You Would Have To Be Insane…

New plays and new musicals are a risk. If you look over the productions I’ve seen, brand new productions are a rarity — I’ve generally seen them only as part of a subscription or if some other party has brought them to my attention for one reason or another. Sometimes they work spectacularly, such as the great production of Pest Control at the NoHo Arts Center. Sometimes they don’t, such as a disastrous production of  As U Lyk It: A California Concoction at the Pasadena Playhouse back in 2006. I mention this because last night saw me at a new production: I Caligula – An Insanity Musical at the Secret Rose Theatre in North Hollywood. Irene Bleiweiss, a long time friend from USENET days was an investor in a new musical, I Caligula — An Insanity Musical. For her investment, she received two tickets; as she was in DC and couldn’t attend, she offered them to me. The weekend was open, and so my daughter and I (a daddy-daughter day before she heads off to UCB) saw the show last night.  I thought she might like I, Caligula, as the synopsis talked about it being an allegory to fascism in the 1930s.

Alas, this was one of the productions that didn’t work. There were two primary problems: the music and the story.

As background, here’s a synopsis of the production. The story takes place in a mental institution. The staff uses drama therapy to help the patents, and in this case, the “musical” they are doing is Caligula, the story of the insane Roman emperor. This musical version, which is based off of the play Caligula by Albert Camus, has as its lead a narcissist. The story is what you would expect: Caligula is in love with his sister, and so to have her he offs his grandfather to become Emperor. One he gets the job, he publicly loves his sister, which causes his wife to poison her. Caligula goes insane, starts having orgies everywhere, and then starts killing everyone while they plot to kill him.

Great subject for a musical right?

Let’s tackle the musical problems first. The music and orchestrations were by Cody T. Gillette, who has mostly operatic experience. This led to this really not being a musical but being an opera. So what is the difference? Operas are sung-through (or mostly sung-through) with musical dialog. The music often doesn’t serve the story or to amplify character growth; rather, it is the carrier for the story. Musicals, on the other hand, have clearly discrete songs in a variety of styles; these songs typically serve to amplify the story and expose the inner thoughts of the characters. Think about characters singing about what they want, what they feel, their hopes, their desires. You can have sung-through musicals (EvitaLes Miserables, and Sweeney Todd being great examples); what makes them musicals is how the songs serve the story. You can have musicals about insanity that have entertaining music (Anyone Can Whistle and Dear World are examples, although neither were successful). You can even have musicals about insane killers (Sweeney Todd and Assassins are examples) that work. Looking at these examples makes clear what didn’t work here. First, the music was monotonous: there was no variety in the style, no distinct songs that you walked out of the production humming. It was operatic in style (both music and vocal), but advertised as a musical, confusing the audience (and I’ll note that an operatic take on Camus’ play was already done by Detlev Glanert in 1960, first performed in 2006). The music needed variety, it needed to be accessible to modern musical audiences. This simply wasn’t.

The second problem with the music is that the songs didn’t serve the story, nor did the music serve as a framing device. The latter is what made Sweeney Todd and Assassins work: they had a framing device the clarified the larger moral lesson the production was teaching (e.g., “To seek revenge may lead to hell / But everyone does it, but seldom as well” from Sweeney, or the songs “Another National Anthem” and “Everybody’s Got The Right” from Assassins). In I Caligula the story was sung but there was no point made. What should the audience learn from the saga of Caligula: he’s unrepentant, so what is the point to teach? The answer, of course, is the perils of narcissism and the focus on just what you want. Ideally, this could have been provided by a chorus of the hospital staff with a framing device… but it wasn’t.  The framing device simply didn’t work here,  or wasn’t utilized as it should have been to make the underlying point. In addition to improving the variety of the score, the setting needs to be utilized to create an allegory about the dangers of narcissism and too much focus on the self. Such an allegory could be very useful in today’s society, which is often focused more on meeeeeee than improving society as a whole.

Next, let’s look at the problems with the story. The first is the selection of subject matter itself. As I’ve noted above, you can do musicals about unsympathetic people. Sondheim has this down to an art, with successful musicals about a barber that kills customers for revenge, or people that shoot the president. Usually such musicals are very difficult — witness the public failure of the recent Wildhorn Bonnie and Clyde. Caligula is a particularly problematic piece. The primary subject is an early Roman emperor who supposedly offed his grandfather to get the throne, had depraved sexual orgies, and in the face of bad financial times offed his citizens to get their estates and build palaces for himself. Camus adapted this story for his play; he described his play in 1957 as follows:

“Caligula, a relatively kind prince so far, realizes on the death of Drusilla, his sister and his mistress, that “men die and they are not happy.” Therefore, obsessed by the quest for the Absolute and poisoned by contempt and horror, he tries to exercise, through murder and systematic perversion of all values, a freedom which he discovers in the end is no good. He rejects friendship and love, simple human solidarity, good and evil. He takes the word of those around him, he forces them to logic, he levels all around him by force of his refusal and by the rage of destruction which drives his passion for life.

But if his truth is to rebel against fate, his error is to deny men. One cannot destroy without destroying oneself. This is why Caligula depopulates the world around him and, true to his logic, makes arrangements to arm those who will eventually kill him. Caligula is the story of a superior suicide. It is the story of the most human and the most tragic of errors. Unfaithful to man, loyal to himself, Caligula consents to die for having understood that no one can save himself all alone and that one cannot be free in opposition to other men.”

In general, this is a story that doesn’t lend itself to a musical treatment too well. The author and lyricist Kai Cofer indicated he chose this story because he wanted he wanted to write something about facism, and Camus’ play was supposedly a metaphor for fascism. His first attempt at adapting the Camus play was too big. His second attempt downsized the production and resulted in it being set in a mental institution. Specifically, he indicated it was supposedly in a modern day mental hospital where the patients were putting on a production of Caligula set in the 1930s. The problem is that none of these goals came across in the final production. The minimalist set never gave the impression of this being a modern mental institution; the production of Caligula itself seemed more Roman than anything connected with the 1930s; the music certainly didn’t reflect the 1930s (which would have had big band numbers, not opera); and most importantly, none of the underlying themes of fascism came clearly across in the final production. The focus seemed to be more on the insanity and narcissism of Caligula than anything else.

There were also problems in the writing itself — some of the songs were rather pedestrian (i.e., seeming lists of synonyms or antonyms), and there were points where the fourth wall was broken in an odd manner, involving the audience to provide support and applause for the characters. Weird.

The connection between the mental institution and the play was also poor. The primary echo was that the inmate playing Caligula was also a narcissist. The inmate personalities of the other characters were never well established. They were briefly mentioned in the opening scene and never seen again. Instead, at the end, we see them coming at the audience to find another Caligula to off. In plays and musicals, one looks for growth in characters. I really saw nothing that showed the inmates learned anything from doing the play; this is necessary to offset the lack of growth in Caligula himself. This is a writing defect; perhaps it is something that could be corrected through proper dramaturgy.

In short, the story problems were this: the wrong story was chosen to musicalize, the transformation of the story failed to bring out the underlying theme the author wanted, and at times the writing was weak.

So setting aside the story now, how were the performances. For the most part, they were reasonable albeit a bit overplayed (I suspended disbelief in the overplay, simply because these were supposedly insane asylum patients who would tend to overplay). In the lead was Dory Schultz (FB) as Caligula. Schultz’s tenor voice was nice, although at points he seemed to be not quite reaching what was intended. He captured the narcissism of Caligula well, although his costuming was distracting (especially those gold shorts). Supporting Schultz were Kevin Dalbey as The Director/Tiberious and Elizabeth Harmetz (FB) as Cesonia. Dalbey had a beautiful baritone voice and worked well as the director, providing more reaction shots than anything else. Harmetz’s soprano was also quite nice, but she came across as cold and didn’t quite seem to be inhabiting her character. Inhabiting characters was a common problem in the cast; I find shows work best when the actors were having fun and enjoying their characters, and this cast didn’t seem to have that joy.

One of the actors who did seem to be having fun with her role was Kelly Derouin (FB) as Drucilla. As the sister of Caligula who is offed early in the first act, she was more eye candy, but seemed to be just having fun with the character (and this came across to the audience). Alas, she had one of those fourth-wall problematic songs, clearly added just so the actor had a song. It didn’t work. Another actor who was having fun was Meredith Overcash as Halicon. Hers was less a singing role and more a supporting role, but she had a number of moments that made clear she was enjoying herself that were quite fun to watch. Josh Shaw (FB) (Skipio) and E. Scott Levin (FB) (Marco) served as the supporting senators — I was particularly impressed with Levin’s lovely bass/baritone voice and performance as Marco. Carissa Lynn Gipprich (FB) played the nurse.

There was one last on-stage cast member: Cody Gillette (FB), the composer. He was in the corner, conducting the program — which was prerecorded and on a Mac. He was also mouthing the words of the production. I couldn’t see the point of his being on stage if there was no live music other than to add to the madness.

The production was directed by the author, Kai Cofer (FB), and I’ve already commented on the style. Choreography was by Heather Lipson Bell (FB) and was probably the best that could be done given the music wasn’t really dance music. Kelly Derouin was the dance captain.

Turning to the technical side of things, for which there were few credits. Kai Cofer, credited as production designer as well, designed a minimalist set: a chaise lounge, some columns, tables and chairs. Much as I understand the intent here, they didn’t do a satisfactory job of conveying either the location or the time period intended. The costuming didn’t help, with bright gold shorts with an obvious “package” for Caligula, a silver bikini for Drucilla, tuxedos for the senators, and odd red and black lingerie for Cesonia. None of this did a good job of establishing the time or the place. The lighting was stark and didn’t serve to create the mood in support of the story. In other words, where the technical might have supported the story, it didn’t.

I Caligula – An Insanity Musical continues at the Secret Rose Theatre in North Hollywood through August 26. Tickets are available online via Ovation Tix or via Goldstar.I Caligula might be interesting if you are into opera or the operatic style and desire to see a study of insanity; it will not satisfy you if you go expecting traditional musical forms.

Dining Notes: It was a daddy-daughter day. Lunch was at Umani Burger on Hollywood Blvd and was yummy; I’ll definitely try the one in Thousand Oaks now. Dinner was at Pitfire Pizza across the street from the Secret Rose, and was also yum (although seating was a bit tight, which they corrected). The day together made up for the weak production, although we did have fun dissecting what went wrong.

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts: The remainder of August is quiet until Play Dates” at REP East at the end of the month. This is due to a planned vacation to Palm Springs (as well as moving our daughter to UC Berkeley); while in Palm Springs we might go to Idyllwild Jazz in the Pines. In September theatre activity resumes, beginning with “Blame It On Beckett” at the Colony Theatre on September 1. Mid-September brings Xanadu–The Musical” at DOMA, and the month ends with  “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure” at REP East on September 29. I”m also looking into “Silence: The Musical” at the Hayworth Theatre, which starts September 8 and runs through December, and the musical Justin Love  which starts at the Celebration Theatre in Hollywood on September 8. October brings some traveling for family with the bat-mitzvah of a cousin in Fresno. It will also bring “American Fiesta” at the Colony Theatre, “The Book of Mormon” at Broadway LA/The Pantages, and 1776” at Cabrillo Music Theatre. Continuing the look ahead: November will bring “Moonlight and Magnolias” at REP East, which is booked for the end of the month. It may also bring Seminar” at The Ahmanson Theatre (still undecided on ticketing) and a concert performance of Raul Esparza at VPAC, especially if Erin flies in for it (he’s singing on her birthday). Non-theatrically, it will also bring “Day Out with Thomas” at OERM (certainly on some or all of Veterans Day weekend – November 10-11). Lastly, to close out the year, December has nothing formally scheduled (other than ACSAC), but will likely bring Anything Goes” at the Ahmanson, and may bring “Judy Collins” at VPAC. Lastly, what few dates we do have open may be filled by productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411, or discussed in the various LA Stage Blogs I read (I particularly recommend Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times).



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