Geniuses

From TV to Tuna, Texas, cultural icons at work

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LIGHT YEARS AHEAD | David Sarnoff (Jakie Cabe) faces off against TV’s creator Philo Farnsworth (Alex Organ) in T3’s brisk production of Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The Farnsworth Invention.’ (Photo by Jeffrey Schmidt)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

There are two indispensable treasures of American culture being dramatized onstage right now: Television itself, and boys of Tuna, Texas.

I can’t imagine life without either.

Television — its history and creation — comes to us via the mind of Aaron Sorkin with The Farnsworth Invention. Philo T. Farnsworth (Alex Organ as an adult) was just an Idaho farm boy when he came up with the essential theories (the use of pixilation, the way to seal a cathode ray tube) that would make television possible. He was in the game for the science.

David Sarnoff (Jakie Cabe) was in it to change the way humans communicate. A wunderkind himself, he saw the potential of TV — and radio for that matter — when everyone else thought of them as novelties for rich folks. Some of Sarnoff’s innovations: playing music and covering breaking news faster than the printed word. (He would have been bowled over by the Internet.) But Sarnoff was practical, and knew that to make his vision of a globalized society work, he needed to control not only the content, but the technology.

Sorkin, a TV icon with shows like The West Wing, is a master of the Tommy-gun dialogue delivery — a style that works well when you can edit a scene, but does it translate to the stage? It does with Jeffrey Schmidt directing excellent actors like Cabe and Organ, who enunciate so clearly, ever line imprints before they move on to the next. It’s amazing how effortlessly and dramatic you can make complex theoretical science seem when you approach it smartly. (This is the best handling of this kind of material since Theatre 3 did Copenhagen.)

Sorkin takes many dramatic liberties, but what he captures is the conflict between visionaries, both driven not by personal glory but by a desire to make the world better. You want to peg one as the villain, but you end up turning on the idiot box and lamenting that, ultimately, neither succeeded in creating the utopia he imagined.
…………………….

The folks of Tuna, Texas, are more radio-friendly than TV consumers — easier to get your Baptist sermon that way. The resident of Tuna are their own kind of pop icons, anyway. It’s been 30 years since Joe Sears and Jaston Williams first joined forces with co-author/director Ed Howard for Greater Tuna, spawning three sequels and countless converts who appreciation their satiric edge couched in closed minds of West Texas.

Tuna’s Greatest Hits, now at the Eisemann, is a pastiche of the four shows in the Tuna tetralogy, cleaving its plot mostly to the courtship between beset housewife Bertha Bumiller (Sears) and shy radio host Arles Struvie (Williams).

Boiled down like this show is — it covers about 25 years of creativity from first show to fourth — you get to luxuriate in some of the details that may have slipped by: Bertha’s hideously colorful pant suits (fuchsia blouse, chartreuse vest and print bloomers send shivers down the tasteful spine); spot-on metaphors (“shaking like a faith healer”). And they reprise classic lines like good standup comedians or nostalgia musical acts on tour, some updated just enough to remind us of their relevance.

The shows are famed for their dry humor and flatly funny puns (the women’s auxiliary? The Tuna Helpers). But in this breezy 90-minute walk through Patsy Cline territory, it’s the heartfelt sentiment (never cloying) that reminds you what geniuses these guys are — not just gifted actors and savvy comedy writers, but insightful analysts of the Texas mind.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 24, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

Rex Reed introduces you to Ira Gershwin tonight at the Eisemann Center

Famous for his bitchy film criticism, Fort Worth-born Rex Reed  turns his eye (and his ear) to music with Ira Gershwin revue

Watching too many movies can be a bad thing. After years of deconstructing films and either ripping them apart or praising their genius, Rex Reed has finally had enough. For now at least.

“You have no idea of the crap I sit through. Movies today are ghastly,” Reed says. “I gotta get out of this rut. Everybody has to do something in life that’s a little bit of fun and I love this a million times more than reviewing.“

“This” refers to The Man that Got Away: Ira without George — The Lyrics of Ira Gershwin, a show Reed created to celebrate the work of the lesser-known songwriting brother. The production makes its first stop outside of New York in North Texas Nov. 12 at the Eisemann Center.

“This show is a celebration of his genius,” he says. “I feel this kind of music is our culture; it’s America’s greatest gift to this world and it’s in danger of disappearing.”

Along for the ride with Reed are performers Tom Wopat, Marilyn Maye and Susan Mays, who sing songs from Gershwin’s catalog. They help Reed do his part in preserving a part of American culture, in which he gave preferential treatment to his favorite lyricist. He created this show to bring Ira from under his brother’s shadow, despite Ira having the longer career. But with George’s huge signature pieces, Reed still has to remind people that they aren’t going to get what they think they came for. Either that, or they don’t know the difference between the two siblings.

“George has always had his share of fame and praise even though he rarely made a move without his brother,” he says. “It was time he got his fair share. This is not about George. We’re not gonna have Rhapsody in Blue or Porgy and Bess. This is all Ira on his own.”

DEETS: The Man that Got Away: Ira without George — The Lyrics of Ira Gershwin. Eisemann Center, 2351 Performance Drive, Richardson. 8 p.m. $39–$72. EisemannCenter.com.

—  Rich Lopez

Rex in effect

Famous for his bitchy film criticism, Fort Worth-born Rex Reed  turns his eye (and his ear) to music with Ira Gershwin revue

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer lopez@dallasvoice.com

Film critic Rex Reed
GAGA FOR GERSHWIN | Film critic Rex Reed prefers his love of Ira Gershwin’s music to reviewing the ghastly movies coming out today.

THE MAN THAT GOT AWAY
Eisemann Center,
2351 Performance Drive, Richardson.
Nov. 12 at 8 p.m. $39–$72.
EisemannCenter.com.

…………………………………….

Watching too many movies can be a bad thing. After years of deconstructing films and either ripping them apart or praising their genius, Rex Reed has finally had enough. For now at least.

“You have no idea of the crap I sit through. Movies today are ghastly,” Reed says. “I gotta get out of this rut. Everybody has to do something in life that’s a little bit of fun and I love this a million times more than reviewing.“

“This” refers to The Man that Got Away: Ira without George — The Lyrics of Ira Gershwin, a show Reed created to celebrate the work of the lesser-known songwriting brother. The production makes its first stop outside of New York in North Texas Nov. 12 at the Eisemann Center.

“This show is a celebration of his genius,” he says. “I feel this kind of music is our culture; it’s America’s greatest gift to this world and it’s in danger of disappearing.”

Along for the ride with Reed are performers Tom Wopat, Marilyn Maye and Susan Mays, who sing songs from Gershwin’s catalog. They help Reed do his part in preserving a part of American culture, in which he gave preferential treatment to his favorite lyricist. He created this show to bring Ira from under his brother’s shadow, despite Ira having the longer career. But with George’s huge signature pieces, Reed still has to remind people that they aren’t going to get what they think they came for. Either that, or they don’t know the difference between the two siblings.

“George has always had his share of fame and praise even though he rarely made a move without his brother,” he says. “It was time he got his fair share. This is not about George. We’re not gonna have Rhapsody in Blue or Porgy and Bess. This is all Ira on his own.”

When Reed met younger sister Francis Gershwin, he discussed his plans for the show. As it turned out, she felt it was time.

“She gave me her full blessing,” he says. “When I met her she said, ‘This is what I’ve been praying for. I’m so glad you’re doing this.’ That was that; it was amen and here we go, after that. I’m really hoping people in Dallas will like it.”

This concerns Reed. He begins asking questions about the venue, knowing that it isn’t in Dallas proper — and he wonders if there is an appreciation for American standards. He senses a hunger for this music and figures it deserves to be exposed. He even challenges LGBT audiences, hoping they will break away from the usual listening pleasures.

“As a rule, gay people have always had better taste, they just need to be exposed to this,” he says. “It could expose LGBTs to something higher in quality than the stuff they are hearing in discos. That can just go so far. I don’t go to these places where I hear eardrum bursting second-rate music.”

The challenge though is to move people out of their musical comfort zone by heading to the past. Like Michael Feinstein, who comes to Dallas later this month, Reed finds it important to preserve this musical heritage of America. That’s his mission — besides reviewing films.

“I applaud Michael for what he’s doing. When people hear this, I hope a light bulb goes off,” he says. “If it’s not in top 40, they’re afraid to listen. I just need to get them to move beyond the fear of discovering the unknown.”

But he does give fair warning: Reed hosts the show but also sings one Gershwin tune.

“There is an awful lot of me in it! So if you don’t like me, don’t come.”
He’s kidding.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 5, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens