Tobias Andersen

Songs for America, bother from another planet

In review: Irving Berlin's "The Melody Lingers On!" at Clackamas Rep and Gore Vidal's "Visit to a Small Planet" at Lakewood

If we really wanted to make America great again, we’d skip all the nonsense about building walls and stoking resentments and keeping out foreigners and just bring back Irving Berlin. Oh, wait: Looks like Clackamas Repertory Theatre’s already done that.

Berlin, who was born in 1888 as Israel Beilin, became an American icon the old-fashioned way: He immigrated to the U.S., from the old Russian Empire. By age 5 he was settled with his family in New York City, and grew up on the Lower East Side when it was cheap and crowded with people from other places, seeking what was once known proudly as “a better life.” He hawked newspapers on the streets and became a singing waiter and started writing songs and had his first big hit on Tin Pan Alley in 1911, when he was 23 – the still familiar Alexander’s Ragtime Band. From there he just kept going and going, through war and peace and the Depression and another war and some boom years and the nation’s evolution from isolationism to internationalism, creating a big slice of the American popular soundtrack from the days of the Charleston through the Broadway musical’s golden age. He died, finally, at age 101, when rock ‘n’ roll had pretty much killed off his kind of music – except, of course, it hasn’t, because it’s with us still.

Meredith Kaye Clark in “The Melody Lingers On!” Photo: Sam Ortega

The proof of that particular pudding, if you need proof, is onstage at Clackamas Rep, where the upbeat and winning revue of Berlin tunes The Melody Lingers On! opened over the weekend and continues through August 27. A mostly bright selection of almost fifty of Berlin’s roughly 1,500 songs presented by a snappy cast in a sharp-looking production, it’s a brightly rhythmic show of song and dance about a composer who made people feel good about being part of America, no matter where they might have come from or where they stood in the national pecking order. Berlin could be dark, but even then he was dark in an enthralling way; mostly he wrote catchy, hummable, optimistic songs that helped project the myth of a can-do country and a people on the rise.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: The prints & the Oscars, big whale, Stupid Bird, Lear

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

That’s a print. No, we’re not talking about the movies, or the end of a scene shot, or Sunday’s Oscars broadcast, which we found fascinating on all sorts of levels, including the mostly successful tightrope that the host Chris Rock and his writers pranced so nimbly across, smiling and laughing as they took the ringmasters down a notch or two. It’s tough challenging the circus from inside the big tent, but points were made. The big question, of course, remains: what, if anything, will actually be done? In a way, the trouble is less a second year running of all-white acting nominations than the system that makes such an imbalance possible: a lack of great, good, and even middling roles for black and brown actors. The tendency to think of all roles as “white” roles unless the script specifies they are for  minority actors. Projects greenlighted with an eye on white audiences, and projects stopped in their tracks because they’re too “ethnic” to guarantee a hefty profit. And although the absence of black roles was the focus of protests, we also like what the Mexican filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who won the Oscar for directing The Revenant, said in this morning’s New York Times: “The debate is not only about black and white people. We are yellow and Native Americans and Latin Americans.” And we are all of us stories, waiting to be told. If you’re running a story factory, you really ought to be aware of that.

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Bleak and bristling: Post5’s ‘Lear’

Led by Tobias Andersen's perfectly balanced imbalanced king, a strong cast gets the new-look company's newest season off to a flying start

Over the last 55 years, King Lear has been staged more times than in the first 355 years after it was written. Much of the interest in Lear was revived by Peter Brooks’s 1971 film adaptation, which took a haunting look into politics, conflict, rivalry, and homelessness, and revealed an almost unbearable wasteland of emotion in the face of growing old. Before this landmark black-and-white film, Lear was, for the most part, too bleak for audiences in its original form. The ending was altered after Shakespeare’s death with a centuries-early Hollywood happy ending. No more of that.

Like the play itself, Post5 has been changing, but it still begins its new season with the Bard – and with a Lear to remember.

Tobias Andersen as Lear: a rage upon the heath. Post5 Theatre photo

Tobias Andersen as Lear: a rage upon the heath. Photo: Carrie Anne Huneycutt

Tobias Andersen delivers his King Lear with a perfect balance of anger, regret, confusion, delirium, and torment. It takes stamina to bring this alive on stage. Andersen works into the monumental role with an even pacing that swings to a crescendo at the most important and famous of scenes, along with a few that are the focus of Post5’s production. He begins as an upright, square-shouldered regent. In the opening scene, when he asks his daughters who loves him the most, Andersen is severe with his demands. He has no grasp on the dominoes that begin to fall rapidly out of place. Andersen plays Lear as the real-life Celtic pagan king would have looked at the world, a victim of the fickle gods and circumstance. His descent into madness is less anxiety-provoking about how it will happen, and more the experience of watching a superb veteran actor unweave the tapestry of Lear’s mind.

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Drammys: ‘Snowstorm,’ ‘Mary Poppins,’ lots of love

Portland theater's annual awards party turns into a love-in Monday night, with a special award for Miracle Theatre and a lifetime honor for Tobias Andersen

The 37th annual Drammy Awards, Portland’s celebration of the best and brightest in the year’s theater scene, hit the Newmark Theatre Monday night like a roller coaster of love – for stage managers and dressers and designers, for directors and writers, for the whole crazy game of theater and the people who are held happily hostage by it.

The Snowstorm, Eric Nordin and Jessica Wallenfels’ ambitious original combination of theater, music, and dance that came out of this spring’s Fertile Ground new-works festival, took three awards, including the coveted best production Drammy, and by the crowd reaction, was an immensely popular choice. It was produced by CoHo Productions and Many Hats Collaborations.

Beth Thompson as Bear in best-production winner "The Snowstorm"; mask by Tony Fummeler. Photo: Brud Giles

Beth Thompson as Bear in best-production winner “The Snowstorm”; mask by Tony Fummeler. Photo: Brud Giles

But if any single show dominated the evening, it was a musical by a children’s theater company. As it did in the PAMTA musical-theater awards two weeks ago, Northwest Children’s Theater’s high-flying Mary Poppins swept up in the musicals categories, taking seven awards, including best musical production, direction of a musical (Sarah Jane Hardy, who also took the choreography award), and actor in a musical (John Ellingson, who also won for his Mary Poppins prop design). The show’s large cast and crew stayed in shape hustling onstage multiple times, to loud applause. Hardy spoke passionately about the Portland way of doing children’s theater, which, she said, is to have lots of children as opposed to all adult actors in the shows, and Ellingson gave moving tribute to his husband for his support, remarking that he hoped it would be the last time such a comment would be viewed as a political statement.

Northwest Children's Theatre's "Mary Poppins" dominated the musical-theater awards. Photo: David Kinder

Northwest Children’s Theater’s “Mary Poppins” dominated the musical-theater awards. Photo: David Kinder

After years at the Crystal Ballroom and, before that, at the Benson Hotel, the Drammys moved uptown into the 870-seat Newmark, a hall that provided a touch of class and put the theater awards in an actual theater. If the atmosphere cut back on some of the evening’s trademark rowdiness, it also made hearing from the audience much easier, and gave the evening a grown-up feel. Emcee Dan Murphy kept the crowd titillated with a dizzying succession of costume changes, each time emerging from the wings like a Cher impersonator in a bargain Nevada casino lounge. At one point he and presenter Olga Sanchez, artistic director of Miracle Theatre, showed up onstage in nearly identical electric-blue evening gowns. Sanchez took the style award, Murphy the comedy crown.

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She Loves Me (and we love her)

Lakewood Theatre finds the wit and sparkle in a classic small gem of the Broadway stage

She Loves Me, which is enjoying a sparkling run through December 21 at Lakewood Theatre, may be one of the best Broadway musicals most people have never heard of. Opened to critical admiration and a relatively short run in 1963, it’s tuneful enough, with a clever, romantic, and entirely agreeable score built on nostalgic memories of operetta.

But its true strength, and what sets it apart from so many musicals whose books serve mainly as simple clotheslines to hang the songs on, is the story on which it’s closely based, a 1937 play by the Hungarian writer Miklós László. Called Parfumerie, the play was quickly remade as the 1940 Ernst Lubitsch movie comedy The Shop Around the Corner, starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as a pair of squabbling shop clerks who don’t realize they’re in love. A movie-musical remake, 1949’s In the Good Old Summertime, starred Judy Garland and Van Johnson; and the tale, in modernized and muscled-up yet surprisingly faithful form, hit the popularity jackpot with the 1998 Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan musical comedy You’ve Got Mail, which was adapted by the witty sisters Nora and Delia Ephron.

Rutledge and Angelo: embedded with song. Photo courtesy Lakewood Theatre

Rutledge and Angelo: embedded with song. Photo courtesy Lakewood Theatre

She Loves Me brought together something of a Broadway dream team in the making. Joe Masteroff, who adapted László’s play for the book, three years later adapted a series of Christopher Isherwood stories as Cabaret. The team of composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick collaborated the year after She Loves Me on Fiddler on the Roof. She Loves Me doesn’t have the big breakout musical numbers that are Broadway’s lifeblood, and which Fiddler and Cabaret deliver in spades. It’s a subtler, more synthesized score, Bach-like in its balances and entirely in the service of its story, which has the exquisite completeness of a good novella: more than a short story, less than a novel, at once rich and to the point.

It’s been my pleasure to see two beautifully realized productions of this small gem in recent years: the 2010 production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which came together with that spark of magic that sometimes happens in the theater, and which stands out for me as the best musical production Ashland has done; and now this show at Lakewood. Under the skilled guidance of veteran director Tobias Andersen and musical director Jon Quesenberry, with brief but captivating choreography by Laura Hiszczynkyj, Lakewood’s production doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that played so harmoniously in Ashland. But it makes the most of its leaner budget, and surely is among the highlights of Lakewood’s long history with musical theater, too. Balance, wit, movement, conflict, and romance, with just the right undertone of sadness, or at least wistfulness: it’s a true connoisseur’s brew.

Part of that wistfulness, I think, comes from the knowledge that László’s story, set in an upscale Budapest gift shop peopled by downscale but aspiring clerks, so studiously ignores the war storms rising over Europe as it concentrates on a purely personal story. This small world, we understand, with its small hopes and daily rituals and hesitations and pleasures, will soon be torn apart, and what then of these small but generous people we’ve come to meet on such intimate terms? In a way Parfumerie seems an act of either small defiance or willful avoidance, an insistence in the face of impending public disaster on the importance of private life.

Weaver and Jones: crisis at the café. Photo courtesy Lakewood Theatre

Weaver and Jones: crisis at the café. Photo courtesy Lakewood Theatre

The leads here are Paul Angelo as Georg Nowack, the chief clerk and manager of Mr. Maraczek’s shop, and Dru Rutledge as Amalia Balash, the bright and talented but also seemingly flighty new clerk who irritates Georg almost immediately. The joke is this: as much as they grate on each other’s nerves in person, they are soulmates via letter, where they’ve met each other as anonymous “dear friends” through a lonelyhearts pen-pal club. Angelo and Balash play the duality of the thing beautifully, battling not just each other but also their own impulses as they seek to reach beyond surface impressions and discover what’s truly important to them. Rutledge is a deft musical-comedy star, adept at both the music and the comedy; Angelo is a fine and subtle actor whose voice isn’t as polished as Rutledge’s but who is thoroughly at home selling a song.

The supporting cast is excellent, in particular Cassi Q. Kohl as the loose-and-brassy clerk Ilona and baritone Stacey Murdock as her smooth-and-oily in-store Lothario, Mr. Kodaly. Bryan Luttrell as the shop owner Maraczek has the fleshy geniality of a successful politician, a Warren Magnuson or Pierre Salinger, about him; Jeremy Southard has a nice hesitation as don’t-rock-the-boat Mr. Sipos; Martin Tebo is sunny and Horatio Alger-ish as the delivery boy Arpad; and Brandon Weaver has a terrific brief turn as an officious maîtr d’, supported by Sam Jones as the bumbling busboy who gets his goat. Even small roles such as Sydney Weir and David M. Brown’s elegant tango are well-turned; and the ladies and gentlemen of the chorus, zipping in and out as shop customers and kanoodling restaurant diners, are sharp: no dropoff or fill-ins here.

This is one of those shows that you can tell from the first notes of the orchestra has high aspirations: the eight-piece band, planted upstage and led by Quesenberry at the keyboard, is self-assured from the get-go, providing a steady and gently propulsive foundation for the action. Pat Rohrbach’s period costumes are elegant and slightly showy; and John Gerth’s set, with Jeff Woods’ lighting, provides a hint of Deco dazzle on a budget.

Kohl and Rutledge: let's sing about men. Photo courtesy Lakewood Theatre

Kohl and Rutledge: let’s sing about men. Photo courtesy Lakewood Theatre

There’ll be, I imagine, the usual complaints that She Loves Me, like all romantic comedies, is predictable. It’s a charge I’ve never really understood. Of course we know pretty much how things will end, but so what? We know we’re all eventually going to die, too. It’s what happens in the meantime that makes life interesting. As long as there are human beings, the path toward romantic love will be a fascination, and this particular path is a distinctive one.

I’ll also bring up my own lonely dissent against the near-universal body-micing in contemporary musical-theater productions of all the singers, a practice that may be necessary to make voices heard over amplified musical instruments but that also leeches much of the subtlety and variation from the singers’ natural voices, while adding a slightly metallic undertone to the songs. That said – and granting that this may well be simply a personal crotchet, and on this point the world has passed me by – the balance is better in this show than what I often hear. So, kudos to the techies, too.

If you disagree, I don’t know … send me a letter. Anonymously. It worked for Amalia and Georg.

*

She Loves Me continues through December 26 at Lakewood Theatre, in Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Center for the Arts. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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Review: a swift and lean rock-star ‘Hamlet’

As Post5 starts a half-million-dollar campaign for a new home, the great Dane prevaricates quickly

Last weekend at Post5 Theatre, managing director Corinne Patel announced a capital campaign seeking a little more than a half-million dollars to enable the company to find “our forever home.” She didn’t say where that forever home might be, only that it would be closer to the homes of their core patrons who have been driving out to Northeast 82nd Avenue; no doubt the secret is in the ticket system’s zip code data.

The campaign, while not exactly big-money, is a sign of ambition from a little, out-of-the-way theater company started just a few years ago by a pair of twenty-something guys from Southern Oregon. But Orion Bradshaw (who recently ceded the managing director job to Patel and became outreach coordinator) and artistic director/resident leading man Ty Boice have shown the pluck to get their fledgling off the ground.

Ambition and pluck come together, too, in Post5’s production of Hamlet, a lean and muscular push through this masterpiece’s challenging terrain.

Gorham as Claudius, Boice as Hamlet, Hadley Boyd as Gertrude. Photo: Russell J. Young

Gorham as Claudius, Boice as Hamlet, Hadley Boyd as Gertrude. Photo: Russell J. Young

Hamlet, to put it mildly, is a complicated guy. En route to the avenging of his father’s murder, he wrestles with a host of questions — practical, ethical, spiritual, perhaps even epistemological and existential. When he’s not tipping precipitously into either indignation or despair, he’s evincing a peculiar sort of brash uncertainty.

Clad in black, his blazer collar upturned, his eyes hidden behind large sunglasses, Boice’s Hamlet takes the stage as a rock-star prince, studied in his melancholy and emotional distance. Tall, blond and handsome, he looks the part of young Danish royalty.

The tricky part of playing Hamlet is making his intensely mercurial nature feel authentic and compelling; to render it somehow emotionally coherent yet still psychologically inscrutable. Boice hits this mark better in some scenes than in others. Bamboozling Polonius, the King’s adviser, he shows deft comic timing and shifting tones in his flagrant display of (real or feigned?) madness. Jousting verbally with the nefarious King Claudius — who has killed Hamlet’s father and taken both crown and queen — or with his erstwhile school pals Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee.

At other times, Hamlet’s famously reflective eloquence pours out of him too quickly, a pressurized flow of verbiage. Quite why the speech speeds ahead, or occasionally slows markedly, isn’t clear as a matter of attitude or thought progression. Perhaps it’s meant to suggest a racing mind, fueled by a volatile combination of youth, grief, passion, confusion and fear. In any case, Boice does make Hamlet convincing as a character who could and should be a man of action, but whose thinking gets in the way.

As much as a Hamlet rides on its Hamlet, such a complex central character needs strong figures to play against. Jeff Gorham’s Claudius is conniving and ruthless, but never a cardboard villain; he wants what he wants, and that means he must stay his course just as much as Hamlet must his own. As Claudius is Hamlet’s foil in an ethical sense, Polonius is in a generational one, contrasting the young prince’s perceptive, questioning nature with a seasoned courtier’s dull certitude. Tobias Andersen, clipboard ever in hand, renders the old windbag as at once comically fatuous and admirably paternal; we can laugh at him, yet still feel for him.

Speaking of foils, Laertes, the son of Polonius, both is one and wields one. His father, like Hamlet’s, is slain, but unlike the prevaricating prince, he moves swiftly and furiously to action. Jake Street’s coiled, muscular intensity is just right for the role, especially in the climactic swordplay that brings all plots to a point.

What might stand out most in this production, though, is the prominence of Horatio, Hamlet’s loyal confidant. Casting a woman in the role — especially an emotionally attuned actor who also happens to be the leading man’s wife, Cassandra Boice — highlights the closeness and tenderness in the friendship as Horatio watches and even helps Hamlet along his collision course with tragedy.

Director Paul Angelo has done his part here, too. A spare scenic approach, utilizing merely a few curtains, chairs and small tables, lets the action flow, as do a few judicious trims to the text (such as clipping all the odd business at the end wherein Fortinbras, an invading Norwegian, is handed the Danish crown). Presenting the play’s most renowned scene, Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, illuminated by only an intermittently flickering lighter is a terrifically apt choice, both visually and thematically. And though he needlessly presents the actors in the “play within the play” as inept boobs, and lets Phillip J. Berns ham it up far too egregiously (as is his wont) as the flippant gravedigger, Angelo otherwise draws smart, well-measured performances from the cast.

The truest ambition, after all, is founded on steady work and small yet worthwhile achievements. This Hamlet surely counts.

*

Post5’s Hamlet continues through May 4. Ticket and schedule information here.

Review: Tartuffe, with a Texas twist

New turf, same game: At Post5, theater's favorite hypocrite grovels to conquer

In the last month or so, Tartuffe director Tobias Andersen has approached me a couple of times, sparkling with excitement about his latest show: “Our version is set in Moliere, TEXAS!” he declares with a wink.

It’s no wonder Andersen rushes to correct preconceptions about Tartuffe. Audiences are more than familiar with this title, they’re downright used to the 17th-century rhyming relic. The name means “hypocrisy” as clearly Faust references soul-selling. They also associate it with a period aesthetic—baroque as a joke, and full of French frippery. When I picture a production of Tartuffe, I see foppish cravats and powdered wigs. I hear whinnies and trills of courtly laughter and snooty stanzas of protracted poetry.

tartuffe2

Well…this is not your great- (great-great-great…) grandmother’s Tartuffe.

Post5‘s version is a recently conceived one, translated by Virginia Scott and adapted and edited by Constance Congdon in 2010. “Instead of being in Alexandrine couplets like the [Richard] Wilbur translation, Ms. Congdon has adapted [the verse] into iambic pentameter, which is quite accessible,” Andersen explains. “This adapation was first produced at the Two Rivers Theatre in New York when Aaron Posner was still artistic director. They decided to set it in Texas, and after I sounded the lines out loud a few times, I realized what a good idea it was! The twang just seems to work!”

It does, indeed.

For one thing, the Southern accents and affectations wrench the story right into a contemporary context, which makes performances feel almost like TV or movie roles rather than stage ones. Christy Drogosch as Elmire could easily keep pace with Suzanne Sugarbaker on Designing Women; Tori Padelford’s Madame Parnelle could sip sweet tea right between Kathy Bates and a Golden Girl. Keith Cable as Orgon seems like he could clear brush and furrow brows with George “Dubya” Bush. Dennis Kelly as Valere has a higher-brow, more suave Southern flair. And Garland Lyons’ poker-faced, silver-tongued Tartuffe could cross swords with Kevin Spacey in the very current House of Cards.

You can’t quite do “Southern” without a few good ol’ boys, and Anderson found four doozies: Larry Wilder, Erik James, Dan Robertson and Jim Davis. Davis as Cleante plays a reluctantly plain-spoken confidante to the deluded Orgon with the manner of someone who has a lot of conversations outdoors, even seeming to kick at the dirt and squint into the sunlight. Robertson makes a great overly polite repo man Loyal, while Eric James as the Sheriff is John Goodman-ish, blustering in to set everybody straight. Between scenes, Wilder and Davis pick-and-grin through topical bluegrass tunes like The Devil Wears a Hypocrite’s Shoe.

All performances here are strong, but the MVP of this show may be Sarah Peters as Dorine, the irrepressibly sensible housemaid. She navigates a frenzy of onstage action with superb comic timing, and she even “sits in” on violin with the band.

The Southern-ness, though, serves as more than just a fun quirk for wardrobe and character development. It works on a deeper philosophical level, too. Hypocrisy tends to flourish wherever strong beliefs are found in the first place, and the American South’s charismatic Christianity may be the ideal climate. Jimmy Swaggart and PTL Ministries spring into contemporary memory as figureheads of Southern hypocrisy. Their methods? Similar to Tartuffe’s: Claiming folksiness, simplicity, sinner-hood. Then passing the collection plate.

The aforementioned Kevin Spacey character sums up the Southern mindset thus: “What you have to understand about my people is that they are a noble people. Humility is their form of pride. It is their strength; it is their weakness. And if you can humble yourself before them, they will do anything you ask.”

And so we watch Tartuffe playing an age-old game on newish turf: groveling to conquer.

 
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