Kid power: Fly Guy, Teen Musical

Staged!'s "1980's Teen Musical" and Oregon Children's Theatre's "Fly Guy: The Musical" bring some fresh young blood to Fertile Ground

When in doubt, check the kids out.

Portland’s 2017 Fertile Ground Festival, the city’s annual explosion of new plays, dances, solo shows, musicals, circus acts and other performances, ended Sunday after a 10-day run that coincided with an extraordinary stretch of contentious and possibly cataclysmic national upheaval, when attention was riveted on other things.

I’ve been thinking about all the shows I didn’t get to: probably a dozen I really wish I’d seen, but the big mess of life got in the way. Several held promise of speaking more or less directly to the issues of the day: Bonnie Ratner’s Blind, about race and neighborhood control; Eliza Jane Schneider’s Displaced, about world homelessness; Tim Blough’s Badge of Honor, about race and politics; Rich Rubin’s Left Hook, about urban renewal and disappearing black neighborhoods and the fight game. The bad thing is that I missed them. The good thing is that, given Fertile Ground’s nature as a trial lab and launching pad for new works, they might pop up again.

So what did I get to in the festival’s final weekend? Two kids’ shows: the premiere production of Fly Guy: The Musical at Oregon Children’s Theatre, and if we can stretch the definition of “kids” just a little bit, the staged reading/singing of Staged!’s work-in-progress 1980’s Teen Musical.


Toxic glory: ‘Heathers: The Musical’

The '80s teen-cult movie hit adds some songs and spunk in a soaring stage collaboration by Triangle and Staged!

Ah … the Reagan ’80s, back when politicians had good hair. It was a B+ era: Spielberg dominated with milquetoast dramas pinned on the high-octane antics of cleverly drawn action films. The causes were taken out of rebels, former Yippie Jerry Rubin became a vitamin mogul, and Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver voted Republican. Retail therapy was invented, and for many people the cultural climate heated up in malls. Disney-esque perfection in all its primary colors and nostalgia for a Beaver Cleaver 1950s was on cable television sets and radios. After Black Monday, when the stock market plummeted at the end of the decade, everyday people were becoming a little restless with conformity.

And then there was Heathers. Triangle Productions, in collaboration with Staged!, has assembled a 17-member cast and brought to life (and death) a painstakingly grand stage production of that pop-cultural icon of the era.

Heathers, hangin' in the hall. Photo: Triangle Productions

Heathers, hangin’ in the hall. Photo: Triangle Productions

In the ’80s a few video store clerks, such as Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith ,and Daniel Waters, began writing scripts inspired by the edgier ’70s films with their Mike Hammer dialogue. In 1988, Daniel Waters came out with a cinematic flop titled Heathers. But teenagers fell in love, and it became a quick cult classic. It was as if John Waters, Milton Friedman, and Michael Eisner had made a film together. Winona Ryder, fresh off the sneaker hit Beetlejuice, played Veronica in the film, and those roles cemented her as the somewhat pensive and melancholy pretty girl who always triumphs because of her big heart.


Another Saturday night: Staged! has a Dogfight

Against a backdrop of the Vietnam war, a bittersweet musical looks at the emerging feminism of the 1960s


We know Eddie Birdlace made it home. He’s sitting with his drab canvas duffle bag, spit-shined boots and razor-short, military-issue haircut on a San Fransisco bus. He’s a man of few words, but the Dobb’s-crowned gentleman next to him is chatting him up, the way that confident but secluded older citizens take a parental nudge toward somber travelers.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. If you’re old enough, or if you’ve seen the newsreels, you may remember the footage of Bell helicopters being thrown into the ocean and immigrants fleeing the south of the country for California. That’s the backdrop for the musical play Dogfight, a melodic take on young masculinity led astray in overdrive, which Staged! is performing at CoHo through Sunday, November 29.

Ryan Monaghan and Jessica Tidd: wo you callin' a dog? Photo: David Kinder

Ryan Monaghan and Jessica Tidd: wo you callin’ a dog? Photo: David Kinder

Dogfight premiered three years ago and has gone on to win critical awards and find a place in the hearts of audiences around the country. And it’s no looking-back on personal history by Vietnam vets: its creators – music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, book by Peter Duchan –are in their 20s. Based upon a little-known B film from the early 1990s starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor, Dogfight is a romcom that hits some serious notes on the early ’60s emergence of feminism. There’s a conversational poetry to the lyrics, reminiscent of a young Stephen Sondheim, with a harmonic update influenced by Wicked‘s Stephen Schwartz.


Getting ready for a glorious rained-on ‘Parade’

At tech rehearsal for a musical about an infamous murder case, a few jokes fly amid the carnage of violence and a railroaded defendant

The Jason Robert Brown/Alfred Uhry musical Parade tells the story of an infamous murder case. And for the moment, everyone can tell that Leo Frank is guilty.

It’s technical rehearsal for Staged! musical theater company’s production in the Brunish Theatre – opening night is Saturday, September 20 –  and little storms of crackling static follow Frank across the stage. ”Is that me?” asks Andrew Bray, who stars as the Jewish factory superintendent on trial for the rape and killing of a young employee. “Yes!” call several voices in reply.

As a crew member seeks the problem in the microphone wired to Bray, the investigation gets close to the actor’s crotch. In mock objection, Bray cries, “That’s where I keep my menorah!”

A little levity is needed here, after all. Technical rehearsals can be a grind, full of abrupt starts and stops, long waits and fussing over details. But more significantly, the story that this cast and crew are preparing to tell is a tragic one.

Jennifer Davies and Andrew Bray as Lucille and Leo Frank. Photo: Russell J. Young

Jennifer Davies and Andrew Bray as Lucille and Leo Frank. Photo: Russell J. Young

Parade, which won 1999 Tony Awards for Brown’s score and Uhry’s book, is based on a sad but true story.

In 1913, the strangled body of 13-year-old Mary Phagan was found in the cellar of the Atlanta pencil factory where she had worked. Frank, her boss, was the last person known to see her alive, and became the prime suspect. A Jew, educated in the North at Cornell University, Frank was demonized in the press and convicted despite a lack of physical evidence linking him to the crime. In the North, the case was decried as a travesty of justice. In Georgia, passions ran so hot that after Frank’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, a mob seized him from jail and lynched him.

The case led to a veritable exodus of Jews from Georgia and the formation of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League. But it also spurred the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

The history of the murder case and the history of the musical are linked: The pencil factory was owned by Alfred Uhry’s great-uncle.

“Those guys are brilliant writers,” Paul Angelo, director of the Staged! production, says of Uhry and Brown. “There’s a vulnerability to these characters that’s right there in the music. The story is a tragedy — for Mary, for Leo, in a sense for that community. But in the midst of all that, there’s all this beauty. In a sense it’s a story of empowerment for Lucille, Leo’s wife, as she goes through this ordeal. In the middle of that shit field, you plant a rose.”

Rehearsal in the Brunish continues in fits and starts. Often, just as a performer gathers breath for the opening lines of a song, stage manager Corinne Lowenthal calls, “Hold, please,” so that lighting designer Peter West and sound designer Gordon Romei can fine-tune their work.

By the time Salim Sanchez sits center stage for an Act I scene as the pencil plant’s janitor, Jim Conley, his attitude is adjusted. “I’m just going to half-ass it, cause I know I’m gonna get stopped,” he cracks.

Musical director Robert Fishel leans forward from his keyboard, his tone all business. “I need to know very specifically: Which half?”

Sanchez’ jest aside, this is a full-throated production, with an orchestra of nine and a cast of 18, including Portland musical-theater stalwarts such as Elizabeth Klinger and Todd Tschida, as well as several strong-voiced newcomers, some of them teens from the Staged! conservatory program.

Both in its professional productions and its educational programming, Staged regularly has focused on Jason Robert Brown’s work, including Songs for a New World and 13.

Staged! artistic director Chanda Hall had long been interested in Parade, but was waiting for the right time.

“We wanted to do this play when we had the right people in place and could do the story justice. Four or five years ago, we couldn’t have done that.”

In addition to the talent assembled for the stage, led by Bray and Jennifer Davis as Lucille, that means supporting the production with lobby displays, post-show discussions for student groups, and pre-show presentations at 1p.m. on Sundays, including panels on the American justice system and the neuroscience of racism.

And while levity might not be part of any of that, Angelo says he’s taken care to bring out the brighter elements to the story onstage.

“I started with the thought that it all begins in love, as strange as that sounds,” the director says. “Even the people who do evil are doing it out of what they think is love — vengeance against Leo out of love for Mary, for instance.

“We’re trying to say: This kind of injustice does happen. But how do we make sense of it?”



Teens in heat: ‘Ablaze’ lights up the stage

Matthew Zrebski's musical thriller is like a YA novel in the flesh

Reaching for the light. Photo: David Kinder

Reaching for the light. Photo: David Kinder

“Ablaze” has been doing a slow burn since 2004, when playwright and director Matthew B. Zrebski began gathering ideas for a new show from students at Lincoln High School. “The idea was to create a high-tension, terrifying situation – and in doing so, to lift the veil from difficult subject matter,” Zrebski writes in his production notes for the play’s most recent and perhaps ultimate incarnation, which attaches the words “an a cappella musical thriller” below the title.

The subtitle isn’t kidding. Other than a bit of percussive sound here and there, the entire play is sung in pop-operatic style, without instrumental accompaniment, by 24 young performers. Everything’s either song or recitative, except for some short and welcome breaks of spoken dialogue from the four actors playing “The Watchers,” a sort of high-school Greek chorus that frets over the play’s frenetic action. The original production wasn’t a musical. “Ablaze” became one later on, in a further development workshop with students from Wilson High School (some of them are in the current cast). Now, after a run in last year’s Fertile Grounds new-works festival that generated a lot of buzz, it’s reached the stage of the Brunish Theatre of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, where Zrebski and the musical-theater production company Staged! have brought things to a spectacular boil. The kids in the cast – most are in high school; the oldest is a recent college grad ­– have the vocal chops, and they move like a single leaping flame through choreographer Jessica Wallenfel’s vivid and complex movement patterns. (The 12-member dance team, costumed in flame-like appendages, is referred to simply as “The Fire.”) Whatever you think of the music or plot, you might not see a more earnest and committed show all season.

But what’s “Ablaze” about? In the end, it seems more about a feeling, an intense group emotional passage, than anything particularly narrative, and that’s why turning it into an extended musical work makes good sense. “Ablaze” is more mood than story. A group of high-school kids is lured to the abandoned grounds of an old school, where somehow they’re trapped in the smoldering underground and held hostage for 19 days. Who’s holding them and watching them? Why? The answers burst out eventually, if a little confusingly, but they really aren’t the point. A little like the station in William Inge’s “Bus Stop,” the hidey hole in “Ablaze” exists mainly as a psychological and emotional testing ground for the people stuck there. If Inge’s sensitive American realism is amped up in “Ablaze” with a heavy dose of modern horror-movie paranoia – well, this is a play about teens and their hopes and fears, after all.

Watching and listening to this fresh-scrubbed production, it struck me that Zrebski has created a musical-theater version of a YA novel, and that could be a good thing: right now the young-adult market is the hottest thing on literary wheels. YA is where traditional kids-lit falls away and the urgent pump of estrogen and testosterone takes over. A lot of YA books read, almost literally, like a fever, and that’s what Zrebski’s injected into “Ablaze.” There’s the nominal thriller-mystery. Beyond that, there are urgent teen issues ranging from pregnancy to popularity to geekiness to being gay.

I’m not ordinarily a big fan of through-sung musicals – I prefer a little breathing space, and a little interplay between plot and music – but these days they’re the way of the musical-theater world. To my mind it’s a rare pop score that can manage the weight and sophistication that allows opera to be sung through successfully, and besides, good dialogue can provide both cleverness and insight to a play. Something gets lost when everything’s told through music, especially when overamplification so often drowns out the lyrics that are supposed to be telling the tale. Partly because there is no band, that’s not a problem in “Ablaze.” Zrebski’s lyrics can sometimes feel a little forced, as if they’re searching desperately for the right rhyme and not quite finding it, but they come across crisply and clearly, and in the main they do the job well. And his songs have a nice pop lyricism and a natural-sounding way with a hook: this is a legitimate musical-theater score. Musical director Eric Nordin has done an excellent job of keeping all of it focused and pushing forward.

It’s a little tough to pick standouts in what’s truly an ensemble show, but Christopher James as sensitive Saul, Jessica Tidd as tough Tess, Austin Mahar as Chaz, and Charlotte Karlsen as Cassie do a fair amount of burning. “Ablaze” isn’t really meant for me, and may or may not be meant for you, and that’s perfectly all right. It’s not a grown-up play: that is, it lacks subtlety and analytic detachment. But that can just as easily be an advantage for an audience looking to immerse itself in pure feeling. “Ablaze” obviously connects deeply – enthrallingly, on the evidence of the night I saw it – with its intended audience, which experienced something fresh and personal and appealing. I tip my geezerly hat to that.


  • “Ablaze” continues Thursdays-Sundays through May 5 in the Brunish Theatre of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, 1111 S.W. Broadway. Ticket information here.
  • Kaitie Todd’s review for Willamette Week is here.
  • Holly Johnson’s review for The Oregonian is here.


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"13" and feeling it, on the chorus line. Photo: Staged! Musical Theatre

A funny thing happened on the way to the theater over the weekend. I couldn’t figure out what age I was in.

I don’t mean age as in Paleozoic or Golden or Romantic. I mean age as in 13 or 35 or 64.

The theater isn’t as audience-straitjacketed as television, which jumps through marketing hoops in which one 24-year-old viewer is worth two 48-year-olds or twelve 72-year-olds, but it does have its chronological categories – or silos, if you prefer. Theatrically speaking, small-r romance is delivered obsessively or nostalgically, depending on the target audience, and beyond the occasional no-neck monster down Big Daddy way, children pretty much don’t exist.

Imagine my surprise, then, when my weekend of theatergoing reflected a culture in which, against every effort of the demographic packaging machine, various age groups actually meet and mingle. Or at least, think about what it might be like to be somewhere else along the timeline of life.


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