The writer Gertrude Stein inspires many different reactions in people. So, as an experiment, the Signal Tribune sent two writers to see Loving Repeating, A Musical of Gertrude Stein, now playing at the International City Theatre.
What follows are two distinct views of a play with many possible angles.
A musical is a musical is a musical
By Rachael Rifkin
I have mixed feelings about Gertrude Stein. Sometimes I like her writing, sometimes she’s incredibly irritating. Either way, she’s an interesting figure. She was an avid art collector, and she mentored Hemingway, Picasso, and Matisse. She openly lived with Alice B. Toklas.
So when I heard about Loving Repeating, A Musical of Gertrude Stein, I was intrigued. I was especially curious to see how a musical about Gertrude Stein would turn out. There’s a lot you could say about her life, but how do you translate it into a story that includes singing and dancing without turning it into a kitschy joke?
You start by letting Gertrude speak for herself. Everything said or sung comes from her writing. Tony Award winners Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime, Seussical) and Frank Galati (playwright of adaptations of the Grapes of Wrath and As I Lay Dying) are also careful to use singing and dancing as a way to further illustrate her words, not impede them. It’s clear they want Gertrude to be in charge of her own story; it wouldn’t be a genuine portrayal if she wasn’t.
Jazzy numbers and vaudeville skits (performed by a very talented supporting cast) highlight different sections of her life. We learn more about her early years, her friends, her life in Paris. Though I’d initially been skeptical of the singing, hearing Gertrude’s poems performed as songs altered my perception of them. Since songs are often repetitive, it was easier to accept that aspect of her writing. I just concentrated on the nuances and emotions behind her words.
For instance, my favorite song went like this: “My wife is my life, is my life is my wife?” On the written page, it is redundant and boring. Sung beautifully by Shannon Warne (Young Gertrude) and Melissa Lyons Caldretti (Alice), it becomes passionate and heartfelt, revealing how much Gertrude loves and depends on Alice.
By the end of the play, I had developed a better ear for her work, both on and off the page. There’s a certain rhythm to it, even in the most esoteric bits. I don’t feel as annoyed by her style anymore either. I think her writing is off-putting so that we are forced to return to it again and again. There’s a reason she’s often dubbed a Cubist writer– she looks at life from every angle, no matter how uncomfortable, and she wants us to, too. Once we are able to move past our initial impressions, maybe we can. Seeing this musical is a good start.
Gertrude Stein musical provides insight into her work and life
By Shoshana Siegel
If you have ever read her work, then you know that Loving Repeating, A Musical of Gertrude Stein is an apropos title for a musical about her life. The introduction by the director, caryn desai [sic], perfectly sets the stage for this production. She states that this musical is not linear, but abstract. The excellent voices and choreography of the eight cast members does peak interest and propels the production.
Gertrude is known for her observations of life, exploration of words and phrases that repeat to the point of boredom. However, I was pleasantly surprised how palatable her exposés could be.
The theater sets the stage for the musical with a colorful and beautifully rendered copy of the original painting by Picasso, of Gertrude Stein and her longtime companion Alice B. Toklas. Then a more senior version of Gertrude greets us with her typical rambling. She quickly introduces us to herself, in her youth.
To sum up this production, it is a love story. With song titles like “My Wife is My Life” and “Kiss My Lips She Did,” and lyrics that use bees and honeysuckles as metaphors, we are given a glimpse of the love and tenderness that Gertrude and Alice shared.
The production also introduces us to her famous artistic colleagues Picasso, Cezanne, Hemingway, Renoir, Daumier, Bonnard, Matisse and others. You get a sense that Gertrude was always searching, living through others around her. In songs such as “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene,” Gertrude explores and tries to label those around her as being “Normal Gays.” Was this an attempt to validate her relationship with Alice?
The duets, harmonies, choreography, instrumentals and lighting all give us a feeling of the joy and energy that inspired creativity from the artists of that time. The subtle nuances of sound, tapping of imaginary typewriter keys, and backdrop changes from no color to red when the subject of love or passion is mentioned, all lend themselves to establishing a cohesive production. Costumes and hairstyles were vintage, without being fussy.
As the youthful and older Gertrude meld into one, so do their clothing and appearance. The play ends with Gertrude’s death. Alice is left to recount Gertrude’s last words, and it is apparent that even then she is trying to make sense of the world and her life. She asks Alice, “What is the answer?” When Toklas does not reply, Gertrude says, “In that case, what is the question?”
Loving Repeating, A Musical of Gertrude Stein will run at the International City Theatre, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., through Sunday, Feb. 13 with performances from Thursday through Sunday; evening performances begin at 8pm and Sunday matinees start at 2pm. For more information, call (562) 436-4610 or visit ictlongbeach.org.
Photo by Shashin Desai