Friday, July 24, 2009

Bay Area Musicals – World Premieres

In the past three days, we have attended two world-premiere musicals; and the two could not be more different in some ways and yet also share so much in common.

World premieres are for us some of the most exciting times in the theater. To see the birth a work, to be among the first to determine what is funny and what is not or what moves to tears and what maybe to yawns, and literally thus to be a part of the creative team as an audience member -- that is theater-going at its best.

In the past, we have seen the phenomenal "Wicked" in its first week, the successful "Legally Blonde" the first night it was seen by an audience any where, the not-so-successful "Lennon" in its birth, and the altogether failed "The Mambo Kings" whose much-anticipated life has proved to be short. All of these premieres (and more) have been produced by our often brilliant Carole Shorenstein (and of course other co-producers) who in the past 20 years has made San Francisco a major launching pad for Broadway.

More locally for us, we have seen many world premiere musicals and plays at Theatreworks, the leading professional theater in Silicon Valley and one of the largest suburban theaters in the US. TheatreWorks began 40 years ago this month with the first of its now 50 world premiere musicals and play (a rock, anti-war musical called "Popcorn"). Today, playwrights and composers literally flock to Palo Alto area to write, workshop and premiere their works (e.g., Andrew Lippa, Steven Schwartz, Tom Jones, Henry Krieger, etc.). Currently, the New Works Festival '09 features six new musicals and plays being given staged readings (i.e., professional productions with scripts still in hand and with minimal staging, no costumes or scenery). At this stage, audience members are encouraged to give written feedback to the writers about what parts works well and what are problematic.

And that brings us back to this week's two premieres we saw. One, "Tinyard Hill" by the exciting and up and coming team of Mark Allen and Tommy Newman, is a "country musical" that takes place in 1964 in rural Georgia. The production is first-class in every respect (well-respected New York actors, outstanding sets and costumes, top-notch direction, lighting, sound, etc.). The story is very compelling as the nascent Vietnam conflict is fast becoming a war and is a growing topic of interest and concern of the small community of Tinyard Hill.

The beauty of this production is in the relationships of its four characters, including one of the best portrayals of a father-son relationship I have ever seen. The music is apropos for the era and the setting, with a rock country beat with often haunting and foreboding quality to it. But, as a premiere, all is not perfect or settled yet. The first act at times seems a bit choppy (lots of scenes, some songs so abruptly ending that the audience was not sure whether to clap or not, e.g.). On the other hand, the second half seems close to 'being done," The story quickens, the songs really move the story along, and the outcome moves to one that really grabs every one's heart and brings today's Iraqi and Afghan wars right onto the 1964 stage.

Whether "Tinyard Hill" has a life beyond this production is still unknown, but I would not be surprised for it at least to show up on many a local repertory stages in the next few years. (By the way, one of TheatreWorks' recent world premieres -- "Vanities, the Musical" -- is now at Second Stage, an off-Broadway and highly respected venue. Another, "Memphis," opens in October at a Shubert theater on Broadway.)

Last night, we were privileged to be in the second audience ever to see “Rent Boy Ave.: A 'Fairy's' Tale”. The music is by Michael Mohammed and the book and lyrics by Nick A. Olivero, artistic director of the small, urban Boxcar Theatre where we saw the musical. With similarities to "Rent," "Passing Strange," and various Mamet plays, the raw realities of the street life right outside the theater's San Francisco doors explode all around the audience. Sitting all around the graffiti-covered walls and columns sometimes in clumps of 2-5 people, sometimes on scaffolding or in a corner almost alone, the audience interacts from the moment they arrive with roaming street people. A wandering, muttering woman (Trashcan Sally) turns and confronts entering audience demanding money or cursing them just for being there -- not unlike what folks may have encountered only minutes before on the sidewalks coming to the small theater.

The 50 audience members are soon brought into the daily drama and boredom of the street's life, meeting various characters with and without names. Pimp, social worker nun, married hetero looking for young boy for hire, male and female prostitutes, drug addicts, mental cases -- they are all here' and all have formed an uneasy alliance and community that we learn is almost impossible for them to leave, even when given the chance.

The music is loud rock; and sometimes in this early stage of the musical's development, a bit unintelligible. But, the overall effect of a cast of non-professional, young actors who are probably getting at best gas/bus money for the several-week run -- the effect is exhilarating. Like "Tinyard Hill," the new work still needs work. Come back several years; and if it lives to see further productions (many new works never go beyond their world premiere), we will probably not recognize it as it is further refined and shaped.

Even more than "Tinyard Hill," frankly, I would love to see "Rent Boy Ave." get a full New York production in a year or two. I really think there is seed of brilliance here that audiences need to see to better understand the life we all try to ignore as we walk the streets of New York, San Francisco, Palo Alto, etc.

My advice: Go to the theater to see world premieres whenever you can. Do not expect perfection or a finished product. But do expect to feel electricity, excitement, and deep emotion as you witness the creative process before you.

TIP: Half-price tickets for many select performances, sporting events and family activities are often available on Goldstar Events. Areas include San Francisco Bay Area, San Jose, San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas, Washington DC, Boston, and Chicago.
Goldstar Events is our favorite source of cheap tickets in the SF Bay Area. But it is not the only option. You can also find half-price tickets at: Artsopolis – good for San Jose & the South Bay. And Theatre Bay Area - discount tickets from member theatres available online and/or at TIX Union Square, SF.

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