Representing America

Muse/ique Summer/Timeuserpic=theatre_ticketsLast night, we saw the third installment of Muse/ique (FB) on the Beckman Lawn at Caltech.  For those unfamiliar, Muse/ique bills itself as a counter-culture orchestra. I’d say it is more an orchestra with an electic bent on the creative spectrum. It takes a particular subject and makes all sorts of connections to illustrate it well. This summer, the theme for Muse/ique is George Gershwin, hence “Gershwin/Nation” (they like their slashes at Muse/ique). The second installment (which we saw in August), American/Rhapsody, looked at how George Gershwin built bridges between musical styles — in particular, between jazz and classical, with his Rhapsody in Blue and other efforts. Last night’s show was focused on Porgy/Bess, umm, make that Porgy and Bess, and was titled Summer/Time, after the first song in Porgy and Bess.

As usual, the show started with the national anthem (as do most outdoor shows). But after the anthem, the Maestra and Artistic Director of Muse/ique  Rachael Worby (FB) opened the program by noting how the nature of America and the themes of the anthem (in a content, not musical sense) were something that ran through Gershwin’s work. She then talked about how this was reflected in “Porgy and Bess” — an uniquely American story of hardship and triumph that reflected Gershwin’s ability to bring together operatic forms with jazz, gospel, ballads, and other musical forms across the spectrum of American music (and she posited that Gershwin would have used Motown had it existed then). She then introduced the main players for the show, the “Porgy/Sings” — Ellis Hall (FB), the “Porgy/Dances” — Charles “Lil Buck” Riley (FB), Bess — Vanessa Becerra (FB), “The/Temptation” — Kenton Chen (FB), and “The/Voices” — The Spirit Chorale of Los Angeles and Byron J. Smith.

Ms. Worby then intimated that we were going to see Porgy and Bess, but not as we have ever seen it before. Not only were they going to incorporate portions of the Gershwin score (to be precise, George and Ira Gershwin, with a book by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward), but they were going to interpret similar musical strains that Gershwin did or would have drawn from. This included source artists such as traditional spirituals, George Frideric Handel, Laura Nyro, Camille Saint-Saëns, Ashford and Simpson, Thiele and Weiss, and Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. You probably now expect me to give you a precise playlist from the show. I can’t. Muse/ique does not provide one — not at the show (there’s only the above list of creators), not as you walk out, nor on their website. You are forced to go from memory, which doesn’t help if you don’t know the piece.  So I shall endeavor to do just that.

The journey through the artists listed above was divided into three parts: Alone. Together. A third part that I don’t remember but I think had a “/” in it. It started out not with the traditional “Summertime”, but with some church choral music, which I’m guessing was the Handel. We were then introduced to the characters: Bess (Becerra) with “My Man’s Gone Now”, Sportin’ Life (ummm, excuse me) The/Temptation (Chen) with “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, and Porgy (Hall/Riley) with “I Got Plenty of Nothin'”.

Let’s stop for a moment for a quick aside, for even in those numbers some interesting counter cultural questions are raised. First, is there a requirement to do a show in the book order and with the right characters doing their song. Nominally, it is Serena, not Bess, that sings “My Man’s Gone”, as she’s singing about Robbins. Nominally, we start with “Summertime”, have “Nothin'” later in the first act, and don’t have “Necessarily” until the 2nd act. Those familiar with the Porgy and Bess score would find the rearrangement jarring — I certainly did — until I decided to view this as a concert as opposed to a telling of the story.

Second, there is the question of what “color-blind casting” means. Traditionally, you hear the term when a director casts a show that was traditionally designed for caucasian actors with actors of color. In most cases, it is applauded as a step towards diversity. But what about a show that is traditionally black, with the only white roles being the people of authority — the police and coroner. Here, Bess was white or hispanic; the Temptation was Asian. Was that acceptable to do to this work, or wrong? Is it acceptable in the spirit of a concert, but not acceptable as an instance of the real show? I don’t have the answer, other than to state that while the performances were good, the change was jarring and off, and resulted — especially for the Temptation — in the loss of the South Carolina dialect that Gershwin carefully cultivated. The refrain is “It ain’t necessa, ain’t necessa”, not “It ain’t necessarily, ain’t necessarily”, and — heaven forfend — it is “mammy”, not “mommy” in Summertime.

Back to the music. There was then the traditional spiritual “Motherless Child”, followed by “I Cain’t Sit Down”. The order of the remaining songs in the evening I can’t completely recall, only to note that it included (of course) “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”, “Oh, Lawd I’m On My Way”, and “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, Ashf0rd and Simpson’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, Nyro’s “Stoned Soul Picnic”,  Thiele and Weiss’ “What a Wonderful World”, and the entire piece ended with Jackson/Ritchie’s “We Are The World” (which, I’m sorry but I must say, has both the sappiest, stupidest, and most self-centered lyrics — “We’re saving our lives” — really now? Not other lives?).

Setting aside the story issue and the casting issues, the performances (modulo dialect issues) were strong. Individual voices had a good character; choral pieces were strong. The dance was stunning, and as always, the Muse/ique orchestra was great. The ultimate point Worby was making — that Porgy and Bess is an American amalgam — was made, and when combined with the prior pieces of summer, cement Gerswhin’s place as a uniquely American artist oft unappreciated for his nuance and variety. In that way, this was a success.

The Muse/ique orchestra, under the direction of Rachael Worby (FB), consisted of (I’m using the style of Muse/ique here): VIOLIN 1 / Roger Wilke, Anna Landauer (FB), Tamara Hatwan (FB), Agnes Gottschewski (FB), Loránd Lokuszta (FB), Marisa Kuney (FB) / VIOLIN 2 / Maia Jasper (FB), Neel Hammond, Lilliana Filipovic, Anna Kostyuchek (FB) / VIOLA / Shawn Mann (FB), Adam Neeley / CELLO / Charlie Tyler (FB), Ginger Murphy (FB), Joo Lee (FB) / BASSES / Mike Valerio (FB), Don Ferrone (FB) / FLUTE / Sarah Weisz, Angela Weigand (FB) / OBOE / Leslie Reed (FB), Michele Forrest (FB) / CLARINET / Stuart Clark (FB),  Damon Zick (FB) / BASSOON / William May (FB), Anthony Parnther (FB) / HORN /  Steve Becknell (FB), Amy Sanchez (FB) / TRUMPET / Dan Rosenboom (FB), Adam Bhatia (FB) / TROMBONE / Steve Suminsky (FB), Brent Anderson (FB) / TUBA / Doug Tornquist (FB)  / TIMPANI / Theresa Dimond / PERCUSSION / Jason Goodman (FB) / DRUMSET / Ted Atkatz (FB) / KEYBOARD / Alan Steinberger (FB). Featured players were Roger Wilke, Alan Steinberger, Charlie Tyler, Mike Valerio, and Ted Atkatz. I was good, and fought the urge to use slashes that time.

One observation about the orchestra: Writing this up, I expected the orchestra would be the same group as in August. After all, this is the “Muse/ique Orchestra”; wouldn’t they be the same across all events for a consistent sound? But I’d guess that perhaps 20-30% were the same; the rest were drawn from orchestras across the city. Is this common in orchestras?

Addressing the elements that could be controlled were Jon Boogz (FB) and Charles “Lil Buck” Riley (FB). Matthew McCray (FB) was the Stage Director. It is unclear if Matthew’s job was on the order of stage management (i.e., logistical) or more directoral (in terms of the cinematography for the screens). There was no credit for video, lighting, or sound — all of which were great. The lighting in particular was quite effective for this show.

Addressing the elements that couldn’t be controlled were — sigh, and they were annoying. We were in the back in Festival seating, and there were some kids in the far back making a lot of noise. It’s fine to bring your kids to these things, but you need to remind them to keep quite during performances. Even more annoying were the police helicopters circling overhead with lights. They were quite disturbing; luckily they went away, and whomever they were searching for wasn’t in the crowd.

As always, I recommend Muse/ique to people. They take quite a novel approach to music, jumping from here to there — and as a result, you never quite know what will happen, making it a treat. They are civilized in terms of food and amenities, and their greatest lack is a program for the evening. There next event is an Uncorked event in October, but it isn’t up on their website yet. I suggest subscribing to their website to learn more; there’s an option to do that at the bottom of the page.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), the  Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and I plan to renew my mini-subscription at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). We’re thinking of adding yet one more subscription: the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district. Their 2017 season looks great: Zanna Don’t (Tim Acito, January 13 – February 5), Hello Again (Michael John LaChiusa, May 5- May 28), and Pacific Overtures (Stephen Sondheim, September 15 – October 8) — all for only $60). Past subscriptions have included  The Colony Theatre (FB) (which went dormant in 2016), and Repertory East Playhouse (“REP”) (FB) in Newhall (which entered radio silence in 2016). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:  After a bit of a hiatus, we are back to theatre. Next weekend sees us in Burbank for I Love You Because at the Grove Theatre. The last weekend is The Hunchback of Notre Dame at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB). October is a bit more booked. The first weekend brings Dear World at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) and Our Town at Actors Co-op (FB), as well as the start of the High Holy Days. The second weekend has another Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) event: this time for Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. The third weekend has yet another VPAC event: An Evening with Kelli O’Hara on Friday, as well as tickets for Evita at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on Saturday. The following weekend brings Turn of the Screw at Actors Co-op (FB) on October 22 and the new Tumbleweed Festival (FB) on October 23. The last weekend of October brings Linden Waddell’s Hello Again, The Songs of Allen Sherman at Temple Ahavat Shalom (a joint fundraiser for MoTAS and Sisterhood).

Allan Sherman Tribute Show at TASInterrupting this recap for a word from a sponsor: Linden Waddell’s Hello Again, The Songs of Allen Sherman at Temple Ahavat Shalom is open to the community, and is a joint fundraiser for MoTAS and Sisterhood. Please tell your friends about it. I’m Past President of MoTAS, and I really want this to be a success. Click on the flyer to the right for more information. It should be a really funny night.

Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, October is also the North Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), although I doubt if we’ll have time for any shows. November will bring Hedwig and the Angry Inch at  the Hollywood Pantages (FB); a Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (FB) [excuse me, “Southern California Railway Museum”]; the Nottingham Festival (FB); and possibly Little Women at the Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim. We still have some open weekends in there I may book. We close out the year, in December, with the CSUN Jazz Band at the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC), Amalie at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), The King and I at the Hollywood Pantages (FB); an unspecified movie on Christmas day; and a return to our New Years Eve Gaming Party.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Although we can’t make it, I also recommend the 10th Anniversary Production of The Brain from Planet X at LACC. See here for the Indiegogo. Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.