Theatrical Departures

While Chamber Music Plus branches into jazz, Arizona Onstage goes mainstream in a big way

Two local theater producers are thinking big this weekend.

Arizona Onstage Productions, which usually presents offbeat shows in small venues, is moving into the Temple of Music and Art this weekend and next for its most extravagant (and mainstream) production to date, The Full Monty. Meanwhile, Chamber Music Plus Southwest is cramming two different shows into a single weekend. One, with live classical music, has Sharon Gless (of Queer as Folk and Cagney & Lacey) narrating an imagined correspondence between poet Emily Dickinson and "Swedish Nightingale" Jenny Lind; the other, with an original jazz score by Avery Sharpe, presents Jasmine Guy (A Different World, Dead Like Me, many Broadway shows) in Raisin' Cane: A Harlem Renaissance Odyssey.

The Chamber Music Plus shows were written, as always, by cellist Harry Clark, who will play short classical items with his wife, pianist Sanda Schuldmann, through the course of the Dickinson/Lind program, called Patience for the Harvest.

"It's an imagined meeting and then many years' correspondence between Jenny Lind and Emily Dickinson," Clark explains. "The Dickinsons did hear Jenny Lind when she did her barnstorming tour of America in the early 1850s, when P.T. Barnum brought her over. That tour was really the start of celebrity culture. Her invasion was every bit as hysterical and newsworthy--and not newsworthy--as the Beatles', and there were no salaries equivalent to what she got for any artists for 50 years afterward. She raked in the money." Barnum paid her $1,000 per performance, equivalent to more than $22,000 a night in today's dollars.

"So here's Jenny Lind, a classical soprano, who was then the most famous artist in the world but is now kind of a footnote in history, and Emily Dickinson, a poet who was working in total obscurity but is now iconic. I thought that pairing would be interesting, to see what they had in common, and done in letters, the way Emily loved to communicate best."

This is very much business as usual for Chamber Music Plus, but the other show is a departure: It weaves not classical music through the spoken text, but a jazz score by bassist composer Avery Sharpe, who had already written four "classical jazz" pieces for Clark and Schuldmann to play in recitals. Sharpe will perform his music with violinist John Blake Jr. and percussionist Kevin Sharpe, Avery's brother.

The text, delivered by Guy, explores the Harlem Renaissance, that great flowering of African-American arts in the 1920s and early '30s. There rose the Apollo Theater, the next stop for this show (which is being directed by Dan Guerrero, Lalo's son). The movement also vibrated with the sounds of the Cotton Club, the poetry of Langston Hughes and the novels of Zora Neale Hurston. The play's title refers to Cane, a Modernist collection of Africa-American narratives by Jean Toomer.

Clark describes the figure played by Guy as "a conduit floating in and out of telling us about the historical Harlem Renaissance from W.E.B. Du Bois on, and going through some of the great poetry and prose of the period, with a taste of the political and literary thought. ... It's a fairly virtuoso part, because Jasmine has to go back and forth between a lot of different characters pretty quickly; she probably inhabits about 20 different characters."

Tucson filmmaker Bill Kersey has created a visual component for the show, with images of the main characters, several of the key painters of the period, Harlem itself and much more. Clark says Raisin' Cane is suitable for kids, from junior high up.

Not so Arizona Onstage's latest production, The Full Monty. In it, six unemployed Buffalo steelworkers (this is the Americanized stage version of the 1997 British film) are on the brink of financial and personal failure. In desperation, they decide to raise money by putting on a strip show, after seeing their wives' enthusiastic reception of a touring Chippendales-like show.

The only problem: The guys can't really sing or dance or move in any interesting way, and they look really bad in G-strings. They know the only way they'll lure an audience is to take it all off--show the full monty.

It's a big show with a full band and big cast in a 640-seat theater, quite a risk for the scrappy little company. Yet Arizona Onstage's director, Kevin Johnson, regards it as one of his safer productions because of its high name recognition. If this pulls in an audience, it will help fund the edgier small shows for which this company is respected.

It's not just the full-frontal flash at the end that has led Johnson to slap an R rating on his own production. The script and lyrics, by Terrence McNally and David Yazbek, are full of the sort of language you'd expect from Buffalo steelworkers (and their wives).

Johnson points out, though, that The Full Monty doesn't indulge in rawness for its own sake. "When you first mention the show," he says, "all everybody thinks about is guys taking their clothes off. But really it's about people proving their self-worth to their families and themselves, proving that they can do something that at one time they thought was unthinkable. There's a lot of pride involved. And it's about six guys of every body type and age who become bonded as friends, and who work together to make sure one of them doesn't lose visitation rights with his son. There's a sweet family message in it.

"It's not just about them taking off their clothes at the end; it's about what leads to that, and what people do to make ends meet and keep their dignity and their humor."