TWO PHOTOGRAPHS AND A LIP-SYNCH SHOW
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - I have two photographs in front of me. One is of an old woman in a long blue nightdress. She has a black net bonnet over her white hair. Her thin body is bent and one of her gorgeously long, bony, twisted and knobbed hands is splayed on the kitchen counter, supporting her as she ruefully stares at the camera. It is morning, and she has just woken up.
The other is of a glamorous smiling silver-haired woman with her head proudly thrown back, her eyes made up with purple eye shadow and long black lashes, her cheeks rouged, her lips colored a deep dark red. She is standing tall in a low-cut costume made of silver sequins and foot-long fuchsia fringe. It is evening, and she is about to go on stage and dance.
Both photos were taken on the same day. Both are of my mother.
This year, the Lauderdale West Theater Group's show was called "Where Do We Go From Here?" The title was fitting, because as the director admitted that from the start, he had no idea.
I should explain that the Theater Group in this middle-class South Florida retirement condominium - about 45 full-time members, mostly performers who live to be on stage, plus about 75 others who work on the shows - puts on a full-scale, Broadway-style lip-synch musical comedy every March. Ever since my mother, Rose Kagan, 88, decided to retire as its playwright, director, choreographer and star, the group has been in crisis mode.
With the power position - the script writer also directs - up for grabs, egos started emerging and the fur began to fly. It wasn't helped by the fact that Mom, who has been putting on these shows for 34 years, didn't really want to relinquish power.
Competition erupted for the top spot. The 2005 winner put on a splendid show - Mom did the choreography and danced - but his ego and anger-management issues split the group in half. He quit the group in disgust right afterward.
That show also put Mom into the hospital with pneumonia, but she decided to take a try at writing this year's show, anyway. Every September, the Theater Group's board votes for next year's script and director. Mom offered them a script based on a seasonal theme, in competition with Andy Blitzer, one of the group's talented "young guns" (he's in his 60s), who wanted to start his show with last year's finale and portray a year in the life of the Theater Group.
The first vote was tied, but in the second Andy won by one vote. Mom was hurt, but at that point she was recovering from surgery and looked like a pale walking bone. So it's possible that the theater group didn't think she'd live to see the performance date, much less be strong enough to direct them through half a year of rehearsals.
Once he was given the green light, Andy basically set about deconstructing 34 years of Rose Kagan shows, choosing fascinating musical numbers but coming out between them to talk to the audience about backstage matters. At first he didn't want any dancing at all, claiming the dancers made too many mistakes. (Perfectly true, but part of their charm). My mother fought him, won and began choreographing. Andy gracefully cast her in two numbers, and finally thanked her for fighting him. "I couldn't have put on the show without you," he said.
The show opened on Friday night, and, as always, I was there to cheer them on with camera, notebook and a big, wide grin.
I love these shows. I love these people, egos and anger and back-stabbing and all. I love the flash and sparkle of the costumes. I love it that the performers' eyes sparkle brighter than all the glitter in the world.
Most of all, I love the stories. Take Lester Weinberg, almost 90, once a professional photographer, now blind. Yet he is the group's main comedian, dancing and hamming it up onstage and then being led off afterward. Or Red Gershon, in his 80s, who was a hot drummer and a splendid dancer in his young old age. For many years, he was also my mother's dance partner. But he has had so many operations on his back now that his feet and legs are frozen. He can barely walk, so he dances from the waist up. And there's Marie Colosi, wife of the male lead, who has always produced these shows and stayed well behind the scenes. This year she performed for the first time - as a shy flower.
To give Andy credit, the musical numbers were terrific. But I'm not just being a loving daughter when I say that the audience came alive during the dance numbers - even with the mistakes. It seems they didn't want the show deconstructed and the fourth wall destroyed. They didn't want to feel like "insiders" who were above and beyond it all.
Instead, they were dying to suspend their disbelief. They wanted passion. They wanted color and rhythm and sequins. They wanted to be carried away. They wanted to identify with the people who were pouring out their hearts and energy and pride on stage.
And, as my mother likes to point out, they want to feel that if the theater group can do it - dance, sing, and be alive and young for a little while - then there's hope for all of them, and us.
At Saturday night's show, last year's director - the one with anger management issues - told me that his grandson, who has watched many rehearsals, said to him, "Grandpa, when they're on stage, the performers are great. When they come off, all they can say is, 'Oh, my aching back,' 'Oh, my feet are killing me,' 'Oh, I can't breathe.' As soon as the lights are off, everything hurts. Grandpa, shouldn't you keep the lights on them all the time?"
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel. A collection of her columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," will be out in May. She can be reached at email@example.com.