The Wonderful Town
Over the weekend, I was hosting a Portlander here in Hollywood—my friend, Ginger Duncan, down from the Pacific Northwest for her first visit to Los Angeles. Her visit comes on the heels of my own relocation just three weeks before: a sort of fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants uprooting that has repotted me back home and also not home. Home, in the sense that I was born in Los Angeles; home, likewise, in the sense that home is (as my friend, Asaf, is fond of saying) wherever you are. But also not home, because I moved away from Los Angeles at six and haven’t visited hardly at all since my grandparents died. With Ginger, it was odd playing host in a city I barely know myself.
Yet Hollywood is magic—and I don’t just mean the cinema. I’ve been comp’ed things (coffees, cocktails, pastries, museum tickets) at the rate of maybe one or two items per day. What’s more, it is usually cute boys who are doing the comp’ing, something that rarely happened to me in Portland. I flirt a little, the boy gets a smile and a compliment, I get free stuff. Hollywood is magic. It’s weird. It’s nice. And my time with Ginger was no exception…
On Saturday night, Ginger and I found ourselves recipients of two complimentary tickets to the LA Opera’s Wonderful Town, an ensemble performance of the 1953 Leonard Bernstein Broadway musical. No flirting this time: we got a text from my ex-boyfriend, Jason (who had friends in the cast from his own Broadway experience, The Book of Mormon: The Musical), about 50 minutes before curtain—asking if we wanted to claim two seats front row center. We were severely underdressed, in jeans, print tees. But we didn’t hesitate. Some walking and several Metro stops later, we were sandwiched between kind old white subscription-holding couples under dimming lights at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Wonderful Town is thoroughly New York. From Broadway’s golden age, this Bernstein treasure follows two odd-pair sisters, Ruth and Eileen, played by Faith Prince and Nikki M James, as they foray from Ohio to New York City to become famous writers and actresses. Zany misadventures follow, until ultimately love wins out. It’s escapist, like a queer kid’s dreams of the big city. It’s lovelorn and love-filled, light as a wish made on dandelion fuzz. And it’s referential, in a paradoxically specific and broad sort of way, like Frank O’Hara name-dropping into an impressionist dramatis personae populated by stock characters.
Ginger and I came on the second night of three, especially jazzed by Prince and her unexpected love-interest, Bob (played by Marc Kudisch). We were equally delighted by the hammy hat-wearing guide, the frolicking snazzy Roger Bart—did you see The Producers?—who gave life to no less than 8 characters throughout the show; and by an animated cinematic backdrop by Hana S Kim, “with cute animated drawings of Greenwich Village in the 1950s setting the scene of the story of two sisters from Ohio trying to make their way in New York”; this mixed-media approach to Broadway seemed particularly fitting for an ensemble piece, once more removed as it is opera-produced.
The juxtapositions were downright odd—and yet they felt, in my circumstances, fitting. It was gratifying to see Ruth played by a Broadway veteran in her 50’s; Prince’s talents are unquestionable, yet it seems obvious that a fully-staged production would have given the role to someone younger. To see her sister played by Nikki M James, black, and 20+ years younger, was bizarrely fun—especially as both actors are propelled across the stage in different dance numbers, surrounded by synchronized muscled men. Much of the cast includes other Broadway regulars (e.g. Ben Crawford, Jared Gertner, etc). And while LA seems to have little real animus for any other city, let alone New York, seeing so thoroughly a New York production in downtown Los Angeles with a cast of New York actors was a strange delight.
Ginger asked me, at one point, if ensemble performances were common for Broadway: they are! (The 10th Anniversary Concert for Les Miserables comes to mind; the 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd is a particular favorite of mine.) Given the sheer spectacle and energy of Broadway, though, ensembles probably strike an uninitiated audience member as subdued. As the LA Times review of Wonderful Town says:
Cast members stood at their music stands and read their lines and sang their songs. They compensated for lack of preparation (only eight days, parenthetical mine) by doing what professionals know how to do — project all-purpose personality and ham with all-purpose charm.
It really was a great evening. Unexpected, magical, escapist and transporting.
After the final curtain, Ginger and I followed Jason, his friend, and some of the cast around the corner of the pavilion to a bar, Kendall’s Brasserie, for drinks. We ordered cocktails, and talked shows and life. This was perhaps the most magical moment of the evening: the way reality elides fantasy, cuts through barriers of place, enlarges the significance of innocent questions (“What do you do?” or “How’s your mother?”), reduces celebrity to its more digestible, human form.
Ginger and I shared a whole lot of meaningful looks that night. We understand that Hollywood is magic—and I don’t just mean the cinema, nor sometimes not having to pay the bill. It’s LA that’s the wonderful town.
Matthew D. Kulisch