Daily Archives: July 10, 2016

Flynn Brings Warmth and Humor to the Haunting Confessions of “Blessed Assurance”

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Forty years after getting free of a dirty business, Jerry still feels irrevocably soiled by the experience. Allan Gurganus’ 1991 Blessed Assurance, a novella adapted for the stage by Steve Willis, is a study of regret – and the lessons and wisdom that are its residue. Settling into an easy chair with a cup of tea at his beach house near the Outer Banks, Jerry tells us right from the start what is eating at him, robbing him of sleep as he nears 60 years of age: “I sold funeral insurance to North Carolina black people.” Jerry explains the huge cultural importance that African Americans attach to their funerals. The reasons he gives for taking the job explain why he empathizes with the people he is victimizing. He was raised in poverty in Falls, North Carolina, under the white fluffy clouds emitted by the nearby cotton mill, and his job as an insurance salesman was his ticket to a better life, helping to support his family – Dad is already afflicted with brown lung from constantly inhaling the fibers – and paying for his education. Delivered as a one-man show by actor James K. Flynn under the direction of Starving Artist Productions‘ founder Nathan Rouse, the stage version of Blessed Assurance became very much a narrative as Jerry’s confession proceeded, with some subtle literary qualities tying it together.

Pre-eminent among these is the title, familiar enough as a hymn at Gastonia’s First United Methodist Church Theatre, where this touring production is now being staged. Gurganus doesn’t drop the hymn into Jerry’s narrative until he reaches the denouement. Then it’s a bombshell, sparking Jerry to an irrational fever of self-loathing and penitence. Before then, “assurance” is the fractured way that Jerry’s black clients in Baby Africa pronounce insurance. My years as a social worker in African American homes down in Columbia, South Carolina, 30 years after the 1947-48 events that Jerry recalls, confirm not only the continued importance of funeral insurance in the community but also the pronunciation, though I recall “insurance” – the first syllable restored with a vengeance – as equally popular.

But to Vesta Lotte Battle, the most memorable of Jerry’s clientele, what he sold was “assurance.” There was nothing fraudulent about the Windlass Insurance policies, but the terms were grim for an impoverished community: miss two consecutive Saturday payments and you not only forfeit the benefits of this policy, you also forfeit all previous policies that you may have paid off in full. Selling this kind of product is not a suitable job for a man saddled with a conscience, and Jerry’s boss at Windlass tells him as much when he hires him. Switching to his boss Sam’s voice, Jerry recites the insidious words he must live by, “The minute they smell heart on you, Jer, you’re down the toilet.”

It’s a gradual, entertaining, and ultimately harrowing flush as Jerry continues to make his Saturday rounds. A freed slave from the Civil War pushing 90, Vesta has sunk enough money, quarter by quarter, to hire the Duke Ellington Band, the Goodyear blimp, and maybe Eleanor Roosevelt to brighten up her funeral. Jerry sees that and tells her so, but when Vesta can’t keep up with her payments, he starts covering for her delinquencies. It’s not only that he feels sorry for Vesta; he comes to cherish her company. We eventually may realize, with more subtlety, that it’s entirely possible that Jerry’s enjoyment of tea originated in Vesta’s humble home. Showing his heart puts Jerry in an excruciating moral dilemma. The money he’s advancing to Vesta – and numerous other impoverished residents of Baby Africa – is coming at the expense of his wheezing parents and his own educational advancement. Sam, not at all a heartless monster, notices how preternaturally careworn his star 19-year-old salesman has grown.

Flynn turned in a performance that was, by turns, warm, gripping, and funny. Willis’ script is nicely balanced for a one-man show, its two most memorable episodes enabling Flynn to establish contrasting moods. First comes the comedy, when Jerry’s ramshackle Nash breaks down during a heavy downpour. The whole destitute community seems to enjoy his misadventures as he tries fruitlessly to change his flat tire in the mud while fending off hordes of vicious stray dogs. Even more spellbinding is the scene in church, where Jerry, finally witnessing a black funeral, has his epiphany. Either one of these monologues raises Blessed Assurance above the ordinary one-man theatrical, but afterwards, there’s still a kicker held in reserve that may leave you gasping.

Andrew Lloyd in Oz? Impossorus!

Theater review: The Wizard of Oz

By Perry Tannenbaum

So the tandem of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber is on the prowl again. Back in 2011, they decided that the classic 1939 screen musical, The Wizard of Oz, could be freshened up, expanded, and made suitable for the London stage. Or by the looks of Robert Jones’s scenic and costume designs, maybe they thought they could repackage the old L. Frank Baum gem and transform it into a Wicked sequel. The show played the Palladium for just over a year-and-a-half, opened and closed with an all-Canadian cast in Toronto in 2013, and began a nine-month North American tour shortly afterwards.

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Now it’s nearing the end of another tour that began in Cleveland back in December. While the production and the whole idea of Webber and Rice mingling with Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg struck me as wild and daring, it’s obvious second thoughts about omissions from the original screenplay and score – not to mention the new songs – have long ago been struck from Lord Webber’s to-do list. And indeed, the current edition at Belk Theater this week is as polished as an emerald.

Yet the Arlen-Harburg “If I Were King of the Forest” is still missing. So it’s pure stubbornness or boneheadedness that accounts for the new creative team clinging – for five years! – to the notion that this wonderfully comical counterbalance to the wishful “Over the Rainbow” isn’t exponentially better than any of the songs they’ve replaced it with. Dear Andrew, if no one else has told you so, let me be the first.

The best of the new songs, “Bring Me the Broomstick,” gives Act 1 a thunderous ending. And the title character should get a song, don’t you think? Trouble is, the Wizard’s directive, sending Dorothy and friends off on their second quest after reaching Emerald City, occurs comparatively late in the movie, after all of its songs have been sung. There’s no remaining original material for Webber and Rice to use in weaving Act 2.

Of course, they write new songs, one of them for the Wicked Witch. The Green One’s “Red Shoes Blues” arguably contains Rice’s wittiest new lyrics, cementing my notion that we’relooking at the Witch through post-Wicked glasses. Similarly, a strain of bimbo conceit will be noticed in Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, replacing the saccharine fairy godmother hatched by MGM.
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The new stage script by Webber and Jeremy Sams contrives reprises of “Over the Rainbow” and “If I Only Had a Brain,” with Rice repurposing the latter as “If We Only Had a Plan” when Lion, Tin Man, and Scarecrow must fend for themselves. Once the Wicked Witch [spoiler alert] is melted, Webber resurrects a song that had been on the cutting room floor for over 70 years as the Witch’s liberated Winkies sing “Hail-Hail! The Witch Is Dead” – a bizarre but delightful production number with nightsticks – reusing the melody from the joyous “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead.”

A subtler leaning toward Wicked may be discerned in Sarah Lasko’s portrayal of Dorothy Gale, more of an adolescent malcontent and less of a pre-pubescent castaway. There’s more wanderlust mixed into the yearning of “Over the Rainbow,” more defiance and less pouting in her confrontations with Lion, Wizard, and the Wicked Witch. The hambone element is dialed down a notch or two in Mark A. Harmon’s portraits of Professor Marvel and The Wizard, both of whom get new songs, yet he’s vivid enough for us to instantly realize that he’s also the officious Gatekeeper when we first arrive in Oz.

I liked Webber’s impulses in gently enhancing the comedy from Scarecrow and Tin Man. Not only are crows unafraid of Adam Vanek as the Man of Straw, they form a puppet trio singing backup in his “If I Only Had a Brain.” Always the most pallid of Dorothy’s friends in the movie, Jay McGill gets to spout flame from Tin Man’s funnel hat and make a variety of rusty and tinny sounds as he moves.
Robbed of his signature song, Aaron Fried must content himself to be the least important musically of Dorothy’s friends as the Cowardly Lion, but he emerges nevertheless as the most potent comedy force. With less innocence and naïveté in the New Millennium Dorothy to hate, Shani Hadjian can’t be nearly as wicked as the Wicked Witch was in the film, but she sells her song, and she’s pretty damn nasty as the implacable Miss Gulch. It’s harder for Rachel Womble to layer on comical notes as Glinda, particularly since designer Jones dresses the Good Witch in glittery midnight blue. You’re asking for trouble when you tamper with Tinkerbell or the Good Witch.

Technically, this Wizard is as advanced as any touring shows we’ve seen. Wonders of the scenery include scrim-filling projections taking us inside the Kansas tornado, a plastic Munchkinland with more color than a bag of Skittles, a swiveling Yellow Brick Road, and an illuminated clock outside the Witch’s Castle that suddenly conveys the pleadings of Uncle Henry and Auntie Em – in quaint black and white – dissolving into the Witch’s diabolical mockery.

Maybe just a notch below what you might expect on Broadway. The stage extravaganza adds about 16 minutes of running time to the movie version, and despite some extra shenanigans from the Lion, I found myself surprisingly moved when Dorothy had to say goodbye to her pals. Webber makes it clearer, when Dorothy wakes up in Kansas, that she really didn’t say goodbye to those cherished friends – a consolation for 2016 audiences that wasn’t necessary in 1939. That’s a shame.