Friday, November 21, 2014

Review: tick, tick... BOOM! at SecondStory Repertory

tick, tick... BOOM!
Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
David Auburn, Script Consultant
Through Nov. 22, 2014
SecondStory Repertory
16587 NE 74th St
Redmond, WA 98052

I promised myself that when I write an actual review - not a commentary inspired by a show, but a full-on review - I'd do it while there's still time to see the show. Technically, that's true, in this case, but only by the tiniest of margins - the show closes tomorrow. If you can get a ticket, go. If that wasn't clear enough: GO.

If you know Jonathan Larson's work at all, I'll give 1000:1 odds that it's for RENT, his multi-Tony-award-winning musical that could definitely fill the role mentioned in this show by Larson as "HAIR for the 90s." A well-known part of the legend of RENT is that Larson never lived to see it performed before an audience, dying at 35 of an aortic dissection on the morning of the first off-Broadway preview. But the other work of his that has survived and is occasionally, though I think too rarely, performed is this one.

Larson struggled with a musical called SUPERBIA through the 80s. The show, an unauthorized rock musical adaptation of Orwell's NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, won awards and industry recognition for Larson during its development, but was never fully produced; to deal with the disappointment and push through, Larson put together a "rock monologue" about his experience and his life through the period; originally titled 30/90 (which remains as the title of the opening song), it was eventually renamed tick,tick... BOOM! Performances of this show made producing connections for Larson that helped lead to the development of RENT. After Larson's death, David Auburn (who wrote and won the drama Pulitzer for PROOF) restructured it into a three-performer work, as it is now performed, and Stephen Oremus arranged the vocals and orchestrated the songs.

I've been hoping to see a production of the show for years, but have always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time for it. Now that I've seen it, I understand what everyone has seen in it. In many ways, some blatant and some more subtle, it foreshadows many of the themes and techniques of RENT. But it's a more intimate and personal show - fitting, as it's autobiography. And because it's a musical about making musicals, it deals much more directly with that creative process. Larson's worship of (whisper) Stephen Sondheim is a key element, not just in the plot, but in some musical touches; the song "Sunday" is a spin on the song from SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, only instead of being about art, it's about... brunch. Starving artists need day jobs, and like many others, Larson's was as a waiter. (In many ways, Roger's and Mark's creative advances and obstacles in RENT are metaphorical stand-ins for Larson's own.)

As I said, many of the same concerns and themes are here - the boho life vs. selling out, balancing love and art, and the specter of AIDS. It's interesting how the world changes in five years, too: in 1990 in this show, when AIDS is mentioned - no, not even mentioned, but talked around - it is as a death sentence; while there is some of that in Roger's need to write "one last song" and in, well, Angel's death, there is also a survivor's spirit and, along with it, the "AZT break."

So, about this production. A three-person show with this much music needs strong singers; a three-person show with this much substance needs strong actors. None of the cast have much if any Seattle stage work on their résumés, but I hope that's going to change as a result of this show. Adam Minton, as Jon, rocks out when he can, sweetly sings his heart (and yours) out when he needs to, and is utterly believable in the outsized role. Ryan Lile (Michael and others) and Faith Howes (Susan and others) hit the same marks consistently. And Ben Bentler and the rest of the band are with them every step of the way.

One of the most exciting things about SecondStory is its effort to let some of the town's strongest performers strut their directing stuff. Last season, Billie Wildrick took on KISS OF THE SPIDER-WOMAN and delivered a production that made the show feel as big as it had in houses much larger than SSR's 78 seats, but benefited from its claustrophobia in its prison setting, while making character dynamics stronger and clearer than I'd seen in those MainStage versions. Here, Jeff Orton takes his turn. As a performer, Orton's name is at the top of my list when I'm asked to word-associate "fearless" - killer turkey, anyone? Jewish Christian boyband singer? - and his sure directing hand is seen here as well. (A few years back, he also staged a terrific [title of show] for Balagan.) The show is well-staged, kinetic without burying the soul in motion. Orton is directing NEXT TO NORMAL for SSR in February and March, and I'm looking forward to his take on that monster.

The show itself, and the production, are enough of a reason to see it tomorrow. The unfortunate fact that chances to see it are so rare should push you even harder.

Again: GO.

Friday, November 14, 2014

On WITNESS UGANDA, PrEP, and Accidental Activism

One of my friends told me he thought this blog was just going to be a pile of theatre reviews, and putting the word "sex" in the title was just a cynical way of lining up readers. This post puts the lie to that - it starts out being about theatre, yes (though it's not really a review), and a key theme it picks up takes us over to the "sex and longing" side of the world.

Tonight, INTIMAN Theatre Festival presented a work called WITNESS UGANDA. INTIMAN was, for years, a major year-round theatre company in Seattle; several years ago, it collapsed under its debt and cancelled its in-progress season, and pulled back to reorganize, tackle its debt, and rethink its mission. The then-Assistant Artistic Director, Andrew Russell, who subsequently became Producing Artistic Director, led the rethinking of INTIMAN as a summer festival. In each of its first two seasons, they produced four works in repertory, including both plays and musicals, both new works and fresh thought on old ones. (A few examples were a staging of LYSISTRATA set in an American military base in Afghanistan; Dan Savage's MIRACLE! - which answered the question "what if Helen Keller was a 1990s Seattle drag queen?"; and the new musical STU FOR SILVERTON, about the first trans mayor in the United States - as far as we know, anyway.) This summer, the festival featured ANGELS IN AMERICA, as well as several new and existing works that supported its themes. The last production of this year - I'm starting to think of it as a "stealth" year-round operation - was tonight's offering.

WITNESS UGANDA is a work in development by Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews. Originating in Matthews' six-week volunteer education work in Uganda a decade ago, it follows his personal journey (and that of Gould, his partner in theatre and life), as well as the project it grew into, the Uganda Project, which has taken about a dozen young people who wanted to be able to afford an education through high school, university, and into their working lives. The full production, with a cast of 14 and an orchestra of 9, is slated for Broadway in the fall of 2015. Tonight's performance was not a performance of it, but something else entirely: part tasting menu, part duologue, part fundraiser, part barn-raiser, totally inspiring. (Read here for more on the show, and here for more on the Project. And if they come to your town before the show hits Broadway, see them.)

Of course, the Project is the focus, but not the whole experience, because the experience of two gay Americans relating to Uganda in the era of the Anti-Homosexuality Law is not just about their work, but also, about themselves, their souls, their very existence. The fact that they are gay has become a challenge to their work, and potentially, to not only their freedom and their lives, but to those of the students as well, given that the penalties under the now-overruled-but-potentially-resubmitted Law affect not only homosexuals, but anyone who knows one and fails to report them. Matt and Griffin set out to be artists, educators, and sponsors - the circumstances made them activists as well, in a way they never intended. And as the students dealt with the knowledge and its potential consequences, it did the same to them. If brought the whole family, to varying degrees, into "accidental activism."

Cut to: my world today. (Here's where the "sex" part starts, sort of.)

Since August of 2012 - about three weeks after interim guidelines for its use were issued - I've been participating in an HIV prevention strategy called "pre-exposure prophylaxis," or PrEP. Once my negative HIV status was confirmed by the latest tests, I began to take a single pill of Truvada daily. While HIV treatment regimens today use three-drug combinations, two of the drugs most commonly prescribed are also available in a single two-drug pill. Many studies have shown that PrEP can reduce the risk of HIV infection dramatically when taken daily (and is tolerant of missing the occasional dose) - in one recent study, not a single infection occurred in anyone taking the pill at least four times a week, regardless of how much or how little they used condoms.

The idea of an HIV prevention strategy that is anything other than the "use a condom 100% of the time" message that has lost effectiveness as HIV itself lost the edge of terror is upsetting to many people. Ironically, while many of my straight friends have said they found it to be a no-brainer - including my fourth-year med student niece, who said, "well, there's no vaccine, and no cure, so you should protect yourself as best you can" - the pushback in parts of the gay community has been vicious, labeling people everything from selfish hedonists to pawns of Big Pharma. It's far from ubiquitous, but the anti-PrEP drumbeat has been heard in corners of the prevention community, and most recently, from a certain out-of-the-closet movie star.

Now, when I started on PrEP, I didn't say, "Hey, self, here's a cause you can comment on endlessly everywhere from Facebook to The Huffington Post and bang your head on your desk multiple times a day." Really, that wasn't my plan. I was just going to take my pill every day and protect my health. 

It's not like I'm uncomfortable being an activist. I worked on non-discrimination and/or domestic partner benefits policies at three Silicon Valley companies; I was a founding member of Dartmouth College's first sorta-LGBT-student-association, Students for Social Alternatives; I participated in Kiss-Ins and Queer Stereotypes on Parade demonstrations at shopping malls with Queer Nation San Francisco; I marched through the streets of San Francisco and helped occupy the Bay Bridge in protest of the first Gulf War (and, to bring back the "sex" theme while staying PG, let's just say that a couple of us exuberantly burned off the adrenaline high in a private place between the time we ordered post-protest dinner and the time it arrived - ah, dear, departed, and fiercely ironically named Baghdad Cafe!)... But being labeled a PrEP activist was never the plan. Yet, well, here we are.

What's the take-away? Now, I'm by no means equating putting your life and freedom on the line with commenting on blogs. But... Sometimes, just doing what you have to is activism, whether you mean it to be or not.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Review: DOGFIGHT at ArtsWest

Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Book by Peter Duchan
Through Nov. 22, 2014
ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery
4711 California Ave SW 
Seattle, WA 98116

There have been some terrific musicals created in the last few years. (And a lot of less terrific ones.) But in most cases, it has been a case of a good score, a good book, good direction, good choreography, and a good cast making a whole that exceeds each of its parts.

And, yes, I think DOGFIGHT is all that. But it also is something far too rare these days: a terrific score, one that I can play over and over again, one that earworms me and won't let go. One that makes me glad that the songwriters, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, may finally be starting to age out of the "so talented at that age I hate them" stage.

The musical is inspired by the superb River Phoenix/Lili Taylor film, written by Bob Comfort and directed by Nancy Savoca, that embodied the optimism of the early incursion in Viet Nam, and the testosterone-poisoned culture that prepared young Marines to go overseas to win the hearts and minds of the people - before LBJ and the machines of war decided that, in order to win their hearts and minds, you'd need to grab them a little lower. Peter Duchan's book captures the heart of the story, and forms a strong frame on which to hang the songs.

The dogfight of the title is a real contest, part of the system that was employed to enable young Marines to depersonalize women, so that enemy women were seen more as "gooks" and less as just like their mothers and sisters. Under the pretext of a date, the men were to bring the ugliest women they could find to a party, at which the one who brought the ugliest would win a cash prize.

Eddie Birdlace - one of the "Three Bees" of his unit, along with Boland and Bernstein - ducks into a diner on the evening of the dogfight (the night before they ship out), and meets Rose Feeny, an innocent, plain waitress who is a beginning songwriter of the Guthrie/Dylan/Baez tradition. He convinces her to go with him, and things go well for the couple - awkwardly well, but well - until Rose finds out what is really going on. 

Through the dogfight, its aftermath, and their subsequent discovery of each other's hidden aspects - Eddie finding Rose's strength and beauty, Rose cutting through to the sensitive man-boy underneath Eddie's bluster - every move is sharp, clear, finely drawn, and real.

The brilliance of the score, to me, is the fact that it manages to be both muscular and sensitive, in a way that few others have managed so well. There are lots of "drag your husbands with you" musicals, of course, as the stereotype goes. And there's a much smaller list of "musicals guys like too" - mostly jukebox shows, like JERSEY BOYS and ROCK OF AGES. (Gay audiences, this paragraph is mostly not for you - we have a whole different set of stereotypes about musicals and our tribe to engage.) But there are very few musicals that manage to have big, blustery, jockish numbers and finely-drawn, sensitive ones too, and to keep them in such balance, across a huge dynamic range. DOGFIGHT's score has taken some heat for this, for not being able to make up its mind. But I think this is its greatest strength: being able to depict the forces churning inside its characters in the variety of its music. 

Eddie's songs (some with the other Marines) range from the bluster of "Some Kinda Time" and "Hometown Hero's Ticker Tape Parade" to the pain of "Come Back"; Rose's, from the rage of "Dogfight" to the sweet strength of "Before It's Over." And if WICKED's "Defying Gravity" is The Audition Song for a generation of belters, so should "Pretty Funny" be the "she can sing AND act" audition song. (And the number of "Pretty Funny" recordings on YouTube, from professionals to students performing, make it look Pretty Certain.) For its characters, torn between who they want to be and who the world tells them to be, the score shows their fullness in a way that reminds me of nothing so much as WEST SIDE STORY's.

This is by no means an easy piece to play, to choreograph, or to stage. Sometimes, as many of you probably do too, I like to play The Casting Game: what Seattle actor would I cast in a role if it were produced here? When I first considered DOGFIGHT, I must admit, while there are lots of young singing actors more than up to the role, I would have bet two dollars against your one that Eddie would be played by Kody Bringman - and you'd have won if you took me up on it. Bringman brought the same audacity to Eddie that he did to Andrew Jackson on the same stage in BLOODY, BLOODY a couple of years back. But I was reminded even more of his performance in the staging of NEXT TO NORMAL co-produced by Contemporary Classics and the dear, departed Balagan. (This production of DOGFIGHT was to be an ArtsWest/Balagan co-production until Balagan's sudden disbanding left it fully in ArtsWest's hands.) In both roles, there's a challenging mix of aggression and almost childlike sensitivity, and Bringman nails it.

For Rose, there were lots of great candidates - but the ranks of Seattle's theatre community is frequently blessed with new talent, and in this case, Devon Busswood's Seattle debut is stunningly good, strong and sensitive. 

The rest of the company is a mix of new Seattleites, folks who have played on many of our stages, and recent graduates from Village Theatre Kidstage and other youth theatre programs. The energy of their performances is exceeded only by their power and range. To single one out, as always, in a couple of finely-drawn but larger-than-life character spots, Kirsten deLohr Helland delivers another of those performances which, no matter what else is happening on stage, you'd be a fool not to keep one eye on her.

One of the great strengths of the original off-Broadway production of DOGFIGHT - and there were many - was the incredible, hyperkinetic, hyper-muscular choreography by Christopher Gatelli. Trina Mills more than had her work cut out for her here, and the challenge was raised even higher by ArtsWest's smallish floor-level stage. She more than rises to it, using the intimacy of the stage to make the Marines' athletics more in-your-face, the party dancing even more engaging.

The dynamic range of DOGFIGHT could intimidate a lesser director. But if his work here is any indication of what we can look forward to seeing from Mat Wright, ArtsWest is in good hands with his talents as both director and Artistic Director. He brought together a terrific cast and crew, and went far beyond the cat-herding mode here to bring together a wonderfully unified production, supported by some of Seattle's finest theatre crafts and creative people: Robert Aguilar on lighting design, Ahren Luhrmann on scenic design. Chelsea Cook on costume design, Michael Connolly on sound design, Chris DiStefano on music direction. In some ways, their jobs are best done when you don't notice them; but they were also most noticeable when they shone, the best time for it to be so.

A big shout out to stage manager Dani Franich, whose all-too-brief tenure as Balagan's executive director was notable for putting this project together (with Wright) as a co-production; staying with it when ArtsWest picked up the reins, she brings to it her great strength at keeping it all flowing. (On the night we saw it, she and the cast and crew had to face one of the greatest terrors of the modern theatre, a power glitch - luckily, the timing was such that the leads could continue performing without mikes, and the lights and sound came back just in time for the next number. Still, one of those stories that are perfect over drinks. And require them.)

When I praise DOGFIGHT's score, it is not to diminish the strength of any other part of the show. But in the last couple of years, the number of great new scores can be counted on a single hand (Jason Robert Brown's score for THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY comes immediately to mind, and then, well, give me a few minutes to think about it), and this is one of them. 

A great score, in service to a very good story, beautifully realized. Anyone who thinks that musicals are Just Not For Them (and especially, Not For Guys Like Them), as well as anyone who thinks They Just Don't Write Them Like That Any More, should see it. And so should the rest of you.