Yesterday, it rained most of the day, but we still got out. We went to the Maplewood-Richmond Heights high school and saw their production of Blithe Spirit. After the play, exiting the school’s auditorium, I saw the full moon shining through the remaining clouds. This Noël Coward play first debuted in London during 1941 and has since been made into several movies that are available for streaming. It is a comedy about death and ghosts that debuted during the horrors of the Blitz. The play is set at the English country home of a gentlemen author, Charles, who is researching his next book on the occult. He and his wife Ruth have invited over another couple and the French occultist Monsieur Arcati for a séance. The result of this ceremony is the accidental recalling from the spirit world of the ghost of Charles’s first wife, Elvira. Only Charles (and the audience) can see or hear Elvira, but she can make her presence known to the rest of the cast by “levitating” objects. Needless to say, Ruth is not amused by the presences of her predecessor and much comedy and conflict ensues. I was amazed at the production values in this high school play and we both highly enjoyed the show.
Before Noël Coward wrote Blithe Spirit, while he was searching for a play’s idea involving ghosts, his first thoughts centered on an old house, haunted by specters from different centuries, with the comedy arising from their conflicting attitudes, but he could not get the plot to work. Because the evening’s play began at seven, we got home before ten. It was too early for bed; besides I was still to wound up from the theater. On YouTube, I began watching trailers from the different movie treatments of the play that have been shot over the years. Losing my soul once more to YouTube, I kept drilling down until I found a trailer for the BBC production of the comedy series Ghosts (HBO) that is based upon a young couple who inherits an old house, haunted by specters from different centuries.
Like with the hit comedy series The Office, this British original now has an American transplant that began on CBS but has since been picked up for streaming (Hulu). When the young couple first arrive at the mansion the ghosts are curious, until they learn that the couple’s plans include turning their home into a hotel. With their eternal peace endangered, the ghosts declare war on the couple and one of their number pushes the woman out of an upstairs window. She survives, but this near-death experience then allows her to both see and hear the ghosts. We’ve binged most of the first season and seen the relationship between the living and the dead evolve from “gorilla” warfare to an unsteady truce. This is exemplified in the episode where in order to raise some much-needed cash, the young couple rents out the mansion to a movie company that is filming a period drama. Let’s just say that the ghosts go full Hollywood.
We went to the theater last night. The house was packed, no social distancing to be found, although everyone was masked and vaxxed. Omicron be damned. Before the show, I had been skeptical about the night’s performance, A Christmas Carol, an old saw that I have already seen way too many of times and in so many different ways, but I left pleasantly surprised by the night’s spectacle. Spiced up with a light show, music and dance and sky-high production values, it made for an enjoyable evening.
This 19th-century Dickensian tale is credited with codifying what we now take for the modern holiday of Christmas. Born in Victorian times where many of our current Christmas traditions were invented. Traditions such as the decorating of evergreens, mistletoe, the exchanging of gifts and the singing of holiday specific songs. Wednesday night, we attended the Garden Glow holiday lights show. As part of that show, we toured Henry Shaw’s country home. As an aside, I learned during this tour that after his death, Shaw’s city home had been moved to the garden’s ground and reassembled nearby his country home. It is now an office building. The country home was built in 1840 and for the show its interior was festooned with authentic Victorian era Christmas decorations. The play’s physical sets were pretty minimalistic, relying more upon the accompanying light show than much furniture. I think that is was my recent memory of Shaw’s house that helped to dress out the play’s sets.
The new movie version of Dune dropped yesterday and I managed to watch about an hour of it before it was off to the theater with Anne. What I did see was as good as I had hoped for. Vax cards in hand and masks in place we ventured out to COCA’s Catherine B. Berges Theatre (a marvelous new venue in U-City) to see the Reps new production, The Gradient—a world premier satirical look at toxic masculinity, which also manages to poke fun at tech startups and bad bosses in general. The Gradient is a new facility that promises to take men accused of sexual misconduct and rehabilitate them into responsible citizens. Born of the #MeToo movement and fueled by the likes of Donald Trump, R. Kelly and Harvey Weinstein, this play is set in the not-too-distant future and portrays an organization that employs an algorithm, which mathematically and scientifically evaluates candidate men and then delivers an individualized treatment regimen to rehabilitate them. We follow new-hire Tess, as she wrestles with her often less than truly forthcoming patients and a sarcastic boss who is also too often less than helpful. In physics, a gradient is an increase or decrease in the magnitude of a property observed in passing from one point or moment to another. Here the property is toxic masculinity and much to Tess’s surprise, The Gradient doesn’t always lead to its decrease.
In other news, Anne and I went to Target to look at lawn furniture and get our Covid booster shots. Yesterday, the CDC approved mix-and-match boosters. Our original vaccination was the one-and-done J&J shot, which while it was the first one available to us, it also now seems to be the least effective of the three brands that have been approved. At Anne’s behest, I shopped around for Moderna shots, which she has determined to now be the best of the three. I got us appointments for this afternoon with CVS, at their local in-store pharmacy. Here’s to sticking it to the man and the woman—besides my microchip’s battery had died.
Since the last administration vacated the Whitehouse, there has been a seemingly endless conga line of tell-all books, written by ex-staffers. Books whose unifying theme seems to be that the former guy was really as awful in-person as he seemed to be in public, or maybe even worse. Stephanie Grisham, the former press secretary who never held a press conference, has the latest entry in this line of books. One of the interesting tidbits that has been leaked from her new book, is that in order to sooth the ex-president’s terrible rages, one of his aids would play Broadway show tunes for him, until he was quieted down again. This aid, dubbed the Music Man, would routinely play the song Memory from the musical Cats, because it was a favorite song, but not just any version of this song. It had to be the version sung by Betty Buckley, the original Broadway cast’s Grizabella, who had sung it for the opening on Broadway, some forty years ago. This infatuation with her singular performance comes as no surprise to Ms. Buckley, since a cease-and-desist order had already been filed by the song’s author, Andrew Lloyd Webber, for its unauthorized use during campaign rallies in 2020. A cease-and-desist order that was totally ignored. Still, this newly revealed wrinkle must engender some additional chagrin, this work being the music used to soothe the savage beast.
In this week’s New Yorker, Adam Gopnik interviewed Buckley for an article. What I found most interesting, wasn’t anything to do with the former guy’s relationship with this song, but the struggle that Buckley had rehearsing for the part. She initially was turned down for the part, because “she looked too healthy.” The part of Grizabella is a small part, a part whose main purpose is to end the first act. Grizabella is also a sick and dying cat, who is ostracized by the other cats. Buckley eventually got the Broadway role, but throughout rehearsals the director, Trevor Nunn, kept urging her to appear “More suicidal! More suicidal!” This was in the early eighties when homelessness in New York was growing into the problem that it is today. Buckley took to observing the homeless women and found in them rather than a feeling of hopeless self-pity, a threadbare sense of dignity and grace. Internalizing these feelings, she channeled them into her singing. Just two days before opening Buckley performed before a live audience. This time when she finished singing Memory, the crowd first greeted her with silence, before erupting in roaring applause.
Masked and vaxxed, we returned to Webster’s Loretto-Hilton Theater for the first time in a year-and-a-half. Our vaccination cards and IDs were both checked before entry to the building was permitted. Social distancing seating meant that the two seats to our left and right and in front and behind us were all empty. The seating for this show was considerably more congested than what we experienced last spring with the play, Mlima’s Tale, which was running at about 10% to 20% of house capacity. Still, operating at about half capacity the house was not full. It was a Thursday night after all. No refreshments were for sale. The regular paper program had been replaced with a PDF file that we scanned to our phones. The HVAC system was not running in the auditorium, causing a visible mist to form up near the ceiling. Another Covid precaution or a by product of the temperate weather? A lot has changed as the house lights dimmed and we sat, waiting to watch Dreaming Zenzile.
Zenzile is the African name for the woman known to the world as Miriam Makeba and regaled as Mama Africa. Dreaming Zenzile is the story of this South African activist-singer, told in retrospect as she performs on stage during her final concert, where she died immediately after leaving the stage. This play was originally scheduled to be performed in March of 2020 and was in technical rehearsal then, but has taken a year-and-a-half to finally reach the stage. This musical that is not a musical, doubles as a biography. Created by Somi Kakoma who also portrays Makeba on stage, Dreaming Zenzile tells the story of this woman’s life, from her childhood in apartheid South Africa, until her death on the world’s stage. Musical high notes are punctuated with the many tragic events that occurred throughout her life. Singing brought her the world’s attention, which she used to fight apartheid in her homeland and for civil rights in the US.
With this year’s Mlima’s Tale and Dreaming Zenzile, The Reps new Artistic Director Hana Sharif is definitely signaling a new direction for the Saint Louis Repertory Theater. Anne and I have been attending The Rep for much of Steven Woolf’s 33-year tutelage, who Sharif succeeded as artistic director in 2019. I was saddened to learn of Woolf’s passing this last July. Two plays are too small a sample size to form an opinion yet about Sharif’s artistic vision. I need to gather more data, which means we will continue to attend The Rep.