Archive for May 22nd, 2012

Review – Flahooley – Lost Musicals at Sadler’s Wells

May 22, 2012

It’s now three years into the Lost Musicals series for me, and I have to say I was checking and rechecking both the Sadler’s Wells and the Lost Musicals webpages this spring hoping for details of this year’s shows. Disappointingly, there are only two shows this time around, but I booked dutifully and showed up at the Lilian Baylis studio last Sunday for Flahooley. Sadly, due to this last-minute scheduling, I wasn’t able to stay for all of it – but I’ve got a guest review to fill in the details of what I missed.

As ever, the show opened with Ian Marshall Fisher giving us background on the show, which I’ve semi-transcribed:

The book and lyrics are by E. Y. “Yip” Harvo, a “sprightly and annoying” poetic genius. His first job was at a light bulb company in the 20s (shades of Charles Dickens at the blacking factory!). When the factory went down the tubes during the Depression, Harvo’s school buddy Ira Gershwin invited him to be a lyricist. His first hit song was “Brother Can You Spare a Dime;” these days, he’s best known for “Over the Rainbow”. Both were songs with not just pretty words, but meaning, with words that made people smile while ingesting his philosophy … a philosophy that later cost him his career.

Yip’s big success was Finian’s Rainbow (about how whites treated blacks in the 40s – I did not know this as I’ve never seen it). But after World War II he was blacklisted as a commie. Being a socialist actually wasn’t that uncommon for a Jewish first generation American – but in the 50s the “communist threat” became an obsession for the country. The McCarthy hearings were broadcast daily, with celebrities and other prominent people in a chair, on national TV, being grilled with one main question: “Were you a communist?” Many had been, maybe 20 years earlier. Lots of people informed on their friends to save themselves. Jerry Robbins was one of those who named names, destroying the career of Zero Mostel. Once Yip was named a lefty, his jobs dried up and he went back to NYC. But once he was there, producer Cheryl Crawford producer (from the Group Theater in Chicago) invited him to do a show with her. This became “Flahooley,” a show that on the outside is fairy tale yet lampoons Western history and capitalism. But America wasn’t ready for it, what with the general feelings in the air and the Korean War. It was seen as Anti-American, a play that made fun of what had “made us successful.” It had only 40 performances before it closed.

The original show had one famous person: Peruvian Yma Sumac, who was a big star at the time with a five octave vocal range. (The part of Princess Najla is clearly written for her, based on what I heard sung during the show – nice work, Margaret Preece!) Other (later) famous faces were Jerome Portland and Barbara Cook.

Flahooley also requires a certain amount of familiarity with 1950s American slang to get the jokes. Remember that Ike is president, pediatrician Dr Spock and psychotherapy are popular, and loyalty tests are rampant. On TV was comedian Milton Beryl and kiddy TV shows Hopalong Cassidy and Kukla Fran and Ollie (a puppet show). References are also made to beanie hats, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (known for her funny hats), S.N.A.F.U. (used to rhyme “snafuly,” very clever!), serotan (a laxative typically named by spelling the word “nature” backward), and drugstore Walgreens (still in business).

Be warned, though: despite the left leanings of the author, some of the dialogue may not pass the standards of the modern audience. Sample:
Saudi ambassador (to president of toy company, B.G. Bigelow): Salaam aleikum.
B.G. Bigelow: Shish kebab.

So: how was the show? Well, I enjoyed the constant railing against the silly aspects of capitalism wrapped around a gentle story about a romance in a toy factory. The dialogue was clever at a level modern shows can’t meet, though the songs weren’t as memorable as I would have liked (despite the two wonderful nonsense songs sung by Princess Najla). I left at the interval (1:50 later) … here’s a review by David G on the entire show.

“The musical Flahooley is an uneasy clash of themes. Part critique of witch-hunts by a writer who’d just been blacklisted from Hollywood at the height of McCarthyism, part satire of American capitalism by a socialist, part magical tale of an Arabian genie by the lyricist of Wizard on Oz, and part standard boy-meets-girl-and-finally-wins-her-by-buying-her-a-balloon love story, it never quite manages to knit the strands together into a coherent whole. On Broadway, it ran for just 40 performances before closing, and that was after having been refined and toned down during provincial previews.

“Flawed though it is, it works very well as a Lost Musical, where it’s performed in a concert setting with minimal choreography. Flahooley is set in a toy factory, and the original performance made extensive use of puppets in some scenes; these are, admittedly, hard to realize in the Lost Musicals format and are at times confusing. But there is still much to love in the lyrics and the music, including the exquisite juxtaposition of the townspeople singing about their belief in Santa Claus with the appearance of a genie who ruins their economy by … creating and giving out free toys.

“So, yes, at times Flahooley has a confusing plot and uneven tone, but there is more than enough of interest to make it well worth a revival by the Lost Musicals team.”

You know, I may just try to go back and see the rest of it …

LATER: Wow, this play was even more subversive than I thought! Per Wikipedia: “Following the original book, the doll exclaimed “Dirty Red!” instead of laughing, went to sleep when you fed it phenobarbital, woke up when you fed it benzedrine (a drug also referenced in Finian’s) and had the stated purpose of teaching children how to be good Americans.”

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, May20th, 2012. Flahooley continues through June 3rd.)

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Review – La Boheme – Isango Ensemble at the Hackney Empire

May 22, 2012

One of the things that makes dramatic art great is that it transcends a time and place and a culture and holds its meaning when reimagined as part of a completely different world from that of the author. For example, Shakespeare holds both as a straight Kabuki show and as modern ballet. South Africa’s Isango Ensemble has done a great job of taking Western stories and reflecting them through a mirror of the township experience, showing the relevance of Scrooge to modern capitalism and making a Magic Flute more enchanting thanks to a marimba orchestra (and the powerful portrayal of the Queen of the Night).

I had no problems, therefore, in anticipating a successful adaptation of La Boheme when it was announced as one of the three shows the Isango Ensemble was bringing to the Hackney Empire. Normally I would avoid 19th century opera, but I thought with a fresh look (and a mountain of marimbas) I might find the joy I’d missed when I saw it long ago at the Seattle Opera.

And, to a great extent, this was true. Performed mostly in English and reduced to a two hour running time, this was a Boheme that was packed full of energy and rather short on wallowing in misery. I enjoyed seeing Rodolfo and Mimi meet in a shanty where the occupants struggle to keep warm and to keep illuminated; her search for a candle and his desire to have someone keeping the chill away make their love affair seem to aim for survival as much as affection. Having Rodolfo’s space be a one story, one room building with four people living in it seemed as appropriate a version of poverty as a top floor garret; and heating poverty is something that has in no ways gone away in the modern world.

The next scene, in a “shebeen” full of rowdy carousers celebrating a local holiday, is lively and fun. Corrupt government ministers running around with inappropriate girlfriends is just as timely now as when it was written, and Musetta’s mocking of her “poodle” Alcindoro was funny. This was my favorite part of the show – while it was not centered on the main pair of lovers, the life it showed was exciting and the group scenes energetic.

With all of the dancing and singing in this show, I think the Isango Ensemble blew a normal “Boheme” out of the water. I don’t normally like 19th century opera, but – helped by the good singing of the cast – I found myself bubbling along with this one. My suspicion is that people who were familiar with the show would enjoy it even more than I did, as the adaptations of the original music were probably pretty faithful (as they were for Magic Flute). Here’s hoping they come back and roast another old chestnut until it’s nice and tasty.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, May 17th, 2012. It continues through June 1st.)