Let Me Tell You A Story About Alvin…

This has been a very emotional week, as one of our best friends, Lauren Uroff, died Tuesday morning. Given this, I was unsure what emotional roller-coaster would result when we attended “The Story of My Life at the Havok Theatre Company last night (the non-refundable, non-exchangable tickets had been purchased long before Lauren went into the hospital). This is because “The Story of My Life” is a unique musical: a simple two-man musical about friendship and how it touches our lives. I’m pleased to say that the musical was beautiful, and provided (at least for me) a wonderfully cathartic moment.

“The Story of My Life” tells the story of the friendship of Thomas and Alvin, who met in first grade. It starts out right after Alvin had died by jumping off a bridge, and his friend Thomas, now a famous writer, has the obligation to write Alvin’s eulogy. Thomas is blocked and can’t come up with anything, and so Alvin appears in his head, urging him to write what he knows, and that a eulogy is simply a series of stories, with a tearjerker at the end. But Thomas is still blocked, trying to figure out where this childhood friendship went wrong. So Alvin starts pulling books off the bookshelves of Thomas’ mind, sharing the stories. We start with their meeting, where their teacher Mrs. Remington introduced them: Thomas dressed as Clarence the angel from “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and Alvin dressed as the ghost of his dead mother. We see them grow up: picking the magical book from Alvin’s father’s bookstore that turns Tom into a writer; the Christmas’ where they make snow angels and watch “It’s a Wonderful Life”; Tom’s application to college; Tom’s distancing himself from Alvin (and his subsequently becoming blocked). In the end, we see how this distancing affects Tom’s ability as a writer (for his stories turn out to be expressions of his adventures with Alvin), and the reconciliation of the friendship in Tom’s mind.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a recurrent theme in this musical, and perhaps is a bit heavy-handed. It shows up repeatedly: from Clarance the angel, to everyone saying “Everytime a bell rings…” whenever the door bells ring, to Alvin being compared to George Bailey (who sets aside his own life to attend to another’s responsibility, and thus never leaves town), and ultimately, to the parallel in Alvin’s death… and perhaps the reason behind the death. It didn’t bother me, but I can see where others might find it heavy… but then again, I’ve seen people who model their lives around movies. It simply shows the power of the media and metaphor in our life.

On a personal level, this musical was very touching, for it had its parallels in the story and the ultimate theme. The musical takes place surrounded by books and writing: either in a real bookstore, or in the bookstore of Tom’s mind. Lauren was a lover of books, and she had a collection of books at home that could rival a small book store. But more importantly, it touched upon the theme of the butterfly and how it can impact the world: the beating of its wings create currents that move the wind along… and people touch other people in ways that can change their lives in major ways… and perhaps that is our purpose in the world. It also emphasizes that we should remember the people we love not through the physical things that they leave us, but with the stories about them and how they touched our lives. The most fitting eulogy begins with “Let me tell you a story about my friend”. It teaches us to treasure the stories of our lives, and to treasure the people with whom we share them.

This production starred two actors we have seen before: Robert J. Townsend (who we saw as the lead in CMT’s “Jekyll and Hyde”, and who we’ve been seeing at CMT going as far back as “Anything Goes”) as Thomas Weaver, and Chad Borden (who we saw in Havok’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) as Alvin Kelby. Both were strong singers and actors, who made you believe in their friendship and love for each other. They were just fun to watch, inhabiting their characters (which is something I love to see in actors). This came from a mix of the skill of these actors, as well as the creative direction of Nick DeGruccio (whose work we have also seen many times).
[All actors are members of æ Actors Equity ]

The book behind “The Story of My Life” is by Brian Hill, who received a 2009 Drama Desk Award nomination for the book. The music and lyrics were by Neil Bartram, who also received 2009 Drama Desk Award nominations for Outstanding Music and Outstanding Lyrics. The show opened on Broadway in 2009 but closed in a week: this is not a show for a large Broadway house, but is perfect in the smaller venues (such as the 99-seat Lillian Theatre used by Havok for this production). As noted above, I found the book very touching, and the music and lyrics beautiful — especially those of “The Butterfly”, which will now always make me think of Lauren. Don’t believe me? Go on: read the lyrics for that song. I’ll wait for you to get back. Was I right? Just beautiful. There is just so much meaning in the lines:

“You’re a butterfly my friend,
Powerful and strong
And I’m grateful for the way
You’ve always hurried me along.
When you flap your wings to stretch yourself
It might seem small to you
But you change the world
With everything you do.”

Technically, the production was beautiful. The set (designed by Tom Buderwitz) consisted of rows upon rows of bookshelves and books, covered with books and papers in shades of grey and black (collected through the hard work of one of our favorite stage managers), with a bridge across the back. It was gently lit (in a lovely lighting design by Steve Young) through mood expressing colors via overhead leikos and lighting behind the bookshelves. The sound (design by Drew Dalzell, who teaches at CalArts) was clear and clean. The music was provided by a three-piece ensemble hidden behind the stage conducted by Michael Paternostro, consisting of a piano, reed, and cello. The show was produced by Havok Theatre Company, with Kathleen Parker and Jodi Carlisle as associate producers.

The production stage manager was the “ever capable”™ Lindsay “Leroy” Martens (youarebonfante), who we know from all her work at Cabrillo. I’m giving Lindsay special mention because we were finally able to talk to her this season (we really can’t see her after evening shows at Cabrillo), and because she took the time to talk to our daughter about her work in technical theatre (and we are sure they will be able to work together in the future). She is just a really good person. I did, however, forget to ask her about “Leroy” :-). I also note it was wonderful seeing shutterbug93 at the show, and to get to meet and talk to Chad and Robert (and their families) after the show.

“The Story of My Life” continues at The Havok Theatre through April 4, 2010. Tickets are available through Havok’s secure website, as well as through Goldstar Events and LAStageTix (but both of these are likely to sell out—the show is that good). This is a show well worth seeing.

Upcoming Theatre. As for us, what’s upcoming on the theatre calendar? Next Saturday night (March 13) brings “Celebrate Dance 2010” at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. The following weekend brings “On Golden Pond” at REP East on Saturday night @ 8pm (this was rescheduled from March 14 due to Lauren’s memorial service), with Sunday bringing another installment of “Meeting of Minds” — this will be the second episode with Karl Marx (Ed Asner), Sir Thomas More (Bruce Davison), Queen Marie Antoinette (Meeghan Holaway), and President US Grant (Dan Lauria). The last weekend of March has no theatre, but is still busy: there’s a Games Day on March 27, and Rick Recht is doing a free concert at TAS on March 28. April brings more of potential interest, including Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris” at the Colony Theatre (tickets pending, likely April 10 or April 16), “Damn Yankees” at Van Nuys HS (tickets pending, April 15-17), the April installment of “Meeting of Minds” at the Steve Allen Theatre on April 18, “12 Angry Men” at REP East (April 24 @ 8pm, although Erin may have to see the May 2 Sunday Matinee due to AP Stats Camp). May looks to be equally busy, with “Little Shop of Horrors at Cabrillo Music Theatre (May 1), See What I Wanna See” at the Blank (likely May 9), The 39 Steps” at the Ahmanson (likely May 15, evening), the May installment of “Meeting of Minds” at the Steve Allen Theatre (May 16), the Spring Dance Show at Van Nuys HS (May 20-22), and “The Wedding Singer” at Repertory East Playhouse in Newhall (May 30 @ 2pm). May will also bring the annual visit to the Southern California Ren Faire, although it looks like we’re going to have to divide and conquer: we’re like to go on Saturday May 8, and ellipticcurve, Erin, and one of Erin’s friends will go on Sunday, May 16 (we can’t do it that day due to “Meeting of Minds”, but it puts it after all of Erin’s AP exams).

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. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.


Do The Dance, But Beware Of Her Kiss

Today, we went to see a musical about political prisoners, and how the government tortures them to get the information they want. This government also believes that homosexuality is wrong, and has a vendetta to put gay men that look at min0rs in jail. No, we didn’t go to North Hollywood Arts Center to see the return engagement of “Bush Is Bad: Alaska Beauty Queen Edition”. Rather, we went to the Havok Theatre in the Westlake District of Los Angeles to see the Kander-Ebb musical “The Kiss of the Spider Woman”. It too was timely, but dark.

The Kiss of the Spider Woman” is a 1993 Tony-award winning musical (Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book) with book by Terrance McNally and music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, based on the Manuel Puig novel. The story (adapted from the Wikipedia entry) centers on Luis Alberto Molina, a gay window dresser, who is in a prison in a unnamed Latin American country, serving his third year of an eight-year-sentence for corrupting a minor. He lives in a fantasy world to flee the prison life, the torture, fear and humiliation. His fantasies turn mostly around movies, particularly around a vampy diva, Aurora. He loves her in all roles, but one scares him: This role is the spider woman, who kills with her kiss. One day, a new man is brought in his cell: Valentin Arregui Paz, a Marxist revolutionary, already in a bad state of health after torture. Molina cares for him and tells him of Aurora. But Valentin can’t stand Molina and his theatrical fantasies and draws a line on the floor to stop Molina from coming nearer to him. Molina, however, continues talking, mostly to block out the cries of the tortured prisoners, about Aurora and his mother. Valentin at last tells Molina that he is in love with a girl named Marta. After taking care of Valentin for a while, the prison director announces to Molina that his mother is very ill and that Molina will be allowed to see her. Condition: He must tell the name of Valentin’s girlfriend. Molina tells Valentin about his love: A waiter named Gabriel. Only a short while afterwards, Molina gets hallucinations and cramps after knowingly eating poisoned food intended for Valentin. He is brought to the hospital ward, talking to Aurora and his mother. As Molina is brought back, Valentin starts suffering from the same symptoms, also from poisoned food. Molina is afraid that Valentin will be given substances that might make him talk and so protects Valentin from being taken to the hospital. As Molina nurses him, Valentin asks him to tell him about his movies. Molina is happy to do so; Valentin also shares his fantasies and hopes with Molina. Molina is allowed a short while at the telephone with his mother, back he announces to Valentin that he’s going to be freed for his good behaviour the next day. Valentin begs him to do a few telephone calls for him, Molina at first refuses, but Valentin knows how to persuade his cell mate. Molina is brought back the next day, heavily injured. He has been caught in the telephone call, but refuses to tell whom he has phoned. The warden draws his pistol, threatening to shoot him, if he doesn’t tell. Molina confesses his love to Valentin and is shot. Aurora bends over him and gives her deadly kiss.

As you can see, this is a very dark plot. It is certainly unclear what the audiences of 1993 thought of it: we were in the Clinton administration, and the outlook was sunny. Today, the plot makes a little more sense in the context of Gitmo and the way some groups want to treat gays these days (oh, by the way, vote No on 8). There are even echoes of our current political battles in it. Still, it is difficult to ascertain the point that the authors wanted to make. Were they saying that to escape to a fantasy world can help one make it through the hard times (the John McCain point of view)? Were they saying that one can make it through by knowing the world will get better tomorrow, or the day after that (the Barack Obama point of view)? Were they just trying to make the point that love can make one strong, and that we can sometimes find our internal courage through love? It is hard to say, and that is what makes this a difficult musical.

However, there is one that that is not difficult to figure out, and that is that Nick DeGruccio is a great director. He took this complicated and difficult show, and made it a thing of beauty, especially in the converted braissere factory that is the Havok Theatre. Under his direction, the actors do remarkable things, and achieve a level of depth of characters one rarely sees. Of particular note in the cast were the three leads: Terra C. Macleodæ as Aurora/Spider Woman, Chad Bordenæ as Molina, and Daniel Tataræ as Valentin. All were strong and remarkable singers and dancers, in particular Borden as Molina. Others in the remarkable cast were Ed F. Martinæ (Warden), Eileen Barnettæ (Molina’s Mother), Zarah Mahler (Marta), Alex Alvarez (Marcos), Che Rodriguez (Esteban), Salvatore Vassalloæ (Gabriel/Prisoner), Shell Baumanæ (Fuentes/Prisoner), Hector Guerreroæ (Observer/Emilio/Prisoner), Jeffrey Parsons (Religous Fanatic/Prisoner), Mike A Motroni (Aurelio/Prisoner), and Oskar Rodriguez (Escapee/Prisoner).
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Also remarkable was the technical staff. The movement and dancing (under the choreography of Lee Martino) was spectacular. The scenic design (by Tom Buderwitz) consisted of a prison of metal tubing and bars, with two beds on a rolling platform front and center. I was also taken with the lighting design of Steven Young, who turned the former factory into a remarkable prison, combining well placed overhead and floor lights, moving mirror lights, projected shadow images (gobos, according to nsshere), and a series of lights around the bed. Truly fantastic. Sound design was by Drew Dalzell assisted by Rebecca Kessin. The production had a 5-piece orchestra that sounded much larger, with Musical Direction by Michael Paternostro, assisted by Steven Ladd Jones, who also served as conductor. The stage manager was Lara E. Nall.

The following is a YouTube video giving you a taste of the production:

Kiss of the Spider Woman” continues at the Havok Theatre until Sunday, October 26, 2008.

Dining Note: Dinner after the show was at one of our favorite coffee shops on that side of the hill: Fred 62 on Vermont near Los Feliz.

As for us, our next show is on Saturday October 25 @ 2pm when we see “The King and I at Cabrillo Music Theatre (alas, nsshere may be unable to make it due to a Speech and Debate competition, we’re looking still forward to seeing youarebonfante after the show, as she is managing the production). Saturday November 1 @ 8pm brings “Blood Brothers – The Musical” at the Whitefire Theatre. On 11/8, we’re seeing “Into The Woods” at the Lyric Theatre in Hollywood. The weekend after that (11/15 @ 8pm) is “The Lady With All The Answers” at the Pasadena Playhouse. 11/21 brings “Spring Awakening” at the Ahmanson. Friday 11/28 brings the last show of the RepEast season, “And Then There Were None”. December 4th and 5th brings “Scapino” at Van Nuys High School (with nsshere doing the lighting). Lastly, I need to remember to explore tickets for “I Love My Wife (Reprise), which only runs 12/2-12/14 — right around the dates of ACSAC.