Thursday, April 24, 2014

It’s Play Time, or Stages of Growth

My daughter was in her first stage play recently, Guys and Dolls Jr..  At the fifth to eighth grade level, all the plays are “Junior.”    They shrink the scope and length down to allow for a middle school budget and staging.  It is also to prevent middle school actors from passing out before the intermission. The younger version expands the size of any chorus group (Hot Box Girls, Crapshooters and Tourists in this case) to allow anyone interested to learn the ropes of performing.

I didn’t know anything about the play. Basically, it’s a double anti-Grease.  The two couples progress through the story with the women lamenting over their “bad boy” men. However, unlike Grease it is the men who change their lives and cleanup their acts for the ladies.  Yet, this play is nowhere near as popular with the female set as the story of Sandy completely transforming herself for the likes of Vinnie Babarino.

Women are weird.

It turned out to be a useful educational experience as the script came with a glossary.  Just what every ten year old needs, to be fluent in depression era gambler slang.

My old high school was doing the full version of it, and my daughter wanted to go because a couple of senior troupe members from the Moving Company were Hot Box Girls like she was.  Considering we’d only seen them as graceful and focused dancers, it was quite a shock to learn what excellent comic timing they had.  Their reactions to Sister Sarah’s speech, and many other moments had us in stiches.  It also takes massive amounts of dancing talent to be able to perform awkwardly that well for “Bushel and a Peck,” then switch gears to show their true talent in the Havana number, and finally display an artificial version of the class and artistry they really possessed in “Take Back the Mink.”

We ended up putting the Soundtrack on our driving playlist after that. There’s some weird block in my brain about theater music.  I’ve yet to hear the songs from a successful show and not like them, but I am incapable of listening to them in the car until I’ve actually seen it performed.  There must be some visual-auditory cross wiring in my head.

I’m very glad I took her to the full version. This was partially because of the amazing quality of the show. The two female leads had professional experience, and all the other performers were top notch. The school also brought in pro musicians and the scenery, staging and technical aspects were excellent as well.

A more important reason was that it helped Guys and Dolls Junior to make sense. 

Some of the songs and dialogue cut from the middle school version were needed for punch lines that stayed in.

I still haven’t figured out what were the criteria for removal.  Leaving the whiskey verse out of “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” would have made a great deal more sense if the mention and effects of Bacardi before and during “If I Were a Bell” weren’t still there.

Likewise, I understood the complete omission of the suggestive “Take Back the Mink.”  Then again the whole “Hot Box” thing was still prominent. 

In addition, Big Jule was obviously scripted and directed for the generation of maximum subversive giggles by constantly interrupting with, “Let’s shoot CRAAAP!”   In a brilliant casting move, Big Jule was portrayed by a gravelly voiced lad a good head shorter than everyone else on stage, enhancing the comedy moments.

The rest of the cast ranged from “better than expected for middle school” to “no one that young should have that commanding of a stage presence!” 

For obvious parental reasons, we went to all three showings of the spring musical over the weekend.  Any long running play slowly morphs over time as performers find ad libs that work, drop bits that don’t and hone the timing based on audience reaction.  With such a short run time, I was amazed to see how well the kids adjusted from one performance to the next.  No amount of rehearsal can substitute for true audience reaction.  Within the weekend, subtle changes were made that enhanced the gags, and emotional content of the show.

I was proud to see my daughter even though she was one of a crowd, be one of the actors that figured things out through the performances.  Opening night, she had her focused dance recital face on most of the time, but transitioned more into a “Disney face” as the weekend passed.  The biggest changes came in the Café Cubana: 

The first night, she brought up the end of the conga line, and passed unceremoniously off stage.
Saturday night, she timed a little back leg kick right before she stepped out of sight.
On Sunday’s matinee performance, she looked over her shoulder and whipped a smart aleck grin at the audience with the kick, generating a crowd full of laughter and applause.

The showmanship of the whole cast was all the more impressive considering they put the entire thing together in only five weeks.  I complemented the director from Pushcart Players on this feat, and he clutched the nearby soundboard and his chest, swayed and gasped while crossing his eyes, “Was that all?” 

Yes, he was awesome.

I also thanked him profusely for making my daughter’s first experience on stage make her desire to have additional experiences, which is the best thing anyone can ask from a Middle School Show.

Her getting to interact with and form new connections with this group of talented schoolmates as her horizons expanded made me completely ignore the fact that her stage debut was, for all intents and purposes, as a stripper.

Oh look, there goes some more of my hair falling out.

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