Archive for May 2013

“Fela!” at The Paramount

The Paramount is vibrating these days, vibrating with sound, color, and an incredible light display as “Fela!” takes over the stage. Directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, the musical’s first Broadway run resulted in 11 Tony nominations and three wins. The touring show has lost none of the production’s original electricity.

Energy, sensuality, and a powerful political message release as much emotion and passion in the audience as an old-fashioned revival meeting. From the very beginning patrons are encouraged—nay, forced—to get up and dance, shout out, sway. On opening night, they were brought to higher and higher levels of euphoria, responding ecstatically to the music.

Fela, now deceased, is a Nigerian folk hero as well as musician. Born into an educated family, sent away to England to study medicine, he studied music instead and, as composer as well as musician, melded jazz, funk, psychedelic rock, and African percussion into a form called Afrobeat. Yet Fela’s offensive against a brutal political dictatorship and the evils of corporate imperialism  in the 1970s also defined the man.

The military rulers of Nigeria at that time were more interested in self-aggrandizement than in human dignity, and Fela with his music became a powerful human rights activist. He sang in pigeon English so that all Africans could access the message. Expat Nigerians introduced Fela’s music and political ideology to enthusiasts around the globe. He and his family paid dearly for his activism, as this production makes eminently clear.

Although Fela died in 1997, his memory is alive and well in this feast of color, movement, and music. The costumes sizzle; the light show matches that of any concert stage; and there’s no way one can resist the energy of the band and dancers. As it is in most rock concerts, it’s extremely difficult to understand many of the words, but even without them, the message is clear, and the music couldn’t be hotter.

Through June 2 at the Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle, (877-784-4849, stgpresents.org).

“The Language Archive” Directed by Shana Bestock at Seattle Public Theater

In Julia Cho’s play, George, an eminent linguist, works tirelessly to preserve endangered languages before the last of the native speakers die off. Yet he’s mute when it comes to the most important relationship in his life. He hasn’t the words to express his emotions, and, as a result, loses his precious wife.

And what a wife she is! Candace Vance as wife, Mary, is lovely, lithe, and obviously desperate for communication about the things that matter most in life. George, who can talk about his passion for language study, can’t speak about passion in love. Then, when Mary leaves him and his longstanding assistant, the competent yet needy, Emma (Heather Persinger) finally reveals her love for him, he can’t hear what she’s saying and certainly has no sense of what she’s feeling.

George is a tough role to play, and though Mike Dooly makes a valiant effort, it’s hard to elicit great empathy for such a wooden character. The greatest emotion he shows is frustration. And that’s directed at two subjects of his studies. They are the last remaining speakers of what appears to be a European language, and they refuse, at first, to speak to one another in that language. Unlike George, they have passion galore. Played with gusto by Julie Jamieson and John Murray, they argue and fight, using English words as weapons. Then later, they cherish and adore each other, speaking words of endearment in their own language.

The role of language is at the core of this play that in many ways shines a light on contemporary society. Here we talk past each other, reduce our communication to tweets, and go through much of life plugged into headphones or other listening devices rather than in one-to-one conversation.

There’s plenty of humor here, especially when Jamieson and Murray are on stage. And the tragedy of miscommunication is well presented. Yet this quirky play is like an overstuffed closet. It needs to be weeded out, a perfect case of where less would have been more.

Through June 9, Seattle Public Theater, Bathhouse Theater on Green Lake, 7312 W. Green Lake Dr. N, Seattle, (206 524-1300 or www.seattlepublictheater.org).

“The Tempermentals” presented by Arouet and Alfred Zem Hill

In the 1950s just about everyone was straight, or, if they weren’t, they tried to pass. They had no choice. American society had no use for those whose sexual preferences weren’t absolutely 100% heterosexual. Of course many movie stars, politicians, doctors, shoe salesmen, bricklayers, and next-door neighbors were gay, but that was their dirty little secret.

“The Tempermentals” by Jon Marans and directed here by Roy Arauz is both a history lesson and a moving account of the effort by some brave gay men to move honestly into the world rather than having to hide behind the lies, false identities, and unhappy marriages that existing society demanded. It’s the tale of Hollywood fashion designer Rudi Gernreich and political activist Harry Hay, two “tempermentals” (as gay men were then called) who with a few others initiated the Mattachine Society, a gay rights organization that preceded the famous incident at Stonewall, the encounter between gay men and the police that led up to Act Up and the modern equal rights movement.

Marans’ play is cleverly constructed. By gradually revealing the extent of the indignities these men were subjected to and the emotional costs of leading their secret lives, he moves his audience from dismay to outrage.

Sadly, the production isn’t as powerful as the play. Jaryl Allen Draper as Rudi Gernreich is lacking in passion. His laconic performance seems at odds with the force of the play. Daniel Wood as Harry Hay, too, seemed just a bit too subdued for a political firebrand. What they were doing was dangerous and frightening. There’s not enough of an emotional roller coaster here.

We, as a society, have come a long way since then, though clearly not far enough. Marriage is possible in only 12 states. Various religions still try to “reprogram” what they define as misfits. And just last weekend, a young man was shot and killed in Greenwich Village for no other reason than he was gay. There’s reason to go see this play.

Through May 25, The Ballard Underground, 2220 Market St. NW, Seattle, 425 298-3852.

“Chicago” at the Village Theatre

If it’s glorious spectacle you like, if razzle dazzle turns you on, if glitter and glitz ring your chimes, it’s all there in Village Theatre’s “Chicago.” Director Steve Tomkins and his cast and crew have done everything just about right.

“Chicago” first opened on Broadway in 1975 with book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse. Its 1996 revival was the longest running in Broadway history, and the 2002 film was a smash hit. It’s an extravaganza loosely based on the true story of two female murderers who got off scot free after offing the men who were doing them wrong in corrupt Jazz Age Chicago.

In this production, standout singers, dancers and actors, Taryn Darr and Desireé Davar play Roxie and Velma, two of the sexiest murderers you’ll ever meet, sexy and conniving. Kudos go to the entire cast, but special mention must be made of the incredibly versatile Timothy McCuen Piggee and also Richard Gray. Piggee portrays the suave but scummy lawyer who, given enough money, can get anyone off. He struts; he preens; he takes command of those around him and the entire audience too. Gray, Roxie’s well-meaning, bumbling husband, brings just the right pathos and humor to his role.

The production team has given this theatrical delight all the bells and whistles it deserves. Tom Sturge’s set and lighting work beautifully. You know that things are going to get hot when you enter the theatre and are greeted by the overpowering red light “Chicago” sign.

And from the orchestra’s opening bars you sense that Music Director Tim Symons knows just what to do with a snappy score. Kristin Holland’s choreography matches any flashy routines you’ll see on Broadway. Karen Ann Ledger’s eye-popping costumes enhance every curve, reinforce every personality. I do, however, hate it when mikes are so very obvious, and I wish there were a way to avoid large, noticeable runs in so many of the stockings.

But what are a few mike cords and runs when a production has as much going for it as this one does?

Through June 29 at Village Theatre, 303 Front Street N., Issaquah, (425 392-2202) and July 5th through July 28th at the Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Avenue, Everett (425-257-8600). Online at www.villagetheatre.org.

“World’s Fair” at Jet City Improv

In 2003 Erik Larson published “The Devil in the White City…” a best seller about the building of the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and the evil machinations of Mr. H.H. Holmes. Oh how easy it was for this suave sociopath to entice and murder any number of innocent young women who came to Chicago seeking thrills and wound up as corpses.

Now Jet City Improv does its take on these nefarious goings on. With a little help from the audience who offer story details the actors create a different show every night. The quick-witted cast, well costumed for the period, adapt the dialog to audience suggestions and change roles with each performance. Every night is a unique show.

It’s no “Second City” but it is good fun, crafted under the direction of Randy Miller and Brandon Jepson.

Thursdays and Fridays through June 21 at 5510 University Way NE, Seattle; (206 352-8291 or www.jetcityimprov.com/worldsfair)