Friday, November 27, 2009

Sunday Morning, Looking Back -- A Lesson Facing Cirque du Soleil on a Banana Shpeel: When Circus and Theatre Collide, One Must Die

This first appeared on November 27, 2009

Cold in Chicago. Critically cold. Cold as out-of-down doom for a Broadway bound show in deep deep trouble. This one is a Cirque du Soleil production called Banana Shpeel, and it's being tried out prior to a New York premiere in February. Originally billed, according to a story in the Chicago Tribune by Chris Jones, as a “distinctive fusion of vaudeville, clowning and musical comedy” (did we not get that in Gene Kelly’s lavishly ill-fated ClownAround?), this was to be the company’s auspicious foray onto the legit stage.

Going into rehearsals, they had the talent to do theatre. Songs by Laurence O’Keefe (Legally Blond). Neon stars like Annaleigh Ashford and Michael Longoria to sing them. But the creative staff evidently hadn’t the stomach to rewrite themselves out of a mess that blossomed during some ominously troublesome run-throughs. Gone in a Montreal bloodbath were the two stars, the composer and all his music. Director David Shiner, not among the yet evicted, defended the pre-Chicago purges: “The show was becoming too story based. We also wanted to include clowning and variety. But the story element was outweighing everything else.”

The show’s producer, Serge Roy, said it was “dragging.” Shiner called it “a learning process for everybody.”

Cirque King Guy Laliberte, whose world wide creative reach is a spectacle to behold and whose idea it was to mount a vaudeville show, may be in for a sobering reality check if he does move Banana Shpeel all the way east onto the Beacon stage. The effort to merge theatre and circus has never really worked. One of the two forms must take the lead, allowing the other shadow status. And when that happens, we assume the survivor — in this case, cirque rather than Shakespeare -- will be strong enough on its own time-tested terms to win profitable patronage.

Long identified in the public’s mind as acrobatic-centered entertainment, Cirque now has an uphill battle. Even if they can salvage their ailing patient by defaulting back to acrobat & clown mode, how well might a circus from Montreal come across on stage in mid-town Manhattan?

Customers during Chicago previews have been acutely unkind. On the website Yelp!, the average rating (out of a possible 5) is 2. Among nine contributors, groused a self-described CDS lover, “rotten ... I felt like I was watching a bad episode of the Stooges.” And, noticed he/she, many around did not return after intermission. Seems a repeat of the early bum audience reception to Cirque’s Vegas magic show, Believe, only this time it’s worse.

Probably, imbued with a touch of hubris, the Montreal fantasy factory threw this thing into rehearsals believing they could easily shape and hone it as they have virtually all their other shows. "We were getting into a world in which we are not at ease," admitted Roy to the Tribune.

They may be learning a lesson -- or not. “Cirque, in essence,” wrote Jones, “went back to a world in which it is more comfortable. And within which it has never failed.” But that might not be quite the case. Even though there are some circus acts in Banana Shpeel, the show, states Shiner, is now "based in comedy and dance." Dance? By that statement alone, I'd say that things still seem dubiously off the usual Cirque axis.

Perhaps the blood bath will have proven a wise act on the road to another fail-safe success. But I’m not betting on anything at this point. Laliberte could decide to shut down a shaky experiment and spare himself a widely-covered Big Apple fiasco. On a Broadway stage, critical expectations are much higher than they usually are under a tent.

Banana Shpeel, now in previews at the Chicago Theatre, opens on December 2.

[photo by Scott Strazzante/Tribune photo]


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Friday Fliparounds: China's Emerging Greatest Show on Earth ... A Tawdry Bio on Cirque King Guy Laliberte Fails to Deliver, Says Bloomberg ...

A terrific new Big Apple Circus YouTube teaser left me charmed by one act in particular — two wry Chinese guys, the Long Twins, who end up in two barrels cavorting in a very funny manner. Comedy from China? Once seriously ground bound, their crack acrobats are more and more flying high, and now they are clowning it up or down, too. What next — a dog act that doesn’t end up on somebody’s plate, ho ho? I am starting to see a Buddha big top. All they need are a few animals. I share this remarkable insight with friend Boyi, and he tells me of a very clever monkey who performed for him years ago in his village. The charming chimp did “flips,” dressed up and walked like a human and then “passed a tray around” for donations. Okay, so maybe we've got a bookable chimp, and I've heard of two pander bears over there who perform. All they need are a few Montreal designer insects. Read on ...

Speaking of which (animals, that is), Wade Burck takes me to task for maybe being to hard on Kenneth Feld. Says the cage man, “the animal rights movement kicked into justified action with a full head of steam in the late 70s/early 80s fueled by many producers/trainers revered as heroes. The ‘Feld myth’ that you point out as ‘crashing’ is residual fall out from the sorry history that the industry had before it was forced to change itself. Everybody operating today and tomorrow will be dealing with the sins of the past. Point a finger in the right direction if you want to help change the situation.” ... Okay, Wade, but we still have that awful video issued by PETA appearing to reveal blatant elephant abuse, and I remain more than curious about how, according to a Feld Entertainment press release, it was “deceptively edited.” Believe, me, I would love to learn that the damaging film footage was edited into false testimony, but I can no longer hold my own (possibly self-created) myth about Mr. Feld as being a man genuinely dedicated to the proper treatment of animals.

Monkeys to Insects: From Montreal to San Francisco come the latter, all dressed up for Cirque’s new touring attraction named OVO. $65.00 (not counting additional fees) will get you the best worst seat in the tent. Maybe I’ll try to sidewalling this one. I’m skinny enough to pass for an insect myself. (I’m laughing, are you?)

About Cirque du Soleil, its fearless leader Guy Laliberte could not nix the publication of the sleazy tabloid tome about him that alludes to all sorts of late night parties for free lovers and loaders. Reviewing it for Bloomberg News, Steven Frank expresses acute disappointment that a major chance to deliver on this remarkable story was so botched up and blown aside by gossipy author Ian Halperin. Says Frank (largely in sync with what Henry Edgar earlier told us), the author “skims over parts of Cirque du Soleil’s history while spending an inordinate amount of space on titillating tales from people identified only by a first name or a pseudonym.” Laliberte is a “great creative force worthy of a major biography. But Halperin’s book, sadly, isn’t it.”

Naked Residuals: When I read about the Naked Clown Calender 2010 being put out by the San Francisco Circus Center, all I can do is rue the strange subversive demise of its once-vital predecessor named Pickle Family Circus, and wonder why this had to happen to Larry Pisoni’s little touring gem. Nothing more is what’s left of the post Pickle operation than a concession cow for a few individuals who pitch lessons to students seeking circus careers who mostly dabble and then go no where. Maybe as insects they’d have a future. Sad but true. I sigh. And I take heart looking elsewhere, such as to Oakland where the promising Circus Bella (there they are in the photo), a new Bay Area troupe reminiscent of the old Pickles, is striving to make a name for itself. I hope they can. We need a circus, not a failed institution that pushes veiled porno. Yuck! What an insult to the Pickles that were. Go, Bella, Go! (in your costumes, please)

End Ringers around Dragon Well: Heck, there are none. They all got puffed in the Big Show! Meet me here for more of the same in a few or a thousand days ... No more teasers, Big Apple. I am not calling Amtrak!

[top photo: Qibi Acrobatic Troupe, China]

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Broadway’s Cruel Reversals Tumble, Humble Once-Invincible Neil Simon. Is Disney Next? ...

What a breath taking shock to discover that Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs, greeted in revival by a slate of glowing notices. closed in just one week. Repeat: one week.

Simon, once the king of comedy along the Great White Way, told a reporter how he was “dumbfounded after all these years.” Indeed, what happened to his revered play feels almost like a public assassination. The New York Times described it as “one of the biggest commercial flops on Broadway in recent memory.”

“I still don’t know how Broadway works, or what to make of our culture,” said the humbled 82-year-old author of numerous hit shows, among them The Odd Couple.

And now, another planned Neil Simon revival, Broadway Bound, is no longer Broadway bound, nixed, too, for lack of sufficient advance sales.

Next for the chopping block may be Disney, already in a slow motion free fall. The tortuously adapted stage version of its instant film classic, The Little Mermaid, which provoked scathing notices, closed last June, less than two years on the boards. Today, less than two years on the boards amounts to box office failure. Before that, another Disney turkey, Tarzan, clomped out of town amidst critical disgrace and customer indifference.

I never quite bought the Disney act. Its productions have a slick manufactured look and feel to them. Yet to be seen is how long its Mary Poppins, a mixed-notice co-production with another foundering producer, Cameron Mackintosh, can last.

Simon may not have lost his touch; audiences may no longer respond to his pen. But there are things to be said against Brighton Beach, essentially about a contrived third act that resolves conflicts raised in its finely wrought earlier scenes with sit-com simplicity. I left the show years ago feeling that Simon had missed a chance to reach the level of O’Neil or Williams.

Broadway produces high drama itself, merely by dramatizing the vexing ironies of how art and commerce intersect. I’ve seen plodding audience pleasers in recent years (Elton John’s cardboard Aida – it did well) and absolute gems (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels -– it didn’t).

Has anything really changed on Times Square? Gone, it seems, are the long-running contributors who can be counted on to stock stages with popular entertainment over long lush hauls. The remarkable Richard Rodgers, who worked first with Larry Hart and then with Oscar Hammerstein II, enjoyed four prolific decades. So did pop master Irving Berlin. Cole Porter’s output spanned a good thirty years. Other master creators, like George Gershwin, died all too soon.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, a contemporary giant, suffered widespread critic indifference -- some might call it outright abuse -- when he came to town. Never mind the envy. This master of melody and showmanship landed five hit shows in New York, and his Phantom of the Opera is now the longest running production in Broadway history.

From whence the next Rodgers and Hammerstein? The next Andrew Lloyd Webber?

We can always count on the one- and two-hit wonders. Think Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus Line; They're Playing Our Song). And the town is also a place where promising talents get many second chances and yet still fail to turn a profit for the producers. Think Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, whose plodding and didactic Ragtime is now in previews, set to be revived next Sunday. Maybe this time it'll work. Advance praise from avid fans and a good notice in Variety suggests a better outcome the second time around. But don't count on anything. New York has yet to weigh in.

John Kander and Fred Ebb, a couple of giants, came to town with many fine shows, but only two of them clicked, and one — Chicago — is now New York's longest running revival. The other is Cabaret. I'm hoping their score-rich Steel Pier will get a second chance someday.

Indeed, musical theatre is a devouring mistress who usually turns away her most ardent creative suitors sooner than later. Lerner and Loewe first struck gold in 1947 with Brigadoon. Thirteen years later, following the lucky success of their critically dismissed Camelot, they went their separate ways. Two revivals of the leaden Camelot suffered more critical disdain; both return visits were out the door within weeks. Remember the long-running off-Broadway phenomenon, The Fantasticks? Its creators Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones landed just one hit on Broadway -- I Do! I Do! Popular music giant Johnny Mercer courted Times Square for many years, mostly in vain. In 1956, he finally hit a minor jackpot with his Ll'l Abner, which managed to outfox a set of widely mixed reviews.

And what is to become of the ultra gifted Adam Guettel, grandson of Richard Rodgers? His masterfully wrought, Tony award winning The Light in the Piazza played out a respectable thought profitless run at Lincoln Center. I fear for the future of so accomplished an artist in so treacherous a place.

Now, in lieu of established names, Broadway gets by with more than a little help from a handful of monster hits (Lion King and Phantom of the Opera, Mama Mia, and promising new candidates like Wicked and Jersey Boys) that can generate winning ticket sales for decades, a feat unheard of thirty seasons ago. And Broadway stages stay open, thanks also to rentals for revivals of popular shows created by yesterday’s top talents. Finian’s Rainbow just opened to upbeat notices. West Side Story is doing well in revival. So is South Pacific and so was Hair, but “golden age” classics rarely hang around for longer than a couple of seasons. Others less lucky or ill-directed, like Guys and Dolls and the recently opened Bye Bye Birdie, do not enjoy guaranteed respect and patronage merely by returning to the Broadway battlefield.

Steven Schwartz is something of an aberrational rarity -- a composer who struck gold in a second act that may turn out to be bigger than his first, with his mega hit, Wicked. And then, at the top of the revival heap, there is legendary Stephen Sondheim, the prince of trenchant tuners whose acclaimed musicals rarely turned a profit when originally produced. Sondheim has great shelf life; his work gets revived regularly.

Broadway is a strange place. A show can bomb there and have a huge afterlife elsewhere. A Broadway flop is a Broadway show in any other town, and a Broadway show is all the public wants to see. They're funny that way.

“I‘m dumbfounded. After all these years, I still don’t know how Broadway works or what to make of our culture.”

Neither does anyone else, Mr. Simon. Welcome back to the club you once ruled.

[photos of people: Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers; Chicago cast members Nicole Bridgewater, James Patrick Sands, Dylis Croman, and Donna Marie Asbury; Adam Guettel; Neil Simon and Elaine Joyce on opening night of the revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs]

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sunday Morning with Carl Augustus Heliodor Hammarstrom: An Artist Awaiting Recognition? ...

Across the street to Playland-at-the-Beach we went on foggy nights, my sister Kathy and I holding his big warm hands. He would buy us salt water taffy or popcorn, or a hard crunchy chocolate covered “It’s It” ice cream bar. Neons flickered through surging ocean roars, through the shouts of soldiers and their girlfriends riding the Big Dipper roller coaster.

Across the street from the Big Dipper is where we lived, in a two story brick house in Golden Gate Park, set poetically in the shadows of the North Windmill. My grandfather and then my father following him were park gardeners. With their city jobs came the house. My Uncle Smitty managed the Big Dipper directly across the street. My dad installed electrical shock effects in the Laugh-in-the-Dark and the Dark Mystery rides, and he worked on the Dipper, too, night after night through the war years, manning the grips.

Out back of our house stood an old shed, filled with must and paint and canvas. And old clocks and easels. Filled with a special atmosphere. That’s where my grandfather had labored over his passion in days gone by. Now, he lived in a small tent a few hundred feet in front of our house, where on pleasant Sunday afternoons, the locals would picnic on a spread of grass. Each morning I would take Grandpa a cup of Oval-teen. Under his bed once, I discovered the bike that Santa had planned to give my brother Dick on a Christmas day. The same magical December morning, I received my most prized gift ever -- a Lionel train set.

I’m not sure what dampened Grandpa's spark for painting. I never saw him create a single canvas. By the time I came along, he was spending most of his time sitting in a chair in an engine shed that drew water from the ground. The power for that task had been supplied by the windmill until it was stripped of its muscle and steel for wartime use.

What a family: A painter. A father (seen, right, in the photo) and uncles who worked on a roller coaster. A great uncle (Eugene B. Lewis) who enjoyed a screen writing career in the silent days down in Hollywood. And my mother, who had wanted to be a singer and got only as far as one timid audition, and never went back. She settled into the safe inviolate role of full-time recreational dreamer.

My kindly, quiet grandfather, the son of a sea captain, had come to San Francisco from Gotland, Sweden in 1885. He worked as a street car conductor (during spare moments, sketching out the faces of his customers); by another account, he worked on the cable cars. Following the earthquake of 1906, which demolished his studio, he lived in a tent next to the Cliff House. Whether his wife, one Anna Pelch from Bohemia, shared the tent with him I do not know. She died at a very young age. Sometime later Grandpa got the park job. With it came the windmill which he operated and maintained, and the brick house in which he alone — with the help of a murky succession of “house keepers” -- raised six or seven children.

Artist Carl Augustus, who studied at the Mark Hopkins Institute and privately with Gottardo Piazzoni, made a local name for himself. From two news stories I have, evidently he was called simply "Hammarstrom" by local critics, whose discriminating respect he enjoyed. Some of his work won display space at the San Francisco Art Association, the Del Monte Gallery in Monterey, the Alaska Yukon Exposition in Seattle in 1909, and, finally, at the glorious Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in 1939. I am so happy to know he got this far, for from the movies I have seen of the event, what an enchanted setting it was. Close to his 90th birthday, he passed away in 1954.

Hard for me to judge his work; he is my father's father. That having been said, some of it I find perfectly fine. Especially am I engaged by its serene moodiness, a mark of the period. After all these years, there is some interest out there in cyberspace for the work of Carl Augustus Heliodor Hammarstrom. Here are a few of the images I came across on the internet. My brother Dick discovered that one of them sold at an on-line auction this summer for $600.00. Yes, not much, and I hope it wasn’t to a member of our family. I do know that a few years ago a Los Angeles gallery owner e-mailed me, expressing interest in acquiring what I might be willing to sell. We talked by phone. She judged him "a fine landscape painter," but said she would need a large body of his work for a viable try at building up a demand. I only have a precious few of his paintings, one being the last displayed here (misleadingly lit when I snapped it), my favorite. Not for anything would I ever give it up. That lonely enchanted place is exactly where I came from.

Thank you, Grandpa, for reminding me.


Sunday, November 01, 2009

Sunday Side Up: Crash Moreau to Feld: Fire Bad Trainers! ... NYT to BAC: Yes, We Still Love You ... Bandwagon Remembers Stuart Thayer

Crashing a Feld Myth? I was gratified, reassured, reinforced and retrofitted, validated and exhilarated to discover that Crash Moreau, sometime recently on his blog (you’ll find it to your right) has challenged Kenneth Feld to fire the animal trainer(s) responsible for the abuse that is all too convincingly obvious on the tape made by an undercover PETA agent, a tape that has left many of us aghast. Here are the main points in Crash's posting:

“I have to express my feelings ... I am not an animals rights activist as I believe animals should be in the entertainment business. But what I saw and I know, this is not an old video clip as one of the handlers has been with Ringling since 2008 which makes it an updated video ...The time has come for the Ringling organization to do the right thing. First: Anyone involved on the tape should be ... fired with no exceptions. This does no need to happen for any reason ... Second: Ringling should bring up charges against all the ones that were beating on the elephant and the judge should throw the book at them PERIOD.”

I can only hope-assume that most in the circus community share Crash’s outrage and demand for corrective action. I would add one other request: Ringling needs to immediately back up the claim it put out in a press release alleging that the video was “deceptively edited.” If so, Ringling, how, how, HOW??? Mr. Feld: my long-held respect for what I perceived (naively, I'm afraid) to be your total micro-attention to proper treatment of your animals has been shaken to the bone. I no longer believe you. Now, if you can prove to us that the video was "deceptively edited," once again, I ask you to show us now. Thank you, Crash.

Another Big Apple Circus Charmer: The annual New York Times valentine to Big Apple Circus in the form of a thoroughly positive review was composed this year by one Ken Jaworowski, who gives them a full White Tops endorsement: He loved Bello, found nothing to carp or question. “This is one terrific troupe.” New York, you are one lucky town!

Remembering a research master of many index cards: The passing in June of circus historian Stuart Thayer, as covered with profound affection by Fred D. Pfening III in the latest issue of Bandwagon, is a sad story. Sad because if Thayer was, as Pfening alleges, virtually the greatest in his class, why such anonymity? According to Pfening, Thayer’s “best work is the best ever written on the subject ...the quality of his scholarship is unprecedented and unmatched.” What is so puzzling is why Thayer could not find a publisher to promote his work and get it out to readers beyond the CHS. “He had little interest in impressing anyone,” Pfening writes. “He self published his books, usually with minuscule press runs.” We are not told whether or not Mr. Thayer actually tried to find a publisher. And if not, why not? Was he forced in default to publish himself? (I know, through countless humbling rejection slips, how hellishly difficult it can be to find a regular royalty publisher out there.)

I could not purchase any of Thayer’s books on Amazon if I tried. All “unavailable.” I did a world library search to discover that one of his tomes is on the shelves of only six libraries, another on just sixteen. Compare that to Earl Chapin May’s 1932 masterwork, Circus From Rome to Ringling, which remains in well over 500 libraries. A brief Wikipedia bio of Mr. Thayer that reads as if it were penned by Pfening is preceded with this note from the editors: “This article needs references that appear in reliable third-party publications. Primary sources or sources affiliated with the subject are generally not sufficient for a Wikipedia article. Please add more appropriate citations from reliable sources. (June 2007).”

Because I have great respect for the CHS (recent Bandwagon articles by Bill Taggart on Ringling grift, Mike Straka on phone rooms, amount to courageous revelations), I have to give Pfening’s Thayer claim strong consideration. But Pfening is a human being, too, with opinions of his own; he previously slighted the magnificently rich (in my opinion) May work. Why not, Pfening & Pfening, an article in your words telling us why Mr. May’s book is so “overrated,” and listing the top three books on American circus history from your well-informed points of view?

Truth has a hard time finding an audience, I fear, if there are too many foot notes, too much contextual detail, or too little narrative thrust. Now, if it was Stuart Thayer who tracked down the first portable circus tent back to J. Purdy Brown in 1825 (identifying a signal turning point in U.S. circus history), that is the sort of research that merits lasting respect, whether found in a compelling read or a finely wrought thesis.