Kansas City Choir Boy: Love and Inspiration

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on October 21, 2015.

Love lost and inspiration found hover like the angel of death over Kansas City Choir Boy, an intricate one-hour operetta with music and lyrics by Todd Almond and starring Almond, Courtney Love and a troupe of sirens and musicians. In less time than it takes most performances to set their wheels in motion, Kansas City Choir Boy navigates the entire course of a relationship. It’s theatre not to be missed.

The story is simple. A musician (Almond), holed up in a Midwestern motel room, sees a TV news report that Athena, a former lover (Love), was murdered in New York. He spirals to a fantasia of remembrance, playing through their courtship, love-play, and Athena’s decision to find her fortune in the big city.

Yet, under Kevin Newbury’s careful and sure direction, this simple thread creates a complex web. Almond’s songs are musically adventuresome, and his lyrics match them; they are filled with well-worked references and call-backs to fire, stars and light, imagery that is mirrored in Victoria “Vita” Tzykun’s LED-rich set design.

Almond is immediately likable and relatable as a performer. He is tall and handsome and unprepossessing, and he moves with unselfconscious ease. Love has never been better. Her rounded, grounded portrayal of Athena is the center of the operetta’s wheel. Her husky voice holds melody perfectly, and gives earthy realism to her stately bearing. More than anything else, you sense that Almond and Love are having fun on stage: they enjoy being performers.

Kansas City Choir Boy details its love story in a way that brings to mind the central scene of Godard’s Contempt, in which Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot enact the beginning, middle and end of their relationship in a single walk through the unfinished doorways of their house, clad in sheets that make them look like Greek gods. “I love you totally, tenderly, tragically,” Piccoli says in that film. “When I say I want to fade away, I think you misunderstand,” sings Love, over and over, at Kansas City Choir Boy’s climax.

Thanks to Beth Morrison and Beth Morrison Projects for producing the show and bringing it on tour. It is hard to produce theatre that strays from the mainstream, but that’s the theatre that most needs support and is most rewarding. Kansas City Choir Boy is especially rewarding, and this is a show lucky theatre-goers will remember for a long time to come.

Kansas City Choir Boy plays through November 15. Tickets are available online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, by calling CTG Audience Services at (213) 628-2772, in person at the Center Theatre Group box office (at the Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles) or at the Kirk Douglas Theatre box office two hours prior to performances. The Kirk Douglas Theatre is located at 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City, CA 90232. Ample free parking and restaurants are adjacent.

Top image: Todd Almond and Courtney Love in “Kansas City Choir Boy” at the Center Theatre Group/Kirk Douglas Theatre. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Huh?!? Audiences Deserve Better Sound Design

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on June 3, 2015. 

In Deaf West Theatre’s production of Spring Awakening at The Wallis, you can understand the actors who sign the songs better than the actors singing. That’s because the sound design is haphazard, and the audio mix, on the night I attended, was uneven, not responsive to the ebb and flow of voice in relation to the live musical instruments.

How sad. The audience misses out on Steven Sater’s heartbreaking, involute lyrics, like these that open the show, which, if you could hear them, would make you cry from the first A minor chord:

Mama, who bore me,
Mama, who gave me
No way to handle things,
Who made me so sad.
Mama, the weeping,
Mama, the angels
No sleep in heaven
Or Bethlehem

Or these:

Haven’t you heard of the word of your body?
O, I’m gonna be wounded.
O, I’m gonna be your wound.
O, I’m gonna bruise you.
O, you’re gonna be my bruise.

I know the lyrics because you could hear them clearly when Spring Awakening had its original Broadway run at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, and I saw the show more than once. That’s also a reason I know that good, clear sound is possible. However, we rarely get it in theatre and music venues.

Sylvie Drake, Cultural Weekly‘s theatre critic, told me, “I long ago gave up understanding what they’re saying at all shows, especially the ones with music. It never seems to work. I now make it a point to request a script for (a) ALL new plays and (b) something like this one, not new, but newly interpreted. Some theaters make it a practice to automatically provide one, which tells you something in and of itself.”

It’s not just a theatre problem, and certainly not a problem with The Wallis itself, which is a wonderful space with good sight-lines and acoustics. It is a matter of attention to the live audio mix and the way microphones are used to capture, or not capture, the performance. I’ve watched, and appreciated, music artists like Andrew Cole refuse to start his set at the House of Blues until the sound mix was right. Good for you, Andrew, and thank you. The audience deserves great sound.

One recent evening I went to HOME, a venue in Beverly Hills that hosts a Thursday jazz night. (HOME is a twee acronym for House of Music and Entertainment. Sadly, it is neither.)

I might have been able to forgive HOME’s inhospitable, cavernous design and harsh lighting, if the sound had been good, but it wasn’t. (Actually, I could not forgive the harsh lighting. Who wants bright table-spots at a jazz club?) When the singer began, you literally could not understand a single word. Why? Here, the sound is disadvantaged from the get-go because the mixing panel has been foolishly placed to the far left of the stage and out of the way, so the mixer cannot hear the sound in the house. Compounding this insensitive sound design choice, the proprietors don’t seem to care.

I went up to the evening’s host after the first song and let him know we could not hear the singer. “Yeah, it’s a problem,” he said, and walked away. Tellingly, he didn’t go over to the mixing board and try to make any corrections; he just let the night play out, content to watch people order over-priced food and drink.

Trumpet player on stage at jazz concert

Thursday night Jazz at HOME in Beverly Hills

As someone who has spent years of his life in theatres and performance venues, believe me when I say it does not have to be this way. Excellent, clear, well-balanced sound is entirely possible. In fact, with newer technologies, it is easier than ever before. It simply takes venues that value sound quality as much as all other aspects of the audience experience, and producers who put the resources of time and attention toward achieving it.

Top image: Daniel N. Durant (Moritz) and Krysta Rodriguez (Ilse) in Deaf West Theatre’s production of Spring Awakening. Photo by Kevin Parry.