Going Nuclear at Garden Bros. Circus Can Be Crazy Fun, Or So It Seems ...

Going Nuclear at Garden Bros. Circus Can Be Crazy Fun,  Or So It Seems ...
Kijome Hara with the World’s Smallest Man and Wini McCay

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Two Views of Carson and Barnes Circus

A Note: Last year I stated on this blog that were I to review any circuses in ‘09 that I had seen in ‘08 and given less than three stars to, unless my ‘09 rating would be higher by at least ½ star, I would not review. Sorry to say, I have seen Carson & Barnes and I can’t give it a higher mark than I gave it in '08. So, since I have received interesting feedback on the show from two different sources, I am posting them. The first came in an e-mail, the second, a comment in reaction to my '08 review of the show.

From Dave Wolowic, Oxnard, California:

The last Monday, my wife and I drove out to Oxnard to see the last show of Carson & Barnes. There was a lot to like about the circus. And some not to like. We loved the aerial acts. The two woman who do the first act are amazing and use no safety lines. It was very thrilling. The trapeze act was great. Much better than what we saw at Circus Vargas. Of course the sound system was a bit lacking and I could not understand the names of the performer. The lead flyer did an amazing dismount by swinging so high he grabbed onto the roof of the tent, and then dropped to the net. So much fun. I know your disdain for hula hoop acts, but I thought this one was really well done. The costumes throughout the show were clean and new. The clowns were OK. Alex, the world-renowned king of Comedy had a very funny trampoline act, but it could have used a little more time of him on the tramp and less shtick around it. Although we had seen the elephants before the show and at intermission, it was really impressive when the came running into the tent for their act. My biggest disappointment was the dog act. As an act, it was mediocre. But what made it worse was the dogs looked so dirty and mangy and in need of a good meal. It really took away from the act. I wrote Carson & Barnes and told them if I were a PETA person I would come after them for the dogs and not the elephants. The other odd thing which happened was during the trapeze act, they started undoing the tent from the center poles! Suddenly I see some guys head sticking out through the roof! Bad show. I realize it was the last show of the run, but they could have at least waited until the trapeze act was over, when everyone wasn't looking at the roof of the tent. We also thought that the performers weren't very enthusiastic when they had to partake in the circus parades.
We had a fun time but I think I Circus Vargas had a better "look". It seemed that everyone on the midway and ushers all had some kind of uniform. Carson & Barnes was a little more ragged around the edges. Still the show had between 500 to 600 people, and I think most of them left having had a good time.

[Dave has since e-mailed me that he e-mailed his displeasure over the dog act and the tent dismantling activities to C&B, and was impressed to hear back from them within 24 hours, pledging to address his concerns)

From Marcus Bethea in the San Diego area:

I was very disappointed in this show. This was the first time since I was little to see this show. My kids loved it. My wife and I hated it. I just came on to this site to see what other people reviewed on this circus act. I watched it in san diego, and it was as you described it [in my ‘08 review]. Many people left at intermission. Every thing is very expensive, and not worth the money paid. I spent over $200 dollars for cold pop corn, a little bag of peanuts one ride on a camel in one little circle. same on a elephant and supposed VIP seating in plastic patio chairs. I was very disappointed. But it was for my kids. But I will never do that again. I was thinking Ringling Bros or Barnum Bailey would be better but now I am scared of any kind of circus

Saturday, May 30, 2009

World’s Greatest Flies Again ... Russian Horse Show Struggling in Texas ... S.F Tiger Taunters Win Big Bucks ... Symphony and Circus Share Stages ...

from 5/30/09

Roustabouts, hold your props! Vendors, cease all vending! Maestro Evans, softly into “Wedding of the Winds,” if you please! Ringmaster Ronk, your lines ...

“Now ladies and gentlemen, it is with profound pride and respect that we present, high over center ring, the return of the greatest flyer who ever lived — Miguel Vazquez!”

When I first viewed the photo above, that's how I felt. What a fantastic event the return of this big top icon would be. All that Miguel Vazquez, still evidently fit, would have to do is turn a double, even a laid back tipple. The announcement of his name and unmatched legacy alone would stir the crowds. After all, Americans still swoon to the spectacle of trapeze. The good news is that the quad king, who thrilled audiences through the 1980s and then vanished from view like a shooting star lost in space, is back, back here on Planet Earth, back being interviewed by and flying for Hollywood actor Philip Weyland.

Weyland is independently at work on a documentary about Vazquez's life, assisted by a group of high ender Hollywood pros, some with Emmys to their names: documentary producer and director Jake Gorst, and composers Richie Saccente and S. Cosmo Mallardi. "I've chosen this 'independent' route to give myself the freedom to make the film I want without any outside interference," explains Weyland.

Just getting the elusive Vazquez to talk should earn Weyland some sort of a prize. He did not know the flyer when he decided to undertake the project. "We never actually spoke until I arrived in Las Vegas and met him in person."

In March, Miguel flew for the first time in five years, with his brother Juan catching. "What a thrill it was," says Weyland, who witnessed the reunion in the air. "Miguel is in shape and is still one exciting and graceful athlete."

Another Weyland coup, in my awed opinion, I get goosebumps just gazing at the photo, to your left: yes, you are looking at two legends seated next to each other: Tito Gaona and Miguel Vazquez, along with Miguel's son, David. The road ahead for Weyland will be, I suppose, rough. When will the big tops ever get a decent documentary? Something more than another lame Celebrity Circus. Miguel, welcome back!

Tiger Tiger, Verdict Bad: The Dhaliwal brothers, who sued the San Francisco Zoo for injuries suffered when a tiger escaped its compound and attacked them, also killing one of their friends, have settled out of court to the tune of $900.000. Local radio talk show hosts push the taunting angle, sure the brothers were responsible for provoking Tatiana to jump a wall lower than national zoo standards and have at them. They downplay the same tiger attacking its keeper a year or so before. And despite conceding that the zoo itself was negligent, and without any evidence found that the brothers actually provoked the tiger's escape, Bay Area residents tend to view the brothers, who have had run-ins with the law, as thugs, Tatiana as the victim. A twisted media nightmare is over. Let's see, didn't a tiger in some other zoo just kill a keeper? Wonder if that keeper was a thug?

Another Troubled Horse Show: From Houston, where it first played in the U.S., to Dallas goes the Russian-based Artania horse and acrobatic show. Artistic director Mairbrek Kantemirov is banking on a lush U.S. tour, which I sorta kind of don’t see exactly happening. These horse show things are difficult sells. Two in recent years from Montreal came on with a bang, and faded out soon ... Show plays under white tents, with a cast of 50 performers and 19 horses. ... Turnout in Houston was “low.” Surprised, anybody? Artania then took on a new marketing firm, trying to recoup losses so far and turn the books from red to black. A Peterson peanut bailout, per chance? ... Tents go up on a street replete with bail bondsmen, liquor stores, and the county jail ...

Symphony and Sawdust: Concert orchestras are starting to send tumblers and aerialists aloft while Mahler and Ravel play on. Cirque du la Symphonie is the brainchild of one Bill Allen, who was inspired one day watching a Bolshoi circus performer warming up to a recording of Tzchaikovsky. In 2006, Allen started booking circus artists into concert halls. All over the country they have performed. En route to Modesto, California are six ring artists who will “fly across the stage, dance, juggle, tumble and perform feats of strength.” The musicians will share the same stage rather than retreat to the pit. “The orchestra plays harder when we’re out there doing our thing,” says Allen. Audiences will hear a mix of classical and modern selections, from Dvorak's “Carnival Overture” to music from Harry Potter.

[photos by Philip Weyland]


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Boyi’s Big Top Stars: Icons Rise, Icons Fall ...

I like to talk about the circus to people from outside the circus. To people from other places and other backgrounds. Through their eyes, I see things I might not see through my own. Through their eyes, sometimes I gain fresh appreciation for elements I may have overlooked or simply taken for granted.

My friend Boyi, who was raised on a farm in the Chang Dong province of China and is now a college student, never saw a real circus in his country (other than side show-type stunt men working in the open air), and he has seen only one show here — Circus Chimera. The words "Cirque du Soleil" do not ring a bell with him.

But Boyi has a natural appreciation for many elements of circus, he is aware of the Chinese acrobatic traditions, and he has strong independent views of his own, as you shall see, and this I find refreshing.

While Boyi was looking at photographs of circus performers in my book, Fall of the Big Top, I asked him if he would score each on a scale of from 1 to 10. Since some of the photos, like the one of Miguel Vazquez sitting on a trapeze bar, are passive, I tried to give Boyi an idea of what these performers accomplished. But it is important to note, as Boyi himself would tell you, he is reacting only to the images themselves.

Here are Boyi's marks:

Alfredo Codona holding trap bar, body extended upward: Score 8

Barbette’s Bird Cage Girls: Score: 5

Svetlana Shamsheeva and dog . Score: 10. “I love dogs!”

Gunther Gebel Williams straddling tiger atop an elephant. Score: 5 “All he is doing is sitting.”

Bird Millman wire walking high over New York. Score: 10

Clyde Beatty in chair and whip face off with a snarling tiger: Score: 5. “Tiger is not doing anything. I want to see the tiger do a trick.”

Clyde Beatty pecking away over a typewriter: "I'll give him a 10.”

Con Colleano in a dancerly jump over the wire. Score: 6

Unus one finger stand: Boyi studied the photo closely. I explained it to him. He asked, “Is that a globe he is balancing on?” Yes, I replied. Exclaimed he, “that is absolutely amazing!” Score: 10. This was his most enthusiastic response, and I did not want to break the illusion. Should I tell him the truth about Unus? I did. Said Boyi, unphased, “Still a 10.” Why, I asked? “The line.”

Ballet of the Elephants. Score: 10. Most impressed by so many elephants working smoothly together.

Francis Brunn juggling a multitude of objects: Score: 7. Boyi seemed under impressed by so many objects in motion and by, it seemed, a sense of formlessness. If only he could have seen Brunn in action.

John Strong with little dog jumping through a hoop. Score: 7 “for the dog, not the man.”

Soviet teeterboard act . Score: 10

Ring full of dancers posturing at a Soviet circus. Score: 6

Miguel Vazquez sitting on a trap bar. Score: 8. “I see people in the Olympics turning many somersaults.”

Cirque du Soleil teeterboard act from Dralion. Score: 8

Pinito Dell Oro in a free standing forward swing. Score: 6.

Gui Ming Meng with vase on head. Score: 1. “I can do it.”

The Cristianis . Score: 10. Great appreciation for the complexity of animals and humans working together.

Chris Lashua, German Wheel: Score: 5

Lou Jacobs walking a floppy dog. Score: 5

The four Asia Boys in contortion formation. Score: 9. Strong admiration for the intricate coordination displayed.

La Norma, one hand to trap bar, legs extended. Score: 7

Christian Atayde in one hand stand while dog does hind-leg stand on his back. Score: 8

Bonus Comment: Where to see a circus? Perhaps because of the enchantment he felt over a 1954 photo by Ted Sato of the Ringling big top in the nation's capital, framed by trees, Boyi later told me that he is against a circus performing in an arena "where you see movies or other things.” He knows of the technical advantages that are available for circuses indoors, but prefers a tent. “I want to see a circus in a special place, a place I’ve never been before.” He also likes the light streaming in through the peaks of the tent.

Now, what do I take away from Boyi's comments and marks?

First, I have long regarded Unus as something of a scared cow, mainly because his act was so ill-structured, with the big item (one finger stand) coming first, making the rest seem somewhat anti-climactic. However, I can't think of a circus poster/litho that totally astonished me upon first sight as much as the one of Unus, when it appeared in Santa Rosa advertising the Big Show's appearance in San Francisco. Merle Evans once told me that Unus was “the best man performer I ever played for.”

Another of Boyi’s likes — the intricate coordination in group gymnastics — gave me pause to consider why the two and three person contortion acts, which to me are on the slow side, are so appreciated in general by the American public.

As for Boyi’s strong endorsement of the Cristianis, there again, from fresh eyes I am inspired to reconsider how I view such an act. I have long focused on the humans, not giving so much thought to the horse. My belated Kudos, horse.

Thank you, Boyi!

[photos, from the top: Bird Millman, circa the 1920s; Svetlana Shamsheeva, courtesy of Bertrand Guay/Big Apple Circus; Ballet of the Elephants, 1942; the Doveico teeterboard troupe, Soviet Union, 1970s; the Cristianis, circa 1940; Unus, photo by Ted Sato -- None of the photos on the sidebar to your right are from my book.]

originally published 5/26/09

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tent Tix Tumble, See Cirque du Soleil for 25.00! ... It’s a Virtual Twofer thing ... Blasted “Believe” Drawing Customers ... Wanna Know Why? ...

Was never a breeze, stocking the seats. Takes willing customers. Or plenty of shills. Seasons came and went, showman trouped on the fly. Now with this semi-depression thing on our lots, even the mighty monarchs are resorting to those discount deals ... Cirque du Soleil offering $25.00 tickets to five of its Vegas darlings, at the moment hurting for fans, that is, if you enter with a full-paying friend. Hmmmm, didn't I just see an offer sorta like that on the Carson & Barnes website? Very interesting. So, I did a mock purchase, pretending I wanted to see Ka, and the CDS promise came true, plus a few extra dollars. Perhaps that pays for a comp bag of peanuts. Now, if they will can add free airfare, they might attract millions of new believers (pun intended)...

The biz springboards up and down, it does. Yes, I know, you’ve heard me go on about this before. Well it’s fun, and, hey, have you anything better to do at the moment? So let’s wonder out loud about what this all means. I still see Cirque saturation backfiring on Guy Laliberte, who, the gambler he is, can’t seem to stop signing contracts right and left to install more shows in more venues.. Tie-ins with McDonalds? KFC? Feld Entertainment Presents Kooza? ... Cirque du Soleil Presents Feld’s Motor Sports? Who do you think will end up solvent? In the end, the money man outlasts the artist producer. Demolition Derby lives on. I feel here, Covington Connected, like a juggler journalist.

Big Apple is pushing half price tickets on Memorial Day. And the Russians, remember them, are ruing aloud, why oh why won’t the government support us as like it once did? This from current Russian State Circus Company director Mstislav Zapashny, a nice man, very talented wild animal trainer whom I recall interviewing back in 1979 during a two week whirlwind interviewing spree through four Soviet cities. Twas so different then, security, guaranteed wages, regular work, the respect of an astonished world. The great Moscow Circus it was. Envy of the globe ... There's Russian clown Slava durng a production of Snowshow.

Now what? Discount diva Barbara Byrd may be able to rent her services to the upscale tycoons hurting, she being one of a tradition of American tent show owners who somehow can keep a touring tent on the road when the road is bereft of customers. I still don’t know how she does it. Maybe with secret subsidies. Or Pledge Breaks. Carson & Barnes are coming back to the Bay Area, and that tells me they either did okay last year or are determined to crack a cold hearted market full of naval gazers, tarot card types and those precious thinkers with “issues” about you know what. C&B will again pitch canvas over the Cow Palace parking lot, an amazing occurrence considering how indifferently received they were last time around. Or was the scarcely attended show I went to an aberration? There’s always the second date, and the third ...

But not at the Santa Rosa fairgrounds, where I had hoped they would perform. Those Byrds in berets are evidently tenting up at a cultural performing arts center on the tony north end of town ...

About this part of the world, seems that Katherine Ringling North, daughter of JRN II, who does design work, is now a resident of Baghdad by the Bay. Strange that a Ringling should end up in my ex home town. We’ve yet to hear from John Ringling North III. Might Russian Hill, where Ms. North now resides, become the new West Coast production headquarters for Kelly Miller Circus?

Memo to all Med Schools: Banned are twins Marty and Jake LaSalle, (seen in the photo above) known to juggle for the Big Apple Circus. If the picture herein posted is an indication of the type of act they perform, I am hereby, in concert with the Big Top Brethren, issuing orders to all med schools to deny them admittance. How dare they desert the big top! So there. On this midway, poetry not biology rules. Now, that felt good ...

End ringers: Logan Jacot, over at his Sawdust Nights, high on a little circus called Nebbia, that he adores for its simplicity. I, a simple type, was likewise charmed, also by an air of whimsy about comical features. Would love to see that one. Sometimes, a slight nuance in another direction is just what the public might want ...

And why might the public be patronizing, in fair turnouts, the critically blasted Believe? At least, per a newspaper report I read. I have an idea here, so go with me if you will: Believe has a real live face, familiar to the public that might flock to the show. Face belongs to an illusionist named Chris Somebody, (okay, Angel) and that might be just what CDS needs, to come out from behind the masks and be a little more human ... Hold that face, Chris ...

Let there be discounts and let there be affordable dry ice. Now, San Francisco, have you an issue with that?

Friday, May 15, 2009

On Broadway, A Season of Redemption?

When the critics rave, beware. When they rage, beware. I’ve always been intrigued if not amused by the not infrequent disconnect between shows getting adored by reviewers, ignored by ticket buyers. Has anybody heard of The Golden Apple? One of dozens of ambitious shows that litter the junkyard of failure. Critical darlings, box office floporamas.

This season, Broadway is hosting two new raved-about musicals: Elton John’s direct-from-London Billy Elliott, which looks like it could run for years, and the more complexly questionable Next To Normal, which might not turn out to be so audience friendly. Very deep interior stuff bordering on group therapy. Got lots of high-five notices. The rare dissenters suggest these dysfunctional hoofers are so lost in their problems, we feel left out. I am reminded of the admiration granted the “ground breaking” Spring Awakening, a serious rocker that half-way rocked me with its now and then socko songs. It landed tons of Tonys, did not enjoy a super long run.

Last season, no, make that this season, Guys and Dolls got clobbered by the Big Pens, but West Side Story moved all of them. If I go back to Theatre Central, I’d be tempted to check out the new and improved Jets and Sharks.

When Wicked opened, what a nasty pro reception it received. So what? Hordes of instant fans lined up to be wickedly entertained. I suffered through Wicked’s bloated second act, as did the scribes, but the first act is so good, next time, if there is to be a next time for me, I will make my anonymous exit during intermission and perhaps have time to catch a Kelly-Miller roll in the mud around the corner or a Cirque du Soliel acro-seance at Carnegie Hall.

Let’s get real: the whole country needs Broadway hits (even flops) to keep the regionals and communities stocked with new stuff. To put fresh titles onto season subscription flyers. To keep the buzz alive. Was telling my brother, Dick, what fizzles on Broadway sizzles in Peoria. As long as it comes with a “made in the Big apple” label, the world is ready to embrace it, full force. Pity all of us would-be writers with our wannabe scripts and scores who can only dream of the coveted one-performance run in a Manhattan House. Because that one-perf run can last forever outside the city limits of New York. Oh, to have been there for but a single night!

Then American musical theatre will worship you, no questions asked. And out there are plenty of already fans arguing that you were misunderstood, the critics were unfair. And you will hear from hinterland directors telling you, "I know how to fix your show so it will work.” Sure, but why not try fixing mine up, Mr. Would-Be Director, while you are at it?

They say, if you can make it there (and we all know where “there” is), you can make it anywhere. No, no, this is how it should read: If you can open there, you can open anywhere. Who cares about the closing part. Just make it through the first night and you’re on. In. Certified. The Real Thing. Believe it or not, there are some contributors to 42nd Street turkeys still turning out more turkeys that get picked up from Bangor to Bakersfield. Cluck cluck.

One show I liked, even respected, in tune with the audience was I, was Mama Mia. Never could understand why it got such a bum wrap from the experts. Solid coherent book. Good engaging story easy and immediate to grasp upon lift off, so why all the dissing and hissing? They called it a "juke box musical," and they’ve got, this season, another new song sampler from the 80s (recycling the tunes of such groups as Bon Jovi, Journey, Poison) called Rock of Ages. It landed a glowing pass from the judges, who threw up their arms and said, in effect, heck, at least it does not pretend to be anything other than the juke box contrivance it is, so sit back and enjoy the music!

BTW: Anybody know who Poison is? Jack? ... Amy? ...

{photos: from Next to Normal and Rock of Ages]

Friday, May 08, 2009

Out of the Past: Showbiz Grabbag: Pizza Pitches to Vinyl's Comeback ...

Commercial Relief:
Have you heard this on TV: “Alright, okay, so you’re saying you feel different ...” That’s the Pizza Whisperer guy, moving into The Meat Ball Marvel pitch, and what a laugh he is! I predict big things for this actor ... Why is it that sometimes the ads are better than the shows? I tried to get involved in this latest American Idol, but I keep waiting to see a contestant sing (remember the contestant???), and all they give us are the extras, like an opening Ringling spec shouting out, “We are the greatest!”

Now, over to Coney Island: How great will Ringling's summer tent-in be? Kenneth Feld is trying to make, I take it, a big splash out there where the Cyclone roller coaster cries out for passengers, and under only the second spread of canvas to host a Ringling-Barnum parade in over fifty years. So he brings out his Gold Unit, which, from reports, might be more copper than Gold. Still, it’s a start ... I hope he makes a better first impression than did Carson and Barnes on one Marcus Bethea, who left a comment here on my last year's 2-1/2 star C&B review, saying he saw the show in San Diego (recently, I assume) and felt exactly the same way I did (about last season’s opus—ooooo). Said Marcus, he and his wife “hated” the show, his kids “loved it.” It left the father more turned off than on by this big top: "I was thinking Ringling Bros. or Barnum & Bailey would be better, but now I am scared of any kind of circus." One reason might be that it ended up costing Marcus "over $200." I’m going up to Santa Rosa in June to check it out. In all fairness to the Byrds (who evidently are not donning Montreal berets in their scaled down one ringer), last year I did hear a kid chirping to parent or peer, “Let’s go again!” Those Hugo tenting tycoons, who can let me down, know their market, and it’s not me ...

Vinyl to CDs, no! Has anybody out there ever purchased an overpriced CD only to despise over half of the junk that comes with it? I recall a bloated Santana disc that delivered 3 or 4 good tunes. The latest attempt by Rodgers and Hammerstein, the "Organization" that is, to divvy up some respect for their also-ran 1947 flop, Allegro, is a 2-disc 100-minutes yawner that might have made a dandy splash on a single CD. No wonder those vulturous record companies have lost out to cybertunes. I have maybe a dozen CDs, total ... Still have all my vinyls. I played Frank Sinatra’s A Swinging Affair, simultaneously from my CD player and my turntable, and went back and forth, comparing. There IS a difference, and the future is yesterday ... And now, according to The New York Times, those wonderful old Vinyl stores for collectors are making a grand comeback ... And the young kids continue to discover the superiority of the LP album, too ...

First and still first: Two great actors who made impressive transitions back and forth between dramatic works and musicals were James Mitchell, he of my favorite movie musical, The Bandwagon, and Ricardo Mantalban (left), whom I once saw in perhaps my favorite of all musicals (and surely he was a reason), The King and I. Mitchell of late seems to be living out his last days on a soap I once watched (before it ended up mostly in hospital beds) All My Sluts (excuse me, All My Children). ... Back in the fifties, both actors met up in a recent TCM discovery, Border Incident, about the passage of illegals across the border. What a fine flick find ...

Public to private and back. Discovered a no-nonsense jazz outlet on Comcast, so much better than the local college-based FM station that seems bent on force feeding us artists of a certain obscure ilk. Comcast gives us the greats and some younger voices too without PC posturing, thank you ... The "media" up here is so into the bash Oakland crime stats agenda (as if nothing ever bad happens across the bay in precious SF, sure), that I’ve tired of talk show hosts, like the gifted intellectual whore Gene Burns playing to script, and have, in revolt, driven myself back to Terry Gross, when she isn’t interviewing somebody about medicine or Middle East. And I just learned that our local NPR radio outlet KQED is actually drawing more people than the highest rated local KGO-AM. Kudos, NPR!

Sinking into Asphalt? Why would Cirque du Soleil move two of its touring tent shows indoors? There goes Saltimbanco and Alegria, into arenas. Is CDS hurting for the loot they need to set up their designer tops, I wonder ... Saltimbanco under a hard top in Nashville and then North Charleston, NC, and then onto Florida dates. What a downer ...

Tonight in the tea tent over Jade Spring, I was showing Boyi my book Fall of the Big Top, feeling a tad high for it actually earned an Amazon review (four stars — I'll gratefully take what I can get --- I have never asked anybody to shill for me), and Boyi thumbed through the pages from photo to photo. His reactions to them were so interesting that I asked him to assign each photo of an act a score from 1 to 10. What is refreshing about student Boyi, from a China where he never saw a circus, is his ability to tell it exactly like he sees it, so we got caught up in a discussion about the performers, and I refrained from trying to color his reactions, because I love hearing what other people have to say about tanbark talents. Boyi remembered seeing Circus Chimera in Hayward some years back; he enjoyed describing to me the clown working a vacuum cleaner and the toilet paper that flew sky high out over the audience. On that very funny turn, we shared a common amusement. And, so, when next you and I meet, Boyi's photo scores will be up on the platform here on this meandering midway. You might be surprised. One of yesterday's "greats" that I have sometimes regarded as a kind of sacred cow, well, took Boyi's breath away ... Maybe Maestro Merle Evans was right.

First published 5.8.09

Sunday, May 03, 2009

In the Church of Rodgers and Hammerstein: Allegro, their first flop, is no Show Boat.

Broadway CD Review

A fine new, lovingly packaged concert recording of the 1947 Allegro, issued in a 2-CD set, does little, unfortunately, to bolster the show’s inferior reputation.

Following the great success of their first two blockbusters, Oklahoma and Carousel, Rodgers and Hammerstein embarked on an original idea to dramatize, in a more experimental form (with ersatz Greek chorus) the life of a man who grows up to be a doctor, makes a name for himself in a big city, becomes disillusioned with rich folk who consume pills like candy, and returns to the small town of his birth to practice medicine among "real" people.

Allegro generated a phenomenal advance ticket sale, opened to wildly mixed notices, and was gone in 10 months. Brooks Atkinson found its first act "full of a kind of unexpected glory." What followed intermission left him wanting. That's exactly how I felt when I saw a very good college production of the show in southern California back in the 1980s.

Allegro was somewhat daring in its experimental structure — it inspired a young Stephen Sondheim to follow its “concept musical” approach. But its feel-good execution fell glaringly short of a fully realized work -- short by at least half a book and half a score. A half dozen top-drawer R&H songs include "A Fellow Needs a Girl," "So Far," "The Gentlemen is a Dope," "Money Isn’t Everything," and two high-energy gems that did not make it onto the original cast album, "It’s A Darn Nice Campus," and "What A Lovely Day for a Weeding." Here, they are a joy to rediscover. Here, we get the magical supremacy of R&H at work. Even then, disparage as they may the original cast LP, the renditions it offers of my two favorite numbers, "So Far" and "Money," are somewhat more appealing than those delivered on the technically advanced CD.

No matter, those six gems must share the stage with half a dozen also-rans, among the plodding ditties, "One Foot, Other Foot," and "I Know it Can Happen Again." There are too many reprises of these weaker tunes, making us wish that that it wouldn't happen again.

The interpolation by Rodgers of his "Mountain Greenery" from an old show he wrote with Larry Hart only adds to the impression of a creatively straining work. And yet, ironically, out of Allegro came one of the most loved of all the R&H songs -- but not until the tune, originally known as "My Wife" before it was dropped on the road, appeared in another show with a brand new lyric, "Younger Than Springtime."

Perhaps the biggest bonus is the welcome inclusion of the remarkable "Allegro Ballet" music, which incorporates Stravinskyian dissonance and dynamics. Through it all, we can see and hear what Dick and Oscar had in mind that so entranced the show's fans and that has left a lasting legacy for Allegro's admirable reach.

Overall, do we really need a two-disc salute to a second drawer tuner? What was good for melody-rich Show Boat over 20 years ago feels padded and gratuitous for the thinly talented Allegro. I would have welcomed one disc packed with the best of the bunch. Not another "one foot, other foot," please.

The libretto suffered, and here you may get a sense of why, from Hammerstein’s overly simplistic portrayal contrasting glibly hedonistic city life with the alleged innocence of a small town community. So spiritually inclined is this work, that it feels almost like a church service conducted by Dick and Oscar. They had intended to follow their central character, Joseph Taylor, Jr., all the way through to his death. They only got as far as his heroic return to the town of his birth, there to rejoin the real human race as opposed to the fake human race.

And there, never to face the problems that might have made Allegro so much more interesting, so much more engagingly dramatic. When Rodgers and Hammerstein returned to Broadway two years later, gone was the Greek chorus. And what they delivered was easily three times better: South Pacific.

Rodgers and Hammerstein fans will surely welcome this new and impeccably produced release. They also might, in time, return to the original cast album to save a lot of down time.

[photos from Allegro CD set, starting at top: the original New York cast; crowds line up for tickets outset the Majestic Theatre; Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II during Boston tryouts, September, 1947]