Saturday, December 8, 2018

A Grinch by the Inch




Who’s Holiday
3Below Theaters
December 7, 2018

If you think the latest Grinch cartoon was entirely unnecessary, and what you’d really like to see is the whole enterprise blown up in a raunchy, comic explosion, then Who’s Holiday is your ticket. Matthew Lombardo’s script, written in perfect Seussian couplets, visits Cindy Lou Who in middle age, trying to get any of her Whoville friends to come to her holiday party but beset by a checkered past that has made her a bit of an outcast. All the better, since we get to have her to ourselves.

The Avenue Q-ness of the play is evident right away, as Cindy Lou recounts that fateful night: “…but I caught him green-handed as he was stealing our shit!” Her tale proceeds to her 18th birthday, when she discovers something else that grew three sizes that day (“If you think black guys are hung, try going jade”).

Our hostess is Shannon Guggenheim, who is 3Below’s Miss Everything (including librettist of their awesome Meshuga Nutcracker musical). She dispenses quickly with the fourth wall, and third wall, and a little of the second, throwing in regular asides and a running commentary on the challenges of stagework. Much of the fun is in the rhyming. When she rhymes “Christmas” with “isthmus,” she takes an educational timeout to provide a detailed geographical definition. Later, when she flubs a rhyme, she says, “Hey! This shit is hard.” And then she has to deal with an audience volunteer who seemed to think he was at an old-school hip-hip rhymeoff (he was good, but he was making us nervous).

To say Guggenheim is delightful doesn’t really say enough. She is an absolute natural onstage, and her Cindy Lou is sexy, funny, and ingratiating. She even makes us a little sad, singing “Blue Christmas” for her estranged green-skinned daughter (who’s off touring as Elphaba in “Wicked”). In short, she’s exactly the kind of woman you’d like to hang out with at a party. And to hell with those sanctimonious Who’s!

December 7 - 22, 2018.  Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm. , 3Below Theaters & Lounge, 288 So. Second Street, San Jose,  $36 - $45. www.3Belowtheaters.com or 408.404.7711.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 21 novels and two plays, Café Phryque and Darcy Lamont, available at amazon.com.

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Monday, November 19, 2018

Leoncavallo Meets Hitchcock


Cooper Nolan as Canio. All photos by Pat Kirk.
Opera San Jose’s Pagliacci
November 17, 2018

Stage director Chuck Hudson and a strongly theatrical cast have come up with a Pagliacci for the ages, downright Hitchcockian in its ability to deliver the layers of tension in Leoncavallo’s work. It’s a stunning, suspenseful night at the opera.

To deliver strong effects, of course, you need strong weapons, and this is evident from the start with baritone Anthony Clark Evans’ Prologue. This Prologue is a peculiar piece in opera, a musical highlight, often performed at recitals, that arrives before the “real” story has even begun. Evans alternates between affable and ominous in his monodrama of actors and their hidden identities, and his intense presence plays well into the sometimes-overlooked subplot of Tonio, the hunchback whose spurning at the hands of Nedda turns him into an Iago-like schemer.

The more direct threat, of course, is Canio, the clown (Paglioccio) of the troupe. Tenor Cooper Nolan succeeds in conveying a delicious darkness. He reminds me of that acquaintance who turns out to be a bad drunk, cracking jokes one second, seemingly ready to punch you the next. This first appears in “Un tal gioco,” Canio’s explicit announcement of how he will deal with anyone who makes a play for Nedda, his beautiful wife. Nolan delivers these threats with a forceful lirico spinto, and engages in bit of spousal arm-twisting that almost hurts to watch.

Anthony Clark Evans as Tonio, Maria Natale as Nedda.
Maria Natale’s soprano is a bit large for the tight spaces of Nedda’s Bird Song – a piece of playful bel canto mimicry – but the payoff comes with everything that follows. Natale’s great power creates a Nedda with Carmen-like qualities. Hudson’s undercurrent of physical aggression continues as Nedda drives off Tonio’s menacing advances with a whip, and then engages in a number of carnal embraces with her lover Silvio (Emmett O’Hanlon, whose well-tempered baritone offers a bit of calm before the storm). What emerges from this duet, as Nedda bounces between Silvio’s promises and the echoes of Canio’s threats, is Natale’s excellent use of dynamics, including a fortissimo lament rife with anguish.

Nolan delivers the iconic “Vesti la giubba” in a strikingly subdued fashion, aided by the chiaroscuro effects of Kent Dorsey’s lighting (a single overhead spot). The result is an invitation to feel sorry for Canio, a man who has painted himself into a corner and can’t seem to find a peaceful way out. Nolan finishes the piece quaking with emotion, giving the finish a suitably edgy quality.

I have never before noticed just how beautifully Act 2 is set up. Having given each player full knowledge of the situation (except for the identity of Nedda’s lover) and forcing them into the necessity of giving a performance, Leoncavallo sets up a thick tension, each player going through stage prep like they’re walking through a minefield.

Maria Natale as Nedda, Mason Gates as Beppe.
Into this malestrom comes – almost unexpectedly – some excellent commedia dell’arte. Evans and Natale demonstrate playful bits of physical comedy, followed by Mason Gates entering on a fake horse to take over the show and offer a serenade (a gifted lyric tenor who performs backflips and handstands, Gates was born to play Beppe). The well-worn performance, naturally, mirrors the drama of the players’ backstage intrigues (thank you, Hamlet), until Canio starts veering off-script in a way that makes both on- and off-stage audiences feel a little queasy. The sadness of “Vesti la giubba” is gone as Nolan goes into monster mode, his voice growing and growing with each demand for the name of Nedda’s lover. The final blowup is bracingly physical. Canio gives Nedda a knockdown slap that sends mothers and children dashing from the square. Canio kills his wife with a Psycho-style overhead stabbing, then turns to pierce Silvio in mid-air. Finally, Canio is killed by a constabulary’s gunshot and falls roughly to the floor. (This may be the only opera cast that needs its own personal trainer.) It’s all very riveting, in the way that Pagliacci truly can be, and leads to the best final line in opera, Tonio announcing, “The comedy is over.”

Maria Natale as Nedda, Emmett O'Hanlon as Silvio.
Cathleen Edwards’ costumes are lovely, especially the gem-like colored triangles of Nedda, Beppe and Beppe’s “horse.” The village scenes carried a pleasant boisterousness, thanks in part to the Ragazzi and Vivace youth choruses. Christian Reif and orchestra played with power and elegance; I particularly enjoyed the intermezzo, especially the passage featuring harpist Karen Thielen as Tonio contemplates Nedda’s handkerchief. The upper terrace of Andrea Bechert’s village square set allowed for artful backlighting, notably as Tonio and Canio spy on the illicit lovers.

Through Dec. 2, California Theater, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. 408/437-4450, www.operasj.org.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 21 novels, including Gabriella’s Voice and The Girl in the Flaming Dress.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Kendra and Stephen: A Wedding Intro


My niece Kendra began this whole thing last year at my nephew's wedding. At the reception, she asked if I would serve as the officiant at her wedding the following September. It took me a half hour to even understand what she was asking. After all, I'm a pretty public atheist - a job usually performed by clergy doesn't necessarily come to mind. After I thought about it, though, the skill set all added up: I'm used to being onstage, I'm good with a mic, and obviously I can help write the ceremony. All I had to do was come up with an interesting intro, and the ideas came to me in that first week. Primarily, I had to work in Kendra's favorite song, "Yellow," and go from there. The wedding, September 8 in Malibu, was amazing. And here's what I said:
Friends and family! Welcome. We are gathered here today to initiate and celebrate the marriage of Kendra Brit Breunling and Stephen Jacob Cornelius. My name is Michael Vaughn. I am also known as Uncle Mike. (Sung) Your skin Oh yeah your skin and bones turn into something beautiful You know, you know I love you so You know I love you so

Those lines are from Kendra's favorite song, Yellow, by Coldplay. For years now, I’ve used it as a kind of Bat Signal. If I heard it in a coffeehouse, or if someone sang it at karaoke, I would immediately send Kendra a text: Hey, how you doin?

But let’s think about those words: “Your skin and bones turn into something beautiful.”  That line touches on a marvelous truth about humans. We’re really just parts and pieces - sinew, muscle, blood, organs – put together in an extraordinary way. And the pinnacle of this machine is the human brain, which developed the amazing ability to recognize its own existence, and to recognize the powerful bonding force that we call love.
A few years ago, a study concluded that the people you spend the most time with have an actual, physical effect on the wiring in your brain. This is why your parents are always so concerned with who you’re hanging out with. I suppose, then, that a wedding is a way of saying, I like the effect that you have on my brain. Or, put another way, I like who I am when I’m with you. And I’d like to keep that going for the rest of our lives.

 
Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 21 novels, most recently The Girl in the Flaming Dress.

Alviso: A Prose Poem


Alviso

The Chicanos from the tidelands had no school so they were bused to ours. Like children everywhere, we latched onto their differences like hungry leeches.

The shirts buttoned to the collar. The boxy work pants, the constant black T’s, a strange affection for gothic lettering and vintage cars.

We stood in the quad in our bell bottoms, puka shells and disco shirts and asked, What could they be thinking?

We learned the appropriate slurs, which now seem pathetic: greasers (because they used product in their hair), Spics (because they spoke Spanish), beaners (because they ate beans?).

One day, my little brother’s gang – let’s call them The Squirrely Bunch – were performing their best Cheeches and Chongs, tossing around words like cholo, wetback, low-rider, puta in those odd Mexican rhythms, the words falling like dominos to the obligatory eh? (unintentionally paying tribute to the things they professed to hate). My mom finally had enough.

“That’s it! You boys get in the car right now. We’re going for a ride.”

I can only imagine them, huddled in the back seat, muttering. Omigod, Vaughn, your mom finally snapped. She’s gonna kill us and leave our bodies in the swamp.

My mother, one of the more navigationally challenged of women, puzzled her way through unfamiliar back roads until she arrived in Alviso, a former railroad town and fishing port where Mexican families found shelter.

I don’t have direct quotes, but I’m guessing she said, These are real boys with real homes and friends and families who love them, and they are not to be made into cartoons by you. Also, look how far they have to travel to go to a white school where mean boys make fun of them.

I imagine, too, the faces of the locals as a blonde, blue-eyed housewife cruised through town in a station wagon, boys peering out the window like caged animals. It must have looked like the world’s most pathetic tour bus.

Decades later, I sit at a fire pit in Malibu, hearing this story for the second time. My brother has never forgotten that trip, has lived his life accordingly, and keeps this story in his back pocket as a reminder of his mother’s huge, loving and slightly lunatic heart.

As a story always brings more stories, I flash on the day when I turned from my middle-school locker to be punched in the face by a lean, ferocious-looking Chicano.

More shocked than hurt, I stumbled down the hall, holding my nose and shouting, “Why did you do that!?” He and his friends continued to follow me, and I was afraid they were looking for more. They scattered, finally, as I made my way to the nurse’s office.

(Where were the adults? Nowhere. Adults in the seventies were useless.)

As the year went on, I tried to hate those Spics, those beaners, those goddamn greasers. After all, I had reason. But my attempts were always cut off by my mother’s voice, a permanent installation in my head. Now Michael. Think of how that other person feels. (I sometimes envy people who freely hate. Their worldview must be much less complicated.)

Eventually, I managed to place myself in that kid’s shoes, and the equation came clear. He was the alpha male, his friends the Alviso equivalent of The Squirrely Bunch, and it was his job to find the biggest, whitest kid in the place and take him down.

Because that’s what you do on your first day in prison.
 
 
 
Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 21 novels, most recently The Girl in the Flaming Dress.
 
 

A Tasty Abduction


Michael Dailey as Pedrillo, Ashraf Sewailam as Osmin. All photos by Pat Kirk.
Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio
Opera San Jose
September 15, 2018

This is not one of those productions that you would call earth-shattering or revolutionary. But Opera San Jose has put together a performance of Mozart’s 1782 singspiel full of sage, finally balanced touches, allowing the finer points of a lesser-known work to come through.

The danger of going too broadly with Mozart’s comedies is that they’re cluttered up with all this brilliant music (damn, you, Amadeus!). Stage director Michael Shell has done an excellent job of picking his spots for tomfoolery, and the production further protects its musical assets by sticking to German for the singing, with spoken dialogues in English. The combination creates an interesting effect, a certain sense of relief when the dialogues begin and one can take a rest from the supertitles. The English also allows a bit of improvisation with the libretto. The Pasha psyches himself up for a meeting with his new British wife by quoting SNL’s classic Stuart Smalley skit (“…and by Allah, people like me!”). Later, a confusing discussion of the escape route turns into a Gilbert & Sullivan patter.

Matthew Grills as Belmonte, Rebecca Davis as Konstanze.
The 1930s update doesn’t really change much, but it does allow Ulises Alcala to dive into that wonderful period of fashion (notably Konstanze’s gorgeous Act I blue sparkledress) and to deploy one divine Middle Eastern fabric after another. Steven C. Kemp had some serious fun, too, covering his minarets and castle walls with amazing regional patterns. His Act II garden, festooned with topiary, tulips and ivy, received its own ovation, and his spinning scaffolding earned some applause as well. Pamila Z. Gray toned down her lighting whenever a character went internal, which created an intriguing psychological effect.

At this point, the singers in my audience may be asking, “Hey! What about us?” To which your average lighting designer or stage manager (Darlene Miyakawa) would say, “Ha! Now, you know how it feels.”

In a sense, Shell’s primary comic weapon is Michael Dailey, an OSJ veteran who acts as a sparkplug whenever he’s onstage. Playing Pedrillo, an expatriate gardener in love with the British captive Blonde, Dailey gives an upbeat and antic performance, serving as a kind of Figaro as he manipulates the proceedings.

Bass Ashraf Sewailam provided an excellent villain/oaf as the caretaker Osmin, particularly as the booze and sleeping potion had its way with him in Act Two. The simplest little hip-twitch or eye-roll had the operistas all atwitter. It was also thrilling to listen as he went down the impressive bass-clef elevators provided by Wolfgang. Tenor Matthew Grills created an affably insecure Belmonte (sort of a Matthew Broderick vibe), and deployed a supremely well-balanced tone, particularly the warm sustenatos of his opening aria, “Hier soll ich dich denn sehen.”

Katrina Galka is an out-and-out delight as Blonde. In the well-known battle aria with Osmin, “Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln,” her soprano flew freely, her coloratura climbing so high I wished I had a pitch-pipe handy to gauge what I was hearing.

Michael Dailey as Pedrillo, Katrina Galka as Blonde.
The most anticipated singer was Rebecca Davis, a resident artist at OSJ in 2008. She portrayed Konstanze with a statuesque presence and lovely swelling phrases. But what really brought out her talent was “Marten aller Arten,” Konstanze’s passionate rejoinder to the Pasha’s odd combination of threats and wooing. The scene demands ferocity, a bit of lightning in the voice, and Davis delivered in spades.

As Pasha Selim, Nathan Stark gave us the expected arrogance and force, but also a surprising warmth. The most touching moment of the evening is when he admits that a woman has never quite had this effect on him. Shell uses Stark’s good looks to imply that Konstanze might, despite her devotion to Belmonte, have a bit of a thing for the Pasha, and also uses his Orson Welles laugh for great comic effect.

Through September 30, California Theater, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. $55-$155. 408/437-4450, www.operasj.org.

Michael J. Vaughn is a novelist and painter, author of Operaville and Gabriella’s Voice.

 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Seven

Seven

This choice to sit is an
unusual move, a seed of
discontent in the soil of inaction

But how it grows.

Those at home,
asleep in the murmur of
behemoths grappling for
their amusement, find their
pre-game cluttered up

Give us our easy patriotism,
our singing contest losers,
our military flyover

Not this kneeling irritant

But the quarterback has his
own clutter: bodies on asphalt,
dangerous uniforms, the ease of
firing a bullet into dark skin

Our history is too
ugly for us to acknowledge.
We have built a nation on the
dark backs and now we
hate them for their scars

The target is obvious,
the number seven on a
bright red jersey,
The broad back of a
kneeling millionaire

How dare you demand your rights.
How dare you not stand.
Men died for this country,
this country that hates your skin

If you doubt our passion,
we will set fire to our shoes.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Girl in the Flaming Dress

An excerpt from the novel
The Girl in the Flaming Dress
by Michael J. Vaughn



An Explanation

While writing this novel, I had a date to the opera (Die Fliegende Hollander, Opera San Jose). Arriving early, I took a walk around my date's neighborhood, the Palm Haven section of San Jose. The '40s style architecture, along with a spooky evening wind, reminded me of a Raymond Chandler novel, and I began to narrate to myself in that lovely, rhythmic noir style. (He slid from the curb like a shadow, his troubles weighing him down like a backpack filled with rocks.) When I finally picked up my date, she was wearing the most astounding dress, and there was my central theme. I decided, just for fun, to write a Chandleresque short story, then, much to my surprise, found that it fit rather nicely into my novel. Then I decided to use the title for the whole book. (I worried about the word Girl, which has gotten into far too many titles lately, but my secret advisor, La Diva, said, "What do you care? It's not like they're gonna be disappointed at the contents." Bless her.) As for my date, I never saw her again, but I'm eternally grateful. Here's looking at you, kid.


The Girl in the Flaming Dress

I’m due to beat the skins at FDR’s, but I’m running early. I’m always early. Manny hands me a flight of brews, but it just puts me to sleep. I wake at the glass, one eye on my Toyota. I lost a window to a smash-and-grabber and right now it’s as open as a library.

            The gig is special – rowdy crowd, good drinkers, chair dancers – but afterward my singer is putting me in a flummox. She up-and-downs me, leaving eyeprints all over my clothing. The thing is, she’s comparing me to my former self, Fat Johnny, and she’s dazzled by the results. No miracles, really, just joining a gym and not being a pig. Granted, I don’t pump iron to be ignored, but it’s still me inside and her ex-boyfriend is my lead guitarist, ten feet away. And, she’s still out of my league. My former flabby self can’t handle the attention.

            Of course, I’m an idiot. But Pamela is disrupting the natural balance of evolution. I bullet out of San Francisco in my Toyota, the plastic blowing over my window like the tarps at Candlestick Park. I try not to think about the way Pamela kept taking off her leather jacket during the gig, revealing her backless top. And then I open the other window.

            My antidote arrives at Frankie’s Lounge in the form of Cha-Cha Flores, my favorite drink of mocha and unofficial alcoholic niece. She’s got her hair all curled up around her teddy bear eyes and I swear I want to take her home and add her to my plush toy collection. She’s nervous about getting married (who wouldn’t be?) but I know her Jimmy and you can’t find better. I sing the Tender Trap regardless and I’m gone.

            I’m up the next morning far too early on accounta some blind date at my golf course. The actuality is a testimony to photographic weight-reduction techniques, but I’m willing to take one for the team. I deliver a bouquet of drugstore flowers and chew on a meatloaf as she talks about life in the big cubicle. But my mind is already on the range, where I will use my new driver to inscribe 300-yard parabolas against the green-blonde hills. The clouds chug by like trolleys and all is good.

            But yeah, something’s bugging me so here’s what it is. Stevie. Stevie who walks into Frankie’s on a Saturday night, strikes a pose and takes over the joint. And freezes my heart. She sent a response to my latest begnote that bamboozles me. You are so funny! Perhaps in another life…

            A simple no would have been so much better.

            This, this is from the Sphinx. What exactly is keeping us apart? Am I a Montague, she a Capulet? Am I under an ancient curse? Have I lost an extremity? Amongst a hundred women with their eyes on me, the one that bugs me the most is the one who’s not interested.

            So I report home to wash the regret from my skin, and I put on my best funeral clothes for a night at the opera.

            Yeah, I know. I surprise myself sometimes. But this one is a professorial type, mousy, brainy, irresistible, and you do what you gotta. She tells me not to arrive early, so naturally I arrive early, and I run out of stalls at her curbside so I take a hike around the block.

            Palm Haven looks like forties Los Angeles with the Craftsmans, bungalows and art decos shadowed by high palms. It’s the kind of neighborhood that’s so pretty it kinda scares you. I’m hoofing it around this triangular park, the shadows making me feel like Sam Spade on a junket. A cloud of blackbirds traces me, wearing little copper badges, peppering me with questions. Do you have business in this neighborhood, sir? Is there an address you were looking for? Have you been drinking this evening?

            I finish the loop, expecting cholos and junkies, but all I get are techies and Pekingese. I’m still five minutes early, but I’ve had it, so I step into the chamber of Donna’s porch and hit the knocker. It’s an adobe wth fine lines, mission-style. I think St. Francis lives here. I see polygons of sheetrock on the floor, a safe path for the mugs who just tiled her kitchen.

            She appears at the corner of the door, straight dark hair, vanilla skin, green eyes. Donna is no beauty queen, but her body has a personality all its own, a 50-year-old personal trainee from heaven.

            She opens the door and smiles. I’m not actually certain what I’m looking at. I wait for her to talk so she’ll walk away, so I’ll stop hallucinating.

            You are early. But not too. Let me get you some tequila.” She walks away. And yeah.

            Her dress rises in terraces. It starts out a smoky black, just over the knee, then graduates to red, to orange, and then to tangerine at the bust. She is a human flame. I’m finding it hard to breathe. She hands me a shot of Patrón, a slice of lemon. I shoot and suck, and when I resurface I have words.

            “This dress is amazing.”

            “Thanks! I wore it to a party this summer and it was so bright today I…” and keeps on talking like she has no idea that she has gone and turned herself into a goddess.

            I’m a wreck. I drive her away in my pathetic car. I follow her up the stairs of the parking garage, my eyes directly at her hips (I can’t say “ass” when referring to a goddess).

            In the outside world, I am my fake charming smile. We enter an opera house whose furnishings have been adjusted to complement her dress. A flaming golden sun rises over the proscenium. The show is about a mariner who’s been condemned to sail the seas for all eternity, unless he finds a true woman and I got news for him this might take a while. But there I am in the seventh row, reduced to puberty, afraid to take those white fingers in mine on accounta what it might imply. On the way to intermission, I place a hand on the back of her dress, her muscles firm underneath, and I want to touch her everywhere but she is on fire and I shouldn’t. It takes a post-opera martini to force the truth out of me.

            “I am walking around with this elegant creature on my arm, and I am feeling completely flummoxed.”

            Donna gives me a blank look, but I think she is giving me the polygraph. Apparently I pass the test, because later she tells me, “It was nice to be complimented on my dress. And more than once!”

            I hug her at the door and I leave. The stars are too bright, and I am afraid that when she takes off that dress she will return to mortal form. It reminds me of this other opera, where a warrior princess saves the whole operation by burning herself alive. She could fly, this one.

            In the mariner opera, the woman is untruthful, so the captain goes back to his cursed ship. But then the woman hurls herself into the bay, comes out an angel, and she and the captain fly away together.

            But there’s your fix. You can’t worship a woman that much. She might catch fire, and she might have to jump into the ocean to put herself out.

            Tonight, I’m calling Pamela. What the hell.