A Streetcar Named Striptease Rides Through ‘The Tennessee Tease’

Tennessee Tease...

There’s no denying how hot it’s been around these parts all summer long. Overcast days and random spits of rain have done little to stave off the beads of perspiration popping from the brows of even the most composed Seattleites. And there have been days where the humidity’s been, well, pretty oppressive by our temperate standards.

It’s a condition that’s pretty novel for Northwesterners, but it’s a state of physical and emotional being that feeds, and feeds off of, the works of Tennessee Williams. If the collective oeuvre of twentieth century American theater’s most iconic playwright possessed a physical body, its garments would be clinging to it in a hothouse-summer-induced sweat.

That environment would seem a fertile clime for the bump and grind of burlesque performance, and the folks putting on Tennessee Tease (opening at the Theatre Off Jackson tonight) know it.

Co-produced by Sailor St. Claire (a key mover at Sinner Saint Burlesque company) and writer/choreographer/burlesque performer Fosse Jack, Tennessee Tease promises a genuine narrative in which Williams’ memoirs are wedded with burlesque enactments depicting his indelible fictional characters, his real-life friends and loved ones, and his lovers. Sinner Saint’s presentation from last year, Inheritance: Maiden, Mother, Crone, impressed our own Chris Burlingame greatly, and like that work Tennessee Tease is aiming for something more ambitious than your typical burlesque revue. And there’s no denying that the tensions and passions threaded throughout Williams’ writing and private life will provide ample fodder.

Several established local burlesque performers and actors will join St. Claire and Jack onstage, including drag king Al LykyaDiva le Deviant, Jesse Bell-Jones, and legendary Seattle-based ecdysiast Eartha Quake. The jury’s still out, however, as to whether or not TOJ will be providing bourbon, mint juleps, silk kerchiefs for mopping sweaty brows, and/or handheld fans.

Tennessee Tease plays at TOJ August 13 through 15 at 8:00 p.m (doors at 7:30). Tickets, $20, can be purchased here.

Seattle Opera’s Full-Throated ‘Nabucco’ Powers Past its Awkward Staging

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Verdi’s Nabucco opened last Saturday night at McCaw Hall, with the run continuing through August 22; it will be broadcast live next Saturday evening, August 15, on KING-FM. A smash hit when it was first presented in 1842, it still has that power, which one experiences most strongly in the music in Seattle Opera’s production. The singing is magnificent from everybody, chorus included.

The opera, Verdi’s first major success at age 29, is dominated by the role of Abigaille, which has in the past been considered a voice killer. It has to be sung with ferocious and acrobatic intensity most of the time, but includes a few tender moments as well. Seattle Opera’s former general director Speight Jenkins heard Mary Elizabeth Williams sing it and determined to bring her here to repeat the role. She has performed it all over Europe and it’s good to report that it has not destroyed her voice. Soprano Williams was a Young Artist here in 2000-01 and has gone from strength to strength. She was superb and terrifying as Abigaille, despite a tendency to be a hair under the note on her top Cs. Her acting was splendid and menacing, and in her gentler moments she sounded exquisite.

Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, making his debut here as Zaccaria, sang with deep well-cored, authoritative richness, a foil to Nabucco, sung by baritone Gordon Hawkins. To begin with Hawkins sounded a little as though he was losing his core, but the voice tightened up and he gave a memorable performance, particularly as a weakened fuzzy-minded old man. Young mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Fenena, new here, has a truly beautiful voice with depth and nuance. She will surely be back, while tenor Russell Thomas, another Young Artist graduate, singing Ismaele, is another it will be a pleasure to hear again. In short, every voice was a joy to hear.

The story, with a libretto by Temistocle Solera, is a highly imaginative, emotionally extreme version of the biblical story of Jerusalem’s sack by Nebuchadnezzar, and the subsequent exile of the Hebrews to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar (or Nabucco, as he is called here) takes both his daughters to war with him. One, gentle Fenena, is captured by the Hebrews, only to be freed by her Hebrew lover, Ismaele, negating her hostage value. The other, Abigaille, is consumed by ambition, frustration (she wants Ismaele), and rage against anything in her way, including her father. In Babylon, Nabucco pronounces himself a god and demands worship. The Hebrew god smites him with lightning (a startling lighting moment), he goes mad and weak, and Abigaille seizes the moment to grab the crown, ordering the death of all the Hebrews, including Fenena who has embraced the Hebrew god. They are all about to be slaughtered when Nabucco renounces Baal, embraces the Hebrew god, regains his strength, and cancels the slaughter. Abigaille takes poison and dies in remorse.

In an unusual format, the orchestra spans the middle of the McCaw Hall stage, with the proscenium pushed out over the pit, no doubt with the intention of bringing the major protagonists closer to the audience, thus making the experience more intimate. This extra 20 feet or so may have worked for those in the front half of the orchestra stalls, but didn’t make much difference for those further back, and the division of the stage and visibility of the orchestra made for awkward moments and stilted staging. It didn’t, however, affect vocal or orchestral sound.

In all but one chorus, the Hebrews and Babylonian soldiers stay in the back part of the stage, behind the orchestra. There are only two ways for them to move, left and right, so when the soldiers attack and one would expect the Hebrews to scatter every which way, they can’t. When the Hebrew high priest, Zaccaria, exhorts and comforts them, he is facing the audience from the front of the stage and his flock is behind him. There are several moments like this which don’t feel natural in this staging by François Racine.

Perhaps because of the narrowed front stage, movement around tended to be more static than we usually see here, even when the chorus came on in front to sing the famous “Va pensiero.” Trained by John Keene, it outdid itself and received prolonged applause. However it was jolting to see conductor Carlo Montanero applauding them also from his podium. Montanero paced the performance deftly, keeping the orchestra well balanced with the singers, surely not an easy job with the unusual positioning.

The backdrop sets of Jerusalem and Babylon are abstract, changing video projections by principal designer Robert Bonniol. One vaguely suggests the temple and its destruction, but with a dead horse head and neck in the middle, which seemed mystifying until a couple of acts later when Nabucco mentions his horse. The most concrete are the famous hanging gardens of Babylon presented as plants in huge bubbles which descend from the flies. Mostly they are somewhat puzzling. Props are minimal, just one stool in one act, one large modern chair with side table in another.

With sumptuous blue and gold for the Babylonians, and simple red and brown for the Hebrews, Ginette Grenier’s costumes made welcome splashes of color.

Galacticon 4 Blasts into Seattle this Weekend

If you’re a sci-fi fan but were put off my the megalithic crowds that jammed into Emerald City Comicon earlier this year, Galacticon could be just the intergalactic ticket.

Beginning today and stretching through to Sunday, this fourth iteration of Galacticon includes luminaries from over 50 years of genre TV and film. The convention’s very much a grass-roots affair run by the Battlestar Galactica Fan Club and a ragtag volunteer team, but even with some guest cancellations and logistic hiccups,  it promises to be a great time for this ‘burg’s sizable geek contingent.

There’s a guest or panel to scratch almost every sci-fi or fantasy itch. Are you a boomer who grew up with the 1960s family space opera Lost in Space? Cast members Mark Goddard and Marta Kristen are in attendance. Couldn’t get enough of the kids-and-dinosaurs antics of the 1970s Saturday morning show Land of the Lost? Feel free to hang out with Kathy Coleman (pigtailed moppet Holly), Wesley Eure (earnest big brother Will), and Philip Paley (lovable missing link Chaka).

Come on. You know you're dying to hang out with this guy this weekend.
Come on. You know you’re dying to hang out with this guy this weekend.

True to its name, Galacticon’s also showcasing a strong contingent from both incarnations of Battlestar Galactica. Several actors from the 1970s original (Richard Hatch, Terry Carter, Anne Lockhart, Jack Stauffer, and Sarah Rush) are in town to reminisce and meet fans, while Leah Cairns (AKA the new Galactica‘s character, Racetrack) represents the new show’s contingent. The designers responsible for the immersive universe of the 2000s reboot will be also on hand to hang out and discuss creating a new Galactica for a modern audience.

There’s plenty more, too, including Jewel Staite–spunky mechanic Kaylee from the Joss Whedon cult hit Firefly–and Farscape‘s playful fan favorite Chiana (AKA actress Gigi Edgley). Plus Klingons, Borg, Mortal Kombat fighters, and more. All told, it’s a broad expanse of personalities from a lot of great science fiction.

Galacticon takes place in the open environs of Seattle Center, with panels and events taking place in the Center’s Armory as well as Marion Oliver McCaw Hall. Tickets are available at the door, or at the Galacticon website, here.

A Pleasing Pig Roast Dinner at Bell + Whete

Bell & Whete pig head For some, the sight of a pig head on a street corner causes trepidation. For me, it creates salivation.

To be fair, the pig head I saw at 2nd and Bell didn’t surprise me, as the restaurant on that very street corner had invited me in to try their weekly pig roast dinner platter. Each Sunday evening, Bell + Whete fires up the above ground Caja China (a coal-operated metal roasting box) around lunchtime to have a Heritage Meats pig ready for dinner service. They leave the pig head out on the box for giggles and gigs. (Bell + Whete can cater your home or office party in similar fashion.)

For $24 each, diners get a plate of mixed pulled pork meat, cracklings, citrus chili garlic drippings, a seasonal vegetable, a starch or grain side dish, and housemade bannock bread—which some use to make simulated tacos. On this particular day, the sides were a farro and lentil pilaf, Moroccan-spiced summer squash salad with yogurt, and a smear of harissa.

Pig roast platter (for two)
Pig roast platter (for two)

Personally, I’d prefer a sampling of different pig parts, but I understand that would create quite a logistical issue. The mixed pork was incredibly moist, such that the drippings weren’t necessary—but liquid pig only made dinner more decadent. The cracklings were terrific (especially if you break them into small pieces if you’re making the aforementioned “tacos”), and the Middle Eastern-influenced sides had nice flavors. Harissa’s always a winner for me.

Chilled Ocean Snacks
Chilled Ocean Snacks

Bell + Whete boasts a menu of 60 beers. I paired my pig with Backwoods’ Copperline Amber, though what I enjoyed even more was the Lagunitas CitruSinensis with its distinct blood orange flavor. I savored this while nibbling on an order of “Chilled Ocean Snacks.” At $28, the seafood comes in at a higher price than the pig platter, but with a pretty presentation, and the Kusshi oysters the king of this particular plate.

A Very Model of a ‘Pirates of Penzance’ from Seattle’s G & S Society

Seattle is fortunate to have one of the best Gilbert & Sullivan troupes around—and has had for the past 61 years. This year’s production of that perennial favorite, The Pirates of Penzance, opened Friday at the Bagley Wright Theatre for eleven performances (weekends through July 25th: tickets here). Although this is the ninth time the company has presented it (first in 1956), each production has new ideas and clever, imaginative touches while never adulterating the tried-and-true base of the original work.

This time it is as fresh as if they had never performed it before, and also shows a changing of the guard. There are new faces everywhere in this production. There is a noticeably younger generation on stage in roles both principal and chorus. Mike Storie has stepped down from producer (for the past 18 years) in favor of Kim Douglass (who worked with him, and whose title is now producing artistic director), Christopher Nardine has succeeded Christine Goff this year as stage director, and many of the singers are new to the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society. This is all as it should be and it is a pleasure to report that the true G & S spirit is unchanged and the production as lively, charming and fun as always, much as devotees may miss performers they’ve expected to see forever.

One unchanged old-timer, Dave Ross as the Major-General, has lost none of his inimitable ability to sing pattersong at warp speed while making most of it audible to the audience. His daughters, all 12 of them, are young, pretty, vivacious and good actors and singers, while the heroine, Shelly Traverse making her Society debut as Mabel, is as pert, cute, and feisty as she is intended to be and an excellent actress as well. To have one of her sisters be a bookworm is a delightful touch.

The Sergeant of Police (Michael Drumheller) goes night stick to cutlass as he attempts to arrest the Pirate King (Brian Pucheu) in the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s production of 'The Pirates of Penzance'. (Photo:  Patrick André)
The Sergeant of Police (Michael Drumheller) goes night stick to cutlass as he attempts to arrest the Pirate King (Brian Pucheu) in the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s production of ‘The Pirates of Penzance’. (Photo: Patrick André)

Derek Sellers as her swain Frederic is the right age and has the requisite agility as well as voice—this is an energetic production and all the males need to be able to leap up, over or around while singing. Many of the pirates are old-timers but have retained their energy while Pirate King Brian Pucheu, another Society newcomer, leaps highest of all and wields a mean sword he doesn’t hesitate to draw.

One of the delights is Erin Wise as the rough-and-ready nursemaid Ruth. For this, Wise cultivates a voice which could cut through metal and a dialect accent to match. Last but not least of the principals, Police Sergeant Michael Drumheller, also a debut here, leads the bumbling constables as they caper through ruins and get thoroughly beaten by the pirates in a thrilling fight choreographed by Ken Michels. And all of them—pirates, police, girls, principals—can act as well as they sing and they all do, all the time. Nardine has done a stellar job of stage direction.

New sets are by Nathan Rodda, colorful costumes by Candace Frank and the whole is tied together by music director Bernard Kwiram with his orchestra of 28, well-paced and supportive of the singers.

The Northwest Boychoir Takes Their Perfect Pitch on the Road

The Northwest Boychoir has just embarked on its latest concert tour, but before leaving Seattle it gave a preview concert Tuesday night for a packed audience at Plymouth Church. The written program included everything the choir would sing while away, each concert having just a selection of these as it did here, one half being sacred music, the other secular.

The Boychoir is a great ambassador for music in Seattle. The quality of the singing is up to the standards of the best English cathedral choirs, not a random observation as the tone is very similar: clear and pure. For the first half, the boys sang, unaccompanied, Mozart’s “Laudate Dominum” and Durufle’s very tricky “Tota pulchra es” with absolute perfect pitch sense. It isn’t easy to be that perfect, particularly when singing with no vibrato. The slightest waver in pitch is instantly noticeable and it did not happen here. Piano accompanist Christina Siemens joined them for Randall Thompson’s “The Place of the Blest,” and in Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater,” of which they sang eight sections.

Northwest Boychoir (Photo: Ben Van Houten)
Northwest Boychoir (Photo: Ben Van Houten)

This was all a delight to the ears musically and the resonant acoustics of Plymouth Church enhanced the boys’ voices. However the acoustics there are death to diction. It was impossible to hear words at any time from two-thirds back in the church, even when conductor and choir director Joseph Crnko announced selections. Since works were not sung in the order given in the program it was sometimes quite a scramble to figure out what was being sung if the music was not familiar.

The same continued in the second half, which ranged from arrangements of folk songs and gospel songs to songs from musicals and even the Beatles. All of the arrangements seemed done with boys’ voices in mind, so that there was a sameness in style no matter what the original was. Thus “When you Wish Upon a Star” had the same feel as “Deep River” or “Home on the Range.” However, all had energy, nuance and dynamics, and the final “America the Beautiful” ended the concert on an uplifted note.

The boys’ demeanor also deserves mention. They stood without fidgeting, their hands by their sides or holding their music books, all the same way, so that nothing distracted from what they were singing. This kind of professional discipline is remarkable in children aged 10 to 14. Crnko deserves great credit for their training in every aspect of performance, as he has done for two generations of boys in the choir.

Curious Georges in a conversation with Seattle