Loving Repeating: A Musical of Gertrude Stein

Loving Repeating: A Musical of Gertrude Stein at International City Theatre in Long Beach is an odd piece of musical theatre.

Though clever in how it mimics Stein’s idiosyncratic writing style, especially in her use of humor and repetition, the musical is less effective conveying the eccentricity of her life.

It was from her home in Paris that she coined the expression “the lost generation” to describe her fellow Bohemians who exiled themselves from 1920s America and flocked to the grand salons of the City of Light. There expatriate writers and musicians rubbed elbows with Cubist and modernist artists like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

To be fair, it was never the creative team’s intent to make a typical biographical musical. Content often dictates form, but they’ve gone so far in loyalty to Stein’s literary styling they have managed to manufacture a baffling piece of art. An in-depth course in Stein’s writing should not be the prerequisite for appreciating this musical, as it seems to be.

The show is pinned to the conceit of an older Stein (Cheryl David) giving a lecture, which leads to her musing on her past in the form of a younger self (Shannon Warne) as she meets and falls in love with Alice B. Toklas (Melissa Lyons Caldretti). Their lifelong relationship forms the center of this chamber piece wherein Ragtime’s Stephan Flaherty sets Stein’s poems to music, as adapted by Frank Galati. The set – two giant trees curved to form a valentine heart, makes that point clear.

With an additional number of members added to the cast to harmonize much of the show, the music is mostly ragtime and bluesy song-and-dance numbers reminiscent of the music of Stein’s era. The musical’s nonlinear and abstract structure is a perfect complement for showcasing Stein’s poetry, but it falls short of revealing connections between writer and her art.

That Stein was known for her repetitious writing (“A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” and “my wife is my life is my life is my wife is my wife is my life…”) is a given. When these words are simply molded into songs, it diminishes the power of her language. It’s a shame that the musical doesn’t get into her politics, her art collection or the famous and eccentric coterie that populated her salon – it would have helped anchor the abstract portion of the play with a context.

Instead, we’re reminded of another musical that took a prolific writer’s poetry and set it to music. But Cats didn’t touch upon Eliot the man or seek to convey the writer through his writing. A biographical work requires so much more of its lyrics than mere musicalization. With abstraction piled on abstruseness, by the time we get to the end and Toklas’ description of Stein’s final days, we’re so exhausted from trying to fit the pieces together we just don’t honestly care anymore.

As a whole, Loving Repeating will delight hardcore Stein fans already familiar with her writing. As to the rest of us, though certainly entertained by the excellent cast and caryn desai’s energetic direction, perhaps we can be forgiven for recalling Stein’s observation that “a real failure does not need an excuse. It is an end in itself.”

Performances through February 13 at the International City Theater at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 East Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, CA 90802 Box Office: 562-436-4610 or online at www.itclongbeach.org.

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About Obed Medina
Obed received his BA in Creative Writing from the University of California at Riverside. He has freelanced and volunteered at various theatre companies in Los Angeles since 2002. He launched his own workshop theatre company in 2008 and has produced six original one-act plays and one Off-Broadway hit. Currently, he is living in Ashland, Oregon working on his writing and founder of Collaborative Theatre Project.

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