Theatre @ Boston Court
When The Drowsy Chaperone first left the Ahmanson headed for Broadway fame and fortune, Howard Kissel wrote of it in his review for the New York Daily News: “It’s full of wit and high spirits, so entertaining you can overlook the fact it came from Los Angeles.” As long as that unending false impression of all things theatrical born and bred (or at least cultivated) in LA continues to offend, that kinda stuff is really beginning to pissmethefuck off. As someone who resides in both cities, I can say unequivocally much of what I see onstage created here often stands heads and shoulders above projects germinated in New York.
As I sat in the grateful and sufficiently awestruck opening night audience of Nick Salamone’s Gulls at Theatre @ Boston Court, I kept thinking of ways this magnificent production could overcome the fact that it originated here in our much-maligned reclaimed desert. What a shame that has to be a consideration.
Gulls is, simply, Salamone and composer Maury McIntyre’s Little Night Music, a sweeping, gently elegant, resplendently appointed musical adaptation of Chekhov’s enduring masterpiece The Seagull. Here the tale is time-warped from the pre-Revolutionary Russia of the 1890s to Greenwich Village in 1959, at the height of the creative restlessness signature to the Kerouac-Ginsberg years of literary experimentation and a brave new artistic abandon. Chekhov’s timeless epic, which originally explored the enormous social changes affecting ol’ Anton’s world during the last gasps of the 19th century, translates perfectly to America in the middle of our last, a time when people were just beginning to speak out and use their previously unacceptable public vociferousness to make significant changes in the way our culture was to evolve over the next 50 years.
The word “teamwork” is almost not enough to describe what happens when misters Chekhov, Salamone, and McIntyre collaborate with Jessica Kubzansky, one of our town’s most prominent and gifted directors. This unique relationship was already established with the success of the quartet’s joint effort Moscow a decade ago, another musical re-envisioning of one of the master’s other great classics, The Three Sisters. That production also began here in El Lay and went on to win a handful of Garland Awards before a slew of honors were bestowed upon it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival three years later.
Of course, the artistic cooperation of Chekhov to this process was posthumous then as it is now again, as the best theatrical wordsmith of his time shuffled off his mortal coil some 104 years ago. But if there wasn’t a secret clairvoyant channeling the playwright directly in weekly séances at some guarded location (perhaps a nicely renovated Craftsman at the top of Melrose Hill?), something tells me Mr. C. would still be incredibly proud of what has happened to both of his illustrious plays, which have been swept into another century by Salamone’s brilliant imagination and distinctive ability to show how much the two eras dealt with similar issues.
Although a couple of Salamone’s characters are amalgams of The Seagull’s band of dysfunctional relatives and other strangers, some of whom were a tad Bloomsbury even before Virgie and her gang began their infamously public intermingling, each of them has as least some—if not a lot—of correlation to their original Chekhovian counterparts.
There’s Irenie Bennett (an alternately brassy and quietly touching performance by Rende Rae Norman), sitting in for Madame Arkadina, Chekhov’s well-known Russian stage actress here transformed into a Broadway star who found fame and a considerable fortune in the Woods of Holly. Arkadina’s brooding young playwright son Konstantin Treplyov becomes Conrad (an arresting turn by the über-talented John Keefe, mentioned in print by me before as actor on rapid rise in our community), who as Gulls opens aggressively shouts his profane and shocking beat poetry to a restless gathering of dismissive family members.
Connie has the hots for Nina (a luminous Sabrina Sloan), daughter of Irenie’s longtime dresser, a yearning he shares with his cousin Zelda (Grace Will), who as the character Masha in The Seagull was created somewhat before homosexuality was a subject writers easily explored. Furthering the characteristically unrequited nature of love, Zelda simultaneously spurns the doe-eyed advances of the supernerdy Morris (Will Collyer, an actor observably always there when anyone needs him take chances), while Nina manages to get herself involved romantically with Irenie’s screenwriter boytoy Gore (Robert Mammana), substituting here for Chekhov’s infamous Trigorin.
These Village-ers are complemented by the inclusion of miserable former Navy commander Nicky Sorinsky and his loving but equally miserable Eastern European wife Paulette (Marc Cardiff and Eileen T’Kaye), his character a fusion between Chekhov’s Sorin, Madame Arkadina’s sickly brother, and her estate manager and retired military officer Shamrayev. The sad side story of the Sorinskys, he a closet case too rigid to come out and she not having a clue what’s gone wrong with their marriage, is made indelible by Cardiff and especially T’Kaye, who will break your heart with McIntyre’s haunting, showstopping eleventh-hour duet with Will called “Some Things.”
The ninth and final character here is a ghostly narrator named Jackson (a dynamic Clinton Derricks-Carroll, who instantly proves he can act and sing rings around his twin brother Cleavant), a recent suicide whose relationship with Nicky might even be more reason why he jumped off the roof of the Sorinsky’s brownstone, perhaps an even thornier issue than his growing disenchantment with the lot of being African-American in the decade before civil rights made some—but still not enough—changes. While Salamone has cunningly added Jackson as an invention to the castlist of Gulls, there’s more than a bit of other Seagull characters traveling through him, including qualities of Shamrayev, Dr. Dorn, and even the hardworking lower-class laborer Yakov.
But then, there’s almost a 10th notable character here: McIntyre’s evocative, heroic musical achievement, with songs that seem to effortlessly slip between homages to Sondheim, Ellington and Miles Davis. McIntyre’s composition is so stuffed full of unforgettably poignant ballads, raucously entertaining showtunes, and smartly repeated jazz riffs, that it must have made the work of world-class musical director Greg Chun (who helped bring Eric Whitacre’s Paradise Lost to splendid fruition at this same theatre last season) something that makes contributing to 99-seat theatre worth the lack of meaningful remuneration, particularly considering our current economy and gas prices to complicate anyone’s drive to Pasadena.
The second act takes some of Gulls’ earlier action off the Sorinsky’s Village rooftop and places it, as the program proclaims, “From Sea to Shining Sea.” This includes a scene cleverly set in San Francisco’s legendary City Lights Bookstore, where Conrad has been asked to read his rather scratchy poetry and Zelda has become so comfortable that she’s taken to calling the place’s infamous proprietor “Larry,” as well as Gore’s Beachwood Drive pad, the pied-a-terre where he goes to escape from the gargantuan shadow of Irenie as it dominates and spreads her sense of entitlement across the entire Malibu Beach Colony.
Gulls is a major, major new musical thanks to the obvious endowments (no, now, not those endowments) of a scholarly bookwriter with his signature dark sense of humor, as well as the composer’s arrestingly evocative musical compositions, the incomparable mind’s eye view endemic to any project touched by Kubzansky’s gifts, a cast that could not be improved upon if anyone were to try, and the incredibly first-class facilities and design elements offered to any show fortunate enough to debut at the Boston Court.
Michelle Ney’s set, Jeremy Pivnik’s lighting, Martin Carrillo’s sound, Kitty McNamee’s choreography, Becca Coffman’s hair and make-up, and particularly Alex Jaeger’s splendidly colorful and occasionally even chic 1950s costuming, are all to be commended as well, among every other exceptional design element and work assignment brought to this production.
I’m not sure if it was Shakespeare (or was it Pamela and Tommy Lee?) who first coined the phrase “a match made in heaven” but, after a night out getting gloriously lost in the fascinating world of Nick Salamone’s Gulls, you’d swear it was a line from a Chekhov play.
Gulls plays through Aug. 24 at the Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor, Pasadena; for tickets, call 626.683.6883. For more information, visit www.bostoncourt.com