Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Progressing with McCoy Tyner

The power surge music provides was on display last Friday in the Segerstrom Center for the Arts' Samueli Theater.

Pianist McCoy Tyner, in for four weekend concerts with his trio (bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Francisco Mela) and guest saxophonist Joe Lovano, carefully followed his band mates up the bandstand steps. In classic fashion he faced the audience, left hand on piano, and gingerly acknowledged their welcome with several shallow bows.

He then lowered his thin frame, 75 years old on Wednesday, with an aide making sure the piano bench did not move.

When Tyner launched into the first of the six-song, 75-minute set, the tentative movements were gone. The fiery, firm-fingered intensity that brought him to national attention half a century ago flamed anew. In 1960, Tyner joined saxophonist John Coltrane in one of the most important quartets in jazz history. He was on hand for several of those landmark albums including A Love Supreme. The march of time may have left its mark on Tyner the man, but Tyner the musician played with the same energy he had back in his 20s in Philadelphia.

While the opening number suffered some mixing issues, they resolved for the second song: Duke Ellington's "In a Mellow Tone," a title that Lovano's rich tenor timbre captures as well as any past or present player. Lovano has made his own mark, one the New York Times' Thomas Staudter validated when he quoted Times music critic Ben Ratliff in a 2001 story, "It's fair to say that he's one of the greatest musicians in jazz history."

The soloing grew stronger as the sound operator found the right balance and by the third number, Tyner's "Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit," the group was flying high. Here, Lovano's exceptionalism was clear as he dug deep through the familiar progression for a soaring, visceral solo.

The fourth tune was more reflective, and the band members shared the spotlight in turns, with bassist Cannon and drummer Mela consistently providing inventive and engaging moments in their solos.

The fifth song was "Blues on the Corner," and then Tyner satisfied the standing ovation demand for an encore with a quiet solo piece.

Cannon and Mela have been accompanying Tyner regularly, joined by saxophonist Lovano, Gary Bartz, or Ravi Coltrane. Their time together showed off. Lovano, who has frequently played with Tyner since 1999 [read our interview with Joe] worked extensively with Mela in his ensemble quintet Us Five.

After a solo encore by the pianist on "I Should Care," the aide returned to help. Once Tyner introduced him as his son, he took advantage of the moment to tell the audience of his father's recently birthday, at which the standing crowd gleefully broke into "Happy Birthday, McCoy."

With childlike playfulness, Tyner acknowledged the song with a big-eyed lie, "I'm just 21." But, in retrospect, that's really a half truth. While chronologically he just turned 75, musically he's timeless.

Photo: McCoy Tyner, Gerald Cannon, Joe Lovano, and Francisco Mela in a previous outing, photographed by Sébastien Grébille

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Love at first fight

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Can Jenn Lyon and Douglas Sills give John Guare and the La Jolla Playhouse
A 'His Girl Friday' to remember? by Cristofer Gross

In 2003, Britain's National Theatre asked playwright John Guare to create a new stage comedy by 'marrying' the 1940 film His Girl Friday with the 1928 play that had inspired it.

"It was Nick Hytner’s first season [and] he asked if I’d consider taking The Front Page and His Girl Friday and marrying them," Guare said in a 2011 interview.

Guare thought it "an absolutely fascinating proposition," but with only three months between securing rights and starting rehearsals, he was forced to hurry and felt the script didn’t work. Generally, critics agreed with him.

A decade of revisions and revivals later, Guare’s adaptation, also called His Girl Friday, opens the La Jolla Playhouse’s 2013 Season on June 2 under Artistic Director Christopher Ashley's direction.

Casting a giant shadow over His Girl Friday the play have been the stars of His Girl Friday the film. Cary Grant was hitting his stride with a devilishly debonair persona that gave his characters disarming weaponry for winning hearts. It was co-star Rosalind Russell's second big show, after Little Women, and again showed off her perfect blend of independence and susceptibility. Her onscreen chemistry with Grant was real, and, after meeting for this project, they remained lifelong friends.

While Guare has had plenty of fine pairings populating his play, Ashley's leads, Jenn Lyon and Douglas Sills, just may take Guare's vision from modest success to unforgettable event. Both actors have demonstrated deftness in both drama and comedy, with the intuition to mix them perfectly to sound a play's deeper resonances while delivering its big laughs.

On the other hand, in terms of their chemistry, they had never met or seen the other's work.

The road to La Jolla

The film of His Girl Friday began as another straight remake of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's Broadway hit, which had already been adapted to the screen in 1931. In the men's-club atmosphere of a criminal court press room, the hours count down to the next morning's execution of a man convicted of murder. Newspaper reporter Hildy Johnson arrives to say farewell to the fellas before he quits the business to get married. His Machiavellian editor Walter Burns, however, manipulates him into an eleventh hour investigation of the conviction, which ends up exposing corrupt judges and politicians.

Director Howard Hawkes was having trouble casting the remake and one day, with only a "Walter" to audition, had his female secretary read Hildy's part. Hawkes heard something, and had Charles Lederer turn the play's man-to-man combat into the film's battle of the sexes. Hildebrand was now Hildegard, and to add spice, she and Walter were former spouses who had continued to work together after divorcing four years earlier.

The testosterone-fueled power plays of The Front Page now felt more like the playful sparring of Much Ado About Nothing. The sex change would also land His Girl Friday on the top ten list of "Comedies of Remarriage," a genre coined by philosopher Stanley Cavell. The "remarriage comedy" allowed courting couples to navigate towards the altar spouting the intimacies and innuendoes otherwise impossible for pre-marital pairings, and unacceptable to the censoring Hays Office. Not surprisingly, Grant's special charm got him cast in half those top ten titles, including The Philadelphia Story, also released in 1940.

Sills and Lyon

Lyon is perhaps best known for her role opposite TImothy Olyphant in the FX Series "Justified." But she had already won Southern California theatergoers' hearts for four roles at South Coast Repertory, including the period comedy Born Yesterday and a show-stealing turn in Noises Off [review].

When Sills, the charismatic, Tony-nominated star of Broadway's Scarlet Pimpernel and Gomez in the recent national tour of The Addams Family, first saw her, she was into her second week of rehearsals. Due to a death in the family, he had been forced to arrive after the others.
Sills had helped give the same SCR one of its most popular productions as an irresistible Benedict opposite Nike Doukas in Much Ado, after playing the Grant role of C.K. Dexter Haven in its earlier Philadelphia Story. He got his first look at Lyon already in character as someone she calls "the smartest one in the room and unapologetically so."

Could a behind-the-scenes battle-of-the-sexes be in store for Ashley and company? Was this to be La Jolla's private, backstage sequel, with Lyon getting a week's head start under her belt?

Far from being put off, Sills was immediately on board.

"I arrived to find this tremendous powerhouse of a leading lady just knocking it out of the park already," Sills told me a week later. "She's just incredibly facile, and smart, and beautiful, and comedic.

"And, as in a relay race," he continued, "you want to run your lap very well, because when she hands you the baton, she has set the bar very high."

On the distaff side, the feelings were mutual.

"Just being in rehearsal with him I can barely keep a straight face," Lyon said in a separate interview. Clearly Sills' powers were still sharp. "I am so honored and delighted everyday to have the opportunity to share a stage with him. If I can be his match, I will be so happy. Can you tell I'm shamelessly in love? It's embarrassing."

The better halves

Lyon said she has loved the film since she was a little girl, and watched it again when she heard she was up for the part.

"I've always been a fan of screwball comedy because of the pace and the fact that the women run the show and are a match comedically to the men they play against," she said.

Like Lyon's character on "Justified," a show that relies strongly on powerful women, Hildy balances her relationships with her self-respect.

"She wants to be able to have what the men have but still be valued as a woman who is compassionate and kind. But in her world there has been no way to do that," Lyon said.

"In terms of strong women characters, she has it all in spades and as opposed to many women that I've played, she doesn't lead with her sexuality. It's in her arsenal but she rarely uses it. Her feminine wiles are housed more in her facility with language, her capacity for empathy, and her ability to multitask. She swings for the fences on every at bat and that's so thrilling to play."

Donald Sage Mackay, who plays Bruce Baldwin, Hildy's new fiancé and the main brunt of Burns' chicanery, was also impressed by Lyon.

"Working with Jenn in rehearsal is like watching a young Lucille Ball at work: an absolutely brilliant comedienne who comes to rehearsal an hour before anyone else. She's so incredible that you can't even remember Rosalind Russell in the role and yet, at the same time, she is honoring and channeling all of the great actresses like Hepburn and Myrna Loy that came before her."

For his part, Sills sees Burns as "a character who doesn't pander to the audience. He's not there to be liked. So he has some unattractive characteristics, which are in opposition to that indescribable, innate charm that draws people to him. That can't help but make the heart – or the molten lava – of the story more attractive and more magnetic. We're rooting for the two of them to find each other again. That's what the story's about, basically."

If anyone can give Burns that quality, it's Sills. Night after night in Much Ado, his connection with the audience seemed to make each viewer react as if directly engaged by him. With catlike dexterity, he straddled the fourth wall rather than broke it, with audience members occasionally uttering unconsciously in response.

"Douglas is so dynamic and believable in period plays because he completely inhabits the style, the way people spoke, the elegance of movement, but he's never without emotional truth," Doukas, his Much Ado co-star, told me. "When you share the stage with him you can count on him being there with you. And he is always trying new things to keep the moments alive."

"I think I do have an awareness of the audience, concurrent with the performance, and not outside of it," Sills said. "It definitely isn't static. It varies."

If anyone can forecast whether the chemistry between these two will crackle or fizzle, it's SCR Founding Artist Richard Doyle, who has worked with both: Lyon in Born Yesterday and Sills in Philadelphia Story.

"Both are gifted, generous pros," he said. "I'd say Doug tends to wear his characters like well-fitting Armani, tailored to his many strengths. I think of Jenn as slightly more mercurial, creating a well thought-out structure and fully inhabiting that character. They are both large personalities, and in any story they tell, their personas will occupy some of the same space as their character."

That bodes well for La Jolla's title rematch of this famous battle of wits, for another shot at the remarriage of Hildy and Walter, and for Guare's vision of marrying The Front Page and His Girl Friday.

His Girl Friday begins previews today, opens June 2 and continues through June 30.

Also in the cast are Patrick Kerr (Earl), George McDaniel (Mayor), Matt McGrath (Bensinger), Mary Beth Peil (Mrs. Baldwin), Bill Christ (Woodenshoes), William Hill (Sheriff), Bethany Anne Lind (Molly Malloy) Dion Mucciacito (Diamond Louie), Jonathan McMurtry (Reverend), Steve Gunderson, Kevin Koppman-Gue, Evan D’Angeles, Dale Morris, James Saba and Mike Sears, and MFA students Michael Hammond, Chaz Hodges, Gerard Joseph and Ronald Washington.

On closing day of the production Theatertimes ran its review.

Photos (top to bottom): Grant and Russell, Lyon and Timothy Olyphant in "Justified," Nike Doukas with Sills in "Much Ado About Nothing" (2001) [Photo by author], and Sills and Lyon in the current production with George McDaniel, Gerard Joseph, and Ronald Washington [photo by Kevin Berne].

Thursday, March 14, 2013

No small parts

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The Brothers Arkin get swallowed by 'whales' • by Cristofer Gross

Larger-than-life characters, from Achilles and Lysistrata to FDR and Harriett Tubman, are literature's meat-and-potatoes. How the everyman reaches greatness, or how the mighty fall, fuels both inspirational stories and cautionary tales that share what it means to be human. In Herman Melville's Moby Dick, it's not the beast that brings us back but the outsized obsession of Captain Ahab.

Oversized characters, on the other hand, are a harder fit. Whether in theater, literature, film, or TV, once a body crosses the 600-lb mark, as the Duke put it, "they don't get around much anymore." As a result it's very rare to have one of these tragic figures rise in the ranks of fiction. John Kennedy Toole added one in his 1980 novel, Confederacy of Dunces, and won a posthumous Pulitzer for his efforts. But we're still waiting for someone to get around to getting his slothful sleuth, Ignatius J. Reilly, up on the screen.

Anyone who has leafed through the Guinness Book for Records has likely stopped at the sad story of Robert Hughes, the one-time "World's Heaviest Human," who died at 32 weighing half a ton. He was buried in a coffin the size of a piano case.

In the past decade, these cases have inspired two fictional characters. A decade ago, in the first season of the long-running television mystery "Monk," we met Dale "the Whale" Beiderbeck, an 800-pound, bed-bound financial wizard prone to crime. This weekend, we meet Charlie, the central character in Playwright Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale, opening at South Coast Repertory and running through the end of the month.

By strange coincidence, the 2002 TV whale and the 2013 theater whale are played by brothers Adam and Matthew Arkin, respectively.

Adam, 56, was first to notice what surely qualifies for its own page in the record book.

"I didn't even think about the coincidence until Adam mentioned it to me," said Matthew, who turns 53 next week. "I actually never caught that episode of 'Monk.' I knew he had played that character, but I didn't really know much about it."

"I expect that our experiences in the process have been drastically different," he added. "Because of the innate differences between doing something like that for film, where you can cut, take care of problems, and so on, and the challenges of doing it on stage, where the illusion has to last, and logistical problems have to be solved, with no possibility of a break."

Both Arkins, sons of actor Alan, are veterans of stage and film. Adam preceded his brother at SCR, starring in the premiere of Donald Margulies' Brooklyn Boy, and returning for the readings of Richard Greenberg's Our Mother's Brief Affair and Steven Drukman's The Prince of Atlantis, in which Matthew played his brother. Matthew, who was in the New York cast of Margulies' Dinner with Friends when it won the Pulitzer Prize, made his SCR debut in the full production of Brief Affair, [review] and went on to co-star in Prince [review] with John Kapelos.

Either would be quick to point out that the stage, with its preference for promoting use of the imagination, is less fond than film of elaborate makeup and prosthetic devices to create character. However, when the physical condition is either the cause, or manifestation, of one's behavior, the drama demands it be front and center. And so, the younger Arkin is embarking on an eight-show-a-week regimen of serious weight-gain. To do it, SCR brought in Kevin Haney, an expert whose collaboration on makeup for Driving Miss Daisy earned him the Academy Award in 1990.

Haney's Broadway work includes turning Bernadette Peters into a witch and Robert Westenberg into a wolf for Into the Woods, turning Robert Morse into Harry Truman for Tru, and helping with Mandy Patinkin's nightly sex-change for David Hare's obscure musical The Knife. He agrees that stage and cinema are different animals.

"Film is a series of moments often shot out of context of the whole," he said. "There is usually time to touch up the makeup to make sure it looks good for that shot. Theater is a whole slice of time. We can't walk on stage and do a touch up, so it has to be glued in really well." Regarding the costume portion of the transformation, he credits SCR's Costume Department for doing "an amazing job creating a lightweight but realistic fat suit – one of the best I have encountered. We are using new techniques, to have the bulk built up with a reinforced, extremely lightweight and soft cast polyfoam, similar to what I used on the Wolf makeup in 1989, combined with a reinforced silicone skin." The costume and make up takes an hour and a half to put on, and another hour to remove. Add in the two-hour run time and that's four hours in which Arkin cannot use the men's room – assuming he gets through the door.

"First the neck and facial prosthetic is applied to my face with adhesive," he explained. "The edges have to be meticulously glued down and then blended carefully around my eyes with makeup. Additional tiny wig pieces are applied around the edges of my goatee, my sideburns and the nape of the neck to cover the sides of the pieces. When that is done, it is time to put on the suit.

"The first layer is a baseball player's athletic support with a cup, so that the straps of the suit don't cause damage to sensitive parts. Then a thermal undershirt and a cotton onesie to prevent the ice packs that are worn to keep me from overheating from having the opposite effect and giving me ice burns. Those are the layers that can be washed between each show, and it's a good thing, 'cause even with the cooling system, I'm pretty soaked with sweat by the end.

"Over the onesie goes a neoprene vest with two huge pockets front and back to hold the ice packs. Then the bottom half of the suit goes on, and is stretched tight and hooked into a series of fasteners on the vest to stop it from sagging. It is so heavy that, throughout the show, I have to resist it pulling me down into a crouch. Then I put on neoprene cuffs, which also contain ice packs for my wrists, and the top half, which also stretches and is fastened to the vest to keep it from riding up when I sit. That adds to the crouch effect. All of these layers are fairly tight as well, so that they don't shift around too much, but it makes normal breathing a conscious effort. The neck line of the top half then has to be tucked carefully under the neck line of the prosthetic, and then I can get into my sweat pants, shaking the various layers down and tucking them in. Then I put on the shirt, two pairs of socks, and my slippers. All done: Piece of cake."

Of course, then it's time for the real work to begin, and Arkin waddles on stage to act. While we can debate whether there are any small parts for actors, there are relatively few like those assumed Adam and Matthew Arkin.

A review of the production was posted on March 21, 2013.

The Whale opens March 15 and runs through March 31. Martin Benson directs Arkin, Jennifer Christopher, Wyatt Fenner, Blake Lindsley, Helen Sadler Tickets and info.

Photos: Top, Matthew with co-star Jennifer Christopher (credit: Ben Horak); middle and bottom, Adam in "Monk."

Monday, January 28, 2013

Birds-Eye View

Two veteran flight attendants and boosters of San Diego's Old Globe
Recall the 'high-flying days that inspired the comedy 'Boeing Boeing'
by Cristofer Gross

Wikipedia has a list of 36 occurrences of “Flight Attendants in Pop-Culture.” The first is Marc Camoletti’s Boeing-Boeing.

In the 1960s, when a stewardess appeared in a play or film, it was shorthand for a single, attractive woman with even odds to be spending the night in a hotel. Even Stephen Sondheim, in his breakout 1970 musical, Company, gave Bobby-baby a stewardess girlfriend. As Joanne Gordan observes in Stephen Sondheim: A Casebook, the "conquest of a ‘stewardess’ is, for audiences who would remember the era, a depiction of a particularly ‘60s kind of fantasy – the suave bachelor seducing a hot ‘stew.’"

Two women who spent the era inside a United Airlines stewardess uniform are Globe Guilders Nancy Brock and Randy Tidmore.

Both trained in Chicago and eventually ended their stewardess careers flying out of Los Angeles. Iowan Tidmore flew for United Airlines from 1947 to 1962, but also worked in the office during the last half of those years. She became a supervisor, handling hiring, customer complaints and inquiries from the media. Brock flew for 35 years, many of them between LA and Honolulu, beginning in 1955.

When they started, stewardesses (they still stumble on the term "flight attendant") had to weigh in, keep their hair short, and remain unmarried.

"They had to be 21 by the time they went on the line," said Tidmore. "They had to wear hose, and the seams had to be straight, and wear girdles and high heels all the time. They had to be ladies. If any received three complaints from passengers, they were out."

There was an upside, though.

"We used to be celebrities," Brock said. "We were looked up to. There weren’t very many of us – or many airplanes either. I can remember sitting at the coffee shop in Chicago and having Ed Sullivan, who was sitting at the horseshoe counter, pay for our breakfast. People did that. Women passengers came on with their heels, hats and gloves, and men always wore a suit. The whole atmosphere was first class and we were treated that way, too."

"You couldn’t be married, but that didn’t mean you couldn’t have an affair with a pilot," Tidmore smiled.

"A lot of my friends were married, but I didn’t know it. One couple – a pilot and stewardess – were married and nobody knew it. They lived in the same apartment building. She lived downstairs and he lived upstairs, with a telephone he could hear from downstairs."

"Newspapers used to interview me about what stewardesses did," she continued. "’Tell us some stories,’ they would say. ‘Are the stewardesses marrying passengers? Are they going out with passengers on every trip?’ Absolutely not! I’d tell them. Our girls don’t do that, you know. And they didn’t. They were not marrying any more than non-flight attendants."

All that started changing around the time the play is set, with the advances in jets, and unionization.

"When the unions came in, the airline couldn’t say how we wore our hair, or make us wear a girdle or high heels," said Tidmore.

"That’s true," agreed Brock.

"Although it was still pretty strict. We were still under weight controls. I was still getting weighed in during the 1970s, long after the unions became involved."

The public image of flight attendants changed, they feel, to something closer to service personnel than celebrities. But, they both feel the profession is finally getting more respect.

"I think the public does think they are service people," Brock said. "But I think that, more and more since 9/11 and events like the recent landing in the Hudson River, people realize that in-flight people also have a safety responsibility and we’re there to save lives. The perception has gone back up."

Both remain active in "Clipped Wings," a social organization for flight attendants that they co-chaired four years ago. The name recalls the days when, "if you got married, your wings were clipped," Brock said.

This blog post is one of three program notes written by Cristofer Gross for the 2009 Old Globe production of Marc Camoletti's Boeing-Boeing. Used with permission.