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STAGE REVIEW : ‘FORWARD’: A BACKWARD LOOK AT FAMOUS WOMEN

Times Theater Critic

“Stepping Forward” at the New Mayfair Theatre is billed as “a new musical drama,” but don’t look for urgency. What it most resembles is a polite 1930s afternoon-club program, with piano accompaniment, on the subject of Famous American Women in Song and Story.

The women being celebrated range from Jefferson’s black mistress, Sally Hemmings, to painter Georgia O’Keeffe. We also hear from Molly Maguire, Baby Doe, Mrs. John Henry, Mother Bloor, Isadora Duncan, Bessie Smith, Josephine Baker, Eleanor Roosevelt and Marion Davies, who sings the “San Simeon Blues.”

Others, too, like Golda Meir. Interesting that both she and O’Keeffe had to go into the wilderness to find their greatness. Since O’Keeffe ends the program, the viewer can infer that here’s the moral of the tale--that women have to learn to walk away from “the world’s embrace” if they want to be famous for something other than bearing some famous man’s children.

Yet, “Stepping Forward” doesn’t scorn those of its women who couldn’t avoid being embraced. Even those who walked in the shadow of famous mates (Sacco’s widow being the most supine example and Hearst’s mistress being the jolliest one) are seen as being valiant in one way or the other. All the more valiant for being unappreciated. Who cares about John Henry’s wife?

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I don’t--not any more than I care about Betsy Ross’ husband. Achievement is achievement. Still, there’s no serious argument with “Stepping Forward’s” portrayal of women as being essentially the more heroic sex. The problems with this show are theatrical ones, and they are considerable.

The first problem is clutter. The show is adapted (by Elaine Kendall and Elaine Moe) from a book by John Sanford titled “To Feed Their Hopes.” The idea is to show these remarkable women through the eyes of a young man growing up with the century--a writer with the capacity to see women as fellow human beings.

The interplay between the women’s stories and the young man’s development as a person presumably works well on paper. (I haven’t read the book.) It might work well on the stage as well, if we could see how these women charged his imagination and changed his life. But in stage terms there’s insufficient evidence that he has a life, apart from telling us these stories.

Who is this chap? (Robert Boles plays him quite pleasantly.) If he’s to be a full character we need to know more about him. If he’s to be merely a narrator, we need to know less about him. In neither case do we need an on-stage interviewer (Mary Corcoran) to prompt him to tell his stories. One was reminded of a childhood book, “Telling Tommy About Famous Men.” “Tell me, Uncle Jim, who was Abraham Lincoln?” “Well, Tommy. . . .”

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When we get to meet the women that the evening is about, we aren’t always convinced that this is the real Eleanor Roosevelt, say, or the real Isadora Duncan. It’s not just the quality of the impersonation, but the trivial quality of what the women are given to say and sing.

Duncan’s message, for example, is that “I danced my life away.” One keeps hoping that Kendall’s lyric will go on from there, but it does not, and the red scarf tightens around Isadora’s neck (there are twin Isadoras in this number, Corcoran and Carol Swarbrick), and she is gone. A most unsatisfactory seance.

Mrs. Roosevelt (Judith Thiergaard) and her cousin Alice Roosevelt Longworth (Corcoran) meet under big hats to snipe at each other in a number that might have been fun had it kicked over the traces and gone all the way with the joke. But it hangs back and finally gives up the joke entirely, ending on a very limp note--Mrs. F.D.R. regretting that her mother-in-law hadn’t liked her better.

Again, it seems short shrift for a woman of substance. It also seems a rather inconsequential number with the end of the show in sight. At this point we should be building to something, but Elaine Moe’s direction is as episodic as the material, giving the evening very little sense of rise and fall. It’s as if we’re looking at fabric swatches in no particular order.

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Composer Dennis Poore gives Golda Meir (Eleni Kelakos) the show’s most vigorous song, “Zion,” with energetic arm work by the attending dancers. (Karen Soroca did the choreography.) Pauletta Pearson sings a Bessie Smith number “Wasted Life Blues” and also plays Josephine Baker and Sally Hemmings. (“Ours was called a red-light love. . . .”)

After the Bessie Smith number, narrator Boles says to himself, in supposed awe: “For the length of her dirge, you’re black.” This is probably meant as a compliment, but its subtext is so condescending that you’re not sure you want to be wandering around this man’s imagination. Maybe he doesn’t like women as much as he thinks he does.

A puzzlement, this whole show, including costumes by Patric McWilliams that seemed to me fairly unflattering--those droopy hemmed dresses on Eleanor and Alice, for instance, and the tacky bangles and beads on Josephine Baker, who never looked tacky on the stage in her life. “Stepping Forward” means to be a celebration, but the effect is dim.

‘STEPPING FORWARD’

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A musical drama, at the New Mayfair Theatre. Music Dennis Poore. Lyrics Elaine Kendall. Book Elaine Kendall and Elaine Moe. Choreography Karen Soroca, assisted by Carol Solomon. Set coordination and lighting by Robert Fromer, assisted by Jaime Vasquez. Costumes Patric McWilliams, assisted by Dennis Parr. Music direction and arrangements Dennis Poore. Production stage manager Nikki Harmon. With Robert Boles, Mary Corcoran, Pauletta Pearson, Eleni Kelakos. Carol Swarbrick, Judith Thiergaard. Plays at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, at 7:30 p.m. Sundays, with Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. Tickets $15-$20. 214 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica. (213) 451-0621.


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