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Hairspray Teases a Smile from a Stone

Oh stop, Cabrillo Stage, you’re hurting my smile muscles, and you’ve done it before! Now, with a great-looking, full-tilt production of Hairspray, Cabrillo dances, sings and storytells its way right Over-The-Top to the intersection of crooning Elvis and the dazzling Supremes, with a fable of teen love, teen rebellion and teen triumph set in the Snazzy Sixties whose civil rights turmoil is translated into the language of musical theater and dresses real cool. Sounds like fun, eh?  

Prepared for the possibility of cringe-inducing Pony-dancing pop protestors shimmying their way through “Oh gosh why don’t we all get along” solutions to segregation, it was quickly clear that Hairspray just defies all resistance and carries the audience along with torrential energy to the inevitable happy ending—you just have to give up and love it. Like Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar before it, Hairspray’s exciting production numbers, colorful sets and costumes, fast-moving choreography and hummable tunes is as good a way to get a message across as from a pulpit or a schoolroom.  Hairspray won the Tony for Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score and five other Tony’s in 2002.  This musical, in other words, was like a big box of chocolates for Cabrillo Stage, and they bit them all open, enjoyed them with gusto and now let the audiences in on the feast.

The story revolves around zaftig Tracy Turnblad (Monica Turner whose singing and dancing is blazingly good), the bouffantest girl in school who wants to dance in the Corny Collins Show on television, hoping to win the heart of dreamboat Link Larkin (Blake Collins, another triple-threat singer-dancer-actor whose Elvis moment was perfect) but she just isn’t Corny Collins material, according to the producer, Velma Von Tussle (a deliciously dreadful Kate McCormick). The irrepressible Tracy wins over Corny Collins (Bobby Marhessault, perfect for the belting singer-salesman role) with the “Negro dancing” she learned in Detention with Seaweed J. Stubbs (Corey Liggins, a fine voice and presence) and his friends (all guilty of Attending High School While Black). Tracy becomes convinced that integrating the Corny Collins Show will make a difference. Joining her in her efforts, her mother Edna Turnblad (Tony Panighetti in impeccable drag) and father Wilbur (Doug Baird) form an unlikely alliance with MotorMouth Mayelle (Jennifer Taylor Daniels, an extraordinary gospel singer and redeeming presence onstage), organizer of the Negro dances.  

Large colorfully-patterned cartoony cutouts serve as much of the set by Skipp Epperson, brilliantly locating an era and an upbeat atmosphere, adding light and information—not least through the terrific device of large wavery cartoon-shaped black-and-white television screens above the heads of the teen dancers. 

Working every inch out of her Big Blonde and Beautiful role , Jennifer Taylor Daniels brought the soul of soul to the stage in her jawdroppingly soaring gospel rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been,” one of the few moments when the breathless momentum of the singing dancing mugging stopped and the audience and the show can find a real beating heart.

I really looked forward to seeing Tony Panighetti in his Edna role, as he was spectacular in the Cabrillo Stage production of Scrooge.  In this show, his performance added a thread of poignancy to the otherwise relentlessly cheerful production.  Tenderly in love with husband Wilbur, stay-at-home Edna is the only person in the show who doubts him/herself, not just because of her size (rubber tires round the middle girth) but her status as stay-at-home housewife.  The “You’re Timeless to Me” duet between Baird and Panighetti was so touchingly funny because, like the best of the rest in this show, the emotions—though exaggerated, ring true. Panighetti in appropriate moments allows the veil of his character to shift open a crack, and the actor transforming himself shows through—fascinatingly.

Hairspray continues at Cabrillo Stage through August 14.

CAPTION:    Tony Panighetti as Edna, Monica Turner as Tracy and Bobby Marchessault as Corny Cornwell.



Museum of Art & History Gets All Fired up about Clay

Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History @ the McPherson Center spilled from its lobby into outdoor patios and Abbott Square to “Experience Clay” last weekend. Congratulations to the museum and especially to organizer Susana Arias for such a successful program. Ceramic artists we know and love were there to demonstrate and teach eager participants, and the crowd was enthusiastic.  Here’s a little smattering of images from the event.

Susana and Cynthia Siegel’s other goddess.

Families came to see artists in action, like Richard Bennett sculpting from a lovely model.

Laurie Hennig got her ears on!

Allan Wilks gets a hand from a young apprentice.

Way to grow an audience!



Krapp’s Last Tape: Jewel Theatre and Whitworth Exhale

   A cheap overhead lamp pours merciless lumens over every moth-eaten feature, every brow-furrow and sag of eyebags, illuminates every yellowed-gray frizz of hair and shirtstain of the old man sitting at the table, center stage.  Thinking….thinking…too busy thinking to arrange his features inside this intensely affectless stillness, he—the entire cast of the one-person play—gazes silent and unseeing into the audience. Is he indeed thinking?

We in the dark settled down nicely as soon as the house lights faded to black. Trained perhaps by John Cage in his time at UCSC, or by early performance artists who required mindful observation of apparent inaction for unreasonably extended periods, audiences shifting from bun to bun in a struggle between boredom and expectation, waiting for the point, or indeed waiting, sometimes, for anything, anything…But tonight there’s nary a squeak nor rustle from the full house at the Jewel Theatre Company’s presentation of Krapp’s Last Tape at the Center Stage in Santa Cruz.

It’s Beckett we’re waiting for, and Paul Whitworth—proving that audiences will pay to watch this actor think. Clever audiences, Whitworth always pays off.  And over the years, Jewel Theatre Company has become a safe bet, a company whose artistic risk-taking is as consistent as its theatrical memory-making.

Samuel Beckett’s is a tight 43 minutes: The long stillness and silence at the start contribute much, upon reflection. We the audience get a good long curious uninterrupted look at this disintegration of a man before us—his eyebrow could twitch (they don’t)—and we’d wonder about the meaning, so creating an acute level of audience attention. Every detail—absent movement—is inspected for weight and depth and narrative possibilities. 

Such audience conditioning is important, because we find quite soon that we won’t be carried along in the action; the plot does not move forward, no-one is transformed and what does, in fact, evolve through the course of the play is not Krapp but the audience. In this sucking vortex of a character Whitworth leads us through a minimalist tale that totters just on-the-edge between poetry or statistics, and the rants of those souls on the street who’ve been alone way too long and spent too much time thinking the same thoughts. With such intensity of embodiment, with the precision of a mime, Whitworth spits out Krapp’s thoughts, flays that pale skin to take us inside Krapp seeing, hearing, thinking, and, this night, remembering himself as he was, listening to the recording of a birthday tape of 30 years ago at the age of 69.

There we are, then. Nothing happens.

Or rather, everything happens as Whitworth is Krapp and Krapp is immersed in his earlier self. But Whitworth gives us Krapp without judgement. Is he pathetic? No, he’s defiant. In showing us this crusty, cynical, isolated mess of a man observing an annual ritual with what is no doubt his only dependable companion—himself in time— his words stab insouciantly at his youthful illusions and applaud his own clever escapes from the snares of society. Whitworth reels us into this character he and Beckett have created, and lays him bare, grazes the skin of our common foolish aspirations so that, as unattractive as he may be, we see ourselves.

Krapps Last Tape was performed May-June 2011, at Jewel Theater, Center Stage, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz.



San Francisco art Mecca Weekend—THERE’s STILL TIME!

Briefly from this internet cafe, lots to report from a packed, exhilarating and exhausting three days swept up in SF and Oakland arts, yes it’s true, I am mentally ill: after two fantastic opening events Thursday night, a morning of deadlines in Santa Cruz and then arriving in SF in time for another look at FineArtFair in Fort Mason (again, more exciting than I expected, after the flight of some of the most interesting San Francisco galleries, establishing ArtMRKT) but time for a longer chat with gallerists and deeper look at works from all over the country—no time for details now, then an evening of a reception for Arts for Healing and Visual Aid (more on these causes later) and a late night vigil at ArtPad waiting with Santa Cruz-area friends to see Diana Hobson's video projected on a building across the street…it's all in her series of moth works, stunning..) then Saturday was PACKED with fun.  Beginning with ArtPad panel about Street Art featuring EINE from London, Blek le Rat from Paris and San Francisco’s own APEX in a panel moderated by Justin Giarla of the White Walls gallery in SF and by Alan Bamberger of Art…illuminating! 

Then I went to ArtMRKT for the first time. But since I was parking close at hand, I ran into SOMARTS, a favorite destination in SF, where the Asian American Women Artists Association was showing A Place of Her Own which was fascinating—Lucien Kubo of Santa Cruz is a member and recommended it.  Then to ArtMRKT.  OK. 

ArtMRKT is hands down the most exciting of these three exciting fairs this weekend.  I cant gush about it sufficiently in this internet cafe.  I WANT TO GO BACK!!!  The blue chip galleries that broke away from SFArtFair this year have created what I think is a world class event.  Galleries and dealers from London, New York, Chicago, Boston etc. etc…the BEST!  Paule Anglim (SF) and Barry Friedman (NY) were posted at either side of the massive entrance with works of museum quality.  I can’t enumerate here, but the whole condourse was FILLED with work that belonged in museums.  How many times can you poke your nose a few inches away from such work.  To begin a list would be stupid…please go, not just for the artists you know, but ESPECIALLY for those you dont!

I have to go back because I left at 6pm to go to an opening in the Meridian Gallery, another favorite, with the Great Tortilla Conspiracy making art tortillas while social commentary prints filled the three floors, all curated (and cooked) by Art Hazelwood, an artist I have followed closely in a gallery I respect lots.  THEN a journey over the bridge to Oakland (yes, I know, it’s crazy) to the MURMURAMA, an Arts Murmur-type of event in honor of the aret fairs.  It was my first experience of several Oakland galleries I’ll be returning to often, because it’s a terrific scene there (I’m told I was happier NOT to have made it for an ArtMurmur which is a packed party scene (Q. since when is that a bad thing?) (A.l can’t see the art) but it was scene enough for me.

Well, the message is go if you can, especially to ARtMRKT.  More later…I’m off to take my own advice.



PacRep’s Eurydice a Quest for Meaning

With many charming moments, memorable imagery, skilful acting and stagecraft all supported by artful scenic devices turning the black box Circle Theatre into a beach, a penthouse and later the uncertain banks of the River Styx, PacRep Theatre’s Eurydice remains an outline sketch of something that could be extraordinarily beautiful.

It’s safe to count on the acting with PacRep—and this play is ably-bodied.  Julian Lopez-Morillas as the Father is as safe and kind as any girl’d want her father to be, played with an affable naturalism that carries Lopez-Morilla through some scenes that demand nuanced physical acting and others requiring magician-like misdirection for their impact. Contrasting with his naturalism, Jennifer Le Blanc as Eurydice played everything big, chest-out aggressive—a forcefulness not entirely out of place for her role/s as a debutante bride then dead person. This assured energy sagged convincingly in response to her new status as the potential queen of the Underworld, but even the threat of her erasure within the River Styx held less poignancy than it should, for her character was never really touchingly alive. 

Not so Carl Holvick-Thomas as Orpheus, played with all the self-possession and insouciance of privilege that could as easily be attributed to a fair-haired rich boy as to a god—whatever—he is easy in his skin and fun to watch. We meet him and Eurydice chasing each other wearing swimsuits, throwing a beach ball and gamboling energetically and romantically, two golden youths, making plans.

Enter the villain, A Nasty Interesting Man/Lord of the Underworld played with baffling moustache-twirling (if he had a moustache) vamping camp by Michael Wiles.  His pivotal role as the driver of the plot, the archetypal vain, strutting spoiler of virgins and ruler of death is reduced to a level of ridiculousness that is at first amusing then just silly. 

Despite a wonderfully convincing scene in which the new bride Eurydice has spurned his advances and falls to her death, fabulously conveyed by lighting and the projections which provide the sense of place for the play’s set-less space, the director, Kenneth Kelleher here begins to lose control of the story.

Playwright Sarah Rule’s take on the myth of Orpheus and his lost love Eurydice emphasizes Eurydice’s journey through overworld and underworld instead of the myth’s usual focus on the heroic quest of Orpheus, the god of music, traveling through the underworld to bring back his bride from death.  Orpheus in this production just seems like a nice young man determined to find his bride—but the heroic quest never enters the picture; his defiance of death, his deal with the gods, his musical charms and mythical stance is never really conveyed, and thus the story never has power.

We are left with wonderful images—a dead father mailing letters to his daughter soon to be a bride; Eurydice encountering the denizens of the underworld—a Greek chorus voiced by three Stones played in garb reminiscent of the French Revolution—why?—doesn’t matter, they are curious but effective conveyers of the rules and regulations of the twighlight world Eurydice enters after her tragic escape from the clutches of the Nasty Interesting Man; an image: the long-dead father inducting his newly arrived daughter into the ways of the depths, creating for her a “house” of strings he pulls from above; Eurydice squatting in her familiar suitcase, under the umbrella she brought, in the string house her father drew from the darkness.  There are lovely, poignant and memorable moments, but the play tragically loses its power to affect the emotions because, whether we are involved with gods or humans, the audience needs to understand where we are journeying as we share the voyage through this dark and admittedly fascinating space.