Triumph of the Last One 

A new take on the gentle message from Walnut Creek's Playhouse West.

Blame it on Booty Catcher. Booty Catcher is a Detroit variation of tag, in which the person who is "it" can tag as many booties as she likes but she's never going to stop being "it," while all the other kids run around like crazy screaming "booty catcher, booty catcher" at the top of their vicious little lungs until it's time to go inside for French class. In matters athletic, the only thing I was ever chosen to be was the Booty Catcher. Some psychologists and school principals are now pushing to ban tag, dodgeball, and their ilk because the emotional burden of being the last one chosen can strain little psyches to the breaking point. But I really am not bitter. I like to think I turned out okay, and I think most of us, whatever our twists, have other reasons than being chosen last for our current challenges.

The nameless protagonist of the 1970 musical Whispers on the Wind also is the last one chosen. He can't hack college, ends up in a questionable apartment-sharing situation in the nameless big city we understand to be Manhattan, and falls for a girl who he doesn't think is his type at all. But his parents, uncles, and grandma all love him, he had a soft-focus Midwestern childhood full of watermelon and fuzzy caterpillars, and his curiosity and spunk have won him a comfortable adult life.

The idea behind John B. Kuntz's often-poetic coming-of-age story seems to be that whatever our circumstances, we are all leading essentially the same sort of life, and that all imbalances will eventually be righted. Even with the occasional acid commentary -- schools are factories producing imagination-free drones, big cities are the hives where those drones end up, the Church is moribund, spinsterhood is bad -- the overall message is pretty gentle. Which makes it a logical show for that bastion of gentle messages, Walnut Creek's Playhouse West, but also a welcome departure from the naturalistic plays that are its stock-in-trade.

Artistic director Lois Grandi says this show has only been professionally produced once before, and that run closed after just two weeks. Before you decide that the short premiere run means the show sucks, remember that in 1970, sexy or political shows such as Oh! Calcutta!, Hair, and Jesus Christ Superstar were on the ascendant. Audiences weren't necessarily interested in sweet little shows; they were getting ready for Bob Fosse's All That Jazz. Also, there was an actors' strike in progress. These are the explanations Grandi cites for the show's lack of renown. I would add that Whispers on the Wind also is a bit odd, and audiences must not have known what to make of it. It's neither fish nor fowl -- sort of a musical and sort of Reader's Theater. There's more dancing than you find in, say, Ibsen, but it's not what you'd call a stage spectacular. It is both stunningly cynical in places and unmistakably treacly in others. Before word of its own peculiar charms had a chance to spread, producer Joseph Papp must have decided to cut his losses and move on.

First Man and First Woman hook up and produce a son, who grows up to be another First Man who falls in love with another First Woman. Meanwhile, Second Man and Second Woman get all the juicy side roles -- grandparents, teachers, a priest, school-yard bullies, and so on. There's also a Narrator who moves in and out of the action, but mostly stays clear so he can deliver commentary. Grandi chose these five actors carefully, and all five cast members are excellent singers. The women are regular members of San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon, and the narrator is as likely to sing opera as musical theater. The lyrics and narration are often quite poetic or funny, and the cast manages to deliver the more awkward lines and songs gracefully.

The first act, which is replete with images like "Hollyhock hot and dandelion dry" and a nostalgic description of an exurban Midwestern boyhood, ends when First Man decides to take his chances in the big city. The second act begins with the ubiquitous bus trip -- did Joseph Campbell's thousand-faced Hero deal with Greyhound? -- marking First Man's journey into adulthood, where people struggle to make meaningful connections and the rent is always due.

The first act seems much more truthful, lyrical, and welcoming than the second act, which seems forced and unreal, even though the situations are very real (singles bars, loneliness, the struggle to pay the rent). The first act, for example, has a song about best girlfriends ("She's loyal and true/she'll do anything I tell her to!") which gives Caroline Altman and Lisa Peers the chance to harmonize beautifully, and then segue into the very funny "Miss Cadwallader," about the English teacher moldering away in Room 127. The scene where First Man (the bemused Robb Hedges) goes home to let his folks know he's dropping out of school is very nicely done -- he gets an entirely different response than he expected, offering up one of the play's truest moments -- and his trip to Confession is hilarious, where Morgan Mackay (Second Man) does such a good worn-out priest. The second act, although it lacks the charm of the first, does boast "Carmen Viscenzo," a very funny juxtaposition of operatic singing and herky-jerky choreography as a cabdriver and his fare head downtown. Other songs are not as strong -- the second act's "Neighbors," for example, barely skirts the maudlin, and "Prove I'm Really Here," while well-sung, feels as though it's been shoehorned in to make An Important Point About Urban Isolation.

The strongest point that Whispers delivers is how we could stand to be kinder to ourselves. Many years after I'd traded the pleasures of Booty Catcher and grade-school recess for electives and keg parties, I watched a guy trying to make time with a girl at a party. "I was always the last one chosen for teams," he told her, making a calculated pathetic face. "So was I!" she said, and touched his shoulder encouragingly. Good heavens, I thought, I've found the only college in the upper Midwest populated entirely by kids who were the last ones chosen. Is such a thing statistically possible? Or could it be that one or two were actually the ones who were always chosen first, but admitting to that won't get you laid? As I sucked thoughtfully at my plastic cup of Leinenkugel's -- the swill that passes for beer in St. Paul -- I considered the possibility that many people, either deep down or right near the surface, feel as though they might as well have been the last one chosen, even if they weren't. Whispers suggests that we're all at least a bit self-conscious, a little unsure, secretly convinced that everyone else knows what they're doing and we don't, and that's just not true.


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