In his work, John Adams puts harmony to historical events the average person would be hard pressed to find the least evidence of music in. The murder of an old man aboard a cruise liner, a politician’s unexpected visit to an ostracized nation. In his 1995 work, “I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky” Adams took as his source another event some would find hard to sing about: the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

The work is a collaboration between Adams and the late poet June Jordan. It was Jordan who found in the Los Angeles Times the quote of a quake survivor that became the piece’s title, and approached Adams with it as a possible project.

It was also Jordan who provided the effort’s sub title, “An earthquake romance”.

I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky” will enjoy its long overdue Southern California premiere in a concert staging by the Long Beach Opera on Saturday, August 23 at the John Anson Ford Theatre.

Ceiling/Sky”, unlike his acclaimed American operas, “Nixon in China” and “The Death of Klinghoffer”, is more a fusion of musical styles and schools, an “opera-musical theatre hybrid.”

The story of the work centers on the relationship and interaction before and after the quake of seven characters that serve as a succinct microcosm of L.A. A reformed gang leader, a cop, a Baptist minister, a Vietnamese-American attorney, a black feminist working at an abortion clinic, an undocumented immigrant, and of course the “Eye on L.A.” news reporter. The sounds of the piece promise to be as diverse as the cast; funk, pop, gospel, jazz, and blues.

Adams has likened the work to Kurt Weill’s “The Threepenny Opera” in spirit. His effort to cast L.A. in the mold of “Monagony” was first staged in Berkeley in 1995 and has since had performances in New York, Paris, Helsinki, Hamburg and elsewhere. This will be the first opportunity for a Los Angeles audience to judge the piece.

Adams generally exploits the foundation event he frames his pieces around much like a petri dish, in which he places other elements he means for his audiences to examine more closely. “Ceiling/Sky” seems to adhere to that according to Zipporah Peddle, (gotta love that name) who will be singing the role of Tiffany, a “TV crime-as-news reporter”. According to Peddle, “It deals with some serious issues; illegal immigration, mandatory sentencing, homophobia.”

In the past there have always been audiences who found it difficult to connect with Adams’ work. Perhaps, dealing with what you might call “local” news issues, “Ceiling/Sky” will not suffer that same problem. The Boston Globe reviewed it as, “the most successful crossover music written in our time.”

Peddle agrees, finding it “His easiest work to relate to.” Still she warns, “It’s not a book show where you hold the audience’s hand through the whole show.”

Peddle, who after this concert performance returns to Las Vegas to sing at the Starbright Cabaret on September 7th, is a trained singer and six-year veteran of Cirque du Soleil, and she acknowledges the complexity of the score, admitting, “I feel like I’m in school again.”

One of the great appeals to Adams as an artist and of his shows is the challenge they present to any audience. His shows, both by the material he selects and the nature of their compositions, will not allow you to sit in the theatre with your brain in sleep mode.

Adams’ shows demand your attention.

You won’t go out humming the tunes, but hopefully you leave the theatre thinking new thoughts.

When asked about “Ceiling/Sky” Adams has called it “essentially a polyphonic love story in the style of a Shakespeare comedy.” Though I, for one, would be hard pressed to see much humor in the Northridge quake, after talking with Peddle I think I can better understand the Shakespearean aspect Adams refers to. For characters seem to come through the disasters looking at their world and themselves with more honest eyes.

Adams himself describes the earthquake in his piece as “a kind of Deus ex Machina that forces inner transformations in the lives of the various characters.”

Earthquakes are God’s way of getting people in L.A. to talk to their neighbors, so the joke goes. But, there is more than a little truth to that quip. Unlike any other place on the planet, of the time L.A.ers spend outside of their home and in the city itself, 85% of it is still inside a car’s interior. We are like a city that never meets itself. However, a good quake? That makes us park.

But wherever one lives, adversity is always the great leveling. It strips away all the sham and façade and reveals that, as Peddle puts it, “You’re just a bunch of people… That’s the beauty that can come out of a catastrophe.”

Perhaps what Adams intends to show us with “I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky”, is that sometimes our “midsummer night dreams” need to register 6.5 on the Richter scale.

 

I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky

Ford Theatres
2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East
Hollywood, CA  90068
(just off the 101, between Hollywood Blvd. and Barham Blvd. in the Cahuenga Pass)
(323-461-3673)
www.FordTheatres.org

Performances: ONE NIGHT ONLY
Saturday, Aug. 23 at 8 p.m.

Tickets:
Reserved seating: $100, $80, $60
Purchase by Aug. 16 and save $5
VIP Package: $125 (includes premium seating, choice of wine or beer and on-site parking)

Parking:
On site, stacked parking: $5 per vehicle. FREE satellite parking and FREE shuttle to the Ford available at Universal City/Studio City Metro Station lot at Lankershim Blvd. and Campo de Cahuenga. Shuttle stops in the “kiss and ride” area and cycles every 15-20 minutes. Please allow an extra 30 minutes if taking the shuttle.

Note:
Dress warmly for outdoor seating.

About The Author

Ernest Kearney
Theatre Critic

An award winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson.

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