The Playgoer: Greetings from "La La" Land

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Greetings from "La La" Land

by Steven Leigh Morris

Anneliese van der Pol, Sarah Stiles and Lauren Kennedy in the new musical Vanities at the Pasadena Playhouse; Photo by Craig Schwartz

My People, My People:

I write this trying not to patronize Los Angeles – you're perfectly capable of doing that yourself – but as a way of underscoring the unprecedented number of new musicals being developed here – rock musicals, jazz musicals. You can't get out of your car without bumping into a new musical.

To qualify: Like in many of the regions, there was a recent, mercifully bygone era when L.A. glommed onto parodies of bad movies and TV shows, then set them to music, then sent them to New York, where they were understandably crucified for being glib and obvious. Reefer Madness tops that list. There are others, but there's no reason to belabor that point other than to discredit the myth that New York receives the best work from around the country. Not true: It receives the work from the most aggressive producers, which is quite a different matter. There's no shortage here of soulful, explosive, scintilatingly deranged theater that stays here thanks to the surfeit of local producers who specialize in transferring works of aggressive vacuity instead. Producers in Chicago and Seattle and San Diego simply have a better eye, and a better heart, for identifying which shows deserve to travel. Maybe it's the L.A. smog or the aesthetic reach of our entertainment industries that so corrupts sound assessments of which theater warrants a spotlight. Steven Berkoff once referred to an L.A. gene – a strand of DNA that blows in with the Santa Ana winds and then gets absorbed into the bloodstream, creating a subtle mental deficiency – accompanied by the overwhelming desire to sip lattes in sidewalk cafes, and to wish everyone a good day. The downside of this gene is how it conspires against allowing our best theater to receive the credit it deserves.

Broadway Bound

Coming to a Nederlander theater “yet to be determined” in February, 2009 – Vanities -- Jack Heifner and David Kirshenbaum's new musical. This is an adaptation of Heifner's 1976 off-Broadway hit of the same title, currently at the mid-size Pasadena Playhouse, after having originated in 2006 at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto. There's buzz that the creators have been feverishly changing elements -- for example, dumping the intermission by opening night. This gives the production a chance to dramatize an unbroken sequence of scenes over three decades, showing the coming of age, and aging, of three Texas high school cheerleaders (Lauren Kennedy, Sarah Stiles and Anneliese van der Pol). The action starts in 1963 with a focus on what seem to be monumental concerns to its three teenage cheerleaders; the trio is fused at the hip, incurious about any world larger than their campus while being intoxicated by their own appearance, status and popularity. (When the announcement of JFK's assassination comes over a loudspeaker, one of them, perplexed, can't imagine how the president of the student body could have been shot in Dallas when she just saw him in algebra class.) However, the costs of that insularity are precisely what the work studies, as the women — each buffeted by the shifting eras — individuate and grow apart. The play emerges as a musical chick-flick convergence of Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart and Bernard Slade's Same Time, Next Year — somewhere between a portrait of changing times and a soap opera.

I won't even try to predict the production's odds of success on Broadway. There's some tension in style between the considerable dialog, reflecting the work's stage-play origins, and Kirshenbaum's perfectly pleasant, melodic songs, which bring to mind the gentle pop stylings of Dionne Warwick. The scenes are often so strong that the reason for a character bursting into song appears contrived, though the songs — perfectly executed by the band and actors under Judith Ivey's direction — are lovely on their own terms.

The original play ended its character study in 1974 — two years before it opened off-Broadway at the Chelsea Westside Theater Center. The musical extends that frame to 1990, obviously a strategy to prevent a new musical from being an antique curio at birth — and possibly because we haven't undergone any seismic shift of values since the Reagan era. Heifner's biggest change, however, is an attitude shift from ennui to the romantic gush of three gals enduring the winds of time and betrayal by sticking together. In a recent interview, Heifner said he was no longer cynical. Maybe he had his eye on 42nd Street when he said it.

Off-Off-Off-Off-Off-Off Broadway

One great production that's staying here for the time being: Louis and Keeley: Live at the Sahara –Vanessa Claire Smith and Jake Broder's new musical about Louis Prima and Keeley Smith (Sonny and Cher of the 1950s). It opened earlier this year at east Hollywood's Sacred Fools Theater (a troupe created by Seattle ex-pats) and has now transferred to the slightly larger Matrix Theatre on Melrose Avenue.

Smith and Broder perform in their two-hander, accompanied by a jazz band that envelops the 99-seat venue -- it's like being a recording studio. Smith was the “straight-man” woman and long-suffering wife of the hyperactive, philandering Prima, whom Broder conjures by hopping in front of the bandstand like a maniac, throwing his entire body into each beat, a grin plastered across his face. And though Prima's grabbing the spotlight and giving the orders, the newspaper reviews focus on her talents, not his. Prima’s jealousy erupts in the unspoken tensions that escalate on the stage, which everyone can see, and which perversely renders their act more popular. He actually encourages the onstage hostility, for just that reason.

And so, through 16 songs (ranging from “Basin Street Blues,” “That Old Black Magic,”and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” to the song that defined Prima’s career, the medley of “Just a Gigolo” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody”) one passionate love and cruel marriage is played out almost entirely between the lines. If the purpose of musical theater is to express in song what can’t be expressed in mere words, this fits the bill, summing up 80 years of gender relations in 90 minutes. Smith’s desperate words accompany her tortured decision to leave her husband, “Life is happening right in your face and you don’t even notice. You don’t hear anything unless it’s in the key of B flat!”

I walked out of the theater wrenched by a depth of emotion that seemed to make no sense, coming from a musical about the quaint saga of an almost forgotten lounge act. That’s when I realized I’d been punched in the gut and didn’t even know it. It was a delayed reaction to the blow landed in Broder’s reprise of “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” He just kept on singing that refrain, as the band packed up and left him there, until his death bed slowly rolled in. ("Nothing lasts forever" is the show's promo pullquote.) What may first look like a musical comedy is actually a musical tragedy, ancient Greek style: the deluded protagonist who’s undone by hubris and sent into exile. Exile was a bad end for Oedipus, but imagine if Oedipus’ delusions included eternal celebrity from a Las Vegas lounge act.

If this had opened in Chicago, it would be in New York by now.

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