THE MUSIC MAN
With Seán Martinfield
LOOKING AHEAD - Young Bay Area Talent
May 21, 2006
"RAGTIME" - In Oakland
Theatre Arts teacher and very tall stage director Dennis Kohles
is bent on challenging the students at Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd
High School. This semester's production of the Broadway musical,
RAGTIME, challenged his sold-out audiences as well. In the opening
sequences, a fabulously costumed multi-ethnic Ensemble sang and
narrated the social, political and economic climates of America's
early 1900s - atmospheres and tensions completely analogous to
the present day. Admiral Peary is journeying off the known maps
toward a Northerly Pole as thousands of immigrants push through
the Border turnstiles every day. Among them is Tateh, a determined
Latvian artist (played by the very determined and charming Chris
McCoy) and his motherless little girl. A secure and established
resident sees their plight and offers a quick financial solution.
What was the going rate in 1902 for sex with a child? Across town,
strait-jacketed magician and escapologist Harry Houdini dazzles
and distracts with seemingly impossible underwater confinements;
a provocative young starlet rattles judicial cages with unveiled
recounts of her older gentleman caller's unrivaled bank account;
and after an official declaration condemning usage of the spitball,
the Chicago Cubs take the World Series from the Detroit Tigers
while its citizenry invests in Ford's new motor company. On stage,
these multi-tiered levels of classicism, sexism and racism separate
into three distinct groupings - Whites, Blacks and Everybody Else.
Director Kohles created simple patterns of movement allowing each
group to cluster and huddle, to bob and weave through and around
the other, all the while his dream Cast maintaining perfect clarity
with lyrics telling us of an "era exploding and a century
spinning". As new differences invite new definitions, commonality
is found in the sweeping attraction for the off-beats and alluring
syncopations, the rhythms and rhymes of a new kind of Music -
"Ragtime" - and its quintessential purveyor, Scott Joplin.
Even at their best, the musical's composer Stephen Flaherty and
lyricist Lynn Ahrens can only point to the genius and innovative
creations of Scott Joplin. Since its Broadway premier in 1998,
nothing from the score of RAGTIME is whistled up anyone's aisle
nor has it diminished the popularity of the 1981 film (starring
Jimmy Cagney) itself a noble attempt at capturing the beauty of
the novel by E.L. Doctorow. Moreover, the score invites havoc
on the voice - all the songs have certain oddities, they are strangely
keyed, and absolutely dependent upon electronic gimmickry. Thus,
for the entire cast of this O'Dowd spring musical, this was an
amazing theatrical fete and strong evidence of the faith these
young performers place in their director, Dennis Kohles.
Kohles is not shy when it comes to exploiting the highest callings
of Theatre and to guide his willing participants toward its ultimate
creative purpose - allowing society to kick back and catch an
authentic glimpse of itself. Perhaps he has a 6th-sense when it
comes to choosing works likely to push buttons and to mirror current
headlines. A few seasons ago, coinciding with the brutal murder
of transgendered Gwen Araujo, the school presented THE LARAMIE
PROJECT - the spiritually wrenching story of the very young and
transparently Gay young man from Wyoming, victim of unfathomable
hate and a torturous killing process. Previous to that, ONE FLEW
OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST proved the students' extraordinary level
of understanding around the issues and trappings of mental illness.
"RAGTIME," Kohles says, "was the perfect piece
for us to try and teach students about racism and sexism. While
working on the show, the students tried to find an African American
baby doll as a prop. They were shocked how difficult it was to
find and realized how racism still exists in our world today.
Hopefully, working for five months with a multicultural cast,
students learned how much they are alike."
Special mention must be given to lovely Simone Olsen-Varela (as
"The Mother") and the surprising maturity and balance
of her mezzo-soprano voice. Eric Carlson (as "The Father)
sank his teeth into the role of an anti-hero, causing a few smiles
during the Epilogue when we learn his character goes down with
the Lusitania. Meryl Williams (as "Sarah") not only
has a beautiful set of vocal chops for this particular role, she
is blessed with an inviting tonality found in sister-Divas who
headlined the great nightclubs and stood beside great orchestra
leaders. Now all she has to do is learn the repertoire. While
we're waiting, somebody grab Drew Mackey (our powerhouse "Coalhouse"),
put him on the cover of GQ, find the scripts designated for those
highly paid "Young Romantic Leading Men", and tell all
the other candidates to just go home.
"Directing young men and women is extremely rewarding,"
says Kohles. "Watching their self esteem grow from opening
night until closing is one of my favorite things in life."
Must be true. Year after year - they come, they go - and Dennis
Kohles remains the brightest beacon in the hall.
"Chorissima and Friends" - The San Francisco Girls
Since its founding in 1978, the San Francisco Girls Chorus has
taken the lead in providing comprehensive choral music education
and performance experience to girls and young women from all backgrounds,
beginning with 7-year-olds on up to graduating seniors, and providing
qualified young singers with need-based scholarships. The California
Arts Council declared the organization "a model in the country
for training girls' voices." Its ultimate vision is to provide
concert performances of the highest international quality. So
far, they have chalked-up 3 Grammy Awards in their collaborations
with the San Francisco Symphony and are scheduled to appear with
them for Mahler's 8th Symphony May 31st through June 3rd.
The SFGC is actually comprised of six choruses, one of which,
"Chorissima" (under the direction of Susan McMane) being
its concert, touring and performing ensemble. Among the "and
Friends" was San Francisco composer David Conte, also professor
of composition and choral conductor at the San Francisco Conservatory
of Music. Commissioned by the SFGC, Conte produced "A Hope
Carol", set to the poetry of Christina Rossetti (1830-1894).
"I told David to give us something with lots of flourish,"
said Director McMane, "and to write a really lush accompaniment
for our pianist, Susan Soehner." Mission accomplished.
Mr. Conte knows how to command an audience's attention. Two other
San Francisco choral groups have previously commissioned him,
both recognized as being among the greatest in the world - Chanticleer
and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus [see my previous reviews,
1-9-06 and 3-18-06]. He has three operas under his belt: THE DREAMERS,
THE GIFT OF THE MAGI, and FIREBIRD MOTEL. In collaboration with
film composer Todd Boekelheide (works include the 2004 Television
production of "Last Letters Home: Voices of American Troops
from the Battlefields of Iraq"), David scored the documentary
BALLET RUSSES, shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005. His
"Hope Carol" gave the girls an abundance of the flourish
requested, both visually and harmonically. When the top-most voices
were silent, they literally added more color with a simple about-face,
exposing the back side of their dual-colored black and red vests
(We're On / We're Off). Conte took complete advantage of Rossetti's
sound-laden stanzas: "I heard sweet voices calling clear,
calling me" and "I heard a whirr of wing on wing
I long to see my birds that sing." Obviously enjoying the
"lush accompaniment" provided her (it was most definitely
"girl-music") Ms. Soehner provided passion and longing
to the final stanzas, "All voices that command or pray /
Calling me / Shall kindle in my soul such fire / And in my eyes
such light / That I shall see that heart's desire / I long to
The applause that followed contained a noticeable amount of flourish.
Director McMane gestured Mr. Conte to stand and be recognized.
All of a sudden the applause got very lush. Yes, it is always
a pleasure when the Composer of a commissioned work is in the
house and the piece has been beautifully rendered. Given this
particular house and its overwhelming attendance by what must
surely be Chorus Alumni, perhaps some with daughters, and all
the other student-members of the SFGC - the applause then went
very, very lush. For David Conte is a major Hunk.
The New San Francisco Conservatory of Music is purportedly on
schedule for its grand opening in the fall. No doubt, it will
see its share of enthusiastic and beautifully trained applicants
- the "Chorissima" - the budding divas of the San Francisco