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theatre reviews

Volume 15/Issue 20

Trodding the Boards.GIF


Pretty Baby

T o begin its 81st season, Le Petit Theatre opted to become a rental house and, for the first time in its long and checkered history as an almost militantly proud amateur theatre, permitted an outside entity to utilize its highly professional facility for its own selfish ends. Money was squandered and Le Petit was the recipient-they got their first musical of the season cost-free.

The result, a musicalization of the Paramount film of the same name and the book, Storyville, by Al Rose, falls, with a resounding thud, in the vanity production category; i.e., the writers (book by Anne Rose and music and lyrics by Hugh McElyea) bankrolled this world premiere of a tale of whoring in New Orleans, circa 1917, hiring the noted opera director and designer John Pascoe, and brought from New York, at considerable expense, their three leads, Alissa Dean (Violet, the "pretty baby"), Rachelle Fleming (Hattie, Violet's whoring mother), and David Engel (Ernest Bellocq, the disinterested photographer of the last days of Storyville, New Orleans' fabled turn-of-the-century redlight district); however, only David Engel of the above three is a member of the professional actor's union, Equity.

Mr. Pascoe then set about rounding out his cast with some of New Orleans' most professional performers: L.L. MacDonald (the "Professor"-the black, inhouse piano player), Rita Lovett (Madame Nell), Eliott Keener (Mayor of Storyville), Kuumba Williams (Old Mae, the black housekeeper of Madame Nell's "establishment"), Julia Lawshae, Lainie Diamond, Sandra Grace Johnson, Lucy Anna Burnett & Terri Gervais, (the "girls" of Madame Nell's), Karl Matherne, Forrest Carter, Eric Haston, Matthew Curran, John Giraud & Griff Midkiff (the "johns"), along with Peter Gabb who plays a character named Harry whose chief role seems to be to hold up one of the rolling staircases. Several younger local thespians rounded out his cast.

The show opens with a delightfully fresh-sounding jazz rendition created not by the musical's composer but by orchestrator and musical director Joel A. Martin and his six piece jazz band. The show begins. The first music from the stage is rendered by the Professor, sitting extreme stage right at an upright piano. It is, in fact, the old standard, "Pretty Baby." As soon as the actual book and music kick in, however, the energy quickly dissipates into a thoroughly obnoxious ditty called "Trick Baby" which the precocious Violet belts out while her off-stage mother, Hattie, screams with labor pains. The house whores (called the "ensemble") then regale us with something called "The Business of Life" as they don their strictly correct turn of the century undergarments. A young man (Griff Midkiff) is brought to the house to be "broken in" and is serenaded by the Professor who leaves his stage right piano perch to perform the only "up" number in the act, "Welcome To The World, Sport." Almost casually we meet the various characters. The photographer Bellocq (the star) enters late in the first act, almost tentatively. No clear point is established, no conflict is presented until the very end of the act, when Hattie leaves the house with a john (John Giraud) she's convinced is the father of her new son. Violet, who has come across as a petulent brat, will have to stay with Madame Nell until Hattie can call for her. She exits; so did I.

Mr. Pascoe proves his designer credentials and expends much of the producers' bankroll on an opulently over-designed unit setting incorporating several (silently) rolling wagons upon which he has mounted enormous architectural items - massively ornate doorways, staircases, walls, fireplaces, to effect various rooms in a 19th century mansion that has been glazed into a shiny silvery sheen which is accented with cool limes and enormous, real potted palms, the whole bathed in lovely, if ill illuminating light, by Daniel Zimmer. Any number of 19th century operas could be performed on this eclectic setting. La Traviata comes immediately to mind. The designer's costumes are equally opulent and correct, especially the accoutrement of Rita Lovett's Madame Nell. Every head is likewise buffed and coifed to perfection by the team of Linda and Don Guillot. But one does not feel the hot, humid dankness of an un-air conditioned New Orleans-imperial Russia, maybe.

In truth, Mr. Zimmer is not to blame for singers and actors being left in shadows or behind those potted palms. The director's opera experiences do not serve him well here, where one is hard put to locate the principals and one quickly loses interest as valuable time is expended on exposition that is not only spoken but then reiterated in a pseudo-operatic song style in which the lyrics sit uncomfortably and unintelligibly and that throws convention to the winds with enervating results.

This reviewer only expended an hour and half of his time (the length of the first act plus intermission) on this abortive effort. At the end of the act, I was hard put to know for certain who or what this show was about. The writers, who steadfastly believe in their property enough to go to these lengths to see it mounted, must now decide what to do with it after seeing, and hearing, EVERYTHING they wrote. Not only is a machete called for in hacking it down to size, but a more focused book and more site specific music and less anachronistic lyrics are also called for. If this is to continue to be called Pretty Baby then it must be about Violet. Presently, it is only about ego and vanity-which, come to think of it, is what amateur theatre is, for the most part.

Circus vonAmberg

J .E. Bourgoyne's Circus vonAmberg, recently seen at the CAC for a brief, two weekend performance, was ostensibly celebrating its 30th anniversary edition. I think it was actually the second edition with a 29 year lapse between editions. Regardless, this was a thoroughly delightful theatrical experience of a real, if somewhat shopworn, European style (one ring) circus. I was reminded more than once of the Fellini film, La Strada.

Subtitled "North America's Oldest Alternative Circus" and attempting to capitalize on the incredible Canadian Cirque de Soliel with its blank faced contorted gymnasts, Circus vonAmberg is more like an old time vaudeville and, with a little directorial embellishments, could be highly entertaining, even to adults. As it is, the night I attended, there was a little boy brought by his parents whose giddy, delightful laughter was so infectious as to make what could have been the proverbial lead balloon float like a feather.

Instead of a hyperventilating, police whistling ring master, this mishmash of third-rate acts was presented with a stellar turn by the "circus muse," Kenny Walker of Amon Ra fame, dressed in a flaming red medieval outfit of tights and doublet. His overpainted face was like a Mardi Gras mask and, although he spoke not a word, his pantomimic attitude was hilarious-especially toward the almost-good juggler, Mike Bolton, whose feats of juggling almost worked, but, as the only member of the company to speak, albeit through ad libbing, was the catalyst for that youngster's hilarity. There was also flamenco dancing led by Solangel Calix with excellent flamenco guitarist Carlos Sanchez, a trio of young female gymnasts, and a reprise of Lyle Guidroz's "Four Skins" ballet adagio from Swan Lake as well as Lyle's wonderful Chinese Ribbon dance under blacklight (from a Petronius ball). There were glitzy Mardi Gras-ish costumes, especially for the opening with feathered girls swinging from ropes, smoke machines, acro-gymnasts, a laughable "magic" act of two old men pulling Woolworth scarves out of top hats, to list only a few of the images in this strange compendium of quaint cliches.

Mr. Bourgoyne himself was featured on the trapeze. Much too old and emaciated to be swinging from the ceiling, even if it was only several feet from the ground, his enthusiasm and ability to have put this bizarre program together are to be commended. And, to his wide-eyed, innocent patron, this was not cliched but fresh, startling, exciting and hilarious-brilliant theatre.

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