djonn: (butterfly)
By contrast to Saturday's shiny new material, Sunday brought us two solid theatrical standbys.

Discussing the matinee, Guys & Dolls, ought to take less space than yesterday's shows...simply because what we got was an absolutely classic old-school Broadway stage production.  Simple set (with a few flashy touches), briskly enthusiastic choreography, uniformly confident acting, and musical numbers performed with energy and verve.  A sufficiently trained ear might have caught one or two performers switching registers in order to hit one or two particular notes -- but that ear wasn't mine, and as far as I'm concerned, the door I walked through into the Angus Bowmer shell might as well have been a portal into the New York theater district.  The show was just that good, and while I am usually stingy about handing out standing ovations (unlike most of Ashland's theater-goers these days), it took me less than three seconds to get up at the end of this performance.

I'm struck, though, by one observation.  Where Head Over Heels (see yesterday's entry) got much of its energy from direct interaction with the audience, Guys & Dolls draws virtually all of its oomph from its own onstage presence.  It's not that the audience isn't on board and enjoying the ride -- far from it -- but the energy that drives this production is essentially self-sustaining.  And while this is far from a bad thing (overall, it's an indication that the show has been and will be consistently superb from its first to its final performance), it's a marked contrast to much of the Festival's other recent work.

Mind you, I'd still have liked to see Pericles Prince of Tyre, the rarely-produced Shakespeare play running opposite Guys & Dolls in the Festival's black box theatre that day.  But the show I did see was a six-stars-out-of-five production of a first-rate musical classic, and that's an experience absolutely worth having.
djonn: Self-portrait (Default)
Strictly speaking, in one respect I am totally the wrong target audience for Head Over Heels, as prior to viewing this musical I couldn't have told you that the Go-Gos were, in fact, a genuine (and highly successful) '80s rock group.  Nor, despite having been the archetypical liberal arts English major back in the day, had I taken more than a passing glance at any of the versions of Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia.  And if you'd told me that someone had decided to fuse the Arcadia and a whole catalog of Go-Gos music into a rock musical, I'd probably have asked you what you were smoking.

I am now here to tell you that someone has done exactly this, and that the result is, to apply an over-used but apt modern superlative, awesome -- and I use that term in its classic sense, of "something which inspires awe".  I should add that where theater is concerned, I am not easy to awe.  Specifically, the librettist for Head Over Heels is Jeff Whitty, perhaps best known as the father of the Tony-winning Avenue Q, which may go some way toward explaining why this show actually works.

I'm not even going to try to explain the plot (such as it is), except to observe that it is (a) in the broad general neighborhood of Shakespeare's more convoluted comedies and late romances -- it is perhaps not a coincidence that OSF is also producing Pericles Prince of Tyre this year -- and (b) also in the broad general neighborhood of the two stage adaptations of classic Marx Brothers movies OSF has produced recently.  What's of greater importance is the degree to which the show doesn't merely play with the metaphorical "fourth wall", but gleefully tunnels right through it into the audience.  And that's no metaphor -- John Tufts, as a classic Shakespeare-league Fool crossed with the Leading Player in Pippin (and this show's nominal master of ceremonies), spent part of the intermission strolling through the house, plopping briefly down in one of the best seats in the theater while talking casually to various audience members.  At least half the cast began the evening by stationing themselves at intervals throughout the aisles several minutes before curtain time; I realized this when I looked up from my playbill, noticed an eight-foot pool of purple skirt stretched across the concrete behind me, and realized that the animated (and entirely off-the-cuff) conversation I'd been overhearing from the next row back was taking place between one lady in the aisle seat and one of the principal female players.

And it only got wilder from there.  When curtain time did arrive, Tufts strode out to center stage and introduced himself -- both as himself and as his character -- then went on to do the same for several of the leading performers.  Then there was the Oracle of Delphi, who admitted that her gift of prophecy was made possible because she was reading ahead in the script.  (Yes, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem got there first in the original Muppet Movie, but Whitty and the Oracle -- later to be known as Linda -- promote the shtick from an amusing throwaway gag to a key plot and thematic point near the climax.)

What prompts the occurrence of awe, though, is that all of the Shakespeare-grade romantic foolery (including lots of gender-bending) and fourth-wall insanity is wrapped in a 24-karat Rock Musical soundtrack.  As I noted earlier, this was my very first encounter with Go-Gos music, and while '80s girl-group rock is not at all my usual beat, it was impossible not to be drawn in by the energy and vigor of the songs.  My only frustration is that the enthusiasm of the orchestra occasionally overrode the vocals during musical numbers, making it difficult to make out lyrics, but that was only an intermittent issue.

Verdict?  If you are a fan of any one subset of the source material (Whitty, Philip Sidney, Shakespearean comedy, rock musicals, etc.), this is a must-see.  And there may be a bonus bit of off-the-wall resonance for the genre-fiction fans in the gallery.  It occurs to me that Head Over Heels -- and the Go-Gos sound -- blends '80s rock and fantastical elements in a way that fans of Seanan McGuire's music may find especially appealing.  And in the reverse context, one of the more memorable performances in the show -- the role of Princess Pamela -- comes from actress Bonnie Milligan, whom I'd argue is a passable ringer for Seanan....

djonn: Self-portrait (Default)

For all that Ashland audiences are often very, very theater-literate, in recent years they’ve become absurdly generous when it comes to standing ovations.  At least in theatrical circles (as opposed to TV game-show studios, for instance), a standing ovation should reflect truly exceptional accomplishment, should recognize performances at the very pinnacle of the theatrical experience.  In short, they ought to be rare.  If every show gets a standing ovation every night, the worth of the honor decreases.  (The Heart of Robin Hood got one earlier in the weekend; as entertaining as the show was, it did not deserve it.)

This past evening’s performance of My Fair Lady also got a standing ovation – which was, for once, entirely and unequivocally deserved.  The production and the performance really were and are that exceptional, and Amanda Dehnert (credited as both stage and music director) deserves full marks for conceiving and assembling a truly memorable experience.

What’s perhaps most striking about this staging is its intimacy.  The set is, essentially, a theatrical rehearsal hall, its rear occupied with a few rows of metal bleachers with a pair of grand pianos set in front of them, and the ensemble is, in effect, portraying a cast of actors engaged in a run-through of the show they’ve been hired to perform.  This does not preclude occasionally elaborate costuming and choreography, but it constrains it to an intriguing and surprisingly effective degree.  Two violinists, both also part of the acting ensemble (and one a high-school-aged student performer, every bit as polished as anyone in the company), are the only complement to the pianists, but this cast doesn’t need more complex orchestration to drive the familiar score and songs.

The two leads – Jonathan Haugen as Professor Higgins and Rachael Warren as Eliza – are both outstanding on all points; in particular, if the only Higgins you’ve seen is Rex Harrison, having a skilled vocalist in the role is a revelation.  Understudy Dee Maaske was wonderfully warm as Prof. Higgins’ mother, and Ken Robinson as Freddy rightfully steals every scene he’s in.  But this production belongs as much to its ensemble as it does to its leads, and there is no moment when it’s less than captivating, from the pre-opening minutes wherein members of the ensemble are going through physical warm-ups on the set to the final moment between Higgins and Eliza, hauntingly staged halfway up the stairs alongside the audience.

I’ve been attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for almost four decades now, which is long enough both to get used to OSF’s high standards for both creative and technical craft and to get a little jaded about that standard.  But I can honestly say that My Fair Lady is among the very best and most memorable shows I’ve seen in that long series of summer tours.  This one’s not just worth the price of the theater ticket, it justifies the travel expense, the hotel room, and the best dinner you can find in town.

djonn: Self-portrait (Default)
Back tonight from the annual pilgrimage to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival via the usual college alumni tour.  A very good year, all told; of the five shows we saw, I count one as superlative, three as excellent, and one as...let's say adequate.  The notes are below, cut-tagged to avoid taking up excess screen space.  Note that the clips you see following each title come from the end, not the beginning, of my play-by-play remarks.

Friday night: Merchant of Venice )  While others in our tour group had issues with particular aspects, most of them seemed to like this staging better than I did.

Saturday afternoon: She Loves Me )This one gets six stars out of five from me; it's that good.  OSF audiences have been getting much too generous with their standing ovations in recent years, but this staging deserved the one it got from us.

Saturday evening: Hamlet )  All in all, this may be the most accessible staging I've seen in years while retaining every bit of the play's depth and nuance, and if it doesn't quite reach all the way to "brilliant", it doesn't miss that level by much.

Sunday afternoon: Throne of Blood )If you're mostly a Shakespeare buff (as I am), this is a fascinating and highly effective novelty.  If you are any sort of Kurosawa buff (as it happens, I'm not), this is likely a rare and not-to-be-missed work of wonder.  Note that once this show finishes its run in Ashland, it's traveling to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in NYC for a week's run in November, as part of the Next Wave Festival [this link loads a short video featuring Ping Chong].

Sunday evening: Henry IV, Part I )  I count this the best Shakespeare we saw during the weekend, albeit very narrowly over Hamlet.

Have You Heard This?

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April 2017

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