Sunday, February 10, 2019

Crazy For You by George and Ira Gershwin and Ken Ludwig (Stars 2019)

George and Ira Gershwin occupy an interesting place in my history. Both of my parents enjoy classical music - a good thing with three string player children - but they have one significant source of disagreement. My dad likes George Gershwin - in part because of the old United Airlines ads using Rhapsody in Blue. (He was an amateur pilot and professional air traffic controller back in the day.) My mom? Not so much. She never has liked jazz in any of its forms, and Gershwin’s jazzy harmonies and blue notes never did it for her. So, my dad and I would listen to Gershwin, and she would tune it out as best she could.

Later, I met my now wife Amanda. She loves the whole era of music, from classical to jazz to Broadway. In particular, she loves Ella Fitzgerald. Over the course of our courtship and early marriage, I carefully collected the Songbooks in CD form off of Ebay one at a time. The first one was the George and Ira Gershwin songbook - four disks of delicious interpretations of classic American tunes with witty lyrics. During our day trips out to the beach, we played these over and over, and I got pretty familiar with them. (For the record, “Nice Work If You Can Get It” is one of “our” songs.)

In 2001, which would either have been right before or right after we got married, I had a chance to play Crazy For You with what was then Bakersfield Music Theater (now Stars/BMT) when they played at the Harvey auditorium. Back then, they had the budgets and the space to hire a larger orchestra - including strings, which are so rare these days. When you are in the pit, you can’t see everything, but there were some extended scenes without music, so I had a pretty good idea of the plot.

I enjoyed that experience so much that I jumped at the chance to see it again, 18 years later.

While George Gershwin died in 1937, and many of the musicals his songs appeared in have been largely forgotten, the songs themselves have endured. In 1992, Ken Ludwig did an extensive re-write of an original Gershwin musical, Girl Crazy, added in other songs by the Gershwins, and created Crazy For You. While the plots have some similarity, Crazy For You does differ from the original in many ways - even more than the three Hollywood adaptations of Girl Crazy.

My wife described the plot to our kids as “Every musical’s plot: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. There is singing and dancing.” Which is pretty accurate. There is, of course, a little more to it than that. Boy (Bobby Child) is an aspiring song and dance man stuck working for his mommy’s predatory bank. He tries to get Broadway impresario Bela Zangler (modeled after Florenz Ziegfeld) to notice him, but is repeatedly rebuffed. He does, however, win the hearts of the showgirls. Mommy sends him to an old Nevada mining town to foreclose on an old theater. Upon arrival, he falls hard for the girl (Polly Baker), the daughter of the theater owner. She learns who he is, however, and rejects him. He then has the brilliant idea of disguising himself as Zangler, and inviting the showgirls (who are on vacation) out to put on a show to save the theater. In disguise, he wins Polly’s heart. And then the real Zangler shows up, chasing head showgirl Tess. Hilarity, love, songs, and dancing ensue. 

In this local production, the cast was pretty close to a “who’s who” of local dance and song talent, featuring some of my favorite actors. In a reprise of the pairing in My Fair Lady at The Empty Space last fall, the lead parts were played by Tevin Joslen and Tessa Ogles. While it was obvious from previous productions that both can sing and dance quite well, Crazy For You was a real showcase of their talents. Joslen had several extended tap and soft shoe sequences which were excellent. Ogles got to expand her big voice into a larger space, and she had no difficulty filling the theater. The two of them have believable on-stage chemistry as a couple (or as frenemies in My Fair Lady.) Unfortunately, it appears that Joslen is moving on to bigger things, departing for Los Angeles. Bakersfield has enjoyed his talent the last couple of years and he will be missed. (I will never forget that epic tea-spitting in My Fair Lady, or his riveting performance as Belize in Angels In America.)

Kevin McDonald has been one of my favorite local actors since I saw him in Twelfth Night as Malvolio. (His single hand practically deserved its own billing.) As Bela Zangler, he was as good as ever, from the crusty and dismissive producer of the first act, to the pathetic heartbroken drunk in the musical’s best scene (see below), he was perfectly in character. 

 Tevin Joslen and Kevin McDonald
Selfie shamelessly stolen from Kevin McDonald

The supporting cast was quite good as well. I’ll give special mention to stage veteran Paula Einstein as the controlling Mrs. Child, Brian Purcell as saloon owner and villain Lank, and Kelsea Johnson as Bobby’s wannabe fiancee Irene. (And also, Perrin Swanson’s facial hair, which, along with his coif, deserves an award for its many manifestations over the last 12 months.)

I was particularly impressed with the extensive choreography in this production - it was definitely more involved than any show I have seen locally in decades. I already mentioned Joslen and Ogles, but there were quite a few in the dance corps who brought a lot of energy, precision, and athleticism to the production. 

 Tessa Ogles (top) and assorted cast in one of the ensemble dance scenes.
Stars/BMT publicity photo.

There are two scenes which I think deserve some comment. The first is the one between Irene and Lank. Smarting from her rejection by Bobby, Irene seduces Lank while singing “Naughty Baby,” playing up her kinky side. I remember this being a pretty steamy scene when I did it before - although I was a bit more prudish then, so who knows. At the angle I was at, there were definitely unmentionables visible, and the two actors involved set the scene up with a fairly nasty edge. In contrast, Purcell and Johnson were more toward the PG end of the spectrum. A lot of that has to do with who they are as actors (and perhaps as people too.) Purcell excels as the loveable boy next door, the nice, quiet guy you bring home to meet your parents. Because of this, his version of Lank isn’t a melodrama-style cackling villain, but the goofy and hapless comic villain. He just wants to expand his saloon, and maybe even help out the theater owner by buying him out, but he gets bullied by the Fodors and caught by a designing, if sexy, woman. Likewise, Johnson literally thanked her wonderful boyfriend and God in her program blurb, which is definitely more “good girl next door” than dominatrix. She definitely nailed the uptight pissy feline in her scenes with Mrs. Child, but wasn’t quite a sex kitten later. So this version was a bit different than the last I saw.

Don’t get me wrong - I actually thought the scene worked well. Here’s why. With Johnson’s initial characterization, her later seduction was believable as the “librarian gone wild” kind of kinky seduction. Behind the facade, she is sexy and even mildly kinky. But you never forget - and she never forgets - who she is. This is then combined with Purcell’s naive and goofy villany, and he looks genuinely shocked and stricken when she unexpectedly goes after him. Even her mild naughtiness threatens to overwhelm him. The two of them are a match, which is why I could see them living happily ever after - rather than worrying they would kill each other someday.

  Brian Purcell (center, seated) and Kelsea Johnson in "Naughty Baby." 
Also, to Johnson's right, Perrin Swanson's facial hair.
Stars/BMT publicity photo.

The very best scene, though, is the “two Zanglers.” Both Bobby (in disguise) and the real Zangler, reeling from rejection by their respective flames, get fall-down drunk, and stagger into the hotel with their bottles, and proceed to pour out their grievances in song. The whole time, they mirror each others actions, and in fact appear to think they are seeing themselves in a mirror. This requires, naturally, a great deal of coordination, and careful memorization of every gesture for a scene which lasts a solid ten minutes. The humor is all in the gestures, the facial expressions, and the irony. Particularly delightful are the places where one Zangler fails to precisely mirror the other. This causes a momentary confusion, before they decide the mistake was just an artifact of the booze. 

Done well, this scene is the true peak of the musical. A few factors really made this scene pop for me (and for my kids - seeing this for the first time - thought it was hilarious.) First, Kevin and Tevin do not look alike, even with the makeup. Kevin is, like me, “fun size,” while Tevin is quite tall. The age gap (sorry, Kevin) is significant (although this is accurate to the story), and the athleticism gap is even greater. So the whole idea that Polly might mistake them for each other is humorous to start with. However, what they share is key: they both are fantastic physical actors with impressive skills at gesture and language. They actually sound fairly similar, and move their bodies with the same movements. So, in this scene, they may not be physical twins, but they are convincing as the same character. Also, both nailed the stumbling drunk schtick. I’m surprised neither of them hurt themselves with those falls. I guess you practice it until you get it right. I went into this scene with high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

While most of the show was great, I was a little disappointed by the Fodors. After a brief attempt at the British accent, which never quite worked, they pretty much gave up. Perhaps they should have enlisted Ron Warren or Mendy McMasters to help with that, given their attention to linguistic detail.

Let’s see: acting, choreography, singing...oh yes, good sets and costumes too. I can’t think of any sour notes there.

One more mention: while lacking strings, the seven piece live band sounded great. Brock Christian, conducting from the piano, followed the singers well, and handled the many tempo changes fearlessly. As I noted, I have played this one, so I remember the challenges. (I’m also totally biased because I know several of the band from my other musical gigs.) It always makes me happy when there is live music, so applause for the musicians is well warranted.

Living in Bakersfield presents one with a dilemma: contrary to popular belief, there is actually a lot going on here. The arts community is particularly vibrant with (at last count) over a half dozen drama venues (plus the colleges and high schools), the Symphony (shameless plug!), art shows, live music, and more. It is impossible for me to see everything, alas. However, I am grateful for the opportunity to experience a sampling of the passion and talent that so many in our community bring to the arts.

1 comment:

  1. That’s a good dilemma to have. I see a lot of live performances too, and I’ve seen some really fine acting and productions in local theaters. I still haven’t made it to The Empty Space...maybe this year.