Music and melancholy
Theatre Aspen audiences are going to be serenaded with sound this summer. The organization’s season – its third since changing its name from Aspen Theatre in the Park – is drenched in music. The season opened last week with “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues,” a spoken and sung history that is heavy on blues classics, and features a five-piece band. In August comes “The Last Five Years,” a tale of romance told almost entirely in song. Even the family-oriented production, which plays Friday and Saturday mornings through mid-August, is a full-on musical.But don’t expect the crowd to leave in the proverbial style of the Broadway musical – dancing in the aisle, with a tune on their lips. In Theatre Aspen’s season, musical doesn’t necessarily translate as light entertainment. “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” – co-written by Randal Myler, whose “Love, Janis” was a music-filled, emotionally complex hit for Theatre Aspen last year – gets at the painful experience that spawned blues music. “The Last Five Years” traces the difficulties and the decline of modern relationships.
The season’s music, in fact, begins with a deadly serious note. “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” starts with the sounds that gave birth to American blues – slaves singing tunes they brought with them from Africa. The show follows the history of blues, from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago’s South Side, through a song list that reveals the blues in all their glory. And that glory is, by turns, sexually suggestive, primal and downright harrowing. “The Thrill Is Gone,” most often associated with B.B. King, is about the inevitable decline of romance. Willie Dixon’s “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” and Robert Johnson’s “Come on in My Kitchen” barely veil their libidinous intentions. Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle” is populated by a cast of characters you don’t want to meet in a back alley: Razor-totin’ Jim, Fast-talkin’ Fannie, Ol’ Pistol Pete and best of all, Butcher-knife totin’ Annie. In the most popular versions of the song, by Howling Wolf and Koko Taylor, there’s nothing cartoonish about this mob; they’re assembling for an all-night party of sex, violence and “snuff juice.” Chilling in a different way is “Strange Fruit,” a Billie Holiday tune that pulls no punches in its depiction of Southern racism: “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” The song is the next-to-last performed in the show; the finale is “Members Only,” in which membership requires having a broken heart.”It deals with some of the heartache, and wrongs done, that caused the blues to begin,” said Theatre Aspen artistic director David McClendon, on “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues,” which opened on Broadway in 1999 and earned a handful of Tony Award nominations, including for best musical. “And the joy, too. You sit there and it’s like church in a lot of ways. It’s quite a journey. It’s celebratory, touching, uplifting. I couldn’t call it light. It’s inspirational.”Theatre Aspen’s production is directed by Anthony Powell, who spent 18 years as associate artistic director of the Denver Center Theater Company. The five-person cast includes Mary Bridget Davies, one of the two actresses who portrayed Janis Joplin in last year’s production of “Love, Janis.” The five-piece band comprises local musicians David Harding, Amy Hawes Harding, Mark Johnson and Paul Valentine, plus former Aspenite Bob Finnie.
Even further from light entertainment is “The Last Five Years” (running Aug. 9-Sept. 1). The show, which premiered in Chicago in 2001 and was produced off-Broadway the following year, is a two-character romance, tracing the relationship between Jamie, a rising novelist from New York, and Cathy, a struggling actress out of Ohio.”It’s about modern romance, how difficult it is, the challenges they each have,” said McClendon. “And how hard it is, especially in these days, with all that goes on in our lives, to have a meaningful relationship.”The relationship unfolds in a bipartite structure, with both sides represented. Cathy gives her side from the beginning, when the two first meet, forward. Jamie’s version starts with the breakup and travels backward. The two stories meet in the middle, at the wedding.”I think that structure highlights how, in a relationship, two people are never on the same page. Rarely on the same page,” said David Ledingham, the show’s director. “You can be in a relationship and have completely different values, goals and dreams.”Ledingham, who grew up in Aspen and recently returned here, after a year in the touring company of the musical, “The Light in the Piazza,” said “The Last Five Years” bursts the idealism of romance. Said Ledingham: “You get in a relationship and say, ‘Well, we don’t agree on this and that. But I’m sure I can bring out these latent desires. I think I can change this person so they’ll be more like me.’ We all come to a relationship thinking love will conquer all obstacles.”The music – played by a strings-and-piano quintet featuring local players Nancy Thomas, Bill Capps, Marcia Fisher, and Harding and Finnie – has its witty, comic side. In “Shiksa Goddess,” Jamie thanks God for sending him anything but another Jewish girl: “If you had a shaved head, that would be cool / As long as you’re not from Hebrew school.” More of it, however, is along the lines of “I Can Do Better Than That,” in which Cathy contemplates the array of romantic pitfalls.”It’s difficult music. It’s complex music,” said Ledingham. “It’s not the kind of music you walk out of the theater humming.”Adding to the stress of their relationship is the opposing trajectory of their respective careers. As Cathy watches Jamie’s take off, her jealousy comes off as an attack on his principles.”How do you deal with the complexities of notoriety?” asked Ledingham. “Sometimes in these situations, your partner claims you’re selling out, you’re not an artist anymore, you’re a schmoozer, you’re pandering. She sticks to her ideals about being an artist.”There’s even nastiness in the backstory to “The Last Five Years.” The semi-autobiographical play was scheduled to open at Lincoln Center – till the playwright’s ex-wife found out about it. She sued, Lincoln Center dropped its plans, and the show opened instead off-Broadway.
Theatre Aspen’s family play this summer is a musical fairy tale; director Marisa Post, who also heads the organization’s education component, calls it “a Broadway musical packed into a children’s fairy tale.”Of course, as with most fairy tales, this one includes vicious animals, children’s screams and the like. It’s a musical take on “Little Red Riding Hood” (running Friday and Saturday mornings, Friday, July 6, through Aug. 18).Theatre Aspen’s staging isn’t intended to terrify. “I think we’re dealing tastefully with the eating of Granny and Little Red. We don’t cut the Wolf’s belly open to see what he’s eaten,” said Post, whose cast includes her husband, Scott MacCracken, as the Hunter, and their son, Andrew MacCracken, as Sammy Skunk. Some of the potentially disturbing scenes are presented in the manner of a puppet play. Still, there are moments – the sound of crunching bones – that may unsettle the wee ones.Theatre Aspen presented the regional premiere of this version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” with lyrics by Sidney Berger and music by Rob Landes, in 2001. But while the words and music remain the same, Post is giving it a contemporary twist. Little Red, instead of having a full-length skirt and hooded cape, wears a red hoodie. The modern-day take is meant to make more realistic the messages behind the fairy tale.”We’re trying to show more of the metaphor in the story and the relationships,” said Post. “Little Red – she’s the little girl who can’t wait to get out into life. The Wolf is the worldly guy, interesting and exciting. She’s excited and scared by him. Temptation plays a big role in this story.”Post lightens the story with a fast pace, a sense of humor, innovative designs and a host of animal friends who come to Little Red’s rescue. But working with fairy tales, she knows, means getting into some serious territory.”They’re horrifying, really,” she said. “The Grimm Brothers – that names makes sense. They are grim. Fairy tales are metaphors. They’re about the human condition, and relationships.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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