sharks). When Tony, a former Jet, and Maria, whose brother leads the Sharks, fall in love at a dance, they face the wrath of both sides.

It’s notable that the title of the play is not Tony and Maria. West Side Story is about a place as much as it is about people. You watch not only to savor the heat generated by its amped-up lovers, but for the privilege of spending time in a gleefully exaggerated version of New York where true love can be ignited with a single look and meaningless grudges are imbued with mythic grandeur.

Alexander Trull as Romeo…er, Tony, and Tina Mascaro as Juliet…no, sorry, Maria, in West Side Story at the Winningstad. Photo: Paul Fardig.

Scenic designer Demetri Pavlatos has tapped into the (very) heightened realism in the play by crafting a set that evolves dramatically. A chain-link fence, for instance, isn’t just a background detail—it’s a living object that can be used as a symbolic barrier between the Jets and the Sharks or as a cage that encircles Tony and Maria, signaling their inevitable doom.

While Pavlatos’ designs are an effective update, the overall production is not. West Side Story has received justifiable criticism for its racist depiction of Puerto Ricans as generic hoodlums, a problem that Nims tries to confront by staging some scenes and songs in Spanish. While the production’s commitment to authenticity is admirable, its lack of subtitles will be frustrating for audiences who don’t speak Spanish. Not understanding what many of the characters are saying means that we become less engaged with their stories, which undercuts the play’s idealistic goal: to reveal the shared humanity on both sides of the Jets-Sharks divide.

This change doesn’t ruin the play. It simply exists alongside the production’s superior creative choices, just as the script’s insensitivities exist alongside its dramatic power. For now, West Side Story isn’t going anywhere—a new film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg will be released in 2020. That may be the moment when many people decide whether the play is ripe for further reinventions or should finally be set aside.


DramaWatch: Holiday Edition!

Christmas Carols, radio plays and parodies dominate the seasonal-theater calendar.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! If you’re into that sort of thing.

Tradition holds that the next few weeks will be dominated by Christmas cheer — and likely by Christmas hype, Christmas stress, and when it comes to the world of theater, Christmas cliche.

What starts in autumn as a theater season wrestling with big themes of life and society suddenly turns into a procession of simplistic celebrations of sentiment and/or frivolity.

Then again, cliches become cliches for a reason. Imbue the right ones with a little action and they become ritual, tradition. Wrap them in sturdy narrative and they become chestnuts, even classics.

So never mind my jaundiced, churlish, runaway-Catholic’s view. Holiday-season theater offerings abound, for those who want to unwind from shopping, entertain family, or get a refresher course in some of those seasonal ideals. Here’s your DramaWatch Christmas theater menu:

Tim Blough (in cap) at the center of “A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol” at Broadway Rose. Photo by Sam Ortega.

By my count, no less than a half-dozen productions in the Portland area this season are based around Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and/or old-timey radio broadcasts. Perhaps each represents a particular period of potent nostalgia, a century apart — the early Victorian era that’s done so much to shape our romanticized holiday images, and the Great Depression and World War II, evoking memories of social unity carrying us through hardship. In any case, the two periods meet at Broadway Rose in A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol, in which a broadcast of the Dickens tale is undermined by so many minor mishaps that the cast takes to riffing on the story in the style of (the then-new genre) film noir. Tim Blough, Joe Theissen and Malia Tippets are among the notable talents involved.

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MusicWatch Weekly: stagy sounds

From opera to musicals to concerts influenced by musical theater, this week’s Oregon stages teem with music written for dramatic productions.

This year’s PAMTA Awards may be history, Cabaret has closed and Les Miz and Portland Gay Men’s Chorus’s United States of Broadway don’t arrive till next week, but this week still offers abundant opportunities to hear music that originated in musicals, opera and other dramatic productions. 

 “Portland Opera’s brewing up a deal with the devil with its latest production of Charles Gounod’s Faust, opening June 8, and it’s likely to attract sizable audiences,” ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks, who apparently traded his soul for extensive knowledge of visual art, theater and music, told subscribers to our newsletter last week. “Something about this legend’s been fascinating readers and theater- and music-lovers for centuries. The thirst for knowledge, the overwhelming desire for pleasure and experience, the human who would be more than a god, the man with the ambition and arrogance to believe he can outwit the devil, or who just cares about winning right now so much that he doesn’t quite believe the future price he’s agreed to pay. The ripples of the story are everywhere, from politics to business to people’s love lives: win now, and damn the consequences.

Portland Opera’s ‘Faust’ opens this weekend. Photo: Corey Weaver.

“Portland Opera’s new Faust – a co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago, where it premiered in March – is based visually on a world created by sculptor and artist John Frame. But the story he interprets is ageless. Gounod’s opera is based mostly on Part 1 of Goethe’s famous version of a legend that stretches back to a real person from the 15th and 16th centuries, Johann Georg Faust (and various other medieval/Renaissance folk characters) and forward to, well, at least now. Christopher Marlowe famously dropped in for a visit, as did traveling puppeteers who used Faust and Mephistopheles as sort of stock Punch-and-Judy characters. Turgenev and Thomas Mann tackled the subject. So did Berlioz and Wagner and Mahler and Liszt. Stephen Vincent Benét had fun with it in “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” and legend has it that the blues guitarist Robert Johnson met the devil at the crossroads and sold his soul in exchange for musical greatness (practice and innate talent no doubt had more to do with it). In István Szabó’s great 1981 movie Mephisto, based on Klaus Mann’s novel, a German actor essentially sells his soul to the Nazis in exchange for prestige and success.

“So, here comes Gounod’s Faust again. Our advice? Give the devil his due. But lend the opera your eyes and ears.” Our kissin’ cousin Artslandia’s new Toi Toi Toi magazine for Portland Opera has interviews with production designer Frame and star soprano Angel Blue. Stay tuned for Bruce Browne’s ArtsWatch review. And ArtsWatch’s Marty Hughley will soon have the scoop on a couple of other musical theater productions onstage, Portland Center Stage’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill and Mocks Crest’s The Light in the Piazza.

When it appeared in 1970s, Leonard Bernstein’s Mass was, er, crucified by some who disapproved of the great American composer/conductor transforming sacred music into show tunes, or, even worse, rock and/or roll. Bernstein, whose centenary this year has occasioned numerous performances of his always dramatic music, just couldn’t keep theater out of even his non-Broadway compositions. He even called his Mass “a theater piece.”

Directed by Jon Kretzu and conducted by Justin Smith, Stumptown Stages’ new production Saturday and Sunday at Marylhurst University’s St. Anne Chapel stars stalwart baritone Douglas Webster as the Celebrant (a role he pretty much owns) plus the terrific Julianne Johnson, Katie Harman and Broadway veteran Kirk Mouser, experienced local soloists, Marylhurst Choral Union, Women’s Chorale and Pacific Youth Choir. Co-created by Marylhurst University’s music department, it’s an example of the loss to Oregon arts caused by the school’s impending closure.

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DramaWatch: Third Rail’s the charm

The lowdown on this week's openings and closings, new seasons on the way, and a blast of a party coming up for Third Rail Rep

“When Third Rail first came on the scene,” says Maureen Porter, “there was little else happening. It was a different scene and a different city.”

So it was, back in 2005 when Third Rail Repertory Theatre — already a couple of years worth of planning meetings into its life as a fledgling company — rocketed onto theatergoers’ radar with an acclaimed production of Craig Wright’s Recent Tragic Events. An artists’ collaborative that started out as a fully professional Equity company, they were the little guy that could, quickly coming to be considered in the front rank of Portland theaters alongside Portland Center Stage and Artists Rep; significantly smaller in budget and number of productions, but consistently punching above their weight with top-quality work.

Maureen Porter

Not long after Third Rail began to solidify its reputation, I switched from my longtime position at The Oregonian, covering popular music, to writing about theater — an art form about which I knew all too little. (Yes, yes, I know — some things never change.) I quickly fell in love with theater, and Third Rail was (along with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and, I suppose I’d have to say Artists Rep) why. The company picked great plays, comedies with devilish bite, dramas with surprising, insightful slants. The acting was consistently arresting, featuring a steady core of talented company members. The direction (in the early years, always by founding artistic director Slayden Scott Yarbrough) showed a scrupulous attention to detail, textual interpretation carried out coherently and cohesively through  all aspects of design and performance. The tremulous containment of Gretchen Corbett as a woman in political danger in A Lesson From Aloes; Porter’s fantastic (literally) bipolar mood swing in The Wonderful World of Dissocia; pretty much every little thing about Enda Walsh’s antic yet high-minded Penelope (a take-off on the Odyssey, set in an abandoned swimming pool)…for several years, it was high point after high point.

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