Yesterday, Tomorrow

You Will Be My Music: Seven Songs to Say Goodbye By

Melissa Birch

Master Class

Historic State Theatre

EVERYONE'S MOVING TO New York. Have you noticed? You will. And when your ex-girlfriend or downstairs neighbor announces her departure, don't be surprised if she sounds rather grim about the whole thing. (Remember, this is Minnesota, where managing your optimism is a lot like going to the bathroom: You do it every day, alone, and don't make a big deal about it.) Still, right before she leaves you can expect some changes to surface: She may become funnier, or confess to emotional torments she's been suffering in secret, or reveal a depth you'd never before detected. You'll watch her go, and glimpse the rest of the world reflected in her for a moment as she turns away.

Melissa Birch and her torch-singing alter-ego Yesterday, both heading to N.Y.C. in the fall, are a case in point. In this farewell show, You Will Be My Music, Yesterday wanders the stage, tossing godawful gowns and wrinkled maps into boxes and gasping, "Anywhere but here, Mr. Pilot! Anywhere but here."

"Bittersweet" is too clunky a word for this piece, which encompasses seven-or-so songs glued together with Birch's dry wit and poetic musings on the nuances of leaving. Over the course of an hour, Birch exposes an artistic maturity and emotional power she's never quite manifested before--perhaps because this time, it's for real. She's actually going. As Yesterday describes it, half her heart is ahead of her, and from this not-quite-here place, she can see things more clearly. From the air, people look rather pathetic--"like worker ants," she says, "we all exist in these little clusters, huddled together as if for warmth."

"Campy" is also too clumsy a term to describe Yesterday, at least now. True, she's no more convincing than the gals at the Gay 90's drag show, with her terrible platinum wig and pink dragon-lady nails--the kind that look so fine wrapped around a microphone, tapping to a beat. She belts out '70s ballads with Cher-like throatiness and labor-pained expressions (backed by Jimmy Kennedy and his Diesel Orchestra). But just when the audience is cracking up, an authentic emotional rawness breaks through to complicate things--a kind of handsome, grown-up richness that reminds me of k.d. lang's finer moments. It's then we realize: Birch is serious about this. Or, as John Lennon once said, serious about not being serious. When she sings Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide," it's no cheesy wash of sentimentality; instead, it's offered as a well-crafted, gorgeous bit of songwriting. Likewise, as we laugh at the empty whiskey bottles Yesterday piles in a box ("I don't really, I had some friends over...") she'll suddenly turn and with a few words nail down an ambiguous feeling with total accuracy, like some kind of Zen archer.

Birch will be relocating in July to attend graduate school for performance at NYU. She moved to the Twin Cities five years ago from San Francisco, and now finds that she's part of a mass exodus of people who first arrived here around the same time. "Minneapolis is a great city to get your head together in," she says, but adds that she's had it with the psychological trials of winter. "I can't even fathom staying here. Everything shuts down. It's not natural." And, as the singer yelps at the end of her shows, Yesterday needs to feel like a natural woman.

Speaking of divas: Faye Dunaway is intimidating as hell portraying Maria Callas in Master Class (which will have departed the Historic State Theatre by the time this hits the stands, though Dunaway is working on a film version.) I get tired of these touring gigs clogging Hennepin, sucking up well-heeled audiences and shutting out poorer fans. However, at least this show turned out to be smart, tough, technically perfect, and beautifully designed. Terrence McNally (Love! Valour! Compassion!, Lips Together, Teeth Apart) wrote Master Class out of a fanatical love for Callas and an obsessive knowledge of opera. But he also wrote it for people who don't necessarily give a damn about either one. By employing the conceit of a diva performing a post-retirement master class, McNally speaks to the fundamental issues of artistic creation.

Dunaway, as Callas, begins the show like a gorgeous, self-important super-grouch, funny and terrifying in turn as she insults her students' apparel. But just as Callas's bile becomes tiresome and we begin to dread the next two hours, she relaxes. McNally reveals the insecurities that drove Callas, detailing her painful love affair with Aristotle "I Love to Say 'Fuck'" Onassis, whom Dunaway plays as well in flashback scenes. We feel implicated as Callas demands perfection from her students, or at least perfectionism, asking them: Why do you create? How hard are you willing to work? Why do anything half-assed? Clearly, Dunaway makes similar demands on herself, and if she isn't fully inside this character's skin yet, she's putting up a marvelous fight to get there.

You Will Be My Music runs Friday and Saturday nights through June at the Bryant-Lake Bowl; call 825-8949.

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