If you’d asked me a few days ago what I knew about Gertrude Stein, my answer would have been “Not that much,” aside from her oft-quoted “A rose is a rose is a rose,” her relationship with longtime lesbian companion Alice B. Toklas, and some sense that she’d lived a good deal of her life in Europe. Though there are doubtless many theatergoers my age considerably better informed than I, I’d venture to guess an even greater number, particularly those under forty, know not even that much. For this reason alone, “A Musical Of Gertrude Stein” would seem to have at least one strike against it from the get-go. Add to that the fact that the musical in question has little or no storyline, that its relatively few spoken words come from a lecture delivered by Stein at the University of Chicago in 1934, and that the lyrics of this mostly sung-through musical are taken from Stein’s idiosyncratic poems (“Each one of them of the three of them meant something by being such a one”) and you have rather a hard-sell of a show—particularly if your audience of subscribers is accustomed to more traditional, linear fare.


This was the gauntlet thrown down by International City in announcing their 2011 season opener, Loving Repeating, A Musical Of Gertrude Stein,” with lyrics by Gertrude Stein adapted by Frank Galati.

Fortunately for all concerned, Loving Repeating has a lot going in its favor, most particularly the gorgeous, eclectic collection of melodies to which Stein’s lyrics have been set by Tony, Drama Desk, and Olivier Award-winning composer Stephen Flaherty.

Flaherty, most frequently partnered with lyricist Lynn Aherns, may well be musical theater’s hardest-to-characterize composer, one whose diverse collection of scores (Lucky Stiff, Once on This Island, My Favorite Year, Ragtime, Seussical, A Man of No Importance, Dessa Rose) have but one thing in common. They comprise some of the best music written for the stage over the past quarter century. Loving Repeating allows Flaherty his greatest opportunity so far to mix and merge the many musical genres of his previous work.

It’s not just Flaherty’s music that Loving Repeating has going for it at ICT. There’s also caryn desai’s particularly imaginative direction and Heather Castillo’s equally inspired choreography, a couldn’t-be-better cast headed by Cheryl David and Shannon Warne (sharing the role of Gertrude), and one of the most beautiful designs currently on display in Southern California. And as for Stein’s entirely unique (and occasionally risqué) poetry-turned-lyrics, they may be more than a bit bizarre, but if you’re like me, you may just find yourself falling under their strangely magical spell.

We learn, or rather gather, a handful of facts about Gertrude Stein’s life, primarily regarding “husband” Gertrude’s nearly four-decade-long relationship with “wife” Alice B. Toklas, as described in “My Wife Is My Life.” (“My wife is my life is my life is my wife is my wife is my life is my life is my wife is my life is my wife.”) Mostly, Loving Repeating (the title refers to the repetitive phrases that characterize Stein’s writing) consists of a series of production numbers, or at least that’s what they become as staged by desai and choreographed by Castillo. There is “A Lyrical Opera Made By Two To Be Sung,” written in classical light operatic style; “As A Wife Has A Cow … A Love Story” sung and danced like an early 20th Century vaudeville show with some some jazz thrown in for good measure; and “Miss Furr And Miss Skeene,” with its more contemporary “chamber musical” feel, including a tango for and about “Men.”

Loving Repeating may also well be the gayest musical in town, not only for the lesbian relationship at its core, but also for its musicalization of Stein’s same-sex love story “Miss Furr And Miss Skeen” (which has the word “gay” sung or spoken over one hundred times), its gay male sub-theme (“Sometimes men are kissing men are sometimes kissing and sometimes drinking men are sometimes kissing one another”), and the abovementioned two-man tango.

The best way to enjoy Loving Repeating—and enjoy it I did and then some—is to simply let Flaherty’s melodies take you on their musical journey, relish the beauty of the voices and chamber orchestra that perform them, savor Castillo’s choreographic moves, and drink in the gorgeousness of Kurt Boetcher’s cubist/floral set design, Donna Ruzika’s vibrant lighting, Kim DeShazo’s exquisite period costumes, and Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski’s crystal clear sound design.

A terrific Cheryl David disappears into the mostly non-musical role of Older Gertrude, delivering Stein’s lecture and bits of verse with dry wit and charm. The ever surprising, ever glorious Shannon Warne sings (and dances) Young Gertrude to perfection, and in splendid counterpoint to David’s older incarnation. A radiant, golden-voiced Melissa Lyons Caldretti makes for such a charming Alice B. Toklas that it’s easy to see why Gertrude fell in love so deeply.

The five-member supporting ensemble (Carly Bracco, Leland Burnett, Jay Donnell, Allison Eberly, and Tyler Milliron) prove themselves quintessential triple threats, singing in gorgeous harmonies and dancing with precision and grace to the five-piece offstage orchestra under musical director/pianist Darryl Archibald’s always brilliant baton.

Kudos go too to producer Shashin Desai, hair and wig designer Anthony Gagliardi, resident property designers Patty and Gordon Briles, and production stage manager Pat Loeb, and assistant stage manager Daniel Kuhn.

I was unprepared for the utter loveliness of Loving Repeating. I was unprepared to fall under the spell it casts over its eighty or so minutes. Yet fall I did, and if you are a theatergoer willing to go where Flaherty, Galati, Stein, and the folks at ICT have combined talents to take you, you are in for some very special musical theater indeed.

International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.
–Steven Stanley
January 27, 2011
Photos: Shashin Desai

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