Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Gramercy Park and Flahooley

Last night, for the first time, I finally made it to the annual caroling in Gramercy Park. It’s the one day of the year when anyone may enter the park, otherwise locked and reserved to the neighbors. It's a New York place and I've always wanted to go there, but I could never quite manage to be there for the Christmas Eve caroling. This is the more absurd as the event is managed out of Calvary Church (on Madison Avenue nearby) and I used to know the guys who ran the music there pretty well (the late Calvin Hampton; Harry Huff, now of Harvard). But the weather was sometimes against it or I had tickets or I forgot about it. This year the weather was fine, snow mostly cleared from the streets, thirty degrees F, so biking was easy. I biked by at four and passed the folks setting up; they told me to return at six. But at five-thirty the Anvil fell - as I call it - and I could do nothing but nap. At six, I was awake, and a-bike, and up to 22nd Street.


The carols were sung into microphones, which I detest, accompanied by tinny electric pianos, and they were out of hot cider, and I just looked at the statue of Edwin Booth (as Hamlet, I think), and we both rolled our eyes, and I left. (Poor Edwin was stuck there.) The great tragedy is that the little kids loving the occasion (“It’s the perfect Christmas Eve!” I heard parents exult) will grow up with no idea that Christmas caroling ever did not include microphones and tinny electric pianos – the same way a hundred years ago (or whenever) people sighed that youngsters would never be able to imagine Christmas without electric lights on the tree. What a cheap business. Glad I won't have to do it ever again.

I can only stand Christmas music when it is sung by amateur voices without amplification or accompaniment at my window in the snow. As I live on the sixth floor, I'm pretty safe even from that. I avoid stores or diners at this time of year, and at Dan's party last week, I made him take the carols off the CD player (sung by Clay Aiken, who does have a pretty voice), and I was less than thrilled to hear the Bob Dylan Christmas album somewhere or other recently. (At first I thought it was someone imitating Dylan, and thought it pretty funny.)

... but the whole Gramercy occasion in turn made me think of my mother singing Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill’s “The Saga of Jenny”:

Jenny made her mind up when she was three
She herself was going to trim the Christmas tree.
Christmas Eve she lit the candles - threw the taper away –
Little Jenny was an orphan on Christmas Day.

Poor Jenny!
Bright as a penny.
Her equal would be hard to find.
She lost her dad and mother,
A sister and a brother,
But she would make up her mind!

- which I am thinking of now (in Mum's voice) as I may indeed be an orphan later today, and before New Year almost certainly, though she does keep rallying, I don't know why. This morning she was mildly demented, wishing me happy birthday (it's in August). She's an hour out of town. It would be nice to drop in for five minutes and pay her bills, but that's four hours out of the day. I am trying not to be frantic.

After the carols, detours for a lousy cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee and a haircut (barber named Jacob, "Where are you from?" "Where do you think?" "Uzbekistan?" I suggested. "How did you know?" "Tashkent?" "No, Samarkand." So I have a haircut from Samarkand! No sky-blue tiles: I got it buzzed very short, so I can maybe shave it all off. A suitable mourning gesture, eh?

From the haircut, I went to Theater for the New City on First Avenue at 10th Street, where Harlem Repertory Theater is performing (through January 3rd) the preposterous 1951 musical, Flahooley, renowned as Barbara Cook’s first show (and only teaming with Yma Sumac), and generally considered unrevivable. It's a Christmas fable ("Not believe in Saint Nicholas? Ridicholas" - welcome to Yip Harburg-land): A monstrous toymaker (B.G. Bigelow) is hoping to corner Christmas, but his rivals, A.E.I.O.U. and Sometimes Y and W Schwartz, have undersold him. Happily, someone rubs a lamp, brought by a Middle Eastern potentate in crisis ("The Soviets are moving mountains without Mohammed") and a genial Genii named Abou appears. (“Imagine! A genii with claustrophobia!”) And the local puppetmaker ("You Too Can Be a Puppet") hopes to win a promotion and the girl of his dreams (Barbara's role) by inventing Flahooley, a doll that screams "Dirty Red!" whenever anyone says something subversive. All very silly, some charming songs, some amazing performers.

With a great deal of help from multimedia (puppets, marionettes, projections, cartoons, films, puppets playing people, people playing marionettes) but no microphones at all, ten performers - nine of them splendid - put this show on with a straight face, at such a breakneck pace (90 minutes) that you had no time to notice the plot didn't make much sense. Lots of jokes about fascist Americanism creeping into our free society that haven't aged at all. Business is bad and fantasy is good, and that was all Yip Harburg needed. The tunes by Sammy Fain are Grade B for 1951, which means they'd be A++ on Broadway now. The lyrics keep tickling and re-tickling, and reprises are good because it's a second chance to get the rapid-fire puns and plays on words. Perhaps best of all, they didn't cut all of Yma Sumac's unsingable material - they just kept Yma Sumac! A girl in veils wiggles her hips and pretends to yodel, and Yma is on the soundtrack. Otherwise, accompaniment was a nifty little combo (no electronics!). A little social message, yes, but otherwise just a pack-up-your-troubles zany evening of the sort Broadway hasn't known in fifty years, Off-Broadway in thirty.

Among the performers I was particularly delighted by Alexandra Bernard, an amazing singer and actress, as a vicious secretary and, later, a vamp Flahooley; and by Primy Rivera's delicious camp turn as Abou the Genii (who gets to sing

"The Springtime Cometh,
hummingbird hummeth,
sugarplum plummeth,
it humpty-dummeth,
and to summeth up
the springtime cometh for the love of thee! ...
Lad and lass
in tall green grass
gaily skippeth,
nylon rippeth,
zipper zippeth..."),

- anyone who has seen Finian's Rainbow lately knows what to expect - and everyone in New York should run to see it -

also, John Wiethorn and Natalia Peguero, charming as the lovers, and Daniel Fergus Tamulonis as B.G. Bigelow, the practical joker as dictator - it was evidently Tamulonis who designed the many sorts of wacky puppet presences in the story, though these included some manipulation (in a trial sequence sending up the HUAC hearings) in the manner of Avenue Q. There was just a little dancing, impressive considering the cramped space. The only weak spot was Yip Harburg's grandson Ben, who played a puppet and sang so badly it was hard to say if he or the part was more wooden.

And all this was only $18!

After that I went to Ty’s (my local), which was mostly empty (it got fuller later), and met a couple of guys who were into opera and musicals, and we talked about those for a couple of hours. A perfect ending for the night, eh?


Anonymous said...

E.Y. Harburg's grandson, Ben, plays Clyde, lending a distinctive and sunny presence to two of the show's best songs, "You Too Can Be a Puppet" and "The World Is Your Balloon."
Martin Denton
That's the universal reaction of audiences and critics.
Do you have ears?

Brightshadow said...

It wasn't my critical reaction. I didn't even realize those were good songs till I went home and played the OBC. All the other performers were professional; Harburg was way out of his depth.