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“Castle Happy” at Altarena Playhouse
2017-07-21
 

 

Finding one’s way to “Happy”

An unlikely plot with a frothy delivery powered a new musical opera at the Altarena Playhouse last weekend in Alameda. What was most unlikely about that plot was its likely truth, but I’ll try to avoid spoilers. Bay Area composer Jeff Dunn and librettist John Freed concocted Castle Happy to bring a moment to life when Hollywood legends frolicked in the Hearst Castle. Their setting was 1938, when Bette Davis and Errol Flynn played for hearts (real ones) in the parlors as actress/socialite Marion Davies and publisher William Randolph Hearst reigned over the castle.

Simple and effective touches brought this black-box production to life, with an introductory “newsreel” that ran through the introduction, a reduced accompaniment performed by pianist Kim Rankin that scooped and sashayed through 30s film scores, and lots of zany costumes. As the catty barbs and clever lyrics led us from innocence to the edge of depravity, we were buoyed on that surprising descent by Dunn’s catchy music, which captured the feeling of the era.

Autumn Allee, Nathaniel Rothrock, Kim Long-by Jim NorrenaThe strength of this work is in its poignant juxtapositions. In “I Wasn’t Alive Until I Found You,” Autumn Allee, as Patricia, the 17-year-old niece of Marion Davies, sang of her feelings for Errol Flynn. “I’m awash in your undertow,” she sang in a fine-grained soprano with bright top notes, yearning and then soaring while he preened in a mirror. They were joined in their private spaces by separate spotlights on a darkened stage, and the piano combined simple themes with “wrong” notes, heightening the emotional disconnect.

And in “A Goddess and a God,” Better Davis and Errol highlighted their self-centeredness. “It’s hard to be a goddess,” sang Kim Schroeder Long in a rich mezzo voice. “You’d think it’d be swell, but it’s hell.” Simultaneously, Nathaniel Rothrock was singing the part of pretty-boy Flynn: “I’m a god! It’s me, it’s me!” he declaimed as he tried on different jackets.

That one song had something of Brecht in it, bleak and mono-tonal with sharp rhythms that cut the beat short, and for a moment we spun away from smooth Hollywood harps and unison violins and into the pungent street theater of Germany – and both did cozily share that era.

And the central disjunction was of Hearst and his mistress/partner Marion, with power and sensuality underlining their public uprightness and private immorality. Hearst was performed by Leland Morine in a big rough and tumble baritone that was perfect for that part, and he was especially moving in his waltz song, “You mean so much to me.”  And Cindy Head sang the part of Marion with grace and allure, and her lovely voice leaned more to the intimate gestures of musicals than of opera.

Ben BradyAs lives were changed and drinks emptied, our guide was the butler Stevens, played convincingly by Ben Brady in a plush bass/baritone. His voice was as suave as it was commanding, a perfect fit for the polish and glitter and secrets of that bygone Hollywood. In his duet with Head, “Is it Better to Be a Mistress or a Wife,” he hands us deep notes and deeper issues, and a thread to connect each story.

And rounding out the cast – and dichotomies – was Stephen Kanaski as the young Arthur Lake, an innocent swimming in dangerous waters, along with vocalists Rebecca Euchler and Maria Caycedo, who gave depth to the action and harmonies.

As a show, Dunn and Freed’s opera is still a work in progress, lacking the finish and polish of its well-heeled subjects. But it was instantly enjoyable from beginning to end, and one hopes this gem will go on to fuller orchestrations and perhaps an afterword or soliloquy or two.

Castle Happy returns for four more performances this weekend at the Altarena Playhouse, July 27 to 30, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. See www.altarena.org  for tickets. Note that this is a small theatre and performances will sell out (and Saturday and Sunday appear to be sold out).

 

—Adam Broner

Photo top of Autumn Allee as Patricia van Cleve, Nathaniel Rothrock as Errol Flynn and Kim Long as Bette Davis; photo by Jim Norrena; below, photo of Ben Brady; photo courtesy of the artist’s website.

 

 
     
   
 
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