Friday, July 30, 2010

Big changes at Reagle

Word has reached The Hub Review that Stacey Stephens (at left), Artistic Director of Reagle Music Theatre, has abruptly left the company. And with little attempt at explanation for his departure - although in an email making the rounds, Stephens states quite bluntly that he didn't jump, but was pushed, from his post.

Which seems startling given that his last effort (Sondheim's Into the Woods) was probably Reagle's most artistically satisfying production in some time, and was greeted with universal raves. Stephens - who got his start in costume design - has garnered other positive notices, as well as award nominations and one IRNE win, for his direction and design at the Fiddlehead, Stoneham, and Wheelock Family Theatres. He's widely perceived as a local light in musical theatre, and with Into the Woods, he seemed to be successfully nudging the former Reagle Players to a new level of theatrical ambition.

So what went wrong? As usual, no one is talking, but perhaps it's worth noting that Into the Woods didn't appeal to the Reagle core audience, and didn't deliver big houses. Elsewhere it's being whispered that Stephens wasn't a "good fit" with the Reagle board and founder Robert Eagle ("R. Eagle" = "Reagle," btw). Of course perhaps Stephens was trying to push Reagle too hard, too fast (he was only hired in the spring!) - or perhaps he wasn't, in fact, committed to Reagle's unique blend of professional and community theatre.

We'll probably never know. But right now what looked like a promising new trajectory for the company seems to have been cut short. Robert Eagle, who has guided the theatre for over 40 years, is now 75. With Stephens gone, the search may have to quickly commence for another heir apparent.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Thoughts on the London audience

A concert at Royal Albert Hall. For a ukulele symphony.

My brother often reminds me that London, not New York (and certainly not Paris), is the musical, and perhaps the cultural, capital of the world. Out and about in Paris and London during our recent trip, it was hard to disagree with him. There's not much "serious" culture going on in Paris in the summer - both the Bastille and the Palais Garnier were dark while we were there, and I was dismayed to discover that Les hommes viennent de Mars, les femmes de Vénu had been the big hit of the spring.

What one is supposed to do in Paris on a summer evening, of course, is not go to the theatre, but eat, drink, stroll, and people-watch, all of which we were happy to do, especially as we were blessed by gorgeous weather that made those long twilights even more magical than usual. We did catch one or two light classical concerts in churches and parks, but none of these was particularly edifying - as they were situated in locales like Sainte-Chapelle, however, that hardly mattered.

London was a different story. The Royal Opera House at Covent Garden was in full swing with a visit from the Bolshoi Ballet, which I hadn't seen for years. Meanwhile the Proms were packing them in at Royal Albert Hall, and the National and the West End were likewise going full tilt. I know this may shock you, but I didn't actually see that much theatre - I only caught the National's blockbuster production of War Horse, a show that in its evocation of living, breathing horses brought "puppetry" to a stunning new level. Don't wait for the movie on this one (Spielberg has it in development) - the only way to experience War Horse is on stage, for reasons I'll explain in a future post. When it finally reaches Broadway, it will blow the latest crop of New York pseudo-events (like Gatz) off the stage.

The "puppets" of War Horse.

I was torn away from the theatre for my remaining two nights in town because I've always wanted to attend the Proms, and because the Bolshoi was in town. They were doing Spartacus, one of their "warhorses," and probably the butchest ballet ever made - so butch it's almost camp in spots. But it also features the greatest, or at any rate the most challenging, male dancing in the story-ballet repertory, and it's a famous showcase for the Bolshoi's bigger-than-life, savagely grand style.

I caught the company's newest star, Ivan Vasiliev (below), in the title role, and it was hard to shake the feeling, as I watched his performance, that I was watching perhaps the single greatest ballet dancer in the world. The role itself is unbelievably punishing, with leap after leap, tour after tour, all set to Khachaturian's rapid-fire tom-tom beat, but not only did Vasiliev never tire, he seemed to jump higher and leap further with each passing scene. And the lifts - I can't even tell you how difficult the many lifts in the work's central pas de deux are; for most of the duet, Vasiliev was actually carrying around his partner in mid-air. It was simply a superhuman performance, one for the history books.

Ivan Vasiliev as Spartacus.

My evening at Proms wasn't quite so exciting. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales was essaying a long program that included Shostakovich's massive Seventh Symphony (the "Leningrad"), as well as Benjamin Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem, and Prokofiev's First Piano Concerto. All the performances were solid, but only the Prokofiev caught fire, largely due to pianist Alexander Toradze's spectacular performance (when Toradze next plays Boston, beg, borrow or steal to see him). Conductor Thierry Fischer brought subtlety and balance to the Shostakovich, but seemed to miss the sense of savagery that's so characteristic of this composer, and necessarily animates the endlessly marching build of the first movement.

I have to confess what struck me most about Proms, however, was the audience, not the performance. Royal Albert Hall holds close to 6,000 people, and it was packed to the rafters - with some thousand or so attendees standing in the center of the hall through the two-and-a-half-hour performance. Without real air conditioning. Through all this, however, they were silent and attentive, and roared their approval at the finish - for a program that would have faced open walk-outs, as well as a barrage of coughing, at the BSO. At intermission, the people in my stall - strangers to one another - chatted in a lively fashion with each other about the various pieces, with which they were obviously familiar. It occurred to me that I'd seen the same behavior at the Bolshoi - again, the Royal Opera House was entirely sold out, including all the standing room "seats" around the balconies, with people even packed up beneath the arches of the ceiling. And neither crowd was entirely posh - indeed, the Proms audience was largely middle class, and there were plenty of staid British matrons in sensible shoes at the Bolshoi, too. Needless to say, War Horse was sold out as well - even though it's been playing, off and on, for over two years.

I had to wonder to myself - how did London build this audience, so educated, genteel, and committed to high culture? And why can't we do the same thing in America?

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Hub Review's European Vacation

To all those who wrote in during my absence - no, I didn't fall off the face of the earth; I've been in Europe the past two weeks, first in Paris, then Normandy, then Paris again, then London, then Cambridge. Part solo vacation, part family wedding (my brilliant nephew married his sweetheart at Cambridge University), part forced cultural march, it was wonderful and exhausting, and now I'm home. And a little depressed to be home, I have to admit! But I'll get over it, and will begin reviewing again ASAP.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Vicki Lewis demands "Rose's Turn."

Why did North Shore Music Theatre choose Gypsy as its comeback number? The classic show is notoriously hard to cast - it includes one of the most challenging psychological roles in musical theatre history (Mama Rose) as well as a bevy of juveniles who can act, sing, and dance their hearts out. But it's a classic for a reason - it boasts one of the best scores evah (music by the great Jule Styne, lyrics by the even-greater Stephen Sondheim). Even more to the point, its theme - show-biz survival, no matter what - has tremendous resonance for the NSMT itself. When Mama Rose defiantly shouted "Curtain up! Light the lights!" in the showstopping "Everything's Coming Up Roses," you could feel everyone in the building, from the audience to the crew, singing silently along with her.

Because, in case you didn't know, the North Shore has survived even more than Mama Rose has. Fire, then bankruptcy - and still the theatre keeps coming back, this time as a for-profit venture by theatre impresario Bill Hanney. You've gotta have show biz in your blood to take that kind of risk, so it was a relief to find that Gypsy, despite a wobble here and there, boded well for his big gamble; as a first step, this brilliant musical counts as something of a great leap forward for the NSMT. Director Richard Sabellico has brought some clever flourishes to his essentially-traditional production, and has smartly re-staged this proscenium show for the NSMT's in-the-round arena (if anything, he has almost over-compensated with the blocking). As stage-mom-from-hell Mama Rose, TV star Vicki Lewis at first doesn't seem to have the take-no-prisoners brassiness we associate with the likes of Ethel Merman, Roz Russell and Patti LuPone - but we realize slowly that this is Mama Rose not as drill sergeant but as underdog, and her sheer determination grows on you. And to be honest, Lewis brings an edge of needy desperation to her famous meltdown, "Rose's Turn," that I thought (although I know this is heresy) was more powerful than LuPone's take in the widely-raved-over Broadway revival.

And there's more good news. As downtrodden daughter Louise, Catherine Walker displays both the sweetest set of pipes in the show, and a steadily-growing sense of her own power as she sheds skin after psychological skin to finally reveal herself as stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. And Amanda Lea Lavergne made a surprisingly strong and sympathetic sister June, who grew up herself to be actress June Havoc (Lavergne was so intriguing, in fact, that we missed her once she'd left the story). There were other great turns from good sports Jacquelyn Piro Donovan, Jan Neuberger and Laurie Gamache as the grizzled strippers of "You Gotta Get A Gimmick" (which always brings down the house), and an acidly pert performance from Diane Terrusa as a fed-up producer's assistant.

Where are the gaps? I knew you were going to ask. Well, the staff is stripped down now, and you could feel it in the occasional squeak in the sound system, and the fact that the (pleasingly large) orchestra was still pulling together on opening weekend. The production didn't yet have the smooth, gears-gliding-against-gears feel that the North Shore had in its heyday. But then this is a first production. What I missed most was the great dancing that the North Shore used to showcase; they regularly attracted the best Broadway hoofers in the region (this may be just a question of re-connecting with some particular circuit). The opportunities for great dance in Gypsy are somewhat limited, it's true, but the one big opportunity in the show ("All I Need is the Girl") was good, but not great.

Still, what's the bottom line? The North Shore is back, with a big show that was a big gamble, but pays off, with strong supporting roles and a star turn that builds into something really commanding. The theatre has been smartened up, too, with fresh finishes here and there, and some sharp new landscaping and gazebos for drinks before the show. So curtain up - light the lights; there's nothing to hit but the heights. Everything is coming up roses for the North Shore.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sour Cherry

There was a bluebird in her heart, but it laid an egg. Jackie McCoy and Chris Graham in Cherry Smoke.

Mediocre playwrights everywhere, take heart! James McManus's Cherry Smoke is here, to prove beyond a doubt that you can write a convoluted, derivative piece of pulp and still win a prize and get the damn thing mounted all over the country - and even the globe (it's been done in Australia). Okay, there are dumb theatres and development departments everywhere - but how, exactly, could the smart folks at the Gurnet Theatre Project have fallen for this turkey? I've no idea, but they do serve the bird up with enough sizzle to almost sell it. Which is some sort of accomplishment, I suppose; so here's to bad choices, done pretty well.

Okay, I know what you're thinking: "Tom, you're just being mean again." And maybe I am - but this play made me that way, I'm afraid. For the record, Cherry Smoke is a dense, impacted kind of pulp-noir thing about gonzo street fighter "Fish," and his damaged main squeeze, Cherry; think Tarantino without the brains, and you're close to Cherry Smoke. Or think about that crazy-bad play you wrote when you were 19 and had your first scorching affair with some hottie you knew it would never work out with. Your love was beautiful, and it couldn't last, and you wanted to tell the world! Later, when you read the script, you chuckled. rolled your eyes, and threw it away. Well, James McManus didn't do that part.

Okay, back to Cherry and Fish. These sexy losers live on the wrong side of the tracks - actually, off the grid - and we can tell it's only a matter of time before dumb, doomed Fish beats up, or even kills, dumb, doomed Cherry, even though he loves her. That's the whole plot right there, although playwright McManus tries to disguise his lack of development with all kinds of flashes, both back and forward, to scramble the clichéd plot points he checks off like so many boxes on an "Intro to Playwriting" quiz. And then there's the dialogue. "I ain't much good at lovin'," Fish actually says at one point, while Cherry is prone to heartbreaking attempts at 'poetry' like "There was a bluebird in my heart, but it flew away, baby." Seriously, this thing needs a laugh track.

So kudos to Jackie McCoy, who plays Cherry, for actually saying that boner without LOL-ing. And the bad lines don't stop; McManus is kind of like that oil well in the Gulf - he keeps spewing tar balls of bad metaphor onto the stage. Still, McCoy gives it her all, although since her energy lacks an arc and is kind of superficial throughout, her "all" doesn't get her that far in the end. Newcomer Chris Graham, who's the big news of the production, gets further, due to his good looks (they're even better when his shirt's off), truly believable fighting chops, and smart actor instincts. What he doesn't have yet is the one thing McCoy lacks, too - some sort of genuinely broken tenderness, you know, "deep inside," that might tease us into getting interested in these two as they circle the drain. Still, I don't need a crystal ball to predict that Mr. Graham should cut a wide swath through Boston's leading-man auditions.

As the somewhat-more-together sidekicks to these two freaks, Chelsea Schmidt and Joe Ruscio do what they can with thankless parts, and Ruscio actually makes a few scenes his own. Meanwhile director Brett Marks never takes his foot off the gas (thank you, thank you), and fight director Angie Jepson deserves praise for the convincing boxing scenes, even if most of them are of the "shadow" variety.

But still - why, why, WHY? This is a more tragic question than anything pondered in Cherry Smoke. Since I thought Gurnet Theatre Project was one the sharpest fringe shops in town, I was quite dismayed by this production. Still, the company is currently also gearing up for The Tempest at the Myles Standish Monument in Duxbury - and that's a somewhat better play, or so I've heard. Don't let this misstep keep you away from this usually-deserving little troupe.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Racism strikes out; or, whitewashing the Red Sox at the A.R.T.

Huck and Jim watch The Curse play out from their time-raft in Johnny Baseball.

I swore to myself I wouldn't write about Johnny Baseball. But I suppose I have to, because so little of any value has been said about it. The Globe's Louise Kennedy was lukewarm to the show, but her general response was completely forgotten once she threw one of her out-of-political-left-field screwballs at the production, claiming it relied on "cheaply homophobic" jokes. I prefer expensively homophobic jokes, myself - but this was one of Louise's keepers, I must admit, if only because this time literally no one - and I mean no one - could tell what the hell she was talking about. Good old Louise - for synthetic controversy, you can't beat her.

Meanwhile in the Herald, Jenna Scherer's lede was kind of a head-scratcher in another way ("It isn't obnoxious," she enthused). Then Bill Marx wrote one of his "this little entertainment was energetic, but really beneath my critical authority as Grand Poobah" reviews. The Times's Ben Brantley wittily picked the show apart (largely because it is, indeed, kind of a ripoff of Memphis), and Variety seemed to love it before a killer close - something about it someday "being ready for the big leagues." That had to hurt.

Of course at the same time that the critics were hemming and hawing, Red Sox Nation did embrace the show (which was extended). And why not - it did two things, after all: it treated the trivia around which these sad people have built their lives with utter seriousness, and even more importantly, it absolved them of the charge of racism.

Not that Red Sox Nation was ever, ever racist. Of course not. The Yawkeys were racist; the management was racist. Oh, and of course Boston was long organized (and to some extent still is) in a form of geographic apartheid. The integration of the public schools - which hit at the center of the Sox audience - led to riots, in fact, in the 70's.

But the Red Sox fans themselves were not racist. Or sure, maybe they once were. Maybe some of them were, once.

But not now.

Or at least that's what Johnny Baseball would like you to believe. And "believing" is big in this musical. The bedraggled fans in the bleachers in the storied play-off game in 2004 that frames the musical all "believe" in the Sox. And they are just a crustily lovable bunch of white trash kooks, believe you me! So lovable! Which makes you want to "believe" right along with them. Until you suddenly think - what are we all "believing" in, exactly? I mean didn't the fans in 1919 and 1948 "believe" just as much as the ones in 2004? Hmm. So what's different? Well, the musical explains over the course of two hours, then the Red Sox were racist. And now they're not.

You see the problem, even if director Diane Paulus and her creative team keep a studiously blind eye aimed in its direction. What changed about the Red Sox and its audience? And how and when did it change? That's the question at the bottom of their putative theme. Certainly there's room for a popular musical about racism and the Sox - but to be of any value, it would have to address those questions.

But Paulus & Co. literally offer us no clue. And their "bleacher creatures" seem even more in the dark, as it were. Every amusing flaw and quirk about them is exposed - their drinking, their gambling, their petty crimes, even their masturbation habits. And in the persons of the ART's crack comic cast, their litany of Charlestown/Southie (but not, of course, Wellesley/Weston) foibles is, indeed, pretty funny. The only thing we don't hear about them, come to think of it, is their current feelings on race. Even though they're all white (as were 100% of the adults in the audience the night I saw the show). Because, of course, to broach that subject would suddenly open up genuinely raw feelings, and real questions of guilt and social justice.

And the box office of Johnny Baseball would tank. And all that really great "populism" would go to waste!

So we're stuck in some sort of daydream-timewarp of a show that we get the impression is supposed to operate as a kind of musical confessional - if Boston will only just admit that in the 40's it was racist - or actually just that Tom Yawkey and Joe Cronin were racist - then all will be forgiven. By Diane Paulus. Or maybe Harvard.

Okay, whatever. All I have to say is that as a money machine, this show may prove golden (in Boston, at least); but as "populist art with integrity," it's transparent b.s.; it just doesn't grapple with its own ideas. Indeed, it completely whitewashes (sorry) its central figure, the mythical "Johnny O'Brien" a.k.a. "Johnny Baseball" (Colin Donnell). Now let's see: Johnny's a white Irishman in the early years of the last century - and yet he has no racial baggage at all. He's ready to vote for Obama back in 1918, in fact - and falls head over heels for African-American chanteuse Daisy (Stephanie Umoh) in a heartbeat, even though she entertains in a bordello. What a nice open-minded boy! He's so - how to say this - so . . . so fucking unbelievable.

Now if Johnny Baseball had shown the eponymous Johnny struggling with his own received attitudes when faced with love, it might have had some real dramatic power. But the decision to eschew this topic turns both Johnny and Daisy into sweet, pretty blanks, and entirely cripples Richard Dresser's book. And as a result there's just no real conflict for anybody to play in the show; there are evil racists afoot, of course, until near the end, when suddenly there aren't anymore. We don't even really understand why, precisely, the Curse is lifted when it is. But who the hell cares? The Sox win the pennant! The end.

Still, the show has one secret weapon: its lyrics. Rarely has a musical depended on its lyricist (Willie Reale) as heavily as Johnny Baseball does; indeed, his lyrics aren't just the best thing about the show; they actually drive the production. Reale's knowledge of the Sox milieu - coupled with a wit that's light, but ruthless - results in songs that on paper are the best I've heard in years. One number - "Brotherhood of Bastards," that includes the immortal line "I wanna sleep with a girl/just like the one that slept with dear old Dad!" - may alone be worth the price of admission, and there's more deadly-accurate hilarity to be found in "One More Run," "Mr. Yawkey Has a Vision," and several more. Alas, the music (by Reale's brother, Robert Reale) isn't in quite the same class, although it's okay - it's yet another "jukebox"-style musical, with facile numbers from various periods and styles that somehow all sound alike. Still, Daisy gets one genuinely touching tune ("Do I Know You?"), and there's a kicky number for Willie Mays and (the again imaginary) Tim Wyatt in Act II. In an age in which Wicked counts as a high achievement, the score holds its own.

But again alas, Diane Paulus hardly lights a fire under the material. She manages the traffic smoothly and smartly, and has one powerful visual idea near the end of the show; and she gets off a lot of funny gags about skank, because you know, skank's her core brand. She doesn't let any real dancing in the show, which is a real deficit, but I guess dancing would just be too gay for Red Sox fans. Still, that gap contributes to the growing sense - since you could describe much of the production as "workmanlike" - that she's hardly in the major musical-theatre leagues inhabited by the likes of, say, Nicky Martin, or Michael Lichtefeld (whose brilliant work we sometimes saw at the North Shore Music Theatre).

On the plus side, however, the cast is indeed a good one - certainly the best large ensemble I've ever seen at the A.R.T., probably because everyone has honed their chops in national tours or on Broadway. There's really not a weak link in the cast, but special shout-outs should go to Burke Moses, for his ebulliently obnoxious Babe Ruth (he even nails the Babe's famously queeny trot around the diamond) and Charl Brown's quietly intense Tim Wyatt. And to be honest, leads Colin Donnell and Stephanie Umoh can both sing and act beautifully - and are just beautiful to look at, too.

These performances should be enough to put the show over - the trouble is, there's no real show to put over. Not yet. So we might lose all those great lyrics! And I don't want that to happen - so, even though I feel I'm giving aid and succor to the enemy, I'll play Elliot Norton for a minute for the A.R.T. and explain how to fix what's wrong with Johnny Baseball.

The show obviously needs to be about its hero - and that will require revamping the bland first act. Johnny has to have an inner conflict over Daisy; we have to see him develop from playing one of Babe Ruth's crude cronies to becoming his own man, and lose his racist baggage in the process - only of course this happens too late, and he loses Daisy, too. Therefore the second act, when he encounters his own son in the minors (sorry - was that a spoiler? Really?) becomes a theatre of his own (and his city's) redemption - which is frustrated once again. I hope the writers can fill in the final scenes themselves (although to be fair, Johnny Baseball's clumsy book doesn't feel like writer Richard Dresser's other work - my gut is the show owes its current form to pressure from other sources). An arc like this would provide the musical with both a dramatic engine (which it currently lacks) and some real resonance as social comment. And both are needed, I think, if the show's going to play in New York.

And of course it shouldn't bother Sox fans, either - as they're no longer racist, you know.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Sophie's voice

Mary Callanan as the repressible Sophie Tucker.

Reviewer complaints about the New Rep's Sophie Tucker: Last of the Red Hot Mamas have been many, but most have have fallen into two camps. The first, given by young reviewers (at the Herald and the Arts Fuse), was the common millennial cry of "This isn't about me!," an observation which is hard to deny. The other complaint has been "This is politically incorrect - and I don't mean 'politically incorrect,' I mean actually politically incorrect!" (That was the Globe's take.)

Which is also pretty much true, because Last of the Red Hot Mamas fiddles very little with an act (or its political attitudes) that by now is almost a century old. Indeed, even though there are three authors attached to this little revue, all they've done is basically serve up Sophie Tucker's greatest hits, so it's hard to see how they earned their royalties.

Still, those hits have endured for a reason, as they say - their concerns are classic rather than up-to-the-minute - and it's nice to hear them once again in a light-heartedly risqué evening. No, the show's not "red hot" - but was the frumpy Tucker ever really "red hot"? That was always kind of a joke, boys and girls.

Of course Tucker's witty novelty numbers, such as "Living Alone and I Like It," "You Gotta See Your Mama Every Night" and "I Don't Want to Get Thin" did reflect an independent woman of her day dealing with love and sex on her own terms. These ideas aren't cutting edge now, but they're certainly still apropos. And to be fair, her millennial sisters cheer along on those. But they're not so sure about her frank enjoyment in pleasing a man sexually (this may be why many of Tucker's current fans are gay men) and her no-nonsense acceptance of the ethnic and sexual tropes of her day (like many Jewish entertainers of her era, she for a time performed in blackface) likewise make today's progressives hold their noses. Callanan doesn't don blackface, of course, but she does roll out one of the hits Tucker sang that way, the wonderful "Darktown Strutters' Ball," which gave the Globe a conniption.

Why should this be so? I can't understand the modern mania for transmogrifying the past - whether it's Sophie Tucker or Shakespeare - into some idealized version of the present; a present, I'd like to remind you, in which racial, ethnic, and sexual codes are still completely embedded, even as they're routinely denied. No, Sophie didn't deny these codes - she simply transcended them; this has been the solution of progressive entertainers since time began. And more power to her, I say. What are these critics hoping for - Kate Clinton sings Gershwin?

Bette Midler knew all too well the source of her own act - a scene from her Divine Madness concert film.

I do have my complaints about Last of the Red Hot Mamas, but they're mild, and centered on the performers. The reviewers who dissed the show were all careful to praise star Mary Callanan, who seems to have everything it takes to put over Tucker's material (aside from that Jewish pedigree); she has a big, warm, brassy presence, and a voice that, quite frankly, puts Tucker's to shame. But at least on opening weekend, Callanan was slightly restrained and self-conscious; she wasn't having fun yet - and since that's what she's known for, the mood of the show was slightly distanced. Was Callanan thrown by the big, empty set - or was her tentativeness due to a desire to reproduce Tucker's vocal affect precisely? If that's the case, fuhgeddaboudit and just make it your own, Mary. I wasn't too excited by accompanist Todd C. Gordon's piano playing, either. Gordon was dryly witty in his banter with Callanan, but he banged his way through most numbers, in a manner that I guess counts as "period" - but I longed for a lighter, more evocative touch on torch songs like "The Man I Love" and "After You've Gone" - works that have been transformed over time into far richer documents than they seemed in Tucker's day. That's the kind of updating that I would have been down with.

I was still bemused, and occasionally bewitched, however, by this entertainingly ribald blast from the past. Callanan did well by the gorgeous standards in the show (there are four of them) and she certainly knows how to land the hilariously naughty "Ernie" jokes (above, served up by the inimitable Bette Midler). My gut is the show will pull together - and even now you could do far worse on a sultry summer night.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Today's poem


by Tony Hoagland

Then one of the students with blue hair and a tongue stud
Says that America is for him a maximum-security prison

Whose walls are made of RadioShacks and Burger Kings,
and MTV episodes
Where you can’t tell the show from the commercials,

And as I consider how to express how full of shit I think he is,
He says that even when he’s driving to the mall in his Isuzu

Trooper with a gang of his friends, letting rap music pour over them
Like a boiling Jacuzzi full of ballpeen hammers, even then he feels

Buried alive, captured and suffocated in the folds
Of the thick satin quilt of America

And I wonder if this is a legitimate category of pain,
or whether he is just spin doctoring a better grade,

And then I remember that when I stabbed my father in the dream last night,
It was not blood but money

That gushed out of him, bright green hundred-dollar bills
Spilling from his wounds, and—this is the weird part—,

He gasped “Thank god—those Ben Franklins were
Clogging up my heart—

And so I perish happily,
Freed from that which kept me from my liberty”—

Which was when I knew it was a dream, since my dad
Would never speak in rhymed couplets,

And I look at the student with his acne and cell phone and phony ghetto clothes
And I think, “I am asleep in America too,

And I don’t know how to wake myself either,”
And I remember what Marx said near the end of his life:

“I was listening to the cries of the past,
When I should have been listening to the cries of the future.”

But how could he have imagined 100 channels of 24-hour cable
Or what kind of nightmare it might be

When each day you watch rivers of bright merchandise run past you
And you are floating in your pleasure boat upon this river

Even while others are drowning underneath you
And you see their faces twisting in the surface of the waters

And yet it seems to be your own hand
Which turns the volume higher?

Tony Hoagland is an American poet who currently teaches at the University of Houston. His book What Narcissism Means to Me was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His new collection of poems is Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The main man - Jon Hamm - of Mad Men.

I've been catching up recently with the second season of Mad Men, that Obama-era ode to sexism, the early 60's, and cigarettes. Like a lot of people, I've gotten hooked on its sleek surface, its subtle but overpowering style statement - indeed, after returning each disc to Netflix I'm soon itchy for my next visual fix.

But excepting the seductions of its stunning art direction, I'd have to say this is one of the strangest TV series ever made - right up there with Twin Peaks, frankly.

And why?

To me the reason seems obvious, but you have to be of a certain age to perceive it. And to be honest, I'm not quite the age I'm talking about - I was only a toddler during the opening days of Mad Men, although I remember quite clearly events, like the arrival of the Beatles, that should be figuring in coming episodes, and have strong memories of the major events that followed.

And that's what makes this series so bizarre to me. It is simply impossible to connect its vision of early 60's society with what I remember came just a year or two later. Admittedly, the culture changed course much, much more quickly back then than it does today (oddly, globalization and the Internet have sped up the economy, but slowed down what's left of the culture). Still, I can't shake a pervasive sense of cognitive dissonance while watching this series - precisely because on its surface it's so exquisitely observed. This is absolutely gorgeous, I keep telling myself, but this isn't what it felt like at all, not at all.

Of course younger fans of the series can't know that, because they weren't alive back then. The millennials who have made the program a hit have no actual, lived connection with its period to complicate their subconscious awareness that Mad Men, in the end, is entirely about them.

I had much the same impression of the film Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe's hit from several years ago, which purported to be a kind of time capsule of pop culture from the early 70's. Everyone I knew of my own age - who had been adolescents in the movie's time frame, which again was lovingly recreated in every detail - found its gently blissed-out tone utterly synthetic and false. Things were more troubling, less stable, angrier and darker in the early 70's than Almost Famous ever let on. The picture was entertaining, in its own facile way - but no, this wasn't how it was, not at all, not at all.

I wonder now if every generation has felt that way about the period movies devoted to it - but somehow I don't think so. I can remember the generation just a bit older than mine reveling in the 50's flava of American Graffiti - a "period piece" that was actually set only a dozen years or so in the past (but those dozen years included the huge chasm of the 60's!). Likewise my parents nodded along approvingly with The Godfather and Chinatown.

But then George Lucas, director of American Graffiti, had been a teenager himself in the late 50's and early 60's. And Francis Ford Coppola as a child would certainly have been a guest at the kind of 40's Italian wedding that kicks off The Godfather; the scenery and costumes in that epic don't feel rendered, they feel remembered. Likewise Roman Polanski must have had powerful childhood recollections of the thirties (albeit in Europe, not L.A. - which perhaps explains the continental mood of Chinatown); indeed, Faye Dunaway's stylized make-up was reportedly copied from the "look" of Polanski's own mother.

It's worth noting, then, that Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, was born in 1965 - five years after the starting date of his hit series. And he was born into a Jewish household - although Mad Men takes place almost entirely among Protestants and Catholics.

And he never even lived in New York.

In short, this is not his milieu, and never was. Not at all, not at all.

Could this disjuncture be behind the oddly distanced tone of the series? Because what we're looking at here could actually be considered a form of "outsider art" - imagine Francis Ford Coppola trying to make a masterpiece about the Irish, and you have roughly the feel of Mad Men. Oh, the exterior world of the series is superbly rendered - thanks to brilliant art direction - but the denizens of said world come off as droids stuck in some sort of time warp.

Although this, to be honest, may be precisely the idea. Just about everybody in Mad Men seems to be negotiating a culture they find alien because, in fact, they're operating as avatars of their millennial viewers, moving about in a lushly-recreated 60's version of "Second Life." You can feel this even in the dialogue - the writers try to eschew any up-to-the-minute millennial slang, but they slip up constantly; the men and women of Mad Men often say things to each other like "That was a-mazing," and "What is with you?" that clash with the period accuracy of their skirts and shoes. More importantly, the characters draw no real sustenance from the culture in which they move; lead "mad man" Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is literally inhabiting an identity not his own, and copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) registers constant, if subdued, shock at sexist behaviors which anyone alive in 1961 would have expected, and even accepted.

The emotional estrangement of the two leads is reflected in the supporting roles: Peggy's family "communicates" in pregnant pauses and strange silences, and Don's wife is actually a kind of Grace Kelly clone - she's an avatar within an avatar, if you will - who registers micro-beats of emotion with a curious self-consciousness. Indeed, there's a constant sense that characters are processing their predicaments on personal blogs on some future "cloud" before making their next move - everything's "awkward," just as it is today! In fact there's only one character in Mad Men who seems to actually belong (and even revel) in the period - Robert Morse's ad agency mogul, a Republican nutjob with a jones for things "Oriental" and a mania for Ayn Rand. The researched detail larded into the character is wicked, sure - but it's really Morse who makes it work, perhaps because he has an innate sense of how it should work, and how to make it fun; after all, he was starring in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 1961!

Even more striking about the series is its insistent use of conscious stereotypes (like Grace Kelly). The Princeton grad in the office wears a goatee and smokes a pipe, likes jazz, and even dates an African-American (!). Meanwhile the closeted gay guy is dark and artistic, and is in love with the blonde stud down the hall. And it goes without saying that the girl with the big bust is over-sexed, while the avatars of Old Dutch New York are sweet but sterile. What else do you expect from "Second Life"?

And while I'm sure there's a great deal of truth in the series' vision of the sexism and bigotry (and perhaps even the constant smoking) rampant on Madison Avenue in the 60's, on the domestic front, the series gets a lot of stuff wrong. In Mad Men, people confidently slap their neighbors' kids full in the face (??), and children make cocktails for their parents (!!) - who at the same time wring their hands over spanking them. This was all news to me.

Now don't think this makes you happy - it makes you sad.

What was also news was how relentlessly depressing the early 60's apparently were. Admittedly, Mad Men is set in a largely Republican, conservative set - but it still gives no sense of the kicky energies that were already disrupting life everywhere in the Kennedy years. I remember the decade as a rollercoaster, sometimes frightening, and even horrifying, but more often just plain wild fun. But in Mad Men, nothing is breaking out, or blowing up. What's really strange is how the series sets up a world in which people drink freely, smoke at will, and get to have sex in the office (above), yet never seem to crack a smile. In other words, even though they got to do then what we can't do now, they still weren't happy. Not really. Hmmmm. Do I believe that? In a word, no.

But clearly the series has its appeal as a form of smug critique - and indirect self-justification. And that may be what's troubling about it. Period films and series have always been to some degree about the period of their creation, rather than the period of their re-creation; they usually mixed into their baths of nostalgia an insightful analysis of the shortcomings of their own day. The Godfather, for instance, reflected a longing for the conservative verities of family life, even crime-family life, in the frighteningly disrupted social landscape of the 70's.

What's strange about Mad Men is how it operates as anti-nostalgia. Yeah, sure, it whispers to our young, millennial Puritans: the Mad Men could do all the stuff in the 60's that you'd like to do now, but they weren't any happier. In fact, they were more depressed - you're better off now because you know not to oppress minorities! The series seems to have no actual grip on the down side of 2010. It's a kind of sad-sack valentine to the progressives of the present day, and seemingly unconscious of the fact that the alienation it traces in 1961 is actually being teleported back in time from 2010. These Mad Men are sad because they're from the millennium! The real ones were probably happy as clams.

But then again, there are all those great cars and Dior gowns and coolly beautiful Mies van der Rohe interiors to ogle.

I can't wait for my next disc.

Friday, July 2, 2010

"The T Plays" return

Theatre takes over the T in "Amid the Least of the Magi," with Marie Polizzano, Juliet Gowing McGinnis, and Sasha Castroverde.

We haven't heard much from Mill 6 Collaborative for a while, so I was eager to check out their new edition of "The T Plays," an evening of scripts which supposedly were written on - or in, or around - the T (and which ran for only four performances, alas, last weekend at the Factory Theatre). Mill 6, led by John Edward O'Brien, has long been at the center of what you might call the Smart Kids' Clique of the Boston fringe - a loose constellation of performers and groups that would have to include Whistler in the Dark, Rough & Tumble, Imaginary Beasts, and New Exhibition Room, who together regularly conjure intelligent, wittily unpretentious theatre on the thinnest of shoestrings.

This time, I have to admit, there was one statistical outlier in the crowd - Terry Byrne, the feisty little critic who is now styling herself as a playwright. What was she doing hanging with the smart kids? I had to wonder, but as you know I've decided to be as nice to Terry as I possibly, possibly can, so I kept an open mind about her maiden dramatic effort. And I'll admit that her script, while no more than a standard-issue SNL sketch, wasn't as bad as I thought it might be; let's just say she's roughly as good a playwright as she is a critic (that should keep her fans happy, shouldn't it?).

There were heavier hitters than Byrne on offer, though, including well-known local writers Pat Gabridge (who really should have broken out of this provincial burg by now), John J King, and Rick Park. Newcomers (at least to me) included Bill Doncaster, Sean Michael Welch, and Melanie Garber. Of these, it seemed to me that Gabridge, King, Doncaster, and Welch got the furthest on their respective "lines" (although Park was funny as ever). I didn't feel there was quite the same level of inspiration in this year's model than in the original "T Plays" from last season, but there was still plenty of perceptive wit on offer.

The freshness factor was, however, a problem occasionally. I was struck, for instance, by how many of the playlets depended on meeting gay people or transvestites on the T; I'm not sure what that means, but it hardly feels up-to-the-minute. The stronger work of the evening either depended on a clear emotional conflict (such as Gabridge's "Escape to Wonderland," which had a witty hook, but wrapped with an improbable shoot-out) or went amusingly meta (both Doncaster's "Amid the Least of the Magi" and Welch's "Life and Death at the Washington Street and Melnea Cass Boulevard Bus Stop"). All of these were blessed with quite capable casts, too, btw, including the reliable Jen O'Connor, Ally Tully, Nate Gundy (who was by far the best I've seen him in King's "M. Riverside"), Forrest Walter, Sasha Castroverde, Juliet Gowing McGinnis, Marie Polizzano, Jim Barton and Jason Lambert.

As with the last edition of "The T Plays," I left the theatre wondering how Mill 6 and these many performers might find a larger audience. Surely these sketches are highly portable; maybe if the actors played everything in pasties and thongs, they could get programmed at Zero Arrow? Let's think about that.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Sophie Tucker, Racist Oppressor

Fats Wallers' version.

What would I blog about without the Globe's insufferable Louise Kennedy? If she didn't exist, I'd have to invent her! (Ok, I'd still have the horrifying Diane Paulus over at the A.R.T. to complain about, but seriously, without Louise my blogging would probably be cut in half.)

Oh, what has she done now, Tom? I can almost hear you sighing; well I'll tell you. It's a small thing - but then isn't everything a small thing in the long run? Yes, it is.

In her recent pan of the New Rep's Sophie Tucker show - which is actually entertaining, btw - Kennedy singled out two of Tucker's perennial numbers for special disapproval: "Darktown Strutters' Ball" and "Hula Lou." Should either of these tunes, Kennedy wondered in a gently-censoring tone, be performed in a show in 2010?

Well why the hell not? What, are they RACIST or something??

Of course they are! Oh and Johnny Baseball was homophobic (another recent Louise head-scratcher).

I guess "Darktown Strutters' Ball" is racist because it has that horrifying word "Darktown" in the title instead of "Harlem." Which has been known to turn young children in Newton into snarling white supremacists.

But Tom, isn't saying "Darktown" in a song a lot like saying "Gaytown" or "Jewtown"?

Yes, it is. Grow up.

And at any rate, the song's title (the tune itself is a paean to its eponymous strutters) didn't seem to offend Ella Fitzgerald, or Alberta Hunter, or Fats Waller, or Fats Domino, or a zillion other jazz greats, who all recorded it and made it a standard.

But it offends Louise.

So please everyone say "Harlem" from now on instead of "Darktown"! That way we will have ended racism.

As for "Hula Lou" - where to begin? I mean it's about this Hawaiian femme fatale who has her pick of sailors! Every verse is a veritable orgy of pure objectification. It's all about how exotic Hula Lou is, and how cold and uncaring (in some versions, she shoots a guy). But is there any mention of her graduate studies in "Gender and Performance"? No, there is not. Lou is merely a screen for the projection of racist sexual fantasy. Oh sure, the song pretends to be about "unrequited love" - a transparent euphemism for the male gaze, frankly, if not for the phallo-centrism of white masculine subjectivity in general.

Gosh, I wonder if anyone ever wrote a novelty song called "Hula Lou and the Phallo-centrism of White Male Subjectivity in General."

And if not, why not?

Now I know Louise Kennedy isn't actually trying to crush all the joy out of life - that's just an unfortunate byproduct of her determination to improve us. Someday, I'm sure, we'll all be happy to sit at home and listen to Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman" while watching Sidney Poitier movies, just like she does.

Alberta's version.

But in the meantime, I have one question. Sophie Tucker, after all, sang both these songs innumerable times over the course of her career. I think she recorded them both.

So that means Sophie Tucker was a racist.


Or does it mean that Sophie's rise was bound up in some way with the rise of other performers (and peoples!) who were once outside the ken of white society? After all, Tucker got her start performing in blackface - a weirdly complicated trope that I just don't have room to unpack here, although it would be ridiculous to posit that choice as evidence of racism on her part. Instead, it makes clear that Tucker was embedded in her period's "complex matrix of racial and sexual signifiers," if you will. If you cut these numbers out of her act, you've cut out something that was central to her, too. And actually, you've cut out something that's central - even if today it gives us a twinge of embarrassment or regret - to the struggle around race and gender in this country as well.

Besides which, "Darktown Strutters' Ball" (if not "Hula Lou") is just a damn good song. A classic, actually, by general acclaim - although, no, by now I don't expect Louise Kennedy to be knowledgeable enough to know that. So just say "Harlem" in your head if you want to when you listen to it - but listen to it.