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Theater review: 'Loving Repeating' at International City Theatre

January 27, 2011 |  3:00 pm

Loving Repeating1 With Gertrude Stein around, convention didn't stand a chance.  

Picasso and other of her artist friends in early 20th century Paris were fragmenting art into cubism; she attempted a similar jolt with her writing. Her life, though, was her most glorious creation. Salon hostess to the great creative minds of her generation, this wealthy, witty, opinionated American energized a shining moment in arts history, with her wife, Alice B. Toklas, as her indispensable aide-de-camp. 

The chamber musical "Loving Repeating" taps Stein's irrepressible vitality. True to her style, the show is essentially abstract, which can make it a bit of a pill. But the team behind its West Coast premiere at International City Theatre understands that this is foremost a love story, told with lyricism, grace and good humor.

The libretto is assembled from a talk that Stein gave in Chicago in 1934, plus selections from her writings. The creators were workmates on the musical "Ragtime": Director Frank Galati put together the book; composer Stephen Flaherty set Stein's words to music.

Photographs and paintings of Stein suggest an imposing presence, hinted at here in the tart, straightforward personality of the older Stein (Cheryl David) who's giving the talk. But as her words become visible memories, Stein softens into a spirited young woman (Shannon Warne) whose love for Toklas (Melissa Lyons Caldretti) becomes the lens through which she sees and records the world.

Loving Repeating2 "You are my honey honey suckle / I am your bee" becomes a much-repeated lyric as the show develops into a meditation on connection — to another person, to a group, to the larger world.

The music isn't really in period, though there are bits of that, most noticeably ragtime and blues; and it's not really contemporary pop, although there are influences of that as well. Yet it ripples and shimmers in ways that seem inevitable extensions of the words. As many as five additional singers are added to the texture when emotions or ideas swell; behind the scenes, five players accompany on keyboards, woodwinds, cello and guitar.

The storytelling, which periodically mutates into avant-garde mini-operettas of the sort that Stein's salon guests might have devised, is presented in a dream space where two prolifically branched trees bend toward each other to form a Valentine heart, on a floor painted to evoke Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon."

As overseen by caryn desai, director of many ICT productions, the show beautifully conveys the notion that for Stein, as she might have put the matter in one of her famously circular sentences: Her life was her art was her life.

— Daryl H. Miller

"Loving Repeating," International City Theatre at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 13. $37 and $44. (562) 436-4610 or Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

Photos: Top, Melissa Lyons Caldretti, left, as Alice B. Toklas and Shannon Warne as young Gertrude Stein exemplify the title of "Loving Repeating." Middle, from left, Carly Bracco, Allison Eberly and Cheryl David in one of the musical's fanciful mini-operetta moments. Credit: Shashin Desai / International City Theatre.