Thursday, December 22, 2011

THE MAGIC NUTCRACKER

We have all endured (or at least sat through) more than enough Nutcracker ballets to make one's head spin — and unfortunately, this one will not stop the momentum. THE MAGIC NUTCRACKER (1925) by Jane Kerley (with Tschaikovsky's score edited by Carl Deis, cover artist unknown) takes the bare bones of the story and hones it down to even more bone-chilling simplicity.

The entire thing plays out in a single set, a drawing room, with a — for the moment, anyway — normal sized tree, decorated with toys and candy that look suspiciously like the sort of things that would come to life in a juvenile operetta. Mom and Dad are finishing decorating the room, when Grandpa, hoisting a bag so full of toys that you suspect he robbed a bank to finance it, bursts onstage. It's the usual assortment of things that one might suspect will come to life in a juvenile operetta... but the prize acquisition of the evening is a nutcracker.

Oh, not just any old nutcracker, of course: this one is a magic nutcracker, purchased from an old woman who sat on the sidewalk in the freezing snow, advertising him as something that will "surely bring good luck!" (although one might be tempted to note that it didnt quite work in her case, which makes the advertising altogether suspicious, but anyway...) Grandpa is, of course, delighted that he found something his little granddaughter Marie will like.

But of course, as we all know, that enjoyment wont last long, not with her brother Johnny around who, as he is destined to do in every production, breaks the nutcracker, and Marie is devastated.

MARIE. He was so fine! Now look at him! He's all broken! Grandpa gave him to me! Grandpa gave him to ME! My lovely Nutcracker!

... and so Johnny is sent to bed without dessert and we never see him again. At least, not in this operetta anyway. Grandpa has a good laugh at Marie's emotional attachment to a hunk of wood, and everyone leaves. But Marie sticks around, concerned about her nutcracker. To make him... er, it... feel better, she decides to sing "the Arab cradle song that Nurse used to sing to me." But instead of putting the toy to sleep, she puts head to pillow and crashes out instead...

— only to awaken to find herself now suddenly very, very small, so much so that all the toys and candy on the tree are... wow, human sized. And all the toys are now... gosh, as big as her. A fairy made of candy tells us that Johnny ate her toe, which makes it difficult for her to walk. But knowing that the show must go on, she forces herself to dance like Fonteyn. She's replaced by a Chinese boy :

Me no like hang on tree by hair
Big Mel'can man he tie me there
Me no like
Me no like
Small Chinese have no fun at all
Small Chinese boy have great big fall

Next, a bunch of reed flute fairies, then a battalion of toy soldiers... which then means the appearance of the evil Mouse King, who's killed by Marie's shoe, which ends the curse on the Nutcracker, who reappears as a handsome prince, who immediately falls in love with a woman who's Marie suddenly all grown up, who says yes to being princess of the realm, and the flowers all gather, and everyone sings and dances, and you're thinking maybe it's almost over...

And there's a very brief scene following, with now-back-to-Little Marie still asleep in the doll's bed. Grandpa finds her and picks her up to put her to bed, all the while telling her that yes he'll fix the nutcracker in the morning. They're just about to leave, when Grandpa stops and says to the audience...

GRANDPA (at door) Drat that Nutcracker!

Exit and curtain.

And you sit there looking at the falling curtain and asking yourself, Whoa, wait a minute! "Drat that Nutcracker"? What was that all about? I have no doubt it was meant to be a shocker ending, but... it doesnt make any kind of sense.

I guess you had to be there.

Okay, to the music. Overall, not a bad transcription of themes from the Nutcracker. The Overture becomes a bit of an operatic scene, that takes us all the way to Johnny's breaking the toy. The rest are mostly solo and duo opportunities, but, with the exception of the now-cringe-worthy Chinese song, they're done with a more or less light touch. There's nothing inherently complicated about any of the voice work, except that it has some demanding little trills and the occasional surprising rhythm sequence. There's very little parts work since this was probably meant as unison work for the lower grades.

What does make this interesting, though, are the substantial production notes that accompany the script. Apparently Ms. Kerley produced this herself many times and gives us many pointers about how to make the costumes and the scenery. One item that I'm sure raised a few materal eyebrows is the costume for the wind fairy, which is accomplished with a long, straight slip of flesh-coloured gauze. She wears a slight jacket over that, also of gauze, but I'm wondering how many mothers in 1925 told little Janey's teacher, "No way am I allowing my child onstage to look like a hooker!" Probably a lot.

Also, please note: "The fattest children are to be dressed as men of brown gingerbread." That no doubt left its own share of emotional holiday scars.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

THE BEAUTY CONTEST

Every now and then a work will that come along that completely defines the generation and culture from when it came... and THE BEAUTY CONTEST (1936), with libretto by Theodosia Paynter and music by G.A. Grant-Schaeffer (cover artist unknown), does that so resoundingly that one reads this script in... well, awe that is part sadness and part stupefaction. We've seen plenty of opportunities to date of how authors of these little works portrayed racial minorities and other countries' cultures, coupled with a patriotic fervor that sometimes verged on the jingoistic and isolationist. But THE BEAUTY CONTEST, arriving with the usual high school operetta innocence, defines relations between the sexes with a trowel-load of solid concrete.

This was another one of those "should I pick it up or not?" moments, as the cover describes the work as "an operetta in two acts for girls". I have a few of these — Wild Rose, The Rivals — and they're usually pretty awful. But THE BEAUTY CONTEST probably wasnt originally meant to be unisex in its production: fully half the cast is men. I'm sure that it was felt that, in performance, these characters would be performed by girls, but there's really nothing mandating that, as the vocal lines for the boys are written more for tenors than sopranos.

All right, let's get to it. We're on the lawn of a summer resort hotel, the type once popular in Pennsylvania and upstate New York. The hostess, Jonquil Jones, and her maid-of-all-work, Milly, have done everything they can to keep folks happy during their stay, but a group of girls (daughters of the guests? students off on spring break? we're never told) are preparing to leave because the place is so boringly dull. Jones herself confesses to finding the atmosphere tedious and, to correct this, plans to run for mayor of the town, opposite the very popular standing mayor Mr. Green, just to, in her words, "mess things up a bit". The girls find this insanely thrilling and agree to stay and campaign for her.

Meanwhile, Jim Dandy, a local country boy, drops by to see Milly. It's obvious he's totally infatuated with her, while she's clueless about it all, seeing her promotion from farm drudge to hotel maid drudge as "improving" herself.

Mayor Green and some of the other local men appear. Green has heard about Jones' plan to run for mayor and is concerned: after all, she's wildly popular. To counter this, he decides that the hotel should have a beauty contest, to "take the women's minds off this campaign". He suggests the rest of the men help; if they do, as reward he'll give each the girl of his choice for a "grand dance aboard my yacht".

Milly returns and finds an announcement for the contest. While she mopes that she's not pretty enough to enter, a local beauty expert, Sylvia Spankum, rides in on her bicycle and shares some of her secrets as a way of getting Milly to enter. The rest of the girls return, and Sylvia cons each of them into entering as well, then takes advantage of the moment by giving them a collective makeover — at a price, of course.

Act Two is the pageant itself. The men have come as hooded Gallants (whatever those might be, although I suspect it was just a device to cut on costuming needs), to somehow ensure the judging panel's anonymity. Each girl is given an opportunity to show her stuff, with Milly performing last — and looking, naturally, shockingly gorgeous enough to win. Jonquil takes second place, and the Mayor "bashfully" asks if she would accept being the Mayor's Lady instead of the Lady Mayor. Despite the fact that she's gotten the support of just about every organization in town (which would mean an easy win), she inexplicably (or maybe not so) takes him up on his offer. Jim also claims his prize, as do the rest of the men, and the evening ends with almost everyone neatly coupled off, dancing a fox trot.

Okay, let's think about this for a moment, shall we?

The woman who has no real self-worth suddenly finds buckets of it by dressing up as a bride and winning a beauty pageant. Another allows her career aspirations to be dashed by a politically calculated proposal of marriage. Frankly, the only woman who seems to be making it in this world is Ms. Spankum, who's described as "anything but beautiful" and yet clearly a successful businesswoman (and, given the way the script handles her, most likely a lesbian). Mayor Green is "forty years of age, or elder: a stout, mature, large and commanding figure", so of course sweet, young Jonquil is just gonna rush into his arms. As for the rest of the cast, the authors take pains to make sure the pairings are simple and direct: here's the self-indulgent couple, here's the intellectual couple, here's the Japanese couple, while over here are the two pair of comic-relief twins (whose comic-relief status is defined solely by their physical appearance).

Ms. Spankum, I hasten to add, foxtrots with no one in the finale.

The lyrics... well, let's take a few examples. Here's the number where Jonquil confesses to the girls that she wants to run for office and their subsequent reaction:

Her case has grown most awfully dire
She's now in politics and cant retire
So give a little maiden's prayer
That she will win as Lady Mayor

On the other hand it's quite screamingly funny
The she can give the Mayor a run for his money
The election will be decided on whether
The womenfolk all stand together.

... which, of course, they dont. The minute they hear of the contest, the campaign is the last thing on their minds, and Sylvia, entrepreneur that she is, works it.

When you get those want-to-be-beautiful blues
From the top of your hat to the soles of your shoes
You've got to be willing to diet and kick
If you want your figure to be slim and slick
Your getup will be both stylish and chic
So that you may fascinate quick

And if it's suggested that you're full of vanity
You want your man to lose his sanity
Oh then you'll shine o'er all humanity
Because you've got those Got-to-be-Beautiful Blues!

But it's not all utterly dreadful (although I do like the rhyme of vanity/sanity/humanity); Rickie, a terminally cute French girl, has a flashy little number called "Allezoop! Boop-de-boop!" which cant be anything but an homage of sorts to a certain cartoon character. A girl fascinated by bugs sings of her adoration of things small and six-legged. But these are unfortunately blips; the remainder of this work seems pointedly oriented to making sure the womenfolk are kept in their places: to bear the children, to adore the husband, to accept a hard-scrabble life on the farm.

THE BEAUTY CONTEST, for all its innocence, is a frightening little portrayal of how men and women expected each other to interact, both personally and socially. As I note, it's a product of its time, when roles were stringently proscribed — in fact, I found it interesting that the men of this show are just as restrained as the women, just not as blatantly — and outcomes, even by high school operetta standards, were eminently predictable.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

One of the great things about writing this blog is the memories folks send me: of their parents performing in one, of being serenaded to sleep by a song from another. The fact that there's so little about the creators is a constant frustration... and then this appears in one's email box:

Searching on “Hattiebell Shields” recently, I came across your review of “The Palace of Carelessness.” I can tell you a bit about the authors. Hattiebell, Ivine and Laurene Shields were three sisters, daughters of George Shields, a Scottish immigrant, and Agnes Stoker, born in Ogden, Utah and the daughter of English Mormon immigrants. The girls had two brothers, Claude Lester Shields and John William Shields. My wife Bonnie is the granddaughter of John William Shields, thus the sisters are her great aunts.

The three sisters traveled on the Chautauqua Circuit, performing music. Ivine was operatically trained and made her debut at the Chicago Met and had a brief career. She also played piano. Hattie played cello; she also sang support vocals and played piano. Laurene did dramatic readings, sang and played piano. After their touring days, all three taught music, either privately or in the schools. They wrote several operettas for schools. We own “The Palace of Carelessness,” Station Cloudville,” and “Lindy: An Ode of Glorious Achievement.” My wife does not know if they wrote more operettas.

You are correct that there is little about them on the web. A search for “Shields Trio of Chicago” brings up a web page at the University of Iowa that contains their publicity brochure.

It was nice to see my Bonnie’s great aunts still mentioned. Thanks for posting your comment on their work.

Sincerely,
Bill Fenton

Here are the lovely ladies themselves. The back of the flyer notes:

The SHIELDS TRIO of CHICAGO INDIAN SKETCHES IN COSTUME A VOCAL AND INSTRUMENTAL PROGRAM Figure Figure Figure Figure The SHIELDS TRIO of CHICAGO Figure PERIOD COSTUME SELECTIONS READINGS AND DRAMATIC SKETCHES Figure THE SHIELDS TRIO of Chicago THE SHIELDS TRIO is an extremely attractive and unique organization. It is most unusual to find three such talented and attractive young ladies in one family. Each of these sisters is an individual artist, and the ensemble is altogether satisfying. These versatile and experienced entertainers offer a program of irresistible charm, consisting of dramatic sketches, and a variety of costume specialties including an Indian musical sketch, numbers in period frocks and hats, monologues and songs in various costumes. IVINE is a singer who has the rare gift of telling a story in song. Her clarity of enunciation and charm of personality captivate her audiences. She is also a pianist of ability. LAURENE is a dramatic reader of great talent, power and charm. She appeals to young and old as she draws from her large repertoire the humorous, the dramatic, the pianologue, etc. She is an excellent accompanist and singer. HATTIE-BELL, 'cellist, possesses a splendid technique and a lovely tone. She plays with equal skill and feeling the old favorites and the works of the masters. She is also an accompanist and joins in the ensemble singing. Figure THE SHIELDS TRIO of Chicago Press Comments from Here and There CHICAGO: Miss Ivine Shields, a singer whose work was exceptional from every viewpoint … splendid voice and dramatic style … won unstinted acclaim from the audience. She has good concert style and appearance … petite and very pretty … (Chas. E. Watt.) Hattie Bell, 'cellist … displayed a beautiful, full singing tone … played with manifest authority. Laurene elicited hearty laughs from the audience … showed great versatility … a charming personality, a musical voice and dramatic power. Ivine sings … with splendid style songs of the kind that require a singer who can project a story in song. This is her special talent. Laurene … as a picturesque Indian maiden … shows great dramatic power … exceeded our greatest expectations. Hattie Bell's 'cello solos delighted the audience. Miss Ivine Shields' enunciation is so pure that not a word went amiss—phrased correctly and scored heavily with her listeners. (Musical Courier.) ILLINOIS: Hattie Bell … showed wonderful technique and mastery of her chosen instrument … Laurene … an appealing personality and voice … true character interpretation … Downers Grove will welcome these young ladies again. The Shields Trio … a delightful program … enthusiastically received … (Wheaton). Laurene … voice capable of great variety of tone colorings … splendid portrayal of characters. (Wheaton.) Each of exceptional talent. (Lake Bluff.) UTAH: Laurene … excellent interpretation and delivery … great ability as reader and interpreter. (Ogden.) Ivine … sweet toned and excellently cultured soprano . . both a pianist and singer of ability. (Ogden.) Ivine … delighted and surprised a large audience … forced to appear after each number … beautiful renditions. (Salt Lake City) OHIO: Hattie Bell … wonderful technique and mastery of her instrument. (Fayette.) Hattie Bell … played with skill and feeling. (Elliston.) Figure DESIGNED AND PRINTED BY THE W. M. KING SERVICE, CHICAGO

Many thanks to you as well, sir.

THE GOVERNOR'S DAUGHTER

Madness, political intrigue, and dirty old men making improper advances — sounds like just another day on the front pages of the New York Times, but they're also a huge part of the very bewildering GOVERNOR'S DAUGHTER (1929) by Alfred Wakeman (book and lyrics) and Ira Wilson (music), the latter of whom gave us the "themes on a limited variation on Chopin" ENCHANTED ISLE and the "doesnt he know more than one melody by Stephen Foster?" JEANNIE.

It's election time in Calibama, and Mr. Goodspeed is anxiously waiting by the radio to hear if he's won the governorship. He's a nice enough fellow, so you know already that in the world of the high school operetta, he's won — but his wife, even before hearing the news, is already planning on the next big step: using this to get at all those people who did her wrong.

Once the results are in, the place is swarming with reporters, all of whom want to know every little detail they can about their new governor, but he's a bit more worried about the whereabouts of his daughter Jane. Not to worry — right on cue, she shows up with her chorus of girlfriends, and she simply cannot wait to tell her almost fiance Johnny about the news.

But Mom has other plans for Jane in the form of Senator Snow, an elderly ("almost fifty!") man whose marriage to Jane could be politically advantageous. First, tho, she has to get John out of the way, and she does so by playing first on his insecurities about the book he's waiting to have published and next on his love for her ("If you really love her..." — well, you know the drill there.). He agrees to break off the engagement and, as Mrs. Goodspeed further insists, will not tell her why.

Naturally, this causes no small confusion in Jane and her father (who actually thinks the guy's a good kid), but John is adamant: he cant tell Jane why it's over. And as Mrs. Goodspeed looks on with no small amount of smugness at her victory, we end Act One.

Act Two is at Snow's mansion, for an inauguration party. Momma has been working not only the party lines and setting up photo opportunities but she's also been laying the groundwork with the media to announce Jane's engagement — even though of course she hasnt bothered to tell Jane about it, but that little detail can be dealt with later. Governor Goodspeed shares Jane's confusion about John and had asked to meet him at the party. John initially tries to say it's over a money issue, but when Goodspeed happily writes him a cheque for ten thousand to cover whatever the debt might be, Joh has to backtrack and say that it's because a history of family insanity, particularly an aunt who lives in Oshkosh. Insanity might be hereditary, you know, so John just had to stop things with Jane in their tracks... for her own protection.

Meanwhile, Snow hasnt been letting any moss grow under him: he's hitting on all of Jane's girlfriends, which doesnt go over well at all with Momma. Now realizing that maybe she erred a bit, she asks where John is — and it turns out she's not the only one looking for him: so is the head of the publishing firm that's considering John's novel (How did this gentleman come to arrive at the party, you ask? Well, you see.... oh, never mind: this is high school operetta we're talking about, remember?). He's come all this way to tell John he's not really interested in the book, when one of the reporters runs in and says there's a crazy man up in one of the trees.

Feigning madness, John sweeps in, pretending to be a count. Or perhaps a duke. Or maybe a king. Nevertheless, he's royalty — and he's carrying a gun, so of course everyone is going to do what he says. The publisher is thrilled by this turn of events — a mad genius! the headlines! what could be better! Mrs. Goodspeed, now seeing John as the lesser of two evils, negotiates a far better contract for John. Everything is going exactly to plan — sorta —

... when Aunt Mary shows up. Governor Goodspeed is somewhat surprised to discover that she's actually not insane and then furious with John for pulling such a trick on his daughter. Momma however smoothly moves in, fesses all, and tells John that, for the fifty thousand he's getting from the publisher, he's free to act as crazy as he wants. And with a hymn of praise to the governor's wife, we end.

Well. As you can see, it's a bit of... well, everything. Preceding the Gershwin's Of Thee I Sing by a couple of years, it still tries to cover the same ground: dirty politics, sleazy senators, the overly infatuated news media... with a few twists all its own. The songs, all of which are far too short, efficiently set up a premise and then never quite deliver on the manic possibilities; for example, the reporters' first interview with the new governor:

REPORTERS.
Sir, we would like to know
Your opinion on so and so
Should we muffle engine toots
Or change the length of bathing suits

GOODSPEED.
This is secret, please dont quote
Or it would get the Statehouse goat
There is no doubt democracy
Demands we make the movies free

REPORTERS.
A scoop that news would be
We tell you confidentially
But problem black as ace of spades
Is what to do with razor blades

... and then it sort of meanders into a more or less concluding chorus. It's a pity, because the premise could have been given a few more pages to really play out. So also with "The Governor's Complaint", in which he tells us the job's not what it's cracked up to be.

The frontline soldier in a war
Is not unlike a governor
Who's always target for a shot
From politicians or what not
He dare not veto any bill
Or show how much he'd like to kill
When office seekers looking wise
Come swarming round as thick as flies
He has to give, he has to get
To please the proletariat
Or make a speech, no matter what
The subject or the cold he's caught.

It's not my nature to complain
But office is a ball and chain
I'd gladly leave it to my wife
And lead a lowly hermit's life

You get to the end of it wishing Wakeman had gone just a bit further, especially since it's to be sung allegretto. Everyone gets the same frustrating star turn, by the way, in a series of under-developed songs that do capture their individual characters.... just not enough so.

Musically? This is the first Wilson score I've encountered that wasnt adapted from another source, and it's not bad. He's not like Don Wilson (nothing I've found suggests they were related), but Ira does have a nice ear for characterization, and some of the parts work for Jane's girlfriends is quite nice. But that's about all.

The pity of this work is that it doesnt go far enough with its screwball storyline. If the rest of the script had been treated like John's mad scene with the gun (which now of course would see him under a pile of secret service men but in the world of high school operetta is just another device), a scene that truly milks the potential of the moment, it would have been a much different — and perhaps far better — work. It crams too much into sixty pages (granted, of small set type) that you wish it had gone on to flesh it out over 90.

Wakeman and Wilson wrote a number of songs together, mostly for barbershop quartets as far as I can see. This was apparently their sole collaboration for the stage.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

LOVE PIRATES OF HAWAII

My friend Russell loves this show, so I'd better be especially careful in my writeup for it. Fortunately, that's not difficult, because LOVE PIRATES OF HAWAII (1918), by Otis Carrington (no cover, unfortunately), is a show that's easy to love.

We're in the garden of a ladies' seminary in, of course, Hawaii. It's an important day, because the US cruiser Tennessee is coming to port, bringing with it a certain young lady's sweetheart. But because men arent allowed on the grounds, the plan is for the sailor and his friends to come in disguise as visiting college professors. And this means tidying the place up a bit.

MAILE. If we're having company, we must tidy up a bit.

LEHUA. And practice our new song.

GIRLS. Our new song!

DOROTHY. You can do that later. Better fix up now.

GIRLS. The song first!

DOROTHY. As usual, the song comes first. Fine, sing your heads off. I'll not wait for you. (exits left)

Any wonder why Carrington is so easy to love? Anyway, they do indeed sing, then wander off to presumably help Dorothy. But hark! A pirate chief! has come into view, bringing his men with him, intent on abducting the schoolmistress Miss Primer, because he's madly in love with her — and he can spout off poetry to make his case. They hide, only moments before she comes on, bringing with her a letter to Dorothy from her sailor, telling her that the plan's been changed: they wont be coming as professors, but as pirates! So of course, when the real pirates jump into view, she thinks they're the sailor/professor/pirates and decides to teach them a lesson.

MISS PRIMER. That you foreswear this pirate business and serve in my kitchen as cooks.

CHIEF. To serve you, what bliss!

Never mind that none of them know how to cook. All they need is a cookbook, and they're set to do "our manly best!"

Meanwhile Dorothy (who, if you remember, was supposed to be cleaning) sits on a bench and pines for her sailor Billy, who conveniently shows up in full pirate costume. He came, sadly, alone, but she makes sure her friends all understand that when Miss Primer is around, they are to be very afraid of this bloodthirsty pirate.

KARLANI. Tell us what you think a pirate's life is like.

BILLY. I'm afraid I cant tell you very little about the pirate business. But I can give you a pirate song if you care to listen.

GIRLS. A song, a song.

DOROTHY. Another song!

When he's done, Miss Primer appears. Billy tries to bluster her, but she's not taken in with it. After all, she's just captured an entire crew of pirates, and the pretenda-pirate Billy is suddenly taken and bound by the pretenda-cooks that used to be pirates (that, remember, Miss Primer thinks were just simple sailors, and... oh, you'll figure it out).

So Billy's taken off to some sort of detention. Dorothy tells Miss Primer that she has no idea who the rest of the people are, that the only one she knows is Billy. Miss Primer realizes that she has indeed captured an entire pirate crew. And this worries her. That Dorothy helped Billy escape worries her even more.

DOROTHY. I am not through. Listen, he told me that as soon as he saw your pirates —

MISS PRIMER. MY pirates?

DOROTHY. Your pirates!

MISS PRIMER. My pirates?

DOROTHY. The real pirates. He recognized them as desperadoes much sought by the United States Government.

MISS PRIMER. Desperadoes?

GIRLS. Desperadoes?

But Billy's returned to his ship to get help. Miss Primer decides the best thing to do is just act natural. For herself, she's off to her garden.

DOROTHY. What can we do to kill time?

GIRLS. We might sing.

DOROTHY. I might have guessed what you would say. There seems to be nothing else you can do.

(I'm likin' this broad!)

The pirates have indeed figured out that Billy's escaped, but none are brave enough to tell the Pirate Chief. But that's okay, because he's off wooing Miss Primer with an appeal to her sympathies.

CHIEF. But I insist that I am not a pirate by nature. It was circumstances over which I had no control that led me into this life.

MISS PRIMER. Oh if only I could believe you, it would make me so happy.

CHIEF. You will believe me when I tell you that my father was a Pacifist and my mother a suffragette.

MISS PRIMER. Poor man, to be raised under such circumstances. You are to be praised for not being worse than you are.

And to prove his love, he tells her that his crew has captured and bound the pretenda-pirate and that he will now bring the rapscallion to her. But of course that doesnt work because Billy's escaped. And that makes the Pirate Chief really, really angry...

But that doesnt matter because Billy has returned in the nick of time and has surrounded the seminary with the entire crew of the Tennessee. The pirates beg for mercy because they're not crooks anymore but cooks... until Miss Primer reminds the Pirate Chief

The words you speak are only true in part
For you have been a robber and robbed me of my heart

And with much flower throwing and singing and hula dancing, the curtain falls.

Okay, it's obviously lifted from a few sources, like, oh, I dunno, PIRATES OF PENZANCE, maybe? And really all it needs is a patter song or two to cement the comparison. Still, one has to remember that Carrington initially wrote these for his school (see Windmills of Holland for the background on this), so one has to forgive the oddly familiar plot. And the characters are all beautifully drawn, from Dorothy the lead who apparently doesnt like sharing the musical spotlight with anyone to the supposedly desperado Pirate Chief who's willing to learn culinary arts just to be with the woman he so desperately loves.

Carrington's music is just difficult enough for his young performers to show off a bit: no overly complicated parts work and a sufficiently wide range of tempe to keep the parade of solos constantly fresh. It's a cute little work, certainly more intriguing than Windmills, with just enough plot turns to keep it all moving.

Friday, July 22, 2011

THE GEISHA

This is traveling well outside the juvenile operetta canon, but the heck, right? THE GEISHA (1896) has sufficient theatrical pedigree to make it worth the trip. The book is by Owen Hall, the lyrics are by Harry Greenback, and the music is by the incomparable Sidney Jones, the same team that went on to write the overlooked classic A GREEK SLAVE. But it's GEISHA, first produced at the Gaiety Theatre in London, that shows them at their most playful.

The synopsis (courtesy Wikipedia) goes like this:

Stationed in Japan, far from his financee Molly, Lt. Reggie Fairfax of the Royal Navy is lonely. He begins to spend much of his free time at the Tea House of Ten Thousand Joys which is run by chinaman Wun-Hi. There he meets the lovely geisha O Mimosa San, with whom he builds a friendship, but she is in love with Katana, a soldier, so she discourages him with her tale of 'The Amorous Goldfish'. However, Reggie gives Mimosa a lesson in kissing.

The relationship does not go unnoticed by Lady Constance Wynne, a touring English aristocrat, who catches Reggie engaged in his tĂȘte-a-tĂȘte with Mimosa and reminds him that he is engaged to Molly. Lady Constance contacts Molly, telling her she had better come to the Orient as quickly as possible. The local overlord Marquis Imari, who also fancies Mimosa, is annoyed that his intended bride is consorting with the newly arrived British sailors, and he orders that the teahouse be closed and the girls be sold off. The Marquis himself is pursued by the French interpreter Juliette.

Molly arrives unexpectedly. Left alone, Molly is joined by Mimosa and Lady Constance who tell her how fond Reggie has become of one geisha in particular. Mimosa then suggests that Molly should dress up as a geisha herself to try and win him back. It is now time for the sale of the geishas' indentures. The Marquis tries to buy Mimosa for himself, but Lady Constance manages to outbid him to keep her out of his clutches. Unfortunately, she can't stop him from purchasing lot number 2, a new geisha called Roli Poli whom nobody has seen before. Only after the Marquis has made his purchase is it revealed that this geisha is actually Molly in disguise.

In the chrysanthemum gardens of the Imari palace, Molly, still disguised as Roli Poli, awaits her impending marriage to the Marquis, who has become much attracted to her. Mimosa proposes a plan to save Molly from her fate: Mimosa will sneak into the bridal suite and exchange the veiled Molly for another veiled bride - Juliette, the French interpreter.

The wedding ceremony starts, and the plan is put into effect: Juliette is exchanged with Molly, and the Marquis unwittingly marries the wrong bride. On discovering the ruse, he accepts his fate philosophically, concluding that "every man is disappointed in his wife at some time or other". Mimosa is now free to marry her lover Katana, and Molly is re-united with Reggie, declaring that she would never marry a foreign nobleman when she could have a British sailor.

The synopsis doesnt even come close to conveying just how wondrously mad this little comedy is. The scene, for example, when Molly (as the geisha Roli-Poli) is sold, her disgust at going for the relatively cheap price of a hundred dollars is delicious fun, as is the scene when she negotiates the terms of her marriage to the Marquis Imari. Juliette is a picture-perfect characterization of the scheming socialite who wants to marry up, while Imari moves from laughably autocratic to wittily philosophical when the switch off is revealed.

THE GEISHA was a huge hit, by any standard. With companies traveling across both Europe and North America, it was arguably the biggest sensation of the period, with some 8,000 performances in Germany alone. That it came on the heels of THE MIKADO should be no surprise whatsover. Greenback and Jones were, of course, contemporaries of Gilbert and Sullivan, and at some moments it shows. But Jones had his own style, a lighter, more lyrical approach that seemed better suited to a work that, contrary to the G&S approach, is less pop culture satire and more vaudeville with a layer of romantic operetta slathered on top. "The Amorous Goldfish", the breakout hit from the show, is Mimosa's telling of the sad tale of a goldfish that loved a sailor:

A goldfish swam in a great glass bowl
As dear little goldfish do
But she loved with the whole of her heart and soul
An officer brave from the ocean wave
And she thought that he loved her too
Her small inside he daily fed
With crumbs of the best digestive bread
"This kind attention proves," said she
"How exceedingly fond he is of me."

Alas, her heart is broken when the sailor shows up with a young lady, and she pines away, eventually dying when the maid knocks the table and her glass bowl shatters. The music is just sly enough in its winks at Madama Butterfly.

And of course one very big reason for THE GEISHA's success were the Gaiety Girls, a sort of standing chorus line that was featured in almost every production mounted at the Gaiety. Their job in every production was pretty much just to stand here and look pretty, and fashion designers all over London (and sometimes even Paris) fought to have their latest couture seen on the Girls, no matter how anachronistic it might have seemed for the play in question.

Viewed today, THE GEISHA, with its British patriotism on full display, seems almost snide in its view of other cultures, particularly the exotic Japanese and Chinese. The script has one character, a Chinese laundryman, whose badly written "accent" is almost a British equivalent to blackface performances in the US.

But in some respects, you have to forgive that, because the core of the work still holds you tight with its charm and insouciance. It holds up very well for a century-plus-old work and, lacking the more contemporary potshots of a G&S musical, could easily play as is. Molly is a prime role for a singer/comedian and would be a fascinating challenge for today's crop of musical theatre stars.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

SONIA: THE GIRL FROM RUSSIA

International relations, the Bolshevik Revolution, a surprise birthday party, a political riot, and a nearby squad of Marines all collide in SONIA (1930), by Joseph B. Harrison (who wrote Lucky Jade) and our regular contributor to the form, Don Wilson (with cover art by George and Doris Hauman). In addition, the book was edited and additional lyrics written by Geoffrey Morgan, so you know right away that this is gonna be one slightly demented piece. And it is.

We start things off on the grounds of Oxford University -- no, not that Oxford: this one is in Oxford, Mississippi. A group of students are planning a surprise birthday party for Professor Smythe, who's well known across campus for being somewhat absent-minded.

PEG. And how old do you think he'd be by now, I wonder?

MAURICE. Who knows? All profs look alike after they get to be fifty.


Ahem... well, we'll let that slide for the moment. But it turns out that not only is he absent-minded but there's some trouble in his past: no one, not even he, seems to know how he got to Oxford. The college seems to have adopted him, even though no one, not even he, knows his real name.

The party is interrupted by Aunt Martha, whose niece Sonia is a student at the college, and she is not impressed with all these goings-on. She's even less impressed with Pat, the most popular guy on campus who has intentions for Sonia. But he's not the only one: the vaguely Russian Veda, who runs the local beauty parlour. has information about Sonia's long-missing father, that he's being held prisoner in a castle in Siberia. Veda, along with her co-conspirator Boris (who's also about as Russian as a loaf of French bread), of course has no idea where Sonia's father really is, but they've been shaking her down for ransom money for weeks. They werent counting on her to actually go to Russia, but she's determined to do so — and there just happens to be a steamer leaving on June 1, making stops throughout the Pacific, with an intended destination of... Russia. And she's going. Desperate to keep their meal ticket close at hand, Veda and Boris decide they're going. So's Aunt Martha. And Pat. And Professor Smythe. And... well, everyone else.

Now we're off in search of romance
Blindly taking every long chance
Tho' we're sad at parting
We cant alter fate
Nor delay our starting
Now we're at the gate
Oh hear the open road so softly calling
With its gypsy voice enthralling
There's no need of feeling sad or blue
When we say goodbye to you!


So in Act Two we're off to Siberia, where a bunch of Bolshevik revolutionaries are having a little party.

Russia, Russia, land of the proletariat
Rushing, rushing, to the commissariat
Crushing, crushing all the bourgeoisie like that


And everyone stamps their feet a great deal, followed by a group of young ladies who delicately tell us

We are some of Russia's daughters
Left from all the recent slaughters


(You cant make this stuff up, y'know?)

The Bolsheviks stealthily exit as everyone from Oxford enters. Despite the fact that this is the ancient family estate, Aunt Martha is quite horrified by the surroundings, but Sonia is adamant: today is the day she rescues her father. As far as everyone else is concerned, tho?

MAURICE. This's a perfect setting for the college musical show.

PEG. The one we're planning for the spring festival?

MAURICE. Sure. We should hold a rehearsal right here and now.

PEG. But what about costumes?

MAURICE. We'll use the ones we got from that stranded opera company in Vladivostock.

PEG. Splendid! Let's go change right now!

MAURICE. And we'll rehearse the scene where the Bolshevik rush in and tie everybody up and leave them sitting around a bomb with a slow fuse.

PEG. That will be very exciting.


So they all rush off to change as the Professor tells Pat that the castle seems "so familiar somehow". As they explore the place, Pat overhears Boris meeting with a fellow co-conspirator, Count Ginwhiski, plotting for the count to play the part of Sonia's father. They capture the count and take him to the dungeon. Pat takes the count's coat and false whiskers to assume the part of Sonia's father so he can expose the conspiracy. Unfortunately, Sonia sees through it and berates him for not taking her quest seriously. But there's no time for that, because

AUNT. There's an evil looking mob swarming around the castle!

BORIS. It's the Redder-Reddists raiding the castle!


Pat's friend Maurice, who's directing the spring musical, dismisses the idea, saying that it's just everyone from Oxford dressed as Bolshevicks for rehearsal. But it's the real Bolshevicks, who, true to form, tie everyone up and leave them with a bomb with a really long fuse. Professor Smythe comes to the rescue and unties everyone. Maurice, upset that rehearsal didnt go as he wanted, casually throws the bomb over the parapet —

— and it quite promptly explodes. The students rush on and tell everyone that the Bolshevicks have taken the professor captive and set the castle on fire. And there's a storm brewing. And amidst all this chaos, the curtain falls.

Act Three. The storm put out the fire. Pat has gone in search of Professor Smythe. Maurice has captured the count, whom Sonia thinks is her father. And Aunt Martha has had quite enough of this place, thank you very much. And who shows up now?

A bunch of Marines.

The female students are of course in a complete tizzy over this, but Veda, with her expertise in cosmetology, gets them all fixed up.

To lure with beauty
Is your duty
As all women know
With azure eyes and manner shy
And rosy cheeks aglow
With rouge and lipstick
Perfumes mystic
Every charm display
For men succumb,
If you're pretty, though dumb


And after a few more turns, we find out that (in case you hadnt figured this out by now) Professor Smythe is actually Count Markova and Sonia's father. The Bolshevicks are his old retainers and now see the error of their ways. The extortion money is returned to Sonia. And Pat decides it's gonna be used as a nest-egg for the house he and Sonia will build once they're married. And with much merriment and Russian-style dancing, the curtain falls.

This description doesnt even come close to the totally surreal quality that permeates SONIA. With its many mistaken identities and bizarrely complex plot turns, it's actually pretty easy to see what parts of this are Morgan's rewrites... especially considering his fondness for scenes involving revolutionaries (see Rose of the Danube and The Belle of Baghdad). The suprisingly weak score's song cues are about one step away from "Oh, you're from Java? Tell us about it" when they're not outrageously bombastic choral pieces, like the second act finale, in which the frightened students are counter-sung by the gloating Bolshevicks. And, as is usual in a Morgan script, the supporting characters — Veda, Boris, the count — are all far more interesting than the romantic leads, who are utterly bland by comparison.

Still, overall it's a strange, sprawling, almost disorganized little work whose final efforts are only vaguely near the plot's promise. I suppose this was Morgan and Wilson still finding their operetta feet, because SONIA comes so early in their careers — particularly Morgan, who apparently had this serious thing for bomb throwing revolutionaries.

I have been severely remiss...

... with this blog, and I sincerely apologize, particularly after all the emails from people who either performed in one of these little shows or had a parent or other relative who did. One lady wrote to say her father used to lullaby her to sleep with a song from BETTY LOU. Others have shared fond memories of their elderly uncle or aunt still able to perform a song or two from a show they had done in their youth. Some have also sent some great pieces of memorabilia, so I'd like to share some of them with you, if I may.

Here's a performance shot from MEET ARIZONA, sent to me by a lovely lady who performed the role of Lettie in 1960 when she was in the 9th grade at Westlake Junior High in Erie, Pennsylvania. These same folks went on to high school together (McDowell, also in Erie) and are having their fiftieth reunion in 2013. She requested the music and lyrics to the title song and in return sent these great photos of their production.



This second is from THE GYPSY TROUBADOUR, performed in 1954 in Iuka, Mississippi. Their 55th reunion is in October, and they're planning a singalong of music from the show.


This last one is quite the story: a 1928 production of PICKLES, performed in Fortuna, California. I got a message recently from Dr. Alex Service, who runs the Fortuna (CA) Depot Museum:

I am writing from the Fortuna Depot Museum in Fortuna, California. We are involved in the historical research for a Halloween cemetery tour of one of the cemeteries here in town. The tour is in its second year as a fund-raising event for the Fortuna Cemetery District. The tour features actors portraying 8 of the people buried in the cemetery, giving five-minute monologues on their lives (and usually, on the unusual circumstances of their deaths). One of the people we are featuring this year was named Leo Gallagher. He was a sixteen-year-old actor, musician and athlete at Fortuna High School when he died as a result of injuries sustained in the school’s final football game of the 1928 season. As a result of this tragedy, the following spring the students voted to ban football at the high school, and football was not played at the school again until 1945.

I’m writing to you because one of the roles that Leo played in Fortuna High’s theatrical productions was J. Jennison Jones in Pickles, performed at Fortuna High on March 16, 1927. We were not having much luck discovering any information about this piece, until we ran across the descriptions of it on your blog. So, thank you again for the blog; it has made the difference between a large gap in our knowledge, and getting a good feel for the show and the role Leo played.



From the clippings Dr. Service sent, this was a freak accident (the details of which I'd rather not go into), but what I found amazing was the impact he had on the school for years afterwards. Truly, a case of "what would have happened if..."

I really do enjoy seeing these production photos and the memories that come with them, so please do send them on.