The Good, the Bad, and the Boring in Theater and Other Creative Arts Around and About Hampton Roads, VA.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Governor’s School Spring Musical Wows Audiences

            Before Sunday afternoon (May 21) I hadn’t been to the Wells Theater since I wrote theater reviews for Port Folio Weekly, which the The Virginian Pilot shut down in early 2009. So it was a delight to return to there for the Governor’s School for the Arts’ 2017 spring musical, Crazy for You, a Gershwin brothers’ classic first produced on Broadway in 1930 under the title Girl Crazy.
            I hadn’t really planned to write about the show. I was there to see a young woman who’d come to a Tarot class I was conducting at The Venue on 35th. She gave a plug for the show in class, said she was in it, and invited us all, especially to the two shows (out of four) in which she would be performing, since she was double-cast. Tickets were “only $20,” she said, as if that's affordable for anyone. I wasn’t so sure it was for me, but my wife for some reason really wanted to go. So, we went.
            Well, to make a long story short, I had to write about it. Not since Enron at The Generic Theater in the basement of Chrysler Hall have I seen anything—not just a musical but anything—even remotely as  memorable in Hampton Roads.
            And it was a high school spring musical! But, it must be added, it was a Governor’s School for the Arts spring musical. The last show I saw The Gov’s School put on might have been as long ago as 1995 or ‘96. It was a Greek tragedy—not sure any more which—but it blew my mind because it was just so...damn... good.
            According to my count of the playbill, there were 31 kids in the cast of Crazy, with three roles double-cast, so I only saw one of those players. But every one of 31 I saw is an able singer and dancer and many are quite accomplished. And they can act, too (though the show’s book doesn’t ask for much subtlety, just good timing). You don’t find such uniform excellence, not in local adult community productions, sometimes not even among the pros.  
            There was a 20-piece orchestra far upstage, often hidden behind painted scenery dropped in and lifted out. There was a sophisticated sound and lighting system with impeccable timing of effects. There were smooth scene changes, several of them elaborate. There was the cleverest use of props in a variety of choreography from ballet to modern to jazz to tap. There were costumes for every occasion, with impeccable attention to detail. And there was an overall unity of production values that quickly drew us, the audience, into the illusion of a Broadway show in its time, as if we were watching it back then in the first years of the Great Depression. 
            It was that unity of connection with its own time which, finally, made the experience so satisfying—not just entertaining, which it hugely was, but also, as evidenced after the show in the gilded Wells Theater lobby where cast and audience mixed with uproarious happy sounds, enough to change the world, if only for half an hour. A significant half an hour after two-plus significant hours in the theatrical womb.
            Of course, the trick of theater’s magic here is that this show, so authentically of its time, is really an update created in 1992 from the original, adding some songs and bits that weren’t in the 1930 production and renaming it—“rebranding” it, I suppose we say today—with a glossy new moniker. It played for three years on Broadway and has been a popular choice among producers ever since.
            I was looking out especially for my tarot student, wondering if I’d recognize her among all the faces onstage. And I did, as soon as she came on, which was early in the show. She took charge of the stage. O my gosh! I soon realized that she was the female lead! Kathleen Sheets. She played Polly, daughter of the half-senile owner of a failed theater in Dead Rock, Nevada. Deeply in debt to a New York bank, Polly and her dad are about to lose the family theater of past sentimental glory, but Lank Hawkins (played by Kyle Lutes), the town’s unfeeling hotel owner, wants to buy it before the bank takes it. Trouble with that is, he’ll change it beyond recognition, despoiling the family’s proud theatrical heritage back in the days when the gold mines were thriving and there were audiences with money to spend.
            Then Bobby Child comes to town. Played by a winsome Andrew Nelin, Bobby is a dancer forced by lack of success to become a bank representative. (Nelin is a terrific dancer, by the way, and masters a lot of diverse choreography.) He immediately falls in love with Polly and, instead of foreclosing on her family’s theater, decides to save it by putting on a show.
            From there the ups and downs of love, the twists and turns of fortune as the theater’s prospects float and sink, the improbable arrival in the desert of an entire cast of Broadway babes and even Bobby’s mother and fiancee, who he is particularly anxious to avoid, all conspire to create pure, farcical chaos in this absurdly familiar romantic fantasy. Yet beneath its veneer of things-a-poppin’, it moves like clockwork toward its predictable happy ending with all its gags and comic exploitation of common venality and its crooned love songs and ballroom ballets followed by a few jokes and a plot twist to set up a rousing ensemble song and dance that would have brought me to my feet in the aisles if only oppressive social conditioning hadn’t kept me in my seat.
            But the leading delight here among many was to see a kid I’d just met in a tarot class singing and dancing and acting (thin as the script may be) like a seasoned pro on a regional stage. For one thing, I was the lead in my own high school musical way back in 1958. I know that feeling of owning a large stage and loving it. I enjoyed that bit of personal nostalgia.
            Added to it is the mysterious connection between tarot and theater. The artist who executed the paintings in the cards I use—the Waite-Rider version—was Pamela Coleman Smith, an American who designed stage sets for the theater as well. Her tarot paintings are inherently theatrical.
            Beyond such coincidences, there’s a speculation—I don’t know if it’s a fact, but I think it’s credible—that for a brief time under Frederick V of Bohemia and his wife Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of King James I of England, troupes of English actors traveled to Bohemia to perform at the pleasure of the Queen, a theater-lover. In Bohemia they were exposed to courtiers and others who gathered there at the royal couple’s pleasure, philosophers and scholars versed in such esoteric practices as tarot, astrology, numerology, alchemy, and metaphysical philosophies in general. When the theater companies moved on, they took tarot with them, which is how the cards originally came to England.
Frederick V of Bohemia
Elizabeth Stuart

            True or not, the story links tarot to Elizabethan and Jacobean theater; to me as a theater professional since the mid 1980s who has also been practicing tarot since the mid-1970s; and to Kathleen Sheets, a young star who happened to show up in my tarot class at a tiny theater in Norfolk, VA, which was first incorporated (as part of "Elizabeth Cittie”) in 1619, the same year Elizabeth and Frederick were Bohemian monarchs entertaining English theater companies in the tarot-soaked city of Prague over 300 years before Girl Crazy opened on Broadway.
            I especially appreciate metaphysical extensions of ordinary—or, in Sunday’s case—extraordinary experiences, like a great show that’s not only enjoyable for the time you’re in the theater but meaningful for reasons beyond rationality, extending outside the dates, the times, the people who took on the parts. What show are we all playing in here? There’s no telling, but it’s live theater, and that’s what I like.
            Thanks, Polly-Kathleen, for making us aware we could have this experience if we just put down 20 bucks. (Well, 15, since we’re seniors.) And get our asses downtown for a change.
            We’re awfully glad we did. It was inspiring in ways too deep for the ordinary mind to keep track of.