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This weekend: Mancini at the Trylon, ‘La Traviata’ and a HUGE Theater fundraiser

There is quite a lot going on this weekend, so I am going to have to be uncharacteristically brief in addressing it.

Peter Sellers in "The Party," soundtrack by Henry Mancini, tonight at the Trylon Microcinema.
Courtesy of United Artists
Peter Sellers in “The Party,” soundtrack by Henry Mancini, tonight at the Trylon Microcinema.

There is quite a lot going on this weekend, so I am going to have to be uncharacteristically brief in addressing it. You will be doing me a great favor by simply imagining that I have written an 1,100-word essay on every single one of these events.

Firstly, if I had the money, before he died, I would have contacted Henry Mancini to ask him to write a theme song for me — although, since I didn’t, and he passed away in 1994, I am just going to pretend that “Push the Button Max” from 1965’s “The Great Race” is about me. There are few composers who have managed to create as many distinctive themes. Consider that for Blake Edwards’ series of films about the bumbling Inspector Clouseau, Mancini didn’t just write one classic theme song — “The Pink Panther” — but two, because there’s is the spy-film guitar-driven theme to “A Shot in the Dark.” Take-Up Productions begins a series of films tonight at the Trylon Microcinema that all were scored by Mancini. Called “The Maestro of Mod, the series begins with two by Blake Edwards, “The Pink Panther” and the deliriously anarchic “The Party,” both starring Peter Sellers at his most chaotic, particularly in the latter, in which his mere presence causes a fancy dinner party to collapse into disaster.

Speaking of parties, I attended a final rehearsal of Minnesota Opera’s production of “La Traviata” last night, which has a first scene that consists almost entirely of a gang of 19th century Parisians drinking champagne, dancing glorious waltzes and singing about how great it is to have a party. Chief among them is Violetta Valéry, a former courtesan who is throwing the party to celebrate her recovery from consumption, and declares that she’s never going to do anything but party. This is opera, which often feels like somebody has decided to make a sleazy paperback into high art, so of course she instantly gets sick again, falls in love and gives up her partying ways. Sort of. The whole opera is set during Carnival — which we’re in now — and so even when Violetta isn’t running back to her hard-partying friends with a broken heart, the streets outside are filled with revelers, who cheer and sing even as she grows paler and weaker.

The final scene, as staged by director Lawrence Edelson, has Violetta crawling around on the floor of her emptied apartment, too weak to move for more than a few moments, while we can hear the sounds of the party outside. This is perfect for Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, which is positively sadistic in keeping us guessing as to whether Violetta will recover or not. There are two singers playing Violetta, Elizabeth Futral and Georgia Jarman, performing an alternative nights. I saw Futral perform, and she was marvelous, especially because the opera demands she grow progressively sicker of a lung disease while still producing soaring arias. Verdi gives her some help here, writing so she may occasionally sound as though she’s choking on her own music, but she also has a talent for sustaining her high notes in such a way that she sounds absolutely agonized. That’s “La Traviata” for you: Go for the parties, stay for the psychic torment.

Rich Sommer
Courtesy of AMC
Rich Sommer

HUGE Theater is having a fundraiser this weekend, and, as a special guest, they’ve invited actor Rich Sommer, who plays Harry Crane on “Mad Men.” Sommer is, in part, a product of the Twin Cities improv scene, having worked with both the Brave New Workshop and ComedySportz. The last time HUGE Theater had a fundraiser, they invited him to that as well, where he told several terrific anecdotes that I wished I had written down. Well, I went ahead and contacted him and got those anecdotes, which are as follows:

He is a fan of magicians Penn and Teller, who also got their start in Minnesota, with early gigs at the Renaissance Festival. Years ago, when he was much younger, he developed a talent for drawing passable portraits on an Etch-A-Sketch, and, one night, on his way to see Penn and Teller perform, he did a quick drawing of Teller on the device. After the show, he discovered the magicians were meeting audience members and signing autographs, and so he hurried out to the car to get his portrait, which he presented to Teller, who was delighted by it. Years later, while watching a television show in which Teller offered a film crew a tour of his house, Sommer noticed his Etch-A-Sketch portrait hanging on one of Teller’s walls. He was later able to meet the magician again, and mentioned this to him, and Teller told him he had carried the child’s toy back home with him, keeping it very still on his lap on an airplane, and then found a company that could preserve it. This they did by drilling out it’s back, scooping out whatever is inside, and replacing it with glue. Teller still has Sommer’s portrait of him.

One of Sommer’s larger early gigs was on NBC’s popular sitcom “The Office,” in which he played an art student who befriended the show’s receptionist, Pam, during a character arc that involved her moving to New York to study graphic design. Pam was then in a “will they hook up/won’t they?” relationship with salesman Jim Halpert, and this seemed like a set-up to stretch out the suspense, with Sommer as a potential love interest for Pam. But audiences had had enough of being teased by the show, and immediately sussed out what was going on and complained. Suddenly, Sommer found his scenes rewritten, and the televised edits of episodes he was in stripped of things that had been filmed, such as meaningful stares and sidelong glances. On an airplane, Sommer was walking to his seat when another passenger leaned into the aisle and stared at him. “Don’t mess with Pam,” he said. Except he didn’t say “mess.” He said something else. And so it was that Sommer’s gig on “The Office” was somewhat shorter than it might have been, and his romance with Pam Beesly, now Halpert, never happened.