Remember about three and a half years ago, when Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines set off that big media uproar and near-riotous backlash from all those country fans? It started when the American military had pretty much leveled Afghanistan's Taliban regime and was gearing up for its incursion into Iraq. A prickly Maines let fly with 15 fateful words that would send Chicks CD sales into the loo, a wave of irate country freaks onto their favorite telephone talk shows and an army of program directors scrambling to ban Chicks fare amid hysterical demand.
"Just so you know," Maines snorted at a London concert, "we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." (The group is out of Dallas.)
If Lamb's Players Theatre ever sets the 21st century to music, it'll be sadly remiss if it neglects that hot little installment. But with American Rhythm, a summer entry that finds the Coronado-based company at the Lyceum downtown, Lamb's is already showing its naïveté. While it seeks through music to chart the events that shaped the country's last century, it struggles in its efforts to flesh out the substantive material. The singers/dancers are attractive and eager to please, and the musicians adapt well to the genres, which range from ragtime to rock. But in the end, the patchwork that holds this show together is worn away in many crucial spots. If it were a head of hair, you couldn't tell it apart from that of the hapless publicist saddled with damage control on Maines' behalf.
Kerry Meads and Vanda Eggington's book has its moments, at least as it gives good narrative time to the expected events (the advent of radio, the two world wars, Vietnam, the so-called Summer of Love, the first manned moon landing, yada-yada). Pamela Turner's choreography is appropriate to the occasion ("Alexander's Ragtime Band" is excellently staged, even though the song's always sucked as an example of authentic ragtime), and Tracy Hughes is assured in a number of roles.
But Meads' main Achilles' heel-lack of due diligence-undercuts a lot of the good logistics. The year 1939 as part of the Great Depression, even as the workforce headed back to the job amid (at least for the moment) a fading war scare? The nation's chasmic sorrow following the Kennedy and King assassinations, and nary a word about the economic boom that framed the irony behind the violence? The fall of the Berlin Wall, and nothing on Ronald Reagan's chastisement of the "evil empire" that was the Soviet Union? Without such nuances, this show looks and feels under-informed about the eras it portrays. And as we lose historical interest, the music becomes anticlimactic and misplaced. Why, for example, does director Meads wait until nearly the '90s to reference Bruce Springsteen, who was busy rocking the universe more than a decade before?
I think the whole thing would have been better off anecdotally, with a central figure or two set in the present day (or maybe even in death) and taking in all that's gone before. That frees you from the calendar's constraints in favor of the human activity the calendar reflects. Good historical revues, after all, are potentially a dime a dozen. Exploration of the lives inside those stories eventually wrests miracles like Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, always and forever the most absolutely magnificent revue ever conceived. By comparison, American Rhythm is merely alive-and for the most part, it's not really all that well.
This review is based on the matinee performance of July 15. American Rhythm runs through Aug. 13 at the Lyceum, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown. $26-$46. 619-437-0600.
According to plan
So I'm sitting there watching the opening-night performance of Othello, second of three Shakespeare entries running in repertory at The Old Globe Theatre through the summer. Just as the title character (Jonathan Peck) is working up the cojones to smoke his wife Desdemona (Julie Jesneck), two cell phones go off in back of me, neither more than four feet away and both less than a minute apart. The Chia Pets who own 'em deserve Dez's fate and worse-but at the same time, their forgetfulness amounted to some unwitting commentary on an entry that barely qualifies as theater.
Just as those two couldn't have planned the accident with any more effectiveness, this show is unerringly anal in its comportment. You can almost see the directional arrows and numbered footprints onstage, a product of complacency and safety as the tragic Moor of Venice exacts vengeance for an adultery Desdemona didn't commit. For a myth-size play regarded as a statement on the fall of man, this Othello is scared of its own shadow. There's a lot of growling and groveling and jockeying and shouting and screaming and crying. Peck's vocal treatment dazzles. Jesneck's Desdemona is nicely unassuming. And never-not once-does Jesse Berger's direction even remotely inspire.
Othello runs through Oct. 1 at the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park. $19-$59. 619-23-GLOBE.
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