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With Seán Martinfield

Seán Martinfield
Photo(s) by Luke Thomas

LOOKING AHEAD - Young Bay Area Talent

By Seán Martinfield

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 Chorus

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 see."

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 Girl's Chorus.




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