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With Seán Martinfield

Seán Martinfield

GEM OF THE OCEAN, Black History Flotsam
at ACT

By Seán Martinfield

February 20, 2006

The current ACT production of August Wilson's GEM OF THE OCEAN, now at the Geary Theatre until March 12th, may be the best realized version this work will ever enjoy. Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson has provided a loving tribute to its author (and certainly to both friend and mentor) the late and much lauded playwright August Wilson. With an exceptionally capable cast, he has done everything in his power to tie all of the play's wandering threads around the neatest package possible. In this month devoted to observing Black History, GEM OF THE OCEAN is a wonderful gift to the Theatre and, in its own way, a re-gifting to its author. Some will sense Wilson's spirit wandering in the wings, smiling perhaps at a directive given to Santiago-Hudson during its Broadway run. Responding to complaints concerning the look and atmosphere of the pivotal soul-cleansing scene of Act II, "The City of Bones", Wilson said to him - "OK, fix it." Too bad he didn't tell him to re-write it.

Taking the script, it is opulent and multi-layered. But, its overall structure is that of a wet clay pot fired in the kiln too-soon. Now permanently set, the play's irregularities result in an uneven flow and no amount of gloss can disguise the telltale cracking in its hull. Starting in the playbill's cordial welcome from ACT's Artistic Director Carey Perloff, to the buoying testimony of director Santiago-Hudson, and a heavy-anchored essay by the author himself - we are told (or warned) that we are about to embark upon an adventure heretofore unimagined. As the character "Aunt Ester" puts it - one we didn't know we'd signed-on for. Maybe. If the promise refers to what alleges to be the healing and redemptive mind-journey or Rite of Passage to "The City of Bones", then definitely. After all, this is what Santiago-Hudson was charged to fix. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a disjointed and bumpy night.

An entire historical Log and ever-surfacing cultural lexicon is force-fed and sandwiched between two parallel ports, one being the seeming here and now of 1904, the other a supernatural plateau floating above fraught with biblical citings, inter-continental gnosticism, collective memory, bags of petrifying dog poop, magic coins and a shot glass of aged bamboozlement. Add to that the Dramatis Personae of easily recognized icons coaxed from the treasure vaults of Classic Hollywood and early Television. Once deemed as stereotypes but (as some might argue with the timely issuing of a stamp honoring first Academy Award winning Black actress Hattie McDaniel) refined and uplifted to a glowing pantheon of Archetypes. The problem is - the plot lists too often to the edge of the hard-to-hold-onto as lifelines of theatrical device and opportunity, i.e., outwitting the enemy, float on by. Some future screenplay writer will figure it out.

Wilson reminds us that Theatre can be the "powerful conveyer of human values". Unlike other arenas of communication, Theatre can harbor any number of peoples and ideas - "sometimes across wide social barriers," he says, "those common concerns that make possible genuine cultural fusion." Yes, absolutely. However, after the mist settles, Wilson will be shown to have pandered to Trend by resorting to faddish infusion. This rough-cut "Gem" bloats with too many In-jections and too many In-fusions and we are too often ejected from the journey.

Who should definitely see this mounting of GEM OF THE OCEAN? Every Black actor of every age everywhere. The Wilson canon is going to be around for a long time - you need to work it. These are the roles exclusively available to you. They are rich with historical precedent and are assigned to those riding the top wave, the crème de la crème. The current troupe cruising along at ACT includes Theatre Arts graduates from Yale, Harvard, UCLA, De Paul and Carnegie Mellon. Wilson's language is a fine and lyrical American English, exquisitely sweet and savory, wafting in the mouth, warming the senses - demanding a Master Interpreter. For each character there is a monologue worthy of any audition. One of them could be your song of songs and the most fetching gem in your repertoire.


SWAN LAKE, The San Francisco Ballet

By Seán Martinfield

February 9, 2006

I have to admit – I am a die-hard fan of Tchaikovsky and particularly of SWAN LAKE. Under the knowing eyes of choreographer Helgi Tomasson, four sets of principals were signed for nine presentations. Given the company's world class status and the international origins of its 73 listed members, the variation on the experience depends upon the day you attend. Mine was at the seventh in the series and the second showing for Lorena Feijoo, Davit Karapetyan, and Moises Martin. Presumably, my team has read everyone's review and knows what to do.

When it comes to SWAN LAKE, the first thing I check for are the number of Intermissions – two (it's going to be a long afternoon), and what the synopsis indicates about the Finale. This revival of the 1988 production has the lovers drown themselves down by the river while the bad guy dies of evilness. Oh, THAT ending. Yike.

From the first downbeat, conductor Martin West lured us back to the shadows of 19th Century Russia. Such familiar and haunting strains, but all at once fresh, unnerving, and anxious to unfold. West is the ballet dancer's dream – he is with the performer at every turn, through every pause, extension and landing. He supports the objectives of each character and fulfills the device of every scene. Whenever "motivation for being in the room" might register as somewhat vague or the fanciful plot a trifle rippled, West and his orchestra makes consistently clear and plausible. Transported in time – we might have seen the Maestro, along with the solo violinist and cellist, summoned to the Royal Box.

No matter its convoluted legends, historical interpretations or even musical insertions (this revival appropriates the composer's "Serenade Melancolique, Opus 26" for the Pas de Deux of Act III, Scene II) SWAN LAKE remains the quintessential ballet because it includes every hallmark of classical dance. Moreover, this glamorous vehicle has elbow room for everybody. Its built-in accessories accommodate an entire company, always offering a clear view to the dancer who looks down the road. From Little Swanettes and Boy Cavaliers dashing past swarms of ever-fertile and bounding ingénues to the maturing Queen Mother and wizened Tutor – everyone on the totem gets their moment. Under the flattering light of designer David K. H. Elliott one can see the Apprentice and Soloist who demonstrates (that day, anyway) they have what it takes to deliver under pressure and may on some future season's roster be registered as Principal Dancer. I believe that young and charming Hansuke Yamamoto will be one of them. In the First Act Pas de Trois, the delirious height of his turns and even-tempered follow-throughs caused a noticeable gasp throughout the house and roused the first wave of well-deserved applause.

Though it took a while to figure out, Davit Karapetyan (our "Prince Siegfried") proved himself the Ideal Man in this flood of femininity dominating SWAN LAKE. Not the most effective actor in town, Karapetyan is a commanding figure in the air. He is the best friend a Prima Ballerina such as Lorena Feijoo could have – he doesn't get in the way. "Siegfried" is bored, bothered, bewildered and every eligible Princess knows it. The royal jewels look great, but – remember the ending? – this branch of the Family Tree is going nowhere but down. All we need is an amazing guy who knows his athletic bits are coming up and his duty is to support the fiercely focused and flawless Feijoo. She is a spit-fire, calibrated to perfection, driving the "Odette-Odile" roles to an absolute pinnacle. Out in the house, a particular bevy of swains – no doubt dazzled by the brilliance of her 32 fouettés – led the screams during our standing ovation. Somebody alert the office – they're gonna be flying in for Feijoo.

Keep your eyes all over newly-signed soloist, Moises Martin, the erotic "Von Rothbart", for the rest of the season.


SF Symphony's Great Performer Series: Dimitri Hvorostovsky, Baritone

By Seán Martinfield

January 31, 2006

It was clear we were in for a series of encores - no way is Dmitiri leaving the stage. Come the traditional Gypsy romance, "Ochi Chyornie" (Dark Eyes), you know it's over and time to zoom between the lines if what you want is an autograph and fleeting exchange with the best-equipped Baritone and most striking of Leading Men on the classical stage. Forty minutes later, out he comes. Apollo, god of musicians and poets, has favored this man. Back in the Old Days (when women fainted) we guys would have hoisted him to our shoulders, raced down Market Street and filled Lotta's Fountain with champagne - or, in this instance, the finest of Russian Vodka. Alas, it's late Sunday night and we're all over 40 - including Dmitri and Conductor Constantine Orbelian - who have just rendered over two hours worth of breath-taking musical brilliance. Nevertheless, they head toward the autograph line, and through a din of vigorous applause, I yell out in my best cadet's tenor, "Hooray!"

I pulled out the booklet from their CD, "Passione di Napoli", purchased at the Symphony's Gift Shop during Intermission and the last one on the shelf. "Ah! The Music Critic!" he says to me, raising a knowing eyebrow toward Maestro Orbelian seated at his left. ("Ah-ha, yourself!" cries my critic within.) Dmitiri's voice is much lighter in conversation than the hefty equipment pulled out for PRINCE IGOR and EUGENE ONEGIN not two hours before. Hvorostovsky is indeed the rare and definitive dramatic baritone, separate and apart from such bass-baritones as Bryn Terfel. In virtually accent-free English, he goes on to suggest that - since he has such a large pen - it would be better to sprawl his signature over the liner notes than across his portrait. "However you prefer," I replied, with a smile, opening my Program for one more of his John Hancocks. (Stalling, I check out his shock of white hair, the wide cheek bones, a boxer's ski-lift nose - so far, none of the current portraits have captured the native Siberian's carnal appeal.) Orbelian, born in San Francisco, a celebrated pianist prior to his appointment as Permanent Guest Conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic, twinkles as he signs between the lines. (He's a Russian bear.) He knows. The concert was an undisputed two-man job, dripping with genius; a startling collaboration packing an intense wallop and permanently piercing the heart.

Standing in straight lines behind the orchestra, is the Pacific Boychoir, prepared by its founding director, visionary Kevin Fox. Similar to the Vienna Boys Choir in music education and performance skill, this Oakland-based Academy can swell with pride to have been selected for this leg of the Hvorostovsky tour. In Washington, DC, it was the mixed adult voices of the Cathedral Choral Society and in Florida they took on the Chorus from Yale. (Ask any of them - it all starts on "Ah".) The boys added harmonic texture and spiritual poignancy to the second half of the program, a collection of early 20th century Russian war songs referred to as, "Songs of the Great Patriotic War", all very dear to the Russians standing in lines around me. Dmitiri and Constantine have recorded seventeen of these songs (by various composers) under the title, "Where Are You, My Brothers?" Orbelian's clever arrangements allow the weary soldiers to all huddle under Dmitiri's umbrella while he becomes their one voice, thus creating a new sort-of-faux song cycle for an heroic classical Lead needing more than standard fare.

Not since Robert Merrill have I been so inspired by the baritone voice, especially from one whose breath control can bolster the extra-long passage while pumping plenty of warmth and vitality into the demanding and often melancholic Russian songbook. Hvorostovsky is still the ideal young lover; he will become the perfect "Simon Boccanegra" and "Rigoletto". As with Merrill, he is ruggedly handsome, looks fabulous in a tuxedo, and - from my vantage point at the autograph table - keeps himself in centerfold condition. Earlier at the Gift Shop, the lovely lady blushed when she asked if I were getting my CD signed. It seemed to be the night for nodding and twinkling. Then I inquired if she had any posters available of Dmitri. "Ah, wouldn't THAT be wonderful?!" And I withdrew between the lines.


After-thoughts of Christmas Music

December 17-18, 2005

By Seán Martinfield

January 9, 2006

It was a challenging week-end for (say it, say it) Christmas Music as featured in two of The City's most beautiful Catholic churches.

Challenging because of the groups presenting it - the much-celebrated and Grammy Award winning men's ensemble, Chanticleer, and the dedicated choir members of Mission Dolores Basilica. Chanticleer is all about Art for Art's Sake. The Basilica Choir is all about Art for Christ's Sake. What these diverse musicians share in common is pride in their product and a firm commitment to their separate cause.

For most working singers, particularly those involved with "sacred music" - whether as salaried Union members or unpaid Volunteers - the month of December is usually about just saying "No" to partying and "Yes" to flu shots, mufflers and gloves, handfuls of vitamins and whatever else it might take to keep the vocal cords primed and puckered for the Annual One Night Stand or Midnight Mass. For us out in the pews - the fans, the faithful subscribers, the loyal congregation, or the uninitiated (perhaps leery and skeptical) date/companions - it soon became abundantly clear: anything we can sing Chanticleer sings higher and the Basilica Choir sings louder.

Saturday night, as predicted, the rain began to pour down on the high and always well-lit steeples of St. Ignatius Church. Only my previous experiences with Chanticleer would get me out on a night like this. The all-male ensemble proudly claims San Francisco as its home and the Music Director, Joseph Jennings, keeps his in the Castro District. Each member is exquisitely trained, their bios listing a variety of music degrees and unusual performance credits ranging from the ballet to the synagogue, from Baroque to contemporary jazz. Some of the guys are married; others are into speaking French and baking. I wondered if a totally inexperienced viewer might find it puzzling that the vocal categories of the twelve men reflect those in the "mixed choir" over at Mission Dolores: Sopranos and Altos next to Tenors, Baritones and Basses. Obviously, a great topic for Intermission: Nature vs. Nurture.

Noticing a large number of Gay men in our line, the attractive but nervous gentleman standing behind me (clearly, one of the "uninitiated" date/companions) asked if Chanticleer might sing "Chantilly Lace" and what did their name mean, anyway?

Never missing an opportunity, I stepped in a little closer and responded, "Chantilly Lace? As in - 'Makes me feel real loose like a long necked goose' - ? That one?"

"Oh, yeah!" he warmly replied, somewhat amused I would sharpen the finer points of his question.

"Can't say for sure," I said. And then, inching-in a little further, "But I do know that Chanticleer is the name of Chaucer's rooster - a proud and warbling coq."

Throughout the evening, the men of Chanticleer dazzled us with incomparable vocal flexibility and inimitable finesse. Without electronic gimmickry, the voices went sailing through the church's lofty architecture, rounding every pillar, hovering above the chilly air. No matter the text, whatever its seasonal associations - Chanticleer moves beyond the accretions of Religion and towards an unfettered Beauty. At times the collective sound was that of a standard 4-part men's group. During their several jaunts around the church, some listeners might have sworn a few pre-pubescent choir boys had suddenly sneaked in to jostle the tonality. For a stunning arrangement of The Magnificat, the Virgin Mary's poetic declaration of joyful submission (Luke 1:46-55), it was the climactic soprano of a jubilant male who took on her role, rousing our senses and tweaking every notion about the Natural Order and seemingly impossible. Chanticleer once again proved that an octave switcheroo can be a most potent tool.

Sunday night, down in the valley, the skies were clearer for the14th Annual Candlelight Christmas Concert presented by the Mission Dolores Basilica Choir. Under the direction of its handsome conductor, Jerome Lenk, the 30-member mixed choir covers a wide range of repertoire and, as with Chanticleer, tours and records. The choir's latest recording, available for the first time that night, features selections performed at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Adding to that an appearance at the Vatican, Mr. Lenk has coached a group of San Francisco neighbors toward a level of celebrity and international respect.

The mission of Chanticleer is to entertain by delivering world-class musical excellence, and to advocate better musical education. The responsibility of any church choir is to support and uplift the liturgical life of its faith-based community. Mission Dolores sits in one of the most culturally diverse areas of San Francisco, District 8, which includes The Castro. No doubt about it - the historical beginnings and present workings of this mission dedicated to Saint Francis are as complicated and challenging as The City's itself. Chanticleer is most certainly a jewel in our city's cultural crown, remaining high on the brow and bright on the scale. The Basilica Choir, on the other hand, is the voice of Fiesta - earthy and visceral, assertive and boisterous … and afterwards they piled their buffet tables with the best Christmas foods a neighborhood of this flavor could possibly offer. Like, really high!

Coming up on their Calendars -

With the First Centennial of the 1906 earthquake and fire in sight, Chanticleer returns to its roots in early music with the rarely-performed Renaissance marvel, Earthquake Mass, by Antoine Brumel (1460-1520). The Basilica Choir, again in marvelous contrast, will present their annual Spring Musical Cabaret. (Any chance of hearing, "Chantilly Lace" - ?)

As a native San Franciscan and selective film buff, I'm smiling at the irony of it all. In the popular Hollywood film about the 1906 tragedy, San Francisco, soprano Jeanette MacDonald (playing a wide-eyed preacher's daughter) introduces The City's beloved theme song in a rough 'n ready Barbary Coast cabaret known as "The Paradise". Later on, up at the camp sites in Alamo Square, in a torn sequined gown with an ostrich-plumed train, she bursts into "Nearer My God To Thee".

We'll see.


Editor's Note: Views expressed by columnists published on FogCityJournal.com are not necessarily the views or beliefs of Fog City Journal. Fog City Journal supports free speech in all its varied forms and provides a forum for a complete spectrum of viewpoints.



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