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Dorothy Chansky

Alternative Theatre History in Song

LA MAMA CANTATA -- (L-R) Charnele Crick, Alicia Olatuja, Grace McLean and Starr Busby. Photo by Peter James Zielinski.

Review of “La MaMa Cantata”
by Dorothy Chansky
Ellen Stweart Theatre at La MaMa
66 East 4th Street, New York, NY
Closed December 30, 2011

Paying tribute to a mentor is tricky business. If the testament fails to live up to the legacy, it’s embarrassing. If the honoree was not all the homage cracks her up to be, that can be even worse.

Happily, everything works right in Elizabeth Swados’s heartfelt and energetic “La MaMa Cantata,” a biographical valentine to the late, legendary Ellen Stewart (1919-2010), a.k.a La Mama, the founder of the now iconic off-Off-Broadway institution of the same name.

Swados, who got her start as a composer at the age of eighteen when Stewart saw a talent worth encouraging, has written a piece that is tuneful, eclectic, sophisticated, and accessible. The cantata is billed as “a musical celebration of the life and influence of Ellen Stewart incorporating Ellen’s most inspiring words,” and it moves with verve and ease from calypso to klezmer to rock. Under Swados’s direction, with musical direction and arrangements by Kris Kukul, and featuring eighteen high-octane young singer/actors, it ran for two performances as the centerpiece of La MaMa’s 50th season.

Stewart’s life was full of heroic leaps of faith taken in the face of prejudice and hard knocks and fuelled by prodigious talent as a designer and as a businesswoman. As the cantata portrays “the Mother Courage of the avant garde,” Stewart started out to be a fashion designer who was poised to study in Chicago with her tuition paid by Mrs. Adlai Stevenson. Stewart changed her mind when she was asked (and refused) to sign a document agreeing to show up only via segregated entrances and basically after hours. She headed for New York, where she found a job at Saks Fifth Avenue. As one of the cantata’s songs tells it, the employees were abuzz about a tall, exotic black model wandering the store in designer clothes. Stewart, who made all her own garments, was curious, too, until she discovered, “it was me!”

Too much racism (ironically from black employees as much as whites) and limited elbow room sent her downtown, where the apocryphal advice of a street-smart Jewish merchant whom she called her Papa Diamond was that she get a (metaphorical) pushcart and follow her dreams. She rented a theatre space, later acquired a building, shifted her initial focus on playwrights to a focus on auteur directors and composers, and the rest is history. Swados, Andrei Serban, Tom O’Horgan, and JoAnne Akalaitis comprise the shortest of short lists of the “babies” launched by this mother of them all, and one number in “La MaMa Cantata” is a roll call of names.

The show is a kind of singing theatre history, with six different people playing Ellen. All were bursting with life and sass, although Grace McLean stood out for her huge, never-say-die voice, and for her searing passion. (She was also the only white, female Ellen; Preston Martin made good on the observation that Stweart had “a transvestite sense of humor.”) A trio of women looking a bit like renegades from “Hair” by way of “Glee” generated synergy and were as harmonically eomplementary and perfectly matched as hot fudge and Häagen Dazs. (They were Catherine Brookman, Rachael Duddy, and Hannah Whitney.)

Jeanna Phillips played Swados, who provided just enough of her own story to personalize the narrative but not so much as to skew it or make it about the author. (Stewart offered Swados uncolicited advice on clothes, hair, and boyfriends, as well as virtually willing her to write the most daring music she could.)

The young cast could have no firsthand knowledge of most of the events and personalities they conjured. Clearly many in the audience did recall witnessing such Stewart offerings as Croatian actors singing Kurt Weill, an artist throwing pig’s blood on spectators, and an Italian company deconstructing the Book of Genesis—all instances of “another night at La MaMa.”

A few points in the show were less than terrific. An Arab/Israeli duet that emerges out of nowhere and featured a singer who was not part of onstage lineup but stood up from the audience to deliver her only work in the show was bizarre. A number featuring the six men in the cast and focusing on the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s created a sense that the male presence at La MaMa was largely gay, which was not the case.

Overall, though, “La MaMa Cantata” is a joyous work and one to treasure. If its onstage run was short, its recorded life should be long and it celebrates its raison d’être with just the right blend of relish and love.

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