Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Fats Domino | "Ain't That a Shame" [link]

Fats Domino singing "Ain't That a Shame," truly a sad goodbye to a great, great performer

David Bowie | "Panic in Detroit" [link]

Below I've posted a link to the original 1976 version of David Bowie's "Panic in Detroit."

Leroy Anderson, Jean and Walter Kerr, and Joan Ford | "Who's Been Sitting in My Chair?" from My Favorite Musical Theater Songs by Douglas Meserli

Who’s Been Sitting in My Chair?

Leroy Anderson, Jean and Walter Kerr and Joan Ford Goldilocks, 1958

Performer: Elaine Stritch

Shockingly, the musical composed by Leroy Anderson, with a libretto by the famous critic/writing-couple of Jean and Walter Kerr, starring the popular Elaine Stritch, co-staring the equally matinee idol Don Ameche, and with choreography by Agnes de Mille, was a total flop on Broadway, lasting just 161 performances. Perhaps the silly plot of a retiring movie star, attempting to marry into high society while completing just one last “bad” Hollywood film, Frontier Woman, was just too much for the New York theater audiences of the day. Too much slapstick, particularly when incorporating the original Goldilocks story, was just too difficult to deal with for the New York matinee audiences of the late 1950s.

     Give it to Stritch for her cheeky performance as Maggie Harris, who sings numerous of the musical's still loveable ditties with great panache. Her wonderful “Who’s Been Sitting in My Chair,” in which she desperately wishes for a visitation from anyone—including even of the bears—to come spill her porridge or just simply muss up her bed—is a lovely song of loneliness that resonates with her later Stephen Sondheim performance of the Follies’ “Broadway Baby”: “In my tiny flat, there’s just my cat, a bed and a chair.”

         Everything is neat as apple pie.
         Whose been sitting in my chair, just me, just me.
         Seems such a pity when I would share it so willingly.
          Whose been eating my porridge, just me.
          I’d like to get a larger mattress….

     It’s a totally memorable song, despite the now forgotten status of the original musical. Joan Ford, who wrote the lyrics ought to become one of the Broadway legends.

Los Angeles, October 24, 2017

Monday, October 23, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Is There Anyone to Whom the Heart Can Be Explained?" (on Gian Carlo Menotti's The Consul)

by Douglas Messerli

Gian Carlo Menotti (music and libretto) The Consul / Opera Long Beach, performed at the Centinela Valley Center for the Arts, Lawndale, California / I attended matinee on October 22, 2017 with Howard N. Fox

For several years now Opera Long Beach has been the most innovative opera company in Southern California and one of the most notable in the US. Recent productions include John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer and I Was Looking at the Ceiling, Philip Glass’ The Perfect American, Akhnaten, and Hydrogen Jukebox, David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, and Duke Ellington’s Queenie Pie, to say nothing of notable revivals of works by Purcell, Stravinsky, Bernstein and Poulenc, along with numerous other works. It is obviously run by an energetic artistic team, led by Austrian-born Andreas Mitisek, who stages many of his own productions in both Long Beach and at the Chicago Opera Theater, which he also directs.
       The fact that Mitisek, himself, is an immigrant (he became a naturalized US citizen as recently as 2015) is particularly relevant in the case of the company’s newest production, The Consul, by Italian born composer Gian Carlo Menotti.
Image result for The Consul opera Long Beach     The decision to produce this opera—originally performed in Philadelphia and, then, on Broadway, in 1950 (it won both the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Music that same year)—is utterly brilliant given the current governmental administration’s emphatic determination to oust thousands of undocumented people from our shores and delimit those who might be legally allowed to enter or shores.
       In the post-World War II Europe millions from all over the globe found themselves in great peril in a time of changing governments, including the Communist take-over of many Eastern European countries, shifting allegiances, along with the simple desperateness of life in countries that had suffered so much loss. Menotti’s tale was spun out of a news item about a 38-year-old immigrant Polish woman, who, when, waiting on Ellis Island, was denied entry by into the country by a special inquiry board, hung herself in a detention room.
       I had previous seen the production only on a DVD-version, produced for television by Jean Dalrymple in 1960 (I missed that broadcast as a child on TV, but had often watched Menotti’s televised productions of Amahl and the Night Visitors, the Christmas-based opera, written a year after, that, over the 1950s and early 60s became an annual television favorite). The 1960 broadcast starred the original Magda Sorel (the opera’s central character), brilliantly performed by Patricia Neway. I watched most of the tape, once again, yesterday evening, after seeing this new presentation at the Centinela Valley Center for Arts in Lawndale (Opera Long Beach is determined to present their productions in a number of local venues).
       As I correctly recalled, the 1960 version, as I described it in a piece I wrote in 2017 upon Menotti’s death, was “a drab, gritty, black-and-white” realist drama. Magda lived in a dreary flat and was daily forced to return to an equally dreary consulate with the hopes that someone might hear her pleas and allow her to immigrate to a foreign land to where, evidently her husband has escaped because of his activities in the local underground. She, clearly, is seeking political asylum in the country which seems impervious to her cries.
      The TV version is highly dramatic in its more direct, one-on-one interchanges between Magda and the Consul Secretary (Regina Sarfaty), and the very drabness of everything seems to reiterate the noir-like aspects of her terribly fated life.  
      Mitisek, in his role as costume designer, his scenic designer, Alan E. Muraoka, and the lighting designer, David Jacques take a different tack, creating a world, as Muraoka describes it, from the perspective of Magda, wherein everything has become a space akin to Kafka’s nightmare landscapes. No wall seems affixed to any other, windows are dangerous things (after all, as the evil Secret Police Agent [Cedric Berry] warns Magda, you can see a great deal through a pane of glass), and the Consulate Secretary’s desk towers like a kind of expressionist tower of babel (or, to put it more succinctly, a “tower of babble”) atop which the Secretary (a marvelously dark, but also vulnerable Audrey Babcock; her later aria “Faces” demonstrates, late in the opera, her guilt in the destruction of these immigrants’ lives), hovers, making it nearly impossible to scale except for few lucky ones.
      The problem is that the Consul Secretary and the “foreigners” with whom she comes in contact speak entirely different languages. As I put it in my earlier review, speaking of Magda’s and her husband’s goodbye duet early in the opera, “This couple’s sorrowful duet of departure, transformed by John Sorel’s mother’s participation into a trio,” presents us with some of the looniest lyrics ever created:

     Now, O lips, say goodbye
     The word must be said but the heart must not heed.
     The rose holds summer in her winter sleep.
     The sea gathers moonlight where ships cannot plough,
     And we will the heart retain endless home…
     …where time does not count, where words cannot reach.
     Let no tears, no love laden tears dim the light that charts our way.
     Leave the tears to the starless one who wanders
            Without compass in the night.

“Despite being nearly drowned in metaphors, the audience recognizes that this is the language of believers, of the heroes Sorel and his wife represent. John’s only straightforward advice to Magda is to visit the Consul.”
      But this too is a delusion. The consulate Secretary can only report to the desolate Magda (in this production, the always startling singer/performer Patricia Racette, clothed in a dark blue dress), “Your name is a number, your number a case.” “Please fill out the paperwork, bring me your documents.” Magda’s impassioned pleas—filled with outrageous metaphors—and the efficient business woman in the high tower simply cannot intersect. There is always, day after day after day, another bar to those who wait below, some unable to speak the language at all, others unable to put their powerful fears and desires into the language of the bureaucracy or even normal logic, and still others, such as The Magician (Nathan Granner), believing their remarkable talents alone should permit them entry into the magical world that is continually eluding them. No matter what these folk try to do, they might never meet the impossible requirements that those holding power demand. The Consul, himself, seems never to be within; and when, finally, in Magda’s impassioned plea for humanity which is at the heart of the opera—

          To this we’ve come: that men withhold the world from men.
          No ship nor shore for him who drowns at sea.
          No home nor grave for him who dies on land.
          To this we’ve come: that man be born a stranger upon God’s
           that he be chosen with a chance for choice,
           that he be hunted without the hope of refuge.
           To this we’ve come, to this we’ve come

           …Oh! The day will come, I know
           when our hearts aflame will burn your paper chains.
           Warn the Consul, Secretary, warn him.
           That day neither ink or seal shall cage our souls.
           That day will come, that day will come!

—she is offered an opportunity to speak with the always missing Consul, she observes the terrifying Secret Police Agent leaving his office.
      Having already lost her child and her husband’s supporting Mother (the powerful singer, Victoria Livengood) to death, what does Magda possibly have left? Indeed, the opera might have ended here, at the close of the second act.
Image result for The Consul opera Long Beach
      Menotti, however, clearly wants us to suffer through the entire ordeal. Finally, to save her husband (Justin Ryan), Magda determines to enact the vengeance on society which she has long recognized is quite inevitable: her own death. Through that act she hopes to deter her husband from returning home; but, as fate has it, John has already returned and been arrested in the consulate, despite the fact that only there might he have been protected; on every front, however, it is too late.
       In the original production, Magda returned home to put her head into the oven. Here, once again, the artistic team have decided to present the act in much more theatrical terms—and again I cannot but admire them for their choice—to present her death in terms of the event that originally inspired the composer, a suicidal hanging, along with the hanging of nearly all those we’ve previously encountered, played out in the symbolic upending of chairs—the common symbol of home and family life.
      When we think back at how the US failed so many millions of European Jews during World War II—despite the presidency of one of the most liberal of all leaders, Franklin D. Roosevelt; and when we recognize that millions more will no longer now be permitted to enter our country, we can only turn our eyes away from one of our nation’s most potent symbols, The Stature of Liberty with its poetic promise by Emma Lazarus—“Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore”—and cry.
      If today Menotti is often thought of as a kind of retarder composer, in league with Puccini and other late Romanticists in a century already musically transformed by Ives, Stravinsky, Berg, Cage, and so many others, perhaps it is time to rethink this mid-century composer’s art, putting them into the context of his own long-time companion Samuel Barber and friends Aaron Copeland and Leonard Bernstein. Clearly, this Menotti opera is even more relevant today.

Los Angeles, October 23, 2017

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Zelim Bakaev (pop-Russian singer) [link]

A tape of the Russian pop-singer Zelim Bakaev, killed recently in Cheyna after being arrested and tortured for possible homosexual behavior.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Douglas Messerli | The Bird and the Serpent in Love (on Hamid Rahmaian and Viks Menon's Feathers on Fire: A Persian Epic)

by Douglas Messerli

Hamid Rahmanian, writer, adaptor, and designer, co-written by Vikas Menon, music by Loga Ramin Torkian and Azam Ali, based on the book, Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings, Feathers on Fire: A Persian Epic / Los Angeles, the Wallsin Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts / the performance I attended with Pablo Capra was on October 20, 2017

People who may be wary of attending a so-called puppet show, particularly one that is based on an ancient Iranian text inspired by the 10th century book of epic Persian poetry, Shahnameh, should lay aside their fears, grab up the children, and run to the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts’ Feathers of Fire: A Persian Epic.
       First of all, this is not typical “puppet-play”—although I’ve long loved even the most traditional remnants of this medium—but a spectacular and quite lavish, even balletic musical of exquisite shadow-images splashed across the wide-screen installation on that theater’s major stage, the Bram Goldsmith Theater. Eight live actors, dressed themselves in 15 masks and costumes, perform in Larry Reed-inspired protruding masks along with 160 puppets and scenic projections and digital animation, accompanied by the music Iranian-inspired composers Ramin Torkian and Azam Ail of the band Niyaz.
       Secondly the story of two unlikely lovers, Zaul and Rudabeh, living in old Persia reminds one of Romeo and Juliet (but with a positive outcome instead of Shakespeare’s sad tale of the couple’s death) along with dozens of German and Scandinavian folktales including “Rapunzel” and “Peer Gynt,” with a bit of The Odyssey with the Jungle Book thrown in, along with a dash of the Italian myth of Romulus and Remus—Zaul, born with a spectacular crown of white hair, is raised not by a she-wolf but by a large bird female bird.
       Of course, this handsome wanderer is destined to fall in love with his father and the King’s worst enemy, the daughter of the Serpent-King. But somehow he not only gains the Serpent-King’s trust but, after a long voyage back to his own land, despite being attacked with a dragon-like sea-serpent, gains the trust of his father, and, after a thorough testing of his intellectual skills by the King’s trusted advisors, receives permission to marry Rudabeh, returning to save her, just in time, from her being ousted into the desert. Few stories have as many exciting adventures as Feathers of Fire, with such a remarkably happy ending, wherein, after an extremely difficult childbirth, Rudabeh produces the heroic son, Rostam, the true hero of the Shahnameh, one of the greatest of the Persian kings.
        Both of our representative lovers are outsiders, seeking a way to become the center of their formerly closed-off universes. They are all of us who feel we don’t truly belong to the families into which we were born, and, in that respect, they truly do represent all those human-beings who might wonder how they were born into the families in which they suddenly discover themselves.
       The super-energized Hamid Rahmanian created this magical wonderland, rushing, after the tale closed, onto stage in bright red shoes to takes questions from his audience, including many of its youngest members, whose intelligent questions about how he had created this astonishing piece were treated with the greatest of respect. The only question he seemed to be unable to answer is why, on opening night, this production had not, as in most of its runs across North American and numerous other continents, had not sold out. I had already expressed that same question to my accompanying friend, Pablo Capra. “Here we are in one of the largest of the Iranian-born communities in the US, Beverly Hills, with numerous empty seats. How can you explain that?”
       “Tell your friends,” suggested Rahmanian.
       I repeat, pack up your kids or any adult friend and rush over to the remaining 12 performances of Feathers of Fire. You’ll never see such a powerful primitive form of human entertainment again. This is a work that makes you realize that sometimes the simplest of human theater experiences is the very most rewarding and complex.

Los Angeles, October 21, 2017

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Bea Arthur | singing Jenny Pirate from Brecht and Weill's The Three Penny Opera [link]

Bea Arthur singing "Jenny Pirate" from The Three Penny Opera.

Douglas Messerli | "The Escaped Unicorn" (on Karen Finley's The Expanded Unicorn Gratitude Mystery)

the escaped unicorn
by Douglas Messerli

Karen Finley The Expanded Unicorn Gratitude Mystery / Los Angeles, Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/Cal Arts Theater) / I attended a performance on opening night, October 12, 2017, with Deborah Meadows

At 61 years of age, performance artist Karen Finley has moved away from her earlier provocative sexual performances to present, in The Expanded Unicorn Gratitude Mystery, a series of often sharply satirical monologues centered around the mythologies of national figures, mostly women or wanna-be-women.
       The beautiful small beast (at least in medieval tapestries) with a phallic-like protrusion sprouting from its head, is represented, although rather sketchily, as a kind of graceful, if a bit frightening, male/female animal, often locked away in fenced-off areas from which, as the beginning film narrative suggests, it could nonetheless have easily escaped.

      It is clearly this male-female dichotomy which Finley is exploring in this series of what, at times, appear as almost stand-up riffs, often put into a kind of witty hip-hop and even rap context. After all, Finley began in San Francisco working in monologues with a disco beat, so the fact that she continues in musical rhythmic terms should not be surprising.

       Some of these riffs work better than others. The early, supposedly stylishly dressed woman of “gratitude,” reminding us of Jackie Kennedy, is smarmy enough that you quickly wish her into the “corn field” from where she seems to have come, as she spouts, over and over again, “I thank you, I want to thank you, I am so pleased and filled with gratitude, etc. etc”—resulting in a never-ending series of platitudes the likes of which one sees only in the Academy Awards ceremonies (Sally Fields also comes to mind). Surely she is totally appreciative of the unicorn’s charming abilities, without questioning its possibility to escape and “thrust.”
       Perhaps a bit less successful was Finley’s testimony to the little blue dress, worn by Monica Lewinsky, stained into eternity by Bill Clinton’s semen. The trouble is that, despite, the clever props of an entire clothesline of blue dresses, a blue-filigree roof floated over most of the audience, and which took audience participation to create, and even the endless extrusion of sperm across the performer’s blue garment, Lewinsky is just not that interesting as a character of satiric intent. The dress became a replacement for the woman at its heart.
       Finley’s monologue about Hillary Clinton is far sharper and, when it succeeds, is closer to the bone. Her Clinton realizes she is a figure beloved to be hated, and nervously adjusts her dialogues to deal with the two-edged sword with which she will constantly be met. If there was any true personification of the unicorn, a woman in a pair of male pants, it is her vision of Clinton, a woman trying to ameliorate the duo position of a strong woman in our society. And her often self-destructive attempts to position herself in our sexist world are both loveable and despicable at the very same moment. One cringes while trying to hold back the tears.
     Certainly the most popular of Finley’s caricatures in this work was her performance of the hermaphroditic Trump, who loves cunts so much that he wants to himself become a “pussy.” Playing on the dozens of cartoons portraying the President in drag with figures such a Putin, along with Trump’s odd coiffeur, his endless applications of orange makeup, and his always oval-shaped lips, the performer makes it clear that Trump is perhaps the most like the mythological unicorn, a fleecy little girl with a big boy cock sprouting from his forehead. Here Finley often is at her very best; but the determination by some of the audience members to cheer on her every line with dramatic he-haws and hoots only showed-up those instances when the satire had completely gone over the top, falling into the category of simple mockery.
     I can forgive the mockery, particularly by an artist who has herself been mocked by her own governmental officials as she was in 1990 when the then-head of the National Endowment for the Arts, John Frohnmayer vetoed her and 3 other performance artist’s grants for indecent behavior; but it’s hard to forgive what appears to be her claque. Finley herself seemed to diffuse the situation a bit by observing the somewhat scattered Redcat theater attendance the way only Trump might: “This is the biggest audience ever!”
     Perhaps Finley’s most complex and profound monologue was the last, about a woman who so loved war that she could only have sexual relationships with soldiers, particularly those who had lost their limbs. In Finley’s round-about-telling, it becomes apparent that the woman comes to see her power by being fucked with the missing “stumps” of the generations of sons and sons and sons who are bred simply to go to war. As a female, she is the true progenitor of an army of American boys raised up only to lose their limbs and minds in the destruction of others. Dressed in a kind of American flag, Finley almost exhausts herself through this role until she bows, at end, for applause.
Image result for Karen Finley      There is no question that Finley is a gifted political satirist and an important artist with a long career. Yet, in the end, as my theater-going companion Deborah Meadows suggested, I wished she might have gone a bit darker, exploring some of the real metaphors her mythological figure truly represents. There is a lighter, more entertaining shrillness to Finley’s direct assault of the events she recounts; but given her talents, one might seek, one imagines, a more nuanced and questioning approach. But Karen Finley has always throughout her career, put everything on the line, broken the rules, and shouted her anger out. And we should applaud her for that.

Los Angeles, October 13, 2017


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern | "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man of Mine" from Show Boat, My Favorite Musical Theater Songs

 “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine”

Composers: Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern, Show Boat
Performer: Helen Morgan, 1932
Composers: Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern, Show Boat
Performer: Judy Garland, 1944
Composers: Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern, Show Boat
Performer: Ava Gardner, 1951 movie version
Composers: Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern, Show Boat
Performer: Ella Fitzgerald, Jerome Kern Songbook, 1963
Composers: Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern, Show Boat
Performer: Barbra Streisand
Composers: Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern, Show Boat
Performers: Kiri Te Kanawa and Nathalie Cole, 1997

Poor Julie La Verne, a singer on the Cotton Blossom show boat, who is not only told that she can no longer perform on the boat because of being partly black, but soon after loses, Steve, the man, as she explains to Magnolia, daughter of the boat’s owner, Cap’n Andy Hawks, that she can’t help lovin’ until she dies. Is it any wonder that by play’s end she has become a destitute alcoholic?

      In the original, Helen Morgan sang the role which gives two of the show’s best numbers to her, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill” (not an original song for which Hammerstein retooled the lyrics).
     The better of these two, however, is Hammerstein’s and Kern’s new one, particularly since the work brilliantly sketches a narrative of a woman so desperately in love that she cannot resist what she knows will help to destroy it.
It’s simply a case of destiny, Hammerstein’s lyrics proclaim, as impossible to change as anything else in nature, including the swim of fish and the flight of birds:

Fish got to swim and birds got to fly
I got to love man till I die
Can't help lovin' that man of mine
Tell me he's lazy
Tell me he's slow
Tell me I'm crazy, maybe, I know
Can't help lovin' that man of mine
Helen Morgan played Julie again in the 1936 film version, while Ava Gardner sang the song in 1951 film. Since then there have been dozens of interpretations. I’ve chosen just four of them by Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Ella Fitzgerald, and an unlikely pairing of Kiri Te Kanawa and Nathalie Cole from 1997.