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by Steven LaVigne
It wasn’t a dream, but in midsummer, I found myself taking in the theatrical riches of London’s West End. My first stop was the TKTS booth in Leicester Square, and the Duke of York’s Theatre, where Claudia Shear’s “Dirty Blonde” had recently opened. Jo, an actress meets Charlie, a curator at Mae West’s grave. They form a friendship that’s interspersed with scenes from West’s life (her beginnings in vaudeville; her arrests on moral charges while performing on Broadway and her life in Hollywood are included).|
Charlie, who met West while in high school, occasionally dresses up as West, and Jo must come to terms with this. Bob Stillman and Kevin Chamberlin play multiple roles to Shear’s Jo and her Mae West. The highlight is the first act finale, when Shear, costumed in Susan Hilfrey’s Merry Widow corset, puts on the dress, hat and feather boa to become the personification of Mae West. “Dirty Blonde” is a brilliant tribute to one of Hollywood’s greatest gay icons.
It’s an unwritten rule that that London theatergoers need to see at least one Shakespeare play. Tickets to the Globe Theatre are difficult to come by, but Trevor Nunn’s production of “Hamlet” at the Old Vic was available. Nunn took a contemporary approach and used actors who are the right age for their roles. Tom Mannion’s Claudius and Imogen Stubbs’ Gertrude are a completely self-absorbed political couple, while Ben Wishaw’s Hamlet is thin, gangly and aimless.
As the drama unfolds and the political intrigue is brought to light, there were outstanding performances by Nick Jones as Polonius, Rory Kinnear as Laertes, Jotham Annan as Horatio, and Sidney Livingstone as the Player King. Samantha Whittaker played Ophelia as part schoolgirl/part party girl, developing a deeply moving performance, with an especially effective mad scene. Winshaw’s Hamlet was carefully calculated as his Hamlet knowingly drew strength. In the play’s final, tragic moments, Winshaw emerged triumphant.
Tennessee Williams’ “Suddenly Last Summer” was given a fine revival directed by Michael Grandage and starring Diana Rigg and Victoria Hamilton. Mrs. Venable is a wealthy woman whose gay son, Sebastian, died a cannibalistic death suddenly last summer. Mrs. Venable wants her niece, Catherine, who witnessed his death, to have a lobotomy. Rigg seemed to be channeling Katharine Hepburn, while Victoria Hamilton as the niece, was amazing! Her Catherine was a sensible woman who’s been seriously wronged, and Hamilton delivered a carefully controlled performance building to Catherine’s powerful final monologue.
With R. C. Sherriff’s World War I drama, “Journey’s End,” director David Grindley has created an ensemble cast of great performances from Philip Franks as Osbourne, and David Sturzaker as Stanhope, the Captain who drinks to cover his pain. Into the trench comes Toby Kebbell as Lt. Raleigh. Raleigh idolizes Stanhope, who is engaged to his sister. This riveting play deals with the decisions made under the pressures of war. Jonathan Fensom’s set captures the play’s claustrophobic, tense themes, and Jason Taylor’s deliberately dim lighting enhances the moods of Sherriff’s brilliant play.
Now starring David Soul, “Jerry Springer, the Opera,” at the Cambridge Theatre is a show that’s often silly, somewhat shocking and enormously entertaining. Oh yes, it’s offensive, too! The first act is pretty much what you’d expect: trailer trash airing their dirty laundry. There’s even a chorus of tap-dancing KKK members. In Act 2, the show literally sinks into hell where Satan asks Jerry to serve as mediator while he demands an apology from Jesus. An embarrassment on TV, “Jerry Springer, the Opera” takes on a surreal element that’s entertaining.
There are flaws, especially in the second act, and the authors will need to rework it here and there before coming to Broadway, but overall, “Jerry Springer, the Opera” is a lot of fun!
Back in the USA, I saw another production of “Dirty Blonde,” at Park Square Theater in St. Paul. Shear’s play requires three skillful actors and a versatile director. Park Square had that with actors Jodi Kellogg, David Silvester and Peter Vitale and director Joel Sass.
Because I saw it in London, I have to make comparisons. LaPine kept the show simple and minimalist, focusing on the versatility of the ensemble and featuring the text. Sass took the script literally, focusing on the biographical passages of the text.
West’s image dominated the stage, both in Sass’ set design and Jodi Kellogg’s impersonation. Shear also played Jo softer, with more contrast, while Kellogg took the Brooklyn girl further. There was little differentiation between her characters. Both Silvester and Vitale use their multiple roles, from Charlie to W.C. Fields, Frank Wallace and Mr. Edward, “hairdresser to the stars,” to give their acting abilities quite a workout.
There were plenty of queer theatre offerings at the 2004 Minnesota Fringe Festival. They weren’t all successful, but here are some highlights (Alphabetically):
A works in progress with performers doing short pieces. Swiftly moving, Eli Weintraub discussed a misguided, multicultural college production; Allegra Lingo had a three-part piece titled “Lemons,” wherein a wedding becomes just another theater production; Lane McKiernan’s “Isn’t It Intriguing,” related the aftermath of her coming out and her relationships with her two grandmothers.
“Alien Potluck” - Corcoran Park Players
“Axis Mundi” - Aggravated Assault
“Boldly Going Nowhere” - Illusion Theatre
“Dandelion Snow” - Out On Stage Productions:
“Miss Biracial Upper Midwest 1984” - Theatre Mojo
“Patrick and James: A Love Story” - The Artsy Guy, Inc.
“Seussical” - Front Porch Theatre
“Tales of the Nether Regions” - Spoken Word Fringe
“The Great Masturbators” - Only Child Productions
“These Pumps Are Killing Me” - DragIn Productions
“The Valets” - Outward Spiral Theatre Company
“Vertograph” - Marvel Ann Productions:
“Whiskey Bars” - Big Empty Barn Productions
Shortly before his death, Morris collaborated with gay writer Dick Scanlan on a theatrical treatment with new lyrics to music by Jeanine Tesori (openly stealing from Arthur Sullivan, Victor Herbert and Tchaikovsky). Somehow this thing won the Tony for Best Musical over the far superior “Urinetown.”
The road company, playing at the Ordway Theatre conveys both what is good and bad about this material. Therer are terrific performances by Darcie Roberts as Millie, Richard Roland as Jimmy and Stephanie Pope as Muzzy Van Hossmere. Ann Warren impersonates Mary Tyler Moore and David Gallo’s Manhattan scenery has been influenced by the art of Joseph Stella and Georgia O’Keeffe. Much of Rob Ashford’s choreography is clever, although “The Nuttycracker Ballet” is a little too much like Michael Kidd’s “Girl Hunt Ballet” from “The Band Wagon. Gay director Michael Mayer has created a smooth, slick and professional production.
But there’s something seriously wrong with all this, and it’s the basic plot. Millie’s adventure includes uncovering a white slavery ring masterminded by her landlady, Mrs. Meers. Women were kidnapped and abused. If they weren’t murdered, they were forced into drug addiction and prostitution. Few ever escaped, becoming instead, part of China’s faceless masses.
No matter how clever and fancy you make it, trivializing it is offensive. Furthermore, the way that the characters were expanded for the stage is offensive. Mrs. Meers (Pamela Hamill) uses a racist Asian speech impediment, and the treatment of her henchmen, (Andrew Pang and Darren Lee) even more unsavory. The story of women entrapped by white slavery is a worthy topic for a dramatic musical, but not something intended to be a celebration of a bygone era. With such a good-looking show, it’s a pity that “Thoroughly Modern Millie” isn’t better that this.
Outward Spiral’s new play, “In the Garden,” Minneapolis Musical Theatre’s area premiere of “Bat Boy: the Musical,” The Guthrie’s production of Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” and the Minnesota Opera’s umpteenth revival of “Madame Butterfly” are among the highlights for the Fall season here in the northland. We’ll see how things fare this fall.