Arts In LA

Archives 2015

The Christians
Mark Taper Forum

Written by Lucas Hnath, a promising new voice for the American theater raised an evangelical Christian and groomed to become a pastor himself, this is an arrestingly multilayered, exceedingly controversial, urgently topical new play. Spawned at the Humana Festival where it first began to raise eyebrows for the religious dialectic it generates, The Christians is far more than just a story about a crisis in one man’s faith. Hnath goes far deeper than portraying the clash germinating within the belief structure guiding one particular fundamentalist Protestant denomination; he contemplates the destructive core at the heart of all organized religion that destroys lives and shreds relationships as it pretends to be sanctified and non-judgmental.
   The charismatic Pastor Paul’s highly successful megachurch is a jewel in the crown of the spiritual community it represents, having spent a decade growing from a tiny storefront into an enormous megachurch. Each Sunday, worshipful devotees eager to tithe their incomes to the cause fill the spectacularly contemporary and oddly soulless facility. Just as Pastor Paul (Andrew Garman) announces to those parishioners gathered that the church’s debilitating debt, incurred to create the towering monolith as testament to the “word” of their God, has finally been paid, he also announces he’s had a change of heart regarding the future of his ministry. “We are no longer a congregation that says my way is the only way,” he preaches to his followers before dropping the bomb, a shocking alteration to one of his church’s most rudimentary doctrines: “We are no longer a congregation that believes in Hell.”
   Sitting on a toilet in a hotel room while attending a religious conference, Paul had an impromptu conversation with his celestial boss, leading him to decide that the concept of eternal punishing fire bellowing from below, ruled over by a horned Satan, is a metaphor, not a fact. Evil, he realizes, instead reflects humanity itself in all its vast brutality, its rampant dysfunction, and its warped collective sense of entitlement. He suddenly sees humanity as the real devil and ours as a species able to bring suffering upon one another with numerous acts of inhumanity happening around us every day. “You want to see Hell?” he asks dissenting associate pastor Joshua, prompting him to contemplate all the people staring back at them for guidance and reassurance whose lives have been forged from early childhood to reflect society’s demands for a docile cattle mentality. “They are already in Hell.”

This provokes the immediate ire of Joshua (Larry Powell), who in front of the flock argues that the concept of an underworld domain belching brimstone 24/7 is indeed literal and real; and, if this is to be the new doctrine steering this church, he cannot stay. After a post-sermon debate that seems shortsighted on the part of both men, some 50 members decide to leave along with Joshua and form their own congregation. The president of Paul’s board (Philip Kerr) comes to Paul in his office to express the concerns of his fellow directors, who fear the decision to change directions and lose Joshua might cause a reversal of the church’s fortunes—and subsequently, of course, their own.
   The production is slick and gorgeous, from Dane Laffrey’s antiseptic bleached wood Danish Modern set, featuring placid projections of inspirational sunrises overseen by an enormous cross lit from behind dominating the rear, and a bright blue carpeted stage with fresh and untrampled vacuum cleaner indentations leading directly to the center where Paul holds court. Behind the pulpit stands a full choir (under the direction of organist Scott Anthony) delivering powerful gospel ballads meant to accentuate the completely manufactured piety of the place.
   Les Waters’s direction is sparse and effective, especially imaginative as all the players sit in a row onstage around Pastor Paul—including Joshua, the increasingly more uncomfortable board chairman, and Paul’s sweetly supportive wife, Elizabeth (Linda Powell). One of the most brilliant of conceits here is the continuous use of corded hand microphones to amplify the entire dialogue of the play. This at first is right on, as at the beginning Paul delivers his damaging sermon as though the audience is his congregants, but the devise continues even as characters meet privately in the church’s office and later in Paul and Elizabeth’s bedroom as they discuss the crumbling of their once perfect marriage due to his drastic change of heart.

This unique and inspired technique was explained by Hnath in an interview as something he uses to stress that every element of a religious leader’s life can impact his mission. “Being on mic makes you aware of the significance of what everybody’s saying. I can even have a scene between the pastor and his wife at home, but if the scene is being played in the form of a church service and on mic, it occupies two spaces at once. It occupies the private space and then also the public space. As they talk, you can’t forget how everything they talk about does matter outside their home. There is not a private life in this play, which I think is true for pastors.”
   Waters’s cast is impeccable, especially Powell’s at first serenely patient Elizabeth, whose composure disintegrates along with her marriage, and Emily Donahoe as a church member who emerges from the onstage chorus to take the microphone and confront Paul about his motives for the new ideas he’s presenting. As one of the many who have given their church “their time, their faith, their money, their trust,” she eventually musters the courage to question Paul’s timing, wondering if he kept his viewpoints to himself only until the church’s debt was paid, and then finally asking the big question: If God saves everyone, as Paul’s reevaluation of the Bible tells him, “What about Hitler?”
   Hnath thought-provoking play offers two conflicting perspectives steering the future of modern-day religious thought. No one wins this debate. Rather, the play is meant to be interpreted in individual ways by people with so many opposing viewpoints. Above all, it goes far beyond an argument that might only be interesting to people of faith—and of similar faith at that. The real revelation to be unearthed at the heart of The Christians is the bold examination of the injurious nature of blind faith as it dominates our desperate need to believe in something, no matter how based on ancient mythology it obviously may be, and to expose the twisted nature of religion through the generations that has crushed independent thought as it has attempted to unite.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
December 14, 2015
Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Motown
Troubadour Theatre Company at Falcon Theatre

Matt Walker and his Troubadour Theater Company have no filter, and, luckily for their legion of rabid fans, they haven’t had one for the last 20 years. The Troubies are best known for their annual parodies of classic holiday stories, selling out Falcon Theatre every December for some 15 seasons. After the tremendous success of such artist-themed titles as Little Drummer Bowie, Frosty the Snow Manilow, A Christmas Carole King, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReinDOORS, the much-awarded company this year reprises its triumphant Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Motown, giving its performers the opportunity to widen their scope of who and what to spoof as they turn their attention to Detroit’s most richly prolific industry since Henry Ford invented the motorcar.
   Under Walker’s nothing-safe direction and Eric Heinly’s spirited musical direction, the Troubies pull out all the jams to jam on all the classic Motown hits, dancing in synchronization while wrapped in Sharon McGunigle’s splendiferous and outrageous holiday costuming. They journey to the “Land of Smokey Miracles and Supreme Temptations” to tell the tale of an orphaned infant named Claus (the rubber-faced, Ray Bolger–limbed Walker). He has been dumped on the doorstep of the Kringle family at their home in Sombertown, located somewhere near the dismal Alpine forests where, as actors drag on a mere pair of flimsy cardboard trees to represent it, it’s a “cold, creepy, and confusing place, kinda like a Donald Trump rally.”

Santa faces a crisis when the Burgermeister of the village (Mike Sulprizio channeling an all-singing, all-dancing Lionel Atwill) falls over a stuffed bunny and subsequently bans all toys from Sombertown. Santa seeks the help of the wood’s resident Winter Warlock, played by Beth Kennedy towering over the other players on cloud-piercing stilts and brandishing long white Edward Scissorhands fingernails that nearly keep her from picking up the Slinky that Santa gives her for Christmas—causing Walker to ask as she struggles with composure if she’s breaking a character she “barely had time to establish.”
   The quick-witted Rick Batalla hilariously guides the story along as STD, a festively adorned mailman who begins by getting the town’s children gathered ’round for the recounting, reassuring them they’re safe to join him since he’s not a pitchman for Subway. From the sidelines, the deadpanned Batalla throws out one rapid impromptu quip after another, beginning by commenting on the audience’s reaction to his first pun with, “If you start groaning now, it’s going to be a long night,” and noting, as fog effects seep from below the curtains, that there’s a Reggae festival going on backstage. Matching STD’s junior post office habitat on stage left is Leah Sprecher stationed at stage right as the troupe’s resident back-up lounge singer, touting her new CD “Doin’ It From Behind” and continuously downing her signature cocktail made with “gin, Tylenol PM, and tears.”
   Walker and his limitless band of crazies, despite all the freedom to play around and adlib at will, also work hard to keep the fast-paced production tight and all tied up with a glittery but neat metaphoric holiday bow. They honor Nadine Ellis’s original choreography (re-created under the guidance of cast member Suzanne Jolie Narbonne), having obviously rehearsed their best James Brown–inspired moves to perfection. Everything runs like clockwork here as the audience sits with mouths agape at the rampant silliness of it all, most of those gathered thrilled not to be that one woman sitting in the front row whose snorts of appreciative laughter became the brunt of myriad jokes throughout the evening.

It just wouldn’t seem like Christmas without the Troubie’s annual holiday spectaculars around these-here parts to kick off whatever festivities we’re still able to muster in this less-than festive world of ours—and boy, do we all need a good laugh right now.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
December 13, 2015
Guys & Dolls
Oregon Shakespeare Festival at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Considering it combines the imagination and experience of director Mary Zimmerman with the resources of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the staging of this production ought to have been sheer heaven. It’s not. But the acting is so superb that the songs seem to be intensely personal confessions on which the audience is eavesdropping. And so the comedic and improbable tales become insights into the heart.
   The 1950 musical, with book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows based on stories and characters of Damon Runyon, is set during Prohibition and centers on New York City gamblers and the women who love them.
   Its score is joyous, every song a classic, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. Here the songs are orchestrated simply, often on solo piano, by music director Doug Peck, so the storytelling shines through even the most familiar of these familiar songs.
   But Zimmerman’s vision for the production is a mystery. On a sort of Vaudevillian set, with a lighted frame surrounding a Moorish tile back wall, she intermittently places foot-high models of Manhattan to indicate a street scene, and when characters fly to Havana, a tiny airplane scoots above the stage on a string. The craps game of course takes place in a murky underground cavern, reached by a stories-high ladder, but the sole element making it work is the lighting design, by T.J. Gerckens.
   Costuming, by Mara Blumenfeld, is at best serviceable, but the suits for the men confusingly seem to span several eras. The overture includes the cliché of people rushing around carrying suitcases. That dance number quickly reveals that the chorus is not built of enough adept dancers (choreographed by Daniel Pelzig). Granted, the gals who dance in Miss Adelaide’s nightclub show shouldn’t be great—and they’re not, here, with their purposely slack-legged kicks and unpointed toes—but they should be great in that overture, where the audience first assays the quality of the show.
   One exception is a grey-suited man in the front line, who has physical skills plus that extra burst of verve that make the real dancer. He turns out to be Rodney Gardiner, the actor playing Nathan Detroit, the impresario of crap games, “dating” Adelaide for 14 years but not quite ready for marriage.
   Gardiner can act, too. Fortunately so can the other three leads here. His onstage partner, playing the other half of the comedy couple, is Robin Goodrin Nordli, who delivers “Adelaide’s Lament” with the painfully hilarious pathos of a longtime girlfriend.
   The romantic leads earn the audience’s interest, too. Sky Masterson, the highest roller of them all, gets a fully invested portrayal by Jeremy Peter Johnson. His singing is strong, his dancing is light, but when Sky breaks down to confess “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” the moment is stunningly intimate. Playing straitlaced missionary Sarah Brown, Kate Hurster has a rather thin singing voice, but she, too, conveys more than ample emotion with it.
   Sarah’s grandpa Arvide, it turns out, is not as straitlaced and is far more understanding than Sarah, which his portrayer, Richard Howard, makes touchingly clear in his very simple, direct “More I Cannot Wish You.” As with many of the “serious” songs here, it feels as if the singer were instead speaking a monologue, full of subtext and intent, rather than belting out a show tune.
   The multiracial cast—Gardiner is African-American, Eugene Ma who plays the craps game venue owner is Asian-American, and other non-WASPs are among the secondary characters—may or may not be historically accurate, but here the blend works just fine.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
December 6, 2015

Republished with kind permission of Los Angeles Daily News

Need to Know
Rogue Machine Theatre

Most everyone has had the experience of being pursued by an obsessive and needy admirer, be it a nosy neighbor, a far-too-friendly co-worker, or even a romantic partner who won’t go away once the bloom is off the rose. In Jonathan Caren’s cleverly suspenseful new gothic comedy, what at first appears to be a relatively benign instance of having to deal with a harmless kind of mini-stalker progresses rapidly to Play Misty for Me status.
   For Lilly and Steven (Corryn Cummins and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe)—a young couple relocating to Manhattan after trying to make a home together in Los Angeles—that initial apprehension is exacerbated by something many of us are still in the process of comprehending in its full-frontal glory: social media. It’s bad enough that Caren’s classic millennials quickly discover that the living room wall of their new apartment is so thin that their neighbor appears to be able to hear their conversations—not to mention their rather noisy lovemaking. But the creepy guy on the other side is a needy, obnoxiously overfriendly loser with terminal halitosis, named Mark (Tim Cummings). And when they realize Mark knows everything about them and their lives from trolling Facebook and Twitter, the threat becomes even more unsettling, if not bordering on truly scary.
   On Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s exceptional set, which is the best use of a small playing space seen in this town in a long time, both apartments, divided by a cutaway wall, are visible to the audience. As Lilly and Steven unpack and try to get over the fact that they cannot seem to shake Mark’s advances, Mark is indeed leaning over his desk with his ear glued to their shared wall. And after they realize that he probably heard them talking about what a sad weirdo he appeared to be when he walked into their apartment to introduce himself as they emerged from their showers in less-than-appropriate host and hostess wear, they are a little unnerved when he again shows up at their door, offering a plate of home-baked cookies as a housewarming gift. Of course, considering that he jokes he’d added his own excrement to the cookie dough, their reaction is understandable.

Despite a script that features fascinating character studies but doesn’t really go anyplace as unpredictable as it could and then ties things up way too neatly, Bart DeLorenzo directs his trio of knockout performers with a near-Hitchcockian ability to create tension and dread from everyday situations that don’t usually foster suspicion. Cummins and Near-Verbrugghe are excellent as the cornered couple, subtly mining the unspoken problems lurking just below the picture perfect image of their relationship they’ve cultivated to present to the outside world—and to dupe each other. Near-Verbrugghe is especially impressive as his character’s emotionally fragile past is revealed, beginning the play like the world’s most charming boyfriend but ending, especially after a final nerve-shattering scene shared with Cummings, eerily exposing his own deep-seated secrets.
   Still, this is Cummings’s show. As Mark, he is incredibly unnerving, an urban apartment dweller’s worst nightmare, yet he makes Mark oddly endearing, so you’d like to scratch him behind the ears and reassure him that he’s a good boy. All of Mark’s quirks and tics are completely realistic. Cummings amazingly finds something in his character that makes one wonder if the majority of the red flags that go up as Lilly and Steven try to discourage a connection with their ever-smiling, often charmingly funny, and self-deprecating pursuer are mostly products of their own imaginations. His performance in this role, written so intrinsically filled with traps that could swallow up lesser actors, is the stuff that made Peter Lorre in M or Tony Perkins in Psycho keep viewers up at night.
   If Caren’s promising and potentially disturbing play were as polished as its performers or DeLorenzo’s subtly suspenseful direction, it would be nearly perfect. As is, it’s almost there—and the people who are currently breathing life into it for Rogue Machine elevate it far beyond where it travels on its own.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
November 19, 2015
Coney Island Christmas
Torrance Theatre Company

It’s 1935, and Mrs. Abramowitz’s 12-year-old daughter has been cast as Jesus in her school’s Christmas pageant. Oy. So goes Coney Island Christmas, Torrance Theatre Company’s holiday season offering, written by Donald Margulies based on Grace Paley’s short story “The Loudest Voice.”
   Though it’s not the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright’s best or most sophisticated play, it may be his most charming. It sweetly but firmly reminds us that change is universally hard, yet what’s most meaningful seems to stay with us forever.
   Mrs. Abramowitz (Diana Mann) is a devoted mother, a hardworking wife, and, need we add, Jewish. Fearful of mockery, fearful of what the neighbors will think, fearful of what the ancestors will think, fearful of losing her daughter to another way of life, she plotzes when young Shirley (Hannah Smith) comes home to report that her teachers insist she’s the only schoolchild with the skills to star as young Jesus.
   But there’s a chink. Her daughter is clearly talented, as Mrs. Abramowitz learns when the drama teacher Mr. Hilton (Gary Kresca) and music teacher Mademoiselle Glacé (Amanda Webb) arrive at the family’s deli (with Cheryl Crabtree as a crusty customer) to plead with Shirley’s parents. How could a mother resist?
   And as we find out, there’s another chink. Mr. Abramowitz (Perry Shields) doesn’t object to a little assimilation, and he wants his daughter to be happy. And, well, actually, ahem, he’d always wanted to be a performer, too.

The play may seem slight. It runs only 90 minutes and still is packed with two pageants (adults play Shirley’s schoolmates) and snippets of traditional Christmas songs and recitations, plus a framing device in which now elderly Shirley (Geraldine Fuentes) relives this memory for her great-granddaughter Clara (Makenzie Browning). But Margulies adeptly tells his story, squeezing in convincing character arcs and objectives, and bits of daily life from Depression-era Brooklyn.
   Under the direction of Sasha Stewart Miller, the lead actors throw themselves wholly into their characters. They feel the conflicts between tradition and acceptance but also physicalize the 1930s and speak in uniform accents. Additionally, the Yiddish and Hebrew they speak sound thoroughly authentic.
   Stewart Miller also herded but gave freedom to a playful cast of “kids” (Nick Bradfield, Claire Griswold, Matt Garber, Price T. Morgan, Lauren Oseas, Franklin Richardson, Josh Velez and Paxton Wright) who take on such Nativity figures as Santa Claus and Ebenezer Scrooge. What, they weren’t present at the birth of Christ?
   And speaking of sacrilege, the Annunciation gets a rather loose rendition here, complete with endearing disbelief at the very idea of premarital sex, revealed to Mary by a Gabriel (Richardson) wheeled in on a ladder by Mr. Hilton.

The remarkably clever, evocative, and well-engineered scenic design, by Mark Torreso (sturdy construction credited to Torreso and James Markoski) unfolds like a children’s book across the shallow stage and magically creates time and place as skillfully as any set on L.A.’s major stages.
   Costuming, by Bradley Allen Lock, not only includes a Thanksgiving and a Christmas show, but also smaller details such as a chic look for Mademoiselle Glacé and miraculously quick changes from bedtime to school clothes for Shirley.
   However twisted the Nativity tale gets, Margulies sorts it out at the play’s end, with a prayer spoken by the bright, perceptive young Shirley. If everyone in the audience, or better yet anywhere in the world, of any faith or none, acted with these thoughts in mind, life would be bliss.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
November 9, 2015

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.

The Sparrow
Coeurage Theatre Company at The Historic Lankershim Arts Center

One has to wonder—as this miraculously inventive production unfolds in all its minimal yet enchanted splendor—how much Chris Mathews, Jake Minton, and Nathan Allen’s script spells out the quirkily performed elements that make this so uniquely evocative, and how much of the dreamlike experience can be attributed to the mad talents of director Joseph V. Calarco. According to Coeurage Theatre’s artistic director Jeremy Lelliott, 98 percent of the kudos must indeed go to the director, noting that stage manager Emily Goodall complained that, since the script itself had no stage directions, she practically had to write an entire new draft just to factor in Calarco’s continuous barrage of distinctive cue notes.
   It shows. It’s not often noted that the brightest and most omnipresent star of any production is clearly the imagination of its director, but this guy’s hand and his vision is present throughout every moment of this West Coast premiere. Coupled with the impressive original musical score by one of Coeurage’s other resident prodigies, Gregory Nabours, this well-honed team of unstoppable young artists has created pure unadulterated magic.

The plot of The Sparrow does not offer much new without these embellishments, as Emily Book (Katie Pelensky), a teenage girl who was the lone survivor of her grade-school bus’s horrific encounter with a speeding train, returns home after the death of her guardian grandmother to try to fit back into her insular suburban community. It doesn’t take long to realize there’s more to the shy bespectacled Emily than meets the eye, as in her ability to fly, catch bullets in her hand, or eventually wreak revenge and smite her enemies with a simple wave of her arm.
   Most of what happens here is predictable and standard Carrie-like fare minus the pig’s blood—that is until Calarco invents incredible new ways to exhibit the range of Emily’s supernatural powers with the help of choreographer Tasheena Medina and their remarkably well-drilled cast, who together create all of the story’s special effects, as well as every scene change , moving with a collective precision not seen since Hal Prince’s direction of the townspeople in Evita reinvented the term “ensemble.”
   Paying constant deference to Nabours’s imposing score while dashing behind and around set designer Kristin Browning Campbell’s minimal muslin screens, hauntingly backlit by Benoit Guerin’s shadowy Caligari-inspired lighting, the cast is so in tune it’s almost as though it moves as one being, transforming from parent to high school cheerleader to ghost of one of the dead bus riders with well-rehearsed ease. This is a case of one theater company’s unfettered and courageous artistic prescience turning a minor play into a major experience. Coeurage has had quite the year, and for once the universe was in incredible alignment when it put together Lelliott, Calarco, and Nabours to continuously craft theatrical sorcery in Los Angeles.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
November 3, 2015
My Fair Lady
Musical Theatre West at Carpenter Center

My Fair Lady is among the most melodious musicals ever written. Any of its tunes, all by Frederick Loewe, would be the centerpiece of any lesser-known show. In Musical Theatre West’s current production of it at the Carpenter Center, fortunately the music soars. Several other elements of theatermaking don’t fare quite as well here.
   It is, of course, the story of flower seller Eliza Doolittle who one rainy night happens upon phonetician Henry Higgins. He studies the sounds of speech and can identify a person’s place of origin by his or her pronunciation. In supreme braggadocio, he wagers with Sanskrit scholar Colonel Pickering that he can make Eliza’s speech so “correct” that she could pass for a duchess at an embassy ball.
   My Fair Lady is the musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, itself an updated version of the ancient Greek myth about an artist who prays for his sculpture to come to life. Shaw’s barbed observations on the English class system and gender limitations remain intact in the musical’s book and lyrics, by Alan Jay Lerner.
   At the Carpenter Center, director-choreographer Daniel Pelzig is at his best in staging crowd scenes, even in cluttered spaces such as Covent Garden’s florescent market. This production includes no embassy ball—a disappointment even considering the nearly three-hour running time.
   At least patrons in the back rows won’t have trouble hearing this show. Microphones seem cranked up to their highest settings, making the sound echo and turn muddy. Too much dialogue seems shouted, though much of it is contentious. At the loudest end of the shouting is Martin Kildare, playing Professor Higgins. He is an energized actor who lets his character recognize his own hypocrisy. But, considering Higgins’s obsession with proper English, Kildare has a weak English accent.
   Higgins also claims articulate speech is a divine gift—one that separates the classes. He, however, is otherwise quite boorish, with his direct rudeness and habit of jumping onto upholstered furniture.
   At one point Higgins notes Eliza’s gown is being pinned to make it fit her. If only this production had done the same for Katharine McDonough’s costumes. Too many of them seem ill-fitting. Costumer Karen St. Pierre’s happier choices include the black-and-white frocks for “Ascot Gavotte” and an array of small but effective changes for Eliza around “The Rain in Spain.”
   But in creating Eliza, McDonough does something unexpected, ingenious, snfthrilling. She sings Eliza’s early songs, in Cockney mode, with a touch of an earthy, gritty quality to her voice. As soon as Eliza understands “proper” speech, McDonough shifts into a cultured operatic voice that is magnificent.
   Playing Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle, Matthew Henerson has a charismatic Act 1 number, “With a Little Bit of Luck,” in which he genially gets the neighborhood’s lower-class denizens singing and dancing to Doolittle’s subversive social commentary. By Act 2 of opening night, however, when Henerson sang “Get Me to the Church on Time,” Henerson’s voice seemed raspy and unable to hit pitch.
   Richard Gould is a comedic gem as Pickering. The euphoniously voiced Eric Michael Parker makes a giddy suitor to Eliza. Mary Gordon Murray is the professor’s stately and sensible mother. And, Debra Cardona is the working-class housekeeper, the character who wonders what will happen to Eliza after the men end their grand experiment. Musical director Julie Lamoureux turns chorus numbers into the kind of sounds even Higgins would absolutely adore.
   How does it all end? If Shaw had his way, certainly not with a liaison between Eliza and Henry. The 1964 film’s ending left that a possibility, at least to delusional romantics. Here, Pelzig seems to posit either a dream or a pleasant thought before a nap. It’s fodder for conversation on the audience’s drive home—between mentions of McDonough’s gorgeous voice. To that we could have listened all night.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
October 26, 2015
Kansas City Choir Boy
Center Theatre Group at Kirk Douglas Theatre

It begins intriguingly and ends in ethereal beauty. But in between, Kansas City Choir Boy is set adrift and crashes into a problematic performance.
   It is an opera, with music and lyrics by Todd Almond, in its West Coast premiere at Kirk Douglas Theatre, where Almond’s musical titled Girlfriend played this summer. Fortunately this one runs under an hour, not overstaying any welcome. Unfortunately, most notably, Almond’s co-star is Courtney Love.
   It is a dreamscape, meant to evoke and not dictate audience thoughts and reactions. It starts as Kansas City Choir Boy (Almond), under large headphones, listens to a song he has written. He looks up to see a breaking-news report on his television: A woman has been found dead in New York City. He knows her. She’s Athena. They met when they were 16. So much is clear.
   Athena (Love) wanders back into his mind—or wherever you believe they’re meeting. He relives their first encounter, their early lust, snfthen a point at which they sing, “Let’s call it our wedding day.”
   She dons a crumpled hot-pink veil. They seem to undergo a ceremony. And apparently soon after this the love is gone. She’s disgusted, he’s enraged, she leaves. On a meandering odyssey, he tries to find her while evading sirens—six women in black punk attire (Paul Carey), who form a nicely voiced chorus and move through Sam Pinkleton’s well-suited choreography.
   At some point we’re not in Kansas anymore. As in that dreamscape, nothing needs to make sense. In Almond’s score, a swirl of emotions replaces narrative, and this could provide a satisfying theatrical experience.
   But Love either had an off night or doesn’t have the skills for this project. Her attempts at acting are stunningly self-conscious. She shows zero dance skills. And her singing voice is an unmelodious growl. She also comes laden with celebrity. So every time she is onstage, the audience is likely to lose any connection to Almond’s work.
   He, to the contrary, is a captivating singer and instrumentalist. His score consists not so much of songs as of cris de coeur, which he delivers with a genuine and rather modest intensity.
   Under Kevin Newbury’s direction, the piece gets strong visuals, though their proximity to the audience is distracting. The stage has been bared and is used for a portion of the seating, with cross-aisles where singers and a string quartet roam.
   Set designers Victoria Tzykun and Clark Parkan and lighting designer D.M. Wood worked to hoist the piece. “Make me your constellation,” Love growls, and dots of lights flare on the back wall. Pink fireworks erupt on that wall and on a pathway overhead, later sung about. That overhead pathway becomes a stretch of gray road, divided by yellow fluorescent bulbs.
   Presumably to represent Athena’s later celebrity, Love gets a gorgeously vast black ball gown, designed by Zac Posen (the décolletage of which seems to have expanded since early photos were taken of her in it).
   The gown is onstage for a brief time, but its provenance and wearer cause the mind to unnecessarily wander away—as with far too much of this show. Still, the fans and the intrigued will undoubtedly buy tickets and come to gawk. Perhaps as with Athena, and Love, persons interested in music might have to ignore the fame to get to the heart of the opera.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
October 19, 2015
Sondheim on Sondheim
International City Theatre

Whether you are a rabid fan of composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim or a newcomer to musical theater, hearing Sondheim talk about his creative process is a fascinating treat. He does so, on video clips, in Sondheim on Sondheim, now at International City Theatre.
   The footage is interspersed with renditions of about 40 of his songs, sung by three men and three women, accompanied by an onstage quartet. But the live performances seem hastily mounted and don’t serve the songs well enough.
   The idea for Sondheim on Sondheim came from David Kernan, then was developed by Sondheim’s collaborator James Lapine for a version of it on Broadway in 2010. Whoever interviewed Sondheim for this purpose (Peter Fleherty is credited with creating and designing the videos) caught Sondheim chatting about his work at his wittily casual best. In one clip Sondheim, melted into a couch, says, “I work lying down. It allows you to take a nap.”
   We presume he’s kidding, because his output has been anything but slothful. From A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1962 through ITALICS “Road Show” in 2008, he has created or contributed to astoundingly deep, wittily charming, hauntingly beautiful musical scores.
   But onstage at ICT, the songs seem uninspired. It’s possible the show’s director and choreographer, DJ Gray, wanted audiences to make up their own minds about the meaning of each song within the context of a preceding onscreen revelation by the songwriter.
   For example, at one point Sondheim reveals, “I like neurotic people,” explaining that every one of us has a problem of circumstances. Lights up on Barbara Carlton Heart and Kevin McMahon singing “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from the musical Company. Is this enough to elucidate the song, particularly out of context of that musical—a rather distressing show about marriage and commitment?
   Josh Wise has a creamy baritone voice, but his brief portrayal of Sweeney Todd in “Epiphany” is of an unsullied young man, not a tormented mass murderer. Heart sings a pouty, defeated “Send in the Clowns,” Sondheim’s unfortunately most often sung, and mocked, ballad from A Little Night Music .
   Gray’s choreography doesn’t play to the performers’ strengths and too often doesn’t look well-rehearsed or even well-considered. During the show’s last number, the eponymous “Anyone Can Whistle,” the performers hug, clap a shoulder, nod at one another knowingly—every cliché under the sun.
   It’s possible most of the rehearsal period was taken up with the music (arranged by David Loud, orchestrated by Michael Starobin). Sondheim’s melodies are notoriously challenging, and perhaps music director Gerald Sternbach spent all of his time honing the singers’ pitch and rhythm. It’s likely the singers didn’t arrive fully familiarized with all of the songs: Several songs, indeed a few of the shows they’re from, never made it through their opening runs or even to opening night.
   The six performers, who include Shaina Knox and Jake Novak, have nice voices, though not all deliver lyrics with optimal enunciation. This is particularly troubling in Stephanie Fredricks’s performance of the unfamiliar “So Many People in the World” from the long-unproduced Saturday Night.
   Ideas for costuming (designed by Kim DeShazo) are strong—tails and a black waistcoat evoke the era of Sweeney Todd, and the white dress of “The Wedding Is Off” gets topped by a structured little black jacket for “Good Thing Going.” But too much of the costuming is ill-fitting or allows lining or slips to hang below hemlines.
   Still, the audience is here to spend time with Sondheim. His songs can soothe or agitate, amuse or dishearten, but they always engage us, and now we know how deeply engaging he is. The filmed portion of this show leaves the impression of a lonely man with a disrupted childhood who turned his anxiety into brilliant gifts to the performing arts.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
October 19, 2015
Carrie the Killer Musical Experience
Los Angeles Theatre

Book the rest home, Andrew Lloyd Webber. Not even crashing chandeliers or gondola rides through candlelit underground tunnels could compete with this blazingly in-your-face new game in town. After disastrous mounting after disastrous mounting since its legendary script and technically challenged nosedive of a Broadway premiere in 1988—which was booed at final curtain on opening night and even prompted Ken Mandelbaum’s 1992 book Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops—somebody finally got it right. No, not right, perfect.
   Billed this time out as Carrie the Killer Musical Experience, it has been transferred from the production’s debut this spring at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts to of one of downtown LA’s most majestic and historic old movie palaces. Here, director Brady Schwind’s brilliant “immersive” reinvention creates an environmental experience for his astounded audience. This is without a doubt the theatrical event of the year in Los Angeles and surely will go on to become yet another feather in the cap of world-class theater created in our much-maligned cultural desert climes.

Based on Stephen King’s popular anti-bullying 1974 novel and Brian DePalma’s 1976 film adaptation, the infamous story’s conversion into musical theater wasn’t a smooth transition. When poor Carrie White got drenched in pig’s blood as she accepted Prom Queen crown in the original Broadway version, those dastardly teenaged tormentors Billy and Chris ran onstage and threw the blood on her instead of it being dumped in buckets from the rafters as in the book and film. This was due to the difficulty of the necessary stage blood clogging the actress’s body microphone, and because Carrie’s song “The Destruction” begins almost immediately after the dousing, there had been no time to clear her microphone before it was needed. Well, whatever has changed since then—or whatever Schwind, sound designer Cricket S Myers, and illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer have managed to cleverly improve upon—the blood comes from the right place. And those audience members close to the action should be forewarned to bring along a raincoat.

On designer Stephen Gifford’s remarkably versatile environmental high school gymnasium set, the continuously picked-on Carrie—in a dynamic and often brave turn by Emily Lopez, beginning the evening naked in a shower with menstrual blood running down her legs in a scene excised from the original—does her best to keep her telekinetic powers a secret. But when the torture becomes nonstop, especially from the legally blonde Chris (Valerie Rose Curiel) and her oaf of a suitor Billy (Garrett Marshall), our heroine’s retaliation is, simply, a bitch.
   Along the way, a living crucified Jesus appears far above our heads, both he and his cross flying through the auditorium like a specialty act from Cirque du Soleil, while bottles, iconic religious figures, and eventually Carrie’s crazy, Bible-passage-spewing mother and other enemies levitate high into the gothic theater’s jaw-droppingly baroque plaster-ornamented six-story auditorium. And if one is seated in the “senior” section, four 20-person bleacher pods surrounding the playing area directly in front of the massive stage, you’ll be in for another thrill, as performers and other workers push and pull the units from behind along with the action, giving patrons the sense of one of those classic vertigo-inducing mirror-bending camera effects made famous in movies just like the original Carrie.
   The ensemble cast is dizzyingly energetic and super-talented, with special nods to the sensational Misty Cotton as Carrie’s shrew of a born-again Jesus-freak zealot mother, elevating (no pun intended) Margaret’s show-stopping solo “When There’s No One There” to a level not achieved since Betty Buckley clutched her crucifix in the role. Kayla Parker is also a standout as surviving flashback witness Sue Snell, who knocks it out of the gymnasium with the gorgeous “Once You See” and in the haunting love ballad “You Shine” in a sweet duet with Jon Robert Hall as her poor doomed boyfriend Tommy Ross.

Still, as stunning as is Schwind’s visionary staging and as beautifully augmented as it is by Lee Martino’s ultraspirited choreography, the wonder of this production—aside from hopefully heralding the potential resurrection of architect S. Charles Lee’s mind-blowingly ornate venue, opened in 1931 with financing by Charlie Chapin—is that it finally honors composer Michael Gore and lyricist Dean Pitchford’s truly gorgeous and way-too-long-overlooked musical score (to book by Lawrence D. Cohen).
   Although there was no official cast recording made of the original production, several bootlegged audio tapes were made during live performances, along with video footage surreptitiously shot from the audience. These recordings began to circulate soon after the show unceremoniously closed and became something revered, passed from worshipful devotee to worshipful devotee through the ensuing years. Hopefully, recognition for their achievement will finally come to Gore and Pitchford, and this electric, exciting musical adaptation will get the kudos it so richly deserves.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
October 15, 2015
Something Truly Monstrous
Blank Theatre at 2nd Stage Theatre

Rarely are the words zany and film noir in the same sentence. However, Something Truly Monstrous is a madcap send-up of 1940 murky melodramas like High Sierra, Johnny Eager, and The Maltese Falcon—taking a longstanding rumor and twisting the backstory to involve three Warner Bros. prestigious movie actors.
   Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre suffer through the filming of a cockamamie war romance on the Warner Bros. lot that they know will ruin their careers. It’s Bogart’s first time as a leading romantic, and the script is disastrously treacly, the title of which is Casablanca. Plus, they have to deal with their new co-star Paul Henreid, a condescending foreigner who believes he deserves to be a bigger star than either of them. After a night of drinking and plotting, the three wind up in Errol Flynn’s house, carrying around John Barrymore’s fresh corpse.

Writer Jeff Tabnick steals from a rumor started by Flynn in his autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways, that the swashbuckler lifted his drinking buddy Barrymore’s dead body from the morgue and went on a drinking spree, and reimagines if Flynn were merely a patsy, the Casablanca trio planting the body in his home as revenge for his matinee idol status. Tabnick peppers his script with appropriately hardboiled noir dialogue such as, “Not that I missed your eggs-over-easy eyes darin’ me to keep down last night’s supper." The dialogue is not merely clever, it’s very funny. Tabnick ridicules not only the genre that made Lorre and Bogart famous, but also the shallowness of Hollywood relationships and the oligarchy of the studio system.
   Even the subtleties will tickle film fans. Here the cast is as desperate to escape filming Casablanca as the characters in the film were to flee. While the expatriates scrounge for exit papers to leave the Nazi-ravaged city, the actors are stuck with papers (studio contracts) that bind them to films they would never choose of their own volition.
   The characters are caricatures of their onscreen personas, and the three actors exaggerate those mannerisms to comic effect. Jason Paul Field’s Bogey is a tough-guy poseur, constantly drunk and frenziedly hiding his insecurities. Amir Levi is the greasy, whiny version of Lorre, more in tune with his Casablanca character, Ugarte, than how many in Hollywood remember the dignified European. Jilon VanOver, who hovers over both of his co-stars, turns the bon vivant Henreid into a cocky snake in the grass with movie delusions of grandeur. The play generates many laughs from VanOver’s Austrian pronunciations whenever Henreid is trying to frantically sound all-American.
   Director Daniel Henning and his crew turn the set into that of a B movie. Jeremy Pivnick’s low-key lighting turns Levi’s sweaty face and buggy eyes into something truly monstrous. The rear projection of 40s Hollywood streets, like the rear projections in the cheaper movies of the day, have the characters driving the same street over and over. The sets, by Chad Dellinger, are façades and faux cars made of boxes. In a meta-visual joke, when each of the play’s scenes complete, an end-of-shot bell rings, and the stage actors playing the Casablanca actors relax and chit-chat to clarify to the audience that everything we’ve seen is just make believe. Something Truly Monstrous is an early Christmas present to fans of Tinseltown’s Golden Age. Lightweight and engaging, the play entertains.

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz
October 5, 2015
Hit the Wall
Davidson/Valentini Theatre at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Village

It was late June 1969, and what a week it had been. Judy Garland had overdosed in London a few days earlier, and her remains had been interred after being on display in a Manhattan funeral home for an estimated 20,000 mourners—many of them her loyal gay following. The temperatures were in the high 90s, and the humidity was overwhelming, but still the community gathered at the clubs and in the streets of Greenwich Village to bewail and celebrate their queen. At 1:20am on June 28, the door to Christopher Street’s now historic Stonewall Inn burst open, and a swarm of New York’s “finest” announced, "Police! We’re taking the place!”
  It did not go well. Patrons were pushed and pulled as they were divided by what the officers perceived to be their gender. While many refused to produce their identifications, and while curious onlookers from other neighborhood bars and clubs began to gather outside, one roughly handled and vocally protesting lesbian was clubbed over the head with a baton. The growing crowds started chanting “Gay power!” and others spontaneously began to sing “We Shall Overcome.” Soon a full-scale riot ensued. The rest is history, marking the beginning of the gay rights movement in America.

Playwright Ike Holter and director Ken Sawyer have taken on the difficult task of trying to re-create the mood and the reasons behind the Stonewall Riots, which came down to one pressing thing: Gay people were tired to death of being treated like shit. Holter’s and Sawyer’s work is masterful, and, with the invaluable assistance of collaborators and designers, the pair has managed to turn the Center’s pintsized Davidson-Valentini Theatre into the streets of the Village almost 50 years ago.
   Kudos to Sawyer for his fluid and exceedingly imaginative staging, as well as Edgar Landa for his startlingly effective and even a tad scary fight choreography re-creating those moments when all hell broke loose. Incorporating impressively spirited and electrically energetic production numbers and original songs by Anna Waronker and The Go-Go’s Charlotte Caffey for this production, the obviously well-drilled ensemble pulls no punches—quite literally.

And what a dynamic and committed cast it is. Holter’s story is today hardly unfamiliar to most of us and, in all honesty, each character presented in Hit the Wall is doomed to be a recognizable stereotype. Without Sawyer and his team, these particular actors, the live band hovering over the small stage (Johanna Chase, Jennifer Lin, and Nicole Marcus) to beautifully interpret the music, and the kind of quality the LA LGBT Center demands in its productions, this could quickly have hit that wall and made a big drippy splat.
   There’s the nervous drag queen (Matthew Hancock) who felt he had to dress up in honor of his late-lamented former Dorothy of Oz; a pair of caustic, overly effeminate, yet streetwise party boys (Roland Ruiz and Blake Young-Fountain) who hang out on a local stoop and do their own stinging live streaming version of The Fashion Police; the self-hating Adonis (Burt Grinstead), who crooks his finger and promises passing men only an hour to worship him; the upper-class daughter, who dresses like a male dock worker (Charlotte Gulezian) despite the rift it has caused with her family.

There’s also the afro-ed, militant, self-proclaimed dyke (Shoniqua Shandai) who literally travels with her own soapbox to take to local parks and proselytize about her cause; the on-the-fence former preppie dropout (Adam Silver), whose attraction for the drag queen is confusing to them both; and, of course, there’s gotta be at least one wide-eyed milquetoast kid right off the boat from Midwestern suburbia (Jason Caceres), who can’t wait to strip out of his J.C. Penny finery and wiggle his assets at the audience.
   Aided by a supporting cast of cops and outraged neighborhood citizens, these performers simply knock Hit the Wall out of the proverbial ballpark despite the predictability of these easily pigeonholed characters. Hancock is especially mesmerizing as the reluctant, shy drag queen whose real name is not Molly Minnelli but Carson. Gulezian is also a major standout, particularly arresting in a heartbreaking late scene as her straitlaced conservative sister (an exceptional Kristina Johnson) comes to bail her out of jail and offer an alternative that is never going to happen despite how much both sisters want it to be.
   Hit the Wall is not groundbreaking theater, but it is a raucously in-your-face environmental experience that overcomes its built-in limitations. And for anyone who is not old enough to remember or has not studied the history of gay emancipation in our country, it should be a must see. Especially…right about…now.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
September 22, 2015
One Man, Two Guvnors
South Coast Repertory at Segerstrom Stage

Influenced by the popular commedia dell’arte of the 16th century, Carlo Goldoni’s 18th century archetypal The Servant of Two Masters makes a perfect model for Richard Bean’s British update of a wily servant’s service to two bosses in 1963 Brighton. Populated by some of the stock characters of the form, it is two and a half hours of pratfalls, comic timing, and improbable situations designed for maximum laughs.
   The story in brief: Rachel (Helen Sadler), whose twin brother has been murdered, is in town, disguised as her twin for revenge and in hopes that she can finally marry her boyfriend, Stanley (William Connell). She hires a servant, Francis Henshall (Dan Donohue), at the same time that Stanley also hires him. Henshall’s motives are greed and an insatiable desire to eat vast quantities of food, something that underpins a running gag of the story.
   In another pairing, Alan (Brad Culver) is in love with Pauline (Sarah Moser), who was promised to Rachel’s brother but is now hoping to elope with Alan. Also in the mix are Pauline’s father, Charlie Clench (Robert Sicular) and Alan’s father, the Latin-spouting Harry Dangle (John-David Kellar). Charlie’s secretary, Dolly (Claire Warden), helps round out the main cast along with Charlie’s old friend, Lloyd (Allen Gilmore) who owns a pub. Alfie (Louis Lotorto) and Gareth (Danny Scheie) are waiters there.

As broad a farce as can be imagined, the characters mug, pose, and engage in over-the-top antics that are prescribed by commedia’s catalog of traditions. Characters rapidly exit and enter doors on opposite sides of the stage, identities are mistaken, insults are exchanged, and it is all done in a near-manic atmosphere.
   Donohue is the star, and his physical prowess in executing his shtick is considerable. A scene in which he laboriously attempts to pick up a presumably heavy trunk is a case in point. He finally enlists two audience members to do the deed, and it is clear that the trunk is weightless. He also drafts a woman from the audience to perform silly and slightly embarrassing tasks, much to the theatergoers’ delight.
   The ensemble must work well together to accomplish the comic timing necessary, and the cast is well-chosen. South Coast Repertory resident member Kellar is particularly amusing in a verbose declamation, and Moser makes a perfectly ditsy blonde. Culver and Lotorto also kick up the action.

Another addition is The Craze (Casey Hurt, Mike McGraw, Marcus Högsta, and Andrew Niven) who serve as a skiffle musicians, enhancing the festive mood of the show. The music is peripheral but engaging.
   David Ivers’s energetic direction helps escalate the action from comic to campy. Meg Neville’s costumes are imaginative, and Hugh Landwehr’s Piccadilly scenic design is award-worthy.
   Commedia has its attractions, but this venture is overblown at times and some of the jokes miss their mark. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it is done colorfully and cheerfully.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
September 22, 2015
First Date
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

Experiencing theater—or any form of entertainment—is similar to the sensation of a blind date. Apprehension, as past disasters or boring evenings flood the mind, mix with exhilaration of a history of joyous surprises. In the opening moments, one can sense confidence in the conversation or a desperation to be adored. When the evening is finished, the audience replays all the moments, good or bad, to decide whether the memories of the night will be cherished or forgotten. First Date is an amalgam of all those quirky dates—a bit odd, quite charming, and filled with enough vinegar and heart to resonate as a memorable evening.
   Awkward Aaron (Marc Ginsburg) goes to a bar on his first real date since losing his girlfriend more than a year ago. The snarky but sympathetic waiter (Scott Dreier) points out how Aaron is trying too hard, buttoned up in his work suit where he should be more relaxed.
   The artsy Casey (Erica Lustig) immediately finds Aaron clumsy and his conversation technique a bit overbearing. Casey is a serial dater, and instead of looking for diamonds in the rough, she quickly dismisses her dates for superficial reasons. Aaron finds Casey intriguing but closed off. Can two strangers survive ghosts of their relationships past, critical best friends/relatives always putting in their two cents, and crippling insecurities to find love in this cold, loud bar? Or will they find themselves imprisoned within the ultimate consolation prize, the Friends Zone?

Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner’s score is reminiscent of musical storyteller William Finn. The songs, ordinary but compelling, reflect the anxiety of modern American life. The melodies are catchy and energetic, recollecting songwriters as diverse as Bock and Harnick, Simon and Garfunkel. The songs reveal the hiccups for contemporary daters, including religious complications, comparison-shopping your date with past lovers, and the terror that your most embarrassing moments are eternally captured on social media.
   Austin Winsberg’s book includes many witty asides and humorous episodes. He captures the humiliation one feels when leading a first date conversation to an impasse or an off-color joke. The script has a rather antiquated view of gay men, which gets tiresome: that any gay man can find love with any gay man in proximity, as if interchangeable.
   Director Nick DeGruccio has picked a fantastic cast. Ginsburg, though dashingly handsome, projects a gawkiness so that the audience can understand Casey’s apprehension. Lustig gives Casey layers, portraying someone tired of dating and being disappointed all the time, yet glimmering with hope that she can meet someone special someday.

Most of the robust laughs come from the chameleon-like ensemble: Dreier as the cynical waiter who only finds happiness pretending he’s a nightclub diva, Kelly Dorney as an imagined version of Aaron’s castrating ex, Stacey Oristano as Casey’s stern but loving sister, Justin Michael Wilcox as Aaron’s oversexed best friend, and Leigh Wakeford as Casey’s reliable date-bailout, who gets increasingly irritated throughout the evening when Casey doesn’t answer his calls. Besides these main characters, the five play wacky others in Casey’s and Aaron’s heads.
   Taking a note from the songwriter’s use of musical parody, DeGruccio uses visual motifs to draw from musical history, while choreographer Lee Martino blends punk, Modern, and traditional Jewish folk dances. During “The Girl For You,” musically reminiscent of Fiddler on the Roof’s “Tevye’s Dream,” DeGruccio has Aaron’s grandmother lifted on another’s shoulders. While “The Awkward Pause” uses the riffs from “The Sound of Silence,” the chorus dresses like hippies wandering through Scarborough Fair. Timing is everything in a zany musical comedy, and DeGruccio appropriately gives the audience no time to think before the next zinger hits.
   Stephen Gifford’s club set is fittingly antiseptic, like most chichi bars in New York, and Steve Young’s spotlights on the ceilings make everyone’s faces appear half hidden, as if everyone has something they’re trying to conceal.

First Date will remind anyone who had to suffer through the dating pool just how frightening it can be, even when both parties are worth the time. Audiences love to laugh at their past traumas, and First Date gives opportunity to find catharsis.

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz
September 21, 2015
These Paper Bullets!
Geffen Playhouse

About the best way to communicate my absolute, unalloyed pleasure in These Paper Bullets!, Rolin Jones’s Much Ado About Nothing adaptation at the Geffen, is to report that the smile that came over my face in the first five minutes stayed with me through the intermission, which I couldn’t wait to have end so that I could return for Act Two, and hung on back to my car and beyond. This bliss—rare in my theatergoing experience, whether on or off the clock as a critic— was due not just to the hilarious writing, perfect playing, canny direction, and delightful scenography. It also stemmed from the realization that everything about this production, born at Yale Repertory Theater, was clicking into place early on and proceeding seamlessly. Everything seems “right.”
   That rightness starts with the mood established in a boardroom, in which two evident middle-manager types (Brad Heberlee and Tony Manna, both wonderful) are seated at either end of a long, heavy table sipping tea, loudly, beneath a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. The painting falls crazily askew as a blustering Colonel Blimp type (a marvelous Greg Stuhr) barges in to complain about the state of youth in England today, complete with narrated newsreel footage (our Colonel standing cluelessly in front of the projector for a while) of Britain’s No.1 rock sensation, those Liverpudlian moptops universally known as Ben, Claude, Balth, and Pedro— everybody’s favorites, The Quartos.
   What are we promised in the first five minutes? That our three onstage bureaucrats will, in fact, stand in for Dogberry and his watch; that there’ll be some nuttiness afoot; that the warriors of Much Ado will in this case be returning from a triumphant international tour; that the production will steep us in the look and ethos of mod London in the 1960s; that a lot of Beatles-related punnery is in store; and, above all, that the prevailing comic mode will be droll and gentle, emphasizing the wit that drives Shakespeare’s 1600 classic more than any other play in the Bard’s canon.

And so it all comes to pass. Jones completely respects the Much Ado plot and characters, but in Carnaby Street attire and manner they simultaneously create something that’s brand new and of itself. Bea (Nicole Parker, superb), for instance, remains a free spirit deserving the sobriquet “My Lady Disdain,” but, as a Mary Quant–inspired fashion designer, she has earned her own independent acclaim and fortune, with even less reason than Shakespeare’s Beatrice to make her way to the altar. Stunning Cousin Higgy (Ariana Venturi, magnifique) readily inspires the devotion of Claudio/Claude (studly, warm Damon Daunno). But by turning her into a dizzy model hooked on vodka and Quaaludes, Jones opens the door to brilliant comic business never allotted, in my experience, to the stock Much Ado ingénue.
   The treatment of The Quartos actually creates not two but three things-in-themselves. The four are believable avatars of Shakespeare’s characters, while comprising a sly brotherhood of madcap ’60s rockers of their own, all joshing and prank-pulling and double-entendre. The villain of the piece is now the group’s former drummer, tossed out for lack of talent and reduced to the wardrobe master, thus allotting to Don Best (a toweringly sinister Adam O’Byrne) motivation for evil far more compelling than Shakespeare’s Don John can ever tap into.
Yet these central figures offer more than just Shakespearean parallels and a believable rock quartet. Their scenes have been shaped as an endlessly inventive, ever-loving homage to everything Beatle: the album covers, the public pranks, the private stories as we’ve come to know them over the years, the music (Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong provides delicious pastichey versions of early hits), and best of all, the anarchic but subtly witty worldview that burst on the world in 1964 in A Hard Day’s Night.
   Following the lead of Richard Lester’s seminal mock-rockumentary, in fact, could be one of the best contributions director Jackson Gay has made to These Paper Bullets! Yes, there are moments of farce, which Gay stages brilliantly and her cast executes to perfection—in particular, the twin scenes in which Bea and Ben (Justin Kirk, hilarious) are gulled into accepting each one’s love for the other, and the riotous interrogation of the villain’s henchman (Rod McLachlan) in the plot to undo Claude and Higgy. In conventional productions, this scene never gets anywhere near the laughs. And yes, some of the ’60s iconography is Laugh-In broad, with partygoers Jerking and Twerking and Monkeying against projections of swirling flowers as if Austin Powers had just crashed into the room.
   But again and again, Gay insists the characters remain soft-spoken and real, bantering like genuine old friends and tossing one-liners lightly into the ozone exactly the way A Hard Day’s Night, and to a lesser degree Help!, won for the Fab Four our undying affection. The Geffen cast plays the play—Bullets! and Much Ado alike—trippingly on the tongue, for real as well as for fun. Exactly what you’ve ever gone to a Shakespearean comedy to see, and much more besides.
   That this production is able to dip so deeply into 50 years’ worth of collective images and memories without ever seeming crass, obvious, or crude brings that same smile back to my face right now. I can’t say enough about this comic event. Please please me, and yourself, by going as soon as possible.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
September 20, 2015
The Object Lesson
Kirk Douglas Theatre

They say one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. The venerable Douglas has been made unrecognizable for Geoff Sobelle’s latest exploration into his own unique and unbounded form of performance art. The front rows of the theater’s seats have been removed and replaced, along with the stage, by piles and piles of old cardboard storage boxes, many labeled, some not.
   Sobelle and his innovative cohorts, director David Neumann and installation designer Steven Dufala, encourage patrons not to sit down when they enter the space but to instead explore the contents of the sea of boxes (magic marker-ed with such intriguing identifications as “A Starry Sky,” “Old Conversations,” and “The Smell of Horses”) before they pull one of them up around what feels like the center of the room to watch lone performer Sobelle go on a magical spring cleaning of the world’s most surreal storage warehouse. “There’s a fine line between vintage and crap,” he mutters as he pulls lamps and recorders and dial telephones out of cartons and arranges objects culled through a lifetime of clutter around a battered leather wing chair.
   It’s as though Cirque du Soleil decided to produce a work by Samuel Beckett, then hired the secret lovechild of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin to headline. Sobelle is a world-class clown, able to keep our attention for 75 minutes as he unearths more and more memories of his journey through life. He recounts his campout deep in the woods where a mysterious distant glow turns out to be a traffic light, an object he pulls from an old refrigerator box and proceeds to let change from red to green to yellow in a lengthy Beckett-like sequence as his rapt audience sits in complete silence.

Sobelle reminisces about a long past trip to ol’ Paree and many other adventures of his youth, recalling encounters with old friends and mourning the loss of old romances. As he does his bittersweet unpacking, he invites audience members—some seemingly surprised by their inclusion, others not—to join him in his walk down memory lane. He has one woman describe the contents she pulls out of her purse into an over-amped microphone. He offers another a romantic dinner date complete with a fine wine pulled from a box, served at a makeshift table lit atmospherically by a dented chandelier held shakily by another patron, and featuring surprisingly fresh stored lettuce, carrots, and other veggies he chops into a salad while doing a tango on the table wearing an exhumed pair of ice skates.
   Sobelle fascinates as he scales stair-stepping boxes stacked all the way to the highest grids of the Douglas, one lone figure dwarfed by the stored memories of a lifetime and lit by a huge collection of old table lamps arranged in the ghostly shadows of Christopher Kuhl’s suitably haunted lighting design.

Years of memories go by, culminating in one small box set on a table from which, for The Object Lesson’s finale, Sobelle pulls 20 times more stuff than could have fit inside, beginning with soiled infant clothing and moving through the presumed stages of his life. The contents include a large collection of reading glasses, all of which he dons and discards continuously throughout. The search culminates as a typical unmanageable tangle of electronic device cords transform slowly into an endless mass of dirt-encrusted roots.
   Ashes to ashes, dust to dust seems to be what this amazing storyteller and his fertile imagination is indicating here, as though he’s trying to tell us to divest ourselves of the clutter and old dusty baggage that grab onto our lives and become the chains that keep our brief existence on this planet moving forward. Either that or he’s just reminding us to go home and start going through that long-ignored basement storeroom.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

September 14, 2015
Kentwood Players at Westchester Playhouse

When is an English drawing-room murder mystery not an English drawing-room murder mystery? Or perhaps playwright Don Nigro’s Ravenscroft is not even a murder mystery.
   The first clue that the Kentwood Players production is not your standard whodunit is the set. Rather than cramming rooms and furnishings of the play’s remote English manor house onto the Westchester Playhouse stage, director Sheridan Cole Crawford and set designer Jim Crawford empty the entire stage and backstage area, then dot the space with mere suggestions of those rooms and furnishings.
   So there is no backdrop. The wide cyclorama at the back of the stage, occasionally reddened by lighting designer Richard Potthoff in a spurt of bloodletting, lets the audience know our imaginations must be engaged, as is that of each character.
   A hanging window frame allows a generalized view of a swirling snowstorm. The hint of a backstairs area, a vague upstairs bedroom, and the housekeeper’s cozy bedsit surround the drawing room where Inspector Ruffing (Scot Renfro) struggles to solve a murder or two.

Apparently, within the last three months, two men were found dead at the foot of the Ravenscrofts staircase. One was Mr. Ravenscroft, who left behind his wife (Andrea Stradling) and his daughter Gillian (Kati Schwartz). The other was the mysterious Patrick.
   The inspector repeatedly interrogates the family, as well as the servants: Mrs. French, (Deborah Ishida), Dolly (Jennifer Marion), and Marcy the Viennese governess (Jessica Marshall-Gardiner).
   What the characters say is only half as fascinating as what they don’t say. Some confess, then recant. Some blame the murders on ghosts, lurking in shadows. Characters, too, lurk in shadows, happening to wander into the drawing room when the inspector needs them. But here the sudden appearance of characters is not bad writing.
   After all, our hidden selves lurk in shadows, too, and then may suddenly appear. So, is the inspector a drunken pedophile, spending a few seconds in his fantasy world?

In the inspector’s world, the men are dead. They’re not even carefully described. Patrick was the “coachman, groom, repairman, gardener,” as if none of the women knew exactly what he did. Mr. Ravenscroft is described merely as a language professor. v But Patrick left behind this saying, perhaps the key to this play: “A ghost is an emotion that can’t get out.”
   The women crowd around the inspector, ultimately professing their interest in him. Are they trying to lure him into a finding of death by accident? Perhaps he is not even of the era. The women are, but he is dressed in a more modern suit than that worn in 1905 England (costuming by Marie Olivas).
   The accents here seem haphazard. And yet they’re not. Each character has his or her own distinct British or mid-Atlantic accent. The inspector suggests to Mrs. Ravenscroft that Gillian may need “professional help.” My, what a modern expression for 1905. But whether from the alcohol or from psychoses, the inspector begins to crack.

The play goes on awhile too long, feeling a touch bloated and repetitive even in the first act. Still, there’s fun to be had in solving the mysteries along with Inspector Ruffing.
   Most noticeably, the hands on the clock—one of only two items spotlit at the darkened beginning and end of the play’s two acts—don’t move. The other item, a birdcage, imprisons a songbird that, like the emotions here, can’t get out.
   This play may leave its audience puzzled, vaguely troubled, and yet somewhat entertained. Certainly, those deeply irked by questions left unanswered should not attend. But those who want to dig into the human mind will appreciate it as an even greater mystery than those English drawing-room ones.
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 14, 2015

Republished with kind permission of Los Angeles Daily News
Psycho Beach Party
Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre

A performance of Charles Busch’s campy Psycho Beach Party should be great fun. For the audience, that is. The actors will have their fun during rehearsals, getting the giggles out of the way and figuring out the innuendo so they don’t realize it on opening night in front of an audience. By the time the show is on the boards, the cast must be fully committing to the camp, not smirking and not self-conscious.
   In Long Beach Playhouse’s production, at its Studio Theatre through Oct. 3, directed by Dale Jones, the cast is clearly having fun onstage. Unfortunately almost none of the actors captures that absolute commitment and adherence to the kitschiest of styles, the spoof. Nor do they particularly evoke the play’s era.
   The beach party of the title is based on 1960s beach movies and the television series Gidget. The psycho of the title, pardon the spoiler, harks back to Hitchcock films. Busch’s young protagonist is Chicklet, a naive perky teen with a baby voice (originally played by Busch, here played by Amara Phelps).
   More than anything else, Chicklet wants to learn to surf and to be one of the boys on a Malibu beach. But Chicklet doesn’t always act like Chicklet, and the split personalities emerging from her over the play include quite the variety of characters, which Phelps switches on swiftly and adeptly.
   Against a twirling red Op art background à la Vertigo, Chicklet morphs into her “true nature,” Ann Bowman, who claims to be queen of dominatrices. With low voice and drawling delivery, Phelps’ Ann seduces the defenseless lads on the beach.

At least, most of them are lads. Gender-swapped casting is part of the fun—in this case for the actors and for the audience. Two women—Alyssa Garcia and Ebony Priddle—play two of the surfers, taking the audience on a mind-bending hang-ten ride.
   The most deliciously Buschian transformation, though, is by John Downey III, who plays Chicklet’s mommy dearest, creating her though a physical caricature of Joan Crawford via Faye Dunaway.
   Meanwhile, playing it straight, irrespective of whether her character is or isn’t, Emma Bozanich is Berdine, Chicklet’s book-smart best friend. Bozanich is the acting highlight here, evidencing the talent for a long future in comedic roles.
   Highlights of Jones’ direction are the dancing on surfboards in front of a huge wave, and a slo-mo slugfest. The highlight of the script may be how Bettina, the new-in-town Hollywood starlet (Nicole Xavier), persuades two wannabe writers (Garcia and Priddle) to clean up her yard as part of the movie they’re pitching to her.

Evoking the era, Donna Fritsche’s costumes are beautifully crisp and well-fitted.
   But in several scenes, ignoring the theater’s already inadequate sightlines, Jones places his actors on the floor far downstage. The first row can see the actors here, but audience members in the second row continually shift in their seats for a better look. The audiences in rows behind that are pretty much stuck listening to the dialogue to figure out what’s going on. On opening night, family and friends in the audience seemed willing to crane their necks, but not everyone else will want to or be able to. This show is definitely not for the kiddies. Busch, when not painting in mild sexual innuendo, speaks in dialogue that’s on the nose—and other body parts.
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 7, 2015

Republished courtesy of Long Beach Press-Telegram

International City Theatre

Fences keep people out, fences keep people in. Fences separate races and generations. For Troy Maxson, they also represent goals not reached and, for as long as he can manage, a barrier to death.
   Set in the 1950s, Fences is one of the 10 plays August Wilson wrote, each one chronicling a decade in 20th-century African-American life. In this production at International City Theatre through Sept. 13, realism, symbolism, and the sins of the father fill the stage as potently as they did 30 years ago when the play premiered.
   Troy (Michael A. Shepperd) began life with great potential and great handicaps. His mother walked out on his abusive father. Troy ran away from home at 14 but became a star in the Negro Leagues. Racism halted his baseball career. Or, did his troublemaking personality keep him from making the transition to the majors?
   Though now a garbage collector, Troy again strives to live the American dream. He is married to the wise and sturdy Rose (Karole Foreman) and is the father of a teenage son who has great athletic potential. On Friday nights, Troy downs a pint of gin with his best friend, Bono (Christopher Carrington). But Wilson adds complexities to Troy’s existence, some oppressively hanging over the characters, some hinted at.
   Troy’s brother, Gabriel (Matt Orduña), who suffered a serious brain injury in the war, survives on benefit checks, some of which Troy has quietly used to buy his own home. Lyons (Theo Perkins), Troy’s eldest son from a previous marriage, cares more about his conked hair and his band mates than he does about his (unseen) wife. Troy and Rose’s son, Cory (Jermelle Simon), seems destined for success, but Troy wants that to end. A third child (Mma-Syrai Alek) will be in the Maxsons’ lives by the play’s end.

Director Gregg T. Daniel shapes and calibrates this stirring production. He doesn’t beg for laughs as the play begins, he doesn’t beg for tears as it ends. He lets his audiences feel for themselves.
   Daniel also keeps the characters compact. Even Gabriel, one of the “magical” roles Wilson usually includes in each play, is magnificently realistic in Orduña’s performance—until the play’s atavistic ending, when Orduña flares under Karyn D. Lawrence’s poetic lighting.
   As Rose, who stands in the pantheon of steadfast theatrical wives, Foreman is stunningly real, whether quietly knitting on the porch or seething at Troy’s ultimate deception. If we didn’t know from the dialogue that Rose was diligent, we’d see it in the spotless laundry she pins to the wash line and in her crisply pressed dresses, which costume designer Kim DeShazo ensures can be swiftly donned during the play’s brief scene changes.
   Carrington, too, remains steady, exactly as Troy’s longtime friend has been, never stealing focus but always ready to laugh or coax.

Still, Shepperd’s performance is the stunning centerpiece here. He, like Troy, is a big man, in stature, voice, and presence. But the bigness only amplifies Troy’s broken body and broken spirit. Dark moods run in small spurts through Shepperd’s work. In a fascinating psychological study, he never “acts” the lies, perhaps because his Troy likes the self-delusion.
   Troy relentlessly clings to his dissembling and his bad choices. Above Troy’s red-brick house, scenic designer Don Llewellyn has hung the dormant branch of a tree. All but one of its leaves have fallen onto the front porch’s overhang. In a gorgeous bit of symbolism that hangs over this play, that one leaf holds fast, like Troy, refusing to give up its past.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
August 24, 2015

Republished with kind permission of Long Beach Press-Telegram.
God’s Man in Texas
2nd Stage Theatre

Media exposure to the tumult in evangelical mega-churches brought about by the clash of money, power, and ego makes David Rambo’s 1999 cautionary tale a familiar story to modern audiences. The examination of faith, conscience, and ambition is great fodder for drama.
   Dr. Philip Gottschall (Ted Heyck) is the founder and pastor of Rock Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. With 30,000 members, a broadcasting empire, two swimming pools, a bowling alley, education from preschool through college, and multitudes of self-help programs, it is an empire presided over by Gottschall with an iron fist. He is 81, though, and a successor needs to be poised to carry on.
   Enter Dr. Jeremiah “Jerry” Mears (Brian Letscher), a well-educated and charismatic preacher with a 6,000-member congregation of his own. Ambitious but still idealistic, he auditions and soon become a co-pastor to Gottschall, who is, nevertheless, reluctant to share. This sets up the conflict that drives the story.
   A third man, Hugo Taney (Tom Costello), provides tech support for the services, but dramatically he functions as a disseminator of background information, a comic foil, and a catalyst for understanding the character of the two principals. His inclusion adds life to what might have been an overlong biblical duel of faith.
   Predictably, the younger Mears is trying to reconcile his desire to take over this active Southern Baptist church, a symbol of his arrival at the top of his profession, with wanting to be principled and righteous. Gottschall’s fierce grip on the senior pastorship makes their clashes epic.

Letscher is thoroughly convincing as the conflicted pastor, grappling with compromising his personal inclinations as he tries to measure up to the demands of the job. Heyck is also effective as the petty tyrant who compromises his faith for personal gain. It’s not a new story, but in the hands of the actors it becomes a revelation.
   Note should be made of Costellos’s multifaceted portrayal of the former drug addict who is a disciple of both preachers. He is nervous, edgy, comic, and gossipy while exhibiting a vulnerability that makes him compelling even in scenes where he is the third player.
   Directed by Rambo, the thoughtful production is dynamic and well-paced. Brisk scene changes keep the focus on the actors and storyline without diminishing the emotional edge necessary in some scenes.
   The greatest compliment that might be given to this play is that it has a satisfactory ending without being the predictable hero-vanquishes-villain scenario one might expect at the outset. It is an affirmation of the human spirit that leaves the audience with food for thought.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
August 18, 2015
Moonlight and Magnolias
Surf City Theatre Company at Second Story Theater at Hermosa Beach Playhouse

A producer, a director, and a screenwriter are locked in a room for five days, trying to churn out a script for one of filmdom’s biggest epics. What could go wrong is the stuff of playwright Ron Hutchinson’s Moonlight and Magnolias.
   The epic they’re trying to make is Gone With the Wind. Filming has begun, yet legendary producer David O. Selznick (Dan Wilson Davis) has just fired director George Cukor and is replacing him with Victor Fleming (Lorin McCraley). Selznick meanwhile desperately needs a new screenwriter, so he calls in Ben Hecht (Bill Lippincott).
   So far, Hutchinson’s plot is based in fact. Reportedly so are the play’s best quips and quirks. With the door locked, the men subsist on bananas, peanuts, and ice water. Fleming mocks Hecht’s roots in Chicago journalism. Hecht mocks Fleming’s start as a mechanic and driver. The Jewish Hecht also digs into the Jewish Selznick for failing to support liberal causes, for making a film that glorifies slavery and child abuse, and perhaps—though this is unspoken—for hiring the allegedly pro-Nazi Fleming.
   Fortunately, that locked door can be opened by Selznick’s steadfast secretary, Miss Poppenghul (Jeannine Barba), who keeps the snacks coming and, to a large extent, screens Selznick’s calls.

Regan D. Floria directs here. The stage’s configuration works well for this script, giving a feel of an executive office but one that could cause claustrophobia in its imprisoned occupants. Floria has cast quite competent actors, too, though it’s possible Davis would have been better suited as the squeezed Hecht, Lippincott better suited as a steadier Selznick.
   Davis cranks up Act 1 with a feverish energy, his Selznick already knowing he may burn up his director and writer before his Atlanta set can conflagrate. This could work better if Lippincott were more befuddled, but Lippincott brings a cool common sense into the room, which makes Davis’s Selznick look too buffoonish too early on.
   Lippincott’s Hecht remains relatively placid throughout, only visibly losing his sanity once at the play’s end. By contrast, Davis and McCraley manically act out Margaret Mitchell’s novel while Hecht types dialogue.
   At least there’s vigor, and laughs aplenty, in Act 1. When the actors return for Act 2, the energy has dissipated. The three actors are too skilled to let their energy drop, so the fault may be in a lack of detailed direction in these scenes. Indeed, the script’s great sight gag very near the end of the play, involving Miss Poppenghul, fails to materialize here.
   Likewise, the otherwise adept Barba is left adrift, neither growing increasingly overtaxed nor, as the script seems to indicate, being so ditzy that she may be the wisest one there.

Where Floria’s work shines is in the little bits of shtick the actors engage in. The perpetually hungry Hecht and Fleming sneak food when the boss isn’t looking, and Floria knows when to deliver a punch line straight at the audience. Like Gone With the Wind, these old comedy bits never seem to grow dated.
   In 1940, the film earned an Academy Award for its producer, Selznick; for its director, Fleming; and for its screenwriter, Sidney Howard. Who’s that, you ask? Of Hecht, Cukor and the many other artists who labored extensively on the film, no mentions were made at the Oscars. Apparently that’s showbiz.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
August 17, 2015
Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
Torrance Theatre Company at James Armstrong Theatre

Thank goodness we’re not living in the 1960s. In those days racism was at a peak, women were shamed for being overweight, and men with poufy lacquered hair and big mouths grabbed huge TV ratings. It being August 2015, Torrance Theatre Company is presenting its summer musical at the James Armstrong Theatre. Coming at a perfect time to remind us how to effect positive change, Hairspray centers on a teenage girl who, though not considered the physical or circumstantial ideal, brings tolerance and togetherness to her city.
   Based on the 1988 film of the same name by John Waters, Hairspray boasts music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan. The score recalls the best of 1960s music, from sweet pop ballads to anthems for activism, and it keeps the story and its messages bubbling along.
   In 1960s Baltimore, music and popular dances are the subject of racism. The haters hate “that race music,” but the cool kids “dig the rhythm and blues.” Teenager Tracy Turnblad (the thoroughly effervescent Jade Taylor) is obsessed with TV dance program The Corny Collins Show. It’s lively, it’s colorful, it’s entertaining, but it is definitely not integrated.
   Once a month, Corny (Ian Hock) hosts Negro Day, despite the snobby prejudice of station manager Velma Von Tussle (Amanda Webb), who’d prefer the show focus on her daughter, Amber (Megan Davis). Tracy finds segregation and hatred utterly incomprehensible. She understands, however, that she’s the subject of another kind of disdain because she’s an “ample-American.”
   Her mother is ample, too. Edna Turnblad (Daniel Tennant) hasn’t left the house in a decade, taking in laundry and living in curlers. Still, Tracy’s dad, Wilbur (Bob Borich), adores both of them and encourages them to reach their potential.

Tracy dreams of dancing on Corny’s show. Having inherited her mother’s grace (Tennant, in the show’s hefty drag role, is a supremely nimble dancer) and her father’s can-do spirit (Borich beams a contagiously irrepressible smile), Tracy can change the world.
   She heads out with her best friend, Penny (a geekily charming Delphi Borich), to audition for the show and maybe meet its heartthrob, Link Larkin (a genuine, sweet-hearted Jayson Ziegenhagen).
   When Penny dares to like the leader of the Negro Day dancers, Seaweed Stubbs (a kind-hearted, loose-limbed Franklin Richardson), he invites Tracy and her friends into his world of fabulous music, even more fabulous dance moves, and an accepting family headed by Motormouth Maybelle (gloriously voiced Brenda Oen).
   Put in detention, threatened with “special ed” classes, and jailed overnight, Tracy remains indomitable. So does this show, despite apparent ailments on opening night. Like the show’s most celebrated song proclaims, “You can’t stop the beat.” Hock’s microphone malfunctioned throughout the night, but he kept Corny slickly moving along. Webb was visibly suffering with an injured knee, but Velma remained horrifyingly immovable against all forces of love and universality.

With apparent affection for the 1960s, Jim Hormel is the director—nay, air traffic controller—of this massive show. Rick Heckman conducts the pit orchestra, though it sounds like Quincy Jones is at the podium. Bradley Hampton’s vocal direction ensures these remarkably strong singers blend beautifully while the lyrics remain audible.
   Designer Michael Aldapa’s superb wigs and hairstyles and Bradley Allen Lock’s smashing costumes evoke sighs and smirks as the old-enough in the audience see their lives flash before them. However, choreography by Christopher Albrecht suits his best dancers but leaves the weaker ones in a literal lurch.
   Why would parents want to bring their children to this slightly saucy, very subversive entertainment? The young generations, indeed all audiences, need the inspiration that comes from seeing cool kids who are actually warm and inclusive, from watching the power of social activism instead of social media.
   You can’t stop the beat. You can’t pry the smile off Tracy’s—and the audience’s—face. You can’t stop acceptance, even if sometimes it seems like a slow slog.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
August 10, 2015

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.

No Homo
Atwater Village Theatre

When love goes wrong, there is one guaranteed salve to soothe a brutalized psyche, according to one such wounded character in Brandon Baruch’s No Homo. The only logical answer to help deflect a challenging romantic crisis? Shovel in an entire carton of Ben & Jerry’s in one indulgent setting, of course.
   Professed breeders Luke and Ash (Michael James Lutheran and Jonny Rodgers) have lived together since college, sharing an apartment with conjugal visits from willing young ladies and lots and lots of Ben & Jerry’s. Most people assume the tightly bonded roommates are “together,” something they deny vehemently despite their world-class codependency issues and a frustratingly obvious attraction for each other. Luke compensates for his disquieting feelings by starting to date Babette (Elizabeth Ellson), which leads the unnerved Ash to realize he hasn’t brought a girl home in the last two years—not since moving in with his best bro.
   The guys hang out at a loudly thumping West Hollywood gay bar regardless, meeting up there with Ash’s brother Serge (AJ Jones), whose outrageous Nathan Lane–clone boyfriend Kris (Henry McMillan) seems to have a major problem keeping “it” in his pants. As the play opens, everyone at the bar is getting along famously, doing massive numbers of tequila shots while trying to subdue Luke’s inebriated handful of a sister Chrissy (Lauren Flans). When Chrissy rises to shout out to the world that she has become a lesbian, things go south quickly, especially when Luke delivers a crushing rant of disapproval that blankets the party atmosphere faster than Donald Trump keynoting at a NOW rally.

Baruch has a marvelous talent for delivering erudite cutting-edge dialogue, which proves an ideal complement to Jessica Hanna’s sharply sophisticated and all-knowing direction. Employing her highly imaginative tongue-in-cheek staging, the play’s many filmic short scenes flow almost seamlessly on David Offner’s craftily adaptable set, especially notable when the first scene in the club suddenly morphs into Luke and Ash’s apartment, the actors grooving to Corwin Evans’ often club-mix sound design as they make the transformation.
   Most of the performances are excellent, particularly Rodgers and both Ellson and Flans as the play’s rather obligatory female characters. Jones and McMillan are adept as the mismatched lovers moving in together with disastrous results, although the chemistry between them is not as believable nor well-developed as it could be. Lutheran seems an odd choice physically, which could be overlooked if Luke’s emotional roller-coaster ride and debilitating pain appeared to come from someplace deep inside rather than only performed for an audience who deserves better.
   Sometimes overpowering Baruch’s bitingly on-target comedic skills, however, is an inherent sadness subjugating the lives of Luke and his friends, who spend a lot of time professing their love for one another when in truth it appears to only be their nonstop sexual cravings that bring them together. As Chrissy begs her brother to come out of the closet, she reasons “that way you can hate gay people as openly as the rest of us.”

Truly, self-hatred is perhaps the most destructive side effect of living any alternative lifestyle, and nothing Baruch can do to make his characters’ journey a fun ride can overcome that lingering sense of discomfiture in these people’s lives. Even the play’s one potentially meaningful friendship is destroyed by botched sexual expectations. Granted, there used to be a far more prevailing sense of low personal esteem within the gay community, something that has become much less prevalent as our society—with a major nudge from Ireland and the U.S. Supreme Court—finally starts to grow up and enter the millennium a few years late.
   Still, Baruch’s humor compensates for his predictably catastrophic plot twists and uniformly self-destructive characters whose plight, considering our daily media diet of the Bachelors, Bachelorettes, and Kardashians, is not really all that captivating. Between getting hammered at the gay bar and patio cruising at Basix Cafe, relationships come and relationships go in No Homo. But, thankfully, Baruch’s barrage of delightfully wicked inappropriate jokes continue until the play’s end.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
August 10, 2015
The Fabulous Lipitones
Colony Theatre

In an era when most musical groups are helmed by young singers with a broad appeal, barbershop quartets speak to an older demographic and are usually populated by, as the cast reminds us, old white men. In this story, three men who have sung together for nearly 30 years are looking for a replacement for their quartet member who has recently died.
   Quartet member Howard (John Racca) is also an accountant, and the practices for his group are in his Ohio basement. His wife has recently returned home after running away with another man, and he has been taking care of her major illness. Phil (Dennis Holland) owns a gym and spa salon, and he is a three-time divorcé with womanizing proclivities. Wally (Steve Gunderson), a pharmacist, lives with his mother but has recently started Internet dating.
   Thanks to a fortuitous accident, they discover a singer via the phone and invite him to come and sing with them. The major comic element in the show is supplied by Baba Mati Singh (Asante Gunewardena), a Sikh, turban-clad tenor who is affable and friendly, exhorts the guys to call him Bob, and may be an illegal alien. He also suspiciously wears a ceremonial knife. Wally and Howard are nonplussed but welcoming, but Phil spouts a diatribe of terrorist remarks and does not open his arms to this development.

This show might play better in a geographic area where more of the audience is distrustful of foreigners, but in urban Los Angeles, it sounds dated and, in many cases, offensive. Having said that, the four performers affably deliver their parts. That the group ultimately bonds and finds a common harmony is contrived, to say the least.
   Authors John Markus (who also directs) and Mark St. Germain, with impressive credentials as writers for theater and The Cosby Show, among others, have bypassed subtlety for stereotyped humor. Case in point: Two competing quartets are the High Colonics and The Sons of Pitches. References to the Kama Sutra, Lipitor, and Muslims are prominent.
   The show includes several barbershop a cappella numbers. The fellows have nice but unremarkable voices, and they do not create the commanding harmonies one expects from a winning group. Musical director Sam Kriger blends the oldie “She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage” with “Yankee Doodle,” but, by show’s end, the group delivers a little Bollywood with their conventional Americana (choreography by Murphy Cross).

Note should be taken of David Potts’s scenic design, Orlando De La Paz’s scenic artistry, and John M. McElveney’s property design and set dressing for the quintessential Midwest re-creation room. From the brown-and-aqua linoleum, laundry facilities, a bar with a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer sign prominently displayed next to a large photo of the Rat Pack, and a working barber pole, they have effectively created a great backdrop for the goings-on.
   Much more could be made of the cultural and societal differences explored in this comedy, but it goes down the lightweight sit-com avenue, and that proves disappointing. Though the premise is appealing, the execution is a misfire.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
August 1, 2015
The False Servant
Evidence Room at Odyssey Theatre

A theatrical nickel says Marivaux has never been performed this subtly. The 18th-century playwright’s work is normally expected to be performed with fluttering fans and rolling eyes. Not here, under the direction of Bart DeLorenzo.
   He has chosen a translation, of the original French version, by the elliptical contemporary British playwright Martin Crimp, that includes beaucoup de vulgarité. Throughout the production are splashes of modernity against the swatches of courtliness. So, as a wealthy woman disguises herself to be able to test the mettle of her intended husband, all sorts of modern issues spring to mind.

Naming herself Chevalier (Chastity Dotson), the woman dons a black slim-line man’s suit and sets out to eyeball her betrothed, Lélio (Christian Leffler). Along the way, she meets Trivelin (Barry Del Sherman), who claims to have been rich but is now a servant and who can’t for the life of him keep anything secret. Does Chevalier deserve any better? In many ways, she’s as deceitful as the spirit gum that glues the pencil mustache to her face.
   Lélio, meanwhile, is angling for a better marital contract with the Countess (Dorie Barton). Chevalier, in disguise, promises Lélio to assist him in testing the Countess’s fidelity. Trivelin and Frontin (Cody Chappel), the servant Trivelin is surreptitiously replacing, ponder the travails of the working class and decide to dispense with conscience.
   And, to ratchet up the high-energy high-comedy shenanigans and add commentary on the greed that seems to motivate the “lovers,” Marivaux includes Lélio’s servant Arlequin (Mathew Bazulka).

DeLorenzo favors a low-key, conversational tone here. Not surprisingly, this causes the audience to hear Marivaux’s points loud and clear. Even though the cast delivers punch lines casually, the comedy hits every target.
   The actors physicalize subtext at every turn. Leffler’s Lélio and Dotson’s Chevalier can’t keep their hands off each other, though they’re merely hanging out together like old buds. The Countess strikes balletically turned-out poses. Indeed, all the characters’ postures, and the costumes by Leah Piehl, sketch the period but don’t mimic it. John Ballinger’s music, too, refuses to establish a particular era.
   In her role, Dotson resembles (sorry) Prince (or is he the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as…). For much of the play, the only evidence the Chevalier is played by a woman are Dotson’s fully straightened knees, endemic to women. As the character switches between her female true self and her male investigative self, Dotson uses only the slightest of physical hints.

As the play concludes, the main characters visibly deflate. Whether or not they deserve better, this moment evokes tremendous empathy in the audience. We might have been expecting a theatrically happy ending, but instead we get a thought-inducing night at the theater, from which we walk away in the disappointing certainty that everything and everyone is a false servant.
   Frederica Nascimento’s set however, consisting primarily of a massive stairway, apparently serves many purposes. Kinesthetically it enlarges the possible playing space and visually it helps the audience see all of the staging. Narratively it helps characters gain and lose status and power. Symbolically, and distressingly like life, it leads to the unknown.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
July 31, 2015
Off Book
Falling Apple Productions at The Secret Rose Theatre

Borrowing a page from the likes of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, playwright Khai Dattoli’s world premiere offers intermittent dashes of fun. Her tale of a play within a play enlists each night’s audience in determining who, among a trio of characters in this nine-person cast, fills in for this supposed Off-Broadway production’s missing leading man.
   Act One occurs during the hour leading up to the opening performance of the fictitious production, titled Staging Room. Often chaotic, intentionally or otherwise, under Paul McGee’s occasionally uneven direction, this setup introduces us to the requisite ensemble of stereotypical theater folk. The story is a little hard to follow at times, due to breakneck pacing, which does a disservice to Dattoli’s often humorous repartee.

There’s Sam, the Glossophobic (fear of speaking, public or private) stage manager, played by Jay Aaseng, and his browbeaten, wisecracking assistant stage manager Jill, portrayed by Danielle Lazarakis. Matthew Bridges is Jeffrey, the harried director-cum-ringmaster of this wacky bunch, who tangles with playwright Emily Roberts, depicted in a refreshingly dry turn by Lauren Baldwin. The remainder of this group of actors-playing-actors-playing-characters includes Dattoli along with Corsica Wilson, Jennifer Haley, Luis Selgas, and Ryan Rowley, all of whom acquit themselves nicely.
   So, with the never-to-be-seen romantic lead having skipped town, unannounced, in favor of a film role shooting in Hawaii, who will step in to save the day? Here, Dattoli has done her job well. Each of three possible candidates, all of whom would be intimately familiar with every word of dialogue, plays out a scene from Act Two’s fictional production. Ostensibly done so that the other actors can offer input, it’s a masterful way to give the audience a foretaste of each nominee’s effect on what will clearly turn out to be a comically raucous mess.

Obviously, Dattoli has crafted three separate endings to her piece, including a postscript scene that puts a button on the proceedings. To name the trio from which the audience must choose or detail the potential results of each choice would be an injustice to both the company and audience alike. Suffice it to say, on the night reviewed the final decision, along with a panel in the uncredited set design, which treats all to a backlit view of offstage hijinks, offered a delightfully madcap conclusion.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
July 23, 2015
The Great Divide
Elephant Theatre Company at The Lillian Theatre

Playwright Lyle Kessler (Orphans) once said, while addressing the Playwrights Unit at The Actors Studio West where he was moderator, “I want to see blood and semen on the floor.” Clearly, he didn’t mean that literally. He seemed to suggest that playwrights should stop being frivolous and writing about shallow issues, get back to basics, have the courage to tackle gut issues, and deal with the nitty-gritty of human reality.
   His play The Great Divide seems at first to contradict his earlier dictum. It begins as a sort of screwball character comedy, but then it gets deeper and darker, to become a strange, baroque piece about oddball family values, and ends in an unexpected burst of transcendent expressionism. The blood is there, and the semen is at least inferred.
   The Old Man (Richard Chaves) is a tyrannical father of two sons, Colman (Adam Haas Hunter) and Dale (Brandon Bates). He’s a larger-than-life figure and a teller of tall tales, and, according to him, what he says is truth, regardless of what others may think. He’s obsessed with his Albanian heritage, baseball, his own eccentric standards of behavior, and controlling the lives of his sons. The sons, however, are desperate to escape his baleful control. Colman fled the home years ago and hasn’t been heard from since. Dale has taken to writing his desperation out in stories, which he keeps locked in a safe so the Old Man can’t find and read them and use them against him.

When the play begins, the Old Man has apparently died two days before and is laid out on the living-room sofa in a devout attitude. Dale arrives, bringing the long-lost and recalcitrant Colman. Colman resents being home and refuses to believe the Old Man is dead. He demands that Dale pinch him to be sure. Dale reluctantly delivers a sharp pinch, at which point the Old Man springs into life and grabs him in a chokehold. It emerges that the Old Man was determined to bring Colman back into his orbit and figured correctly that the only way to induce him to return was by faking his own death.
   The Old Man immediately resumes his domineering ways, belittling Dale as a ninny who does nothing but write stupid stories he won’t attempt to publish or let anyone read, and Colman as a gutless ne’er-do-well and drifter. He demands that his sons join him in a baseball game, and they, back in thrall, acquiesce. While they’re out, Colman’s girlfriend Lane (Kimberly Alexander) and her brother Noah (Mark McClain Wilson) arrive in pursuit of Colman. Finding no one at home, they break into the house. Lane is a charming but slightly fey young woman who’s convinced she’s pregnant with Colman’s baby, though no one else seems to believe it—and she’s also a gifted safecracker. Noah is a larcenous human one-armed bandit, having lost his left arm in questionable circumstances. He has discovered Dale’s safe and, convinced it contains money, plans to rob it.
   When the Old Man and his sons return home, there’s a confrontation in which Lane announces she’s carrying Colman’s baby. Commitment-shy Colman is appalled, but the Old Man is delighted: the family will go on and preserve his heritage. The safe is cracked, Dale’s stories are read, there are gunshots, a large sum of money changes hands, and a life-and-death struggle between father and sons begins to play out. Then, mysteriously, Kessler achieves an epiphany in which all the conflicts are magically and improbably resolved.

Kessler has to fudge a bit to achieve his benevolent ending, but there are so many good things in his play that it hardly matters. As with many of Shakespeare’s comedies, we don’t necessarily believe the happy ending, but we buy it just the same. Kessler gives us funny, richly observed characters and a sharp examination of the ambiguities inherent in family conflicts. And David Fofi gives the piece impeccable and sympathetic direction.
   Chaves plays the Old Man with such exuberance that he’s obnoxious without being hateful, and Haas Hunter proves that he’s one of the best young actors around. Bales’s Dale is wistfully charming and self-effacing, Alexander’s Lane is appealing, and Wilson’s Noah is suitably obstreperous.

Reviewed by Neal Weaver
July 18, 2015
The Theatre @ Boston Court

Breaking out of old patterns, ridding ourselves of toxic habits, or just growing up sometimes requires extreme courage. In this highly metaphoric play, the character who navigates the path of maturity and change is given the qualities of the Hindu deity Shiva. Sometimes it takes the strength of a god to even step on that path. Shiv is given a sensuous, mesmerizing, and thoroughly thought-provoking production at The Theatre @ Boston Court. Those daring to see it should be prepared to think, feel, and reflect, whatever part of life’s path one is currently treading.
   Written by Aditi Brennan Kapil, this 90-minute odyssey into the mind centers on Shiv, presumably a grown woman and a first-generation American of Indian descent. But, as with Shiva, gender and age are not always completely clear with this character. Director Emilie Beck, her cast, and her design team enhance the possibilities.
   Shiv is played by Monika Jolly, whose close-cropped, gently tufted hair gives no clue, or many clues, about Shiv. Holly Poe Durbin’s costuming dresses Shiv in innocent white, covering enough of Jolly’s body to make gender and age somewhat uncertain. After all, Shiva is the transformer, usually male but sometimes apparently taking on female aspects.
   Jolly endows Shiv with a radiance that gives even Tom Ontiveros’s lighting a run for its money. Shiva may be the destroyer, but out of destruction comes transformation, and the energy this takes seems beyond human capability. Or is it? Mustn’t we dig deep and be willing to act with the courage of a god?

In part, Shiv lives with her father in a run-down, cramped apartment in Skokie, Ill. He (played by Dileep Rao with childlike energy and hidden sadness) has given his child intelligence and independence. Yet, for a long time, that child clings to her Bapu, physically, emotionally, and then in memory. As he relives his own childhood flying kites, Bapu seems like the child in this relationship. As Shiv matures, Bapu’s flaws come into focus. But also coming into focus are two “Western” men. Unlike Bapu, they’re materialistic, virile, and shod.
   Shiv quickly recognizes that the handsome, patient, just-tempting-enough Gerard (James Wagner) lives just out of reach, while the imperialistic Professor (Leonard Kelly-Young) lives in a stagnant, materialistic past.
   For years, Bapu has warned Shiv of the destruction and transformation of colonialism: submission and reconquering, Britain and India, India and the Western work force, “Star Trek” and alien worlds, and psychological ties between parents and children. Manifestations of those ties fill the picturesque stage (scenic design by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz). Across the scenes stretch kite strings, clotheslines, electrical wires, and ropes that help the audience visualize sails, doorways, and other means of escape.
   Now Shiv must decide whether to keep listening to the warning voice of Bapu or dive into unknown waters of the roiling ocean that surrounds all of us. Where, in all this, is Shiv’s mother? It’s one of the many questions Kapil leaves for the thoughtful theatergoer to ponder.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
July 13, 2015

Republished courtesy Los Angeles Daily News
The Bitch Is Back
The Edye at The Broad Stage

To be clear, the woman of the title is not only the writer-performer of this solo show, Sandra Tsing Loh. The woman of the title is all women who live to be “of a certain age.” These women have become the largest segment of American women. These women are menopausal.
   Known as an author, comedian, and radio essayist with a wry intellectual take on mankind, Loh makes this performance piece—subtitled An All-Too Intimate Conversation—highly personal and extremely universal. The evening is not for kids—though hers “happened” to be there on opening night. It may not even be for men—though the dutiful were there, some laughing in pained recognition of descriptions of their wives, partners, mothers, sisters.
   Assigned by her editor at The Atlantic magazine to pen an article on menopause, at first Loh balked. Eventually her research, personal experiences, and sense of humor blended into an article in 2011, from which emerged a memoir, titled The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones, and then this solo show.

Thanks to careful staging (no programs are on hand, and no director is credited) consisting of two rows of theater seating in a horseshoe surrounding café tables, there are no bad seats. But it also helps that Loh is a perpetual motion machine, bouncing among tables and zipping up the aisles. Even when she’s seated, she is rolling around the playing area. Lighting seems magnetized to her path (an uncredited crew hovers attentively in the booth high above the seats).
   Loh is gentle in her audience interaction. Shout out a good answer to one of her Socratic questions (describing her outfit and its purpose accurately), and you get a bit of interplay with her. Shout out an appalling answer (advising women to start drinking at 4pm), and she allows the audience its laughter but skillfully moves on.
   Her outfit—a vibrantly orange top draped over black stretch pants—forms a pointed topic of conversation, as she blasts her body and its menopausal shape. It also cleverly lets her dance around the room. But at the end of the show, the top comes off. Not to worry: An orange tank top lurks under the draped affair. The shape nonetheless revealed is pretty darned toned, the spine supple, whatever her time of life.

Worth the price of admission, but, better than that, cheaper than a visit to a physician, the evening infuses its intended targets with a feeling of satisfied well-being. After all, as she basically concludes at the end of her 75-minute foray into the essence of women, these are the good old days.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
July 10, 2015

Off the King’s Road
NKBL Productions at Odyssey Theatre

An inspired supporting cast and a superb set salvage the heavily flawed script here. Neil Koenigsberg’s play is nobly modeled on the Bergman film Wild Strawberries, centering on an older man trying to come to grips with his regrets. But the writing is repetitious, it is on-the-nose, and it is predictable in a not-enjoyable way.
   Matt Browne (Tom Bower) comes to London at the recommendation of his psychiatrist (Thaddeus Shafer). Matt checks in at a “quiet townhouse with private gardens just off the Kings Road” (we hear this description twice). Soon, and frequently thereafter, we learn that he’s a widower, that Wild Strawberries is his favorite film, that he plans to do the usual touristy stuff. Thanks to his shrink, Matt is armed with medication and instructions to write his daily plans on a blackboard (another Wild Strawberries parallel).
   Along his voyage of self-discovery, he meets the hotel manager (Michael Uribes), the resident eccentric (Casey Kramer), and the hooker with a heart of gold (Maria Zyrianova). Despite their clichéd purposes in the script, each is far more interesting than Matt’s journey. In large part that’s because Bower, aside from being nearly inaudible at times, gives no specificity to his character.

Director Amy Madigan tries giving Neil Koenigsberg’s writing a sheen of magical realism, but the writing can’t stand up even under that light touch. And as obvious as the writing’s flaws are during Act One, Act Two begins with a recapitulation of the events and characters from 20 minutes before.
   At least Madigan gets solid performances from her supporting cast—particularly Kramer as the cat lady and possibly something more angelic. But the director apparently couldn’t pull more from Bower, so he remains at best bland and at worst unnerving. Watching Matt cuddle with his inflatable Judy, and with the presumably more real hooker, evokes disquietude rather than sympathy, and that’s probably not where this play is meant to go.
   But, oh, the set! Joel Daavid squeezes three hallways, a “superior double” room, a reception area, and a bedsit into the 99-Seat Odyssey stage, and does so with unbelievably sturdy carpentry and charming details. He makes the hotel one to be checked into, even if the play isn’t worth checking out.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
June 29, 2015
How to Be a Rock Critic
Kirk Douglas Theatre

The lesson to be learned here is not how to be a rock critic but how to be a human being, experiencing instead of describing, taking action instead of observing. When the theatermakers are teaching this lesson, this piece is at its finest. When the theatermakers are trying to make theater, even they must still learn a few things.
   This world premiere solo show is written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, directed by Blank and performed by Jensen, “based on the writing of Lester Bangs.” He, of course, is widely considered to have been not merely a rock critic but the rock critic, the best of a breed.
   In his seedy, slovenly room, Bangs plays vinyl records for us. He drinks copiously of Romilar cough syrup, vodka, and beer, while he pops prescription pills (probably not his prescriptions) and LSD (Bangs died, age 33, of an “accidental” drug overdose). Tonight, he dances like someone who has been drinking and dropping acid. And he speaks like no one since Alexander Pope.
   “Don’t ask me why I obsessively look to rock ’n’ roll bands for some kind of model for a better society. I guess it’s just that I glimpsed something beautiful in a flashbulb moment once, and perhaps mistaking it for prophecy have been seeking its fulfillment ever since,” Bangs is often quoted as saying—a quote, among many others, that makes its way into this theatricalized evening in his life.

Bangs reflects on his upbringing (by a Jehovah’s Witness–practicing mother and an absentee father), on his passion for writing and for writing rock criticism (which he had fully engaged in since age 12), and on his observations and experiences (keyed to the 1960s and ’70s). Blank and Jensen weave the music of Bangs’s teen and young adult years into the text and into the show’s soundscape, along with the blissful sound of a Smith Corona typewriter.
   Bangs invites the audience into his home, offers us magazines and beers, and allows us to penetrate his self-reflection. What he shows us, in addition to his vast knowledge of rock, is his constant failure to participate in life, instead reviewing it. A woman is horribly abused, a child is frighteningly mistreated, and all he can do is objectively write about it. His confessions shame his audience, evoking our guilt for times past when we, too, failed to speak up, rescue, change an outcome.
   Jensen’s performance is a knockout. Every cell of his body is throbbing with this character. At no time does he seem to “act,” though Bangs knows there’s an audience in the room and repeatedly interacts with us. Blank’s direction lets Jensen slip and slide across the album-strewn premises. Blank lets him hydrate via all those bottles (though that last beer sure foams up out of the can). The pain evoked at so many turns is wide and deep, as Bangs recalls his father’s death, his own desperation for a girlfriend, his disappointment in rock gods.
   But the character continually breaks up his revelations over the 80 minutes of the show to remind us he’s searching among his disorganized piles of vinyl for the one, true, great album in rock history. This takes the audience out of the moment, out of another chance to experience Bangs’s pain and ponder his ideas and use of language. And that’s another opportunity squandered.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
June 18, 2015
Pasadena Playhouse

It is pre–World War II Siam, and young student Noppon (Bie Sukrit) is fascinated with America and its culture. With the enthusiasm of youth at 22, he extolls its virtues to his friends, who are a bit more skeptical. When he is given the opportunity to escort distinguished diplomat Chao Khun Atikarn (Thom Sesma) and his beautiful younger American wife, Katherine (Emily Padgett), Noppon improbably falls instantly in love with Katherine, even though there is little chemistry evident in their various encounters. What progresses is a sudsy love affair consummated in an elegant waterfall. As Noppon’s fortunes rise in spite of his passion for Katherine, her fate is a downward spiral.
   Theatrical pros Richard Maltby Jr. (book and lyrics) and David Shire (music) have the bones of an intriguing plotline that comes from a classic Thai novel, Behind the Painting, by Siburapha. Its romantic sensibilities might have transferred well if the need for lush theatrical melodrama hadn’t taken over. While the music is pretty and the choreography arresting, it is insubstantial and sometimes a political polemic pitting Thai culture against rising Japanese aggression.

Sukrit is a pop star in his native Thailand, and he is charmingly dashing even as he deals with making sure he enunciates American dialogue clearly and effectively. Padgett’s lyric soprano handles the Maltby-Shire score well, though her character is bland even in her most melancholy moments.
   Sesma gets the meatiest role as the troubled husband struggling with his reserved Thai nature, trying to demonstrate his love for Katherine. “My Wife, Katherine” articulates his conflicts. As Nuan, a servant to Katherine, J. Elaine Marcos has a few choice moments in her disapproval of Noppon’s pursuit of Katherine and a touching one at the end of the play as she exhibits sorrow for her mistress.
   Noppon’s friends, Santi (Jordon De Leon) and Surin (Colin Miyamoto), aquit themselves well as the skeptics, and quirky American-born Kumiko (Lisa Helmi Johanson) gives the production a much-needed jolt of energy as she articulates her between-two-worlds conflict in this changing Asian landscape. In a semi-sinister moment, foreign minister Takamoto (Steven Eng) sings “I Like Americans,” and, remembering wartime history with Japan, the song is quite effective even though a bit caricatural. Also notable is a duet by Sukrit and Padgett, “You Cannot Tell Me Not to Love You.”

The large cast is well-directed by Broadway and Thai impresario Tak Viravan with co-direction and choreography by Dan Knechtges. Gorgeous costumes throughout the production by Wade Laboissonniere amp up the appeal, particularly in the ethnic Thai dance numbers. Stellar scenic design by Sasavat Busayabandh also elevates the play’s impact throughout, particularly the stage-wide titular waterfall. An impressive train platform and locomotive is also a bold choice.
   Asia’s move toward democracy, the passage of time, and the thematic idea of never forgetting your first love anchor the core of the play. Its potential for success as a Broadway debut in 2016 is mixed at the moment, but with some judicious tightening and more depth in key human elements, it could be successful. It is still a lovely work in progress.

Reviewed by Mindy Schupmann
June 14, 2015
The Production Company at the Lex Theatre

The political satire Enron spells out how one of the largest energy companies in the world toppled in 2001 due to accounting fraud. Employing musical comedy techniques and puppets, writer Lucy Prebble and director August Viverito mix a spoonful of sugar into repulsive subject matter.
   Enron founder Kenneth Lay (Alex Egan) hits a crossroad when he chooses Jeffrey Skilling (Skip Pipo) for the company’s president over Claudia Roe (Ferrell Marshall). While old-school Claudia wants to build power plants in third-world countries so that Enron will control energy worldwide, Skilling wants Enron to evolve into an energy trading company, where no goods are produced, turning the company into a gigantic pyramid scheme. Self-deluded Skilling is a flimflam man, conning the government, his employees, his lawyers, and the heads of his accounting firm into buying the scam.
   Prebble’s script is both funny and angry. She paints no one as mustache-twirling villain. She sees Lay out of his league, someone capable of building an empire but too childlike to understand the consequences of his company’s new direction. He’s blinded by high stock prices. Skilling loves his daughter and tries to teach her the importance of the dollar. These may be indecent men, but they are written as fully realized humans.

Viverito has created a witty visual cartoon. Characters are represented as Three Blind Mice, a ventriloquist and his dummy, a mangled version of Lady Justice, and a Siamese twin Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Shell companies personified as ferocious velociraptors with laser-red eyes are a witty conceit. The set, by Viverito, contains neon lights and flashy signs to illuminate the razzle-dazzle of the übercompany while revealing nothing of its shadow underside. When the audience returns for Act Two, the banker boxes have been moved so they’re stacked as an inverted pyramid, ready to tumble at any moment.
   Enron mostly works because of Pipo’s sterling portrayal of Skilling. He captures Skilling’s Darwinian contempt for anyone who doesn’t strive for ultimate success and his self-deception that he is truly the hero of the story, savior to his employees and the market at large. Marshall is wickedly funny as the good Southern belle, one of the most powerful women in the world when the play opens, who is at first exposed as a heartless, backstabbing queen bee but who eventually is the only person who wanted Enron to do something that benefits the world.
   Egan turns Lay in a buffoon, clueless and irresponsibly ignorant of the machinations around him. He has given the keys of the kingdom to the Pied Piper and knew enough of the evils to never ask questions. David Lombard plays Andy Fastow, the architect of the scheme, as a sycophant who just wants daddy to love him. Each ensemble member is excellent, but Judy Nazemetz stands out as a stock analyst who truly believed in Enron’s magic and feels hoodwinked in the end.
   Humor is sometimes the perfect vehicle to expose harsh realities. Enron is an amusing, biting interpretation of the scandal, both didactic and illuminating, that mockingly uncovers the hubris found in a greedy society.

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz
June 9, 2015
4000 Miles
Kentwood Players at Westchester Playhouse

Most who analyze theater agree that conflict drives great plays. Strong conflict roils the audience’s collective gut. In scripts such as Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles, however, the audience is instead left with a gentle nudge.
   In Kentwood Players’ rendition, a perceptive director and a skillful cast at least make this a pleasant evening, spent in a roomy Greenwich Village apartment, beautifully designed by Jim Crawford, sturdily constructed and sweetly appointed.
   In theater, conflict occurs when characters want something the others don’t want. What do the characters want here? Leo, having bicycled across the country, arrives at his grandmother Vera’s apartment in the early morning. He apparently wants to stay the night. What else? Does he just want free coffee and a washer-dryer? Does he want her to comfort him? Does he even know what he wants?
   Vera wouldn’t mind if he stayed longer. But why? Is she feeling familial obligation? Does this widow miss companionship? Does she love this child of her youngest daughter, who moved to Minnesota for reasons never revealed to the audience?
   It’s not clear at the outset how well Vera and Leo know each other. We begin to empathize with them because they’ve lived with or watched or perhaps caused the troubles in their lives. But what these two must learn here is not clear, so we can’t discern what they have learned by the play’s end.
   Is Vera ravaged by memory loss, or is she being coy? Either way, she tells Leo she can’t remember words and she can’t remember much of her apparently colorful past that includes Marxist politics. Leo wants to forget his past. Two life-changing things happened to him before the play begins: one he didn’t cause but tried to clean up, and one he caused and may now be trying to clean up.
   Over the course of the play—somewhere, not hammered home by Herzog—Vera offers Leo bits of advice. She reminds him to help others, share experiences, forgive and forget.

Director Gail Bernardi clearly elicited the souls of these characters. Even Herzog’s jarring comedic lines that end earnest scenes have heft and leave the audience thinking about the conversation and not the joke. Vera is no cartoonish old lady in the hands of actor Michelle Rosen; Vera is a real woman who experienced a very full life. Leo is no mere slacker as Dan Fagan plays him; Leo is cheerful and energetic and may have the potential for a productive life.
   So we don’t mind watching as grandma and grandson hold genial chats over coffee or a bong. But the stuff of dramatic conflict has been occurring offstage: The characters from whom Vera and Leo need something don’t talk to these two or are now deceased. The most damaged relationship may be that between Leo and his adopted sister, whom he kissed in a peyote-befuddled incident much previously.
   His “best friend” Micah—no one reveals the extent of that relationship—was killed in an accident that could be the stuff of comedy. After Leo pours the tale out to his grandmother, she says her hearing aid isn’t turned on.
   Here and throughout, Herzog offers metaphor aplenty about broken lines of communication. Vera and her elderly neighbor check in daily by phone but never see each other. Leo refuses to phone his parents. His session with his sister over Skype ends uncomfortably.
   Herzog brings two other characters onstage. Leo’s soon-to-be-ex girlfriend (Alexandra Johnston) stops by, bitter at first, then enlightened. In between, Leo brings home a pickup (Zoe Kim), whom he treats with mild respect if not confusion.

In sum, Leo arrived at Vera’s, gentle and footloose. When the play ends, he remains gentle and footloose. Grief, guilt, mourning, recollection, forgiveness—these waft by, presumably meant to be tied up at the play’s end. Leo had deliberately avoided Micah’s funeral. Now, he and Vera are leaving for the funeral of a woman he never met. Herzog ends the character arc with his banally penned eulogy.
   The distance across America is under 3000 miles. Herzog’s characters still have a long way to go.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
May 18, 2015
The Woodsman
Coeurage Theatre Company at Lyric-Hyperion Theatre & Cafe

When the film version of Steven Fechter’s play The Woodsman hit theaters in 2004, it was met with a firestorm of shocked reactions. Many felt the main character, played on film by Kevin Bacon, was painted with too much sympathy for the man and sugarcoated the horrendous impropriety of the crime that had led to his character spending 12 years in prison.
   Perhaps the same could be said for the stage version from which the screenplay was lifted but, in the capable hands of director Jeremy Lelliott and featuring a tour-de-force performance by Tim Cummings as the tortured Walter, the results are far more intriguing than they are repellant, somewhat akin to the sick feeling one gets while still slowing down at the scene of a car accident. It’s surprisingly hard not to somehow end up sympathizing a bit too much with Walter, a man on parole for molesting a 10-year-old girl, despite the grisly nature of his crime.

The play begins as Walter sits on a nearly bare stage, suffering through one of his weekly court-ordered therapy sessions with an overly eager by-the-book psychologist (Mark Jacobson, alternating with John Klopping in the role), a man whose cheery personality makes Walter’s skin itch. Watching Cummings’s portrayal, under Lelliott’s piercingly subtle tutelage, we are privy to the ex-con’s struggle not to act out again as he lives with his past. “If memories aren’t important,” he asks his therapist, “why do we have to talk to people like you?”
   Along the way, he begins an affair with a streetwise, outwardly butch co-worker (in a strikingly honest performance by Julianne Donelle, who alternates with Joey Nicole Thomas) at the warehouse where both toil as underpaid manual laborers. Theirs is a relationship that seems to constantly be careening into disaster, like a wobbly car on an old wooden rollercoaster. With deference to her own history of childhood sexual abuse, Nikki still does not see Walter as a lost cause, unblinkingly observing to him that he’s a “little hung up on what’s normal.”
   Walter also sees what’s before him: his brother-in-law Carlos (Cesar Ramos, alternating with Christopher Salazer), who has a bit of a problem dealing with his feelings toward his own pre-pubescent daughter, at least in Walter’s mind, and an unseen predator he calls Candy, a man he observes each day, from his third floor apartment window, trying to pick up young boys getting out of the middle school across the street. Then there’s his haunted nightly visits from the vision of his young victim, played by Katie Pelensky (alternating with Erin Sanzo), who also doubles as Robin, an 11-year-old birdwatcher Walter meets in the park and pursues despite knowing his tormented interest in her could send him back to prison for life.

No, this is hardly Mary Poppins, but it is a jarring and fascinating study of a man who, despite his inclinations, is still a human being in need of understanding and succor in his struggle to fight the demons inside him. Without a doubt, in the wrong hands The Woodsman could be an exercise in the uber-creepy, without a moment’s rest from hacking away at one of society’s most inappropriate and controversial topics. There is even a visit from a monstrously villainous black-hat of a police officer watching Walter’s every move (an appropriately unsettling turn by a scary Gregor Manns, alternating with Nardeep Khurmi), who appears to be lifted right out of a gritty and unapologetically exploitive 1970s cop movie.
   Still, Lelliott’s production rises way above the obvious emotional manipulation inherent in Fechter’s script, emerging as an amazing deep exploration into the nature of deviance. The bare-boned production uses only three wooden chairs, minimal props and staging choices, shadowy lighting by Michael Kozachenko that elicits an old Universal Studios B-horror movie, and sound designer Joseph V. Calarco’s continuously stormy and well-timed thundering background noise to increase the sinister factor exponentially.
   Throughout, honoring Lelliott’s simple yet risky choices, coils the astounding performance by Cummings that makes the viewer root for Walter’s desperate desire for wellness and relief from his agonizing dreams and kinky desires, while never letting up on the threat of the character snapping. It is an unsettling but mesmerizing journey to take, one that will leave the viewer wanting to go home and take a long, hot, cleansing shower. And oddly, that somehow seems like a good thing.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
May 18, 2015
Motown the Musical
Hollywood Pantages

Is there a more critic-proof title out there than Motown the Musical? Not only does it indicate exactly what it is (an overview of the recording powerhouse founded by Berry Gordy) and what it contains (three decades’ worth of soulful hits), but the audience at which it’s aimed couldn’t possibly be deterred by anything negative anyone said. Those for whom the Detroit playlist amounts to the soundtrack of their livesand—I heartily confess I’m one of them—wouldn’t think of missing it. A night of revisiting every hot hit from 1958 to 1983, from “ABC” to “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” sung and danced by an ensemble of 34? I’m there!
   But you don’t have to have grown up during the glory days of Motown to instantly put something called Motown the Musical onto your calendar. During an era when pop music was undergoing sea changes monthly, or so it seemed, the sound coming out of Gordy’s shop was something extra special. Even today’s youngsters find themselves drawn to the elemental emotion of “You’re All I Need to Get By,” “My Girl,” or “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Or they’re captivated by the witty wordplay of “The Love You Save” and “Do You Love Me.” Or they’re swept up in the propulsive rhythms of “Dancing in the Street,” “The Happening,” and a dozen more. Once you’re hooked by any one Motown hit, in my experience, you’re hooked on the label for life, and the prospect of a retrospective tuner becomes a must-see. The curtain rises on a sing-off between spot-on recreations of The Four Tops and the Temptations; need I add it only gets more blissful from there?

For adoring fans, it won’t matter a damn when I report—as so many other critics did when the show premiered on Broadway—that the structure, story, and dialogue are about as hollow as they could possibly be. Gordy (Julius Thomas III, energetic to a fault) is refusing to show up for an all-star 25th anniversary salute, at the prospect of which “the Chairman” is moved to go down Memory Lane and conjure up his life and not-so-hard times: the early struggles; the development of artists who ended up leaving; the tumultuous (I believe that’s the standard adjective) ’60s, and, of course, his love affair with Diana Ross (wondrous sound-alike Allison Semmes).
   After sitting through three hours of Motown the Musical, I still couldn’t tell you where things went wrong, or what Gordy’s particular talent was, or why he ended up deciding to attend the reunion after all. He’s also not exactly the most candid lyricist you could wish for, granting himself few if any character flaws and mostly pointing the finger at others, who made a habit of letting him down at crucial times. (Like leaving him for bigger labels that offered more money.)
   As dubious and limp as the storytelling is, sympathy is swiftly created for the fine singers and dancers required to stop from time to time to utter the toads supplied to them by credited librettist Gordy and his “script consultants,” David Goldsmith and Dick Scanlan. Much of the conversation is offered as oratory: “Times are changing, Shelly. We need fresh, bold hits that reflect that!” ”One day you wake up and the stars you polished so hard to shine are not only shining, but in orbit, out of control of themselves and in control of you!” It’s hard to recall a single relaxed, human exchange that doesn’t sound as if it was put through a corporate meat grinder to remove all authenticity while ensuring that the Chairman comes out sounding good.

The script grasps at audience-flattering laughs based on 20/20 hindsight. “Why do we keep wasting money on the no-hit Supremes?” asks an impatient flunky. In the same vein, “What kind of name is Smokey?” queries a crudely caricatured white promoter. (Most of the Caucasian characters are, as it happens, crude caricatures.) In both cases, we know who will turn into the music legends, so ha-ha on those guys. Speaking of Mr. Robinson (Jesse Nager), his buddies fall to the ground in hysterics when he announces he’s writing a song in response to Mary Wells’s “My Guy,” to be called “My Girl.” We wouldn’t have scoffed if we’d been there, you can bet. We also probably would’ve recognized the immediate appeal of “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and its unusual three-quarter time signature, but that’s more than you can say for Ms. Ross, whose reaction is, and I quote: “A waltz? Are you out of your fuckin’ mind?”
   It gets tiring hearing people offer exposition to others who would already be aware of it. “Jackie Wilson recorded my song, and Thelma is divorcing me.” (“I know, baby,” Martina Sykes as sister Gwen unnecessarily replies.) Gordy to Marvin Gaye (Jarran Muse): “Don’t you realize the president was killed today?” Gaye: “President Kennedy?” Gordy to accountant: “Lady Sings the Blues was nominated for five Academy Awards!” (That last one is followed by another audience-flatterer: “And Mahogany’s gonna be nominated for 10!,” Gordy exults, as we chortle thinking of that pic’s major flopperoo.)
   Look, nobody’s much damaged by a corny sequence in which the Chairman figures out a name for his company by evoking his home town: “The Motor City. But it feels more like a town to me. Hmmm. Motortown…motortown… motortown…. Oh, well, I’ll think of something.” But there is something wrong, I think, something tastelessly reductive, in representing the Civil Rights struggles of the ’60s in quick video montages and psychedelic lighting while people in Afros and dashikis dance to “War” (huh; what is it good for) and “What’s Going On,” with people randomly yelling out “Dr. King’s been shot!” “Dr. King…is dead!” A black-majority company like Motown must have been shaken to its core by the passing of the more casual rock ’n’ roll ’50s and really forced to examine how the sociopolitical strains of Freedom Riders and protesters—not to mention Vietnam—ought to affect the music. Couldn’t, shouldn’t, Motown the Musical show that for real? Wouldn’t that be fascinating to witness?
   If the thoughtful spectator ignores all the messiness and the falseness and just goes with the groove, he can enjoy the recreations of Wells and Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5, clap and sway and tap his feet nonstop, and celebrate Gordy’s undeniable legacy of music shepherded to the top of the charts. No matter how it all really happened.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
May 3, 2015
Palos Verdes Performing Arts at Norris Theatre

The iconic musical Hair embodied the 1960s and that decade’s make love, not war, philosophy. A Chorus Line epitomized the 1970s and that decade’s obsession with self-analysis. What musical best represents the 1980s? Perhaps it’s Cats. Like the ’80s, on the surface this astoundingly long-lived musical seems to glorify the superficial—our names, our appearances, our presumed successes. It certainly introduced leg warmers and spiky hair to the popular consciousness.
   With lyrics consisting primarily of T.S. Eliot’s 1930s whimsical collection of poetry about cat psychology and cat behavior, titled Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats premiered in 1981 and was for two decades the longest-running musical in London’s West End and for 18 years that record-holder on Broadway.
   Why its success? That was probably in large part due to Trevor Nunn’s then-groundbreaking staging, which is fairly retained in this Norris production, directed, and choreographed by Janet Renslow.
   During the otherwise actionless overture, here are the flashing lights onstage and the green eyes prowling the audience, obviously intended to keep restless modern audiences entertained. Here are the catsuits defining each of Eliot’s particular pusses (costumes provided by Christine Bogle/Stage West Costumes, additional costumes provided by Fullerton Civic Light Opera).
   Here is the junkyard, with its huge rusting hindquarters of a car and the machina ex deus of the giant levitating tire and the ladder (set provided by Fullerton CLO). Here is the preening, prancing, gymnastic 1970s “modern” dance choreography (which Renslow has based on the original by Gillian Lynne). Someday, someone will present a “reimagining” of this show. This is not that day. The Norris audience can rest assured it will be reliving the 1980s—now if not forever.

So, what is Cats all about? Easily discerned is this musical’s huge message about the way cats, and their owners, treat the aged. Slyer messages concern class distinctions, morality, and mortality. Christianity probably figures into the characters, lyrics, setting, and staging.
   On this evening, the Jellicle tribe of cats gathers—an evangelical occurrence perhaps—so its patriarch, Old Deuteronomy (the heavenly voiced Robert Hoyt, who also serves as music director here), can pick one of them to be reborn into a new life and journey up to the Heavyside layer. Some of the cats recount their own histories; some are introduced and sung about by other cats. Old Deuteronomy’s lieutenant, Munkustrap (a welcoming Bill Ledesma), emcees, introducing the tribe to the human audience.
   Rock star Rum Tum Tugger (a charismatic Joel Abelson) can very well tell his own tale, thank you, swiveling his hips as the female felines swoon. Bustopher Jones (a jovial Jason M. Hammond) is the black-with-white-spats cat about town, representing the Edwardian life of clubbing and overeating. Gus (Hammond again) recalls his days prowling the theater, starring onstage at least in his own mind. Gus is joined by Jellylorum (a coo-inducing Kirklyn Robinson) to tell their theatrical tales, which turn operatic and show off their human performers’ stellar voices.
   Mungojerrie (Steven Rada) and Rumpleteaser (Alison Boresi) are the playful cats who create havoc in their home. Skimbleshanks, the railway cat (a buoyant Jon M. Wailin), bounds around the stage while his colleagues gather bits from the junkyard to create a locomotive, giving Renslow the chance to show off her own skills at logistics. Meanwhile, Macavity the Cat, the mysterious evil force that haunts the gathering, barely appears but is sung about throughout.

The two-dozen-member tribe includes a clowder of kittens, but it also includes the aged, gnarled, bedraggled Grizabella (Gina D’Acciaro). The tribe shuns her, turning up pert noses and cruelly shrinking away from her. Grizabella sings “Memory.” Love the song? You’ll hear it plenty during the show. Think it’s just caterwauling? It’s a short song. When baby kitten Sillabub (Bailey Sonner) sings it, it is deliberately without memory, a gentle wondering what life will be like. But when D’Acciaro sings it, holy cat. She magnificently brings to this world-famous song a lifetime of memories—of loss, fear, cruelty, pain, and ultimately hope.
   Fortunately, to cheer up the audience, there’s the comedic Jennyanydots (a delightfully rubber-faced Melissa Glasgow). And to amaze the audience, there’s Mr. Mistoffelees. He is played by Jake DuPree with an astonishing array of dance styles and skills. But DuPree’s gymnastics verge on the unbelievable. He does tumbling passes, on a wood floor, his long slender limbs perfectly controlled.
   In sum, the talents, energy and joy onstage here are spectacular. Yes, at evening’s end, Old Deuteronomy selects the one cat to be reborn, and Cats becomes just a beautiful, ahem, memory.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
April 27, 2015

Side Show
Plummer Auditorium

Though the original production of Side Show on Broadway closed after only 91 performances in 1997, in subsequent years it has been revived and modified from its original form. The original book and lyrics were created by Bill Russell with music by Henry Krieger. As a dramatic project, it falls far from traditional musicals in topic and execution. In program notes, director T. J. Dawson writes, “It is a big risk but also holds the possibility of moving people in a way they didn’t expect.”
   This musical tells the story of the real-life conjoined Hilton twins, Daisy (Afton Quast) and Violet (Jeanette Dawson). They began their careers in a freak show, entered vaudeville, and eventually starred in two Hollywood movies: Freaks and Chained for Life.
   Here, they are initially befriended by two men—Terry Connor (Gregg Hammer) and Buddy Foster (Gary Brintz)—who later become romantically attached to the sisters. It is unclear at the outset whether the men’s ardor is financially driven, fueled by pity, or physically motivated.

Two dozen or so characters appear on bleachers, delivering the opening number, “Come Look at the Freaks.” The opening sets the stage for the appearance of various characters: the Bearded Lady (Matthew Ballestero), Geek (Dustin Ceithamer), Strong Man (Adam Dingeman), Fakir (Jonah Ho’okano), Sheik (Chris Holly), 1/2 Man 1/2 Woman (Tracy Lore), Reptile Man (Dino Nicandros), Three-Legged Man (Aaron Scheff), Dolly Dimples (Deonne Sones), Snake Girl (Momoko Sugai), Tattooed Human Pin Cushion (Emily King Brown), and 6th Exhibit (Tracy Rowe Mutz). Along with these oddities are Harem Girls (Kat Borrelli, April Jo Henry, Natalie Iskovich), Roustabouts (Bren Thor Johnson, Brandon Pohl, Justin Matthew Segura, Josh Wise) and Fortune Teller (Christanna Rowader). The ensemble actors are uniformly excellent and memorable, as they do double- and triple-duty as characters in the evolution of the lives of the sisters.
   In a menacing performance, the Boss (Nathan Holland) shows the cruelty dealt to Violet and Daisy as they are literally kept circus captives and coerced into performing. His number “Crazy, Deaf and Blind,” in concert with the circus performers, is electrifying.

As Terry and Buddy aid the sisters in escape from servitude and move on to vaudeville, the girls are coached in singing and dancing, and their careers escalate. “Rare Songbirds on Display” highlights the glamour they achieve thanks to their mentors. Underpinning their performing lives is their desire to be normal and have the opportunity for love, marriage, and a life free from constant scrutiny. Their numbers “Like Everyone Else” and “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” are poignant reminders of their plight.
   With lovely voices, Dawson and Quast acquit themselves well as the sisters. The inherent difficulty of moving as conjoined twins eludes them from time to time, and it is a distraction that could be solved with wardrobe adjustments, but having them appear separately in major scenes is an interesting choice. Hammer and Brintz are solid as the two men in their lives.
   Jay Donnell delivers a notable performance as Jake, a gofer who has fallen in love with Violet. His rendering of “You Should Be Loved” is touching, and he is compelling as the lead of powerful production number ‘“The Devil You Know.”

Strong technical support adds to the excellent execution of this troubling and difficult play. A 20-piece orchestra (Los Angeles Musicians Collective) led by Allen Everman enhances the Broadway feel of the show (orchestrated by Harold Wheeler). Lighting by Jean-Yves Tessier is key to spotlighting characters as the story focuses on their dilemmas.
   Costumes by Kate Bergh are superlative, especially for the circus characters and big production numbers throughout the show. Stephen Gifford’s set design is simple, with only bleachers at some points and more-elaborate backdrops as the story escalates. Choreography, by Leslie Stevens, is well-executed and varied. Julie Ferrin’s sound design is also well done in a theater that has some acoustic problems.
   Not a perfect musical, it still provides an edgy, colorful look at a seldom viewed world.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
April 26, 2015

Mud Blue Sky
Road Theatre Company

Aging beyond one’s comfort zone in any job is a bitch, but for 50-something veteran airline stewardess Beth (Carlyle King), the steady stream of dragging her bags into characterless C-grade hotel rooms and bending over to hand people pillows have taken their toll on her lower back. As she considers taking her company’s most recent insufficient retirement package before being unceremoniously laid off, only one thing besides a purse full of those cute little miniature inflight bottles of Jim Beam helps ease the pain. And in Illinois, where she is on layover in the “goiter of the city”—the screamingly unappealing suburban community surrounding O’Hare Airport—her most efficient panacea has not yet being legalized, even for medicinal purposes.
   Serendipitously, Beth met Jonathan (Adam Farabee) on a flight the year before. Whenever she’s in town, he stops by her hotel with a dimebag of weed to ease her pain, both physical and psychological. A little toke, and Beth is feeling far better, somewhat able to ignore the lack of luxuries offered in the kind of typical Comfort Inn-ish stopover where one must go to the front desk to get a clean pillow and the cable offers little more than pay-per-view porn—although, the remote control is so sticky with some unidentifiable goo that it’s best left on the floor where Beth flings it.

Traveling for a living always seems like a dream job for those who don’t have to nap in airports and deal with a plethora of screaming babies kicking seats and soiling diapers, but the daily grind these glorified flying waitresses endure are at the core of Marisa Wegrzyn’s dryly contemporary comedy Mud Blue Sky. Perhaps if Beth had not become so world-weary of her life, or had not almost outgrown the Led Zeppelin T-shirt she changes into from her work uniform, she might not have considered Jonathan an acceptable business associate—especially since her dealer isn’t the kind of role perfect for Bill Macy or William Defoe. Jonathan, you see, is still in high school.
   Beth does her best to get rid of her adrenaline-rushing cohort Sam (Whitney Dylan) before Jonathan shows up with his backpack filled with happy little packages. But her friend catches sight of him waiting in the parking lot outside Beth’s window, wearing sneakers with the tuxedo he rented for his prom. Sam thinks the kid is as cute as a puppy dog (“It’s like seeing a dog dressed in a Halloween costume,” she coos), until she returns to Beth’s room later and finds the teenybopper teen in a tux, hiding in the bathroom. Yet as shocked as she initially is to find Beth buying drugs from a kid the age of her own slacker son, Sam’s raging hormones take over, especially after Jonathan recounts his woebegone story of how his prom date dumped him to go off with her friends. A little tongue in his ear and he’s ready to party, soon off to Sam’s room to experience a new chapter of his education that goes way beyond coffee, tea, or, in this case, her.
   King is hilariously droll as Beth, tired of her rut and her aching back yet somewhat horrified by her own ability to possibly contribute to the corruption of the squeaky clean Jonathan. Dylan’s Sam is a great foil for King, fighting in her own way to keep as young and vital as her day-to-day life sucks the youth out of her. Both actors, however, suffer somewhat from the nowhere-to-go aspects of Wegrzyn’s script which, though witty as heck and brightly clever in its dialogue, still has the air of a TV episodic. This is something only exacerbated by the direction of Mary Lou Belli, who lets these two actors waver from their perfectly genuine delivery to moments of working just a bit too hard to land the laughs.
   As Jonathan, Farabee is a breath of fresh air, completely believable as the sadly overlooked teenager still reeling from the unexpected death of his mother. Never does he descend into sitcom styling, always spartan and effectively real in his simple choices. This is also true of the durable Amy Tolsky, who steals the show as Angie, the obviously discouraged visiting former stewardess who quit flying to take care of her ailing mother. Entering late in the story, Tolsky stays just long enough to tell a disturbing tale of how an incident with an elderly passenger she befriended seemed to lead her to leaving her job—something she seems to regret on many levels as she stagnates in the nearby bluecollar community of LaGrange.

There’s nothing terribly thought-provoking or cathartic or even memorable about the world Wegrzyn creates here, but, hey, it sure is funny, and the gifted troupers in this cast are mostly impressive, besides enduring Belli’s efficient but occasionally somnambulant direction. Beth’s identifiably discouraging but often hilarious lot in life, as she suffers through yet another musty nondescript hotel room in another musty nondescript city is definitely worth a quick layover.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
April 18, 2015
Corktown ’57
Odyssey Theater

Though this John Fazakerley’s Irishmen-transplanted-to-America play runs slightly less than two hours, it lines up enough characters and story elements to populate an entire 13-episode season’s worth of TV melodrama. This is only intended as a recommendation if you are the type of theatergoer who gets kicks from a nonstop cavalcade of revelation after revelation and crisis upon crisis. But since the inevitable first casualty of shoving 15 pounds of incident into a 5-pound bag is nuance, those who prefer their naturalism leavened by fully rounded people rather than by stereotypes may become exhausted as the Keating family dredges up old grudges, spells out thematic points, and keeps rushing to the basement bar for endless swigs of whiskey.
   Of course, Fazakerley set himself on an overcomplicated path when he decided boozy, pugnacious paterfamilias Mike (Nick Tate) should have emigrated from the Ould Sod to this Philadelphia suburb having sired eight, count ‘em eight, children. (Four appear on stage and one more is for sure mentioned, leaving three unaccounted for, by my off-the-cuff reckoning. Maybe they’re being saved up for a sequel?) Anyway, populating the stage with so many sibs almost necessitates none will have much stage time in which to juggle all their troubles.

And what troubles they juggle! The 1950s were an especially fraught period for England and Ireland, as no end to centuries-old conflicts was remotely in sight, and no one could agree on what peacemaking strategies would work, or even whether any should be considered. Evoked in Fazakerly’s play are Sinn Fein power struggles mediated by local bigshot Tim Flynn (Josh Clark); passionate disagreements over resistance strategy; the fundraising efforts of sister Kate (Rebecca Tilney) to buy IRA guns; a spy in the organization; 200 freedom-fighting prisoners rotting in a London jail; and, most urgently, the return of eldest son John (Andrew Connolly), who stayed behind to be drafted into the British Army and rise to the rank of general while, on top of everything else, hiding a record of service with the hated Brit paramilitary Black & Tans.
   Any one or two of those issues would be enough to animate a full, rich Sean O’Casey or Martin McDonagh yarn, but Fazakerley is only getting started. He also tosses in the specter of a mother killed by her husband’s syphilis; a long-ago romantic triangle involving Kate, sister Marie (Belen Greene); and a local IRA operative (Kevin P. Kearns); the recently deceased child of youngest brother Frank (John Ruby); Frank’s desire to go west to make a new start; and the culture shock suffered by his American wife (Natalie Britton), who won’t sleep with him anymore.

So much is going on that a street fight between their young son (Jonah Beres) and a neighborhood boy, with which the play kicks off, just dribbles away unresolved. And we never get much of a chance to learn just what kind of neighborhood Corktown is, which you’d think would be a basic requirement for a play titled Corktown. (Biggest unanswered question: How does hand-to-mouth shopkeeper Frank find the scratch to stock the liquor cabinet for all his hard-drinking relatives?)
   Director Wilson Milam, who so memorably staged The Lieutenant of Inishmore on Broadway and at the Mark Taper Forum five years ago, is powerless to encourage much verisimilitude in the overstuffed, speechifying text with its many Big Moments but few small ones. Also, while Joel Daavid’s basement setting is vast and detailed, Milam keeps most of the action far left and far right so the space never really feels believably lived-in. Of the cast, Connolly, Clark, and Greene come off best in their skillful, shaded underplaying.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
April 12, 2015

Henry IV, Part One
Antaeus Theatre

As Shakespeare plays go, Henry IV, Part One isn’t one of those that requires much in the way of directorial interpretation, thanks to its clear-cut action and parallel throughlines. England’s king faces rebellion from the nobles who helped him depose Richard II, now that they feel the throne has gone to his head and he’s depriving them of their spoils. Meanwhile, his son has his own mini-rebellion going, in nonstop revelry and cutpursing with the notorious Sir John Falstaff and his band of grotesques. Will the Prince of Wales’s betrayal turn itself around in time to make a difference to national politics? Tune in next week!
   (Actually not; all the crises are ironed out in Act Five. Part Two merely expands on the same themes in a more mystical and cerebral way, which is why Part One is so often produced as a stand-alone, as it is now by Antaeus Theatre Company. But the events should play as if they’re proceeding headlong to a cliffhanger.)
   It’s just as well that the text is more or less self-sufficient as a theater piece, because director Michael Murray doesn’t seem to have brought much of an idea or personal stamp to it, except (as he says in the program’s Director’s Note) to strip away the scenery in favor of a raw-wood platform to “bring the audience closer to the play” and show the characters “as people—with all their passions and without armor.” That sounds good in theory, but in the “Knaves” cast of this double-cast production—actor illness led to the cancellation of the parallel “Rogues” ensemble I was scheduled to catch—there wasn’t a lot of attention paid to the people passions that serve as the engine of the action.

Where, I wondered, was the personal and physical anguish of the King (Joel Swetow) “so shaken as we are, so wan with care” as to contemplate a crusade to expiate his sin of usurpation? Where was the cagey Prince Hal (Michael Kirby) to surreptitiously signal us that his roistering isn’t—as it appears to his Eastcheap mates, and as it certainly seemed on the Antaeus stage—sincere libertinism but a calculated tactic of self-aggrandizement? Where was the character arc of bellowing Hotspur (Joe Holt), as he realizes his hoped-for coup is falling to bits around his head?
   I knew we were in trouble in the first scene, when emissary Sir Walter Blunt (Adam J. Smith) approached the platform and impatiently shook a message from the battlefield in the King’s direction, forcing the monarch to walk over to retrieve it. Uh-oh, I said to myself, the subtleties of character relationships have not been a priority for this director. Indeed, the physicalizations were pretty much cliché throughout—lots of hearty backslapping and hands clasped—with almost no attention paid to exploiting the class distinctions that, more than anything else, mark Henry IV, Part One as a multilayered panorama of a specific time and place.
   This is not a production to attend for verse speaking, either, with a third of the cast faithfully hanging on to iambic pentameter while another third keeps throwing in its own naturalistic pauses and stops as if this were Odets and not Shakespeare. (The remaining third, of course, are the plebes, whose needling and expostulations are crafted in prose.) The resulting clash isn’t exactly the Wars of the Roses, but at times lands unpleasantly on the sensitive ear.
   Maybe the “Rogues” are more faithful to the lines’ rhythm and the characters’ dynamics; I hope I get a chance to find out. But the Knaves at least offer an unfussy if uninspired reading, with the virtue of bringing out the story with clarity and dispatch.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
April 21, 2015
Rising Phoenix Repertory, Weathervane Productions, and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at Monroe Forum Theatre at the El Portal Theatre

Former Army vet–turned-manicurist Lottie (Samantha Soule) has come back to her dilapidated family home to take care of her dying mother. Memories of days growing up there amid the dust and dysfunction of rural Texas life are anything but the best. This makes Lottie wonder what the hell she’s doing there, uprooting her life while the drunken father who abandoned them and her totally fucked-up siblings remain so conspicuously absent—that is until Mom dies and everyone arrives with their hearts in their hands to conceal that fact that they have their hands out. “I’m trying to hold something together,” Lottie tells her long-suffering girlfriend Holly (Addie Johnson). “I just don’t know what it is.”
   Plays about messed-up families from rural Texas are about as abundant as ants on an abandoned sugar cookie, but not often are they as rich and well-written as Charlotte Miller’s Thieves, a remarkable new work that feels as though it could be the literary lovechild of Tennessee Williams and Sam Shepard. As Lottie’s family members begin to trickle in, she greets each with the same admonishment: that she doesn’t want them there and has no reason to even let them in the house.
   But things change quickly in this toxic environment, and soon all of them, along with their mother’s sometimes-welcome-sometimes-not young caregiver Jason (Chris Bellant) are sitting down together in the backyard for a memorial dinner of Kentucky Fried Chicken and a box of Franzia wine.

In director Daniel Talbott’s sharply focused yet bravely quirky staging, this ensemble is dynamite. At first, it seems the actors playing Lottie and her certifiably bipolar couch-surfing sister Lana (Sarah Shaefer) are having trouble making transitional decisions in their characters’ downward-spiraling journey back into old times. But, like the actors, the audience is soon forced to maneuver the quickly evolving twists and turns that make Miller’s script so jarring—and so jarringly real.
   Soule is shattering as Lottie, who almost loses Holly over her family’s dangerous eccentricities and her own badly-thought-out romp in bed with Jason after her mother was carted off to the crematorium. Shaefer meets her at every turn, offering a creature so crushed by her past it’s not certain she has a chance for a future. “What we all did to each other,” she tells the others, “doesn’t go away.”
   Johnson is a rock as Lottie’s lover, who gave up so much after they were not-so-honorably discharged from the service after being caught in the act. Bellant has wonderful moments as the outside observer who somehow seems to wish he were a bigger part of the familial craziness, just so he had something to connect to and share with the loved ones of his beloved late employer.
   As Walter, the totally miserable and clearly doomed brother who spent their childhood sexually abusing Lana, MacLeod Andrews is outstanding in a role that could easily fall into caricature. In his stomach-tightening request for forgiveness from his estranged sister, Andrews is heartbreaking—something that will be even more apparent shortly he delivers his apology. As the clan’s once-drunken father, Gordon, John Wojda is as well-cast as the others; if only he didn’t work so hard, trusted Miller’s words, and simplified his performance just a tad, he would be infinitely better.

The production is exceptionally rich with nuance and filled with understanding of these sad lives. Tristan Raines’s subtle costuming is remarkably on-the-money, from Lottie’s short-shorts to Gordon’s faux-suede blazer. Designer Deb O makes crafty use of the Monroe Theatre’s difficult space, complete with a stage floor covered in dirt looking as though it were carted in from the high desert.
   With the exception of the occasional atmosphere-killing supertitles projected on the back wall to (unnecessarily) indicate time changes, the stage is filled with authentic touches—including Walter’s buzzing asthma-controlling CPAP machine and an old molded plastic radio broadcasting Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash classics, people talking in tongues during local fundamentalist church services, and a deejay who notes, “If them hippies out in California had their way, we’d all be eatin’ lettuce and smellin’ like patchouli oil.”
   One warning: if you don’t happen to bring along that plastic tarp handed out at your last Blue Man concert, don’t sit in the front row, where a garden hose sprays down a family member off his meds, “human” ashes are violently thrown and billow out at unsuspecting observers, and that family-sized bucket of KFC scatters thighs and wings to all corners.

Miller’s strident, honest, and almost counter-lyrical Thieves proffers one of the best character studies of all those scary potential Jerry Springer guests who dwell in places in A-merika most of us don’t even know exist, whose lives are summed up perfectly by poor lost Lana as she realizes in the midst of all the insanity that when she’s not with her family, she feels like she’s alone in the world, yet when she is with them, she “feels like I have no one at all.”

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
March 29, 2015

The Curious Savage
Torrance Theatre Company

Being told, “I love you,” is nice. But there are more-effective ways of expressing love. The characters at the heart of The Curious Savage clearly know this. They, however, are locked up in a sanitarium. This place, a true asylum in the kindest sense of the word, is aptly named The Cloisters. And the inmates are meeting the new resident, Mrs. Savage, who is being committed here by her stepchildren. Mrs. Savage pretends to be slightly crazy, but she is not. She is lovely, generous, and thoughtful, and the inmates respond to her in kind.
   What’s not clear—and this is a credit to playwright John Patrick and director Mark Torreso—is whether the play is meant as realism or allegory. That’s why this little story, about the kindness of love and about the insanity of the real world, packs such a huge emotional punch. The play touches on various kinds of love: of self, spouse, work, children, good friends, and patients. Yes, even the doctor treats his patients with warmth and respect here, and The Cloisters’s administrator swiftly recognizes the enviable sanity in Mrs. Savage.
   Of course, excessive love of money and fame get quite a comeuppance here. Mrs. Savage’s snooty stepchildren scramble like rodents to secure what they believe are their rightful inheritances.

The program indicates no time period, and the issues the play raises are indeed timeless. But this production has a 1950s feel (the play premiered on Broadway in 1950) that adds to its allegorical tone. So even the $10 million Mrs. Savage inherited from her husband sounds ample today. That sum is with her now, in bonds, tucked away in a clever place. But a quick bit of theft and arson seems to quash her plans for those bonds, which had been destined for a memorial fund to help other people find happiness.
   True, the script is a charmer. But Torreso and his adept cast do marvels with it, letting the audience fully believe in the circumstances of the characters, as outrageous as some of them are. In portraying Mrs. Savage, Daryl Hogue-France makes her character genuine and direct, as well as elegant. Playing the residents, on the sweet end of the spectrum, Jennifer Faneuff brings maternal devotion to the stage as the bereaved mother, while Gary Kresca plays the former statistician and current violinist with humor and sincerity.
   In the comedic middle, Justine DeAngelo gets the biggest laughs for her homely, perpetually childlike character, but we know a beautiful young woman hides inside. On the bittersweet side of the spectrum, Diana Mann is heart-wrenching as the angry wife whose soul was crushed by her husband’s cruelty, and Iyan Evans is a gentlemanly war hero, weighted by survivor’s guilt. Frank Pepito and Charlotte Williams make the staff intelligent and devoted. There’s no forgiveness possible for the stepchildren, so the actors are forgiven for going all out in caricature: Chris Mock as a loathed senator, Frank McCay as an inept judge, and Amanda Webb as a gold-digging serial bride.

After an evening at this little oasis of healing, you, too, would be forgiven—in your case for being reluctant to leave your theater seat. So, why should Mrs. Savage leave The Cloisters? And yet, a woman of her kindness and understanding is much needed to help heal the outside world. And now she’s armed with all these lessons of compassion and friendship. If only those bonds hadn’t been burned....

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
March 16, 2015
Closer Than Ever
Good People Theatre Co. at Hollywood Piano Store

Book musicals and musical revues are two different animals, and it’s a rare theater songwriter or team that can crank out both. Many of the very best— Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Stephen Sondheim, and Frank Loesser come to mind—are responsible for brilliantly unified scores for world-class musical plays. Yet when you divorce their songs from their plots and link them together into a cabaret entertainment, the result is at best pedestrian and usually unfortunate: The lyrics don’t work outside of the original characters, or the composers’ distinctive style, applied to number after number, becomes too much of a good thing. Even Kander and Ebb’s And the World Goes ‘Round, which had a celebrated NY run and still gets performed often, is a shallow reflection of the Cabarets and Zorbas and Chicagos that it ransacks.
   By contrast, the ill luck Richard Maltby Jr. (lyrics) and David Shire (music) have suffered with their book shows hasn’t kept them from crafting some of the most-interesting and supple revue scores in many years. Though Baby (1983) has its admirers, it always struck me as three thin fertility narratives attempting, and failing, to make one significant thematic statement. And while they wrote almost three times as many songs as they needed for Big (1996), they never seemed to find the right combination of numbers that would bestow unique stage integrity on the Tom Hanks movie. Put simply, the musical’s raison d’être seemed missing.

But in Starting Here, Starting Now (1976), and even more so in Closer Than Ever (1989), the team gives virtually every song its own raison d’être. The latter show, currently getting a fine local staging by Janet Miller and her Good People Theatre Company, is especially effective because it takes up so many of the personal issues Maltby and Shire attest as central to their own lives: the compromises of marriage; parenting; growing old as one’s own parents grow even older; the disjunction between the dreams we held in youth and what we settle for today. Every song tells a self-contained story, and it’s usually one with a rueful, or O. Henry–clever, twist at the tail.
   There’s not a dud among the 25-odd numbers as performed in the intimate, elegant side room of the Hollywood Piano store on Front Street in Burbank. Jessie Withers and Gabriel Kalomas are as scary as they are funny as two career builders, each insisting that the other mind the baby in “Fandango.” They’re joined by David Zack in enacting a pungent modern love triangle for “She Love Me Not.” Zack teams up memorably with Sara Stuckey for the mellow “Another Wedding Song,” ruminating on past heartbreaks and new hopes:

You’re not my first, as well you know;
Once before I left when marriage beckoned.
But you’re so much more than merely first—
You are the first to be second.

All four get strong solo opportunities, but I think I will remember Stuckey best as “Miss Byrd,” grabbing a stereotype (the quiet, businesslike administrative assistant with a wild life after hours) and nailing it with new verve. It’s no surprise that Miller, one of our top choreographers, uses the space like buttah with just the right amount of movement. She should be staging the big, big shows on a regular basis, of course, but, in building Good People, she’s scaling back for the future, and it hasn’t impaired her inventiveness any.
Reviewed by Bob Verini
March 2, 2015
American Buffalo
Department of Music, Theatre and Dance at California State University, Los Angeles and Deaf West Theatre at Cal State L.A.’s State Playhouse

This production of one of modern theater’s seminal plays is certainly interesting intellectually. David Mamet’s 1975 three-hander is in a co-production by Deaf West Theatre and California State University, Los Angeles. The involvement of Deaf West in a show means creative melding of spoken English and American Sign Language to seamlessly recount a story for its hearing and deaf audience members.
   This one takes place in a Chicago pawnshop loaded with the neighborhood’s castoffs. So, too, the three characters are society’s castoffs, men who live in a state of desperate ineptitude and who speak in vulgar invective. But this production seems to ignore the ultimate hopelessness of the three men.
   The shop owner, Don, has sold a buffalo nickel to a customer but now has second thoughts about the sale price. Bobby, the young lad who hangs out at the shop in hopes of occasional paying tasks, proposes revenge on the buyer. Teach, Don’s poker buddy, wants in on the scheme and wants Bobby out. Hell-bent on a caper the three are sure will result in hefty financial gain, they launch into planning without a solid basis for any of their ideas.

Stephen Rothman directs here. Making this production different is the fact that this Teach is deaf. The characters must communicate in sign language, while ensuring that a non-ASL-speaking audience understands every word. So, when Don and Teach converse alone, in ASL only, the audience hears their conversation over headphones (handed out as part of the ticket price, but requiring a driver’s license or other identification to secure the loan). When Bobby and Don converse, the text of their conversation is projected on screens above the action. Otherwise, the characters communicate through a combination of voiced English and ASL.
   Three gifted actors star. The hearing and ASL-adept Paul Raci plays Don, the sensible one at least when compared with his cohorts. Cal State Master of Fine Arts candidate Matthew Ryan Pest appears as Bobby, always in need of more cash. The deaf veteran actor Troy Kotsur portrays Teach, fueled to wild action by irrationality. The trio is joined, offstage, by two more actors. Via the headphones, Collin Bressie voices all of Teach’s lines, while James Foster voices Don’s when Teach and Don are using ASL.

Yet, despite all this creativity and talent, the production fails to pack an emotional punch. This may be because the audience is observing the technique. What does the f-bomb, Mamet’s signature word, look like in ASL? How about the oft-used c-word? Which parts of the dialogue will we see on the screens? How many of their lines are the actors paraphrasing as we watch the text go by?
   Our lack of emotional response might be because the characters don’t reach the extremes the script offers. Teach seems goofy and furious with the world, rather than menacing. Don seems in control, dealing with sitcom sidekicks he can handle before the end of this episode. Bobby seems intelligent, secure, and insolent, not desperate for the approval of his elders.
   Ken George’s set is filled to the catwalks with stuff. A substantial amount of it gets trashed during the show. Kudos to Bressie, who served as fight director, and to those who designed and built the breakaway items. Kudos also to the stage crew who clear and reset the props for each show of the run.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
February 24, 2015
The Night Alive
Geffen Playhouse

This Conor McPherson script fits squarely within his oeuvre—of poetic plays about souls seeking human connection in the midst of supernatural forces. However, unlike other Los Angeles productions of his works—including the Geffen Playhouse’s The Seafarer in 2009 and Geffen’s The Weir in 2000—this version lacks a feeling of something deeper and more mysterious going on.
   In The Night Alive, Tommy (Paul Vincent O’Connor, playing warmhearted and lonely) lives in squalor in one room of a reportedly spotless home, a few steps away from a garden full of large perfect vegetables seemingly ignored by the landlord. That landlord is Tommy’s uncle Maurice (Denis Arndt, stern but loving). Tommy, a low-level laborer, gives piecework to a pal with the lofty name of Doc (Dan Donohue, a wise naif), though he’s named that because he wore Doc Martens—a lesson to the audience not to judge by superficialities. One day, Tommy brings home Aimee (Fiona O’Shaughnessy, a mystery), who apparently had been severely beaten, her face now caked in blood.
   In the lives of these characters, family bonds were long ago shattered and are apparently irreparable. Maurice is a widower, still mourning his wife. Tommy is divorced and alienated from his teenage children. Doc can’t stay with his sister because her boyfriend throws him out. Aimee’s background is clouded. These folk become a sort of foster family for one another. Sure, says Tommy, stay here. Take any of the makeshift beds. Or the floor.

The play is not without feeling. When Maurice offers yet another helping hand to Tommy, the kindness induces a lump in the audience’s collective throat. When Doc ponders the afterlife, and the audience may be glimpsing it, the moment induces a sweet shock.
   Tommy, Aimee, and Doc collectively experience a moment of forgetting daily life, dancing to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” What is, indeed, going on? A movie poster for the film The Great Escape hangs on the wall, not coincidentally next to a dreamscape advertising Finland and another that’s a poster of Gaye.
   Midway through the play, Aimee’s “ex” Kenneth (Peter O’Meara, terrifying) arrives. He seems normal. As it turns out, he’s the personification of evil. He commits a random and motiveless brutalizing of the hapless Doc. Surely the attack killed Doc. Yet the fellow is upright and apparently fine in the very next scene, sporting a bandage around his head as if it were a jaunty cap.
   The action unfolds on Takeshi Kata’s set. It’s a huge room that, with colored-glass windows and high ceiling, evokes a church. Yet the piles of garbage and crumpled bedclothes evoke a more hellish existence.

All this is gleaned from the script and the set. Under Randall Arney’s direction, though, and despite the fine acting chops of the five performers, character definitions aren’t clear, particularly Aimee’s. Who are these people? What does each want? Arney gets the laughs the script intended. But the pathos is felt only long after the final bows, in thinking about the play and trying to piece together its meaning.
   What is indeed going on? Is all a coincidence? Or are the characters nearing or finally making the greatest escape of all?

Dany Margolies
February 12, 2015
The Pitchfork Disney
Coeurage Theatre Company at Lyric-Hyperion Theatre & Cafe

Phillip Ridley’s stomach-turner of a play, which took London by the shorthairs in 1991 and is credited with beginning the entire confrontational “In Your Face” movement in British theater, is a perfect choice for the perfectly courageous Coeurage Theatre Company to kick off its new season. Ridley’s creepy shocker is here delivered without filter, without emotional cushioning for the faint of heart, without providing barf bags—which might just be a consideration, at least for patrons in the front row.
   On the small, suitably restrictive Lyric-Hyperion stage, director Rebecca Eisenberg and her fearless band of players conjure a dreamlike, menacing, post-apocalyptic world where a twin brother and sister (Joseph V. Calarco and Nicole Monet) live in agoraphobic squalor, surrounded by used candy wrappers and a bookcase full of drugs that once belonged to the parents who either abandoned them or died in a global cataclysmic disaster—something that might have happened or could be just a figment of Presley and Haley Stray’s active imaginations.
   The twins’ lives are spent peeking through the windows at the intimidating outside world, which may or may not be devastated by a nuclear bomb, while eating enormous amounts of chocolate and wondering if they dare leave the safety of their quadruple-locked front door. When Presley becomes intrigued by a pair of people lurking outside their building, the prospect of others intruding in their lives sends Haley into a panic attack—which, considering her brother’s swift reaction, might be something that happens regularly.
   He ends her hysteria by stuffing a downer-soaked binky into her mouth to knock her out and journeys warily outside, returning with a houseguest named Cosmo Disney (Jeremy Lelliott), who brings more than a hint of Clockwork Orange into the sanctity of their filthy, horrendously claustrophobic, Mars Bar–buried environment. It’s not hard to see Presley is apprehensive about his new droogie and yet wildly curious. Although Presley might not realize it, it doesn’t pass Cosmo’s obviously jaded perception that Presley is also painfully attracted to him.

Calarco is quietly hypnotizing in his commitment to the craziness and inner-screaming neuroses of Presley, riveting in his rambling soliloquies about cooking snakes and disturbingly nightmarish visions, most delivered about 2 feet from his audience. It is to the actor’s considerable credit that he makes his character’s world-class dysfunctional thinking seem almost rational. Monet is also bizarrely fascinating as Haley, veering from childish coquette to fiercely disturbed madwoman with lightning speed. If anything might improve in her performance, it would be for her to un-know what she knows about the troubled character, to really listen to her brother and respond spontaneously, to discover Haley’s colorful words and descriptions and not answer before Presley’s lines are even out of his mouth.
   It’s not hard to understand what drew Lelliott to take on the meaty role of Cosmo. He creates a malevolent, dangerously stalking panther of a character whose presence quickly reveals the purposely glaring contradictions rampant in Ridley’s fascinating script, a clash between revulsion and enticement, the ability to simultaneously seduce and repel, mining the human need to grasp for answers to our situation despite an ever-present terror of what those answers could reveal. The showy but complex role necessitates an enthusiastic suspension of the belief that the world is anything but a major shithole where only competition and power can keep us marching to the beat of time, something Lelliott accomplishes.

Lelliott is afforded major attention-grabbing moments sure to pull focus, including his first entrance in which he immediately vomits on the stage, a too-close act that sent women in the front row jumping off their seats, to his eager consumption of a real live wiggling cockroach (the actor says it tastes like pistachio). Still, Cosmo’s cohort Pitchfork Cavalier (Adam Kern) doesn’t have to do much grandstanding here, taking over immediately the first time he walks through the front door. What incredible fortune to find an actor as physically intimidating as Kern, entering late in the game clad in a dominatrix’s zippered leather facemask and more red sequined fabric than needed to cover a couch (Lelliott’s matching outfit could easily have been constructed from its discarded remnants).
   Ridley’s script and Eisenberg’s staging conspire to grab their unsuspecting audience members and toss them mercilessly around in what feels like a literary salad spinner, utilizing the author’s jarring series of incredibly poetic yet darkly twisted monologues, which use highly disturbing and even pornographic images to skewer our society in all its political and religious hypocrisy, and the director’s ability to create a lot of physical cornering and circling. What is eventually revealed is a not-too distant future apocalyptic ruin in which consumerism and greed have all but destroyed our psychologically shredded species. How traumatizing that must have been back in 1991, when this play was first performed. Now it unfolds as a rather disturbing, all-too accurate Fritz Lang–esque prophecy chronicling the scary things that were to come.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 1, 2015
Anna Christie
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

What a way to start a new year. Walking into the Odyssey’s intimate Theatre 2, it’s hard to not feel an immediate sense that one is about to be enveloped in something incredibly special. In the cramped playing area, with only two walls available for a set, a long wooden slanted platform forms the stage, suspended above a moat of real water surrounding and isolating it. The playing area is lit only by three hanging industrial metal lamp fixtures, two indistinct practical household table lamps set on the floor to one side, and a glaringly bright ghost lamp. With wisps of fog floating around this setting’s stark angles, the mood is instantly evocative and magical in its simplicity.
   In part that’s because the stage for the opening scene of O’Neill’s rarely performed 1922 Pulitzer Prize–winning classic is usually complete with an elaborate wall of bottles and glasses behind a practical wood-paneled bar to conjure Johnny the Priest’s riverside saloon situated along the Hudson, a place which later gives way to the deck of the barge Simeon Wintrope at anchor in the Provincetown, Mass., harbor and, later, a cabin below deck. The seemingly complex set changes this play calls for now appear easily managed, thanks to the talented hands of director Kim Rubinstein, whose touch is so evident everywhere that her contribution is almost an extra character in the piece.
   In her version, the players struggle to leap across the moat, sometimes becoming immersed. In the visionary collaboration between Rubinstein and set designer Wilson Chin, all that is needed is the blocky, shadowy platform eerily lit by Michael Gend, the undulating spectre of the story’s ever-present sea, and the viewers’ imaginations, leaving room to concentrate on the true wonder of the material and appreciate some of the finest and most balls-out acting to hit LA stages in quite some time.
   Granted, hearing the century-old words created by one of our nation’s greatest dramatists always educes a haunting place no matter what the circumstances. but, as brought back to life by this particular group of artists, it’s both a breathtakingly real and a wretchedly lonesome journey to take. Delivering lines such as “Sailor all right feller but not for marry girl” is not an easy task for any anyone, but if the intentions of the actors are as sincere and the harsh long-gone world inhabited by these uneducated people facing real hardships brought on by their place in the class structure of America in 1910 is realized as perfectly as it is here, the result is a theatrical experience that won’t be soon forgotten.

Anna (the transcendent Zoe Perry) is a physically and emotionally broken young woman who travels to the dank New York waterfront to find her father, crusty old Swedish sea salt Chris Christopherson (Perry’s real-life father Jeff Perry) whom she hasn’t seen since she was 5 years old. Raised by cousins on a midwestern farm, Anna was worked like a slave and repeatedly sexually abused by the family’s youngest son. Escaping to the big city, she tries her hand at regular work as a governess but finds that her earlier experiences have left her better qualified to earn a living on her back. Her father ain’t much of a prize, either: a skipper on a coal barge drinking himself into oblivion at any opportunity, not writing to his daughter because, he says, he wanted to keep her as far away from “that ol’ devil sea” as possible.
   Without explaining her brutal past to her father, Anna takes up residency on his coal barge, where she meets Mat Burke (Kevin McKidd), a shipwrecked Irish sailor who proposes to her before he even dries off. But as the love between Anna and Mat deepens, Anna becomes increasingly more wary of the day she’ll have to tell the men in her life about her questionable past. Even Chris and Mat’s animosity for each other pales in comparison to that dreaded moment when she comes clean to them. “I’m destroyed entirely, and my heart is broken to bits!” wails Mat, so distraught he even considers killing the woman he loved so deeply only a few minutes before, while her father, of course, just goes out and gets sloshed.

As O’Neill’s much-maligned title character, Zoe Perry is mesmerizing. In her very first scene, she quickly reveals her character’s hard-as-nails exterior and the delicate, gossamer vulnerability lurking just below the surface. When she explains her plight to Marthy (a crusty and splendidly froggy-voiced Mary Mara), her father’s equally salty main squeeze, Perry never for a moment descends into caricature as so many have in this role. And when she tells Marthy, “You’re me 40 years from now,” it’s a poignant, melodious, simple delivery as she shakes all over, spewing out through her touching fragility a jarring disgust with the world in general and men in particular.
   Jeff Perry is equally impressive as Anna’s father. It’s a colorful role written with numerous traps into which most actors fall, usually reducing the character to the pouting, one-note, sad-sack, “yumpin’ yiminy” kind of Scandinavian portrayed in 1930s Hollywood movies. McKidd’s character can also easily descend into every stereotype of a sailor of the era, complete with puffing chest and pirate-y accent, but not for a moment does that happen here. These incredibly gifted actors make for remarkable storytelling.
   Still, the most indelible component in Rubinstein’s atmospheric, courageously unpretentious new look at the gloomy long-gone world O’Neill so uniquely explored, is the brilliantly rich and multifaceted performance of Zoe Perry, who tumbles headfirst into the trials, strengths, and shattered dreams of the title role with dizzying force. When Mat tells Anna about how great it is to meet a real lady instead of the for-hire lowlifes he’s encountered in his years at sea, the expression in her eyes as she realizes how everything she has gained could be taken from her is absolutely heartbreaking, as though the actor is channeling the gifts of Hepburn and Streep and Chaplin. This production, above all its other wonders, heralds a future career that could rival that of either of her illustrious parents.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
January 27, 2015
Billy Elliot, the Musical
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

After the success of the 2000 film Billy Elliot, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine making the story into a musical. Lee Hall, who wrote the screenplay, created the musical’s book and lyrics, and with the help of Elton John’s music and Stephen Daldry’s direction, turned out a production that is still currently playing in England today. Concerns over how the British working-class dialogue might play out on a world tour evaporated when productions were widely successful as the musical turned global. The appeal of dreams realized is universal.
   In the McCoy Rigby Entertainment show at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, a down-to-the-wire replacement for Billy occurred when Noah Parets, the original cast member, broke his arm during rehearsals. With only a week before the opening, 14-year-old Mitchell Tobin stepped in as the little boy who chooses dancing over boxing. Since the success of the show depends, in a large part, on the charisma of the actor playing the title role, it was a knuckle-biter, but Tobin more than exceeds expectations.
   The show is gritty and has at its core the unhappy coal miner’s strike in northern England in the 1980s. Billy’s Dad (David Atkinson) is rough and angry, not necessarily ingredients for accepting his son’s desire to dance ballet, hence the conflict. As the story begins and Billy almost accidentally discovers his passion, the scene is set for the fulfillment of Billy’s hopes and aspirations by show’s end.

Director Brian Kite masterfully combines the darker elements of the storyline and the somewhat forgettable musical score with energy enough to convince the audience that improbability can triumph. Dana Solimando’s choreography also goes a long way toward making the story appealing.
   As Mrs. Wilkerson, the ballet teacher whose gaggle of little girls is less than inspiring, Vicki Lewis delivers humor and a cocky edge as she encourages Billy to pursue his talents. Her feisty exchanges with Atkinson as he tries to prevent Billy from dancing are standout. Atkinson is also excellent as the bewildered widower who finds parenthood a challenge in the midst of social upheaval in his life.
   Also interjecting much-needed humor is Billy’s friend Michael (Jake Kitchin), a cross-dressing pal who shows Billy the joys of female attire. Kitchin is ebullient and shines in his characterization. Another notable is Marsha Waterbury as Billy’s forgetful grandmother. Her rendition of “Grandma’s Song,” an account of her unhappy marriage and struggles, is moving and a welcome addition to the musical numbers.

The overall ensemble for this production is well-cast, with many noteworthy cameos. Stephen Weston as Billy’s brother Tony adds pathos as he rails against the plight of the miners and their probable defeat at the hands of the government. Kim Huber provides touching moments as the ghost of Billy’s mother.
   There are two standout moments in the show for Tobin. One is when he imagines his future as a dancer, with Brandon Forrest as adult Billy; the other is a passionate solo filled with anger and frustration. At these moments, the vision of the story is richly articulated.
   Casting is at the heart of the success of this production, and McCoy Rigby has gathered a colorful group to spin out the story. Though at times a bit too formulaic, it still provides a worthwhile foray into British musical theater.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
January 27, 2015
Fountain Theatre

Roger Ebert once opined, “It’s not what a movie is about but how it is about it,” and the notion holds for plays as well. It’d be silly and unfair to reduce Fiddler on the Roof to “a musical about Russian Jews,” or Long Day’s Journey Into Night to “a play about a New England family with a substance abuse problem.” The writers’ particular treatment of their material is what matters: the ways in which artistry transcends topic.
   In one recent, provocative local example, the genius of Tommy Smith’s Firemen, a 2014 offering by Echo Theater Company, is that it refused to be pinned down as “a play about a middle-school teacher who sleeps with a student.” Yes, that plot element was in there, but the handling was sensitive and brilliantly indirect verging on the Pinteresque. Moreover, Smith was concerned with much more in his play than just a Lifetime movie topic: He had a lot on his mind about frightened people’s connections with other frightened people. So much so that he included characters with no direct involvement in the central, taboo love affair, but who had their own loneliness fish to fry.

Of course, a corollary is that when a film or play is nothing more than “about” a topic, that’s a sure sign of trouble, which brings us to Reborning, a work by Zayd Dohrn having its L.A. premiere at Fountain Theatre after a world premiere in San Francisco. This is a play “about” the true-life reborning phenomenon, in which artists create ultrarealistic dolls meant to be indistinguishable from the living, breathing variety. Sounds like a decent enough jumping-off point, opening the door to a whole variety of interesting considerations, including: Why would someone take up such a practice, as opposed to other types of art? How might the art form mess with the artist’s head? And what’s up with a person who’d want to collect such a doppleganger: mania, or aesthetic appreciation, or something darker?
   The Fountain spectator expecting any of that investigation will be disappointed, because the way Reborning proves to “be about reborning” is hokey, melodramatic, and lacking in believable dialogue or behavior. It’s as if Dohrn, having heard tell of this phenomenon, decided to just toss it up onto the stage with a modicum of research under his belt, in hopes that something would resonate. It does not, nor does it convince.

Take the central boy-girl relationship Dohrn establishes. Reborning artist Kelly (Joanna Strapp), feverishly poking a needle into a doll’s eye, is clearly nervous and maybe at a breaking point, pulling at a joint. Her longtime lover and fellow artist Daizy (Ryan Doucette) crafts commissioned rubber dildos, one of which is proudly, lewdly sticking out of his pants when he bursts in, to a customer’s bemusement. When the customer leaves, he starts messing with Kelly’s materials and rudely grabbing at her doll displays, calling them “Chuckie.” “They’re starting to creep me out,” he announces, scoffing at the weirdos who would pay through the nose for a lifelike infant doppelgänger. This from the 10-inch-dildo seller. They banter Freudian theory until the truth comes out: Lately their sex life sucks.
   Almost all of this comes across as phony. Daizy and Kelly have been together for years, and clearly she’s been making these vinyl surrogates for a while now. Why would he, out of the blue, raise naïve questions about the fundamentals and commercial appeal of the art she’s been making, and making money at? Answer: because he is eliciting exposition. He must know how touchy she is about her work, so why would he thoughtlessly manhandle and deride it while she’s clearly in the throes of endeavor? For that matter, why doesn’t he notice her emotional state, or at least give us a Scene 1 hint as to whether this is her normal frame of mind or something noteworthy?
   Why does he parade the protruding dildo as if she’d never seen it before? That one’s easy: It’s meant to get a cheap laugh. And if you think the play ever gets into the contrast between their respective crafts, forget it; Daizy’s crass props carry no other plot or thematic function.
   Meanwhile there’s Kelly, who seems to take no pleasure or pride in her work. “It calms me” she exclaims, not at all calmly. If it brings her no solace, as it seems not to, why does she continue to do it? Out of compulsion, or neurosis, or hope that it will eventually take her to some pleasanter emotional space? Or shall we take the cynical view, that the playwright has predigested the act of making “fake babies,” and decided that anyone who chooses that calling must ipso facto be a basket case?

It’s so easy—far too easy—to use reborning as a metaphor for a tortured soul who can’t accept intimacy. More than that, it seems wrong to pen a play about a craft, only to arbitrarily hang a cornucopia of neuroses on it. Wrong as a dramaturgical choice, and unfair to the craftspersons themselves. (For the record, the real-life reborners quoted in the press materials sound like perfectly rational, normal people.)
   Would matters be improved if Strapp weren’t allowed, by the playwright and director Simon Levy, to play all her neurasthenic cards in the first scene, so that she has nowhere to go but just get crazier? Or if Doucette were given an opportunity to reveal some relaxed charm that might hint at what Kelly is holding onto in their relationship? Possibly so. Certainly Kristin Carey, as the customer whose commission brings events to a head, is by far the strongest element, simply because she possesses stillness and control and isn’t Acting all over the place.
   There’s a mystery woven in, too: something about Kelly’s past. But the real mystery is how this script was accepted for production by the estimable and usually reliable Fountain. If this is what this theater greenlights, what must its reject pile look like?

Reviewed by Bob Verini
January 27, 2015
Lucid Dramatics at Acting Artists Theatre

Written, directed, and produced by Carla Neuss, Revival attempts to chronicle the loneliness and despair of the disparate habitués of a small, hideaway cocktail bar. The bar is located in a downscale section of Los Angeles and is owned and operated by spiritual healer–cocktail guru Crispin (Ben Moroski). The bar’s regulars include socially jaundiced Tyler (Victor Gurevich), burnt-out pastor Fred (James Svatko), and jaded college student–turned–gentleman’s escort Jo (Adrienne Whitney). They seek refuge from reality by weaving a personal story that will inspire Crispin to concoct a special cocktail for each that captures the palate, assuages all fears, and promotes tranquility. Despite the earnest efforts of the ensemble, nothing else of any dramatic value is accomplished in this shortsighted stage work.
Neuss indicates that Crispin is on an odyssey of his own, in search of the long-lost holy grail of liqueur that will somehow transform his own life. The playwright takes her woebegone losers-in-life through myriad storytellings, personal revelations, and confrontations. But, by play’s end, no one has been transformed. Everyone simply moves on. Neuss does not offer enough information about these lost souls for the audience to care what happens to them.

Moroski certainly projects the somber intensity of a man who is on a journey of discovery; but his Crispin remains a thematically unsatisfying enigma throughout. Whitney’s Jo is much more forthcoming, handling each of her three “dates”—all performed by a decidedly uncomfortable Joe Mortone—with efficiency and dispatch, while indicating she might want to achieve some level of personal commitment with Crispin. Yet, her eventual meltdown is arbitrary, having been set off by some activity offstage to which the audience isn’t privy.
Gurevich’s Tyler is believable as a raw-nerved convert to the mandate of Crispin’s alcohol oasis—tell a sweet little story but leave the real world outside. He gives ample evidence that if it weren’t for the bar, his psyche would disintegrate. Svatko is endearing as the life-conflicted cleric. Unfortunately, he has trouble with his delivery, occasionally rendering himself inaudible.

Scenic designer Yuti Okaham creates a quirky-looking bar-lounge setting that evokes the aura of a secret hideaway. But the placement of the bar dead center at the rear of the stage results in awkward blocking. And Gieselle Blair’s wig designs do more damage than good as Martone struggles through his three date personas.
Revival is in its premiere outing, affirming that Neuss has an original voice. With a running time of around 100 minutes, no intermission, it could stand a rewrite to flesh out the necessary storytelling elements that need amplification.

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
January 22, 2015
The Whipping Man
South Coast Repertory

Matthew Lopez’s evocative Civil War story opens in near darkness as a Jewish Confederate captain, Caleb (Adam Haas Hunter), drags himself into his severely damaged home near Richmond, Va., a few days after the recent cessation of the war. Seriously wounded, he is met by former slave Simon (Charlie Robinson), who has stayed behind to look after things after the family fled. When Simon recognizes Caleb, he offers Hebrew blessings for his return. The family and its slaves shared Judaism as their spiritual ethic.
   They are soon joined by John (Jarrod M. Smith), another slave who has grown up with Caleb but whose personal history is a mix of thievery, rebellion, and drunkenness. He brings with him liquor and household items he has “liberated” from the area’s stores and homes. Simon immediately presses him into service, as Caleb’s gangrenous leg needs to be amputated, and Caleb refuses to go to the military hospital. The home becomes a sanctuary of sorts for the three. Caleb is also reminded that John and Simon are now free men, and their attentiveness is doing what is right rather than what they are bound to perform.

Lopez’s play mixes historical racial narrative with melodrama, and though it has many inconsistencies, the production overcomes some of its problems. Director Martin Benson focuses on the human side of the conflict by developing rich characterizations.
   Robinson’s quiet dignity and humor keep Simon from devolving into caricature. The portrayal is believable as Simon celebrates his faith and takes pride in his worth to the family. He anchors reality as the story unfolds.
   Hunter is also excellent as the privileged Southerner who has returned home with secrets and sees his future as bleak. He embodies weakness and regret. His amputation scene is a cringeworthy masterpiece, and his subsequent suffering never falters.
   Smith is also notable as the angry recipient of the “whipping man’s” administration of Southern justice. As John taunts Caleb with accusations, he projects pent-up rage. He is brash yet embraces his Judaism faithfully with all of its traditions. One of the most interesting scenes in the play is a Seder dinner planned by Simon that the three share.

Tom Buderwitz’s set design is elegant, showing vestiges of what once was a grand home with well-appointed design. Tattered curtains hang from the tall windows, and holes in the walls and roof attest to war’s destructive nature. Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s muted lighting adds to the melancholy mood and enhances the bleak sadness of the storyline.
   Michael Roth’s original music/soundscape ratchets up the underlying atmosphere, giving the production enhanced presence. Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes also add to the poignancy of Southern failure.
   Lopez’s play suffers from a plethora of story threads that bog down the central theme of freedom and racial equality. Still, its message prompts discussion and examination of the human condition, especially in light of our daily dose of societal inequities.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
January 16, 2014
Jack Lemmon Returns
Broad Stage

Two-time Oscar winner Jack Lemmon has always been at the top echelon of acting talent. A gifted comedian (he represented Billy Wilder’s personification of the everyman in The Apartment and Irma La Douce) and modern tragedian (his alcoholic characters in Days of Wine and Roses and Save the Tiger are Shakespearean in scope) demonstrate a tremendous range. His son Chris Lemmon’s one-man show toasts his father’s accomplishments and delves into their complicated relationship.
   Utilizing conversations with Chris Lemmon as well as Chris’s memoir, A Twist of Lemmon: A Tribute to My Father, author-director Hershey Felder follows Jack’s early life with a stern father and flamboyant mother (she was the model for Daphne in Some Like It Hot), his first amateur performances, college life at Harvard, and his career. Lemmon shares his father’s good moments and low points, which sometimes occurred at the same time: The night Lemmon won his first Oscar for Mister Roberts in 1956, he abandoned his first wife at the ceremony to leave for after-parties, signaling the end of their marriage. Jacks’ alcoholism and personal parallels to his characters in Days of Wine and Roses and Save the Tiger are disclosed.

The best reason to recommend Jack Lemmon Returns is Chris’s winning personality. He imitates his father’s voice adroitly and changes his normal expressions to evolve into Jack. He captures Jack’s cadence, humor, and nervous tics. Chris stares directly into audience members’ eyes, creating a sense of intimacy. He plays piano with style, a skill he learned from his father. Director Felder should have relied on footage of Jack’s best scenes instead of having Chris enact them. Because these moments and Jack’s talent are ingrained in the audience’s memory, it comes off as a peculiar choice.
   Felder’s script doesn’t delve as deeply as it should have done. The timelines are unclear, leaving the audience confused. Chris mentions Jack’s alcoholism while discussing the death of Jack’s best friend Walter Matthau, but it’s uncertain if Jack admitted and treated his alcoholism at that time only (12 months before Jack died) or if he came to grips with the disease earlier in life and Felder chose to draw the parallels at that point in the script. The relationship between Chris and Jack also could have used fleshing out. The show tells good stories of Chris’s youth and Jack’s abortive attempts to spend time with him; but then nothing mentioned about their interactions during many years.
   Also, because the crux of the story involves their relationship, it would have been intriguing to hear from Chris how the addition of a half-sister positively or negatively affected him. Did he see his father be more attentive to her than he had been to Chris, or did he repeat patterns? As Felder has done in his own works, he focuses on Jack’s films and peppers those times with anecdotes instead of painting a full picture of the man.

Despite script issues, Jack Lemmon Returns is a loving but complicated portrait of a revered man told by the son who obviously adored him. Chris Lemmon not only exposes new dimensions of an American legend but also reveals himself to be a charismatic stage presence.

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz
January 12, 2015
The Bridges of Madison County
Center Theatre Group at Ahmanson Theatre

The musical The Bridges of Madison County, adapted from Robert James Waller’s bestselling novel, which is also the basis of a hit film, is a love story, with a Tony-winning score that adds to its emotional depth and power. You don’t have to be familiar with—or to have liked—the book or the movie to enjoy playwright Marcia Norman’s and composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown’s imaginative and complex musical adaptation, expertly directed by Bartlett Sher. The musical brings to life not only the love story but also the inner worlds of the two lovers.
   Francesca (Elizabeth Stanley) is a wife and mother, who came from her native Naples, Italy, to live on a farm in Iowa, when she married Bud (Cullen R. Titmas), whom she met when he was a soldier in bombed-out Naples at the end of World War II. As the musical opens, in 1965, Bud is taking his and Francesca’s teenage children—Carolyn (Caitlin Houlahan) and Michael (Dave Thomas Brown)—to spend four days at a state fair. After they’ve gone, Robert (Andrew Samonsky), a freelance photographer, stops at the farm to ask Francesca for directions to the last of the covered bridges he is photographing for National Geographic. Initially, Francesca and Robert resist the attraction they feel for each other; gradually Francesca decides to give in to it, leading to a passion neither has known before.
   Robert’s sensitivity to Francesca and her physical attraction to him ignite in her the need to be seen as a woman, not just a wife and mother, feelings she sings about in the expressive “Look at Me.” Robert is an outsider, traveling the globe for the magazine, an observer with a camera between himself and everything he sees and experiences. In Francesca he finds a sympathetic, sensuous woman whose openness to him draws him out and opens him to a closeness he’s never experienced. On the day he must leave for his next assignment, he wants Francesca to come with him, and as she waits for her husband and children to come home, she is filled with the joyous possibility that she will go. But ultimately her commitment to her family makes her stay with them. In the anguishingly beautiful “It All Fades Away,” Robert conveys his love of Francesca, which is with him long after their four days together, as it is still with her.

The cast is outstanding. Stanley is a superb actor with a lovely voice. Her deeply convincing performance makes Francesca so real that you feel with her and for her. Samonsky is her equal as an actor and singer, and together they create characters whose love is palpable and haunting. Titman, as Bud, is excellent; he makes you care about Bud. It’s heartbreaking when Bud returns from the fair and Francesca desperately wants to tell him that she’s going to leave him but finally decides to stay, never revealing what has happened in his absence. Houlihan and Brown as vividly portray their daughter and son. Mary Callanan and David Hess perfectly embody neighbors Marge and Charlie, who provide comic moments and, in Marge’s case, empathy and support for Francesca, whose affair with Robert Marge intuits and lives vicariously.
   Often, in Sher’s brilliant staging, Francesca’s family and neighbors appear on the stage when Francesca and Robert are together alone. As Francesca sings “Almost Real,” people from her life in Naples inhabit the stage with her and Robert. Thus we enter Francesca’s mind and see the people who are always with her, even when physically they are not there. The frequent presence of Bud and the children, her neighbors, and the townspeople makes us understand that although in some ways Francesca is an outsider like Robert, unlike him she is bound to her family and has put down roots in the community. This helps us to understand her decision. At one point, Robert’s ex-wife, Marian (Katie Klaus), appears on the stage with them and sings “Another Life,” about the pain of her marriage to Robert as Robert tells Francesca the bare bones of his story. This brings us into Robert’s mind, his memory of Marion; it helps us to understand his isolation, the difficulty he’s had in being available to another person.

Norman’s script is concise, dramatic, humorous, and effective; Brown’s score is sometimes almost operatic, other times inspired by gospel, country music, and, in “Get Closer” (well-performed by Callanan and some of the ensemble), Big Band 1940s pop. The thoughtful, varied orchestrations by Brown, who is also conducting, range from full orchestra to a solo guitar.
   The scenic design, by Michael Yeargan, features a tree that is at once realistic and magical, and a backdrop of sky and farmland, against which all other sets roll or drop into place. The lighting, by Donald Holder, is subtle and sometimes breathtaking, showing the vast flat landscape at different times of day and a starlit sky at night. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are flawless.
   When Bridges is over, we are left with memories of Francesca and Robert and of the Iowa farmland in which for four days they found each other, and we understand why they are part of each other’s lives for as long as they live.

Reviewed by Mark Bruce Rosin
December 11, 2015
Julia Migenes Sings Kurt Weill
Odyssey Theatre

This might be the theater community’s most special gift during this sadly conflicted and basically nonfestive holiday season. In a world lit by bigotry and terror, internationally celebrated mezzo-soprano Julia Migenes does the impossible: She breathes passion and artistry into her work and that of one of the last century’s greatest composers, proving once again that art—and the appreciation of it at its most genius—are the salvation for our unsettled and unsettling world. As Shelley told us, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.”
   This splendidly simple concert celebration of Weill’s timeless music, directed by Peter Medak, is played on a nearly bare stage with nothing but accompanist Mitsuko Morikawa’s piano surrounded by scattered theatrical lighting equipment, a huge ladder, and several wooden soap boxes. The evening is all about the music and, of course, Migenes’s unearthly talents. Her vocal range is astounding, at moments appearing to rival that of Yma Sumac, but Migenes is so much more than that.
   Migenes brings a hunger, fervency, and appreciation for Weill’s music that is unique to her. She here sings the master’s songbook as it was originally written: in German, in French, and even in English when it reflected the years Weill worked here after he, his longtime collaborator Bertolt Brecht, and Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya fled the Nazis. Even though most of the lyrics are not understood by Migenes’s appreciative audience, it makes no difference; if anything, it enhances the experience of hearing it performed in its purest form. Only an artist this gifted could pull off such a difficult feat and make us hang on every word, every gesture, every subtle dancelike movement. She tells the story regardless, and we are the eager recipients of her gifts.

Migenes’s performance is indelible, a diamond on the rough of the Odyssey’s modest stage. She begins by bringing glorious new meaning to the familiar “Die Moritat van Mackie Messer (The Ballad of Mack the Knife)”; brings a delicate, almost gossamer wonder to the sturdy “Bilbao Song” and “Surabaya Johnny” from Happy End; and knocks the English-language “My Ship” from Lady in the Dark right out onto Sepulveda Boulevard. And when she concludes the evening with the greatest rendition of “September Song” from Knickerbocker Holiday this reviewer has ever heard, she almost manages to restore a world-weary correspondent’s ever-faltering faith in humanity. As Brecht once said about art, it makes everything self-evident. “I am made to cry with those who cry and laugh with those who laugh.”
   Beyond the sheer joy of hearing great artistry commemorated by a great artist, there are vital lessons to contemplate in this music. Weill and Brecht used their originality and celebrity to speak out about injustice no matter what the personally dangerous odds were of doing so. As Migenes reminds us from the starkly barren stage, they zealously believed, as she quotes Brecht as saying, that “Art is not a mirror held up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.” The music and ardor of these remarkable men will endure at least as long as we do, at least as long as artists like Migenes are around to honor it.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
December 6, 2015
Rio Hondo
Theatre of NOTE, in association with Opiate of the Masses, at Theatre of NOTE

Notorious gunslingers always seemed to have a rough time retiring in the Wild West—at least in the Wild West as depicted by Hollywood. This is particularly true for Bert McGraw, one of those typically lumbering square-jawed heroes who can’t seem to keep his six-shooter in his pants no matter how hard he tries. When he returns to the dusty frontier town of Hondo to see his ailing brother, who sadly croaks before poor Bert arrives, Bert’s past comes to haunt him before he can even sashay his hips through the saloon’s swinging doors.
   Almost before he can tip his ten-gallon hat and say “Howdy, pard’nur,” four men are dead at his feet, leading his supreme nemesis Diego Sanchez, the town’s new sheriff who of course was once one of those black hats himself, to remark that ol’ Bert might be the world’s most incompetent pacifist. Since McGraw killed off another half-dozen of Sanchez’s posse before even riding into town, his attempt to make amends with his old enemy just aren’t working. “You can’t kill 10 of my men and just call it square-zies,” Sanchez whines before warning McGraw his days are numbered. The only problem is, there’s some doubt Sanchez can count.
   Playwright Bill Robens, who seems to have the ability to spoof any genre he attempts to tackle, takes delightfully ridiculous swipes at all those cheaply produced spaghetti Westerns both domestic and Italian that clogged movie theaters in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In collaboration with wild-man director Jamie Robledo, no cliché is safe, as the pair takes on memorable moments from classic films and turns them into living Looney Tunes cartoons. Beginning with projected trailers of some of the worst of those old B-movies, live action takes over as Robledo conjures incredibly imaginative ways to represent the sweep of those dry and tumbleweed-strewn Western plains. His characters ride wooden sawhorses, accompanied by clomps and whinnies emanating from the sound booth, and the well-rehearsed ensemble constructs a stagecoach from random pieces of wood and metal right before our appreciative eyes, only to have one of their ranks be inventively trampled beneath its spindly wheels.

The cast, though clearly relishing the humor, never drops the façade embodied in celluloid by those questionably talented unknowns in those formulaic classic films—such as a fresh-faced Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, or Lee Van Cleef, not to mention an occasional turn by a lucratively slumming Eli Wallach.
   As McGraw, Darrett Sanders manages to be incredibly funny without cracking a smile. Phinneas Kiyomura, an Asian actor sporting an intentionally terrible Mexican singsong-y drawl as McGraw’s longtime adversary Sanchez, is the perfect foil for Sanders’s painfully deadpanned stoicism. Alina Phelan is hilarious as the gunslinger’s severe and world-weary Dorothy Malone of a sister-in-law, who of course is fighting to keep her ranch despite the efforts of the big railroad conglomerate to take over her land. Yup, Clementine is a woman who “appreciates the intrinsic properties of cattle,” even waxing poetic in Robens’s best monologue that what this country needs is more beef to save it from industrialization.
   All the usual suspects are here. Grace Eboigbe is wonderful as the town’s crusty madam with a heart of gold, a woman used and abused by both McGraw and Sanchez—who reminds Rosarita when she confesses she’s ready to retire from her questionable profession that, since the railroad is about to turn Hondo into an empire, “empires need whores.” Gene Michael Barrera couldn’t be better as Clem’s Filipino manservant Ding-Ding Macadangdang, who continues to believe America is a great land of opportunity despite the fact that everyone in it is trying to kill him on a regular basis.
   Nicholas S. Williams and Michael Holmes are standouts as Flapjack and Billy, two typically roughhewn cowpokes whose admiration of each other’s guns turns into one the most hysterical homoerotic love-hate relationships of all time. Kirsten Vangsness makes a memorable cameo as Clementine’s sister, the infamous Iris Prewett, who has managed to acquire quite a reputation as a legendary gunfighter despite the fact that she’s blind as a bat and must be pointed in the right direction to fire her weapon.

There are endless one-liners and outrageous burlesques of film and television violence crashing nonstop through Robens’s delightfully silly send-up, all brought to life by Robledo’s unique comedic vision and a stellar supporting cast. David Bickford, Mandi Moss, Lynn Odell, and all their willing cast mates must have to work very hard not to crack a smile no matter how many times their myriad familiar supporting characters succumb to the tale’s nearly continuous gunfire. In a world dominated more than ever these days by greed, intolerance, and rampant gun violence, it’s quite a feat that the creators of Rio Hondo show us the deliciously inappropriate absurdity of it all.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
November 29, 2015
The Shoplifters
Victory Theatre Center

Canadian playwright Morris Panych is far better-known and better-awarded in our close-but-yet-so-far neighbor to the north. But if LA theaterlovers take advantage of the unique opportunity to see the West Coast debut of one of his most hilariously perverse plays, presented under the sharply cagey watch of director Maria Gobetti, the writer’s star might rise quickly over our western climes.
   Double-sided tape being nothing as reliable as it once was, seasoned shoplifter Alma (Kathy Bailey) is caught stuffing a 16-oz. rib eye steak under her skirt by the supermarket’s awkward security guard–in-training Dom (Alex Genther). She and her decidedly more traumatized and reluctant accomplice Phyllis (Wendy Johnson) are herded into the back room of the supermarket, only to have the novice crime-stopper quickly placed more on the defensive than the offensive. Alma, who admits she is “at the top of her game” in the petty theft business, immediately begins to blast the painfully gung-ho young rookie for his impertinence rather than exhibiting any contrition, reminding him that even Prometheus stole fire from the gods—and after all is said and done, that didn’t turn out to be such a bad thing.

There’s nothing in the emotionally breakable kid’s training manual that helps him deal with the situation, as the chapter on what to do when meat falls out of a customer’s underwear seems to have been omitted. Luckily, Dom is confident he can rely on the expertise of his colleague Otto (Steve Hofvendahl), the older security guard who’s been showing him the ropes between frequent eye-rolls at his charge’s Dudley Do-Right attitude. Unfortunately, that lesson might still be hard to come by, as Otto has been watching Alma steal from the market on a regular basis without ever stopping her, his professional duties compromised because he has developed a massive crush on her right through the monitor of the store’s surveillance system.
   Under Gobetti’s precise leadership, her three notable veteran performers are remarkably comfortable with Panych’s often hyperbolic rat-a-tat of nonstop humor. Bailey has the especially difficult task of making the cornered Alma, almost eagerly ready to take on the situation and talk her way out of an arrest, appear hardened yet intensely vulnerable. She’s a woman ready to discuss the “whole structure of the market economy,” if necessary, but not before reminding her captors they don’t have the crime on tape and besides, she and her apprentice certainly don’t have time for all that. Phyllis has to get to the job she loves as a hatcheck girl at a local club and she herself has to continue fighting her private battle with the Big C.
   Hofvendahl makes an exceptional foil for Bailey’s hardened Alma, sweetly relatable as the world-weary, desperately tired lifelong security guard (“If they passed their cop exams,” Alma tells Phyllis, “they wouldn’t be working here”) ready to chuck it all, especially after the new store manager lets him go for giving a shoplifting homeless kid a pass. With Hofvendahl’s wonderfully understated delivery, Otto becomes a perfect example of someone who once wanted to change the world but now, after 30 years toiling dutifully as an unappreciated worker drone surviving within the corporate system, just wants to leave the room with a little dignity.
   As the somewhat dim-bulb and fragile Phyllis, Johnson is delightful and totally amazing, offering an exaggerated, truly over-the-top performance that for some reason works. Few actors can create a character as broadly—and bravely—as Johnson, getting away with much more than others because everything she does, every face she makes or line she croaks out like a whiny, overgrown, overtired 4-year-old, originates from a deep-down base of supreme reality. Genther, however, a rookie in this exceptional company of performers and obviously as raw as his character, is not as lucky. He could be the quintessential Dom if he just trusted himself and what he’s got to offer physically in his role, not work so darn hard to be funny. Still, he obviously has a unique talent just ready to blossom, so hopefully he will learn from working with his trio of well-honed co-stars.

Of course, the big question here, which Panych explores with an achingly sharp eye for contemporary humor, is whether the “imbalances of the world can be corrected by a can of stolen tuna,” especially when the perpetrator believes all she was doing was “grabbing at something that’s owed” her. Is it a better life Alma wants—or just a leaner cut of rib eye?

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
November 8, 2015
The Baker’s Wife
Actors Co-op David Schall Theatre

From the opening strains of composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz’s tenderly wrought overture to director Richard Israel’s stage-filling final tableau, this production is, in a word, delicious. The story of a French village, Concorde, panicked at the loss of the berg’s baker and the various resulting subplots among its residents is based on a 1938 film version titled La Femme du Boulanger. Perhaps due to the intimate charm of the collaboration between Schwartz and playwright Joseph Stein, the show, although popular within theater circles, has never enjoyed a run on The Great White Way.
   Given the gorgeous production values and performances on display here, Broadway’s snub seems wildly unfounded. Director Israel, with the notable assistance of musical director Jake Anthony and choreographer Julie Hall, has crafted a masterpiece. The voices are beautiful—backed by Anthony leading a five-member onstage musical ensemble—and Hall creates ingeniously intricate traffic patterns for the full-cast numbers, especially in light of this venue’s intimate stage dimensions.
   Jeffrey Markle and Treva Tegtmeier play Claude and Denise, the long-wedded proprietors of the town’s café. Tegtmeier does a fine job setting up the show’s backstory in the opening number, “Chanson.” Meanwhile, Claude spars verbally at every turn with another local, Barnaby, played with delightful snarkiness by Michael Worden, whose long-suffering wife, Hortense, is given a heart-wrenching turn by Tracey Bunka.

Squabbling over the effects of one’s shade tree on the other’s garden are Pierre and Doumergue, a secondary pair of friends/enemies. Brought to life respectively by Brian Dyer and Michael Riney, this duo along with the town’s resident drunk, Antoine (Brandon Parrish in an expertly balanced performance) provide a great deal of the show’s comedic moments. Likewise, Natalie Hope MacMillan’s portrayal of Therese, the town spinster, is gracefully understated as she calls into question the motives of her fellow citizens.
   A trio of stalwart community members—a professor, a priest, and a playboy—banter among themselves over how best to handle the town’s dilemma. In these roles, Kelly Brighton, Tim Hodgin, and Christopher Maikish anchor the show, displaying an admirable proclivity for handling a number of philosophical debates found in playwright Joseph Stein’s book. Additional supporting roles are charmingly embodied by Larray Grimes, Greyson Chadwick, Rachel Hirshee, and Lindsey Schuberth.
   Arriving to save the residents from eating crusty, day-old wares from the next town over are Aimable Castagnet and his attractive, much younger wife, Genevieve. Welcoming them with fanfare, the village seems at peace. That is, until, a handsome local handyman, Dominique, played by Nick Echols, sets his sights on Genevieve. The conflicts that arise present the townsfolk with more problems than they had in just locating a new baker in the first place.

As Aimable and Genevieve, Greg Baldwin and Chelle Denton are exquisite. Baldwin’s everyman worships his spouse, knowing full well his unusually good fortune. His Act 2 rendition of “If I Have to Live Alone” is simple but emotionally effective. Denton handles her character’s inner turmoil with aplomb as well. In “Meadowlark” and “Where is the Warmth?” as well as in “Gifts of Love”, a duet with Baldwin, Denton demonstrates an innate skill in interpreting Schwartz’s lyrics.
   Set against the picture-postcard perfection of Rich Rose’s scenic design, including a series of sliding panels and the impressively detailed bakery kitchen, and augmented by Wendell C. Carmichael’s 1930s-era costuming, this is a delightful revival of an oft-overlooked theatrical gem.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
October 19, 2015
The Addams Family
3–D Theatricals at Plummer Auditorium

Originally characters in 1930s single-panel cartoons and then the basis of a 1960s television sitcom, the Addams family consists of the bizarrely gothic, macabre, but close-knit clan created by cartoonist Charles Addams.
   The somber brunette in the clingy black gown with its plunging neckline is mother Morticia. The stocky mustachioed Spaniard in the chalk-stripe suit is father Gomez. Their children are the pudgy Pugsley and the sullen Wednesday. The monklike, childlike Uncle Fester is Gomez’s brother. The ditzy 102-year-old in the attic is someone’s Grandma. Lurch the butler tends to their household needs.
   Just as the Addamses are obsessed with morbidity and sadism, theatermakers are obsessed with musicalizing. The cartoons and TV series are now a musical with book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa. It’s currently in a production by 3–D Theatricals, directed by T.J. Dawson.
   Sets, props, and costume designs are from the Broadway originals by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch. This means Dawson pretty much sticks to the national tour’s staging, in which swags of the red velour drape hide set changes while the action proceeds elsewhere.

How to create that pillar of dramatic literature, conflict? Here, Wednesday is older and has fallen for Lucas, a “normal” young man. She brings him and his parents home to meet her family, but, fearful of Morticia’s reaction, she confides in her father and begs him not to tell mom. Morticia, rightfully, has been insistent on truthful and forthright communication among family members. This conflict occupies the latter half of Act 1 and doesn’t make for compelling storytelling.
   A stronger second act ties the characters’ peculiarities together and teaches the show’s lessons. It’s about love in all its forms, it’s about the hard work involved in change, it’s about being our authentic selves. It’s also about getting Lucas and Wednesday together, although to an outsider it looks like they’ll eventually be heading for divorce court.
   The surprisingly warm heart of this production nestles in a performer who clearly isn’t a singer. At first we might cringe, as we wonder what—other than his Hollywood credits—got him this job. But soon Bronson Pinchot shows why he’s a worthy Gomez Addams. Yes, he can deliver a comedic line. But, as creepy and kooky as the family’s pastimes are, Pinchot’s Gomez is a warm, loving dad, with no sheen of the smarminess other stars have brought to the role. His songs are sung with purpose and character, his dance-partnering of Morticia is caring if not dynamic, and his hugs are genuine and enveloping.

At the other extreme, Rachel York is a genuine musical theater star. As Morticia, York’s voice reflects well-honed musicality, and her comedic chops pop on every line. Still, as with Pinchot, Dawson keeps character work at the core, so York’s Morticia is foremost a devoted mother and committed wife.
   Micaela Martinez, playing Wednesday, will someday take over York’s many leading roles, as she already boasts a strong melodious voice. Likewise destined for a long career is Dante Marenco, whose Pugsley is a livewire. While Anthony Gruppuso’s Uncle Fester is a cuddly creature with lots of memorable stage business, Lucas (Dino Nicandros) and his father (Robert Yacko) seem a little underwritten.
   But, wowza, the two female second leads sizzle. Tracy Rowe Mutz plays Lucas’s mother, blessed with amusing talents and a thirst for life, who gets to sing the barnburner “Waiting”—Alice’s equivalent of “Rose’s Turn,” overblown, campy, and enthralling. And as Grandma, Candi Milo hilariously spouts the show’s best advice.

Fourteen “dead ancestors”—ghosts who watch over the family—use their lifetimes of wisdoms to soothe this lifetime of annoyances and provide the show’s chorus. Still, the evening’s sweetest surprise comes when the mumbling Lurch finds his lovely voice, especially in this portrayal by Dustin Ceithamer.
   Several of the songs are hummable. But after the show, audiences may emerge likewise humming the lighting, designed by Jean-Yves Tessier with a nod to Natasha Katz’s original. As with the 1930s cartoons, this show is not for young children.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
October 12, 2015

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
Mark Taper Forum

As three achingly dysfunctional long-estranged siblings meet at their family’s neglected plantation in southeast Arkansas the day before the estate is to be auctioned off to cover their recently departed father’s massive debts, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to realize we’re in for a bumpy ride—albeit a long and sometimes difficult one to witness.
   Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is an important new playwright. Luckily for Angelenos, the Mark Taper Forum is the quintessential place to present his play here, with its ability to completely transform the magical space before our eyes. The hoarder-like clutter accumulated in their father’s tumultuous later years is stacked everywhere on Mimi Lien’s spectacularly versatile set, an easy analogy for all the lingering, equally cluttered resentments and grudges the feuding Lafayettes hold against one another.
   Jacobs-Jenkins epic drama nears being a gothic ghost story, although the spirits that indeed seem to inhabit the estate never directly surface beyond a disembodied shoulder pat—until, possibly, the play’s jaw-dropping epilogue. The reasons why the Lafayettes’s childhood home might be haunted are revealed along the way, exacerbated by the discovery of an ancient photo album, found among their dad’s possessions, containing images of dead black people hanging from trees, as well as a crate of mason jars that may or may not contain human fingers, ears, and other more private appendages.
   Whether daddy a was racist or whether he just found the book, as well as the KKK hood unearthed by Bo Lafayette’s 9-year-old son, when daddy bought the old estate with its two onsite graveyards—one for the family’s moldering relatives and one farther down the trail for the bodies of the plantation’s former slaves—remains a mystery. Whether or not spirits float around this emotionally explosive weekend, the general sense is that the actions of those indentured people who once inhabited this property have cursed its inhabitants—and the Lafayettes have inherited the blight whether their ancestors started it or not.

The veteran cast is sensational, particularly Zarah Mahler as decade-lost brother Frank’s latter-day flowerchild girlfriend River (nee Trisha) and the teenage Grace Kaufman as the feisty Cassidy, the doomed family’s only hope-for-the-future character. As warring siblings Bo, Toni, and Frank, David Bishins, Melora Hardin, and Robert Beitzel are up for the surely exhausting challenge of creating these miserable characters. But all of them, as well as Missy Yager as Bo’s menopausal wife, Rachael, and Will Tranfo as Toni’s underwritten son, Rhys, are all at least once in the proceedings done in by their director, Eric Ting.
   It’s not often a director is so glaringly responsible for almost sinking a production, but Ting’s staging is clumsy and incredibly pretentious, with more hugs from behind and wistful speeches aimed directly at the audience than in a daytime soap opera shot with only one working camera. Even more unforgivable is Ting’s inability to guide his actors to control and temper their individual emotional rants. This is not the actors’ fault; even the best of the best need a strong directorial vision to let them know when to dial it back.
   Lien’s elaborate set design, as well as Christopher Kuhl’s eerie lighting and Matt Tierney’s appropriately annoying sound plot, add much to the slickly produced production. At each intermission—and there are two here—it was fascinating to watch six or seven stagehands descend on the stage to reset the many props and piles of clutter, particularly complicated between the first and second act when River and Rachael have begun to organize tables of items from china to straight-backed chairs to sell at a later-aborted estate sale the following day. Such a sea of well-paid union workers is indeed rare in these austere days of LA theater. But, although lips must stay well-zipped about the last scenes of this play, let’s just say that after the conclusion of Appropriate, all those extra hands made perfect sense.

Brenden Jacobs-Jenkins is surely a force to energize the future of American theater once he finds his own voice and stops relying on others before him to make his point. This first major effort, with its August: Osage County meets The Price sensibility, with a little racial hand-slapping thrown into the mix, is an impressive start to what will surely be a remarkable career.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
October 8, 2015
The Sound of Music
Ahmanson Theatre

First of all, this is indeed your father’s The Sound of Music, in its national tour now launching here. The stage version birthed the film, which retained much of the theatrical book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. But onstage, the gorgeous songs appear in a different order, and songs not included in the film give supporting characters the chance to voice their positions and emotional states.
   Don’t let it confuse you. The story still centers on Maria Rainer and her immersion into the von Trapp family. She is portrayed by Kerstin Anderson, who is being touted by the show’s director, Jack O’Brien, as a “discovery” with “star-making magic.” Don’t expect Julie Andrews, however. Anderson has a sweet if unimposing voice, and her American vowels may startle the ear at the top of the show, when she sings “The Sound of Music.”
   Yet, Anderson has an astounding joy that radiates from head to toe and doesn’t leave her for a moment. Yes, her acting style is a bit big, but it felt like opening-night big on opening night, full of the thrill of taking on this role, full of eagerness to tell this stirring story. In no way would Captain von Trapp and his children not fall in love with this Maria.

Having brought in Anderson, O’Brien also brings magic to his staging. To fleetly flee and fly from dusky carved-wood convent to sunny villa, garret bedroom to balustraded terrace, cathedral to gated abbey garden, he relied on set designer Douglas W. Schmidt and lighting designer Natasha Katz. O’Brien can’t get the massing and movement of the seven children to look “natural.” But his swirling movement of the nuns in “(How Do You Solve a Problem Like) Maria” early in the show is lively and effective—and the number lets the audience know that the Ahmanson’s sound system is in spectacular order here.
   Not spectacular are the myriad accents heard onstage: Continental, British, American. Perhaps faring best there are the von Trapp siblings. The actors are, of course, adorable and talented. It’s astonishing that they show focus and strength throughout this nearly three-hour performance, on a weeknight, though Audrey Bennett as the youngest, Gretl, was showing signs of wilting.

Portraying their father, Georg, is Ben Davis. His strong resemblance to Ralph Fiennes doesn’t end with the physical likenesses. Davis doesn’t so much perform a song as let it emerge from his depths. Though he has a velvety baritone, he is unshowy, so the story keeps progressing without braking for the song.
   Merwin Foard does a rip-roaring Max Detweiler, the presumably homosexual impresario who helps the family escape the pursuing Nazis (clearly not knowing what the Nazis will have in store for him). Dan Tracy is the young Nazi delivery-boy, Rolf. Teri Hansen is the too-inappropriate-for-Georg baroness.
   Of the charming actors playing the siblings—who include Mackenzie Currie as Marta, Quinn Erickson as Kurt, Svea Johnson as Brigitta, Maria Knasel as Louisa, and Erich Schuett as Friedrich—the standout is Paige Silvester, playing the eldest, Liesl. She has a lovely voice, perhaps more musical than Anderson’s, and she dances beautifully.
   Musical theater aficionados just might geek out over hearing Ashley Brown sing the role of Mother Abbess. Broadway’s original Mary Poppins delivers a soaring performance here, culminating in a knockout “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” to close Act One.

Of course the songs are memorable—most of them long-ago memorized by most of the audience—and the story of parental love squeezed a few tears from many in the audience. Spare a thought, too, for those who needed to, and those who now need to, flee their homelands because of the insanity of so-called leaders allowed a foothold there.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
October 1, 2015
Road Theatre

Few playwrights as gifted as Lisa Loomer could find dark humor in such a gloomy and prophetic indictment of the ever-encroaching fringes of our apathetic and self-involved society, cunningly pounding the last few nails into the coffin that holds our frantically flailing American dream. JJ, Breezy, and Franklin are three lost teenagers living on the mean streets of Medford, Ore., trying desperately to get their overly used and abused asses to Los Angeles, home of all fading dreams, before the frost kills them. Little do they know that LA has more homeless kids on its streets than does anywhere else in the country. So when their jagged and pitfall-ridden journey farts to a dismal finish in Ashland, perhaps it’s for the best.
   The frenetic JJ (a phenomenally on-the-money Barret Lewis), whose brain on drugs, he surmises, is more like a cheese omelet than that simple frying egg he’s seen on TV, wants to make it to Hollywood to be discovered as a singing star. The fact that JJ knows only one song—and his guitars keep getting ripped off, making him have to rip off another one—is an extreme indication of the absence of any happy ending for a kid whose father once forced him to beat his own puppy to death in an effort to show him how crappy life is.
   His companion Breezy (Gabriela Ortega) just want to escape her stepfather who is the father of her unborn child, while Franklin (Lockne O’Brien) has been kicked out of his house for being gay, surviving by turning tricks in filthy toilet stalls of a public restroom.
   These severely damaged kids meet a vast array of friends and adversaries along their journey to nowhere, including dreadlocked earth-mother Shannon (Chelsea Averil) and her urban philosopher boyfriend Aaron (Donald Russell), who take them under their wing until it becomes inconvenient, realizing that their charges “create so much drama so they don’t have to live their boring lives.”
   There is a heap of adults to deal with along the way and in flashback as well, all played to the hilt by Elizabeth Herron and Steve Apostolina. Both actors are quite startling as they morph from one person to the next, especially Herron as she portrays Breezy’s cold sore–sporting, severely miscreant aunt with an agenda all her own, and Apostolina as a drunken faded flowerchild living in the park, singing “Maggie’s Farm” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” on the cold hard ground—prompting Breezy ask if he wrote “that stuff” and him to answer, “Absolutely.”

Unlike the old days when Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and David Mamet wrote scenes in their plays so long one needed a bathroom break, the age of playwrights having grown up staring at televisions has created a clear modification to the theatrical artform: short, filmic scenes that last about as long as a Scorsese take. In Homefree, no scene lasts longer than five minutes or so, and each change is accomplished by rolling or turning designer JR Bruce’s roughhewn monolithic barn sections, transforming the setting from park to shelter to the house trailer of Breezy’s tweeker aunt.
   Each transformation is accompanied by the cast and is set to suitably appropriate loud and raucous street music, which is a viable choice but not the best. The scene changes are so frequent and the performance of them so all-encompassing that they detract severely from the flow of the tale Loomer and director Michael Matthews are attempting to tell. It is clever in concept, but too oppressively stagey and even annoying in execution.
   If, instead of music, the actors continued to do the dirty work but without break in their dialogue, finishing one scene and starting each new one while making the scene change, it could have been a far more innovative and fluid alternative—not to mention dropping about 15 minutes from the production’s running time.

Still, Loomer’s insight into these sad characters is palpable, making one wonder if she sat down among the trashcans and makeshift lean-tos to be able to write in their voices so eloquently. Aaron is surprisingly okay with the realization that “people in houses need us to feel better about themselves,” but that concept should be—and surely is meant to be—terrifying to the rest of us. Aaron, JJ, Breezy and most of their whole new stand o’ cotton, we’re told, were conceived in a Walmart and are just trying their best to “hurry themselves out of here.”
   Loomer, Matthews, and their exceptional and strikingly committed ensemble have captured that disconsolate indictment of our next generation and fear for the future beautifully, making us wonder—if our species has indeed fatally crashed itself into a brick wall of pollution, climate change, and hopelessness—whether global warming wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
September 27, 2015
Mary Poppins
Palos Verdes Performing Arts at Norris Theatre

“Anything can happen,” sings Mary Poppins in the musical bearing her name. On its opening night at Norris Theatre, nearly everything did happen—good and bad.
   The musical is largely based on the 1964 film Mary Poppins. Co-credited to British impresario Cameron Mackintosh, the stage version bears much the same pedigree as the film: Richard and Robert Sherman’s songs, and most of the story by screenwriters Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi. Here, Julian Fellowes wrote its book, and the score substitutes several new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.
   And if you saw the film when you were a child, you probably thought it was about a brother and sister whose new nanny did very cool magic and took them very cool places. Now that we’re grownups, however, we realize that this musical is also about absentee parents and the resulting loneliness in their children.
   What makes Mary Poppins (Gail Bennett) suddenly appear at the Banks family home is not the cute letter little Jane (Aine Lee) and Michael (Paul Kerker) write to her. It’s her psychic awareness that this family is in distress, despite the huge house, pretty clothes and many servants.
   To Jane and Michael, those superficial things can’t take the place of an afternoon flying a kite with Father (Craig Woolson). But he is an investment banker and can’t be bothered with noisy children. Mother (Kellie Cundiff) was an actor who gave up her career for her family. (Mrs. Banks was a suffragette in the film, but perhaps today too few audiences remember what that is. Her absenteeism in the film also better served the dramaturgy.)

Many of the magic tricks from the film—and from the novel by PL Travers on which all of this is based—are in this show. They include Mary’s magic carpetbag from which she pulls impossibly large objects; the knickknacks that crash to the floor and then fly back on shelves; and, most impressively, a Mary Poppins who flies over the stage, and her boyfriend Bert (Lucas Coleman) who dances upside-down over it. All of these worked flawlessly on opening night, under the direction of Tony Mansker.
   But on opening night the sound equipment performed abysmally and the scene changes were appalling. “Anything can happen if you let it,” continues the song. Someone let this happen. Not for the first time on an opening night at the Norris, the actors’ microphones malfunctioned. They switched on and off, they picked up neighboring actors’ voices, they became statical when actors perspired.
   The set, provided by Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine, is beautiful. Here it requires manipulation by stagehands, and on opening night far too much went amiss. Massive halves of rooms were wheeled toward each other until momentum took over and they banged together. Sometimes trees were left behind from an outdoors scene, looking like they grew indoors. Sometimes an actor didn’t move an item and a stagehand had to emerge onstage and move it.
   All of this likely threw the actors. In particular, Bert’s Coleman rushed through “Step in Time” with his fellow chimney sweeps, leaving music director–conductor Jared Scott behind to staunchly try to hold the beat.
   It’s a nearly three-hour show. The parts with the Banks children will totally engage tots in the audience. But scenes between adults, important and meaty as the scenes are, will likely not.

Part of the fun of seeing theater is the chance to feel we’ve “discovered” a new talent. In this show is one such youngster. No, not one of the Banks children. They’ve clearly been discovered and are equally clearly destined for onstage careers. This time the discovery is Matt Alpert, the actor playing the hallboy, who with his pliable voice and sunny if put-upon presence will have a long career in “character” roles.
   In the musical’s era of a century ago, the parents are preoccupied by money and politics. Today it’s electronic gadgets we can’t tear our eyes away from. So when it’s time for Mr. Banks to head out with his children and finally fly that kite, this moment truly sends our hearts soaring.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 21, 2015

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze

American Falls
The Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

We have always been fascinated by the guileless complexities of the supposedly idyllic life in those insular small towns lurking quietly in the middle of America. Miki Johnson’s jarringly shocking yet poetic memory play, which weaves together a series of direct-address monologues from the residents, both living and dead, of a small town in rural Idaho, is the perfect culmination of everything that has come before it. There are no ticking clocks or sunflowers to whine about missing in our recently departed heroine’s reminiscences—and probably, in life, this play’s Lisa never appreciates a butternut tree as dearly as Emily Gibbs did.
   In this misshapen world, not even protecting her young son from her dangerously warped husband, who knows the boy isn’t his, could keep Lisa (a disarming Deborah Puette, alternating with Andrea Grano) from killing herself. “I loved that little boy but it wasn’t enough,” she admits to us. Instead she leaves her lovechild Isaac (Tomek Adler) in the dubious care of the certifiably insane Samuel (Karl Herlinger), who spends most of his time onstage screaming obscenities at Isaac. This kid stays motionless seated cross-legged upstage while his stepfather shaves his legs and arms with a straight razor as he tells Isaac how much he’s always hated him and plotted to kill him in the most gruesome ways possible.

Under Chris Fields’s spartan but effective direction on Nina Caussa’s strikingly austere set—complete with picture windows looking out on a vast stretch of desert plains—the broken family’s tragedy is split with the personal horror stories of other intertwined residents of American Falls, seated in their own assigned and basically impenetrable areas of the stage under Jesse Baldridge’s haunted lighting plot and accompanied by Jeff Gardner’s subtle and suitably dreamlike jukebox of countrified musical choices.
   Isaac’s real father, Eric (Eric Hunnicutt), shares a table throughout at the local dive bar, getting progressively more toasted with his buddy Matt (Ian Merrigan, alternating with Garrett Hanson) and his girlfriend Maddie (Jessica Goldapple alternating with Beth Triffon) as they relate tales of childhood sexual abuse and other horrors that not even gulping massive slugs of Jägermeister can obliterate. On the other side of the stage, seated precariously on an old tree swing, is Samuel’s crusty, world-weary, booze-soaked mother, Samantha (Barbara Tarbuck in a tour-de-force performance), who personifies how child abuse travels from one generation to the next as she tells us in no uncertain words how much her son, right from the womb, always gave her the creeps.
   In the middle of all the action, seated at a huge overstuffed reclining lounge chair, is Billy Mound of Clouds, a psychic Native American shoe salesman who can’t even get through telling us about his predictions without veering off into conversations about his favorite TV programs. Cano is the heart of Johnson’s otherwise disjointed and highly horrifying tale of life in places like American Falls, offering one of the finest and most heartfelt performances on any LA stage this year.
   Without the miraculous Cano as Billy as part of Field’s uniformly amazing cast, I can’t help but wonder if Johnson’s lyrical yet earth-grounded play could possibly succeed; he is the glue that holds the entire production together.

One of the earliest lessons I learned about being an arts critic included something I just evoked: using “I” in my writing. I have broken that basic rule with judicious infrequency and usually with the pre-ordained blessings of my editor because I had some connection or history with the play I’m discussing. In this case, however, I want to take this journalistic assault one step further. Because I attend most plays I review with my beloved Hugh Eaglehart Ta’neeszahnii, who was raised on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, his insight into the accomplishments of this gifted new playwright and the performance of Cano is, I believe, worth breaking rules to share:

   “The joke at the beginning about Billy’s satellite dish instantly flashed the brilliance and authenticity of Johnson’s script for me, because only an Indian would get that joke. Many of my family members and neighbors still live in mud-encrusted hogans with dirt floors, yet everyone there has a satellite dish. I was the only one in the audience who laughed.
   “I immediately was drawn in when Billy started talking about his feet and magic shoes. Native Americans aren’t often well represented in art, most likely because we’re some really messed up people. Leandro Cano walks a tightrope that could easily become a hilarious joke for bilagáana, but his authenticity, warmth, and familiarity with the self-deprecating humor of natives made it so believable. I kept trying to find the word to describe how his Billy touched me, and I realized the word is ‘tribal.’ He made me see my uncles back home. My great-grandfather was a medicine man, and his performance made me homesick for the rez. It was like taking a trip to the Four Corners.”

Still, as mesmerizing as the performances are, as perfectly austere are Fields’s direction and the production’s design elements, the true marvel here is the script. “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you!” the ghost of Emily cries out at the dawning of the 20th century in Our Town. “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?”
   From lamenting that sweetly picturesque existence in the early 1900s in Thornton Wilder’s timeless Grover’s Corners and the desolate frustrations of eternal spinster Alma Winemiller from Glorious Hill, Miss., in Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke, and on to our current era when the twisted dysfunction of Tracy Letts’s battling Weston family hid their dastardly secrets deep in the dusty earth of Osage County in August, no one has ever skewered the hidden realities of bucolic small-town life in our country better or more elegiacally than Johnson. A hundred years from now, presuming our greedy and indifferent species hasn’t disappeared from the earth entirely by then, in a fair world American Falls should be as much of an American classic as any of its celebrated predecessors.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
September 15, 2015
Sondheim Unscripted
Impro Theatre at Falcon Theatre

Having tackled such diverse and daunting topics as Westerns, the classics, and even Rod Serling, is it any wonder that this troupe would train its improvisational sights on one of musical theater’s most complex composers? With only a handful of audience suggestions—a family heirloom and four musical notes—eight performers and one pianist conceive a show that will live on only as long as it takes to get to the next performance.
   Opening night, using an imaginary crockpot and the tones E flat, G Sharp, A, and D, the company cooked up an often knee-slapping concoction of Greek gods, a witches’ brew, and the subsequent resolution of World War II. The fun is knowing that the performers have no more idea where this thing is going than do their viewers.

How one can “direct” a show based entirely on improvisation boggles the mind. Still, co-directors Dan O’Connor and Michele Spears show their hands by way of the company’s ability to replicate some of the more recognizable traits found in Sondheim’s works. Patter songs with demonstrably intricate lyrics abound. So, too, do those Sondheimian passages in which an up-tempo piece takes a dramatic turn by way of a contemplative bridge. Music director Peter Smith is a whiz on the baby grand. Utilizing the audience-suggested quartet of notes, he composes an overture of sorts and then spends the next two acts caressing and cajoling his onstage companions through their on-the-spot compositions.
   As characters are formed, refined, and drawn into an overarcing storyline, it’s a hoot to watch the mental gears turning before our eyes. Spears, a master at turning a soliloquy into a full-blown production number, assumed the role of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and sponsor of arts, trade, and strategy. Her character’s discontent with always knowing what was going to happen next was the driving force behind the plot. Paired up with Ryan Smith as a befuddled Hades, Greek king of the underworld, they made sparks fly feverishly.

The troupe would, of course, be remiss in having a crockpot without the witches responsible for the supernatural stew contained therein. Filling the often sultry, sometimes hilariously clumsy shoes of these two cackling conjurers were Kelly Holden Bashar and Lisa Fredrickson. Possessing seemingly limitless vocal ranges and rapid-fire comic timing, they became the show’s sirens, tempting and taunting throughout. As the human objects of their affections, Brian Lohmann and Brian Michael Jones forged a bromance of sorts as a duo who’s sampling of the crockpot’s magical broth transports them to the strangest of worlds.
   Meanwhile, Impro Theatre veteran Floyd Van Buskirk assumed the role of overseer, that being Zeus. Sensing the abject silliness surrounding him, Van Buskirk veered toward the dramatic, a choice that wisely grounded the second act as the company fashioned a conclusion to the tale. Ably assisted by Cory Rouse’s energetic portrayal of Hermes, herald of the Olympian gods, Van Buskirk’s performance stood out as the quintessential example of improvisational give-and-take.

As the performance unfolded upon set designer Sandra Burns’s cubically painted stage floor—reminiscent of artist M.C. Escher’s eye-tricking lithographs—and gently curving upstage ramp, the production’s lighting, designed by Leigh Allen, and crafted within the moment by stage manager Michael Becker, was surprisingly luscious. Of course, there are dissonant chords and some atonally constructed harmonic convergences when forging a musical from scratch, but having chosen Sondheim as the foundation certainly helps, and welcoming audience participation into the mix makes for a recipe most everyone could love.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
September 2, 2015
Café Society
Odyssey Theatre

It’s rather chilling that in our media-deadened society we can turn on the evening news and hear, “Another mass shooting today in…” and not be surprised, let alone horrified. In Peter Lefcourt’s smart and all-too-contemporary comedy, a group of Angelenos are held captive in a Westside Starbucks by a guy with a bomb in a bowling bag—and the point made is that even those here directly forced into submission are not surprised, let alone horrified, by their own drastic situation.
   In Lefcourt’s world, his characters easily reflect our skewed lives in LA. Kari (a completely hilarious Chandra lee Schwartz) zips into the bathroom of the Pico Boulevard coffee supermarket to change from hooker-wear to business attire between auditions, and ruthlessly rightwing business entrepreneur and Fox News defender Bob (Eric Myles Geller) makes a sight-unseen date online at to meet realtor Marilyn (Susan Diol) at the store for an afternoon hookup.
   Here, despite Lefcourt’s clever innovation, the playwright faces a considerable challenge, shared by director Terri Hanauer and her intrepid design team. These vapid characters and three other captives in corporate latte-land continue to live their treacherously self-involved lives as Martin (Nick Cobey) demands to talk on the phone with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz or Martin will blow his prisoners and all of the man’s most flavorable beans—not to mention original CDs of Summertime Grooves and Bossa Nova Moods—to kingdom come.
   As those gathered continue to check for messages and updates on their own little lives, screen images of all of their individual electronic devices appear on projection designer Yee Eun Nam’s two huge displays at the back of Amanda Knehans’s very authentic-looking set, where Starbucks’ familiar menu of drinks continuously disappears and transforms throughout the action into the characters’ text messages and emails as the world turns dramatically dangerous around them.

It isn’t until their plight shows up on their screens, reported on by local on-air celebrity Kelly Kahanahana (Kailyn Leilani), an assignment that pisses off Martin even more because he so dislikes her typical Barbie doll delivery of the news, that the mocha hits the fan. It seems Martin is protesting all kinds of societal injustices, particularly as accentuated by Schultz’s empire, which in his mind continues to grind out Vente after Vente, severely underpaying his employees while living a luxurious life at his home behind the Hotel Bel-Air, his ranch on Maui, or his ski getaway in Aspen—all places at which operators at Starbucks’ hotline try in vain to locate him so perhaps he could talk to the perpetrator and ease the situation.
   Throughout the ordeal, the electronic devices keep transmitting, even though Kari can’t initially contact 911 because she’s late on her Verizon bill and her personalized phone plan “doesn’t allow for 911 texting.” Marilyn keeps surreptitiously trying to close an important deal to sell a house. “I’m being held captive by a guy with a bomb,” she tells the listing agent of the property, who instantly counters with, “Can’t you just text your buyer?” Wannabe screenwriter Jeff (Eric Wentz) keeps trying to instantly turn the ongoing tribulations into a screenplay, discussing with the captives who they think would be best to play them in the project. “Not Denzel,” the store’s barista Darnell (Donathan Walters) insists. “I’m tired of Denzel!”
   The final inhabitant of the Starbucks is someone who has abandoned electronica: frequent hanger-on Anastasia (Ian Patrick Williams), a cross-dressing homeless man who believes he is the lost Russian countess, when in reality he is the disgraced head of a failed Fortune 500 company until the most recent recession. This is something that occasionally snaps the guy back into his former gruff-voiced corporate honcho status, his side-talking projectiles of profanity only tempered when someone talks him back into his gentler and more conducive fantasy persona by calling him “Your Royal Highness” or asking him about the upcoming ball at the palace.

Hanauer’s ensemble is beautifully committed to the material, although the desensitized nature of their characters make it difficult for them to have more than one direction to explore and, in Lefcourt’s script, some of them sit with nothing to contribute for long stretches at a time until a funny line is thrown their way. Equally difficult is the task allotted to Hanauer, who seems to have concentrated more on this factor than on the often glaringly static staging, which too frequently leaves her actors placed in uniformlynspaced straight lines across the stage.
   Despite this and a rather unsatisfactory conclusion—though it’s all followed by a hilarious onscreen trailer for Jeff’s upcoming film version starring, among others, Meryl Streep as Anastasia and Denzel Washington after all as Darnell—Lefcourt’s script, though hardly yet perfected, is still often sharply funny and bitingly astute. His conceit is a rich indictment of the numbed-down condition of our electronically dominated lives where we wonder which is real: what’s happening around us, or what’s flashing on our ever-present cellphone screens.
   The fact that none of what’s happening seems in any way be threatening to these people until the news trucks and swat teams start congregating outside the store and their plight shows up on TV is the best thing about life as depicted here. And it should not be lost that when those gathered begin to sense the danger of their situation, Kari instantly texts her agent to be sure he doesn’t give reporters her latest headshot but instead uses the prior one. You know, the one with the longer hair.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
August 31, 2015
Red Blanket Productions at Pico Playhouse

Somewhere in the seemingly limitless expanse known as Stephen Sondheim’s mind lurks a vision that seems allotted to but one in a generation. How else to explain the unusual, often mind-blowing audit of a subset of American inhumanity: those who have attempted to or succeeded in murdering a commander-in-chief. Paired with playwright John Weidman’s occasionally stilted script, Sondheim’s music and lyrics beckon us down the rabbit hole with unbridled speculations as to the motivations and fictitious interactions of this rogues gallery.
   Overall, Dan Fishbach’s direction proves to be sharply crafted with a staccato-like precision. Along with the contributions of music director Anthony Lucca and choreographer Lili Fuller, Fishbach’s grasp of the surrealistic nature of this piece and its concept make for a breathtaking palpability.
   Bringing to life some of our nation’s best and perhaps least-known villains is a uniformly excellent cast. Leading this parade of historical pariahs is Travis Rhett Wilson as John Wilkes Booth, the granddaddy of the clan. Wilson’s performance is downright chilling as he exudes a wild-eyed air of unrepentant outrage over President Abraham Lincoln’s execution of the Civil War. Equally gripping are Adam Hunter Howard’s turn as Leon Czolgosz, William McKinley’s killer, and Jason Peter Kennedy’s intermittent appearances as Giuseppe Zangara, the Italian immigrant who killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak while missing outright his intended target, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

On the lighter side of things, if it’s possible to infuse a comic perspective into such a topic, Jeff Alan-Lee’s scene-stealing take on Charles Guiteau, James Garfield’s assassin, is delicious. In particular, his song-and-dance-man spin on “The Ballad of Guiteau” is a definite highlight. Meanwhile, Claire Adams as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Janna Cardia as Sara Jane Moore, both of whom failed to take out Gerald Ford within 17 days of each other, are a hoot. Adams’s and Cardia’s scenes, including their characters’ supposed joint connection with Charles Manson, provide wacky contrasts to the production’s darker moments.
   But when it comes to unequivocal creepiness, it doesn’t get any better than the final trio of villains. Zach Lutsky brings a simmering unpredictability to his performance as Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin, John Hinckley. Contrasting this quiet despair is David Gallic’s performance as Samuel Byck, who’s 1974 attempt to kill Richard Nixon by flying an airliner into the White House literally never got off the ground. Gallic’s monologues wherein he records his thoughts for Nixon are stunningly intense.
   So is Sean Benedict’s self-conflicted assaying of Lee Harvey Oswald as he faces his destiny in Dallas. Will he pull the trigger? Won’t he? The rest of the cast, once more led by Wilson’s Booth, watch on and eventually revel in his decision. It’s a stomach-turning moment of theatrical effectiveness.

If one had to quibble with this otherwise notable production, the choice to insert an intermission into what was written as an extended one-act, containing less than a dozen musical compositions to begin with, gives the proceedings a disjointed feel. So too, the existence of only a single upstage point of ingress and egress in set designer Alex Kolmanovsky’s otherwise eye-catching scenery. Though visually stimulating, it stymies segues and the show’s overall dramatic progression at times as each successive scene must pause long enough as those preceding clear the stage.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
August 27, 2015
El Grande CIRCUS de Coca-Cola
Skylight Theatre

Standing in the lobby after this show, Skylight Theatre Company’s artistic director, Gary Grossman, was quick to point out that his prolific ensemble has spent years mounting “issue plays” and that he was thrilled to present something for a change where the theme is “silly is as silly does.”
   Of course, someone would be hard-pressed to find something as silly as this production—unless, it would be the notorious El Grande de Coca-Cola that spawned it. First surfacing Off-Broadway in 1973 before playing for more than a year at the Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip and virtually kick-starting the careers of Jeff Goldblum and the late Ron Silver, the revue’s creator and star Ron House’s Latin-themed romp into Marx Brothers territory became an international hit, with new productions regularly sprouting up all over the world ever since.
   For years House and his fellow original cast member Alan Shearman wanted to create a sequel to the madness. The two have come up with the perfect concept, as Pepe Hernandez (the leading character in the original, played forever by House) has decided to spread his wings and further tap into the “limitless talents” of his eager sons and daughters to reach beyond the cabaret stage and transform into their own family circus.
   Complete with rather ominous knife throwing, a flamenco flea circus where Pepe’s enthusiastic applause eliminates one of his performers, a bout of aerial gymnastics in which the comely performers wrapping themselves in suspended silk ribbons get too tangled to unwind without help, and the family morphing into members of the Bolshoi Ballet’s “Radioactivo!” company to take on a clunky rendition of Swan Lake , this is truly sidesplitting stuff guaranteed to make your ribs hurt.

Under Shearman’s delightfully tongue-in-cheek direction and with the collaboration of Tor Campbell’s intentionally lead-footed choreography, this new cast works brilliantly together. As Pepe’s daughters Consuelo and Maria, Lila Dupree and Olivia Cristina Delgado bring to mind a slapstick routine from Lucy and Ethel—one of those times Ricky didn’t realize the new act he hired for his club was actually his favorite nemesis and her vaguely willing sidekick. Paul Baird goes for Ricardo-perfected straight-man status as the girl’s dashing brother Miguel, doubling quite admirably on the piano whenever the need arises.
   Marcelo Tubert is the quintessential replacement for House as patriarch Pepe, complete with a Joker-esque pitchman grin that could sell canned tamales to Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger. He is especially hilarious as he takes on the role of the matriarch in a sendoff of those infamous Mexican television novellas, looking a little like a Chicana Eleanor Roosevelt as he/she shouts “Infidelio!” when discovering his co-stars in a pile of cuckolded positions before they whip out weapons to end each other’s overdramatic existences.
   As the Hernandez family’s adopted brother Juan, the kid left on their doorstep by wandering gypsies, Aaron Miller steals the show. From his continuously tortured and fearful expressions that make him look like a Chihuahua about to be caught in the blades of a table fan, to his off-tempo drumming, to his continuous pratfalls and outrageous physical antics as he eagerly careens from accident to accident during the proceedings, this guy could have an El Grande all his own—especially as topped by his Monty Python-like on-his-knees turn as a pintsized Napoleon trying to load a gigantic cannonball into an equally gigantic cannon.

Even though part of the conceit is that all of Pepe’s ring-mastering pronouncements of what is to come are delivered in Spanglish—or mostly Spanish with some key English words thrown in—if anything might be improved here, it could be to drop some of the continuously slow overemphasis on phrases to be sure everyone in attendance gets what’s being said. Giving the audience the benefit of the doubt that they don’t have to be hit so hard with repeated semi-translations and the wink-wink-nudge-nudge stressing of words similar in both languages would make all this that much more comical. The outrageous fun here isn’t in what’s being said; it’s in the visual absurdity of what’s being executed by this energetic troupe of world-class clowns able to make the rest of the world around us disappear, at least for a carefree 90 minutes of incredibly infectious inanity.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
August 17, 2015
And the Stones Will Cry Out
Little Fish Theatre

Man’s relationship with God and man’s relationship with man are tested in David Graham’s theatricalization of an episode in 18th-century German academia. His three-hander pits the egos of men against their understandings of the Bible. Would that the three scholars knew as much about themselves as they purport to know about divinity.
   Dr. John Beringer (James Rice) is dean of the medical school at University of Würzburg. He’s arrogant, patronizing and intransigently opinionated. Refusing to listen to others, he’s a stickler for rules beyond reason. University librarian and historiographer Georg Eckhart (Rodney Rincon) maintains a veneer of obliviousness to Beringer’s snide barbs and self-entitled demands for service. But those barbs and demands hurt, despite Eckhart’s cheerful nature, and the wounds build up to the point of permanent scarring. Ignatius Roderick (Don Schlossman), trained as a Jesuit and currently a professor of geography and of algebra, has been pushed around by Beringer one too many times. Beringer now insists Roderick expel a student, “in service of the truth.”

Their bickering turns into a debate, pitting the Bible against science. Beringer has found fossils that don’t match known species. He insists God is displaying his principles and testing man’s faith. Roderick espouses a more humanistic philosophy: God might propose, might set boundaries, but man is responsible for his own actions. The fossils begin arriving in improbably large numbers, bearing increasingly outrageous figures. Mostly to enhance his legacy, Beringer begins writing a book about his finds.
   Little Fish company member Graham’s thought-provoking work builds upon a prank, which is revealed early on in the play, but the play doesn’t feel farcical. It feels like any good drama in which the conflict causes people to come to the crux of what ails them.
   Stephanie Coltrin directs. Her casting is excellent, the actors’ character work is quite good, and what a pleasure it is to hear actors enunciate the heightened language so beautifully. But her staging is exceedingly distracting. No sooner does the audience become engaged than one or another of the actors leaves the playing area and heads up an aisle, forcing audience members to notice one another behind the actors.
   This is most egregious when the first-rate Schlossman’s Roderick is weepily revealing his longtime regret about his life’s course, and he wanders completely out of sight. Another troubling distraction comes when Rice pronounces his character’s name with a soft G while Schlossman has been pronouncing it with a hard G. Bringing the audience back into the action, Linda Muggeridge’s costumes are exquisite, including frilled shirts, embroidered waistcoats, and substantial wool cloaks.

Beringer tried to silence the voices of his two colleagues, and by doing so, as predicted in the Gospel of Luke, the stones have cried out. In Graham’s view, no man can or should be expected to tolerate mistreatment at the hands of another man. But what’s the price to be paid when it happens, and who has the right to collect?

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
August 10, 2015

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze

Garage Theatre

Emily is in an ethics class with her fellow classmates when her teacher, Mr. Baggot, poses a thought experiment conducted by Ethics Man, a superhero moral philosopher. Ethics Man posits a train, hurtling out of control toward a washed-out bridge. But if he switches the tracks, he will certainly kill one boy standing on those safer tracks.
   Says the teacher, “We imagined a problem by switching the points. By sacrificing one person’s life, we can save many lives. Is it a moral action?” He continues to note that Ethics Man is a utilitarian. It’s a moral action only if the consequences are good. The consequences are good if they increase the sum of human happiness. Happiness is a state of well-being, starting off with being alive instead of dead.
   And, in the background, the recording of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” begins to play.
   So begins Darkside, originally a 2013 radio play by Tom Stoppard that incorporated the Pink Floyd album “The Dark Side of the Moon.” Stoppard, you ask? The playwright of that prickly examination of adultery The Real Thing and that ultra-intellectual romance Arcadia? Yup, that Stoppard. Director Eric Hamme and the black-box Garage Theatre of Long Beach nabbed the script’s U.S. premiere, giving it a theatricalized visualization.

The Boy (Steven Frankenfield) killed in the experiment comes to Emily (Maribella Magaña) to travel with her so they’re “On the Run.” He gives her confidence and an expanded intellect to try to fight greed and climate change, and at first the pair seems to be triumphing.
   The two meet American farmer Fat Man (Rob Young in costume designer Cat Elrod’s hilariously bloated overalls), who violated water rights and indulged in overgrazing so he could remain prosperous. They also meet a politician (Craig Johnson) and a banker (Jeffrey Kieviet) who not only mouth identical words but also do so with identical gestures.
   Down this strange road, Emily and Boy endure a witch hunt and, ultimately, must face Emily’s mental health issues (Matthew Anderson as her doctor). Is her fate the result of the evils of “Money”? Or, in homage to Pink Floyd co-founder Syd Barrett, is “Brain Damage” to blame?

No low-budget effect is ignored here, in this show that unabashedly looks like it’s being put on in someone’s garage. The stage’s floor is covered with sand, though sand doesn’t seem to figure into the story. Roughly shot videos are dimly projected onto hanging sheets. Strobes and an occasional acid-green light wash over a scene or two, and laser dots play across the stage and over the audience until we feel we’re inside an early video game.
   Adding to the (one hopes) tongue-in-cheek shoddiness that reflects Stoppard’s (one hopes) pontificating cheekiness, a handful of Harry Potter–esque dementors haunt the witch trial. On the other hand, designer Elrod memorably gives Mr. Baggot (the cheery Paul Knox) an exceedingly comedic sweater-vest and gives Witchfinder (Anderson again) a handsome 19th-century pirate frockcoat and goat horns.
   At the play’s conclusion, though, Magaña and Knox crushingly limn the institutionalization’s realism.
   The theater provides about 16 standard theater seats; pillows on the floor surrounding the playing area provide the remainder of the show’s seating. At least the sightlines are great from every seat in the house.

And so this Darkside screams “cult classic.” When the right audiences start finding it—most of whom will inevitably partake in the beverages sold at the box office, if not already intoxicated by some substance—it will have a much longer, happier run than Emily does.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
August 3, 2015

Republished with kind permission of Long Beach Press-Telegram
Failure: A Love Story
Coeurage Theatre Company at GTC Burbank

With a huge dose of Story Theatre, a down-home poetic nod to Dylan Thomas, and a charmingly outdated old-fashioned theatricality, Chicago playwright Philip Dawkins somehow has been able to make the dark mysteries of death into something almost celebratory.
   With the aid of 13 multitalented performers playing myriad roles both human and otherwise, fed by the vast imagination of director Michael Matthews and the company’s resident musical director Gregory Nabours, Dawkins has world-class assistance from the innovative folks at Coeurage Theatre Company as they relate the sad tale of the Windy City’s Fail family, whose first generation of Eastern Europe immigrant clockmakers arrived in Chicago at the start of the 20th century, only to die tragically exactly 100 years ago when their brand new Stutz-Bearcat plunged into the cold depths of the murky and fetid Chicago River.
   After their parents unfortunate demise, the three Fail daughters—Nelly, Jenny June, and Gertrude (Margaret Katch, Nicole Shalhoub, and June Carryl)—carried on the family business with the help of their adopted brother, John N. (Joe Calarco). Their own story of survival—or lack of same—continues the heartrending saga, as Dawkins reveals early in the proceedings. All three sisters would die suddenly in the year 1928: Nelly clobbered by a concrete bust originally dislodged in her parents’ accident, Jenny June disappearing in those same polluted waters in the midst of a swimming competition, and Gertie from consumption after diving in to help find her middle sister and save Jenny June’s betrothed, Mortimer Mortimer (Kurt Quinn), from drowning.

One thing that makes the twists of the Fail family’s bizarrely ill-timed story so compelling is how total stranger Mortimer fits into it. First arriving as a customer at the Fail Clockworks to have a watch engraved to the love of his life he is yet to meet, he subsequently falls for each of the sisters in turn, just before the untimely death of each one.
   Dawkins is an amazingly lyrical yet crafty storyteller, able to begin with the end and then let things return to the beginning as the players edgily and energetically weave through the action, sometimes as participants, sometimes as narrators. On JR Bruce’s spectacularly cluttered rustic wooden set resembling the setting for a community barn dance, the eclectic ensemble takes on all challenges, playing everything from dying dogs to massive pythons to cheerfully squawking parakeets, and most manifestly as inanimate objects like ticking clockworks, ever present to remind us that time just keeps marching relentlessly on no matter what our plans and dreams for the future might be.
   Along the way, Nabours sits upstage at his piano, leading the ridiculously sunny company with a diverse selection of the music of the ’20s—including “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” And when the entire company suddenly segues into a rousing musical tribute to Jenny June’s arch rival Johnny Weissmuller, choreographed to precision perfection by Janet Roston, the audience is guaranteed the surprises will never cease.
   It’s a mighty cheerful accompaniment to the horrific and disastrous deaths of the Fail sisters and their parents, not to mention the demise of the family dog and most of John N.’s collection of rescued animal buddies, but that seems to be the point. The Fails trudge on with their doomed existences as Nabours’ songbook subtly begins to become more poignant, evoking increasingly more bittersweet responses as the family’s future darkens.

As the curiously luckless fate of the Fails unfolds, culminating as the aged John N. and Mortimer movingly contemplate the true meaning of love and marriage seen through the insular prism of their own long lives, the true wonder of this simple yarn starts to quietly percolate through the boisterous theatricality of the production. It’s difficult to imagine the success of Coeurage’s dodgy gamble without the imaginative contributions of Matthews, his cast, and his designers, who work passionately to let the Fails’s message seep into our bones while we never even realize what’s happening. To say Failure: A Love Story can induce lingering meditations on our fleeting lives and the gossamer nature of the time allotted us on this risky planet long after final curtain is a major understatement.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
July 27, 2015
A Night With Janis Joplin
Pasadena Playhouse

Members of the opening night audience at Pasadena Playhouse’s A Night With Janis Joplin were clearly primed for an intimate tête-à-tête with the titular musical legend, and judging by the two hours’ worth of spontaneous outbursts, they got what they came for. I counted five full or partial standing ovations, interspersed between cheers for every screeched song title, every familiar vamp, and every smokin’-hot guitar riff (there were a lot of them). No invitation to putcher hands t’gether went unheeded, and from the back, one heartfelt patron tried all night long to engage in call-and-response with the diva: “Yeah, Pearl!”; “Tell it”; “Uh-huh, that’s right.” For better or worse, those evangelistic shouts never seemed to carry as far as the proscenium and the ears of Mary Bridget Davies, whose impersonation of Joplin is every bit as uncanny as it was back in March 2013 when the production was titled, on the selfsame stage, One Night With Janis Joplin.
   Equally uncanny, but less effective. The substitution of indefinite articles, A for One, is far from the biggest alteration that’s been made in the entertainment that won Davies the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for Lead Performance. Back then, in this very space, I called the show “a genuine piece of theater that re-creates not just the personality of the legendary gravel-voiced rocker…but the world in which she lived and died.”
   Well, neither personality nor world comes through very much in writer-director Randy Johnson’s current incarnation. A Night With Janis Joplin is nothing more than a tribute concert, and a thin, repetitious one at that.

One Night wove bluesy, boozy autobiography into the numbers, Davies’s Janis slugging down Southern Comfort in a slurry segue to the bottom. (“So complex is Davies’ artistry that we only gradually realize that she is playing Janis’s downward arc,” is how I put it back in ’13.) But now there are two cursory pulls at the bottle and almost no memoir at all, except for the fun fact of her learning the scores of Broadway musicals in her childhood Texas home. No memories of moving to San Francisco; no mention of drug use; nothing of Monterey or Woodstock.
   Since there’s no narrative, there’s no arc at all, downward or otherwise. I’m not saying the show ought to have wallowed in negativity, but why isn’t Janis interested in relating her songs to her life? And oughtn’t the eventual Joplin tragedy at least be alluded to, or presaged, or felt? She seems downright jolly most of the way through; if you didn’t come to the Playhouse knowing that Janis burnt out in 1970 at the criminally young age of 27, you honestly could find yourself asking, “Hmm, I wonder what she’s doing these days?”
   “I tell it lak it is…I tell the truth,” the current Janis keeps mumbling. But she ends up never saying anything at all, truth or falsity. No, I lie, there’s one topic on her mind: the blues. “The blues…. I sing the blues…. The blues is….” Johnson seems to think that incantation is a substitute for keen insight or telling anecdote. After a while it was I who was singing the blues, because once the Joplin repertoire is detached from the events of her life, one starts to realize how little variety and nuance there is in her numbers, how they keep trodding the same mournful road.

Another huge alteration from a couple of years ago is the inclusion of four African-American performers who pop in and out as musical influences (Odetta; Bessie Smith; Etta James) and periodically back up our star as “the Joplinaires.” As a child of the ’60s, I don’t recall Janis performing with her version of the Harlettes; maybe she did occasionally, but her persona was primarily that of a solo artist, even when working with Big Brother and the Holding Company or the Full Tilt Boogie Band. (The only notable white singer who worked with a minority trio was Bette Midler. Maybe Davies should take a crack at her next.)
   In the 2013 version of this show, the prodigiously gifted Sabrina Elayne Carten appeared as The Blues Singer to incarnate every one of those musically influential legends, as well as the blues spirit into which Janis tapped. Janis was alone in her presence, and the effect was sad and spooky. To be sure, Sharon Catherine Brown, Yvette Cason, Sylvia MacCalla, and Jenelle Lynn Randall are talented artistes, and they allow Davies to take a break from time to time.
   But their very presence interjects musical and psychic support, which the real Janis never enjoyed, on or off stage. It’s a distortion of her art and her life. It also leads to the single most obnoxious sequence in the current show, when each of the divas blows Janis a farewell kiss, one after the other. The notion of Nina Simone or Aretha Franklin offering blessings to Joplin is preposterous and condescending.

I’m glad to see Davies’s metamorphosis into Joplin again, and even gladder than new audiences get to do likewise. But in blanding and dumbing down his original production, Johnson is presenting an event that’s considerably less than the sum of its parts. If only he had let another little piece of Janis’s heart come through.
   Kacee Clanton performs the role of Joplin at Saturday matinees and Sunday evenings.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
July 26, 2015
Center Theatre Group at Kirk Douglas Theatre

Todd Almond’s libretto for the musical Girlfriend is as honest as a John Hughes gay musical would have been—if John Hughes had written a gay musical. Using Matthew Sweet’s 1990s Alternative Rock album of the same name as it’s framework, this story captures the anticipation and titillation that sets in when one’s crush starts to pay attention and reciprocate that affection.
   The book cleverly follows two closeted high school graduates as they spend the summer exploring their sexuality. Will (Ryder Bach), a gangly loner thrilled to be getting out of his Nebraska prison known as high school, finds the popular boy Mike (Curt Hansen) suddenly striking up a friendship. Since Mike’s girlfriend lives out of town, Will becomes his constant companion over the summer. They spend most nights in the intimacy of a car at a drive-in theater where they watch the same ridiculous superhero movie over and over. Will recognizes how stupid the movie is but loves being close to Mike. Mike also shares his favorite album with his new friend, and they bond over the songs. But is Will setting himself up for heartbreak by falling for a beautiful boy who constantly mentions his girlfriend?

Almond’s dialogue perfectly captures the rhythm of teenage awkwardness. Every pregnant pause builds the palpable tension, as what Will and Mike don’t say speaks louder than their words.
   It’s clear the affinity Matthew Sweet’s 1991 album had on Almond, who intriguingly treats the album as a soundtrack for these boys’ experiences (after all, Hughes movies were known for their powerful soundtracks). Yet, as with many jukebox musicals, the script tries too hard to shove already established songs into the story. The boys watch the drive-in movie about nun-turned-superhero Evangeline so that they can dive into the Sweet song “Evangeline,” and Mike explains that his father thinks he’s a fool before launching into “Reaching Out,” which mentions that “Everyone took me for a fool.” Almond’s dialogue is typically so smart that shoehorning the songs into plot seems even shallower.
   It may have worked better to have a straight play with Matthew Sweet’s album playing and the boys joining in (as they do with the title song) instead of having them sing with the four-piece rock band backing the show. The attempt to make these into character songs takes away from the subtlety the script warrants.

Spirited, kind, and a bit wistful, Bach seizes his every moment as the goofy Will. His comic timing and self-deprecating asides win over the audience. Hansen has the tougher role as the bottled-up baseball star. Locked tightly in the closet in a small town, Mike fears what he may be and barely forms sentences when speaking to Will, as if terrified that his true feelings may spill out. Hansen has the stronger singing voice, really hitting Sweet’s upper-octave and falsetto notes. But Bach and Hansen’s chemistry is what makes Girlfriend so darling. One can taste their longing.
   Director Les Waters keeps the story rooted in reality. He allows Joe Goode’s choreography to resemble two boys dancing to their favorite song, so the dancing doesn’t look “staged.” The band, led by Julie Wolf, sounds raw like a live band should and melds with Sweet’s original songs.
   Like the two main characters, Girlfriend is still finding itself. A few scenes feel repetitive and the marriage between the book and the score needs refashioning. But Almond has found a  heartbeat in Matthew Sweet’s album and has made it the kernel of a sincere love story.

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz
July 20, 2015
A Permanent Image
Rogue Machine Theatre

Ah, to be in northern Idaho, where an ordinary couple could peacefully parent a son and daughter, and then spend their golden years wallowing in substance abuse and unenlightening religious worship.
   Unfortunately for Martin and Carol, the creation of Samuel D. Hunter in A Permanent Image, conscious thought had begun to creep in and disturb the peace. And then Martin died, leaving Carol alone to cope and fend off the sudden hovering of their daughter Ally and son Bo, which is how and when this play begins.
   Hunter digs into parent-child relationships, sibling rivalry, marital discord, coping mechanisms, and, actually, the meaning of life. Martin, before he died, began to explore his essence, physical and spiritual, in light of scientific knowledge. How do we know this? Carol videotaped Martin as he sat on their sofa and pondered aloud such concepts as the origins of the universe.
   Carol won’t discuss his cause of death. But after his death, she painted the home white. Literally. She painted not only the sofa but also the afghan draping the sofa. She painted not only the walls but also the paintings, the painting frames, the telephone. The opposite of mourning black or perhaps a fresh start, the whitewashing also serves to showcase the films of Martin she can now watch. Nicholas Santiago’s video design plays over David Mauer’s scenic design so unbelievably precisely that the audience seems to see a three-dimensional Martin sitting on that sofa.

Although the details of Hunter’s craft are not perfect—marred by such flaws as awkward scene breaks—the themes he tackles are universal and eternally of interest. So director John Perrin Flynn takes the good with the bad, focusing on and making the audience focus on his fine quartet of actors.
   The four bringing the audience into this too bizarre, too real world are Anne Gee Byrd as the intractable heavy-drinker Carol; Ned Mochel as the terminally frustrated son, Bo; Tracie Lockwood as the secretly disappointed daughter, Ally; and the nearly unrecognizable Mark L. Taylor as the filmic Martin, a man who lived a simple life until he began to truly ponder universal complexities.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
July 13, 2015
Astro Boy and the God of Comics
Sacred Fools Theater

It’s a lovely thing when theater educates the somnambulant, nurtures the soul, expands the mind; sometimes, however, it’s great just to be entertained by some world-class clowns and knocked out by refreshingly imaginative and unbounded creativity. Although throughout Astro Boy and the God of Comics playwright-creator Natsu Onoda Power enlightens, recounting the life and celebrating the career of famed post–World War II Japanese animator Osamu Tezuka, what’s really happening is that we’re being entertained. Bigtime.
   With incredibly inventive use of interactive video and huge intricate drawings created live on enormous disposable paper backdrops by the delightfully over-the-top actors, what director Jamie Robledo and the fools at Sacred Fools have fashioned here is totally unique and truly spectacular. In a series of numbered episodes, which begin at the end as the world is dying and then unfold in reverse to the original manufacturing of that adorably intrepid child robot (Heather Schmidt), Astro Boy returns periodically to the real world of Tezuka who, despite his recognition, never lost his humility and never forgot the destruction he encountered as America dumped atomic bombs on his country.
   As Tezuka’s notoriety grew and his most famous creation exhibited his valiant fictional efforts to save the human race, the legend of Astro Boy expanded from the pages of Japanese manga (comic books) to television and eventually film. Soon something special and unexpected also emerged: an all-new definition of a culture where, as Marshall McLuhan noted, the medium was the message. As Power shows us, Tezuka’s personal message was clearly influenced by much, from mushroom clouds to traditional Japanese ethos to John Ford movies.

Under Robledo’s excellent direction and with his stage awash in a nonstop array of colorful projections by Anthony Backman and animations by Jim Pierce, the seemingly limitless boundaries of artistic and technical innovation developed in LA’s currently maligned 99-Seat theater community is once again on parade. Supporting the hilarious posturing, “gee willikers”–spouting title character brilliantly assayed by Schmidt, the supporting cast is strikingly unrestrained yet obviously choreographed in its every moment, moving collectively as though born to bring Tezuka’s cartoon heroes and villains to life.
   Zach Brown, Megumi Kabe, Anthony Li, Jaime Puckett, and the Jim Carey-esque Marz Richards—who, if he doesn’t have a career in voiceover, should—move and shout their lines as though they were lifted directly from a Saturday morning kids cartoon TV series in the early ’80s, each doing a masterful job jumping around from one eccentric character to the next. From their talented ranks, the fuchsia-haired Mandi Moss is a particular standout as the lonely scientist who manufactures Astro Boy in the image of his dead son.

When West Liang graces the stage as Tezuka, commenting from the cartoonist’s own perspective with grace and an effective dollop of humility, it breaks from the caricaturized performances and exaggerated silliness, which feels out of place at first, as though signaling a pledge drive break on PBS. Yet what holds everything together are those ingenious moments when the entire cast rushes onstage, the actors crawling and reaching high over one another to create their wonderful images on those massive paper backdrops, under the guidance of Aviva Pressman. It’s amazing all of them can render their accomplished cartoons right before our astonished eyes with such incredible speed. By bunching his triumphs together into a matchless 70-minute thrill ride, it honors what the illustrious Tezuka tried to accomplish in his life.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
July 6, 2015
The Phantom of the Opera
Pantages Theatre

It’s been almost 30 years since Andrew Lloyd Webber transformed Gaston Leroux’s 1909–1910 gothic novel Le Fantome de L’opera and the 1925 silent film version into what is surely Webber’s most enduring success. His astonishing cash cow crept up from the bowels of the Paris Opera to be unleashed on the world of eager theatergoers in 1986, traveling on throughout the world to enjoy one of the most celebrated sagas in the annals of musical theater history.
   The production’s original producer, Cameron Mackintosh, is presenting a newly reworked, redesigned, reorchestrated Phantom of the Opera, now stopping back in its old familiar Hollywood home for an eight-week run. The sweeping art deco splendor of the Pantages Theatre might be a bit too modern for the era in which the classic tale unfolds, yet somehow seems right—perhaps because it’s as gilded and gold and intricately adorned as Paul Brown’s freshly versatile new sets and Maria Björnson’s elaborate costuming, which flashes and sparkles into the audience under Paule Constable’s moody yet pleasingly creamy lighting effects.

The production is a mixed bag, surprisingly slow and ponderous at times, but it also has many things to recommend it. The full and spirited orchestra, led by Richard Carsey (through June 21), is quite a treat, beautifully augmented by Mick Potter’s crisp and crystal clear sound design, truly a major achievement in a venue where sound has often been an issue. The great consequence of this accomplishment is something also unexpected: We can now bask fully in Charles Hart’s richly poetic lyrics, whereas in the original production they tended to disappear into electronic echoes and loud rock-musical amplification.
   Laurence Connor takes over the directorial reigns with skill and a fine regard for Harold Prince’s original concept, but Scott Amber’s wonderfully droll choreography wins over any veteran Phantom fans who expect to see grand staircases populated by costumed mannequins, an elephant in the Hannibal sequence that’s more than just a two-dimensional flat with rolling eyes, and a chandelier that starts as a pile of pieces, hydraulically reconstitutes as it repositions itself to its former grandeur over the auditorium, and later comes crashing down way too close to the audience members’ heads. Here it sits just in front of the proscenium, and, when it threatens patrons, it’s more of a sputter and a short drop than an E-ride at Disneyland.

The ensemble is generally worthy, particularly Anne Kanengeiser as the Gale Sondergaard–like Mrs. Giry and Jacquelynne Fontaine as the opera’s entitled diva Carlotta. Chris Mann, a finalist on The Voice in 2012, has a glorious vocal range able to scale the heights and depths of Webber’s difficult score, but Mann lacks the charisma and seductive qualities needed to play the poor maligned Phantom. This is mostly because Mann is far too young and his voice not yet seasoned and growly enough to assay such a demanding role; give the guy a few good years dealing with the world, and he’ll be perfect in the role in the newest new reinvention of Phantom in about 2030.
   Storm Lineberger is in fine voice for Raoul but has little heroic enough about him to effectively appear to be capable of rescuing his childhood love Christine from the dreaded Opera Ghost—or to make anyone think he’d be a more interesting companion than the far more dashing and seemingly sincere Phantom.
   Katie Travis as that poor torn ingénue is perhaps the best Christine this reviewer has ever seen—and frankly, I’ve seen a lot of them, including the talentless original, Sarah Brightman, who as an actor should have stuck to singing. Travis easily hits that obligatory C-above-high-C when prodded by her Angel of Music to do so, and her hauntingly beautiful ballad “Wishing You Were Here Again,” sung in a foggy graveyard to her dead father, is a standout.

The original Broadway and London productions of Phantom, featuring its original designs, Prince’s clever direction, and choreography by Gillian Lynne, are still running after all these years. Mackintosh’s reworked and redesigned touring version, which his reps are touting as a “spectacular new production,” proves to be somewhat right, somewhat wrong. There are indeed dazzling features introduced here, but a lot is lost in the process as well. Either way, The Phantom of the Opera will go on impressing rabid new generations of worshippers for a long time to come—and if someone has never had the privilege of being left with indelible images from the original to compare with this experience, this version will do just fine, thank you very much.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
June 19, 2015
Singin’ in the Rain
Musical Theatre West at Carpenter Performing Arts Center

Perennially listed in the top films of all times, MGM’s Singin’ in the Rain is an early rarity: a film that preceded the subsequent theatrical production. Co-directed and choreographed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, with a screenplay by Adolph Green and Betty Comden, the film is inventive and iconic. Songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, some of which were written in the 1920s and ‘30s for previous film productions and readapted for the 1952 film, are the musical history of Hollywood in its heyday and an opportunity for stellar production numbers.
   With that legacy, it is up to theater companies to preserve the character of the original with contemporary talent. Musical Theatre West has done a fine job of holding on to the best elements, particularly for those who have seen the film and its musical numbers over the years.

The stage production begins as does the film. Gossip columnist–styled interviewer Dora Bailey (an effusive Alison England) is waiting for top romantic silent film stars Lina Lamont (Rebecca Ann Johnson) and Don Lockwood (Leigh Wakeford) to arrive for the screening of their new motion picture at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. The studio has encouraged rumors that they are a real-life romantic duo, but it is swiftly evident why that isn’t the case. Lina is a brassy, dumb blonde with a voice to match. Unfortunately, with the advent of talkies, she is going to be a liability, and The Jazz Singer has just ratcheted up that immediacy.
   After the premiere, Lockwood, in escaping zealous fans, meets Kathy Selden (Natalie MacDonald), an aspiring actress. Initially uninterested in the self-satisfied movie star, she finally falls for him when he shows his human side. They are accompanied throughout by Cosmo Brown (Justin Michael Wilcox), a studio pianist and Don’s best friend who provides atmosphere for the pair’s film scenes.
   As the story unfolds and the silent The Dueling Cavalier becomes The Dancing Cavalier, complications abound. Satirical and effortlessly comic, the whole production stays faithful to the spirit and tenor of the original film.

Wakeford has the charm and dancing chops to handle the part played on film by Kelly. MacDonald is a nice foil with a pleasant voice and a profile similar to the film’s Debbie Reynolds. Wilcox handles the Donald O’Connor part with great physicality and comic mastery. His version of “Make ’Em Laugh” is a great tribute to O’Connor, and his duo with Wakeford, “Moses Supposes,” is a tap-dancing delight. Johnson is uncannily like Jean Hagen in the original, and she provides unabashed comic relief.
   Jeff Austin and Steve Owsley make believable the Hollywood film bosses, and youngsters Wyatt Larrabee and Barrett Figueroa acquit themselves well as the young Don and Cosmo in the vaudeville number “Fit as a Fiddle.”
   The large-cast “Broadway Melody” number is among the best in the show for showing off the 20 or so ensemble members. Their synchronized tapping with Wakeford is reminiscent of the early MGM productions, and a yellow-raincoat-and-umbrella-wielding number reprising “Singin’ in the Rain” at the end is a crowd pleaser.

Without a doubt, the most difficult element to achieve is Kelly’s classic choreography as Wakeford performs “Singin’ in the Rain,” dancing down a city street in a rainstorm. In a clever feat of stage artistry, set designer Michael Anania re-creates the street, complete with rain, puddles, and a look-alike background. (A program note indicates that the rain from the number will be collected for grounds’ maintenance in this drought environment). Wakeford captures the lighthearted joy of Lockwood as he realizes he is in love. The number is film history and choreographic sophistication.
   Musical director–conductor John Glaudini delivers Broadway-style energy with his live orchestra, and director-choreographer Jon Engstrom gives the show its vitality and zest. Dan Weingarten’s lighting design is bright and effective.
   The large stage at the Richard and Karen Carpenter Center at Long Beach State is a fine venue for this show, and it is a pleasure to see this grand-scale offering achieved with high production values, style, and a winning cast.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
July 14, 2015
Stanley Ann: The Unlikely Story of Barack Obama’s Mother
Davidson/Valentini Theatre at the Los Angeles LGBT  Center

There’s much to praise about Mike Kindle’s revelatory play, which spans 35 years in the life of this incredibly overlooked role model whose activism spawned someone who would significantly influence the future of our country and our planet. Little is known about our leader’s mom, who died of uterine cancer 13 years before her son was inaugurated as our 44th president. Kindle utilized every trace of biographical information he could absorb on his subject. And, with the invaluable aid of the unstoppably adventurous Ann Noble in the surely exhausting title role and the visionary direction by Mark Bringelson, Kindle has created one of the richest and most multifaceted real-life characters ever conjured in a solo performance.
   Beginning with Noble naked in bed in her arresting turn as Stanley Ann Dunham, then an 18-year-old student at the University of Hawaii in post-coital euphoria after a world-altering toss with Kenyan classmate Barack Obama Sr., the journey from there to her death at age 52 explains volumes about how her life affected, energized, and politicized her illustrious son. “Look at my hand, so pale in the moonlight,” Dunham coos with innocent wonder to her mysterious lover, “and your hand as dark as the night.”

From Hawaii and her first ill-advised marriage to the senior Obama, the play travels with rapid scene changes as Dunham drags the brilliant little future world leader she called Barry from there to Washington state, then back to Hawaii, then on to Indonesia after she falls for Lolo Soetoro, another troubled international student who would become her second husband. And it’s from there, toddler in tow and living in Jakarta as the American trophy wife of the ambitious Soetoro, where Dunham seems to have first found her voice as a crusader and a feminist.
   Perhaps one of the evening’s most powerful scenes unfolds as Dunham accompanies her husband to a party at the American Embassy in Jakarta where, as Noble dances with invisible partners, the activism that would galvanize her life from that moment emerges. As she twirls and smiles and nods and drinks her wine, the survivor Dunham would become emerges as she sees through the greedy aspirations of her husband and his—and our—government’s power elite. Dunham is initially not sure where to place her anger over the horrors of war the people of that country were enduring in an effort to bleed them dry of their natural resources. But her high heels “crunch across the charred bones on the way to the hotel poolside” as she begins to weigh her options for the future—at one point spitting out her husband’s suggestion, when confronted by her confusion, to just go out and buy a new dress like the dutiful little wifey he expects her to be.

Soon after, when Barry asks why she’s angry, Dunham starts to shrug him away but changes her mind, drawing him close to her as she carefully compares the politicos all around them to the vultures Soetoro forced her son to watch picking apart the carcass of a cow they’d come across on a dirt road, warning him to be aware how much of the world’s struggles come from trying to establish which of us is the “strongest vulture.”
   Noble is simply breathtaking in the role, jumping with lightning speed from her character’s early teenage excitement, eagerly anticipating life’s challenges ahead of her, to Dunham’s scattered efforts to make a dent in the world’s problems as an economic anthropologist focusing on rural development, and finally as she became a battered, disillusioned, world-weary survivor. Noble is amazing in her ability to flesh out and make the character’s two husbands, mother, son, and daughter come alive right before our eyes, almost making us believe someone is there before her holding their own in the conversation—and how she talks to each is totally different, especially to her son Barry as he grows from tiny inquisitive child to brooding, questioning young man.

Bringelson utilizes every corner of the 50-seat theater’s small playing space, with incredible innovation on Robert Selander’s strikingly simple set, a place that can, with pushing and pulling by its solo player, transform a wooden bench to an on-end refrigerator and later a podium as Dunham gives a speech before a huge crowd we can almost see is there. Matt Richter’s flexible lighting and Paula Higgins’s plain yet period costuming also add to the ambience, but the sound design, by Chris Moscatiello, deserves the most-enthusiastic praise for bringing the rapidly changing eras of Dunham’s journeys to life.
   This exceptional production, in a breakneck 90-ish minute cascade of information told with the poetic lyricism of Tennessee Williams, is a remarkable achievement in every aspect: its theatricality, historic merit, brilliant staging by Bringelson, tour-de-force performance by Noble and, above all, the discovery of a notable and sorely needed new playwriting voice in the American theater. It also reveals where our president gets his strength and resiliency—not to mention his humor.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
July 13, 2015
Les Misérables
Encore Entertainers at Warner Grand Theatre

This sprawling epic about life, guilt, forgiveness, transformation, redemption, and the French revolution gets a skilled, moving, but scenically sparse production by Encore Entertainers.
   First and foremost, Herbert Kretzmer’s lyrics—based on the original French by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, which they based on the 1862 Victor Hugo novel—are clearly sung and meaningful here, under the direction of Summer Dey Cacciagioni and the musical direction of Mike Walker. This is fortunate because the lyrics are gorgeous and because the musical is sung-through, so no explanations of the story are spoken between songs.
   Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music, too, gets such a clean, rich sound here that the score seems prerecorded. It’s not; that masterly pit orchestra is led by conductor-keyboardist Walker.
J. Michael Bailey stars as Jean Valjean who, criminalized for stealing bread for a starving family, struggles to overcome the branding, becoming valiant in the process. Bailey’s warm, expressive voice beautifully fills the role’s expansive range, as Bailey creates a warmhearted father figure.
   Valjean’s lifetime nemesis, Inspector Javert, is wonderfully underplayed by Christopher Carothers, whose voice, as adept as Bailey’s, is colder and more terrifying, at least until he sings the self-reprimanding “Soliloquy.”
   As Valjean rises in the world, he befriends one of his factory workers, the single-mother Fantine. Dying, she belts “I Dreamed a Dream,” given a thoroughly sweet rendition here by Dana Shaw. Valjean promises to look after her tiny daughter, Cosette (an even sweeter performance by Bella Gomez).
   Cosette was in essence sold to the dreadful Thénardiers, who force Cosette to act as scullery maid while they spoil their own daughter, Éponine. Valjean finds Cosette and takes her away.

A decade later, Éponine is a streetwise teen in love with a student, Marius. He, however is interested only in revolution, at least until he meets the beautiful, delicate Cosette. Éponine, here portrayed by Tracy Ramsay, sings the showstopping Act Two topper, “On My Own.” Ramsey’s vocal chops thrill while she makes the song her own. Cosette has become Valjean’s well-tended flower, perfectly embodied here by Mackenzie Hamilton. She meets and falls for the sweet-hearted Marius, played by Richie Olson. Both actors seem so young, but they are probably at the age Hugo intended them to be. Their work together is extraordinarily tender.
   Among Marius’s fellow students is the stirring leader of the revolutionaries, Enjolras, played here by Jahmaul Bakare with a beautiful operatic voice and a charismatic presence. The scenes of revolutionary foment are powerful and as realistic as things get in musical theater.
   Monsieur Thénardier returns to claim a little something for his troubles. He also returns because he is the comedic highlight of the musical. Andrew Metzger gives this innkeeper-turned-gangster a touch of Jack Sparrow as he prowls and picks pockets.

Pursuant to Encore’s mission of educating young performers, the cast includes students, and it shows in the group vocals and in the acting. But they are learning the best way possible—by being onstage with no second takes—and the talents of the best of them bode well for the future of musical theater in the Southland.
   In particular, among the students in the cast is high school senior Serenity Robb, playing the comedic lead Madame Thénardier. While Robb is not yet at the level of that total-and-then-some immersion in a character that marks the top-tier performers, she is a star in the making. She has a strong voice, comedic chops, and a presence that holds attention through a song.
   What’s a revolution without a revolving stage? As did the 1985 original production, directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, the action here takes place on a turntable, allowing characters to stroll as they ponder their futures, and allowing the audience to see the front and back of the barricade built by the young Parisian radicals.
   A set of stained-glass windows flies in for the prologue, when Valjean is given his fresh start by a priest, and then not until toward the end of Act Two do a few projections show up to establish locale. Lighting, too, is hit-and-miss, and the booth missed more than a few spots on the evening reviewed. Only these design issues keep this production from being full-out glorious.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
June 22, 2015
 American Idiot
DOMA Theatre Company at MET Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Jess Ford and Andrew Diego
Photo by Michael Lamont

Fifteen years ago, when superpower band Green Day decided to produce a rock opera paying homage to The Who, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, who is credited for writing 98 percent of the Green Day’s most celebrated music, created the dynamically screwed up anti-hero Jesus of Suburbia. When the effort catapulted into the band’s 2004 album American Idiot, it was a worldwide success and won the Grammy for Best Rock Album in 2005.
   In 2009, Armstrong collaborated with Green Day fan and Broadway director Michael Mayer (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Tony winner for Spring Awakening) to turn the band’s Tommy-like concept into a stage musical. First mounted at Berkeley Rep, the theatrical version of American Idiot went on to New York, rocking out the venerable St. James Theatre for more than a year.
   LA’s decade-old DOMA Theatre Company, which has been turning out some surprisingly massive and well-appointed productions for almost a decade, is a perfect match for Green Day’s loud and irreverent musical, which follows Johnny (Jess Ford), the Jesus of this show’s particular suburbia, who, with his two buddies Will (Wesley Moran) and Tunny (Chris Kerrigan), dreams in song of leaving the restrictive environment in which they grew up, ready to rebel by singing and rocking their way into the big city.

Things don’t work out so well for Will, whose wife leaves him with their infant son because he never seems to get off his couch, rise from his smoky haze, and put down his ever-present bong. Tunny, too, ends up in an unexpected state, whisked into the army and returning from one of America’s horrifying desert wars in a wheelchair.
   Still, we follow Johnny the most closely, as his initiation into disenchanted youthful urban existence brings him into contact with Whatshername (Renee Cohen), who introduces him to her politically active and rebellious lifestyle, and St. Jimmy (Andrew Diego), who gets him high on a series of increasingly more debilitating street drugs.
   After the perils of our disintegrating society and the bitterness of life in the real world nearly kill all three heroes, each returns to his hometown. Although it would be more satisfying if the guys discovered how to conquer their demons rather than retreat back to the place that shaped them, hopefully along the way their eyes have been opened to things none of them would have understood without their bellyflop into contemporary chaos.
   But that’s fodder for American Idiot II, which in a perfect world should include a palpable sense of the era just past the one when the original album was released, a time when our country’s young’uns were forced to come of age through 9/11, as well as during the Iraqi War and conflicts in Afghanistan and across the globe.

Director Marco Gomez and his design team, especially Michael Mullen, who presumably on a shoestring created some the flashiest, most whimsical and creative costuming seen on any LA stage this year, join to lift this production way beyond the usual limitations of typical 99-Seat theater productions of large-scale musicals.
   Musical director Chris Raymond and his excellent band add immensely to the mix, as do the generally balls-out performances by the principal players. One small criticism: Although the denizens of American Idiot are all purdy much continuously in pain, it would be a better character choice if every song and every spoken line were not delivered with a tortured expression and the appearance of emanating from a dying beast.
   Especially when assaying Angela Todaro’s energetic and highly athletic choreography, the wildly fearless and spirited chorus of 17 knockout young triple-threats collectively liquefy together, wondrously becoming like one more principal character in the story, reminiscent of the townspeople in Evita who also often moved across the stage as one communal mass of humanity.
   Of the talented ranks, it would be remiss not to mention the Joplin-esque vocal calisthenics of Sandra Diana Cantu, as well as the überanimated, appropriately over-bleached Kevin Corsini, one of the tallest ensemble members whose unruly crown of straw glows brightly under Jean-Yves Tessier’s exquisitely atmospheric lighting.

Green Day’s most popular tunes re-created in the musical—including “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” which became a message against governmental avarice and ineptitude after the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the title song and “Holiday,” both part of the Green Day’s in-your-face score and Armstrong’s literate and often depressing book and lyrics—clearly express an entire generation’s dissent over the actions initiated by our government in our own country and across the globe.
   Underlying the musical’s sometimes simplistic plotline is a conscious message shouting out against corporate greed and unnecessary war, something that overpowers any minor clumsiness. Add in a cast this charismatic and such knockout production values, and this is a miraculous mounting of the musical not to be overlooked.

June 11, 2015
Marry Me a Little
Good People Theater Company at the Lillian Theater

While Craig Lucas was appearing in the original cast of Stephen Sondheim’s classic Sweeney Todd in New York, the fertile brain of this actor-turned-playwright was sparked by a discussion listing the many songs from the prolific composer-lyricist’s equally fertile brain that had been cut from some of his most successful creations before opening night. After approaching Sondheim with an idea and getting his blessing, Lucas and Norman Rene created this Off-Off-Broadway 1980 musical revue featuring all those lost songs and a few more from Sondheim’s then-still-unproduced musical Saturday Night.
   Directed by Rene and starring Lucas and Suzanne Henry, Marry Me a Little transferred from Off-Off to Off-Broadway, racking up a decent run and even more decent reputation over the years in regional theaters everywhere. Easy to produce—two actors, an accompanist, a minimal set—it was an inspired choice for Janet Miller and her Good People Theater Company to bring to the infamously bare-boned Hollywood Fringe Festival. Miller, her musical director–accompanist Corey Hirsch, and performers Jessie Withers and David Laffey can easily present their hour-long offering, pack up their bed and Hirsch’s keyboard, and voila: the theater is ready for the next Fringe entry.
   The premise was simple as Lucas and Rene saw it, interlacing all those abandoned Sondheim tunes together to create an ongoing song cycle made up of private thoughts conjured by two lonely strangers living in apartments 2C and 3C of a giant Manhattan apartment building, existing quietly in their otherwise unconnected isolation. As the story progresses, Withers and Laffey share the stage throughout but only infrequently share a song together, sung to each other as they occupy the same room, adhering to the authors’ conceit that the two singles are singing their hearts out while alone in their separate studios.

This is perfect for the whimsical mind and smoothly modulated talents of director-choreographer Miller, who craftily weaves together the movements of her players as they share the same bed in different rooms until they accidentally meet, it appears, in the lobby or elevator sometime during the performance. Beginning with the plaintive ballad “Saturday Night” from that aforementioned musical, their love story continues as the couple falls in love, eventually becomes disillusioned (living “One day of grateful/For six of regret”), and by “It Wasn’t Meant to Happen” (trimmed from Follies), retreats right back to their solitary individual galaxies in 2C and 3C.
   Withers has a gorgeous, rich, near-operatic soprano that the notoriously discerning, cranky ol’ Uncle Stephen would appreciate. She is especially notable interpreting the title song and “There Won’t Be Trumpets,” originally sliced, respectively, from Company and Anyone Can Whistle, and gives a deliciously and suitably naughty spin to Follies’s lost “Can That Boy F….oxtrot.” Laffey has a splendid voice as well, although on opening night he was dealing with vocal strain in the second half, making the biggest impression in “Multitude of Amys,” also cut from Company.
   Hirsch does an exceptional job at the keyboards, although occasionally it would be nice for the accompaniment to soften a bit and not overpower the vocals, something that could be easily adjusted if the Fringe Festival were not such a hurried affair. The same is true for Withers and Laffeys’s performances, which could also use a few more rehearsals and a little seasoning and sinking into the shoes of the characters.

Of course, Marry Me a Little is ultimately about Sondheim, whose tunes, even the ones that were scrapped, are arresting and whose lyrics are beyond compare with anyone else writing in the last 50 years or so. If anyone seems to understand loneliness and the fleeting qualities of love, it’s him.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
June 10, 2015

Murder for Two
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse

Smack dab in the middle of our current, if not our ongoing, theatrical austerity crisis comes Murder for Two, a musical whodunit whose bold, albeit thrifty, conceit is to have all the roles played by two actors. Specifically, one (Brett Ryback) portrays Marcus, an eager young patrolman whose stumbling onto a murder makes his dream of becoming a detective possible, and another (Jeff Blumenkrantz) plays “The Suspects,” aka everybody else: the distinguished author who’s the victim; members of the family and retinue in his classic country house; and all hangers on.
   Thrifty as the gimmick is—and unless I miss my guess, one at least partly inspired by the success of Patrick Barlow’s The 39 Steps, with its team of thesps doing multiple duty—it doesn’t make staging Murder for Two a walk in the park. For one thing, it’s a lot to ask two actors to come up with the nonstop energy and charm to maintain 90 minutes of musical hijinks sans intermission—which is why I expect community and school audiences to encounter numerous lackluster renditions of Murder for Two in the foreseeable future. Moreover, one of the performers has to be versatile enough to make some two-dozen characters distinctive and rich on the fly, while the other possesses the shoulders on which the audience’s story engagement rests.
   And on top of all that, both have to be proficient at the piano. While one actor is confessing or dying or dancing or emoting downstage, the other needs to be available at the keyboard. Still, I have encountered Ryback and Blumenkrantz’s work multiple times before—always first rate—so I had no trepidations as to their ability to carry this thing off. Plus, they created the parts, first in Chicago and then in New York. One advantage of LA’s getting to see original-cast tours is that all the growing pains tend to have been worked out long before.

I must admit, though, I was worried during the opening moments, which director Scott Schwartz has staged quite poorly. Our actors are setting up a generalized bare-theater setting—you know the deal, a few chairs and some flattage, a couple trunks and a standing worklight. Suddenly, as they unveil the piano, some kind of hostility or resentment between them emerges from somewhere, and they get all wordlessly huffy and start engaging in a musical battle side by side at the piano bench.
   And I’m thinking, “Oh, no, don’t tell me on top of everything else, they’re going to have this metatheatrical actor feud bubbling beneath the main story.” It’s one thing for Tom and Jerry to instantly throw themselves into one-upmanship at the 88s over “Hungarian Rhapsody,” because we already know they’re archrivals. But antipathy between new characters has to be clearly set up and justified. This show’s opening clashes, which came out of nowhere and seemed unsupported, made my heart sink.
   It sank further when Blumenkrantz began his shape-shifting and I couldn’t immediately tell whether he was portraying women or effeminate men, or just eccentrics. Eventually I sorted it out and/or he found his comfort level, and he sailed off into a genuine, completely entertaining tour de force of character transformation. (Blumenkrantz will be out July 10–19, replaced by co-author Joe Kinosian.) Ryback, as predicted, kept up his winning charisma throughout, even throwing in a few character surprises all the way: a most adept central performance.

If I can’t 100 percent rave about Murder for Two, it’s because the story gets too fancy, and fanciful, for complete interest. Librettists Kellen Blair and Kinosian set up a ticking clock—Marcus feels he must solve the case before the “real” detectives arrive on the scene—but I can’t say it ever impelled real suspense or ever mattered to me whether the character achieved his hoped-for dream. The staging, clever as it is, winks at us too often, and too many on-the-margins non sequiturs are thrown in. Out of the blue, for instance, we’re told that unknown to us, a boy choir has been on the scene all along. Wha?? You start wondering what the rock-bottom reality of the story is, and whether there is one, and may find yourself not caring about the solution of the murder. (Or that of the other ongoing mystery, “Who stole the ice cream?” Don’t ask.)
   As for the songs, for which Blair is credited with lyrics and Kinosian with music, they seem peppy and serviceable. But a score needs to be tied to an emotional core to register on first hearing, and the emotional core of Murder for Two is somewhat surface by design.
   Still, I can’t imagine this show being better performed by anyone, anywhere, and I am sure it will provide most theatergoers with nonstop pleasure. I will never forget one moment about two-thirds of the way through, when suddenly Blumenkrantz evoked—with voice, manner, and facial gesture, as he does so skilfully throughout—a character we, and clearly Marcus, had not yet met. Ryback took a long pause, allowing us to register the situation, and it almost seemed as if it was a thrown, amused, cracking-up Ryback and not Marcus who was uttering, on our behalf, “Who…are you?” Priceless. That was the little touch of Pirandello in the night I was looking for, and found from time to time, in Murder for Two.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
June 6, 2015
Satchmo at the Waldorf
Lovelace Studio Theatre at the Wallis Annenberg Center

If you took in the luminous revival of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Taper in 2013, you’ve already come face-to-face with the force of nature that is John Douglas Thompson, for my money one of the truly great actors in the English-speaking world today. But except for his stunning Herald Loomis in the Wilson play, Los Angeles hasn’t had the chance to experience the extent of his gifts that New York has, with the Off-Broadway revival of The Emperor Jones that put him on the map, or the sprawling, metatheatrical four-hour Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Parts I and II that galvanized Brooklyn last fall. Thompson’s arrival here in Satchmo at the Waldorf feels like a throwback to the days when Helen Hayes or Katharine Cornell or the Lunts would take their Broadway casts on the road to cities, towns, and hamlets coast-to-coast: a genuine event.
   But I don’t want to make it sound as if attending the Annenberg production is somehow a rote pilgrimage to the altar of High Culture. Satchmo would be a worthwhile play to experience no matter who was starring in it. It’s the maiden effort of Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout, who has clearly learned a thing or two about construction in the course of his reviewing activities, not to mention benefiting from the research that went into Pops, his acclaimed biography of legendary jazzman Louis Armstrong, on which this script is based.
   Teachout has a very clear and potent vision of the venerable Louis in his final days: unfailingly upbeat about the music, but bitter about his treatment at the hands of the (white, Jewish) manager he had always trusted, and even more so about the criticism from the (black, hip) colleagues who dismissed him as an embarrassing Uncle Tom.
   Armstrong was a pioneer: not just an innovative trumpeter, but the first notable pop singer to swing and scat and deviate from a song’s simple melodic line. He was an undoubted inventor of jazz singing, in other words, one to whom everyone who followed him owes a debt. Yet he’s remembered today, if at all, merely as the sweaty, grinning, tuxedoed coot who croaked the crap tune “Hello, Dolly!” into a No. 1 hit. Which means that the sympathetic, though not-uncritical portrait provided by Satchmo isn’t just eye-opening. One could even deem it a necessary corrective.
   In the end, though, the big news is Thompson, whose adoption of Armstrong’s arthritis, emphysema, courtliness, and fury makes the audience ache with him, but who can switch on a dime (as Teachout demands) to transform into straight-backed, bullet-headed, barking manager Joe Glaser and bring us up short. At times he’s even called upon to morph into whispering, insinuating, supercilious Miles Davis, and he pulls that off as well. It’s a tour de force that makes 90 minutes fly by, punctuated by patches of great music and plenty of tears and smiles. Gordon Edelstein directs proficiently.
   It’s only running until June 7, and the shows are virtually if not wholly sold out. What are you doing, just sitting there? Go do what you can to get in.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
June 1, 2015
American Idiot
glory | struck Productions at The Vortex Warehouse

Angelenos have two late-spring opportunities to experience the staged version of Green Day’s American Idiot—and they’ll be able to do so outside of the context of Michael Mayer’s original three-stories-high, multimedia-thick, turbocharged original.
   DOMA, the scrappy local company specializing in bringing mega-techno-tuners like Dreamgirls and Jesus Christ Superstar down to size, will unveil its take in June. Out of the box even sooner is an even scrappier group, eccentrically yclept “glory | struck productions,” which admirably If pretentiously announces its ambition to “create music-driven art that aligns poignant stories with relevant social issues in an effort to inspire collective action.”
   “Out of the box,” did I say? These artists have literally packaged the concept-album-based punk opera within a box: the boxy East L.A. warehouse known as The Vortex. The not-uninviting space has been loaded to the gills with platforms, folding chairs, and lighting towers, bringing a festive rock concert ambience to the story of three disaffected young denizens of “Jingletown, U.S.A.” and their different attempts at rebellion leading to fulfillment.

Johnny (James Byous, alternating with Alec Cyganowski) is the self-styled “Jesus of Suburbia” who treks to the big city to find true romance, an ephemeral one with the waiflike “Whatsername” (Lindsay Pearce) and a deeper one with heroin. Tunny (Jonah Platt, role-sharing with Payson Lewis) gets hypnotized by TV into enlisting in the Army and gets shot up—in a different way from Johnny, certainly—in Mr. Bush’s war, while Will (Matt Magnusson) impregnates girlfriend Heather (Briana Cuoco) and stays at home as a frustrated couch potato.
   The faux-hipster, the soldier, and the family guy: Billie Joe Armstrong’s American Youth triptych of idiots, dramatized with (for my money) a phenomenal set of tunes and a pulsating narrative with a highly moral base. The playful optimism of “Holiday,” the swooning romance of “When It’s Time,” and the heartbreak of “Wake Me Up When September Ends” may have premiered on a CD, but they’re as robust as anything the musical stage has put forward in the last decade, and the show’s message ends up as hopeful as its form seems anarchic.
   I confess that that’s my personal take on an album and musical I love dearly. Yet I concede that American Idiot has always had its doubters, and it has to be said that those who have found the narrative thin, clichéd, and condescending are not likely to be convinced by this glory | struck staging by Topher Rhys and Jen Oundjian (who also choreographs). Two of the stories really miss the mark; the third, Will and Heather’s anguish, comes through poignantly enough, though they get the least stage time and attention. And let’s face it, his worry that life’s passing him by and hers that his commitment to their kid is shaky aren’t exactly the stuff of high drama.
   The more-substantive stories are the ones that get bobbled. In the absence of the original production’s video wall of banal mass audience images, Rhys and Oundjian haven’t found a low-tech way to dramatize Tunny’s seduction into the military mindset. If you blink, you miss it. They also err in placing the march of sleepwalking draftees (“Are We the Waiting”) off to the side, out of most audience members’ lines of vision. (The environmental production plants events here and there and in the aisles, but it’s mostly the stuff on the main stage that registers.) Later on, the co-directors toss away Tunny’s post-wounding morphine dream and “Extraordinary Girl,” replacing his orgasmic overhead pas de deux with a Muslim dreamgirl with a lewd hospital rubdown from a nurse. Under the circumstances, of course you don’t expect the Broadway version’s flying effects. But there are other ways to soar, and Rhys and Oundjian haven’t found one.

Then again, the show rises and falls on Johnny’s sorry descent into addiction and futility, and on opening night, Byous proved unequal to the task. The playbill reveals him as an experienced rocker rather than actor, impressions borne out by his performance: While he sells the lyrics potently enough, the character’s arc escapes him. There’s more to Johnny than pouty egotism, yet Byous never seems to be truly moved or changed by events. His lewd narcissistic quality would be interesting in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but it leaves a hole in the action and emotion here.
   I am hopeful that DOMA will do righter by the protagonists. Still and all, I recommend the Vortex American Idiot for its passion and overall showmanship. Casting a woman as the charismatic drug czar St. Jimmy makes perfect sense for the seduction of Johnny, especially as played by Caitlin Ary in her blowsy Amy Winehouse–drenched fashion. (Ary should either grab a bobby pin or embrace her peekaboo hairstyle; her endless futile gestures at pulling her tresses back become distracting.) Cuoco and Pearce are sterling in support, and the entire ensemble, pumping and jerking through Twyla Tharp-inspired calisthenics, demonstrates a commitment to Green Day’s heart and soul that’s genuinely exciting to witness.
   Living up to their mission, the glory | struck folks are partnering with two charitable organizations: To Write Love On Their Arms (support for the suicidal, depressed, and self-mutilating) and HomeFront Rising (cultural intervention for veterans). Both causes are emphatically relevant to the show’s intended impact, even if that impact isn’t fully realized here, and deserve our support.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
May 18, 2015
Picasso at the Lapin Agile
Torrance Theatre Company

So, Picasso and Einstein walk into a bar.
   In this tiny bar in Paris in 1904, they begin to ponder what the 20th century might be like. They suspect their individual contributions will change the world.
   This meeting and conversation between two geniuses was imagined by the ingenious playwright Steve Martin—yes, that Steve Martin—and forms the centerpiece of this play. And yes, it is a classic Martin comedy: thoroughly silly and yet an astute observation of humanity. It imagines the night the 20th century’s leading scientific thinker and modern art’s most influential innovator match wits—and pencils.
   In 1905, Einstein would publish his “special theory of relativity.” In 1907, Picasso would paint “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.” But on this night, they are young and energized and full of potential, as is the new century.

At Torrance, under the direction of Jim Hormel, the play’s hilarity remains sharp while Martin’s ideas are given their due respect. The play of course touches on science and art, thought and action, time and timelessness. It is seasoned with earthiness and spirituality, and it is underpinned with the universal and sadly timeless contrasts between men and women.
   So as universal as it is, the play does not require an audience with an extensive knowledge of the works of Einstein (played here by Ryan Shapiro) and Picasso (Joshua Aguilar)—though some of the jokes may brush by us at the speed of light. The pair’s discourse is easily comprehended, perfectly reasonable, and simultaneously witty and tender.
   The regulars at the Lapin Agile represent the rest of us. Embodying the working-class is the bar’s grumpy owner, Freddy (Tim Blake), apparently tired of customers who theorize but don’t pay for their drinks. Representing smart women stuck in second place is Freddy’s better half, Germaine (Amanda Webb), who in 1904 manages to predict the technical innovations of the 20th century, to the scorn of the men.
   The ugly side of commerce is exemplified by the local art dealer, Sagot (Chris Mock), a particularly sharp thorn in Picasso’s side. The ugly side of old age gets a wise but giggle-inducing representative in Gaston (Ron Rudolph), who frequently heads off to the toilet with great urgency and an even greater one-liner.

Just before intermission (this production snips this relatively short play into two acts), a new character bursts through the door, presumably the third man in the triumvirate that will set the course for the century. After intermission, we officially meet him. He is Charles Dabernow Schmendiman (Gary Kresca). That’s right, you have never heard of him.
   If we look at Schmendiman from a 2015 perspective, he seems to represent the modern celebrity, expecting fame to precede him, contributing nothing of importance to culture. Or so it seems, until we see, near the play’s end, what he made famous.
   And those who fall for the wrong people and love without hope find a mascot in Suzanne (Anna Fleury), who was momentarily wooed by Picasso’s pickup lines—in this case literal lines, which he drew with his fingernail on the back of her hand.
   Other women here pick more-stable men. Einstein has a date (Stephanie Lehane) who thinks like he does, and even Schmendiman has a fan (Lehane again). But, Martin doesn’t let his audience leave without spending a short but engaging time with another person (Julian R. Diaz) who brought change to the 20th century.

This play, about minds that open, ends as the cozy bar experiences its own bit of theater magic (scenic design by Mark Wood, lighting design by Steve Giltner/Street-Lite LLC). Martin’s goofy humor shares the stage with his pointed reminder of what we made of the 20th century, which started with all the potential in the world.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
May 11, 2015
Women On Time
Working Stage Theater

How half of society has been forced through the years to suffer the slings and arrows of expectations concerning the way that half’s gender is supposed to act while acquiescing to being called the weaker sex is the overlying theme of Women On Time. In a series of seven original interrelated short one-act plays, written and directed by women and featuring three spectacular actors each playing 21 roles, the production is a minor epic in its ambition and scope.
   It’s been more than 150 years since American women began to fight for the right to vote and, as these one-acts jump back and forth in time from the suffragette movement to the present, the question is how much has truly changed and how much has unfortunately stayed as inequitable as ever. Each of these stories is important in understanding the nature of womanhood, from the dawning of the 20th century until today.

The disparate material is equally rich and decidedly pointed. Susanna Styron’s striking “Suffrage” is set in 1917, as a woman (Julie Janney) is torn between the fight for the vote her friend (Joanna Miles) has taken on and the inane shock voiced by her vapid married daughter (Kimberley Alexander), who simply can’t offer an opinion that doesn’t begin with, “My husband says….”
   In Bonnie Garvin’s “Flight School,” three stewardesses in 1992 fight against sexual harassment that goes way beyond coffee, tea, or him. “ ‘No’ is not a word in the American male vocabulary,” one laments, something all too apparent when the eldest and most conservative among them admits an even more devastating incident she faced when she was younger, during a period of history when she had nowhere to go to seek justice.
   Set in 1962, Nikki McCauley’s “To Bra or Not To Bra” features a young blossoming free-spirit daughter (Alexander) trying to convince her mother (Janney) that she should lose her uncomfortable contraption. Lorin Howard’s “Defining Moments” recalls the back-alley abortions of 1955, an era when giving birth out of wedlock still carried the scarlet “A” of society’s unacceptance.

Deborah Pearl’s arrestingly wickedly Network-ish play “Invaluable,” set in the present as three ad execs battle one another for power, shows how desperately twisted and ruthlessly competitive the plight of women in the workforce has become, while Miles’s “Lunch” is a refreshing comedic respite from the heaviness of some of the other storylines, as three modern air-kissing, Gucci-clad social climbers meet for lunch at The Ivy, only to discover Anthony Weiner–style wiener photos of one of the ladies’ office-seeking husband have hit the Internet.
   Perhaps the most memorable of these pieces is Bridget Terry’s right-to-the-bone “Rosies,” set at the end of World War II, as two women leave the factory jobs they held during the conflict so that the “boys” can reassume their rightful place in the workforce. As the eldest of the three squirms because the plant’s Hispanic cleaning woman has been offered a ride home, and as she is even more horrified when her co-worker expresses a desire to stay working rather than to return to dutiful housewifely status, the point is made loud and clear when she blurts, “Don’t bite my head off! I didn’t make the rules!”

All seven short plays are exceptional. Uber-committed performers Janney, Miles, and Alexander are equally amazing in their ability to switch from one gloriously rich character to another; and directors Iris Merlis, Maria Gobetti, Jenny O’Hara, and Terry must be commended for bringing such divergent and focused perspectives into the tales. And although Fritz Davis’s period-shifting video projections are absolute perfection, adding so much with so little to Thomas Meleck’s creatively austere set and lighting designs, only one thing mars the flow to the point of distraction: clumsy, unnecessarily elaborate set changes between each story that could be consolidated or pared down without harming where the stories attempt to take us.
   Whatever small druthers there may be, the women who created and perform in this unique production are indeed on time, on an important mission, and right on the money—times seven. Now, if only our society would listen so we could be sure their most urgent and vital message will prove itself to have been on time.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
April 27, 2015
Words by Ira Gershwin
Colony Theatre

Ira Gershwin wasn’t exactly a forgotten talent, but it’s safe to say that, despite his own unique and well-feted gifts as a lyricist, he lived his life and career as second banana to his universally acclaimed younger brother. Finally, with Joseph Vass’s simple but richly evocative play with music Words by Ira Gershwin, George’s elder bro gets his due.
   Although he collaborated frequently with George, together creating such classic mainstays of the American songbook as “Fascinating Rhythm,” “ ’S Wonderful,” “A Foggy Day,” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” Ira also wrote lyrics for some of the last century’s other greatest composers, including Vernon Duke (“I Can’t Get Started”), Harold Arlen (“The Man That Got Away”), Jerome Kern (“Long Ago and Far Away”), and Kurt Weill (“Saga of Jenny”).

Vass and director David Ellenstein have created a knockout evening honoring Ira Gershwin who, sweetly embodied by Jake Broder, sits alone onstage in an overstuffed red leather chair, reminiscing about growing up with George—as Israel and Jacob Gershowitz, sons of Russian Jews whose father immigrated to Brooklyn and worked as a foreman in a shoe factory. Moving many times from borough to borough in their youth, the brothers soon found a grounding place in the Yiddish theater district. As Ira tells the audience, the family had no idea George could play the piano until he sat down at one at age 10 and began to play. The rest, as they say, is history—one that’s explored by Voss, journeying from stories of those early days, when the teenage George worked as a song plugger for Tin Pan Alley, through the siblings’ later years residing in Beverly Hills before the composer’s way-too early death at age 38.
   Broder, who has made a mark playing such musical personages as Louis Prima (Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara, which Broder co-wrote) and “hipsemantic” cabaret badboy Richard Buckley (His Royal Hipness Lord Buckley, which Broder wrote), is exceptional as Gershwin. Broder’s simple, shy demeanor is charming from his earliest moments alone onstage, convincingly portraying a humble man who never saw himself in the center spotlight—until now.
   As Gershwin reminisces about his life and career, two spectacular singers, Angela Teek and Elijah Rock, enter in a glorious array of Diane K. Graebner costuming to perform the numbers Ira talks about creating. Each has many memorable moments here, including the incredibly difficult operatic tones of “I Loves You Porgy” and “Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess?” from the brothers’ most enduring masterpiece Porgy and Bess.

Keyboardist Kevin Toney also doubles as musical director for his exceptional bandmates, including Terry Wolfson on guitar, John B. Williams on bass, and Greg Webster on drums. If everything else about this production could be called just about flawless in every way, Toney and his excellent musical ensemble make a perfect entertainment even better.
   Beyond providing a refreshing and ever so hum-able evening’s divertissement, this presentation honors an American genius who, as so many talented lyricists do, lived in the shadow of their more celebrated composer counterparts. There’s a great old tale that the spouses of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein were sharing a lunch one day when Mrs. Kern remarked to another friend that her husband wrote the famous Showboat ballad “Old Man River.” Dorothy Hammerstein quickly chimed in. “No, dear,” she corrected Eva Kern. “Your husband wrote ‘Dum-dum-da-dum.’ My husband wrote ‘Old Man River.’ ”

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
April 26, 2015
The Power of Duff
Geffen Playhouse

The inciting incident of The Power of Duff, Stephen Belber’s new play at the Geffen, occurs early. Local Rochester, N.Y. news anchor Charlie Duff (Josh Stamberg)—having lost his wife to divorce, his son to resentment, and now his long-estranged dad to death—closes a broadcast with a spontaneous, brief “rest-in-peace” prayer. It feels good, somehow, so against friends’ advice and management’s directives, Charlie keeps praying, only to discover that he gets what he prays for: a kidnapped girl returned to her home; a comatose man revived. A national firestorm is ignited. With the world in such a miserable mess, could a mere Duff possess the heaven-sent power to start cleaning it up?
   So rare is it for a play to take up any issues of faith, religion, and the global community’s current crisis—let alone the journalistic ethics of using the airwaves to offer spiritual solace—that The Power of Duff might be seen as heartening in its subject matter alone. But it’s also a sad occasion, because the play isn’t very good. It’s tepid and, in key respects, shockingly retrograde.
   It’s impossible not to see Duff as the white angel to Paddy Chayefsky’s apocalyptic Howard Beale, who in Network (1976) got the world roaring its anger out the windows and convinced himself he was the Messiah. Duff is much more benign—he’s as glad as hell, and he just can’t keep it to himself anymore—but he’s also a cipher, inadequate to holding dramatic interest for two and a half hours. I’m not sure what the likable Stamberg could have done differently to make us care about his troubles, but as directed by Peter DuBois he practically fades into Clint Ramos’s white-brick-walled set in every scene.

Maybe Belber and DuBois should’ve analyzed Network more closely. Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet wisely keep the mysterious Beale on the sidelines, while ratcheting up the intensity of his worldwide impact and constantly returning to the professional and sexual clashes of the William Holden and Faye Dunaway characters. Yet nothing ever intensifies the power of The Power of Duff. Despite some ambitious, amusing video-wall peeks at the newsman’s supporters and critics (take a deep bow, projection designer Aaron Rhyne), the play devolves into an endless series of pause-laden, gab-filled two- and three-person scenes that develop no momentum. The text may insist that the world is being thrown for a loop by Duff’s so-called miracles, but the emotional temperature on the Geffen stage remains exclusively midday soap opera.
   At that, most of the other characters are barely serviceable as types when their behavior isn’t downright offensive. There are exceptions. As a prison lifer in whom Duff takes a healer’s interest, Maurice Williams brings believable rhythms and the breath of life to every scene. Joe Paulik’s video appearances perfectly capture the fatuous/sincere air of the classic remote TV reporter with just the wittiest hint of self-satire.
   But Duff’s sportscaster buddy (Brendan Griffin) is too obviously included as comedy relief and, later, sacrificial victim. Charlie’s son Ricky (Tanner Buchanan) is mere, sheer obnoxious adolescent. Station boss Scott (a fine, focused Eric Ladin), a crusty skeptic in the Lou Grant tradition, chews happily on the play’s most potent counterarguments to Duff’s divinity, only to turn on a dime into a believer: “I have the impulse to hug you….You did it, Charlie.” (Emphasis, Belber’s; disheartenedness, mine.)

Most egregiously, the redoubtable Elizabeth Rodriguez, one of the fiercest actors on our and New York’s stages, is assigned the corny role of a cranky co-anchor who ends up sleeping with the main character (yes! In 2015!) to bring him succor. The character of Sue Raspell has an autistic son and troubled marriage, but God forbid Belber should seriously explore her spiritual dark nights of the soul. He’s too busy worrying about whether mumbling, shuffling, vacant Charlie will remember to attend his kid’s band’s gig as a means of reforging a connection.
   The thinness of The Power of Duff’s answers—reach out and touch somebody’s hand; be content to make a little difference—is predictable, but more than that, it stands in stark contrast to the awesomeness of the play’s questions.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
April 16, 2015
Pasadena Playhouse

It says more about Jessica Kubzansky’s direction of Pygmalion than about George Bernard Shaw’s seminal text that this show seems listless. In the right hands, the century-old play can still be engrossing. But here it lacks bite, even with a pitch-perfect performance by Paige Lindsey White as Eliza Doolittle.
   In it, egomaniacal professor Henry Higgins (Bruce Turk) trains the empoverished Cockney girl (White) to “speak more genteel” so he can pass her off as an elegant lady. Eliza becomes not only a cultured woman but also a self-respecting one, who recognizes she deserves more than to be demeaned by her puppet master.
   Perhaps audiences familiar with only the play wouldn’t feel like the story has holes. But those accustomed to the 1938 film, with an Oscar-winning screenplay by Shaw, may notice the holes here. Shaw had added the learning process to the film: The audience witnesses Higgins teach his method to the flower girl, forcing her to fill her mouth with marbles and to repeat such phrases as, “In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen.” Because those sequences are missing from the play, the impact of how hard Eliza works in her studies is missing.

In the musicalized version of the play, My Fair Lady, lyricist Alan Jay Lerner swapped a less-stirring afternoon tea at Mrs. Higgins’s (at Pasadena, Mary Anne McGarry) for the more-exciting trip to the Ascot races. It’s unfair to penalize the play for scenes not yet written in 1913; yet like a jury being told by a judge to ignore testimony stricken from the record, it’s difficult for a modern audience to ignore how much Shaw’s rewrites for the film have improved the tale and characterizations. Kubzansky cannot be blamed for using the original text, yet her lackluster pacing strips away the drama, exacerbating how talky the script is.
   The costumes, by Leah Piehl, include stylish interpretations, like a smart leather outfit Eliza wears late in Act Two, but they seem inappropriate for the time period. The set, by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, is cold and industrial-looking. However, the cages on both sides of the stage clearly exemplify the lower class’s trappings by this aristocracy.
White gives a remarkable performance. With eyes so wide that Margaret Keane could have painted them and a crooked smile that could wound another when she's angry, White makes a fair lady indeed. She’s resilient and filled with pride even in the beginning when Eliza is considered invisible to the snooty upper class. In a one-woman show, White’s Eliza would be blazing without her Henry to drag her down.
   Turk’s snide interpretation of Higgins makes the professor less of an anti-hero and more of a brat. It’s unbelievable that Eliza wouldn’t knee him in the groin after an hour of his sniping.
   As Pickering, Stan Egi is stiff and uncomfortable. He portrays none of the warmth necessary. The other cast members treat their characters well. Strongest are Ellen Crawford, as the housekeeper, and McGarry, as Henry’s mother.

The myth of Pygmalion pervades society even today. Thanks to My Fair Lady, as well as plot variations on TV and film—including ABC’s recently cancelled Selfie and the teen comedy She’s All That—even kids who have never heard of Shaw know the storyline. An introduction to Shaw’s original text should entice, not bore. As perhaps happened to Eliza’s aunt, someone has done the old master in.

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz
March 30, 2015
Sight Unseen
Wasatch Theatrical Ventures at Lounge Theatre

When Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist classic No Exit debuted in 1944, clever critics could note the philosopher’s first mistake was the title—one that left them the overture to say that the trouble with No Exit was that there wasn’t one. Donald Margulies might have considered the same invitation for snarky criticism when he penned Sight Unseen, which leaves the journalistic door open for reviewers to say they wish his play had remained so.
   Then again, Sight Unseen might indeed be a good play; everything else written by Margulies has grabbed a generally appreciative critical response, and this particular effort garnered him an Obie Award and a Pulitzer nomination in 1992. Considering as reference only this incredibly awful revival, however, it would be difficult to tell. From Adam Haas Hunter’s clumsy and unwieldy set accentuated by equally clumsy and unwieldy set changes, to the 16-minute-late start time with a restless audience forced to sit through old Elton John and Beatles tunes turned into excruciating elevator music fed through a synthesizer, nearly everything about this production is insufferable.

The biggest problems and, oddly, also greatest assets here are in the casting choices. Jason Weiss as Jonathan, a newly successful New York painter traveling to an English hideaway to visit his ex while in London for an exhibit of his work, appears to be capable of better. But here, he is in desperate need of a directorial eye sharper and more adept than that provided by Nicole Dominguez.
   He shouts his lines in the intimate Lounge Theatre space as though he were giving out the football score on ESPN, offering in this angst-ridden role all the depth of Willie Aames in a Bibleman video. He prances and flails his arms and indicates emotions rather than expressing anything authentic, something desperately necessary in the role of someone struggling with his place in both the art world and on earth. By the point in the second act when the weighty and important themes of the play begin to surface, Weiss’s performance has sapped the notion of caring what happens to his character right out of consideration.

As Nick, the quirky British husband of Jonathan’s ex, Mark Belnick is nearly unwatchable. Not only is he way too long in the tooth to play this character, his British accent wavers between nothing recognizable and nearly nonexistent, and he offers not one color to the character besides sarcasm and dumbly blank expressions. As he enters the scene at breakfast time, to show his possibly hungover early morning state, he yawns grandly and shakes his head to indicate he needs to snap into wakefulness, then later wrings his hands like a dastardly villain in a Perils of Pauline episodic as he sneers through lines such as, “Leave it to me…I’ll take care of everything.” It would not be surprising if, at the play’s end, the actor didn’t improvise a quick “Curses! Foiled again!” accompanied by an evil cackle.
   As a German reporter appearing occasionally to interview Jonathan for an arts magazine, Casey McKinnon is suitably subdued. Yet, even though there are comments made about how well Grete speaks English, which she explains by proclaiming she spent a year studying at NYU, the actors’ perfectly modulated Judi Dench-ian RP British accent is, once again, something directorially overlooked that should have been either mastered or addressed. Also needing addressing, several times two actors stare at the same painting hung on the imaginary fourth wall, and neither is focusing individual gazes in the same place.

However, Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris, in her LA theatrical debut, is absolutely breathtakingly good—especially as she has to work opposite Weiss and Belnick and keep her intentions so flawlessly real. She plays Patricia, the miserably unhappy ex-pat American former artists’ model Never does Luqmaan-Harris present a false moment; her Patricia would be riveting even if it weren’t a major relief to watch someone in this production act without chewing the proverbial—and here rather flimsy—scenery.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
March 28, 2015
Circle X Theatre Co. at Atwater Village Theatre

They say theater in Los Angeles is really going to the dogs, and that the current battle between the West Coast office of Actors’ Equity Association and its many disgruntled members is truly for the birds. Still, gratefully, the stalwartly and inexhaustibly creative barebones-transforming Circle X Theatre Company is not monkeying around. In the LA premiere of Orange Is the New Black’s writer and co-producer Nick Jones’s brightly modern countercultural comedy, no animal hero has been more notably rendered since the last time Lassie saved Timmy.
   Trevor (formidable physical comedian Jimmi Simpson) returns home to his trailerpark-y domicile, upset that his attempt to get a job at a local fast-food franchise didn’t work out. His surrogate mother, Sandra (the equally formidable Laurie Metcalf), is definitely not happy he went out without her permission, especially because Trevor chose to grab her keys from their most recent hiding place and drive her car several miles to Dunkin’ Donuts to offer his services. As he whines about his lot in life since leaving behind his Hollywood career for their current domestic sub-suburban existence, Sandra talks carefully and slowly to him, slapping the back of her hand repeatedly as she intones, “No, Trevor! No, no!”

Trevor, you see, is more than your typically discouraged and relocated Hollywood performer living on his past glories. He appeared in a reality-based straight-to-DVD release with some of LA’s best-trained performers and even did a commercial with Morgan Fairchild (Brenda Strong in a series of fantasized visits to the household), creating such a special bond with his co-star that he even feels comfortable calling her a peer. “And her hair is the color of pee,” Trevor tells us in one of his many monologues where the audience—unlike Sandra and other inhabitants in the play—can understand. “That’s why she’s so popular.”
   As his actor friend Oliver (Bob Clendenin), with a career so successful he wears a different outfit every day, explains to Trevor in one of his several hallucinated visits, “Behave and the whole world opens up to you.” That’s good advice for our hero, who has a problem accepting authority not only from Sandra but also from anyone, including the local sheriff (Jim Ortlieb) sent to check on him (“One phone call and you’ll never wear that cop costume again,” Trevor warns him. “I know Morgan Fairchild!”) or the animal control officer sent to follow up to help decide if Trevor has become a risky and dangerous member of the community.
Should Trevor be allowed to (a) roam free as he once did, becoming so much a local attraction that his photo is even pictured in the area’s tourism brochure, (b) be restricted to his crate in Sandra’s backyard, or (c) be sent to a facility able to handle his increasingly scary antics?
   The future of Trevor as a free agent is the issue here, something the title character is having a difficult time understanding. When the authorities start showing up at Sandra’s door after their frightened neighbor Ashley (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) reports him as a menace to the ’hood and possibly to her newborn child, since Trevor doesn’t speak the same language as anyone else “real” in the play, he is instead sure their presence means he and Sandra are returning to Hollywood and a great new acting job.
   This uniquely quirky contemporary play explores the frustrations we share while trying to communicate with and understand one another. But here the quest is ingeniously seen from a uniquely simian perspective. Life is hard in the ’burbs for Trevor, whom we begin to realize is a 200-pound chimpanzee trying to exist in a people-dominated world, not to mention while navigating the rollercoaster ride of a showbiz career. As Oliver, also a chimp by the way (albeit a more successful one, having starred in the Ringling Bros. all-chimpanzee production of Hamlet), reminds him in one of his dream visits, “Sometimes you groom, sometimes you get groomed…. It’s just the nature of the business.”
   Jones has created an absolutely hilarious contemporary comedy, made more flawless by its dynamic cast and the snappy, visually nonstop direction of Stella Powell-Jones. Simpson and Metcalf possess incredible comedic timing. But when playing together, they make their roles sing with pitch-perfect skill, creating an amazing sense of communication between two members of different species that will make anyone seeing Trevor go home, look their alternate-species family members in the eye, and wonder if they really know what’s on their pets’ minds after all.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
March 24, 2015
The English Bride
The Road on Magnolia

Playwright Lucile Lichtblau bases her West Coast premiere one-act three-hander, The English Bride , on the real-life 1986 aborted attempt to place a bomb—unwittingly carried in the luggage of a pregnant Irish lass—onto an El Al flight headed for the Middle East. She believed she was flying off to marry her Jordanian fiancé. He was attempting to blow her up midflight. Lichtblau utilizes these facts to construct an intricate yet thematically flimsy house of lies.
   Dov (Allan Wasserman), a deceptively soft-spoken Israeli Mossad agent, relentlessly peels off the layers of factual inconsistencies being thrust at him by Eileen (Elizabeth Knowelden), a plain-Jane barmaid from Leeds, and Ali (Steven Schub), a charismatic but emotionally fragile young man, here an Arab Israeli. Director Marya Mazor elicits capable performances from the cast but cannot instill compelling substance into a work that has none.
   Set in mid-1990s London, the action moves forward in a series of alternating interrogations, punctuated by flashbacks into the relationship of Eileen and Ali, played out on Kaitlyn Pietras’s adaptable modular setting. From the outset, Dov has a single agenda: to uncover the Syrian agent who was the mastermind of the bombing plot. It quickly becomes evident that he is going to get the information he wants, which reduces the ill-fated couple to the level of irrelevant. The fact that Eileen and Ali have colorful—if not often viable—tales to tell is not enough to sustain the drama; the unseen but much talked about Syrian should be onstage.

Wasserman’s Dov projects a grandfatherly gentleness and good humor when dealing with his two charges, except for the few times he doles out quick but effective corporal punishment when he senses Ali’s prevarications are wasting his time. What’s missing is any sense of urgency or doubt that he will eventually get what he wants. Schubb presents an impressive portrait of a strutting peacock who at heart is a scared little boy who would rather commit the ultimate evil than confront his parents with the truth of how he has been living.
   Knowelden is memorable as this thoroughly mediocre small-town girl who glows with self-satisfaction and humor as she relates the tawdry flimflams that have punctuated her life, including the thievery that got her out of Leeds and her willingness to go to any lengths, including blackmail, to secure her upcoming nuptials.
   As a writer, Lichtblau proves she can create vivid characters and entertaining dialogue. She just needs to place them in a more tangibly realized stage work.

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
March 12, 2015
The Other Place
Road Theatre Company

There’s a lot about this arresting and intelligent play by rising playwright Sharr White (Annapurna) that is similar to Peter Shaffer’s enduring 1973 classic Equus . Like that drama’s central character, Dr. Martin Dysart, White’s protagonist Juliana (Taylor Gilbert) never leaves the stage, offering this audience a privileged view of the degeneration of an initially self-assured, uber-driven medical professional totally swallowed up in her own uncertainties and in doubt of everything she has ever known.
   The Other Place begins as Juliana, a biophysicist researcher¬–turned–drug company corporate spokesperson, addresses a gathering of students in the Virgin Islands. Pointing to the huge graphic projected behind her, she starts out with a pointed jab: “For those of you only accepted to a medical school in St. Thomas, this is a chromosome.” If Juliana wants to successfully promote the new product she believes could be a breakthrough in the battle against dementia and Alzheimer’s, of course, it might have been better to have started with something more positive. But things are crashing in on Juliana in her life and mind, further evidenced by her obsession with a young woman seated in the audience wearing a yellow bikini.
   “Who is this girl?” she wonders aloud to the theater audience. “Some drug company-funded model or hooker supposed to provide the doctors relief?” Juliana makes a few rude cracks aimed directly at the girl, then realizes she has possibly evoked tears from her. “I start to feel guilty for insulting her, which as you may have surmised by now happens quite often to me,” Juliana admits. “Why do I see something beautiful, then scratch it and scratch it until there’s nothing left?”

This is only the beginning of Juliana’s downward spiral. What’s real and what’s not creeps slowly into Juliana’s nearly nonstop narration, but then suddenly she tumbles headfirst down the rabbit hole—and takes us right along with her.
   Under the guidance of director Andre Barron, Gilbert gives a magnificent, intricately nuanced performance in White’s demanding leading role, seamlessly weaving from sarcasm to rage to heartbreaking vulnerability—and without losing us along the way as the often unlikable Juliana whines and screams in her effort to get everyone around her to understand her plight.
   Danielle Stephens is a perfect choice to play a variety of characters, including an extremely patient therapist trying to diagnose Juliana’s challenges. With a straight face, the therapist asks Juliana if she’s “flirting with suicidal thoughts” and tries valiantly not to be unnerved by Juliana response, “I’m dating them, actually—but they won’t put out.” Stephens also appears as Juliana’s long-estranged daughter and, in her finest moments, as an outsider who arrives at the 11th hour, an innocent current resident of Juliana’s actual “other place,” to quickly become an important piece of the puzzle. Dirk Etchison also appears in several smaller and less-memorable roles, yet he does so with enough passion to make one wish he had more stage time on his own.

In the final analysis, however, the great wonder of this riveting production is the relationship between Juliana and her long-suffering, physically and emotionally traumatized husband, Ian (Sam Anderson). In a pivotal scene between Gilbert and Stephens, Anderson’s Ian stands watching his wife and this stranger in their lives embrace clumsily, but it is the pain and exhaustion on his face that is the most indelible image of the evening, made even more memorable when Ian abandons care for what the onlooker thinks in an effort to hold the wife he’s loved for so many years safe and close to him once again.
   Simply put, Gilbert and Anderson share onstage moments together in The Other Place that are nothing short of magic, a testament to what can be achieved when two such exceptional artists bring this selfless kind of commitment and collaboration to the telling of a story. Gilbert and Anderson could be poster-children for how important it is for actors to spontaneously bounce off each other with total trust.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder March 10, 2015
The Price
Mark Taper Forum

In the crowded attic of a soon-to-be demolished Manhattan brownstone in the mid-1960s, a conflicted, familially-traumatized New York cop (Sam Robards) confronts the world in which he grew up, now stacked in layers and reduced to unwanted storage. “The price of used furniture,” he’s told later, “is only a viewpoint,” perhaps the most prominent analogy to life itself from the amazingly never-dried out pen of legendary playwright Arthur Miller. With Victor’s late Depression-ruined father’s collection of sturdy early-20th-century furniture piled around him like accusing sentries guarding him from moving on with his life, and his impending retirement postponed for three years now, it’s not hard to imagine Victor reevaluating his existence, something which has not lived up to the promise originally expected of and by him.
   Miller’s 1968 drama had a decent, even Tony-nominated beginning. But today, under the sweeping yet austere directorial eye of Garry Hynes, his sharply personal play has finally come into its own as a true American classic. The painful backstory behind the decades-long estrangement between Victor and his highly successful doctor brother Walter (John Bedford Lloyd) unfolds and smoothes out like the wrinkles in a sheet in the play’s sometimes longwinded second act. But the relationship between the career New York flatfoot and his abrasive wife, Esther (Kate Burton), seems harder to relate to than ever before.

Robards and Lloyd deliver indelibly heartrending moments as the Franz brothers, two men with opposing memories of what went wrong between them, not to mention their remembrances of their father, whose chair where he lived out his life after financial ruin and becoming a widower, placed facing upstage down-center from the action, almost becomes a fifth character in the drama. As was the custom of all epic Miller dramas, The Price is sometimes painfully long and repetitious; today, it probably would be cut to an intermissionless 90 minutes without losing too much of the core of its message.
   Yet when two actors as worthy as Robards and Lloyd are present to make us sit up in our seats and enter, as if in a trance, into the world of the Franz brothers, all is well. The final scene between them unfolds as though we’re eavesdropping through one of the attic’s dirty windows, almost mystically transcending time and place as two men, both shattered and battered by life, bombard each other with information that could either destroy or empower the other’s future.
   Perhaps, when this play debuted, Esther’s nagging and demands of wanting a better and more socially acceptable lifestyle appeared more customary. Today it’s difficult not to hope Victor will let her live up to her threats and get the hell out of his life. Burton does an admirable job making her character human. But, like David Mamet after him, Miller had a difficult time trying to create women’s roles that were less subservient and more stand-alone. Burton and Hines admirably manage to find a few more moments of softness and loving spirit than other actors in that role seem to have done, but it must have been a major effort.

As Gregory Solomon, the 89-year-old antiques dealer and appraiser who comes into the attic to offer a price to cart off all the elder Franz’s treasures, Los Angeles and the whole theatrical world’s treasure Alan Mandell, himself only two years shy of the age of his character, is nothing short of miraculous. With a fluttery, wobbling body language more reminiscent of Edith Piaf than geriatric standard-bearer Ed Wynn, Mandell is mesmerizing, zipping easily from comic relief to poignant melancholy, all the while offering a hint of his early Samuel Beckett training. He is, simply, uniquely able to get away with more physical excess on a stage than anyone else alive today—and his longevity and ability to spout the many lines and complicated speeches, in a role usually assayed by far younger actors cast “older” to play Solomon, gives his fortunate audiences the unique experience of seeing the stellar work of a consummate artist.
   It’s fascinating to realize that international fame and fortune had not dulled Miller’s ability to understand this ordinary family with everyday problems. It was a long time since he became revered for such early work as All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949), and several years after the death of his former wife Marilyn Monroe, but the great wordsmith had obviously not lost touch with the plight and the gossamer psyche of the common man—truly the most impressive thing that surfaces as we once again visit the Franz family’s dusty old attic and watch them as they all pay the price.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 25, 2015

South Pacific
Musical Theatre West at Carpenter Center

Musical Theatre West accentuates everything best about the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic South Pacific. Director Joe Langworth has acquired a talented cast, enhanced the naturalistic script so that the songs emerge from the actors conversationally, and made sure the Pulitzer Prize–winning book scenes are as enticing as the enchanting songs.
   During World War II, before the US military turns the tides against the Japanese, a US Naval base on a small island battles its own racist tendencies as the mostly Caucasian officers mingle with the Polynesian locals. A youthful nurse, Nellie Forbush (Alessa Neeck), falls for a dashing French plantation owner, Emile (Christopher Carl), who has a secret past. Newcomer Lieutenant Cable (Patrick Cummings) sneaks off to the off-limits island Bali Ha’i to rendezvous with a young Polynesian girl, Liat (Cailan Rose). American morality clashes with the island’s more accepting mores with devastating consequences. Only those who can relinquish their prejudice can emerge from the war whole.
   The score feature many beloved tunes, including “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy,” and the piercingly controversial “You Have to be Carefully Taught.” Hammerstein and Josh Logan’s book is naturalistic and heartfelt. One of South Pacific’s achievements is how the characters seamlessly, sometimes mid-sentence, launch into a song so that the numbers appear to be an escalation of the characters’ excitement or anguish.

Neeck conveys both innocence and a quizzical nature necessary to believably portray Nellie’s evolution from a “Cockeyed Optimist” to a mature and tolerant woman. She has a gorgeous singing voice and manages to keep her Arkansas accent throughout her songs. Carl has a thunderous bass-baritone voice and a credible French, but not overwhelming, French accent. He and Neeck have passionate chemistry. Carl’s soulful version of “Younger Than Springtime” is a highlight.
   Jodi Kimura, who played Bloody Mary in the national tour, is magnetic as the brassy, manipulative street vendor. She adds a strain of malevolence to her line readings, giving her almost a demonic presence. As the cunning Luther Billis, Spencer Rowe is a brash and impish con artist. The ensemble works wonderfully together, sounding harmonious in the numbers and instilling realistic relationships among the characters.
   Langworth, who worked on the acclaimed 2008 Lincoln Center production, thoroughly understands the play, directing and choreographing with assurance. The dances, such as “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” are athletic and exuberant. During the Thanksgiving talent show, Langworth allows his actors to be clumsy as nurses and sailors would be, adding to the accuracy.

Castellano’s subtle orchestra allows the actors to smoothly lead into their songs. The overture allows the loud percussion to clash with the strings playing the “Bali Hai” melody, musically representing the American military’s bombardment of the South Pacific islands.
   Musical Theater West brings classics as well as new work to Los Angeles with Broadway-worthy performances. This production of South Pacific is one of its gems.

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz
February 19, 2015
Enter Laughing—
The Musical

Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in the Lovelace Studio Theater

This time, one might not enter the Wallis with high hopes, let alone laughingly. Young audiences probably know nothing of Carl Reiner, the comedic talent on whose “semi-autobiographical” novel of the same name this musical is based. Older audience members might wonder whether they’ll still find his humor engaging.
   Well, despite its pedigree (book by Joseph Stein based on his play, music and lyrics by Stan Daniels), this score will never compete with the likes of the last one seen at the Wallis, Into the Woods, whose lyrics, many will argue, are among the very best in musical theater.
   Enter Laughing tells of David Kolowitz, a young delivery boy working for a machine shop in the Bronx. His parents plan to send him to pharmacy school. He, however, dreams of being a star. The show revolves around his fantasy. His best friend, Marvin (Jeff Skowron), encourages him so they can meet girls. His girlfriend (Sara Niemietz) fears she’ll lose him to the starlets. His mother (Anne DeSalvo), well, she’s Jewish. His father (Robert Picardo) obeys the wife. David’s boss (Joel Brooks) thinks he’s meshugenah.

The musical’s title refers to a stage direction in the script David uses to audition for his first chance at stardom. Yes, David reads it aloud. “Enter laughing,” he says, as he stiltedly walks across the stage. No! the pompous director (Nick Ullett) tells him: Parentheticals are stage directions, telling you what to do, so try it again and this time laugh. David galumphs back on, says, “Enter laughing” again, but this time laughs, badly. His scene partner, the leading lady and director’s daughter (Amy Pietz), nonetheless thinks he’s adorable. Only in a musical—and apparently in Reiner’s life—can this start lead to a brilliant career in showbiz.
   This musical’s material isn’t even close to great (its best lyrics are Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin titles). But it has charm, particularly as directed by Stuart Ross. He polishes the jokes, adds sight gags, creates choreography that fits the show and suits the performers, and gives the production warmth and heart.
   The supporting performances include several that can be termed great. Avid musical-goers will recognize the performer playing David’s pal Marvin: Skowron recently offered a stellar turn in the Wallis’s Into the Woods. Now, almost unrecognizable, Skowron plays a shrinking violet of a Bronxite. Also delicious is David’s boss, who, in the hands of Brooks, seems like David’s other Jewish mother. Weekly unannounced guest stars surprise the audience. At the performance reviewed, Fred Willard thrilled the crowd.

But the lead performance, by the astonishing Noah Weisberg, makes this one of those “I remember the first time I saw….” shows. He puts one in mind of a somewhat refined Jerry Lewis. Weisberg’s nerdy take on fame borrows gently from great comedic traditions. He sings like a sweet geek here, but when David gets excited, the voice drops into operatic tones. Weisberg’s mastery of his physical instrument bespeaks plentiful physical theater skills. Above this, he brings a contagious joy to the stage.
   And even if the music isn’t quite up to Rodgers and Hammerstein, the onstage trio (led by music director Gerald Sternbach on piano), makes the audience feel like we’re hearing the likes of those greats.
   (Exit delighted.)

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
February 14, 2015
Pride and Prejudice
Actors Co-op

When this adaptation of the much-loved Jane Austen novel, by Australian writer Helen Jerome, was produced on Broadway in 1936, pictures suggest, the sets and costumes were lavish, opulent and expensive. A relatively small company like Actors Co-op had to take a more modest approach. Its efforts with the settings are generally successful. The company opted for a unit set, with a backdrop that depicts an impressionist view of the English countryside, and elegant, moveable architectural elements, in grey and white, including Corinthian columns and a couple of impressive doorways, that can be rearranged to suggest the various locales.
   Vicki Conrad’s costumes, however, are a very mixed bag. Many of them are beautiful, graceful, becoming, and very much in period, but others, which appear to have been pulled from stock, seem skimpy and graceless.
   Jerome’s generally adept adaptation simplifies the tale by eliminating two of the five daughters for whom the ambitious Mrs. Bennet (Deborah Marlowe) must find husbands, though when her script was adapted for the screen, the missing girls were happily restored. Otherwise, the piece seems relatively faithful to the novel.

At the heart of the story, the independent-minded Elizabeth Bennet (Greyson Chadwick) is both attracted and repulsed by the stern and taciturn Mr. Darcy (Paul Turbiak). Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s sister Jane (Ivy Beech) is first courted and then dumped by the amiable Mr. Bingley (Brandon Parrish). The necessary conflict is provided by Mr. Wickham (Sean McHugh), the caddish seducer and fortune-hunter who elopes with the youngest Bennet sister, Lydia (Francesca Fromang).
   The pretentious Mr. Collins (Adam Burch) who stands, under the law of entail, to inherit the Bennet estate after Mr. Bennet’s death, adds to the complications. Stirring the pot is Darcy’s imperiously aristocratic aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lori Berg), who locks horns with Elizabeth over her suitability as a bride for Darcy.

Chadwick is a spirited and attractive Elizabeth, well matched by Turbiak’s Darcy. While Olivier, in the film, played Darcy as a romantic figure, Turbiak gives us a forbidding man imprisoned in his own rectitude, whose romantic side is revealed only gradually as love shatters his composure. Beech’s languishing Jane is a sympathetic figure, and Parrish’s Bingley exudes optimism and good humor.
   Marlowe’s Mrs. Bennet scores her comic points with zest, and Bruce Ladd is an admirable foil as her long-suffering husband. Burch is a bit over the top as Collins, but the audience adored him. Berg gives us a stylish and stylized portrait of the bullying Lady Catherine. Director Linda Kerns faithfully preserves the period flavor and expertly marshals her cast of 20.
   Despite the period trappings, the piece doesn’t seem out of date. Jane Austen had a clear-eyed view of society, and pride and prejudice will always be with us.

Reviewed by Neal Weaver
February 13, 2015
Seussical the Musical
3D Theatricals at Plummer Auditorium

Considering its title, Seussical the Musical ought to be bright and inspiring. But when its first number plays against a black background, hope fades.
   This musical (music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens) brings to the stage most if not all of the characters created by children’s author Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. The Cat in the Hat (Cathy Rigby) emcees. The tales of Horton the Elephant (Matthew Downs) tie the stories together. Horton hears tiny JoJo (Grant Westcott) from Whoville and tries to protect him. Horton’s neighbor, the one-tail-feathered Gertrude McFuzz (Melanie Mockobey) seeks plastic surgery and Horton’s love. And so forth.
   Despite being packed with characters and adventures, the production lacks what Seuss is famous for: vibrancy and heart. Blame for this likely falls on the shoulders of director-choreographer David Engel. He’s a performer of tremendous energy and humor, little of which translated to the stage here.
   Energy at a satisfying level doesn’t arrive until the third number when monkeys, named the Wickersham Brothers (Gary Brintz, Brandon Burks and Daniel Dawson), start bounding on stage like Sharks from “West Side Story.”
   Other performers try to liven the show, including Amber J. Snead as Sour Kangaroo (her baby is a puppet) and Victoria Matlock as Mayzie LaBird. Others nearly succeed, at least sending characterizations past the proscenium, including Gregory North as General Genghis Khan Schmitz and, in a brief appearance, Momoko Sugai as Marshal of the Court.

The brains of this show belong to the Cat in the Hat, played with brisk wit by Rigby. The gold-medal-winning Olympic gymnast is still possessed of her flexibility and daring. Local references—dropping “Fullerton” and “La Mirada” into the script—feel organic coming from local-girl-made-good Rigby.
   Rigby takes risks here. She soars over the stage. She banters with the audience. Most riskily, however, she splashed “tears” over the opening-night reviewers and their pen-and-paper notes. She’s particularly adorable working with youth performers, and she’s particularly at ease onstage, gently mocking the show’s several opening-night glitches.
   But the heart of this show belongs to Horton. Played by the approachable Downs, this Horton has a heart. It’s just doesn’t quite fill the auditorium, instead beating shyly.

Possibly the sound system mars the show. Voices that should be rich sound harsh. Some sound almost shrieky. On the other hand, the Wickershams sound fabulous, singing with clear harmonies and interesting dynamics, fully articulating their lyrics. Another issue is the lighting design, which seems dark, bringing down the energy while hiding performers’ faces. A bit of action at the top of the second act takes place behind a scrim and can barely be seen.
   But the black-light number, “Havin’ a Hunch,” provides the show with a bit of exhilaration, though it arrives well into Act Two. And yes, some of Seuss’s themes are quite dark—including parental neglect and the horrors of war—though these themes are not hammered in Seussical. However, the show’s curtain call—a bouncy jiving “Green Eggs and Ham” (including plates of the eponymous foods)—explodes with energy, roaring out over the audience. Here the dancing is crisp and joyous, “selling it” into the back rows. Like a creature in a Seuss story, the rest of the show’s energy needs to be coaxed out of its shy shell. It’s in there.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
February 9, 2015
Tristan & Yseult
South Coast Repertory

Romeo and Juliet …Antony and Cleopatra…Orpheus and Eurydice…Brad and Angelina…literature and the arts are replete with great romances between legendary lovers locked in timeless, deathless passion. What the arts—especially the performing arts, like theater, opera, and film—generally fail to recognize is that most of us ordinary mortals never experience anything remotely like those magnificent obsessions. We’re lucky just to find a gal or guy whom we can hook up with for a while, am I right?
   For those of us whose love stories fall considerably short of Scarlett-and-Rhett territory, there’s Tristan & Yseult, the brilliant production from the UK’s Kneehigh company, now in too-brief residence at South Coast Rep. The script, by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy, indeed tells the time-honored yarn of the Irish princess who’s betrothed to Cornwall’s King Mark but who falls for Mark’s nephew Tristan, sent to fetch her for the wedding. (After the wedding, Yseult finds she loves both men, inspiring the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle of even greater fame.) The narrative that Wagner later brought to the grand opera stage as Tristan and Isolde is presented in every tearjerking particular.

But what director Emma Rice does with that text! Beyond her whirlwind mixing of periods and styles, juxtapositions of moods and tones, and interpolation of music, dance, song, stage combat, and special effects, she uses the old legend to explore our very relationship to relationships. We know what the Great Ones are up to, but what do we, the “simple folk” as the royals sang of us in Camelot, do in the course of our everyday kinds of love? How do we perceive those great love stories, anyway? What do they have to do with us? The posing of these weighty yet unorthodox questions leavens what has to be the most impressive evening of total theater I’ve experienced since…well, since Kneehigh brought Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter to Beverly Hills’s Wallis Annenberg Center more than a year ago.
   This Tristan is set in what’s called the Club of the Unloved. As we arrive, a live band above the stage is performing ’60s pop hits in a festive mood that proves distinctly infectious. Yet things cool down noticeably once we are all assembled and informed that the company members are officially called the Love Spotters. “We are the unloved,” they incant. “Passion watchers— kiss clockers—love is at arm’s length.” And for the two hours of the action, no matter how many different roles they assume, we’re always aware of their special perspective as outsiders, those not blessed with the power (or the luck) of living any kind of great passion. “We stand on the sidelines,” they concede, speaking for us all. As if to bring matters down to size in a pungent metaphor, they share with us the strains of Wagner’s magnificent opus as most of us first experienced it: that is, off a scratchy LP.
   The action is full of period defiling and fourth-wall breaking, including audience participation. I wouldn’t dream of giving away any of Rice’s metatheatrical surprises, except to warn you the company never lets you sit back and relax. And the grandeur of the medieval romance is by no means slighted; just try to stop the tears when you see and hear how Wagner’s finale is employed in Kneehigh’s final moments.

But the biggest surprise is that for all its visual extravagance and breathtaking action, this Tristan & Yseult is meant to make us think, not just marvel or bawl. In a magical way I’m still trying to work out in my head, Rice and company are onto something in terms of the role of love in our own lives and world. The great lovers of history aren’t so far removed from us after all, says the show; we just have to see past the grand gestures and inflated rhetoric, to the simple adoration beneath.
   Rice’s work could be the most inventive, iconoclastic, and humane stage direction I know of in the world today. Next to her productions, most other so-called total-theater spectacles stand knee-high to a gnat.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
February 2, 2015
A Walk in the Woods
Sierra Madre Playhouse

The tranquil nature of the title masks the deeply concerning subject of worldwide nuclear destruction that superpowers have been debating over years of diplomatic meetings. This is at the heart of Lee Blessing’s 1988 play about two negotiators who take a break from their formal encounters to have a more informal interaction walking in the Geneva woods near their meetings. It is based on a real incident in 1982 in which Russian and American negotiators left meetings and took that same path.
   American Joan Honeyman (Nancy Youngblut) is a newbie in the world of international mediation. She is earnest, single-minded, and dedicated to making a good deal on nuclear disarmament with her Russian counterpart, Andrei Botvinnik (John Prosky). He is seasoned, having been through many other negotiations with her predecessor, and he confesses that he wants to be friends and get to know her, unlike that previous relationship. This doesn’t figure into Joan’s concept of statecraft, and she continually rebuffs his lighthearted attempts at getting personal.
   As time passes and the powers that be thwart any meaningful proposals that come out of their conferences, the two come to understand each other and develop a relationship beyond their official personae. This process is well-developed in Blessing’s script.

Scenic artist Orlando de la Paz and scenic designer Rei Yamamoto have created a restful setting for the woods’ locale. A large gnarly tree anchors the scene, and a single bench is the focal point for the negotiators’ interactions.
   As an interesting side note, the role of Botvinnik in the original 1988 Broadway production was played by John’s father, Robert Prosky. The son seems to channel that performance.
   Director Geoffrey Wade has just the right touch when developing his actors’ characterizations. Prosky is delightful as the charming Russian with a whimsical nature. Youngblut is equally good as the slightly uptight arbitrator frustrated by her view of Andrei’s frivolous nature.
   Described as a “seriously funny play about saving the world,” this Blessing work highlights the side of the human condition that transcends politics. The actors have good chemistry, and by play’s end they are convincing as they acknowledge their mutual understanding. Sierra Madre’s production is a very satisfying evening of theater.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
January 28, 2015
Love, Sex and the I.R.S.
Palos Verdes Performing Arts at Norris Theatre

Farce. It’s that theatrical plot in which a character—apparently always male—tells a lie and gets wound up in it. Then, somehow, over the course of two hours, he manages to unwind himself and earn the forgiveness of his fellow characters. Not many stage productions of farce succeed. This one does, earning top marks all around.
   Billy van Zandt and Jane Milmore wrote the play in the late 1970s, and director Ken Parks sets his version in that era. The play is considerably funnier in that context. Somehow, in the 1970s, love seemed easier, sex more daring, and tax fraud less common and less troubling.
   The writing seems well-plotted, explaining away possible inconsistencies and leaving the audience free to howl at the one-liners. Or perhaps this production makes the situations more plausible because of Parks’s crisp staging and the spectacular comedic chops of this cast.

The play takes place in the Manhattan apartment of two men: starving musicians Jon and Leslie. Jon has finally found work for their band. In Weehawken. At a bar mitzvah. The following October. In the meantime, Jon has been saving money by preparing his own, and Leslie’s, taxes. He has saved them further money by filing as husband and wife. They’re being audited. In two hours. Jon swiftly persuades Leslie to cross-dress and pretend they’re married.
   In the blink of an eye, Leslie grows petulant. Meanwhile, Jon’s idea of feminizing the apartment is to accessorize with throw pillows and antimacassars, making it look as if their great-grandmother lives there.

Jeffrey Cannata is an extremely gracious actor. Playing Jon, this solid scene partner lets the storm swirl around his character rather than grabbing attention. So as Jon’s panic and desperation gradually increase, the audience buys into the story.
   David Herbelin, meanwhile, is thoroughly physically invested in Leslie. By the time Leslie gets into a dress, heels and wig (costumes by Christina Bayer), Herbelin is into female mode, starting with a simpering grin. As Leslie gets tenser, Herbelin’s brow furrows ever deeper, and his shoulders creep up around his ears, nearly touching the bouncy copper curls of his god-awful wig.
   Adding other farcical elements, Jon’s girlfriend Kate has the warmies for Leslie. But she sticks by Jon, even helping to dress Leslie. Playing Kate, Shannon Fitzpatrick is half Herbelin’s size, ensuring laughs when he squeezes into her once-dainty dresses. Leslie, smitten with Kate, has been ignoring his girlfriend Connie. Elaine Hayhurst brings the Jersey Shore to the stage as she plays the lovelorn lass.
   The playwriting device of an invasive landlord lets doors get slammed and window ledges get utilized. Kevin Paul plays him with a deep well of chutzpah. Naturally, Jon’s mom happens by from Chicago in the midst of all this. Playing her, Diane Vincent starts as an average concerned mother. But as the scotch flows, she becomes pratfallingly tipsy, then passing-out drunken, melting over much of the sofa. None of this affects Vincent’s ability to deliver a punch line.

And now for the I.R.S. portion of the evening. Bryan Dobson plays agent Floyd Spinner, who’s clean-cut, bespectacled, and garbed in a starchy suit and tie. But after several schooners of scotch, Spinner’s true, vibrant colors come out as Dobson ratchets up the comedy. Dobson’s old-time shtick is polished to a gleam, and still he makes it seem fresh and immediate and totally tailored to the character.
   Even the interstitial music adds to the humor of this show. Cue “Ladies’ Night” and “Taxman,” and the audience is dancing in its seats. Cue “Macho Man” for the curtain call, and the cast is dancing during the bows. Cue theater this good, and everyone is beaming on the walk back to the car.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 26, 2015

Mrs. Parliament’s Night Out
Torrance Theatre Company

Mr. Parliament has forgotten his 32nd wedding anniversary. Big oops? Perhaps not. His faux pas triggers in his wife the chance for growth and happiness in this Norm Foster comedy. This is no black-and-white portrayal of a marriage on the brink. Under the direction of Perry Shields, the play reveals layers of issues that have probably been building up for all 32 years Teresa and Chuck have spent together.
   Yes, Chuck is a self-absorbed male chauvinist. But much of that may be the result of Teresa’s seeming loss of interest in the marriage. At the top of the play, she looks dowdy (spot-on but subtle costume designs by Bradley Allen Lock) and trudges through her day without spark. Chuck, on the other hand, has been paying no attention to the vibrancy that now lies buried in Teresa. She’s bright, funny, and eager for adventure. He wants only to watch televised news. They’ve grown so far apart that she is preparing a special rice dish for him on their anniversary yet he doesn’t like rice.
   So Mrs. Parliament gives herself a night out. Actually, the play spans a few weeks, during which her nights out include attempts at bowling, photography, wine-tasting, boxing lessons, archery lessons, art lessons, and a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. At said meeting, she encounters and perhaps falls for the group leader. He is unmistakably interested in her, and she is wooed by his willingness to talk with and listen to her.

Yvonne Robertson and Scot Renfro portray the Parliaments. Robertson’s Teresa is lively and quick-witted. But, perhaps because of the character’s ambivalence, it’s hard for the audience to decide whether we like her. She is certainly far from perfect as she begins her journey, sucking what she can from life without regard to feelings or needs of others. Renfro’s Chuck is more clearly defined, a man disappointed by life and in fear of losing his roles as husband and worker.
   Five other actors play more than a dozen characters Mrs. Parliament meets along her voyage of self-discovery. These actors—Dan Adams, Bob Baumsten, Geraldine Fuentes, Joan Kubicek, and David McGee—ply accents, physicalities, and voices to create a tapestry of hilariously vivid “types.”
   Baumsten and Fuentes play the elderly Jewish neighbors (who deserve a show of their own). Then Baumsten bounces back out as a helpful bowler and a pugnacious boxing coach. Fuentes next limns a deliciously pompous singing teacher and an old-timer waitress. Kubicek plays the Parliaments’s solicitous daughter, then a rather butch buddy from the neighborhood bar, plus a creepy addict who’s just too fond of the NA group leader. Adams plays the neighborhood grocery store owner, sounding like the “Family Guy” version of the Pepperidge Farm guy. McGee plays a snooty jewelry salesman and an artist’s model, then convincingly takes on Teresa’s sympathetic potential love interest.

Yes, good work is going on onstage. But the audience is missing the show going on right behind the set, as the actors instantaneously peel off layered costumes, strap on big bellies, and slap on outrageous wigs for their next entrances.
   Did we call Lock’s costuming subtle? He blasts subtlety off the stage with an outfit for Teresa’s salsa instructor (Adams) of a metallic-red shirt over a white wife-beater and black satiny pajama bottoms, topped by a black mop-top wig.
   In large part thanks to the simple staging and effective utilitarian set (Cary Jordahl), the show runs at a spritely pace, clocking in at under two hours. An audience can learn plentiful lessons and enjoy plentiful laughs on this night out.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 19, 2015
Moving Arts and Bootleg Theatre, at Bootleg Theatre

Playwright Mac Rogers has written an oddball comedy about suicide. But his thinking is so muddled, it’s sometimes hard to tell if he’s for it or against it. Scatterbrained Geena (Mariel Higuera), her bullying boyfriend Colin (Daniel Dorr), and her onanistic brother Jarvis (Oscar Camacho) are sexually aroused by witnessing death. But they’re not interested in plain, garden-variety snuff films. They want the death to be peaceful, beautiful, and self-willed by the dying. They’ve come up with the unlikely notion that if they make a death movie of their own, they can make a fortune by selling it to people who share their interests and proclivities.
   To make their film, they must find a star/victim who wants to die and will consent to do so under their auspices. So they create a bogus assisted-suicide website, and then they wait for applicants. One soon appears, in the person of practical, laconic Meredith (Alicia Adams). She’s no fool and soon tumbles to the fact that the three are not quite what they pretend to be. But she wants to die, and she has no money, so if they provide the place and the drugs, why not go along?
   But it’s not so simple: Eager Reena wants to create a handsome set for the shoot, Colin wants a dress rehearsal using tic-tacs to represent the lethal pills, and Jarvis is so turned on he keeps retreating to his room to masturbate. And when their prospective producer Mr. Snow (Mark Kinsey Stephenson) appears, he wants Meredith to die in the nude to make the film more commercially viable, but this offends Colin and Reena, so they decide to become their own distributors.

Just what point Rogers is trying to make is never very clear. He makes a last-minute effort to introduce human content, by having Meredith inspire Reena to rebel against the bossy, hypercritical Colin. But at least the piece is sometimes funny, and director Darin Anthony keeps things lively enough to make us almost forget that it goes on at least 20 minutes too long. And the actors make the most of their roles. Higuera finds considerable charm in Reena’s eager-beaver scattiness, Dorr’s Colin is properly officious, and Camacho derives a measure of comedy from Jarvis’s eternal horniness. The most impressive performance, however, is Adams’s. Her Meredith may be loony, but she has common sense, and at least she knows what she wants.
   Curiously, the show has a very odd starting time of 7:17pm. The number gets a brief mention during the play.

Reviewed by Neal Weaver
January 12, 2015
Pantages Theatre

The premise of If/Then—composer Tom Kitt and book writer–lyricist Brian Yorkey’s follow-up to their 2009 Next to Normal, which featured the most intelligent book and score since the dawn of the millennium—is almost as clever and richly complex as that groundbreaking Tony- and Pulitzer-winning debut. Comparisons of their pioneering work to that of Stephen Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown are more than justified; their auspicious partnership contributes to the evolution of modern musical theater, helping it crash into our new century and leave all those gooey and groan-inducing Rogers and Hammerstein relics in the dust of that far simpler time before the American Dream proved itself to be a hallucination.
   Written for and around the considerable talents of its star, Idina Menzel, If/Then tells two stories simultaneously, speculating what might have happened if their heroine, Elizabeth, had made one turn or another at one seemingly inconsequential moment. Relocating to Manhattan from Phoenix after a long and disastrous marriage, Elizabeth meets two friends in Madison Square Park: the freewheeling Kate (LaChanze), who suggests she call herself Liz as she takes on an all-new, swingin’-single, urban persona; and Lucas (Anthony Rapp), an old flame from college who thinks she should assume the more professional and mature name Beth, encouraging her to join him as a political and environmental activist.
   As she ponders whether to stay in the park with Kate, listening to a busker play his guitar, or accompany Lucas to march in a rally, Yorkey’s script veers in each direction. For the next two and a half hours, we see how the life of Liz/Beth, both played by the remarkable Menzel, would have drastically altered depending on which road she decides to take. While Beth chooses to throw herself into her career and not-so subtly pursue her married boss Stephen (Daren A. Herbert), Liz is approached by Josh (James Snyder), a sweet young soldier just home from the Middle East who is immediately smitten by her.

The tracking of Liz’s and Beth’s drastically varying paths is at times confusing, especially as her friends and romantic partners’ lives transform right along with her own. In one track, Kate marries then divorces her girlfriend Anne (Janine DiVita), while in the other they stay together. Lucas finds happiness with David (Marc Delacruz), introduced to him by Josh along Beth’s journey, while, in the other track, he ends up miserable and alone since his long-percolating love for Beth stays unrequited.
   The most poignant of all the intersecting relationships comes when Liz surrenders to her feelings for Josh, the clumsy young Midwestern kid who has no agenda beyond being with her forever. “Why are you so awkward?” she asks him when they first meet and he fumbles his wooing techniques miserably. “I’m from Nebraska,” he quickly explains. “I’m kinda normal there.” Her feelings for him blossom despite her reluctance to fall in love again, which excites her as it scares her to death. He insists being together is their destiny, but she quickly disagrees. “I don’t think it’s fate,” she responds. “I think it’s you.”
   The road is long and fractured for Liz and Beth—one that might make audiences more willing to ride along if it were told a little more quickly. The wildly kinetic and eye-catching staging of director Michael Greif helps assuage this somewhat, as does Yorkey and Kitt’s gracious decision to offer the excellent and committed ensemble cast individual cameo moments and knockout solos. As an ever-changing eclectic flood of busy New Yorkers of all social strata, the supporting players continually pass through both stories as Mark Wendland’s impressive high-tech set morphs to become one location after another.

Menzel is a force of nature, no doubt, although by the end of Act 1 it’s hard to give a hang about either of her personas, as Liz and Beth share one annoying trait: rampant self-absorption. In fact, only Snyder’s Josh is a character who, by intermission, we are left to care about—a testament to his effortless charisma and laidback talent. In the second act, however, Liz and Beth stop whining, Lucas stops being so annoying and pushy we wish she would drop him as a friend, and Kate’s too-effervescent good cheer deepens and matures. DiVita and Herbert do their best and grow exponentially in their basically underwritten roles, while Delacruz’s David never stops being superficial and irritatingly grand, especially in a sappy duet with Rapp called “Best Worst Mistake,” one of the first things to cut if anyone ever decides to perform surgery on the script.
   Act 2 reverses any thought that maybe If/Then should be called If/Ever —or maybe just What/Ever. Neither Liz nor Beth has it easy along the way, evident when the idyllic nature of Liz’s life with Josh takes a heartbreaking turn. Although at times, in Act 1, Menzel seems to be walking through the performance without much real passion, as though perhaps she’s been playing the role(s) too long to muster any fervor, she later rises majestically from whiny and selfish to show Liz and Beth as true survivors, knocking her characters’ final show-stopping 11th-hour ballad, “Always Starting Over,” right out of the park.

Kitt and Yorkey write song cycles, not pop tunes. Thus there are no cute little happy tunes to hum on the way home. This score isn’t meant to accomplish that for a minute. Few of us live lives that progress smoothly and without pain or disappointment. As Beth says to her fresh young new assistant Elena (a too-brief turn beautifully played by Kyra Faith), who wonders if she’s said something to offend her boss in her hiring interview, “I’m not angry at you. I’m angry at myself at your age.”
   If/Then is not only about choices; it’s about whether any choice we make ultimately can be looked back on as right or wrong. As Liz tells Josh as he’s redeployed to fight in another war, “Fuck you for making me think that life may be fair.” If one comes away hearing that message loud and clear, Kitt and Yorkey have accomplished something important and revelatory, which the true meaning of creating art.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
December 16, 2015

Cirque du Soleil at Dodger Stadium

Now in its 32nd year, Cirque du Soleil has done far more than reenergize and revisualize the concept of the circus as it was known through the ages. Originating in 1982 with founder Gilles Ste-Croix leading a ragtag group of eager young buskers wowing the tourists by juggling, walking on stilts, and breathing a bit of fire on the streets of Quebec’s Baie-Saint-Paul, those modest beginnings sprouted faster than Jack’s beanstalk to become one of the most successful and consistently prolific entertainment enterprises in modern history.
   Best yet, from the start, Ste-Croix and co-founder Guy Laliberte, one of his original performers, determined they could keep their show traveling the globe in a highly advanced version of the traditional circus tent, but vowed to conjure their unique magic—complete with aerialists, colorful costuming, and cotton candy for sale on the way into the bleachers—without featuring a single imprisoned animal deserving more respect and a much freer quality of life.

For the umpteenth time since the two brought their fantastical extravaganza to Los Angeles—the first US city the troupe ever played in 1987, arriving without enough funds to even return to Canada if the show failed—the now world-famous Cirque returns. This time the show is Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities, finding a splendid and far more accessible venue than usual: the parking lot of the out-of-season Dodger Stadium.
   Some of the concepts invented to spawn whatever meager storyline weaves through each of the Cirque’s many touring productions have been thin at best throughout the years. But Kurios has a delightful Victorian-inspired premise: In the latter half of the 19th century, a scholarly inventor type called The Seeker (Anton Valen) goes through his vast cabinet of eclectic steampunk-y treasures in search of a hidden, invisible world.
   On Stephane Roy’s resplendent set, creatures and mechanical oddities come to life in a sensorially stunning kind of Jules Verne–meets–Mad Max world, complete with otherworldly creatures and robots, flying bicycles, a tiny theater featuring performing human fingers breakdancing as they’re projected on the side of a gigantic balloon, an upside-down dinner party gone wild celebrated 70 feet over our heads, and a plethora of intricate makeshift mechanical apparatuses that could rival anything ever conjured by Betty Boop’s granddaddy himself.

Of course, the traditional circus acts are not missed along the way either—including performances by seemingly boneless contortionists, unearthly acrobats, and Cirque’s usual and always timeless Banquine and Chinese Pole acts. Under the kinetic leadership of writer-director Michel Laprise, dance choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and a quartet of talented acrobatic designers (Yaman Okur, Ben Potvin, Susan Gaudreau, and Andrea Ziegler), Kurios is the freshest, most irresistible Cirque du Soleil creation in many years.
   With whimsical costuming by Philippe Guillotel reminiscent of his brilliant designs for LA’s late-lamented “permanent” show Iris and featuring a haunting and contagious Mediterranean Bossa Nova–tinged score by musical directors Raphael Beau and the singularly named team of Bob & Bill, Kurios is without a doubt a most welcome holiday gift for Los Angeles, all tied up in a neat little bow about the size of Texas.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
December 10, 2015
Sacred Fools Theater

Without a doubt, writer-performer Jake Broder has created memorable and amazingly eclectic musical divertissements over the past decade-plus, including performing in his one-man show His Royal Highness Lord Buckley and Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara, which also began at Sacred Fools and subsequently traveled—and continues to travel. Now Broder returns home to the Fools to debut his newest work. And like his previous efforts, nothing about it is safe nor, despite its theme lifted directly from Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, is there anything proffered one would expect.
   Under director Shaunessey Quinn, Broder steps solidly into the leading role of Alphonso Bloch, a physically challenged and painfully introverted jazz composer who plays his tragic Cyrano to Will Bradley’s more desirable Christian, creating spectacular musical compositions so his emotionally unavailable friend can win the heart of his maiden fair—you know, the maiden Alphonso adores but is too shy and withdrawn to pursue. Still, Alphonso, often left lurking behind the action, sitting quietly at his piano watching the chase unfold, understands life better than the others. As he ruminates, watching Bradley’s Henry Brooks woo Devereau Chumrau’s Terpsichorean heroine Miravel, “The heart wants, the body obeys, and the mind suffers.”

The story isn’t new; the treatment of it is. Broder uses his own incredibly rich jazz pieces to retell the classic tale, churning out striking original compositions with the help of an onstage combo: Colin Kupka on sax, Kenny Elliott on drums, and, at the performance reviewed, Jonathan Kirsh on bass substituting for Michael Alvidrez. Broder is not only an arresting composer and a knockout pianist, he is a truly gifted actor; his simple, charmingly unadorned performance makes his character as much the heart of this production as his own unforgettable music.
   The archetypal foil to Broder’s underplayed Alphonso is Bradley, who seems to be channeling all the quirky movements and Napoleonic preening of a young James Cagney as the cocky Henry, the psychologically tormented minor radio singer whose vocal stylings are a lot smoother than his rather clumsy womanizing or his violent mood swings. Bradley is phenomenal in his musical moments, whether they be scatting through Broder’s own compositions or reinterpreting a couple of wonderful old standards thrown into the mix: strikingly jazzy arrangements of Gershwin’s “Summertime” and “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” Bradley is a fearless performer, a quality without which Miravel would fall flat. If someday he doesn’t play the equally too-cool and conflicted lead in a revival of Pal Joey, it would truly be a cryin’ shame.

As the title character, Alphonso and Henry’s majestically beautiful and graceful object of desire, dancer Chumrau is physically perfect in the role and obviously knows exactly where her character must travel to find her real amore. Still, one might wish she trusted her instincts more at times and knew that her audience is right behind her without needing to work so hard to elucidate Miravel’s confusing crawl through the thorny brambles of love. This is something an actor cannot accomplish without the guidance of a director who can see what she can’t and help her dial things down a tad, but there’s a lot of room for Chumrau, with the aid of Quinn, to explore as she grows into the role.
   This brings up the hope that Broder and his exceptionally talented team continue to see Miravel as a work-in-progress. There’s so much promise here, but the production and Broder’s script still needs a bit of polishing to make it as innovative and stunningly rich as the music and the mood it so eloquently creates.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
November 30, 2015
Wood Boy Dog Fish
Rogue Artists Ensemble at Bootleg Theater

This darkly macabre adult retelling of the legend of Pinocchio is so visually dazzling and so filled with ingenious, spectacularly colorful marvels that the originality conjured by this company is alone worth the price of admission. Now, if only Chelsea Sutton’s script were vaguely as fascinating as the resourceful energy and imagination expended by the members of Rogue Artists Ensemble, who decorously explain themselves to be a unique troupe of “hyper-theatrical” designers and multidisciplinary artists who collectively create imagistic enchantment from scratch.
   Utilizing ancient storytelling techniques—such as dance, masks, music, and above all puppetry—combined with modern technology gleaned from digital media, interactive sets, and sophisticated theatrical illusions, the Rogues are courageous and, luckily for their grateful audience, work totally without filter.

François-Pierre Couture’s fanciful and highly versatile set design, enhanced immeasurably by Dallas Nichols’s stunning videos, transforms Bootleg Theater’s converted warehouse space from Geppetto’s eclectic workroom to the bottom of the ocean to the ominous Dogfish’s creepy amusement park with the help of the über-enthusiastic cast members who move mountains—albeit cardboard mountains—and manage quick changes into Kerry Hennessy and Lori Meeker’s whimsical costuming to become fantastical cats, foxes, fish, and deliciously wild underwater creatures.
   The masks were fabricated, according to the program, with the participation of an enormous number of company members. They are mind-blowing, and the puppetry, especially that for the infamous wooden boy with the growing nose (a string-less marionette manipulated from behind by three performers dressed head-to-toe in black) is extraordinary. The deep sea section of this production is populated by huge gorgeously feathery fish on poles, swimming around the stage manipulated by actors on their backs lying across giant skateboards. And when Pinocchio finds himself lured onto a frightening nightmare carnival ride, 3D glasses (available at check-in for a $1 “suggested donation”) are meant to enhance the audience’s experience.

The trouble here is that the storyline seems to have been developed around the special effects rather than the other way around. As visually mesmerizing as the production design is, Pinocchio’s journey oddly becomes about as dry and boring in places as watching paint dry. Sections appear to have been created because the Rogues had gimmicks to add—great ones notwithstanding—as well as wonderfully bizarre creatures or costuming to introduce.
   But under director Sean T. Cawelti, little effort appear to have been spent to develop the classic tale or to justify some of the inexplicably broad acting choices made by his actors. Stylized performances are certainly acceptable when presenting such nonrealistic fare, but those performances must be consistent rather than individually indulgent.

Although it’s fun to watch the spirited and talented ensemble suggestively wrestle a kick-line of blow-up sex dolls or dueling with swords made from balloon animals, it doesn’t exactly translate to satisfying storytelling. And even though patrons were told at the entrance they would be informed when to don their 3D specs, the performance reviewed was the victim of a missed cue, so how the 3D section usually unfolds, presumably on Pinocchio’s scary ride through the dastardly amusement park, must remain a mystery in this review.
   Still, Wood Boy Dog Fish is wondrous in so many ways. Though clearly geared for adults—Pinocchio has his feet burned off before being hung by the neck and left to swing throughout intermission—in our media-saturated society it’s unlikely children’s innocence would be compromised. So unless you’re raising your kiddies in a hermetically sealed Plexiglas capsule, they might not need to be left out of the fun.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
November 16, 2015
The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek
Fountain Theatre

If there was any doubt that Athol Fugard is our planet’s greatest living playwright, the arrival of his newest, most personal, and most arresting play cinches that distinction. Debuting at Fountain Theatre, the place the esteemed South African writer has called his “artistic home on the West Coast” for many years now, this play brings the message of his life’s labors full circle. As always in his work, he gives voice to the problems caused by the apartheid system in his country before the system collapsed in 1994, but here he also chronicles its aftermath and the whole new set of problems that developed since then—as viewed from both sides of the issue.
   In the late 1950s, while working as a clerk in a Native Commissioners’ Court in Johannesburg, Fugard was shocked by the injustices implemented by his fellow Afrikaners’ structure of racial segregation and enforced through legislation by the National Party. Fugard’s voluminous output of anti-apartheid opinions brought him directly into scary conflict with the government. To avoid prosecution and the threats on his life and that of his family, his plays were for years produced and published outside of South Africa, only presented covertly in his homeland in church basements and the living rooms of private homes.
   His newest work is based on a true story, that of aging outsider artist Nukain Mabuza (a charmingly charismatic Thomas Silcott), a black worker on a farm owned by ultraconservative Afrikaners in the Mpumalanga Province in the early 1980s. Mabuza put his passions and frustrations with his lot in life into creating a vibrant “garden of flowers,” painting designs directly on the massive rocks of his patron’s barren land. His zest for this unique primitive expression is stymied by one huge boulder dominating the area, the last one he hasn’t turned into gorgeously gaudy and evocative piece of folk art.

“Two Sundays now we come here with everything, but Tata does nothing,” Mabuza’s 10-year-old adoring apprentice Bokkie (Phillip Solomon in a monumental and instantly memorable LA stage debut) gently scolds the old man. “He just sits and stares at the Big One.” Pestered by the boy, Mabuza begins to work on what would soon become his last creation. But, instead of the colorful geometric circles and squares energizing his previous work (beautifully re-created here on Jeffrey MacLaughlin’s starkly austere set by local artist Clairfoster Josiah Browne), he starts by painting on huge square eyes, letting his nemesis rock see what he’s up to as he tries to tell his simple life story on its rough stone surface. “Can you show me, Big One, where my home is?” Mabuza asks the rock. “I’ve still got no home.”
   His efforts are thwarted by a visit to the site by the landowner’s wife, Elmarie Kleynhans (Suanne Spoke). Although she has great affection for the old man and has let him express himself on her beloved terrain, she demands he wipe off the strangely out-of-place design and get back to his original quest. Bokkie quickly and vocally defends his mentor’s bold expression, leading the mistress to demand Mabuza take off his belt and give the boy a whipping, spitting out, “I will not have some little klonkie [an ugly, patronizing apartheid-era term for a black child] with a head full of nonsense telling me what to do.” Mabuza’s meek acceptance of his mistress’ demands frustrates the boy, born too late to totally understand the ravages of a long and difficult life spent living in privation, dependency, and racism. Bokkie can only hope that, sometime in the future, Mrs. Kleynhans and her husband will “open their eyes and see us.”
   As Act 2 unfolds, it is now 2003. Although Mabuza died only a few days after that first encounter and Bokkie soon after ran away from the plantation, the man’s garden of silent flowers is still there, albeit dirt-covered and the paint faded away, choked by weeds and dead foliage. A new figure, a grown man named Jonathan Sejake (Gilbert Glenn Browne) enters the scene with a backpack stuffed with paint cans, ready to try to re-create Mabuza’s last work on the Big One, the creation the older man called the “story of his life.”

After Sejake is interrupted by Mrs. Kleynhans brandishing a pistol pointed directly at him, the true meaning of Fugard’s masterpiece begins to unfold. Soon the patrona realizes that Sejake is actually the grown Bokkie, now a principal of a school in an adjacent province. The two spit venomous accusations at each other—she as a woman in mortal terror of being forced off her land or, worse, brutally murdered as her Afrikaner neighbors were, he desperately trying to make her understand the fierce importance of remembering his old friend and restoring his legacy just to prove the old man was there, that he existed, that he mattered.
   Just when you think things could not get better than being a fly on a rock observing the scenario so lovingly and sweetly created by Silcott and the pintsized Solomon, Spoke and Brown take over the stage, and their time together is pure unadulterated theatrical magic. Every word from Brown comes directly from emotions surely stored deep inside him, and Spoke, in a tour-de-force performance as the conflicted Afrikaner who doubts the ferocity of her own beliefs, is sure to break your heart.
   This is Fugard’s most important and most eloquent play in years. As Fugard said in an interview on NPR, “At this moment in our history, the stories that need telling are more urgent than any of the stories that needed telling during the apartheid years.” Thanks to this monumentally simple and jarringly evocative production, beautifully interpreted by a stellar cast under the gossamer, sweepingly subtle yet impassioned direction of the wondrous Simon Levy, this is also the production of the year in Los Angeles, not to mention the best ensemble cast of 2015.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
November 9, 2015
The Shoplifters
Victory Theatre Center

Canadian playwright Morris Panych is far better-known and better-awarded in our close-but-yet-so-far neighbor to the north. But if LA theaterlovers take advantage of the unique opportunity to see the West Coast debut of one of his most hilariously perverse plays, presented under the sharply cagey watch of director Maria Gobetti, the writer’s star might rise quickly over our western climes.
   Double-sided tape being nothing as reliable as it once was, seasoned shoplifter Alma (Kathy Bailey) is caught stuffing a 16-oz. rib eye steak under her skirt by the supermarket’s awkward security guard–in-training Dom (Alex Genther). She and her decidedly more traumatized and reluctant accomplice Phyllis (Wendy Johnson) are herded into the back room of the supermarket, only to have the novice crime-stopper quickly placed more on the defensive than the offensive. Alma, who admits she is “at the top of her game” in the petty theft business, immediately begins to blast the painfully gung-ho young rookie for his impertinence rather than exhibiting any contrition, reminding him that even Prometheus stole fire from the gods—and after all is said and done, that didn’t turn out to be such a bad thing.

There’s nothing in the emotionally breakable kid’s training manual that helps him deal with the situation, as the chapter on what to do when meat falls out of a customer’s underwear seems to have been omitted. Luckily, Dom is confident he can rely on the expertise of his colleague Otto (Steve Hofvendahl), the older security guard who’s been showing him the ropes between frequent eye-rolls at his charge’s Dudley Do-Right attitude. Unfortunately, that lesson might still be hard to come by, as Otto has been watching Alma steal from the market on a regular basis without ever stopping her, his professional duties compromised because he has developed a massive crush on her right through the monitor of the store’s surveillance system.
   Under Gobetti’s precise leadership, her three notable veteran performers are remarkably comfortable with Panych’s often hyperbolic rat-a-tat of nonstop humor. Bailey has the especially difficult task of making the cornered Alma, almost eagerly ready to take on the situation and talk her way out of an arrest, appear hardened yet intensely vulnerable. She’s a woman ready to discuss the “whole structure of the market economy,” if necessary, but not before reminding her captors they don’t have the crime on tape and besides, she and her apprentice certainly don’t have time for all that. Phyllis has to get to the job she loves as a hatcheck girl at a local club and she herself has to continue fighting her private battle with the Big C.
   Hofvendahl makes an exceptional foil for Bailey’s hardened Alma, sweetly relatable as the world-weary, desperately tired lifelong security guard (“If they passed their cop exams,” Alma tells Phyllis, “they wouldn’t be working here”) ready to chuck it all, especially after the new store manager lets him go for giving a shoplifting homeless kid a pass. With Hofvendahl’s wonderfully understated delivery, Otto becomes a perfect example of someone who once wanted to change the world but now, after 30 years toiling dutifully as an unappreciated worker drone surviving within the corporate system, just wants to leave the room with a little dignity.
   As the somewhat dim-bulb and fragile Phyllis, Johnson is delightful and totally amazing, offering an exaggerated, truly over-the-top performance that for some reason works. Few actors can create a character as broadly—and bravely—as Johnson, getting away with much more than others because everything she does, every face she makes or line she croaks out like a whiny, overgrown, overtired 4-year-old, originates from a deep-down base of supreme reality. Genther, however, a rookie in this exceptional company of performers and obviously as raw as his character, is not as lucky. He could be the quintessential Dom if he just trusted himself and what he’s got to offer physically in his role, not work so darn hard to be funny. Still, he obviously has a unique talent just ready to blossom, so hopefully he will learn from working with his trio of well-honed co-stars.

Of course, the big question here, which Panych explores with an achingly sharp eye for contemporary humor, is whether the “imbalances of the world can be corrected by a can of stolen tuna,” especially when the perpetrator believes all she was doing was “grabbing at something that’s owed” her. Is it a better life Alma wants—or just a leaner cut of rib eye?

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
November 8, 2015
Guards at the Taj
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse

It cannot be said that Rajiv Joseph’s West Coast premiere Guards at the Taj is entertaining. Neither is it cheering, inspiring nor pleasantly distracting. But it thoroughly provokes thoughts and emotions like few other “entertainments” do.
   Humayun (Raffi Barsoumian) and Babur (Ramiz Monsef) are two close friends from childhood, who joined the military and have been commissioned to stand guard at the Taj Mahal in 17th-century India. On this night, they and the edifice are at a climactic point. Construction of this legendary tomb, commissioned by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, took 16 years, reportedly employing 20,000 men.
   These two men stand guard through the night. At dawn the Taj will at last open to the public—or at least those who are allowed to look upon it. Humayun and Babur must keep their backs to it during their sentry duty, for gazing at such beauty is not meant for their social class. And yet they believe they are privileged for being given this task at this time.

Then what? What is to happen to the 20,000 laborers who know how to create such beauty? The emperor, corrupted by absolute power, devises a means of ensuring they will not be able to create again. The two guards, having done their guarding job so well, are given the task of dealing with those 20,000 souls. And it’s a supremely grisly task.
   It would also be impossible to accomplish this in one night in real life. Obviously, Joseph has written a parable, potently asking how far each of us would go while we say, “I was only following orders.”
   And yet the lifelong friendship between the two guards feels completely real. Humayun is a stickler, desperate to please his unpleasable father. Babur is a daring dreamer, a visionary, who relishes the pleasures life can offer. Humayun cautions Babur, Babur emboldens Humayun. Theirs seems an unbreakable friendship.
This play is also about power. The emperor commands, merely because he’s the emperor. But there are various levels of obedience to such commandments. Truth-telling, interpretation, turning a blind eye, self-sacrifice for a greater good—don’t we ultimately have power over our own actions?
   Under Giovanna Sardelli’s thorough direction, the play begins with humor. Flickers of an eye, then bits of commedia, get the audience giggling. By the second scene of this 105-minute intermissionless session, Barsoumian and Monsef are close to Three Stooges territory. But by the play’s end, audiences may find themselves wondering if we’ll ever laugh again.
   Sardelli’s vision is enhanced by Tom Buderwitz’s scenic design, which is crisply symmetrical and somewhat sterile until it bursts with a colorfully remembered life. The set is also finely engineered, including a drain for the gallons of blood. Yes, the emperor meant what he said.

Though it seems disappointing that the actors cast are not Indian, the men involved with the project were reportedly from neighboring nations. And, two of the finest actors of any heritage perform here, giving sophisticated, detailed, and ultimately crushing portrayals of two ordinary men in extraordinary but not unheard-of circumstances.
   For the thoughtful theatergoer, who expects to be challenged, this is a must-experience time at the theater.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
October 15, 2015

Republished with kind permission of Daily News.
The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940
Theatre West

Playwright John Bishop, a longtime member of New York’s Circle Repertory Theatre, wrote a number of plays and screenplays, among them this comic spoof of manor house murder mysteries. It follows in the tradition of screwball comedies popular in the 1930s and ’40s.
   The setting is the country house of Elsa Von Grossenknueten (Jacque Lynn Colton), whose maid, Helsa (Michelle Holmes), is killed in the first scene by the Stage Door Slasher and stashed in a closet. Elsa is a wealthy backer of theatrical productions, and a group has gathered for an audition, hoping she will support them in their newest endeavor. A previous production had fallen victim to the Slasher’s murder of three chorus girls, thus setting up the events to come.
   First the actors appear: Patrick O’Reilly (Joe Nassi), Nikki Crandall (Emily Rose McLeod), and Eddie McCuen (Patrick T. Rogers). They are soon joined by a creative team, Roger Hopewell (Donald Moore) and Bernice Roth (Anne Leyden), and the director, Ken de la Maize (Scott Seiffert). Rounding out the ensemble are Michael Kelly (Kevin Yarbrough), an undercover cop masquerading as Elsa’s employee, and Marjorie Baverstock (Jeanine Anderson), a Broadway producer. With an improbable plot and convoluted character deceptions, the events play out for laughs and provide the actors with many opportunities for outrageous exaggeration.
   The set design, credited to “Pettifogger,” is a marvel of secret panels and passageways that enhance the Slasher’s ability to exit and enter during convenient power failures from a raging snowstorm that prevents the occupants from leaving. The second victim is Baverstock, who sits mutely through a run-through, even though a long sword protrudes from the back of her chair.

Bishop’s penchant for farfetched plot permutations allows for some of the best moments in the play. The murdered Helsa suddenly reappears mysteriously. Why is the Slasher intent on killing theatrical performers? What has prompted O’Reilly’s violent altercation with the maid? And who really are all these people?
   Leyden is a standout as a cross between Bette Davis and Tallulah Bankhead, alternately screaming, drinking, and emoting as events play out. Another marvelously campy performance is delivered by Seiffert as the name-dropping artistic chief who tries to keep the production on task as his crew spirals out of control. His eventual meltdown is sheer lunacy.
   McLeod and Rogers are pleasant as their mutual attraction develops, Nassi is effectively sinister, and Moore’s evolution as the fey artiste is amusing. Colton makes a perfectly dotty hostess, and Holmes is accomplished as she carries out several characterizations.
   Director Michael Van Duzer has a deft touch, much needed in this rapid-fire, implausible comedy. The ensemble works well together, obviously enjoying the farcical elements they are charged to carry out. Emily Brown Kucera’s costumes are noteworthy and add the requisite theatrical atmosphere. Yancey Dunham’s lighting and Austin Quan’s sound effects also ramp up the mysterious effects needed to carry out the plot devices.

There are no universal truths revealed in this play. It is comedy, plain and simple, giving the audience a chance to sit back and enjoy tomfoolery for a couple of hours. It is a pleasant interlude.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
October 11, 2015
Circle X Theatre Co at Atwater Village Theatre

The hospitalization and possible impending death of drug- and alcohol-addicted Brian Seigenfeld (Tony DeCarlo) marks the amassing of his tribe in the waiting room of a dingy New York City emergency room. Presented environmentally, with the audience seated on chairs placed along the walls of Atwater Village Theater’s appropriately sterile office space, this darkly outrageous comedy by Fielding Edlow eradicates any theory that, because so many majorly abnormal families have been presented on the American stage, there are no fresh new twists to the horror. Well, boo! Edlow’s ghastly Seigenfeld family is truly scary.
   Gathered for the emotional vigil are Brian’s caustic mother, Ruth (Caroline Aaron); inveterate joker and her secretly estranged husband, Siggy (Joe Pachero); and their terminally neurotic daughter, Jenna (Dagney Kerr). It’s not a nice quiet family reunion, as evidenced by duty nurse Kate McGregor (Ericka Kreutz), who, despite her repeated threats to call the police to get the family extracted from the premises, almost gives them admiring points for being the loudest and most disruptive family St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital has ever hosted.
   Aaron’s nagging, entitled Ruth, a monstrously big presence who would make Mama Rose look like Mother Teresa, is ready to control the ER as completely as she has every other situation in her Housewives of New York City-esque lifestyle. No matter how worried she is about her beloved comatose son Brian struggling for air in the next room, she cannot abandon her need to control, to make sure Siggy has eaten, if only from the vending machine in the lobby, or that the 40-plus unmarried Jenna finally finds a mate.
   After trying to entice their son’s young doctor Gelber (Shaun Anthony) with the attributes of her eye-rolling, sarcastic, one-line spouting daughter, the next victim of her plotting is fellow waiting-room denizen Kevyn (Doug Sutherland) who, it turns out after much prodding from Ruth and Jenna, is also there to see Brian—and make amends for something he will not share with the family despite their lynch-mob mentality that would seemingly work to extract information from a house plant.
   In one of those cases of apples not falling far from the tree, the obviously miserable, incredibly defensive Jenna could make any of the Kardashian sisters look like Malala Yousafzai. Jenna notes the only thing she and her mother have in common is liking Bill Maher and almonds. Despite being quietly supported by her well-off father, she still holds a grudge that they all but destroyed her dream of becoming a standup comic (“You could be the Sarah Silverman of Dubuque!” Kevyn observes).

Edlow’s characters are all rich and well-crafted, although by the late return to consciousness of Brian, one begins to wish maybe Nurse Kate had called the cops on the Seigenfelds after all. There’s a rather unsatisfying end and resolution to the story of this night at the ICU. But, considering how hilariously skewed Edlow’s humor is and how able this particular cast is, under the snappish direction of Brian Shnipper, to find something endearing about these outlandishly exasperating people, everyone gets to leave with bandages in all the right places.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
October 10, 2015
Man Covets Bird
24th Street Theatre

How refreshing to witness a show suitable for all ages that neither talks down to its older attendees nor leaves its youngest audience members in the dust. This US premiere—only its second production worldwide—has something for everyone. Playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer’s engaging tale of a young man who develops a touching relationship with a wild bird captures both the heart and mind. In the hands of director Debbie Devine and a phenomenally talented two-person cast, the result is magically inspirational.
   Andrew Huber masterfully tells the tale, in third person, of our young hero. While executing all necessary actions required for carrying out his role, he offers a performance of such charming gentility that one can’t help but be drawn in to his character’s storyline. This young man, whose name is never specified, marches to the beat of his own Bohemian drum, so much so that when he is confronted by a young bird, it seems only natural that the two would strike up a nearly lifelong relationship. Along the way, Huber’s remarkable handling of Kruckemeyer’s 70-minute, intermissionless monologue produces an engaging, edge-of-your-seat effect.
   Likewise, Leeav Sofer’s contribution, though never through the spoken word, is absolutely essential to the show’s message. As the undefined bird, his characterization is that of an ever-present, undemanding soulmate to the man. And despite the occasional well-placed birdcall, Sofer’s performance never falls prey to that of caricature. Instead, we are treated to gorgeously crafted original melodies— written by Sofer and self-accompanied on keyboard and clarinet—that he performs with Huber, who plays acoustic guitar. These interludes, best described as in folk style, are spine-tingling in their harmonic beauty as they set Kruckemeyer’s lyrics to music.

Devine’s work in crafting this production is aided by some of the finest production values imaginable. In this venue’s warehouse-like surroundings—it was once a turn-of-the-century carriage house—and utilizing nothing more than a rolling A-frame ladder and small “beat-box” cubes as portable furniture, her cast moves effortlessly around the thrust stage and through the seating areas. Surrounding the perimeter of the playing space are four distinct areas upon which simplistically hand-drawn projected animation creates various locales. These videos, credited to Matthew G. Hill and Sara Haddadin, flow from one screen to the next while perfectly timed to the actors’ actions.
   Cricket S Myers’s sound cues are a rich addition, in at least one instance seamlessly continuing Sofer’s clarinet solo. Dan Weingarten’s lighting is specific when necessary and lush when appropriate. And a big “hats off” to stage manager Alexx Zachary for calling a show that most certainly must consist of hundreds of cues.
   Kruckemeyer’s script asks, what effect does every moment of our lives have on those we encounter. To the credit of this company’s motto, “Theater for all audiences,” it is more than obvious this goal had been met and then some.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
October 6, 2015
Breathing Room
Greenway Court Theatre

Greenway Court Theatre’s Breathing Room is a 70-minute metaphysical self-help session, scored to electric violin and synthesizer and incorporating quantum theory. It insists that people are debilitated by overwhelming technological change, and it recommends an extended time-out to develop a fresh perspective on the natural world. With so many theater artists trafficking in campiness, cynicism, and cheap sentiment, it’s refreshing when a show comes along—24th Street Theatre’s Walking the Tightrope was another—determined to make one feel better merely through delicate imagery and leaps of the imagination.
   As teased out in the program, Mary Lou Newmark is an electronic composer and performer who was discovering convergences among her personal agitation with modern life, musings on contemporary anomie, and musical interests.
   She created a semi-avatar “Marilyn,” described as “a visual artist who was creative but somewhat trapped inside her standards and a little overwhelmed with life,” in tandem with “The Professor,” a mischievous trickster/Yoda type holding the keys to psychic secrets. Their performance art vignettes are now stitched together by director Dan Berkowitz, and though the stitches are showing, a through-line ends up coming across.

Eileen T’Kaye’s Marilyn is fussy and flustered—she maintains a running set of annoyed exhalations, not the most enjoyable or active of character traits—as well as sincere and grounded in her effort to keep it together while expanding her mental horizons.
   Charles Reese possesses the combined sweetness and gravitas I associate with the late, great Scatman Crothers. If he overdoes the twee “Magic to Do” invitational affect at times, he brings clarity and excitement to the merging of arcane concepts like quantum wave function (QWF) to trips to a retail store or interactions with forest creatures.
   The actors make for an engaging New Age vaudeville team, presenting their anecdotal concerns and exploring possible remedies. All the while, Newmark is half-seen behind a leafy scrim stage right, offering musical accompaniment now playfully soaring, now scorching like a cello.

I found myself wishing that Newmark had given something for Marilyn to be really pissed off about, so that her spiritual quest could have some guts. I also yearned for The Professor to make some discoveries, not just reveal them with puckish delight.
   But then I reminded myself that character conflict and growth are the domain of traditional drama. They’re simply inappropriate to the performance art genre and, particularly, to the kind of balletic chalk talk Berkowitz and Newmark have built.
   When I just gave myself over to the melodies and images and let the concepts wash over me, I actually experienced a slight (if not quantum) sensory shift. Perhaps there’s something to this idea of watching an osprey pounce from his point of view, instead of that of oneself or of the prey. Maybe popping the QWF—pronounced “quaff,” a buzzword Newmark purveys heavily here—isn’t such a bad idea.

It’s not inconceivable that you too will feel like a better, or more whole, or just more aware, person at the end of Breathing Room. Probably more so than me, even. Still, the entire event is an emphatic reaction against splashy vulgarity, so those inclined to the campy, cynical, or sentimental might prefer to seek their healing elsewhere.
   On the other hand, they might do best to hurry over to the Greenway Court without delay. Succor is in such short supply these days.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
October 5, 2015
Awake and Sing!
Odyssey Theatre

When Awake and Sing! was produced in 1935, it was a transformative experience for theatergoers. Playwright Clifford Odets was an early member of the Group Theatre in New York, a lab for Stanislavski’s system of acting with a shared commitment among the collective for social change through theater. Among the most prominent members were Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, and Elia Kazan.
   The youthful Odets wrote Waiting for Lefty, acclaimed for its call for progressive remedies for workers, including unionization. Its success led to Awake and Sing! in 1935, less fiery but still espousing reform for economic injustice in the aftermath of the Depression.
   In Awake and Sing!, the modest Bronx apartment of the Jewish Berger family is the setting for the unfolding story of the sometimes contentious clan. Bessie (Marilyn Fox); her father, Jacob (Allan Miller); her ineffectual but optimistic husband, Myron (Robert Lesser); Bessie and Myron’s edgy grown daughter, Hennie (Melissa Paladino); and their 22-year-old son, Ralph (James Morosini), co-exist in the small but well-kept lodging (nicely articulated living space by Pete Hickok).
   In the mix are Bessie’s affluent brother, Morty (Richard Fancy), and Moe Axelrod (David Agranov), a cynical family friend whose pugnacious and brash manner adds spice to the dialogue and underscores a simmering tension between Hennie and him. It has just been learned that Hennie is pregnant. To satisfy Bessie’s desires for respectability, she wields her considerable influence and forces Hennie to marry Sam (Gary Patent), a Russian man she doesn’t love who is courting her.

Odets chose an often utilized three-act format, and once the scene is set, the second act a year later contains the dolorous elements of the story. Ralph falls in love, but Bessie is contemptuous of the penniless orphan girl he has chosen. Jacob, in spite of being bullied by his daughter, encourages Ralph to break free and find a fulfilling life. He counsels, “Awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust, and the earth shall cast out the dead.” For a brief time, Odets was a member of the Communist Party, and some of Jacob’s Marxist imprecations are left-leaning and express a strong social conscience.
   Fox’s austere characterization reflects bitter disappointment in her marriage and a seeming disregard for the happiness of any of her family members. She seems a slightly darker character than Odets envisioned, and the only affection she shows is for her brother, but it is obvious in her manner that his wealth is the contributing factor. Fancy is spot-on as the self-satisfied and arrogant merchant, touting his superiority over the group and clashing with Jacob over political ideology. Miller is appealing as the gentle and frustrated idealist.
   Odets envisioned the play with comedic touches, somewhat lost in this grim portrayal of dreams and romance lost. Agranov comes closest to capturing lighter moments as he snipes away at the family. Paladino delivers a despondent Hennie, but some of her spunk returns as she and Moe decide to abandon convention and leave to seek happiness.
   The ensemble is well-cast and directed by Elina de Santos, reprising an earlier production she helmed 20 years ago at the Odyssey. Notable in this cast are Patent, who manages to wring all the anguish out of his hopeless marriage, and Morosini, whose youth is seemingly crushed by circumstance. He makes the transition from helplessness to optimism believable. Lesser makes a sympathetic foil for Fox’s harsh iron will. The ensemble creates a cohesive whole and delivers skilled characterizations.
   Costumes by Kim DeShazo are effective, and Leigh Allen’s lighting design sets the appropriate mood. Sound designer Christopher Moscatiello achieves a 1930s flavor with Caruso recordings and radio broadcasts.

Odets’s choice to conclude the events with an illusory happy ending for all is probably less realistic than the exposition suggests, but it ties up all the ends satisfactorily for the audience. At least Ralph finds strength within himself and hope for the future.
   A revival of Odets’s play seems fitting as some of the same uncertainties exist in today’s political and economic climate. The dialogue is certainly dated and solutions to their problems would be handled much differently today, but as a glimpse into America’s theatrical past, it is thought-provoking.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
September 28, 2015
The Princes of Kings Road
Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA at Neutra Institute and Museum of Silverlake

In the first site-specific production from EST/LA, performed in Silverlake’s Neutra Institute Museum and Gallery—designed in 1950 by Richard Neutra along with his son Dion, who here co-produces—Tom Lazarus’s play, developed in EST/LA’s Playwright Unit workshop, offers a fascinating look at our metropolis’ greatest architect and the contentious relationship he shared with his onetime mentor, business partner, and later bitter adversary Rudolph Schindler.
   After 23 years of personal and professional disaffection, estranged groundbreaking modernist designers Neutra and Schindler (Raymond Xifo and John Nielsen) find themselves suddenly forced back together again, serendipitously assigned to adjoining beds at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. Although the details of their reunion are here only fictionalized, one might hope this is something like how it really went down, beginning with the former colleagues and family-like friends—Schindler sponsored Neutra to come to the United States from their native Austria, where they’d met as students at Vienna’s Technical College—shouting to their poor beleaguered duty nurse (Heather Robinson) that one of them has to immediately be moved to another room.
   As the insults (“Sycophant!” screams Schindler; “Narcissist!” yells Neutra) slowly begin to die down, one major thing Lazarus has captured is the pair’s enormous respect for each other’s work and talent. The vitriol between them tames down as they start to reminisce about the days when they designed together, Schindler as the world-class futurist he was, Neutra as the genius engineer who could make his partner’s otherworldly plans functional. “We were bolder, simpler than anyone,” Schindler laments, “and architects today imitate our designs!”

With the inclusion of simple staging by Lazarus on a stationary set consisting mainly of two hospital beds, the never-before explored personal relationship shared by these two great men, whose cultural legacy changed not only the landscape of Southern California but influenced all of mid-century design across the globe, is a fascinating journey. Schindler had opened his famous Kings Road home to Neutra and his family when he arrived in LA in 1925 after working for two years in Chicago under Frank Lloyd Wright (whom Schindler refers to here as more a publicist than an architect). But Schindler is resentful over a major contract he believed his friend stole from him all those years before.
   Still, as the men’s forced time together continues and as Schindler’s cancer makes him increasingly frail, their former love for each other resurfaces. As played by Xifo and Nielsen, these illustrious men’s individual virtuosity, as well as their flawed and fragile humanity, emerge. Xifo is especially impressive, able to effortlessly overcome Lazarus’s flowery and often overwritten speeches. Nielsen’s humorous take on Schindler’s former Bacchanalian lifestyle is a perfect foil for Neutra. Robinson also handles her rather underwritten role as the ping pong ball literally bouncing between the men’s fiercely played game but without much of a substantial character arc of her own.
   The writing could be less theatrical and more real, but Lazarus’s play should have a life well beyond this first mounting, albeit with pruning of the characters’ sometimes stilted dialogue. It is also a tremendous treat to see it performed where it is, in this austerely angled, authentically Neutra-envisioned space featuring the designer’s original exposed strip neon lighting and signature louvered windows.

Driving home from the opening weekend matinee along the winding Silverlake reservoir, with its many Neutra houses looming along the east side of the boulevard reflecting the sunset in their majestic walls of windows (which Neutra tells us in the play was his intention), all directly facing Schindler’s magnificent sprawling flying saucer of a house peeking through the overgrown foliage at the tippy-top of the hill on the other shore of the lake, one might have a new respect for the accomplishments of two of Los Angeles’s most-enduring 20th-century visionaries.
   “We were reinventing the world, Rudolph,” Neutra proclaims to his unlikely roommate. “We were re-creating our Vienna!” And, in the process, they were also reinventing Los Angeles and solidifying its position as one of the major design capitals of the world.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
September 20, 2015
One Slight Hitch
Torrance Theatre Company

Lewis Black is the standup comedian who delivers prodding rants punctuated by his crooked and wriggling index fingers. He’s rather genius, assuming one agrees with his views.
   He has written handfuls of plays, too, and his One Slight Hitch is in production at Torrance Theatre Company through Oct. 11. “If my name weren’t on it, nobody would know that I wrote this play,” he is quoted as saying.
   But not for the reasons he seems to be implying. He’s a bright man, he reportedly fell in love with theater at age 12, he holds an MFA from Yale School of Drama. One couldn’t prove any of this by his play.
   It takes place in 1981 on the wedding day of Courtney Coleman (Kay Capasso). She’s scheduled to marry Harper, her straitlaced boyfriend of only a short while. But somehow she and her parents keep referring to Harper as Ryan.

We learn some of this, and more, from Courtney’s sister, P.B. (Makenzie Browning), who narrates via voiceover because she’s looking back on this day from the present and because her 16-year-old, onstage self is made oblivious by massive headphones that blast the hits of 1981. Courtney’s other sister, Melanie (Collette Rutherford), ought to be made oblivious by the massive amount of booze she drinks.
   As Courtney’s family gets ready for the wedding, cracks appear in the nuptial joy. Driving the dramaturgical wedge into that joy is the unexpected arrival of Ryan (Johan Badh), Courtney’s recently dumped boyfriend.
   Ryan wants to be the Jack Kerouac of the 1980s, including all that entails. He’s the antithesis of the steady Harper (Ryan Shapiro), who, once he’s clued in on the hitch, takes the lunacy with noble good nature.

It’s pretty standard farcical fare, as Ryan gets shoved out of the way into either the living-room closet or the puzzlingly right-off-the-living-room shower—this odd architecture a fault of the script, not of the direction.
   But director Glenn Kelman’s casting may have contributed to one of the most troubling misfires here. David McGee and Shirley Hatton play Dr. and Mrs. Coleman, Courtney’s parents. Whatever the political leanings of these fine actors may be, onstage here they don’t look like the Reaganites of the script. In a play like this, the audience judges characters by their looks, and these two look like hippies. It doesn’t help that McGee’s Doc wanders around the house in an unbuttoned short-sleeved shirt, his undershirt on proud display.
   Harper’s parents show up at the house, but Black keeps them out of sight, and McGee’s aptitude for comedy shines in Doc’s monologue delivered out the front door as he unhospitably struggles to prevent the travelers from entering or otherwise discovering the goings-on inside.

Rutherford, a highly skilled actor, must have wrestled mightily with her underwritten character, a nurse who cares deeply about healing, yet who drinks astonishing quantities of liquor after an all-nighter and on the morning of her sister’s wedding. Does Melanie love Courtney? Does she lust after Ryan or does she want Ryan to marry Courtney? Can Melanie walk into the backyard on this summer afternoon, wearing a satin full-length bridesmaid’s dress and all that big hair, and not be toppling over from inebriation?
   Rutherford is also saddled with a nurse’s outfit that’s too short and too tight, apparently scripted thusly. But the highlight of Diana Mann’s costuming may be Ryan’s “Star Wars” boxers, which, for those who live in either hope or fear when Ryan emerges from the shower, wrapped in a towel, get revealed by the teasing Melanie.
   Black hints early on about the play’s denouement. “Can I have a real life and still write?” Courtney muses. “Courtney will have the wedding that we never had,” her mother notes. In between, his dialogue takes ungainly turns to move the plot, but at least the plot suits the characters and their personal histories.

And at least here, Kelman and the cast approach this production with such commitment and conviviality that it’s hard to totally dislike the play. One other aspect draws our admiration. Mrs. Coleman has enough self-awareness to know why she wants this wedding so desperately: Her generation was shredded by war, and now wants to see her children’s oblivious generation come back to life.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 14, 2015
Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles
The Theatre @ Boston Court at the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater at the Getty Villa

Each year for the past 10 years, the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades has commissioned a Los Angeles theater company to adapt an Ancient Greek play for the Getty’s outdoor amphitheater. This year, the Pasadena-based Theatre @ Boston Court sets the Euripides tragedy Medea in modern-day Boyle Heights, to create Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles, and the results are spellbinding.
   Playwright Luis Alfaro hews to the original’s plot—the story of a woman with supernatural abilities who helps her beloved Jason “get ahead” and then is utterly betrayed by him. But Alfaro’s adaptation feels fresh and unforced.
   Under Jessica Kubzansky’s superbly clear but subtle direction, the play begins with a Greek feel, set against the Getty Museum’s classical façade, as Medea’s servant Tita begins the tale. Soon, a small two-story white brick-and-clapboard house rolls onstage, and we are indisputably in the barrio. Designed by Efren Delgadillo Jr., the house’s front wall is created with semi-transparent fabric, so the audience can see inside when lighting designer Ben Zamora wants us to.
   Tita (the mononymous Vivis) is our Greek chorus. As she recounts this tale in a style that ranges from spiritualism to standup, it’s apparent she adores Medea, but she also hints at reasons for Medea’s behavior, and these reasons take the story from myth to modern life.
   Medea never stops feeling like a mojada, Mexican slang for wetback. She and her family came here illegally, Tita tells us via a flashback, just as other border crossings fill today’s news. The borders in this tale, however, may wander into mental health territory, also ripped from horrifying headlines.

Crafted by Alfaro and Kubzansky, this Medea is of another world, and, in portraying her, Sabina Zuniga Varela lives as if in a dream she can’t awaken from. Varela’s Medea could be a soul of the past, she could be unrelentingly clinging to her life as it was in Mexico. She is also very likely unhinged.
   In contrast, the Hason of Justin Huen is perfectly ordinary. Not to say Huen’s acting is. He’s a veteran of Alfaro’s other Los Angeles adaptations of the classics: Electricidad (Alfaro’s reworking of the Electra myth) and Oedipus El Rey (his updating of Oedipus Rex).
   But Huen makes Hason such a convincingly oblivious jerk that Hason’s excuse to Medea, “It’s not what you think,” is as much a machete to our hearts as, well, no spoilers here.
   Alfaro may have helped ground the story for modern audiences by making Tita an unreliable narrator. She, too, is a sorceress, and not one convincingly fond of the audience. She begins with an invocation to ancient spirits, ends as she clears the stage, but in between repeatedly uses her playfully insincere smile for pointed humor.
   Greek plays need a messenger. Here that role is filled by Josefina, a cheery gossip, played by the earthy, exuberant Zilah Mendoza. Josefina warns Medea about Hason’s boss, Armida.
   Medea’s flights of spirituality let Armida know that the competition is easily assailable, as we watch the thoughts of both actors spin. As played by Marlene Forte, Armida is a powerful force who casts a different sort of spell on Hason—rooted in money and lust.

Only one element might momentarily distract the audience from this mesmerizing evening. It’s the acting of young Anthony Gonzalez, playing the 10-year-old son, Acan. Gonzalez is astonishingly skilled, and we may step back to marvel at him. In him, we vividly “see” the parched, exhausted travelers along their border crossing. Though standing on the stage, he seems to sweat in the crowded truck, he seems to want so much to sleep lying down. And yet Gonzalez finds joy in the humorous moments of the play. None of this is faked. This actor’s imagination is living in these circumstances.
   Alfaro includes much Mexican slang and other in-jokes about Los Angeles. But the context and subtle translations make the dialogue pleasantly understandable.
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 11, 2015
Broadway Bound
Theatre Palisades at Pierson Playhouse

Theatergoers are rarely able to observe characters growing up over the course of several plays. Shakespeare’s Prince Hal provides one notable exception. Playwright Neil Simon offers another. In his Brighton Beach Memoirs, we met Eugene Jerome, the hilariously genial youngster in 1940s New York, torn between becoming a professional baseball player and becoming a famous writer.
   Eugene is Simon’s stand-in, so at the end of Brighton Beach we know where Eugene is headed. Simon then takes Eugene through army basic training in Biloxi Blues, in which references to his talent for and obsession with writing promise another happy ending, at least for Eugene.
   The third play about Eugene, Broadway Bound, currently in a production by Theatre Palisades at Pierson Playhouse, finds Eugene and his brother, Stanley, as a young adults in 1949, about to break in to scriptwriting for radio and television, as did Simon and his equally funny but less famous brother, Danny.
   In the first play of the trilogy, Eugene’s parents, Kate and Jack Jerome, are solidly married. Perhaps Eugene was too young to see the cracks in the marriage, but here the very realistic, very heartrending problems between Kate and Jack are centerstage.
   So, too, are the travails facing the incipient writers, and these provide the comedy. Eugene and Stanley have one night to churn out a script or face never working again, and their agony gets empathetic laughs.

For the most part, director Sherry Coon doesn’t let the comedy get forced, nor does she let her actors sink into self-pity. One hint about Coon’s take on the play may come from set designer Sherman Wayne’s color scheme here. The wallpaper pattern in the Jerome house is of green roses on a creamy background, and the trim on the home’s exterior is green—the color symbolizing growth, health and healing. Eugene and Stanley will be fine. So, too, will Kate, who, suddenly facing an empty nest, seems to grow a magnificently sturdy spine.
   Portraying Eugene, DL Corrigan is rather impish. Eugene usually has a gimlet-eyed take on the family’s foibles, but Corrigan’s Eugene has more of a twinkle in his eye out of sheer enjoyment of his family.
   Playing Kate, Georgan George is not quite the usual Jewish mother, either. She also squints and scowls to a distracting degree. But her ability to create a devoted mother and betrayed wife is outstanding.

David Tracq masters the energy and enthusiasm of Stanley. Tracq impressively remains effervescent through Stanley’s panicked night trying to write a comedy sketch, and his excitement at listening to the Jerome brothers’ words on the radio is fresh and truthful.
   Dark clouds hang over Kenneth Steven Bernfield’s Jack. The model father in Brighton Beach Memoirs lives in a grayer area here, and Bernfield delicately wrestles the demons who prevent Jack from being the man his sons believed him to be.
   Kate’s sister, Blanche, gets a memorable portrayal by Caroline Westheimer, refusing to apologize for her new wealth, pleading beautifully with her father to call his wife, because, yes, marital relationships are not this family’s strongest skill.
   But one other cause for heartbreak crept up on opening night. The actor playing Kate’s über-Socialist father, Ben, was apparently a late replacement and was shaky on his lines. By way of a crutch, he seemed to be begging for laughs for his character. Most of this occurred at the top of the play, setting a sour tone that gradually faded.
   Simon, as it turns out, has not had the happiest of personal lives, despite his phenomenal professional success. Eugene, one hopes, will learn from his family’s, and Simon’s, mistakes and fare better.
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 7, 2015

When Stars Align
Odyssey Theatre

When Stars Align is a novel by Carole Eglash-Kosoff, chronicling conflicts between advantaged whites and black slaves in the Civil War–era South. Now adapted into a play (by the author, with co-writer and director John Henry Davis) spanning many years, it blends history with the story of young black Thaddeus (Jason Woods) and the daughter of a plantation owner, Amy (Haley McHugh), who form a friendship in a time when to do so would be death to Thaddeus. Beyond these pivotal characters are the stories of the son of the house, Henry (Nick Ballard); his wife, Elizabeth (Sarah Lyddan); and Henry’s father, Jedidiah (Veryle Rupp).
   Adding to the running narrative is the tragedy of the slaves and others integral to the changes occurring despite Southern opposition to the politics of the day and the abolition movement. But, from the archetypal mammy, Sarah (Tamiyka White), to assorted slaves who rail against mistreatment, the characters waver into caricature, and the story’s predictability is telegraphed from the play’s beginning. Having said that, the cast is uniformly well-directed and strives to create passionate portrayals.

The villain of the piece is Henry: a vitriolic, bigoted, and thoroughly reprehensible character in the hands of Eglash-Kosoff and Davis. Young Henry has raped a field slave, Rose (Allison Reeves), leading to Thaddeus’s birth. Much to Henry’s dismay, his father favors the boy, teaching him to read and employing him as a house slave. Henry’s dissolute character is further demonstrated by womanizing with prostitutes and a loveless marriage to Elizabeth, whom he chooses only to sire his children.
   Through many events of war and retribution, the story highlights the actual Colfax massacre that took place in Louisiana in 1873. The play portrays the slaughter of many of the black characters who have finally found a semblance of freedom after the war. Historically interesting, it might have been more effective as a greater plot focus in this episodic production.
   Ballard’s Henry is easy to hate, and he carries a lot of the show on his shoulders. Woods is also notable as the young naive boy who must cope with his personal history and ambitions. Lyddan plays a fragile Southern belle whose tragic fate is played out against her feelings of entitlement and white privilege.
   McHugh is earnest as the rebellious daughter who loves unwisely, and Rupp portrays a complex father. White, too, is good, straddling her role as mediator.

JR Bruce’s utilitarian set works well, establishing the plantation, cotton fields, a riverbank, and a battlefield. Leigh Allen’s lighting is mood appropriate, and Michael Mullen’s costumes lend verisimilitude to the period.
   Adapting a play from a novel is tricky, especially one that traverses time and place. Eglash-Kosoff has attempted to include much of her novel’s plot. Some of the dramatic effect is lost in taking on too many events, and multiple characterizations get lost in the telling. Fiddle and guitar music at the beginning and post-intermission are mood-setting, but they slow the momentum of the story. Kudos to the cast, though, for heartfelt performances.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
September 6, 2015
Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me
Little Fish Theatre

Since it premiered in 1992, this Frank McGuinness play hasn’t lost its plausibility. It takes place in a windowless cell in Lebanon, where three men of differing nationalities are held as hostages. Centering on the psychological toll of being imprisoned, the play explores a timeless yearning for, and fear of, being watched over. All these elements get tender care in Little Fish Theatre’s production, as an Irishman, American, and Englishman struggle to survive, physically and mentally, while chained in place for months on end.
   The strong, steady young American doctor, Adam (Doug Mattingly), plays peacemaker between the Irish journalist, Edward (Joshua Thomas), and the English professor of English language, Michael (Ben Hensley). The script is not overtly political, though Irish playwright McGuinness wouldn’t miss this chance to include nationalistic barbs in the conversations.
   To try to keep their sanity intact, the men “make” movies, re-create famous moments in sports history and recite the correspondence they’d be sending home if they could. Yes, the power of storytelling keeps them going.

The play’s title is a takeoff on the Gerswin song, which the script suggests be sung or piped in between scenes—an apparently annoying stage direction that director Tito Ortiz wisely decided to scrap in this production. Instead, Ortiz lets the script and his lighting designer, Stacey Abrams, indicate the passage of time and variations in state of mind.
   To varying extents, the captives believe God watches over them, as they read from the Bible and the Quran. The title also refers to the guards, whom the three men seem to believe are observing them from above. But the title also refers to the parents and spouses the men think they failed to please, as well as to those who haunt the trio’s memories.
   Michael feels remorse for the death of his wife. But, referring to himself as a “pansy little Englishman,” he visibly winces as the other two continually promote their unflinching heterosexuality. Adam notes his academic accomplishments, perhaps mostly to convince himself his family must have been proud. And in a wrenching moment near the play’s end, Edward begs to be driven in an imaginary car to his father’s grave for one last bit of comforting.

Ortiz has the actors carry their chains on and off the stage, perhaps symbolizing our responsibility for our own actions—an idea Adam touches upon. The actors are so good, they can carry the chains and the concept without distracting the audience, keeping us very much involved in their characters’ despair and hope.
   But keeping the actors chained, and usually seated or lying on the cell’s floor, means audience members seated behind the front rows cannot see all of the action without shifting in their seats.
   Equally as distracting, the script gets repetitive and bloated, particularly in Act 2. During a long passage that tries but fails to be Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Michael and Edward ponder Adam’s whereabouts by repeating that he is dead, until the audience either doubts it or begins not to care.
   McGuinness also packs the script with large portions of “Amazing Grace,” “Run Rabbit Run,” and George Herbert’s poem “Love.” The recitations are not without their import to the men, but a line or two from each would suffice.

The filth-encrusted men fantasize about cocktails and swapping Christmas presents. For his gift, Michael wants only a washcloth. He makes the audience think of the many men and women who are trying to live through similar circumstances. We, the lucky ones, watch our brethren find ways to survive. Then we can head home, hug our loved ones, and wash our faces.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
August 17, 2015

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
Much Ado About Nothing
Independent Shakespeare Company at Griffith Park

As a welcomed evening breeze ushered out the reticent vestiges of a traditionally warm Southern California summer’s day, director Jeffrey Wienckowski and his merry band transported all in attendance to a flower festooned villa on the Island of Sicily. Under a starlit sky, Shakespeare’s famous treatise on love—be it eagerly adopted or equally as scorned—played out with an enjoyably raucous abandon. Transposed to the summer of 1945 and the waning days of World War II, Wienckowski’s version suffers not a whit of the oft-glaring directorial conceptualizations sometimes foisted upon the Bard’s works. In other words, we buy it, and what a treat we’ve purchased.
   Leading this troupe are David Melville and Melissa Chalsma, real-life husband and wife co-founders of Independent Shakespeare Company, as the tepid-turned-torrid lovers Benedick and Beatrice. Unlike that of Shakespeare’s Kate and Petruchio, this love-hate relationship is one rooted solely in the cerebral rather than the physical. Much to the delight of the opening-night viewers, Melville and Chalsma fairly reveled in their characters’ verbal swordplay. Likewise, each offers standout solo moments, including downright silly romps throughout the seating areas. In fact, so engaging was Melville, disguised at one point as an ice cream vendor, that a number of younger audience members stopped the show as they approached his pushcart in the hopes of procuring a frozen delight.

Another scene stealer of the first rank is André Martin as the malaprop-spouting Master Constable Dogberry. By way of introduction, Martin, along with Thomas Ehas as his right-hand man, Officer Verges, made their way through the crowd during intermission distributing “citations.” As Act Two progressed, Martin’s bumbling shenanigans, more than a little reminiscent of John Cleese, were the perfectly orchestrated counterpart to the dark subplot in which the secondary love interests, Claudio and Hero, played quite nicely by Erwin Tuazon and Danny Brown, find themselves.
   Strong supporting turns are offered here by Danny Campbell as Hero’s father/Beatrice’s uncle, Leonato, in whose villa the play is set, and Napoleon Tavale as Don Pedro, the commander of the respite-seeking battalion. The antagonist of the piece, if there be one, is the black-hearted Don John, illegitimate brother to Don Pedro. Rendered with lip-smacking glee by William Elsman and backed by Richard Azurdia and Xavi Moreno as his stoogish henchmen, this trio brings a surprisingly successful sense of the melodramatic to the proceedings.

Director Wienckowski’s efforts are further bolstered by mighty fine production values. Amanda Lee’s costuming, in a wide range of nationalities and eras, proffers a theatrical flair. In particular, her soldiers’ ensembles run the gamut from the traditional dark blue with red piping to Melville’s strikingly handsome Canadian Mounties–inspired uniform. Sound designer Chris Porter’s recorded radio news updates and original musical compositions add a pleasant touch to this highly approachable rendition of one of Shakespeare’s more audience-friendly texts.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
August 12, 2015
Citizen: An American Lyric
Fountain Theatre

James Baldwin once noted that skin color cannot be as important as being a human being, something that Stephen Sachs and his Fountain Theatre family have explored time and again over their impressive trailblazing 25-year tenure in our city. Once again, Sachs and his intrepid cohorts have proven themselves to be a vital, urgently significant voice in the battle for our humanity with Sachs’s provocative new adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s international bestselling book of confrontational poetry, here customized into a startlingly creative and highly theatrical meditation on the inequities of race relations in America.
   Rankine’s mismatch of personal stories dealing with racism, told directly to the audience in arrestingly lyrical yet in-your-face verse, confronts how African-Americans are treated in our troubled society, and it could not have surfaced more timely. From beyond how our president is treated and disparaged because of his color or the daily stinging news reports of the deadly way people in authority treat minorities, Rankine confronts an audience peppered with non-minorities with disturbing tales of horrific abuse interspersed with simple verbal faux pas slipping from the lips of people trying to show others just how liberal they are—like someone at a party who, trying to form a well-meaning but ill-advised connection, instead carves a crevice as deep as the Grand Canyon by cheerfully telling someone she has features more like a white person.

“Being around a black person,” one of Rankine’s characters observes, “is sometimes like watching a foreign film without translation,” while another cannot get it out of her head when someone close to her keeps calling her by the name of her housekeeper. Also explored is the career of Serena Williams, who seemed to have to fight through a separate set of rules and a slew of possibly racist judges to get the recognition she deserves, not to mention learning how to keep her tongue and push ahead without angry outbursts.
   Under the dynamic direction of Shirley Jo Finney and with a special nod to the precision movement work created by Anastasia Coon, this stellar cast of six—Bernard K. Addison, Leith Burke, Tina Lifford, Tony Maggio, Simone Missick, and Lisa Pescia—could not have been more perfectly chosen to deliver the punch of Rankine’s thought-provoking spoken-word collage. Utilizing as a mantra a quote from Zora Neale Hurston, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” Finney’s uber-committed sextet weaves around one another, making way for one another verbally and physically, recounting instance after instance of the many imbalances in our social interactions.

The results are disquieting in many ways, and surely that, in part, is Rankine’s intention. Her brilliantly dramatic urban prose leaves us to contemplate our own deeply imbedded and often hidden prejudices, certainly something to revisit often in our lives and dealings with others. Still, Citizen: An American Lyric could sporadically soften its stance a tad or maybe even occasionally detail a few of our species’ strides and similarities as well as our differences. Part of what is most unsettling is that it confronts us so relentlessly, yet never even momentarily offers any resolution. The often irate indictments spewed out makes those gathered feel somewhat more attacked and personally accused rather than encouraging us to join together to make changes happen, to possibly suggest ways we can all work together to improve our lot in life. As Rankine observes, “just getting along should not be an ambition.”

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
August 9, 2015
Mark Taper Forum

The brightest hope for Center Theatre Group’s revival of Martin Sherman’s controversial 1979 play at the Taper, aside from the bells and whistles available to designers and theater artists in that revered space, was the choice of Moisés Kaufman as director. Kaufman’s brilliance at taking challenging raw material and turning it into gold is well-established, based on the limitless originality of his 33 Variations, The Laramie Project, and Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. And truly, this restoration is visually stunning, just as expected.
   Beowulf Boritt’s austerely unadorned but startlingly versatile set is surely a stunner, exquisitely complemented by his costuming, Justin Townsend’s stark lighting, and sound designer Cricket S Myers’s ever-present ambient sound, which begins as white noise but by the end intentionally crescendos into something from which—like this play—one wishes to find relief. Kaufman’s ensemble is also made up of exceptional performers who work diligently to find the moments in Sherman’s difficult and often annoyingly predictable script. The final tableaux, which features the entire cast turned silently upstage contemplating a hugely emotive stage-to-rafters wall of photos of people lost in the Holocaust, is a quintessentially Kaufman touch.

The problem with Bent is that, no matter how much talent and inventiveness goes into re-creating it, the script is clunky and terribly flawed. When it debuted 36 years ago, its central theme, the treatment of and incarceration of gays in Hitler’s Germany, was a draw. It premiered back in the day when one of the most joked about aspects of live theater was that it was supported and attended mostly by Jews and homosexuals, making this play something of a perfect fit. Add in a Dietrich-esque drag queen, a bit of full-frontal nudity, a lot of blood effects, and a scene between the then-unknown Richard Gere and David Dukes as two gay Nazi concentration camp residents brazenly talking each other to orgasm without touching, and there was much reason for its success back then—but not its endurance today.
   The style and genre of Sherman’s most famous play has always been all over the map, something even more evident in today’s more media-savvy era with a more demanding audience adept at scrutinizing all artistic endeavors. The first, almost campy and gay-humored scenes could have been written by Harvey Fierstein. But soon, as those wacky Lucy and Desi–like boyfriends Max and Rudy (Patrick Heusinger and Andy Mientus) escape their flat in Berlin with the SS in hot pursuit, Bent seems to turn into an homage to Steinbeck. After intermission, with Max now alone and joined for his ill-fated stay at Dachau by the pink-triangled Horst (Charlie Hofheimer) to spend most of the rest of the play moving rocks from one side of the stage to the other, Sherman’s script feels like a lost work by Samuel Beckett; one almost expects one of our heroes, as they pass each other on their totally useless quest, to remind the other that it’s still Godot’s appearance they’re anticipating.

Heisinger, Mientus, and Hofheimer are outstanding actors, but, oddly, there is not a lick of sexuality emanating between any of them. This lack confounds and dilutes the horrific resolution of the bond between Max and the sweetly whiny Rudy, and is even more emotionally deflating when Max and Horst, in the play’s most notorious scene, must stand at attention and make love only with their words and thoughts.
   Many fascinating characters weave through the play, including—in a wonderful turn by Ray Baker—Max’s closeted “fluff” uncle Freddie. But as Greta, Rudy’s cross-dressing boss who takes a bribe from the SS to show them where the boys can be found, Scissor Sisters’ lead singer Jake Shears, in his acting debut, is a bit of a disappointment. Granted, “Streets of Berlin,” Greta’s flashy musical number, is suitably spectacular, especially with Kaufman’s inclusion of scantily clad dancing boys in leather harnesses— choreographed by the inimitable Ken Roht to wind around Shears and complete with a show-stopping entrance borrowed from Mick Jagger in the film version because, well… because the Taper can. Still, the importance of Greta’s song is not the spectacle but in the words, as the world-weary club owner realizes and mourns midsong that his days in Berlin and the end of the Weimer era have arrived, something that, in the dressing room scene following the number, must be even more apparent. Although Shears is a treat as a musical performer, as the stomach-sick Greta, he totally misses the point.
   That aforementioned ending tableau is indeed inventive and touching, as was the decision, for opening night at least, to hand departing patrons lit candles to place in the water surrounding the theater, floating in memoriam of those many lives lost in the last century’s most brutal horror. Today, however, nearly four decades since Bent made its initial impactful statement, it has all been said and done much better.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
July 27, 2015
The Biscuiteater
The Electric Lodge

Whether genetically predisposed or trained well at his granddaddy’s knee, Jim Loucks has the knack for telling stories large and small. In this solo show, Loucks layers recollections from his youth and builds a powerful piece about guns, death, and dignity.
   The individual moments Loucks experienced with his grandfather may at first seem like filmy tulle, but they weave together into Kevlar. The young Loucks grew up in small-town Georgia with absentee parents: His father preached, his mother disappeared to work at a dress shop. Fortunately for Loucks, Granddaddy sat on his front porch and dispensed life lessons—the only model of elegance, strength, and wisdom in the young lad’s life.
   Loucks admiringly recalls how his grandfather handled a tiny neighborhood bully—with a poem written, apparently on the spot, lauding the tot’s better qualities. That was long after Granddaddy, the town’s former police chief, killed a black man, spending the remainder of his life living under the guilt and regret. So he taught his grandson to be strong and yet to value all fellow creatures. Grandma figures in here, too, telling of her newlywed husband’s kindhearted but laughing patience, and revealing the great man’s physical flaw of two spindly legs.

Under Lisa Chess’s direction, the piece feels warm, inviting, and yet purposeful, and it builds and ebbs in an inescapable wave. Loucks “does” all the characters, from neighborhood kids through the old-fashionedly feminine grandmother, but he does them so subtly, and the transitions among them are so invisible, that the audience is never forced to watch a show of aping and can instead remain immersed in the tales.
   Just as simply and subtly, Sibyl Wickersheimer’s scenic design of two flats painted with symbols of the stories, plus a few rehearsal boxes and a slightly raised platform representing the porch, are ample visual cues for the audience. Moods are further established by lighting designer Stacy McKenney’s warm Georgian sunlight; and John Nobori’s sound design undistractingly melds with the storytelling.
   A biscuit eater, as in the play’s title, is a hunting dog that, whether genetically predisposed or improperly trained, is gun-shy. As a child, Loucks greatly feared he was one, so he spent a period taunting the neighbor kids and maiming and then killing animals. Under Granddaddy’s kind but firm hand, the lad learned to be strong without ego.
   Unlike his father, Loucks doesn’t preach. It’s probable the audience will leave wondering what his position is on gun control. But a gun’s aftereffects—on the victim and on the shooter—are described as poetically as Granddaddy’s ode to the little neighborhood bully.

Loucks’s delivery is sometimes impenetrable, the only fault to mar the perfection of this piece. Fortunately, so much is said, so artistically, that we get the picture even if a few strokes are missing.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
July 26, 2015
Romeo and Juliet
Independent Shakespeare Co. at the Old Zoo in Griffith Park

It’s fair to say that having presented last year’s highly intimate, indoor adaptation of this piece using only an eight-member ensemble, this company can do it all, in a venue large or small. From the opening sequence of a town square full of sword swinging rivals to the gorgeously staged final tableau involving the doomed lovers, director Melissa Chalsma brings to the massive “confines” of Griffith Park a vibrant, full-cast production.
   This time around, an onstage quartet of musicians, billed as The Lively Helenas, named after one of the guests invited to the party at the Capulets, inhabits stage left. Providing original rock-style underscoring and songs, the drum-dominant music pulsates. And although the performances are ramped up to accommodate this beautiful outdoor locale and scenic designer Caitlin Lainoff’s towering set of gray panels and polished chrome railings/platforms, Chalsma and company retain the ability to magically lull one into a sense of security before this tales turns so abruptly tragic.

Heading up the cast is the incomparable Erika Soto, whose performance is a Juliet for the ages. As stated by her Nurse, played with delightfully bawdy abandon by Bernadette Sullivan, Juliet is a girl of “not quite 14.” Soto shies not away from displaying her character’s bubbling exuberance. Likewise, as the consequences of missed communications and uncontrolled rage begin to ravage what might have been, her Juliet matures before our very eyes as she faces choices far beyond her years.
   As her romantic complement, Nikhil Pai is a Romeo whose dashing good looks belie a young man who, in Juliet, sees that true love is far more enthralling than mere lust. His scenes with Soto (and the balcony scene alone is worthy of one’s attendance) are music to the ears, as these two give wing to Shakespeare’s words. Likewise, Pai’s lamenting of banishment to his confidant, Friar Laurence, played with all the dry wit David Melville can muster, tugs at the strings of the heart.

Supporting roles range from servants, watchmen and citizens—played by William Elsman, Jack Lancaster, Ashley Nguyen and Xavi Moreno—to the better-known characters whose actions create the ever-circling spiral of doom.
   Evan Lewis Smith is a Tybalt whose testiness quickly gives way to fiery rage. Sean Pritchett and Aisha Kabia make for a stunning Lord and Lady Capulet. It’s easy to believe this well-heeled pair, gorgeously costumed by Houri Mahserejian, has sired Soto’s delicately beautiful Juliet. Pritchett, in particular, commands the stage as he rages over Juliet’s resistance to her arranged marriage to Paris, played with a benign naiveté by Vladimir Noel.
   Across the aisle is Faqir Hassan’s portrayal of Romeo’s father, Lord Montague, as a seemingly gentle man whose reaction to the goings on is more confused sadness than hatefulness. His nephew, Benvolio, originally written as a male cousin to Romeo, is given a relatively successful gender twist as played by Mary Goodchild.
   Joseph Culliton’s portrayal of Escalus, Prince of Verona, is one of concerned strength for his kingdom. As Mercutio, André Martin presents an almost unimaginably outrageous character. Whether appalling the story’s other characters with his ribald inappropriateness or cavorting throughout the audience as he delivers the well-known monologue concerning Queen Mab, Martin’s performance is a tour de force—so captivating that when Mercutio is fatally struck at Tybalt’s hand, gasps were heard from numerous theatergoers at this shocking portent of even worse things to come.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
July 23, 2015
Who Killed Comrade Rabbit?
Blank Theatre

Alexander Mushkin was on his way to becoming a major player in the Moscow Art Theatre—at least in his own eyes. After appearing as an understudy for the role of Treplyov in the original production of The Seagull, the actor’s descent into alcohol cost him his marriage and his career. As Anton Chekhov once observed, it’s not, as many people might expect, the sound of the applause that draws someone to an acting career. “All it is,” the great playwright believed, “is the strength to keep going no matter what happens.”
   As Willard Manus and Ilia Volok’s solo play unfolds backstage at the Russian theater complex in 1937, Mushkin (played here by the Moscow Arts–trained Volok), having been reduced to minor player status, is somehow content despite being relegated to playing a giant bunny in the company’s children’s theater wing as punishment handed down upon him by his guru Konstantin Stanislavsky. Mushkin has been sober for 100 days and in return is not-so-patiently waiting for a phone call from the master to tell him the reward for his sobriety will be the title role in the company’s upcoming production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.
   Soon, however, there appears a glitch in his expectations as he changes out of his rabbit costume in his cramped dressing-room/living space in the bowels of the theater. He receives a notice from the Soviet Secret Police to appear before them for questioning concerning possible subversive activity within the company. Hearing a news report that one of his colleagues has been executed by firing squad and another disappeared totally after just such an interrogation, Mushkin faces two choices, both at odds with each other. On one side of the stage is a huge portrait of his beloved leader Joseph Stalin; on the other is a scrutinizing photo of Stanislavsky staring down at him through his pince-nez. Whether Mushkin agrees to cooperate with one of his country’s liberators or rats out his great mentor in an effort to save himself is at issue.

Under the skilled and passionate direction of the legendary Barbara Bain, this project, curated with her guidance at The Actors Studio, has much to offer. Volok is a dynamic, compelling performer, able to pull off an extremely broad and over-the-top characterization because everything he does emanates from a deeply committed sense of his own truth; as his character’s master would have said, begin from a base of reality, and a great actor can make any behavior work.
   The script needs polishing. As is, there’s still an aura of acting-workshop lingering here, as though it germinated directly from one of Uta Hagen’s Physical Destination exercises. As Volok continuously relies on heavy breathing to convey Mushkin’s anxiety or trolls through trunks and drawers muttering Beckettian mantras such as “My hat…my hat…” over and over, the monotonous dialogue is then replaced by another search for something else not in the troubled guy’s immediate proximity. Trying to find a disguise to make an escape before the police come to pick him up, or discovering his wife’s wig from her turn as Nina Zarechnaya makes him wail his loss for her with equal repetition, until finding a bottle of vodka calms his behavior considerably.
   Interestingly, whenever Volok’s character goes off into reciting one of Treplyov’s gloriously poetic speeches from The Seagull, or starts delivering Shakespearean soliloquies by Hamlet, Richard III, and Marc Antony, the piece instantly soars to new levels and quickly establishes what a truly magnificent actor Volok is. As is, this is an extremely promising work-in-progress; add some more satisfying dialogue revealing more of Mushkin’s backstory to keep our interest and give the dynamic Bain more thought-provoking material with which to paint, and this could be a far more evocative production.

A small point: The plain manila envelope Mushkin receives containing his police summons undoubtedly, in 1937, would not have featured a clearly visible computer barcode on the back facing directly toward the audience only a few feet away. Nothing in Who Killed Comrade Rabbit? indicates it’s meant to address time travel.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
July 20, 2015
Brighton Beach Memoirs
Kentwood Players at Westchester Playhouse

For good reason, playwright Neil Simon has been loved by the theatergoing public for decades. For even better reason, his Brighton Beach Memoirs is widely considered to be among his best plays. In Kentwood’s production of it, this 1982 work remains as charming, hilarious, and bittersweet as ever, thanks to top-of-the-line portrayals of Simon’s iconic roles.
   Dreams deferred are at the root of this play. They cause conflict and they inspire growth. For 15-year-old Eugene Jerome, living in Brooklyn in 1937 means he dreams of playing for the Yankees. But this character, a stand-in for the playwright, also dreams of being a writer.
   There will be no athletic future for Eugene, nor was there one for Simon. But as portrayed here by the delightful Matthew Van Oss, Eugene clearly has the wit and perspicacity to write. And he has a family full of quirks and woes, the gift that keeps on giving to a playwright. Eugene is infinitely more good-natured than the irascible Simon ever has been. Then again, even with the universal travails, his childhood seems infinitely sweeter than Simon’s.
   Packed into a compact but immaculate house (sturdy, appealing scenic design by Jason Renaldo Gant) are Eugene’s parents, Kate and Jack; Eugene’s elder brother, Stanley; and Kate’s sister, Blanche, and Blanche’s two daughters, Nora and Laurie. New frustrations, old jealousies, illnesses, and financial troubles plague the characters. All are ultimately handled with loving care.
   Throughout the play, Eugene serves as the audience’s tour guide, observing his family with sharp eyes and an acerbic tongue. Anything he might have missed, however, has been noted by this production’s director, Valerie Ruel. The cast evidences a deep understanding of the characters’ interrelationships and histories, as well as their secular Jewishness, keeping themselves and the audience immersed in the tumultuous lives of the Jeromes.

Ruel creates a feeling of living in another era, not necessarily mimicking the 1930s but of a more genteel time and place. That doesn’t mean Eugene has the purest of thoughts and the most refined turn of phrases, however. But lust for his cousin Nora and his cajoling Stanley into revealing ever more data on the facts of life clearly mark this 15-year-old as someone from much earlier, more innocent times.
   Ruel’s cast is outstanding, some of the actors turning in portrayals as good as if not better than those seen in the “big” productions of this play. Particularly impressive are Lori Kaye, whose Kate is a loving lioness, and Katie Rodriguez, whose Laurie, usually played as a somber little pill, delights in her manipulativeness.
   Louis Gerard Politan is luminous as the noble, probably greatly idealized Stanley. Laura Slade Wiggins is a dewy, sadly frustrated young Nora. Veronica Alicino is a heartsick Blanche, trying to do right by her family. Harold Dershimer is a sturdy yet solicitous Jack, a model of old-fashioned American ethics.
   But, of course, Van Oss must carry this show, and he does so on energized young shoulders, mining the meaningful comedy and tender poignancy out of every line and situation.
   To top this excellent work, costuming (designed by Marie Olivas), particularly the enchanting but very simple outfits for the women, helps take the audience back in time to days when problems weren’t less burdensome but somehow seemed soluble. And it’s good to know Eugene’s dreams ultimately came true.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
July 13, 2015

Republished courtesy Daily Breeze

Antaeus Theatre Company

William Inge’s Pulitzer-winning classic Picnic must have been a provocative original when it debuted in 1953, a time when the pastoral lifestyle inhabited by people living in the unforgiving American heartland had previously been relegated only to corn as high as an elephant’s eye and love finding Andy Hardy. Inge’s insular insight into the drab day-to-day existence of the townsfolk in this bucolic community located somewhere deep in the middle of Kansas was something new—something akin to Chekhov daring to present the dysfunctionality of former aristocrats in post-Revolutionary Russia, or Clifford Odets sending New York taxi drivers striking to form a union.
   Flo Owens, raising two daughters alone, wants more than anything else to make sure they end up happier than she is. Life takes a dangerous twist when hunky drifter Hal Carter shows up in town on a rail, stopping everyone cold when he strips off his shirt to do errands on the property of the Owens’s lonely neighbor Helen Potts. Flo’s instant wariness toward Hal is not shared by her daughters: the beautiful young Madge, who obviously feels both compassion and instant Tennessee Williams–hot desire for Hal, and Millie, the gawky teenage wallflower who got all the brains but not her sister’s looks. Confounding the issue are the waves of sexual tension emanating between Madge and Hal, her attention apparent to her mother and Alan Seymour, the wealthy “townboy” who has been courting her all summer. Soon, as everyone else goes off to the play’s pivotal picnic, Madge and Hal are having something of a picnic all their own, parked under a bridge on the outskirts of town.
   Wanton casual sex was not an issue explored in theater before people like Inge—who, fortified by massive amounts of gin, simply started typing. Yet his unexpected and unfettered exploration of the taboo topic of premarital sex in post-war America prophesized the ’60s sexual revolution. This doesn’t guarantee that his work is easy to resurrect these days. Although the circumstances Madge and her frustratingly inward-looking family and neighbors endure hold up in many ways, in other ways they do not. Inge’s glaringly stereotypical small-town characters, trapped in intensely predictable situations, would have remained more durable if Picnic had been a novel.

This is where the miraculous Cameron Watson and the folks at Antaeus Theatre Company come in—and come together. Watson directs as if re-creating a painting by an old master, and, with the participation of some of Los Angeles’s most-impressive actors and theater artists, this return to the colorlessly inward-looking world of the Owens family and their friends is a glorious success. In moments of true Watson, ensemble members stand around in long moments of completely beaten-down silence; used and abused “old-maid” schoolteacher Rosemary enters, after a long amorous night of bootleg booze–fueled debauchery, to sit on the tree swing with her back to the audience; and the audience watches Flo through her kitchen window, as she is finally left alone and twirling slowly around the cramped room, flabbergasted by having nowhere left to go or anyone to help go there.
   The design team is uniformly in top form, from Robert Selander’s evocative and versatile two-story set to Jared A. Sayeg’s lovely lighting effects, which turn the family’s farmhouse into a Grant Wood painting, subtly mutating as it bathes the town’s entombed participants in early morning light, then full sunlight and on to dusk. Terri A. Lewis’s simple costuming also adds to the ambience, as does Jeff Gardner’s impressive sound design, especially when the local wildlife heralds in the dawn of a new morning and the train roars through the town, craftily utilizing the former Deaf West Theatre space’s under-seat woofers.

The production is double-cast—or, as the company likes to refer to the practice originated when the troupe formed in 1991, partner cast. There was not a bad performance anywhere in either of the veteran casts on opening weekend. Oddly enough, however, one ensemble was discernably more ready to open than the other. Where one cast was filled with energy, extraordinarily effective in telling the story and trusting Watson’s visualization, the other seemed in need of a little more time to let the dirt between the characters’ toes sink in.
   After a last-minute substitution of Jordan Monaghan as Madge as part of both casts, Monaghan’s participation was revelatory. From the moment she stepped on the stage in her second turn in the role, her vivacity and playfulness, so missing two nights before, was not only intact but substantially more interesting. It seemed fairly apparent this might have been due to her onstage relationship with Jason Dechert’s engagingly charismatic Hal, the sexual sparks between them, so vacant in the other coupling, producing so much heat that the producers might consider passing out paper fans to audience members whenever the pair performs together.
   All the performances here are skillful and committed, even if some are more successful than others at this stage of the game. Rhonda Aldrich is especially noteworthy as Flo, her desperation with where her life has gone heartbreakingly defined. Matthew Gallenstein is a particularly memorable Alan. Kitty Swink and Janellen Steininger bring wonderful pathos to the role of Mrs. Potts. Although Jackie Preciado is far more physically right than Connor Kelly-Eiding as the awkward yet richly engaging Millie, both actors are charming in the role.

In some of the play’s eclectic cameo roles, Dylan Jones is a standout as Rosemary’s super-perky co-worker Irma Kronkite, who could singlehandedly make anyone stop thinking about attending his or her impending high school reunion; and, as Bomber, the horny, overconfident kid paperboy who opens the play lobbing verbal barbs with Millie, Ben Horwitz and Jake Borelli commendably set the scene and create the era, making the audience feel it’s right back home, wherever that may be.
   Gigi Bermingham and Shannon Holt as Rosemary could not be more different in their interpretations, yet both are striking in what they bring to the role. Bermingham is far less put-together than how she is usually cast, while Holt is infinitely more simple and unadorned than usual. The result is quite fascinating—and could be the poster child for Antaeus’s commitment to double-casting.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
July 1, 2015
Bad Jews
Geffen Playhouse

In the West Coast debut of Joshua Harmon’s hilariously and savagely discursive Bad Jews, it’s almost uncomfortable being a fly on the wall of millennial brothers Jonah and Liam Haber’s Upper Westside Manhattan studio apartment bought for them by their wealthy parents. When their less-well-off cousin Daphna (“Compared to your family,” she complains, “we’re like the Joneses”) plops down on an air mattress on their floor while in town to lay their beloved concentration camp survivor grandfather to rest, long-smoldering sparks instantly ignite—especially when Liam shows up the evening after the funeral because he lost his cell phone on his skiing trip to Aspen, arriving with his latest in a string of cheerfully vacant shiksa girlfriends on his arm.
   Israel-obsessed rabbinical student Daphna is a terminally whiny, intensely angry, resolutely Jewish-identifying motor-mouth. Liam begs his blonde airhead girlfriend, Melody, not to offer any pertinent information to Daphna, because it is traditionally absorbed, rattles around in her miserably unhappy brain, and then gets spit back with an expert ability to seek and destroy. This is particularly true when she points out to anyone around her the depth of her personally solemn cultural and religious commitment. The brothers don’t seem to share this commitment, and this infuriates her. For Liam, however, Daphna is “about as Israeli as Martin Fucking Van Buran.”

As played by Molly Ephraim with an obvious nod to the discernably accomplished directorial hand of Matt Shakman, Daphna emerges as the fast-paced comedy’s most memorable and even sympathetic character. She is truly a nonstop monster: brusque, frustratingly argumentative, unbelievably annoying, and with a voice that could give anyone a migraine in about two minutes. It’s not usual for such a personality to emerge as someone audiences appreciate or with whom they identify, but the unearthly depth of Ephraim’s creation, fashioning Daphna as somebody who never for a moment relents from her abrasive conduct, but who still subtly lets her character’s monumental sadness, insecurity, and loneliness show through, makes her one of the most multifaceted antiheroes since Charles Laughton assayed Inspector Javert.
   As Liam, who should have checked into a hotel or at least should have downed a handful of valium before greeting his adversarial cousin, Ari Brand is a perfect foil for Ephraim’s sharp verbal thrusts directly to the gut, insisting on calling her by her birth name, Diana, as intently as she spits out his Hebrew name, which unfortunately for him is Schlomo. Lili Fuller, as that stranger in a strange land Melody, is in contrast sweetly dumb yet truly endearing, especially when she innocently takes on Daphna’s wickedly nasty challenge to exhibit her abandoned training as an opera major, delivering the most sidesplitting and unforgettable rendition of “Summertime” ever presented before an audience.

Fuller and Raviv Ullman as Jonah spend a lot of their time trying desperately to stay out of the fight between Daphna and Liam. Even more than their lifelong hatred for each other, this fight centers on inheriting their Poppy’s chai, the religious relic their late grandfather inherited from his exterminated father and wore around his neck all his life, except for his three years in the camps when he kept it hidden under his tongue. Ullman is impressive in the role of the quiet, hapless brother, delivering a wonderfully subtle performance that, without words, provides a conduit for the rest of us to look on as well—and with equal discomfort and horror.
   Perhaps you need to be a bit of a bad Jew to truly appreciate Bad Jews in all its thorny, irreverent splendor—as evidenced by some of the better Jews in attendance for the Geffen’s opening night performance, many of whom sat stone-faced throughout the fast-paced intermissionless 90 minutes, looking as though they wished they could leave, never considering for a moment breaking through with a tiny titter of appreciation. Sadly, what they missed, by focusing only on what could for some be highly offensive language and behavior, is Harmon’s far more valuable message, which cuts through the biting humor like a knife and ultimately is far more universal. Lord, what might be accomplished if members of our muddled species would learn to swallow our pride and join together to embrace our heritages, whatever that may be.

Bad Jews is a play about sanctimonious comportment as it clashes headfirst with egocentricity—and how such behavior trumps the precious and moving history these particular people should be proud to share. The story does not end with a neat reconciliation, leaving us to wonder if these cousins, instead of worrying about who is treating whom the worst, will ever resolve their differences. As with so many families, in all cultures and stations of life regardless of religion, ethnicity, or political differences, it seems as though this generation of the family will be battling and pounding their own chests right through Thanksgiving, on to Passover, and continuing over the next few decades until they are left to bury one another. What we miss in our lives while brooding about the past and lugging around grudges about how we’re treated!

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
June 21, 2015
Songs of the Fall
Ruby Theatre at the Complex

Attending an entry in the Hollywood Fringe
Festival is a roll of the dice, especially when the production is an original musical utilizing only the limited bells and whistles available in a black box at the Complex. Many red flags surrounded the premiere of Ben Boquist’s Songs of the Fall, not least that it was touted as a “pop/rock musical with a fresh and controversial take on the Adam and Eve myth,” promising to explore themes of race, gender, addiction, and even reincarnation by asking “what really happened in the Garden of Eden.” This might make some of us who consider ourselves challenged by sappy musical theater offerings, not to mention scoffers of the theory of creation, run for the exits. The saving grace might be in the term “myth” to describe the show.
   Songs of the Fall is truly a diamond in the rough—or in this case, in the Ruby. Boquist’s book is charming, and the show’s premise, as it zips back and forth in time between Eden and present-day New York, is inventive enough, as is his sweetly sincere performance as the generally clueless Adam. Still, what indeed is remarkable about this quietly auspicious introduction to his talents is the score. Judging from the song titles listed in the program, expectations could easily initially be met with skepticism and a few eye-rolls, but Boquist’s compositions are impressively sophisticated and memorably lyrical, especially with Robert Rues’s complicated arrangements that make them even richer.

Under director Whittney Rooks, there’s something delightful in the wide-eyed wonder of Boquist’s footie-pajama-ed Adam and Unati Mangaliso’s equally comfy Eve, though his character emerges as the planet’s first doofus boyfriend and hers as the first whiny, nagging woman, the pair sometimes giving off the air of a couple arguing about cost versus cleaning power of some laundry detergent in a TV commercial.
   John Eddings as the wisely elderly Grey, Cody Hays as the cross-dressing Prime, and the barely teenaged Aurora Blue as Cate are part of one depiction of God, here called The We and living as homeless people on the street of New York. All performers, including the miscast Leanna Rachel as a Lucifer, someone who has to work way too hard to get to evil, are infectiously earnest and sincere, although the singing expertise exhibited proves somewhat uneven. The true breakthrough performance here is the prepubescent Blue, who knocks her songs and her performance way out into the continuous traffic of Santa Monica Boulevard.

Like so many writers offering their work for the first time in such a discerning public forum, Boquist seems to include everything he has ever wanted to say, as well as every tune he ever was proud to have composed, in this one outing. This two-act, two-plus-hour show should be pared down considerably. As is, the work begins to drag as the storyline and the music get a tad repetitious. Above all small druthers, however, one thing is crystal clear: This garden-fresh (pun intended) new kid on the block is an amazing composer, and this work heralds a promising introduction to someone who, in a fairer world than ours sometimes, could someday be recognized as a formidable contributor to the art form.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
June 18, 2015
Private Lives
Little Fish Theatre

Appallingly feuding but passionately attracted couples are not new to the stage. Shakespeare drew them in The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing. Edward Albee penned them in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
   Amanda and Elyot are quintessentially creations of the great British wit Noël Coward, in his 1930 play Private Lives. Coward, a master at cheekily spotlighting human foibles, gibes at the mores and marriages of his time. Amanda and Elyot had admittedly made each other miserable in their three-year marriage. Now, five years after they divorced, they find themselves on a balcony of a hotel at a French seaside resort. Unfortunately it’s the first evening of their honeymoons with their respective new spouses.
   Elyot and his new wife, Sibyl, clearly aren’t the happiest of couples, either, as evidenced by Sibyl’s relentless probing into the causes of Elyot’s divorce. Meanwhile, Amanda’s new husband, Victor, is similarly interrogating Amanda. But once Elyot and Amanda catch sight of each other, the lust and the violence flow again.
   The former couple runs off together, to her Paris apartment, where they hunker down as only English sophisticates can do. Their new spouses find them there—no sense asking how, nor, if it’s not too middle-class American to wonder, what each does for a living.
   In the decades after Coward wrote the play, laws and mores have changed in the marriage department, but his points about love are evergreen, and those points are given further honing in this production, directed by James Rice.

The only disappointments here are in the design elements. The Act One balcony is packed with what look like paint-flecked tarpaulins tossed over presumably patio furniture—in reality hiding Act Two’s Parisian living-room setup. The audience would believe the setting is a badly neglected American backyard before it could possibly believe this is a honeymoon retreat on the English Channel.
   Costuming is eye-catching though not period-defining. Garbing the hapless Victor in tails and spats might be a hint about his lack of couth, but it comes across as a design error.
   Nonetheless, the actors soon lure the audience into the lives of these Bickersons. Rice’s cast may not display the frothy English sophistication Coward was known for, but the actors create real people onstage, particularly Rice’s two leads.

They are Noah Wagner, playing Elyot, and Amanda Karr as Amanda. In the role originated in London’s West End by Coward, Wagner gives Elyot a red-blooded presence. It’s needed, because Karr has a personality that envelops the stage. There’s no fear one or the other character will lose—nor get injured—in the verbal and physical battles that this romance comprises (excellent fight choreography by Mike Mahaffey).
   By perfect contrast, Lukas Bailey makes a stiff-upper-lip Victor, and Leona Britton is a fluttery, wailing Sibyl. Elizabeth Craig completes the cast, playing the French maid, swiftly speaking only French and adding masses of Gallic disdain.
   In real life, Amanda and Elyot would not be not the kind of couple with whom most of us would want to spend an evening. Fortunately, in the hands of Little Fish, they are separated from us by the nice, safe fourth wall of theater, so we admire the quality acting.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
June 15, 2015

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

Cookie & the Monster
Magnum Players at Theatre of NOTE

Most of us had invisible friends when growing up. Some we conjured as furry giant bunnies, others cuddly teddy bears, or, in the case of certain future actor–theater writers, perhaps even a well-spoken talking version of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms who followed him around everywhere, knocking down imaginary brick walls on sour-faced unsuspecting passersby. For our heroine Cookie (a marvelously deadpanning Jaime Andrews), however, her own personal id-incarnate is really a monster, shouting orders at the side of her pigtailed head like a drill sergeant on crack and slyly coercing the poor impressionable child into one disastrous situation after another.
   While Cookie is still an impressionable suburban child living at home with her parents (Perry Daniel and Curt Bonnem), listening to Linda Ronstadt, Chicago, and the Time-Life Christmas Album, her dastardly Monster (Scott Leggett, who plays the role as though he were Oliver Hardy doing a Louis Black impression) begins his lifelong quest to lead her astray with the usual kid stuff, like talking back to her mother’s friends or scaring off potential Barbie Doll–obsessed playmates. But after puberty hits Cookie, Monster’s bad advice becomes infinitely more dangerous: suggesting she hang out with black-lipsticked Goth girls, experiment with a tempting variety of street and psychedelic drugs, and give her high school’s most popular football jocks blowjobs behind the bleachers after the game.

As written by first-time playwright Andrews in what she calls a “fucked-up fact-based fairytale” (there’s even an acknowledgement in the program’s special thanks section to the “actual Scott Pederson,” the name she also gives her horny football hero), Cookie & the Monster,, with its untouchable reminiscences of terminal teenaged angst and one wonderful, arrestingly cheery original song about teenage cutting (“Make a little slice / Doesn’t that feel nice?”), is a quick-witted, delightfully off-centered comedy so black it’s in danger of leaving bruises.
   As embodied by Andrews, Leggett, and a super-uninhibited cast of some of LA’s funniest performers (including, aside from others mentioned, Sunah Bilsted, Peter Fluet, and K.J. Middlebrooks), Cookie’s life becomes an endearing and surprisingly hilarious journey. The Molly Shannon–esque Erin Parks is a special standout in a series of wildly disparate characters, including one of the stone-faced Goth girls and Cookie’s eye-rolling elder sibling who softens her feelings for her younger sister when faced with her own catastrophic illness.
   Guy Picot sits in the booth, delivering “once upon a times” as the disembodied offstage voice of the narrator, Sky Guy (get the sense, judging from the name, that maybe the character was written for him?). But as fun as Picot is to watch, it would be great if his Sky Guy could instead perhaps be Downstage-Left Guy, placed at the side of the stage in a big cushy red leather easy chair with the script in his lap and a nice glass of merlot beside him on an end table.

Through all the raucous, wonderfully inappropriate laughs afforded by Cookie & the Monster, if this was indeed, as Andrews suggests, something akin to what she experienced as she traveled that rocky road from childhood precocity to therapy-inducing post-adolescence to what appears to be moderately well-adjusted adulthood, it’s a wonder she got here at all. It’s impressive how willing and able she is, surely encouraged by the obviously compatible collaboration of director JJ Mayes egging her on, to eagerly and honestly cough up the pain of her early years and turn the sputum into a rich, thick foam of nonstop laughter.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
June 12, 2015
Matilda The Musical
Ahmanson Theatre

The audience for the opening of Matilda The Musical was packed with children, certainly drawn by the fact that this wondrous production was adapted from the popular classic novel by the late Roald Dahl, perhaps the most successful writer of children’s books since Hans Christian Anderson or Lewis Carroll. And, like that of those particular authors, Dahl’s work was not all about fuzzy bunnies or how to adopt perfect manners to please one’s parents. His work was often dark, twisted, and unruly, even perceived as potentially inappropriate or troubling for his young readers by more-conservative critics. This wily, celebratory musical adaptation of one of his most enduring works is no exception.
   The multi-award-winning Matilda, which before landing here took London and New York by what a character calls her “ouchy front bottom” is, like the rest of Dahl’s prolific body of work, an edgy, incredibly inventive offering. Thankfully, it’s one for the history books that can help upgrade the perception of musical theater as merely the place where people consider the problems of Maria and try to get to the church on time.

Dahl’s story follows the title character (impressively played opening night by Mia Sinclair Jenness), a brilliant little lassie who devours novels that include Jane Eyre and Crime and Punishment, much to the horror of her disapproving family who won’t even acknowledge that their “creep of an offspring” is a girl. Her gloriously slimy used-car-salesman father (Quinn Mattfield) sings a number right to the audience: telling the kiddies that they don’t need anything but the telly to help them grow up to be just like him, and stating that TV is “All you need to fill your muffin/Without really having to think of nuthin’.” Matilda’s mother (Cassie Silva) has a breakneck schedule as a parent since microwaves don’t cook themselves, and, when she’s not practicing her… um…moves with her overbuilt competition dance coach Rudolpho (a hilarious Jaquez Andre Sims), she follows her mantra that “Looks are more important than books.”
   Everywhere Matilda turns, she is met with disapproval and shock that she is smart, except when visiting her friend Mrs. Phelps (Ora Jones) at her beloved library or when her promise is noted by her sweet new teacher Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood). But even that is not enough to keep our pintsized heroine from the clutches of her school’s dastardly bulldyke-y headmistress Miss Trunchbull (Bryce Ryness in the most outrageous nightmare-inducing drag since John Travolta played Edna Turnblad), a dastardly former Olympic hammer thrower whose motto is “Bambinatum est maggitum (children are maggots). It’s Trunchbull’s belief that to teach a child, one must first break that child—the practice of humiliating or otherwise torturing her wee charges being something she admits “gives me a warm glow in my lower intestine.”

The all-stops-out adult ensemble is genuinely glorious, under Matthew Warchus’s animated direction, obviously encouraged to play the cartoon quality of their characters for all it’s worth. Ryness is particularly memorable as Trunchbull, his “The Hammer” and “The Smell of Rebellion” proving to be two of the most delightful musical offerings of the evening. Mattfield and Silva are equally courageous in their comic abandon, as is the hysterically low-key Danny Tieger as their worshipped elder son Michael, whose sweatshirt proclaiming “genius” emblazoned across the chest could not be farther from the truth.
   Jenness (who alternates in the demanding role with Gabby Gutierrez and Mabel Tyler) is an understated standout in the title role, one that doesn’t allow much offstage time to recover, and the children’s ensemble is jam-packed with adorable and infectiously precocious kiddies belting and tumbling into our hearts at every turn. If anything is amiss in this mounting of the musical, however, it is in how often difficult it is to understand the words of Dennis Kelly’s ingenious book or the lyrics of Tim Minchin’s masterful score when intoned by the children in the cast. Perhaps due to the thickness of the kids’ faux-cockney accents or the problems inherent in sound designer Simon Baker’s efforts to overcome the cavernous Ahmanson’s echoes, the fact that the adult performers are able to be understood makes it seem the problem is not insurmountable as the run continues.

It’s a shame when anything cannot be heard here, since Kelly and Minchin have together created such an incredibly masterful homage to Dahl—one that keeps the children in the audience enthralled, despite the production’s nearly three-hour running time, while never missing the opportunity to add quips and situations for adults to savor as they zip directly over the heads of the young ones. There’s a wonderful Pee-Wee’s Playhouse feeling about the proceedings, with deliciously exaggerated characterizations and designer Rob Howell’s costuming only adding further colorful embellishments.
   From the opening number “Miracle,” which sends up parents who dote on their children as the main reason for living, to brilliantly onboard choreographer Peter Darling’s energetic staging of the children’s “School Song” and his cleverly tongue-in-cheek parody of Spring Awakening in the eleventh-hour “Revolting Children,” to paeans to the glories of ignorance and of being “Loud” (a showstopping tango number performed by Silva and Sims), nothing is off-limits for bookwriter Kelly, director Warchus, and this gloriously gifted comedic company of players.
   The true star of all this, however, is the amazing score and lyrics by Minchin (aided by knockout multilayered vocal orchestrations by Chris Nightingale), which continuously accentuates Dahl’s original message, an important reminder to kids and adults alike: that although we can’t choose how we’re born or how we’re raised, we sure can choose to take over from there, manage our own lives, and work tirelessly in our brief time on this conflicted planet to create our own happiness.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
June 8, 2015
Love, Loss, and What I Wore
Laguna Playhouse

Not many men would associate pivotal moments in their lives with clothing items, but most women can relate to Nora and Delia Ephron’s witty play based on Ilene Beckerman’s 1995 bestselling book of the same name. Five actors are seated on a stage with scripts at hand, if needed, and they recount life’s experiences through tales of prom dresses, wedding gowns, shoes, purses, and the like. While a seemingly trivial exercise, it manages to link birth, sex, rape, marriage, divorce, and other triumphs and adversities to what they wore at the time.
   The leading character is Gingy (Nancy Dussault), who is Beckerman’s alter ego. Aided by a rack of simple drawings of garments on posters, Gingy recounts moments of her life from childhood on. As she finishes an anecdote, the spotlight turns to the other actors beside her: Lisa Hale, Amber Mercomes, Dee Dee Rescher, and Erika Whalen Schindele. They represent all ages and sizes, which makes them relatable to nearly every woman in the audience. Though this theater piece is definitely not aimed at men, it might provide an insight into their wives, sisters, or mothers as the stories unfold.
   Gingy announces topics—The Closet, Black, The Dressing Room—and the women riff on their personal encounters. One talks about getting her first training bra, another describes high heels and the concomitant discomfort, a third tells of her near-traumatic inability to keep her purse organized.

Not all topics are lighthearted. An account of breast cancer and its anguishes adds an evocative moment to the tales. A rape is described in an almost detached way, reflecting soberly on things that happen to women all too often. Their recitals of love are not all hearts and flowers.
   Rescher’s quirky personality gives her the comic edge, and she mines every moment she is featured in. Schindele is young and adds a fresh voice to the stories. Mercomes is warm and speaks perceptively about a gang sweater she wore. Hale provides a serious emotional edge in her breast-cancer account that chills but inspires. The veteran Dussault is a natural, and her presence anchors the other women. Her artistic attempts at drawing a clothed figure is a most charming moment of the play.
   Director Jenny Sullivan has a feel for the Ephron sisters’ sharp narrative. For those familiar with their works—When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle—the stories will strike a familiar chord. Sullivan allows for individuality but focuses on their mutual understanding of each other’s contributions.

At the conclusion of the performance attended, some women in the audience broke out in cheers, acknowledging their connection to the topics that resonate so well. The casting of this combination of actors and their skillful execution goes a long way toward making the play relevant and enjoyable.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
May 26, 2015
Around the World in 80 Days
Actors Co-op

Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days has been made into films, most notably twice: in 1956 in Mike Todd’s celebrity-studded epic with David Niven and Cantinflas, and in Disney’s 2004 version with Steve Coogan and Jackie Chan. The novel has been adapted for the theater several times, along with this version by Mark Brown in 2001. Even Verne, however could not have imagined the wildly enterprising comedic touches that could be applied to his action-adventure novel.
   As staged by Actors Co-op, Brown’s version is a collaborative enterprise among five actors—Eva Abramian, Andrew Carter, Kevin Coubal, Philip Kreyche, and Bruce Ladd—and its director, Rhonda Kohl. It is clearly as much fun for its actors as it is for the audience.
   In it, Phileas Fogg (Kreyche) wagers £20,000 at his Reform Club that he can traverse the globe in the titular period. He engages a servant, Passepartout (Carter), and they set off by rail and steamship to reach London in 80 days at precisely the same hour as they left. Locations such as India, Egypt, China, and Japan allow for some clever stagecraft, as well as an assemblage of delightful costume changes.

Keys to the success of this Actors Co-op production are an engaging narrative that ties scenes together, fast-paced direction with latitude for whimsical comic touches, and a synergy among cast members that makes believable the fanciful stratagems employed to get the job done.
   Kreyche is a sober and precise Fogg. His no-nonsense confidence stands in stark contrast to the loyal but beset-upon Passepartout; the bumbling surety of Scotland Yard Detective Fix (Ladd), who is certain Fogg is the bank robber he has been charged to bring in; and the myriad citizens Fogg encounters who throw roadblocks in his path. His way is eased with payoffs here and there.
   Abramian plays multiple roles as a newspaper person, a priest, Fogg’s former valet, but most notably Aouda, the Indian woman the companions rescue who is to be sacrificed by suttee. As the play advances, she becomes devoted to Fogg, and her performance is a gentle but enterprising contrast to all the silliness surrounding her.
   Carter’s Passepartout is nimble and crafty, even as he falls prey to thieves and misfortunes. His hilarious French accent also fits the farcical nature of the production. Coubal adeptly takes many roles necessary to flesh out the story—from clerks, engineers, and porters to a director of police and even a perfectly goofy judge who sentences Fogg to jail.

David Goldstein’s marvelous set design and Orlando De La Paz’s scenic artistry allow Coubal to emerge expeditiously from multiple locations on stage, to the delight of the audience. Victorian England as well as numerous foreign locations are easily deduced from Wendell C. Carmichael’s fine costumes. Krys Fehervari’s hair design, including numerous mustaches and hairpieces, allows for many amusing moments.
   Lighting by Matthew Taylor is effective throughout, and David B. Marling’s sound design is notable for its variety and integration of essential noises in action scenes. In a gunfight, the shots seem to be coming from beside your theater seat.
   So, forget the film versions. This adaptation of Verne’s timeless story is clever from start to finish and makes a case for live theater being one of the great pure art forms.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
May 13, 2015
Not That Jewish
Jewish Women’s Theater

In Not That Jewish we encounter something distinctly unexpected: a first-person memoir by a former standup comic that actually feels like a real play. Even more of a surprise, it’s pegged to a particular demographic (i.e. Jewish women; note name of theater company) while possessing enormous crossover appeal. A fast-paced scrapbook, funny and heartwarming by turns, Monica Piper’s life story proves an unqualified delight in the Jewish Women’s Theater’s spacious yet intimate white-box space known as The Braid.
   Piper’s broadest thesis is that identity is determined by the qualities of one’s heart, not by one’s success or failure at following the rituals and rules of whichever culture a person happens to be born into. In the course of her journey (with stops for standup comedy, a failed marriage, sitcom writing, adopting a son from a Christian single mom, and breast cancer), Piper discovers that the characteristics most needed for a soulful life—compassion, caring, respect, humor—are available to anyone who chooses to tap into them.

Oy vey! I reread that paragraph and think, gevalt, the reader is going to think Not That Jewish is some kind of sermon or self-help tract. Not at all: You don’t win writing Emmys, work on Roseanne Barr’s staff, or secure recognition as a Showtime Comedy All-Star if you’re a tub-thumping spiritual healer. Rest assured that Piper’s take on life (hers and everyone else’s) is infused with laughter, much of it of the belly variety. It’s just that she’s seen enough tsuris, and learned from it, that she can’t help passing along what she knows. And it all happens to be of the sympathetic, healing variety.
   Quick glimpse: Oncologist sits her down to give her “good news, we found it early. And it’s small.” “How small?” “Um…it’s small.” “Is it small enough that I don’t have to do all those 10K runs?”
   I cannot imagine anyone’s not enjoying being in Piper’s company for 90 minutes. And if there are any such, I wouldn’t want to know them.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
May 11, 2015
The Anarchist
Theatre Asylum

There was a time when a play by David Mamet meant wildly fascinating though often dastardly characters shouting offensive personal viewpoints regarding the world around them. Mamet’s “people” were, at the same time, both shocking and entertaining. Yet, above everything else, they were harbingers spouting strongly worded indictments of the ignorance and greed rampant in our American milieu. What happened along the way is a mystery, but his latest work, The Anarchist, which understandably lasted a brief 17 performances on Broadway in 2012, is a deeply and unrepentantly conservative treatise that not even subtly disguises the playwright’s far-right politics. Despite Mamet’s obvious gift for writing dialogue, this play is as one-sided as Fox News on steroids.
   The premise here is that Cathy (Felicity Huffman), a ’60s radical imprisoned for 35 years for murdering two police officers, sits in the office of a prison administrator (Rebecca Pidgeon), meeting to discuss her pardon before her nemesis of many years retires. With Cathy’s fate clearly plopped in the hands of the other woman, Cathy tries any means available, including her massive intellect and ability to debate issues, to be able to feel the sun shine on her face again.

Ever read a work of philosophy or a political essay with that constant little voice in your head asking silently, “What does he mean by that?” or “And the answer is?” or “Why does he say this?” or “How could he possibly think that is a cohesive argument?” That’s exactly what The Anarchist elicits, as Huffman proselytizes Mamet’s pigheaded (albeit articulate) viewpoint and Pidgeon providing the voice inside one’s head. It is hardly a play; it is more like a political pamphlet dropped from a plane in a third world nation, only with the magnificent Huffman there to soften the author’s 75-minute philosophical diatribe. Even Cathy’s possibly convenient conversion from Judaism to born-again Christianity is offensive to both sides, especially as written by Mamet. At least in his Oleanna, also a thinly veiled two-character debate on modern morality, there was a tinge of subtlety that softened his narrow-minded argument.
   Yes, of course Huffman is brilliant; she always is. Pigeon, the author’s wife, who is referred to in this script as a “beautiful young totem,” is a competent actor but wooden in a role with little chance of being anything but. It’s interesting that, from his first female creation, the ambitious yet cardboard-character secretary in Speed-the-Plow on, Mamet has shown over and over he has little ability to write for women. His default action is, again with glaring obviousness, to make his most interesting women lesbians. This is true of his characters in his first female-driven play, Boston Marriage, of the president’s speechwriter in November, and here again with the imprisoned Cathy.

As director, Marja-Lewis Ryan has staged the limited action respectfully but still seems to have thrown up her hands in frustration for not standing a chance with this material. Sadly, the glory days of Mamet’s potential for greatness seem to have gotten lost in his need to preach instead of provoke thought. The predictable pingpong banter he pontificates in The Anarchist is akin to watching two actors perform Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, only with neither the freshness nor the humor of Tom Stoppard. Mamet was once definitely a wordsmith as promising as Stoppard, but Mamet appears to have gotten lost in his own shouting from the top of his own personal soapbox without consideration for his audience or interest in creating a well-constructed play.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
May 11, 2015
Immediate Family
Mark Taper Forum

If you didn’t know, going in, that the director of Immediate Family had a background in TV sitcoms, you’d get the hint in the first 10 minutes. The opening dialogue is that forced, the bickering banter that aggressive, the pace that frantic. Some of it might’ve been opening night jitters, because the cast at the Mark Taper Forum settles down midway. But The Cosby Show veteran Phylicia Rashad did far better by A Raisin in the Sun, in her exquisite 2011 local revival for Ebony Rep, than by Paul Oakley Stovall’s well-intentioned, but lumpy and ideologically strained play.
   It’s ostensibly a heartwarming ensemble piece in which the Bryants, a semi-estranged set of African-American siblings and friends, return to the old homestead in suburban Chicago to air old grievances on the eve of a family wedding. Yet Immediate Family quickly reveals its real agenda in focusing laser-like disapproval on Evy (Shanésia Davis), a domineering Type A homemaker of deep religious faith and deeper prejudice. Evy sets the house rules and stage manages the whole shebang, and in almost a textbook definition of situation comedy, each of the other characters seems to have been shaped primarily to provide a different means by which they may incur her wrath.
   Jesse (Bryan Terrell Clark), the middle son and aspiring writer, was Evy’s soulmate throughout their youth, but he has disappointed her by not following a glorious career path, not living at home, and, as she sees it, choosing to be gay. Tony (Kamal Angelo Bolden), the baby of the family and the impending groom, razzes her constantly and harbors his own secret that will turn her pride into fury before long.
   Nina (J. Nicole Brooks), Jesse’s outspokenly lesbian gal pal, can always be depended upon to get Evy’s goat, but not so much as Ronnie (Cynda Williams), revealed years before as the issue of their proud pastor father and his white mistress. (To make Ronnie even more annoying in Evy’s eyes, she’s a hard drinker and abstract painter who lives in Europe.) Finally, Jesse’s white boyfriend, Kristian (Mark Jude Sullivan), arrives to set the match to Stovall’s crudely arranged stack of powder kegs.

There are still more contrived clashes stuffed into 90 minutes, including Jesse and Kristian’s differing ideas on their own possible nuptials. But the real problem with Immediate Family isn’t its plot. At least there’s always something going on and holding one’s interest, and when attention turns to the family’s traditional card game “bid whist,” the action fairly crackles with excitement. (It’s no surprise to learn that the game was a favorite in the real-life Stovall home, so richly does he lay out its details and dynamics, and the cast grabs onto it as if it were Act Two’s dinner scene in August: Osage County.)
   Nor is the author’s unfortunate treatment of Evy the biggest drawback—though it’s telling about Stovall as a playwright that while everyone (except saintly Kristian) gangs up on her unceasingly, she is not once permitted to score any points on any of them. Everything she does is bigoted, misguided, or vain, yet you have to give her some credit for her ability to withstand all the judgments from the pack of bullies she’s saddled with.

What’s most regrettable about Immediate Family is its insistence on wrapping all of its conflicts in a sentimental wash. There are serious issues at work here—issues of faith, sexuality, legacy, marriage, and personal honor—that are currently pulling families, and indeed an entire nation, apart. Yet virtually everything plaguing the battling Bryants comes to resolution, and in less than 48 hours to boot.
   Life doesn’t work out its tensions quite so neatly. A play that ought to discomfit us, by virtue of its troubling subject matter, is content to reassure and flatter. That’s what sitcoms routinely do, but in a stageplay context it’s a missed opportunity and a shame.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
May 5, 2015
My Child: Mothers of War
Hudson Backstage Theatre

The world premiere of Angeliki Giannakopoulos’s innovative stage adaptation of her 2006 PBS documentary My Child: Mothers of War features a 21-person cast telling the real-life stories, in their own words, of mothers whose lives were radically changed when their sons were shipped off to fight and die in Iraq and Afghanistan.
   This astonishing piece of theater, featuring six high-profile actors seated behind podiums “reading” the actual text spoken by the woman Giannakopoulos interviewed in her film, proffers a crucial message about the horrors of war and the obscenities perpetrated by these two twisted conflicts in particular. And if there was any doubt, having three of those courageous mothers and their weeping families in the audience on opening night—a benefit for Fisher House in West LA, providing support for the families whose veterans never returned—instantly solidified that message. As Frances Fisher grabbed the face of Anthony Rey Perez, the wonderful young actor playing her son, saying a final goodbye to him before he shipped off to the “sandbox” for the last time, the real soldier’s father, seated in the audience, choked out one tortured “Oh, shit” before breaking into tortured sobs in his wife’s arms.

Under Giannakopoulos’s appropriately spartan direction, Fisher leads a brilliant star-studded cast that includes Melina Kanakaredes, Mimi Rogers, Laura Ceron, Monique Edwards, Anna Giannotis, Maria Nicolacakis, and Jean Smart (who will join the production this weekend after returning from making a film out of town). Each woman enters the conflicted minds of those courageous mothers whose sacrifices were so unnecessary. There is no question why these actors have had such notable careers, as here they offer heartfelt, unassumingly expressed, mesmerizing emotional journeys, breathing life into these stories with expert grace and skill.
   As in the aforementioned moment shared by Fisher and Perez, occasionally the actors playing the mothers step out from behind their podiums for individual scenes played opposite the actors appearing as the sons they would never see again. Fisher also has a second moving moment at her son’s grave when Rydell Danzie, as his sergeant, invades her privacy to apologize for not being able to save the son he had promised her to watch over.
   Rogers is arrestingly stoic as her character recalls the moment “The Three Deaths” knocked on her door—one black, one Asian, one Caucasian, all politically correct soldiers—sent by the State Department to bring her the worst news any parent could endure. “The first step is not denial,” she relates, “it’s absolute recognition.” Rogers also proudly shows the letter of regret she received from President Bush, marveling that it is signed “in ink,” while Giannotis’s character adds her own reaction to receiving the same letter: “I could use it in the bathroom.”
   Kanakaredes’s mom recalls her son telling her by phone from Iraq that the militarized Humvees they were driving each cost the government $100,000 to trick out, leading her to wonder how our government could afford that. After he tells her to Google the company contracted to do the work, she discovers “Uncle Bush is on the payroll.” Later in the story, she brings tears to those gathered as she remembers not being allowed to see the covered destroyed face of her boy in his casket but “could tell he was my skinny boy.” Edwards is also affecting as the exceedingly religious mother who reassures her son that everything he was doing was God’s will and he will be protected—until he isn’t. As she learns of his death, Edwards raises her eyes heavenward to sincerely query, “What went wrong?”

The soldiers—played beautifully by Perez, Danzie, Brendan Connor, Juan de la Cruz, Michael J. Knowles, Nick Marini, Randy Mulkey,  Ozzy Ramirez, and Jah Shams—bring the story even closer to our hearts, proving once again that heroes come in all sizes, ages, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds. This is perhaps the most powerful message My Child conveys, especially as clips from the original documentary unfold to the side of the stage. Especially moving is one shot of a returning young soldier, stepping off a bus to be met by a sea of parents and significant others joined to greet their loved ones, whose face quickly dissolves into deep sadness when he doesn’t see anyone there to welcome him home.
   Of the dynamic ensemble cast, some actors appearing in alternating roles depending on the performers’ schedules, it is Fisher, with her steely eye and gravelly, slightly quavering voice, who leaves the most indelible impression, delivering a striking, gloriously nuanced performance.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
April 30, 2015
My Barking Dog
Theatre @ Boston Court

What is an audience to make of characters who claim they’re telling the truth but who clearly are not doing so? This question comes to mind as Eric Coble’s poetic My Barking Dog turns increasingly metaphoric and untrue to life. Whatever the script’s ambiguity, its West Coast premiere run is exquisitely produced, thoughtfully directed, and faultlessly acted.
   At the start, in total darkness, the play’s two characters tell us that their story, though perhaps not accurate, is true. Then the lights come up, as Melinda (Michelle Azar) and Toby (Ed F. Martin) move through their repetitive, angular, ugly daily activities. Melinda is a factory worker, loading paper into a print machine. She works the night shift because she doesn’t like being around other people. Toby, who lost his office-management job nine months ago and who has not found work since, crisscrosses his apartment with one arm extended, trying to find wireless connectivity for his laptop so he can continue his job search.
   They have lived in the same apartment building for five years but never met until now. But while Toby constantly seeks connection, as he repeatedly remarks, Melinda professes to thrive on the contemplation solitude offers her. She is nurturing, the one who cares for a visitor’s health and feelings, while she destroys the work of mankind around her. Toby may be sexually adventurous or he may be a dreamer. What is the truth about these unreliable narrators?

As for the play’s title, the barking dog is a coyote that climbs the stairs of Toby and Melinda’s apartment complex and, to put it mildly, makes contact with these two isolated souls. The coyote might represent nature choked out of this pair’s city. But, notably, the play’s title is “My” and not “Our” barking dog. Quite likely the creature represents their individual, more bestial natures.
   And my, oh my, do those natures come out in full force, as director Michael Michetti shepherds visible mankind and invisible beasts into this vivid but unimaginable world. His work with his actors is psychologically deep, bringing out truths about human nature.
   Michetti’s stagecraft, too, is fabulously imaginative. In collaboration with scenic designer Tom Buderwitz, lighting and video designer Tom Ontiveros, and sound designer John Zalewski, Michetti cracks open the stage, the characters’ psyches and the audience’s minds. The stage begins as a square-cornered concrete structure. Scene-setting projections show a barren grey expanse surrounding the apartment, but colors shoot across the grey as the characters grow energized. Toby and Melinda literally pull the rug out from under their feet and figuratively do that to the audience. By the play’s end, the stage has turned into root-bound earth. Shoes come off, clothing comes off—to a respectable limit—and the two relish sinking into the soil.

Azar’s physicality, at first mechanized and constrained, becomes bold and powerful. Although the actor never leaves the stage, she drops decades, her character transforming from exhausted, ill-kempt older-middle-aged night worker to a young woman electrifyingly engaged in her new passion. Martin’s angular reaching for connectivity over the ether becomes a wildly sprawling dance in the earth, as he unpatronizingly makes gender and perhaps species a fluid concept.
   A startling, in reality impossible, occurrence ends the play. Perhaps you were expecting a traditional love story here? That wouldn’t be natural. Or truthful.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
April 27, 2015

Never Givin’ Up
Broad Stage

Anna Deavere Smith is an American treasure. She is a vivid storyteller who has mastered building monologues from interviews with those affected by her subject matter. She captures the cadence and moods of the real people she impersonates and finds the most penetrating details to flesh out. Her 1994 play, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, reflects the LA Riots from many perspectives. Now, Never Givin’ Up uncovers race relations, using as its centerpiece Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous letter written on a newspaper as he sat in a Birmingham, Ala., jail cell.
   Smith reads the entire King letter, and though she does not impersonate the reverend, she captures his passion and his clarity. Her other monologues here focus on victims of American racism—from Charlayne Hunter Gault, a student in the early 1960s who broke the University of Georgia’s segregation history, to Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who had been beaten by police in the 1960s, only to have one of the perpetrators regretfully apologize in 2009. Smith’s soliloquies are so rich, one can see the hostile girls with flowing white sheets staring down young Gault her first night in the desegregated dorm, and the upscale house, car, and coat with which future school principal Linda Wayman’s mother motivated her to be the first in her family to enroll at college.

Director Stephen Wadsworth makes curious choices that dilute Smith’s powerful speeches. The two-piece chamber (violin and piano) interludes feel unnecessary. Smith’s monologues sing all on their own, making the music superfluous. It sets no mood and only slows the evening. More troubling, violinist Robert McDuffie and pianist Anne Epperson loudly underscore Smith’s gripping interpretation of the King letter. She must fight them to be heard, which strips the sting from his great words.
   Those words are still so timely. Race relations are only scraping the surface of healing, and other hatred continues as people attack the LGBT community on “religious grounds.” Smith and her muse, Dr. King, remind audiences that the road to equality still is a long journey.

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz
April 17, 2015
Hollywood Pantages Theatre

A good rule of thumb for movie-to-musical adaptations is—and this isn’t original with me; I’ve heard it from many of my buddies in the tuner biz—if you’re dealing with a great movie, do something to keep it great, but do so in a distinctly different way. Maybe The Lion King is the preeminent example there. And if it’s a flawed movie, find some way to make it great. The latter is tough, because there have to have been reasons why the source material was floppo to begin with. But if a creative team can find the key to unlocking the potent property inside the stinker, it really can be magic time.
   Which brings us to 2012’s Newsies, which transforms the legendarily mediocre money-loser of 20 years earlier—a sluggish saga of an 1899 newsboys’ strike, in which street urchins endure armed combat at the hands of publisher Joseph Pulitzer’s bullyboys—into one of the boldest, brassiest, most sheerly alive musical entertainments in years. And I was delighted to discover that the touring version, now at the Pantages, has lost none of its joie de vivre. If anything, it could be more jubilant than in its original Broadway run.

I have to admit that not only have I had a long-standing fondness for some of the Alan Menken–Jack Feldman tunes, but I saw the potential for a stage version even while watching the Christian Bale–Ann-Margret–Bill Pullman starrer for the first time. Of course, I pooh-poohed the notion right away: Disney would never go to the expense of mounting another version of this financial disaster, I reasoned. Even if they did, it would be impossible to keep a chorus of kids singing and dancing at Olympic-contender skill levels for eight shows a week.
   Some prognosticator. It has proved no difficulty at all for Tony-awarded choreographer Christopher Gattelli to assemble a limber-limbed, abs-of-steel ensemble to glide, slide, leap, and pirouette up and down Tobin Ost’s multitiered ironworks of a set. (Think of the tic-tac-toe arrangement of Hollywood Squares, only forged in a factory.)

Meanwhile, the story problems melted away at the hands of director Jeff Calhoun and, amazingly, librettist Harvey Fierstein. I say “amazingly” only because the author of La Cage aux Folles and star of Hairspray is better known for his tart dialogue than craftsmanlike construction, yet the Newsies book, especially when compared with the original screenplay, really works like a Swiss watch now. The central narrative of feisty, chip-on-the-shoulder Jack Kelly (gifted and charismatic Dan DeLuca) is firmed up with the introduction of a solid love interest (reporter Katherine, played by plucky Stephanie Styles), while placing the villainy of Pulitzer (a suave, strong Steve Blanchard) into starker and more believable relief.
   As a libretto, Newsies is no Sweeney Todd or Fiddler. Yet now, not only does it make logical sense and play less predictably on its way to the newsboys’ inevitable victory, but it becomes a solid foundation for some of the most thrilling production numbers seen in years. Honest. “Carrying the Banner” shows a cadre of youthful hustlers working their butts off to make ends meet. “The World Will Know” and “Seize the Day” are martial anthems for collective action. “Santa Fe” serves as a plaintive I-want ballad for our rootless, restless hero, while “King of New York” turns a celebration of making all of Gotham’s front pages into the most irrepressible tap/clog number since…well, maybe since “I Got Rhythm” in Crazy for You an eternity ago.
   All of those songs, incidentally, were taken directly from the movie. Some seven new tunes were crafted for Broadway, all of them forgettable though enough to qualify Menken and Feldman’s work for the Original Score Tony (which they won). Yet the score still seems to possess a unity that many a musical would envy, a unity doubtless derived from the story’s central idea: namely, the need for like-minded citizens to band together for the common good. Newsies’ heart is completely in the right place, and it’s a timely place as well.

The athletic, almost gymnastic dances from Gattelli have been criticized for being too showy, too “out there,” too shine-it-on Broadway. Such carping misses the essential point: that these kids’ showoffy struts and jetés and challenge dances are exactly what the story demands. Newsies is about a bunch of ragamuffins whom society, high and low, has written off, and who decide to show the world what they’re capable of. That desire is infused in every one of the colorful, gravity-defying numbers and reinforced by the nonstop audience cheering as it builds to an exuberant climax. The dance of Newsies is the theme of Newsies: the power of an ordinary human being to accomplish seemingly impossible things.
   Profound and thoughtful, it ain’t. But moving and memorable? You betcha.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
April 1, 2015
Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella
Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre

Timeless fairytale magic is right here, right now, in Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella. This production is musically exquisite, visually gorgeous, narratively entrancing, and fun.
   It seems to have turned for its source material to the Charles Perrault 17th-century Cendrillon. So the musical’s book writer, Douglas Carter Beane, has put back the second ball at the prince’s palace and taken away the wickedness of one of the two stepsisters.
   That’s all to the good of the storytelling and the music here. Two big dance parties means twice the chance to hear Richard Rodgers’s sweeping melodies and Oscar Hammerstein II’s evergreen lyrics. One confidingly sympathetic stepsister means one more chance for a romantic pairing in the story—this one with her own prince of a guy. Now, that prince (David Andino) is not much in the looks department, but he’s a community organizer and he really likes the nice stepsister, Gabrielle (Kaitlyn Davidson). And he’s not shy about helping a royal prince in need of political advice.

Yes, this is still Cinderella. Among the many magical aspects of this show are its storytelling surprises, introducing long-forgotten and brand-new elements. Even the real prince is a delightful surprise here. He’s self-aware, he wants to be doing something with his life besides slaying monsters, he’s willing to listen to advice, and he knows a good woman when he sees one.
   As portrayed by Andy Huntington Jones, he even sings and dances like a dream, while charmingly managing the book’s self-deprecating humor. Jones is perfectly paired with Paige Faure, who makes a generous, intelligent, and of course glowing Cinderella. Their chemistry is enchanting. Cinderella’s stepmother is of course still vile. But she is not detestable, because the hilarious Fran Drescher plays her—albeit apparently with a badly damaged voice. The prince, here an orphan, is likewise manipulated by a parent figure: his advisor Sebastian. As played by Branch Woodman, Sebastian snags so many of the good laughs that his comeuppance feels joyous rather than retributive.

Mark Brokaw directs with a clear, uniform vision, infusing the musical with a remarkable balance of earnestness and humor. His stars sing in classic musical theater style rather than in pop style. His ensemble performs with purpose and individual characterizations. He also has gathered designers whose combined artistry makes this one of the most visually exciting shows around. The ballroom dances are worthy of a dance company’s, including the unusual lifts of Josh Rhodes’s choreography, which is well-suited to the balletically trained dancers.
   Designed by Anna Louizos, the scenery flies fleetly into place. Yet it serves evocatively as a rocky glen, cottage garden, cottage interior, throne room, ballroom, and the obligatory palace staircase, which gets a literal day in the sun in the last scene. That daytime, crafted by lighting designer Kenneth Posner, could be the most gorgeous sunlight ever created for the stage.
   And yet, William Ivey Long’s costumes make the biggest splash here. Cinderella is in her fireplace-cleaning garb, singing “Impossible,” when her fairy godmother (Kecia Lewis) waves that famous magic wand. In an instant, onstage in full view of the audience, Cinderella’s brown rags become a filmy white ball gown, and her kerchiefed head becomes coiffed with tidy curls and a sparkly tiara.
   Lewis instantaneously gets a new outfit too, a vast purple affair, which gives her the chance to spout one of the show’s funniest lines. And then she and Faure switch the mood with a vocally wonderful, thoroughly inspiring, “It’s Possible.” Indeed, this show proves things are possible with intelligence, hard work, and open-mindedness.

Politics and romance make the third couple here, as much destined for “happily ever after” as the two other couples seem to be. With its melding of 1950s songs and 2013 wit, this addition to the American musical theater canon is sure to seem equally fresh in another 50 years.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
March 23, 2015
Geffen Playhouse

In her secluded bastion tucked away in the shadow of the desolate mountains surrounding Locarno, Switzerland, curmudgeonly recluse writer Patricia Highsmith (Laura Linney) is living out her miserable last months. She is reluctantly joined by a nerdy, Harry Potterish young envoy from her New York publishing house. He is Edward (Seth Numrich), the only person left at his firm willing to take on the infamously impossible crime novelist and persuade her to agree to a sixth return visit to her most successful anti-hero, Tom Ripley of the author’s bestselling The Talented Mr. Ripley books—a series so popular they’re known collectively to aficionados as The Ripliad.
   It seems the last emissary sent to get Highsmith’s signature on the firm’s new contract ended up dealing with institutionalization and ongoing therapy sessions. Those resulted from the psychological trauma he received waking up one night in Highsmith’s guest bedroom with his certifiably nutso hostess leaning over his bed—and one of the impressively lethal-looking knives from her world-class collection of vintage weaponry placed unceremoniously at his throat.

Joanna Murray-Smith’s fascinating new play must have been a challenge to create, especially when blending the factual content of the last misanthropic gasps of Highsmith’s notoriously peculiar life and her legendary abrasiveness with the near-gothic literary bombshell blasts of a good fictional thriller worthy of a late-night read. Switzerland is as chockfull of as many twists and turns as any Highsmith novel, providing perfect homage to the work of the author, a person so bitter about our self-destructive, self-absorbed species that she spent a lifetime killing us off, fictionally speaking, in the most-diabolical ways possible.
   It’s nearly as difficult to discuss Murray-Smith’s inventive tale without a spoiler alert. What can be considered here, however, is the production itself, elegantly tucked into the Geffen’s tricky smaller space by designer Anthony T. Fanning, who has brought to glorious life Highsmith’s Swiss fortress, complete with high walls of stone and a majestic view of the Alps, and adorned everywhere with her beloved collection of weaponry that could rival Sidney Bruhl’s in Deathtrap.
   The most memorable thing about this production is Numrich, who makes an amazing transition in his character, ever-so-slowly graduating from a victim, almost cowering in fear of his nemesis, to a self-assured, coolly diabolical adversary worthy of any character Highsmith might have invented. Numrich is a talent to be watched, an actor with all the charisma and promise of an early Paul Newman.

Linney, however, who is at least 20 years too young to play this juicy role, does not fare as well, only managing to offer a predictable, cardboard interpretation of the author’s quirks, leaving Highsmith to never materialize as anything but a foul-mouthed cartoon character. Part of this might be in the casting of Linney, which certainly guarantees ticket sales but has hurt the storytelling drastically. As often seems to be the case with notable actors who’ve spent a long period working mostly in film and television, Linney seems to have forgotten how to take her role on a journey, how to assay a character arc.
   Instead, from start to finish, she plays Highsmith as cold and unaffected by the changes around her, never bringing even a blink of apprehension or adding anything more than a sketchy questioning or chink in her armor. Perhaps this is a choice of Linney or director Mark Brokaw, but more than likely it is in the performance.
   More appropriate for the role would be Estelle Parsons or Jane Alexander or Ellen Burstyn—or maybe one day Judi Dench or Meryl Streep in the film version—as long as they’re smart enough to still cast Numrich opposite her. He is destined for stardom in the near future. Let’s just hope he heads back to his theatrical roots occasionally so he doesn’t forget the basic rubric of acting that working onstage demand.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
March 15, 2015
End of the Rainbow
International City Theatre

Great talent is often accompanied by great torment. Judy Garland’s life was filled with frequent affairs, failed marriages, suicide attempts, and professional struggles even as she was declared by many to be the world’s greatest entertainer. Rather than trying to encapsulate that legendary life, playwright Peter Quilter has chosen to focus on a six-week period toward the end of Garland’s career as she tries to revive her flagging fortunes in a concert tour at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub. She is accompanied by her soon-to-be fifth husband, musician Mickey Deans.
   Following last season’s portrait of opera star Maria Callas for International City Theatre, Gigi Bermingham now takes on the demanding portrayal of the iconic Garland. Rather than attempting impersonation, she and director John Henry Davis focus on Garland’s roller-coaster emotional vicissitudes and insecurities.

The scene opens with Garland and Deans (Michael Rubenstone) arriving at their hotel room. Garland is upbeat, but it is clear from the beginning that Deans’s first priority, taking on the role of manager, is keeping her away from alcohol and pills and getting her ready to perform. Also on scene is her longtime accompanist, Anthony (Brent Schindele, also music director for the production). The dynamic among the three elevates the drama from a celebrity tribute performance to a compelling look at human behavior.
   Bermingham delivers Garland’s music with all the pathos and style required to emulate Garland’s emotional makeup. From “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” to “The Man That Got Away,” Garland masks her failing health and addiction dependence as she takes the stage on Aaron Jackson’s effective Talk of the Town set. Accompanied by musicians Max O’Leary, Ashley Jarmack, John Carbone, and Schindele, the performance numbers are executed with dynamism and plenty of heart.
   Schindele gives an affecting performance, particularly when Anthony tries to convince Garland to quit show business and marry him, even though he is gay. It is perhaps the finest moment in the show. Rubenstone effectively sends a mixed message as Garland’s savior and promoter. Also in a clever cameo is Wallace Angus Bruce as a radio interviewer trying to salvage a failing interview with the doped-up Garland.

In spite of the high quality of the production and Bermingham’s bravura performance, what’s missing is more of the real Judy Garland in the show. As accomplished a performer as Bermingham is, those who watched Garland over the years will notice an absence of her elusive qualities. Still, Quilter’s exploration of Garland’s tragic early demise at 47 is a cautionary tale that makes fine drama.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
March 1, 2015
East West Players at David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts

At its essence, Washer/Dryer is about a newlywed couple who need to clean up their lives. Playwright Nandita Shenoy gives us Sonya, of Indian extraction, and Michael, of Chinese. They apparently didn’t talk over their needs and goals thoroughly before marrying. But here they are, living in her New York studio apartment, the best feature of which is their own washer-dryer unit.
   Sonya (Rachna Khatau) and Michael (Ewan Chung) have been married for one week. Sonya’s co-op agreement allows only single occupancy in her unit, so Michael must lie to the doorman every time he comes home to his wife. When his harridan of a mother (Karen Huie) comes to visit—which she does with terrifying frequency—the doorman (unseen) becomes suspicious of the goings on in that apartment.
   Add in Sonya’s gay best friend Sam (Corey Wright), Wendee the uptight president of the homeowners association (Nancy Stone) with a gay son (unseen), and Sonya’s grandma in India (also unseen), and lessons about tradition and acceptance abound here.
   Directed by Peter Kuo with a sitcom sensibility, the piece feels like a pilot of the likes of Dharma & Greg. Or, with its running time of 90 minutes, the pleasant if formulaic play might suffice for the first four episodes. Of course, for those who loved Dharma & Greg, this is quite a compliment. The five actors here apparently satisfy Kuo’s and Shenoy’s vision of this play, which seems to favor breezy laughs over what could be pointed commentary on all marriages.

It fell to one actor on the night reviewed to solve a problem that could have proven dangerous onstage. From the moment Wright made his first entrances, it was clear his character would be the show’s Cupid, the mediator, the Dr. Ruth, bringing acceptance and understanding to the can of worms Shenoy opened. As a bottle of “wine” began to leak over its shelf, dripping and creating little splashes on the stage below it, the resulting puddle drew least a portion of the audience’s attention. Would someone slip? Would Wendee’s aqua-blue shoes be stained for the rest of the run?
   Nope. Sam, crawling along the floor to avoid being spotted by mom and Wendee while the women were absorbedly occupied in stir-frying dinner, grabbed paper towels as he slithered by, mopped his forehead, and then began to sop up the spilled liquid. Much as Sam is the story’s problem-solver, Wright was this evening’s freshest, most-inspired element.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
February 20, 2015
The Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

This show has quite the pedigree. Its playwright, Tommy Smith, wrote last year’s insightful and inciting Firemen, featuring abandoned characters in abusive and rescuing relationships. Chris Fields directed that play to detailed perfection, cutting straight to the crux of human relationships. Smith and Fields join their immense talents here, adding a highly skilled cast to tell of three composers who lived in three eras. So what went so wrong?
   The work centers on the love triangles in the lives of the Russian Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840–1893), Austrian Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), and Italian Carlo Gesualdo (1566–1613). The work’s title refers to a musical form involving repetition and imitation. It also likely refers to a psychiatric state involving a loss of identity. Bits about who each composer was and his musical contributions flavor the script. Artistic frustrations tie the three men together.
   But Smith goes too far in trying to create a structural fugue: having the characters speak the same lines at the same time to evidence their common longings and struggles. Even if the actors could manage to get their rhythms and inflections perfectly synchronized, the effect is totally distancing.
   Thus this work emphasizes form. So while the characters experience heart-wrenching events, the audience remains almost constantly aware of the architecture imposed on the storytelling. Give it this, though: The script doesn’t feel like a Movie of the Week biopic or an “And then I wrote” chronology of the composers’ lives.

Schoenberg (Troy Blendell) is in an unhappy marriage to Mathilde (Amanda Lovejoy Street). She meets and has an affair with Austrian painter Richard Gerstl (Jesse Fair). Prince Gesualdo (Karl Herlinger) seduces and marries Maria (Jeanne Syquia), who takes as her lover Fabrizio, duke of Andria (Justin Huen). Tchaikovsky (Christopher Shaw) recently married his number one fan (Alana Dietze), but he is overwhelmingly in love with his nephew (Eric Keitel).
   It remains debatable whether the wives were coaxed into marriage or whether they sought the fame their husband brought to the union. History, at least superficially, tells us the men here were destroyed by artistic insecurities. Smith may be showing that the more likely causes of their breakdowns were disastrous romances.
   By this time, the audience is pretty much hip to the “what” of this production. The remaining question is “why.” Apparently the many talented theatermakers involved here believed in the project, dressed it up, and put it on the stage. Well, the dressing-up part worked out beautifully. The production’s costumes, by Michael Mullin, are as good as those that have graced the Ahmanson Theatre stage.

Fields bolstered the script with some of the best actors in the city, as well as ensuring the actors here look like their real-life counterparts. But so much of this script induces puzzlement in the viewer. One example before letting this alone: Toward the end of the play, Tchaikovsky begs his nephew to open a vial of poison and drop the contents into a waiting glass of water, which Tchaikovsky will drink. Why can’t the composer handle this task on his own behalf?
   There’s a lot of (simulated) sexual activity on this stage. Presumably Smith wanted to show extraordinary people doing ordinary things (assuming anal penetration with the hilt of a dagger is ordinary). Just in case this choreography doesn’t convince the audience of the composers’ passions, the red curtains surrounding the stage, and the two red-draped beds, pound in the point (pardon the pun).

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
February 16, 2015
Sons of the Prophet
Blank Theatre at 2nd Stage

Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran told us we were “far, far greater than you know and all is well.” Right. No wonder a character in Stephen Karam’s play—a 2012 New York Drama Critics Circle winner for best play and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—thinks differently. “Never before,” the character notes in the LA premiere of Karam’s truly contemporary masterpiece, “has bad writing been so richly rewarded.”
   Joseph Douaihy (Adam Silver) is the son of Lebanese immigrants who have pounded that quote into his head his entire life. Raised by his recently departed devout Maronite Christian father and his aged, quickly failing uncle (Jack Laufer), Joseph has listened patiently to the persistent family legend that the Douaihys are directly descended from Gibran, leading them to expect a lot from him and his teenage brother Charles (Braxton Molinaro). The fact that both brothers are gay is a bit of an issue in their household, especially when Uncle Bill moves in with them after their father’s death—something he sees as watching over them, while the brothers believe they are watching over him as his health quickly deteriorates.

Karam’s arrestingly on-target tale careens recklessly from high comedy to intense melodrama, heightened by director Michael Matthews’s expert, finely nuanced balancing act, as well as a supremely game and gifted cast able to maneuver the twists and turns along the way with consummate ease. Despite Uncle Bill’s continuous demands that the boys live up to the ideals set forth by their illustrious possible ancestor, if there is a god, he certainly does not seem to want to reward them for their efforts to remain pure. As the family’s woes accumulate like trash in a dumpster behind a high-rise, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Joseph giving up and giving in, but he is buoyed by one irrepressible trait: his undeniable sense of humor and unearthly ability to take on life’s continuously daunting daily trials as best he can.
   Silver is the superglue that holds the entire production together, giving his Joseph a tremendous sense of patience and adaptability as he deals with his mysterious debilitating illness and the fact that he has not fully come to terms with his anti-Maronite sexuality—evident, as his far more flamboyant younger brother observes, since he dresses like a lumberjack. When Joseph meets a sweetly engaging young reporter (Erik Odom), there’s a glimmer of hope, but even that is not meant to be. Instead, Joseph must patiently endure the continuous taunts of his often obnoxious brother, and the whines and incessant pontificating of his cranky old uncle, all the while dealing with his crazed benefactor (Tamara Zook), an uber-needy book merchant who sees the Douaihy’s story as fodder for acting as agent for a bestseller based on their ordeals.
   Zook is manically hilarious, bringing well-needed levity to the proceedings while still making her audience want to throw her under a bus at the earliest opportunity—as does the family of her character’s late husband, people she also dogs ruthlessly. “I don’t want the fact that we’re estranged to keep us from seeing each other,” Gloria observes, indicating just how out of touch she is. And when she disrupts the school board hearing deciding the future of a young and promising athlete (Mychal Thompson) indirectly responsible for the death of Joseph’s father, who swerved his car to avoid the deer decoy placed in the middle of the road as a prank against a rival team, Zook is at her wild, no-holds-barred best.

The cast is completed by the addition of durable stage veterans Ellen Karsten and Irene Roseen, who appear as a variety of nurses, ticket clerks, and school board members, each character a fresh joy to observe. And when, at the play’s end, Roseen assays a brand new character, a former teacher of Joseph’s who is also trying to heal in a physical therapy office, the real message of Karam’s bittersweet masterwork emerges: the resiliency of the human spirit no matter what this often surprisingly cruel life might toss in our paths. The good die young, they say, but that’s surely not always true. Sometimes they just go on despite the odds stacking up before them, something to be celebrated with all the charm and wonder Karam and this production honors admirably.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 16, 2015
Jesus Christ Superstar
DOMA Theatre Company at MET Theatre

The singular feature of this vest-pocket staging by the DOMA Theatre Company—and the most compelling reason for attending—is the timeless score by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice. Which is to say that the MVPs for director Marco Gomez are musical director Chris Raymond and his four performing colleagues, in whose hands the through-sung rock opera commands the playing space full throttle.
   Sitting at his keyboard on a platform upstage right, Raymond establishes a propulsive urgency that never falters. What gets served up is, of course, somewhat thinner than the symphonic orchestration we all grew up with on the original concept album, but it manages to evoke those classic sounds while rocking and buzzing on its own, more intimate terms.
   Raymond is to be further congratulated for vocal management, with a hat tip to sound designer Julie Ferrin, who keeps the words clear without overwhelming us with noise. Among the standouts are Jeremy Saje’s growling, heavy metal Judas; Renee Cohen’s sweetly lamenting Mary Magdalene; the Pontius Pilate of Kelly Brighton, reckless and mournful in turn; and Nate Parker’s Jesus, who hits high notes (“Go!”; “See how I die!”) few previous Christs in my experience have nailed so well. (No pun intended.)
   Though I already possess three previous Superstar albums, if the DOMA folks made a recording I would gladly own it, to admire again how much commitment and moxie they bring to the semi-sacred Webber/Rice party.

I just wish the rest of the production were anywhere near as compelling.
   Gomez’s conceit is that Jesus’s Passion is happening in the here and now of celebrity mania. Among voguing debs and preening queens with cellphones and selfies, Jesus is natty in a club-worthy white linen suit, while the oily Sanhedrin are in black suits and ties like the Droogs in A Clockwork Orange. The entrance to Jerusalem is celebrated not with leafy fronds but with mobile devices attached to wooden rods or “narcissi-sticks,” as I believe they’re called. (Such a perfect choice for Palm Pilot Sunday.)
   These halfhearted, sophomoric ideas don’t hurt much; neither do they help. They get mostly discarded by the end, anyway, as the Crucifixion switches to Jesus in his traditional loincloth and the keening women in long robes. What goes wrong isn’t the concept but the execution—the disconnect between what’s being said and what’s being done.

Is no one listening to what they’re singing? (Julie Ferrin maybe did her work too well.) “Why are you obsessed with fighting?” Jesus challenges his disciples, who are actually obsessed at that moment with nothing more than posing and cooing. “Try not to get worried,” Mary Magdalene advises the Master, “I shall soothe you, calm you and anoint you,” yet Jesus at that moment couldn’t be a cooler cucumber as he saunters through the nitery, basking in general adulation. There’s nothing subversive about this club dude, and no hint of a threatened Establishment among the priesthood; they’re too busy flirting with the crowd to be upset with Jesus anyway. So the plot literally makes no sense, a fact that, let the record note, didn’t seem to bother the whooping opening night crowd one iota.
   Speaking of sauntering, Jesus isn’t the only one. Saje and Brighton are, as noted, singing their guts out, but both are allowed to just shamble around aimlessly, without physical engagement. It doesn’t help, I suppose, that Pilate sports a little pencil mustache and eyepatch like the gigolo who always loses Ginger in the Astaire-Rogers musicals; or that this is the first Judas in my experience who’s the spitting image of Zach Galifianakis.
   The point is that acting—even in a rousing rock musical—happens with the whole body, not just with the singing voice, and the physical act of emoting is consistently absent from the MET stage. To be fair, Parker does a good job physicalizing the scourging in Act Two. But where was he in Act One?

Drama is also undercut by the lame use of an overhead central balcony: The Pilate-Jesus confrontation has no juice when the procurator is hovering 8 feet overhead, nor can Jesus’s pushing some guy and pulling down a little banner convey an attack on the temple heretics down below.
   And really, someone ought to tell the ensemble members that they’re not appearing in No, No, Nanette. Whether they’re supposed to be anguished disciples, fierce zealots, or spiteful tormentors, they bring the same grinning, shine-it-on glee to every occasion. Angela Todaro has overchoreographed the numbers with leaps and cartwheels and spins as if this were a Biblical Newsies, such that after a while you just have to throw up your hands and give into it, or just enjoy the music and ignore the rest. Which I did.

Let’s give the last curtain call to Raymond; second keyboard Yuhong Ng; bassist Graham Chapman; guitarist Michael Abraham; and Logan Shrewsbury, mighty on drums. At the MET, they are the true saviors.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
February 14, 2015
Hellman v. McCarthy
Theatre 40

When the late Harold Clurman was directing one of Lillian Hellman’s plays, one of the cast members asked him what Hellman was saying when they saw her passionately speaking into his ear at rehearsals. He replied that it was usually something like, “Tell that goddamn bitch to stop being such a goddamn bitch.” Hellman was litigious, self-righteous, and seemingly permanently angry. So it was no surprise that she went off like a skyrocket when, on an episode of PBS’s Dick Cavett Show, he interviewed critic-novelist Mary McCarthy. She declared that every word Hellman ever wrote, including a, the, and and was a lie.
   Though it was obvious to everybody that McCarthy was indulging in comic hyperbole, Hellman decided to sue her for slander, along with Cavett, his production company, and PBS. The lawsuit embittered the rest of Hellman’s life, and McCarthy was bankrupted by the court costs. Improbably, the feud between the two legendary ladies caught the attention of the nation, and everybody chimed in about it, from Norman Mailer up and down, with most siding with McCarthy.

So playwright Brian Richard Mori had plenty of material to work with, and the production gains extra glamour by the fact that Dick Cavett agreed to star, playing himself. The piece is beautifully played by all involved. Cavett is a bit grayer and heavier than he once was, but he has retained his comic timing, his slyly understated wit, and the wicked twinkle in his eye. Flora Plumb provides an etched-in-acid portrait of Lillian Hellman, capturing her imperiousness, bad temper, and furious defensiveness.
   Marcia Rodd delivers a stylish turn as McCarthy, but the role is far less fully developed than Hellman’s. And that’s a pity as McCarthy’s life, in its way, was just as colorful. (As the story goes, McCarthy’s marriage to critic Edmund Wilson ended when Wilson went to take out the garbage one evening and never came back.) M. Rowan Meyer is funny and wonderfully engaging as Hellman’s star-struck, long-suffering gay caregiver, and John Combs and Martin Thompson shine as the two rival lawyers.

Mori manages to incorporate a lot of biographical detail into his script, including Hellman’s long-term relationship with mystery writer Dashiell Hammett. And he has persuasively reconstructed a one-on-one meeting between the two furious ladies. His play goes on a bit too long, and it suffers from the fact that the real story ended with a whimper, not a bang. The climax of the conflict never happened because Hellman died, still angry and embittered, before it was settled.
   Director Howard Storm gives the piece an impeccable production, and Cavett adds interest to the performance by coming on for a Q&A at the end. When asked how it felt to be playing himself, Cavett joked that the only thing that bothered him was being second choice for the role.

Review by Neal Weaver
February 11, 2015

The Manor
Theatre 40 at Greystone Mansion

For the past 13 years, the prolific Theatre 40, now celebrating its 50th year, has presented a singular environmental experience that leads theatergoers on a journey through the massive reverberating halls of E.L. “Ned” Doheny’s Greystone Mansion, the infamous palatial estate nestled in the hills above Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills.
   Designed by noted SoCal architect Gordon Kaufmann, Greystone was completed in 1928 on 12.5 acres of primo real estate with a breathtaking view of Los Angeles. The property was given to Doheny as a wedding gift by his incredibly oil-rich father. The original cost to construct the sprawling 55-room, 46,054-square-foot main house alone was $1,238,378. Including the maze-like grounds—which originally comprised stables, kennels, tennis courts, a fire station, gatehouse, swimming pool and pavilion, greenhouse, lake, babbling brooks, and cascading waterfalls—the entire estate set the Dohenys back a trifling $3,166,578.
   Still, great wealth never seems to guarantee happiness and, on the night of Feb. 16, 1929, Ned Doheny was shot to death inside his expansive stone manor house at age 36, victim of an apparent murder-suicide perpetrated by his longtime personal friend and aide Hugh Plunket.

Playwright Kathrine Bates, who appears in The Manor as fictionalized family matriarch Marion MacAlister, has crafted a clever theatrical experience inspired by the Dohenys’s sad true story, uniquely performed on the grounds and in the very rooms where the real events occurred all those years ago. As butler and narrator James (Daniel Lench) explains to the gathered at the show’s very beginning, the names have been changed “to protect the guilty.”
   The cast appearing as the MacAlister-Dohenys and their close associates is exceptional throughout. Finding reality and balance while making themselves heard and trying to seem natural performing in the mansion’s high-ceilinged, stone-walled echoing chambers cannot be an easy task, but this veteran ensemble succeeds splendidly.
   Director Flora Plumb guides her players (based on the original staging of this production by Beverly Olevin) to keep the scenes crisp and uniform in length as the mansion’s three loyal servants (beautifully played by Lynch, Katherine Henryk, and Esther Levy Richman) lead three separate groups of audience members from room to room as scenes are enacted in a loop before them.
   Darby Hinton is particularly noteworthy as Charles MacAlister, the embattled and eventually crushed patriarch who rose from poverty to unreal wealth and fame. Bates is affecting as his loyal wife, especially memorable in a late scene with Melanie McQueen as Cora Winston, the gossipy yet long-suffering wife of a Foghorn Leghorn–style blowhard US senator (Daniel Leslie) whose gambling debts and crooked deals nearly leave the MacAlister clan in disgrace and ruin—analogous to the Teapot Dome scandal, which rocked the administration of President Warren Harding and almost sent the elder Doheny to prison along with Harding’s Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall.
   John-Paul Lavoisier and Ben Gavin stand out as the MacAlisters’s doomed son Sean and his executioner Gregory Pugh, subtly bringing into their rather stereotypical roles, with body language alone, something perhaps intentionally omitted in Bates’s otherwise worthy adaptation: the long-rumored reason why Plunkett murdered Ned Doheny, the kind of relationship people back then referred to as the “love whose name cannot be spoken.”
The story’s timing, too, has been changed from history. Here it spans the younger MacAlister’s tenancy in the manor across 10 years; in actuality, Ned Doheny and his family lived at Greystone only five months before his murder. This is an understandable adjustment to make the timeline work in two acts. But, although much of Bates’s dialogue, especially James’s lyrical opening and final monologues, is evocative, any viewers with a tad of historical OCD might wince at conspicuous missteps. These include Cora’s use of the term “bad-mouthing,” which didn’t come into the American lexicon until many years later, as well as the moment when Gregory’s gold-digging shrew of a wife, Henrietta (Sarah van der Pol), enters the wedding party in her flapper finery singing Dubin & Warren’s “We’re in the Money,” a song not written until 1933.

The real star of the show here, of course, is Greystone. There’s something oppressively lonely and forlorn about the place, a feeling that sinks in and chills your bones while you follow the actors through the halls and from one jaw-dropping room to the next, ultimately affording pensive evidence to support the thought that, as Bates relates, “Tragedy knows no bounds of race, creed, or social standing.” If indeed, as many people insist is true, Greystone Mansion is haunted by the restless ghosts of the Doheny family, hopefully their spirits remain content with the continuing success of The Manor, enough at peace to tolerate this fictionalized telling of their notorious downward spiral in spite of incredible wealth and privilege—and allow those who experience it to leave for home a tad more grateful for what they themselves have.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
January 31, 2015
Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye: The Farewell Tour
Ahmanson Theatre

Dame Edna! The mere title and name connote rapier wit, lightly off-color insults, and self-obsession, in the ultimate unabashed satire of celebrities’ narcissism, not to mention their closet contempt for the paying customers. Barry Humphries’s genius creation isn’t a character anymore; she’s a brand, and the brand is in its usual shape in this latest and apparently last appearance at the Ahmanson.
   This long—rather too long, probably—evening can be highly recommended to no one who’s ever seen Edna. I mean, how many more chances are you going to get? And those who are deliriously in love with her shtick certainly aren’t waiting for the likes of me to give them the high sign; they’ve likely been and come back already. It’s those of us in the middle, who enjoy and admire the work yet with a critical eye, who may find that the timing is just a bit off, the laughter just a bit less explosive and prolonged.
“I don’t think of this as a show. I think of it as an intimate conversation between two people, one of whom is much more interesting than the other.” It’s a good line, as it was back in 1999 when I first encountered her in The Royal Tour on Broadway. I don’t remember her using it five years later in her next Gotham appearance, Back With a Vengeance, but her overall playbook hasn’t changed much in each of the extravaganzas. If Humphries means it, and this really is the farewell tour,” he’s certainly letting Edna go out true to form.
   It goes like this. A film segment introduces us to the “lady” and her rise. (This year’s is a variation on an E! Channel expose.) We meet her as she’s accompanied by a few chorus members on halfhearted display, and then she talks. To the orchestra (“Hello, possums!”), to the balconies (“Hello, paupers”), and above all to the individuals in the first five or six rows who look like they’ll end up good targets.
   Edna may have a little more trouble hearing spectators’ names than in the past, but she’s just as sharp in gently tweaking their backgrounds (“You live in…Pa-coi-ma?”), clothes, and hairstyles, and above all condescendingly reveling in the adoration she assumes everyone feels for her. If anyone has the temerity to stand up or fight back, she coolly blows them away—hecklers beware. A few celebrity names are dropped for some more snark; the highs and lows of her careers and life are recollected; and intermission.

After the interval, there’s more reminiscence and banter with the audience, followed by an extended segment in which two hapless spectators are brought up on stage to participate in some sort of elaborate charade. This year’s prank—having two strangers get married in a ceremony over which Edna officiates—was pretty great, followed as it was by a live, audible-to-us phone conversation with the son of the “bride”; though I have to say it never hit the heights of her most brilliant Ionescopade in 1999, when she had a spaghetti dinner catered onstage for two patrons and forced them to eat while we watched and she commented. Talk about turning the tables. (As I recall—Dame Edna appearances tend to blur in the mind—dinner was followed by a call to a diner’s unsuspecting babysitter.)
   Truth be told, nothing in this Farewell Tour is fresher than the material from past visits, but who’d expect it to be? Humphries is turning 81 next month, and traversing the world while constantly slipping in and out of gowns, a giant purple fright wig, and layers of makeup must take its toll. He/she is hanging in there, a little shaky in the pins but every bit as rascally as ever, and attention must be paid.
   For the first time (that I know of, anyway), Humphries steps out of character at the end to thank everyone for their longtime fandom and support. It’s a nostalgic, oddly sad moment, as if he were signaling that this is really, really, the last appearance. If so, Dame Edna is going out with no need for apologies. She’s made us roar and, in her slyer potshots at celebrity and fandom, made us think a little as well. Shake those gladiolas for her, fellas.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
January 31, 2015

Clean Start
Casa 0101 Theater

Playwright-author Josefina Lopez has teamed with television comedy writer Kathy Fischer (The George Lopez Show) to co-write Clean Start. It’s a situation comedy involving hardworking housemaid Rosario (Ingrid Oliu), who is supporting her indolent mother, Maria (Marina Gonzalez Palmier), and infantile middle-aged sister, Blanca (Maria Russell). Rosario now feels compelled to take in her suddenly bankrupt former Beverly Hills matron employer Parker Reed (Kim Chase). Directed by Fischer, Clean Start has its comedic moments, but it suffers from clunky plotting and occasionally awkward performances that could have used a bit more time in rehearsal.
   Fischer’s staging is not subtle, striving more for caricature than for character. Hyper-superstitious Maria and perennially pouty Blanca chew up the scenery with their disapproving antics at having to share Rosario and Rosario’s small East LA two-bedroom house with this invading gringo lady from the Westside. Chase’s Parker also plays it way over-the-top, pummeling the audience with her privileged posturing. And when these ladies decide to form a housekeeping crew to service one of Parker’s former society friends, the action disintegrates into unappealing slapstick.

Oliu’s Rosario plays understated straight woman to everyone else’s clowning. Unfortunately, Oliu’s delivery often lags behind the frenzied outpourings of the other three ladies. On the plus side, Oliu instills the much needed sense of caring and humanity essential to making the audience feel there is truly someone to root for as this new family dynamic takes shape.
   Supplying welcome diversion from the ladies is Russian immigrant handyman Vladimir (Robert Jekabson), who lives in the basement and would like nothing more than to convince Blanca to come live with him. Jekabson exudes an innocent enthusiasm that plays well against the self-serving machinations whirling around him.
   The economical production values adequately serve the play, especially designer Rees Pugh’s multifunctional setting, complemented by the lighting and sound designs of Sohail E. Najafi and Vincent Sanchez, respectively. And the quinceañera gown executed by costumer Dandi Dewey is the best sight gag in the production.
   In this post–Bernie Madoff world in which a woman of privilege can suddenly be left destitute, Clean Start has the thematic bones to be a successful stage farce. With judicious reworking, this Lopez-Fischer work just might be on to something.

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
January 27, 2015
Time Stands Still
Secret Rose Theatre

Donald Margolies’s sojourn within the lives of two conflicted battlefield journalists, who are attempting to readjust their lives and relationship now that they are separated from the foreign conflicts that originally drew them together, is given a deeply involving up-close-and-intimate outing at Secret Rose Theatre in NoHo.
   The play’s title aptly applies to the emotion-rending events that battered the body of photographer Sarah (Presciliana Esparolini) and crippled the psyche of her journalist lover James (Aidan Bristow). Sensitively guided by helmer Vicky Jenson, Esparolini and Bristow offer a finely detailed, emotionally compelling pas de deux as Sarah and James attempt to achieve a level of post-war-zone compatibility as a “normal” couple living in a Brooklyn flat.
   Margolies doesn’t supply any feel-good resolutions to the conflicts he sets up. He supplies only struggles, leading to arbitrary decisions. This is a good thing because Sarah and James eventually come at each other with raw nerve-endings and naked souls. Esparolini’s Sarah is combative, fighting the limitations of her bomb-blasted limbs, the sometimes claustrophobic needs of the man she loves, and her own sense that she is not appreciated professionally. Yet she projects a loving soul who truly wants to please James and keep him safe.
   Bristow offers an effective portrait of a much more emotionally closeted writer who finally hit a wall of battlefield horror that he could not get past. Now he is slowly coming to terms with a changing agenda about how he wants to live the rest of his life. Bristow’s James seems to bloom as he only too gladly settles into the insignificant everyday pleasures of civilian life.

Supplying well-timed point and counterpoint to this saga are the journalists’ middle-aged editor and longtime friend Richard (Troy Ruptash) and his much younger girlfriend Mandy (Nik Isbelle). This is not an infusion of equals. There is no free-flowing intellectual/aesthetic discourse amongst this quartet. Helmer Jenson admirably achieves a balance among competing agendas and blatant contentiousness, smoothly moving the action forward, solidifying the reality that these four are deeply committed to one another.
   Ruptash’s Richard, who at one time had a relationship with Sarah, projects a believable amalgam of heartfelt concern for and editorial detachment from the often demanding Sarah/James duo. Isbelle’s comedically gifted outing as Mandy provides welcome relief, as she undercuts Sarah’s and James’s journalistic highhandedness, telling them people don’t want to read all their “bummer” pieces.
   Complementing the proceedings is the original music underscoring of music director Craig Richey. Tim Paclado’s setting certainly realizes the space limitations of an average Brooklyn apartment, but also causes occasional awkward stage movement.

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
January 21, 2015
Blonde Poison
Theatre 40 in the Reuben Cordoba Theatre

Stella Goldschlag (1922–1994) seems a wildly unlikely protagonist for Jewish playwright Gail Louw. Goldschlag was a notorious “Jew catcher” for Hitler’s Gestapo, and it has been estimated that her activities sent 600 to 3,000 Jews to their deaths. She was so efficient at her job that the Gestapo called her “Blonde Poison.” Louw is certainly no apologist for Goldschlag. The playwright makes no attempt to exonerate or whitewash the woman, but she does seek to understand what could have driven Goldschlag to such monstrous behavior. And, in the end, the portrait is not an unsympathetic one.
   Stella was just coming of age when the Nazis came to power. At first, she and her parents didn’t perceive the danger that was coming. They were convinced the German people were too civilized to tolerate for long Hitler’s barbarous policies. While other Jews were fleeing the country, the Goldschlags could not believe they were really in danger. By the time they realized their peril, it was too late. Because Stella was blonde and beautiful, she was able to pass for an Aryan, at least for a time, but her parents were not so lucky. They were taken into custody and slated for deportation to the death camps. It was then she agreed to work for the Nazis, in exchange for the lives of her parents and herself. And her career as a Greifer for the Gestapo began. She was repeatedly assured that the Gestapo never separated families. But they were lying, and her mother and father were sent to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt and executed there.

Louw has cast her play in the form of a solo drama and set it in the more recent past: 1994, shortly before Stella (Salome Jens) died. She has been asked for an interview by a journalist she had known in their student days, when he professed his love for her. But now, as she waits for the journalist to arrive, she is terrified. And it becomes clear how much she is haunted by her past and terrified at the prospect of being asked hard questions about it. The most unanswerable question is why she continued to work for the Gestapo after the death of her parents. She can’t answer it, even to herself. She keeps repeating, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
   As the play unfolds, the details of her life since the war emerge. When the conflict ended, she found herself pregnant, the result of an ill-fated love affair. When the Russian troops entered Berlin, she escaped rape by going into hiding. But when her child was born, she was deemed an unfit mother because of her wartime activities, the child was taken from her, and she was sentenced to 10 years in prison as a collaborator. When she later attempted to meet her child, she was rejected with fear and loathing. And, perhaps in order to achieve some sort of absolution, she converted to Christianity.

It’s a harrowing tale, told and acted with both passion and restraint. The solo drama is essentially an artificial format: a single woman talking to herself at length about her past sorrow and malefactions. But Louw is a skillful writer, and Jens acts the role with such profound conviction that we never question her reality. Her attempts at understanding and rationalizing her horrendous past actions seem both credible and moving. Her guilt may be profound, but so is her suffering.
   Director Jules Aaron frames the action with tact and sensitivity, and a finely invisible hand. Designer Jeff G. Rack has created the handsome set—though one wonders how Goldschlag could afford such a fine apartment after all her travails.

Reviewed by Neal Weaver
January 12, 2015
Website Builder