A New York Souvenir Is Glorious! in London

Well, I am on my way to London in a few hours, even though I have barely recovered from my trip to New York City, a souvenir of which is a lingering cold. Still, I am looking forward to a weekend in the metropolis, where I’ll be reunited with my best pal to celebrate his birthday and the twentieth anniversary of our friendship. We used to have our annual get-togethers in the Big Apple, but the Big Smoke will do.

While there, I would love for us to take in a few shows, impervious as he is to the wonders of the “wooden O.” I, for one, have had some terrific theatrical experiences lately, including a rare staging of the outrageously bloody Revenger’s Tragedy at New York City’s Red Bull Theater, an all-male production of The Winter’s Tale by the touring Propeller company, and an out-of-tuneful Broadway evening with Judy Kaye in Souvenir. True, the 9 December issue of Entertainment Weekly did not exactly endorse Souvenir, reviewer Thom Geier calling Stephen Temperley’s play “too broad, too shallow, and far too long for [its] modest pleasures.” Still, Kaye is marvellous in the role of Florence Foster Jenkins, the tone-deaf soprano and unlikely recording artist who managed to fill seats and thrill audiences in NYC’s Carnegie Hall, unaware that many came to gawk and deride, not to admire her.

I have seen musical-comedienne Kaye several times onstage and even had an after-theater drink with her, back in November 1992, when she played Sweeney Todd‘s Mrs. Lovett at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. Her portrayal of the real-life phenomenon that was Florence Foster Jenkins managed at once to amuse and touch me, even though Souvenir, as written by Temperley, is slight, repetitive, and less than incisive.

You’ll have to get up close and zoom in on Kaye’s features—the snare and shelter of Jenkins’s oblivion expressing itself in innocent smiles and youthful exuberance, the firm belief in her musical disabilities as she refuses to heed the at fist cautioning then caustic words from her hapless accompanist, and the terror of recognition when at last she discerns the cruel laughter of the crowd—to wrest any oomphs from Temperley’s pleasant and chuckles-filled survey of the dubious diva’s odd career. Fortunately, I sat in the third row. Anyone back on the balcony is unlikely to get half as much out of this play, which is suited to a smaller venue than Broadway’s grand Lyceum.

Upon returning to the UK, I learned that another dramatization of Jenkins’s life, conceived by another playwright (Peter Quilter), is currently playing in London. Called Glorious, this version stars Maureen Lipman, whom I have last seen opposite Ian McKellen in the pantomime Aladdin at the Old Vic. Ms. Lipman hasn’t got Kaye’s pipes, but her acting garnered some favorable notices. I am sufficiently intrigued by Jenkins’s antics to judge her performance myself later this year.

How come there are two plays running simultaneously about a 1930s New York City curiosity, a novelty act who, like those making a spectacle of themselves during last year’s American Idol auditions, has become an old joke few can recall? It is encouraging, somehow. Ready to rediscover most anything, the public might yet turn a favourable ear to the golden age of radio. I sure wouldn’t mind having someone to talk to . . .

“Reviewing the Situation”: Catching Up with Fagin in the Way West End

Moving from Manhattan to Mid-Wales was bound to lower my chances of taking in some live theater now and then (not that Broadway ticket prices had allowed me to keep the intervals between “now” and “then” quite as short as I’d like them to be). I expected there’d be the odd staging of Hamlet with an all-chicken cast or a revival of “Hey, That’s My Tractor” (to borrow some St. Olaf stories from The Golden Girls). Luckily, I’m not one to embrace the newfangled and my tastes in theatrical entertainments are, well, conservative. I say luckily because even if you’’re living west of England rather than the West End of its capital, chances are that there’s a touring company coming your way, eventually.

What came my way last night was a well-oiled production of Oliver!, with Peter Karrie in the role of Fagin. It was my second reunion with Oliver Twist this year, having watched playwright/composer Neil Brand at work on a new score for the 1922 silent screen version in his London studio last June. Apparently, the age of political correctness has not yet torn down or effaced all the melodramatic caricatures in the western portrait gallery of villains and scoundrels.

Never mind the play’s eponymous tyke, who wriggled through the miseries of his youth predictably well, in keeping with the plans laid out for him by “Mr. Popular Sentiment” (as Dickens was mockingly called by fellow novelist Anthony Trollope). Aside from Lionel Bart’s eminently hummable tunes, it was Karrie’s con brio portrayal of Fagin that kept this superannuated warhorse of a melodrama from coming across as lame and lumbering.

While often considered sure-fire, revivals are not quite so easy to pull off; too often they are self-conscious about the dateness of the material. Apart from the half-heartedness of uneasy reverence (as achieved by the Old Vic production of The Philadelphia Story I saw earlier this summer), there’s nothing worse than camp, the postmodernist disease of arrogant, willful misreading and flaunted emotional impoverishment. Oliver! was refreshingly, that is unabashedly, old-fashioned, brought to life by force of Karrie’s sense of bathos, at full throttle in the musical number “Reviewing the Situation.”

Well, it was not difficult for me to identify with the situation under review, that is, with Fagin’s assessment of his outsider status and his pondering of the pressure to adjust: “I’m finding it hard to be really as black as they paint,” he sighs, addressing the audience. Twice authored—by the creators of the play and the society they depict—Fagin conforms both to melodramatic conventions and societal expectations (he’s a “bad ‘un” who cannot change) while all along defying such standards (aware of his “situation,” he grapples with it and implicates the class system that stamped him an outcast):

Left without anyone in the world,
And I’m starting from now,
So how to win friends and to influence people?
So how?
I’m reviewing the situation:
I must quickly look up ev’ryone I know [. . .].

So where shall I go—somebody?
Who do I know? Nobody!
All my dearest companions
Have always been villains and thieves.
So at my time of life I should start
Turning over new leaves?

There simply aren’t enough leaves in the book for old Fagin. So, having reviewed the situation, he is very nearly resigned to a condition that a less reflective person would call fated:

I’m a bad ‘un and a bad ‘un I shall stay!
You’ll be seeing no transformation,
But it’s wrong to be a rogue in ev’ry way. 

I don’t want nobody hurt for me,
Or made to do the dirt for me.
This rotten life is not for me.
It’s getting far too hot for me.
Don’t want no one to rob for me.
But who will find a job for me?
There is no in between for me,
But who will change the scene for me?
I think I’d better think it out again!

Between a rock and a hard place, between Scylla and Charybdis, Fagin is forever reviewing a situation he is at a loss to improve; for him, there’s no silver lining (like the one above, which I spotted in the sky this morning). Taking advantage of the anonymity and visibility technology can offer the latter-day rogue with a touch of Hamlet and Werther, he would probably be blogging about it today.

Back in the X Factory; or, the Legacy of Major Bowes

Today marked the beginning of the second season of The X Factor on ITV1. It had pathos, it had romance, and it had its fair share of wackiness—just like Major Bowes’s Original Amateur Hour. The Major, pictured left in his lavish New Jersey home, was the first talent scout to enter broadcasting, to captivate and to make millions. According to radio historian John Dunning, the “rise of Major Edward Bowes in the summer and fall of 1934 led to a national rage of frantic and sometimes tragic proportions.” It offered hope to many a poor laborer and fueled the delusions of many a talentless wretch.

To get on Bowes’s programs, contestants were known to have sold their homes and hitchhiked to the studios of the Columbia Broadcasting System in New York City. Back in 1935, Bowes’s program attracted up to 10,000 amateurs a month, of which about 25% could audition each week.  Of these 500 to 700 hopefuls, twenty were chosen to perform on the Major’s weekly broadcasts, a ratio of rejection that, during the Great Depression, caused hundreds of homeless rejects to apply for shelter in the Big Apple.

The X Factor does not come close to such melodrama, of course—melodrama, that, back then, was not part of the program, but the harsh reality behind the scenes.  Still there were poignant moments of blind ambition on tonight’s X Factor premiere, snapshots that told of shattered dreams, thwarted ambitions, and years of therapy.  How dairy farmer Justin who returned as drag queen Justine to win over the flabbergasted judges got through the audition process must be attributed to the producers’ desire to stir up controversy and keep reality-show fatigued audiences watching and voting.

Simon Cowell may have claimed to be in search of someone “normal” this time around, but the producers certainly seem to be after amateurs with the F factor—freaks to be gawked at, fools to be ridiculed, and frumps to be pitied.  The Major, who cut off performers with his gong, was accused of setting up contestants for ridicule as well, even though he denied such charges.  Then as now, the audience went for the joy ride and flocked to the public beheading of swellheaded nobodies and self-awareness lacking airheads.

The major auditioned all sorts of wannabes, such as jugglers, tap dancers, and mimes—which, to be sure, did not make for the best in aural entertainment. On The X Factor, the moves, the make-up, and the general stage presence is all part of the act, to be appreciated or, if wanting in quality, deplored by those tuning in.  As in the case of 16-year-old Trevor, appearances and voice might be at odds, leaving viewers to decide whether vocal chords really matter more than personae in today’s celebrity business. 

Once the audition clip shows are over, they will be given a chance to call in their votes.  The Amateur Hour was interactive as well. Each week the program aired, an American town was chosen as a so-called “honor city,” which made its citizens eligible to cast their votes along with the NYC audience. Votes were phoned in or submitted in writing.

As is the case for programs like American Idol today, talent was later sent on tour across the country.   Yet whereas today’s instant celebrities are given the opportunity to make a fortune, the Amateur Hour, which made Major Bowes a millionaire, at best secured found talent a salary of $100 per week.

Today, even the William Hongs among the contestants get lavished with record contracts. Don’t remember William Hong? Well, I guess his 15 minutes of infamy were up last fall.  The main question for me as I tune in to The X Factor is whether there will be another Rowetta.  Don’t remember her either? Major Bowes’s gong sure is beaten faster these days.