Saturday, June 30, 2007

At the Movies Then & Now: America’s Obsession is Mine, Too ..

From Edison to Turner, America’s love affair with moving pictures dominates almost every aspect of our lives. Now in the palm of your hand, you can watch videos on your latest gizmo. (did anybody stand in line all night for that ridiculously over-hyped iPhone?) Now in the privacy of your home, your family room can become your mini-theatre. From four inches in your hand to sixty on the wall in plasma or LCD — what next, Consumer Mad, USA? ... iScreen implants, I suppose ...

What next for me is Turner Classic Movies — the best cable decision I ever made. I’m discovering good, sometimes true "classics"reaching back to the silent era. In stark speechless black and white the actor’s facial expressions convey so much emotion.

Here’s comedienne Beatrice Lilly, entertaining me in Exit Smiling, a silent flick about a wacky troupe of touring thespians. Working as the troupe’s all-purpose cleaning lady, Lilly pines away over the man of her dreams (Jack Pickford), a bank teller by profession who is hiding out from a false accusation of embezzlement. Once he is acquitted, Pickford reconciles with the woman of his dreams back home. Cry, Lilly, cry.

When did simple human drama give way to pyrotechnic warfare, ad nauseam? Today, moviegoers gulp down special effect orgies like popcorn. They watch people skinned alive. Torturemaster Quentin Tarantino dares them to take it all. Not me, I failed the test, once walking out on a Quentin. The Los Angeles Times, headlining the current season "Little Flop of Horrors," is quoting an insider, "There’s nothing you can do to a human being on the screen that is taboo anymore."

Hitchcock’s Rear Window, when I first saw it, scarred the living daylights out of me. Now I appreciate the poignant little stories played out in the revealing windows of that eerie apartment building. Another Hitchcock classic, The Birds, is both chilling and challenging; each time I watch this masterwork, I discover something new.

Mindless action produced on an overactive computer, you can have it. I’d rather spend my time discovering yesterday's triumphs, like Susan Hayward’s unforgettable true-to-life performance as alcoholic singer Lillian Roth in I’ll Cry Tomorrow.

I’d rather watch MGM’s first musical, Going Hollywood (even with the thoroughly pleasant, thoroughly mediocre Marian Davies in it -- finally, my chance to check out her acting abilities). Starring Bing Crosby, it buzzes with inventive crackle. Camera angles create clever stage pictures in motion. And everybody in it has the personality that William Randolph Hearst’s famed mistress doesn’t. Good try, Marion. Poor casting decision, producer Hearst.

The salient silents drew my great uncle, Eugene B Lewis, out to Hollywood in 1916. A one-time Hearst reporter, he railed west with imposing Biogroaph credits from New York. Within weeks of pitching his portfolio on fledgling movie lots, Lewis was made story editor at the "Big U" (Universal Film Manufacturing Co.), supervising at one time 27 writers. I’ve read that scenario writers suffered an average shortened life span second only to race track drivers. My great Uncle Eugene died at the age of 46 in 1924.

Toiling in the shadows (scenarists were likened to stenographers), he worked on treatments, scripts and titles for a young director named Jack Ford , directing a young cowboy named Harry Carey. Great uncle Eugene also scripted other films, laboring for Thomas Ince, Wallace Reid and Mary Miles Minter, virtually all of them now lost in the dust of celluloid history.

Watching Turner Classics, there are big disappointments, like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea -- too hokey and way too long for me to get through. And there are less-regarded flicks well worth finding. Golden example: the multi-talented Ida Lupino (the only female director in Hollywood during the ‘50s), cast as a widow in Beware My Lovely. Her home is invaded by a drifter (played by Robert Ryan) applying for work, who is haunted by the rejection he suffered when offering to serve in World War II. This is not just a crack suspense noir that builds skillfully by degrees (will she end up alive?), but also a terrifically engaging psychological study of a very troubled man. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Ryan deserved an academy award.

How many other undiscovered gems are flickering somewhere in the dark, waiting to live again on somebody’s palm, plasma or laptop?

originally posted 6/30/07

Thursday, June 28, 2007

SUNDAY MORNING OUT OF THE PAST: Circus Chat from Ellington to Feld to Ruffin and Vargas ...

Preface, and update  6.1.24: How I miss the times reflected here, do I ever ... So many shows compared to now, more people, more things to report on and toss around ...  And a new Ringling on the lot .. These posts are being reprinted exactly in their original form, I don't like touching up or messing around with authenticity, as flawed as it may be.

* About my cheap put down of Ring of Fear -- I told you I would not change a word and I haven't --  But  I have grown to like this film a lot, and I watch it frequently. So here goes ...

We start out on no particular lot. Nothing big to hype or snub. Maybe let’s give Big Bertha big top dreamer Craig Johnson the mike. In answer to my Circo Caballero post, alluding to a dangerous Oakland journey en route, e-mailed Craig, Get myself a mug, fill it with soda pop, pop up a ton of corn, let my DVD of The Greatest Show on Earth roll and "be safe."

Staying safe, I could miss what’s under the Caballero canvas hood. Might call ‘em up early Saturday to see if a 3 p.m. show is on tap for sure. I guess they do business as the crowds — or the tarot cards — move them. I’m guessing they take the light weight, modestly charming route of the Zoppes. Not banking on a return in spangles of co-owner Ruben Caballero, who once flew nearly as high as Miguel Vazquez.

Craig, by the way, who loves Merle Evans as much as he loves jazz, might like this one: I’m nominating Duke Ellington’s 1937 classic "Caravan" as the most famously effective (or effectively famous) song ever played for big cage acts. It’s a driving exotic marvel that makes love to the restless rhythms and the primal power of the big cats. Composed by the Duke himself in collaboration with Juan Tizol and Irving Mills, some call it the first jazz piece. The Big Top thanks you too, Duke, even if Maestro Evans inexplicably never played your ditty, or did he? (Do I hear a comment out there?) Other big cage tunes I miss: "Poinsettia" and "The Breeze and I."

There’s a certain lady of style in Sarasota (I can’t mention her name or disclose too many details) who now and then sends me tasty slices. Recently pouring through the contents of a local library, she came upon an old newspaper clipping about Irvin Feld’s death at age 66. What makes it particularly poignant is that only an hour or so earlier, Feld had delivered the eulogy at a Venice memorial service for a chimp trainer, felled at 44. After the service, the robustly engaged Irvin suffered a stroke in the parking lot. That was a Tuesday. By Thursday, the mighty showman was gone.

Have you seen the latest Bandwagon? Clyde Beatty’s black cage boy, Manuel "Junior" Ruffin shares fond reminiscences with Lane Talburt about his days working for the Great One, who took him on at age 12. In the film Ring of Drek (excuse me, Ring of Fear) Beatty comes through so likeably, I can see him being warmly tolerant of an ambitious kid, no matter the color, who idolized him. Ruffin went on to work cats for Hoxie and then, latter, supervise the canvas for Vargas.

End ringing it in the same story, Ward Hall talks about the stranger-than-life "Mr. V." Here comes a gaser: When Mr. V’s inner generator got overheated, he had a ‘Vargasm." Oh, yes, I once provoked a Vargasm (innuendo not intended), stupidly thinking I was about to interview Mr. Volatile himself. (he had said, come look me up) but instead being obnoxiously brushed aside. Actually, rather exciting --- if only the band could have been playing "Caravan." That day, Cliff Vargas was too busy selling his own concessions. How I miss his glamorous spring openings in the parking lot of the Hollywood Bowl.

Covington connected, as in Don: He sends news of Cirque’s Guy Laliberte being feted World Entrepreneur of the Year at the Ernst & Young Awards ceremony in Monte Carlo. Perfect setting. The guy is truly a modern-day genius. In his own way, yes another Barnum or all five Ringling rolled into one amazing force.

Toiling in the shadows of Cirque, ex-Carson & Barnes boss Jim Judkins made a valiant effort with his Circus Chimera to bring an affordable Cirque experience to the common man. Although he is shutting down early to retool for next season (how many times before have we heard that), the prospects don’t look bright. Still, I’m not counting the Judkins Chimera down and out yet. The optimist in me is betting a few daring dollars on Jim's return.

The Jomar, per reports, awaits restoration funds to restore it. Owner Bob Horne, himself a collector and preservationist and vaguely related to Rudy Bundy through a marriage that ended in a divorce, has already restored three Ringling-Barnum Pullmans. Can he revive the Ringling big top, too?

And that one’s for you, Craig. Get yourself some popcorn and a mug of ice cold coke, go down to the runs and wait. And if the flying squadron fails to show, your favorite flick will have to do the trick. You can't have a Vargasm every day, kid...

Let’s call this a Little Bertha wrap, okay?
 From June 28, 2007, the first year of  John Ringling North II

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Big Tops Falling, Big Tops Empty ... And Then There Was Circo Caballero --- Maybe Now Showing ....

There’s a show called Circo Caballero with a super casual way about entertaining folks who might show up under the impression it is actually in business to perform at certain set times. On the verge of taking bay area public transit out to the dreky BART coliseum station in East Oakland, then a bus across a freeway to this crummy lot that has been graced in recent years by Carson & Barnes (never forgive myself for missing that one) UniverSoul and others — I decided to confirm a 3 p.m. show time for today. The best Circo number I can find connects me to a lady’s home phone in Vegas with a voice greeting; One time a man called right back. Today, I kept calling, and got him again. "Not sure about the three o’clock show," said he, contrary to what he had told me a couple of days ago. "If not enough people show up, they’ll move them to the six o’clock show, so you might be better off planning to see it at six, just in case.."

Sure and thanks. How I would just love to spend a few quality hours in one of Oakland’s charming nether regions. Patio seating, perhaps, behind bars at Church’s Chicken?

I dunno, world of flimsy canvas tents south of the border going and coming, how about posting a notice in the local rag? Or at the very least a notice on Craig’s List under the category "Circuses desperately needing customers unable to afford conventional advertising, now playing on a polluted lot next to a freeway on-ramp near you"

The Caballero web page is a work of mysterious misinformation art — a sprinkling of numbers alluding to absolutely nothing that sparkle like strobe lights across a half-deserted page. Last call for another big top? Hey, ex-quad stars, where here on Earth are you now playing, and when????

Who knows, I might be missing a Big One. That’s the vexing thing about circuses big or small, even ones from Mexico: You just never can predict how wonderful — or blunderful — they might be, whether produced by Feld or Judkins.

I guess the Caballero front end is banking on attracting customers from the thousands of cars racing up and down the freeway overlooking their tent. Now, there’s the answer. My problem is that I still read newspapers but don’t own an auto.

Drats. HAS ANYBODY WHO OWNS A CAR SEEN THIS CIRCUS? Please tell me, is it worth risking the glare of drug dealers, pimps and hookers to get to?

originally posted 6/23/07

Thursday, June 21, 2007

MIDWAY FLASH ... Circus Chimera Closes Early. What Are We to Make of It?

Showbiz David Speculates
Circus Chimera was the first American show to be created in the shadows of Cirque du Soleil. When it tried out in the Bay Area before pitifully attended houses in 1998, I recall discovering it by accident at Jack London Square. So good was the bargain basement version of a Cirque-like experience which Chimera offered— winning acts cleanly and artfully presented against an original taped soundtrack more lyrical than bombastic — I went back a second time.

Carson & Barnes veteran manager Jim Judkins invested a lot of his own money in the one-ringer, which eliminated animals and favored an intimate program that is referred to by some as "the new American circus." Promising, indeed, seemed the idea of offering lower and middle class families an affordable Cirque du Soleil experience.

The wonder is that Chimera has lasted this long. Now, Judkins has issued a press release stating that the show will close on July 2 in Newark (northern California), and take a "hiatus" to "prepare for next year." The reasons cited are "economic."

Remember when Ringling-Barnum played Europe in the mid ‘60s and closed early? When Feld’s Kaleidoscape toured for nearly two years and then suddenly shut down? Each early closing generated a press release similar to Chimera’s promising better things to come in the season directly ahead.

If Judkins really intends to return, what must he do? Here are some thoughts:

* He must elevate his performance to a higher level of showmanship. He needs to engage a first-rate director and give that director autonomy. He needs to 86 his concession pitches from the program. Circuses face a far more competitive era. What worked thirty or forty years ago may today only irk.

* He must revamp his physical layout. Send the Hugo midway home. It does not belong as a prelude to Chimera’s contemporary allusions. The tent must be better ventilated. The heat it produces under the sun can be as oppressive as the ear-shattering speakers under the UniverSoul Circus big top.

* He must rethink his audience base. Does it really desire an affordable Cirque experience?. Maybe the Berkeley-Bay Area crowd does, but Berkeley-Bay Area types hardly count for the country at large, and those who do prefer Cirque have loads of money to spend. They do not need bargain basement Cirque. The crowd with a lot less money to spend — potential Chimera ticket buyers — are of a class more inclined to favor real circus, as in ...

* Animals. They are not going away, not yet as some have predicted. Time for Judkins to rethink this policy, well intended when he started out in 1998. Producers should not confuse the public’s infatuation with cirque for a lack of interest in circus — not when circus is done right. Consider that both Ringling and New Cole, evidently listening to their customer base, have not given up on animals. John Pugh retired the bulls for a season and then brought them back. Kenneth Feld interpolated a white tiger act in his first Ringless opus during its firs-year tour. Why? Not for sentimental reasons. No, because these producers listen to what the public tells them, and the public is obviously telling them to give PETA the you-know-what.

Chimera’s challenges are daunting. My guess is that only with a noticeably improved show and a major thrust on the front end does it have a fighting chance of generating the word of mouth necessary to fill up the seats and turn the critical corner...

That said, Judkins may already have toured beyond the point of a solvent return. Personally, I feel very sad at this point. His original idea seemed sound, but to Cirque, you almost have to cirque all the way, even on limited funds. And then, you may still be pitching your good modern intentions to simply the wrong crowd.

John Ringling North II presents?

[Thanks to Don Covington for sending along a copy of the press release]

Monday, June 11, 2007

Tinseltown to Times Square, New Musicals Face Vexing Odds

A Showbiz David Essay

from early 2006

For a town at the epi-center of entertainment that turns out new movies, songs and sit-coms as fast almost as Pink's produces hot dogs, why do virtually none of the original musicals it puts up year after year on local stages ever make it on the Great White Way?

A curse? The long-argued east-west rivalry? Gotham's revenge for every one of its classic song and dance hits that got turned by this town into celluloid mush? Or is it just plain hometown myopia supported by a cast of undemanding critics who give the local talent pool delusions of sufficiency?

The latest reality check reveals that in recent seasons a quartet of locally acclaimed darlings made the trek into New York's smaller off-Broadway houses, where, low and behold, some critical respect did show up -- if not the long ticket lines that spell commercial success: Despite two Drama Desk nominations, one for outstanding lyrics, Reefer Madness did not last a month. Bat Boy: The Musical landed a soaring array of upbeat notices, nominations and awards including Best Off Broadway Musical for 2001 from the Outer Critics Circle. Eight months later, this offbeat romp that some have likened to Little Shop of Horrors and that has gained a certain cult following, was history. Trolls, with a subtitle that asks the question “Is life gay after 40?,” opened on May 19 at the Actor's Playhouse in the Village, was pounced on mercilessly by most of the reviewers, and departed two days short of two months later.

There was one high-flying exception to this not surprisingly dismal outcome: Naked Boys Singing became a bona fide box office survivor. First produced by Celebration Theatre, when it went east, the Manhattan crowd smiled upon a mixed-bag revue of ample charms, albeit with a seductive hook -- "contemporary 'Oh! Calcutta'," pronounced the Daily News. "Hardly brilliant," reported the New York Times, "but it should please its target audience, and the rest of us who can, in the right mood appreciate slightly prurient songs about circumcision." And it took 23 writers to bring off a 90-minute revue in the natural.

Hey, it's a hit, and still running after six glorious seasons — although now down to a mere sixty minutes, presented late Friday and Saturday evenings.

Another musical recently launched at Celebration, also enlisting a panel of composers (nine in all) is the sporadically engaging jazz-centric PlayitCool, which does a better job setting the scene in a moody, repressed 1950s Hollywood gay bar than in fleshing out a tale of lesbian betrayal at the intersection of closeted love and tinseltown casting. At least PlayitCool casts its stock characters against a more realistic heterosexual background that will eventually doom them in dramatically interesting second-act turns — unlike the new Bluebonnet Court up the street at the Hudson, where hidden homosexual desires simmer citywide in wartime Austin Texas, where men are raping opportunists or latently gay. Enter, just in time, a hip female Jewish reporter from New York en route to L.A., stranded in Austin while her busted automobile awaits repairs, who goes to work repairing the beaten-down psyche of a smart black maid in Bluebonnet Court, turning her into a new true love. Of course.

Male nudity and lesbian fairy tales aside, not since the days of Edwin Lester's Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, which turned box office profits on Broadway with three of the originals it sent that way (Song of Norway, Kismet and Peter Pan), has the road from tinseltown to Times Square been a happy one. Gordon Davidson found only grief at the Winter Garden in 1979, when, after 41 performances, his Zoot Suit was 86d out the door. To this day, the show's avid defenders claim that the critics were out to get it. Meaning, of course, out to get L.A.

Since Mr. Lester's luckier times, nothing. Now, shows that are born in Los Angeles, if they go east at all, tip toe onto smaller stages off Broadway, where, to be sure, some of the best work is produced. There you can find breath-taking satisfaction in masterfully wrought gems like Forbidden Broadway and Altar Boyz — shows that make you shout, “Yes, New York! You still know how to do it! And nobody can do it like you do!” Want to lay odds on the chances for a Like Jazz or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir holding their own against these singular sensations?

Even San Diego (Tommy; Big River) does better -- well, at least at the ticket windows. Of course, cities don't produce popular musicals, do they, and many places -- including New York on a regular basis -- turn out failed Broadway dreams just like L.A. And some of the workhorses that do make it big, it could be argued, conned their way into respectability with lots of up-front money and marketing savvy. Has anybody out there sat through Disney's Aida?

When it comes to celebrated, well-regarded work, though, people with a particular gift -- or drive -- create the legendary shows, and for many years the greatest concentration of those people was centered in New York city. Maybe this is once again the case now that the Brits seem to have lost a certain touch for turning terse tales of history and heartache into rock operas that hang around for decades.

So why not L.A., which may house the largest pool of theatrical talent in the world? Let us count the ways, beginning with Bat Boy The Musical, which seems to be enjoying a promising afterlife out in regional theatre land. Is this the Big One? As it looked on the stage of San Francisco's New Victoria where Ray of Light Theatre (a cool community operation) produced it, the superficially appealing result strained to juggle horror and camp through a convoluted book crammed with too many songs (20 of them) competing against too many heavy handed plot turns.

Second act problems? Bat Boys's tediously detailed last hour takes an anti-climactic detour into belated exposition to cover our hero's bizarre birth. What a wow of an opening that might have made. Now, it all seems so gratuitous as we sit there wondering, will it ever end?

To its redeeming credit, Bat Boy is chock full of terrifically talented song writing, for which Laurence O'Keefe deserves kudos. There is just too much of it in too many dispirit forms to fuel a cohesive narrative. What sort of a ride are we supposed to be on, guys? Yes, yes, the show's growing legion of fans will point to all those neat numbers taking satiric aim at old-line Broadway composers. Might that not have been enough? Maybe the show did not take itself so full-scale seriously when the Actors' Gang first produced Bat Boy in 1997 on Santa Monica Boulevard. Maybe it just needs the “right cast.”

You would think that the city of angels and angles had what it takes to create musicals good enough for Broadway's bigger boards. Alas, the talent out here waiting on tables or standing in lines at photocopy machines with new scripts to duplicate and pitch did not go west to break into musical theatre. Thus, what you are likely to get when you check out the latest new "musical" are feel-good showcases for songwriters and actors put up on the cheap for talent agents.

Humdrum example: Radio Show, a threadbare excuse, with lackluster songs, last spring at Art/Works Performance Space for two labored one-acts separated by an intermission and a lone old-time radio mike standing around, presumably to lend an air of thematic unity. Sure. And did anybody in the company land representation, I hope?

Thinking back over some of the better evenings I've spent in past years at shows like the much-loved Back Home or the noncommitally formless Like Jazz (which jumped here and there to a hot handful of great new numbers by the late Cy Coleman supplying melodies, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, lyrics), what they all offered were winning scores and likable performers -- and little else. I remember leaving the Cast theatre after Back Home and wondering to myself, what do those characters do in real life? The show about them didn't tell me much. Maybe they lived at the Cast.
(A humble confession: I also have suffered from delusions of the big Broadway transfer; during the 80s, while a resident, two of my own musicals went up on friendly waiver boards to reviews that ran the gamut from delight to derision.)

At its best these days, L.A. knows how to give us a cracking good bark without the bite. Yes, my lead in to that raucous little darling at the Coast Playhouse with a running time of about 75 minutes -- Bark! Compared to the laboriously overreaching Bat Boy, this modestly focused work about a pack of pampered mutts in "doggie day care" utterly ingratiates with show-stopping ditties turned out by composer and musical director David Troy Rancis and his gallery of on-target collaborators. They include the prolifically gifted Robert Schrock, who also had a key hand in Naked Boys Singing and, long ago, Back Home. Their ingenuity in giving voice to how these creatures feel about life in general and their masters in particular is remarkable.

A Critic's Choice at the Los Angeles Times, which cheered its "practically perfect staging," yes Bark! is a joy worth the price of a ticket -- as far as it goes. If only there was more bark to this puppet-show sized party. If only the authors had extended their valentine to doggiedom by a few meaner, more vicious bites, to dramatize the darker realities out there in the real world where killer canines bark up a whole different kind of music. Only a mile or so from the Coast back in the 80s, once while walking down North Orange towards DeLongpree, I was bitten by a real-life non-singing dog. For an encore, a doctor gave me a rabies shot.

On the boards for over a year at two shows a week, that gives Bark! the aura of a "hit." And when I saw it, there were maybe 65 people in the audience. And maybe none were audience extras.

So many good songs. So many winning personalities. And so little dramatic depth or discipline. That's your typical L.A. original. Is "librettist" a dirty word in this town? Perhaps what L.A. could use is a John Simon. About the best scripting advice I ever got was from Smitty, one early Friday evening while he was sweeping out the kitchen at his east Hollywood DeJa Vu Coffeehouse, where writers used to try out new work which they themselves usually funded. Smitty was trying to get a handle on a play I had submitted, pressing me on what, in academic circles, they call "narrative arc." The coffeehouse man made it at once understandable when he put it to me this way: "What is the event?"

Yes, Smitty. And where are the larger-than-life characters that can give a musical dramatic shape, meaning and propulsion? A good musical, first and foremost, revolves around and is driven by one or two compelling figures, usually ensnared in at least the semblance of a conflict. Think Eliza or Evita, Roxie or the Phantom, Jean Valjean or Jud Fry.

James J. Mellon's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir at NoHo Arts Center had its heart in a distant world where Lerner and Loewe ruled the stage, when shows like One Touch of Venus took audiences on fantasy rides. Alas, Mellon seems not up to such a daunting task. For one thing, the improbably romantic relationship between the two central characters, played by James Barbour and Lynee Winterseller, both Broadway veterans, failed to light sparks. Against Winterseller's ever-so-sweet innocence, Barbour's brooding one-note persona -- alternating between a smirk and a sneer -- came close to claiming the scenery. And what we got up there in the valley felt more like Assassins meets A Grand Night for Singing.

We also got a lopsided libretto that spills most of its story out into the first act. How to fill up the remaining time? Mellon's second half, among other diversions, slides off course into an ersatz Danny Kaye silly movie-musical production sequence. Hello?

What Mrs. Muir does have in fair supply is a winning set of quirky secondary players of the old English school sort, and it contains some wonderfully inventive novelty numbers composed by Scott DeTurk and Bill Francoeur. Trouble is, what it doesn't have -- two engaging lead characters -- may render all the other assets mute.

Last spring, while sampling the best of what off-Broadway has to offer, the comparison between it and Trolls did not flatter locally produced work. This eager-to-please tuner about aging gay men did deliver another dandy score full of older-fashioned melody and fun, even if, as Anita Gates in the New York Times remarked, it was "at times too derivative for comfort." The show was inhabited by more L.A. likable characters and it had the adoring Gates half way on its side; She called it "an intriguing, thoroughly good-natured little musical with tons of potential." Oh, yes, potential ...

The sewing basket of a libretto that straddled the meandering Trolls should have been sent back to Drama 1A for rehab. Just what was this show supposed to be about? Men upon turning 40 no longer being able to score in a bar? An ex-hustler trying to turn an old one-night stand into lasting love? Homage to the departed Boomie, loved by all the men who attend a party in his honor? Or a late-breaking squabble over who will inherit Boomie's possessions, his prudishly straight sister or his gay buddies? Pardon me for screaming: is there a dramaturg in the house? Smitty!

Have another nice day, yes.

What a wonderful evening-long illusion I lucked into at the Actor's Ark a year ago last April, believing I was watching a brand new musical produced in L.A., marveling over the thought that finally somebody had got it right in this town. And so far off the beaten path down there on unglamorous South La Cienega in a storefront among other faceless storefronts and warehouses. About three dozen souls in this great big town had convened on a Saturday night to share an intimate experience in a small theatre. Inside the funky facilities, the cast broke down the fourth wall in order to make us feel in our seats like patrons hanging out in their kinky cabaret on Planet Frottage III, "somewhere on the outer rim of the galaxy." Welcome to Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens.

Ark's actors -- only two of them from Equity -- obviously dug this subversity, and they had the grit to give it bohemian wings. Jack was played that night by Rob MacMullan, Jubilee by Julie Hogan, and Dr. Whackoff by scene-stealer Chairman Barnes. "All I Need is Disco," "Tortured Plaything," "Glitter Boots Saved my Life" and "Living in Hell." were some of the out-there songs. After it was over, my preconceptions were dashed. No, this unflinchingly tough satire, I learned, had first been produced in Edinburgh 10 years ago.

Okay, L.A., back to your feel-good tickets. So you took your clothes off and took Manhattan. Can you put them back on and still make it big in the Big Apple?

I’m waiting.

Out of the Past: L.A. Between Takes -- Land of Imperfect Dreams

Showbiz David from out of the past

Facing a dull range of lifeless mountains ahead, suddenly you’re ascending the "grapevine" and the promise of a thousand dreams on the other side ... The road pointing south can be a perfect stretch of asphalt — or an inferno of smoke or sliding mud. Once into Los Angeles, myth competes with reality: The famed sun does not always rise on time ... On some city buses I hear my own language still spoken and feel a rare American connection; on others, I am a total stranger in a brown land. Should I learn the other tongue? I know my government will never make them learn mine. Dream city may be running out of dreams ...

...Still, the wonder of the place is how small it actually feels. On the 780 "rapid" whizzing west along Los Feliz Boulevard, there’s a touch of Stephanie Edwards in the air. The passengers seem as free and open to the moment as a warm breeze, while on mounted video screens two character chefs, one dressed as a big pink Easter bunny, are giving cooking instructions that go largely ignored. Easter in June? Must be a rerun; maybe our cooks landed a sitcom ....

Down Sunset Boulevard
on foot, I spot an abandoned teddy bear laying dead on the sidewalk, and am reminded that for every perfect fantasy, there are a million twisted let downs ... A pair of white sneakers hanging artfully from telephone pole wires is so picture-perfect L.A. -- and more clever than the over hyped minimalism of Dan Flavin who assembles abstract shapes out of neon at the County Museum. "Not to be missed," writes the L.A. Times. No, not to be missed if you like walking through mystical spheres of color, much the same as pacing a carnival midway by night.

Between takes, the town is a thousand traffic jams . Maybe if they outlawed automobiles and apologized to the world for glamorizing automania, the long lines at Pink’s Hot Dogs would go away and give us locals (and local tourists like me) a break. 'Twas never like this when I lived down there. Now, Pinks is a hit Broadway show on La Brea, thanks, I suspect, to some wise guy who hired a bunch of audience extras and planted the first queue. Ever since, to get the best chili dog on the planet, you need the patience of a Disney patron from Iowa ...

The lines at Phillipes move faster, and there, if you can nab yourself a booth, it’s yours for as long as you wish to dream or sulk ... The locals love the place. An L.A. dame seated with friend tells me that the two figures among the circus posters I am photographing are Lou and Bud, and I tell her about the Paul Eagles Circus Luncheon Club that sadly no longer is, and the three of us are instantly simpatico. Phillipes does that to people ...

Dreams begin over a thousand laptops. A table at Psych Bubble Coffee House up in Los Feliz makes me feel young again. The place is full of Apple keyboards and scheming would-be screen writers. Two younger-than-me guys chat about a project on which they are collaborating: "I think we pretty much have the central characters," says one. "The beginning is pretty strong," ventures the other... Ah, yes, so many perfect beginnings that go imperfectly nowhere: Between takes, sitcom writers and studio musicians who try their luck at local theatre prove how human they are. All over town on small stages, half-baked ideas strut the boards and the local critics cheer lead too often....

The Beastly Bombing at the Steve Allen in East Hollywood delivers a rollicking good first act built on brilliant subversive satire (a pair of skinheads and two Islamic extremist both plot to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge in a Gilbert & Sullivan style romp). After intermission, the whole thing collapses into a farce gone astray. Sorry, guys, the image of the Prez making love to his personal savior somehow doesn’t work ... Back to the Psych Bubble, please. .... There on Vermont, nearly everybody is laboring over the next great movie script. A Times reporter once wrote of a similar café down the street that turned out, in his estimation, absolutely not a single producable screenplay ... "The beginning is pretty strong..."

When cameras do roll, the images can be mesmerizing. Late one evening on the TV, I surf into a high speed police chase of a "shooting suspect." For a couple of hours, cop cars follow their prey onto and off freeways, up and down surface streets. "It’s hard to know what’s going on in his mind" says a commentator. Of course, a spectacular shoot-out is what he and we are hoping to witness, otherwise why watch? Running low on gas or inspiration, the suspect finally parks his pickup, gets out and raises both hands. Or did I just watch another rerun? ... The next morning on kjazz radio, I’m listening to nice guy Chuck Cecil play hits from the swinging years, and it, too, is a replay...

... The "movable parking lots" as they call them are now defacto runways for car chases. Johnny’s café on Wilshire and Fairfax now fires up its grills and admits patrons only when they are extras in a film being shot on its premises. Strictly a set for rent. The whole town is one vast back lot, doomed to run out of gas and water sometime between takes, but never of Pink’s hot dogs or new movie script ideas ...

Now co-starring with still-bustling Farmer's Market, next to which it stands, is a modern-day Main Street without cars called the Groove. A little like Disneyland's town square, it’s full scale and the shops are more Bev Hills than Dodge City. Gorgeous upscale facades, verandas and decks for dining, a real grassy park for the kids, a fountain and a two-decker open-air trolley car that rumbles up and down a track. Best yet, recordings of Sinatra and his colleagues crooning the great American song book. I waited for Judy to sing, "Ding, ding ding!" Nobody but nobody can stage an event like L.A. can. This one is a smash ...

At the Angelus Temple on a perfect Sunday and sunny Morning, cameras glorify the service onto cinerama-shaped screens. Rock musicians lift the crowd into rocking orbit, arms waving high, spirits merged into a shared dream of redemption and fellowship. And I too believe, feeling a rare human connection to all the Angelinos around me. Humility is a virtue worth practicing, brother. In this grand white house of worship by Echo Park Lake that Aimee Semple McPherson built back in the roaring twenties, the same mix of religion and glamour she pioneered lives on. The force is irresistible, and together we sing ...

I give you all the glory.
I give you all the praise.
Jesus, the light of glory,
Light my way!

"We’re real. We’re raw. We’re relevant!" cries youngish Pastor Matthew Barnett, a Southern boy who excels in the world’s largest small town. Earlier the same week he was in Russia preaching. The world loves everything tinsel town from car chases to fast flicks to high-tech gospel. Soon to appear at the Convention Center: a three day Erotic Expo. And soon to raise the roof across town at Aimee’s place:

One Night. Twenty Four Cameras. Thousands of Worshipers. One God.

When the cameras roll in L.A. they usually get it right. And when they don’t, proceed at your own caution. Unedited, the town is no different from yours ... Maybe just a little more imperfectly promising...

First published June 10, 2007

Sunday, June 10, 2007

M. Butterfly's Henry David Hwang Has a New Play in Yellow Face

New play review
Los Angeles, June 10, at the Mark Taper Forum through July 1

Yellow Face
by David Henry Hwang obsesses over the question of ethnic appearance versus interior sensibilities. If I look Asian, am I Asian, or might I be more white? And so forth. An intriguing premise, alright, that lacks the dramatic focus and force to earn our ultimate respect. The good natured Hwang, recipient of a Tony award for M. Butterfly, has also contributed dialogue to hit Disney musicals, and so he has done mighty well for himself on the great white way. But what does he still see in his mirror? From the questions he continues to persistently raise, I would ventre to guess that he sees an image of himself that he does not fully accept, which is a pity.

At one point in the tautly staged though biographically sprawling Yellow Face, the character DHH (yes, Hwang has written himself into the play) tells another character that, in the end, "everything is about me." And that is one of the problems with this fitfully engaging work. Except for actors Hoon Lee, who plays DHH robustly well; and the delightfully versatile Tzi Ma essaying numerous characters — one of them, DHH’s banker father — the rest of the cast is fairly colorless. They are not served well by the writing, which favors an almost free-form debate over narrative and loses dramatic steam in the second act, itself a primer on alleged U.S. anti-Asian racism. The Chinese money-to-Clinton scandal involving Hwang’s father makes a cameo. So does the plight of Dr. Wen Ho of Los Alamos, accused of stealing U.S. secrets. There is, however, a confrontation between DHH and a New York Times reporter, ostensibly anxious to help DHH clear his name of the controversy surrounding his dad. It is a terrific tug-and-pull of wills and agendas that charges the stage with true dramatic power. If only an encounter like this could have been exploded into two compelling acts.

Besides the disjointed arc (are we to take the play as docu-drama or absurd fantasy?), another major problem is the preposterous premise that a white actor cast by DHH to appear in his early play, Face Value (which folded out of town), goes on to star in and receive rave notices from coast to coast in The King and I. So historically preposterous is this fiction that it undermines the seriousness of Hwang’s intent. I fear Hwang has spent too many hours laboring for the Disney kiddy musical factory. He has lots to offer, just too much in a single work. Yellow Face is a worthy idea still in search of a play.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Chimera’s Ground-Bound Juke Box Romp Dances More than it Circuses

Circus Review: Circus Chimera

$22.00 top. Santa Rosa, California, June 2, 1:30 p.m.

In a rare moment of artistic redemption during the second half of the new Circus Chimera, which has wrapped itself around a juke box of rock from Beach Boys to disco, a quartet of lovely Chinese women, each keeping six plates spinning atop that many sticks, move fetchingly about while an old disco hit "Get Down, Boogie!" plays. Music and motion merge magically in rare juxtaposition: old China and modern American pop in tandem. And in that fleeting moment, a stylishly distinctive show that might have been teases our imagination. Alas, not to be. This Chimera, on balance, is the most problematic one I’ve seen.

Unfortunately, Chimera’s founder and boss Jim Judkins has not the means nor the direction necessary to turn such a moment into a full-scale assault. And worse still, he must evidently spend too much of his time either pitching all manner of revenue-enhancing products (photo ops, clown faces, etc) or resorting to filler (extended audience participation and clown gags) just to fill out two belabored hours. Surprisingly, there is a lot of dancing here, engaging at the outset, not so later on.

The show begins fifteen minutes late, and then it still does not begin. "Master of ceremonies" Roy Ortiz (really, he should be called "master of concessions") announces that the Peterson Peanut Company wishes to "reintroduce" itself to Chimera audiences, and how many times before have we heard that one? After ten years on the road, Chimera still struggles to compensate for a lackluster box office. And yet the crowd seems to accept these unpretty pitches. Then again, what is an audience, largely composed of kids who have gotten in for free, to say? On a practical level aside from jaded adult impressions, considering the generously low ticket prices and the super-friendly staff here, to American families who are themselves also struggling to make ends meet, Chimera may come as a welcome bargain. Children, after all, need only the basics to feel a certain delight.

Chimera does offer a few solid treats that even adults can enjoy. Raul Cubillos is a personable juggler of mid-level skills who delivers the goods for sure. In another winning turn, he is one sly contortionist who packs himself into a small glass box. Nifty feat. Brother and sister Gino and Andrea Treblinka, a robust pair of roller skaters, work familiar tricks that give the crowd some thrills. Young Fridman Torales [above], cool and showmanly from start to finish, takes an upside down walk from loop to loop, forward and then backwards. It's a gripping display. If only there were more of this under the Chimera canvas. (Torales did not perform his rolla bolla act, which is given extraordinary hype on the website.)

A couple of gifted clowns who reveal amusing creativity — Ben Allen and Tavis Beem [left] — are called upon too often to pad a thin show. In fact, so thin is the first half, that the stronger second part, which allows itself a few ballads away from the harder rock stuff, looks and feels comparatively wonderful.

What hobbles Chimera the most is the tacky context and poor direction: On the edges, an old fashioned midway ("Spiders and snakes! Come on in and see spiders and snakes!") is largely ignored by patrons and serves as a shoddy prelude to the contemporary form of circus Judkins is striving to give the public. The tent itself, a tightly contained enclosure, absolutely oppresses in the heat. Inside, the program is ill-paced and stumbles to a clumsy, time-consuming climax. After two motorcyclists circle each other in the "globe of death," instead of bringing the cast out for quick bows around the outer edges of the ring, one of the clowns poses as a rock singer atop the globe while it is slowly untethered and removed. Finally, the cast emerges, anti-climatically. Any good director would have insisted on respotting the globe to the first-half closer, thus allowing for a seamless flow into finale.

Chimera’s fragile journey into who-knows-where continues, and the markings of a downturn do not bode well: Missing from the lineup were a Chinese group listed on the website who juggle hats, dive through hoops and work the aerial bungee. For the first time I can recall, there is no glossy program sheet for sale. Roughly one-quarter of the seats were occupied, and that’s about par for the course from my visits over the years.

Had all the listed talent been there and had there been a gifted director to turn the Judkins juke box idea into a smooth working machine, maybe the result would have been remarkable. As it now stands, there is too little circus and too much of everything else from commerce to padding. The mass saturation of free kids tickets will take you only so far. You need strong word-of-mouth to get more bodies into your seats And that takes a far stronger impact inside the only ring that counts. On a hot Santa Rosa afternoon across the street from the very fairgrounds of my youth where the Clyde Beatty Circus once pitched its big top in better days gone by, it was hard to see a rainbow in Chimera’s still-uncertain future.

Overall score: * *

[photo, bottom right: Raul and Gabriela Cubillos. He juggles. They both contort; all individual performer photos off Circus Chimera website]