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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
by Les Gutman
For those familiar with the previous work of The Builders Association, a company with a decidedly downtown pedigree and a presumed aversion to the sort of spectacle that has great appeal to producers of popular (commercial) theatrical entertainment (including, but not limited to, Broadway), the subject of its new show may be something of a surprise. Yet Xtravaganza is not only a celebration of such popular shows but also a cogent investigation of its roots, its development and its place in contemporary culture. All of this it achieves by way of its signature marriage of live performance and high-tech media.
The trajectory we are urged to follow begins in the American Wild West, in the mid-nineteenth Century, and ends in the wild western extremities of contemporary Manhattan. It plays out over seventy minutes, incorporating ten "Acts" and fourteen "Episodes".
For the wellspring of the art form, we are directed to Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, a phenomenon which began in the Plains in the 1860's and which, curiously enough, initiated into "the business" three of the four principal characters to whom our attention is drawn. They are: Steele MacKaye (Jeff Webster), a theatrical producer of enormous invention who succeeded in bringing Cody's show to Madison Square Garden and then failed to pull off his greatest vision, the construction of a 12,000 seat theater (the "Spectatorium,") at the Chicago World's Fair a decade later; Loie Fuller (Heaven Phillips), a dancer who got her first break in a Cody show as a teen and went on to enchant the world with performances that incorporated light shows and costumes the like of which the world had never before seen; and Florenz Ziegfield (Peter Jacobs), who ran away from home to join the Cody show and who needs no further introduction. Only one degree of separation is required to connect the fourth character, Busby Berkeley (Moe Angelos): Ziegfield gave him his start, and provided the raw material for his move to the silver screen where, famously, he carried on the tradition. A fifth character is drawn into the mix by Marianne Weems,Xtravaganza's director and "compiler": Julian Marsh (also Mr. Webster), late of Broadway's 42nd Street.
Where would The Builders Association direct us for such spectacles today? Not to a Broadway theater, Radio City or Vegas but to the dance clubs, where, indeed, the same sorts of fantastical endeavors are the order of the day. Some clubby music and the presence in the cast of a club celebrity, Bravo LaFortune, are employed to make the point. Then there's also the group's work in its own right to reflect upon, a digital age "wow" machine that advances to the present the sort of "how'd they do that?" spectacle, albeit now with much of the skeleton exposed.
The mechanisms by which Xtravaganza delivers its story couple the old with the new. So we get old-fashioned sound effects and new-age sampling, archival film footage integrated on screen with live action (via blue screen overlays, the process visible, live, at stage right -- an identical technique to that used to good effect in the first half of the company's last show, Jet Lag) and numerous extensions of pint-sized floor shows, with a handful of performers, "magically" kaleidoscoped into Berkeleyesque visions on the screen behind.
With the aid of excellent program notes and background material, the historical thrust of Xtravaganza is fleshed out well. There are also some dazzling images created. The relatively short piece is certainly interesting, often funny and quite entertaining. There is a sense, nonetheless, that it exists mainly as an exercise in technology, with the gimmicks getting ahead of, rather than functioning in support of, the substance of the piece. But maybe that's the point as well.
6,500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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