Monday, July 6, 2020

Time and Place: Tonight with Belafonte, The Mikado, And So We Come Forth

Harry Belafonte in Tonight with Belafonte (1959).

A friend who was trolling through YouTube this week came across something truly extraordinary: Tonight with Belafonte, an hour-long “special” (as they used to be called) from 1959 directed by Norman Jewison – who went on to make Fiddler on the Roof, among many other movies – and starring Harry Belafonte and Odetta. The Jamaican-American Belafonte was at the peak of his popularity: when I was a Montreal kid in the fifties, every family I knew stocked his albums, his rendition of “The Banana Boat Song” was a big hit, and he even made a pass at a movie career, though it didn’t pan out for him as it did for his buddy Sidney Poitier. (Belafonte made only a handful of movies, including Otto Preminger’s adaptation of Carmen Jones, Oscar Hammerstein’s Americanized version of the Bizet opera.) Staggeringly handsome and sexy – he had caramel skin and a taut, high-waisted frame – with a warm, dynamic presence and a magnificent vocal instrument, he was most famous for popularizing calypso in North America. But as charming as those sides were, I think he was at his best with ballads (like my childhood favorite “Scarlet Ribbons”), which he rendered with a focused emotional intensity that lit them up. Odetta was a folksinger with a deep contralto whose fame was eclipsed by the movement of folk to rock ‘n’ roll, but she had one of the great soulful voices of the twentieth century, phrasing of diamond-like purity and precision and a powerhouse delivery. (Think Ethel Waters, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone.)

Both she and Belafonte were Civil Rights activists, and Tonight with Belafonte is all about the legacy of black America, though Belafonte’s introductions don’t include a single didactic line. The song list includes spirituals, chain-gang laments, slave songs, children’s nonsense numbers written by Leadbelly, even a setting of a succinct poem by Langston Hughes. The sections are bridged by incandescent portraits of African American subjects by Charles White. Toward the end of the hour Arthur Mitchell, the pioneering black dancer whom Balanchine worked with at the New York City Ballet in the fifties and sixties and who went on to found the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Mary Hinkson (who danced with Martha Graham) perform an electric pas de deux in silhouette. (Walter Nicks choreographed the program.) The legendary blues musicians Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee show up in one number. The Belafonte Folk Singers, who back the two stars, and the ensemble dancers are an even blend of black and white women and men. The children, too, who perform one tune with Belafonte, one with Odetta, are a completely mixed crew. Watching Tonight with Belafonte now, you feel like time has been scrambled: could this thing really have been aired more than six decades ago? The only element that isn’t in sync is the two glamor-puss Revlon commercials that bookend the show.

Jewison has directed with tremendous simplicity, showcasing the singers and dancers and the beautiful production elements. Gary Smith’s soundstage sets, lit by Stan Alper, are exquisitely stylized, especially an expressionistic wooden representation of a church that frames back-to-back renditions of “My Lord, What a Morning” (helmed by Belafonte) and “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho (led by Odetta). The musical performances, one after another, are thrilling – “Sylvie,” “Water Boy,” “John Henry,” “When I Lay My Burden Down,” “Great Day in the Mornin’.” Belafonte won an Emmy for the show; it should have made history.

Fiona Canfield, Mary Bevan and Rachael Lloyd in The Mikado. (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

On YouTube, that indispensable boon to lovers of the arts, you can also see the 2015 revival of the English National Opera’s The Mikado, which Jonathan Miller originally staged in 1986 and which has been an ENO perennial ever since. (Elaine Tyler-Hall remounted this most recent go-round.) The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan’s most sublime collaboration, premiered in 1885 – Mike Leigh’s inspiriting 1999 film Topsy-Turvy, my personal favorite of all of his movies, chronicles the creation of the original production – but these days it poses challenges for companies that want to mount it because of the burlesque version of Japanese culture. These objections miss the point: The Mikado is a send-up of the British, not of the Japanese. But as it happens, Miller’s concept eliminates the controversy by going straight to the source of the comedy. It’s set in England in the 1920s – Stefanos Lazaridis’s set is a ticklish replica of the lobby of the Savoy Hotel, attached to the Savoy Theatre, where the D’Oyly Carte Company staged the G&S operettas in the late nineteenth century – and everyone on stage looks English. Miller’s staging and especially Anthony van Laast’s choreography (reproduced by Carol Grant) suggest a pre-Show Boat Broadway musical comedy, like one of the Princess Theatre shows that Jerome Kern, P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton put together. During the first- and second-act finales, the bellboys and chambermaids break into a tap dance. This is the most joyous Mikado I’ve ever seen.

Jay O. Sanders and Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy, Stephen Kunken and Laila Robins in And So We Come Forth.

That playwriting machine Richard Nelson, who has directed all his own recent work, has hardly been sidelined by the pandemic. He’s added new chapters to his Apple Family series and The Public Theatre has been streaming them via Zoom. The idea of the plays – initially a tetralogy written between 2010 and 2013 consisting of That Hopey Changey Thing, Sweet and Sad, Sorry and Regular Singing – is that they’re set and were performed at significant moments in contemporary American life (the 2010 midterm elections, the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the 2012 presidential election, the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination). Nelson’s addenda to the series, What Do We Need to Talk About? and the new And So We Come Forth, dramatize Zoom get-togethers among the main characters, the four Apple siblings, all of whom live in Rhinebeck, New York, in the Hudson River Valley. They are Richard (Jay O. Sanders), a lawyer working for Governor Cuomo’s administration; Barbara (Maryann Plunkett) and Marian (Laila Robins), both schoolteachers; and Jane (Sally Murphy), who relocated from Manhattan between the third and fourth plays with her partner Tim (Stephen Kunken), an actor-turned-restauranteur. (At that point Murphy and Kunken replaced the original Jane and Tim, J. Smith-Cameron and Shuler Hensley.) I wasn’t convinced by What Do We Need to Talk About? that Nelson had managed to make the transition from live performance to Zoom work, but in And So We Come Forth he has done so with a vengeance. I found the play moving and finally devastating. Among the small cast Sanders and Robins are standouts; both deepen what were already substantial résumés.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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