All Over the Map
Where's Charley? in East Haddam, Murder in San Francisco, The Stops in Seattle, and Miss Biracial Upper Midwest 1984 in Minneapolis
This production is a revisal, not a revival. "One of the things that has made the process especially enjoyable and challenging is that both Jo Loesser, the widow of Frank Loesser, and Joy Abbott, the widow of George Abbott, have encouraged me to dig back into the roots of the material," Walton says. To that end, he has brought in some dialogue and gags from Brandon Thomas's 1892 farce Charley's Aunt, upon which the musical is based. Additionally, the Goodspeed production features six additional songs that Loesser wrote during the same period as Where's Charley?
"Some of these songs were written for the show, and some of them we believe may as well have been written for the show," Walton says. The most well known of the interpolations is probably "I Wish I Didn't Love You So," featured in the 1947 film, The Perils of Pauline. As part of his research, Walton called up Cy Feuer, the original producer of Where's Charley? "Are you asking me to remember? I'm 90 years old. What do you want from me?" Walton reports Feuer responding when asked about this particular song. Upon further questioning, Feuer said, "Wait a minute, was it a ballad? Because I cut all the ballads. And every time I cut a ballad, Frank would say to me, 'Oh, don't do that, Cy. I'm not a songwriter; I'm in the romance business.'"
In his production, Walton is playing up the romance angle. The dashing Noah Racey, who made his Broadway debut last year starring in Never Gonna Dance, plays the lead role of Charley Wykeham. "He's a wonderful comedian and a master of slapstick," praises Walton. Racey is also much younger than some notable, previous exponents of the part. Says Walton, "I was always a little frustrated by the tradition of having an older Charley, which presumably stems from the fact that the role was created by Ray Bolger. Charley is supposed to be an Oxford student and the bulk of the characters in the piece are anywhere from 18 to 22; in the original production, Bolger was deeply eccentric and twice the age of the ingénue playing Amy. One of the reasons I wanted to cast it very young was to get all the romances to work believably, so that you could really plug for them and want them to happen."
According to Walton, preview audiences have been responding well to the revisal. "It's very much aimed at what I believe Loesser and Abbott's sensibilities to be," he states. "My effort has been to be as faithful as possible to the spirit of the original."
The director was not very fond of the scribe at first. "[Levin's] style as a writer fluctuates between between poetic and kind of vulgar and awkward," says Walker. Murder is graphic not only in its portrayal of Israeli-Palestinian violence but in other ways, as well. For example, one scene shows a character urinating upstage. "There's a part of me that goes, 'Oh geez! Why are we presenting this to an audience?'" says Walker. "But I think it comes from a real sense of love for people...[Levin] feels that we should respect human life regardless of whether we think it's good or ugly."
It's that kind of tough love that ultimately won the director over and that has made Levin one of the most respected (and feared) names in Israeli theater. His Queen of the Bathtub stands in counterpoint to the affectionate Broadway bio-drama Golda's Balcony: The play caused prime minister Golda Meir's government to threaten to withdraw subsidies from Levin's Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv. The original production of Murder also drew a sizzling response, garnering the nation's top awards and reviews that compared it to "a blow on the head."
Although no mention is made of politics or religion in Levin's allegorical play about a vicious cycle of violence, the subject matter is unmistakable. Murder depicts three episodes in which a bystander has been wrongly tortured or killed as a result of the other side's quest for revenge. Walker believes that the playwright's abstraction of the conflict "allows people to view what's going on through a lens that is not as biased by their individual backgrounds." In fact, the play has aroused mixed responses from all corners of the political spectrum. "I think you can argue both ways," says Walker, "and that's one of the play's strengths."
At a time when most eyes are focused on the Middle East, it's surprising how little America knows of one of Israel's most influential playwrights; in fact, Walker is aware of only one other American production of Murder, which also debuted on the West Coast. "Americans are very much involved with what goes on in Israel and Palestine," says Walker. "That comes with a certain responsibility to pursue a peaceful solution to the problem there and to be engaged in the discussion."
The musical tells the story of a long-standing gospel singing trio on the verge of a breakup -- or maybe a breakthrough. "Lately, they've begun squabbling and snipping at each other, both onstage and off," says Kinch. "And, in the days since their mentor Dale Meadows has come out to them as a gay man, the gloves have come off completely."
Though all three female characters are portrayed by men, Kinch insists that they are "played totally straight and as far removed from a drag sensibility as possible." And the show is not anti-religion. "The script is respectful and compassionate toward religious sensibilities but it doesn't pull any punches," says Kinch. "It proclaims proudly and without apology that each and every one of us, regardless of our sexual orientation, is a spiritual being -- and anyone who tries to tell us otherwise is just plain wrong."
Kinch believes that shows like The Stops are necessary to counter what she sees as a trend towards more conservative fare in the theater. "In the last few years, so many producing theaters across this nation have become increasingly concerned with not offending for fear of losing patrons -- and patron dollars," she says. "More and more they are avoiding truly cutting-edge works and instead serve up a steady diet of milquetoast feel-good pabulum."
As the title indicates, Miss Biracial Upper Midwest 1984 -- which is part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival -- is an affectionate satire of the racial foibles of America's heartland told through the story of a mock beauty pageant. Wilson plays "Miss Black." Other contestants include Miss Asian, Miss Native American, Miss Latin, and Miss Celtic. Wilson's stage persona, Foxy Tann, is not only a tongue-in-cheek racial commentary but also a self-deprecating dig at her ersatz celebrity. "I'm famous in Duluth," Wilson says with pride, but she's realistic about her notoriety elsewhere in the country.
Besides serving as the show's writer and star, Wilson directed the piece. Asked about the advantages and disadvantages of helming one's own work, she notes the financial benefits and stresses that this particular project required her own clear vision of the piece. She does, however, know the value of "another pair of eyes" to help steer a writer away from an inevitably "deluded" view of his/her creation. In this regard, her company -- Theater Mojo -- has been tremendously helpful. (Theater Mojo plans to open another deliciously named entertainment, Cheap and Tawdry Sideshow, this November at the Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis.)
Anyone planning a visit to the Twin Cities for the company's current production can expect a "wham, bam, thank you ma'am" kind of evening, to use Wilson's own words. Or is that "wham, bam, thank you female-to-female impersonator?"