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.