Coyotes sing with Garrison Keillor and 'Prairie Home Companion' in LA

keillor-greek-grab.jpgScreen grab from video of last week's Los Angeles show.

How appropriate - the taping of a show titled "A Prairie Home Companion" was interrupted by the howling of coyotes.

It happened Friday evening - but not on the prairie. No, the accompanying coyotes live in Griffith Park, in the middle of Los Angeles.

Garrison Keillor's public-radio landmark was in the home stretch of taping its annual alfresco LA production, at Greek Theatre in the park. Keillor had finished his weekly report and rumination on the latest events in Lake Wobegon, and the band had played a wistful ragtime-inspired musical interlude, which was intended to provide a smooth entry into a gospel number from singer Jearlyn Steele. The evening was winding down.

But the coyotes had other ideas. Somewhere higher up the hill, they began yelping wildly.

The human spectators, who filled most of the venue's 5,800 seats, buzzed and laughed. On the stage, Keillor momentarily seemed uncomprehending of the source of the clamor, but members of the audience quickly shouted that the noise was from coyotes..

Earlier in the evening, Keillor had mentioned coyotes within a reference to the non-human inhabitants of what he called "the largest city park and urban wilderness in the country" (he also mentioned the recently famous mountain lion, who - Keillor joked -- had "moved to Brentwood.") But he probably didn't expect a contingent of coyotes to interrupt his show.

However, he quickly regained control as the howling died down. He said the coyotes had apparently been "moved" by the performances so far. "What they're saying, if I understand Coyote well, is they're saying 'Bring that woman up and sing a gospel tune for the coyotes...Jearlyn Steele."

A few minutes later, however, as audience members exited, I overheard another, more literal motivation ascribed to the coyotes by several people - that the creatures had probably discovered another animal that would be their supper.

After the gospel song, Keillor briefly returned to the subject of coyotes by asking sound effects wizard Fred Newman to converse with the coyotes, prompting a series of coyote calls from Newman, "expressing the coyote that is within each one of us," Keillor remarked. The real coyotes didn't respond. Keillor then asked for some Newman loon calls. When Newman protested that LA had no lakes, Keillor rattled off evidence to the contrary - Toluca Lake, Silver Lake, Veronica Lake and the Lakers - so Newman went through his loon repertoire.

You may have heard the radio version of all this over the weekend. I usually listen to "A Prairie Home Companion" on KPCC, as I drive to and from weekend performances in theaters throughout LA. As an advocate of theater that uses local settings and talent, I've admired how Keillor and company go to great lengths to use local references, wherever they may be - the previous week, the company had broadcast from Flagstaff, Arizona, and Keillor interviewed one of the Slide Rock firefighters.

But when I drive, my attention is sometimes distracted by, uh, driving. This year, I decided to concentrate exclusively on "A Prairie Home Companion" for two hours by attending it in person.

This particular episode didn't use as much LA-based talent as some of Keillor's other LA shows, but many of the script's songs and comedy sketches were indeed dotted with LA references. If a national radio program can find dramatic material within LA, why can't more of LA's own theater companies?

But the most remarkable difference between seeing the show in person and listening to it on the radio had nothing to do with the local markers in the script. Instead, it was watching what Keillor does before the taping and during the intermission.

At several live tapings of TV shows that I've attended in LA, a stand-up comic warmed up the audience to make sure we were all in in a laughing mood. Taking no chances, the TV producers also furnished applause signs giving us cues on when to applaud.

Here, instead, is how Keillor warmed us up for his show Friday. With a microphone in hand, he walked from the stage into the audience and slowly hiked up one of the long aisles to the back of the Greek Theatre and then back to the stage, leading us all in a sing-along of "America the Beautiful" - including the obscure later verses. Then, at intermission, instead of taking a break from his virtually non-stop appearances on stage, he repeated his sing-along in the aisles, this time leading us in "America," yes, but also "I Saw Her Standing There," by the Beatles.

Garrison Keillor doesn't need to provide cues for us to laugh or applaud. These reactions naturally emerge as we watch or listen. It's something that a lot of theater artists should emulate.

By the way, on the other side of Griffith Park last Friday, from 8 pm to 8 am, the Old Zoo area had been taken over by tents and modern cages for a for-profit, 12-hour fright show, "The Great Horror Camp-Out," designed to simulate campers' nightmares for the minimum price of $159 per person. Activists within the Sierra Club had questioned whether an event designed to scare people into associating Griffith Park with confinement, torture and other horror tropes was an appropriate use for this great public space. Let's not forget that two real-life assaults occurred in Griffith Park earlier this spring.

I'm glad I chose "A Prairie Home Companion" over "The Great Horror Camp-Out." Keillor's message isn't all sweetness and light -- in his remarks Friday, he explicitly addressed the encroaching mortality of his baby-boomer fans, and of course those real-life coyotes briefly but vividly provided intimations of the more violent side of nature. But Keillor also reminded us of life's redeeming delights - which go far beyond the gratitude that must have been felt from those who finally escaped from "The Great Horror Camp-Out" at 8 am on Saturday morning.


Returning briefly to the subject of plays that have LA settings, I should report that not every company is as derelict in this department as Center Theatre Group, which I discussed in my last column. Last night I saw the reincarnation of the Hollywood-set "Stoneface" at Pasadena Playhouse (more on that in a later column), and in recent weeks, at smaller theaters, I've seen a number of plays set in greater LA.

Two of them were quite good -- Emilie Beck's poignant Pasadena-set "Sovereign Body" (now closed) at the Road Theatre in NoHo and Kres Mersky's "Flag Day" at Theatre West. The latter is a domestic comedy with several far-fetched screwball elements, but it generates a respectable number of securely-landing laughs, under the direction of Paul Gersten, through June 22.

Flag Day

Both of those plays could easily have been set in other cities, with only a few cosmetic changes; their setting in LA didn't seem to be part of their essence. Not so with two plays I saw recently at Los Angeles Theatre Center - Alice Tuan's "Hit" and Company of Angels' "L.A. Views - Traffic Jam," a collection of short plays. "Hit" made a point of venturing into discussions of LA's character - or its many characters - and "Traffic Jam" peered intermittently into LA's past. Unfortunately, I couldn't recommend either of them as satisfying theatrical experiences. Both are now closed.

In my last column I also chided the current incarnation of Center Theatre Group for failing to find and develop ambitious projects - whether set in LA or not -- on the scale of CTG's big and acclaimed productions from two decades ago. I've recently seen two projects on that level that have won acclaim for companies outside California - Arena Stage and Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

So I figured I should check out "Beijing Spring," which East West Players revived to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. It's a 1999 musical that had been inspired by the young Chinese protesters from a decade earlier. On paper, this sounded like an example of the kind of big-deal project drawn from recent history that I was seeking from CTG.

But inside the theater, it's not such a big deal. The original 1999 production was in two acts and lasted a little more than two hours. This new version has been crammed into the now-popular no-intermission, shorter-than-two hours format, which isn't big enough.

"Beijing Spring" is hardly sketch comedy or an intimate solo show. Considering the continuing importance of its real-life subject, this is one shallow "Spring."

No one is credited with writing a book for this musical - essentially, it's a staged song cycle by lyricist Tim Dang and composer Joel Iwataki. But the songs offer little depth or originality. The characters remain stubbornly stillborn. In terms of the history, the show assumes that the audience knows who Hu Yaobang was (do you?), and it also provides no details about the previous political activism that the fictional leading character's father and grandfather survived - which supposedly inspired their heir to join the same cause.

Much of "Beijing Spring" looks and sounds as if it were inspired less by what happened in Beijing in 1989 than by what happened in European musical theater in the decade leading up to 1989 - specifically, by "Evita" and "Les Miserables." But those shows had much richer characters and demonstrated much savvier storytelling skills than we get from the generic "Beijing Spring" (which closes next Sunday.)

You don't have to take my word for it - you can also see the first home-grown production of "Les Miz" at La Mirada Theatre through June 22. Indeed, any "Les Miz" newcomers who were alienated from the epic Schonberg/Boublil/Kretzmer musical by the recent botched movie version might want to check out Brian Kite's staging at La Mirada in order to see why the stage version became such an enormous hit.

James Barbour and Randall Dodge are as triumphant as Valjean and Javert, respectively, as anyone who has ever played these roles. As the rascally Thenardier, Jeff Skowron not only offers the requisite comic relief but officially becomes LA theater's hardest-working and most versatile stage actor of the past year - he won an Ovation for "Parade," then appeared in "Sunset Boulevard," "The Producers," "Silence!" and just a few weeks ago, "Into the Woods."

Still, it's a shame that we are more engaged in a musical set in 19th-century France than we are in a musical about a momentous event only 25 years ago in the world's most populous country -- which is still governed by a regime that is so frightened of free expression that it has tried to erase this event from its history.

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