Wednesday, April 29, 2009

AT THE RAINBOW'S EDGE

This has been a week of kiddie shows, it seems: all three of the new acquisitions are aimed squarely at the lower grades, and so you get things that are simple to stage and easy to sing. These rarely have any real star turns but rather implement choruses that can range from a few to a few hundred.

At the same time, as with LAZY TOWN, there's something a little disorienting about them when you read them, as if even though the authors' intent is clear as glass, the work still lends itself for productions that meander into the somewhat bizarre.

For example, AT THE RAINBOW'S EDGE (1931), by Douglass and Virginia Whitehead, with music by G. A. Grant-Schaefer (who, incidently, also wrote the score for LAZY TOWN). I should mention at the outset that the title page assures you that these three are indeed more than qualified to write this — Douglass, at the time of publication, held an MA from Columbia and worked as the Supervisor of Drama at San Francisco's State Teachers' College, while his wife Virginia, not to be outdone, got her BS from the University of California, with subsequent graduate work at Columbia, and (at the time) served as director of rhythm at the Brantwood Hall School and Payson School and was formerly the head of Physical Education at the same State Teachers' College.

Poor Grant-Schaeffer was just the Head of the Voice Department at Northwestern, but he made up for it by writing tons of stuff — operettas, cantatae, and "musical plays" — for grade schools, published mostly by the Arthur P. Schmidt Company, which seemed to have specialized in this sub-genre.

Now, with resumes as impressive as this, you'd think, Wow! These guys really know their game! This is gonna seriously rock! — and then you'd be severely disappointed. A celebration of spring, AT THE RAINBOW'S EDGE is an interesting, almost psychedelic mosh of unborn flowers, polar bears, and Aunt Jemima. The story in brief:

We're in some kind of cave, where the unborn flowers blissfully sleep as they wait for the call of Spring. Guarding them are Nurse Nature (who's to be costumed as a "mammy" for absolutely no reason whatsoever), her faithful dog Bow Wow, and the Dream Fairy. The Rainbow Elves come to tint the flowers' new dresses, then depart, leaving behind the rainbow colours. But, dont you know it, that night Jack Frost and the Snow Flakes steal the rainbow colours and the new dresses — and, thanks to information from Robin Red Breast and a very doleful Raven, we find out that the Frost King plans on stealing the flowers as well. The Brown Bears are roused from their hibernation to help Nurse Nature, but the Frost King is prepared for that and brings his Polar Bears, and the Brown Bears get their rear ends handed to them.

The Frost people are just about to depart with their prisoners for the Ice Palace when "conquering Sunbeams" arrive and turn back the Frost People, thus saving the flowers. Bow Wow then clues everyone in on where to find the Rainbow Colours and the flowers' new dresses. And it all wraps up with a huge finale that reprises everything in the score, with a final chorale welcoming Spring.

Wow. It sounds pretty straight-forward, but when you read it, it moves with lurching rapidity: elves and fairy folk and bears appear and disappear with near-bewildering speed. You can tell that the pacing on this is meant to be fast and pointed: fully half the score is allegro, while the rest moves from a smattering of andante to a whole whack of vivace and animato. The fact that this was intended for kids in early grades makes you wonder how much the authors pre-supposed about their little performers. It didnt stop onstage, by the way: in addition to the piano, the orchestra consists of several rhythm instruments, such as drums and a triangle and two kinds of tambourines. This was no doubt intended to be the school's Big Spring Production, involving as many students from as many grades as possible, with fanciful, relatively orate costumes (This was written during the Depression, remember) and a somewhat involved set. For the most part, the ensemble numbers are written in two-part harmony, which is a little surprising, considering most lower-grade works are written with unison singing in mind. There's also opportunities for the little ballerinas to show their burgeoning talents, while everyone else's dance opportunities seem to consist of marching in line or in a circle.

But it's the speed at which the involved plot moves through this hour-long work. With so many characters and so many ensemble groups, the Whiteheads knew they had to get everything moving if Mom and Dad were going to see their little darling perform Third Rainbow Elf from the Right. As such, the songs are short and to the point. For example, the Snow Flakes' opening number, given here in toto:

Dart dart
Whirl
Dart dart dart
Whirl
Dart dart
Dart dart dart
Whirl

— or Jack Frost's "slumber spell":

The spell of the ice
The spell of the snow
Into the dreams of flowers we throw

Then sleep you deep
And do not wake
Sleep you deep
And do not wake

Granted, you cant have anything too complex for the kids to memorize, so it's not surprising that any one song runs longer than 24 bars. But with 33 music cues in 54 pages, the Whiteheads simply dont give you enough time to think beyond 24 bars, not when there's six or seven lines of dialogue and another music cue coming right on their heels.

With its myriad posses of performers, AT THE RAINBOW'S EDGE must have been exhausting to stage. But it also has this undeniable weirdness that seems tailor-made for a high-concept approach for a modern-day performance. As I was reading it, I kept flashing on the thought, "What would Julie Taymor do with this material?" — and the response was something big and bright and colourful and strange, with puppets and gigantic props and all the other signature parts of a Taymor production, perhaps even production design inspired by Peter Max. There arent many works in the high school operetta canon that suggest Ritual Theatre, but AT THE RAINBOW'S EDGE comes damn close.

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