Thursday, October 29, 2015

SONGBIRD Based on THE SEAGULL at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Eric William Morris, Adam Cochran, and Kate Baldwin in SONGBIRD.  Photo by Jenny Anderson Photography.
Songbird by Michael Kimmel, currently enjoying its world premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, is being billed as “based on Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull,” but it is really much more (or less) than that: it is virtually a wholesale transfer of Chekhov’s classic melodrama from nineteenth century Russia to twenty-first century Nashville, Tennessee, with little more than the names of the characters changed (or transliterated) and the addition of some original (but not very memorable) country western tunes.  Other than that, the plot of Songbird hews pretty closely to that of the original Russian melodrama, merely substituting songwriting for playwriting and attempted suicide by hanging and traffic fatality for attempted suicide by gunshot.  And, oh yes, the substitution of a bluebird for a seagull.
Much of the action in The Seagull takes place on the country estate owned by Sorin, where Sorin’s sister, Arkadina (an acclaimed actress), has just arrived with her lover, Trigorin (a writer), to attend a presentation of a new symbolic play written by Arkadina’s son, Konstantin, and starring Nina, Konstantin’s girlfriend.  In Songbird, Sorin has become Soren (Bob Stillman) and his country estate is now a honky-tonk in Nashville.  His sister, Arkadina, has morphed into Tammy Trip (Kate Baldwin), a once famous and now fading country western music star.  Her lover, Trigorin, has turned into Beck (Eric William Morris), no longer a writer but now a commercially successful songwriter.  Konstantin is now Dean (Adam Cochran), the son who Tammy abandoned to launch her own career and who is now attempting to launch his own as – you guessed it – a writer of unconventional country western songs, much as Konstantin attempted to achieve success as a writer of unconventional plays.  And Nina, in her present incarnation, is Mia (Ephie Aardema), there to sing Dean’s song and as much in love with Dean as Nina was with Konstantin.

Also in attendance at Sorin’s estate in The Seagull are Medvedenko who is in love with Masha who, in turn, is in love with Konstantin who, as we already have learned, is in love with Nina.  Similarly, in Songbird, it is Rip (Don Guillory) who is in love with Missy (Kacie Sheik) who, in turn, is in love with Dean who, as we already have learned, is in love with Mia.  And, lest we forget, in Chekhov’s melodrama, it is Polina who is married to Ilya and carrying on an affair with Doctor Dorn; in Songbird, Polina has become Pauline (Erin Dilly), Tammy’s childhood friend, who is married to Samuel (Andy Taylor) and carrying on an affair with Doc (Drew McVety).

Unsurprisingly, Dean’s song in Songbird falls as flat as Konstantin’s play did in The Seagull, with similar dire consequences.  Mia falls out of love with Dean and in love with Beck, much as Nina fell out of love with Konstantin and in love with Trigorin, leading once again to similar dire consequences.  The unrequited loves, the quest for fame at all costs, life’s major and minor disappointments and the different ways in which we deal with them, sickness, despair, attempted suicide, and death – it’s all deja vu all over again, only this time in Nashville with music.

So if you’ve seen The Seagull, there might not seem to be much point in your attending a performance of Songbird as well, since the musical breaks no new ground and won’t really add to your understanding of the human condition – except for one thing: the cast of Songbird is absolutely superb and they have done a terrific job with the material they have been given.  Kate Baldwin is especially noteworthy as the callously self-centered and narcissistic Tammy Trip, but the rest of the cast is also first rate, exhibiting both exceptional theatrical and musical talent.  And, as a result, Songbird turns out to be considerably more entertaining than one might have expected after all. 

Monday, October 12, 2015


L-R: Christopher Michael McLamb, Jessie Dean, Sarah Grace Sanders, Ruthy Froch, Joey LePage, John Gasper, and John Smiley in WELCOME TO THE KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA.  Photo by Maria Baranova.  

Saudi Arabia is a land of stark contrasts.  It is an immensely wealthy country and its government spends billions of dollars annually to provide free education and free health care to all its citizens – and yet an estimated quarter of its population live in poverty.  Women are treated as beautiful princesses – protected, placed on pedestals, provided with the finest makeup and couture, and bedecked in jewelry – but then are forced to conceal themselves from the world beneath their abayat and are forbidden to drive or appear in public unaccompanied by a man.  Foreign workers are welcomed with the greatest hospitality and are paid extravagantly – but then are virtually consigned to live in drab and stultifying Aramco compounds.  The country is considered one of America’s staunchest allies in the Middle East – but it was the birthplace of Osama Bin Laden and is the nation that spawned the terrorists who blew up the World Trade Center on 9/11
Currently enjoying its world premiere at 59E59 Theaters, Welcome to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, written and directed by Luke Landric Leonard with music by Peter Stopschinski and lyrics by Katie Pearl and Leonard, is an extraordinary surrealistic theatrical production that brilliantly captures and exposes these contradictions.  And most surprisingly (at least to me) in today’s politically correct world, Mr. Leonard has succeeded in telling his tale not from a liberal perspective, but from a relatively conservative, pro-life, chauvinistically American and Christian one.

On the surface, the play is a dark musical comedy focusing on the lives of two American expatriates in Saudi Arabia: Hank Brown (Joey LePage), a Protestant adventure-seeking high school chemistry teacher and Tina Murphy-Brown (Jessica Dean), his much more conventional, Christian God-fearing wife, as they attempt to navigate thelr way between the alien culture of Saudi Arabia and that of their home country.  That requires them to deal with two British ex-pats who turn out to be their neighbors in the Aramco compound where they all are domiciled: Dick (John Smiley), a somewhat irrepressible Aramco employee, and his sexy and sexually provocative wife, Fanny (Sarah Grace Sanders) - as well as with Abdullah (Christopher Michael McLamb), a Saudi Arab associate, and his daughter Zillah (Ruthy Froch).

But as it turns out, the Browns have much more to deal with than a couple of sexually promiscuous and eccentric neighbors and an overtly hypocritical Arab and his daughter: they must also come to grips with their own consciences, particularly as they concern their unborn son Randy (John Gasper).  Is Randy the incarnation of their repressed consciences?  A mere figment of their imaginations?  The omnipresent soul of their aborted child?  The devil come for his due?  However you may interpret him, it is he who enlarges the play from a simple theatrical tale to a surrealistic experience that will remain with you long after you have left the theater.

Leonard has peppered his play with a host of corny jokes but there is much more to them than initially meets the eye.  There is more than a kernel of truth in virtually every one and most turn out to foreshadow or allude to much more significant developments in the play.  It is a virtuoso use of humor in moving the story along.

There is little doubt in my mind that other theatre-goers will interpret this play quite differently from the way that I have (my wife, who accompanied me to this performance, already has) – but that is all to the good.  It suggests that there may be even more to the play than I have discerned (or think I have),  For what it is worth, however, I believe that the play presents a thinly veiled pro-life argument, creating an analogy between the abortion of fetuses to the intentional removal of premature babies from incubators, leaving them to die outside the incubator (read: mechanical womb).  I think, too, that it exposes the foolishness of focusing on the trivial, at the expense of the truly meaningful: cold shouldering one’s third grade girlfriend doesn’t really hold a candle to decapitating an infidel.  Additionally, I think it exposes just how malleable are our personalities and how little we know and understand one another (or even ourselves) and how, given the right (or wrong) circumstances, any of us might become so deranged as to become something other than what we ever were. 

Finally, I think that it challenges the politically correct belief that all cultures are morally equivalent, i.e. that they may differ in details but that no one can say any one is better or worse (morally) than any other, only that they are different: on the contrary, the play suggests that American and Christian values of tolerance and humanity are, in fact, morally superior to those of Islamic fundamentalism (with its commitment to the absolute truths of the Quran and the legitimacy of beheading or crucifying infidels).

The play does hit a few false notes.  I thought that the number that began “I am a child of entropy….” near the play’s end was pretentious as best and incoherent at worst, obfuscating rather than illuminating the play’s messages.  But that said, the work succeeded in hitting its mark much more often than it failed, a credit both to the playwright and to the entire cast.  Of the several cast members, all of whom truly deserve accolades, I was most impressed by Ms Dean who did a beautiful job of expressing Tina’s internal demons with skill and sensitivity; Mr. McLamb who, in the role of Abdullah, provided just the comic relief that the play required; and, of course, Mr. Gasper, without whose powerfully enigmatic presence, the play would not have succeeded.