Susannah Mars

Painting the town ‘Scarlet’

We're not in the 1600s anymore: Michelle Horgen's marvelous updating of "The Scarlet Letter" adds a modern sensibility (and lots of songs)

Portland Playhouse’s new musical, Scarlet, is no dry historical retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. While that popular 19th-century novel was the source material for playwright Michelle Horgen’s retelling, and it is set in the same puritanical time, this is not your father’s Scarlet Letter.

For starters, this is retold by a woman (Horgen is at least a triple threat, having written book, music, and lyrics) in 21st century America. And Hester Prynne has a lot to say — and, it turns out, sing — that rings as true today as it must have in 1850. Judgment and shaming, after all, have become public, prolific, and painful in the era of Twitter and Facebook, where most people can’t simply escape or go home to hide their embarrassment.

Rebecca Teran is Hester Prynne in “Scarlet” at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles

In Horgen’s hands, the story also becomes much more about motherhood—how becoming a mother “shatters your existence” in a “blinding instant” — than it was in the words of Hawthorne. There is an especially heart-wrenching story involving Hester’s friend, Sarah Winthrop, a new character who was not part of Hawthorne’s story, which is set in 17th century Puritan Boston. Dana Green, who plays Sarah, wears her grief for the rest of the play — across a number of years — and will break your heart. It is also more about the sisterhood we share with other women — our friends, our community, even the crazy old lady everyone pretends not to understand.

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Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd

Portland Opera’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s murderous masterpiece is bloody good musical theater for all

by DARYL BROWNE AND BRUCE BROWNE

With temperatures teetering toward 100 degrees at the 2 pm downbeat, Portland’s Keller Auditorium enjoyed nearly a full house last Sunday for Portland Opera’s production of Sweeney Todd. Perhaps they came in from the “city on fire” in shorts and spaghetti straps because they wanted to see great musical theater. Maybe this was their very first opera production. Or they came because it was Steven Sondheim’s grisly musical-turned-opera, a tale of moral decay across classes with magnetic appeal to a diversity of theater goers.

But aye, we ought not worry about the why. Just know that Portland Opera conjured the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim and those present were treated to a stunning afternoon of entertainment and artistry.

Susannah Mars as Mrs. Lovett and David Pittsinger as Sweeney Todd. Photo: Portland Opera.

Susannah Mars as Mrs. Lovett and David Pittsinger as Sweeney Todd. Photo: Cory Weaver.

Mr. Sweeney Todd is a despicable character for whom we are made sympathetic “in comparison” within the tone-setting first 30 minutes of the show. We meet a slightly despicable Mrs. Nellie Lovett, who recognizes that Todd is really former citizen Benjamin Barker, sent to jail in order to allow the more despicable Judge Turpin to brutally assault Barker’s naïve young wife. Judge Turpin is, in turn, served by the most despicable lackey, Beadle. All this takes place, relates Sondheim’s classic Greek chorus, in the pit of a city called London a century and a half or so ago.

The story, a Victorian penny dreadful turned into play and movie, was brought to musical book by the late Hugh Wheeler, who also wrote Candide and A Little Night Music. The tale twists through various evidences of mental derision and moral decay to an inevitable tragic ending. No redemption here; all will be engulfed in shadow save perhaps our two most pure of heart, Anthony and Joanna. It’s a bloody tale, this.

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Review: All aboard for points past

Portland Opera's splashy revival of Kern & Hammerstein's 'Show Boat' plies the waters of American theater and racial history

Of the three shows generally regarded as having transformed the Broadway musical from glittery variety show to new American storytelling form, Show Boat is the toughest to pin down. Its music, by Jerome Kern, is less organic and complex than George Gershwin’s for Porgy and Bess: though opera companies often adopt it, as they do Porgy, it’s more comfortable as a musical-theater piece, with a great popular-music score dominated by its individual songs and engaging style rather than continuing musical themes. Its story, by Oscar Hammerstein II based on a rambling novel by Edna Ferber, is far more episodic than the more tightly woven book that Hammerstein wrote for Oklahoma!

Hannah S. Penn as the secretly mixed-race leading lady Julie, with chorus. Photo: Cory Weaver

Hannah S. Penn as the secretly mixed-race leading lady Julie, with chorus. Photo: Cory Weaver

But Show Boat came first, hitting the Broadway stage in 1927 (Porgy and Bess followed in 1935; Oklahoma! in 1943). It set the template, both in long-form musical storytelling and its willingness to take on serious cultural issues – most notably, America’s post-Reconstruction Jim Crow heritage and its continuing ineptitude in racial matters. In a current atmosphere roiled by flashpoints in Baltimore, Ferguson, and North Charleston on top of longstanding systemic inequities, the racial discussion in Show Boat may seem cautious and outdated. But it was radical for its time, and as Portland Opera’s new production brings home, the show remains much more than a historical curiosity. It deserves its place of honor, even if it also needs to be understood in the context of its original time and place.

Show Boat is many things: a long family drama, a peek behind the doors of seemingly implacable racial attitudes, a tale of love and abandonment and eventual reconciliation. It’s also, as Portland Opera’s revival of the 1994 Harold Prince version makes abundantly clear, a show about show business: a subtle but unmistakable nostalgic parade of American popular-culture styles from the sweeping gestures of the Victorian stage to the hoary jokes and comic dance kicks of vaudeville to the razzmatazz of the Charleston era.

The Opera’s Show Boat, which opened Friday night in the wide-open spaces of Keller Auditorium, isn’t the knockout audiences might’ve hoped for. Its long first act can drag, the episodic second act inevitably gets a little sketchy, the mix of operatic and musical-theater singing styles can be a little jarring, and the expanse of the Keller, which is much too big for this epic yet also intimate show, makes both the voices and the acting seem distant: the show, in English, uses supertitles, and at least from the first balcony below the overhang, they were helpful verging on necessary. But even more goes right, including a smart and sassy performance by former company resident artist Lindsay Ohse, whose career is beginning to blossom, as romantic lead Magnolia. This Show Boat emerges as a satisfying, involving, and often slyly funny show, even if it doesn’t sweep you off your feet.

Arthur Woodley, as Joe, delivers "Ol' Man River." Photo: Cory Weaver

Arthur Woodley, as Joe, delivers “Ol’ Man River.” Photo: Cory Weaver

Part of what makes it work is director and co-choreographer (with Becky Timms) Ray Roderick’s subtle emphasis on the story’s showbiz setting. Roderick and scenic designer James Youmans smartly place the orchestra not in the pit but upstage, as if it were the house band on the Cotton Blossom, the riverboat that plies the Mississippi, bringing traveling shows to Natchez and points north and south. The orchestra helps fill the Keller’s wide stage, providing a sense of celebration and an illusion of fullness to Youman’s minimalist, mobile set, which relies on lighting and projections to insinuate time and place. It also pushes most of the action downstage, closer to the audience, which is a good thing in the cavernous Keller, where voices can become hopelessly muffled as singers move farther to the back. At key points Youmans provides a small rolling stage on the larger main stage, creating a sly theatrical echo chamber, like a Shakespearean play-within-a-play: characters in the play, who are show people, move in and out of the mini-stage, where, in the guise of the melodratic characters they play in the riverboat shows, they ham it up mightily before stepping back onto the larger stage and resuming a more realistic, if still presentational, acting style. It’s like a little rolling history of American stage fashion, from the days of Dion Boucicault to the flapper age; a theatrical nostalgia to go along with the cultural nostalgia of the play itself, which steeps itself in the culture of the postbellum South even as it roundly criticizes it.

It’s fascinating how the musical’s show culture blends into the play’s approach to race. In the end, Show Boat is important not so much for what it says about race in America – no profound insights here – as for the fact that, in its time and place as a big-budget Broadway show, it took on the gnarly questions of race at all. Show Boat gives its major black characters (the boat hand Joe, his boat-cook wife Queenie, the mixed-race star performer Julie) reduced opportunities and strictly controlled roles in the riverboat culture, where they are expected to support and defer: the evocations of Mammy culture are strong. Yet the show folk also are presented as looser and more liberal on racial matters than the towns they visit and the audiences they entertain. The boat is a little artists’ colony, bound to the rules and attitudes of the land but subverting them as much as possible, a little semi-independent vessel bobbing toward the future. Yes, Cap’n Andy has to cut Julie and her white husband Steve loose after her mixed-race status is revealed in Mississippi, where mixed marriage is a prison offense. But the people of the Cotton Blossom conspire in a ruse to at least let Julie and Steve slip away free and together, outside the reach of the law.

Roderick and his mixed cast of operatic and musical-theater singers do a generally fine job with the songs, and create some vivid scenes along the story’s picaresque journey. Ohse is nicely matched by the tall and dashing Liam Bonner as Gaylord Ravenal, the riverboat gambler who steals Magnolia’s heart. Bonner’s operatic singing style can seem a bit out of synch with the show’s more generally musical-theater approach to the songs, but dramatically, he gets to the fatal attraction of Ravenal’s odd blend of charm, honor, and weakness. Arthur Woodley, as Joe, rises grandly to the challenges of Ol’ Man River, and Angela Renée Simpson, as Queenie, eloquently states an underlying theme with the bluesy Mis’ry’s Comin’ Round. Megan Misslin as the show boat trouper Ellie May has great fun with the witty Life Upon the Wicked Stage, and resident-artist alum Hannah S. Penn, as the misfortunate Julie, brings an effective sad edge to her acting performance and a gritty weariness to the romantic ballad Bill. (There is a key moment in the second act when Julie makes a great sacrifice, and the scene is a rare slip-up in the staging, flying by so swiftly that you hardly notice it.)

Allen Nause and Susannah Mars as Cap'n Andy and Parthy Ann: bickering mates. Photo: Cory Weaver

Allen Nause and Susannah Mars as Cap’n Andy and Parthy Ann: bickering mates. Photo: Cory Weaver

Stage stalwarts Allen Nause and Susannah Mars are especially effective as Cap’n Andy and his parsimonious wife, Parthy Ann, who inexplicably disapproves of virtually every aspect of the life she’s chosen to lead. On Why Do I Love You they provide an illuminating demonstration of how good actors approach a song: Mars, a star of the musical-theater stage, with her deep understanding of the emotions inside the lyrics; Nause, not known as a vocalist, with a veteran actor’s instinctive feel for the rhythmic and dramatic nature of a song. Nause also brings down the house twice in grand comic style: first, in his one-man performance of the rest of a riverboat show after his star’s been knocked out of commission; second, when he ditches Parthy Ann on New Year’s Eve in Chicago and wanders in grand insobriety into the revels at the Trocadero nightclub. In a way, though Show Boat is mainly Magnolia’s story, Cap’n Andy is the thread that ties it all together, and Nause knows how to sew.

With additional songs like Make Believe, You Are Love, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, and the borrowed After the Ball, Show Boat is a treasury of great American song. Portland Opera seems to be committed to producing a musical-theater piece every season – 2016, the debut of its reinvention as a summer festival company, will bring Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd – and the opera is also the local presenter of the Broadway Across America series of touring musicals.

It’ll be interesting to see how those twin approaches to the art of the musical play out: a fresh look at classics in the opera-season slot, perhaps, while BAA continues to provide new stuff (and perennials like Wicked and The Phantom of the Opera, both haunting the Keller soon). Imported or domestic, musical theater seems to be flourishing in Oregon. It’s become a staple under Bill Rauch’s leadership at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and under Chris Coleman’s leadership at Portland Center Stage. Smaller companies such as Oregon Festival of American Music, Broadway Rose, Staged!, Clackamas Rep, Lakewood, and Stumptown provide regular infusions.

The presence of that culture underscores the importance of how Portland Opera chooses its projects, and how well it pulls them off: it’s not the only game in town, and its choices have to be canny, aimed not only at the box office but also at refreshing and interpreting important moments in the history of the form. Show Boat seems to fit that bill. But the 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium remains a serious impediment. From an artistic point of view, the city badly needs a new mid-sized theater, something between the Keller and the 870-seat Newmark: a hall of 1,400 to as high of 2,400 (if it’s well-designed for comparative intimacy) seats that could be shared by opera, ballet, and perhaps some other users. Politically and economically, the time for such a project doesn’t seem right, and wishful thinking won’t make it so. But the stakeholders should keep their eyes on the prize. It’ll never happen if it isn’t dreamed first.

*

Portland Opera’s Show Boat repeats at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 3; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 5; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 7; and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 9. Ticket information is here.

*

Mark Mandel’s review of Show Boat for The Oregonian is here.

 


 
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Season’s ghostings: Blithe Spirit, Irma Vep, Noël at Noël

A little Ludlam and a lot of Coward brighten the season without the specter of all-out Christmas themes

Little ghosts, everywhere.

Look, over there at Portland Playhouse: It’s the spirits of Christmases Past, Present, and Future, in the revival of last December’s Christmas Carol that took home about a zillion hunks of hardware from June’s Drammy Awards.

Over there, in the Armory: the same three spirits, gone a bit more bonkers, in Portland Center Stage’s second wrestle with The Second City’s A Christmas Carol: Twist Your Dickens.

Coming soon to Keller Auditorium: All those rodenty souls of vanquished rat soldiers littering the stage in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s latest incarnation of The Nutcracker, which crosses swords and slippers beginning this Saturday, December 13.

And of course, the sleek and cunning Elvira, haunting the stage of Artists Rep in Blithe Spirit, and the misfortunate Irma at Third Rail Rep in the Winningstad Theatre, casting a pall over a very odd old English manse in The Mystery of Irma Vep. It’s these latter two we’ll be discussing here, along with the shades of their late, great creators: Noël Coward, whose theatrical roots stretched back to the Edwardian era and who helped define a certain 20th century brittle sophistication; and Charles Ludlam, who cheerfully ransacked everything from Victorian melodrama to Wagner to cheesy horror movies. Bonus pick: a raffish little cabaret performance of Coward songs, Noël at Noël, put together by Susannah Mars and friends for just two performances (the second is tonight, Monday, December 8) at Artists Rep.

Norby and Lamb: It's a mystery. Photo: Owen Carey

Norby and Lamb: It’s a mystery. Photo: Owen Carey

 

 THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP

One of the selling points of both Blithe Spirit and Irma Vep is that they’re good holiday season shows without actually being about Christmas: light, stylish, funny, a little bubbly, but not burdened with perennial obligation. You can get into the spirit of things, so to speak, without feeling as if you’ve just wandered into a scene from a Hallmark greeting card.

How Irma got from her cult Downtown Manhattan beginnings in a basement theater 30 years ago, when she was at the epicenter of a revolutionary gay theater scene, to today’s mainstream holiday-comedy-of-choice is a fascinating tale. Ludlam was the creative spark of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, a cheekily transgressive troupe that reveled in drag performances and, at a time when being openly gay was still vastly difficult, cheerfully flaunted its gayness. In the company’s early years most of its audience was gay men, and the bawdy in-jokes batted around the room like Ping Pong balls in the rec room of a YMCA. Ludlam, who starred in the original Irma with his lover Everett Quinton, died of complications from AIDS in 1987, at age 44, and if he had survived he might well have become a major mainstream playwright, because he was becoming better and better at what he did at the same time that American attitudes toward homosexuality were slowly beginning to thaw. While we hardly live in a perfect world of acceptance today (feel free to file that under the heading Annals of Understatement), the changes over the past 30 years have been startling, and in a way, theater and movie people have had a role in that: Dustin Hoffman starring in Tootsie, Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in The Birdcage, Robert Preston and Julie Andrews in Victor Victoria, all three of which were massive popular hits. These days, shows like Irma are almost mainstream family fun.

That’s a big gain, and a little bit of a loss. When a cult show breaks wide, it loses some of the anarchic recklessness of its subcultural origins. What once were the sharp elbows of insider nudge-nudge get protectively padded and smoothed out. In Third Rail’s beautifully realized production, in which the actors Leif Norby and Isaac Lamb go giddily overboard while maintaining strict stylistic control (try that sometime: it ain’t easy), the sense of original audience, of being a product of and for a select group of people, is the one missing element. At Sunday’s opening-weekend matinee performance a lot of the gay humor, the comic thrusts and double entendres, seemed either to be going over the audience’s head or simply not as funny anymore because they’ve become commonplace. On Sunday things were smooth but a little airless during the opening act, which was performed presentationally in a traditional proscenium manner. After intermission Norby and Lamb entered from the back, bantering with the audience, ad-libbing a bit, and the energy immediately picked up: this is the sort of show that works best in an intimate space, with the performers and a simpatico audience steaming in the same kettle of clams.

Lamb as Lady Enid, Norby as Lord Edgar: crying wolf. Photo: Owen Carey

Lamb as Lady Enid, Norby as Lord Edgar: crying wolf. Photo: Owen Carey

That said, Third Rep’s production is as close to a flawless show as you’re likely to run into for a long time. The cast credits name eight characters: four played by Lamb, three by Norby, and the eighth, the tragic Irma herself, listed as “Unknown,” which turns out to be just about right: It is Irma Vep’s sad fate to not make an appearance in her own play, unless you count the trickle of blood from her portrait over the mantel when it’s accidentally shot. What we do have is Lamb as a clumping, one-eyed, wooden-legged swineherd in the family manse of Lord Edgar Hillcrest; as Lady Enid, Irma’s successor and Lord Edgar’s second wife; and as a couple of characters encountered on a trip of discovery to an ancient Egyptian crypt. Norby embodies Lord Edgar; the sinister housemaid Jane Twisden; and “An Intruder.” An extraordinary amount of the fun is watching the two actors zip in and out of these roles, often with uncanny speed, and in and out of Alison Heryer’s flamboyant, zip-and-strip costumes. Major props to the wardrobe and stage crew who make these lightning changes possible: Laura Coe, Kelly Cullom, Karen Hill, and Matthew Jones. Kristeen Crosser’s Stately Home set, which opens up mechanically for the tale from the crypt and the unveiling of the mummy, is a perfectly Gothic horror – that is, for Gothic horror purposes, it’s perfect.

I won’t trouble you with plot points, because the plot doesn’t really make a lot of difference, although it’s cleverly calibrated: Irma Vep is a well-crafted puzzle. I will mention that werewolves and vampires and a mangled milkmaid and a lost child and some darkly twisted passions and howling noises over the moor play their parts in the thing, and that watching Lamb and Norby, as directed nimbly by Philip Cuomo, whack away at their panoply of roles is a pure theatrical pleasure. Lamb does a fetching belly dance as an unleashed Egyptian queen, but he truly shines as dim and drooling Nicodemus, the clomping swineherd with a furtive secret. Norby’s shifts between anguished/pompous Lord Edgar and domineering/calculating Jane are quick and beguilingly complete.

And what about poor ghostly Irma, the unseen hand that guides the action? I can only say, God rest her haunted soul – and thanks for being there. Really. Without her, we’d be bereft.

 

Hennessy gets into the spirit with O'Brien. Photo: Owen Carey

Hennessy gets into the spirit with O’Brien. Photo: Owen Carey

 

BLITHE SPIRIT

Artists Rep’s production of Coward’s otherworldly 1941 comedy, directed by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Christopher Liam Moore, was a runaway hit before it even opened previews, extending twice before opening night: originally scheduled to end December 21, it’ll now close on January 4. Talk about riding the wave of the zeitgeist: this puppy might be the surfer of the year.

Coward’s been on my mind lately, and apparently on a lot of other people’s, too. First, I watched my son play Elyot in Coward’s other most enduring hit, Private Lives, in a first-act, student-directed production at his high school. He was improbably dashing in his dress pants and dinner jacket, planting kisses smack on his costar’s lips and tossing off a very funny “Don’t quibble, Sybil”: I was disconcertingly impressed.

Then I drove to Salem to see Pentacle Theatre’s Blithe Spirit, now closed, with my friend Nyla McCarthy as the indomitable Madame Arcati and her husband, Peter Bale, as Dr. Bradman, in a highly amusing and handsomely mounted community-theater production directed by Debbie Neel.

Then I took in the first night of the Coward cabaret, Noel at Noël: more on that below.

Finally, I squeezed into Artists Rep’s Blithe Spirit, which is as handsome a production as Irma Vep (set by Alan Schwanke; drop-dead, if you’ll pardon the expression, costumes by Nancy Hills) and which features something of a Portland all-star cast led by Michael Mendelson as Charles Condomine, the clever and unfortunate fellow who finds himself saddled with two wives at the same time because the dithering medium Madame Arcati (veteran Vana O’Brien, in a role that fits her like a silk evening glove), by some minor miracle of the occult occupation, has managed to summon his first wife back from the grave.

It’s a bit of a joke that sassy Elvira (Sara Hennessy) is the one who’s shuffled off this mortal coil, because as Coward wrote her she has more life force than anyone else in the room: she’s truly a wayward spirit, a pleasure-seeker, a carnal goddess, hellbent on getting her own way and devoted to the indulgences of life. It’s struck me that Elvira’s demise and uncanny return have something to do with the timing of the play itself, which made its debut in 1941, when England was deep at war and London was being blitzed by German bombs. In a way, Elvira’s ghost stands in for England itself, which was undergoing a near-death experience but was sure enough of itself to know it would be bouncing back, as tough and lively and irreverent as ever. It would be a mistake to follow the metaphor too closely or literally: the parallels aren’t exact, and Blithe Spirit isn’t Pilgrim’s Progress. But thinking of Elvira this way adds a little undercurrent of resonance.

Like Ludlam, Coward was a gay man. Unlike Ludlam, he didn’t emphasize it professionally, although in his wide social circles he didn’t much bother to hide it, either. He simply thought that private lives and public lives were different, and of course in his time being openly gay as a public figure was an invitation to trouble: It hadn’t been all that long since Oscar Wilde had been tossed into Reading Gaol. Over the years people have suggested that Charles’s eventual frustrations with both Elvira and his second wife, Ruth, are a result of Coward’s gayness, but I tend not to agree: I think they have more to do with his feeling for the mechanics of comedy and his understanding of the discontents and competing passions of domesticity in whatever form it takes. In both Blithe Spirit and Private Lives a kind of ghostliness is at the center of things: the tricky and unreliable memory of old relationships impinging on the stability and growth of new ones. We can’t escape our pasts, Coward seems to be telling us, and that’s really proof of our foolishness. I don’t think it’s too much to suggest that Blithe Spirit represents another sort of ghost, as well: the spirit of an old but still beloved form of theater, the sophisticated, well-made comedy, which is clever and frankly artificial and brittle yet surprisingly tensile in its structure. Maybe that’s what makes Blithe Spirit a good draw for the holiday season, when traditional values of all sorts kick in.

Wife No. 2 (Van Velzer) gets a right scare from Wife No. 1 (Hennessy). Photo: Owen Carey

Wife No. 2 (Van Velzer) gets a right scare from Wife No. 1 (Hennessy). Photo: Owen Carey

I saw Artists Rep’s Blithe Spirit on a Wednesday evening, the first show after opening weekend and after the cast had had a couple of days off. The whole thing was smooth and gorgeous, but also a little flat, which I took to be a matter of getting back in the groove. I expect it has by now. To truly take off, a Coward production has to be fast and agile: not so much an Indianapolis 500 sort of race as an Italian mountain sports car rally, where pedal-to-the-metal meets mastery of the gearshift. On Wednesday, the show was taking it a little carefully around the corners.

The talent’s unquestionably there: Mendelson in a funny and precisely manic mood, Hennessy all saucy and sassy, Allen Nause bluff and genial as the visiting Dr. Bradman, JoAnn Johnson in a slyly funny performance as the good-hearted and gullible Mrs. Bradman, Val Landrum as the clunkily inept maid Edith (Coward created theatrical worlds in which servants, inept or not, were as natural a part of the environment as dry martinis and cigarette cases), O’Brien, in a role originated by Margaret Rutherford, as a classically British backbone-of-the-nation oddball. On Wednesday Jill Van Velzer seemed the most comfortably and pliably up to speed member of the cast, playing what might be the comedy’s most difficult role: Ruth, Condomine’s second wife, who needs to be a bit of a nag and a drag but somehow also must hold the audience’s sympathy.

In my crystal ball I see sold-out houses. Get your tickets soon, or you won’t stand a ghost of a chance.

 

NOËL AT NOËL

This quick and easy cabaret, subtitled Susannah Mars & Friends Sing the Music of Noël Coward, meshes nicely and naturally with Blithe Spirit (it’s performed on the same set) and creates a pleasing showcase for a small group of young and veteran talent. It’s also the first in a projected series of cabarets at Artist Rep, Artists Rep in Concert, organized by Mars, the talented actor and singer, whose knowledge of theater songs runs deep and wide. Mars is one of Artist’s Rep’s resident artists, and this is one more fruit of that loose-knit program, which among other things encourages individual projects by its members.

Noël Coward, ca. 1930. Wikimedia Commons

Noël Coward, ca. 1930. Wikimedia Commons

Mars herself and veteran actor Del Lewis are the core of the show, which features 20 songs, among them such plums as Why Must the Show Go On?, Marvelous Party, Twentieth Century Blues, the iconic Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and the bittersweet Mad About the Boy. (“Sir Noël wrote 300-plus songs, for the love of God!” the show’s director, Sarah Lucht, told me. “It was tough choosing, let me tell you!”) They’re joined by three young singer/actors from the musical theater company Staged! (Voni Kengla, Aimee Martin, and Isaiah Rosales), and the arrangement reminded me of the advantages of the guild-like old company system, under which young performers playing juvenile roles learned the tricks of the trade by acting side by side with their more experienced elders. The five singers are accompanied, superbly and wittily, by musical director Rick Lewis on piano.

Coward and Cole Porter, the Englishman and the American, are inevitably paired in discussions of sophisticated 20th century music and theater comedy, although unlike Coward, who was a master playwright, Porter stuck to music. I know Porter’s music better, and while I tend to put the two on a par as masterful lyricists, I’ve always thought of Porter as a subtler and more complex composer. Noël at Noël doesn’t change that view, but it’s a good reminder that Coward’s compositions, though more strictly theatrical and less easily adaptable to jazz and pop styles, were pretty darned appealing, too. Mars is an elegant host and savvy interpreter with a smart feel for the stories inside the songs, and Lewis is an adept and engaging interpreter who sometimes seems to channel Coward’s own performance style.

The show was put together quickly, without much rehearsal, and it sometimes shows: as enjoyable and appealing as it is, a little more polish would have brought it together more successfully. It’s also a very brief run; by the time you read this it may already be history. But Portland needs more cabaret venues, and there’s great promise here. As a song not written by Coward, but by Steve Allen, puts it: this could be the start of something big.

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No hallucination: it’s a high ‘Life’

Artists Rep's exquisite, sweet and measured 'The Quality of Life' is another highlight in a sterling Portland season

When Jeannette offers a hit of pot, her straitlaced cousin Dinah doesn’t know what to expect. “Will I hallucinate?,” she asks innocently.

“It’s a gentle, inquisitive experience,” Neil, Jeannette’s husband, reassures her. The same can be said for The Quality of Life, a thoughtful, funny play by Jane Anderson that approaches questions both contemporary and timeless, and, in a perfectly balanced production at Artists Rep, counts as yet another high point in a Portland theater season that’s already had more than its usual share.

Mars, Mendelson, Alper: laughing against the pain. Photo: Owen Carey

Mars, Mendelson, Alper: laughing against the pain. Photo: Owen Carey

Gentle and inquisitive also are good words to describe Neil and Jeannette, a long-married and deeply loving couple enjoying what you might call a provisional lifestyle in Northern California. A canyon fire has claimed their house, with Neil’s years of academic research inside, and they’re residing in a yurt, surrounded by their own magic forest of debris – charred remnants of their avocado and fig trees, unrecognizably warped bits of the few possessions they could find, now strewn about as accidental art objects.

Perhaps their cheerful equanimity is the result of resignation, or maybe of the pot – which in any case they use for more than just taking the edge off: It’s the last medicine doing Neil any good, as he faces down terminal cancer.

“I’m growing prize-winning tumors here; I’m going to enter them in the state fair,” he jokes, after extolling the “heirloom pot” he inhales from a vaporizer.

The plight of Neil and Jeannette is laid out at the start, but it’s not them we meet first. The play opens with a brief scene in Ohio, where Dinah and her husband Bill decide to visit, even though they’re trying to cope with troubles of their own, the grim nature of which we learn only in dribbles.

Both couples are trying to negotiate grief in their own ways, so we know that the playwright is conducting a sort of qualitative comparison. And as soon as they get together, distinctions and divisions begin to show. Neil and Jeannette are free-spirited free-thinkers, conspicuously at ease with their circumstances and with each other. Dinah is agreeable and eager to please, Bill is dull and practical, and there’s a vaguely uneasy distance between them. Bill so objects to his hosts’ marijuana use that he retreats to his car to listen to a baseball game. And when religion enters the conversation – perhaps you can guess which couple are the churchgoers – the sides are clearly drawn.

From time to time, Anderson’s script starts to seem like another point-scoring game between the two sides of our current cultural divide: Midwest/Left Coast, red/blue, conservative/liberal, dour Xtian/happy heathen. In addition to medical marijuana, the issue menu includes the “death with dignity” movement, the power and perils of faith, the balancing of tolerance with moral and social principles, and so on.

With such an agenda, the danger of didacticism lurks, like the coyotes that prey on wayward pets near what used to be Neil and Jeannette’s house. But Anderson eventually complicates and subverts our easy expectations for how these characters think and behave. She even gives Bill, the play’s resident prig, the best line: “Don’t insult my good intentions just because I acted like an ass.”

Yet all along these characters have felt like real people, very much like people we all know. And credit for that goes to the emotionally scrupulous direction by Allen Nause and to a well-matched cast that digs hard and deep for truthfulness while making it look easy.

Mars, Fisher-Welsh: couple in crisis. Photo: Owen Carey

Mars, Fisher-Welsh: couple in crisis. Photo: Owen Carey

Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran Linda Alper, now a Portlander and Artists Rep regular, fairly sparkles as Jeannette, by turns sassy, empathetic, caustic, tender, vulnerable and wise. Michael Mendelson delivers one of the finest performances of his long and acclaimed tenure in town, quietly and subtly showing us Neil’s weariness and pain, his alacrity and humor, and hints of his submerged rage and fear. Together they make an utterly believable couple, comfortable and natural in their interactions whether laughing or squabbling.

Susannah Mars lets us see the way Dinah is constricted by convention yet yearns to live authentically by her own lights. And from behind the almost buffoonish rectitude of Bill, Michael Fisher-Welsh presents a warm, deeply sympathetic character, the alternating surges of consternation and concern calibrated just so.

Much of what the play mulls comes under the umbrella of what these days we call quality of life issues. But there’s a reason the title has that definite article. The quality of life, after all, is, well, life.

And that’s what this exquisite production offers us in something that feels very close to the real thing.

‘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

Continues…