Saturday, June 18, 2011

Marilyn: Forever Blonde

In Tommy, the ever-naughty director Ken Russell postulated a religion worshiping Marilyn Monroe Eric Clapton (who was God, after all) leading a procession of devotees in pouty Marilyn masks, obligingly wheeling a massive icon of Marilyn from that scene in The Seven Year Itch, her skirt now blown up for all eternity. Over the top, yeah, but not far from the truth. Like Elvis in years to come, Marilyn's death made her larger than life.

Sunny Thompson does her best to make Marilyn life-sized in Marilyn: Forever Blonde, her one-woman show at the Asolo Rep.

The script behind the play was written by her husband, Greg Thompson, who put the words on paper before he knew her and saw Sunny as the perfect Marilyn the second he met her.

All the words in Thompson's script are Marilyn's own, sifted from press releases, interviews, and tapes given to psychiatrists.

What emerges is what we'd expect but might not want to face. Marilyn (aka Norma Jean) invented blonde ambition. An orphan and an outsider, she climbed the Hollywood ladder against the odds. For women in the 50s and 60s, the rungs of that ladder were a series of casting couches. Marilyn obliged, because she knew she was good. She wasn't alone. She made it to the top, because she really was good. Then she fell apart.

And it seems to me, you lived your life like a candle in the wind ...

Ah, shut up, Elton. We all know how Marilyn's story ends dead at age 36 from too many pills. Though the jury's still out on whether her overdose was suicide.

Sunny Thompson makes you want to cry at Marilyn's tragically wasted potential. She gets into Marilyn's sexy, seductive skin and makes the audience itch. From the breathless delivery to the undulating walk, she's got Marilyn's surface mannerisms down and the beating heart behind it all.

It's a fine performance and a performance from the heart.

Still, there’s something missing. The script behind her performance doesn’t capture Marilyn’s mind. Blame her husband for that though I’m sure he had the best intentions. Greg Thompson boiled down his script from the words Marilyn said or printed in public. He didn’t put any words in Marilyn’s mouth or try to read her mind. Oddly, that “honesty” created a subtle dishonesty. Marilyn’s public words were part of her deliberately crafted public face. But the playwright took them at face value.

Bad move. Obviously, there’s a difference between the person and the persona even if it draws on elements of an actor’s real personality. Jackie Gleason was not Ralph Kramden. The real Marilyn Monroe wasn’t the naïve sex bomb we saw on screen.

But Thompson’s play doesn’t separate “Marilyn” the character from the real-world Marilyn who invented her. That breathless, vulnerable, naïve sex bomb was Marilyn’s creation. That character is both drop-dead sexy and a parody of male notions of an all-American sex goddess. It’s a brilliant creation – and a brilliant fiction. Thompson doesn’t look past the fiction to the intelligence behind it.

Marilyn Monroe was a comic genius. That’s what I wanted to see and that's what's missing.

I'm tired of feeling sorry for Marilyn. I want to applaud her for the genius that she was, damn it right up there with Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx and all the rest of them.

This is not to trash Sunny Thompson's performance. She channels Marilyn onstage in an uncanny way. But I wanted to see the mask drop if just for a second. It's a lifetime performance. I'm still haunted by it. What I saw was great. But it's what I've seen before in the standard liturgy of the Eternal Church of the Blessed Marilyn. Sunny, with respect, tell the playwright to do a rewrite. Break the idol. Reveal the mind.

Next time, show me something I didn't see.

Marilyn: Forever Blonde
Through July 10
FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Friday, June 10, 2011

No blues for these ‘Cowgirls’

Tom Robbins to the contrary, not all "Cowgirls" get the blues. Some get country ...

Case in point, the eponymous Cowgirls of "Cowgirls," now kicking up their heels at Florida Studio Theatre, in a production directed by Mary Murfitt. (Murfitt played in the musical's FST premiere back in 1995. She also wrote the music and lyrics. Betsy Howie wrote the script.)

The story behind the musical is as tangled as the World's Largest Ball of Twine. But I'll try to straighten it out.

After a disastrous summer tour, The Cog Hill Trio, an ensemble of female classical musicians, head off to Hiram Hall for their final concert. They're expecting the Kansas cousin of Carnegie Hall. Thanks to a bad phone connection, the owner, Jo Carlson (Angela C. Howell), is expecting the thoroughly countrified, cornpone Cowgirl Trio. When they finally show up, Jo's shocked to discover that she's booked a snooty classical musical group. They're appalled to find out that Hiram Hall is a redneck roadhouse resembling Bob's Country Bunker in The Blues Brothers.

The trio takes the gig anyway, because it's either that or come home broke and disgraced. Their Saturday night concert is a make-or-break night for Jo as well. If it isn't a smash hit, the bank forecloses on her place first thing Monday morning. Against her better judgement, Jo gives the uptight trio a two-day crash course in country music. Comedy ensues. And, just to state the obvious, country music does, too.

Great tunes. But Howie's strong character study is the glue that holds this musical together.

The Cog Hill Trio, for example, is a true band of misfits: Lee (Joanna Parson), a New Age, lesbian cellist; Rita (Franca Vercelloni), a pregnant pianist whose husband wants her to stay home; Mary Lou (Sarah Hund), a high-strung violinist. Jo, the roadhouse owner, is a true force of nature a no-nonsense Alpha Woman dealing with her father's dual inheritance: Hiram Hall and a mountain of debt. Jo's faithful waitresses, big-haired Mickey (Chelsea Costa) and math whiz Mo (Emily Grosland), are also wannabe country singers; they're pissed-off that Jo won't them take the stage for the big concert. By the end of the play, they all have a shootout, everyone dies and Hiram Hall burns down.

Nah. Just kidding, folks. That's not the way these things work and you know it. The concert is a raging success. Everybody takes the stage and Hiram Hall is saved.

While the musical's upbeat conclusion is never in doubt, getting there is all the fun. Cowgirls is a warmhearted, feel-good, tug-on-your-heartstrings experience from start to finish. It’s so much fun, it’s easy to overlook what a tour de force performance the actor/musicians put in. Leaping from genre to genre takes amazing versatility, and they’ve got it.

Behind the performance, Howie's script introduces you to some sharply defined, quirky individuals (who all happen to have XX chromosomes) and makes you care about them. It's easy to be warmhearted, manipulative and fake that's called corn. Being warmhearted and honest is tough, but she pulls it off.

Murfitt's a great director and a great songwriter, to boot. Her original songs are fantastic on many levels. They're a love letter to country music standards but never derivative. They're character-driven and support the story. They're damn good tunes that take you all over the emotional map. They're pure country and ignore the ghettos of musical genre, at the same time. The "country" of country music is the country of the human heart, after all. Murfitt's songs gently make the point that all great music comes from the heart.

Which is another way of saying all great music is a little bit country.

Through July 3
Florida Studio Theatre
1241 North Palm Ave., Sarasota

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein

If a contemporary performer imitates, say, 19th-century composer Franz Liszt, who's to say they got it wrong? Recording technology didn't exist back then. For all we know, Liszt really did sound like Roger Daltry.

That doesn't apply to 20th-century composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. The maestro may be gone, but he left behind miles of film, audio recordings and videotapes. We know exactly what Bernstein sounded like -- and we'll know if a living performer portraying him misses the mark.

Hershey Felder is both the star and author of Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein, a one-man show depicting Bernstein's life and work, now playing at the Asolo Rep. With a display of chutzpah Bernstein might approve of, Felder plays a clip from one of Bernstein's Young People's Concerts before he takes the stage. He's daring the audience to compare. Well, Felder meets and exceeds his self-made Pepsi challenge. His performance goes beyond great imitation to the realm of Shirley McClaine. He seems to be channeling the man.

Felder's performance takes the form of one of Bernstein's broadcasts -- in this case, presumably his final one. Playing and singing at a grand piano, Felder opens with one of Bernstein's burned-in-your-brain compositions from West Side Story -- namely, "Somewhere." From there, Felder's performance continues, alternating between snippets of Barnstein's compositions and his first-person autobiographical narrative -- lifted, I assume, from journal entries, magazine and TV interviews and stitched together with inference.

We learn that Bernstein came from an immigrant family of deeply religious Jews. That he was a musical prodigy. That his father didn't want his son to grow up to be a professional musician. That he did anyway. That Bernstein's protegés included Aaron Copland, Dimitri Mitropoulos and Fritz Reiner. That some of his protegés were also lovers. That his nearly overnight success was basically good luck. (And sounds like a Broadway musical premise -- he got his big break at a major concert because the other conductor was sick.) That Bernstein deeply resented a "two-bit reporter's hatchet job" about a benefit party he threw for the Black Panthers. (Referring to Tom Wolfe, actually.) That he admired Wagner's music, hated his anti-Semitic philosophy, but admired his honesty. That -- in defiance of the atonal fad of most serious composers and music critics of the time -- he loved melody. That he loved his wife Felicia. That -- in his own act of honesty -- Bernstein walked away from his wife and family to pursue openly gay relationships. That, tireless music educator and beloved conductor that he was, Bernstein wanted to be remembered as a composer -- and felt like a failure because the only Bernstein tunes anyone could remember were from West Side Story.

"Lives of the artists" dramas tend to take the same form. Basically, the artist is on a mission from God to create -- and they do. Felder's drama is more unconventional -- and mostly takes place in the brilliant, self-contradictory mind of the composer. Bernstein may be on a mission from God -- or actually be the God of modern music, as he claims at one point. But when the last note sounds, he's not sure if his mission succeeded.

The jury is still out. (I plan to listen to Bernstein's compositions the next chance I get.)

But Felder's mission clearly did.

It's a brilliant, unforgettable performance.

Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein
June 8-12
An Asolo Rep production
FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Just for laughs, here's a link to Tom Wolfe's piece:

Radical Chic