Portland musical theater

I don’t wanna be the same as everybody else

Green Day's "American Idiot" at Triangle Productions moves at the speed and angry energy of punk

There is a specific air to the dread of being mediocre and underclass in California. The beaming lights of Hollywood fame, the world-class status of tech giants, the pockets of affluence dotting the coastline, wine valleys, and poorly named Silicon Valley: these are places where the best the world can offer in lifestyles is immersed in gorgeous nature.

If you’re part of it. Johnny Rotten droned an angry anthem in 1977 when he proclaimed kids had no future. Enemies of the English Punk fathers were colorful aristocrats, and the shocking popularity of commercial rebellion was less tragic and more inspiring. To be young, poor, and disenfranchised as the parade of wealth, culture and comforts rolls by endlessly is a certain kind of in-your-face hell. New York has a dirtiness and an assumed injustice, but it keeps the nightmare at bay with culture and a vibrant underground. California makes the best case for a good existential crisis.

All-American idiots: staging Green Day's pink anthem. Photo: Triangle Productions

All-American idiots: staging Green Day’s pink anthem. Photo: Triangle Productions

As a kid in the late ’80s and early ’90s I hung out with the punks. We’d see Jawbreaker in nasty little clubs, stage-dive, research the best way to polish our Doc Martens. For a time I let homeless crusties live in my small studio apartment in downtown Denver. I was a Misfits, Op Ivy fan. Even bands like the Clash were too polished for me. So a few nights ago I went into Triangle Productions’ new staging of American Idiot with apprehension. But the performances were so enthusiastic and fueled that I went home and put Green Day’s album on with a new appreciation for more than a piece of recent music history, and became a fan.

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Clap hands: 2016 PAMTA nominees

This year's Portland area musical-theater awards party is June 6 in the Winnie. The complete list of nominees.

It’s PAMTA time. The annual Portland Area Musical Theatre Awards celebration will be at 7 p.m. Monday, June 6, in the Dolores Winningstad Theatre, and the PAMTA committee has announced this season’s nominees, listed below.

The PAMTAs precede the annual Drammy Awards, which will be June 26 in the Newmark Theatre, and honor achievements across the theatrical spectrum. The PAMTAs recognize achievements in musical theater specifically, which on the greater Portland theater scene provides a lot of options. The awards were created by Corey Brunish, the longtime Portland singer/actor and Tony-winning Broadway producer.

Best production nominee "Ain't Misbehavin'" at Portland Center Stage. Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

Best production nominee “Ain’t Misbehavin'” at Portland Center Stage. Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

Musical-theater people know how to put on a show, and past PAMTA ceremonies have been entertaining and well-produced. Here’s ArtsWatch’s report from last year’s event, which “pretty much packed the Dolores Winningstad Theatre to the rafters,” with  cheering that at times “approached Timbers Army volume.” This year’s festivities begin at 7 p.m., and admission’s free.

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Aika & Rose: So far, sounds good

Amanda Spring, a band world mainstay, preps a musical theater debut.

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Amanda Spring, Shana Lindbeck, Sara Hernandez and Tai Carmen.

In the beginning, Amanda Spring’s haunting voice simply lilts “ah’s” over a ukelele. The drum clicks gradually up to speed as a clarinet calls and a trumpet answers. Now the uke swishes into a samba stung by dissonant jazz chords, suddenly Brazilian. But as the horns lift in unison over funky wah-wah keyboard, you can almost picture ’70’s flyover footage of a majestic mountain range. A military snare muscles in, building speed and intensity, breaking at the groan of the lone clarinet, which lays the medley to rest with a quieting sigh.

These guys are good…and that’s just the overture.

Aika & Rose will premiere at Headwaters Theatre this Thursday, starring composer/singer Amanda Spring and co-writer/singer Tai Carmen. Spring’s a newbie to theater, but a well-established local musicmaker perhaps best known as the girl from Point Juncture Washington and Ioa (which, as any eyerolling music nerd will tell you, are not places, they’re bands).

Back in the day when being a girl in a band was still considered a noteworthy talking point or even a gimmick [writer leans back in rocking chair, spits tobacco], Spring’s unparalleled drumming and singing silenced all doubt. Her contributions to the bands’ aesthetics were memorable, too, like detailed spraypaint stencils of cats and dogs and hand-customized t-shirts. In Point Juncture, Spring’s penchants blended in with the rest of her active, creative, instrument-swapping quintet. But by the time she created Ioa, her inaugural solo project, certain hallmarks had surfaced as her own.

Spring sets her melodies to elliptical, mathy polyrhythms. Her voice sounds like a pan flute patch synth: smooth yet hollow, punching in and out with no noticeable buildups or breaths. Her timing between beats is impeccable. She’s the ghost in the machine…and the machine itself. Lyrically, Spring favors impassioned stances in complete sentences. Ioa lets dead-serious melodic essays about veganism, empathy, and interpersonal connection permeate its swirling, elaborate pop-scape—a sonic and ideological breach of convention.

If plainspoken preaching is the vinegar in Spring’s musical flytrap, stories and sonic surprises are the honey. Aika & Rose, a “supernatural star-crossed teen lesbian love story” seems poised to split the difference. But let’s rejoin the practice in progress:

Spring, playing teen lesbian suitor Rose, plucks the air to “ring” the invisible doorbell of her beloved Aika’s house. She’s met by Aika’s mother Momoko (The Angry Orts’ Sara Hernandez) and entreats her for permission to enter. Momoko forcefully denies her, superstitious that she’ll inflict the home with bad luck. “…but I won’t take no!” sings Rose, cuing an avalanche of drum fill and a blast of rock music. Teen, indeed.

“Yeah, let’s leave that part hanging out there,” she nods. “…as an ‘Acting Moment, TM’.”

These weekends cap off a year of Sundays that Spring spent crafting Aika, enlisting writing partner Tai Carmen and a 7-piece band (Will Hattman, Ben Barnett, Neal Wright, Victor Nash, Ed and Paul Bubl, and Ayal Alves). Eventually, Carmen and Spring took roles as the title teens and added three other cast members (Hernandez, Shana Lindbeck of Orchestra Pacifico Tropicale, and Jaime Lee Currier). “I bribed them with food,” Spring claims.

With its Asian motifs, Aika & Rose was a shoo-in at Headwaters Theatre, Portland’s butoh stronghold; moreover, Spring and Headwaters’ impresario Mizu Desierto have a lot in common. Both women woodshed their work at spacious outposts; Desierto’s got Prior Day Farm in St. Johns; Spring and partner Victor Nash built their studio and practice space, Desination Universe, in a freestanding barn at the outskirts of Johnson Creek. Both artists buck their disciplines’ usual genre restrictions; each has built up a creative network eager to pile onto her projects. Mere food wouldn’t lure seven musicians to Johnson Creek every Sunday. Make no mistake, that took talent.

At Fertile Ground Festival, Action/Adventure Theatre, Hand2Mouth and more, new musicals abound. Portland’s oversaturated bandscape continues to spill over into musical theater, even as mainstream culture (namely Glee) newly champions the form. In the last year, comic small-stage musicals like Roadhouse, Troll II, The Waterman, and Oh F–k Oh Sh– It’s Love have ruled the genre, and have kept their content light, which doubles as a built-in buffer against audience expectations. Mess it up? Laugh it off.

Aika & Rose, on the other hand, feels closer to Ashley Hollingshead’s Today! and Tomorrow! series. It’s more ambitious than the comedies, more idealistic, more mystical, more exotic, and more earnest. This creates higher stakes. If any technical efforts falter, these mood(s) could be ruined. But as long as they hold, the emotional payoff may be great.

Will that door open for Rose? She’s on the threshold, she’s rung the bell, and she “won’t take no.”

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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Fall of the Band Closing Notes

Action/Adventure's sitcom-style series closed strong, proving theater can work like TV.

Is it just me, or did this last weekend seem…different?

No, not the bargains, or the holiday traffic. Something else. Oh yeah: my new favorite show didn’t air.
I don’t mean on TV—I mean in the theater. For the first time in more than a month, I didn’t cross the railroad tracks and take a seat in a packed little theater to watch “my stories,” because there was no new episode of “Fall of the Band.” Will there ever be again?

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“Fall of the Band” kicked off a year ago, and its format—a series of hour-long “episodes” about a rock band beleaguered with the usual band problems—got some buzz for sheer ambition and novelty. (Rumors of actual humor and theatrical quality also circulated, but at that time ArtsWatch had yet to confirm them.) Before the second series began in October, ArtsWatch interviewed two actors who’d taken the series to the next level by writing a spinoff musical called “The Water Man.”

At their request, we diligently avoided sharing a spoiler, but now it’s out: Kyle Acheson and Sam DeRoest will move to New York early in 2014—”breaking up the band” for real. Last Sunday’s season-closing episode was especially poignant as characters held a mock funeral for their theatrical band Ghost Dad. After curtain, the fond farewell spilled out onto Action/Adventure Theatre’s front stoop. “I’m actually going to miss Ghost Dad the band, as a fan,” confessed Post5 composer Chris Beatty. Cristina Cano, FoTB’s music director who played singer/bassist Vanessa, echoed the sentiment.

Despite David Byrne’s (and others’) recent declaration that New York is over for young artists, the much-larger city will probably always lure away many young Portland talents the minute they ripen. But that’s only one of the takeaways here.

The broader implication of “Fall of the Band” is that a local theater can—if it wants to—borrow tactics from national TV, releasing weekly sitcom-style episodes to an eager cadre of loyal viewers. Having missed the opening season, I tuned in a whole year late to this epiphany (though still a few weeks sooner than the TV news). I was delighted by what I saw.

Each hour-long episode began with a live performance of the show’s theme song while a character montage (a la sitcom intro) played behind the band on a screen. Next, all the characters lined up to perform a tightly-timed recap of the previous week’s story. In as few words as possible and minimal minutes, characters re-enacted their fights, triumphs, and unresolved negotiations from the prior week(s). As deftly coordinated as a game of patty-cake, the opening summary humorously dismissed already-resolved problems and pulled new audiences into the loop. And the fewer words, the funnier. Duncan (Devon Granmo) once only growled, “AnGERRRR,” to remind us where we’d left off with him.

Even though the shows weren’t fully scripted, the dialogue moved along at a brisk clip, free of the hem-hawing that too often plagues improv. Staging was kept simple, but not to the point of confusion. The same furniture was reconfigured between scenes and dressed with each setting’s signature pillows and throws. Actors, not stagehands, made these transitions in the semi-dark, often dancing with chairs or each other to thematically-appropriate music. It probably took a lot of planning, but it looked like a breeze moving the story along.

The characters themselves were comically exaggerated, and a couple even sported some wacky, hilarious hair…but no individual was TOO simplistically stereotyped. Vanessa (Cristina Cano) was the shy singer in her band against the bold, haughty Lana (Natalie Stringer), but more dominant at home with her sister Charlotte (Melissa Murray) who financially supported her and made meek attempts at enforcing order, but ultimately let her little sis call all the shots. Lana, too, was different at home with former-lover-turned-roommate Heath (David Saffert) sometimes transforming from lioness into needy kitty-cat.

Miles (Kyle Acheson) was a hopeless romantic, but not SO hopeless that he couldn’t choose New York over his boo Quincy (Chip Sherman) when the time came. Temperamental, needy boyfriend Jimmy (Sam DeRoest) eventually grew up and loosened his grip on his hyper, eager-to-please yes-girl Mandy (Katie Michaels) when she unveiled some hidden musical talent and even a (temporarily?) benched ex-boyfriend Shaun (Talon Bigelow). Sound man Ben “Hambone” (Nick Fenster), the band’s resident suckup, finally got his own life by hooking up with Charlotte, causing both of the outliers’ confidence to blossom.

Recording studio owner Sybil finally reached out of her boss-lady comfort zone to pursue a romance with her employee (and the band’s keyboardist) Heath. And drummer Duncan’s resolve to stay in the flailing band finally succumbed to the persistent love of his longsuffering boyfriend Charlie (James Luster)…who broke his streak of perfect concern to lash out at Duncan for his selfish behavior.

Stereotypes? Sure. But at least two disparate ones per character. Which is the difference (ahem, “Grimm“) between having somewhere, and nowhere, for a storyline to go.

Each episode closed with a cliffhanger, and season two’s finale, despite the closure of the funeral bit, was ultimately no exception. Will there be another “Fall of the Band”? A “___ of the Band”? A “Fall of the _____”? (An earlier A/A title that preceded this series was “Fall of the House”…maybe there’s more of that format to explore?) Surely the attention the series drew this year, and the consistent full-house to standing-room-only turnouts, are grounds for renewal of the title or at least its episodic mode. In the meantime, I’ll add FoTB to my “Thea-vo,” and hope something similar pops up.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury

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Theater to band to musical: “Fall of the Band” and “Water Man”

Kyle Acheson and Sam DeRoest explain their dual roles in a serial musical about a band, and a spinoff musical about the ocean.

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Sam De Roest (left) and Kyle Acheson (right) joked about writing a musical in Action/Adventure’s Fall of the Band. Then—no joke—they actually did it. Image by Pat Moran.

By all accounts, Action/Adventure‘s “Fall of the Band” is supposed to FEEL real—but nobody anticipated it would GET as real as it has. In brief:

1. Theater creates fake band to star in a play.

2. Fake band creates fake(r) side project.

3. Fake side project suddenly becomes a real musical.

4. Band also develops into a (somewhat) real band.

5. Theater reprises play about band, produces musical, AND sells band merch, in a grand flourish of music/theater synergy virtually unparalleled outside of Hannah Montana and (hey, hey) The Monkees.

I asked “Fall of the Band” co-stars and musical co-writers Kyle Acheson and Sam DeRoest to explain this trajectory in more detail, and they obliged with a pre-rehearsal powwow at Ford Food & Drink. Between witty asides about Norman Rockwell and giant rats, I learned the following:

Action/Adventure Theater’s “Fall of the Band” is a series of semi-improvised plays that follows fictitious rock band Ghost Dad through many stereotypical struggles. After runaway success last year, the series resumes this weekend. Picking up Ghost Dad’s semi-scripted story where they left off last time, the company  will again present five new one-hour episodes that advance the band’s journey over the coming five weekends. Like TV, one new episode will air each weekend (shown 4 times). In each of these shows, actors anchor to fixed plot points, but they improvise their dialogue, making each night a one-time-only performance. To demonstrate their band-worthy chops, they also play instruments and sing live. No sweat, right?

It should be noted that Fall of the Band’s combination of devices is unique but not unprecedented, as aspects of the show mirror larger local theater trends toward series formats, improvisation, and music/theater fusion. Third Rail’s halfway through presenting Richard Nelson’s 4-part Apple Family series (“That Hopey-Changey Thing,” and “Sweet and Sad,” et al) over 4 seasons, Hand2Mouth penned and performed dazzling small-ensemble musical “Something’s Got A Hold of my Heart” with actors playing instruments at Fertile Ground 2012, and Curious Comedy has hosted “improvised musical” “Les Revolutions,” devised on the spot by house ensemble Pipes. In recent years, musical acts Black Prairie and Holcombe Waller have metriculated into stage productions, and even now, Amanda Spring of Point Juncture Washington and Ioa acclaim is planning a 2014 premier for her new musical, “Aika and Rose.”

“Songwriter involvement in the theater seems to have grown in quality recently,” admits Acheson, who’s recently scored several plays for A/A. “Still, on the ground floor, there aren’t that many musicals.” Enter Acheson and De Roest’s creation…but can we just call them Sam and Kyle?

Sam said he thinks his first name sounds trustworthy. “If you need someone to help you out, you call a Sam,” he says, noting that “Kyle” sounds more shifty: “…unless the thing you need help with is, like, moving a body, then you call some guy named Kyle.” But we digress…

In FotB’s debut 2012 season, poor Ghost Dad suffered some typical setbacks: the band lost its practice space, sexy lead singer Lana (Natalie Stringer) threatened to go solo, and lead guitarist Miles (Kyle) fell in unrequited love with multi-instrumentalist Jimmy (Sam). When Jimmmy lost patience with the shenanigans, he’d storm offstage, fuming, “I’m going to go work on my musical!”—which was supposed to be a joke. At some FotB plot-point, though, Jimmy’s fictitious musical “The Water Man” needed a real-life flagship song to keep it believable within the framework of the band’s (equally fictitious) dynamics. So the production’s self-described “secret songwriter” Kyle wrote a very Neutral Milk Hotel-inspired ballad called “On Land,” that he imagined a mer-man might sing upon his first visit to the beach. “It’s kinda like Water Man’s ‘astronaut moment,’ discovering a new environment for the first time,” he says.

Charmed by “On Land,” FotB series co-writer Pat Moran suggested that Kyle and Sam make more musical numbers, or even collaborate for real on a full-length version of “The Water Man”—in time, he proposed, to premiere at Fertile Ground. “I guess he actually meant 2014,” says Kyle, “but we didn’t realize that at the time.” Within 2 months, the pair had penned the whole show, and in January, they staged a reading at Fertile Ground 2013, casting Chip Sherman and Cristina Cano in supporting roles. As you might imagine from its timeline and inception, “Water Man” is a silly story. There’s a star-crossed romance, a storybook-style villain, and some dark comedy about cannibalism.

“We start the audience off with low expectations that these two doofuses (Jimmy and Miles) made a musical,” says Kyle.”So then the plot makes fun of, like, that fated Greek tragedy thing, like w’ere just put in these roles and we have to play it out, you know? We have a villain, for instance, who has no purpose in life other than to be a villain.” The script is also riddled with references to local landmarks and styled with DIY “low-budget, high-imagination” sets and props, including an overhead projector scrolling illustrations. But don’t get too comfortable, he warns: “We enjoy calling those tropes out, but that way when we do something surprising, it FEELS surprising.”

“Both of these plays are pretty fresh,” blurts Sam—and, ever an improvisor, he quickly checks himself: “I can’t believe I said that; it’s like I should be wearing three backwards hats.”

What’s more, the play and the musical continue to reference one another throughout FotB Season 2. Now that their side project has burgeoned, characters Jimmy and Miles must balance their band duties with their roles as musical producers. Because it became a musical, ‘Water Man’ became a bigger factor in this season,” the pair explains. “Now it’s woven into the conflict that there’s the Water Man camp versus the band camp, each competing for our characters’ energy and time.” During FotB, Sam and Kyle will even hold pseudo-“auditions” for Water Man. “We’re not going to spoil the show, though,” Kyle admits. “We’ll probably ask actors to say silly lines that aren’t in the script, like, ‘I’m soooo evil.’ That’ll be funnier anyway.” Eventually, Water Man will take the post-show spot following the final episode of FotB, and then continue on after it closes.

Along with the Water Man conflict (slash hype), fictitious band Ghost Dad will face a slew of new challenges. Two female singer/songwriters with considerable but differing strengths (Natalie Stringer and Cristina Cano) will vie for the lead mic, at least one character will hint at “outgrowing” band life, and the group will begin hawking real merch (t-shirts) and theatrically discussing making a record and playing club gigs (which, if the pattern holds, could manifest in real life). By the season’s close, actors Kyle and Sam will even announce their real career plans via their characters in the script, altering the course of both Action/Adventure and Ghost Dad’s story. And that won’t even be the first time Kyle’s band and stage interests have collided: “Last year during Fall of the Band,” says Kyle, “I was also in a real band called Met City. They wanted me to move to Brooklyn with them, and I had to tell them,” he laughs, “No, I’ve got to go work on my musical.”

When I asked if their stage/life relationship resembles reality TV, both actors say no, citing little similarity to recent titles like “Duck Dynasty.” However, had these young punks followed the early emergence of “The Real World” or the movie “Dig,” they might see more parallels. Instead, Kyle compares the format to older sitcoms, taped with laugh tracks in front of a live studio audience. “It’s more like those,” he says. And for maximum comedy, he and Sam are prepared to play to “type.”

“As a lead guitarist, I’m really obsessed with my pedal collection, and really into ‘modes,'” says Kyle. “I’m constantly playing even when I’m not supposed to be, and I’m always begging for more solos.”

“As multi-instrumentalist,” Sam counters, “I have like one trick I can do on each instrument, but I don’t play any of them very well.”

Well, Guys, that sounds about right.

 
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