Upstream Theater presented a flawed but nevertheless interesting new production through January 27th of Café Chanson, a new musical written and directed by Ken Page. The score consists of one new song by Mr. Page and his music director Henry Palkes. The rest of it is made up of (mostly) French popular songs from the 1920s through the early 1970s.
This is the second (and last) installment of a complete song list along with some background and random thoughts on some of the numbers. In cases where I had nothing intelligent to add about a particular song, I just listed it and left it alone.
The names in parentheses are the songwriters. In the few cases where the titles in the program were incorrect or misspelled, I’ve corrected them here. If there’s anything in here that I’ve gotten wrong, please let me know.
|Mistinguett, circa 1927|
“Mam’selle Josephine et Mistinguette” (Ken Page / Henry Palkes) In the show this is sung by The Man, the gay cross-dressing waiter at the Café, decked out in a flashy sequined Folies Bergère-style outfit. The Josephine of the title is, of course, Napoleon’s empress. Mistinguett (the final version of her stage name) was a celebrated French singer and actress of the early 20th century. Born Jeanne Bourgeois in 1875, she began her showbiz career at the age of 10, was appearing at the Casino de Paris by the age of 20, and went on to international celebrity. Her signature song, “Mon Homme” (1916) was not only a big hit for her but, in English translation (“My Man”) for Fanny Brice as well. She died in 1956.
“What Makes a Man (Comme ils dissent)” (Charles Aznavour) The great French singer/songwriter stirred up some controversy in 1972 with this sympathetic and tragic portrayal of a gay female impersonator.
“I’m Not Afraid” (Rod McKuen / Jacques Brel) The original title of the song was “Fils de” (“Sons of”). McKuen’s lyrics are completely different. Both English versions have had their share of recordings over the years; I remember the Judy Collins version of “Sons of” with considerable affection. In Café Chanson, the McKuen version is sung by The Young Soldier and The Mademoiselle as they try to deal with the disintegration of their relationship.
“If You Go Away (Ne Me Quitte Pas)” (Jacques Brel) The version of this used in the show has lyrics by Rod McKuen. The original is more properly translated as “Don’t Leave Me.” Brel originally released the song on his 1959 LP “La Valse à Mille Temps”. The song has been amazingly popular, with versions in nearly two dozen languages.
“La Fanette” (Jacques Brel) Another story of love and betrayal, a recurring Brel theme. A 1965 performance by Brel is heartbreaking in its intensity.
|Charles Aznavour in 1978|
“Yesterday When I Was Young ” (Charles Aznavour) Original French title: “Heir Encore” (“Only Yesterday”); the English version is by Herbert Kretzmer. This lament for the lost opportunities of youth is especially affecting for those of us who have reached a certain stage in our lives. It’s kind of the yang to the yin of songs like “It Was a Very Good Year”. Roy Clark had great success with it in the USA, as have many other big-name vocalists.
[The 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays runs through April 7 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.]
Synopsis: “The family that stresses together represses together. When the Lafayettes descend upon a crumbling Arkansan plantation to liquidate their dead patriarch’s estate, his three adult children collide over clutter, debt, and a contentious family history. But after a disturbing discovery surfaces among their father’s possessions, the reunion takes a turn for the explosive, unleashing a series of crackling surprises and confrontations. A play about the trouble with inheritance, memory loss, and the art of repression.”
The title of Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins’s play is nothing if not ironic. At one point or another nearly every member of the Lafayette family acts in ways that are not appropriate (the word we now use in place of “bad” or “wrong”). Resentful that she was left to deal with the family’s increasingly disturbed father and crumbling finances, sister Toni is hostile and judgmental towards nearly everyone—and possibly in denial about dad’s real nature. Frank (now calling himself Franz as part of his attempt to escape his past) has apparently still not gotten over the unhealthy interest in underage women that made that escape necessary. And Bo, while apparently the most rational of the bunch, is still willing to make a fast buck from a shameful family secret.
Dysfunctional family dramas can be deadly in my experience, but Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins avoids the pitfalls of the genre, at least in the first act. Exposition is neatly and economically delivered, the characters are all credible and quickly established, and the dramatic tension builds plausibly from the semi-comic opening scenes to the dramatic explosion that results from the revelation that the clan’s father might have been something much worse than just emotionally disturbed. The first act of “Appropriate” is, in fact, one of the best I’ve seen in many years.
The second act is not quite as strong, partly because it never satisfactorily resolves some of the tensions in the first and partly because it strikes some false character notes, especially in the arguments over how to capitalize on an ugly artifact found in the attic (yes, I’m being vague in an effort to avoid spoilers). The final moments depicting the eventual fate of the house also struck me as a bit anticlimactic and tacked on. Still, the script as a whole is very compelling; it needs only a little tweaking, in my view, to make it the Lexus of dysfunctional family plays.
The cast is uniformly wonderful. Reese Madigan, Jordan Baker, and Larry Bull all shine as the siblings Frank/Franz, Toni, and Bo. Amy Lynn Stewart is very strong as Bo’s wife Rachel, especially in the final moments when Bo’s façade of reserve collapses. Natalie Kuhn is archly New Age as Frank’s very young fiancée Trisha.
There’s fine work as well from David Rosenblatt as Toni’s son Rhys (who has some ugly inappropriate behavior in his own past) and young Gabe Weible as Bo’s over-energized son Ainsley. Lilli Stein is remarkably credible as Bo’s prepubescent daughter Cassidy. Although Ms. Stein is a college graduate, she completely convinced me she was (at least) a good ten years younger.
Director Gary Griffin has nicely shaped the scenes, blocked it all intelligently, and served the script very well. He and stage manager Michael D. Domue also designed a redressing of Antje Ellermann’s amazingly detailed set in the second act that was executed so swiftly and artfully that it actually got applause.
That set, it should be noted, is quite a marvel, especially when you consider that it has to be struck and rebuilt repeatedly because it shares the Pamela Brown auditorium with “Gnit”. With the addition of Matt Frey’s lights and Bray Poor’s sound, the illusion of a decaying Southern mansion was perfect.
Taken as a whole, “Appropriate” was one of the best things I saw at Humana this year—right up there with “Cry Old Kingdom”. And that’s high praise indeed.
[The 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays runs through April 7 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.]
Synopsis: “Eminent novelist Thomas Wright has invited fellow writer Frank Bay and his daughter Adrianne to stay the weekend at his country house. From the moment the Bays arrive, though, Thomas and his daughter Ellen are out to get them. The shared love of books that should unite these characters instead becomes a battleground where words become weapons.”
Maybe I’m just getting grumpy in my old age, but I think I’ve really seen my quota of acerbic comedy/dramas about dysfunctional middle class (and above) New Yorkers in the arts slicing and dicing each other and agonizing over their failures to make the Big Time. In a nation slowly sliding into third-world status, with millions of citizens facing unemployment, underemployment, and/or crippling debt, these concerns are looking increasingly trivial.
I could also do without plays that use a parlor game as the means to bring out Big Truths about the characters, but that’s probably just me being a curmudgeon.
I understand that struggling artists are of great interest to folks like playwright Marks, who grew up in the theatre and, according to Kathryn Zukaitis’s biographical sketch in the press kit, “is intimately acquainted with the risks and rewards of pursuing a career in the arts.” But in order for their struggles to matter to the rest of us, the characters have to be something more than just bundles of ambition and resentment. The father/daughter teams in “Delling Shore” just don’t pass that test.
Frank starts off with a chip on his shoulder that would make Atlas shrug and only becomes more abrasive as the evening progresses. Adrianne is so tightly wound from the moment she walks on stage that she’s ready to snap (and eventually does). Thomas is unprincipled and arrogant, and his daughter Ellen seems more interested in clubbing than anything else. It’s an indication of how unpleasant and ultimately uninteresting these characters are that Ellen eventually turns out to be the most fully realized of the lot.
That’s not to say that there aren’t laughs and some decent dramatic tension created during the eighty very long minutes of “The Delling Shore”. It’s just that they’re not enough to compensate for having to spend time with a quartet that you wouldn’t invite to your house on a bet. Worse yet, the play starts at such a high pitch of hostility that there’s ultimately nowhere for it to go without tipping into absurdity—which it eventually does, in a thoroughly unbelievable scene between Frank and Ellen towards the end.
The best things about “The Delling Shore”, in my view, are Daniel Zimmerman’s strikingly realistic set and the solid work by the actors. Catherine Combs’s Adrianne is a bundle of nervous tics from the get-go, tipping us off that she’s not as collected as she seems. Meredith Forlenza nicely manages Ellen’s transition from superficial to sympathetic. Bruce McKenzie is the very picture of resentment and Jim Frangione’s smug complacency is just right for Thomas.
Meredith McDonough’s direction mostly serves the playwright well, although I think she might have found ways to dial down the intensity a bit early on.
Some years ago Scott Adams authored a Sunday “Dilbert” strip titled “Seven Habits of Highly Defective People”. I won’t say that these characters have them all, but they have plenty and (to quote The Bard), “’tis enough, ‘twill serve.”
[The 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays runs through April 7 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.]
Synopsis: “Haiti, 1964. Beneath the watchful eyes of François ’Papa Doc‘ Duvalier’s government, revolution is brewing. Words of rebellion against his repressive regime flood the nation’s radio waves, even as the Tonton Macoutes death squads prowl the villages, killing or imprisoning anyone who speaks ill of the dictator. The people of Haiti face a stark choice: to join the fight or to flee.”
Edwin, a painter, is a kind of self-made zombie. Years ago he faked his own death and now works, appropriately, out of an underground studio. Or he tries to work, anyway. Since his bogus death his inspiration has suffered a real death. Worse yet his wife Judith is witnessing the slow death of her own former vivacity and love of dancing at Carnival, killed by the need to work in an open market all day to sustain her and Edwin.
When Edwin stumbles across Henri Marx, “a scarred but beautiful young man” (to quote the program notes) gathering wood to build the boat he hopes will take him to America, he’s fascinated by the young man’s lust for life. Edwin offers a bargain: Henri can build his boat safely in Edwin’s studio if Edwin can paint him. As the two men get to know each other, Edwin finds his inspiration returning, but the estrangement from Judith increasing. When Judith announces her intention to join the rebels, Edwin faces difficult choices—with tragic results.
“Cry Old Kingdom” is profound on so many levels that it’s hard to articulate them. From a purely polemic perspective, it’s a dramatic illustration of the way political repression undermines and corrupts human relationships. It’s also a forceful illustration of both the futility of attempting to remain apart from life and the cost of doing so. Edwin’s self-inflicted burial doesn’t insulate him from having to make choices because, as Henri Marx observes, “Being alive is having to choose.”
Andy Lucien brings the repressed Edwin to vivid life. He’s nicely matched by Jonathan Majors as Henri, still optimistic despite horrific persecution from the regime. Natalie Paul’s Judith is a masterpiece of body language, forcefully illustrating the gradual revival of her character’s spirit as the revolution seems to bring her hope—however briefly. The Haitian accents of the cast are (at times) a bit too heavy, though. When actors were facing away from me, I often lost lines—a pity with a script this literate.
Scenic designer Daniel Zimmerman smartly conjures up the beach, Edwin’s studio, and Edwin and Judith’s home with only a few set pieces and some piles of sand. The lights, sound, Tom Dugdale’s direction, and the fine work of the actors do the rest.
“Cry Old Kingdom” was one of the best things I saw at Humana this year. Its illustration of the horrors faced by so much of the world on a regular basis is so vivid, though, that it makes the angst of some of the characters in the other four plays I saw feel trivial by comparison. Not being able to find yourself, for example, looks like pretty small beer compared to not being able to prevent the Tonton Macoutes from finding you. That’s an invidious comparison, perhaps, but it’s hard to avoid those thoughts when you see five plays in three days.
“O Guru Guru Guru or why I don’t want to go to yoga class with you” by Mallery Avidon
Directed by Lila Neugebauer
The Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville
Through April 7, 2012
Synopsis: “Lila does not want to go to yoga class with you. Not because she doesn’t like stretching or has no discipline or worries she might be bad at it. Not because she doesn’t like you. The reason Lila doesn’t want to go to yoga class is not easy to explain, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t going to try… When you discover that the system of belief in which you once found meaning no longer holds currency for you; when you find yourself a little older, but not necessarily wiser; when the question of ‘where do I go from here’ feels impossibly high-stakes, but impossible to answer, what do you do? Lila is hoping to figure it out today—and she has brought notes.”
“O Guru” is really three interconnected plays in one long (80-minute) act. In the first one, Lila attempts to explain to the audience, with notes and slides, why she can’t do yoga anymore, despite growing up in an ashram. But she can’t show any slides because everything about that ashram is copyrighted, the notes don’t stop her from digressing, and she eventually leaves the stage in frustration—at which point the theatre is suddenly transformed into a yoga studio, complete with an instructor and assistants in colorful saris. They invite audience members to take off their shoes and chant with them. They share personal stories about what yoga means to them. They present a cleverly executed shadow puppet story about the origin of Ganesh. Then they invite everyone to close their eyes and meditate. When the audience opens their eyes, though, the scene has shifted again.
At which point I have to stop summarizing, because much of the charm of the third play lies in the way it messes with the audience’s sense of reality. Let’s just say it neatly brings us back to Lila’s original issues in a way that provides satisfying dramatic closure and a bit of a life lesson.
Rebecca Hart heads a solid ensemble cast as Lila, so convincingly in the moment that when she momentarily lost her place in the script, it looked like Lila was confused and not the actress. Just as impressive, as the yoga instructors and other roles, were Daphne Gaines, Maya Lawson, Kristin Villanueva, Gisela Chípe, and Khrystyne Haje.
Lila Neugebauer’s direction manages the shifts in tone and perspective nicely. Technically everything is beyond reproach (although there was a minor glitch with the slide projector when we saw the show). The running crew shifts Andrew Liberman’s minimal sets with cinematic ease. Ásta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes are well chosen, with the saris for the yoga instructions being particularly attractive. Jay Tollefsen gets credit for the beautiful shadow puppets.
The bottom line on “O Guru” is that while it might not be a profound work, it’s unfailingly charming, entertaining, and creative. And that, to quote a famous song lyric, “is all right with me.”
Synopsis: “Meet Peter Gnit, the recklessly aspiring, self-deluded anti-hero of Will Eno’s ’Gnit‘—a so-so specimen of humanity whose problem-causing skills may well be his most pronounced ability. Today he’ll disappoint his ailing mother, arriving painfully late at her bedside, full of excuses as usual. Then he’ll get distracted, careening out of the house to disrupt the wedding of an ex-girlfriend, absconding with the bride as an angry mob chases him out of town and into the mountains. So begins a lifetime of bad decisions, for Peter Gnit can’t stay put for long: he believes he’s on a mission to discover his Authentic Self.”
If that sounds a bit familiar, it’s because Will Eno’s “Gnit” is intended as a contemporary comic gloss on Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt.” And, in fact, many of the Ibsen-based jokes work. I especially liked turning the trolls into a family of real-estate brokers, for example. Unfortunately, many of those gags assume a familiarity with the plot of Ibsen’s play that most theatergoers aren’t likely to posses, at least here in the USA, so some of them fall flat.
That’s not the biggest problem with “Gnit,” though. The real issue is the rapidity with which the title character’s self-centered cluelessness stops being funny and starts becoming annoying. After two and one-half hours (including intermission), I found myself just wishing Peter Gnit would shut the hell up. When the play takes a serious turn in the final scene, I no longer cared about Gnit enough to care that he had finally found something that looked a little like insight.
There’s enough comic material in “Gnit” for a good one-act, but at its present length the jokes revolving around Gnit’s selfishness start to get a bit stale. Worse yet, Gnit behaves with such callousness in a scene towards the end with a disabled beggar that he becomes actively repulsive.
Script issues aside, though, “Gnit” benefits from a top-drawer cast. Dan Waller’s Peter has the sort of wistful confusion I associate with the character of Joel in “Mystery Science Theatre 3000,” Linda Kimbrough is acerbically self-aware as Mother, and Hannah Bos is sweetly self-sacrificing as Solvay. Kris Kling and Kate Eastwood Norris display quick-change artist stills as a variety of Strangers and Danny Wolohan has a virtuoso turn as Town, playing multiple characters at once with nothing more than shifts in vocal tone and emphasis. It’s a great example of theatrical illusion in action.
Les Waters’s direction moves everything along nicely and makes the most of the many gags. Technically the show is fairly solid, although there were apparently some lighting and—judging from the offstage banging—set repair issues the night we saw it.
“Gnit,” in short, might need to go back to the workshop. As it is, this is a very long evening at the theatre in which tedium ultimately overcomes the comedy.
Concert review: Unlikey duet of masters Béla Fleck and Chick Corea brings the Touhill crowd to its feet, Saturday, March 23
The crowd filled the lobby of the Touhill Performing Arts Center in waves, pouring down the stairs in a cascade of diversity.
Easily spanning over seven decades of age disparity and donning attire ranging from flannel and tie-dye to evening dresses and three-piece suits, the eager patrons mingled their way through the sounds of the Jazz St. Louis All-Stars to take their place in the ever growing line at the concession stand. This came as little surprise as this unusual combination of musicians was bound to stir up fans from all walks of life.
Béla Fleck‘s career most closely reflects the variety of cultures in attendance that night as the innovative banjo player has garnered Grammy nominations in more categories than any other performer in the history of music, diving into the realms of country, jazz and pop. Perhaps best known for leading his band Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, including the now celebrated bassist Victor Wooten, Fleck has generated an infectious love the of the banjo that continues to inspire young musicians and impress the masters.
Joining Fleck on stage was Chick Corea, one the aforementioned masters of the jazz world. Performing and recording with Miles Davis during his early career and leading a number of bands including the eminent fusion act Return to Forever, Corea has been active in the scene for over 50 years and has continually helped progress the roll of the piano in modern jazz. He has also become well accustomed to the fading duet format, recording and performing with contemporary Herbie Hancock and rising phenom Hiromi Uehara among other notables.
After a generous and excited introduction from Jazz St. Louis’ Gene Dobbs Bradford, the performers took the stage to an instant uproar from the near capacity crowd. Making a humorous spectacle out of the simple actions of sitting down and setting up the sheet music, the duet soon began with one of Corea’s compositions, “Señorita.” This choice set the tone for the night well, as it demonstrated many of the best aspects of the duet form including many call and responses, unified riffs and syncopated grooves. Fleck’s feet generally illustrated the mood of each segment, staying still when trying to support Corea’s lead parts, tapping one foot on his own leads and bouncing them both during the most natural jams.
The duet treated the crowd to two lengthy sets full of twists and surprises. Often the initial style of the song disappeared into a natural flow of form and design. The pair mixed the sounds of straight-forward jazz, blues, funk, bluegrass, folk and a little dabble of rock and country at times, taking the audience on a journey through the depths of music. They largely tackled their own compositions, but included the Stevie Wonder ballad “Overjoyed,” regarded by Wonder as a “new standard” in a conversation recollected by Corea. Throughout their sets, most songs ended with Corea standing quickly from his bench with the appearance of accomplishment; the duo received countless standing ovations throughout the night in response.
Humor made a constant appearance throughout the night as both performers were rather comfortable on the microphone between songs. They made jokes about the unintelligible song names the other came up with, and Fleck poked fun at a song titled “Waltz for Abby,” which was written for his wife, who he teased may be an axe murderer. There were even times when one musician would go off into such a frenzy of notes that the other would simply sit and stare, offering single notes and chords with a smirk and look of amazement in accompaniment. While not their first time appearing as a duet, the two performers seemed to have a chemistry built on mutual respect and the other’s reputation, both honored and amazed to share the stage together.
They closed the night with a two-song encore, adding a substantial treat to the night and demonstrating their chemistry vividly as they attacked even the speediest phrases in unison and sometimes finished each others’ riffs, sounding not like a duet but a single, four-handed creature. Perhaps a few Flecktones fans were taken back by the jazzier format of the night, but not a person left without a look of astonishment and admiration.
Concert review: Chris Knight, Cody Canada and Evan Felker swap songs and stories at Off Broadway, Friday, March 22
There is a haze of cigarette smoke and coffee stains as the memories of a few hours ago settle in. This midnight oil burns as daylight starts to arise. The songs of Chris Knight, Cody Canada and Evan Felker are a not-so-distant memory.
At Off Broadway on Friday night, three chairs lined the stage and in those chairs three of today’s best songwriters passed the proverbial guitar around. This relay of songs conjured fantasies of times gone by, a distant past when poets with guitars would sit around the kitchen tables with a bottle of Jack Daniels, a case of beer and other substances, just to bullshit, sing, laugh and pass the guitar. The sight of Knight, Canada and Felker trade songs made that fantasy come just a little closer to reality.
Beer and whiskey flowed with rowdy abandonment as the crowd was let into a world that only songwriters and pickers usually get to see. The sound that filled Off Broadway was the pure essence of what these three songwriters are known for. They are the writers and singers of songs, songs that have been stripped naked and vulnerable to expose an undiluted emotional core.
Cody Canada took center stage where he acted as ringmaster. He opened the show with a welcome and a first song. This Oklahoma native, best known for his work with Cross Canadian Ragweed, showcased a deeper sense of song-craft, one that gets lost in his rowdy, high-velocity electric country musings. Alone with his guitar, he was clearly an artist with more to offer than country-rock ear candy. Canada’s songs became almost unrecognizable as they took on a new life that allowed room for each of his songs to resonate.
There was nervous energy for Evan Felker as he waited his turn. He showed a desire to prove to himself and to the audience that he was on par with Canada and Knight’s years of experience and craft. The leader of the Turnpike Troubadours took his place with a sound inspired by a New York folk/country tradition influenced as much by Ryan Adams as it is the folk scare of the late ’50s and early ’60s.
Felker’s songs have a great pop sensibility, but they also have roots in the traditions of the south and Appalachian Mountains. The intimacy of being alone with his guitar was countered with a cocksure rock attitude that resulted in rousing versions of “Whole Damn Town,” “Every Girl” and “Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead.” He led the crowd in sing-alongs with cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Stag hoisted high into the air.
Sitting quietly, waiting, listening, watching was Chris Knight. He embodied the elder-statesman with songs that reached down into the heart and soul pulling at the strings of humanity. His songs expressed a loss and reverences, a feeling that no longer are you “like” a rolling stone but you have “become” a rolling stone.
As his hands touched the neck of the guitar and his voice carried out his first song, “In the Meantime,” he made you believe he had lived these songs. His voice evoked the spirit of Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. Songs like “Rural Route,” “Enough Rope” and “The River’s Own” speak to the dissipating rural life that was so prominent when Woody Guthrie took to the trains to find America. The America that Guthrie saw may be gone, but Knight digs deeply into the heart of those who care to keep the dusty American roots alive.
As with any show, the crowd was ready for one more song and one more beer. After the main set, Canada, Knight and Felker returned to the stage to give the audience a musical nightcap. Knight started the encore with the title track from his most recent album, “Little Victories.” On the strength of the audience’s response Canada quickly followed up with a rousing version of the Neil Young classic “The Needle and the Damage Done.” This version seemed to set the final tone for his portion of the set, a way to say goodbye with one of the most amazing songs about love and loss.
But it was Felker that finished off the night. With harmonica in hand he launched into a rowdy version of “Long Hot Summer Day.” Canada supplied the guitar while Felker took his harmonica to the mic stand to create the rhythm of hammers and pickaxes landing to the ground. It was the spirit of the classic work songs that sent the crowd into one last frenzy.