Sunday, January 23, 2011

Loving Repeating and Loving Repeating

Melissa Lyons Caldretti and Shannon Warne. Photo by Shashin Desai

International City Theatre in Long Beach could not have chosen a more fitting production to begin its 2011 “Season of Romantic Adventures” than Loving Repeating: A Musical of Gertrude Stein. Adapted by Frank Galati from Stein’s own writing, it takes a cubist approach to the musical theatre format and presents the 75-minute musical of Stein’s life as a writer, and her relationship with longtime partner Alice B. Toklas, in a nonlinear, playfully abstract way - very much a direct expression of Stein’s style of writing. It is exciting theatre with a wonderfully fresh take by director caryn desai that I found fascinating.
The show begins with a 60-year old Stein lecturing about her use of repetition and telling stories of her life. Pay attention to her opening words because it holds the key to what will follow.

She was “enormously interested in hearing how everybody said the same thing over and over again with infinite variations but over and over again until finally if you listened with great intensity you could hear it rise and fall and tell all that that there was inside them, not so much by the actual words they said or the thoughts they had but the movement of their thoughts and words.”

And to understand Loving Repeating, that’s what the audience must do - listen carefully to the subtle changes in the pattern of the words, the inflections in the text, and the nuances in the performances. By paying attention to the way the language develops, what otherwise might seem nonsensical and irrelevant becomes exciting and challenging to the listener. It’s the key to breaking the code and as an audience member you must stay present.

We then follow a young Gertrude through a series of vignettes that show her days as a student, meeting and falling in love with Toklas, and their life together in France, before ending with Alice’s final story about Gertrude.

All three leading actors turn in strong performances, with Cheryl David anchoring the production as the older Gertrude Stein. Her command of the language is effortless as she portrays the passion and joy of this most unusual woman.

Shannon Warne, who is rapidly becoming one of southern California’s favorite young actresses, plays against her usual leading lady type this time around. She is quite appealing as the intense younger version of Stein, and is especially effective in creating a powerful onstage chemistry with Melissa Lyons Caldretti, who plays Stein’s longtime lover and life partner, Alice B. Toklas. The two also have fantastic singing voices which move through the various song styles with ease. Caldretti offers up a deliciously jazzy side of her musical personality that is great fun and pretty darn sexy too.

Stephen Flaherty, one of my favorite composers, wrote the score for Loving Repeating, which is a departure from his collaboration with longtime writing partner Lynn Ahrens on such shows as Ragtime (which Galati directed on Broadway), Once on this Island, and A Man of No Importance.

The rich musical texture of Loving Repeating incorporates gorgeous melodies, humorous themes, and so many musically surprising touches (here an Irish lilt, there the sound of an epic sweeping film score) that I wanted to hear every innuendo-filled song again to fully appreciate it. Victorian parlor songs, opera, soft-shoe, vaudevillian rag…it’s all here, and played beautifully by (Jeff Rizzo (keyboard), Adrienne Geffen (woodwinds), Rachel Coosaia (cello), and Joe Jewell (guitar), led by musical director Darryl Archibald (piano, conductor).

This is incredibly difficult music to learn and Archibald has done a great job of making sense of it. In talking with him after the show, he said that it was really important that the actors fully understood the complicated musical text so they could present it in such a way that the audience would also know what was going on, without having to hit them over the head with the subtext. Job well done.

Additional ensemble members include Carly Bracco, Leland Burnett, Jay Donnell, Allison Eberly and Tyler Milliron, all individually featured throughout.

Heather Castillo’s choreography is a highlight (loved the dancing cow and three-man interchangeable tango), and Kurt Boetcher’s set design is stunning, with its heart-shaped branches forming a Victorian picture frame (again, note the subtext) above an abstract “work of art” floor.

Inventive, puzzling, mischievous, and gay - I guarantee you’ve not seen a musical like this before.

Loving Repeating runs through February 13th at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach. For reservations and information, call the ICT Box Office at 562-436-4610 or go to

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