Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Portland theater: Jessica Wallenfels creates rock narrative for "Astral Weeks"

When I was teenager, going to college in Providence, R.I., I knew about Van Morrison and "Astral Weeks."  Morrison had been living in Boston in those days, and word had filtered down about this great singer and this weird album that all the cool music insiders thought was greatness itself.  You'd hear it coming out of dorm rooms, occasionally, snatches of it powered by that great Morrison voice, bluesy at heart but enigmatic somehow.

I confess, I could never understand it. I got that it meant a lot to Morrison. I understood that the music itself wandered beyond the rock idiom -- folky, jazzy, a little pop, a lot of blues. (The clip above is from Morrison's revival of the album in 2009.) But it never added up.  In those days I sometimes spent a lot of time attempting to unravel a particularly knotty spot of literature or philosophy, but I never spent that kind of effort on "Astral Weeks." I could quote a section of the title song here to show you what I mean, but you might retort that I was just taking a bit out of context. So, take a look for yourself, if you want. It's a moving song -- when Morrison tosses off that "to be born again" chorus, I still get a little shudder -- but I have no idea what it "means."

So that's the backdrop for my intersection with "Find Me Beside You," the rock story ballet conceived/created/choreographed/directed by Jessica Wallenfels based on "Astral Weeks."

Actually, it's more than based on the album -- it is a performance of all the songs, enacted and danced so that they imply a specific narrative.  Wallenfels hasn't created dialog around the songs, as Julie Taymor did with Beatle songs in "Across the Universe." She has imagined a story around those songs, though, a narrative about a kid in Belfast, his girlfriend and his girlfriend's little sister, a sad story, really, about violence and misplaced love, suicide and reconciliation.

Does Wallenfels story account for all the lyrics? Uh no. That would be impossible. Too much of it is stream of consciousness. But as I watched her ensemble of actors throw themselves into the songs specifically and the storyline in general, and attempt to give it some emotional and character through-lines, I found myself enjoying the whole thing more than I thought I would.  It turns out that I needed the  "explanation" behind the lyrics and the music to increase my engagement with the songs. Not explain them down to the last comma, but just to provide justification for everyone's emotional investment, including my own.

The actors sang with more heat than Morrison does characteristically and with none of the Morrison vocal tics and mannerisms. They weren't being true to the album; they were being true to the story. And that liberated them, I imagine, from Morrison, from coming up with their own Morrison impressions. As others have pointed out in reviews of the show (Bob Hicks collects a a couple of other reviews inside his review),  the singing is quite good, spread out among a number of voices, harmonized and supported by a chorus, performed as solos, duets and trios, and the backing band, led by Eric Norden, provides able accompaniment. The cast of 10 is too numerous to name here, but each has moments in the spotlight and no one falters.

The movement in the show, the choreography, is necessary if the narrative that Wallenfels has invented is ever to emerge.  I doubt that any of the actors is a dancer in "real life," so the movement isn't especially difficult, but it is vigorous and it does have the requirements of a story ballet -- to convey the emotion behind the narrative, which has the effect of underscoring the narrative at the same time.

Without the little summary in the program, would I have been able to piece together this danced  narrative? Not the details of time and setting, no. But I think the love triangle would have become clear. The advice from Madame George to go home and take care of business. The culmination of the story.  We expect no more of a story ballet, really: Enough of a hint about what's going on to make the exultation or grief make sense.

When I quote rock lyrics, they always seem to fall flat. Here's the line that means the most to me in "Astral Weeks.": "I know you're dying, baby, and I know you know it too, but every time I see you I just don't know what to do."  Sung by Morrison, they are wistful, resigned, sad. Attached to the narrative of "Find Me Beside You," though, they become truly heartbreaking, specific not abstract.

They weren't abstract for Morrison when he wrote them, I don't imagine. They were direct, experienced, real.  Converted to song, they give us free rein to conjure our own circumstances for them.  That's what Wallenfels has done, carefully and skillfully.  After the show, I thanked her for making sense of "Astral Weeks" for me. She pointed to her head and said, "Just my sense," and of course she's right. Did Morrison have a love triangle in mind? I seriously doubt it.  He's even disagreed with the interpretation of "Madame George" as a transvestite.

But I found that Wallenfels' version aided my own meditations on the album, brought it back in focus, helped engage both my imaginative and emotional intelligence in the individual songs.  After all these years, that was something of a feat.


Anonymous said...

This is the second musical I've seen in Portland in the past few months (Gracie and The Atom being the other) that was a self-obsessed train wreck.

In the same manner of Gracie, the show is incomplete and seriously in need of some outside assistance. You can tell the cast and crew love the story and have a lot of passion. You can also tell that they haven't reached outside of their bubble to see if anyone else was going to get it. What results is a show where the cast has no concern about whether their audience gets the story and have clearly had lack of direction.

Barry Johnson said...

Actually, "you" can't tell what the process of the show has been unless you've asked someone on the cast, can you? And you don't know how much concern they have about whether the audience "gets the story" or not, right? You do know what your reaction to the show is, and that might be interesting and useful for all involved if you develop it a bit instead of assuming you know the interior mental states of other people.

MightyToyCannon said...

I just saw the show tonight and thought it was a beautiful interpretation of the album. Your review is spot on.

I don't want to make the mistake of assuming I know the interior mental state of the earlier commentator. I will say that it would be a mistake to go to this show expecting to see a work of musical theater, as most of us understand that genre. There is a narrative and emotional content, certainly, but don't expect a straightforward story that you will "get" by the end of it. "Swan Lake" can be pretty impenetrable storytelling too.

Barry Johnson said...

MTC, Exactly. If you don't know the plots of those story ballets beforehand, you'd be hard-pressed to figure them out, just from the music, dancing and pantomime. This is in that category, too. You DO get the emotion, however -- I haven't thought about the connection between narrative and emotion much before, but that's what this particular experience in the theater did to me.

Daniel Beverly said...

I'd also have to say that I didn't care for the show. I found that it try to do too much and never successfully did anything.
The leads weren't outstanding vocalist nor were they dancers. It didn't seem like anyone in the show had much dancing experience. This being the case, all I "took in" was a garbled mess.

Barry Johnson said...

Bob Hicks at Art Scatter suggested that it would have worked better for him as simply a musical performance of "Astral Weeks" -- not worrying about a narrative and dance. I get his point, though honestly I never understood "Astral Weeks" as it stood as an album. But maybe he liked the singing more than you did?

Daniel Beverly said...

Well, the singing WAS passionate. Dave Cole was disappointing for me. While there is a raw sound there, he doesn't have a natural instrument. This ends up with him having an uncontrolled raw voice. All in all, for me, and my friends who accompanied me, it wad a lackluster show.