Tuesday, July 21, 2009


YOKOHAMA MAID (1915) simply adds to my theory that the legacy of Arthur Penn is one of musical theatre's lost treasures. A wonderfully demented work, the play (which precedes CAPTAIN CROSSBONES by a few years) chronicles the results of a social experiment gone very, very wrong.

After an opening number in which a herald fills us in on some completely unnecessary backstory, we're in the garden of Sing-a-Song's house, where everyone has gathered to fete her sixteenth birthday. Unfortunately, the celebrantee isnt quite ready, but that leaves time for the mayor Fateddo to arrive and put everyone in their proper place... on the ground, eating dirt.

Once that's out of the way, Sing-a-Song appears, not caring tuppence that everyone knows she's sixteen. Her enjoyment of the moment is cut short when Fateddo tells her she's his betrothed, thanks to her father's will, which requests that she marry "a real live mayor", and Fateddo is the only single mayor her father knew.

Needless to say, this doesnt go over well with Sing-a-Song, but her misgivings are meliorated by Fateddo's announcement that she's to go to America for two years to become an acceptable, accomplished wife. She will be accompanied by Kissimee, her companion, and Tung-Waga, her nurse. And with a proper Donizettian sextet, the curtain falls in Act One.

Act Two takes us to the Mayor's garden. It's been two years, and he's anxious to see Sing-a-Song again (although he seems slightly more interested in the money and lands her father left her). The three women appear, now dressed in extravagant "American" style, and Fateddo is surprised to see the change in Sing-a-Song: rather than a quiet, demure little maiden, now she's a controlled, "sophisticated" American lady who has a few ideas all her own about this supposed marriage. But the Mayor sets all her objections to the side and starts the ceremony...

... only to be stopped by Harry Cortcase, a lawyer, and his associates Hilda and Stella, because it seems Sing-a-Song has married him. Fateddo dismisses it, pointing out the statements in the will that she "be willing to marry Fateddo" and, of course, the notes about her marrying a "real live mayor". Harry elegantly sidesteps the former by stating that of course she was "willing". The fact that she's married now simply makes it "impossible", which of course the will doesnt address. And as for marrying a real live mayor, Harry throws out the information bomb that he is indeed a mayor, of a town called Dollarsville, and had been a full month before marrying Sing-a-Song. As such, all of the requirements of the will have been met, so Sing-a-Song gets her father's estate. Unable to do anything now, Fateddo decides to commit "social hari-kari" by marrying Tung-Waga instead. And with another sextette, the curtain falls.

As noted, this was written prior to CAPTAIN CROSSBONES, and in some respects it shows. It's not quite as mature a work as CAPTAIN: the humour is a great deal broader, dependent on groaning puns — especially in the character names: Muvon Yu is the policeman, Knogudi is the mayor's secretary, Ah No a laundryman, and so on. Nevertheless, Penn's libretto allows for some great star turns for its secondary characters. For example, Tung Waga's song in Act One on the agonies of growing old:

Dim is my eye and grey my hair
For which misfortunes I hardly care
But had I been born at a later date
No doubt I could have controlled my fate

O powder puff
O sweet cold cream
Without your help
Life a curse would seem
O dainty rouge
O fifty cent massage
Had I but known
The powers you own
I would have begged my parents to
Postpone their marriage a decade or two

Like the libretto, the score is also not quite up to CROSSBONES' virtuosity, but it comes close. In some respects, this is because CROSSBONES is scored more as a full-bolt opera, with more complex choral work, while YOKOHAMA MAID is a chamber work with a smaller cast and therefore lower expectations. Still, there are some dazzling pieces of choral work and two finales that put the singers to their best advantage. It's a very clean work, with no obvious diversions for the sake of adding a musical number: everything builds, which is fairly rare for works of the period. Surprisingly enough, there are no dance numbers, although a few of the songs would lend themselves to adding one.

But Penn's larger goal seems to be in the singing: he arranges his score so that everyone gets an equal amount of face time, whether solo or as part of one of those sextet finales. The chorus works in complete subservience to the soloists: they sing more as an extension of the orchestra, not as a part of the acting company.

Nevertheless, like CROSSBONES, the Gilbert-and-Sullivan antecedents are clearly on display, with wry rhyming schemes and a storyline that speaks to cultural differences in a broadly comic way. While G&S's satire is more pointed and specific, YOKOHAMA MAID is a bit more scattershot, even with its smaller scale approach. Still, it shows Penn's slightly absurdist sense of humour in development, with all the groundwork in place for the more mature works such as CROSSBONES and THE CHINA SHOP.

Note: while in NY this past weekend, I hoped to finally secure the libretto to MAM'ZELLE TAPS, also by Penn. The Library of Performing Arts' computer database said they had one, but no one could locate it. Very frustrating, as you might think. Still, I have a few more options before throwing in the towel on ever finding one for that particular work.

To balance that frustration, I also put in a request for the libretto to PINK LADY, by Ivan Caryll. A hit when it opened in NY in 1911, it too has been almost completely forgotten. But we'll do our part to revive a bit of interest in this utterly charming little show.

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