Thursday, March 31, 2011

Proud to Know You review:

Proud To Know You
A Cabaret Celebration of
Doric Wilson's Fifty Years as a Playwright

Reviewed by Jay Reisberg - March 23

Proud to Know You is the kind of event that could take place only in Manhattan, and perhaps only be fully appreciated in Manhattan with its proprietary array of local luminaries on stage and in the audience. It was a unique evening honoring playwright Doric Wilson.

The Honoree, whose early work at Café Cino in the 1960s, subsequent plays, and his co-founding of The Other Side of Silence (TOSOS: the first professional theater company to address the gay experience openly and authentically) created his well-earned status as one of the pioneers of off-off-Broadway theater. The evening, hosted by Rick Hinkson and seamlessly directed by Mark Finley, included cabaret performances by long-time friends (not just acquaintances) of Mr. Wilson, interspersed with five scenes from Mr. Wilson's plays.

After introductions and a video tribute to Mr. Wilson, created for the New York Innovative Theater Awards in 2007 (where he received their Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award), Jamie Heinlein performed Eve's speech from And He Made a Her, Mr. Wilson's feminist take on the Adam/Eve tale.

The singing commenced with Michael Lynch (with his customary over-the-top glorious bombast and self-delight), singing an augmented version of Janis Ian's "Havin' a Party" from his autobiographical show Livin' on the Real.

Next, Morry Campbell sang "On My Own" from his CD A Long Way Home. Morry's performance was delightfully bonkers, real performance art, taking the folk genre into undiscovered country.

A brief scene from Wilson's A Perfect Relationship was up next, movingly performed by actors Aaron Tone and J.Stephen Brantley.

Steve Ross, a living cabaret institution, carried forth with a melodious "Here's to Us" from Cy Coleman/Carolyn Leigh's Little Me.

Cabaret diva, Lodi Carr followed Mr. Ross, singing "For All We Know," the 1934 song composed by Coots & Lewis. (Sorry, Carpenters fans!)

As Mr. Wilson is a lover of opera, so it was fitting -- indeed required! -- that the festivities included a dose of High Art. First, Zachary Stains, a young opera singer, performed Kern/Hammerstein's "All the Things You Are" twice -- and radically different each time. First he sang the song in the currently popular precious style with the well-known lyrics. Okay, I said to myself, yet another cute rendition ala Mandy Patinkin. But then Mr. Stains then announced he would now sing the original lyrics as they were written for the 1939 show Very Warm for May. Mr. Stains sang the vintage lyrics in full voice, devoid of all pretense. He took the high notes to the operatic ionosphere, revealing the first version as a jest. What a relief! What a fine singer!

Furthering the operatic agenda was Susan Marie Pierson, international dramatic soprano, who powerfully sang "Dich Teure Halle" from Wagner's Tannhäuser.

K.T. Sullivan, consummate practitioner of the nearly extinct genre of authentic cabaret, took the stage and declared that she would sing a medley of 29 songs from 1929 (with the exception of a few contemporary samplings tossed in for amusing good measure). Ms. Sullivan performed each snippet with the sincerity and presence of the highly polished artist that she is, and I was hypnotically pulled in each time. When she artfully -- though abruptly -- transitioned to the next song, it felt like the brakes were suddenly applied, and I mentally went flying. But one bar into the next song, I was entranced again, and so it went with tease/transition, tease/transition -- well, she was so incredible that I just wanted to hear her complete every song. Only a singer such as Ms. Sullivan, who intimately knows each of the songs, has painstakingly set them, honed them over time, could pull off this tour-de-force.

Christopher Borg then performed Lane's speech from Mr. Wilson's Now She Dances!, a take on Oscar Wilde's Salome which Wilson rewrote figuratively speaking as "The Importance of Being Salome." Mr. Borg is an actor so skilled that he could have entered in character, spoken not a word, held the stage and received an ovation. As it was, he spoke the words of Lane's speech, and did receive an ovation. Christopher Borg is a consummate actor!

Joanne Beretta took the stage to sing "My Favorite Year" and "My Shining Hour." In 1961, two Manhattan singers were the talk of the town: Barbra Streisand and Joanne Beretta. Ms. Beretta held forth at the long gone Showplace in Greenwich Village, where Johnnie Mathis and Carmen McRae were her fans. She disappeared in the '70s, but in 2006, with the prompting of John Wallowitch reemerged with her CD entitled Love Life. Writer James Gavin in his review of Love Life wrote: "To this day she has a knack of drawing a roomful of strangers into moments of such intimacy that time seems to stop." Time, indeed, did stop while Ms. Beretta sang.

The audience was then treated to another scene from Now She Dances!, this time performed by Karen Stanion. The eternally hilarious "Soup Speech," which in the play is delivered by Gladys the maid, describes her career as a "theatrical domestic." Gladys explains her arch "method-acting" procedure for serving soup.

Two songs written by John Wallowitch were heard next. For fifty years, Mr. Wallowitch wrote and sang in Manhattan, and to tell of his rich career would take up the entire space of this review and then some. I recommend viewing the very fine documentary This Moment about John Wallowitch and his partner, dancer Bert Ross, which was directed by Richard Morris. Wikipedia's John Wallowitch page is also informative.

The dashingly handsome and talented Robert Locke sang Mr. Wallowitch's plaintive "The World through Your Eyes." Robert Locke Trio will perform original compositions at the Thalia Café next month.

Playwright Chris Weikel followed with Mr. Wallowitch's "I Live Alone Again," which had a duel quality. The initial sing-through bemoaned in detail what it is like to be living alone after a breakup. The second emphasizes the words in such a way the very things bemoaned become sources of liberation and freedom. Weikel's play Penny Penniworth, about a short-staffed theater troupe trying to bring a "lost" Dickens novel to the stage, enjoyed a return engagement last year at TADA Youth Theater.

Steve Ross retook the stage with his customary panache, singing a New York song pairing, consisting of Cole Porter's "Take Me Back to Manhattan" and "I Happen to Like New York" from the 1930 musical The New Yorkers.

Playwright and actor, Charles Busch, then bounced on stage, announcing that he was to read what he purported to be a long unsent letter to Doric Wilson. (I believed him. Foolish me!) Mr. Busch proceeded to deliver a broad, affectionate, and absolutely hilarious adaptation of Judy Garland's "Dear Mr. Gable/You Made Me Love You" from the film Broadway Melody of 1938. This "Dear Mr. Wilson." could only spring from the unique mindset of and be spoken and sung by the enormously multi-talented Charles Busch.

Concluding with Doric's appreciative acknowledgment, the evening was capped with the full company singing Wallowitch's "This Moment." The audience was welcomed to join-in for the last chorus which commences with the words "It takes a life, to realize what life is all about, this moment."

Afterword: Several months ago I hosted a houseguest, a 33-year old singer/musician from Sacramento. My guest was very personable, intelligent, and talented -- but culturally illiterate. I kept wondering what he had been paying attention to for the last twenty years. Perhaps Sacramento lacks anything to securely hold one's attention, judged by the standard of the cultural hothouse/cloud-chamber that is Manhattan. My guest would ask innocent questions that, if answered properly, would require delivering an extended exegesis. Well-known names relating to music and performance history -- my guest's chosen field -- were unknown to him. Now, I concede one can live an almost worthy life lacking Manhattan-based cultural literacy, but goodness, who would want to? Proud to Know You, included personalities and songs that are well known to us, because we have for decades paid close attention to present and past theater, singers, composers, playwrights, as well as art, literature, design, and cultural politics.

I bring this up because the range of material in this tribute to Doric Wilson fully reflected the richness of the Honoree's knowledge, loves, and oeuvre, and likewise that of those honoring him. At the end of this honoring of five decades of work, Doric Wilson said he did not expect to be around for a second tribute in half a century. Now I ask: Does your own experience of the trends of our culture give you any confidence that we will have someone like Doric Wilson to celebrate fifty years hence?

[Mr. Reisberg is a UCLA film school grad, professional singer, comedian, assistant to the founder of New York's Love Street Theatre, and bon vivant at large.]

Dusty Wright's Culture Catch


JD Doyle said...

WHAT a wonderful review!

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