Songs from an Exceptional Artist

Song cycles and Jukebox musicals. They’ve been around in musicals forever, going back to shows such as “Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris” in 1968, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” in 1978, and “Sophisticated Ladies” in 1981. They all aim to do the same thing: showcase the songs of a particular performer with a talented cast of between four and eight, creating either a biography or turning each song into a vingette. Some attempt to rummage through an artist’s catalog and form a collection of songs into a through storyline to varying levels of success. Jukebox musicals run hot and cold: when they soar, they are spectacular—I still have strong memories of the performances of the original Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Sophisticated Ladies casts. When they fail, they are quickly forgettable. I’ve seen some in the latter category recently, but I can’t seem to recall them, proving my point. 🙂

Part of the trick of a successful jukebox musical is picking the right artist. The musical of some artists is more melodic and less theatrical. Some artists have songs that are stories in themselves. Randy Newman is one of those latter artists. He has brought a theatrical style to his music going back to his 1968 debut album, “Randy Newman”. When I learned that the Mark Taper Forum was doing a Randy Newman jukebox show. We went to see the show, called “Harps and Angels”, last night, and were not disappointed.

Harps and Angels” is not one of those musicals that attempts to create a story where one isn’t there. There’s no plotline. It also doesn’t attempt to tell the story of Randy Newman’s life or the chronology of his music, although a few songs are clearly autobiographical. Instead, it presents 35 of Randy Newman’s songs, drawn from most of his albums (although they discussed “12 Songs” in the program, I don’t see any songs from it in the song list). A few songs are linked together thematically, such as “Dixie Flyer” and “Down in New Orleans”, but many are not. Except for the occasional torch song, all are treated as little thematic pieces. As such, it is a great evening of Randy Newman music, which is great if you love Randy’s music. Luckily, I do.

Beyond the artist selected, the success of a show such as this depends heavily on two things: the ability of the director to find the story in each song and theatricalize it, and the abilities of the cast to not only sing the music but make it come to life. Here the Taper succeeds quite well. Jerry Zaks, the director, has worked with Randy Newman (the composer) and Jack Viertel (the conciever) to find the story behind each song, and create nameless characters to tell it. An example of this is the song “Old Man”, sung to an obviously dying father in a hospital bed. Placing the song in this setting imbues it with much more meaning that it had standalone on the album. Of course, some songs are there simply because they are crowd pleasers. In this show, that song is “I Love LA”, which closes each act and has the audience clapping and singing along. Somehow, I don’t think that particular song would get the same reaction were this show to be performed in New York City or San Francisco.

The casting of this show was very strong, and included some performers who you either don’t think of a singers or who you don’t think of in a theatrical context. There were three men and three women. The three men were Michael McKean, Matthew Saldivar, and Ryder Bach. Michael McKean, who perhaps represented Newman himself, we’ve seen before many times in TV (he and David Lander created “Lenny and Squiggy” for Laverne and Shirley) and film (notably, for many, in This is Spinal Tap or A Mighty Wind). McKean is also an accomplished stage actor: we’ve seen him in numerous Pasadena Playhouse productions. Matthew Saldivar we’ve also seen before: he was in the Ahmanson production of “South Pacific”. The third man, Ryder Bach, was new to us. He’s done a few theatrical things, but is best known for his band, The Body Parts. The three women were Katey Sagal, Storm Large, and Adriane Lenox. Katey Sagal is perhaps best known for Married with Children, 8 Simple Rules, or Futurama, but she is also an accomplished singer with a number of CDs, as well as being an original Harlette. Storm Large is not your typical theatrical performer, having only done the occasional musical, but being better known for her tours with her band, “The Balls”. Adriane Lenox is a well known stage, film, and television actress who has done numerous musicals, including being in the original cast of “Beehive”. These six brought not only strong and clear voices to the chosen Newman songs, they brought their wonderful acting abilities to make the songs come to life. It was a delight to watch them.
[All actors are members of æ Actors Equity ]

The musical staging was by Warren Carlyle, who used the space provided by the Taper quite well. It wasn’t formally choreography, for this wasn’t a heavily dance oriented musical. Musical direction and arrangements were by Michael Roth, who also did the arhcestrations with David O. Roth is a long time orchestrator for Randy Newman. Roth also conducted the 8-piece onstage orchestra (piano, woodwinds, trombone, violin, guitar/keyboard, bass, drums/percussion, and synthesizer).

Technically, the staging was simple. The scenic design by Stephan Olson was basically an empty stage, with just a few props to suggest things within songs. The major scenery was provided either by a c0llection of five moving projection screens (projections by Marc I. Rosenthal) that provided wonderful song-appropriate projections, or by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s costumes (such as the wonderful country western costume for “Big Hat, No Castle”). The projections included a few short video pieces with Randy Newman himself (produced by Cinevative). The sound design by Philip G. Allen was clear and crisp, and the lighting design by Brian Gale was beautiful and moving. David S. Franklin was the production stage manager, and Nate Genung was the stage manager.

Harps and Angels continues at the Mark Taper Forum until December 22, 2010. You can get tickets through the CTG Online Box office or by calling (213) 628-2772. Note that Hottix should be available as the show isn’t selling out. These are $20 tickets, no service fee, two per telephone call, that may be limited view (but usually aren’t in the Taper). Just call (213) 628-2772, press “3” for the Taper, and ask for Hottix.

Dining Notes: We were coming up from the Winter Sawdust festival in Laguna, and so opted to eat in Little Tokyo. We ended up at T.O.T Restaurant (Teishokuya of Tokyo), which was delightful. It was more traditional style Japanese than sushi bar, including a large variety of bowls and curry rice. Yummy. It was a delightful dinner, topped off by a bit of Pinkberry from across the street.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. December starts out quietly, due to the upcoming ACSAC conference. Nothing is planned for next weekend; Erin is seeing “Next to Normal” on December 10 with some friends. Our theatre starts up the following evening with Uptown, Downtown” starring Leslie Uggams at the Pasadena Playhouse on December 11, which is presumably our last subscription show at the Playhouse (we haven’t decided on “Dangerous Beauty” yet, but if we go, it will likely be the Goldstar route). The following weekend bring Next to Normal” for the whole family at the Ahmanson on December 18. Our December theatre closes for Karen and Erin on Christmas Eve with West Side Story” at the Pantages Theatre (I’m not interested in that particular production, especially at Pantages prices, and haven’t yet decided if I’m going to go to an alternate show… if there even is one that afternoon).

The new year, 2011, starts slow. January is mostly open with only Tom Paxton at McCabes ticketed for my birthday, January 21. February will bring the first show of the REP 2011 season, “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” (pending ticketing for February 5), followed by The Marvellous Wonderettes” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on February 12; Rock of Ages” at the Pantages on February 19. February closes with Moonlight and Magnoliasat the Colony Theatre on February 26. March is also mostly open right now, although March 26 is being held for The Diary of Anne Frank” at REP East. Of course, I learn of interesting shows all the time, so expect additions to this schedule.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.