Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Long and Fisher Road

Gene Splicing. Fifty years after their birth into show business families – one famous, one a footnote – two writer-actors have cherry-picked their pasts for one-woman shows about the performance gene. In Jodi Long’s celebratory Surfing DNA at East West Players, she dives into her genetic pool and backstrokes upstream among Chinese, Japanese, Australian, American and Scottish ancestors. In Carrie Fisher’s comic Wishful Drinking, her famous family album becomes an open tabloid in which she jokes about “having my DNA fumigated.”

Ms. Fisher’s entertaining show – a kind of pot-shot-spraying drive-by of herself, her father (crooner Eddie Fisher) and her mother (movie star Debbie Reynolds) – is filled with such neatly phrased jabs. But it’s a stretch to call it theater. Especially compared to Ms. Long’s carefully shaped evening of filial showbiz piety. Beyond the common age, sex and coincidental L.A. premieres, the women have vastly different stories and present them in vastly different ways. While Ms. Fisher provides scandal sheet fodder to remind the audience her parents (and she) are just people, Ms. Long works to get her people into a spotlight that makes them memorable. And where Ms. Fisher seems uncomfortable on stage,
delivering her stories as she paces the apron like a shooting gallery target, Ms. Long owns her stage and uses it to perform the role of her lifetime.

Growing up at opposite ends of the country, these women share only one cultural reference point: Gene Kelly. Kelly co-starred with Fisher’s mother in Singin’ in the Rain, her most famous role, but fired Ms. Long’s feisty father Lawrence from his staging of the Broadway premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song. (Although he would later tour and direct productions of the show, his name does not appear on IBDB's Opening Night credits and, according to Ms. Long, he was blackballed from the first national tour and the 1961 film.)

That near miss does not seem to have hurt Ms. Long's stage, television and film career, however. It just adds to the awe and empathy with which she presents her parents’ story. Especially given the limitations they endured based on discrimination, which persist but were clearly worse a generation ago. This helps contextualize the bittersweet experience of her own Broadway debut at age 8, which was somewhat dampened coming so soon after her father’s close call with Kelly. But the same musical provides dramaturgical arc, as the family shared the pride when Ms. Long returned to Broadway in 2002 as Madame Liang in David Henry Hwang’s re-working of Flower Drum Song. “Grand Avenue,” her big number from that show, opens Surfing and she delivers it – “sells it” as we say – with a grin wide enough to span the song’s two-generation significance.

Her Chinese-Australian father and Japanese-American mother, Kimiye Tsunemitsu, met, married, and raised a daughter while working the ‘Chop Suey’ circuit in San Francisco and New York. They were talented dancers, singers and comics. They worked up a Vaudeville style act that outlived Vaudeville in nightclubs. It was a hard life of rejection and low earnings. But every performance day ended on stage, with those big smiles helping to convince their audience better times were ahead.

Like her parents, Ms. Long embodies this tradition. But she wants to leave us with more than comic and soft-shoe patter. She takes us behind the scenes and behind the smiles. Her parents were like the countless chorus girls, sidemen and understudies who fill the stage beyond the spotlight, quietly reshaping their dreams to fit their achievements. On behalf of them all, Ms. Long has gathered her own variegated roots into a presentable bouquet, and sent it floating downstream to their descendants.

Surfing DNA closed at East West Players’ David Henry Hwang Theatre on November 19. Wishful Drinking is packing houses in an extended run at the Geffen, with a specially enhanced ticket price of $103.

A review of Wishful Drinking is available here.

Photo. Jodi Long, left, and Carrie Fisher flank a helix-climbing Gene Kelly.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

One Degree of Separation

Couched Condolences. While enjoying David Lindsay-Abaire’s ‘Rabbit Hole’ (at the Geffen through October 13, 2006), the stand-up comedy of Albert Brooks came to mind. Before he started making films in the mid-70s, Brooks, like Steve Martin, was creating comedy not by telling jokes, but by being a joke. Each created characters in his likeness. But where Martin’s wildly silly character was obviously 180 degrees from his true personality, Brooks’ persona was only off by a tick of the dial. Many did not see the humor. But in that single degree of variance, Brooks managed to be just as ridiculous if not more so.

Lindsay-Abaire’s ‘Rabbit Hole’ is close enough to reality to be mistaken for simple melodrama, especially after the playwright’s previous central characters were given 180-degree turns: ‘Kimberly Akimbo’ is a teenager who looks 50 because she’s aging at an accelerated rate and ‘Fuddy Mears’’ principal characters are an amnesiac and a criminal crippled by limp and lisp. The folks in ‘Rabbit Hole’ are not only normal looking but quite attractive. But while the damage has been internalized, it has not been minimized. And Lindsay-Abaire and Carolyn Cantor, his director with talent aging at an accelerated rate, offer a versatile metaphor to help us get at it.

Becca (Amy Ryan) and Howie (Tate Donovan) lost their only son when he chased something into the street and was killed by a teenage driver. Jason (Trever O’Brien) was alone, sober, paying attention, but unable to stop his car in time. Though still angry, Howie wants to limit the loss of life to one, his son, and salvage what's left of his and Becca's. She, however, cannot function in that way. She has been blasted out of her orbit by the loss. Though she wanders her home, cooking and cleaning, she has separated from it as cleanly as a capsule from its booster. Floating this way, and to her husband’s incomprehension, she gravitates to her fellow damaged drifter, Jason, who has dedicated a story about unseen corridors – the kind the physicists theorize link to parallel universes and the kind Lewis Carroll did link to one – to his victim.

In the way Brooks held his comic mirror up close to our faces, Lindsay-Abaire and Cantor keep Becca unmistakable – as recognizable as any neighbor we might pass in the market. It's impossible to guess the displacement and alienation she is suffering. That tight clutch of normalcy, as Ryan and the rest of the cast (which also includes Joyce Van Patten and a stunning Missy Yager) show, is what makes for such a huge explosion when the fission finally comes. The physical production is also stunning, with a beautiful set by Alexander Dodge, lit by Matthew Richards.

For the record, credit must be given to a first public reading of the play, also directed by Cantor, two summers ago at South Coast Repertory. SCR had commissioned the script from Lindsay-Abaire, as it had done with 'Kimberly,' which it premiered. Anna Gunn as Becca, Kevin Kilner as Howie, and Lynn Milgrim, Sarah Rafferty and Phillip Vaden filling out the rest of the cast proved this untested script so road worthy that its next public performance would be on Broadway. W
ith virtually no visible separation between art and audience, those five actors also reasserted the simple magnificence of great theater. In an auditorium of a few hundred people in casual clothes, five virtually indistinguishable from the rest sat before the others on stacking chairs, turning a hundred or so pages of fresh text into two hours of life experience. They rendered it to such a degree, that everyone in that room was moved.

Photo: Trever O'Brien and Amy Ryan.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Counter Intuitive

Nighthawks,’ sang Tom Waits on his 1975 live recording, ‘at the diner of Emma’s Forty-Niner, there’s a rendezvous of strangers around the coffee urn tonight.” That sketchy nod to the frozen loneliness of Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting was a palatable bit of extra-disciplinary referencing. But according to Los Angeles crama critics, Douglas Steinberg has gone one worse in his 'Nighthawks,' receiving its premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through September 24, 2006. With some inspired in-breeding, Steinberg has apparently produced a mutant child of tableaux vivant and film noir. His reason for doing so is a mystery -- in more ways than one – involving the diner’s three customers and attendant and a couple "off-stage" characters. The Los Angeles Times’ Charles McNulty suggests that the reason “they don't yet exist in three dimensions only underscores their need for someone with an imagination big enough to hear what they really sound like.” In 'Variety,' Robert Verini calls it a 'clumsy, interminable dramatization,' with 'cheap gags in his first act and over-the-top melodrama in the second.' Whether there's sufficient heft in the Steinberg stylus to pull off this sleight, one wonders whether such conversions can ever take. With due respect to Jon Hendricks and the vocalese set, I wager that if Joe Zawinul wanted singing in ‘Birdland' he'd have written lyrics. Same with Paul Desmond and ‘Take Five.’ (The exception that proves the rule is Cassandra Wilson’s ‘Run the Voodoo Down,’ which eerily expands Miles' universe.) Siimilarly, a great song is only diminished by becoming a video. I remember losing interest in MTV (even before I lost interest in the next generation’s music) because I didn’t like limiting the songs of Talking Heads or Squeeze or whomever into a single visual interpretation. (I still see Chevy Chase's stupid mug every time I hear 'You Can Call Me Al.') It’s what people complain about when artists sell their songs for use in advertisements. It's not the sell-out we object to. It's the way songs that were once important to us are now appliqued over with with images of Cadillac SUVs (Led Zeppelin’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’), Kaiser Permanente health care (Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’) and Chase credit cards (The Beatles' ‘Love is All You Need’). Just as I prefer letting my subconscious throw up images for 'Birdland,' 'The Weight' and ‘Burning Down the House' each time I hear them, I'm sure I'll be glad I can create my own seedy stories for those denizens of Hopper's diner.

Photo collage: Brian T. Finney and Colette Kilroy "step outside" Edward Hopper's 'Nighthawks' for a little play.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Old Times, Good Times

All Together Now. The good news about the 12th Annual West Coast Jazz Party is that it lives up to advance billing. As promised, it’s a unique atmosphere in which to relax and enjoy middle-ground, straight-ahead jazz. Organizers, musicians, and audience mingle like lodge members, clearly veterans of many previous events – either here at the Irvine Marriott over Labor Day Weekend or at the Newport Marriott over Presidents Weekend. Interviews with drummer Jeff Hamilton and trumpeter/conductor Bobby Shew for a story in The Orange County Register drew high praise for the 'Party's' special way of allowing musicians to see friends they haven’t seen in a while and play with people they’ve only heard. The way the players are mixed together by co-Founders John McClure and Joe Rothman – the latter a born emcee – keeps the energy and imagination keen. Among the highlights was trumpeter/vocalist Byron Stripling, graciously leading a Louis Armstrong tribute, but keeping his own style evident. He has the timbre and easy accuracy of Nat Cole, with a dash of vocal unpredictability reminiscent of Diz. Bill Mays provided another indelible when he offered up Jimmy Rowles’ ‘Peacocks,’ a colorful rumination for solo piano in honor of his late friend. Pianist/singer Dena DeRose displayed great feeling in her sets, providing plenty of jazz and soul without resorting to scat. She was ably backed by bassist Christoph Luty and Hamilton. Hamilton was an omnipresent utility player. He had said he was most looking forward to introducing Hammond B3 player Atsuko Hashimoto to America through the Party. In the first of two sets together, they teamed with tenor saxophonist Houston Person – another musician who seemed to be everywhere – on Friday night. While some musicians in the audience were cool to the keyboardist, I was generally impressed, primarily for what a surprisingly soulful streak that occasionally made its way into tunes, especially her big showcase, 'That's All.' Hamilton, Person and she will record and appear elsewhere in the next week or so, and I’ll be anxious to hear more. Bassist Chuck Berghorfer, who also played with just about everybody, said from the stage last night, during a two-man set with Person, “Looking out at this audience brings tears to my eyes. It’s the only place we can play where people aren’t talking during the set. The only thing missing are the 20 year olds!” It was and wasn’t what the crowd wanted to hear. But, it leads us to the bad news: the average audience member was in his or her 60s, quite possibly high 60s. Maybe it’s not fair to judge jazz’s audience by a group who – although pound for pound are among the most educated and supportive – look like extras from a ‘This is Florida Retirement’ infomercial. Perhaps a three-day-four-night event in a classy hotel has a prohibitive tab for youthful, casual fans. Then again, there aren’t many young adults who love jazz so much they’d spend the weekend with clones of the their grandparents. No matter how hip they are. Fortunately, in the months ahead, we’ll be reporting on some teenage jazz players and their fans. All of which should make folks breath a sigh of relief.
Photo: Berghofer, Wycliffe Gordon, Hamilton, Stripling, Person, DeRose, Hashimoto.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Blustery Days

Promo Seltzer. This week the Windy City was blowing gusts of disgust in a knock-down exchange of letters, emails, blogs and articles. The tempestuous snit between the 'Chicago Sun-Times' and Theater Building Chicago, a 30-year-old company, attracted the input of nearly two dozen of theater’s most distinguished blowhards, including Edward Albee, Tony Kushner, Arthur Kopit and Dramatist Guild President John Weidman.

What sparked the dramatists' high dudgeon was Sun-Times Critic Hedy Weiss’ review of the company’s 2006 showcase of new musicals. Even though the works are billed as in development and in some cases not completed, Weiss, a former dancer who has been reviewing for more than 15 years, had drifted from doing advances to help promote the festival to doing reviews.

In her defense, Ms. Weiss, who truly seems not to know better, was not condemned in 2005 after writing what amounts to brochure copy on that year’s works-in-progress. She called the musical Tevya, "a remarkably fine piece of work. Not only does it play fully on the powerful frame of reference created in Fiddler, it moves the story forward in intelligent and believable ways, stepping gracefully and confidently into those giant footprints while building on the blend of humor, bitterness and debate that animated the original."

She said the musical version of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, "deserves a thriving future. Along with its ready-made tragicomic story and marvelous characters, it comes with a lovely, lyrical score that very skillfully blends traditional Irish melodies and a Broadway sound.”

On August 16, 2006, her overview story stated that "the eight deeply flawed new musicals showcased in this year's Stages 2006 marathon at the Theatre Building seemed to suggest the artform [sic] has fallen on very hard times."

This was an egregiously inappropriate opinion for a major paper to print regarding theater pieces that were expressly available as part of their development. But technically, it was no worse that the raves she gave shows last year. The problem for the American theater is that our only true allies are newspapers, a community that is itself increasingly marginalized. The point of contact between theater and paper, which I know only too well, requires a kind of rigidity that may cost a story.

As barrage after barrage of pent-up critic-critique from America's greatest living playwrights was gathered by DGA to be dumped on the desks of Sun-Times editor John Barron and publisher John Cruikshank (like Albee's "Ms. Weiss has a reputation as an irresponsible critic, and there are many occasions that are brought to my attention where her reviews have been shocking in their irresponsible provocation and others in which her opinions and prejudices have seemed curiously contrived."), the theater's executive director Joan Mazzonelli began to look for cover. Whereas she earlier had told Jeffrey Sweet (as reported on his blog), "Ms. Weiss was explicitly told that these presentations were not for review," when she spoke to Campbell Robertson for yesterday's New York Times story, she was "acknowledging that she had not made the festival’s policy clear to Ms. Weiss, whom she had encouraged to attend, along with other members of the press."

Whether Ms. Weiss is a good witch or a bad witch, the issue of theater criticism in this country is one which needs much more attention. (And, publicists need to keep a stiff spine despite the potential loss.)

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Fall from Grace

Used Karr. Last night, Headline News' Nancy Grace made little effort to mask her contempt for the Boulder County (Colo.) District Attorney’s performance in first arresting John Mark Karr and then yesterday announcing she would not press charges after determining that his DNA did not match that found on the murdered JonBenet Ramsey a decade ago. Each night Grace proudly wears her "perspective as a former violent crimes prosecutor and as a crime victim herself,” accessorized with pearls of disdain. Monday’s target was Bolder DA Mary Lacy, who was somehow to blame for allowing Karr’s impromptu Bangkok press conference to launch ten days of round the clock speculation. Lacy, a relatively small-town prosecutor handed the crime of the turn-of-the-century, didn’t realize that what she thought were peanuts of disclosure would attract a thunderous herd of media attention. The empty story became the elephant in America’s living room for a week and a half, and Grace and her stern-faced far righteous experts got a boost in ratings as revitalizing as a stiff breeze at the condor roost. Not surprisingly, when the unsatisfying end came, Grace and her flock were pissed. But the jury is still out on whether Lacy erred. Later Monday night, DNA expert and Simpson Defense Team Member Barry Sheck ranted about media over-reaction to ‘Nightline’ host Terry Moran as if he were the team captain. On Tuesday morning, other anyalysts were crediting Lacy with taking the appropriate steps in a difficult process. The obviously put-out Grace would call it a "Colossal blunder." That might justify how – despite the story dropping off both CNN's Top 10 most important stories and Top 10 most popular stories, Grace would announce shows that looked into "the next step in the decade-old investigation" (Tuesday), "piece together 'what went wrong' in the JonBenet Ramsey murder investigation" (Wednesday), and an hour-special on the case September 1 and 4.
Photo: Putting the CNN in Nancy.

Monday, August 28, 2006

'24's' Heaven

Counter Television Unit. My one TV series indulgence fared well this Sunday when ‘24’ broke into the Emmy winner circle with its fifth season. Fans will no doubt be crawling all over the show’s elaborate Web site to digitally high-five each other and argue whether this was really the season deserviing such status. For my money, however, it was a good one. For starters, as a seasoned viewer, I thought that with Season 4 '24' had chosen to take its own life. It did not end with a cliff hanger so much as with a fatal, precipitous fall: there was no way our hero, Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland, who earned one of the show’s three awards for Lead Performance), could return after faking his death so he could change identity and disappear to avoid a vengeful Chinese official (Tzi Ma). All this made the Season 5’s 24-segment arc all the more severe, gripping, and – as any true fan will happily admit – ridiculous. Providing the biggest goose to the storyline was our friend Greg Itzin’s President Logan, who did a Shakespearean turn of changing from Dogberry to Richard III in one revelation, playing opposite Jean Smart as First Lady. Another of the show’s 12 nominees, Itzin lost to now-five-time winner Alan Alda. Logan will not be back next season, so we’ll be seeing Greg back on stage, where he has been missed. According to the cliffhanger that appeared to spoil last season's happy ending, Jack will begin Season 6 in the hands of the Chinese. That's right. It was less than a day before Mr. Ma’s character picked him up, taped him over, and tossed him in a holding cell until January. Photo: Keifer in Sutherland.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Once in Love With Emmy

It's Itzin's Hour. Tonight’s Emmy Award nominees include an old theatre colleague, Greg Itzin, for his role as President Logan in FOX’s ’24.’ Itzin was critical to ‘24’s’ breakout year, in which it received 12 Emmy nominations to lead the series category. When I ran into Greg at a recent Ahmanson opening, he was the only actor among a plaza full of them, posing for pictures with fans. When I joked that he had take well to being famous, he beamed and admitted – “Loving it. Having the time of my life!” His character, who changes from a forgettable vice president to a forgettable president with behavior that doesn’t mesh with a veteran of campaigning, is explained in a mid-season plot twist as the most conflicted character in the show’s history. Suddenly he – and his First Lady Jean Smart – were at the center of a Shakespearean maelstrom. As is the case with every moment of this show – the one series I know – the entire enterprise would collapse under its own cartoon logic if it weren’t for these great actors making their characters so believable. And Itzin's character will hopefully triumph over a final round of candidates – William Shatner of "Boston Legal," Oliver Platt of ‘Huff,’ Michael Imperioli of ‘The Sopranos,’ and Alan Alda of ‘The West Wing.’ This time, however, he shouldn't need to resort to subversion.
Photo: Jean Smart and Gregory Itzin

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Cut and Run

Post’ Traumatic. Freedom Communications, Inc., the publisher of ‘The Orange County (CA) Register’ is among the first to seek more readers by offering less to read. A snappy new six-day tab, ‘OC POST,’ is full of bite-sized stories and large ad, with ‘color on every page!’ The ad campaign for the launch – without reference to the Register or its other one-year-old weekly, SqueezeOC, includes billboards and bus shelters – without reference to the parents. In the television spots, a woman gets her first issue and becomes so excited about the concept of the trimmed news format that she immediately asks a stylist for equal treatment for her hair. However, the second tv ad suggests people may be justified in dismissing too demanding lengths in their art. After flipping through his new ‘Post,’ a male reader imagines a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that jump-cuts to the finale in minutes not hours – and still earns a standing ovation! This rush by papers to better compete with cable and internet news delivery seems ironic when, at the same time cable news is filling entire weeks with one story, and one story with only the faintest trace of factual news. This is, of course, the story of the self-confessed (and possibly insane) John Mark Karr, who, not surprisingly graced the cover of the ‘POST’s’ premiere issue.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Cruise Control

Here's Your Back End, Sumner! So Paramount says it will not renew Tom Cruise's contract because of his 'behavior.' Excuse me!? Cruise has just been saving Paramount money by generating the kind of publicity Paramount used to need a bungalow of flacks to manufacture. No, it's not bonkiness killed the deal. 'Twas money. It's always money. If MI3 had grossed what MI2 had, so far it's short about $110 million, Redstone would have kissed both Cruise cheeks north and sound on the steps of L.A.'s City Hall rather than let him get away. More likely, Redstone needs to bury a contract that gives the actor too much up front and at the back end -- again, north and south. We'll see who laughs last. But a precedent might be another L.A. institution who dumped an overpriced star thought to have grown more outspoken than productive. That institution, the Lakers, sent Shaquille O'Neill to Miami. That's the same Miami that currently has the 2006 NBA Trophy in its offices. And Happy 28th Birthday (yesterday) to Kobe Bryant. [Originally published August 25, 2006]