Speaking for Aspen’s trees " using ’20s-era dance
Aspen Times Weekly
ASPEN ” The voice of the environmental movement sounds a lot like Al Gore’s: serious and gloomy, always in lecturing mode. Ricki Smith Newman is about to give the eco-message a little of that ol’ razzle-dazzle.
Newman’s background is not in science classes, politics or street protests. As a child in Evansville, Ind., she was part of The Magical Tapical Smiths, a three-member family act that combined magic and dance in a Vaudevillian package, and brought it around to local Christmas parties and magic conventions. Smith brings that history to “Aspen’s Green Pickle,” an original, satirical song-and-dance show that the Hudson Reed Ensemble will debut at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 25 in the Rio Grande Commons Room of the former Youth Center building.
Newman, a dancer, dance teacher and choreographer, also relied on more recent history in creating the show. Last year she worked as a dance captain on Aspen Community Theatre’s production of “Chicago,” the choreography-heavy satirical musical set in the 1920s. The music seeped into her head, and came out of her with an environmental twist: “When You’re Good to Mama,” from “Chicago,” could easily be adapted as “When You’re Good to Mama Earth.” Newman was off and running. (Though not with ACT: She worries that, because of the “Chicago” connection, people will assume “Aspen’s Green Pickle” is an ACT production. It is not.)
“I was listening to a lot of Kander and Ebb,” Newman said, referring to the writing team behind “Chicago.” “I thought that could easily lend itself to what I wanted to say. I had done some environmental/theatrical things in Evansville. But I wanted to put it in the ’20-’30s era, Fosse-style dance, with satirical humor.” A more local influence was the Crystal Palace, the long-running Aspen dinner theater that closed last year. “I loved their style ” laughing but also thinking. I like the idea of learning through humor. But since I don’t write music, how could I write this? Maybe parodies ” I could fiddle with that.”
After “When You’re Good to Mama Earth” practically dropped into her lap, Newman worked over other Kander and Ebb songs. “All That Jazz” became “All That Cash”; “Mr. Cellophane” was turned into “Mr. Atmosphere.”
Newman did more than play with words; she also took some sharp angles, often with a distinctively Aspen perspective, on the adaptations. “All I Care About’s the View,” based on “All I Care About Is Love,” tells of a developer in front of Aspen’s City Council, pleading his case that he doesn’t care about profit: “He cares about building a nice little lodge that saves the view,” said Newman. “The Tree Talk Tango,” adapted from “The Cell Block Tango,” has six trees complaining about how they’ve been abused by human behavior. “Hook and Shnooker” (from “Razzle Dazzle”) is about the manipulation of scientific data.
The staging of this production of “Aspen’s Green Pickle” will be minimalist, with the actors singing to recorded instrumental tracks and dressed in theater black. An exception is the “Mama Earth” number, which will have Nina Gabianelli costumed in “snow-covered mountain boobs ” a comical Earth,” said Newman. The casting, however, is ambitious: In addition to Gabianelli, who has starred at the Crystal Palace and various ACT productions (including as Mary Sunshine in “Chicago”), the cast features prominent local performers Jayne Gottlieb, John Goss, Lee Sullivan, Krista Espelien, and Kerry Newman, Ricki’s husband. In between musical numbers, Kent Reed, artistic director of the Hudson Reed Ensemble, will read thematically relevant quotes from Teddy Roosevelt, Chief Seattle, George Carlin and Henry Thoreau.
While writing song parodies is new for Newman, the environmental message comes as naturally as tap-dancing. Her earth-conscious awakening came when she and her husband, a retired physician and occasional performer in community theater, attended several symposiums at John Denver’s Windstar Foundation in the ’90s.
“And that turned my life around,” said the 57-year-old Newman, who made notes for her songs while she walked her horse in Indiana, and who is a regular dog-walker at the Aspen Animal Shelter. “I became not just a fan [of Denver] but a student of his philosophy ” saving the environment, treating the earth and every living creature as important as we humans. That made my life.”
While the style of “Aspen’s Green Pickle” came out of Newman’s love for burlesque, the message behind the musical stems from a different sort of personal experience. The Newmans’ Aspen home is next door to the Limelight Lodge, and they spent several years attending city meetings, hoping to save some trees in the neighborhood, and then another few years in the midst of a construction zone, as the Limelight was turned from an old, modest inn into one of Aspen bigger hotels.
Through the magic of theater, Newman has turned any frustration into artistic expression and humor. Reimagining “The Cell Block Tango” as “The Tree Talk Tango,” goes a long way toward lightening up one’s angry rhetoric.
“I grew up with that whole broad, exaggerated humor,” said Newman, who has hopes to turn “Aspen’s Green Pickle” into a bigger production in the future. “So I love the ’20s and ’30s, that era. You can still learn from that. You don’t have to be so serious.”
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