Saturday, April 22, 2023

The secret Ava Gardner

Elizabeth McGovern as Ava Gardner

A week's sojourn in Los Angeles developed a Hollywood theme - a visit to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, a tour of Sony Pictures Studio and a play, "Ava: The Secret Conversations," at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.

Elizabeth McGovern, who played Lady Grantham in "Downton Abbey," wrote the play and stars as actress Ava Gardner, who arrived in Hollywood at age 18 and attracted attention from the beginning for the kind of looks that society deems extremely beautiful.

The drama is based on the book, "Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations," written by journalist Peter Evans after a series of interviews with the actress in the late 1980s.

What could have been a very talky play has been turned into a nifty piece of theater by director Moritz von Steulpnagel and scene, lighting, sound and projection designers David Meyer, Amith Chandrashaker, Cricket S. Myers and Alex Basco Koch.

Ava Gardner as Julie in
"Show Boat" (1951)

In publicity materials for one of her movies, Gardner was described as “The World’s Most Beautiful Animal.” She possessed dark eyes, full lips and a cascade of brunette hair that all apparently turned men's nerves to water, with a cleft in her chin that only added delicious intrigue. Her gaze was direct and a devastating sexual come-on, and her appeal was that of a classy goddess.  

Although Gardner never expressed much confidence in her acting talent, she had a top-notch career, with her best-known movies in the 1940s and ‘50s (“Show Boat,” “The Barefoot Contessa,” “The Killers”). Her private life was equally in the headlines, with marriages to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra, as well as a long affair with Howard Hughes.

When we first meet Gardner, in her London apartment in 1988, she is 65 years old, in a grey sweatsuit and not in good shape. A stroke has affected her left hand and she needs money, she informs her interviewer-to-be. “It’s either do the book or sell the jewels and I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels,” she tells him, in a voice redolent of cigarettes and whiskey.

Aaron Costa Ganis as Peter Evans
Evans, played by Aaron Costa Ganis, intrigued that she called him, breaks the fourth wall, speaking to offstage agent Ed Victor (Ryan W. Garcia) and agrees to take on the project. There’s a bit of “Sunset Boulevard” vibe, with the writer fascinated by the aging star.

They enter a dance of biographer and subject, punctuated by Gardner’s desire to tell her story on her terms and the writer’s awareness that the commercial market wants to know about her sex lives with “Mickey,” “Frank,” “Howard” and a legion of others.

She plays the game (“I loved to f---!”), then jumps back (“Let’s begin the book with my stroke.”)

McGovern beautifully inhabits the mercurial Gardner, with a touch of the Grabtown, N.C. accent that was so thick, MGM gave her voice lessons to modify it. Unintimidated by the starmaking machine, she rose to the top, but also says, “They took away my voice.”

In her sessions with Evans, Gardner seeks to know herself, in all her real and fantasy roles. “I was the woman men dream about. Where’s my third act?”

She’s amusing, tough and honest about her bittersweet lives with famous, strong-willed men. Divorced from the philandering Rooney and bullying Shaw by age 23, her marriage to Sinatra was a tempest of alcohol and nightclubs, but both also produced very solid work such as “Mogambo” (her only Oscar nomination) and “From Here to Eternity” (an Oscar win and career resuscitator for him). She reveals Hughes physically assaulted her, (“Oh, he pinned me to the couch.”) in a matter-of-fact tone that appalls Evans.

Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner
In addition to Evans’ dialogue with the unseen agent, Steulpnagel skillfully uses projections of the real Gardner, Sinatra, etc., lighting changes that flow with Gardner’s moods and Evans’ confrontations and costume changes by Toni-Leslie James that by the end see the fragile actress restored to glamor in a glittering black dress.

While McGovern is magnetic to watch, Ganis actually has the more difficult role. This extraordinary actor plays the British Evans in addition to Rooney, Shaw and Sinatra, in scenes from Gardner’s life.

Ganis doesn’t “do” imitations of each man, but subtly inhabits each persona and voice - including Rooney and Sinatra's very well-known voices. Leaving the theater, I heard more than one person remarking on Ganis’ great skill.

One question one has to ask is what relevance does this all have today? Much of the audience were people old enough to remember Gardner’s films and era (she died in 1990). In an age when women in show business have much more power – look at Beyonce, Lady Gaga? Kardashian? for example – how does Gardner’s story resonate?

For one thing, she’s not forgotten. There’s an Ava Gardner museum in Smithfield, N.C., not far from where she grew up, that welcomes 7,000 visitors per year.

Then in Hollywood, there’s no doubt women still face predatory men – witness the #metoo movement spurred by the sexual abuse charges against producer Harvey Weinstein. Actresses still face the challenge of balancing sexuality as performers with personal values and a sense of who they are.   

Maybe there’s a lesson in the way Gardner never seems to be a victim, unlike perhaps another stunning beauty, Marilyn Monroe. Gardner certainly was not always in control and wild behavior hints at a deep unhappiness, but her core of steel told the world it would not get the better of her.

“Love is nothing,” is her conclusion, yet her vivid narration shows she held onto life with both hands and had few regrets.

In the end, the book project as it was envisioned in the beginning never came to fruition. Gardner withdrew her involvement when she learned Sinatra had sued Evans for mentioning certain Mob associations.

Years later, Evans wrote about doing the interviews in the book this play is based upon, but the text is more about him than her. The play sometimes feels disjointed, with too much attention focused on the less-interesting person.

In the end, Gardner remains an elusive character, to the biographer and possibly to herself. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

'Camelot' -- the once and future musical

If the original production of My Fair Lady was my first Broadway show, in 1961 at age seven (as I posted here), then Camelot was my second, in 1962 at age eight.

I even know exactly when my mother took me to the show, since she bought a program and memorialized it on the cover.  - "Saturday matinee, September 8, 1962" (black line added digitally to photo).

There was very good reason that this was my second show - the lyricist-librettist/composing team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe were following up their megahit (Fair Lady) and both shows were relatively family-friendly, but with complex adult themes.

Based on British author T.H. White's version of the King Arthur legend, "The Once and Future King," Camelot tells the story of Arthur and Guenevere's romance and marriage, Arthur's establishment of the Knights of the Round Table as a force for good, Lancelot du Lac's arrival from France to join the Round Table, Guenevere and Lancelot's illicit affair and its destructive force upon Camelot and the ideals of the Round Table. 

Among other characters, the two main schemers conspiring to bring down Arthur's rule are his illegitimate son, Mordred, and Mordred's mother, Morgan Le Fay.

Sixty years later, Camelot is getting the full Lincoln Center Theater revival treatment -- 30-piece orchestra, Bartlett Sher directing, original Robert Russell Bennett and Philip Lang orchestrations.

I went to a preview performance, three days before opening night, set for April 13, 2023. Lerner's book has been rewritten by Aaron Sorkin; there's a more-diverse cast and there have been a few other tweaks for modern sensibilities, some of which work and some, I think, do not. 

Hearkening back to the original show, one has to understand its impact. Ticket sales were slow until the Ed Sullivan show featured Richard Burton as King Arthur and Julie Andrews as Guenevere singing a couple of numbers.

The score was acknowledged to be extraordinary -- full of wonderful melodies and elegant lyrics -- but critics thought the show couldn't settle on a mood -- lighthearted in the first act, somber in the second -- and Lerner's book was criticized as being too talky and slow.

Nevertheless, the score became so popular that the LP was found in many an American household, the songs played and sung over and over. 

The show also rocketed a Broadway unknown - Robert Goulet - to stardom. Although he is the third in the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle, he was listed below Roddy McDowell (Mordred) and Robert Coote (Sir Pellinore) on the album cover. 

Goulet was astonishingly handsome, with a rich baritone voice like chocolate and red wine, and he made millions of hearts melt when he delivered the ballad that Lancelot sings to Guenevere, "If Ever I Would Leave You."

My fashion editor mom, Florence De Santis, had interviewed him for her celebrity fashion column, so we went backstage after we saw the show and he autographed that program. I remember him smiling and chatting and being very charming to a little girl. 

Camelot also became associated with the three-year administration of President John F. Kennedy, since shortly after his assassination in November, 1963, his widow Jacqueline said her late husband loved the lyrics, "Don't let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief shining moment/That was known as Camelot."

Andrew Burnap as King Arthur
Phillipa Soo as Guenevere,
Jordan Donica as Lancelot
Photo/Joan Marcus
So - rather a lot of baggage for one show, and Camelot arrives at Lincoln Center with a lot of anticipation.

From the opening scene, when the courtiers are awaiting Guenevere's bridal carriage at the top of the hill, only to realize it is stopping at the bottom of the hill, creating a confusing new tradition, Sorkin's snappy, sitcom-quick dialog is playing for laughs, which it gets. 

One of the courtiers, however, complains consistently that "things are changing too fast," possibly foreshadowing future uneasy changes.

Arthur (Andrew Burnap) drops out of a tree, musing in song that his people are thinking, "I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight?" Terrified at the idea of his unseen bride, he replies, "He's scared." 

Guenevere (Phillipa Soo) runs from her retinue, none too thrilled at the idea of an arranged marriage. She is one tough cookie, showing up in black leather pants, with a pack and knife, yet she also bemoans "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood," in which girls could get a few knights to fight over them before they had to get married. I guess she wasn't wearing that outfit in the carriage and changed clothes going up the hill (?).  

When Arthur realizes who she is, he sings of his kingdom's lovely climate and winsome qualities in "Camelot." However, in Sher's staging, Guenevere constantly interrupts his singing with snarky comments, undercutting the song with which Arthur is supposed to be winning her over.

Phillipa Soo and Andrew Burnap as
Guenevere and Arthur. Photo/Joan Marcus
Nevertheless, Burnap and Soo's beautiful singing voices and excellent diction deliver the essence of the first three witty numbers.

One of Sorkin's declared changes to the book was that he was going to "get rid of the magic," to focus on the human relationships.

So, the magician/Arthur's tutor, Merlyn (Dakin Matthews), makes only a brief appearance in the first act. The nymph Nimue is gone, and so is her enchanting song, "Follow Me," that lures Merlyn away from Camelot.

I have to wonder, though, about taking magic out of a mythical person and place, in this era besotted with Harry Potter and accustomed to filmed entertainment that uses computer animation to be even more magical. 

Merlyn does get a good Sorkin line, however, as he realizes Arthur's plans - "A powerful man, determined to do good. Things can get dangerous."

Determination of steel characterizes Lancelot, convinced that he's the perfect knight for the Round Table, in the song "C'est Moi." Jordan Donica was out for several performances, unusual for a preview so close to opening night, so at this performance, Lancelot was played by understudy Matias de la Flor. I certainly look forward to hearing his voice develop further, because his control of breath and volume was not up to the task. 

Guenevere and the court celebrate May Day with a country festival, a maypole and "The Lusty Month of May," made more obvious by Guenevere's way-off-the-shoulder dress and handsy behavior with the guys. Put off by Lancelot's boastful manner, the queen goads three knights to challenge him at the jousting tournament ("Take Me to the Fair").

Lancelot easily bests two knights, then Arthur challenges him - a plot change from the original, in which Sir Lionel is the last challenger. So here, it's Arthur, not Lionel, who is grievously wounded (Or is he? He gets up pretty fast.) and brought back to life by Lancelot's intense faith and prayer. I suppose it raises the emotional stakes for the trio. It's certainly the first time in this production that Guenevere has shown she cares for him at all.

Lancelot (Donica) and Arthur (Burnap)
in combat, as Guenevere (Soo) looks on.
Seeing Arthur defeated felt unsatisfying to me since it seems Burnap has been playing him as a bit of a wimp, and Guenevere continues her snarky ways.

There's little chemistry between the two, and in a conversation about their relationship, he calls her, oddly, his "friend and business partner."

Dramatically, if two romantic leads just continue to snipe at each other, and there's no heat, boredom sets in. The young woman next to me was shifting in her seat and attempting to read her program in the dark. 

Guenevere and Lancelot are supposedly falling in love, but again, little chemistry. But nothing can harm my favorite ballad in the show, Guenevere's conflicted desire to see Lancelot go away - "Before I Gaze at You Again."

Along the way, I realized that the snappy rhythms of Sorkin's dialog didn't jive with the long notes and lush Broadway sound of the score's original orchestrations, which the production proudly cites in its publicity. 

Sorkin again brings us down to earth with a Lancelot speech that argues against magic and God -- well, so much for his faith. But Lancelot has to wrestle with his faith, his conscience and his image of himself as a godly man -- as he pursues his adulterous love for Guenevere. In turn, both of them must feel and express great love for Arthur, as husband, as friend, as king, which makes their sin all the more tragic. Unfortunately, the feeling isn't there with enough force. 

The second act still turns dark, with the appearance of Mordred. Now we're getting a more nuanced picture of the king. He's made mistakes in his youth. Burnap's performance really shines, as he acquires gravity and seriousness as an older Arthur, wrestling with his ideals and with human nature. 

One of the most charming songs, "What do the Simple Folk Do?" where Arthur and Guenevere try to imagine how "ordinary people" cheer up, is staged frustratingly. The final stanza is "they dance," but Guenevere, instead of dancing with Arthur, keeps running from him and their dance lasts just a minute.  

Lured away from the castle, Arthur visits Mordred's mother, Morgan Le Fay, a sorceress in the original and here, a scientist -- which makes no sense. Back at the castle, with Arthur gone, Mordred stokes conflict among the knights and Lancelot comes to Guenevere's bedroom. The scenic video design and lighting (by 59 Productions and Lap Chi Chu) are outstanding here, toggling back and forth between Morgan's lair, with branches and stone floor, and the castle, depicted by shafts of light.

The lovers are discovered, Guenevere is arrested, Lancelot fights his way free and she is to stand trial for treason. To my eight-year-old mind, the most thrilling song is here - "Guenevere" -- which, to a galloping, ominous rhythm, details the danger she is in. I accepted the switch to a more-grave second act. Maybe because mom read stories aloud and I read a lot on my own, I knew that life can turn quickly from light to dark, and that something very grown-up and serious was going on.

Arthur's agony is heartbreaking: Adhere to your declared rule of law and you kill the woman you love. Let her go, and you're a hypocrite. Events drive toward an inevitable climax, but Camelot ends on a note of hope.    

Burnap as Arthur
The show is worth seeing for that magnificent score and Burnap's journey as King Arthur. His struggle with his own nature ("I shall have a man's vengeance!"), his ideals and his love are so affecting that I had the tissues out.

I was also reminded of an event that will take place in three weeks - the coronation of another king of England - Charles III. He, too, is exploring, perhaps struggling with, what it means to be a king. 

For the other leads, it's a shame that Soo has been directed to make her character unlikable and I had no way of evaluating Donica's Lancelot. 

It's a truly bad actor that can't make the most of a great role such as Mordred and Taylor Trensch is a terrific actor, delivering his character's creed, "The Seven Deadly Virtues," with panache. Marilee Talkington is a striking, red-haired Morgan Le Fay and Dakin Matthews embodies old folks' wisdom and comedy in the dual roles of Merlyn and Sir Pellinore. 

If you go, just realize that there might be a couple of places in the show where you think, "hunh?"

Footnote: In the sheer-coincidence department -- my father and brother were/are named Arthur and I just discovered that Robert Goulet's granddaughter is named ... Solange.