Arts In LA

Archives 2016

The Wholehearted
Center Theatre Group at Kirk Douglas Theatre

Considering the gravity of the themes raised by this production—abuse, violence, homophobia, lifelong heartache—the audience should feel deeply immersed in the world of this woman boxer, feeling every literal and metaphoric punch that touched her. Instead, focus lands on the techniques the storytelling uses and not on the heart of The Wholehearted.
   Written and co-directed by Deborah Stein, performed and co-directed by Suli Holum, and in production at Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, this elegy centers on Dee, a former champion fighter. Punch drunk, inebriated from alcohol or pills, addled from a lifetime of blows to her head, she relives shards of her life and tries to plan her future.
   “I’m a fighter. That’s all I know how to do,” says Dee. That’s how she sees herself, in this dreamscape, this memory play. Unlucky in love, or foolish, or both, she recalls her marriage to Charlie, who strongly resembles real-life boxing promoter Don King. Charlie feels he gave her opportunities, made her a champion, and thus pretty much owns her. The judge before whom he appears on criminal charges agrees.
   She also recalls, perhaps even less lucidly, the girl she loved in high school, as she makes a videotape for her while revealing these intimate thoughts to the audience.

On the stage, which is configured as a boxing ring and doubling as rundown living quarters, while she videos herself, a cameraman dogs her and records her (Stivo Arnoczy). Her image is in her viewfinder and on a computer screen, as well as on the four-sided mini-jumbotron hanging over the stage. Sometimes Dee is shown live, sometimes she’s being recorded while we simultaneously see her in the past, during an interview or midway through a bout.
   The ideas Stein and Holum work with are certainly no lightweights. We in the audience know we should feel her pain and perhaps cathartically feel our own. But the two theatermakers pile on so much theatricality that we’re distracted. And that’s unfortunate, because the straightforward telling of this story might have packed a powerful, memorable punch.
   In addition to the camerawork (video design by Katherine Freer and Dave Tennent) and the shifting lighting design (Stephen Arnold) intended to assist in understanding this story told in scattershot chronology, Stein layers in songs among the monologues. Sure, the show frames Holum’s many talents nicely, but they’re peeling our thoughts away from Dee.
   At one point during a fight, Dee drops both hands, taking punches to the face. Apparently she took them from Charlie before she married him. Why do women marry men knowing they’re abusive? And then stay with them for 20 years?

The piece wants to speak to gender. In her “interview” scenes, Dee is feminine—at least outwardly evidencing traditional femininity, in makeup and groomed curls. The present Dee wears white men’s briefs and a sports bra, her hair styled androgynously.
   The piece also likely wants to comment on the presence of media and lack of privacy, forced on us and encouraged by us. But the camera and cameraman are weak characters here, lurking more to accomplish technical feats than for being invasive or menacing. At best, the images offer close-ups on Dee’s body and the many stab-wound scars she bears (makeup by Angela Harner).
   Still Dee is resilient, in her mind and presumably in body. This evening of theater may remind us to spare a thought for the millions who haven’t been.


Reviewed by Dany Margolies
December 5, 2016

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 
Icebergs
Gil Cates Theater at Geffen Playhouse

Playwright and up-and-coming TV writer Alena Smith has written something so trendy and so indigenous to Los Angeles you can almost smell the scent of pumpkin spice latte wafting through the night air around the Geffen Playhouse.
   Screenwriter Calder and his insecure actor-wife Abigail (Nate Corddry and Jennifer Mudge) share a lovely plant-filled home in the wooded hills of Silverlake where the two most important things in their lives have become a fixation: to see Calder’s newest project turned into a major feature film and for Abigail to get pregnant, since both are desperate to add a little stability to their ephemeral and, of course, season-deprived existence.
   Their houseguest Reed (Keith Powell), a scientist visiting from Missouri to speak at a conference, was a college roommate of Calder’s, and the two old friends’ lives have exploded into very different directions. Reed has a 2-year-old daughter with another on the way and is anything but a cheerleader shouting the joys of fatherhood to Calder, whose life without strings and a surfboard leaning against the wall of his rustic living room sounds just about perfect to him.
   Smith creates the quintessential scenario of the modern industry-wannabe Angeleno couple, Calder hoping to get a major star to play the lead in the film he wrote for Abigail, which at least on the surface seems to be more of an issue to everyone but her. Her best friend since childhood and current neighbor Molly (Rebecca Henderson) finds the situation appalling, even as her 2-week-old marriage to a woman she met through a roommate ad on Craig’s List is already falling apart. Meanwhile, Calder’s Hollywood slickster agent Nicky (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) hopes his client won’t shit a star on the Walk of Fame because Kirsten Dunst’s “people” are considering the project—as long as Calder is willing to change the hero’s climactic death-by-mack-truck into something that can leave potential audiences with a happier ending. The script, by the way, is based on a true story. Hooray for Hollywood.

The icebergs of Smith’s title refer to both a pack of several thousand polar bears that the manic-depressive and climate change–obsessed Abigail hears about, currently stranded on a tiny rapidly melting ice floe in the Arctic, a place she envisions as becoming “like Glendale or something.” But Icebergs also refers to the possible fate of these people themselves, trapped in a shaky lifestyle that could have a future as ominous and doomed as the world’s crumbling ecosystem. There’s not much about Icebergs that isn’t predictable, and Smith’s kid vs. no kid subplot begins to suffer from overkill. But although there’s a pervasive air throughout reminiscent of a modern cable TV comedy we could all stay home to watch instead of fighting holiday traffic to Westwood, fortunately Smith writes so well we are still absorbed into the excursion, floating through the polar night without wanting to change the channel.
   Complete with an onstage earthquake, everything latter-day Spicoli is introduced or referenced here, from alien invasions, tarot cards, crystals, IMDb ratings, and Trader Joe’s to a spiritually aware pet cat named Taco. Then there’s the prevailing conviction that weed is too “basic” to help the group’s collective depressive mood yet there’s the comforting notion that Calder and Abigail could move to Topanga and raise their future child as members of a secret urban communal tribe. Even for transplanted Midwesterner Reed, his visit also makes him feel like he’s trapped in a real-life action movie.
   The actors are all adept at making this work despite the obvious traps, with Corddry and Mudge rising gracefully above the stereotypical nature and journey of their characters. Powell impressive as Reed, especially near the end when he admits to his friends the reason that he is down on parenting is that being black in today’s America is both frightening and exhausting. “But what if being a provider,” he wonders aloud, “means taking something away from her.”
   Henderson and Near-Verbrugghe, however, leave the most indelible impressions as Molly, the diehard feminist trying to conceal her fragility and overpowering sense of loss, and Nicky, the goofy but somehow endearing Martin Short-like air-kisser who does not seem to know that Missouri and Mississippi are two different places. Director Randall Arney has guided his performers well in finding the complexities of Smith’s inner-screaming characters, although sometimes his staging is forced and clumsy, every move anyone makes seeming to always end with all five actors spaced evenly across the front of Anthony T. Fanning’s strikingly Silverlakean set.

Perhaps one suggestion in Icebergs could sum up what we might all take away from Smith’s tale, the conclusion that we are all, really, doing just fine in our lives—as long as we stay off the Internet and resign ourselves to the fact that “life is a mess, life is tragic, and things don’t always work out.”
   Cheery, that, but at least we’re all in it together. Pass the pumpkin spice latte.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
November 26, 2016
 
A Very Special Holiday Special
Little Fish Theatre

If as of late you find yourself longing to laugh but not quite able to, Little Fish Theatre might coax you into smiling, snickering, chortling, and more than a few times doubling over in hilarity.
   At the San Pedro–based theater through Dec. 17, A Very Special Holiday Special provides these opportunities in its eight short plays, all world premieres by Mark Harvey Levine. They lean toward secular views of Hanukkah and Christmas (with a brief mention of Kwanzaa), subtly urging warmth and tolerance for all while not forgetting faith and faithfulness.
   The show presumes a sense of humor, plus historical and religious perspectives, in its audiences. For example, the opening play is only for those who can cope with the idea that Judaism predates Christianity but neither predates a nice brisket wrapped in aluminum foil.
   However, first comes the pre-curtain speech that is anything but, considering that it’s very much part of the show and that there’s no curtain, meaning actors don and doff costume bits just out of sightlines.
   The speech features the entire cast, seven actors from among the company’s best, reading a heavily doctored version of a beloved Christmas poem, managing to rhyme kosher with brochure. It lets the audience quickly adjust to the crisp comedic delivery and swiftly morphing characterizations we’re treated to throughout.

Then comes “Oy Vey Maria.” Yes, the newborn baby Jesus has a grandma (Madeleine Drake) who arrives, brisket in hand, apparently uninvited and late because of traffic. Grandma is clearly tetchy that those three wise guys got a better welcome from the postpartum Mary (Margaret Schugt) and the concomitantly passive Joseph (Bill Wolski).
   In “The Light,” Wolski and Daniel Tennant play guards in ancient Jerusalem tasked with watching over a one-day supply of oil, keeping the flame burning for seven more. While Tennant’s guard is cranky and easily distracted, Wolski’s guard is steadfast, letting us know we can sometimes help miracles along.
   “I’ll Be Home for Brisket” takes place at the house of siblings: the supper-cooking Martha (Susie McCarthy), the feather boa–wielding Mary Magdalene (Schugt) and the accident-prone little brother Lazarus (Amanda Karr). Here, a centurion (James Rice) comes to carry out a census despite the transiency of the guests, tallying in Roman numerals, his jokes earning rim shots from the Little Drummer Boy (Tennant).
   In “A Very Special Hanukkah Special,” a George Bailey-esque Murray (Rice) learns it’s a good thing Hanukkah isn’t as commercially successful as Christmas is.
   “Oh, Tannenbaum” stars Rice as a husband and Schugt as a talking Christmas tree, as they spend an early morning sharing worldviews. Throughout, the tree lovingly needles vegetarians and promotes botanical equality.
   In “Best Present Ever,” Karr plays a harried pet owner who eventually notes the finest gift we exchange with our animals. McCarthy is the bouncy dog, and Wolski is the luxuriating cat with an Iberian accent.
   “You Better Watch Out” finds a Buddhist couple being visited by militants in July who insist on knowing why the Christmas decorations aren’t up yet. Tolerance triumphs.
   In the spirited finale, titled “Les Miserabelves,” the cast zips through the best of “Les Miz” songs, spoofed for the holidays, to tell, loosely, the story of Rudolph (Wolski) and his pyrrhorhinosis.

Throughout the show, references to television’s many animated Christmas specials by Rankin/Bass Productions flood the stage, some coming so quickly they pass before they can jog the memory. Lines from Christmas carols, instantly recognizable, constitute bits of the dialogue.
   But linking the plays are serious themes of respect, broad-mindedness and inclusiveness.
   Director Holly Baker-Kreiswirth, having perfectly cast her actors, amps up the humor but keeps the tone just gentle enough, adding poignant touches. Visual jokes enhance verbal ones, while the eight plays hurtle along in completely controlled mayhem.
   Stacey Abrams’s lighting design plays up the ranges of tenderness and silliness in the stories. But costumer Diana Mann, for her work in this show and others over the year, deserves whatever she desires for whatever holidays she celebrates—or all of them.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
November 14, 2016

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze.

 
The Stand-In
Bootleg Theatre

A beautiful young waif is washed up with the tide on a local SoCal beach. Her passage from that mysterious origin to a whirlwind baptism into a bizarrely incongruent life as an ambitious Hollywood player is chronicled in the world premiere of The Stand-In, Alicia Adams and Peter Munro’s hardnosed look into our own dysfunctional film industry–gripped community in 1944. It’s a place here described as a little factory town where dreams are manufactured and made to walk among us. You know. Home.
   Unfolding simultaneously with the contentious creation and making of Billy Wilder’s film noir landmark Double Indemnity, the journey of Kasia (Fayelyn Bilodeau) from her serendipitous rescue by the film’s smitten cinematographer Max (Jeremy Mitchell) to becoming the girl-toy of Marlene Dietrich (a sufficiently sultry turn by playwright Adams), this unsophisticated immigrant’s dreamlike rags-to-riches story, magnified a hundred times under the tutelage of her very own cougar superstar, is a homegrown tale straight out of Hollywood Babylon.
   As Kasia begins her rather passionless affair with Max, occasionally slipping into clever flashback scenes recalling fleeing the Nazis and leaving her mother (Adams again) behind in the Warsaw Ghetto, her painful past clashes big time with the life into which her lover hurls her. Convincing his boss Wilder (Chris Schultz) to replace another less-lucky hopeful so Kasia could become Barbara Stanwyck’s stand-in in the film, Max immediately thrusts the girl into a make-believe world she could never have imagined. Still, obviously imbued with a gargantuan inner strength acquired while making her way from a personal hell into greener but possibly similarly soul-eating climes, she survives quite nicely, thank you.

Thanks to the smooth visual direction of Patrick Murphy, we are quickly swept into another world, one that existed right where we are now. Hana Sooyeon Kim’s production design is the star of the show, beautifully complemented by Dan Weingarten’s sometimes creamy, sometimes mystically foggy lighting. David Offner’s magically inventive set, dominated by enormous rolling studio lights and movable venetian blind-covered pieces, can evoke everything from Max’s apartment to Wilder’s office and then open into the interior of the getaway car Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff (McCready Baker and Stephen Simon as Stanwyck and Fred McMurray) can’t start after dumping her husband’s body by the railroad tracks.
   Although Adams and Munroe’s snappy dialogue sparkles brightly, the story becomes bogged down by having nowhere to go. The captivating re-creation of the filming of Double Indemnity provides the most-exciting moments, in which the production’s game and delightfully quirky ensemble plays actors and grips and script girls bustling around in their usual frenzy. McCready and Simon steal every one of their scenes as the classic film’s stars, as does Michael Dunn doubling as both Pinky, Wilder’s loud and hardworking A.D., and as Edward G. Robinson repeatedly flubbing his difficult lines while shooting a scene as Walter’s bombastic boss Barton Keyes.

Adams is a standout in both her incredibly diverse roles (with a special shout-out to Kerry Hennessy’s lovely period costuming evoking Dietrich at her most glamorous), and Schultz has memorable and poignant moments as the Austrian-born Wilder crafting his masterpiece while learning of his own family’s demise in the camps. Charlie Forray, Rob Lynch, Amy Gonzales, and Katie DeVoe-Peterson are wonderfully unswerving in typically gum-chewing cameos as various casting directors, audio guys, cameramen, and clappers. Only Paul Dillon as the film’s irascible and oft-tanked screenwriter Raymond Chandler is out of place in this cast, resorting to near moustache-twirling, eye-rolling overacting as though playing in his own over-the-top one-man show.
   This fresh, often beguiling script feels somewhat unfinished, yet it could easily be reworked to let Kasia’s meteoric rise become more clearly essential to making its authors’ point, not be reduced to a subplot overshadowed by the production’s spectacular design and fiercely committed execution. What it so successfully points out again is that there’s nothing remotely real about the tough-as-nails and heartless industry that dominates our town, where our most-renowned contribution to our culture is nothing more than “photos projected on a big black wall.”

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
November 2, 2016
 
A Taste of Honey
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

In the late 1950s, when bad-boy playwrights Edward Bond and Joe Orton were turning the staid and politically correct world of London’s West End on its ear, an imposing young 6-foot-tall kid from a struggling working class family living in the factory-dominated city of Salford, took the evolution of modern British theater one giant leap further.
   In 1958, high school dropout Shelagh Delaney became the talk of the town when her extremely controversial A Taste of Honey debuted at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. With a shockingly cold steeliness, the play dealt not only with the harsh world in which she lived but also with previously taboo issues such as teenage pregnancy, promiscuity, single parenthood, homosexuality, interracial relationships, and England’s rampant post–World War II poverty.
   It’s the story of neglected young waif Jo, grappling to survive a life subjugated by the perpetually inebriated selfish whore of a mother she detests. Jo does so by recognizing that the darkness inside her is far scarier than the enveloping shroud of societal darkness. Yet when her first play debuted to horrified British audiences, Delaney was 18 years old.
   In this wonderfully re-envisioned revival of Delaney’s one and only truly successful work, director Kim Rubinstein, who brought her amazing talents to reinvent Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie at the Odyssey Theatre last year, has returned to the scene of her triumph to transform yet another difficult classic and make it sing a whole new tune—quite literally.
   On the Odyssey’s warehouse-like north stage, Nephelie Andonyadis’s stark set offers one room that, with lighting and a few gossamer curtains, morphs into every location in the play, also including a space upstage where drummer Gerard Joseph and standup bass manned alternately by Armando Wood and Mark Guitterrez generate evocative jazz standards of the 1950s and ’60s to enhance the ambiance of the roughhewn unfolding drama.

As Jo, the role that nearly 60 years ago made Joan Plowright a star, Kestrel Leah could not be more perfectly cast, finding with a jarringly simple sincerity all the desperation and frustration of her character’s meager, dismal existence. Jo has no filter, nor do any of Delaney’s conflicted characters, doing and saying whatever they want no matter the consequences, quickly blowing the notion of Chekhovian subtext right past the fourth wall, out the unseen filthy window of Jo and Helen’s unheated flat, and into the stinky and polluted River Irwell it faces.
   As Helen, Jo’s booze-swilling slattern of a mother, Sarah Underwood Saviano brilliantly conquers the difficult task of making her character endearing and fun to watch despite what a brazen and inexcusably awful person she is written to be. And if her blistering performance isn’t enough, Saviano grabs a saxophone in one inventive Rubinstein touch, joining the live musicians to wail mean and impressively evocative jazz riffs whenever the action permits.
   Joseph also leaves his station behind his drum set to smoothly transmute into Jimmy, the black sailor who knocks up the teenage Jo and then leaves her to fend for herself. As Geoffrey, the homeless gay art student who befriends Jo and helps her through her pregnancy so well that she sees him as like a “big sister,” Leland Montgomery is a major find here, bringing all the sadness, the sweetness, the inner strength of his character to fruition without falling into the customary stereotypical traps of Geoff’s cockney queenliness.
   Rubinstein’s Taste is undeniably rich, unhampered by the usual conventions that keep artists from exploring new ways to tell classic stories. This striking attempt is basically successful, although taking the dialogue of Helen, who perpetually speaks to herself as though having a conversation with herself (“She’s a right difficult tart, that one, now, ain’t she?”), and delivering all those lines directly to the audience robs the character of a significantly personal idiosyncrasy. The other glaring problem is the casting of the admittedly talented Eric Hunicutt as Helen’s loud and drunken suitor, who is far too young and attractive to efficaciously play the creepy Peter, playing the rough and obnoxious pub-crawler as though he were one of the cartoon-like pirates “Arrrrgh-ing” his way through a journey onboard Jack Sparrow’s Black Pearl.

Still, in general this is a phenomenally accessible new telling of Delaney’s melancholy, gloomy, importantly unrepentant tale. It’s clear that Rubinstein has strived to do something daring while still honoring and celebrating the author’s uncanny ability to create such world-worn, bluntly unsentimental characters. The groundbreaking play was surprising successful at a time when few English playwrights were willing to explore such darkness and dysfunction in their society. Although no longer scandalous or shocking, in the astoundingly innovative theatrical vision of Rubinstein, it’s evocative and moving all over again.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
October 6, 2016
 
Going... Going... GONE!
Hudson Guild Theatre

The sitcom originated in the early days of radio, and it has become one of the most-reliable forms for writers as they spin out a storyline. Playwright Ken Levine, with credits from M*A*S*H and other notable television comedies and 25 years as a major league baseball broadcast journalist, has used this structure and set the play in a press box in a Los Angeles ballpark. The back-and-forth among four commentators as a potential no-hitter unfolds makes for some very funny moments.
   Dennis (David Babich) is a sports geek whose impressive knowledge of baseball stats qualifies him for the job he is eager to leave. Married to an overbearing wife, his only desire is to get a job with the Baseball Hall of Fame. Mason (Dennis Pearson) writes for the Los Angeles Times and bemoans the fact that there are few jobs left in journalism as evidenced by the layoffs taking place in the industry and the nearly empty press box.
   Big Jim (Troy Metcalf) is an online writer whose sarcastic one-liners, heartily delivered, ratchet up the tension as the story unfolds. Finally, pretty Shana Sanders (Annie Abrams) arrives as a substitute commentator in the all-male turf, and she quickly spars with the guys on an equal footing. Abrams’s obvious sex appeal figures into the story, but she is no caricature. Babich’s nerdy character is easily recognizable as the hard-luck guy beset by problems, functioning early on as a foil for the other characters. Pearson delivers as the baseball lover who only wants to be a good writer and keep the job that he loves.

Metcalf gets the lion’s share of the laughs as he slings one zinger after another. It’s learned early on that he isn’t blogging as he sits at his computer but playing a farm simulation game, seemingly uninterested in the actual baseball game in progress. His delivery and timing steal the show. The story is part invention, part history, and a little philosophical musing. The characters are believable, and their genuine affection shines through.
  Much of this is due to Andrew Barnicle’s directorial restraint in keeping the human side of the story paramount instead of overplaying the characterizations. He creates a warm comedy in the best tradition.
   Levine claims his inspiration for the script is a familiar theme: the need to be remembered. Mixed in with the comic moments are genuinely poignant ones that underscore this idea and guarantee that this play has more to offer than just laughs. For baseball fans, it knocks it out of the park.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
October 6, 2016
 
Bright Colors and Bold Patterns
Celebration Theatre

Josh and Brennan are getting married and, although the concept is something of an oxymoron, they’re holding their nuptials at a gay-friendly hotel in Palm Springs. As the LA-based tribes gather to send the couple off, one of the invitees staggers to the pool to join some of his so-called friends attempting to get a nice little desert tan before the ceremony and, perhaps, to try to get even more stoned than they presumably already are. A party is a party after all.
   There, at the hotel’s Pee-wee’s Playhouse–colored poolside designed by Dara Wishingrad, Gerry (Drew Droege) holds court in a constantly escalating haze of margaritas and more than a few nosefuls of cocaine, trashing everyone from Dorothy Zbornak and Jessica Fletcher to his ex and the ex’s far younger current boyfriend who knows nothing of the constant ’70s social references zinging right over his lovely head. The latter two of Gerry’s victims are, it seems, stretched out catching rays in adjoining chaise lounges clad in speedos, lobbing away their tormentor’s continuous barrage of caustic verbal torpedoes for a ruthless hour and a half.
   You’d think it would be vital to see the reactions of the others gathered, reluctant targets stuck at the receiving end of their friend’s abuse and accusations, but alas, this is a one-man show. Luckily for us, however, Gerry is played by his author, and Droege’s wickedly funny Bright Colors and Bold Patterns is directed by Michael Urie, so although the reactions of the group must be conjured and remain entrenched in our imaginations, the other missing characters’ responses to the abrasively obnoxious Gerry are clear as a bell. Why, you can almost see the bruises—or maybe it’s those envisaged speedos.

The title of Droege’s play comes from the wedding couple’s engraved invitation, which asks that those attending not wear—you guessed it—bright colors or bold patterns, a subtle demand by one of the grooms’ tight-assed society mothers to keep the Gay down at the event, something that infuriates Gerry more than even seeing everyone around him being happy while he, pushing 40, apparently remains drowning in another pool: the dating pool. It’s not hard to see why the guy is alone at the party and, despite his initial insistences of his own domestic contentment, it becomes obvious you’d have to be Helen Keller to put up with this guy for more than these 90 minutes.
   Droege’s ruthlessly self-deprecating humor is like the nonstop rat-a-tat-tat of a gay George Carlin clone, and no one is left standing by the show’s conclusion—particularly Gerry. Still, we laugh nonstop at the guy’s outrageous antics and continuously louder and ever more shocking proclamations, so beautifully fleshed out by his creator and the uber-clever director who guides him seamlessly in a tour-de-force performance. It also would be hard not to see how sad life can be for an old-timey gay queen trying to keep his head above water in a new world, and here is the show’s message seething up to the surface from the depths of Gerry’s flood of brutal opinions on just about everything and anyone who isn’t him.

At a time when many same-sex couples are desperately trying to homogenize into the mainstream of our society, the days of bath houses, Sunday brunch deck parties, and fast friends conspiratorially referring to each other as Mary and Grace are all but gone, and poor Gerry is a dinosaur struggling not to get buried in the La Brea Tar Pits with the rest of the fossils. It’s hard for him and many others, one would assume, to remain footloose and frenzied as everyone around you is planning to settle in a nice Orange County craftsman and adopt a few children.
   Droege’s gaudy but ultimately sad character is a sad Pierrot clown lost in the effort big time, and, even though the guy will make you laugh until you wish the Celebration Theatre’s bathroom wasn’t so far away tucked behind the building, the underlying theme of the evening is still compelling, something of a final gasp of a tribute to more carefree days past as the world evolves at lightning speed.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
October 4, 2016
 
The Ithaca Ladies Read Medea
Little Fish Theatre

Arthur M. Jolly’s nobly intelligent play The Ithaca Ladies Read Medea is an antidote to the social media mindset by which we’re communicating these days. In the play’s world premiere at Little Fish Theatre in San Pedro, it provides the thoughtful theatergoer with food and shelter.
   It is, however, quite elliptical, leaving it up to the audience to read between the lines. Where some playwrights don’t trust their audience enough, Jolly presumes a smart audience. But that audience will work harder than most to put the pieces together.
   He posits a set of university wives in the 1950s, gathering once per month to gripe and read plays aloud. Though they’re an eclectic group in age and temperament, each wife is articulate and opinionated.
   But it’s the McCarthy Era. One of the wives wrote a letter to the university dean, suggesting that the political leanings of one of their husbands ought to be “considered.” This letter, or someone’s redrafting of it, somehow wended its way to the US Senate.

The eldest and most humorous wife in the group, Elsie (Mary-Margaret Lewis), is married to the dean of Comparative Literature. He had the foresight to focus on Irish writings. The perfectionist Alison (Kristin Carey) is married to a professor who translated Lermontov from its original Russian. That and a few casual comments have led the federal government to investigate him, his colleagues and their wives.
   The wheelchair-bound Adelaide (Shirley Hatton) is naive in the way people with rigid beliefs can be, while Bridget (Marti Hale) is naive in an unthinking way. Among Jolly’s points: Plunging one’s head into the sand is a bad way to deal with demagoguery.
   On this evening, the women are at Alison’s tickety-boo home, where her new maid, Katie (Tara Donovan), tries to make a good impression while sticking to her personal beliefs about honesty. Also new to these gatherings is Bridget’s young niece, Marcie (Kathryn Farren), whose head swims amid the machinations.
   Interspersed throughout the evenings are four flashback segments from the Senate interrogations, as each wife appears before the McCarthyite Sen. Karl Mundt (James Rice), a real-life Republican senator of the era. Each wife handles herself characteristically, notably Alison as she invokes the Fifth Amendment, and Elsie as she slyly acts the ditz.

Jolly has adeptly captured the speech of the era. He also captures the straits women lived in. Alison, imprisoned in grooming and propriety, decides that acting “like a lady” at all times trumps truthful communication.
   But some of the issues he quietly raises continue today. People who gave sons to the war are having their patriotism called into question. Entities keep track of what we read (or buy or download or stream) and interpret what that suggests about us. It took decades for Americans with disabilities to be able to wheel down adequately wide hallways and over ramps in curbs.
   But mostly, the characters note, a stain lasts forever, even one that’s barely visible, whether on a carpet or on one’s reputation.
   Director Danielle Ozymandias nicely re-creates the era in look and tone. A few moments of her staging distract rather than enhance, such as her decision to line up the actors downstage for the reading aloud of Euripides’ Medea.
   One major element of the staging, keeping the senator watching over the action throughout the play, is particularly disconcerting. That likely is the writer’s and director’s purpose: to remind the audience of how oppressive and intrusive that era must have felt, and to make us ponder what we would have done had we been in their vintage shoes.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 26, 2016

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 

A View From the Bridge
Young Vic at Ahmanson Theatre

Belgian theater director Ivo van Hove revives Arthur Miller’s 1957 classic A View From the Bridge with a staging at once utterly realistic and utterly stylized. At the Ahmanson, when it works, it immerses our mind in the story and wrenches emotions out of us. When it doesn’t work, it makes us step back and consciously observe the stagecraft.
   It takes place in 1950s Brooklyn, where longshoreman Eddie Carbone (Frederick Weller) is obsessed with his wife’s 17-year-old niece, Catherine (Catherine Combs), whom they took in years before and raised as their own. His wife, Beatrice (Andrus Nichols), realizes Catherine is growing up and in need of independence, but Eddie lives in the dangerous territory somewhere between babying her and sexualizing her.
   Also newly seeking shelter at the Carbone house are Beatrice’s two young cousins, smuggled from Italy: the married, stable, responsible Marco (Alex Esola) and the handsome, blond Rodolfo (Dave Register).
   We learn much of the background from the town’s lawyer, Alfieri (Thomas Jay Ryan), who serves as our Greek chorus. Miller’s script admits it harks back to ancient Greek drama—in direct references, in its often poetic language, and in the magnitude of the tragedy it recounts.

Van Hove leaves no doubts about his vision for this work, which originated with London’s Young Vic and won him the 2016 Tony for play direction and for the revival. It’s highly stylistic, but he makes it immediate and unvarnished, focusing his staging on the relationships among the characters, slightly trimming the language (in particular deleting Catherine’s brief recognition of her role in the tragedy) and turning the two-act into a two-hour one-act that keeps the audience rapt.
   Van Hove places some of the audience on the stage, in risers surrounding the acting area, which is a stark white floor surrounded by an ebony-and-glass bench. Jan Versweyveld’s scenic design and lighting allows each audience member to interpret the area’s symbolism: possibly slaughterhouse, boxing ring, microscope. Whatever, the story is now three-dimensional.
   Costuming (An D’Huys) is contemporary but timeless. The actors are shoeless—except most noticeably when little Catherine dons a pair of black spike-heeled pumps in a deliberate attempt to look grown up.
   The acting style is tinged with formality, the delivery crisp and almost academic, considering it’s spoken by a mostly blue-collar set of characters. The New Yorkers speak with heavy Brooklyn accents, but the Italian immigrants speak with a standard American one, unusual if not unique for this Miller work and a directorial choice that might be the smartest move here.

But as we watch the story unfold, we notice too much of the concept, which means we’re not immersed in the action. Casting, also, may distance the audience from the work. Weller has the brooding intensity of a Brontë hero, but trying to picture Weller hefting and hauling as a longshoreman taxes the imagination. Similarly, the tall, strapping Register doesn’t look like he grew up in the economic straits of wartime and postwar Europe.
   But in Register’s Rodolfo, if one may judge by appearances only, there’s no doubt he’s heterosexual and in love with Catherine without extraneous motives, taking those off the subtext table. In its place, however, van Hove makes Catherine’s feelings for her uncle ambiguous.
   Combs is by far the tiniest performer on this stage, easily enfolded into the arms of the doting Carbones. But she packs a huge presence in her scenes, with physical energy that seems to radiate along with her powerful voice, filling the cavernous Ahmanson.
   Also noteworthy is Nichols, whose Beatrice is gorgeously torn, seeing the truth but knowing full well she’ll lose her husband and home if she pushes Eddie a step too far.
   When the play should be building speed, van Hove instead turns Miller’s pauses into slow, silent, terrifyingly immutable moments, more powerful than the soundscape (Tom Gibbons) that washes in and out, sometimes drumbeat, sometimes requiem, driving us, even as we objectively watch, toward the inexorable end.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 19, 2016

Republished with kind permission of Los Angeles Daily News
 
Barbecue
Geffen Playhouse

There’s a heap of deliciously inappropriate nonstop laughs in the West Coast premiere of Robert O’Hara’s twisted comedy Barbecue. But it might not be until a day or so after we see it that we realize the message behind the outrageous chronicles of a majorly dysfunctional trailer-trash family grills up a lot more than chipotle-smothered chicken tenders.
   Lillie Anne, Adlean, James T, and Marie (Frances Fisher, Dale Dickey, Travis Johns, and Elyse Mirto, respectively) are siblings who gather to picnic in a local public park in the heart of Trumpland, an enigmatic place in the vast wasteland the program refers to only as Middle America. The reunion is a ruse for an intervention aimed at the siblings’ wayward sister Barbara (Rebecca Wisocky), nicknamed Zippity Boom, her nickname since childhood, when she began to scare the bejeebies out of the others.
   They quickly conjure familiar victims of our long-lost American Dream, reminiscent of all those game toothless souls willing to throw punches and chairs at one another on an episode of The Jerry Springer Show. As James T notes early in the game—and game is definitely an appropriate word here—“We ain’t got no goddam normal family.”
   Organizer and the slightly more conventional Lillie Anne, called out by one of her sisters as not the only one “up here with a GED,” has tried her best to make this event work out. She has at the ready a plane ticket to Alaska and a space reserved for Barbara at a drug rehab retreat, and Lillie Anne has composed a long and brutally honest tough-love letter to read, warning Barbara of far-more-ominous repercussions than her family’s disenfranchisement if she doesn’t go along with their plans.
   None of the others has remembered to write a letter, of course, but Adlean still has an idea to propose, threatening that if Zippity Boom doesn’t comply she’ll beat her until she “sees the white meat.” It’s not easy for any of these mismatched brethren to listen to reason, particularly since all of them appear to have substance abuse issues of their own, from crack to alcohol to downers.

Then the stage suddenly goes to black. It’s a clever and highly unexpected ruse to introduce a second ensemble playing the same loud and stoned troupe of extreme miscreants. The new actors are dressed identically, holding the same cans of Coors, and popping the same pills from the same purse. The only difference here is that, instead of being white-trash crackers, the new cast is African-American (Yvette Cason, Kimberly Hebert Gregory, Omar J. Dorsey, and Heather Alicia Simms).
   As surprising as this wrinkle in O’Hara’s darkly cunning saga may be, however, it is only the beginning, as the lights go on and off in Act One to reveal the progress of the clumsy intervention as it continues with Zippity Boom (Cherise Boothe) gagged and tied to a post in the park’s gazebo. The end of the act is like a final reveal on Twilight Zone, but again, it’s only the beginning. O’Hara manages to send up everything from Tennessee Williams family life to Hollywood and the myth of superstardom.
   Lillie Anne is the slightly less-crazed leader who with perpetual frustration precariously holds together her wildly out-of-control brood as best she can. As that less-flashy character, who has to subtly anchor the reality of O’Hara’s wonderfully ridiculous situations while honoring the play’s rat-a-tat comedy, veteran artistes Fisher and Cason expertly provide the glue that keeps the proceedings from devolving into total disaster. Dickey is constantly hilarious as Adlean, who despite trying to recover from breast cancer is puffing on Marlboros from first curtain to final, and Simms delivers a knockout monologue as the amphetamine-fueled Marie before her brother tasers her into momentary catatonia, explaining that he felt she needed the rest.

The cast is 90 percent golden, although Boothe, who came into the cast after the final tech rehearsal as a last-minute replacement, has not yet found her footing in the role. She is still obviously struggling to meld the two distinct personalities of her Barbara, who must instantaneously and seamlessly switch from a spoiled and pretentious movie star sporting a phony Beyonce-inspired upper-class accent to expose her roots as a ghetto survivor. Hopefully, as the run sinks into place, so will her performance.
   The only other aspect of this production that could use further thought is Colman Domingo’s staging. He far too often clumsily lets his gloriously gifted performers form a direct uniform line across the lip of the stage and directs any actor delivering a monologue or offering other important dialogue to directly play it out front to be sure the audience gets it.

All other hairpin turns crashing through Barbecue makes it a hard play to discuss, but even without revealing the many head-spinning comedic bombshells, it can be said that the subterfuge of O’Hara’s uproarious dialogue, spit out with separate but equal Springer-osity, is sure to rattle around for a while until one can see the forest through the trees. It seems comfortable enough to enjoy the shrill insanity of Lillie Anne’s lowly bucolic kin, but how does that perception change when confronted with the same characters with the same issues thrusting a hip to one side, rolling their eyes, and spouting urban Ebonics?
   Through the tearful mist of rapid-fire comedy, O’Hara demands that we question our reactions to these people, to consider how effortlessly we fashion stereotypical assumptions in our heads about the issues of race and social standing that are currently rearing their ugly heads in our broken and evermore divided country.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
September 18, 2016
 
Haunted House Party
Troubadour Theatre Company at The Outdoor Classical Theater at the Getty Villa

Scholars may try to tell us they know exactly what theater looked like in ancient Rome. But they’ll never convince all of us that Troubadour Theater Company’s Haunted House Party, in the nighttime air of the outdoor Getty Villa’s amphitheater, isn’t an exact replica of a sunny day at a suburban Roman crossroads, two millennia ago, where an itinerant company of actors and musicians stopped to entertain, perhaps inform, and hopefully earn a few coins.
   On opening night of this Troubies show, Getty Museum director Timothy Potts, attempting his now-traditional curtain speech, tried to lecture the audience on the history of Roman playwright Plautus’s Mostellaria, translated as “Haunted House,” on which the current show is based. But the Troubies, probably having sat through a few of his introductory disquisitions on ancient theater, were having none of it. Potts, happily, had the wisdom, grace, and sense of humor to literally run for the hills, leaving the stage to the entertainment.
   So, it’s 200 B.C., and because the Romans are feeling nostalgic for all things Greek, a Roman theater troupe is putting on a comedy set in Athens. In it, a father (Michael Faulkner) departs his home on a three-year business trip, leaving his son, Philolaches (Nicholas Cutro), home alone—well, alone except for the many, many slaves. Philolaches, being equal parts foolishly romantic and politically egalitarian, borrows money to buy the freedom of one of the slave girls, Philematium (Joey Keane), which ultimately gets paid back by his friend (Matthew Patrick Davis).
   At least, we’re assuming Philematium is a girl. Among the onstage shenanigans, it takes quite a bit of glancing at Philematium from different angles to assure ourselves that her portrayer is indeed male. But then, Troubie director and this play’s adaptor Matt Walker plays the prevaricating slave Tranio, and Walker is in real life a straightforward, truthful lad. Troubie veteran Beth Kennedy plays the doltish slave Grumio, and Kennedy is immensely talented and bright. Thus they call it acting, and all of it is delightfully skilled here.

This plot had been around the block by the time Plautus got to it, based on the work of the Athenian comedic playwright Menander. It has been around the block since. It became a basis for the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and, it would appear, for the film Risky Business.
   Also recycled, but with clever parody lyrics that meld the ancient play with our previous night’s news, are such pop classics as Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House,” introducing the haunted house, and R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It,” offering commentary on the upcoming election. Donald Trump takes the brunt of the evening and Bernie Sanders makes an appearance (in a near-perfect vocal imitation by Rick Batalla as the aged next-door neighbor), so of course Hillary Clinton can’t escape scot-free.
   At the top of the evening, we’re reminded the Villa is surrounded by neighbors the Getty values, so decibels must be kept low. Music director Eric Heinly manages a minor miracle, keeping the volume somewhat down but the energy up, even backed by unamplified harpsichord and cello. That’s the way the Greeks heard their performing arts, and that’s the way some of us prefer it.
   But as if to make up for the more genteel volume, the company amps up the raunch factor. This may be the bawdiest show in the Troubies’ 21-year history.
   Much of this night’s visual and verbal comedy is based on the noted Roman adage “If you can’t laugh at sex, you may as well be having it.” Or words to that effect. Let’s just say pingpong balls and merkins get a rare airing in the cool September marine mists of Pacific Palisades. But, as Walker points out to those persons squeamishly tittering in the crowd, some of the artifacts in the museum directly behind the stage aren’t in the least puritanical either.

The performers sing, dance, play musical instruments, improvise. They do it to entertain us but in the process remind us of how good generous friendship and parental forgiveness can feel. And that they have felt good for thousands of years. And that we are still laughing at sexual innuendo. The upcoming election, however, still doesn’t feel that funny. Maybe it will in 2,000 years.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 12, 2016
 
Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
 
Parallel Lives
Falcon Theatre

When Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney first hit the boards 30 years ago with The Kathy and Mo Show, it was indeed a landmark event: two outrageously astute and boundlessly funny young comedians taking on the inequities of the world from a distinct feminist perspective no one except Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner had quite managed to navigate before them. Three decades later, however, their humor falls flatter than a Create-A-Face pancake breakfast at IHOP.
   As groundbreaking as Parallel Lives, the 1991 abridged distillation of Najimy and Gaffney’s first audacious sendup of modern life, once was, in 2016 it’s clearly become hard work for two obviously gifted performers and one of LA’s best directors, Jenny Sullivan, to re-create it. Try as they will, even the sea of Falcon Theatre patrons seem to be past finding the humor in most of the piece’s sketches about men and women—though mostly women—trudging through the difficulties and injustices of contemporary life.
   Although the first bit—with Crista Flanagan and Alice Hunter donning oversized wings as angels assisting their supreme leader with the original creation of man, chortling with sadistic glee as they help decide how sexual acts will be performed and which of the newly created two genders will be relegated to carrying a child for nine months and then popping it out of a small hole—is still funny, it’s also nothing we haven’t heard before. “She gives birth,” they resolve, “and he gets as much ego as possible.”
   Soon we’re greeted with jokes referencing Jim Jones, aerobicizing, Wilma and Betty, Barbarella, and even a segment featuring Disney heroines at a kinda group therapy session that feels so ancient it’s as though they’ve been eating poisoned apples, being traded for plucked sacred roses, and wiggling their fishtails through colorful animated seas since Aladar and Plio were roaming the prehistoric earth. Layering in that heavy prevailing dose of feminist grandiloquence that at the time of its creation was so topical, and trudging through constant references to Najimy and Gaffney’s restrictive Catholic upbringing, and this revival is doomed to audiences sitting on their hands and offering only a few polite twitters.

Sullivan’s direction is, as always, fresh and innovative, cleverly staged on Trefoni Michael Rizzi’s colorfully abstract Little Prince–worthy set, but try as they will, Flanagan and Hunter do not have the precision, comic timing, or wonderfully screwy chemistry of Najimy and Gaffney. The current duo is best in the show’s two most poignant segments, as estranged sisters navigating an awkward reunion at their beloved grandmother’s funeral, and later as a nephew trying to gently explain to his initially less-than understanding aunt that he and his roommate are more than just buddies.
   It’s not that Parallel Lives isn’t as clever as it once was; it’s that so many later female comics have taken Najimy and Gaffney’s once-daring and insightful humor so much further that this return to basics doesn’t deliver—yet. Give it another, say, 20 years, and it will become the Hair of the future, which when resurrected too early was just dated but, when brought back later in the game, once again became fascinating from its better placed historical perspective.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
September 5, 2016
 
Please Don’t Ask About Becket
Electric Footlights at Sacred Fools Theater Black Box

There’s nothing terribly original about the theme of Wendy Graf’s latest play, making its world premiere in the newly reconfigured Sacred Fools Black Box space, except that the customary account of a set of twins—one charismatic but troubled, the other living in the massive shadow of her brother—has been evoked by a playwright whose powers of wordsmithery are just about perfect.
   Add into the list of special forgiving circumstances that director Kiff Scholl brilliantly stages the play in an environmental 360-degree configuration on Evan A. Bartoletti’s exquisitely sparse but Wonderland-y set and has lured LA theater royalty Deborah Puette and Rob Nagle to appear as the twins’ parents, and most of the play’s glaring clichés can be easily disregarded. Just as any in the assembly line of new novels churned out annually by Stephen King, Graf’s plot and where it travels is unsurprising. But boy, can the author poetically weave a tender tale of yet another well-meaning family hell-bent on self-destruction.
   Emily and Becket (Rachel Seiferth and Hunter Garner) are the spawn of Rob Diamond (Nagle), a typically overworked and highly successful Hollywood film producer who has a hard time fitting his kids into his breakneck schedule. His wife, Grace (Puette), could not be more protective of her offspring but it’s abundantly clear that she favors Becket, the more outgoing and popular of her children, despite the fact that, though painfully shy, Emily is the family’s scholastic overachiever. Beginning the play as youngsters playing kids’ games in the woods, Emily and Becket pledge an early promise to always be there for each other before their characters mature into their teen years and then into young adulthood, sweeping the audience along to that less-forgiving time when an errant child’s behavior becomes harder to excuse.

Becket, of course, continually fails at school and stays in constant trouble, able presumably to do never do anything right except sweet-talk his way out of any corner into which he paints himself. Grave covers for her son’s transgressions, Rob sighs and takes urgent long-distance calls, as Emily warily watches her beloved brother annihilate himself—until she can take no more and tells him she needs a break from his dysfunctional reliance on her to always be there to bail him out. He reminds her that from early on they have had that solid us-against-them pact, but finally she tells him flat out that she’s tired of “us” and no longer wants to be a part of their childhood treaty because in the process “it erases” her. The results, of course, are disastrous for her—and her parents.
   Though Graf’s characters offer nothing unexpected, they are tenderly conjured and arrestingly brought to life by these incredibly gifted actors led by the vision of a truly innovative director. Scholl insisted the production be staged with audience on all sides, further heightening the personal walls inadvertently erected between the members of the Diamond family while keeping the audience close at hand to wish we could step in and tell them how epically, despite their fierce love for one another, they are screwing up. It was an inspired choice, accentuated by the painfully intimate playing space itself, all conspiring to save the play from its inherent predictability.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
August 29, 2016
 
D Deb Debbie Deborah
Theatre of NOTE

Schizophrenic behavior is not usually a subject for comedy, but there’s a first for everything, right? In Jerry Lieblich’s whirlwind of a play, our heroine Deb (most often played by Jenny Soo) is not terribly sure who she is—or who anybody in her life is either. She suffers a bizarre kind of disorientation after buzzing a stranger into her urban high-rise apartment thinking it’s a friend, only to be robbed at knifepoint. She explains to her boyfriend Karl (most often Greg Nussen) that she could not identify her attacker to the cops, something that sends her into a tailspinning downward spiral that out-vertigoes Vertigo.
   She tells Karl she feels “like I’m living in Fight Club or something,” even going a step further to wonder if she might be a made-up person from someone’s dream and one day that person might wake up and she’ll be gone. Karl is sufficiently understanding in an I’m-busy-but-sympathetic sorta way, even as he goes in the bedroom to change clothes and, when he returns, is suddenly being played by another actor (Travis York). Deb is sufficiently unnerved but goes along with the surreal experience for a while, even when she begins her new job as an assistant for a famous though highly eccentric artist. York here plays Mark, that nightmare of a boss, but he is again is replaced by Nussen in the same paint-splattered role, then both are followed by Alina Phelan, who also morphs back and forth with the others as Mark’s too-cheery office manager Julia.
   While realizing in a rather subdued panic that she no longer recognizes anyone in her life anymore—even herself—Deb is invited by her employer to an art gallery opening featuring some of his early work, giving the actors, now joined by a fifth performer (Kerr Lordygan), an opportunity to jump instantaneously from one persona to another with almost mindboggling speed.

Under the sharp and highly choreographed direction of Doug Oliphant, his quintet executes an almost unearthly feat, shape-shifting in a flash between personas, from the ones we’ve just barely gotten to know to every other guest at the event, all introducing and reintroducing themselves to one another with lightning speed. It’s something quite amazing to behold, like a stage full of Cirque du Soleil performers doing their own thing while that one rubber-limbed acrobat coils and twists above our heads.
   Mark at one point describes to Deb one recent period in his work when he only did portraits of people as he imagined they’d look when they get old, explaining they could hang them on their walls and wait until they looked right. He abandoned the series, he says, when he realized the paintings “didn’t align with who people thought I was,” charitably giving a hint of insight into what Lieblich’s D Deb Debbi Deborah is all about—besides, of course, offering a quartet of opportunities for brilliantly dexterous, wildly filterless “Who’s-On-First”-savvy actors like these to strut their stuff in the most jaw-dropping way.
   How Deb sees herself and her place in our topsy-turvy world is the issue here, as are how each of us assimilates into our surroundings, how we justify ourselves as artists and as citizens of the planet, and how we handle what’s expected of us.
   The otherwise odious Ayn Rand once said that most people live as “second-handers,” that most exist only for how everyone else around perceives them to be rather than for who they are. “They have no concern for facts, ideas, work,” Rand wrote. “They’re concerned only with people. They don’t ask: ‘Is this true?’ They ask: ‘Is this what others think is true?’ Not to judge, but to repeat. Not to do, but to give the impression of doing. Not creation, but show. Not ability, but friendship. Not merit, but pull.”

Perhaps this is the message of Lieblich’s bafflingly dense but genuinely fascinating play, that the only way to survive the confusion of modern existence is to just go along, fingers firmly grasping the edges, remaining confident that who each of us is as solitary individuals must be considered—and celebrated—at all costs, regardless of those too frequent times when that expert acrobat twirling just above our heads comes crashing down onto the hard and unforgiving sawdust of the circus floor.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
August 15, 2016
 
Rapture, Blister, Burn
Little Fish Theatre

As the 20th century sped along and barreled into the 21st, people found more and more opportunities available to them. But choices have consequences, and we might not like all of them.
   Rapture, Blister, Burn is Gina Gionfriddo’s look at three generations of women and their paths. Running at Little Fish Theatre, it’s a thoughtful look. Men, take heart: No character comes off looking great, but no gender takes a bashing, either. The play includes much discussion of history’s waves of feminism. But its more-interesting, more-universal elements may be its characters and plotting.
   Catherine and Gwen were roommates in graduate school decades before. Don was Catherine’s boyfriend. In the evenings, the three drank and debated. Choosing career over romance, but not exactly dumping Don, Catherine departed for London. There she began to build a career of renown in gender studies and feminism, with—laugh if you must—particular focus on the politics of pornography within the women’s movement and degradation of women in the internet age.
   Choosing Don over Catherine, Gwen married him. They have two sons. She has been a stay-at-home mom. Don counsels college students who are drinking and failing. He has longtime expertise in both areas.

When the play begins, Catherine has returned home, supposedly concerned over her mother’s recent heart attack. But it seems she’s trying to relive her grad-school days, a fling with Don included. We meet Catherine (Suzanne Dean), Don (Patrick Rafferty), and Gwen (Christina Morrell) at a get-together in the couple’s backyard. Don and Catherine begin to drink. Gwen doesn’t. The more tanked they get, the prissier she gets.
   The couple’s babysitter, Avery (Kimmy Shields), shows up with a blackened eye. Gwen, shielding her tender 3-year-old son, wants Avery gone. Don scoffs. This sets off the couple’s venting of deep-seated, long-held grievances.
   Does Catherine sense a chance to steal Don back? Certainly, her desire to continue teaching while she’s in town seems genuine. Don gets her a job. Does he want her around?
   Don and Catherine become drinking buddies, acting increasingly like teenage boys, as Gwen later notes. Catherine lectures on porn; he’s a frequent consumer. Staying up all night, ordering pizza for breakfast, smoking recreational weed, turning child care over to others—life is fun when you don’t live by rules but expect others to.
   Catherine’s class draws only two students: Gwen and Avery. And because class takes place in the living room of Catherine’s mother, Alice (Mary-Margaret Lewis), mom frequently barges in, creating that “tri-generational” perspective on women’s lives over the decades while serving martinis and a Shirley Temple for the dry Gwen.

Keeping this play from spinning off into either ludicrous comedy or preachy polemic on the stifling of women are Gionfriddo’s well-placed reminders that as we go through life we cannot unring bells and stuff genies back into bottles.
   Gwen may want to be the celebrity academician, but she is responsible to two sons. Catherine may wish she had a husband and children, but continuously focusing hope on Don has stranded her in her 40s, very much alone.
   Also keeping this play anchored in its heart is the direction, by Mark Piatelli. No character is “wrong,” no character is judged, every character has a reason for behaving as he or she does. And, best, Piatelli doesn’t force laughs, nor do his thoroughly excellent actors.
   Images projected behind the action sometimes augment the staging when Catherine is lecturing, but confuse and distract when she’s not, particularly when the timing is off.
   But either Piatelli or costumer Marlee Delia deserves a respectful nod for putting Avery in a 1960s-style outfit at play’s end. What women have done with their lives has differed through the generations. Who they are at their cores, and who men are at theirs, has of course remained unchanged. These days, as the play says, all of us may pay for having choices, but we’re relatively free to make them.

Curious about the play’s title? It’s reportedly a lyric from the song “Use Once and Destroy” by Courtney Love’s 1990s band Hole.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
August 8, 2016

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
 
Blueprint for Paradise
The Athena Cats at Hudson Mainstage


Laurel M. Wetzork’s intriguing and unusual idea for a play falters, largely but not exclusively because of flawed direction, in its world premiere. Not even the handsome designs, some of which are ill-used, nor the efforts of the actors overcome the play’s failings.
   Wetzork starts from a slice of local history and imagines it behind the scenes. In 1941, African-American architect Paul Revere Williams had a portfolio that included such admired structures as downtown’s Los Angeles County Courthouse (now the Stanley Mosk Courthouse) and its twin Hall of Administration, when he was contacted by a married couple for a project in Pacific Palisades.
   That project, Williams soon learned, was to design a Nazi stronghold, with a comfortable well-lit library and an ocean view. So much is true. But what were the thoughts and feelings of those involved?
   It’s a fascinating idea for a play, examining ethical principles and relationships, motives and prejudices. The play comments thoughtfully on the way society was and is structured. And, as it turns out, it’s quite timely and topical. But its basic foundation, badly ornamented and weighted by heavy-handedness, crumbles by evening’s end.
   Despite his waiting list of projects, Williams (Regi Davis) has been persuaded to hie on over to the Hancock Park home of Herbert Taylor (David Jahn) and his wife, Clara (Meredith Thomas). As members of organizations that plot the whitening of civilization, the Taylors host German Nazi Wolfgang Schreiber (Peter McGlynn) and American Nazi sympathizer Ludwig Gottschalk (Steve Marvel).
   Schreiber and Gottschalk are stunned to see that the Taylors employ a Chinese maid (Ann Hu) but perhaps are happier to note the Italian manservant (Alex Best). Nothing, however, can top the repulsed reactions to Williams.

So far, the play has a terrific setup, its dramatic conflict at the ready. But rather than enhancing the script where it’s too subtle and making subtle its more blatant moments, director Laura Steinroeder ladles on bad directorial choices.
   Those choices start with cartoonish accents. Granted, one of them is deliberately fake, as a character’s true identity is revealed midway through the play. But each accent seems stereotypical and overgeneralized, from Hu’s Chinese to Gottschalk’s Southern drawl.
   Steinroeder dims lighting designer Matthew Gorka’s otherwise warm Southern California sunlight mid-scenes to create mood where the situation and dialogue have already created it. Then, time and again, she lines up actors across the front of the stage, where they valiantly fight the unnatural configuration.
   Williams, however, knows better than to stand near Clara as they look over blueprints. But where one circle of the table would smartly reveal this, instead they rapidly circle the table many, many times, distracting us from whatever they’re saying. Then Steinroeder turns the moments before the first-act and final blackouts into tacky melodrama.

The script has its flaws, too. Clara’s inheritance, which included a vast sum and real estate in Pasadena, has been spent by Herbert, unbeknownst to her, to construct this compound on property also given to Clara by her mother. That, plus the diabolical way Herbert speaks to her and tries to keep her medicated, ought to be enough of a feminist message. Unfortunately, Wetzork doesn’t trust the audience to spot this, so we hear the messages about unfairness and inequality loudly and repeatedly.
   Fortunately, there’s good to be observed in the script, from personal yet universal points to political ones. Clara, painfully uncertain whether or not she is still considered a mother after her son’s death, drowns her unhappiness in drink, yet realizes she can and should escape from imprisonment imposed by her father and husband. Herbert grapples with being self-made rather than born to wealth as his peers are.
   And of course Wetzork’s revisiting of history is noble and necessary. She notes how fraught the word “refugee” can be. Her characters commandeer the word “fear” on behalf of the Nazi agenda. She reminds us that “betterment” is in the eye of the beholder. Wetzork’s play, and her program notes, urge her audience to study history before it repeats itself.
   And let us be grateful that the site of the proposed compound, Murphy Ranch, is currently a hiking ground in the Rustic Canyon area of Pacific Palisades.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
August 1, 2016

Republished with kind permission of Los Angeles Daily News.
 
Kingdom of Earth
Odyssey Theatre

What do celebrated actors like Estelle Parsons, Lynn Redgrave, Geraldine Page, and even Marianne Faithful have in common with LA’s own veteran theatrical stalwart Susan Priver? They are all truly gifted artists who for some reason agreed to portray Myrtle Kane in one of Tennessee Williams’s most puzzling and challenging later plays.
   First surfacing in the late 1960s and thereafter subject to many restructured and even retitled incarnations, Kingdom of Earth came at a time when the 20th-century’s best dramatist’s ability to still write arrestingly poetic language—and fabricate the by-then typical bizarre situations in which he always placed his characters—was still intact. After Williams’s many years of drugs and alcohol abuse mixed with disastrous reviews heaped on whatever he churned out after that decade began with his final hit, The Night of the Iguana, it tragically became all but impossible for him to construct a coherent storyline or create a clear or accessible character arc for anyone to assay.
   Most of his other twilight plays were vilified when they have since proven to have been given a bad rap, and today many are recognized to have been way ahead of their time. This is not the case with this one. Even as the later The Seven Descents of Myrtle or tidied up in a screenplay by Gore Vidal and directed by Sidney Lumet for the cinematic Redgrave vehicle The Last of the Mobile Hot-Shots, nothing seems able to save poor Myrtle Kane, a character so annoying one wishes the escape route to roof of her new in-laws’ Mississippi Delta farmhouse might be blocked from access when the play’s pivotal floodwaters come. As Vincent Canby noted in his The New York Times review of that unsuccessful 1970 film, this one is a “slapstick tragicomedy that looks and sounds and plays very much like cruel parody—of Tennessee Williams.”

Myrtle (Priver) is a minor New Orleans showgirl who may or may not have made more money on her back as an afterhours independent contractor who meets and quickly marries Lot Thorington (Daniel Felix de Weldon) on a local TV reality show where the prize money was dependent on their union being finalized. Myrtle desperately hopes she can finally pull a Blanche DuBois and settle down with the first guy she meets willing to put a ring on it, so she blissfully journeys with him to the rural farm he inherited from his beloved mother to take over as the matriarch of the household.
   Why poor dumb Myrtle can’t see what a ridiculously light-loafered fellow her new hubby is, not to mention that he appears to be in the final stages of TB, are the most glaring omissions in Williams’s writing here. This is hampered not only by the master’s inability to be, as he himself later noted of the play, not “in the condition to refine” his characters when he wrote it, but de Weldon is also surprisingly not helped much to crawl out of his character’s neon-lit trap by director Michael Arabian. His Lot in life is bogged down by the vapors and allowed to fall headfirst into every queeny attitude ever feigned by an actor.
   Brian Burke as Lot’s adversarial half-brother Chicken, reclusive caretaker of their ancestral house, fares better, but like his stage partners, his is a character with no place to go. A rather offensive subplot involving Chicken’s mixed race heritage, which has literally nothing to do with the story except to allow Williams to drop the n-word with no reason but to shock during this period when he was no longer trying to work within the bounds of artistic pressures to stay commercially viable, would be interesting if it had a real point.

Although Shon LeBlanc’s costuming survives the storms, scenic designer John Iacovelli is hampered by the Odyssey’s difficult Theatre 2, with its two-sided audience configuration, while John Nobori’s inexplicably strange sound cues are more worthy of an original feature on the SyFy Channel, and Bill E. Kickbush makes matters worse with his clunky and glaringly nonorganic lighting plot.
   Still, two things  make this an interesting journey despite its multitude of negatives. The first is the place Kingdom of Earth holds in the fascinating history of Williams’s career, with the tragic disintegration of his genius here smack-dab in the middle of the period when he admits he was “hardly conscious” most of the time. The other wonder of the production is Priver, who soldiers on despite having anything but a silly cartoon character into which she bravely endeavors to breathe life.
   With all the incredibly colorful heroines created by Williams before substance abuse and encroaching madness dulled his powers to create coherent characters, it’s a shame an incredible actor like Priver, obviously perfect to get under the skin of one of Williams’s flawed Southern belles, isn’t appearing as one of those ladies instead. Someday it would be thrilling to see her quirky and arrestingly bold talents put to better use, cast as Maggie the Cat or Blanche DuBois or Catherine Venable. Myrtle, on the other hand, might have also been a great role if only she had been written with someplace to escape besides the rooftop when the Delta’s levees fail during the storm.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
July 28, 2016
 
Tennessee Williams UnScripted
Falcon Theatre

With the faint metaphorical scent of magnolias lingering in the air and more than enough Southern charm to fill the bill, this brilliantly multifaceted group of improvisational experts pays homage to one of America’s greatest playwrights. Sparked only by the offering of an audience-suggested family heirloom (on opening night, it was a brass bowl), director Brian Lohmann along with cast and crew set out on a hilarious trek through the literally unknown.
   Due to the company’s rotating set of cast members, not only is the storyline a mystery to all concerned but its development is no doubt influenced by whoever has pulled duty at any given performance. On the night reviewed, Lohmann and a stalwart half-dozen took the bull by the horns, leaving the enthusiastically supportive audience rolling in the aisles.
   Some characterizations, more than others, were clearly modeled after those from Williams’s better-known works such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Floyd Van Buskirk’s performance as Mr. Toby, proprietor of a mountaintop resort in Florida (the source of oxymoronic humor throughout the show) was slyly reminiscent of Burl Ives’s Big Daddy, including an otherwise unexplained second-act appearance in a wheelchair. Meanwhile, Kelly Holden Bashar, playing the sultry Melinda Fairweather, channeled a perfectly executed knockoff of Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie. Holden Bashar’s interactions with her sympathetically forlorn husband Robert “Bobo” Fairweather, played by Lohmann, and Ryan Smith’s mysteriously sensual Chance, a stranger to this group of vacationers, were remarkably well-crafted and effective in advancing the plotline.

Ably toting the water bucket of humor were Dan O’Connor and Kari Coleman as the blue-collared Richmond “Skudge” McHenry and his hypochondriacally discombobulated wife, Roberta. O’Connor was a master of snarkiness as he capitalized on details and missteps offered by his fellow actors, while Coleman’s ability to interject with character-driven non-sequiturs was spot-on perfect.
   Likewise, Edi Patterson was a stitch as Carnelian, the resort’s chief cook and bottle washer, whose bizarre name came about during a moment in which she and Lohmann became temporarily tongue tied. Instances such as these are what make witnessing this company’s work so much fun due in no small part to the adroitness with which they are able to mine comic gold from a mere hesitation or slip of the brain. It’s never done as a Gotcha but rather from the collective refusal to pass up an opportunity to add to the chaos.

While the onstage shenanigans take part on designer Michael C. Smith’s appropriately crafted scenery—complete with wicker porch furniture, ivy-covered clapboard walls, and even a corrugated tin moon conspicuously hung upstage center—there’s collusion afoot in the tech booth. Stage manager Madison Goff is responsible for lighting the show as it progresses, while her assistant, Alex Caan, adds musical underscoring and sound effects. What’s most interesting is the influence they have, at times, on just how long a scene plays out or is brought to completion. It’s a symbiotic relationship that rarely fails.
   On the night reviewed, the production offered a perfectly constructed arc of middle, beginning, and end. Revelations and rebirth of relationships came to a believable conclusion much as with Williams’s seriocomic pieces. What any other performance in this run turns out to be is what makes attending this company’s work a visit marked by anticipatory excitement.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
June 22, 2016
 
The Clean House
Little Fish Theatre

Healing and forgiveness are the stuff of solid old-time storytelling. But playwright Sarah Ruhl guides her characters down fresh, quirky paths to those results in The Clean House. At Little Fish Theatre in San Pedro, the play reveals its messages sweetly and effectively.
   The house of the title belongs to Lane (Amanda Karr), a physician who tries to keep control of her life by making her home immaculate. Not surprisingly, her plan isn’t working. She has hired Matilde (Lucia Lopes), newly arrived in this country, as her maid. Matilde, however, hates cleaning, wanting instead to create the world’s most perfect joke. Matilde daydreams of her parents (Stephen Alan Carver, Susie McCarthy), whose undying love for each other was based on humor.
   Lane’s sister, Virginia (Deb Snyder), doesn’t enjoy laughing but thrives on cleaning. She manages to take over for Matilde in the afternoons, folding laundry while the maid peruses comic books for comedic inspiration. Virginia and Matilde quickly learn that Lane’s husband, Charles (Carver again), also a physician, has fallen in love with Ana (McCarthy again), on whom he has performed a mastectomy.
   The play’s style—magical realism—allows strange things to happen to the characters while letting the playwright throw dramaturgical caution to the wind. Language becomes understandable solely by its tone, apples teleport between homes, and the characters’ worlds are reordered into states of contentment.

Director James Rice has found the fulcrum between the magic and the realism, between the comedy and the poignancy of the piece. That’s fortunate, because this play is also about dying, a theme Ruhl handles with directness and Rice handles with sensitivity.
   His vision for the design of the work is not quite as clear. His palette is all-white—or, rather, mostly all-white. Never explained, the floor is speckled with pale-hued paint splotches, and there are more paint streaks along the balcony centerstage. And we can see bits of stuff stuffed under the pristine white sofa, as if it’s waiting to burst forth—which of course it does by play’s end, with help from newly unchained characters.
   Supertitles explaining time and place appear above the balcony. However, that far above the action and in dark lettering on a black curtain, they might be going unnoticed by much of the audience.
   The set also includes three circular platforms onto which the actors spring. Why they do so is not readily apparent. But having to watch actors navigate them to enter and exit their scenes outweighs any metaphor the elevation could provide.

Still, Rice seems to have done such careful work with his actors that we start to forget the design issues. Kerr’s Lane starts out tightly wound. She can’t get any tenser, one thinks. She does, going opera-level crazed with anger—no small task while standing a yard or two away from her audience.
   Snyder’s Virginia is genial and genuine, earning a catch in the throat of more than one audience member when she begs Lane, “Let me take care of you.” Lopes charms as the play’s most unusual character, the immigrant with aspirations and an improbably fascinating backstory. McCarthy’s Ana is an earth mother, into whose arms all the characters eventually want to crawl.
   But the most memorable of the performances here may belong to Carver, who enacts a beautiful bit of surgery onstage—a mastectomy, done symbolically, not even rising to G-rated and performed with the skill of a Kabuki artist.
   Charles wants to share his happiness with Lane. Normally that would earn boos from the audience, but here it’s part of the mood this play’s homage to forgiveness inspires, as it teaches us about living, and dying, with the help of love and joy.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
June 20, 2016

Reprinted with kind permission of Daily Breeze.

 
Disgraced
Mark Taper Forum

Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning theatrical treatise, on the nature of the thinly veiled racial and cultural intolerance all around us that no one until recently would acknowledge exists, is the most important new play to come along in many years. Written in 2011, debuting in Chicago in 2012, moving to Broadway and receiving the Pulitzer in 2013, Disgraced has become the most produced play in America today. Finally, it comes to our heated shores, and this couldn’t be better timed to stimulate a passionate discussion about what lurks malevolently just below the surface of our once-polite society when the issues of hidden xenophobia and our country’s horrifyingly backward cultural divides have become topics on our tongues.
   Amir (Hari Dhillon) is a successful Manhattan lawyer waiting for his firm’s partners to tell him his name will join theirs on the company masthead. Born of Pakistani parents, he has long disavowed his religious Muslim roots and successfully assimilated into the mainstream of the New York social order with the help of changing his last name and telling his bosses his parents were from India—justifying this because his father was born there in 1947, a year before the countries were split.
   His wife, Emily (Emily Swallow), a prophetically Nordic-looking painter who’s hoping her latest canvases focusing on the origins of Islamic art will be included in a new show being curated at the Whitney, has begun a portrait of her husband inspired by a waiter who, despite Amir’s penchant for $600 dress shirts, treated him disrespectfully due to his ethnicity. Inspired by what he was assuming about her husband “as opposed to what you really are,” her canvas pays homage to a Velazquez painting at the Met of a Moorish slave dressed as a nobleman. Although this idea makes Amir instantly uncomfortable, the comparison proves unnervingly visionary over the play’s next rapid-fire 90 minutes.
   Just when radicalized Muslims, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and all those other denizens of the Islamic State have brought the primal conflicts raging in Syria and Iraq directly to our door, Disgraced could easily seem to be rubbing salt into our still-open wounds. Instead it unearths incredibly divergent emotions within us as we try to keep up with whichever character we need to ally.

Things begin peacefully enough. Amir poses for Emily in their posh Upper East Side apartment, standing stoically in a jacket and tie, but with his vulnerability showing since all he has on below the waist are turquoise spandex undershorts. Visually this symbolizes that no matter how hard Amir tries to evoke the aura of a modern businessman well in control, under the bravado he is an emotionally and physically defenseless, out-of-place-looking little boy.
   Amir’s nephew (Behzad Dabu), who due to his own worries about racial profiling has rather improbably changed his name to Abe Jensen, tries, along with Emily, to persuade Amir to look into what they see as the unfair treatment of an aged Muslim cleric on trial for using his congregation’s funds to support Hamas and other Middle-Eastern terrorist organizations. Amir fights to not be involved, but when he reluctantly agrees to sit in on a court hearing on the case, a New York Times reporter seeks him out and quotes him on the case as though he were part of the defense team. This prompts Amir to not only be questioned by his bosses about his suddenly suspect political alliances—as well as information on his employment application—but to eventually lose him his job.
   Riding along as Akhtar’s amazing play at first quietly develops is somewhat akin to being strapped in and helpless in a cramped car on a rickety rollercoaster, chugging up to the top of the first peak and then forcing us to hold on tight while being whipped and pulled and jerked past all sense of gravity. And when Amir’s African-American co-worker Jory (Karen Pittman) and her Jewish husband, Isaac (J. Anthony Crane), arrive for a socially acceptable dinner at the couple’s home, what starts as praise for Emily’s lovely fennel salad turns into a violent free-for-all that ends in one of the most-shocking scenes in modern theater history.

Kimberly Senior, who has been with the play as director since its earliest incarnation in Chicago, masterfully stages her stellar performers around John Lee Beatty’s impressively appointed set as though designing a world-class game of real-life chess, a stage picture complete when her players get knocked down and eliminated just like chess pieces.
   Swallow, Dabu, and Crane could not be better cast, and Pittman’s turn as a wisecracking ghetto survivor on the rise is exceptional and unforgettable. Still, the performance that takes no prisoners is Dhillon’s, creating an indelible portrait of an initially unlikable, glaringly conceited and arrogant man obviously wallowing in self-hatred. Amir is clearly someone wavering precariously between well-studied superciliousness and a tragic sense of disenfranchisement from everything he has tried for his entire life to make himself believe. When he stands alone onstage silently contemplating the portrait his wife created of him, we’re left with the unsettling feeling of watching Dorian Grey’s portrait studying him instead of the other way around. The silence and intensity of the moment is breathtaking.
   The irony of Disgraced opening here a mere eight days after the massacre in Orlando cannot be dismissed. Sadly, although the bloody battles fought by Ahktar’s characters expose the horrors of what can only be described as war, whether global or within ourselves, in the aftermath, we are left to mourn that he wasn’t able solve any of the thorny problems we are so desperately trying to disentangle.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
June 20, 2016
 
Big Sky
Geffen Playhouse

All art is imitation, yes, but give us a break. In Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros’s world-premiering Big Sky, we have the bored and emotionally deprived wife trying to hold her marriage together; her ambitiously career-driven, familiarly unfeeling husband; the intensely overdramatic eye-rolling teenage daughter who hates them both; and, of course, the perpetually wisecracking ultra-gay best friend. Why, there’s even an unseen Native American character with a thing for spiritual atonement ceremonies hovering around, influencing the play’s allegorically silly outcome. The only overworked stereotypical character not represented is Tevye yubba-dibby-dibby-dumming around the stage, speculating about being a rich man.
   In a well-appointed corporate-owned Ritz-Carleton condominium in Aspen, unemployed executive Jack (Jon Tenney) and his wife, Jen (Jennifer Westfeldt), wait for a call to send him off for a command performance with the president of a major hedge fund that’s made a killing from poor slobs defaulting on their credit. If the big muckety-muck offers Jack a job, all the couple’s troubles might finally be over, that is if Jack can get Jen to revisit her hormone therapy and stop crying at the drop of a hat. Marriage hasn’t been easy for them, especially since he lost his job and she started having an affair with a terminally ill patient at a hospice where she volunteers—someone who credits her love for his miraculous recovery.
   Throw in Jonathan (Arnie Burton), that token gay bestie delivering a rampant automatic weapon-fire of dryly witty one-liners that leave the actor working harder than Paul Lynde on steroids, and Tessa (Emily Robinson), that predictably spoiled 17-year-old daughter who’s schtupping their Manhattan apartment building’s mystical Native American service elevator porter, and we’re off—to basically nowhere anyone wouldn’t immediately recognize as a place all of us have been before.

Before the intermission, we could be watching an updated version of a brittle 1930s comedy by Phillip Barry, but when the lights come up on the second half, the gloves come off and the family has suddenly swallowed a huge dose of Edward Albee’s sad, sad, sadness. It’s just what’s been expected all along if we’d been listening even semi-closely: the meltdown of a miserably unhappy group of minor social climbers about whom it’s hard to give a hang.
   In a raging blizzard that soon leaves the family without electricity or heat, a drunken and stoned Tessa kills a buffalo in the SUV owned by Jack’s potential employer. Her boyfriend Catoni—a name that translates as Big Sky—insists she and her parents perform an ancient sacramental ritual to properly atone for the death of the sacred animal.
   This provides the play with a symbolically stunted dénouement complete with elemental fire and rhythmic sound of indigenous drums, just to hammer in the point in case anyone out there on Sudafed didn’t quite get it yet. As the warring tribe members suddenly stop drawing blood and screaming at one another, and join together to collectively grunt their way through their return to the primitive, they quickly abandon the idea of a wealthy upwardly mobile future that includes shopping, dabbling in volunteer causes with questionably moral side benefits, and one day soon having a soulless condo in Aspen at the Ritz all their own.

Director John Rando and his proficient cast do their best with Gersten-Vassilaros’s hackneyed dialogue, as the dated dramedy’s desperately unhappy upper-class wannabes claw for their piece of the pie—not to mention the case of $200-a-bottle wines Jack’s potential boss has delivered, which, as the evening progresses, seem to double in value whenever Jack shows them off. Derek McLane’s trendy yet personality-free condo’s set design is rich and quite impressive, complete with a towering open-beamed ceiling and a starkly modern glassed-in fireplace. Jaymi Lee Smith’s lighting, luminescent as the ominous snowstorm blankets the lodge’s picture windows, and Jon Gottlieb’s crescendoing sound design are spectacular.
   An enormous amount of exceptional talent and knockout design elements are not enough unfortunately, here terribly wasted on a most disappointing journey back to places we’ve visited time and time again. The sky Gersten-Vassilaros paints for us is simply not big enough.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
June 18, 2016
 
Hedda Gabler
Antaeus Theatre Company

Who is Hedda Gabler? Of course she’s the crux of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 play. But who is she, deep down? Hedda Gabler is in production by Antaeus Theatre Company through mid-July. The company, which boasts a deep bench of the city’s best actors, double-casts its shows, so each role is shared by two actors in mix-and-match performances.
   On opening weekend, two strikingly divergent Heddas emerged, revealing what actors can do with a single script, under a single director.
   Ibsen tells us Hedda is a newly married woman of childbearing age, freshly home from her honeymoon with her academician husband, Jorgen Tesman. She claims she found their travels, and consequent constant togetherness, chafing, and now she’s mistress of a house she doesn’t like.
   As a woman of the era in which she was written, she’s stifled by society. But as a timeless character, one could say, she has serious psychological problems. She likely has had lifelong personality disorders. As a schoolgirl, she cruelly yanked her schoolmates’ hair, still remembering which girl could bear it the longest. As a hostess, she takes target practice at one of her guests. Late in the play, she burns a former lover’s life’s work. And more.

Director Steven Robman—who uses Andrew Upton’s modern English-language version of the script—moves the setting up to the presumably less restrictive 1920s. And Robman makes sure the first thing the audience sees is Hedda worshipfully hanging a portrait of her late father in its place of honor.
   What was that relationship about, and how spoiled was little Hedda? She’s her father’s daughter, Ibsen tells us, fearlessly wielding pistols, spoiled and acquisitive. She is surrounded by characters who contrast sharply with her, and she manipulates each. She could crush the overly doting aunt and submissive maid, but she saves her ammo for her naive former schoolmate. Hedda has already worn down her new husband and out-maneuvered the family-friend judge.
   Then, in walks the romantic figure of Ejlert Lovborg, once and again impassioned by Hedda. Her hold over him seeps into the audience, as the whiff of adultery keeps all eyes on the stage.
   Robman toys with the dialogue’s delivery, adding salacious pauses for shock or for laughs. Just when we’re accustomed to several of the actors’ heavy-handed style, the first act closes with a melodramatic effect that puts Hedda and Lovborg in their own pools of light.
   Other moments are subtle, hinting at subtext and making room for the audience’s interpretations. Near the play’s end, Hedda momentarily shrouds herself in the curtains. Is she hiding from her life? Is she envisioning her death? Someone else’s death?

Who Hedda is also depends on who is playing her. In the hands of Jaimi Paige, Hedda has personality disorders, making her vicious and monstrous—not bored, not straitjacketed by the role of women, as has been the customary excuse for her since the play’s debut. But in Paige, she’s wrapped in confidence, glamor, and sophistication.
   In the hands of Nike Doukas, Hedda’s motives are harder to discern. Doukas is also miscast. She is an enormously skilled actor, but she can’t hide her strength and intelligence behind anything Hedda does, and in no way could Tesman have believed he was marrying a sweet, compliant girl in this steely Hedda.
   The two actors playing Tesman offer contrasting interpretations. JD Cullum, opposite Doukas, creates an uncomfortable man, wanting to be alone with his books. Adrian LaTourelle, opposite Paige, is an extroverted teddy bear, happy to be interrupted. Cullum’s Tesman seems to know he’s no longer contented with Hedda. LaTourelle’s Tesman isn’t there yet. Cullum approaches the role intellectually, LaTourelle clowns around.
   Lovborg has no onstage buildup but almost immediately, in an intimate whisper, reminisces with Hedda about having long ago revealed to each other their dark sides. Daniel Blinkoff plays him as weaker, but now more single-minded and thus helpless. Ned Mochel seems healthier and stronger, making Lovborg’s swift downward spiral more tragic.
   The excellent Tony Amendola and James Sutorius share the role of the judge, though Amendola is the more menacing. Kwana Martinez and Ann Noble share the role of Thea, Hedda’s schoolmate. Amelia White and Lynn Milgrim play Aunt Julle. Elizabeth Dennehy is a comedic and Karianne Flaathen an oppressed housemaid.
   Design elements are effective enough and create a sense of the 1920s, though the not-fooling-anyone wigs should probably be rethought.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
June 6, 2016


Republished with kind permission of Los Angeles Daily News.
 
Sci-Fest LA One-Act: Program A
Acme Theatre

Currently in the midst of its third annual incarnation, Sci-Fest LA’s uniquely focused collection of one-acts, divided into two “programs” running in repertory, runs the gamut from eerie to comedic. Though the one-acts succeed to varying degrees, it’s a fairly well rounded evening of fun no matter one’s level of affinity for the genre.
   Following an videotaped opening admonition by a futuristic spokesmodel forbidding cellphone usage, Rob Hollocks’s script, “Winged Cupid, Painted Blind,” kicks off Program A. A fast-spreading, global epidemic has trapped two romantically linked scientists in a government research center. With one infected, the other not, and separated by a force field–style barrier, they struggle to find a cure. Hollocks’s script is perhaps the most predictable of the evening’s lot, and neither director McKerrin Kelly nor cast members Nadege August and Michael Perl are able to raise the bar.
   “Prayerville,” penned by folk music legend Janis Ian, fares better with regards to creativity. A jaded earthly contractor, played with snarky delight by Tim Russ, and his newly hired protégé, played by Rebekah Tripp in a beautifully nuanced performance, have arrived on a distant planet. Their task is to deliver the bones of an alien soldier, who has died in a war while allied with the human race, to his family. The ritual this exotic culture demands serves as the primary conflict. Though intriguing, Ian’s final scene drags on a bit too long, breaking one of the rules that gave Rod Serling’s scripts their power: Common Man Speak is always more effective than pontificating.
   Rounding out Act 1 is Neil Gaiman’s rollicking “Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar.” A young American tourist, disgruntled over his less-than-enjoyable midwinter walking tour of the British coastline, stumbles into a small-town pub. There, he encounters a semi-surly barkeep, played by Joy DeMichelle, and a pair of Monty Python–esque locals, played to the gut-busting hilt by Alan Polonsky and Lawrence Novikoff. As the night wears on, it becomes apparent these two are not quite what they seem and that their survival hinges on paying homage to a greater master than the bottom of the next mug of ale. Gaiman does a yeoman’s job of laying out the clues so that his story’s final reveal seems strangely plausible.

Act 2 begins with Spencer Green’s “Arrival,” the slate’s best work on the dramaturgical and performance levels. A female astronaut, played touchingly by Kim Hamilton, awakens in a one-room apartment. Mentally grasping at straws, she is confronted by a male counterpart who, she quickly comes to realize, despite their inexplicably contemporaneous ages, is a long-sought-after NASA colleague who disappeared some four decades earlier. In a tour-de-force performance, Jonathan Slavin commands the stage as his character brings his newfound friend up to speed. Green’s writing is witty and charmingly chilling, producing audience gasps on the night reviewed, as Slavin, with matter-of-fact dryness, delivers the tale’s ultimate “twist.”
   “Randomized Skin,” credited to Chuck Armstrong and Charlie Stockman, brings the roster to a close. Another NASA space traveler, played by Shane Brady, is the lab rat of three alien beings. As the otherworldly scientists, Nelson Ascencio, Jordan Black, and Alden Ray are a gleeful trio, often speaking simultaneously with word-perfect, staccato precision. Unfortunately, as this one-act progresses, repetition sets in, and ultimately it falls prey to the performances becoming more interesting than the message.
   Truly holding the entire evening together are the production values. Andy Broomell’s scenic design allows for an amazing array of locales as panels and screens slide effortlessly in and out of view. Ben Rock’s interstitial video pieces, consisting of countless Sci-Fi–related clips, shown on three overhead monitors, keeps one’s mind occupied during the masterfully executed set changes. And Matt Richter’s and Adam Earle’s lighting designs, along with Broomell’s stunning video and stationary projections, are transporting in their beauty and effectiveness.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
May 20, 2016
 
I Only Have Eyes for You
Ricardo Montalban Theatre

A musical based on the life of Busby Berkeley’s lyricist Al Dubin is a great idea. However, I Only Have Eyes for You, the musical about Dubin that recently opened at the Montalban Theatre in Hollywood, is far from a great idea.
   There are a tremendous number of problems here that not even über-talented director-choreographer Kay Cole and her splendid ensemble of some of LA’s best musical performers can overcome. Cole’s task of moving her players around the Montalban’s cavernous stage, with only one long stationary platform in the rear and most other scenes presented on rickety and cramped mobile trucks pushed and pulled on and offstage by stagehands wearing matching overalls, would be a daunting mission for anyone without overdosing on industrial-strength Tylenol. And although Cole’s choreography shines brilliantly throughout, executed with precision by her veteran troupe of hoofers, it’s what comes between them that drags the effort down to the depths and makes one wish the dialogue would disappear and this had been mounted instead as an all-singing, all-dancing musical revue.
   Jared Gertner as Dubin, a brash and at first seemingly self-assured man who brags he could rhyme birdseed with taxicab, is incredible in the role. Not only does he capture the descent of this once-successful self-destructive little man, he knocks his songs out onto Vine Street, especially with a lovely rendition of “For You” and later a plaintive interpretation of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” As his long-suffering wife, Helen, Nikki Bohne soars in her opening numbers, “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” and Dubin’s suggestive early “Frankfurter Sandwich,” written with composers Ed Nelson and Harry Pease before Dubin met Harry Warren. Bohne’s final torchy rendition of the title song is also a memorable turn, but in the nonmusical scenes she doesn’t stand much of a chance, considering that Jerry Leichtling and Arlene Sarner’s script gives her little to do except look tortured and distraught as Helen’s marriage faces more dips than a rollercoaster.

Justin Michael Wilcox is rather remarkable mimicking the voice and presence of Al Jolson performing “About a Quarter to Nine” at the Coconut Grove when the Dubins and Warrens first relocate to Hollywood and, as Dubin’s also long-suffering wife, Ruby Keeler, Kayla Parker sings and dances far better than the original, who talk-sang Dubin’s lyrics in all the Berkeley films and resembled one of the hippos in Fantasia whenever she started to tap. The estimable Valerie Perri has too-brief moments as Dubin’s stiff-backed mother, Minna, especially taking the stage to deliver a haunting version of “September in the Rain,” a highlight of the evening along with Cole’s showstopping first-act finale featuring the ensemble performing a well-rehearsed version of “42nd Street” which pays sly homage to Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett at the same time.
   Still, although the sad downhill spiral of one of the era’s most successful songsmiths is indeed worthy of retelling, this production tries to tell it utilizing Dubin’s own mostly exceptionally light and cherry music. As his depression and substance abuse problems deepen, worsening after he and Warren won an Oscar for “Lullaby of Broadway,” linking Dubin’s plight with tunes like “Don’t Give Up the Ship” and “Painting the Clouds with Sunshine” is a major stretch. Without the mad and glitzy Berkeley touch, with cameras above the stage shooting a sea of showgirls lifting their legs with uniformity, the songs seem sappier and more terminally corny than tongue-in-cheek, as they did when all those wonderful old musicals helped raise the spirits of the nation during the Great Depression. Poking fun at the silly exaggerations of the genre is what works for the stage version of 42nd Street; trying to tell a serious tale between production numbers featuring a line of desperately grinning tap dancers does not.

The next problem is the venue. Why anyone would try to mount the debut of such a grand and obviously expensive musical production in a behemoth of a theater with 1,038 seats to fill is puzzling; it looks as though it were a little kid floating in the too-big clothes of an older sibling. Not even the skills of set designer John Iacovelli and sound magician Cricket Myers can make this production seem intimate. The many sets, including those plywood-looking mobile trucks and other locations flown in on weaving painted canvas drops, look surprisingly flimsy and unfinished, dwarfed by the size of the Montalban’s stage, while the heavily body-miked performers sound as though they’re talking through Rudy Vallee’s megaphone. The use of a decorative false proscenium could have reined the space in—not to mention kept the audience, even on the far sides of the Montalban’s center section, from watching the stagehands outfit the trucks in the wings with new panels and set pieces before rolling them on for each new scene.
   Beyond all other problems, however, looms the real elephant in the room or, in this case, the dinosaur. Leichtling and Sarner’s book is just plain awful—dated, silly, and, above all, wincingly predictable. And just when one would think the worst song intro ever written happened when Raul Roulien first romanced Dolores Del Rio in Flying Down to Rio, try this one, as Helen asks Al if he really means it when he says he loves her: “Of course!” he answers, “and that’s why I wrote this for you,” before launching into “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
May 16, 2016
 
A Gulag Mouse
Sacred Fools Theater Company

For centuries, Russia’s gulag camps in Siberia offered little hope for a future for the poor souls sentenced to intensely hard labor and forced to live in freezing, desperately deprived conditions. Very few, many of whom were imprisoned without much reason in the first place, survived their impossibly bleak and physically abusive incarceration.
   For five female inmates inhabiting a miserably stark communal living space in Arthur M. Jolly’s intensely harsh play A Gulag Mouse, which explores the boundaries of our survival instinct, life could not be more dismal. As the four veterans of the cell welcome Anastasia (Emily Goss), an upper-class battered wife who shot her husband after years of abuse and dominance, bets are taken on how long the golden-haired, soft-handed dilettante will live. Most agree she’s got about a week at the most.
   The play does not provide a smooth ride for its audience, making the observation of the characters’ plight an almost claustrophobic experience. Jolly writes startling, evocative dialogue and creates richly carved characters, while director Danielle Ozymandias stages her wildly committed band of actors on Aaron Francis’s rustic, rusted, raw-wooded set, moving them around and around one another like tigers in a cage, always ready to pounce. The women of this ensemble are remarkable in their roles, particularly Goss, who gives an indelible tour-de-force performance as the surprisingly strong and resilient Anastasia toughens more rapidly than any of the others could have expected.

Although the production is sharply and admirably acted, staged, and designed, it is also hard to sit through. Francis’s design is a knockout, with vertical beams reaching high above the stage. The audience sits at close range, watching like an accusing jury, but as the hard wooden bleachers echo the roughhewn atmosphere of the gulag, so are they about as comfortable as the prisoners’ unpadded bunks and cots.
   Not all theater needs to be Neil Simon fluff, but there are limits to what patrons are expected to endure. A Gulag Mouse is an imposing and beautifully mounted production, but lordie, does it ever hurt both the brain and the butt.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
May 7, 2016
 
Sex and Education
Laguna Playhouse

Absurdity sparks the comedy in Laguna Playhouse’s current offering. Miss Edwards (Julia Duffy), a longtime English teacher on the cusp of retirement for a second career in real estate, intercepts a note from basketball star Joe Marks (Nick Tag) to perky cheerleader Hannah (Alexandra Johnston) in which he proposes a little post-graduation intimacy. In it he compliments Hannah on her previous skills administered to him, but he is eager to take the next more advanced step.
   It’s not so much that Edwards objects to the proposal; she thinks he could do a better job of writing. So, she keeps him after class to do some rewriting as a persuasive essay.
   Tag is perfectly cast as the egomaniacal teen jock, whose numerous college offers have given him a palpable sense of entitlement. His disdain for Edwards as she picks the note apart still won’t allow him to ignore her, as she promises she will fail him unless he improves it, and he will lose his scholarships. Their give-and-take elevates playwright Lissa Levin’s slim but witty narrative into a worthwhile life lesson.
   Duffy earned multiple awards for her prim characterizations in Newhart and Designing Women, and that slightly fussy delivery makes the sexual subject matter all the more hilarious. As the story progresses, it’s clear Joe is learning something, and Edwards is validated after many years of self-defined thankless effort.

Director Andrew Barnicle deftly handles the comedy, never losing sight of the human interaction among the characters. Johnston’s cheerleader balances stereotype with genuine emotion as she delivers cheers throughout from the side of the stage. Don Guy’s lighting design allows for the characters to be spotlighted in frequent asides to the audience, expanding on the characters’ motivations.
   The prudish might initially object to some of the vulgar language, and most would admit that this scenario would never take place in the realm of any high school’s curricula. That’s what makes it so much fun. By play’s end, a final four-letter word punctuates a very satisfying conclusion.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
May 4, 2016
 
Fiddler on the Roof
Norris Center for the Performing Arts

Tradition is a cornerstone of civilization. It tells us what our forebears have found essential to life, lets us know what’s expected of us and gives us a framework for raising our children. But if our children never tried something new, we’d still be living in caves.
   Empathize, then, with the quandary of Tevye. He’s a poor milkman in tsarist Russia, with a wife who respects but won’t exactly obey him, and with their five daughters, three of whom have started to think for themselves.
   They’re at the heart of the very traditional musical Fiddler on the Roof—based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein. It’s in a delightfully traditional production at Norris Theatre, directed by Randy Brenner. You were expecting maybe a Japanese Noh version of it?

John Massey stars as Tevye, in a full-throated, full-bodied portrayal. This Tevye dances as if no one is watching, debates with God as if God were persuadable. And, when Tevye talks to the audience, he talks to each of us, from his heart to ours. While Tevye is at work, pulling his milk cart because his horse is lame yet again, the town matchmaker, Yente (Karla J. Franko), is finding husbands for his daughters. Unbeknownst to the adults, the daughters want none of this.
   The eldest daughter, Tzeitel (well-acted and sung with intelligence and depth of feeling by Rachel Hirshee), wants to marry her childhood friend, Motel the tailor (in a picture-perfect, vocally pleasing performance by Jonathan Brett).
   After promising Tzeitel’s hand in marriage to the age-inappropriate Lazar Wolf the butcher (a sweetly forgiving Martin Feldman), Tevye faces tearful Tzeitel and relents. But now comes the bigger battle: how to tell this to his wife, Golde (Barbara Niles in a sturdy, warm-hearted performance).
   He decides to lie to her (no one claims Tevye is perfect) and tell her the dearly departed ancestors came to him in a dream to insist Tzeitel marry Motel. This lie becomes a huge production number, as Tevye and Golde sit in bed while children and neighbors and ghosts swirl around them.
   The most notable ghost is Fruma-Sarah (Maggie Randolph), the late wife of Lazar Wolf. This sequence allows for nontraditional staging, and the Norris gives us a sky-high specter, surely setting a musical theater record for elevation.

And so it goes for Tevye. His second-eldest, Hodel (the beautifully voiced Carlin Castellano), falls for the leftist Perchik (an intense but kind Luke Monday). Tevye’s third in line, Chava (a sweet Kanani Rose), elopes with the non-Jewish Fyedka (a tender Josh Wise).
   The choreography, by Roger Castellano, includes well-executed athletic dances for the Russian soldiers, a risk-taking bottle dance (in which wedding guests balance full bottles of liquor on their Hamburg hats), and a nice moment in which the Russians and the Jews mix-and-match their moves.
   Not all the voices here are best in the city, but under the musical direction of Sean Alexander Bart the lyrics are completely comprehensible (except, on opening weekend, for Fruma-Sarah’s) and sung with meaning and a sophisticated musicality. Microphones acted up only near the end of the second act, a noteworthy improvement for the sound system at the Norris.
   Unusually for productions of this show, The Fiddler (Max Herzfeld) comes along for much of the ride. He appears at happy moments to remind Tevye, and us, of the precariousness of life. One small variation from tradition that might not work as well as the old way: Tevye says goodbye directly to his “disowned” daughter Chava here, rather than through his wife.

Change is hard, especially for the person who clings to what was done before. So we grow to admire Tevye for putting aside his ego until he gently relinquishes his intransigent ways. But in another, more large-scale battle with tradition, the Jews face Russia’s large-scale ethnic cleansing.
   Now lacking a homeland, Jews must move out of their country, circumstances forcing close family members to split up and likely never see one another again. One heads for Israel, where bitter history will be asked to repeat itself.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
April 25, 2016

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
 

The Full Monty
3–D Theatricals at Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center

“Anybody can take their clothes off. But to do it on a stage, with thousands and thousands of people looking at you? That takes something.” So says male stripper Keno at the top of The Full Monty, in a lively production by 3–D Theatricals, directed by T.J. Dawson. Over the course of this three-hour musical, six men in the steel industry find this “something” within themselves.
   After a brief, jazz-infused overture, the musical plunges right into Keno’s (Justin Berti) routine. Wowza, can this guy dance (choreography by Leslie Stevens, as it is throughout the show). The steelworkers’ attempts to mimic this talent certainly contrast with the pro’s routine. That’s the whole point of this show. We are who we are.
   It’s based on the 1997 British film of the same name, written by Simon Beaufoy, about unemployed steelworkers who strip for one night to raise money. Here, with book by Terrence McNally, music and lyrics by David Yazbek, the story is reset in 1992 Buffalo, N.Y.

If Jerry (Allen Everman) can’t pay child support, he’ll lose custody of his beloved preteen son, Nathan (Dante Marenco). Jerry’s wife, Pam (Lauren Decierdo), shows no interest in helping Jerry, emotionally or financially. Jerry’s best pal, Dave (Matthew Downs), takes his unhappiness out in overeating, then refuses to believe that his wife, Georgie (Jeanette Dawson), could still love him.
   Jerry schemes to put on a strip show, which he names Hot Metal, thus bringing in the cash the women in town seem to have no trouble parting with. He turns to the local dance teacher, Harold (David Engel), who happens to be the foreman who downsized the plant.
   We watch the Hot Metal auditions of, among others, Horse (Rovin Jay), Malcolm (Tyler Miclean) and Ethan (Nick Waaland). The African-American Horse is nearly arthritic, but he’s the dancer of the group. Ethan is the presumably ideal physical specimen (we glimpse only the backside, not for the last time in this production).
   Malcolm is just tender. Jerry’s and Dave’s hearts feel for his young aching soul, and so he’s cast. Good thing for the audience, because Miclean’s voice is beautiful. But in Miclean’s portrayal of Malcolm, the young lad is more peculiar than fragile. Paired with Waaland’s quirky Ethan, they’re more a comedy team than they are realistic men.
   Jay’s Horse introduces 1960s dances, which Stevens perfectly choreographs to look like free-spirited improvisation. But the choreographic highlight here is the number “Michael Jordan’s Ball,” which ties dance to sports and introduces the show’s most-dramatic lighting (Jean-Yves Tessier). It’s the smashing Act 1 closer.

How to top that with the Act 2 opener? Give it to the show’s comedic highlight, Jeanette, the accompanist at Hot Metal’s rehearsals. Portrayed here by Candi Milo, she’s a showbiz showstopper. Milo wields Jeanette’s well-worn comedy shtick flawlessly. Because this Jeanette is so perfectly outrageous, the dated references—to the likes of Arthur Godfrey and Lawrence Welk—leave the audience in hysterics.
   The show has its serious moments. There’s a staged suicide attempt. Even funnyman Engel gives Harold a tender side, with a gorgeous vocal performance that expertly uses dynamics to tell his story.
   So Everman, Downs, Engel and to a large extent Marenco find the emotional cores of their characters, turning this musical about our outsides into one very much about our insides. Everman is a broodingly romantic Jerry, while Downs uses humor to mask Dave’s unhappiness. Jeanette Dawson, too, never hides Georgie’s love and longing for Dave, though he just can’t see it.
   But Decierdo makes Jerry’s wife, Pam, stony throughout. Pam’s finished with him, and so is his new girlfriend. So when they, and apparently everyone else the six men know, show up at the big event, it’s more voyeurism than it is loving support.
   This musical, at least at its start, preys on stereotypes, including the patronizing song “It’s a Woman’s World.” But “The Full Monty” is about acceptance—of oneself and of others. So audiences must accept the show’s profanity, nudity, and a child who watches his dad and dad’s buddies work up a strip routine. As the show’s glittery finale advises, “Loosen up, yeah, let it go.”

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
April 19, 2016

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
 
Kinky Boots
Pantages Theatre

It is said that all art is imitation. There’s certainly no shortage of major musicals over the past decade or so adapted from movies centering on the inspirational and transformative life lessons jammed down the throats of potentially unemployed working-class Brits, not to mention an accompanying economic rebirth, with help from people they would normally discriminate against—if not victimize.
   It’s a formula that has proven successful despite the odds on several notable occasions. But there are so many that it’s hard to imagine yet another musical makeover of an unsurprisingly moralistic film set in the drabbest of English backwaters, and originally shot in grainy black-and-white, magically transformed into a glitzy Broadway extravaganza.
   Think again in the case of Kinky Boots. Unlike the metamorphoses of Billy Elliott, The Full Monty, and Brassed Off, what this contribution to the genre of culturally deprived and financially struggling provincial citizens accepting things they’re too ignorant to understand has going for it are a book by Harvey Fierstein and a score by Cyndi Lauper.

When his driven shoe-manufacturer father goes boots-up, Charlie Price (Adam Kaplan) inherits the family’s disintegrating business, one fraught by old-world standards and old ways of doing things. Just when Charlie is about to give up and starts giving the factory’s longtime workers their pink slips, he goes to the aid of a drag queen (J. Harrison Ghee), who is being set upon by bullies in a dark alleyway. Charlie is accidentally knocked out, waking up in a seedy nightclub where Lola headlines a chorus line of surprisingly strong-limbed chorines. Of course, those muscularly-thighed high-kickers are played by dancers with names such as Joe, Joseph, Sam, Sam, JP, and Juan.
   Just as Charlie is about to close his father’s business for good and sell out to a plan formulated by his upwardly mobile fiancée (Charrisa Hogeland) to convert the building into condos, Charlie gets an inspiration: to create a line of knee-high show boots that can be worn by Lola and the “girls” that will carry the weight of a grown man. Of course, the workers at his Price & Son shoe factory in Northampton are initially appalled but by the show’s end they’re on board and kicking up their heels, literally, in Charlie and Lola’s outrageously shimmering kinky boots at a hugely important fashion trunk show in Milan.

Far too many times, a national tour of a hit Broadway show begins to get a little tired and worn out. This particular company has been on the road for some time, first playing the Pantages in 2014. But nowhere in this production are the performers not fresh and not completely committed, and, pun intended, never are their seams not straight. In the spectacularly clever staging and choreography of director Jerry Mitchell, the large ensemble is fresh as daisies, and all appear to be as thrilled with being a part of this as if it were opening night on the Great White Way.
   The message is unapologetically predictable, clunking viewers over the head with the same determination as the workers do while collaborating with Lola and her girls to create their line of bizarrely mad footwear. But these performers make the message entirely their own—particularly the amazing Ghee as Lola, whose 11th-hour ballad, “Hold Me in Your Heart,” brings the audience to its feet, while his gorgeously plaintive duet with Kaplan, “Not My Father’s Son,” likely resonates with every male in the audience who grew up trying to please his dad.
   As a devoted worker with a massive crush on Charlie, the Martha Raye–like Tiffany Engen stops the show with “The History of Wrong Guys,” and Aaron Walpole is also a standout as the factory’s most homophobic worker, who eventually proves he also can strut his stuff in 9-inch heels with the best of them. The denizens of the worker chorale are uniformly excellent, but heart of the show, clearly, is that chorus of high-steppin’, cross-dressing dancers, not one of whom descends into Ru Paul theatrics to keep viewers enthralled and entertained.

Yeah, the message of Kinky Boots, like the moderately successful 2005 film it was based upon, is hardly new; drag queens seem to always have a way of changing ordinary peoples’ minds in much of the dramatic literature of our times. Here, however, that concept is infused with the signature wit of both of its creators. Although no one needs a crystal ball to guess there just might be a newly tolerant attitude and rosy future for the denizens of Price & Sons, Fierstein’s script is as unavoidably smart and sassy as he is, and Lauper’s tunes are overflowing with her enormous heart and contagiously uplifting joie de vivre.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
April 17, 2016
 
Death Play
Atwater Village Theatre

The weather on the night reviewed added to the remarkably inviting ambiance enveloping the intimate venue. The rain soaked sidewalk just outside the Atwater Village Theatre, still smarting from a torrent of rain, led to an ivory colored wonderland. Muslin-covered walls and walkways revealed strings of origami cranes strung floor to ceiling and strewn about the ground among rough-hewn benches placed strategically about the stage. The effect of scenic designer Kirk Wilson’s handiwork is transporting in its immediacy and transformational in its efficacy.
   Over 75 minutes, playwright and solo performer Lisa Dring, under the sharp direction of Jessica Hanna, uses this playing space to its ultimate potential. Dring’s autobiographical account of having lost both parents and a grandmother during Dring’s early 20s may not be particularly groundbreaking subject matter; however, what is engaging are the specific details of their lives and influences on Dring. Furthermore, the way in which she invites, nay demands, her audience to reflect upon how death plays many roles in each of our lives is uniquely compelling.
   Born in Hawaii to an American father and Japanese mother, Dring lived primarily with her mother and grandmother during her formative years. Dad, a philandering alcoholic, basically abandoned the family, and his secrets remained just that until years after his passing.

Clearly, Dring’s resentment of her father’s absence plays a large part in how she recounts his story. Yet, one senses a level of maturity in her that might not have evolved had she not gone through this experience.
   Likewise, her mother’s passing, the result of a stroke and then a prolonged yet undiagnosed battle with cancer, is pivotal in Dring’s personal growth. One cannot help but appreciate the loss, tempered by frustration and anger for what might have been had her mother met her health challenges head on rather than retreating into denial.
   But this productions high-water mark is Dring’s recounting of her maternal grandmother’s life story and the late blooming admiration that Dring has now come to feel for her.
   Assuming this matriarch to be the “crone” Dring labels her, the epiphany one witnesses as Dring peels away the layered aspects of her grandmother’s past and personality is arresting.

Hanna has clearly encouraged her charge to use every aspect of this site. Dring’s physicality jibes perfectly with designer Wilson’s lighting, as well as Jeff Gardner’s seamlessly cued sound effects. A series of upstage projections, created by Joey Guthman and Candice M. Clasby, adds a nice touch as Dring’s script takes her audience from the environmental to the presentational and back again with ease.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
April 14, 2016
 
Casa Valentina
Pasadena Playhouse

The inspiration for Harvey Fierstein’s 2014 dramedy came from an old box of photographs bought by a collector at a flea market. The images, taken in the early 1960s at an upstate New York resort called Casa Susanna, showed festively dressed ladies smiling brightly. But those revelers were not women; they were men. Pasadena Playhouse’s McClay Friendship Center has displayed the photos, which show strong jaws and faintly encroaching 5 o’clock shadows.
   Deciding if there was a play in there somewhere wasn’t an immediate given for Fierstein, whose classic Torch Song Trilogy and his own cross-dressing turn onstage as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray had already illuminated and brought gay themes and gender-blind casting to the American stage. Still, the more he thought about the project and researched the era, the more he wanted to tackle a fictionalized exploration of what these men gave up to let out their innermost fantasies.

Fierstein’s Casa Valentina takes place in the Catskills, where George (Robert Mammana) and his long-suffering wife, Rita (Valerie Mahaffey) run such a resort, where guys come to gleefully don all the feminine finery they must usually keep locked away to keep the rest of the world from learning their secret. Yet, these are not homosexuals; they are straight married men who love the feeling of silk and satin on their carefully shaved skin.
   Rita is the proprietor of a wig shop in the city, where she met her husband when he came to buy a new wig to satisfy his own cross-dressing urges and stayed to instead satisfy her. She’s more than used to him slipping upstairs to turn himself into his alter ego, Valentina.
   George and Rita have invited their most cherished friends and loyal clients to meet transgender-rights activist Charlotte (Christian Clemenson), who, as the publisher of a magazine specifically for trannies, has the political clout and bank account to pull them out of their hole. Among those assembled is The Judge (John Vickery) who arrives in flannel plaid hunting clothes, brandishing a rifle—the ruse he uses to placate his wife before going upstairs and transforming into Amy.
   There’s immediate friction between Charlotte and Amy, the former wanting everyone gathered to join her organization fighting for transgender rights, which is about to be registered as such with the federal government. She also insists each sign a pledge, not only swearing they’re straight but also insisting homosexuals be banned from the group and censuring them for their deviant sexual practices.
   Among the guests caught in the middle is Bessie (Raymond McAnally), a wildly inappropriate and rather large Turnblad clone who tries to be welcoming and a constant source of humor for everyone else. The geriatric Terry (Lawrence Pressman) has been around, fighting the good fight for far longer than the others. Gloria, known outside as Michael (Mark Jude Sullivan), has convinced her friend Jonathan (James Snyder) to join her for the weekend and make her gender-bent debut, even if she wears high heels like a truck driver and does her makeup with a trowel, leaving her lifelong hidden muse Miranda resembling Bette Davis as the younger Baby Jane Hudson.

The actors are poster children for the term ensemble. There is not a weak link here, but, under David Lee’s direction, these veteran performers inhabit the persona of their cross-dressing counterparts with complete and extraordinary realization, never resorting to campy or outrageous drag-
queenlyness to bring their complex, multifaceted characters to life. Clemenson is especially successful as the wannabe society matron with a scary agenda, and Snyder breaks hearts as the conflicted newbie clumsily trying to figure out her place in this brave new community.
   Vickery is also heartbreaking as the miserable magistrate with a deep secret of her own that makes Fierstein’s comedy take a far more serious turn, and although he has less to do or say then many of the others, Pressman is fascinating throughout, often sitting quietly nearby, delicately waving a cigarette, patting down Terry’s wig or smoothing out her crinolines.
   Fierstein’s play is, of course, chockfull of his biting, exquisitely sophisticated sense of humor, with wonderful topical references spread throughout that poke fun at things we know have had quite a different resolution, including Charlotte’s offhand remark that their plight has been exacerbated by “that damned J. Edgar Hoover,” or prophesizing, “Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back alley vermin of society, cross-dressing will be as everyday as smoking a cigarette.”

The production could not be more smartly appointed, from Kate Bergh’s exceptional period costuming to Phillip G. Allen’s evocative sound design featuring delightful old standards from the early ’60s interspersed with calling loons and other Catskillsian nature sounds. Still, beyond these designs is Tom Buderwitz’s jaw-dropping set, which features two stories of the resort and then revolves to reveal the guest quarters and porches as the actors walk easily among the rooms.
   Perhaps one of the most gratifying things about Casa Valentina at Pasadena Playhouse, where a sea of gray-haired patrons’ heads shines in the glow of Jared A. Sayeg’s creamy lighting, is how wrong Charlotte was in her ugly prediction about the future of gay rights and the continued acceptance of Pall Malls. As she vilifies homosexuals with every breath, Bessie comes back with the perfect response, volunteering that she finds eating tapioca pudding disgusting too, but has “no problem with anyone else’s enjoyment of it,” prompting the entire audience of older, presumably mostly conservative Pasadena patrons to break out in spontaneous enthusiastic applause. The times indeed are a-changin’.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
March 30, 2016
 
Cloud 9
Antaeus Theatre Company

When it first premiered in England in 1979, Caryl Churchill’s most infamous satire knocked Britain on its tweedy derriere. Even today, though the blatantly carnal qualities of her script are a tad less shocking, the play is still a biting indictment of sexual and gender identity issues and the power of political rhetoric to force us to march in place determined by the whims of those in authority. That such issues continue to overshadow human happiness nearly four decades later is certainly disconcerting, especially as our country is currently locked in a massive electoral battle dividing us drastically as we try to re-identify who we are as a people.
   Although Act 1 is set in a British-ruled colony in Africa during Victorian times and the second part skips to a London pick-up park in 1979, for the characters, most of whom make that impossible journey through time, only 25 years have passed. The family and associates of Clive, a blustery mustachioed autocrat ruling the colony with an iron hand, grow up and grow older with that mysteriously skewed passage of time, but here’s the even more outrageous conceit: The actors portraying them in the first part switch places and roles as the plot thickens. Clive’s wispy and seemingly dutiful wife Betty is at first played by a man, while their son Edward is played by a woman and their daughter Victoria is played by an inanimate rag doll. In Act 2, the actor first appearing as Betty plays the grown son, while the actor cast as the child Edward becomes his mother.

The journey is rather perfect for the talented artists of Antaeus, whose productions are “partner”—or double—cast. Among the group of actors who form “The Blighters” cast (the other is “The Hotheads”), all of the participants, under the direction of Casey Stangl, seem determined to make their cartoonish characters as real as possible.
  Bo Foxworth is a particular standout as Clive, morphing in Act 2, without losing Clive’s impressive handlebar moustache, into a monstrous little girl named Cathy, skipping around the adults in frilly pink crinolines (all costumes by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg are amazing), yelling “Kill! Kill!” Deborah Puette and Bill Brochtrup do a splendid job sharing the duties of assaying the swooning Victorian Betty and the sexually probing Edward, and Abigail Marks jumps, it seems effortlessly, with mind-blowing quick changes, between the seductive Mrs. Saunders and the bi-curious maid Ellen, then later anchoring Act 2 as the dyke-ish feminist Lin.

Still, as intrepidly as Stangl has approached tackling this well-timed revival, as classily as it has been mounted by Antaeus, and, above all, as perfectly as it has been cast, the fact that it’s being played in utmost earnest and right to the bone is not altogether effective. Played with such a clear emphasis on seriousness is a worthy experiment, but it is also a double-edged sword. Although the result expertly showcases some of Antaeus’s most remarkable actors and delivers Churchill’s original message without subterfuge, it also ends up making the evening feel a little long and dry—and with a bit of a soap operatic air about it.
  When played with a dedicated nod to intentional excess and the outrageous farcical qualities of mounting a play by Charles Busch performed by former devotees of Monty Python, the more fun it is to see the return of this gender-bending collection of time travelers, leaving us to ponder the hidden meanings lurking cleverly just below the surface of the over-the-top humor. Stangl has passionately helmed a fascinating new spin on a worthy old warhorse. But sometimes it’s better to be hit over the head with a rubber clown hammer than to get clobbered by the actual thing.
   Betty sums up everything that happens in the play’s final scene: “If there isn’t a right way to do things, you have to invent one.” Stangl’s bold reinvention of Cloud 9 is a notable attempt to find a new voice for Churchill’s original intention, which is to say all of us are basically the same underneath the surface of how we present ourselves or how we’re perceived by the rest of society to be.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
March 16, 2016
 
Women Laughing Alone With Salad
Kirk Douglas Theatre

It takes a playwright with the tilted worldview Sheila Callaghan has to create an entire play around a single stock footage image—in this case, that of a generic modern girl chomping on a forkful of fresh lettuce and finding the experience quite obviously hilarious. It’s a shot one might expect to see on a billboard or bus shelter, the advertising folks sequestered in their glass towers who generate it hoping it will make all us hungry lemmings head directly to the nearest Panera Bread or Tender Greens for the euphoric experience of immersing ourselves in leafy greens.
   Beginning with a park bench inhabited by three upwardly mobile women having a great time chomping down on takeout salads and giggling like junkies until a guy comes along ready to devour a huge burrito, the scene soon devolves into a brawl, the iceberg and the arugula sailing through the air like fists at a Donald Trump rally.
   Premiering in a week that also saw the opening of Antaeus Theatre Company’s revival of Caryl Churchill’s oddly similar 1979 satire Cloud 9, which also features cross-dressing performances and basically deals with gender identity and shaming of the individual spirit by those less creative and more powerful than their subjects, Callaghan’s Women Laughing Alone With Salad is not as solid as either that earlier classic or some of her own more polished earlier work, but it still clearly shows what makes this playwright worthy of our attention.

Guy (David Clayton Rogers) has three women to answer to in his life, all of whom make him feel “like somebody’s ringing a cowbell in my ball sack.” They are his preposterously vapid, terrifyingly self-centered mother, Sandy (Lisa Banes), who wants him to marry a girl with a pronounced clavicle; his obsessively physically fitness-obsessed but needy mouse of a girlfriend Tori (Nora Kirkpatrick); and Meredith (Dinora Z. Walcott), a sexily zaftig party girl he spots twerking in a bar who at first seems to care less about her appearance and what society thinks of her image than the others.
   In Act 2, after Guy’s latter two Valkyries share a goofily choreographed three-way with our conflicted hero—who intimates if his mother were included, that might be cathartic too—the performers return as executives in one of those ruthlessly competitive ad agencies who think up ways to make us buy things whether we need them or not. Here the women play the company’s clueless male account managers, while Rogers dons skyscraper heels to assay the role of their newly hired boss who makes them quake in their boots. As they conjure up their campaign to promote a weight loss or possibly anti-psychotic drug (“Like a spa day in a pill” or “Effervatol: Because Yorkies Die”), Callaghan sticks her finely sharpened fork into the greedy and excessive rotting underbelly of the consumer-driven society to which we all contribute whether we realize it or not.
   With the collaboration of director Neel Keller, Callaghan’s cautionary tale unfolds with irreverent audaciousness and a welcome string of hilariously biting off-color jokes. Keller’s staging is crisp, nicely augmented by Keith Mitchell’s colorful set and Keith Skretch’s on-the-mark projections of women laughing and other appropriate images. Ken Roht’s musical staging is perfection, especially with the actors clad in Ann Closs-Farley’s spot-on costuming—particularly one 99-Cent Show -esque stripper outfit made with gigantic lettuce leaves that peel off seductively.

The performances are golden despite the lack of much depth for any of their characters, especially when the actors take on the most outrageous aspects of their opposite sexes. Banes is a true standout, as the horrifyingly egocentric Sandy, who lets fish chew off her fingers to make them look younger and who walks through public places guardedly as her uterus has a tendency to keep falling out, and in a rapid-fire, scorching final monologue dealing with body shaming and the sexist expectations demanded of people in our culture. “I’m as frustrated as you are,” she tells us, “that women hate themselves.”
   Women Laughing Alone is genuinely funny and has many important observations about our vacuous, self-involved society; it’s not yet Callaghan’s best work, but it has the potential to reach that goal with, perhaps, a quick return to the drawing board. Still, just as it is seeing the return of Churchill’s Cloud 9 after 40 years, it would be fascinating to see how, as is, this piece might also hold up in time. Perhaps if we eat our greens, swallow our daily doses of Effervatol, and try as hard as we might to enjoy the experience, we’ll still be around to have a look.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
March 16, 2016
 
Past Time
Sacred Fools at The Lillian Theatre

For patient but decidedly world-weary James, it’s past time. Something about the spark of life has flickered out as he approaches what people erroneously refer to as our golden years—that time those of us in the throes of experiencing them might more accurately call our badly oxidized copper years.
   James (in a masterfully understated performance by Leon Russom) has the dead-stare aura of someone who has seen it all and is a bit relieved his eyesight isn’t what it used to be. In these late arid days of their union, Delilah, his wife of many years (a suitably continually perplexed Ruth Silviera), makes him sleep on the couch in her sewing room, which she describes as currently looking like a workshop for gay elves since it’s more overcrowded than usual. That’s because James’s best friend Lou (French Stewart, who can get away with more eccentric quirky delivery choices than any other actor in the entire history of time) has taken over the place, treating his old pal like an indentured servant to elicit his help painting ceramic unicorn figurines he intends to sell in the vacant kiosk he’s rented at the mall.
   Aside from James’s frustration as Lou berates him loudly over his difficulty learning his “color wheel” used to finish off the figurines just right, he is also a tad annoyed when his terminally dorky grandson Chris (Josh Weber) wakes him on his couch at 4 a.m. to get advice. “You said to come to you when I needed something,” Chris whines. “Yes,” agrees James, “but in the afternoon.”
   James is soon wide-awake, though, as Chris desperately begs his granddad to help him win over Meredith (Julia Griswold), whom he describes as being a “bit sour but in a nice way, like duck sauce.” Since their last eight dates have come to remind her of all the fun of eye surgery, especially the one where he performed a suggestively erotic puppet show for her on the food court table creatively utilizing the salt shaker and one of his socks, the prospect of romance is definitely not going well.
   Chris wants to be everything Meredith could ever want him to be: sweet, sensitive, and with a stomach he romantically describes to her as “full of small things that want to die.” He then comes up with the play’s game-changing bright idea, suggesting James do a Cyrano and show up playing Chris on his next date, like in one of the improvs he must have learned while studying introspective water aerobics at the local pool. Meredith has told Chris he is not mature enough for her, so what better solution than to substitute his geriatric grandfather?

What ensues is surely improbable but with a moral-revealing hook. As James rediscovers his youthful passion, his new lease on life also invigorates his own life and that of Delilah, whom he had stopped looking at amorously, one might assume, about the time Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. But as James’s world is energized with newfound incredulity, the play returns occasionally to poor Lou, standing in front of his kiosk, trying to peddle his unicorns, which he never had much use for before the untimely and unexpected death of his wife who loved the little suckers.
   Duffy has written a charming, hilarious, yet ultimately gentle play, his rapid-fire, idiosyncratic sense of humor a lovely match for director Jeremy Aldridge and his endearing band of actors. The peerless moments generated between Russom and Stewart, as James’s exceedingly frustrated friend tries not to explode as he explains the variances between squeezing paint from the tube labeled Pink and being really creative and applying the more subtle Papaya Whip, could be a routine delivered by Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello. And just when one might wonder what has happened to Stewart’s character as other relationships are neatly sewn up in and out of Delilah’s sewing room, Lou returns for an amazing emotional rollercoaster 11th-hour monologue.
   In clever Fool-ish style, beautifully inaugurating the prolific company’s new home at the Lillian, James and Delilah’s sadly claustrophobic little home workroom is brought to glorious life by DeAnne Millais’s whimsically cramped set, impressively complemented by propmistress Lisa Anne Nicolai’s massive collections of candles brought home from Delilah’s part-time job at the mall, as well as the kind of other kitsch sold in the pages of TV Guide, and, of course, piles and piles of lonely-looking ceramic unicorns.
   Aldridge’s austere staging and this glorious company of actors collaborate to seamlessly paint Duffy’s quintessential portrait of what can easily become a dusty afterword to our otherwise chock-full lives if we all don’t continuously work our asses off to keep appreciating and reinventing the joy and wonder available to us.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 28, 2016
 
Colony Collapse
The Theatre @ Boston Court

As if the impending disintegration of our political and social systems in America isn’t enough, the vanishing of entire populations of honeybees has become yet another major crisis in our time, destroying entire ecosystems here and around the world. CCD, or Colony Collapse Disorder, the inexplicable environmental syndrome in which the essential worker bees suddenly vanish from their colonies, something currently occurring in record numbers. In the last decade, beekeepers in North America have seen an annual 30 percent to 90 percent loss of their life-giving colonies, and similarly drastic losses have been observed in Europe, Asia, and Central and South America.
   As Stefanie Zadravec ominously observes in her sharply disturbing play named after the syndrome, the malady results from the lack of healthy adults inside the hive. “It’s amazing, right?” observes a mysterious young girl (Emily James) to Zadravec’s tormented teenage protagonist, Jason (Riley Neldam), when she meets him in the woods as he searches for a loving family and an identity of his own. Noting that one out of three bites of food we consume relies on bees for pollination, she laments, “These tiny insects nobody likes, we all need to survive.”
   Jason is trying to desperately fit in somewhere, anywhere. His crack-addicted mother, Nicky (Paula Christensen), has been about as much of a role model as a Manson follower. His father, Mark (Chris Conner), wants nothing to do with him since Mark took the fall for his son’s burglary of the Land’s End store where the elder worker bee worked, causing him to live out a prison term in his kid’s place, which has kept him from being employable since his release. Try as Mark’s current wife, Julia (Sally Hughes), will to bring the father and son together and forge some tenuous familial bond again, her own new and fragile sobriety keeps her constantly teetering on the verge of using hard drugs again.

It’s a brutal, bitter world in which Jason has been thrust by birth, complicated by the disappearance of a local child abducted from their rural Oregon community. As volunteers and cops descend on the failing farm his dad and stepmother are frantically trying not to lose due to their inexperience as farmers, complicated by the lack of funds to buy the necessary hives of honeybees needed to pollenate their crops, their horrid, harshly inhumane existence unfolds before us. A truly sick feeling overpowers the playgoing experience here, although Zadravec presents her tale with such ineffaceable countercultural beauty and abject intensity that one cannot look away—like coming upon a car accident and being too curious to move on.
   This inability to look away is gloriously enhanced by the venue, the ever-adventurous and creatively resourceful Boston Court stage. Under the insanely visual staging by director Jessica Kubzansky, complemented by Susan Gratch’s versatile set and John Nobori’s hauntingly evocative original music, the cautionary tale unfolds spectacularly, immeasurably aided by a once-in-a-lifetime ensemble of unstoppably balls-out actors.
   Adding in that one enigmatic girl who may or may not be the missing girl, as well as a Greek chorus of lost parents wandering as though performing in an epic play by Aeschylus or Euripides as they plaintively describe how they continue to go on despite the disappearance of each of their own similarly snatched children, the tension is nearly unbearable.

What keeps us from fleeing is Zadravec’s blindingly poetic writing, which immediately recalls Tennessee Williams’s ability to evoke beautifully diaphanous language and indelible imagery, then infuse it into the story of sad, miscreant characters grasping for hope and searching for love despite all odds.
   Colony Collapse unfolds like a delicate and pungent lotus flower as it struggles to bloom free through the thick mud of an unfriendly swamp. Just as the honeybees are disappearing from our troubled modern world along with the civility our society fought long to maintain, that inscrutable thing we call family appears to be disappearing as well. And as the unnamed girl tells Jason as she toys with the ropes that bind her wrists and ankles, “Super-galactically speaking, we have very little time.”

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
March 7, 2016
 
The Complete History of America (abridged)
Falcon Theatre

How much of American history is fact and how much is fiction always depends on who is telling the story. Right or wrong, history has typically been written from the perspective of the winners. And that is the satirical point of departure for this show.
   Written and originally produced by The Reduced Shakespeare Company and playwrights Adam Long, Reed Martin, and Austin Tichenor in 1993, The Complete History of America (abridged) is part of a series of RSC comedies that has been sending up subjects such as Shakespeare, The Bible, Western civilization, and Hollywood, since the early ’80s.
   In 90 minutes, everything we’ve been taught about the last 600 years of our country’s history is mercilessly and hilariously skewered by three dynamic actors: Kevin Symons, Thomas Hobson, and Matthew Patrick Davis. Each occupies a particular flavor of character as the trio cycles through a breathless display of theatrics. Symons is the unflappable, but somewhat crazy, scholar; Hobson, an unflinchingly direct activist; and Davis, the good-natured boy next door with the Pepsodent smile. All three are inherently likable as they speed through milestones in history that may or may not have happened quite as they ended up in the textbooks you read in grade school. From breaking down that plucky word American, to a World War I squirt gun battle in the trenches, to a light-on-its-feet Lewis & Clark soft-shoe routine, this show will ignite your intellect, as well as tickle your funny bone. It’s meticulously scripted and full of modern-day jokes, but still leaves plenty of room for a welcome dose of in-the-moment improv when needed.

We learn that Donald Trump’s middle name is Jesus (as in the Spanish pronunciation), the Minutemen oddly resemble the Lollipop Kids, and the X-Files isn’t the only place mystery exists. Sketches that stand out creatively include a living slide show, the silent movie version of Lincoln’s unfortunate visit to Ford’s Theater, and a wacky 1940s WWTF Radio Hour complete with live sound effects. It all culminates in a terrific film noir ending—featuring Symons as private eye Spade Diamond, Davis as Uncle Sam with a Dr. Seuss twist, and Hobson as the conspiracy guy who goes so far as to take a pie in the face on his search for the truth.
   For this kind of comedy to work, it’s all in the timing. Credit its effectiveness to director Jerry Kernion for his spot-on casting and the ease with which he connects the dots of this intricate and often athletic piece. Kernion revs up the pacing to an almost breakneck speed until a sequence peaks, or a joke lands, and then effortlessly spins it off into a new direction at a fresh tempo.
   It means you must have actors with excellent diction, incredible breath support, great comedy chops, and the ability to establish a new character within seconds. Singing and dancing ability is a plus. This show wins on all counts.

Visually, its success can be attributed as much to its series of unexpected sight gags as to its overall effect. Six red, white, and blue doors track the timeline like a treasure map, opening and closing during vignettes to lend a Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In feel to the zaniness. Up center, a floor to ceiling vertical re-creation of Betsy Ross’s flag (set design by Erin Walley) never lets the audience forget whose history is being told. A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s costumes and John M. McElveney’s props add to the comedy bits in inspired ways, often making it seem as if we are watching three little boys dressing up and playing cops and robbers on the lawn. Lighting designer Jared A. Sayeg scores with a couple of brief but well-placed serious moments that are critical to the changes of tone.
   Few things are as fun as watching a show like this shred history with its irreverence. Over and over, we see how lampooning the past actually makes us think more about the present, and even reflect on how we can do better when chronicling our future. “It’s not the length of your history; it’s what you do with it,” says Symons early in the play. At the Falcon Theatre, they do it with nonstop laughs.

Reviewed by Ellen Dostal
February 15, 2016
 
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Cabrillo Music Theatre at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum requires a strong lead actor for this delicate musical farce to work. Cabrillo Music Theatre’s rendition succeeds mostly due to Nick Santa Maria’s hilarious turn as Pseudolus, the conniving Roman slave always looking for an angle.
  The 1962 musical is a raucous send up of burlesque, operettas, and the Greek comedies of Aristophanes. Pseudolus cares for his master, the naive Hero (Tyler Miclean), son of dirty old man Senex (David Ruprecht) and harpy Domina (Elise Dewsberry). When Hero falls in love with a virgin courtesan, Philia (Claire Adams), Pseudolus finagles a deal with Hero to win his freedom. But Philia is promised to the mighty soldier Miles Gloriosus (Matt Merchant), and the warrior won’t leave town without his bride.
  Santa Maria spent the show’s first five minutes introducing himself to individual audience members. What seemed like a lark was churned for humor when he used each audience member as fodder throughout the evening. He would break character and ask Barbara in Seat A5 or Mickey in Seat A10 if they believed the falderal they were witnessing, or he’d blame audience members for his antics on the stage. Besides removing the fourth wall, it creates an intimacy and co-conspiracy with the audience. With all the gold Santa Maria spins, it is unnecessary for him to fall back on grimaces that Zero Mostel employed in the movie. Those faces take away from Santa Maria’s uniqueness in the role and become unfunny shtick.
   Larry Raben, who had played the sycophant slave for Reprise! theater company in 2010, has matured into the role and is a hysterical Hysterium. His timing in the reprise of “Lovely” endears the audience to his hapless predicament.
  Miclean and Adams are earnest as the young lovers, mocking the conventions of a Romberg operetta with his agape mouth and her dopey eyes. Ruprecht sing-speaks his way through “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” having issues with the higher notes, but his line deliveries are so impeccable that he brings delight to the role. Andrew Metzger plays the procurer Marcus Lycus too broadly, so his jokes are stale.

Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove’s libretto is a jamboree of pratfalls, double entendres, and Borscht Belt hilarity. But like a fine soufflé, one wrong move can bust everything. Lewis Wilkenfeld’s staging requires tightening of the timing. Too many jokes fall flat due to pacing. Wilkenfeld allows too many characters to mug, so they don’t earn the laugh. The opening number with Pseudolus and his three proteans starts the evening off leaden because the humorous bits are not sold well to the audience. The final chase through the streets drags the show to a halt.
  Santa Maria is the glue that keeps this production moving. He wouldn’t have to work so hard if all the other elements had come together. As it is, Forum is a showcase for a great talent, but it should be a riotous affair all around.

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz
February 2, 2016
 
Empire
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

On May 1, 1931, the Empire State Building was completed as the world’s tallest skyscraper, at 102 stories. That it was successfully done during the difficult days of the Depression was a testament to the vision of its creators and, more important, the hardworking builders who erected it. The world premiere musical Empire, at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, attempts to capture that buoyant spirit, but it relies on formulaic play creation at the expense of focusing on the heart of the achievement.
   With its eye on Broadway, the play follows a blueprint. It begins with a kicky production number filled with energetic choreography and a reminder that the ‘20s were the “Heyday.” Cocky architect Michael Shaw (Kevin Earley) meets equally confident gal Frankie Peterson (Stephanie Gibson), who is tapped by the financier John J. Raskob (Tony Sheldon) and ex-Governor Al Smith (Michael McCormick) to be their Can-Do project manager. Antagonistic sparks emerge from snappy banter, and we know that love will triumph by the end of the musical.
   The story takes shape with workers being hired. Another strong production number with the laborers and some Fifth Avenue ladies energizes the proceedings. Construction boss Abe Klayman is well played by Joe Hart. One laborer in particular, Ethan O’Dowd (Caleb Shaw), is singled out as a new father and leader of the riveters, who joins his wife in a tender “Castles in the Air.” Again, a potential outcome of their story by story’s end is telegraphed almost too easily.

Choreographer-director Marcia Milgrom Dodge has taken on a daunting task. Translating Caroline Sherman and Robert Hull’s book, music, and lyrics onto a stage with a hefty cast of singers, dancers, and character actors takes dexterity to begin with, but adding a monolithic building advances it to a different level. The result is mixed. Some of the production numbers are foot-stomping crowd pleasers with athleticism, acrobatics, and energy abounding. Other musical numbers are delivered at that same level, thus detracting from the vocals themselves. A huge plus is the addition of a pit orchestra, directed by Sariva Goetz, that gives the show its Broadway quality.
   As the first act unfolds, the stagecraft almost overwhelms the story. Scenic designer David Gallo has produced a stunning 1930s-era backdrop of New York streets and buildings as he and co-projection designer Brad Peterson have created projected images that advance and recede as the action takes place. The skyscraper’s girders and multilevel sets allow for the cast to achieve the height so necessary for the up-to-the-sky theme of the story. Characters enter and exit through images into offices, doors (one actually revolving), and exteriors that mirror the New York landscape. One particular scene in which riveters throw rivets from a steaming cart to a worker high atop the building via projection is particularly inventive.
   Earley is a likable lead with a strong voice and an easy manner, though his chemistry with Gibson lacks much sizzle. Vastly overdirected by Dodge, Gibson mugs and poses, directing much attention away from the lyrics of the songs she shares with Earley. Sheldon and McCormick provide the charm of old stage pros who provide humor and amiable characterizations.
   An interesting bit of skyscraper lore emerges with the inclusion of Mohawk Indian ironworkers who were instrumental in the building of many of the tallest buildings in America. They were the sky walkers, and “A Change of Worlds” and “Touch the Sky” are appealing numbers featuring these men. They lead a touching chant as tribute to a fallen fellow worker near the end that is very effectively delivered. A silly side plot including poorly disguised heiress Betty Raskob (Charlotte Maltby as one of these workers) is extraneous and should be excised.
   The ensemble does double and triple duty throughout the performance as workers, secretaries, showgirls, gangsters, and the like. Costumes by Leon Wiebers are effective and often involved in some very quick changes. Again, production values cannot be faulted in the entire show, including lighting design by Jared A. Sayeg and sound design by Philip G. Allen.

What begins as a promising endeavor to paint a picture of a time of optimism and history devolves into just another set of songs and dances, however well-executed. Obstacles in the construction process are solved with patent ease, and all ends are tied up too pleasantly at the end to satisfy what was a singular achievement. That aforementioned fallen worker even appears at the end to join in the final chorus. With much to recommend, the writers still need to dig deeper to find the soul of the play.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
January 26, 2016
 
Timeshare
The Eclectic Company Theatre

For anyone ever enticed into attending a vacation-plan sales presentation with promises of some sort of “free” gift, playwright Steve B. Green’s occasionally humorous “dark comedy” on the subject may elicit either embarrassed chuckles or hangdog shame, depending on whether or not one wound up purchasing a membership. To those who have never experienced such a nerve-wracking, 90-minute hard sell, this play is, more often than not, right on the mark and may stop you from ever taking the bait.
   Still, Green’s script contains more than its fair share of dramaturgical holes. The many scenes introducing the show’s various characters and their backstories run the gamut from sharply written and sharply executed to seemingly mundane and momentum-leaching. Likewise, the dark turn toward the end of Act 1, which then becomes the entire foundation for Act 2, although based loosely on a true-life experience Green had while working for just such an organization, drags on far too long. Green winds up having to resort to the silly rather than the mentally stimulating just to stretch his play to its current two-act length.

Performances range from intriguing to shtick. On the night reviewed, Green stepped into the role of Frank, the ever-hustling office manager for this group of twisted travel advisors. Green does a marvelous job flipping, sometimes instantaneously, between comforting his underlings and attacking them with the ferocity of an almost Mafioso-like enforcer. Playing the newest member of this group is Tony Pauletto as Tom, the Bob Newhart in this world of liars and whack jobs. Pauletto is perfect as the everyman appalled by his co-workers’ cutthroat behavior yet determined to succeed without compromising his personal ethics.
   A trio of highly disparate characters, played with varying degrees of success, rounds out the remainder of the staff. Kerr Lordygan is wickedly funny as Jack, a jittery weasel masking his insecurities by constant trying to prove his superiority to Tom. As Christine, the company’s lone female employee who has topped off the sales chart by capitalizing on her sex appeal, Sarmarie Klein ably fills the role of femme fatale. As Mike, a self-important bully who has the hots for Christine, Travis Quentin is stuck with one of Green’s more one-dimensional characters. Only in a confrontation with Pauletto’s Tom, set in the men’s room, is Quentin given the level of material into which he can sink his teeth, resulting in one of the most gripping scenes in the production.
   Leading the pack of their prospective customers were Victoria Yvonne Martinez, who stepped into the role of Maria at this particular performance, and Zachary Reeve Davidson as her wannabe-rapper boyfriend, Bart. This pair’s bickering brought to life some of the best comic moments of the entire show with their New Jersey accents and attitudes in full swing. Marbry Steward and Paul Messinger capably portray an older couple who wind up serving as the catalyst for Act 2’s rather unsatisfying twists and turns and seemingly endless false endings.

Production values, with scenery by Marco De Leon and lighting by Yancey Dunham, are adequate, but the production’s running time could be shaved considerably with faster scene transitions.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
January 19, 2016
 
Bullets Over Broadway
Pantages Theatre

There’s one valid reason to check out this musical adaptation of Woody Allen’s 1994 film comedy—and it’s 98 percent about the wondrous Susan Stroman. If you love the incredibly imaginative and energetic work of one of theater’s best choreographers, here she reigns in all her splendor. It’s almost worth sitting through the rest of this show.
   Let’s face it: Another tale about a blustery Manhattan crime boss financing a Broadway show to placate his incredibly dumb chorus-girl doxy, six months to the day since he first went to bed with her and she gave him a discount, is hardly a new concept, but you’d think someone as clever as Allen could make it fresh. Except for a few of his usual choice one-line zingers, he doesn’t—unless more-committed players, who don’t act as though they’ve been playing these roles eight times a week since the dinosaurs roamed 42nd Street, could make the difference.
   Of the leading roles, only two performances stand out: Jeff Brooks as the best all-singing, all-dancing 1920s gangster since Jimmy Cagney went searching for his Shanghai Lil, and Hannah Rose Del’Flumeri as the hapless hero’s steadfast hometown girl Ellen, whose spirited I’m-no-victim rendition of “I Found a New Baby” is the best nondancing showstopper of the evening.

The kind of broad, over-the-top humor that makes these Bullets fly is a hard thing to successfully assay. In the leading Woody-clone role of David Shayne, the neurotic and frustrated playwright who sells his soul to the Great White Way to get his manuscript mounted, Michael Williams definitely doesn’t get the humor, nor is his voice strong enough not to be overpowered by almost every one of his co-stars. Never does Jemma Jane as the Miss Adelaide-esque Olive rise beyond using a customary squeaky chippy voice to overcome her incredibly predictable material.
   Michael Corvino as her mobster mentor and Rick Grossman as the terminally eye-rolling Broadway producer trying to put the project together could almost call their performances in on videophone from their hotel rooms. Others—such as Bradley Allan Zarr as the resident outrageously effete leading man who eats his way into near-immobility by the time the show opens, Rachel Bahler in the typically thankless Martha Raye second-banana role, and Emma Stratton as the stereotypically overdramatic, oversexed, over-inebriated Broadway diva coerced to star in the venture—have moments, but not enough of them.

But then, there’s the ensemble. Inspired by Stroman’s unearthly success turning another funnyman’s classic movie into a huge Broadway musical (Mel Brooks’ far funnier and more clever The Producers), her direction and Tony-nominated choreography for Bullets, re-created for the national tour by Jeff Whiting and Clare Cook, respectively, couldn’t be better or more entertaining. Since Crazy for You in 1992, Stroman has accomplished amazing things in the realm of musical theater, particularly notable for her insistence on casting spirited, high-steppin’ performers who aren’t your standard cookie-cutter dancers to make up her ensemble. There are overweight and older mobsters tapping in a precision line here, as well as way-too-tall or otherwise uniquely unusual choices playing chorines, all dancing their little hearts out—and it’s a joy to see them kicking just as high as any uniformly perfect Rockette could ever manage.
   The score, culled by Glen Kelly from old standards and more-obscure songs from the Jazz Age many of us have never heard, is suitably clever, even audacious when the big finale turns out to be a confetti-spewing version of “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” Along the way, the production numbers rule and are greatly appreciated after watching the principals mug and double-take and labor so darn hard with so little to hang onto. The two grandest moments come from a hilariously suggestive “The Hot Dog Song” and the phenomenal Brooks leading an eclectic line of light-footed gangsters pitter-pattering away to “Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do.”

Add in astonishingly flashy costuming by none other than William Ivey Long and some the finest production values and design aspects a Broadway blockbuster could possibly deliver, and one can almost overlook that between the sensational production numbers, there’s that surprisingly trite storyline and mostly uninspired performances in the principal roles. And oddly enough, that’s actually more than enough. If Bullets Over Broadway tends to miss its target, it’s okay because it’s still so gratifying when a musical’s often overlooked ensemble hits the ol’ proverbial bull’s-eye over and over again.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
January 6, 2016
 
Amélie
Center Theatre Group at Kirk Douglas Theatre

Those who dared to take a charming little French film and turn it into a Broadway-bound musical had to know they’d be facing brickbats along with the plaudits. Or, as the French say, criticism is easy but art is difficult.
   Amélie is a 2001 cinematic gem. It focuses on an unusual young woman, possessed of one of storytelling’s most vibrant imaginations, as she learns how to open a heart sealed shut by bad parenting and bad luck. Its every frame is a work of art. Director and co-writer Jean-Pierre Jeunet (with co-writer Guillaume Laurant) knew when to show expansive views of Paris and when to focus on a saddening eye. Its palette is mature, of autumnal browns and greens, with accents of Amélie’s signature red.
   Now comes Amélie, A New Musical,at downtown’s Ahmanson Theatre. The book is by Craig Lucas, music by Daniel Messé, and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Messé. And though its moral and so many details of the film are tucked in here, it seems to appeal to the recollections of the film’s fans rather than exposing audiences to the soul that went from frozen seed to sweetly maturing florescence.

Director Pam MacKinnon certainly used her own gifted imagination in staging this musical. She started from a whimsical movie and made the work whimsicaler. Old-school masks and puppetry, plied with old-school commedia chops by the ensemble, mix well with projected animation that turn mathematics and philosophy joyously visual (designed by Peter Nigrini). As does the film, the musical starts with a housefly. In the film, the fly symbolized the role of fate and timing in our lives. Here it got a laugh while the film’s fans recalled the filmic moment. Many of the film’s gentle little metaphors have become laugh-getters. And then they go nowhere.
   What works in a few frames of a film doesn’t land as well in a split-second bit onstage. What Jeunet could reveal with a glimpse at a face isn’t available here—though of course some of those emotions are offered via the musical’s score. The loneliness of Amélie’s childhood doesn’t translate here, because the friends she created out of animals and objects are played by actors. The little girl amusing herself by eating raspberries off her fingertips loses context when she’s surrounded by adults playing along with her.
   But there’s much to admire in the staging. The piece feels intimate, even as it uses every nook of the stage. The set is textured and dimensional, and the palette, although brighter and more cartoonish than the film’s, is inviting (scenic and costume design by David Zinn). The set is skewed, made of armoires and suitcases, using these objects of stability and mobility, where secrets can be hidden, to create the interior of Amelie’s apartment and the streets of Paris. Crossing over the stage is a bridge, modeled on the film’s over the Canal St. Martin. It keeps the locales connected, brings verticality to the visuals, and symbolizes the connections between Amelie and others, reality and imagination, life and death.

Whatever one thinks of the artistic transfer between mediums, the musical’s cast does its job, beautifully, apparently fulfilling MacKinnon’s every theatrical need.
   Phillipa Soo is sweetly bemused as Amélie, while Adam Chanler-Berat charms as her romantic foil, Nino. Filling in the characters from the film are Alyse Alan Louis as hypocondriacal co-worker Georgette; David Andino the garden gnome; Randy Blair as Hipolito, the wannabe Bohème; Heath Calvert as the grocer’s assistant and the mysterious man in the photos; Alison Cimmet as mother and air hostess; Savvy Crawford as Young Amélie; Manoel Felciano as father and the man with the lost childhood mementos; Harriett D. Foy as café owner Suzanne; Maria-Christina Oliveras as the co-worker mourning her escaped husband; Tony Sheldon as the grouchy grocer and the elderly brittle neighbor who prompts Amélie to live her own life; and Paul Whitty as the jealous plumber and Fluffy the goldfish.
   The singing voices are nice but not noteworthy. Perhaps that’s the fault of the musical direction, by Kimberly Grigsby, or the vocal arrangements by Grigsby and Messé, or the orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin, but the notes being sung are also played, loudly, by the orchestra, masking the voices and sometimes the lyrics. The musical is very much American, not French, so situations and visuals have been sanitized for your protection. The sauciest moment may be the scene at Nino’s porn-shop workplace, where three pairs of animatronic legs dance above the merchandise. To paraphrase the French, apparently all’s fair in love and musicalization.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
December 19, 2016
 
Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze.
 
The King and I
Pantages Theatre

In mid-Victorian days, a Siamese king and an English activist-educator came together in a clash of cultures. That pairing inspired memoirs, then a novel, then films and stage musicals. In the national tour of The King and I, now at Pantages Theatre, the clashing continues—in sweet moments of this East-meets-West, old-meets-new story and in unfortunately mismatched acting styles.
   Of course the 1951 score, with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, remains charming, lilting and tantalizingly hummable—including the familiar “I Whistle a Happy Tune, “Hello, Young Lovers,” and “Getting to Know You.”
   Bartlett Sher’s direction, from his Lincoln Center Theater version, is technically gorgeous. Donald Holder’s exquisite lighting creates misty harbors, sunny gardens, and candlelit evenings. Catherine Zuber’s costuming includes lighter-than-air hooped Victorian skirts, traditional chut Thai, plus elaborate masks and headdresses for the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet.
   Portraying Anna, the feminist hired by the king to bring education to and thus modernize his family, Laura Michelle Kelly is pure loveliness, with the ideal voice and physicality for the role. As the unrepentantly chauvinistic but perspicacious king, Jose Llana is a strong presence onstage. But he plays it contemporary and winking, she’s period and in character. Where was the director in this clash of styles?
   Somebody persuaded Llana he’d get the laughs if he included eye-rolling and other modern American grimaces of disdain and sarcasm in his performance. Many in the opening-night audience loved it; others found it pandering and distancing.
   And what a shame, because Llana has a warm, sturdy, soothing singing voice, an engaging physicality, and dance skills that enable him to launch into out an out-of-time, out-of-step polka until the king eases perfectly into a large loping “Shall We Dance” with Anna and her orbiting skirt (choreography by Christopher Gattelli based on Jerome Robbins’ original, aided by costumer Zuber’s miraculous work).

A secondary couple, adding more social commentary here, are Burmese slave girl Tuptim and the scholar accompanying her, Lun Tha. Played by Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao, respectively, they’re nice to look at, but she gets pitchy and neither is particularly interesting in the story’s context.
   The plentiful kids are cute, and stageworthy, and their principals seem to relish the time shared with them onstage. The eldest child, son and heir Prince Chulalongkorn (Anthony Chan), is cartoonishly prissy at first. But like the best of literary heroes, he opens his eyes and ears in the presence of intelligence, and he learns, later making his first executive decision a modernization of traditional bowing.
   Sher resorts to old-school scene changes, drawing a billowy curtain across the stage until the scenery can be reset behind it. In the last two scenes, though, perhaps running out of actors who could change costumes and make it back out front to drag the fabric along, he changes settings within our view. Like the kings, Sher should have looked back at how old-hat his earlier decisions seemed and moved up to modern improvements.


Reviewed by Dany Margolies
December 15, 2016
 
Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze.
 
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
Pantages Theatre

In a season when it might be harder than ever to muster up a little holiday cheer while considering arming oneself or building a bunker in the basement, leaving a gorgeous historical architectural wonder in Hollywood after having been magically snowed upon from the Pantages Theatre’s ornate art deco ceiling could cure—or at least temporarily abate—that more than usually unshakable case of yearend angst.
   It’s typical for the Hollywood film industry to try to capture the magic of a hit Broadway musical extravaganza, but in the case of White Christmas, the highest-grossing motion picture of 1954, it’s just the opposite. Director-choreographer Randy Skinner and bookwriters David Ives and Paul Burke have charmingly adapted the beloved and timeless movie and its score by Irving Berlin into a massive, incredibly colorful, delightfully campy stage experience.
   With phenomenally vibrant and inventively cinematic scenic design by Anna Louizos and painstakingly accurate, blindingly sparkly costuming by Carrie Robbins, if this production was anymore Christmassy, its audience would be overcome by poinsettia overload. Even the plaid woolen winter coat worn by Conrad John Schuck as military hard-nose–turned-innkeeper General Waverly is subtly striped in red and green, and the skaters’ heavy outerwear glistens with flashes of glitter.
   The story is lifted directly from the film, as is the original corniness of the acting style. Sean Montgomery and Jeremy Benton channel their inner Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, the former WWII soldiers who go from battlefield entertainers to Broadway stars. Montgomery tends to push the mugging a bit harder than necessary, but when he settles into General Waverly’s failing Columbia Inn in the snow-challenged Pine Tree, Vt., he relaxes his side-of-mouth delivery and becomes far more endearing—especially when trying to get the General’s granddaughter Susan (Samantha Penny, alternating the role with her twin sister Clancy) to go to sleep with a beautiful rendition of Berlin’s Oscar-nominated balled “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.”

Unlike the original pairing of Crosby and Kaye, Benton is the more subdued partner, though he is just as engaging as his predecessor. And when he and Kelly Sheehan, effervescent in the Vera-Ellen role of Judy Haynes, link arms to dance, the entire stage opens up. This is particularly true in the dynamic “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” which lets their classically trained roots show through the stage full of dreamlike smoke. Their precise partnering continues with their Act Two opening number, “I Love a Piano,” backed by the ensemble of shiny-faced dancers tapping their talented little hearts out, which elicits a spirited applause lasting so long the heavily-breathing company members have trouble staying in their final tableau.
   And what an ensemble this is. This troupe could out-Rockette the Rockettes. Often in long-touring shows, the company can look a little shopworn, but this cast is perfection in the dizzyingly energetic choreography of Skinner. The line is as in-sync and on-target as any that has recently graced this well-trod Hollywood roadshow venue.
   In contrast to the other members of the story’s quartet of star-crossed lovers, Kerry Conte in the Rosemary Clooney role of Betty Haynes is sweetly understated, keeping her place until the character branches out in her New York debut at the Regency Room, taking the spotlight with a knockout torchy version of “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me.”
   It’s wonderful to see Schuck onstage again, so lovingly curmudgeonly that one wants to go onstage and hug the guy, especially after his final monologue to his reconstituted troops come to cheer on “The Old Man” in his hour of need. If anyone thinks no one could ever tug the heartstrings as brilliantly as Dean Jagger did in the film, think again; Schuck’s General is equally memorable without tapping into the over-the-top style of the rest of the production.

Still, the greatest treat of this year’s visit from White Christmas has to be in the casting of Lorna Luft as the Inn’s acerbic Eve Arden–clone concierge Martha Watson. Luft brings down the house with her spectacularly theatrical rendition of the classic Al Jolson tuner “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” which, perhaps without meaning to, becomes a nostalgic and loving tribute to her mother, Judy Garland, the quintessential interpreter of the Berlin standard. As Martha tells little Susan, who decides to give up her homework to become a song-and-dance kid, “You don’t learn that, sweetie…you’re born with it.” Luft’s voice and physicality so uncannily brings her illustrious mother to mind that it might even bring tears to the eyes of crusty old theater critics.
   Then there’s the finale. Not only is the sufficiently warmed audience more than ready when Montgomery asks those gathered to sing along with the title song “if you know the lyrics,” when the real, cold, meltable snow begins to fall on the house and its patrons, one might even be able to swallow your bile and wish Ebenezer Scrooge or Donald Trump or the Grinch himself a very merry Christmas.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
November 30, 2016
 
When Jazz Had the Blues
Matrix Theatre


Forget the rather lame title that was recently chosen for Carole Englash-Kosoff’s world premiere musical. The original title, Lush Life, was so much more in keeping with the urban jazz era sophistication of the material—because this is the debut of a real treat for the Angeleno theatrical and musical communities.
   Under the smooth and effortless direction of John Henry Davis, with crisp musical direction and impressive orchestrations by Rahn Coleman leading an exceptional band of world-class jazz musicians, and featuring spirited choreography by Cassie Crump and sparkling period costuming by Michael Mullen, When Jazz Had the Blues dreamily recalls Harlem from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s and the rollercoaster career of an often overlooked songwriter who created the most indelible jazz standards ever written.
   Young musical prodigy Billy Strayhorn (Frank Lawson) lived in the shadow of his mentor Duke Ellington (Boise Holmes), who added to his own legend by taking co-writing credit for many of his prodigy’s greatest works—including the Duke’s signature song, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” which Strayhorn wrote while following Ellington’s scribbled directions to his Harlem home—as well as a number of other pieces that became part of the band’s repertoire. In some cases, such as “Lotus Blossom,” “Chelsea Bridge,” and “Rain Check,” Strayhorn received attribution for his work.
   For others, such as “Day Dream” and “Something to Live For,” they were presented as collaborations with Ellington. In the case of “Satin Doll” and “Sugar Hill Penthouse,” Ellington alone was incorrectly credited. The inequities of their work together and the father-son connection they shared offstage is the heart of Englash-Kosoff’s fascinating play.
   Strayhorn had introduced himself to Ellington after seeing one of his performances at Pittsburgh’s Warrick Hotel, where he brashly told—then showed—the musical superstar how he would have arranged his own music. Their relationship lasted a quarter-century.
   But, although Ellington was fond and fiercely loyal to his diminutive gay “Swee’Pea,” he also kept him out of the spotlight until Strayhorn, with the encouragement of his close friend Lena Horne (Michole Briana White) and his lover Aaron Bridgers (Gilbert Glenn Brown), finally rebelled and published “Lush Life,” “I’ve Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” “Paradise,” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” without Ellington’s guidance.

Along the way, we are also shown what life was like for successful African-American musicians and celebrities during that era, who could appear in posh hotels but not check into them. Horne rails when she learns a bedroom scene will be cut from the film Cabin in the Sky by Louis B. Mayer, because, as she states, people in the South don’t want to see Negro women looking sexy. She later breaks down after losing the role of Julie in the film version of Showboat to non-singer Ava Gardner because filmgoers didn’t like to see blacks and whites performing onscreen together.
   At one point, as Horne and Strayhorn perform for WWII troops during a USO tour, she halts the show when she realizes German POWS were placed in the very front while all black soldiers were relegated to the very back of the venue. Just push their sad-looking white faces to the rear, she instructs her marginalized audience members before continuing her concert.

Holmes bears an uncanny resemblance to Ellington both in style and swagger, while White is dynamic throughout, especially impressive contributing a splendid rendition of “When the Sun Comes Out” to the mix. Katherine Washington has wonderful moments as the Duke’s emotionally abused mistress Trixie, also delivering a feisty “In Harlem” with the production’s exceptionally limber dancers Keverlie Herron, Chris Smith, and Darian Archie.
   Lawson is especially impressive in song, giving a whole new spin to “The Man I Love,” sung to explain to Horne the depth of his character’s affection for Bridger. Lawson does tend to rely on playing an obviously light-loafer-ed Billy, while in glaring contrast, Bridger, as interpreted by Brown, is the far more masculine partner, which becomes a tad odd when he becomes the one beaten up for being a “fag” when anyone with 20/20 vision might expect the opposite. Still, Brown is a revelation as an actor and as a musical performer, immediately winning hearts with a show-stopping “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me” and in an impressive 11th-hour duet with Lawson of “In a Sentimental Mood.”
   If all this isn’t reason enough to take time for a little diversion from both the state of the world and from our traditional breakneck end-of-year preparations, this fine ensemble delivers a memorable, seasonally motivated rendering of Mel Torme’s classic “The Christmas Song.” Perhaps When Jazz Had the Blues might seem an odd choice for putting someone in the holiday spirit, but, to the contrary, these guys can come roast chestnuts by my open fire anytime.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
November 27, 2016
 
Vicuña
Kirk Douglas Theatre

Clothes make the man, and the play, in Jon Robin Baitz’s latest and timely Vicuña. It is largely about the run-up to this presidential election, which makes it tailor-made for this week and perhaps the next four years.
   But the material Baitz uses is timeless, and even if you loathe its political but not completely one-sided viewpoint, the play is well-written, provocative, and spectacularly acted.
   It takes place in the atelier of one of Manhattan’s finest made-to-order tailors, Anselm of Paris. The room is a two-story structure, conveying elegance and permanence. (Scenic designer Kevin Depinet gives us a gorgeously stylish showroom, its spacious walls decorated with fiery red wallpaper over which little gold-and-black zebras frolic.)

Anselm (Brian George) is an Iranian Jew, settled in New York to ply his superlative taste and skills on presidents and other world figures. Certainly, he likes the intimate contact and the five-figure price tags, but he exudes a tremendous pride in his workmanship.
   His apprentice is Amir (Ramiz Monsef), the highly educated son of Anselm’s Iranian Muslim college roommate and dear friend. The two men escaped the shah and eventually came here for the freedoms this nation had offered.
   Into this showroom comes Kurt Seaman (Harry Groener), the Republican presidential nominee, three weeks before the final debate. Anselm personifies gentility and discretion. Amir, more Americanized and perhaps more fiery by nature, takes on the candidate, provoking him and calling him out on issues and personality.
   Anselm rejiggers his schedule, uncharacteristically postponing work for his other customers, to create Seaman’s suit in a mere three weeks. He promises a magnum opus made of vicuña, an Andean animal poached for its ultrafine hair, “lighter than air, warmer than a dozen layers of wool but breathes like nothing else.”

Under Robert Egan’s direction, Seaman is not inhuman. Nor does Groener “do” a particularly recognizable candidate. The combed-back white hair helps, as does his straightforward delivery, though Baitz’s dialogue for him sounds like the real-life candidate’s on- and off-microphone conversations, including a habit of commenting on something that’s not the point.
   Or they sound alike until Seaman tries on the suit in its early stages. Suddenly but subtly, Seaman is eloquent, intellectually coherent, even quietly quoting William Blake.
   Also exerting some control is Seaman’s daughter, who’s one of the few people capable of managing him. Srilanka (Samantha Sloyan) is articulate, perceptive, poised. Amir notices.
   A bright spark to begin Act 2, in walks Kitty Finch-Gibbon (Linda Gehringer), a U.S. senator and chair of the Republican National Committee, with an offer Seaman might or might not be able to refuse. She gets a bespoke suit from Anselm, too, in the production’s best visual laugh.
   Gehringer’s timing and wry delivery is the comedic highlight here, from her first dignified entrance through her uncontrollably explosive monologue.
   Beautifully thoughtful performances, too, come from George, Monsef, Sloyan, and particularly Groener, whose carefully crafted tonal shifts are nearly imperceptible but always chilling.

Egan could have played up mystic elements of the play a bit more, and the tailoring on Laura Bauer’s costume design doesn’t approach the magnificent flawlessness the story calls for.
   But the story is sewn up nicely, whether the ending is as hinted throughout or whether it’s the result of trying to create this masterpiece in the time allotted.
   Though Baitz clearly has his opinions on the election, Seaman holds his own as a figurehead. Americans will always disagree, or, better yet, agree to disagree, with one another. It’s the clarity and articulateness of our arguments that will continue to matter. And fine artistic presentations don’t hurt, either.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
November 1, 2016
 
Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp: Acoustically Speaking
Catalina Bar & Grill

It’s been more than two decades since Jonathan Larson’s Rent took Broadway by storm. Lucky for everyone who adores the groundbreaking musical, its two breakout stars, Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp, are working together once again, and prolific LA cabaret producer Chris Isaacson had the foresight to bring them to us after a celebrated run earlier this month at New York’s Feinstein’s/54 Below. The two-night West Coast debut of their Acoustically Speaking—Celebrating 20 Years of Friendship tour rocked the Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood Oct. 25 and 26. Would that it had been with us for a longer stay, as no lover of musical theater should miss such an auspicious event.
   Beginning the evening with a spirited set by The Voice finalist India Carney, Pascal and Rapp did not disappoint, presenting songs from Rent and their days originating the iconic roles of Roger Davis and Mark Cohen. Still, bringing many of the show’s most-familiar tunes to the Catalina stage was only the icing on the musical cake. Aside from the obvious choices from Larson’s masterwork, eagerly anticipated by their creators’ many enduring fans mouthing every word from the audience, Pascal and Rapp began their headliner turn with a knockout duet of Squeeze’s 1994 hit “Tempted (by the Fruit of Another)” followed by extremely personal individual solo sets.
   Pascal, who with his Bowie-esque raspy vocal stylings began his professional life as a rock singer having no intent on making a career on the musical stage, accompanied himself on guitar with a raucous, beautifully reimagined arrangement of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” before offering a breakneck selection of songs from shows in which he’s either starred or simply loved—including “Origin of Love” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, “Johanna” from Sweeney Todd, “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret, “There’s a Light” from The Rocky Horror Show, and “Memory” from Cats.
   Pascal also recalled many stories from along the way, the funniest of which dealt with his often being mistaken for Rapp when leaving the theater. When randomly asked if he would narrate a cable documentary on the wonders of the hippopotamus, he accepted with some puzzlement about how he had come to be chosen for such a project. Later, in a crowded club, the video’s rather tipsy producer approached him to tell him something she’d never admitted before: It was Rapp they’d wanted to hire for the voiceover, a fact they didn’t realize until Pascal showed up at the studio.

Accompanied by Rent keyboardist Daniel Weiss, Rapp’s set was less glitzy and mostly a more quiet, heartfelt personal experience, highlighted by the lyrical ballads “Falling Slowly” from Once and “Another Day” from his own career-making musical. Rapp used a portion of his solo time to dig deep inside, delivering Rent’s plaintive “Without You” as a tribute to his mother, who died of cancer during the first year of his Broadway run as Mark, as well as singing his own personal memorial composition written about that difficult time, the haunting “Visits to You,” written with Joe Pisapia.
   Of course, even something as special as Acoustically Speaking—Celebrating 20 Years of Friendship must end—and Pascal and Rapp joined onstage to re-create the Larson standard “Seasons of Love,” leaving their audience clapping and standing to rock with the music. This too-brief engagement at the Catalina may now be part of Los Angeles history, but, if we all lean a little on Isaacson to bring back the inimitable Pascal and Rapp, maybe they’ll return to us for a longer stay.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
October 30, 2016
 
Memphis
Musical Theatre West

High energy is the name of the game in Musical Theatre West’s 64th-season opener. With a large ensemble of talented singers and dancers, Memphis lives up to its Tony-award winning pedigree and delivers a thoroughly entertaining look at the music scene in the 1950s in the heavily segregated South. Loosely based on real-life white disc jockey Dewey Phillips’s career, it examines race relations and the tensions surrounding the rise of “race music,” so abhorrent to the prejudiced establishment.
   Drawn by the “Music of My Soul,” Huey Calhoun (Michael Monroe Goodman) arrives at a black bar in Beale Street and is not welcomed by owner Delray Farrell (Michael Shepperd), whose sister, Felicia (Krystle Simmons), is the main attraction. Mesmerized by her singing and attracted to her romantically, Huey sticks around even though his presence is a threat.
   In spite of an unlikely scenario (book by Joe DiPietro) in which he singlehandedly promotes the burgeoning rock ’n’ roll music by getting a gig at a white radio station, the play manages to combine the hardships of racism and their interracial love affair with dynamic choreography by Edgar Godineaux and a plethora of enjoyable musical numbers (music and lyrics by David Bryan with additional lyrics by DiPietro).

Goodman is terrific as Huey, an illiterate and unsophisticated protagonist, whose unbridled enthusiasm for Felicia’s singing gives him an infectious optimism about his ability to promote the music he has fallen in love with. In numbers like “Hello, My Name Is Huey” and “Radio,” his charismatic delivery makes the audience believe that this white guy can achieve his dreams in spite of obvious obstacles.
   Simmons is equally dynamic as the ambitious Felicia, who falls for Huey in spite of her brother’s obvious disapproval and concern for her safety. “She’s My Sister” articulates Delray’s fears and gives Shepperd a standout number in the show. Huey’s mother, Gladys (Julie Cardia), is the voice of prejudice against Huey’s liaison with “nothing but a colored girl.” Her personal evolution as the story progresses adds a dimension to the issues, and Cardia gives a nuanced performance in spite of the contrived nature of the role.
   James Campbell is solid as Mr. Simmons, the owner of the radio station, whose desire for profit outweighs his prejudices. Adding interest to the story is Gator (Kenneth Mosley), a bartender who has not spoken since he witnessed his father’s lynching. When Felicia is injured by white thugs, he adds “Say a Prayer” to the growing hope that change will be coming to the South. Also notable in the cast is Bobby (Jay Donnell), a janitor who fills in for Felicia with “Big Love” when she backs out of a television performance as she worries about the racial implications of her relationship with Huey.

Musical director Darryl Archibald gives the show its vitality. From soul to rock ’n’ roll and even gospel music, that variety adds another layer of interest to the unfolding melodrama. Musical numbers by the ensemble make effective transitions among the many scenes.
   Costumes by Karen St Pierre are colorful and capture the time period effectively. Stephen Gifford’s set design and Eric Larson’s lighting enliven the production. Jonathan Infante’s rear projection video design is interesting but acts more as backdrop than an integrated element of the show.
   More than a jukebox-style musical, Memphis is a timely examination of the human struggle to overcome personal and professional trials. As current events spotlight the nature of prejudice worldwide, it is a microcosm of the human experience with a nice balance of poignancy and optimism.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
October 27, 2016
 
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
3–D Theatricals at Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center

It’s likely you already know the Old Testament story of Jacob and his favorite son, Joseph. So, for you, the pleasure is in the way Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat tells its tale, in musical theater form, this time by 3–D Theatricals.
   As Joseph distills it, long ago in the land of Canaan, Jacob had 12 sons, but his favorite is Joseph, a dreamer and interpreter of dreams. Jacob gives Joseph a beautiful coat of many colors. The other brothers, jealous of what they perceive as Joseph’s higher status, toss him into a pit and then sell him into slavery.
   Imprisoned, Joseph interprets the dreams of his fellow captives. The Pharaoh, hearing of Joseph’s gift, invites him to interpret the royal dreams. Joseph, because he warned of bad times to come, is made the Pharaoh’s second-in-command to help Egypt prepare.
   Meantime, Jacob’s other sons are starving, so they journey to Egypt where, thanks to Joseph’s planning, civilization thrives. Joseph shows them how easily one can be wrongfully imprisoned, but, seeing how selfless and fraternal the brothers have learned to be, forgives and welcomes them.

The points this simple plot makes are manifold. Misplaced jealousy abounds when you’re dad’s chosen child, or God’s chosen people. Life sometimes hands the innocent an unjust fate. Yet, with the courage that comes from knowing you’re in the right, it’s possible to turn the bad times around.
   We also learn that it’s possible to create an insanely successful musical that features New World corn growing in Biblical fields.
   Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the music and Tim Rice the lyrics for this sung-through work. The score is banal but effective and engaging, mostly because its varied styles range from 1950s film musicals to calypso. But in all the silliness, we can still hear gorgeous harmonies, particularly when the brothers sing together (under musical director Corey Hirsch, who additionally leads the vibrant orchestra).
   Equally thrilling, Voices of Hope Children’s Choir augments the vocals and the staging. The majority of young performers are remarkably focused, a few so into it that they belt.

Director Marc Kudisch stages the work with charm and humor. Still, he focuses on the dreamer, in history and in all of us. Throughout are tributes, a poignant one to those dreaming of life for their race, perhaps of one day having their own homeland. Other tributes come at the show’s end, when great dreamers throughout the ages are remembered.
   Choreographer Shannon Lewis creates simply staged yet delightful dances that show off the music’s variety: hoedown, hip-hop, country-western, Broadway jazz.
   Costuming (coordination by Alexandra Johnson) is suitably of biblical proportions, but the Levantine levity of the props (Terry Hanrahan) gets the biggest laughs—including a singing cobra, a dancing camel and a goat whose blood “streams” in streamers.

The story is guided by a modern-day Narrator, here enacted by the cordial, pop-voiced Charlotte Mary Wen.
   Among the finely voiced brothers, Jason Peter Kennedy is American-country-style Reuben, and Dennis Kyle is French-balladeer Simeon. Well, after all, these brothers spread over various lands to help lead the 12 tribes.
   Bryan Dobson blandly hides behind a wig and beard as the aged Jacob. Give him a moment. He peels off the hair to become Potiphar, the hilarious husband of the lusty Mrs. Potiphar (Lauren Decierdo), who tries to seduce the beleaguered Joseph. Then, when Dobson returns to play the bereaved Jacob, the stops are out as Jacob can’t hear his presumably deceased son’s name without a bodice-ripping reaction.
   Edred Utomi is the Pharaoh, traditionally portrayed as Elvis. Here, he’s more James Brown—pencil turns, skates and a rebounding half-split included.
   But Joseph has a whole musical named after him, and the lad playing him needs star quality. Justin Anthony Long has it, and plies it aplenty. A pleasing, colorful singing voice carries Long’s solos, but most moving is his ability to convey a range of emotions and ages, keeping the audience caring even though, as the children’s chorus says, we already know Joseph’s fate.
   The extravaganza ends, and then ends again as the ensemble re-enacts the whole shebang. If nothing else, it lets the audience stand and dance and relive the many joys of the many colors of this Joseph.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
October 10, 2016

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 
Young Frankenstein
Palos Verdes Performing Arts at Norris Theatre

Cross Mel Brooks with an old classic and you get Mel Brooks. First came his 1974 film Young Frankenstein, co-written with the late Gene Wilder, about Dr. Frankenstein’s brainy grandson Frederick as he heads to Transylvania, ultimately to follow in his grave-robbing relative’s footsteps. In 2007 the story’s musicalized version—book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan, music and lyrics by Brooks—found life on Broadway.
   Then came the first national tour. And the second national tour. Added to that, international and local reincarnations proliferated. Clearly, this material just won’t die, despite near-mortal wounding by the critics. That’s because its adoring audiences have kept it alive.
   Shards of Mary Shelley’s novel prop up the narrative here, about a scientist who gives life to lifeless material. At the Norris Theatre, Palos Verdes Performing Arts has two clever scientists doing just that. One is Frederick. The other is director James Gruessing.
   In this exuberant rendition, no old joke goes by without Gruessing’s fresh adornment, every moment from the film is re-created with fine comedic timing. Yes, every moment. The musical numbers don’t add much to the story, but nor do they detract from it. Under Sean Alexander Bart, the voices and orchestra sound great. Noticeably, the Norris’s new sound system sounds great.

But, dear oh dear, the shtick is old. It was old in 1974. Perhaps that’s what makes it so hilarious, why we continue to laugh. More likely, we laugh at the superb delivery of the lead performers here, our enjoyment enhanced because they seem to be thoroughly relishing their every moment onstage.
   Playing Frederick Frankenstein, Larry Raben somehow has the sly outer calmness of Wilder without losing an erg of performing energy, an easy twinkle belying the singing, dancing and most dauntingly the comedic demands of the role. (Gruessing puts him in a blond mop of a wig, undoubtedly a tribute to Wilder.)
   Raben’s fellow leads provide precisely calibrated comedic performances to play off of. Tracy Lore is the heavily eyebrowed, unnerving housekeeper Frau Blucher (cue neighing horses). Anne Montavon is the leggily alluring lab assistant Inga. Chris Kauffmann is a delightfully sprightly Igor, the servant with the wandering hump.
   Pablo Rossil sweetly plays the clumsy Monster who becomes a fleet-footed musical-theater sensation. Lindsey Alley wickedly plays Frederick’s faithless fiancée, funny in the first-act farewell scene, funnier in the second-act, uh, arrival scene. The beautifully voiced Greg Nicholas plays the semi-limbless Inspector Kemp and one other character, best left to the audience to recognize under the hair.
   The choreography (Daniel Smith, re-created from Susan Stroman’s original) charms, and the hoofing is remarkably in time. Stroman’s work includes the townsfolk’s big number, which is Russian and not Romanian. Presumably that’s another old joke.

The f-bomb and s-bomb are dropped, and the show is largely sexual innuendo. If you want your entertainment to have a message, though, perhaps note how easily our protagonist is swept into doing the wrong things, defiling the dead and cheating on his fiancée. This being a musical comedy, young Frankenstein is rewarded nonetheless.
   The stony intellectual finds his heart—and gains an enormous Schwanzstuker. Yes, be prepared to explain this term to your hard-of-hearing seatmate, or, should you be brave, to have your tag-along teen explain it to you.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 26, 2016

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 

All the Way
South Coast Repertory

In a tableau framed by a Greek colonnade with the US seal prominently placed centerstage, Robert Schenkkan’s political rouser revisits the moments following John Kennedy’s assassination as Lyndon Johnson (Hugo Armstrong) seizes the reins of power and steps into the presidency. Atop the columns on a raised stage stands a cast of characters who will both ally themselves with Johnson and oppose him, and that is the stuff of his ardent pursuit of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
   Towering over these key players in stature and temperament, Johnson at his desk centerstage keeps the focus on his Oval Office machinations. In spotlighted vignettes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Larry Bates), Stokely Carmichael (Christian Henley), Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Rosney Mauger), and the like strategize their political opportunities for the long-awaited legislation that would give Negroes, as they were called then, more equality in society.
   At Johnson’s right side, Hubert Humphrey (JD Cullum) plays surrogate for a promised vice-presidency to Johnson’s ambition. Herbert Hoover (Robert Curtis Brown), equally covetous of power with wiretapped evidence and investigative secrets, serves the president. Other towering figures of the time—Sen. Everett Dirkson and Strom Thurmond (Hal Landon Jr.), the powerful conservative Democrat Howard “Judge” Smith (William Francis McGuire), Gov. George Wallace (Jeff Marlow), and Robert McNamara (Bo Foxworth)—have telling exchanges as Johnson tries to manipulate the events prior to his re-election the following year.

Also notable are Larry John Meyers as Sen. Richard Russell and Emanuel Celler, Gregg Daniel as Roy Wilkins, and Jordan Bellow as Bob Moses and Dave Dennis in the civil rights camp.
   The women of the play are secondary characters, even though we know wealthy Lady Bird Johnson (Nike Doukas) wielded her own power in Texas. Others were Lurleen Wallace and Muriel Humphrey (Lynn Gallagher) and Coretta Scott King and the civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer (Tracey A. Leigh).
   Darin Singleton plays a pivotal role as Walter Jenkins, Johnson’s right-hand aide, largely instrumental in achieving many of the president’s goals. His arrest and resignation on a morals charge showed the ruthless nature of politics in Johnson’s world.

This cast is a who’s who of fine contemporary actors who manage to make the nearly three-hour play mesmerizing. Armstrong brings LBJ’s intrigue, intimidation, and sheer force of will to life and delivers a remarkable look at the underbelly of the politics that we now see played out in 24-hour media coverage. It is hard to imagine how the Civil Rights Act might be handled today.
   Ralph Funicello’s austere but nicely contrived set allows for multiple exchanges among characters, building suspense. Holly Poe Durban’s costumes are time appropriate, including LBJ’s signature cowboy boots. Jaymi Lee Smith’s lighting and Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts’s sound design and original music also amp up the tension. Shawn Sagady’s original projection design executed by Kristin Ellert takes one back to the 1960s effectively.
   Director Marc Masterson skillfully manipulates his large cast playing so many multiple roles that no change of persona takes away from the unfolding saga. The foibles and strengths of each character are subtle or audacious as required by the part but never undercut the storyline. It is masterful work by playwright and director. But, if there is one reason to see the play, it is for the performance by Armstrong. It is a theatrical knockout.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
September 23, 2016
 
And Then They Fell
Brimmer Street Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre

The plight of dispossessed children is always harrowing. Tina Palmquist has captured the disheartening struggle of one abused young girl with harsh and no-holds-barred realism. With no income of her own and her mother in detox soon heading from there to jail, Jordan Matthews (Kacie Rogers, alternating in this double-cast play with Chelsea Boyd) is desperately trying to study for her high school algebra final and prepare for a speech in another class as she dozes in the park, safely—she thinks—away from the unwanted sexual demands of her mother’s slimy on-again-off-again alcoholic boyfriend Dwayne (Tim Venable, alternating with Ian Madeira Sollenberger).
   Jordan has few viable options, even rejected in her request for help from the school janitor, who at least lets her into the locker room before hours to shower, until she breaks through the tough exterior of her transgendered homeless classmate Cal (Lily Nicksay, alternating with JJ Hawkins), who was locked out of his house after he told his father he no longer wanted to be called Calista and was looking into gender reassignment therapy. “The next day, I came home from school and there it was,” Cal tearfully tells Jordan. “My life was on the porch.”
   The pitiless journey of Jordan and Cal could break your heart, especially in the hands of Rogers and Nicksay who, under director Amy K. Harmon, slip headfirst into the troubled skins of these tragically adrift adolescents who deserve so much more in their rocky journey through life. Venable is exceptional, as well, as Jordan’s slick but uber-creepy predator guardian. Jaquita Ta’le and Ben Fuller (alternating with Faith Imafidon and Brad Harris) do a knockout job playing all the other characters the pair encounters.

Palmquist’s play has lovely moments as an analogy is drawn between Jordan’s situation and the mass death in the south of thousands of migrant birds dropping from the sky for no apparent reason. Her dialogue is gritty and genuine, and her situations are believably shocking. Yet her play suffers from a lack of resolution. It chronicles the world of way too many tossed-aside young people, but it does so as though reporting a true story on 60 Minutes or some TV news segment. Jordan’s story crashes to its inevitable horrific conclusion but never, oddly reminiscent of our current repellent presidential race, offers even a soupçon of hope for the future. And when Jordan breaks the fourth wall to deliver a poetic passage about the demise of those delicate lost birds, it becomes more of a distraction than a viable addendum to the script—as does the frequent robotically regimented scene changes performed by the cast disguised in hoodies.
   There are two reasons not to overlook and support this world premiere of Palmquist’s interesting but often too-precious and predictably dismal play: the dynamic performances, especially of Rogers, Nicksay, and Venable; and to make more of a difference in the plight of our town’s steadily swelling displaced youth population. Every dime of proceeds from the ticket sales of this production will be donated to My Friend’s Place, a crucial wellness and educational resource facility struggling against all odds to better the harsh and dangerous existence to which Hollywood’s lost teenage homeless population is subjected every day. As their story is written, we can do nothing to soften the fall of poor Jordan and Cal, but at least we can leave the theater hopeful that our attendance benefitted other kids in a similar position in some small way.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
September 11, 2016
 
Captain of the Bible Quiz Team
Rogue Machine at various Lutheran churches

In a tiny church, a battle wages. That battle has been nearly settled by American law, it seems to be settling in large urban areas. But in the hearts and minds of the congregation at Kandota Lutheran Church in Little Sauk, Minn., it’s still a stubbornly fought war.
   In Tom Jacobson’s world premiere Captain of the Bible Quiz Team, we, the audience, are congregants as pastor Landry Sorenson takes over the pulpit for the months from Christmas Eve through Easter. This pastor has returned home to tend the flock while Landry’s father, the lifelong reverend here, suffers from abdominal cancer.
   Pastor Landry sure knows the Bible. Trying to emulate dad, as a youngster Landry was captain of the Bible quiz team. But knowing the Bible can cause chafing with others who claim they, too, know the Bible.
   The topic of homosexuality comes up in this church. It comes up when the congregation raises it, splitting neighbor from neighbor, kin from kin, Landry from her father. The play clearly has its point of view, and the play is manipulative. But isn’t manipulation a main purpose of art?
   Pastor Landry is chatty up there. Secrets are too painful to keep. Secrets have made Pastor Landry ill. Pastor Landry wants no more secrets.

At the performance reviewed, Deborah Puette played Landry. She shares the role, over the run of the production, with Amielynn Abellera, Wayne T. Carter, and Mark Jacobson, while Barbara Browning serves as charming organist at all the performances. Yes, the role can be played by a male or female actor; the message is the same.
   Director Michael Michetti shapes the performance exquisitely. The play’s purpose builds, the darkness settles in, the audience becomes curious and cares about what’s happening to Landry.
   Puette, in Landry’s first time at this pulpit in front of the township she grew up in, where she has hundreds of relatives, is understandably tense. Her cheeks strain to stretch across her face, her lips stick ever so slightly to her teeth. She glances down at her notes a goodly amount. She has a horrible little nervous laugh.
   At Landry’s next sermon, for Epiphany, Puette gives Landry more confidence, more “stage” presence. Her voice is deeper and fuller, her face is relaxed, her head is up. By Ash Wednesday, Landry’s voice is theatrical, powerful, colorful. And her messages are becoming deeply personal, much having to do with the relationship between father and child.
   By Maundy Thursday, she is irate, blasting congregants and the church hierarchy for hypocrisy. By Good Friday she is pleading, questioning, tearful. Imagine the roiling conflict inside her if she has the audacity to drop an f-bomb within the sanctuary.

What a tremendous spiritual experience it is to be saved—in this case by the affection and respect of people whose lives you have bettered just by being yourself.
   At the end of the play, each audience member is called by name and asked to stand, as a group—to stand up, to stand for. As Jacobson reminds us, it’s the right thing to do. Or as some of us would say, it couldn’t hurt.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 5, 2016
 
Drama Queens From Hell
Theatre Planners at Odyssey Theatre

Though it has a promising concept, Peter Lefcourt’s newest spoof of sexual politics and ageism in Hollywood is a fusion of skits, one-liners, and comic improbabilities that could use editing and a clearer focus to emphasize its political points. It depends too much on shtick to advance the plot.
   At play’s opening we meet Gerard Manville (Paul Galliano), a young director who is planning a remake of Sunset Boulevard. His announcement that he is dead mimics William Holden’s vocal narration from the original film, though he is a much more jovial victim and onstage throughout. Ostensibly killed by one of three actresses who are vying for Gloria Swanson’s classic role, his death comes on the casting couch rather than by gunshot.
   Maxine Zobar (Christopher Callen) is age appropriate, but her career has been bleak of late, and she is desperate to get the Swanson part. Felicia Brown (Dee Freeman) is a former Blaxploitation movie actress who uses Title VII politics to get a chance to audition. Brianne McCauley (formerly Brian) (Chad Borden) wants to take a test run on her nearly complete gender reassignment transformation as the ultra-theatrical aging diva.
   Strangely enough, all three are represented by Artie Paramecium (Rick Podell), a stereotypical agent who enters sitting on a toilet with appropriate sound effects by Dino Herrmann. Sleazy and brash, he seems flummoxed by his clients. Also adding comic moments is Andrew Diego as Raphael, a gay secretary who is pressed into service as German Hildegarde in another later characterization.

Director Terri Hanauer has a feel for the satire, but she gives Borden such an over-the-top stage presence, he swamps the remaining cast, though they valiantly soldier on. Enhancing the overall mood of the storyline are scenes from Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic movie. Neatly integrated by projection designer Yee Eun Nam, they ground Lefcourt’s link to the archetypal film.
   The text is topical, with references to the current Actor’s Equity 99-Seat theater controversy, local LA geography, Mike Pence, and even Chick-fil-A. There’s a bit of choreography by Tracy Silver, and contemporary music rounds out each act.
   In spite of a solid cast, this play fails to do more than travel familiar territory. Lefcourt is clever, and there are a few laughs, but this could be so much stronger with less focus on clichés.

August 24, 2016
 
The Tempest
Independent Shakespeare Company at the Old Zoo in Griffith Park

Wrapping up its annual summer foray into the wilds of Griffith Park, Independent Shakespeare Company offers a pleasantly sublime rendering of what is listed as the final entry in William Shakespeare’s playwriting catalogue. Director Matthew Earnest kicks things off with a raucously effective sequence depicting the shipwreck of a vessel transporting various personages of royalty, including the King of Naples and the current Duke of Milan. Underscored by an uncredited sound design brimming with the crashing crescendos of an ocean gale, this first scene sets an excellently chaotic tone for the various levels of miscommunication upon which the remainder of the play relies.
   Shakespeare next provides an expositional scene among the island’s occupants to fill in the past dozen years of backstory. Here we meet Prospero—banished so his brother Antonio could usurp the previously mentioned dukedom—and his daughter, Miranda. Prospero’s time has been spent developing wizard-like powers, which he has employed to land this boatload of underhanded connivers upon his territorial shore. Providing a relatively benign characterization despite Prospero’s obviously harbored ill will, Thom Rivera’s interactions with Sean Pritchett’s Caliban, an animalistic native spawned from a now dead witch, still fairly crackle with tension. Erika Soto offers a Miranda whose grace and instantaneous love for Evan Lewis Smith’s Ferdinand, son to the king of Naples, is most engaging.

Rounding out these equatorial inhabitants is Kalean Ung as a take-charge version of Ariel, a spritely fairy who serves Prospero in the hopes of securing her freedom. Ung, along with an energetic chorus of spirits, exhibits a beautiful vocal range as the troupe performs various sequences of the Bard’s poetic script, set here to Chris Porter’s original compositions.
   Among the royals, Joseph Culliton is a slightly befuddled King Alonso, while William Elsman is perfectly slimy as the king’s younger brother, Sebastian. Along with Prospero’s duplicitous brother, Antonio, played with a seething temper by Faqir Hassan, the two plot to overthrow the King. Instead, their plans fall prey to the bevy of spirits working at Prospero’s behest, as well as the measured wisdom brought to the proceedings by Lester Purry’s performance as Gonzalo, counselor to the King. Even in this expansive venue, Purry’s eye-catching sense of subtlety is scene-stealing at every turn.
   For slapstick comedic relief, nothing tops David Melville’s Stephano and Lorenzo González’s Trinculo. This pair of self-important buffoons, thinking they alone survived the wreckage, attempt to set up a tropical monarchy with the assistance of Caliban, who schemes to do away with Prospero. Naturally, their strategy disintegrates with hilarious results.
   In the end, happiness reigns with freedom, forgiveness, and uniting love ruling the day. Sporting a fluffy sweetness traditionally consigned to cotton candy, perhaps this is a fitting entry with which its author completed perhaps the greatest compendium of literature the world will ever know.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
August 17, 2016
 
The Drowsy Chaperone
Torrance Theatre Company at James Armstrong Theatre

A delightful spoof of 1920s musicals with color commentary by a sardonic narrator, The Drowsy Chaperone is Torrance Theatre Company’s breezy summer offering.
   Chock-full of colorful characters with larger-than-life personalities, brimming with hummable songs, loaded with word play that sweetly mocks the genre, the book and score deliver one of the most charming contemporary musicals around. And yet this Torrance production’s inarguable highlight, the single element that kept it bobbing along on opening night, comes from the unlikeliest of quarters.
   First hitting the stage in 1998, this musical with book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, is hosted by a reclusive musical-theater fan, whom we know only as Man in Chair.

He’s at less than his best, hunkering in his dreary apartment. Trying to cheer himself up, enlivened by the idea of introducing us to one of his favorite shows, he cranks up his turntable and puts on a vinyl recording of the (fictitious) 1928 musical The Drowsy Chaperone.
   That show comes to life, first in his mind and then in his dull grey apartment as characters burst through his refrigerator. Out pops the wealthy, ditzy Mrs. Tottendale (Cindy Shields), who owns the home where the action takes place, and her patient butler, Underling (David McGee).
   Here comes Janet Van De Graaff (Holly Childers Weber), who’s tossing away the life of a showbiz star for marriage to a man she barely knows. Her producer, Feldzieg (Michael Grenie), tries to stop her, mostly at the urging of two Gangsters (Niko Montelibano and Bryan Kinder).
   But Janet is entranced with her fiancé, Robert Martin (Christopher Tiernan), and he’s getting encouragement, mostly helpful, from his best man, George (Logan Gould). Meanwhile Janet is more or less watched over by the inebriated Drowsy Chaperone (Jennasea Bauserman), while Kitty (Carly Linehan), Janet’s wannabe replacement, lurks and plots.
   The obligatory Latin lover, Aldolpho (Danny Gaitan), and the obligatory dea ex machina, Trix the Aviatrix (Imani Hayes), complete the set of zany characters in the 1920s musical.

The vocal performances of the actors playing them are solid and enjoyable, from the matinee-idol voice of Tiernan and the ’20s-style lilt of Bauserman to the more contemporary belt of Hayes, under the musical direction of Bradley Hampton who also conducts a lively but tight pit orchestra. Unfortunately, on opening night, body microphones acted up, from brief crackles to protracted feedback.
   Christopher Albrecht’s choreography suits the tone, period and dancers’ skills set, particularly in the plentiful hoofing numbers, Gould and Tiernan getting a few flashy moments.
   Still, some of the supporting cast seems too green for this stage, lacking not age but the experience to pull a comedically interesting person out of what the script proudly proclaims are two-dimensional characters.
   Where director Glenn Kelman succeeds beyond expectations is in developing the character of Man in Chair in conjunction with the performer who plays him, Mark Torreso. The portrayal here is so delicious that we soon become more interested in his commentary than we are in the splashy musical numbers. Rare for this show, we’d rather spend the two hours listening to him chat unfettered by convention and shyness.
   Kelman and Torreso have gotten to the core of this man. There are hints about Man’s backstory in the musical’s book: his narcissistic mother, his ill-advised marriage, his penchant for leading man Robert Martin. But this Man, despite his gimlet-eyed view of the world, is just fun to be around, fascinating to observe and warranting our vocal support as he berates such diverse behaviors as cellphone use in the theater and stereotyping.
   Living in such self-enforced isolation, of course Man in Chair is filled with self-awareness. But watching Torreso’s Man lose all self-consciousness as he joins in dance numbers and cues lines for his favorite moments, we, too, vicariously become part of this show and of the joy of theater.
   Torreso’s comedic timing is flawless. That can’t be said for the tech crew. Sound and a few light cues were missed, coming too early or too late and spoiling bit after bit. Janet’s botched trick of ventriloquism, phones that had to be answered before they rang, these things spoiled too many moments.

It all comes to a convivial ending, however. Whether it’s predictable or comes as a happy surprise, it warms its audience as it embodies the welcoming nature of the theater community and celebrates the vital part fans play in keeping musical theater alive over the decades.


Reviewed by Dany Margolies

August 15, 2016

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
 
Baby Doll
Fountain Theatre

In the mid-1950s, Tennessee Williams worked with his unacknowledged dramaturge Elia Kazan to turn his short-form 1946 “Mississippi Delta comedy,” 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, into a screenplay. The result was the controversial 1956 film Baby Doll, which transformed the one-act’s leading role of Flora from a possibly mentally challenged and severely overweight housewife with a scratch into the ultra-sexy Carroll Baker.
   Flora became Baby Doll Meighan, a 19-year-old child bride who, when she turns 20 a few days later, must submit to becoming her older and brutal husband Archie’s wife in more than name only. Kazan’s film set off a major hullabaloo, culminating when the Catholic Legion of Decency gave it a “C” rating—as in “Condemned”—and the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Francis Spellman, declared from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral that Catholics would be committing a mortal sin if they watched it.
   Asked if he had seen the film and was not just basing his disapproval on the huge and highly scandalous billboard that dominated Times Square showing Baker in a sheer nightgown lying in a disheveled child’s crib and suggestively sucking her thumb, Spellman replied, “If you know the water is tainted, why would you want drink it?” Years later, the late Eli Wallach, who made his career-making film debut in the movie, was quoted as saying, “I didn’t want the cardinal to drink the water, damn it, just to see the film.” Under pressure and the scrutiny of the times, the studio pulled Baby Doll from general distribution only two weeks after its release, but that didn’t stop it from being recognized for what it was: one of the best movies of that year and, for many Tenn-ophiles, perhaps the very best screen version of a Williams play. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay, and Kazan won a Golden Globe as Best Director.
   Baker, like Wallach, later admitted she and everyone else who had worked on the film had no idea the material would be perceived as prurient. It was believed that the main cause célèbre was the notorious seduction scene between Baker and Wallach, as his character attempts to sexually arouse her on a tree swing. Many critics argued that Silva Vacarro, Wallach’s character, was diddling Baby Doll under her dress since his hands aren’t visible in their lengthy and lingering close-up. According to both actors, however, it was shot that way because of freezing weather conditions that day in Benoit, Miss.—so cold they sucked ice before the cameras rolled to keep steam from escaping their mouths—and Kazan had put heaters around them just below camera range to keep them from shivering.

Truly noteworthy above everything else about this theatrical version of the one of Williams’s only projects created expressly for film is this adaptation by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann, the first to be approved by the playwright’s rigid and highly protective estate. Laville and Mann have not just retooled the tale to fit the confines of a stage presentation, they have done so without altering Williams’s words; every single line in their clever revision was lifted from, and pays exquisite homage to, Williams’s screenplay.
   In it, as workers come to repossess all the Meighans’ five rooms of furniture being paid for over time, Jake (John Prosky), the odious husband of Baby Doll (Lindsay LaVanchy) plots to get his faltering cotton gin back in the black after a huge syndicate mill opens in town, run by Vacarro (Daniel Bess), that has stolen all the business from the locals. As the Sicilian-born Vacarro hosts a party in town to help relieve the tensions, Jake sneaks onto his property and burns down his mill. Vacarro suspects what happened but cannot prove it, so decides to seek revenge by seducing his rival’s young bride while she’s still pulling her Lysistrata routine on her miserably horny husband.
   None of the characters who inhabit the ramshackle Meighan farm is terribly likable, making the actors and director Simon Levy’s task even harder than usual. Prosky is a menacing, perfectly creepy Jake who, as Silva notes to his lovely prey, sweats more than any man he knows, a statement he amends with “Now I see why” after meeting the sensuous but celibate Baby Doll, who without any debate could easily out-nymphet Lolita. Still, the role of Jake is not without its stereotypical problems, giving Prosky little place to go; Jake is as loud and obnoxious and racist in the first scene as he is at the end, hampering the difficult journey any actor playing it must traverse.
   Bess is a suitably sultry and macho Vacarro, and his swingin’ seduction scene bursts with scorching sensuality. Still, both men are overshadowed by the remarkably idiosyncratic, truly mesmerizing turn by LaVanchy, who morphs the cartoonish Baby Doll into a rich, nearly defenseless character for whom one might almost feel just a touch of sympathy.
   And while mentioning performances sure to elicit a pang of compassion, as Baby Doll’s vacant-headed Aunt Rose Comfort McCorkle, Karen Kondazian, so well known and honored for playing many of Williams’s lusty and often coarse leading female characters, makes a U-turn that any appropriately rabid fan of her work will find to be something of a shock. Her dotty and lost Aunt Rose, who sports a ratty grey wig that looks as though it might house a nest of sparrows, lives a foggy nomadic existence, camping out with and cooking terrible meals for her sea of relatives to earn her keep. Kondazian delivers a miraculous performance; never has she been so vulnerable or courageous, adding a fantastic and unexpected twist to her celebrated career interpreting all those quirky, bawdy anti-heroines generated inside the unsettled mind of the greatest playwright of the 20th century.

With the boost from Laville and Mann’s crafty, respectful adaptation, venerated Williams interpreter Levy has done wonders as well at restaging the piece, although by the nature of the art form, there are elements of the film that are conspicuously absent, such as the pivotal rotting floor of the Meighans’ farmhouse attic, the vast and desolate wasteland surrounding Archie’s depressingly unfertile Delta property, and even the couple’s cluttered kitchen that in the movie resembled a long-neglected storage shed behind a disintegrating barn on American Pickers. Somehow, even though the original’s moody and stark black-and-white aesthetic is—understandably—missing, Levy, his veteran design team, and this stellar cast make up for the disparity, fashioning a bleak atmosphere all their own. Ol’ Tenn would be thrilled to see his Baby Doll return to such glorious life once again.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
August 13, 2016
 
One of the Nice Ones
Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

The prevalence of negative body image issues in our image-obsessed society has hardly been ignored as a subject for scathing and darkly extreme contemporary comedies. Why, Sheila Callaghan and Neil LaBute have practically made it a cottage industry. Yet, finding something fresh in an overworked theme isn’t the kind of challenge from which playwright Erik Patterson is known to walk away. Not only does Patterson offer a brand-new twist to the overworked topic, he also throws in a heaping dose of sexual politics in the workplace.
   Going in for a performance review is a trepidatious event for any insecure underachieving employee, especially when being forced to face one of those many people who seem to operate more from a rush of power than as a levelheaded spokesperson for their boss. And for Tracy (Rebecca Gray), a wheelchair-bound telephone solicitor employed by a sketchy weight loss company, the stakes are even higher, since she’s been denied a rather specialized surgical procedure the firm’s insurance carrier will not authorize.
   At first the panicking Tracy, nervous to the point of hyperventilation, is told by her superior (Graham Hamilton) that despite her drastically low performance levels, her job is secure. But when she shamelessly begins to compliment and cajole Roger, eventually pleading for him to confide to her what’s really going on, he admits she’s high on the list to receive a pink slip at the end of the week. She has one card left to insure her future with Tenderform Weight Loss Systems—and it happens on her back, spread-eagled across Roger’s desk with her crisp professional office-wear skirt hiked above her waist and the pair humping like rabid jackrabbits to The Carpenters’s otherwise lulling “Rainy Days and Mondays” pumped over the firm’s loudspeakers.

Familiarity with the body of work churned out by Patterson is reason enough to strap oneself in and prepare for a bumpy ride after Tracy and Roger make the Beast with Two Backs in full view of their surprised audience, but in deference to the unfiltered creativity established by the play’s darkly twisted creator, it would be almost sinful to reveal any of the play’s rapid twists and turns, something virtually impossible to accomplish without giving away some more delicious downward-spiraling ramifications from the randy co-workers’ inappropriate office…performance.
   Under the mercilessly bold direction of Chris Fields, Gray and Hamilton are courageous and wildly committed at playing One of the Nice One’s central not so nice residents. Although the play basically belongs to them, Rodney To as a sheepish—but well-endowed, we learn—co-worker and Tara Karsian as a customer Tracy has talked into coming into the office for a consolation, are both golden additions to Fields’s sparkling cast.
   Amanda Knehans’s whimsical and versatile set—imagine if Pee-wee Herman had outgrown his playhouse and went to work in an office—is a colorful addition to the fun, but it is Patterson’s mischievous mind and unsanitized wit that makes One of the Nice One infinitely nicer than the socially damaged characters he has invented.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
July 25, 2016
 
Go Back to Where You Are
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

Just when you think no one could possibly fashion yet another riff on the timeless work of Anton Chekhov, David Greenspan proves once again there are no limits to the ways of paying respectful but inventive homage to the Russian master.
   On an ocean-side bleached-wood deck on the east side of Long Island that could be beamed up and set down anywhere to depict Madame Arkadina’s country estate in The Seagull, or the patio of Frank and Maria’s summer house in Charles Mee’s Summertime, or Conrad’s makeshift outdoor stage in Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird, it doesn’t take actors meandering onto designer Nina Caussa’s starkly Hockney-esque playing space with wistful seaward expressions on their faces to know where this is going.
   Yet, Greenspan manages to find something new while honoring the old. Speaking of beaming things up, his arrestingly lyrical Go Back to Where You Are travels from tableau to tableau, where pairings of his eccentric, lonely characters can tell each other—or the audience—what’s on their minds. Thanks to his evocative poetry, Greenspan never moralizes, creating wonderfully multifaceted characters who incessantly whine about their lot in life without making us wish they’d down their cocktails and shut the fuck up.

Bernard (Justin Huen), a frustrated unpublished playwright with perpetual writer’s block, and his classically two-faced Broadway stage star sister Claire (Shannon Holt) host a party at the family beach house, where her old comrade and newest director Tom (Bill Brochtrup) arrives quarreling with his partner Malcolm (Jeffrey Hutchinson) to discuss the first time they will be working together in 15 years.
   Her son Wally (Andrew Walke) is also present for the questionably cheerful soiree, as is Claire’s dear old friend Charlotte (Annabelle Gurwitch), whose career has been nothing as successful as Claire’s. For all the male characters in the play, when not air-kissing half-hearted hellos to one another and conveniently prone to taking long walks along the shore and cliffs above the property, one shared problem seems to haunt each one: men.
   Wally is reeling from his boyfriend’s death, and Bernard’s long-dead partner is equally mourned, while Tom and Malcolm appear to be pondering if such a solitary existence might not be all that bad. From the beginning beats, as Huen wanders onstage behind the seemingly unprepared person giving the welcome speech reminding us to turn off cellphones and unwrap candies, Bernard continues the dialogue directly to the audience, wondering where he is, physically and in life, and questioning what he’s doing at the time—which might just be writing the play we are about to see. His sister will soon warn those in attendance that his writings “go here, then there” to the point where viewers might need a map to keep up. But Bernard explains clearly that what’s about to unfold is going to be weird, a fact he reminds of a couple of times before final bows.

Into this eclectic mix of unfulfilled acquaintances and duplicitous family members drops an angel or spirit or resident of purgatory named Passalus (the truly inimitable John Fleck), an failed ancient Greek actor send by a hoodie-wearing God (Hutchinson) to help the conflicted group get their heads out of their proverbial butts and see the beautiful sunrises from their ascetically pristine party deck. To get the job done as quickly as possible, Passalus decides a good way to avoid detection is to pass himself off in an alternate persona, as well—that of a fluttery, proper, RP-accented elderly British visitor named Constance Simmons.
   Coupled with the fact that Passalus falls madly in love with Bernard, Greenspan’s imaginative scenario provides a clever chance to add a little Michael Frayn-ian farce to the proceedings; if the set were not so austere, there might even be room for a few slamming doors. God returns to Earth to criticize Passalus and remind him that the consequences of not accomplishing his mission would not be his desired oblivion but instead would damn him to an eternally fiery end, especially if his ruse is detected by the mortals.
   Working through the scattered puzzle pieces of this script, with its lack of coherent chronology and demanding a seamlessly insouciant delivery of each elegiac pronouncement cannot be easy for any director or cast to realize. But thanks to this talented veteran ensemble led by stage magician Bart DeLorenzo, watching this dense but sweetly romantic play unfold becomes an exciting, almost dreamlike experience.

Each performer is top-notch, but all spend most of their time deferring to Fleck whenever he is onstage fearlessly taking chances only about three performers could pull off. His quirky interpretation of Passalus is often as frantic and jaw-dropping as any of the famed performance artist’s celebrated one-person creations, solidifying once again that Fleck unequivocally could be the answer to a Jeopardy question about what constitutes an intrepid artist, someone one who courageously left his filter buried in the sand about the time Passalus donned his first toga and carried his first spear into the arena at Epidaurus.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
July 23, 2016
 
The Eccentricities of a Nightingale
Pacific Resident Theatre

This Tennessee Williams play has been said to be about good and evil, illusion and reality. Being by Williams, it’s poetic. But onstage at, directed by Dana Jackson and with her thoroughly superb cast, mommy and daddy issues reach out and clutch at the audience’s throats.
   As a rewrite of his 1940s Summer and Smoke, Eccentricities feels more real, more of a psychological study and less of a classical display of symbolism. At its core, Alma Winemiller remains the eccentric nightingale, the not particularly gifted singer with the quirky mannerisms. But her spine feels steelier here, her understanding of herself is deeper. And perhaps because of this new, “improved” Alma, she is more contented with herself. We now cringe for the others around her, not for her.
   As in Summer and Smoke, Alma lives in the closed system of the Mississippi Delta just before World War I. Status depends on job titles. Popularity is based on conformity. Appearance is everything. Alma is a spinster, trying to do what her martinet father demands, trying to rise above the neighbors’ malicious misguided thoughts about her mentally ill mother.
   Oh, is she eccentric. But she is her own woman. So she can’t and won’t change for anyone. That’s apparently what draws her next-door neighbor, young physician John Buchanan, straight to her.

However, all this subtext would not be this apparent without the compassion and admiration director Jackson and the actor playing Alma clearly feel for that character. That actor is Ginna Carter, in a performance of a lifetime.
   Those who’ve seen an Alma in other productions might, frankly, be dreading a revisit with her. She can be grating, evoking disdain or pity. Not here. Here she is such an interesting, involving character, the play’s nearly three-hour running time slips by.
   There’s plenty of acting technique in here, too. Carter vibrates, not with faked, shaky distractions but with a tremendous life force that cannot be stilled. Alma’s scripted gestures have been well-considered. Even her vocal quirks have charm.
   No wonder John seems to treasure her here. Andrew Dits plays him in a remarkably subtle, also respectful performance. John understands Alma, calms her without squelching her energy, admires her, and likely is attracted to her.

But, oh, does he ever have a controlling mother. Mrs. Buchanan claims to care only that her sonny boy marry a fitting woman, not this preacher’s odd daughter with the lunatic mother (played with gentle otherworldliness by Mary Jo Deschanel). But when mommy (played to chilling smugness by Rita Obermeyer) comes into John’s bedroom, strokes his head of curls, and gives him a rather salacious foot rub, we wonder about her ultimate goal.
   Some of John’s connection with Alma likely stems from his observation, conscious or subconscious, that her father is equally controlling, but much colder about it. Rev. Winemiller (a seething, vitriolic Brad Greenquist), captive in a behavioral prison of his own making, is a ramrod, and if he can’t cruelly prod Alma into conformity, he’ll freeze her out of whatever affections he may have.
   Even in small secondary roles (decades ago, playwrights included plentiful such characters because producing budgets allowed them), the acting is polished and era-conjuring. Alma’s acquaintances—a circle of misfits, each with his or her own odd baggage—are played with care and charm by Paul Anderson, Joan Chodorow, Choppy Guillotte, and Amy Huntington, particularly good as they listen breathlessly to an offstage conversation between John and Alma. Derek Chariton plays the strange young man ensnared by Alma’s unfortunate newfound existence at the play’s end.

Helping create this eccentric world, Kis Knekt’s scenic design of Spanish moss and faded grandeur creates a dreamscape, presided over by the stone angel symbolizing and named Eternity. It’s not a set we want to move in to, but it firmly evokes time, place, and mood and holds us there.
   Williams has said Alma is his favorite character and the one closest to him. After seeing this paradigm-shifting production, it’s likely audiences will feel much the same.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
July 8, 2016
 
Church & State
Skylight Theatre

Although the concept seems rather improbable in this era, playwright Jason Odell Williams speculates about one uncharacteristically unaltered politician still capable of having a honorable thought all his own. Obviously, Williams’s Church & State is a work of fiction.
   Three days before his demanding narrow-minded constituents head to the polls to do their gloriously self-serving civic duty, North Carolinian Sen. Charlie Whitmore (Rob Nagle) is in a quandary. As his campaign’s theme song, “Jesus Is My Running Mate,” plays over the loudspeakers just before he speaks at a major rally, the hand-slappin’ good ol’ boy is experiencing a moral watershed moment. It’s only been a few days since a mass shooting inside one of his state’s grade schools has taken 29 young lives and, as a typically rapacious politician seeking a photo op, he travels to the site where children’s blood is splattered all over the classroom’s art projects and American flags. Before he can strike a pose looking grim and spout a few hollow promises for the cameras, he experiences a life-altering crisis of conscience.
   At the memorial service, Charlie has an epiphany: that living without fear is more important than second amendment rights, religious faith, or “our country’s antiquated laws.” When approached by a young blogger (Edward Hong) who is shocked when the candidate says he did not pray for the children, he is asked pointblank if he really believes in God. Charlie, in his troubled emotional state, does the most politically incorrect thing he could ever do, wondering aloud if it’s possible to believe in a god who would let such things happen. Charlie then vows to not waste time on prayer when there’s so much work to be done, a statement that goes viral just as he’s about to take the podium.
   Charlie’s bible-thumping, Kim Davis-haired, Spanks-wearing wife, Sara (Tracie Lockwood), and his abrasive stereotypical Jewish campaign manager Alex (Annika Marks) are horrified when they google Charlie’s interview before he hits the stage and realize what is about to go down. The problem is exacerbated when he declares his intent to abandon his carefully prepared speech and talk directly from his heart. Alex, who was hired to keep the senator on track but is now dealing with a boss who wonders if she’s even “in the same car anymore,” believes the move would be political suicide. Sara, who is the kind of person who assumes Alex is a lesbian because she’s a Democrat from New York, for once agrees with her.

Under the brilliant directorial eye of Elina de Santos, this cast could not be better. Despite Alex’s formulaic limitations, Marks avoids the inherent traps written into her role as the hardly decorous campaign manager fighting for her own career as well as that of her candidate, something that could have afforded the character a more satisfying conclusion if she didn’t oddly all but disappear from the play’s concluding scene. Hong does wonders with two small roles, the other as the intern who, when asked his opinion, humbly states he thinks we should all not be so hung up on “what our book says and what their book says.”
   Still, the true genius here was in the casting of Nagle and Lockwood as the fantastically feudin’, tenderly lovin’ Charlie and Sara. Their performances are richly nuanced and disarmingly real in roles that could wipe out lesser actors within the play’s first beats. Lockwood is endearing as the loud and ridiculously opinionated wife zealously protective of her husband and her faith, and Nagle takes our breath way as Charlie. This is especially true in a flashback scene set in two different periods of time, as Charlie recounts and simultaneously re-creates his interview with the offending blogger.
   As his emotional state darkens his demeanor, and later in the delivery of the senator’s impassioned speech about his dilemma and plea for assistance from his constituents to help him get the feet under him again, Nagle is dazzling. Together, Lockwood and Nagle make complete sense of their characters’ frustrations and verbal skirmishes, able to clearly show how the couple’s love for each other will survive no matter what the outcome of the guy’s pivotal re-election.

This is a mesmeric production of a captivating, thought-provoking new play sure to only advance the career of a promising new dramatist. Still, although the outcome of Charlie’s re-election is a surprise, it’s one of the few surprises in an otherwise brightly intelligent and often hilariously on-target script. It is deserving of high praise and well worth the committed participation of this spectacular cast and production team, but if you don’t see the ending coming in the first 10 minutes of its 80-minute running time, you might just be brain dead. Perhaps, sadly, this is because we’ve become so hardened by the tenor of the times in which we live.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
July 4, 2016
 
The Engine of Our Ruin
Victory Theatre Center

In a season when our country’s fractured political system is at the pinnacle of comedic illogicality, the world premiere of Jason Wells’s hilarious and smartly absurd play corresponds with the reality show unfolding around us. “If we’re the smartest thing on earth,” a character comments on the flawed and destructive nature of humans, “it’s because we figured out how to do the measuring.”
   Inhabiting a luxurious hotel suite in an unnamed Middle Eastern country—kudos to Evan Bartoletti’s spectacularly appointed set and prop designer Alessandra Hajaj’s subtle but suitably gaudy accoutrements, described in the script as resembling a Byzantine whorehouse—a team of American diplomats has been sent by the US government to broker a deal with the foreign country’s scary powder keg of a regime. The idea is to exchange some of our obscenely overflowing corn surplus for anything that will reduce mistrust between the two governments. But, thanks to a hired interpreter with an agenda of her own, things go awry more rapidly than in a farce by Ken Ludwig, even without the slamming doors.
   Under the sure and solid directorial hand of Maria Gobetti, whose crafty and wonderful little physical bits and touches are everywhere and enhance Wells’s tale immeasurably, a stellar ensemble cast works through the ever-increasing misunderstandings and foibles that, although beginning as a simple mission that could have probably ended with a friendly handshake and a back-slapping trip downstairs to the hotel’s bar, turns into a convoluted mess that could initiate World War III if not quelled in a hurry.

One of the slyest and most daring conceits here unfolds in the first scene, in which the American contingent (Tim Ryan Meinelschmidt, Shannon McManus, Gregory Hoyt, and Spencer Rowe) meets with the other country’s top diplomat (Brian Abraham) and his gung-ho assistant (Ryan P. Shrime), and the sabotage from the female interpreter (Zehra Fazal) begins immediately.
   No matter how innocently the Americans offer their corn, told by their higher-ups that it makes no difference what they get in return as long as it eases tensions, everything they say is instead misinterpreted to mandate equality for the country’s women and demand the creation of a Women’s School of Law and Engineering unless they want war.
   The difficult task here for Gobetti and her actors is that, although both groups speak two languages, all the dialogue is delivered in English—although the performers morph from proper English to Borat-speak whenever they try to communicate in the other’s tongue. This takes a few minutes for the audience to grasp. Once the ideas and the rhythms are established, however, the effect is impressive.
   At first, Meinelschmidt seems to be annoyingly oratorical, as though barking all his lines in homage to the late Phil Hartman, but this bombastic speaking voice—which beyond his character’s stuffy Eastern seaboard upper-crusty exterior reveals a sincere effort to his serve his country and ace what he sees as an important mission—is totally intentional. It’s a risky choice for actor and director, but it’s a brilliant choice. Hoyt is also a standout as his goofy, terminally clumsy aide who wants to get all this hokum done so he can party hearty, as is Rowe as the understated security guy who just may or not be a plant from the CIA.
   As their government overseer, Steve Hofvendahl takes his one long scene, wearily, grumpily trying to make Meinelschmidt’s green envoy get his convoluted drift, which involves possibly disposing the country’s dictator, and steals the show. As Hofvendahl blasts the stupidity and naively pretentious demeanor of his government’s chosen negotiator, he clearly defines what a world-wearying job it is to pull the strings of international politics, finally, with a maddened headshake, whining to the skies that what he’s trying to suggest is the most exasperating act of treason he’s ever been assigned to commit.

This is a beautifully written, exceptionally mounted, wonderfully shrewd topical comedy. But, for all of us reeling from the fears and threats that ignite the world with hostilities and rampant paranoia, if you’re not already scared out of your wits that our planet could be doomed by the ridiculousness of our destructive actions, when you wipe away the tears of laughter, this play should do the trick.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
June 2, 2016
 
La Cage Aux Folles
East West Players at David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts

By nature, this 1983 musical, adapted by Harvey Fierstein, with a classically infectious and hummable score by Jerry Herman, based on the 1973 French play of the same name and its 1978 film version, is gaudy, oversized, and incredibly ostentatious. Ironically enough, however, this flashiness is also always a major distraction from the story, with those in the position of producing and designing it feeling the pressure to throw around more glitter and feathered boas than those adorning a flatbed truck full of drag queens at the annual West Hollywood Gay Pride Parade.
   What was so sweetly charming and wickedly funny in its original French nonmusical version, something echoed in the 1996 American film adaptation The Birdcage thanks to the unearthly talents of its stars Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, instantly becomes a cheap target for overproduction. East West Players, an all–Asian American theater company, is giving it a fresh new production that’s just as charming and wickedly funny as the original play and film version, simply because it doesn’t go for over-excess. It instead aims directly for the heart.
   Strip away the squealing cross-dressing chorus boys adorned in massive quantities of sequins and attitudes to match, and underneath the glitz is the unpretentious tale of a longtime gay couple who live above their bawdy Saint Tropez nightclub called La Cage Aux Folles—a slang term for effeminate homosexuals literally translated to mean “the cage of mad women”—and what lurks beyond the satin gowns and high heels is a guileless, gently engaging homage to the nature of enduring love.

Playing Albin, the aging yet flamboyantly girly star of the club’s drag revue and the “wife” in the owners’ longtime union, the inimitable Gedde Watanabe is softly yet spectacularly on the money in this coveted role, making the audience fall in love with him despite Albin’s continuously edgy nature and outbursts of Alexandra Del Lago–style dramatics. When Jean-Michel—the son of Albin’s partner, Georges (Jon Jon Briones)— announces he has fallen in love and is engaged to be married, Albin is thrilled and deeply moved—that is until Jean-Michel (Jinwoo Jung), raised by both partners as their own child, announces he wants his surrogate mom to disappear so he can bring his intended and her ultra-conservative parents home to meet his dad.
   Watanabe is anything but the usual put-together Albin, looking a little disheveled and lost in the characters’ more subdued wardrobe, here designed by Anthony Tran. There’s an air of helplessness permeating his performance that soon ingratiates him to us. But when he steps to the front of the stage to deliver the showstopper “I Am What I Am” ending the first act, he proves a formidable musical comedy diva and a superb tragedian—as though he were the offspring of a hidden relationship between Ethel Merman and Edith Piaf.
   As the more masculine, uber-patient parent Georges, Briones is also endearing. Unlike so many of his bizarrely inappropriate predecessors in this more subdued role, Briones holds his own beautifully, especially in Herman’s plaintive ballad “Look Over There.”

Allen Lucky Weaver is hilarious as Albin’s butler, who wants to be recognized instead as his maid. The supporting cast is uniformly beguiling, particularly Christopher Aguilar, Carlos Chang, DT Matias, Alex Sanchez, and Reuben Uy as the significantly pared-down Cagelle dancers. Under the sharp yet fluid direction of Tim Dang, complimented perfectly by his remarkably clever design team and the energetic, delightfully tongue-in-cheek choreography by Reggie Lee, instead of relying on Ru Paul overindulgence, the modest but versatile David Henry Hwang stage is filled with energy and personal passion without huge sets resembling a hotel lobby in Dubai. La Cage is, to paraphrase the famous words of its own legendary composer-lyricist, back where it belongs.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
May 21, 2016
 
On the Twentieth Century
Musical Theatre West Reiner Reading Series at University Theatre at California State University Long Beach

Musical Theatre West has committed a treacherous crime. It chose a rarely produced musical (in LA at least), cast it with stellar actors who have fantastic chemistry, and presented it for one night only for its Reiner Staged Reading Series. That‘s a travesty that hopefully can be remedied with an extended run at a later date, because this production of Cy Coleman and Betty Comden & Adolph Green’s On the Twentieth Century was enchanting.
   Based on the 1932 play and film adaptation titled Twentieth Century, which was considered one of the seminal screwball comedies of the 1930s, On the Twentieth Century is a wild, satirical farce about the unstable relationship between Broadway and Hollywood, complete with sliding doors, escalating fights, and hammy personalities.

In it, theater impresario Oscar Jaffe (Chris Warren Gilbert) has hit the skids. He owes substantial sums of money and can’t get a new show produced. He hops aboard a luxurious train, the 20th Century Limited, with his two sycophants, Oliver (Gabriel Kalomas) and Owen (Jordan Lamoureux), because he has discovered that his former protégé, the famous movie star Lily Garland (Jill Van Velzer), will be onboard and in the next compartment. Lily and Oscar despise each other, and their reunion leads to fireworks.
   MTW and Musical Theatre Guild perform one-night concerts similar to New York’s popular Encores! series, but Director David Lamoureux‘s staging didn’t feel like a reading. Though the sets were bare-boned, the performances were of the highest caliber and the actors embodied their roles. Gilbert spewed pomposities like the great John Barrymore. He treated every line like it should be digested by the last row of the balcony. He turned every phrase into high drama and bulldozed his co-stars like an egomaniac.
   Meeting him halfway, Van Velzer was joyously viperish as the movie star, insecure and apt to overreact. Both are master singers and turned their tongue-twisting numbers into showstoppers. Tracy Rowe Mutz as the daffy religious millionaire Leticia Peabody Primrose was like a mischievous mouse. She scrunched her face in mock menace in “She’s a Nut,” bringing down the house. Kalomas and Lamoureux exploited their facial expressions to resemble the baboons the characters emulate. As the histrionic boy toy, Zachary Ford was a cartoon of the Hollywood pretty boy, aptly vapid and self-impressed.

Coleman and Comden & Green have written their lushest score, utilizing every instrument to evoke the sounds of a train and the waltzes of an old world operetta. The score contains many complicated songs, including a canon for four porters in “Life Is a Train” and a counterpoint for the six leads in “Sextet—Sign, Lily, Sign.” These numbers are not only intricate but also require precision from all the singers. For a cast to sound pitch perfect after minimal rehearsal is tremendous.
   For a reading, the sound of the 19-piece orchestra, conducted by musical director Ryan O’Connell was fluid and cohesive, hitting all the bombastic moments, particularly in one of the best overtures written. As well as the orchestra, the ensemble’s vocals sounded like a well-tuned operatic chorus.
   On the Twentieth Century should be perennial work for regional theaters. The score is buoyant, the lyrics biting, and the script uproarious. Hopefully, after seeing what a fantastic cast has been assembled by Musical Theatre West, audiences will be able to laugh with Oscar Jaffe and Lily Garland more often.

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz
May 18, 2016
 
Loose Ends
The New American Theatre at The Victory Theatre

“Time heals all wounds,” or so goes the adage oft employed as a coping mechanism. In playwright Michael Weller’s dissection of an ultimately doomed relationship, nothing could be further from the truth. Originally published in 1979, this somewhat dated, bittersweet story of an on-again, off-again romance may seem frustrating in its one-sided dramaturgical outcome. And yet, as in real life, not everything ends in happiness.
   Paul and Susan, both on soul-searching vacations, meet on a beach in Bali, Indonesia. Some two plus hours later, having spanned nearly 10 years of their lives, Weller’s tale leaves this couple with not much more than they started with. To his credit, director Jack Stehlin certainly doesn’t sugarcoat the proceedings. Were he to have, the result would have shortchanged the spiraling effect that Weller clearly intended.
   On the whole, Stehlin is blessed to have actor Jeff Kongs, as Paul, carrying this show from both a dramaturgical as well as performance point of view. Kongs displays a welcome honesty in his scene work, while his skill in relaying Weller’s improvisatory-like monologues is riveting. Whether detailing Paul’s veil-lifting Peace Corps experiences or his second-act indictment of Susan’s marriage-destroying selfishness, his performance is always “in the moment.”
   As Susan, Ally Gordon is taxed with the clearly less sympathetic of Weller’s primary roles. Unable to set aside her personal desires for the greater good, Susan’s choices seem mired in subconsciously creating roadblocks between herself and Paul. Although occasionally falling prey to outwardly theatrical demonstrations of her position as this tale’s antagonist, Gordon does a respectable job with this rather unlikeable character, her best work coming in those scenes in which she and Kongs go toe-to-toe.

The rest of the cast, with unremarkably varying degrees of success, fills in the cracks of Weller’s episodically formatted script. In this play billed as a dramedy, most of the laugh lines fell surprisingly flat on opening night.
   Additionally, the production’s flow suffers at times from the periodically inconsistent blocking Stehlin employs in this exceptionally intimate venue. Characters are parked statically during confrontations that would otherwise involve physical thrusts and parries. At other times, such as the scene set in New York’s Central Park, they move about aimlessly in ways that would clearly catch the concerned attention of others wandering by, given the amplitude of the conversation.
   On the whole, it’s a rather depressing tome buoyed by a pair of strong performances that make this production still worthy of a look-see.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
May 14, 2016
 
In & of Itself
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse

Derek DelGaudio’s world premiere In & of Itself proves him to be a captivating performer and a mesmerizing illusionist. He is not quite yet the philosopher he purports to be, but kernels of interesting ideas weave through the piece—such as making personal pain disappear like a house of cards.
   The show borrows from old routines of cabaret magic acts, from one-man confessional shows, and from ancient myths and stories. Somehow, though, under the direction of Frank Oz (yes, the puppetry artist), the various strands come together for a freshly visual piece.
   Six alcoves in an upstage cinderblock wall hold the beautiful props that DelGaudio uses throughout, all under the vibrant lighting designed by Adam Blumenthal. At least, we think they’re alcoves.
   It’s also a moody piece, with paradoxically soothing yet disquieting music by Mark Mothersbaugh (yes, front man for Devo).

“Magicians” often use pomposity to shake their audiences’ confidence in their own perceptions. DelGaudio is anything but pompous, though snarkiness creeps in during a few of his seemingly improvised asides.
   Secrets and individual elements of the show won’t be spoiled here. Just know that brief, non-embarrassing audience participation is available, to those who want it, by merely standing up during the show’s impressive finale.
   But before that, DelGaudio builds his premises brick by brick (yes, a reference to something in the show). All is perception, including our individual identities, he tells us. Chance, fate, a bit of sculpting, and lots of hard work make us who we are and make this show what it is.
   The show uses the startlingly reconfigured Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater (the 99-Seat space) at Geffen Playhouse to bring the audience almost on top of the action. Even from an aisle seat, though, some of the illusions are not fully visible. At the problem’s worst, an origami boat gets deliberately knocked to the floor, where it may or may not have seemed to disappear.
   The work also includes a convoluted bit about inviting an audience member to come back the next night, which leads into an extreme stretch to get another audience member onto the stage.

The show’s root problem, though, is that it’s exceedingly difficult to be thinking about what DelGaudio is saying while watching what he’s doing—whether it’s intricate handiwork with a deck of cards or the seemingly random resorting of letters in stacked mail slots. Given the subject matter, we’d like to be paying full attention to his thoughts. But the illusions are far more intriguing.
   And yet, at the top of the show, he says, half-accusingly and half-sorrowfully, “You think I’m a liar.” We want to hear what he wants to tell us. We want to know that the audience member who seems to randomly pick out a letter from a stack honestly didn’t know he was picking out a letter written to him by a family member.
   We want to believe that the video of the card work is live.
   We want to believe that DelGaudio is not, as he tells us, a liar.
   Maybe that’s the magic of being an audience member.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
May 13, 2016
 
The Boy From Oz
Celebration Theatre

The Celebration Theatre could not have provided a more impressive welcome for the long-overdue West Coast debut of this once-lavish ultraglitzy musical extravaganza, for which Hugh Jackman won a Tony Award in 2004 playing Peter Allen. Ironically, the Celebration’s new location, the former 55-seat Lex Theatre, would at first glance seem to be quite a comedown for The Boy From Oz after first premiering in 1998 at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney, Australia, and playing to more than 1.2 million patrons in Allen’s native country before opening on the Great White Way some 13 years later and running nearly a year at the 1,400-seat Imperial Theatre.
   Oddly, this diminutive venue is ideal for recounting the life story of the irrepressible and ubertalented Allen, even though, as Ben Brantley noted in his original review of the Broadway production in The New York Times, it’s an “indisputably bogus show.” Granted, this is a highly whitewashed CliffNotes version of Allen’s fairytale (no pun intended) rise from farm boy to stardom. Regardless, it also handsomely represents the unquenchable spirit and courage to be himself at any cost that made Allen’s career something to applaud. In an age long before a musical performer’s sexual orientation became a non-issue, no one tested the waters and broke barriers better than he did.
   The Lex’s postage stamp–size stage would make any less adventurous director or choreographer run for the hills, but thankfully, it’s Michael A. Shepperd and Janet Roston who here whisk us off to Oz, showing anyone lucky enough to see this production that the Celebration clearly knows how to celebrate. Shepperd’s staging and Roston’s dance moves could not more impressively utilize every inch of this playing space, filling it with contagiously overachieving performances and featuring a high-spirited live band in view just above the action. Add in strikingly glittery imaginative costuming by Michael Mullin, giving pause to wonder how they could be created on an intimate-theater budget, and this Oz has everything but a yellow brick road and a horse of a different color.

The first daring yet ultimately wise decision was to slim down the size of the musical’s ensemble, casting an energetic, infectiously ballsy squad of 12 to assay every character who energized Allen’s journey from rural Tenterfield, New South Wales, to international superstardom, an Academy Award, and his sad untimely death from AIDS at age 48. Only five castmembers play single characters throughout: Andrew Bongiorno, never offstage as Peter; Kelly Lester as his patient mother, Marion; Michayla Brown as the entertainer as a child; Bess Motta as Judy Garland, Peter’s first mentor; and Jessica Pennington as her daughter and eventually Peter’s ex-wife Liza Minnelli. All other players take on multiple roles and morph into an exceptional all-singing, all-dancing chorus to deliver the show’s big production numbers.
   To Shepperd’s credit, the cast is also an eclectic troupe. In this substantially spare Emerald City cleverly designed by Yuri Okahana, telling a tale traveling from Australia to Hong Kong to New York, the performers range from the exceptionally tall Marcus S. Daniel to the teeny-tiny Shanta Marie Robinson whom Shepperd and Roston place at either end of a dance line seemingly to emphasize and perhaps even poke fun at the diversity of their casting choices. And when Daniel cross-dresses as a leggy Radio City Rockette, he reveals an unmistakable resemblance to Charlotte Greenwood, who once described herself as the only woman in the world who could kick a giraffe in the eye.
   Bongiorno has all the charm and much of the unstoppable charisma of Allen, who was a nearly impossible act to follow. Lester is a standout as his long-suffering mother, especially delivering the plaintive “Don’t Cry Out Loud” as her son battles his final unwinnable battle. The seriously adorable Brown is delightful playing Peter as a child, cast presumably when it proved impossible to find a male that age able to play the precociously flamboyant Peter Woolnough, a kid with an instinctual and uncontainable need to sing, dance, and pose in style.
   Still, the most jaw-dropping performances come from Motta and Pennington. Both prove physical dead ringers for the mother and daughter. Pennington finds much of Minnelli’s sweetness, her early discouragement existing in the darkest corners of her mother’s enormous shadow, and her discomfort with her own eventual stardom—which never brought the happiness she’s always sought. She knocks it out of the park belting the spirited “She Loves to Hear the Music” and later teaming with Bongiorno for the haunting ballad “You and Me (We Wanted It All)” during the onetime couple’s final goodbye.
   Motta channels every tick, every passionately clumsy body movement, every vocal crack, every eye-roll of the tortured Garland in unearthly detail. From her first appearance, in 1966 when Garland’s fourth husband and Allen’s latest trick Mark Herron checked her out of the hospital to see him perform at a club in Hong Kong, Motta is totally sensational, finding Garland’s wicked self-deprecating humor and entitled irascibility with ease. After waking from a nine-day coma to see Peter and his partner Chris Bell (Daniel) perform, Garland soon ribs him for being so green, solidifying their ensuing longtime friendship after seeing his gleeful reaction to her quipping, “I’ll bet you haven’t even had your stomach pumped yet.” Asked to sing a number for the crowd, Motta wails a plaintive “All I Wanted Was the Dream,” which Garland soon added to her repertoire after Peter and Bell began touring as her opening act.

There are inaccuracies in Martin Sherman and Nick Enright’s book, most glaring in the depiction of Allen’s longtime lover Greg Connell (Michael Mittman). The book portrays the sweetly ethereal Texas top fashion model as a butch and somewhat pushy businessman working in advertising when the two met; instead, Connell was managing a restaurant in Greenwich Village at the time. Still, the unfolding of their amazingly loving and supportive relationship is poignantly told.
   Above all, however, it’s the score that makes this such a striking tribute to Allen’s world-class talent. Although the program credits all music and lyrics culled from his own staggeringly prolific songbook, ignoring except in the small print the contribution of Carole Bayer Sager as lyricist in many of his later tunes, the creative genius of this one man is beautifully honored. From “Everything Old Is New Again” to the Olivia Newton-John hit “I Honestly Love You” to the Oscar-winning “Arthur’s Theme (When You Get Caught Between the Moon and New York City)” to the spectacular “I Go to Rio”—which, enhanced by Mullin’s insanely fantastic costuming, affords a suitably showstopping finale—The Boy From Oz chronicles a time when it took an idiosyncratic artist with the soul and audacity of Allen to help change the world in the most melodic way.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
May 9, 2016
 
The Big Meal
Chance Theater

Love, marriage, birth, and death are fodder for Dan LeFranc’s fast-paced narrative spotlighting a couple who meet, marry, and produce several generations in the space of 90 minutes. The clever conceit is that the first two characters, Woman 3 (Angela Griswold) and Man 3 (Ben Green), morph into later characters as the story progresses. Woman 2 (Jennifer Ruckman) and Man 2 (Robert Foran), followed by Woman 1 (Karen Webster) and Man 1 (David Carl Golbeck), are seamlessly introduced as the years pass. All of this takes place at meals and dinner tables, a place LeFranc says was a key element in his growing years.
   The actors create a fine-tuned ensemble in what is a tricky endeavor. No one leaves the stage, and each character has to be developed at lightning speed.
   Man 1 is a patron of a restaurant served by a spunky waitress who plays hard to get, and the machinations of courtship and marriage are deftly handled by Webster and Golbeck. As they marry, Girl (Abby Lutes) and Boy (Dylan Barton) arrive, and they soon mature and start lives of their own. Both children are excellent, eschewing the usual cuteness often portrayed in youthful characterizations.
   Ruckman and Foran add maturity to the mix, and their developing ups and downs give verisimilitude to what life engenders. Finally Griswold and Green add pathos and the depiction of stages of self-identity.
   Director Jocelyn A. Brown skillfully manages the actors so that the story is understandable even though the characters must abruptly pivot. A humorous touch is delivered by a server (Kelly Ehlert), who delivers meals, often portending the death of a character. Proving that there is no such thing as a small part, her nuanced expressions from exasperation to resignation anchor the production.
   Joe Holbrook’s scenic design creates multilocations on the small stage, and Martha Carter’s lighting design and Dave Mickey’s sound design enhance evolving time periods.
   The Big Meal packs a punch, and there is much to ruminate over at play’s end. Love and acceptance are key, even as some of the characters make unwise choices. The changing attitudes of the characters often mirror recognizable stages of life, and the play is a most satisfactory look at the human condition.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
May 3, 2016
 
A Walk in the Woods
International City Theatre

Lee Blessing’s 1987 play A Walk in the Woodsmakes two points. In war, there is no winning, says Blessing. And in life, each of us chooses whether to live in hope or to live without it. The play gets a polished if static production at International City Theatre, directed by John Henry Davis. At its best, it recalls Beckett’s classic play Waiting for Godot and, on a less intellectual level, the Matthew Broderick film War Games.
   It’s the 1980s and two arms negotiators—a Soviet and an American—leave the conference table to take a walk. Actually, they take at least four walks over the course of the play, though in this production they always manage to come to this spot.
   The audience won’t be tempted to gaze dreamily at any scenic depictions of woods: Curtains of ropes upstage, a ramp forming a path, and two thick tree stumps are the entirety of the scenery here. Perhaps that’s a good thing, keeping us focused on the dialogue. To create seasons, the play’s two actors drop an armful of fall leaves or spring petals, and Donna Ruzika’s lighting dapples the area with shifting sunlight.

David Nevell plays the intent American, John Honeyman, new on this job, who goes by the book. Honeyman has bursts of frustration, often directed at his Eastern counterpart but likely caused by the imperceptible pace of diplomacy. As Blessing also seems to say, of course life is utterly complicated, but so, apparently, is the art of negotiating nuclear arms treaties.
   Tony Abatemarco plays the jovial Soviet, Andrey Botvinnik. At this job for years, Botvinnik goes by a different book. He’s the wilier of the two, apparently with enough knowledge of Honeyman’s private life to engage him in conversations about anything except nuclear proliferation. He’s coy, he’s chirpy. He’s part rabbi, part psychiatrist and part law school professor. Yet he likely holds terrifying secrets.
   The play touches on an examination of friendship. But it doesn’t get far. Honeyman will not indulge Botvinnik’s fantasy that the two can be friends. The play gets further with an examination of hope, however. These two men seem to take their jobs seriously. But they recognize hopelessness when they see it.

If and when the two finally reach an agreement, so what? Says Botvinnik, each new treaty has brought on an unprecedented buildup, but ask the man on the street in either hemisphere, and no one will say he wants to give up the power and prestige nuclear stockpiles offer.
   Not all is deadly serious here, however. Blessing’s script includes plenty of quips, delivered flawlessly by the actors under Davis’ direction. It’s too bad the woods aren’t made better use of, as the characters might as well have stayed at the negotiating table—for what that has been worth.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
May 2, 2016
 
Republished with kind permission of Long Beach Press-Telegram.
 

Table Manners
Little Fish Theatre

Ultra-prolific English playwright Alan Ayckbourn has a silly side. But his characters very much seem like real-life people, even while their circumstances are comedically heightened or even outrageous. Along with two other of his plays that form The Norman Conquests, his Table Manners, written in 1973, reflects the era—when an extramarital affair, even among family members, was met with a shrug from some and raised eyebrows from others.
   The story takes place at the English countryside home of a cantankerous mother (unseen throughout) of three adult children. They are the ruthless Ruth, the cheery Reg, and the put-upon Annie. Annie lives there, taking care of mum—a responsibility Annie has accepted because it’s easier than fighting over it with her siblings. She probably could have a boyfriend in the uncomfortably dim Tom—paradoxically a proficient, caring veterinarian—if they ever got around to it.
   For this weekend, however, Annie has managed to arrange a getaway tryst for herself and Norman, who happens to be Ruth’s husband. So Annie has asked Reg and his wife, Sarah, to housesit. Annie lets Sarah in on the scheme, so of course nearly everyone else immediately finds out about it. That’s the major difference between Ayckbourn’s comedic craft and that of farceurs. There’s no hiding or unwinding from lies here. We see real people reacting to real situations.
   Reg is a jolly man’s man on the surface, probably hiding the frightened little boy inside. Sarah obsesses over orderliness, probably hiding the bruised little girl inside. Theirs must be a fascinating marriage. Likewise, Norman and Ruth’s marriage must be a case study. Ruth is a bright, capable woman. It’s telling, then, that the extremely nearsighted character has arrived without her eyeglasses. What is she trying not to see?

Norman, as Ayckbourn penned him, is not a classic theatrical lothario. He ought to be unappealing to the audience, ill-kempt, and transparently manipulative, which adds a comedic dimension to the women’s attraction toward him. But in this production, under the co-direction of Stephanie Coltrin and David Graham, Norman is rather charismatic—for those who like life-of-the-party types. He’s played by Don Schlossman as so outsize he seems Shakespearean in physicality and volume.
   This directorial choice could be intended to contrast with Norman’s day job as an assistant librarian, but it doesn’t serve the story, nor does he seem to belong in this play with the other characters.
   Co-director Graham plays Reg in a well-calibrated portrayal, the right size for this script on this stage. Likewise, Maire-Rose Pike captures the crushed soul of Annie, who probably knows a weekend away with Normal won’t improve her life—if it ever were to happen. Kimberly Patterson plays Ruth as noticeably disconnected, hoping to use a heightened sense of competence to keep hurt feelings at bay.
   Holly Baker-Kreiswirth plays Sarah as so desperately in control that she’d be secretly grateful to crack, even if it’s in Norman’s arms. Joel Bryant plays Tom as a brittle Scotsman, who deep down couldn’t possibly be as unaware as he seems. These characters are types we know in real life. Here they escape from their reality through homemade wines and the prospect of affairs that likely don’t get consummated.

During the dinner scene, Sarah’s tomato-red and Annie’s heliotrope-colored dresses clash (a subtle laugh thanks to costumer Olivia Schleuter-Corey), almost more than the characters do over where each should sit at the table. During the breakfast scene, real Kellogg’s assortment packs and real milk are served. It keeps the audience in the story, giggling at Aykcbourn’s tasty treats while watching the characters run out of food but not rancor.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
April 25, 2016
 
Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
 
Dry Land
Atwater Village Theatre

In the empty and suitably antiseptic locker room of a high school in a nondescript suburban Florida community, two girls on the swim team meet in a series of scenes to discuss their friendship, challenge each other’s loyalty, dis their teammates, clumsily explore their sexuality, and eventually abort the fetus one of them carries under her spandex swimsuit.
   Ruby Rae Spiegel has created something remarkable in her inaugural leap into playwriting with Dry Land, which is extremely funny—introducing us to her clear, resounding, delightfully droll voice—while making a strong plea for not letting the current political warring factions end every woman’s right to decide what happens inside her own body. Inspired by a 2012 article in New Republic headlined “The Rise of DIY Abortions” and Spiegel’s background on high school swim teams, this intimate and personal play, featuring sparklingly fresh dialogue and fascinatingly real character studies, never lets us forget that what is happening to these vulnerable young kids, growing up in today’s disenfranchised and media-hyped society—and that this should not herald a dismal future for American women.

With exceptionally fluid staging by director Alana Dietze, Spiegel’s tale ominously somersaults forward to its inevitable conclusion, beginning slowly and tentatively, but growing ever more desperate and even vicious as the story progresses. To further marvel at the wonder of Spiegel’s gifts, both of her major characters possess a different rhythm and clearly individual sense of humor. Tegan Rose is impressive as the frightened, obviously self-destructive Amy, but it is Connor Kelly-Eiding as the awkward and painfully introverted Ester who tugs at your heart the most and leaves you wondering what the future will hold for her as she faces the terrifying rigors of impending adulthood.
   Jenny Soo is hilarious as the vapid teammate who offers a sort of Legally Blonde respite from the details of where the storyline must go. In one brief turn, Ben Horwitz, a bravely quirky French Stewart for a whole new generation, portrays a clumsily tongue-tied but horny undergrad who provides a place for Ester to crash when she journeys to the big city for a college tryout. Horwitz manages to breathe glorious life into his underwritten character in that one frugally written scene, proving he possesses an uncanny ability to make Victor’s every twitch and physical fumble work charmingly.

It’s not hard to figure out that the linoleum floor and central drain on Amanda Knehans’s austere locker room set might at some point be covered in blood as Ester continues to help Amy get rid of her problem. When continually hard stomach punches, threats of drinking drain cleaner, and downing an entire jar of expired Skippy peanut butter do not rid Amy of her pregnancy, swallowing an abortion pill does the trick, graphically and messily on the floor of the stage, with Amy screaming and writhing in pain and Ester emerging from between her legs with a small package wrapped in newspapers to flush down the toilet in the adjoining room. It is a difficult scene to sit through but it’s meant to be.
   As this scene unfolds, the room is suddenly occupied by the school’s janitor (Dan Hagen), who sees what’s transpiring on his floor and decides to tell the girls he’ll be back to clean up in two hours. After the abortion, he does indeed return and, in an interminably long and agonizingly detailed dance, cleans up the mess.
   This might be the only flaw in Dietze’s direction. Although the length and detail of the cleanup is obviously intentionally Beckett-like and the world-weariness of the janitor is clear, a well-placed here-we-go-again eye roll as he warns of his return in two hours, or a few disgusted sighs as he gathers up the disgusting blood-soaked newspapers with rubber gloves, would have said plenty.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
April 18, 2016
 
Around the World in 80 Days
Long Beach Playhouse

One actor dropped his moustache, another dropped his lines. It doesn’t matter whether these were opening-night fumbles or thoroughly rehearsed comedy bits. In Around the World in 80 Days at Long Beach Playhouse, they only add to the fun.
   Playwright Mark Brown adapted this work from the classic novel by Jules Verne, in which Victorian British gentleman Phileas Fogg and his faithful servant Passepartout travel the globe on a bet—and on the most-modern and the most-traditional means, depending on what’s at hand at the moment.
   The virtuous but persnickety Fogg is a quiet do-gooder, concerned more with proving a point than with profiting from his actions. So when fellow members of his gentlemen’s club bet him he can’t make it around the world and back to the club in precisely 80 days, he spends the wager before winning it, acting with kindness and wisdom even if he risks not finishing his circumnavigation.

This sounds like serious stuff, but much humor comes from the staging, some written into the script and some from this production’s helmer, Gregory Cohen, whose direction evidences caring about the audience experience.
   Brown casts one actor to play Fogg, then divides the many other characters among four other actors. That means Cohen’s actors must be ready with instantaneous changes of deportment, accents. and costumes—and, likely, the ability to work around those commedia dell’arte bits of “dropped” moustaches and “forgotten” lines.
   Rick Reischman plays Fogg throughout, elegantly at the center of this madcap maelstrom as his cast mates spin and leap onstage and off at a dizzying, beautifully rehearsed pace.
   The perpetually cheerful Stephen Alan Carver plays the self-deprecating yet overly confident French servant, Passepartout, as well as a British newsman and a co-narrator.
   Lisa March takes on her share of male characters, but she gets to spend the play’s second half as Aouda, the lovely widow Fogg rescues in India and brings along on the remainder of his travels, fortunately for both of them.
   Mark Fields Davidson takes on Scotland Yard’s Detective Fix, who tails Fogg after mistaking him for a bank robber. But Davidson is tasked with nearly a dozen more roles, from Americans (one of whom he performs in a Jimmy Stewart impression) to East Indians (perfectly pronouncing the rolled “r” of the region).
   Playing an Irish seafarer, Chinese “broker,” English aristocrat, and plenty more, Jaxson Brashier takes an opposite but equally funny tack, forgoing precision to work in accents apparently learned from listening to Peter Sellers.

Cohen includes modern references to Tim Burton and Titanic. But projections of 19th-century drawings—as well as an imaginative contraption that serves as train, ship, and elephant—establish the scene on Spencer Richardson’s inviting set, evoking the open sea and crowded railway cars, sacred temples and opium dens. Also establishing locale are Sean Gray’s sound, crisp in design and in the booth’s timing, and Daniel Driskill’s lighting of hot days and chill nights.
   Donna Fritsche’s increasingly elaborate gowns for March are gorgeous, and a particularly memorable costume embodies a locomotive engine with billowing “steam” and a lighted headlight. But the jaw-droppers are Fritsche’s quick-change items that allow the actors to run up the theater’s stairs in traditional silken Chinese garb and run back down in yellow rain slicker, boots, and hat.
   The script is less chauvinistic, more feminist than might be expected. Sure, it includes a bit of stereotyping. But gun-wielding Americans take the brunt of the humor. And it pokes a bit of fun at all amateur travelers—particularly those who think they can buy what they need along the way, or who have left the house and then panic about forgetting to turn off the water/gas/electricity.
   A few bits fall flat, some the humor is pushed too hard, but this show is more memorably a delightful lesson in geography and graciousness. It is not only appropriate for schoolchildren but also should be essential viewing for them. On opening night, a child in the front row was rapt throughout.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
April 11, 2016


Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
 

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder
Ahmanson Theatre

A handful of us in general don’t care much for musical theater—that is, unless it’s as twisted as Carrie or Sweeney Todd, as irreverent as The Book of Mormon or Spring Awakening, or with a cerebral or political message like Next to Normal or harking back to Mother Courage. Once in a while, however, even we dour old stick-in-the-muds just plain enjoy a little divertissement.
   Such is the case for Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak’s absolutely hilarious musical adaptation of the 1949 British film Kind Hearts and Coronets, which even tops Eric Idle and Spamalot for bringing the world a delightful couple of sidesplitting hours of mindless yet exceedingly enjoyable entertainment. Winner of four Tony Awards in 2014, including Best Musical, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is yet another spoof of Edwardian manners and the politely skewed morality of the times, but book-writer and co-lyricist Freeman has created a smartly silly and stylish production that out-Sondheims Sondheim, who before its debut had something of a monopoly on musicals about serial killers.
   As Monty D’Ysquith Navarro (formerly Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini as played by Dennis Price in the movie) languishes in a jail cell waiting for execution, he writes his memoirs about his dastardly crimes, offing eight members of his prestigious but estranged aristocratic family so he might take over the title of Earl of Highhurst. As Monty (a wonderfully droll, perpetually wide-eyed Kevin Massey) descends into his confession, the story is played out on Alexander Dodge’s adjacent English music hall–inspired false proscenium stage.

As in that classic film, itself a quintessential example of delightfully twisted but often bone-dry British humor, all of Monty’s victims are played by one actor. In the original, of course, it was the inimitable Alec Guinness, whose already burgeoning fame grew to astronomical proportions after the release of Kind Hearts. On Broadway, those multiple roles in Gentleman’s Guide, renamed, it seems, for legal reasons, were assayed by Jefferson Mays, who won multiple awards and nominations for his performance.
   Here, all eight doomed D’Ysquiths are portrayed by John Rapson and, as much praise as was piled on Mays in the New York production, it would be difficult to imagine anyone better than his touring replacement. From Monty’s somewhat accidental but convenient first victim, the Reverend Ezekial D’Ysquith, through various lords and even the Eleanor Roosevelt-y Lady Salome D’Ysquith Pumphrey, Rapson is phenomenally funny and completely chameleonic, instantly evoking a totally outrageous new character for every family member, starting with the first steps of individual walks he has created for each. From his fey beekeeping Henry D’Ysquith (singing the double entendre–laden duet “Better With a Man”), to the muscle-bound and massively phallused Major Bartholomew D’Ysquith, the greatest joy of the entire evening is seeing what this exceptionally funny physical comedian will come up with next.
   Under the masterful direction of Darko Tresnjak, the production is unapologetically campy and over-the-top, embracing with complete relish the often wincingly bad acting of the original filmic genus. The superb, also multitasking supporting cast is onboard—from the first scene of both acts, in which mourners in costumer Linda Cho’s archetypal Victorian mourning-wear gather in a cemetery under umbrellas to discuss what’s happening, offering an initial “Warning to the Audience” of what to expect to begin the piece, to their “Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying?” after intermission as cast members use the omnipresent casket as a platform to express their concern.

Kristen Beth Williams and Adrienne Eller are perfect as Monty’s feuding love interests, but it is Mary VanArsdel’s Miss Marple of a loyal servant, Miss Shingle, and Kristen Mengelkoch as the wildly mugging Lady Eugenia D’Ysquith who steal their every scene.
   Lutvak’s charmingly tweedy, often operatic music highlights the innuendo-rich lyrics, and every design element is top drawer, from Dodge’s whimsical Edward Gorey–esque set to Cho’s stunningly ornate costuming to Phillip S. Rosenberg’s impressively dramatic lighting. Aaron Rhyne’s inventive visual projections evoke settings ranging from Downton Abbey–style mansions to a grand gallery of the family’s ancestral portraits that come to life, and also help conjure many of Monty’s hilariously imaginative murders, including an inspired nod to Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
   From this point forward, it’s likely A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder will be the first thing to pop into a theater aficionado’s mind when pointless but gloriously engaging musical comedies are the topic of discussion. Sorry, oh you brilliant misters Sondheim and Idle, but as much as we love you and your world-class contributions to musical theater, you’ve been outdone.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
March 27, 2016
 
Domestic Tranquility
Little Fish Theatre

As we reminisce over the decades, uptight manners seem to have been the hallmark of the 1950s. They’re parodied quite a bit in the theater, for example in playwright Rich Orloff’s look back from the 1990s, Domestic Tranquility. It centers on Ethel and Herbert Miller and their almost-18-year-old daughter, Cindy, during the few days when three escaped convicts invade the Millers’s well-run suburban home.
   It’s a comedy about colliding worlds, about the upending of a balanced lifestyle. But it’s also a surprisingly pointed reminder, in this era when our eyes never leave our phones, that good manners make us feel a little more human.
   The 1950s weren’t perfect, of course. Much was swept under the rug, including women. Ethel, who appears quite content to be the quintessential stay-at-home wife and mother—though we see differently in flashes and flashbacks—could have had a successful career. What wasn’t swept under a rug was spied on by the government.
   Still, when the felonious brothers Lou and Tony, and their even more damaged cohort Spot, wedge themselves into the Millers’s home, they and the audience learn that the civility and welcoming warmth of a good meal around the table can turn at least some of the men’s lives around.

Playing a major part in making the audience feel welcome here, Holly Baker-Kreiswirth directs a crisp, polished production. Her staging includes superb use of the space and funny bits of “business” and visual jokes, so plentiful that some are dropped in nonchalantly just before scene blackouts. But her vibrant work with her cast makes this production a standout. Her actors hold fast to heightened energy, setting an ultra-bright tone. In an acting style like this, the cast mustn’t, and doesn’t, show a flicker of realism.
   The actors make us giggle, as when Don Schlossman as Herbert tries to bump off Bill Wolski’s disappointed-in-life bully Lou. The actors make us think, as when Ryan Knight’s Tony and Olivia Schlueter-Corey’s Cindy look to the future. The actors make us empathize, as Shirley Hatton proves Ethel would have made an excellent executive assistant if not an executive. And they more than prove the play’s point, particularly when Daniel Tennant as the very disturbed Spot, having something pleasant and useful to do, possibly for the first time in his life, sets the table.

On the design side, Diana Mann’s costumes are a visual feast, from prison stripes through Cindy’s cardigans. Madeleine Drake’s fabulous props most notably include period magazines, which she apparently collected, and an electroshock therapy device, which she apparently made from 1950s kitchenalia.
   Starting from Bob Manning’s scenic design, scenic painter Daryl Hogue invites the audience into the home with her wood-plank flooring, hunter-green and fleur-de-lis walls, and beautifully varnished doors and frames. Stacey Abrams’s lighting makes the home homey but sharpens the meta-theatrical apologias from the characters.
   So, lest we forget our manners: To the Little Fish folk, thank you for a perfect evening at the theater.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
March 7, 2016

The Mountaintop
Matrix Theatre

It’s April 3, 1968, and as a fiercely ominous storm rages outside, the visitor checked in to Room 306 in Memphis’s Lorraine Motel is nursing exhaustion, a bad smoker’s cough, and an even worse case of encroaching disillusionment. Although his growing fame and prevailing voice energizing his peoples’ struggle for equality have just started to gain respect, especially after his recent historic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, he also knows the fight isn’t over yet. “They can call me Commie King all they like,” he tells the empty room, but as long as there are poor and oppressed people, he knows his mission has just begun. Unfortunately, it was to be a mission that ironically benefitted only from his impending absence and martyrdom, as his life would be taken the very next day.
   Room service at the less-than-four-star stay-over has been suspended for the night, but someone at the front desk, realizing the identity of this guest, offers to send up a cup of good strong black coffee. When the overnight chambermaid arrives at the room with the coffee, however, it’s more than the brew that’s strong and black.
   Camae (Danielle Truitt) is of course honored and excited to meet Martin Luther King (Larry Bates), but that doesn’t stop her from being who she is: a hardened, motor-mouthed survivor who, despite her efforts to be suitably respectful toward the reverend, can’t keep herself from flirting with the guest and slipping in more colorful language than one usually utters in front of clergy, not to mention one of the most important and respected figures in the American civil rights movement.
   As Dr. King waits for the return of his traveling companion Ralph Abernathy, whose search for Pall Malls has extended past what’s reasonable, he tries very hard to keep Camae from leaving his room right away. Perhaps this is because his loneliness and weariness from being away from home so extensively has taken its toll, accentuated by the fear he feels after multiple death threats along the way. Then again, perhaps it’s because he finds Camae so immediately attractive, worthy of more than just a simple handshake and a $2 tip—King’s legendary womanizing more than merely hinted at in Katori Hall’s fictional account of this meeting between the great man and the streetwise servant.
   As the young woman’s visit extends beyond the limits of most such deliveries, there’s an obvious chemistry that develops between King and the maid, even after she tells him she’s better at cleaning up other’s people’s messes than she is her own. Suddenly, Hall’s heretofore rather predictable play takes on a surprising new dimension as a spiritual connection between the pair begins to emerge.

Here the play segues from reality to fantasy, a fascinating ambition but a hard place to get to when everyone in attendance knows exactly what is about to happen to the central character that will change the world forever. This concept is both heightened and impeded by director Roger Guenveur Smith’s oddly arbitrary staging, John Iacovelli’s starkly all-white set design that looks more like a Salvador Dali version of the Pearly Gates than a small seedy Memphis motel room, and especially the Matrix Theatre. The intimate yet wide and shallow playing area is often a hard one to fill, but here it hinders Hall’s story considerably.
   Surely utilized to heighten the more-abstract aspects of the story, there’s also a puzzling conceit that some props, such as the coffee cup and rain-soaked newspaper Camae brings to the room, are pantomimed, yet others are not. When King asks Camae if he can bum a cigarette until his arrive, she pulls out an all-too-real pack and offers him one. The cigarette he removes and then tokes from is also imaginary, but the lighter Camae uses is real.
   Truitt and Bates are more than worth watching, however, despite the glaringly awkward problems that haunt Hall’s promising but surprisingly thin play and Smith’s often somnambulant direction. Her Camae is rich and sturdy, able to find the insecurities lurking just below her character’s bizarrely unwieldy mission, while Hall’s troubled leader initially shows King’s humanity and vulnerability, then later grabs hard onto his power and stateliness with both fists. Presented soon after our country celebrates MLK Day and during Black History Month, Hall’s message is still clear. As King sits on his bed, withering from the smell of his stinky feet and desperately needing companionship and a tobacco fix, he comments to himself how discouraged he is, how much he can’t believe how completely his beloved country is “going to hell.” Remembering that the events encircling The Mountaintop take place almost a half-century ago, the lingering reminder about how little we have learned proves once again to be more than a little disconcerting.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 21, 2016
 
An Act of God
Ahmanson Theatre

So, Sean Hayes is playing God. The actor who once stood out among a quartet of standouts in the television series Will & Grace—playing the really funny second fiddle in a funny group of friends—stands out in this not-quite-solo show for playing the Judeo-Christian deity.
   Its explanatory premise, because the show apparently needs one, is that God has selected the actor as a vehicle for God’s words. And because those words need a delivery that ranges from wry to hilarious, God chose Hayes. Or went through Hayes’s agent. We’ll never know. But what God, or God’s agent—God having made us in his image, and us needing agents—might not have bargained for is how superb Hayes is in the darker parts of this show.

Now, to be sinlessly accurate, God is not speaking to us here—unless you want to get into the whole artistic-inspiration debate. This show is written by David Javerbaum, who had practice for all of this chitchat thanks to his book and Twitter account. Here the evening is built around a recrafting/renewal of the Ten Commandments. Some of the 10 are left as is, but some are updated because the Bible is a living, breathing instrument.
   The devoutly religious might want to skip this show. Might. The new Commandments are not that sacrilegious. Take “Honor thy children.” Not too bad a directive, right? And like the Bible, it asks us to take a bit of responsibility for understanding and applying the Commandment. Don’t spoil ’em, don’t feed ’em the trendiest junk, don’t rush out to buy ’em the latest gadgets. But treasure them, like this God does when he thinks of his son—bringing the audience to one of the more-serious few minutes here.

This God is not unhappy enough with us to declare outright war, as he did in Noah’s day—although the facts are not quite as we thought they were on the topic of the two-by-two animals. This God merely clarifies his stances on homosexuality, Republican candidates, and those who take his name in vain—like athletes and sneezers.
   Even God has an angel on one shoulder and, well, a thinker on the other. Gabriel (James Gleason) is the dutiful angel who, oddly, shares God’s sense of irony. Michael (David Josefsberg) is the questioning angel who comes into the audience and recruits “participants” in a Q&A with God (have no fear, all is scripted).

Under Broadway vet Joe Mantello’s direction, there’s a comforting polish to the show. The scenic design, by Scott Pask, consists of an angelically white stairway, sofa, and frame on which the Commandments and other visuals are projected (designed by Peter Nigrini).
   But all eyes are on Hayes. He gives a heavenly performance here, knowing when to preen and when to plumb deeper waters. Now, does his talent come from a divine source? Or did Hayes learn from the figurative rapping of rulers on his knuckles by his acting teachers?

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
February 16, 2016

 
Closer Than Ever
International City Theatre

Closer Than Ever makes a lovely evening for folks who don’t want to be asked to dig into the meaning of songs, who prefer messages told simply. The music, too, though it has more than a few tinges of dissonance, doesn’t tax the listener. Nonetheless, the production of this revue at International City Theatre will likely affect audience members facing the life challenges sung about.
   Its creators are no strangers to the genre. First produced in 1989 and recently updated, the show’s music is by David Shire, noted scorer for Broadway (Baby) and film (Big). Richard Maltby Jr. (co-lyricist on Miss Saigon and Big) wrote the lyrics for most of the songs here (a few are by Shire alone and a few are a collaboration between the two). And in this production, the show gets a polished, elegant outing, directed by Todd Nielsen with heaven-sent music direction by Gerald Sternbach.
   Closer Than Ever has no book—no spoken words to offer context or tie the whole together, no characters to follow throughout and empathize with or learn from. Audiences who miss this element should be prepared to do the footwork themselves.
   The subject matter of its songs circles around the woes of middle age. Failing eyesight isn’t mentioned, but the show brings into sharp focus divorce, abandonment, invisibility, dating in middle age, dysfunctional sex, functional sex and more. The songs are frank and apparently hit a few bull’s-eyes on opening night.

They’re sung by four performers—two men and two women—who change personas for each song. The evening starts in a comedic vein. It ends in a bittersweet one that looks back, sometimes with regret, valuing relationships and recalling people who shaped the lives of others.
   The show begins with the introductory “Doors.” Next comes “She Loves Me Not,” about a love triangle in which Man No. 1 (Adam von Almen) bemoans unrequited love for a Woman (Valerie Perri), who longs for Man No. 2 (Kevin Bailey), who hankers after Man No. 1. In “You Wanna Be My Friend,” a naive Bailey breaks off a relationship with an irate Katheryne Penny. But she lets him have it, rapping this patter song in a Charleston rhythm.
   And so it goes, each performer bringing skill and charm to each song. Penny is the best vocal performer, infusing light and shadow, humor and pain, into her voice. Perri brings the most heart to her stories. Bailey and van Almen use their powerful voices to stir the audience. But the brightest sparks here come from the onstage musicians: Sternbach at the piano and Brad Babinksi on bass. Nielsen surely recognized their indispensability, placing them very much within the action rather than sheltered behind a scrim or perched above the stage.
   Babinski gets a memorable duet with Penny in “Back on Base,” making his velvety tones swing without letting us hear a single pluck. Sternbach sings a verse of “Fathers of Fathers,” offering a lesson in musical theater by filling the lyrics with rich color and emotion. The sound balance between the instruments and the singers is exemplary (sound design is by Dave Mickey).

Doors are the theme here. “Doors” links the songs with a few bars of score. Doors figure in the set, which includes a portable doorframe, plus three flats with framed doors and other flaps through which bits of furniture can move to establish a scene (economic but evocative scenic design by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, moodily lit by Debra Garcia Lockwood). Doorways can be enlightening, say the songwriters. Hmm. That one may take a bit more of our concentration to figure out.
   After all these years, goes the last song, we’re closer than ever. It turns out these are chilling lyrics, a rather dark choice for what started to be such a lighthearted show. Maybe there are great depths to be plumbed here after all.
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
February 15, 2016


Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
 
Dream Catcher
Fountain Theatre

On a desolate stretch of the Mojave Desert, a gung-ho and ambitious solar power engineer is meeting with the homegrown “res chick” he’s been bedding on a regular basis since meeting her in a local bar. Their lovemaking is as hot and steamy as the barren land beneath their feet, but their viewpoints could not be more divergent in Stephen Sachs’s high-intensity confrontation between progress and spirit, between technological advancement and respect for those who blazed the way before us.
   For Roy (Brian Tichnell), the project that brought him to the region—the building of a massive solar power plant that could solidify his career while potentially saving the planet—is at direct odds with the fervor of his resolutely passionate paramour Opal (Elizabeth Frances), who fiercely wants to preserve the final resting place of her indigenous ancestors. Without the creation of facilities such as this, Roy believes, we will all be doomed as the planet’s temperature is projected to rise seven degrees during our lifetime. Our planet has lived through five extinctions, he tells Opal, and this time he believes it’s our own fault entirely. “We are our own meteor.”
   Still, as uneasy as she was about his presence from the start, especially when she gets so sexually charged whenever she’s in Roy’s presence, her mission becomes clear when she discovers long buried fragments of ancient Native American remains in the sand below them, signaling to her that her “ancestors have reached up from their graves and handed me their bones.” She makes it the mission of her previously unremarkable journey through life to stop the multibillion-dollar plant before her tribe’s sacred land is desecrated and destroyed forever.

The prolific Sachs has written his most arresting play yet: a virtual theatrical rollercoaster ride performed in the round, the Fountain’s stage boldly reconfigured by designer Jeffrey McLaughlin, whose simple earthen set, accented by Luke Moyer’s harshly stark lighting, becomes like a third character in the drama. Under Cameron Watson’s kinetic and in-your-face direction, Tichnell and Frances hit the ground running, beginning the piece at a volatile place in the pair’s dangerously ill-timed relationship and not letting up on the conflict for a fraction of a millisecond.
   Whether the continuously combustible exchange between these two amazingly courageous actors is part of the playwright’s plan or whether the perpetual physical almost dance-like circling and continuously overlapping dialogue is part of Watson’s vision, the pair is a match made in theatrical heaven, made even more striking by the casting of Frances and Tichnell. There is an uncanny earthiness and fearlessness that dominates Frances’s work, her remarkably primal presence feeling as genuinely heartfelt and tenacious as her character’s obsessive need to halt Roy’s plans before they materialize any further. She crashes through the performance, leaving spectators a bit spent and genuinely concerned that there might be a disastrous conclusion to Opal’s journey. Although occasionally it seems as though Tichnell is working just a little too hard to compete with his co-star’s aggressively fiery and balls-out delivery, he still manages to hold his own—a task that could make lessor actors wither and recede.
   Still, it’s the collaboration of Sachs’s vibrant and evocative wordsmithery and his inspired director’s cinematic concept that makes Dream Catcher such a tremendous—if physically exhausting—experience. Watson demands something never before attempted so successfully on any stage: keeping his actors moving nonstop, like in one of those dizzying scenes in a Guy Ritchie movie where the cameras keep circling around 360 degrees as the performers fight or make love.

Whether Roy and Opal will suddenly pounce on each other and totally annihilate the opponent is always a nerve-wracking possibility, as is the thought that they will fall into a scorchingly unrestrained sex encounter, rolling in the dirt like coyotes in heat. It’s that anticipation of a clash, whether it be between technology and spirit or between man and woman, that leaves everyone involved, from performers to observers, so completely drained.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 4, 2016
 
Dirty Dancing
Pantages Theatre

In marketing this production, we’re told we’ll once again have the time of our lives; I, for one, would like my two-and-a-half hours back. Capitalizing on the lasting success of the classic 1987 movie of the same name is all this touring production is about, even evidenced by a life-size figure of the late Patrick Swayze placed in the lobby to get loyal fans in the mood even before the downbeat.
   And in the mood those diehard fans are. In all honesty, a great portion of Pantages opening-nighters appeared to be having the time of their lives reliving the moments from the original film obviously still indelible to them. There is a pervasive and bold reliance throughout the production on video projections, with scenes from the movie duplicated then combined with actors playing waiters and others endlessly tromping on stage and off, placing and removing trees, tables, and chairs, chairs, and more chairs.

Beginning with a panoramic vista of the Catskills in 1963, followed by the entrance to Kellerman’s resort, the visual nostalgia goes into high gear when Johnny Castle (Christopher Tierney) starts training Baby Houseman (Gillian Abbott) in the great outdoors, doing so behind a scrim with videos of a field of tall grass and the shimmering waters of the Hudson projected before them. Anyone who is not familiar with the movie would still have no trouble identifying these locations as directly copied from its predecessor, since members of the continuously swooning and gasping audience chockfull of fans laugh and cheer at first sight of each location as though recalling something that happened in their own personal past some 29 years ago, when the film debuted.
   There’s not much to praise in this production, which would probably be successful if one day it lands in one of the venues formerly hosting Menopause the Musical or Carrot Top in the lower-rent district of the Vegas Strip. The acting is uniformly unremarkable, while director James Powell’s staging meanders around the pivotal dance numbers as though someone was making it all up as he went along. The script—which makes brief and pandering references to the civil rights issues of the times going on elsewhere while these people concentrate on dance competitions, croquet lessons, and seemingly unprotected sex between the staff and the guests—duplicates scene after scene from the film without a lick of passion to help us care about these people or what’s happening to them.
   One would think, in a lavishly produced touring musical version of a story with Dancing as half of its title, the dancing—and the choreography, by Michele Lynch, re-creating the original inspiration of Kate Champion—would be far better. Even Tierney, as the Swayze-hunk housepainter making his seasonal living teaching dancing at the resort while reputedly bedding an impressive number of the womenfolk, appears more undirected than talentless. His movements overextend almost past the balance point, with arms suddenly thrust out so far they could clock anyone dancing around him who might one day get too close. There’s someone extremely capable in there somewhere, but without more guidance here, his performance is more grandstanding than graceful.

Perhaps the best work comes from Adrienne Walker and Doug Carpenter as the show’s resident singers, doing a dynamic job with some of the most enduring standards from the era, such as “This Magic Moment” and, of course, the show’s signature “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life.” Oddly, throughout most of the production they are merely props, hanging out and singing their hearts out on either side of the stage as their fellow cast members dance—until very late in the game when a sketchy tacked-on love story between them is hinted at but never explored.
   The original film deserves a better stage treatment then this sketchy and sanitized tribute show; changing its name to Slightly Smudged Dancing would be far more accurate.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 3, 2016
 
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Torrance Theatre Company

Three of the four names in the title of this Christopher Durang play sound familiar, right? The three are characters in classic Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s plays. Spike? Not so much. But although this play may get nods and titters of recognition for its parallels to and references to Chekhov, it is far more than just a clever mash-up. By its end, at least in this production, the audience will care about these people and might even be inspired to rejigger our own lives.
   Here, Vanya, Sonia, and Masha are middle-aged siblings. Their story takes place at the family homestead in eastern Pennsylvania. Vanya (Jay Castle) and Sonia (Rebecca Silberman) have always lived here. Until recently, they had been caregivers for their age-ravaged parents. Masha (Jennifer Faneuff) is world-renowned actor, who left home but who has paid every family bill and then some. Now she returns to the house to drop a bomb. In need of constant adulation, she brings boy-toy Spike.
   Vanya seems to have accepted his role in life, though tucked away is a play he has written that voices his fears and frustrations. Sonia cannot accept her role, because, in her mind, every day takes her further away from a chance at a full life. The family is tended to by Cassandra. Don’t remember that name from Russian literature? The original Cassandra was memorialized in Greek mythology, blessed with a gift of prophecy but cursed to never be believed. This Cassandra (Liliana Carrillo) has the gift, but it’s a bit askew, and she can manipulate it.
   Outsiders who stir the status quo are Spike (Luke Barrow), eager to advance his career and to strip down to his tidy plaidies (more about Bradley Allen Lock’s excellent costuming later), and Nina, also a Chekhov character of course. This Nina (Carly Linehan) and the Russian one are the pretty, young, aspiring actors visiting from next door, nubile benchmarks that chafe the older women.

James Hormel stages the production gracefully and directs with a pleasing mix of sweetly comedic and wrenchingly poignant tones, never going for cheap laughs. On Cary Jordahl’s transportive set, with lighting by Streetlite that evokes Russian sunlight, the action spreads across the porchlike morning room and makes us believe we can see the orchard and lake (yes, Chekhov’s locales are here, too).
   Hormel seems to have found the child in all of the siblings, a characteristic that emerges often in real life when long-separated families reunite. In Silberman’s Sonia a touch of a tantrum lurks, waiting to be set off, though, by Act 2, events have given Sonia a minutely more vibrant carriage and slightly upturned chin. In Vanya, Castle swaths himself in a comforting brotherly aura. Faneuff, though fully exhibiting the glamour of Masha the star, finds the bruised heart of Masha the middle child, who had to make a role for herself in this family.
   Two monologues vent Vanya’s and Sonia’s thoughts and fears. Sonia’s happens as she takes a phone call, excellently executed by Silberman as Sonia’s, and our, heart cracks open. For Vanya, it comes in a release of long-repressed words as young Nina tries to read his play but modern life intrudes in the form of Spike’s obliviousness.
   Linehan’s Nina is indeed luminous, her youthful worship of and respect for the siblings never waning. Barrow’s Spike has his moments, particularly his “audition” scene, in which he creates without self-consciousness an actor totally into himself. Adding liveliness and a cheeky meta-theatricality, Carrillo’s Cassandra bursts in with prophecy that sounds like Euripides being delivered on a community theater stage.

Lock’s costuming includes a sequined gown for Sonia that leaves latitude for a comedic but apt visual joke. There’s also an appropriate amount of latitude in Spike’s briefs. And outfits for the neighbors’ costume party earn Lock sincere, spontaneous applause.
   On one level, this play is about family dynamics and how the healthy-at-their-core ones draw closer when threatened by toxic outsiders. Ultimately, though, it’s about escaping the roles others assign to us, the characters we cast ourselves as and then act out, without acknowledging our authentic selves. Chekhov would be smiling.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 25, 2016


Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
 
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey
Kirk Douglas Theatre

The facts surrounding the disappearance of a flamboyant 14-year-old boy—who, as they used to say, marched to his own drummer—was the incident that put a nondescript Jersey Shore community on MapQuest, according to the hardboiled and obviously homegrown police detective assigned to the case. Chuck DeSantis seems to be the kind of guy who doesn’t have much to contribute to many after-shift conversations over Bud Lites at the local watering hole beyond, maybe, to weigh in on who’s doing better this season, the Jets or the Giants.
   That changes when DeSantis starts examining what became of Leonard Pelkey, the out-there kid who wore makeup and multicolored flip-flops he glued to the bottom of his sneakers to create wedges while working after school shampooing heads of the matronly customers of his foster mother’s beauty shop. Although Leonard was used to being beaten up and stuffed into school lockers, nothing appeared to make him want to stop being himself at any cost, even the ultimate one. “If you stop being yourself, the terrorists will win,” Leonard once told one of his ladies—the ladies he also advised to be sure they owned one little black dress in case of emergency, useful advice for many of them as they laid his battered body to rest after it’s found tied to an anchor at the bottom of a local lake.
   DeSantis investigates the details of Leonard’s life and his untimely demise as James Lecesne’s The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey unfolds. “I’m like an actor saying lines, like from a script,” he sheepishly admits to the audience, also assuring us he “lives in time” and knows how things go, something that surely comes with the territory in his line of work. “You know how people are,” he continues. “They don’t like differences—especially when they’re all the same.” He also philosophizes that some people bravely choose to embrace their differences, while Leonard, he learned, was simply “different from the inside out.”

In a kind of solo Equus meets Laura, the playwright also plays DeSantis, taking us along with him as he interviews the conflicted townspeople, eventually unravels the whodunit aspect of the case, and, in a way—a platonic way—falls a little bit in love with Leonard. As the detective interviews the once-ordinary and unaffected people in Leonard’s insular suburban world, Lecesne goes even farther than crafting crisp, Edgar Lee Masters–esque colloquial poetry smoothly and with an easy grace. He also proves himself to be a mighty actor as he assays all of the roles he created with a quick jerk of the head or spin around between characters during conversations with only himself to make it real.
   Lecesne is almost unnerving as he sinks into the skin of his creations, including the doomed kid’s “stylist-slash-control freak” foster mother; her initially less-than-understanding daughter, who notes that weird is good, but “when weird goes too far it just becomes bizarre”; a quiet European merchant the boy befriends while escaping into his store while running from his bullies; the fey British proprietor of the local arts and dance school for children; a suspicious videogame-obsessed teenager who habitually flips back surfer hair that isn’t there; the local mob widow who spots the boy’s floating sneaker through her ever-present binoculars; and one of the boy’s past-middle-age disciples who abandoned her 1985 hairstyle because of him.
   There’s nothing much new about the story, which again shows us how we are too often willing to judge others, especially others who march under their own rainbow-hued flags. “Is there anything in this world,” Lecesne’s hardnosed but soon transformed detective notes, “more unexpected then a human being?” No, nothing new is addressed here, at least thematically. Except for showcasing the wondrous talents of Lecesne, it’s sad to say much of the tale of the poor, absolutely bright Leonard Pelkey is more of the same old, same old. But hey, isn’t it an incredible anthropological tragedy that, in our contemporary and mostly more tolerant and accepting world, his story still needs to be addressed at all?

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
January 20, 2016
 
The Nerd
Palos Verdes Performing Arts at Norris Theatre
 
For a fun evening with more than a few laughs, this production hits the spot. Though written in the early 1980s, Larry Shue’s comedy hasn’t aged badly, except for an era-specific reference or two. That’s because Shue’s message—that there’s goodness in every person, even if it’s hidden—still resonates. It’s also because director Ken Parks keeps the play in its original era.
   But there’s more than just laughs here. The thoughtful theatergoer can admire the way Shue misdirects his audience’s attention, the way he makes us think about what we’d do if faced with a promise that is excruciating to keep. Not that Shue’s plotting is ideal. Indeed, it strangles itself in places to get characters on a path and situations on the stage.  

The play centers on Willum (Marc Ginsburg), an architect in Indiana. He is landlord to two of his pals: local drama critic Axel (Robert Thurmond) and aspiring television meteorologist Tansy (Kellie Cundiff). We meet all at Willum’s birthday party, to which his hotel-business client Warnock “Ticky” Waldgrave (Jeremy Carter); Ticky’s wife, Clelia (Rebecca Lumianski); and their son, Thor (Paul Kerker), have been invited.
   What a crew the Waldgraves are. We begin to wonder if one of them might be the nerd of the title, as their behaviors range from eccentric to out-and-out bizarre. But then an unmistakable nerd (Ryan Dietz) arrives on the scene—and can’t be gotten rid of. That’s because Willum feels he owes his life to this man. Yes, Rick Steadman is a brave war hero, who saved Willum’s life in Vietnam, though Willum, unconscious at the time, never saw him or heard him speak.
   Over the years, Willum, through letters only, has promised Rick help, anywhere and anytime. This apparently includes here and now, starting at Willum’s party and continuing until Willum can’t take it anymore.
   Audiences would be within their rights to spend the evening focusing on the antics of this title character. In Dietz’s hands, he’s mesmerizing. If only we could be that oblivious to social niceties. But everyone knows that a good magician makes the audience look away from the secrets of the tricks. So the zanier Dietz gets, the harder we might have to work to steer away from Parks’s prestidigitation.

The sweet, adoring but sturdy Tansy gets a charming, nicely three-dimensional portrayal by Cundiff, but she is left behind as others begin to gain ground in the lunacy category. Ginsburg’s slowly disintegrating Willum, desperate to do the right thing, nonetheless finds his tenuous grip on responsible behavior increasingly hard to maintain. Carter, in Act 1 merely irked at the unconventional behavior of the nerd, returns in a comedically manic fury in Act 2. Lumianski’s Clelia, however, has learned to control her anger by smashing dishes. She comes prepared, if not with the china then at least with a lovely fabric pouch and a little hammer she carefully unboxes, the entire process ending in a saucily voiced, satisfied “aah.”
   A few bits would overstay their welcome were it not for Parks’s good-natured direction. Though a few characters are deliberately provoking, they’re fathomable and likeable in their own ways. Parks also drops in many bits of stage business that don’t call attention to themselves but keep the laughs simmering. At one point the characters wear paper bags over their heads, but that can’t stop Axel from smoking.
   Ah, yes, Axel. Well, if you watch Thurmond instead of the maelstrom, you may notice signs ranging from a slight grin to genuine pleasure on his face. Sure, that could be because the critic loves the drama unfolding in this living room.

If you expect the play’s revelation or words of wisdom to come from the nerd, you’ll be surprised. If you’re an observer of acting styles, you’ll may wonder why Dietz is so over the top in his portrayal of said nerd. But if you listen to the characters, the way, say, Axel listened when his ex-girlfriend asked him for just one big favor, you may understand the gift that even a nerd, or a critic, or the theater, can give.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 18, 2016

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
 
Act 3
Laguna Playhouse

The U.S. premiering Act 3 is the story of a couple of a certain age who have been together for nearly 13 years without benefit of marriage. They have been married before, but not to each other. Things are getting monotonous and stale, so something needs to happen to liven up the action. That something is a correspondence by email between the principals. Playwrights David Ambrose and Claudia Nellens have chosen to eliminate names for the characters—calling them He and She—in an effort to make universal the age-old battle of the sexes. The dependable Charles Shaughnessy is the He of the story, and the She is comedian Rita Rudner.
   As is so often the case in theatrical comedies, the male is clueless. It seems that He thinks he is writing to a female fan of his work, and he becomes more and more intrigued with her adulation and glamorous repartee. We, the audience, know that She is playing a dual role as correspondent, which Rudner handles by adopting a Tallulah Bankhead, deep seductive voice as she writes. She is testing his loyalty to her and also trying to prove to him that she is his intellectual equal, a fact he doubts.
   Rudner, a frequent playhouse performer in plays and one-person shows, is a favorite, and she provides the role of naughty temptress and bickering partner with comfortable familiarity. Shaughnessy and Rudner have an easy rapport, and both are pros, making the very slight storyline as entertaining as possible. Unfortunately, the outcome is as predictable as the story itself.

The surprise of the opening night performance was the introduction of the playwrights sitting in the audience, who, as it turns out, based the play on events in their own lives, belying what appeared by the end of the second act to be an implausible series of events leading to that predictable ending.
   Director Martin Bergman, who is Rudner’s real-life husband, keeps the pace brisk and lighthearted. Jim Prodger’s scenic design is stylish and modern in keeping with the contemporary theme. Don Guy’s lighting also enhances the back-and-forth storyline. This show breaks no new ground, and the first act is slow. Things get better by Act 2, though, and the play has an upbeat ending that is an audience pleaser.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
January 13, 2016

The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Mark Taper Forum

British playwright–turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh’s first six plays are set in and around Connemara in the impoverished County Galway on the barren west coast of Ireland where, as a child, he spent his vacations and summers. The Beauty Queen of Leenane is the first of those six groundbreaking plays, and, when it debuted mounted by Galway’s Druid Theatre Company in 1996, it instantly put the delightfully twisted McDonagh on the then-equally barren theatrical radar.
   After the production transferred to London’s West End, the Atlantic Theatre Company packed up the original cast, director, and production—lock, stock, and fireplace poker— shipping the operation to New York in 1998 where it became the buzz of Off-Broadway before becoming hugely successful in its transfer to the Great White Way. There, Beauty Queen received six Tony nominations, including Best Play; won for Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress; and made history as Garry Hynes became the first woman to ever receive the coveted golden disk as Best Director of a Play.
   It was an exciting moment when Center Theatre Group announced the play would be mounted at the Taper this year with Hynes again firmly entrenched in the director’s chair and featuring Marie Mullen, Best Actress recipient for originating the meaty role of the poor abused Maureen, now two decades later mutating that character’s grotesquely loathsome mother Mag. With a set designed by Francis O’Connor, who also created the original, the bar could not have been set higher. Unfortunately, however, this well-meaning and highly anticipated revival is a disappointment.

Although Hynes’s staging and O’Connor’s dreary farmhouse set, though here abstractly expanded upward to utilize the Taper’s towering heights, make the ensuing 18 years since the play first arrived on Yankee shores disappear in an instant, it has none of the punch nor excitement of the first time around—let alone the shock value.
   It’s a struggle to hear the actors speak, made even more frustrating by the nearly indecipherable countrified dialect of McDonagh’s quirky characters. The performance of Mullen, so electrifying and endearing all those years ago, misses the boat completely this time out. Mullen is obviously a phenomenal actor, and, as Maureen, she made the sadly downtrodden 40-year-old virgin stuck in a severe poverty-stricken rural nightmare someone for whom the audience rooted—especially since the mother was played as such a controlling, braying monster.
   Mullen brings the same quality to Mag, playing her more as a sweet aging family dog one wants to pet on the head and stroke to sleep than as someone we want to see bludgeoned to death by that omnipresent fireplace poker. Indeed it’s a charming, wonderfully comedic performance, but without the ghastly, barking, beastly original performance of Anna Manahan in the role, by the end one wishes the outcome of the play might be reversed as well.
   As Maureen, Aisling O’Sullivan is also surely a gifted thespian, but her Maureen is so instantly unlikable and abrasive from start to horrific finish that she loses her audience early. As the Folan’s thickheaded neighbor Ray, Aaron Monaghan is delightfully goofy and easily delivers the playwright’s most raucously real laughs. But again, without a more annoying Mag for him to hate and with whom to be able to be more authentically frustrated, he ultimately loses his way as well.
   As Ray’s roughhewn construction worker brother Pato, clumsily smitten by Maureen but unable to know how to gracefully connect, Marty Rea gives the evening’s most successful interpretation despite the too-youthful actor also being grievously miscast by both age and the slightness of his stature.

It’s a shame The Beauty Queen of Leenane couldn’t have returned more triumphantly this time out, but no doubt it is an enduring modern classic, so save the poker for next time out. Maureen and Mag have a lot of life left in them yet.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
November 19, 2016
 
Peter and the Starcatcher
Torrance Theatre Company

Stories of staying forever young, of crafting the ability to fly, and of cultivating optimism have filled mankind’s dreams and pages of literature since ancient times.
   If these themes together sound familiar to modern audiences, it’s thanks to J.M. Barrie’s early-20th-century puer aeternus, in turn threaded into a variety of stories, most notably the 1954 musical Peter Pan.
   Another adaptation, darker and yet funnier, is Peter and the Starcatcher, in a stellar small-theater production at Torrance Theatre Company. A prequel to Barrie’s tale, it modernizes the humor yet harkens back to old-fashioned theatermaking in telling how a very lost boy became Peter Pan with the help of a very brave and competent young lady.

   Bowing on Broadway in 2009, this Peter was written by Rick Elice, music by Wayne Barker, based on the 2004 novel Peter and the Starcatchers by humor columnist Dave Barry and suspense novelist Ridley Pearson.
   Its adventure-filled plot involves two trunks carrying cargo, stowed on two ships racing each other through churning seas, set upon by pirates and lured by mermaids, while a trio of orphans finds escape.

But plotlines seem less important than how the characters travel through them. The characters quickly introduce themselves to the audience, as the goodly Captain Scott (Ryan Shapiro) of the Wasp, the evil Captain Slank (Seth Markzon) of the Neverland, and oodles of pirates populate the stage.
   Boarding the Wasp with one trunk is the righteous Lord Aster (Jeremy Krasovic), secretly a Starcatcher—someone with special powers “dedicated to protecting the Earth and all who dwell thereon from the awesome power of Starstuff.” Said Starstuff is sand-like bits of stars that have fallen to Earth, the transformative powers of which are thirsted after by tyrants.
   Boarding the Neverland with the other trunk is Lord Aster’s daughter, 13-year-old Molly (Calyssa Frankel). She’s very bright, forward-thinking, and confident, and thus a threat to the weak-minded and jealous. Rightfully, she’s an apprentice Starcatcher.
   In a fiendish swap by Slank, onboard the Wasp goes the sand-filled trunk, while onboard the Neverland goes the trunk carrying Starstuff. Tossed onto the Neverland are the orphaned teen boys: Ted (Jacob Nye), Prentiss (Kenyon Meleney), and a nameless lad (Anthony Cervero)—who, you might have guessed, becomes Peter.
   Along the way, in subplots and subterfuge, there’s Fighting Prawn (Demarquis Rembert) who, having years before been brought to England in chains to serve as a sous-chef, now speaks in Italian dishes and hates the English.
   There’s Black Stache (Derek Rubiano), a scenery-gnawing pirate who loses a hand in a trunk accident —you know who he eventually becomes—and his worshipful first mate Smee (Devin Mendez). And there’s a Nanny (David Joseph Keller) and her new sweetie, the flatulent sailor Alf (Geoff Lloyd). All are in service of teaching a hopeless young man to fly, literally and figuratively.

But what soars here is the stagecraft, under K.C. Gussler’s direction. As many of the actors take on double and triple duty filling in even more characters, the staging grows increasingly complex and delightfully rich.
  The clever set (scenic design and construction by Mark Torreso) consists of mobile bits that the actors zip on and off the stage to create the jam-packed action. They’re wonderfully simple pieces, made of materials children would gather to “put on a show.” But under the gorgeously textured, saturated lighting (Katy Streeter/Streetlite LLC lighting), our eyes see story and not merely poles and shreds of fabric, rope, and tinsel.
   When Molly and the lads creep down gangways, crouch in cargo containers, leap overboard, all comes to life through our imaginations. The crocodile is evoked by two red plastic salad bowls lit from within by twirling flashlights, while its teeth are two ropes of white pennant flags, held taut to create a mouth through which characters are tossed.
   Crisp sound effects (uncredited) help us see creaking doors. Bone-rattling organ music and cheery music-hall piano tunes (music director–orchestrator Bradley Hampton) ramp up the excitement.

We would figure out the lesson here without Peter and Molly repeating its themes of “if at first you don’t succeed.” Perhaps that’s done for younger audiences. But there’s more, too, revealing lessons to the grownup able to look past the flying and the wish-fulfillment. This work is very much about unwanted children, empty apologies, greed and racism, and parents carelessly trusting the futures of their children to a stranger.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
November 14, 2016

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze.
 
The Model Apartment
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse


Max and Lola are holocaust survivors attempting to quietly retire to Florida, but their arrival in the Sunshine State isn’t exactly ideal. Their new condo is still missing flooring and other finishing touches, while the “luxurious” model unit in their complex, where they’re told they can stay in the interim, features such welcoming amenities as a dummy refrigerator without a plug and a complete absence of toilet paper. Worse yet, the television set turns out to be an empty cabinet with nothing inside—a perfect analogy for Max’s life, one of several things that makes him wonder why he “ever came out of the woods” where he’d hidden from the Nazis while his wife and young daughter perished in the camps. And, oh…this is a comedy.
   And there’s the rub: On Anton Chekhov’s birthday in 1904, his classic The Cherry Orchard debuted at Moscow Art Theatre, directed by Konstantin Stanislavski. Contrary to the play’s subtitle, A Comedy in Four Acts, Stanislavski’s version was played as a tragedy, making the playwright storm out of the theater at intermission and swear he would never write another play (he didn’t, but then he also died later that year). Chekhov had disliked Stanislavski’s interpretation intensely, concluding that the legendary director had ruined his intent by not seeing the humor in it.
   Unlike Chekhov, the grandfather of subtext, this early subtext-free work by playwright Donald Margulies, whose career and reputation was later made writing plays mainly dealing with the trials and tribulations of poor beleaguered WASPS, The Model Apartment is intended to be surreal and meant to be played as a modern farce, something director Marya Mazor totally misses. If the viewer is disarmed and distracted by the outrageous, often inappropriate humor, when the true meaning of the piece crashes in and we see how chockfull of content the play’s metaphorical fake model apartment really is, the crescendo should be deafening.

Oddly enough, this alone is not enough to avoid seeing this well-intentioned and beautifully mounted production of what should be more universally considered a groundbreaking play. The problem is not in any way the fault of a gifted veteran cast, led by the amazing Marilyn Fox, who would be worth watching if she were reading us the phonebook. As Lola, Fox is luminous, particularly mesmerizing in her character’s two meaty monologues and distinctly able to skirt the unevenness in how the play has been construed by Mazor.
   Michael Mantell starts with spirit and style—his opening scene with Fox is a charmer—but as Max is crushed over and over again by the situations unfolding around him, instead of seeing the frustrations and disenchantment with his life festering inside, he just fades away into the scenery—again, indicative of the lack of a directorial eye, not an indictment of the actor’s abilities.
   As Debby, the couple’s obnoxious and severely mentally unstable daughter, Annika Marks suffers the most from misdirection, both too over-the-top in one way and not broad enough in another. In a final scene in which she also plays the ghost of Max’s exterminated daughter, Marks is absolutely captivating.
   But by having Marks play Debby right to the bone, her character’s extreme behavior appears to be more like a superficial solo performance than part of an ensemble. Unless an actor is let alone to craft Debby as outrageously big—her personality, not what’s stuffed into her well-padded velveteen jumpsuit—the play falls flat. Marks needs to be far more clownish or it feels as though she is playing at being a clown, not being one. As the uber-quirky Chloe Webb proved when the play first premiered at Los Angeles Theatre Center nearly 30 years ago (also starring Erica Yohn and the late great Milton Selzer), it takes a fearless actor willing to go all the way to extreme cartoon-like behavior to make the play work and the ending suitably jarring.
   Again, that’s not to say The Model Apartment isn’t an exceptional and still-disturbing play with much to offer here, only that this version misses the boat, leaving one to wonder if anyone checked the knots to see if it was still tethered to the dock.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
October 24, 2016
 
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe: Revisited
Davidson/Valentini Theatre at the Los Angeles LGBT Center

Lily Tomlin won a Tony Award in 1985 for playing all the characters in her partner Jane Wagner’s epic solo play The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, turned into a movie in 1991. Still, in a clear indication of how many times great art, particularly comedic art, germinates over long periods of time, the earliest incarnation of these characters and some of the material first appeared way farther back, in December 1975, when Wagner and Tomlin tested their wares before an appreciative live audience at San Francisco’s Boarding House, metamorphosed from the Troubadour North only a couple of years before. I remember the occasion well, as I booked Tomlin’s infamous engagement into the club during my tenure as talent coordinator of the two classic folk-rock venues.
   Although it’s hard to decipher from the program and publicity who should be credited for sparking the idea for a fully staged, 12-actor reinvention of this solo play, this “revisiting,” now premiering at the Davidson/Valentini Theatre at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, is as classic and as relevant as the original. What degree of personal attention to the transformation was given by Wagner is also not apparent, one might assume a majority of the credit should be given to the Center’s frequent contributor Ken Sawyer, who directs the piece with his signature brilliant ingenuity.
   On a smartly versatile stage designed by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz that seems created to only heighten Nicholas Santiago’s dazzlingly barrage of artistic period projections, all the now familiar characters created by Wagner and Tomlin are split among members of the outstanding ensemble—including a knockout and lovingly Tomlin-esque turn by Charlotte Gulezian, who introduces the evening as Trudy, the former executive–turned–bag lady who insists she converses with the space aliens looking for answers in the play’s very title.
   Ann Noble is hilariously acerbic as Kate, the grandly Beverly Hills-y client spouting dry evaluations of life and culture while waiting for her hairdresser to rinse her out. Other standouts include Sasha Pasternak as the dour, angst-ridden goth teen Agnes, for whom nothing in the world could possibly be good, and Rachel Sorsa and Julanne Chidi Hill as a pair of hookers telling all to a writer doing a story on working girls. Kristina Johnson is memorable as Lyn, whose character offers a fascinating CliffsNotes version of the evolution of the era’s escalating feminist movement, although the otherwise right-on costumer Paula Higgins hopefully chose a different visual statement than the distracting leotard top Johnson wore for opening night.

As this is the first incarnation of Revisited, further rearranging of the material should be considered, as the section featuring Johnson’s evolving young wife discovering and subsequently becoming disillusioned by her feminism gets overly long and weighs down the second act. Perhaps if the tale of Lyn and her equally fascinating cohorts in the movement were split into two parts, the first inserted into the more engaging and less heavy first act, the audience could leave feeling a little less shelled by verbal artillery fire. That sort of fluidity in Wagner’s work, so well solidified by Tomlin’s ability to jump from one character to the next, could surely be explored by Sawyer and his exceptionally talented company.
   That initial tryout of this “new” material by Tomlin during her Boarding House appearance 41 years ago garnered its own controversy, not for the beginnings of Wagner’s iconic exploration into activist humor but because one night Tomlin, encouraged by San Francisco’s typically openhanded audience response, stayed on after her second set until the wee hours of the morning to try out a new character: a spoiled, stoned-out celebrity railing at the audience about her luminosity and fame, a prophetic feminist Donald Trump way before its time.
   Unfortunately, as 7am approached and Tomlin’s roadie implored the last remaining 50 or so audience members to leave, many others who walked out along the way never realized Tomlin was doing an Andy Kaufman–inspired routine. They thought she had truly gone off the deep end and was not still performing but speaking as herself—something that seemed to make the performer even more eager to offend. The story of that night reached a national audience, including the National Enquirer, which wrote: “Lily Tomlin of Laugh-In fame went bananas on stage at San Francisco’s Boarding House. Lily stunned fans when she suddenly stopped her show and launched into a wild, senseless political harangue. She had to be led off the stage.” It was a hatchet-job I debunked in Rolling Stone magazine in a statement that stopped the tale from continuing.
   I thought back then that not many comedians are as able to perfectly fool Mother Nature, but then not many comedians are Tomlin, who blazed the path for so many others. Seeing the LGBT Center’s richly worthy reboot of The Search for…, I realized again one thing that so clearly contributes to any gifted performer’s ability to bravely go where no one has gone before: a writer as brilliant and as in tune with the universe, its foibles, and its wonders, as Wagner.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
October 23, 2016
 
The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare)
Blank Theatre Company at Skylight Theatre

Shakespeare wrote about the then-1,600-year-old assassination of a great leader way back in 1599, and The Tragedy of Julius Caesar has been told and retold for more than four centuries since then. It’s hard to know, just on the off chance that our poor victimized planet survives for 400 more, if the story of the assassination of John F. Kennedy will prove in the future to be equally enduring.
   The Blank Theatre’s founder and artistic director Daniel Henning has been obsessed with the Kennedy assassination, including all the various conspiracy theories surrounding it, since he was a teenager. Twenty-five years ago, while studying one of the Bard’s greatest epics, Henning saw the connection, and the idea for The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare) began to germinate. Using mostly dialogue directly lifted from the text of Julius Caesar, Henning adapted the work and updated the characters to become the ghosts of some of our country’s most powerful modern emperors and their advisors. Both Kennedy brothers, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., J. Edgar Hoover, and other various pivotal historical figures during one of the most destructive moments of the 20th century tell their own horrendous tale in classic fashion, their usual tunics and laurel wreaths replaced by Naila Aladdin Sanders’s quintessentially drab but impressively accurate 1960s costuming.

Here, the prime schemer is Hoover, played with an eerie malevolence by the brilliant Tony Abatemarco, so believable in his familiar, slightly revised lyrical arguments aimed at convincing his powerful comrades to commit an immoral politically motivated murder at the highest level, that it’s not hard to conceive this as possibly how it originally unfolded. Persuading his lover Clyde Tolson, Allen Dulles, and McGeorge Bundy (played by Cris D’Annunzio, Bruce Nehlsen, and Jacob Sidney, respectively), among other real-life members of the good ol’ GOP, to follow him on his quest to get rid of their president is scary enough, but when he drags Kennedy’s vice president into their malignant fold, the story does truly reach, if you’ll excuse the reference, Shakespearean proportions.
   As Johnson, the performance of Time Winters is uncanny and the heart of this production, which would be hard to imagine without his unique talents. The always arresting actor, who makes most of his living speaking in a slickly adopted British accent, totally nails Johnson’s Texas drawl, not to mention his usual lumbering shyness and perpetual deer-caught-in-the-headlights expression that so successfully hid the man’s huge and incredibly ambitious bravado. Susan Denaker is also a standout as Johnson’s wife Lady Bird, whose suspicions of what is about to happen tears her between loyalty to her husband and a quiet horror for the implications.
   As Bobby Kennedy, Chad Brannon comes into his own after the death of his brother, where Henning has fiercely adapted Mark Antony’s commanding “Friends, Romans, Countrymen…” monologue to be delivered over the late president’s American flag-draped casket. Under the nearly seamlessly fluid direction of Henning, who moves his large ensemble of players around the narrow Skylight Theatre stage as though engineering a perfect chess game, his entire supporting cast is uniformly and gloriously committed to the material.

This world premiere makes for a fascinating evening, and the sheer inventiveness of the project elicits high praise. This doesn’t mean there’s not still room for improvement, however, as the nearly two-hour intermissionless journey tends to become something of a one-trick pony. Once the premise is established and the correlation between the two stories becomes a given, where the action will go next and which moments of Shakespeare’s text will cleverly adapt into the new-told tale settles into a predictability that’s something of an inevitability.
   Perhaps the play might more effectively conclude following the emotionally rousing and imaginatively conceived musical moment featuring the spirited Civil Rights anthem “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” performed by the entire company joined at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. After that crescendoing moment, we squirm with dread knowing what will happen next to Martin Luther King (Brett Collier) and RFK, and, as Bobby falls, his death signals a rather indecisive and abrupt ending to the play. If this additional remembrance of more unnecessary carnage could be eliminated, or if it were followed by one of Will’s more pointed sonnets or some other speech that could sum up the point, it would be, well, a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
October 9, 2016
 
The Play About the Baby
The Road on Magnolia

Edward Albee, the father of the Americanization of the Theatre of the Absurd, was a huge supporter of the later work of Tennessee Williams. He believed strongly and vocally, as so many others have, that it was the disastrous critical reaction to this infinitely less-orthodox period in the great playwright’s body of work that killed him. Beyond that, he also believed those more-daring plays of Williams’s last gasps of genius, stubbornly determined to test the boundaries of his art while trying to regain his footing at literary greatness, were some of his best.
   When Albee wrote the strikingly bizarre The Play About the Baby in 1998, despite becoming a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama a few years later, the reviews along the way—though not as overtly brutal as they had been for poor Tennessee in his similar twilight years of groundbreaking theatrical exploration—were decidedly mixed. Many people seemed to forget that long before the amazing though more-conventionally rendered Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance, Albee received his first accolades of his career with incredibly unfathomable and decidedly unstructured plays such as The Sandbox, The Zoo Story, and The American Dream. “Sometimes,” Albee said of this turn, “a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly.”

The plot revolves around a young married couple who appear to be blissfully in love and as horny as rabbits in a field of steroid-soaked carrots. For The Boy (Phillip Orazio), the birth of their baby seems mostly to be a thrill because The Boy can share the mother’s milk from the left breast of The Girl (Allison Blaize), a surprising tableau performed onstage live in director Andre Barron’s no-holds-barred production. Their happy nirvana of an existence and frequent naked gambols chasing each other from one side of the stage to the other is interrupted by the unexpected appearance of a well-put-together older couple (Sam Anderson and Taylor Gilbert), whose arrival seems generated by not much more than to throw a horrifying wrench into the young folks’ idyllic reveries. “Without the wound of a broken heart,” The Man explains, “how do you know you’re still alive?”
   The first act introduces the dense subterfuge of Albee’s point, the crashing together of our unrealistic and capricious concepts about family and love, and how those notions swerve from fantasy into the realities of our often treacherous personal journeys through life. Under the deft direction of Barron guiding the engaging, confident delivery of Gilbert and Anderson in their characters’ demonstrative efforts to take control—often speaking directly to the audience about the absurdity of where the play itself is going—this is experimental Albee at its most accessible.
   The second act, however, as the older couple’s sinister intentions are revealed, gets a little bogged down and repetitive, as though the playwright felt the need to perform a theatrical coup de fouet so the dumbasses who go to see his plays will sit up and take notice of what he was trying to say. This makes it a greater challenge for Barron and his cast to maneuver Albee’s at-times nearly impenetrable text, yet this fine ensemble trudges through the persistent pitfalls with consummate skill and palpable passion to tell the convoluted story regardless of the degree of difficulty.

Road Theatre’s respectful and exquisitely mounted turn bringing this risky play to life should have been able to be touted as a West Coast premiere had it not been, according to the company’s founder and co-artistic director Gilbert, for the direct objection to that concept by the notoriously hands-on and infamously cranky Albee. Beyond insisting upon personal final authorization before anyone could be granted rights to any of his plays over the last decade or more, including demanding approval regarding casting, set design, and even costuming, he would not grant this production the premiere distinction since he would not be able to be there for the opening.
   There must have been some odd and disquieting feelings floating around and blanketing the Road’s opening night, which coincided with the announcement of the great playwright’s death at age 88 only a few hours earlier. If there would be any credence to the idea of ghosts and unsettled spirits hovering over the earth after their passing, the spectral Albee wouldn’t have been far away from Magnolia Boulevard that night—and after seeing what Barron and his company have accomplished with the creation of one of his often misunderstood works, the guy could definitely rest in peace.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
September 26, 2016
 
Blueberry Toast
Atwater Village Theatre

It’s a lovely sunny Sunday morning in the quintessential color-saturated suburban kitchen of Walt and Barb, who reside contentedly, it seems, in a welcoming bird-tweety neighborhood the couple acknowledges is heaven for Christians, Jews (“After all, they are the chosen people,” notes Barb), and maybe even a handful of conservative Unitarians. As Walt (Albert Dayan) reads his morning paper at their squeaky-clean, blindingly white kitchen table, Barb (Jacqueline Wright) straps on her freshly ironed apron to start preparing her hubby’s breakfast.
   Despite Walt’s insistence that he isn’t hungry, his impeccably Stepford-y little wifey won’t let it go. “You look ran-vuss, dear!” she insists. When Walt realizes Barb won’t give up, evidenced by her standing behind him whimpering like a badly wounded cat, he finally agrees to be served breakfast, something she finds to be, in her sweetly ordered everyday world, to be just plain wonderful. Anything he wants to eat, she tells him, will be his. Anything his “little teeny tiny heart” desires. A towering plate of blueberry toast is Walt’s eventual request—as well as the title of Mary Laws’s outrageous and wickedly funny world premiere black comedy.
   Unfortunately, it seems what Walt meant to request was blueberry pancakes, but Barb has worked hard to fabricate her new culinary creation, adding honey and smooshing lemon into the blueberries to make her concoction more special. Walt does not want her blueberry toast, regardless of how many times Barb remakes and tosses out the same dish with escalating frustration. And even as their adolescent children (played to Pee-wee’s Playhouse precision by adult actors Alexandra Freeman and Michael Sturgis) enter occasionally to perform chapters of their new play, each section featuring titles such as “The Dark and Humble Joys of Mankind,” things quickly unravel in the picture-perfect world of Walt and Barb.

Director Dustin Wills has no filter, fortunately, because nothing should be held back in Laws’s frantic romp devolving from Beaver Cleaver-land to Mad Max-dom, and no one could find the primal monster within the verbally abused and obviously cheated upon Barb than LA’s own counterculture theatrical heroine Wright. Only a handful of people in her unique category could so totally embrace this role and abandon the thin veneer of civilized behavior as successfully as she does. As Walt, Dayan gleefully goes along for the ride of his life, shouldering the task of becoming a physical punching bag of a Bud Abbott to Wright’s delightfully terrifying Lou Costello from hell.
   Amanda Knehans’s incredibly cheery primary color–washed set, whimsically adorned with the children’s Rorschach test–inspired art, random Quaker Oats boxes, Lawry’s Seasoned Salt containers, and an ADT Security Service Sticker slapped inconspicuously on the patio’s sliding glass door, becomes a fifth character in the story, particularly as her work is systematically destroyed during the play’s jaw-dropping 90-minutes of uproarious bad behavior. From the time Barb hurls her first real egg, in what appears to be aimed directly into the front row of the audience, to the final survival-of-the-fittest blood-spurting battle on the slippery tile floor, splendidly devised by fight choreographer Ahmed Best, Blueberry Toast is an E-ticket ride worthy of an interactive Halloween haunted house. Just to realize it takes three workers another 90 minutes each night to restore the stage to its sparkling bright glory tells it all.

So many playwrights would be lost without the dysfunctional nuclear family to shred, but if—and only if—it’s lampooned as flawlessly as Laws manages and it’s as beautifully produced, directed, and acted as by this stellar ensemble of courageously uninhibited artists, the overkilled genre can skirt getting too terribly old. Fighting off the anxieties of growing up banging against the ruthlessly demanding façade lurking just behind the pastoral tree-lined streets and acceptably closeted domestic lifestyles of suburban middle America can be a bear, which is what makes experiencing Blueberry Toast so satisfying. It’s oddly gratifying to see Walt and Barb crawling around their destroyed kitchen floor covered in blood and thrown food while growling like mortally wounded woodland creatures; now if only they passed out rain slickers and a few dozen eggs to the members of their audience, the experience might be just about perfect.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
September 25, 2016
 
Nosferatu: A Symphony in Terror
Crown City Theatre

This staged homage to German director F. W. Murnau’s 1922 classic, performed as silently as its source material, is a spectacularly inventive and surprisingly emotive presentation. A perfectly timed underscore, consisting of classical pieces ranging from Lizt’s energetic “Rhapsody on a Hungarian Folksong” to Prokofiev’s pounding “Battle on Ice” and even an eerily dissonant version of Eliza Flower’s “Nearer My God to Thee” (credited in the program as “Nearer My God to Me”) weaves together this seamless tale of love, horror, heroism, and tragedy.
   Having adapted his script from Henrik Galeen’s original screenplay, director William A. Reilly helms a cast of nine, which captures the cinematic style of this long-passed era. In doing so, the theatermakers collectively summon up the chilling effects and forebodingly gothic creepiness of Murnau’s original work.
   From the outset, a narrative track voiced by Saige Spinney plays on an upstage screen that offers not only black-and-white footage but also the traditional silent-film dialogue cards necessary for plotline advancement. Set in the bustling fictional German town of Wisburg, the love story of Thomas Hutter and his blushing bride, Ellen, unfolds via a beautiful pas de deux performed by Michael J. Marchak and Alina Bolshakova, who ably inhabit these characters.
   This elegant sequence is but a foretaste of choreographer Lisaun Whittingham’s exquisite work throughout the production. The company’s attention to detail in paralleling movement, whether through dance or accentuation of blocking, with the musical selections is most impressive.

As the story progresses and Marchak’s character travels to the farthest reaches of Eastern Europe in response to a real estate request placed by the mysterious Count Orlok, the remaining members of this hearty cast are featured in countless instances. Amanda Walter, Shaylynne Armstrong, Maddie Sieffert, Rolando J. Vargas, Matthew Campbell, and Kristian Steel change hats, as it were, with literally every appearance. As they act as part chorus, part stage crew, their efforts are fluid and flawless, with dozens of characters sweeping by before one’s eyes.
   Of course, every horror tale must have its monster, and here, in a seemingly perfect example of nontraditional casting, Michelle Holmes assumes the role of the dreaded Count Orlok. Sporting costumer Tanya Apuya’s spot-on re-creation of Orlok’s trimly cut, black long coat and the character’s iconic makeup design, Holmes’s graceful mannerisms belie the Count’s lurking deadliness. In particular, a second-act scene involving Orlok’s hypnotically puppet-like seduction of Ellen is masterful, as Holmes and Bolshakova interact with rhythmic precision.

Unlike today’s filmic gore fests, Murnau’s and, by extension, this moving production end with an emphasis on emotional impact rather than campy vivisectional carnage. Reilly, along with his company and design team—including Zad Potter’s lighting, Daniel Donato’s and Chris Thume’s previously mentioned projections and videos, and Joe Shea’s sound and music—provide a poignant denouement as courageousness ultimately trumps terror. It is a uniquely refreshing conclusion that makes this show a must-see for longtime fans and neophytes alike.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
September 22, 2016
 
Lost in Yonkers
Torrance Theatre Company

Neil Simon is known primarily for writing some of America’s funniest plays. But when he delves into universal human pain, he writes some of America’s best plays. He digs deeply in Lost in Yonkers, in production at Torrance Theatre Company through Oct. 16. And here, though Simon’s quirky characters and quip-filled dialogue are intact, director K.C. Gussler tenderly but purposefully focuses on the irreparable damage emotional and physical abuse can wreak on children.
   The play revolves around the Kurnitz family in Yonkers, N.Y. It’s 1942, and the war weighs heavily on the family. Grandma Kurnitz (Geraldine Fuentes), in physical pain since her childhood in Berlin when her foot was crushed, ultimately escaped the horrors of her native Germany, but not before life crushed her. Simon’s point here is how Grandma has passed her traumas on to her sons and daughters.

Granted, though the script won the 1991 Tony and Pulitzer, the characters aren’t Simon’s most multidimensional, likely because their true selves are hidden behind stoniness, tics and stunted growth. Indeed, the family members bear strong resemblances to fairy tale characters. Grandma is the cold, cruel witch into whose home, upstairs from the family sweet shop, come her grandsons Jay and Arty, who might as well be Hansel and Gretel, lured by the ice cream and pretzels but also because they have no other home.
   The boys’ Aunt Bella (Rebecca Silberman) is a childlike Cinderella, doing hideous tasks for the thankless Grandma but dreaming of a handsome prince, even though she barely knows him. Ultimately the play is Bella’s story, as she breaks away, in spirit if not in distance, from the shackles Grandma has kept her in.
   Jay, age 15 (Geoffrey Lloyd), and Arty, age 13 (Trevor Rinzler), are deposited into this environment by their widowed father, Eddie (Geoff Lloyd), while Eddie looks for jobs so he can pay off his late wife’s medical bills. He’s another of Grandma’s broken children. In his case, the damage seems relatively superficial: In her presence, he constantly weeps.
   When Grandma’s two other grown children arrive, the parade of broken souls is complete. Louie (Gary Kresca) has turned to a life of crime, his bluster serving as armor against his mother’s cruelty. The gentle Gert (Amanda Webb) was so traumatized, she still can’t even breathe correctly, sometimes inhaling as she speaks.

On the thoughtfully crafted set (Cary Jordahl and Mark Torreso), clad in Bradley Allen Lock’s detailed period costumes—shoes and hats included—the actors live convincingly as a family with lifetimes of dysfunction. Of particular note, the two youngest actors, Lloyd Jr. and Rinzler, display remarkable concentration throughout, not only delivering Simon’s humor but also revealing his characters’ fears and growing understanding.
   Eddie’s Lloyd is so cowed by his mother, he clutches at his sleeves and chews the inside of his mouth. Kresca’s Louie, given much of the play’s comedy, still finds the boy’s frightened heart behind the double-breasted suit. Webb melts into the delicate Gert, who although she can barely catch her breath through a sentence, wants her nephews to find their strength.
   But the play belongs to Bella, a role that first put the now legendary Mercedes Ruehl on the West Coast map. In Torrance, Silberman is mighty close to the standard Ruehl set. Her Bella is joyous despite Bella’s sad lot, hopeful despite a dearth of opportunities. But in just that moment when she stands up to protect the boys, Silberman’s voice loses its querulousness and her eyes blaze.
   At the play’s end, Bella plays the radio, something Fuentes’s stony Grandma would not have endured before. It plays Irving Berlin’s “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.” With a firm look at Grandma, Silberman lets us know Bella will now be taking care of hers, and her family’s hearts, with newfound skills, for years to come.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 19, 2016

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Center Theatre Group at Mark Taper Forum

Although Jitney was the first play in August Wilson’s 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle” (though rewritten in the next decade), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was Wilson’s first to debut on Broadway, in 1984, immediately putting him on the map. After he completed the last play in the series, written just before his untimely death in 2005, the 10 plays were more fittingly redubbed the American Century Cycle, and no 20th-century American playwright—not even Eugene O’Neill, Clifford Odets, nor Tennessee Williams—has so clearly honored with such homespun nobility the culture of an entire race of socially alienated and continuously ill-treated citizens.
   The only one of Wilson’s cycle not taking place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set in 1927 in the “Race Division” of a Chicago recording studio, where a group of veteran musicians gathers to back the real-life Gertrude “Ma” Rainey on one of her nearly 100 recordings. Known as Mother of the Blues, Rainey was one of the first African-American artists to set down tracks of her songs—though sadly she was hardly the first to be taken advantage of by greedy white entrepreneurs who cashed in on these great groundbreaking artists big time.
   All of Wilson’s characters chronicle the rocky history of his people in their first entirely free American century, speaking with all the colloquialisms and street lyricism of the black urban existence as they forge tenuously through a troubled 100 years. Perhaps nowhere is the cornerstone of his message more pure and historically fascinating than here, as we get to know the wonderfully resilient eccentrics who make up the fictionalized members of Rainey’s Georgia Jazz Band, central to the story as they orbit an eventful and not altogether peaceful day in her life.
   The guys kid one another mercilessly—disparaging their sexual prowess, whining about who bogarts the others’ reefers, arguing about who is the more valuable player among them. Although Rainey (in a showstopper turn by Lillias White) enters late to quickly begin terrorizing her band and bark orders at her employers, the easy, down-homey, world-wise teasing that pingpongs among her guys (Jason Dirden, Keith David, Damon Gupton, and Glynn Turman) is the heart and soul of Wilson’s story. Ma Rainey’s “Georgians” are indicative of the writer’s lifelong mission to explore the heritage of black Americans and chronicle their collective struggle to rise from the shame of slavery and claw their way to their rightful place: shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of us.

Director Phylicia Rashad brings an uncanny authenticity to the proceedings, eliciting exceptional performances from the majority of her ensemble, but it’s the performances of the boys in the band that deliver the greatest wallop. All four actors double on the band’s instruments—which three of the four learned specifically for this production. Steadfast Wilson interpreters David and Turman are overflowing with laidback charm as the eldest, eye-rolling members of the troupe, while Gupton, a conductor and the only member of the quartet who is also a musician, epitomizes the term double-threat. Still it is Dirden, playing Levee, who personifies the frustrations of an entire race of disenfranchised people, who indelibly generates the exasperations of Levee’s lot in life, consummately fleshing out the character’s massive arrogance while making his attitude easily fathomable.
   White has all the swagger, insolence, and huge-voiced imposing quality that got the crusty Rainey through her career, yet she contributes something only someone of her reputation can give, dipping deep into the knowhow her long and celebrated career as a musical theater marvel has afforded her. One could only wish about 45 minutes could have been added to the length of this magnificent revival of a magnificent play so White could have a lot more time at the old vintage standup carbon microphone. As Wilson notes, “Boy, it be an empty world without the Blues.”
   If Lorraine Hansberry hadn’t tragically died at age 34 before her voice had the opportunity to fully be heard, Wilson might have had a run for his money as the singularly most important African-American playwright of the 20th century. As things stand, however, his phenomenal Pittsburgh Cycle is a testament to the spirit and tenacity of an entire race of people fighting for a dignity and equality that to this day has never been fully realized. Wherever in time each of the stories takes place—beginning with his Gem of the Ocean, set in the first decade of the last century, on to Radio Golf unfolding 90 years later—no one has so clearly honored a majestic and irrepressible people or chronicled our country’s shameful racially inequitable past from then until the millennium as brilliantly as he did.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
September 15, 2016
 
Next to Normal
Pico Playhouse

Next to Normal is a contemporary musical in many ways. First produced in 2008, its style, language and most of all subject matter keep it far from the likes of Golden Age happy-ending shows. But the material is powerfully transportive, particularly when the performers are uniformly capable of making it so.
   The book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, set to music by Tom Kitt, step inside the head of a woman suffering mental illness and inside the dynamics of her family. At Pico Playhouse, the production’s subtitle, “An original musical,” certainly is truthfully descriptive.
   The Playhouse is a 99-Seat theater—often termed “intimate” theater, meaning everyone in the audience can see the actors’ faces. Those who have seen this material in much larger houses had hoped to someday see it up close.
   But intimate theater means we should also be able to hear the actors’ voices—without electronic amplification. This production mikes the actors and amplifies voices loudly. It’s director Thomas James O’Leary’s one choice that keeps this piece from being fully extraordinary.

The story centers on Diana (Michelle Lane), who has long been diagnosed as manic-depressive and given manifold medications. As we watch, she undergoes other psychiatric therapies. Pill bottles line her medicine cabinet, office and hospital visits fill her weeks. Her psychopharmacologist (Randal Miles) keeps her well-stocked. Eventually, a new practitioner (Miles again) tries various drug-free treatments on her.
   Her husband, Dan (Nick Sarando), is forbearing and stoic, but their high-achieving daughter, Natalie (Isa Briones), seems about to crack. Natalie feels ignored, simultaneously worrying that she might likewise develop mental illness, so she anesthetizes herself with mom’s stash of drugs and nights of clubbing. She’s so numbed that she can’t quite understand why a boy with a crush on her, Henry (Blaine Miller), patiently and devotedly hangs around.
   Diana seems to ignore Natalie in favor of Natalie’s brother, Gabe (Harrison Meloeny). He’s clearly Diana’s favorite child and best friend. And then the audience is let in on what has been going on in this family for years.

Kitt’s music, played by an offstage five-piece band conducted by music director Taylor Stephenson, is largely a musical-theater form of rock, with charming exceptions such as the ironically all-American “It’s Gonna Be Good” that befits Oklahoma!. But sometimes, when a tune turns urgent and propulsive, the voices don’t, and sometimes the performers are asked to belt when the lyrics and the place in the story’s progression don’t merit a belt.
   Still, under O’Leary’s helmsmanship, the performers’ realistic yet specific characterizations, and the depth of emotions they pull from the pen and paper of the score, are outstanding.
   O’Leary’s staging, too, beautifully blends realism with the kaleidoscopic story. At just a few points, however, because sightlines aren’t ideal at this theater, actors seated on the stage floor might be blocked from audience members’ views.

But, as if the story hadn’t emotionally wrung the audience out completely, near its conclusion the focus turns briefly to Dan. The man who has endured and held it all together, who stuck by Diana all these years, must now face his ghosts.
   “Give me pain, if that’s what’s real/It’s the price we pay to feel,” go the lyrics of the finale. The characters are beginning to recognize, understand and cope with their feelings. Next to Normal certainly helps its audiences get in touch with theirs.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
August 22, 2016

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
 
The Imaginary Invalid
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum

Conventional wisdom says laughter is the best medicine. Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum fills prescriptions in generous supply with its production of Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid, adapted by Constance Congdon. But beware: In doing so, it raises quite a stink.
   Ellen Geer, who over the last 40 years has performed probably every principal female role in classical dramatic literature at her late father’s woodsy outdoor theater in Topanga Canyon, is delving into male roles. Last season she excelled as Lear. This season she takes on Monsieur Argan, the eponymous hypochondriac of this 1670s comedy.
   As Madame Argan, Geer limns not a creature of long ago but someone we could know today. Imagining a plethora of illnesses, yes, but also deluding herself about the people around her, Argan is flattered by notoriety and obsessed with the latest in gadgets and remedies.
   That would be funny enough, but director Mary Jo DuPrey marvelously weaves in the sights and sounds, but fortunately not smells, of commedia dell’arte.
   The joy of being at this show is the contrast between the sophistication of going to the theater and the humor we loved in the third grade. Human behavior and the quirks of our culture occupy much of the play, but the passage of wind through the inner tunnels of the body and out one end occupies its own noisy portions.
   Intimation is the sincerest form of flatulence, so sound designer Ian Flanders has a variety of toots up his, er, sleeve. At the first one, audience members peek around to see if anyone else is cracking a smile. Fear not. The show draws smiles, snurkles, and full-blown giggles. Its two-hour running time (including intermission) bounces along, as visual and verbal jokes tumble over the aforementioned audial ones.

The supporting cast meets the challenge of keeping up with Geer’s wonderfully classical portrayal of Argan. Willow Geer plays Argan’s daughter Angelique, the actor’s airy, high-pitched voice working beautifully here, because it suits the frothy character and because it’s clear and audible. Her bouncy ringlets and a huge meringue of a dress (costume design by Vicki Conrad) add to her tonal perfection, as Angelique swings from girlish despair through true adoration of her mama.
   Melora Marshall is Argan’s right-hand servant, Toinette. Marshall has one of the most expressively malleable faces in the business. But she doesn’t even need that face to coax laughter from us when she disguises herself behind Groucho glasses to play Argan’s latest physician.
   Memorably, Cameron Rose plays Claude de Aria (yes indeedy, pronounced, more often than not, as “diarrhea”). Rose’s rooster of a character is, fortunately deliberately, one of the strangest ever to strut the classical stage. With his pinched, white-powdered face under a towering wig of hennaed curls, he’s the opposite of the picture of physical health. Then we get to know his mental health.
   Katherine Griffith plays a notary and an apothecary, her physical comedy animating both. Max Lawrence makes a sturdy, true-blue lover Cleante. And when Cleante and Angelique perform their improvised opera while the other characters watch in various shades of dismay, Tim Halligan’s Dr. Purgeon hilariously looks like he’s wondering if the restaurant down the road is still open.

Zachary Moore’s lighting palette starts out in pretty pink, but it switches to poison purple accompanied by a thunder clap and that “uh oh” bar of music when Argan’s new young husband, Beline (Jonathan Blandino), shows up or is even mentioned.
   But if you’re looking for a serious message, near the play’s end Argan wakes up in moments that reach back to Greek drama for their depth and power.
   Not to give the ending away, but the concept of “physician heal thyself” might be the best medicine. As is laughter, leaving this show’s audience with a healthy dose that lasts through the trip home.
  

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
August 15, 2016

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.

 
A Raisin in the Sun
Ruskin Group Theatre

What happens to a dream deferred?” asked Langston Hughes in his 1951 poem “Harlem.” “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”
   Too many deferred dreams have been keeping the Younger family tamped down in Lorraine Hansberry’s 1958 classic, getting a thoughtful revival at Santa Monica’s Ruskin Group Theatre.
   The racism and classism of the 1950s are roadblocks society has set up, but family dynamics play a part, too, in keeping the Youngers from reaching their potential. Living in cramped quarters, with frustrations simmering, the Youngers reach a crossroads when a large insurance payment comes their way and each of them dreams of how to use the money.
   Walter Lee Younger (Redaric Williams) and his wife, Ruth (Angelle Brooks), live with his Mama (Starletta DuPois) in her one-bedroom Chicago tenement apartment. So does Walter’s sister, Beneatha Younger (Charlotte Williams), and Walter and Ruth’s young son, Travis (Jaden Martin). Walter works as a chauffeur, Ruth and Mama clean houses. They’re exhausted, they feel demeaned, and tempers flare.
   Mama’s late husband left her a life insurance policy, which is paying off in the sum of $10,000. Mama wants to buy a house in Clybourne Park, a “better” area that happens to be all-white. Walter wants to invest in a liquor store. Beneatha is on track to attend medical school.

These and other crosscurrents of dissention and long-brewing conflicts surely were mined, analyzed and then toned down by director Lita Gaithers Owens, leaving the stage free for her exceptionally fine cast to feel like family but not “act” out every bit of subtext. What the audience sees is truth: family members who respect one another but who chafe under the many constraints on them.
   Visitors to the home, reflecting America outside the Youngers’ door, include Beneatha’s wealthy, “assimilationist” suitor George (understudy A.J. Davis at the performance reviewed) and Beneatha’s scholarly Nigerian suitor, Asagai (Mohirah Hall).
   Darkening their doorstep is Karl Lindner (Josh Drennen), sent there to represent Clybourne Park’s unwelcoming welcoming committee. Walter’s fellow investor, up against another form of man’s cruelty to man, is Bobo (understudy Garrett Michael Green). The overly enthused next-door neighbor Mrs. Johnson has been cut from this version.

The technical theater elements are extraordinary. Ryan Wilson and Eric Barron’s set design is not only spectacularly sturdy for a 99-Seat show but also suits the theater’s two-sided configuration (though audience members at far house right can’t see into the alcove that serves as Ruth and Walter’s bedroom).
   Sarah Figoten Wilson’s costuming, particularly for the women, is period delightful and, if it includes hair design, surpasses first-rate. Chip Bolcik’s sound design includes a vacuum cleaner that actually sounds as if it’s coming from above the ceiling. Barron handled set dressing and props, and these include wonderful old-time items that, if we’re not careful, take us off on our own dreams.
   Hughes asks a final question in his poem about a dream deferred: “Or does it explode?” Each generation has done better than its predecessor. Beneatha has options, and the more education she’ll get, the more options she’ll have. Young Travis likely will, too; he respects his grandmother but is confidently starting on his own path.
   Upstage, the little window—where, as Hansberry describes it, sunlight fights its way through—is created with weathered wood and peeling paint, and we can spot rusting fire escapes just outside. But the window also hosts a tiny plant, a bit of growth, a symbol of possibilities. No sagging, no festering, as Langston ponders. The greenery survives and will thrive. Hansberry posits opportunity—for the family, for Chicago, for the nation.


Reviewed by Dany Margolies

August 8, 2016

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
 
Space
Stella Adler Theatre

On a screen above the stage flashes the opening titles for a scratchy black-and-white movie that immediately evokes the gloomy visage of a mid-1940s B-thriller starring Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and of course Lionel Atwill as the town’s suspicious burgermeister. Over the images roll the titles: The film was written by Kurt Finge, directed by Kurt Finge, starring Kurt Finge, and with the same multitasking auteur listed as everything from composer to set designer to editor.
   So begins the world premiere of the ambitious and equally atmospheric Space, a complex head trip written by Stefan Marks, directed by Stefan Marks, designed by Stefan Marks, featuring original music composed by Stefan Marks, and—guess what?—starring Stefan Marks as Kurt Finge. Orson Welles had his Charles Foster Kane; Marks has Kurt Finge, and his story is just as complex and dark a mystery as that grander epic.
   Finge is desperately trying to navigate the modern tech-driven world as he sits cross-legged on the floor, explaining in an often ominous and disquieting opening monologue that we, like him, are amazing and have vast untapped potential. Apparently Finge has had a lot of time to think about this concept, having spent the last 30 years incarcerated in a mental hospital after a possibly fatal knife attack on his mother (Rachel Parker). He admits counting sheep has not helped him sleep as he grasps for answers, once spending three days tallying up to 500,000 of the wooly little suckers gone a’leapin’.
   Whether the act that sent him into isolation really happened or not, his victim keeps showing up on the scene, giving him maternal grief for the wastefulness of his life. But oddly, Mommy Dearest appears to be younger than he is now. Finge’s story zips back and forth through time faster than a Kurt Vonnegut novel, and the characters are also not always consistent. His therapist (Samantha Smart) may or may not be falling in love with him and may or may not have accepted to his proposal of marriage, while his father (Joel Flynn, in for Michael Matthys), who disappeared years before by escaping into outer space in a hot air balloon, may in reality be his doctor.
   As the tale unfolds, Finge releases layers of suspended fabric made from parachute material, revealing various Caligari-esque doors and a massive opening disappearing into a glittery star-studded curtain that resembles either the aperture of a giant camera, a black hole lurking deep in the cosmos, or even perhaps a welcoming human anus. This is all augmented by a series of projections that includes various views of deep space, a panoramic ascension of a colorful balloon, even the birth of a computer-generated child who frees himself from his umbilical cord with a butcher knife as his naked mother continues to jog into the horizon.

Marks’s dialogue is arrestingly poetic and incredibly evocative, as are all four performances—especially his own, something which, while doubling as director, the multitasking playwright surely orchestrated. At first, the fact that all his characters seem to speak in the same rhythms and with similar thoughts seemed to be the play’s Achilles’ heel, but as things unravel and pieces of Finge’s puzzling mind are uncovered and exposed, this connection makes perfect sense.
   There is often a good argument against one person wearing so many artistic hats in the birthing of his or her own material. Here, although the uniformly committed performances and Marks’s truth-seeking are clear and passionate, there’s also a kind of overwrought and heavily choreographed aura that permeates his staging, as though every gesture and move of his human pawns are completely preordained and somewhat robbed of spontaneity, as though everything that unfolds has been restricted by Marks’s inescapable personal vision.

Yet, speaking of choreography, when he and Smart suddenly break into a dance paying obvious homage to Ginger and Fred, the author’s ingenuity shows its limitless inventiveness, and every other predetermined moment governing his dramatization is easily forgiven. Also impressive are the original ballads that come out of nowhere in the storyline, composed and sung by Marks or in duet with Smart, proving that this guy is something of an ingenious one-man band. It would be surprising if Space did not one day transform into Space the Musical.
   Like Welles’s Citizen Kane, Finge’s movie-within-a-play goes on to win an Oscar for Best Picture during a scene played out in a flashback—or is it a flash forward? Yes, Orson Welles had nothing on Stefan Marks—except for a few million dollars of semi-liquid cash, some wine not sold before its time, and access to a sled called Rosebud.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
August 1, 2016
 
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Sierra Madre Playhouse

In the grand scheme of things, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is only as good as its cast, and Sierra Madre has that nailed with a terrific ensemble who enliven William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s amusing take on competition among the young.
   The story is simple: A group of middle-school winners of previous bees are gathered to determine the contestant who will go on to the national competition. Combat is fierce, and who will win is anyone’s guess.
   Former winner and local realtor Rona Lisa Peretti (Gina D’Acciaro) is in charge of the bee, and she is joined by Vice-Principal Douglas Panch (Richard Van Slyke), a nervy deliverer of words, definitions, and sentences that pack a lot of the humor of the show.
   The third adult in the scenario is Mitch Mahoney (Jaq Galliano), a rough and rugged offender doing his community service by giving the losing contestants a hug and a juice box. Though the focus in on the children, the adults deliver a plethora of funny and touching moments throughout.

The first child we meet is Chip (Joey Acuna Jr.), an appealing boy scout whose song, “My Unfortunate Erection,” portends early elimination. Next is Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre (Hannah Leventhal), her school’s gay and straight alliance leader, with two pushy dads.
   Then there’s Leaf Coneybear (Robert Michael Parkinson), who designs his own clothes and is third-place winner of his local bee. He is a surprise selection because winners 1 and 2 are at a bar mitzvah. William Barfée (Stanton Kane Morales), whose attempts to get the judges to pronounce his last name correctly are futile, is awkward and has a magic foot that helps him spell the words.
   Olive Ostrovsky (Cristina Gerla), whose mother is in India in an ashram and father is absent from the event, offers the most affecting portrayal in the production as she pines for affection in “I Love You.”
   Last up is Marcy Park (Joy Regullano), a parochial-school whiz whose deadpan demeanor belies her inner child. Her considerable prowess at acrobatics, musical talent, and facility with six languages are showstoppers.
   Four additional cast members are selected from the audience, and, at the performance attended, they were a delight. Minimally prepared ahead of time, they handled their words like spelling bee pros.

Director Robert Marra gives his actors plenty of leeway for individual portrayals, and the production is crisp and nicely paced. Though the musical numbers are mostly vehicles for spotlighting the characters, Joe Lawrence’s musical direction is excellent, and Marra’s choreography keeps things lively. The voices are universally outstanding in every number.
   Jeff Cason’s set and lighting create a realistic gym with its concrete block walls and adjustable bleacher seats that serve the cast well. A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s costumes are inspired, particularly William’s and Leaf’s.
   Though the emphasis is on humor, the story packs a punch as insecurities and issues of acceptance are all too realistic. Adults playing children can often be a bit precious, but these actors are spot on as they fully inhabit each quirky character. This is a true ensemble piece that is notable for its polish and high quality.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
July 27, 2016
 
Cabaret
Pantages Theatre

In Joe Masteroff’s book for that rising phoenix of all 20th-century musicals, Cabaret, poor doomed Herr Schultz reminds us that it’s not always a good thing to reach for the lowest apple on the tree. It’s impossible not to grasp the frightening analogy when Pantages Theatre’s opening night of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s North American tour of its nearly 20-year-old revival of Cabaret coincides with primitive tribal drumbeats of the Republican National Convention.
   Based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 memoir Goodbye to Berlin, Cabaret was first adapted for the stage in 1951 by John Van Druten’s I Am a Camera. By 1966, when Masteroff collaborated with composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb to turn the story into a musical, the tenor of the times dictated that some of the depth and meaning of Isherwood’s original indictment of the ominous political developments in Europe, as Hitler and his malevolent party came into prominence and turned the world around, be softened for Broadway audiences hungry for mindless entertainment.
   Bob Fosse’s classic 1972 film version also sanitized the horrors of the tale a bit, but it wasn’t until 1998, when Rob Marshall revived the musical in true cabaret style at New York’s legendary nightclub Studio 54, that the grittiness and nastiness that should have been attended to all along became the focus of the production. This version’s dancers at Berlin’s seedy Kit Kat Club sport tattoos, bruises, hair that appears to have not been washed in weeks, and the randy, unflinching sexuality that permeated the anything-goes Weimer-era of Berlin’s nightlife, depicted here in all its counterculture splendor.

Many touring productions on the dusty road as long as this one suffer from a lack of sparkle: the sets get a tad creaky and frayed and the performances phoned in. This production, however, is sharp and crisp in every regard, from the re-creation of Marshall’s original direction and sexually charged choreography (by BT McNicholl and Cynthia Onrubia, respectively), to Robert Brill’s stark but critical set design and William Ivey Long’s suitably colorful yet shabby costuming.
   Above all, the cast here is stellar. The dancing ensemble, all of whom, like in the 1998 revival, double on musical instruments to complete the show’s band, are exceptional in their roles, writhing with hot, near-acrobatic eroticism while still able to pick up a sax or a trumpet and wail as plaintively as scantily clad versions of Cannonball and Dizzy. Alison Ewing plays a mean accordion, especially in the chilling Nazi-pride ballad “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” yet is perfect when playing that human revolving door of inexpensive sex Fraulein Kost, as well as doubling in the Kit Kat numbers as Fritzie and delivering a dynamite version of “Married” with Shannon Cochran and Mark Nelson as Frau Schneider and Herr Schultz.

As those star-crossed AARP-aged lovers, Cochran and Nelson bring the play’s sometimes overshadowed subplot, involving the initially sweet but poignantly ill-fated romance between the world-weary boarding house owner and her elderly Jewish suitor to full fruition. Nelson breaks hearts in his plaintive reprise of “Married,” and Cochran summarily steals the show—and elicits audience applause at her exit—with the haunting ballad “What Would You Do?” played directly out front to the house filled with people who right now desperately need to listen to its message.
   Lee Aaron Rosen is exceptional as Isherwood-clone Clifford Bradshaw, bringing something unusually strong and vibrant to a role that can often dissolve in the grandness of the rest of the eccentric and flamboyant characters. Alto saxophonist Ned Noyes is a wonderfully suave and eventually mighty creepy Ernest Ludwig; violinist Leeds Hill is a standout as Cliff’s guilty pleasure chorus boy Bobby; and Samantha Shafer as Kit Kat Girl Rosie can also straddle and twirl a mean cello.
   As that infamous anti-heroine Sally Bowles, Andrea Goss is a knockout, from the raucous “Mein Herr,” the first number that so arrestingly introduces her character, to her broken, hauntingly brutal, and scratched out rendition of the musical’s title number that sends her off at the end to thunderous applause. Thankfully, her solo “Maybe This Time,” written by Kander and Ebb for Liza Minnelli to sing in Fosse’s movie, has also been added here, and again Goss knocks it right out of the majestic Pantages.

Still, the toughest character to assay is the Emcee, who exhaustively oversees the action when not performing with the Kit Kat dancers. Joel Grey and Alan Cumming are impossible acts to follow from those notoriously successful versions of the musical, as is the indelible memory of Michael C. Hall in his celebrated turn in Ivey Long’s sexy suspenders. When it was first announced that Queer As Folk alum Randy Harrison would be appearing the role during its LA run, it was hard not to roll one’s eyes.
   Instead, Harrison is a major revelation. His Emcee is more than an energetic rehash of those stars who’ve come before him; he grabs the character by the balls—as well as those of the actors playing Bobby and Victor, of course—and instantly makes it his own. His voice is stronger than any Emcee who came before him, and he is a comedic knockout in the once-scrubbed “Two Ladies,” as the Emcee simulates various sexual positions with Dani Spieler as Lulu and Hill in drag as his greedy bedmates in a tuneful and hilarious ménage à trois. And when Harrison delivers a melancholy, breathy, desolate rendition of the striking “I Don’t Care Much,” mocking the despair, hunger, and avarice lurking just below the good times as Germany is about to lose its soul, a dropped pin would make the loudest ping in the massive deco-dripping auditorium.
   Above all, of course, besides the majestic score by the greatest songwriting partnership of the last century, the message Cabaret so clearly intends to drive home, something reimagined by Marshall in 1998 with the most indelible and devastating ending of any musical in theater history, is what makes it so important. Starting with the usual degree of infectious fun and life-is-beautiful-itis that makes people run to the musical stage for relief from the daily horrors around us, by final curtain we are sufficiently drained and left to ponder the encroaching scariness of the world we have created for ourselves—or have blithely let be created around us.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
July 21, 2016
 
Grey Gardens
Ahmanson Theatre

What becomes a legend most? A musty-smelling old Blackglama mink coat was probably being devoured by moths in the back of Edith Bouvier Beale’s dilapidated closet. But in the case of the musical adaptation of the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, nothing could be more becoming than to have Beale portrayed by one of Broadway’s most enduring living legends, the inimitable Betty Buckley. Although the role is supporting, not surfacing fully until after intermission, anyone would be hard-pressed to come away from the Ahmanson’s smartly packaged revival of the musical without Buckley’s name foremost on their lips.
   The tour-de-force performance by Rachel York as Edith’s certifiable daughter “Little” Edie is also high on the list of becoming things about this production. York is equally spectacular, picking up every bizarre peculiarity, nervous tick, and inexplicable nuance of encroaching insanity the real Little Edie so graciously exhibited for Albert and David Maysles’s probing cameras some 46 years ago.
   The then-unknown filmmakers shot footage at the crumbling raccoon- and rodent-infested estate, also home to 52 stray cats, unrelentingly following the two formerly incredibly wealthy, once highly connected socialites inexplicably spending their golden years living in poverty in the derelict mansion where the county health department was constantly at their heels.

Under the loving direction of Michael Wilson, York and Buckley chew the scenery—in a good way. York appears to literally be channeling the odd physicality of Little Edie in every regard, to the point where, when she manages to nail one of the loony 56-year-old’s many goofy quirks that helped make the documentary such a success, the audience hoots and applauds in grateful recognition. York hilariously re-creates Little Edie’s infamous American flag dance from the documentary, her image like so many others projected behind her on the set as the characters are recorded live by two onstage videographers, and she’s also given a welcome chance to show off her magnificent pipes in “The Revolutionary Costume for Today.”
   But just when you think nothing Buckley has accomplished in her illustrious half-century career could be topped, here she is ready to knock everyone out of their chairs once again as the dying semi-invalid Big Edie, her signature voice wavering from Florence Foster Jenkins moose-calls into her own unmistakably glorious song stylings. She is especially memorable in the recurring haunting ballad “Around the World” and heartbreaking in the lonely, plaintive “The Cake I Had.”
   Bookwriter Doug Wright’s first act takes place in 1941 before the Beales lost their minds, which craftily leaves the second act free for the company to re-create their sadly dysfunctional world in 1973 as the film was being shot on the property. It’s a brilliant concept, although it leaves Act 1 feeling rather old-fashioned and stuffy, with every detail of the great old estate shown in perfect detail and Ilona Somogyi’s gorgeous costuming looking as though designed by Edith Head.
   This is also accentuated by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie’s waltz time-y score, which could have been composed by Charles K. Harris at the end of the 19th-century rather than reflecting the 1940s—something Big Edie might have found more compatible with her lifestyle and singing talent. If someone was not familiar with the documentary and aware of what would unfold when the action switches to 1973, however, the intermission might be a time for some patrons to decide to take off early.

Still, the Act 1 performances are also golden. York here plays Big Edie and Sarah Hunt appears as her daughter, not quite ready to relinquish her sanity to care for Big Edie and live a hermit’s existence for the rest of her life despite her mother’s penchant for driving her suitors away “faster than a social disease.” The other people in the Beales’s life, including Little Edie’s soon-discouraged suitor Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (Josh Young) and Big Edie’s evangelistic radio guru Norman Vincent Peale (Simon Jones) are played by a fine ensemble assaying multiple roles with ease.
   Almost seeming like a character, Jeff Cowie’s set is magnificent, the same grand and painfully pristine living room of the mansion revealed in Act 2 to look as though a tornado had hit the property. Howell Binkley’s lighting and Jason H. Thompson’s dynamic projections, which include foliage outside high windows that wave in the breeze and overgrown vines overtaking the exterior in the later period, add significantly to the sweeping spectacle of this show, enveloping but still allowing a palpable intimacy to the tale despite the stateliness and rich appointments of the Ahmanson stage.
   It’s quite an accomplishment that Grey Gardens can be so splendidly mounted and yet the story of the Beales’s miserable and horribly codependent lives unfolds without being overpowering. That can be credited more to the vision of Wilson and the indelible performances of York and Buckley, both of whom deserve the title theatrical legend—and Los Angeles is lucky to have them here working miracles few artists could possibly imagine.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
July 14, 2016
 
Four Chords and a Gun
Bootleg Theater

The specter of fame daunted the miscreant members of the original 1970s punk rock band The Ramones. They were four schleppy dudes from Queens, slouching around in leather bomber jackets to give them credibility, who couldn’t believe there was an audience who respected and understood them. For Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Marky Ramone—aka Jeffrey Hyman, John Cummings, Douglas Colvin, and Marc Steven Bell, respectively, their names inspired by Paul McCartney’s pseudonym Paul Ramon during his Silver Beetle days—it was kinda like “reverse high school,” a time when they were surely anything but the popular kids.
   Playwright John Ross Bowie has combined fact with fiction to reimagine the events leading to the creation of the band’s fifth album, “End of the Century,” for which the band teamed with the music business’s most infamous sociopath Phil Spector to finally afford it the unprecedented hit it needed so badly. Journeying from New York, where Joey has been camping out for years on their manager’s living-room couch and the others still lived with their parents, the band members experience intense culture shock when they arrive at Spector’s massive LA mansion and are greeted by the legendary Lugosi-cape-clad music producer in his own lair. It’s a place so grand that they keep getting lost in its multitude of rooms. Their host doesn’t fare much better himself, having no idea whether one of the many priceless acquisitions gracing his walls is a Monet or a Degas or if it’s French or Dutch.

The Ramones’s days are long and difficult, working under the oppressive guidance of the persnickety Spector (a flawlessly creepy Josh Brener), who describes himself as a little Jewish munchkin with asthma, panic attacks, and an overwhelming need to prove himself. He clashes with Johnny (Johnathan McClain), an avowed anachronism as perhaps the world’s only conservative Republican punk rocker. But Spector craftily forges a special bond with the severely OCD-afflicted Joey (Matthew Patrick Davis), whom he describes as “another New York yid stuck in the wrong desert.” He knows Joey is the real star of the group, with a voice he says sounds like an “angel with a dick.”
   During the album’s volatile months of sessions, Spector prophesizes his future by repeatedly pulling his gun on the band members, culminating when he sticks its barrel in the mouth of the blissfully zonked out Dee Dee (Michael Daniel Cassady) to make Johnny return to the studio to set down the four guitar chords he has been tinkering with for four hours straight.
   Spector is miserably frustrated by the band’s lack of a work ethic, aware of what its potential could bring him if the quartet wasn’t so fucked up: Johnny on his John Birch–fueled anger, Joey with emotional issues so severe he doesn’t like to go outside, Dee Dee quelling his nerves with massive amounts of drugs, and Marky (James Pumphrey) all but stymied by his world-class lethargy. This all makes for a fascinating and often hilariously conflicted story, although inevitably the play gets a tad bogged down as the four slowly, painfully spiral downward.

This is not to say this cast isn’t completely spectacular and gloriously unfiltered; that Bowie’s script isn’t enormously clever, lightning quick, and uproariously funny; or that director Jessica Hanna’s brilliant staging isn’t continuously kinetic, an impressive feat in which even the scene changes are choreographed to fit each band member’s quirky body language.
   McClain is particularly noteworthy as Johnny, acting only from the nose-down as the rest of his face peers out from below wigmaker Lauren Wilde’s signature Johnny Ramone bangs, his vocal calisthenics and burdensome slouch totally nailing the conflicted rocker who lurched around with the weight of the world squarely on his shoulders. Cassady is also a standout, although Dee Dee’s continuous pacing and coke-fueled nervous energy often pulls focus when it should not. Arden Myrin provides a memorable presence as Linda Daniele, the squeaky-voiced bimbo groupie who leaves Joey for Johnny, causing the guys to never speak to one another again through years subsequently spent touring and performing.
   The work chronicles a period when the music business though it would change the world as no one had ever done, then got so continuously wasted and bogged down by the trials of life that only a fraction of what might have been transformed and improved actually happened. In that regard, this play succeeds magnificently, a seamless though sad tribute to the broken dreams and lost opportunities that crushed a promising generation.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
July 11, 2016
 
Richard III
Independent Shakespeare Company at Griffith Park

Summer is a time of tradition. Be it a trip to the beach, an afternoon barbecue and pool party at grandma’s, or—as many Angelenos have come to enjoy—a night of Shakespeare under the stars. Surrounded by the long-abandoned exhibit spaces of Los Angeles’s original zoo in Griffith Park, this season’s outdoor ode to the Bard kicks off with an inspired take on perhaps the most heinous occupant of England’s throne.
      Melissa Chalsma helms this pleasantly spry rendition. Obviously, the talent running rampant about this platformed playing space is more than responsible for making this an engaging night of theater. So too, though, is Chalsma’s dramaturgical skill as she, along with the show’s star David Melville, has integrated portions of a little-known version of this tale dating back to 1699 and attributed to a colorful actor-manager-playwright named Colley Cibber, later the poet laureate of England. The result is an outstandingly viewer-friendly production that had audience members of all ages gasping viscerally at the conscienceless actions of the last Plantagenet to wear the crown.

Melville is a treasure when it comes to interpreting Shakespeare’s works. One moment he elicits a guilty laugh from his audience with an unpredictable line-reading, and the next he garners boos and hisses as he exposes Richard’s darkest recesses. Offering only small glimpses of Richard’s stereotypical hunchback and limp, Melville’s is a characterization capitalizing on psychopathic revelry, which elevates the action from mere tragedy to a viciousness unseen in even most of this author’s other villains.
   Balancing Melville’s achievements is a group of female characters who are, each in her own way, just as commanding and critical to the storyline’s advancement. As the quickly dethroned Queen Margaret, she of the House of Lancaster, Kalean Ung is out-of-this-world fantastic. Her first-act delivery of Margaret’s prophetic indictment of Richard’s soon-to-come horrors is spine-tingling.
   Equally gripping is Ung’s scene in Act 2 opposite Bernadette Sullivan’s regal turn as Richard’s regret-filled mother, the Duchess of York, and Aisha Kabia’s heart-wrenching realization of Elizabeth, Richard’s sister-in-law, whose attempts to save her own children fall woefully short. Glancing about the sloping hillside that serves as this venue’s seating area, one could see audience members leaning forward enraptured by this trio of performances.
   One and all, Chalsma’s supporting players offer fine work as well. William Elsman’s Duke of Buckingham carries just the right amount of sly corruption as he assists Richard in his devilish ascendency. Mary Goodchild handles one of Shakespeare’s most difficult roles with exceptional believability: Her Lady Ann, first widowed by Richard’s slaying of her husband and then wooed into Richard’s bed before becoming yet another of those on the list of the dead, is surprisingly sympathetic.

Various cast members, in the form of a heavy metal–inspired band/chorus directed by Chris Porter, provides transitions and augmentations during and between scenes. Melville’s musical compositions, often incorporating Latin lyrics (a program translation would have been welcomed) become increasingly haunting as the plot thickens.
   Scenic designer Caitlin Lainoff has provided a simple upstage wall with symmetrically located doorways. Bosco Flannagan’s lighting ably picks up the slack as the sun sets by the midway point of Act 2, plunging the park into darkness. Garry Lennon’s costuming is appropriately regal yet somehow slightly decaying in nature as if to accentuate the internal destruction Chalsma’s direction highlights in this first-rate production.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
July 4, 2016
 
Beautiful
Pantages Theatre

Stories like this have been told before, many in exactly this way, where a naysaying parent and a self-doubting inner voice cannot stem the creative force of an artist who soars above them to shape an art form.
   Beautiful recounts the early years of Carole King, whose words, music, indeed voice, were the soundtrack of her generation—and apparently of many others, judging by the warm multigenerational reception this jukebox musical earned opening night of this national tour’s short run at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre.
   Like other biographical shows, book writer Douglas McGrath’s story begins with a brief glimpse of the artist at the top of her field, then flashes back to her earliest attempts to ply her talents. It includes a failed romance for the artist but a blossoming one between the comedic-relief second-banana couple.
   It includes in-jokes that everyone will catch on to. It matches moments in the story with well-known songs. It plunges the artist into painful circumstances, then shows her rising above them to become the legend we know.
   So why does this very ordinary musical feel so extraordinarily—dare it be said—beautiful? In large part it’s the music, every one of the more than two dozen songs a hit in its day. They’re interestingly orchestrated and arranged, albeit in Broadway style, by Steve Sidwell, and choreographer Josh Prince captures yet modernizes the choreography of the era. But in equally large part it’s the performances. They’re helmed by Marc Bruni. His staging is effective, but his greater contribution here was in delving into to the hearts of the characters.

So as soon as we meet Abby Mueller as Carole Klein, just before King sanitized her name, we start to love this Brooklyn-accented, insecure yet single-minded girl. Mueller’s credits include the crystalline soprano roles of Fantine in “Les Mis” and Cinderella in “Into the Woods,” but her apparent vocal versatility lets her deliver King’s iconic “blue-eyed soul” while making King seem just like a natural woman. (Mueller’s sister, Jessie Mueller, won the Tony Award for this role, but the touring version’s Mueller can’t be far off that benchmark.)
   Playing Gerry Goffin, whom King married when she was 17, Liam Tobin quietly reveals the man we come to hate yet pity, a bipolar philanderer who can’t help but hurt King — causing the wounds from which came her most-influential, most-memorable, most-piercing songs.
   To lighten the show, McGrath plays compare and contrast, gently pitting King and Goffin against their songwriting contemporaries Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. Becky Gulsvig plays Weil, who is witty, pretty, sophisticated, independent and catnip for Ben Fankhauser as the neurotic, hypochondriacal, comedically morose but wise Mann.
   Curt Bouril makes hugely successful music producer Don Kirshner supportive, inclusive yet a bit of a jokester, who knows how to hire and then how to get the best of his team. Kirshner certainly took a chance on a 16-year-old King, but he heard extraordinary talent in her first notes—as did his thought-she-heard-it-all-before secretary (Salisha Thomas), who can’t stop her foot from bouncing along to King’s tryout song.
   Words and music are given prominent, large-font credit to the two songwriting pairs: Goffin & King, Mann & Weil. Names of others whose music is essential to the show are shoehorned into the back of the program — including such preeminent songwriters as Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, Neil Sedaka and Frankie Lymon.

Beautiful is not a tribute concert. Broadway musicals are a different medium. They have a different sound and a different purpose. But learning the backstory of this great singer-songwriter, listening to the performers’ own artistry in delivering extremely familiar songs, may be an even more entrancing, deeper way into this music of a lifetime.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
June 27, 2016

Reproduced with kind permission of Los Angeles Daily News.
 
The Toxic Avenger Musical
Good People Theater Company at Sacred Fools Theater

As a young couple (Danny Fetter and Wesley Tunison) gleefully begin their soon ill-fated date, planning to go see a stage musical adapted from a movie “people watched when they were stoned,” The Toxic Avenger Musical’s book writer Joe DiPietro makes the slyly amusing point that perhaps his musical’s audiences might be thinking they’re doing the same thing. Based on Troma Entertainment’s 1984 deliciously campy cult classic feature film, which seemed to have been made on a budget of about $14.58 and yet soared to the tippy-top of midnight cinema fame, getting high isn’t a prerequisite to appreciating this musical, but the concept shouldn’t be taken off the table altogether.
   Whatever state you’re in while watching the Good People Theater Company’s Los Angeles debut of DiPietro and David Bryan’s hilariously bare-boned 2009 work will do quite fine, as Toxie and his friends—played by a determinedly goofy ensemble of five spectacular performers—offer a truckload of laughs and some wonderfully tongue-firmly-in-cheek fun for anyone willing to groan through a nonstop succession of cleverly trendy double-entendres, many aimed directly at Chris Christie’s mega-polluted and beleaguered, er, Garden State.
   Playing both our monstrously mutated hero Toxie and the desperately nerdy Melvin Ferd the Third from whom Toxie is horrifically transformed after Tromaville, N.J.’s, resident bullies dip him in a green-glowing vat of toxic waste—not only deforming him horribly but also making him “smell like Newark”—Jared Reed is a major asset to this production. He has the help of Zorro J. Susel, who designed the poor guy’s colorfully dripping facial makeup complete with one dislodged eye residing somewhere on the hollow part of his left cheek. Kim Dalton is a scream as Toxie/Melvin’s love interest Sarah, the town’s blind librarian with a penchant for almost walking off the front of the stage, pouring Drano into her guest’s tea instead of sugar, and impressively belting her songs directly out onto Santa Monica Boulevard.
   Shirley Anne Hatton is extraordinarily game to try anything, whether she’s playing a traditionally clad foul-mouthed nun, Melvin’s Mrs. Wolowitz-come-to-life of a mother, or Tromaville’s villainously cackling and supremely evil Mayor Babs Belgoody. Still, in a breakneck series of multiple roles tagged collectively as Black Dude and White Dude, Fetter and Tunison steal the show over and over again, whether entering as those dimwitted bullies Sluggo and Bozo, as the Supremes-esque cross-dressing Shinequa and Diane, or as uber-gay hairdressers Lorenzo and Lamas. Tunison is a particular knockout throughout with his impressive pipes, wide Joe E. Brown smile, and a body language that appears inspired by Roy Bolger’s Scarecrow.

Musical director Corey Hirsch and his rocking onstage band ace the catchy score composed by Bon Jovi founder and keyboardist Bryan, who also co-wrote the sharply topical lyrics with the equally ingenious DiPietro. The ultimate star of the show, however, is director Janet Miller, whose wit and humor is everywhere. Miller puts her signature on all she touches, from moments when the “manageably handicapped” walking disaster that is Sarah returns her misplaced library books to a nonexistent shelf to moments when Sarah cuddles her teddy bear upside-down so the toy’s butt lingers right under her nose as she delivers a plaintive ballad declaring her love for Toxie.
   This is especially true when black-clad assistant stage manager Rebecca Schroeder enters periodically to hold up signs telling us where each new scene is about to take place, something developed out of necessity, according to Miller, because the production could not afford to add them all into the program. Schroeder’s hysterically irritated attitude, as she endlessly repeats the bit and the actors stop to stare at her as if she were yet another mutant, becomes a delightful part of the show, culminating when she tries to keep up with the others by attempting to join in on their 11th-hour tango.
   Who could turn down a feel-good musical about nuclear waste, we’re asked, and the answer is clear: anyone who is sick of the real world and could use a couple of hours to escape it—or perhaps daydream about just which current crop of politicians we’d love to see dumped into their own personal vat of smoldering toxic waste.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
June 27, 2016
 
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
International City Theatre

Three great characters of classic dramatic literature don’t exactly appear in Christopher Durang’s tender comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. But they inspire the personalities and circumstances of the play, and show us what’s in a name.
   The original Vanya, Sonia, and Masha are, of course, characters from Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s oeuvre. Here they are modern-day middle-aged siblings, gathered at the family homestead in Pennsylvania.
   Vanya and Sonia have stayed put in this house, unmarried, to care for their parents, who succumbed to dementia. Now the two feel purposeless and past their primes. Meanwhile, Masha waltzed off to the celebrity of an acting career and five marriages.

Director Mary Jo DuPrey has shepherded all the dots onto the stage here. But she fails to connect too many of them. First to be noticed is the flatness and ambiguity of the scenic design. The dialogue states we’re in a morning room, but the flagstone floor surrounded by reeds and the lack of doors indicate this is an indoor-outdoor sort of space, whose back wall, open to the elements, is a bookcase.
   Fortunately, three capable actors steer the characters through the regrets and despairs of middle age.
   Stephen Rockwell plays Vanya in a beautifully underplayed yet rich performance. This Vanya has confidence in his intellect, but his sense of self has atrophied. Unlike others who have played the role, Rockwell makes Vanya cautious in finally opening up. He doesn’t explode, he explains. It’s an effective explanation, but it’s more a lecture than a cri de coeur, which fits his character even if it doesn’t build to a comedic pitch.
   Jennifer Parsons is Sonia, pinched, wrung-out, feeling hopelessly dried up. She puts on a new outfit for a party, however, and we see what the play is about: how the costumes we cloak ourselves in and the roles we take on hide our true selves.
   Leslie Stevens is Masha, theatrical but feeling age’s icy fingers on her career. Stevens’s Masha is grand but far from evil. Back home, even in this unidyllic family, her real self awakens, inspired by the renewal going on around her—and a few quirky machinations by Durang.

Three other characters fill out the play and knock the siblings from their stasis. The housekeeper Cassandra, played exuberantly by Murielle Zuker, livens any melancholy here. Like her namesake from ancient Greek drama, who was given the gift of foresight by the gods and then cursed to always be disbelieved, this one engages in a little voodoo and a lot of prophesizing.
   A young visitor to the neighborhood, Nina, wanders over, as Nina does in Chekhov’s The Seagull. In playing her, Emily Goss doesn’t shy away from the hanger-on aspect of this Nina’s personality, while her effervescence is beautifully contagious and helps explain the changes in the siblings. Connor McRaith plays Spike, the young stud Masha brings home on this fated visit, whose vibrant presence also stirs change.

But, despite the skills onstage, more than a few lines get awkward readings, and more than a few beats start or end clumsily. And too often there’s little feeling of family among the siblings, particularly between Stevens’s Masha and Parsons’s Sonia.
   What could be the play’s two most tender moments don’t breathe. Sonia’s telephone call from a man she met at the party is technically quite adept (we believe someone is on the other end of the line), but no space is allotted for Sonia to experience a life-changing change of heart.
   And in the play’s final beat, when the siblings listen to the Beatles and take a moment to live in hope, and when we want to feel the lumps in our throats, the lights come down before we can even take in all three actors’ faces.
   Still, these are scuffs on a sturdy, burnished script, whose bright light, like that of the siblings, can’t be marred by superficialities.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
June 13, 2016
 
Reprinted with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
 
The Little Mermaid
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

Walt Disney’s legacy is more than just a mouse or an amusement park. He set in motion a juggernaut that includes films, both live, animated, or a combination of both; award-winning music; television programming; radio programs; and theatrical productions, mostly based on his animated films. McCoy Rigby Entertainment’s newest offering is The Little Mermaid, directed by Glenn Casale, who was charged with enriching and enlivening the original Broadway production with special effects.
   The story by Hans Christian Anderson about a girl who gives up her voice to become human has been given a greatly enhanced plot via Doug Wright’s book, Alan Menken’s music, and Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater’s lyrics. Though it is aimed at children, it has enough wit to more than satisfy adults as well. Mermaid princess Ariel (Alison Woods) has longed for life above the sea and losing her tail for legs.
   When she spots handsome Prince Eric (Eric Kunze) on his ship, she sets about to find a way to accomplish this. Unfortunately for her, she chooses to consult a sea witch, Ursula (Tracy Lore), with disastrous results. In typical Disney fashion, though, the princess captures her prince and a happy ending triumphs with plenty of wisdom about the importance of achieving a happy life.

First and foremost are the special effects. Ariel flies above the stage as though in the water (superbly executed in Paul Rubin’s flying-sequence choreography), and Woods is spunky and equal to creating a believable girl who is up for the challenge of following her dreams. The set design, by Kenneth Foy, employs a clever use of bubbles to simulate water, both in scenery flats and projections. Enhanced by Charlie Morrison’s lighting design, the effect is magical. Unlike many musicals, the set is simple, almost reflective of children’s theater as a whole, but it works as a fantasy environment.
   Mention must be made of Amy Clark and Mark Koss’s fantastic costumes. From Sebastian the crab’s claws and crimson wig to Flounder’s mohawk and yellow and teal striped suit, the characters are alive with color and shimmer. Ariel’s beautiful costume fluttering at its base, simulating a mermaid’s tail, and Ursula’s purple-and-black gown, undulating with tentacles that seem to have a life of their own, are perfect for the undersea effects. Wigs and hair design are also well-done by Leah J. Loukas.

Woods has the perfect Disney princess pure soprano voice, and she is well-cast to match her famous predecessors like Broadway’s Belle (Susan Egan) in Beauty and the Beast. Kunze makes a charming hero with just the right amount of dash to make hearts flutter. His guardian Grimsby (played with the requisite dithery unrest by Time Winters) and ship’s pilot (Jeff Skowron) make up Eric’s entourage. Skowron steals the show in the second act as Chef Louis, whose comedic chops and energetic physicality are devastatingly funny, as evidenced by the spontaneous audience laughter throughout the number.
   Ariel’s sisters are well-played by Kim Arnett, Kristine Bennett, Marjorie Failoni, Melissa Glasgow, Devon Hadsell, Amanda Minano, and Tro Shaw. Jamie Torcellini is an enterprising seagull whose flights and commentary add to the humor. He is accompanied by companion gulls, played by Michael McGurk, Dennis O’Bannion, and James Shackelford, and their number, “Positoovity,” is enchanting.
   Lore is deliciously wicked as she tries to get revenge on her brother, King Triton (a commandingly regal, full-voiced portrayal by Fred Inkley). She orders around Flotsam (Scott T. Leiendecker) and Jetsam (Jeffrey Christopher Todd), electric eels who glide about the stage on Heelys, costumed to light up the darker stage that is Ursula’s habitat. Their “Sweet Child” number is delightful. Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is a sinister delight.
   Notable is Melvin Abston as Sebastian, who convinces as a skittery crab with sideways segues as he tries to rein in Ariel after Triton puts him in charge. His rendition of “Under the Sea” is clever and a highlight. Also notable is the lovesick Flounder (Adam Garst), who follows Ariel about with nervous concern. Choreography by John MacInnis makes the production come alive, especially in “Positoovity” and the chef’s “Les Poissons.”

A production of this size and scope has much to recommend, especially on the large La Mirada stage. Effective sound, lighting, music, choreography, and sets on a national tour are not easy to achieve. The commitment to high quality of cast and artistic creators helps achieve a show that is rewarding. Thanks to McCoy Rigby’s successful Disney productions in the past, McCoy Rigby been given the rights to The Hunchback of Notre Dame in its upcoming season.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
June 9, 2016
 
Stopping By
Edgemar Center for the Arts

No doubt Barbara Tarbuck is a treasure to the LA art scene—one of the most-arresting and brilliant actors appearing with welcome regularity on SoCal stages of all sizes and configurations. With this new solo show she authored as well as performs, under the direction of her longtime colleague Brian Drillinger, the jewel sparkles with more luminosity than ever.
   Stopping By chronicles her bittersweet experiences when, at age 74, she journeyed for the first time to that annual crucible of creativity in the barren Nevada desert called Burning Man, that transitory metropolis “dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance” where all are welcomed. There she hopes to find a convivial open space amid the constant billowing dust, the glowing night skies, the openhearted paean honoring the glories of art and fellowship, to scatter the ashes of her beloved husband of 30-plus years.

Utilizing her ageless, infectious energy and uncanny ability to stare down her audience directly and tell it like it is, Tarbuck re-creates an indelible moment in time, her talent as a performer only complemented by her knack of creating vivid images of losing her “Burning Man virginity” with a colorful, poetic lyricism that recalls Anne Rice describing the French Quarter of some 50 years before.
   A dark period followed her husband, Charlie’s, long and difficult death, a time when she all but lived by his side at the hospital, returning home only to collect the mail and feed the cat. Her grief, she explains, was “prickly and mean and followed me around,” forcing her to arrive at the defeatist conclusion that growing old is like falling off the train of life and not knowing where to walk.
   At first, she starts to wonder if agreeing to accompany her son and developmentally challenged younger brother Jacques (names and the gender of her offspring are fictionalized to protect their privacy, she tells us) to Burning Man with Charlie’s ashes at her feet in their cramped car was a terrible mistake. “I felt old and too shy and too alone to join with people,” she recalls, but the incredibly positive, loving environment at the event—as well as the unstoppably counter-creative artistry and generosity of its participants—wins her over and, presumably, inspires a whole new breath of life into her insular world.
   The work is courageous and without filter, from hearty memories of laughing uncontrollably when getting stoned again after years of abstinence to startlingly graphic visual depictions of her robust sexual life groaning with earthy passion under her invisible husband—and when she describes in great detail the wonders of Burning Man and the people she meets, it’s all right there on her well-weathered face and expressively squinty eyes.

The results are mesmerizing and the point here is crystalline. Tarbuck’s efforts, however, are still missing something important: focus. Despite the detailed impressions she conjures, there’s still a rather inexplicable disconnect that hovers between performer and participant, never quite explaining or unloading to us the details of how the transformation that emerges inside her happens. The tales are all fascinating, but we never are privy to how they evolve or how they ultimately affect her beyond just relating them like snippets in a book by David Sedaris.
   We hear of her frustration with how she panics at small things, a trait that to her makes no sense, but without delving deeper into the morass of that realization, we never learn how it was or could be conquered. We hear that as kids she only pretended to like her brother and once even trapped him in a garage to get away from him; but although Tarbuck says he grew into quite a sweet and gentle man she obviously adores and unceasingly protects, we aren’t shown how that conversion occurred. We see how the journey to Black Rock Desert to become part of the creation of the annual Black Rock City changes her, but we aren’t really let in to understand clearly how it happens and, more important, how that new way of looking at things subsequently alters her life.
   These are still minor druthers which, in the next incarnation of Stopping By, could be teased easily to the surface. The talents, courage, humanity, wisdom, and humor of Tarbuck are surely at all times bubbling up right there below the surface to make it so.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
June 6, 2016
 
That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play
Son of Semele Theater

A pair of scantily clad strippers go on a bloody murder spree, with Jane Fonda entering occasionally to give them inspiration culled from her 1980s workout videos and conversion from Barbarella bimbo to feminist icon, while a smarmy screenwriter who declares himself to be gender blind—and who may or may not be creating all of the other characters as their stories unfold—admits the inspiration for his art comes from Godard, Scorsese, and Mel Gibson.
   Playwright-screenwriter Sheila Callaghan once again voices through her characters the supposition that “nothing tastes more delicious than a steaming hot mound of damage” as she makes yet another return to her most familiar topic: the media’s manipulation of women. If Callaghan had provided a plot to accompany this play’s several flimsily linked scenes more worthy of overlong X-rated Saturday Night Live skits than a theater stage, all of her deliciously biting, wonderfully appropriate wit and insights into our squirrely society would not here be so painfully wasted.
   In a sleazy motel with a bed that smells “like starch and marinated ass,” Valerie and Agnes (Paula Rebelo and Cindy Nguyen), who admit to being rather harsh sometimes, bring back to their room the trick (Tope Oni) they have been flirting with at a local club. Instead of screwing his brains out as promised, however, they splatter them all over the floors and walls, then pose for selfies with their lifeless victim. After a brief interlude with Fonda (Betsy Moore) sweating to the oldies on a nearby TV screen, prompting the blood-soaked girls to admire her and ruminate that they wish all women could be “so frank and dignified” like her, Owen (Will Bradley) and Rodney (Oni), the screenwriter and his friend on leave from Iraq, soon reenact the opening scene almost verbatim with Agnes now the victim.

Other scenes unfold without much explanation, including one in which the girls wrestle on a bed of Jell-O and another in which the entire cast sits down to a formal dinner catered by Fonda that turns into a food fight. We finally return to the original motel room, where it appears maybe Owen has created everything that’s come before this as part of his screenplay. “Okay, let’s get subtext-y,” he says brightly, eagerly wringing his hands. “The stakes must be raised.” Unfortunately, despite director Marya Mazor’s admirable effort and her spectacularly brazen and clearly talented cast the stakes—sorry—stay purdy much uncooked.
   Callaghan is a brilliant, filterless writer whose career is appropriately taking off in leaps and bounds, but hopefully as she grows, she can choose her excesses better and maybe, just for the fun of it, create a plot rather than a series of rather tedious diatribes about the exploitation of the female gender. As it is, as much fun as it is for her to shock and find endless ways for her characters to spout admonishments and so many rampant vulgarities that it’s desensitizing, That Pretty Pretty seems dated, remarkably unsurprising, and rehashes of her amazingly groundbreaking earlier work.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
June 6, 2016
 
The City of Conversation
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

It has been said that many of the biggest deals in Hollywood happen at cocktail parties. Back in the day, before national politics turned bloody and morphed into The Hunger Games, the same thing was often true in Washington, D.C. When playwright Anthony Giardina read an article centering on the more polite era of the 1950s and ’60s in a town Henry James once referred to as a “city of conversations,” his intrigue was piqued. Washington was then widely known as a place where wealthy socialites invited politicians from both parties to their Georgetown or Kalorama mansions for lavish sit-down dinners where everyone could relax, drink cognac, and smoke a big cigar before returning to congressional meetings the next day to heatedly argue their opposite perspectives.
   In Giardina’s smartly loquacious play spanning 1979 to 2009, Hester Ferris (Christine Lahti) is such a hostess. With a decided leaning toward the Great Society’s left wing and a live-in married senator (Steven Culp) for a boyfriend, Hester’s life in her stately Georgetown townhome seems to revolve around getting her causes quietly entrenched in the minds of her adversaries. It’s akin to the drip, drip, drip of Chinese water torture, with gushing compliments and silver plates full of hors d'oeuvres utilized to make her point rather than restraints.
   Just as she and her widowed sister–assistant Jean (Deborah Offner) are planning one of Hester’s most important evenings of the season, her son, Colin (Jason Ritter), arrives home after finishing his studies at the London School of Economics. Hester is at first appalled by Colin’s long hair and scruffy Country Joe McDonald appearance, but that melts quickly when she spots the girl he has brought home to meet mom and announce their engagement.
   Hester is instantly put off by Anna (Georgia King), from her knee-high fringed suede boots to her syrupy condescending attitude, eventually bluntly warning Colin’s intended to be careful, since in D.C. “they can smell ambition a mile away.” Hester’s wariness is quickly exacerbated as Anna bombards her with endless questions and suspect adoration.

Act 2 starts in 1987, and Colin and Anna are indeed married and parents of Ethan (Nicholas Oteri), the grandson Hester dotes over perhaps more than she ever did her son. The emasculated Colin has turned conservative and, thanks to his wife’s balls-out aspirations and expectations, is desperately trying to hold their teetering marriage together. To stop Hester from publishing an open letter condemning Ronald Reagan’s proposed appointment of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, Anna threatens to remove Ethan entirely from his grandmother’s life. In the final scene, taking place in 2009, the adult Ethan (Ritter) returns to the august but now barren old house to reconnect with his grandmother.
   There’s much promise and sharply whimsical, intelligent dialogue here, but the plot tends toward the melodramatic and easily predictable. Director Michael Wilson gleans fine performances from most of his cast, although why he hasn’t kept several of them from consistently playing important lines and speeches directly front is puzzling.
   Lahti gives a rich, exceeding multilayered performance as Hester, even though she and all the other characters who survive the story’s three decades never seem to age below Carol F. Doran’s period-defining wigs. Ritter finds credible nuance as Colin but melts hearts when he reenters as the adult Ethan, bringing along his African-American male partner (Johnny Ramey), which prompts Hester to reflect that without the fight she waged, in 2009 barely remembered or honored, they would not be able to “live your lives fully.”
   Offner, Culp, and Ramey make considerable points in less-pivotal or less-written roles, while King is yet to overcome and soar above the continuous clichés penned into her abrasive character. David Selby falls into all the pits as the old-school, bellowing Kentucky-machine politico who, if he were any more Southern, could out-bluster Foghorn Leghorn himself. Michael Learned, however, in a too-brief cameo as that senator’s obviously long-suffering and unobtrusively patient wife, steals her one scene handily, only opening her mouth when what will come out of it is too shrewdly calculated to be overlooked.

The point here isn’t hard to grasp, as the participants in the grand old-style political circus that spawned the near apocalypse of our government today lead lives as dysfunctional and flawed as anyone else. Yet despite the crispness of the dialogue and a magnificent design team galvanized around Jeff Cowie’s richly spectacular set, Giardina’s arguments and his characters remain unsurprising and even somewhat trite. But even if the denouement is easy to foresee, thanks to the skill level of the major players it’s deeply moving.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
May 24, 2016
 
Clybourne Park
Kentwood Players at Westchester Playhouse

Bruce Norris plays delve into uncomfortable topics. So skillfully has Norris’s Clybourne Park done so that it won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It’s in production by Kentwood Players at Westchester Playhouse, where it looks with a gimlet eye at American racial and class divisions.
   The structurally intriguing script sets Act 1 in 1959 and Act 2 in 2009. Norris recommends using a cast of seven actors who appear in both acts. The dialogue evidences an ear for how various people speak—and then don’t listen, or try to listen but don’t understand.
   The script also continues the story of Lorraine Hansberry’s great American play from 1959, A Raisin in the Sun , not coincidentally produced by Kentwood Players earlier this year.
   At the end of A Raisin in the Sun , members of the Younger family are moving from their home in an all-black neighborhood of Chicago to the middle-class all-white enclave of Clybourne Park, despite the subtle bullying of one Karl Lindner, representing Clybourne’s homeowners association.

Act 1 of Clybourne Park takes place two hours after Lindner has left the Youngers at home, packing up and readying to move. We’re now in the home they’ve bought, where the sellers are packed and awaiting the moving van. Lindner is still fulminating over the impending desegregation of his neighborhood. But not all else is peaceful in the sellers’ lives.
   Act 2 opens 50 years later. The Youngers long ago moved out, but in the intervening years the neighborhood has become all-black. And now, to the distress of the current homeowners association, the neighborhood is about to undergo white gentrification.
   At the top of Act 1, the sellers—Russ (Harold Dershimer) and Bev (Andrea Stradling)—quarrel over geography, as the armchair-traveling Russ devours his issues of National Geographic. In Act 2, the buyers—Steve (Matt Landig) and Lindsey (Jen Kerner)—quarrel over geography, though they’ve been to these places, the American middle-class having become more mobile if not more knowledgeable.
   Then the characters slowly reveal what ails them and what ails America. But by Act 2, the way Americans talk about these things has made the participants feel like every word could explode.
   And of course hearing one another is even harder when people walk away to take a cellphone call. But telling hurtful jokes, asking inappropriate questions, acting out of frustration—not much has changed in 50 years.

Director George L. Rametta stages the work well and carefully orchestrates the frequently overlapping conversations. But the dialogue alone includes much inherent humor, so his overlaying of in-jokes, mugging, and eye-rolling ruins the play’s subtlety.
   Several of the actors keep to that subtlety in both of their characterizations. Paulina Bugembe plays the black maid, Francine, in the first act and Lena, an activist homeowner, in the second. Francine is smart but uneducated and hampered by race and class; Lena is educated, but her anger at the trampling of her history gets the better of her. No frills, no stereotyping, Bugembe’s acting is simple and effective. Damon Rutledge likewise creates real people in Francine’s husband, the straightforward but savvy Albert, and in Kevin, Lena’s yuppie husband.
   As Karl Lindner, however, Landig goes way over the top. The character’s bigotry should be laughable enough without exaggerating him as a buffoon. Landig does much better as homebuyer Steve, letting Steve’s self-righteousness speak for itself. Playing Steve’s wife, Lindsey, Kerner aims for the realism of her character’s situation. Kerner also plays Karl’s wife, Betsy, a contented but totally deaf woman, whose speech patterns Kerner convincingly vocalizes.
   Dershimer has lovely moments in Act 1, trying to bury Russ’s sadness behind a placid veneer until all boils up. But in Act 2, Dershimer turns his character, who represents the blue-collar class left out of the conversation, into a clown. As Bev, Stradling conveys the heartache of an unfulfilled wife, then turns hardy when she plays Steve and Lindsay’s lawyer. Jeremy Patrick Hamilton quietly embodies the audience’s discomfort as he takes on clergyman Jim in the first act and the association’s lawyer in the second.
   The sturdy set (Jason Gant) gets transformed during the intermission by the sturdy cast and crew in an intricately choreographed set change. But once again, Rametta eschews subtlety for the second-act scenery, blasting the walls with graffiti, overgilding this already powerful lily.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
May 17, 2016

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
 
Endgame
Kirk Douglas Theatre


The blind master Hamm wonders if his father is still alive, since there haven’t been any stirrings emanating from the garbage can in which Nagg resides in quite some time. Hamm instructs his servant Clov to lift the lid and have a look, prompting Clov to observe that the old man is crying. “Then he’s living,” Hamm reasons with some disappointment as he returns to his tragically poetic vigil against time. At least Nagg’s death would have been something new to contemplate, as Hamm sits mostly motionless in his wheelchair in the center of designer John Iacovelli’s huge gothic stone turret set with a limited view of the outside world through high windows that appear to approximate the inside of a dirty aquarium.
   It is said Samuel Beckett used to enjoy sitting in the back of the house when his plays were being performed to thank people who walked out during the performance. If the tedium of life was meant to be the recurring leitmotif running through Beckett’s work, when patrons tried to quietly sneak out in the middle, in an odd way they got his drift.
   “Why this farce, day after day?” whines Hamm, who spends his solitary existence confined to this starkly medieval-looking cell, barking orders at Clov and wondering if enough time has passed to warrant a new dose of pain medication. It’s all a way of filling up time while Hamm awaits his own demise, it seems, plodding through life trying not to panic in the face of the inevitable, especially considering the hint that beyond his tower the rest of the world might consist of dwindling resources and, quite possibly, apocalyptic ruin.
   Beckett is a hard slog for many people, his bleak, tragicomic indictment of humanity almost not worthy of the poetry he conjures to contemplate the existential questions we ask. In less-skilled hands then those of lifelong Beckett scholar Alan Mandell, if the Nobel Prize–winning dramatist and key figure in the Theatre of the Absurd movement in the mid-20th century were still with us, he would probably be spending a heap of time thanking all the retreating patrons. But Mandell, at 88 surely possessed of a portrait of himself in some dusty closet really going to hell, here gifts us with his rare, completely unrivaled vision and personal expertise—and even that is something of an understatement.
   Mandell, who toured in the original productions of Endgame and Waiting for Godot under Beckett’s direction in the 1950s, has breathed amazing new life and a signature sense of purpose into this current remounting of Endgame, one of the most significant theatrical events of the year. Serving both as director and playing the demanding leading role of Hamm with unearthly dynamism, Mandell has again proven himself one of the American stage’s most inspiring and enduring treasures.
   As in the Taper’s revival of Godot in 2012, Mandell is partnered with world-renowned Beckett interpreter Barry McGovern as his Clov, and the pairing is once again a match made in theatrical heaven. The rhythms of their work together is something akin to hearing a symphony unravel a complex musical score, filled with all the dips and quiet moments and crashing crescendos the classic dramatist intended.
   James Greene is also a major asset as Nagg, the woebegone legless father assigned to the cramped confines of his trashcan, and the inimitable Charlotte Rae, herself a noted Beckett interpreter whose Winnie in his Happy Days at the Taper still lingers in the memory of anyone who had the great fortune to see it nearly a quarter-century ago, brings wonderful life to Nell, Hamm’s mother, who occupies an adjoining trashcan. Nearing her 90th birthday, Rae (alternating in the role with Anne Gee Byrd) manages to electrify the play’s most underwritten role, which often comes off like a too-sunny sitcom character stuck in the wrong project. “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I’ll give you that,” Nell points out before retreating into her circular tin coffin for good, and no one aces the sentiment more perfectly than Rae, with her huge round eyes and melodious croak of a voice.
   Clov wonders aloud what keeps him in this prison, limping around, painfully catering to Hamm’s incessant demands and verbal abuse, where it takes a faltering trip up a rickety stepladder to even know if it’s day or night. “It’s the dialogue,” Hamm responds without a moment’s hesitation. It’s true that usually it’s Beckett’s lyrical and often outrageously funny dialogue that keeps his plays palpable for the mesmerized audience members who don’t make their way stealthily up the aisle to the exit, but here there’s so much more than that. This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime celebrations of a masterful collaboration between a world-class artist and the brilliant wordsmith whose virtuosity inspired his life and career for more than six decades—and we, the adorning recipients of this unique phenomenon, are infinitely better for the experience.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
May 7, 2016
 
Stage Kiss
Geffen Playhouse

George S. Kaufman, Edna Ferber, and more recently Michael Frayn probably suspected that creating a play wittily skewering the overdramatic behind-the-scenes antics perpetrated by woefully egocentric actors would be a surefire idea.
   Sarah Ruhl has contributed a goofy new classic to join the many others in the backstage comedy sweepstakes with her hilarious farce Stage Kiss. Lighting up the Geffen stage in a sparkling production directed by Bart DeLorenzo, one of LA’s most inventive comic geniuses, Ruhl’s wonderfully silly and uproarious tale of characters mostly only called He, She, The Director, and the Husband almost feels as though it protects the names of the less-than innocent among us.
   It begins in a typically bare practice space where The Director (Tim Bagley, in one of the evening’s most delightful performances) patiently waits at a card table with his clumsy, wide-eyed assistant Kevin (Matthew Scott Montgomery), the protégé with whom he shares a curiously questionable professional relationship which began when Kevin was enrolled in his Meisner class. Along with a silently perplexed accompanist (Melody Butiu) seated behind a beat-up rehearsal piano, all three awkwardly wait for the late arrival of She (Glenne Headly), who sweeps in and immediately takes over the room with her emotional cascade of lame apologies followed by a series of obvious questions for her auditors before she launches into the material.

The Director basically couldn’t care less. He has crossed out all the stage directions and explains She should trust her instincts and they can “calibrate the style” after the first preview. It’s hardly a textbook audition, especially when The Director asks her to confirm she can sing and, after a disastrous attempt to try, She admits she’s only had two auditions in the last 10 years.
   He casts her for some inexplicable reason, leading us to wonder what the other people auditioning must have done to be overlooked. He also casts her former co-star (Barry Del Sherman as He), someone with whom She had a tumultuous romance before she married her milquetoast accountant husband (Stephen Caffrey) and raised an outspoken purple-haired teenager (Emily James).
   The troupe begins rehearsing I Loved You Before I Killed You, or Blurry, a theatrical warhorse by the fictional team of Landor, Erbmann, and Marmel, which, we’re told, was a huge flop on Broadway in 1932. Here, designer Keith Mitchell’s drab rehearsal space transforms magically into a hilariously fake-landscaped set-within-a-set to start work on the ill-fated play-within-a-play. The Blurry part of the play’s title is derived from the heroine’s myopic corneal curve, only one of the many things about the rehearsal process and eventual opening night of the piece that will leave Geffen audiences rocking with laughter.
   Their totally awful revival of the play closes early after disastrous notices. But by that time, She and He are back humping like jackrabbits, much to the despair of her husband, the wrath of their disgusted daughter Angela, and yet going over the head of He’s fiancée Laurie (Butiu), whose only comment coming into their destroyed Manhattan flat with groceries and finding our heroes in bed together is about the play they just closed.
   The DeLorenzo Touch is everywhere, from the presentation’s suitably broad stokes written right into the material to more subtle stage pictures, such as an actor waiting to make an entrance behind flimsy prop French doors with his arms resting limply through the nonexistent windows. Mitchell’s whimsical sets, David Kay Mickelsen’s spot-on costuming, Lap Chi Chu’s lighting, and John Ballinger’s evocative sound design and original music add immeasurably.

Phyllis Schuringa’s flawless casting deserves special kudos. Everyone here is gloriously on the same page, from the tortured early Actors Studio-y Sherman to the gushing Butiu who, if she smiled any harder, might pass out. James is hilarious as the eye-rolling, angst-ridden Angela, while Caffrey is perfect as both She’s loving husband and his Edward Everett Horton counterpart in the play-within-the-play.
   In her first local stage performance since The Jacksonian at this venue, Headley proves her comedic knives are just as razor-sharp as ever. And, what used to haunt her as the quintessential recipient of Bette Davis eyes has matured into making her more Queen Elizabeth–ready than ever, particularly when she dons a period wig to perform the melodramatic leading-lady role in Blurry.
   Bagley and Montgomery steal their every scene. Bagley channels Paul Lynde’s signature deadpan delivery, and Montgomery proves he could be the lovechild of Charlie Chaplin and Lucille Ball, filling in for the injured He in Blurry, then re-entering as a streetwise jive-talkin’ pimp dressed as though he were performing in an early Norman Lear TV comedy.
   There’s a clunky late-hour attempt at some predictable and unnecessary moralistic conclusion, but Stage Kiss is so slyly entertaining and stuffed with the playwright’s often self-deprecating humor that all is forgiven. Ruhl shows us that theatrical farce is alive and well and can still be as fresh and engaging as ever.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
April 24, 2016
 
Sister Act
Musical Theatre West at Carpenter Performing Arts Center

Mix mobsters, doctrinarians, disco, and polyester, and the last thing this farrago should produce is a story about finding one’s blissful true self. But somehow the musical Sister Act does just that, particularly in the hands of Musical Theatre West, under Michael Matthews’s direction.
   It’s based relatively closely on the 1992 film, written by Joseph Howard, in which a club singer goes into hiding at a convent and finds herself coaching the choir of nuns. Along the path from film to musical, the story (now with book by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner, additional material by Douglas Carter Beane) was moved from San Francisco to Philadelphia and set two decades earlier.
   For purposes of musical theater, these changes prove divine. Philly in 1978 brimmed with sequins, brotherly love and, most happily, disco music. Here the songs, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater, evoke the best of the era, minus the relentless pounding and repetitiousness. They’re choreographed, by Daniel Smith, in not only the steps of the 1970s but also the loose-limbed style.

The era first swings into view here as third-rate lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier (Constance Jewell Lopez) auditions for her married mobster boyfriend, Curtis (Gerry McIntyre). Even he won’t hire her, but the more-extreme abuse starts after she witnesses him killing one of his henchmen.
   Deloris winds up under the protection of seemingly inept policeman Eddie (Anthony Manough), who had a crush on her in school. For her safety, Eddie “relocates” her to the neighborhood convent. That convent is on the brink of closure by the archdiocese. And now, Mother Superior (Mary Gordon Murray) must contend with the non-Catholic, nonbelieving Deloris, garbing her as a nun and asking her to blend in with her sisters.
   As Deloris is forced to join the convent’s tone-deaf choir, she finds perhaps the highest calling of all: teaching, and in particular teaching music. And as the nuns find their voices, their faith—in God and in themselves—grows. Deloris, required to avoid such modern addictions as tobacco, alcohol, and celebrity, discovers support and caring in sisterhood, as well as the pure joy of working as part of a whole rather than being the self-centered center of it.

Under Matthews’s care, the characterizations here are crisp, pleasantly balancing their humanity and the situational comedy. His staging is fluid and makes the exposition clear. Surprisingly, it includes gunplay; shots ring out, not customary for musicals in general and certainly startling when fired at Catholic nuns.
   Leading the cast, Lopez is lovely every step along Deloris’s journey, skillfully revealing that better person inside Deloris. Lopez’s voice, though not always perfectly on pitch, is strong, exciting, and beautifully expressive. Opposite her, Murray displays delicious comedic timing and terrifying looks-could-kill reactions as Mother Superior, but her singing voice is pure heaven.
   As in the film, the nuns have quirky individual traits. Ashley Ruth Jones plays shy postulate Mary Robert. Cindy Sciacca is the bubbly Mary Patrick. Cathy Newman is the grumpy Mary Lazarus. Sarah Benoit is the aged Mary Theresa, and J. Elaine Marcos plays the otherworldly Mary Martin of Tours.
   McIntyre chills as Curtis, balanced by his bumbling toadies (John Wells, Spencer Rowe, and Elijah Reyes). Tom Shelton is the Monseigneur who catches boogie fever. Manough croons gorgeously, particularly in Eddie’s solo, “I Could Be That Guy.”

But the sisterhood is the vocal centerpiece here, and under David Lamoureux’s musical direction the harmonies are lush and stirring, ranging from “Bless Our Show,” which evokes “The Sound of Music,” to the splashy finale, “Spread the Love Around.”
   The costuming, credited to Wilma Mickler and Karen St. Pierre, includes platform shoes, pastel bellbottoms, several bits of theater magic, and masses of lamé that eventually becomes habit-forming.
   That more than a few women in the opening-weekend audience were sniffling by the show’s end speaks well for the show. That more than a few men were sniffling, too? It’s a musical-theater miracle.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
April 12, 2016

Republished with kind permission of Long Beach Press-Telegram.
 

The Revisionist
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

The West Coast debut of Jesse Eisenberg’s second of his three plays marks the first time his talents as a playwright have been on display in Los Angeles—and an impressive introduction it is.
   David (Seamus Mulcahy) is a young published author in career crisis mode, beginning with mixed reviews for his first book and exacerbated by his publisher’s call for him to go back to square one and make massive revisions on his second novel. David wonders if the setback isn’t merely a severe case of writer’s block but a sign of complete defeat to come.
   This debilitating artistic self-doubt makes David question whether he has an “unimaginative subconscious” or whether he’s simply a terrible person. “I feel I have some anger directed inwardly,” he explains to his aged distant cousin Maria (Deanna Dunagan), to whose humble and cramped apartment in Szczecin, Poland, he has fled to get away from himself and everything else in his life he sees as blocking his creative process.
   David arrives and immediately feels trapped by Maria’s constrained and insular little life and her insistence his time there be spent with her, not revising his book. Since she’s read his first book twice and obviously didn’t think much of it, something akin to horror sets in as he realizes his cousin thinks his visit is all about meeting and being with her, eating her carefully planned dinners, seeing her city with the assistance of her taxi driver friend Zenon (Ilia Volok, who holds his own without saying anything in English besides “shit” and “asshole”), and listening to her continuous maternal advice about how to rewrite his newest work.
   Since his departure was meant as a retreat, something he hadn’t thought out completely when he decided to land on her doorway, it doesn’t take David long to start treating Maria rather badly, like a spoiled little kid not getting his way. He even retreats to his bed, pounding his fists and jumping up and down in frustration.
   The longer he stays, however, the more he begins to sympathize with the controlling and domineering mothering issues Maria forces upon him, seeing the pain and loneliness lurking just below the surface of her world.

Although this play heralds a gifted new voice in the American theater, it often suffers from a forced logic that germinates from a fledgling playwright’s reliance on convenient theatricality, most glaringly evidenced by David’s loud and animated frustration whenever Maria stops dealing with him to answer her phone—a puzzling and oddly unmotivated reaction that later proves to be an expedient plot device that helps lead the story to its inevitable conclusion.
   Despite this challenge for any actor, under the fluid staging by director Robin Larsen—guiding her actors as they maneuver around Tom Buderwitz’s intentionally claustrophobic set, Dunagan is unobtrusively mesmerizing as Maria. She finds all the complex subtleties that paint her character’s narrow existence and her secluded life hampered by haunted memories of her horrifyingly troubled past.
   Although a promising young actor on the rise, Mulcahy is not as successful. His David is so one-note and continuously unlikable that his character’s end seems less touching than well-deserved. Eisenberg, who played this role in the first New York mounting of the play opposite Vanessa Redgrave, has not written a character able to stand up to the reverence he has for the role of Maria, which honors his real-life Polish cousin, it seems, more than it explains his doppelganger’s behavior.
   It easy to imagine the author playing David, a part he created for himself. Eisenberg has an inexplicable quality that permeates his own performances, an ever-present awkward vulnerability and personal quirkiness that he somehow embraces and delves into with complete honesty. Every actor is unique, making the task of searching out David’s eccentric, unmistakably Eisenberg-esque behavior a test for anyone else—at least without coming off as a total jerk. It’s surely not an easy place to visit let alone conquer.

As Maria says to David, “I think if your life not so good, you finish the book more quickly,” which says Eisenberg gets it—and this humility prophesizes that we can look forward to a noteworthy writing career for the multitalented guy, as the thorns and brambles of a life spent in less-cushy environs usually come with age and experience, only enriching the handiwork of any great artist.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
April 3, 2016
 
You Never Can Tell
A Noise Within

In his early career, George Bernard Shaw wrote two sets of plays that he labeled Plays Unpleasant (Widower’s Houses, The Philanderer, Mrs. Warren’s Profession ) and Plays Pleasant (Arms and the Man, Candida, You Never Can Tell). The unpleasant group decried social injustices and painted a portrait of people whose lives represented some of the ills of society. Most were not well-received, nor even produced, because of their subject matter. The pleasant ones were largely comic and intended to be lighter fare, but even with that intention, they contained some of the trenchant wit associated with Shaw throughout his life.
   As part of A Noise Within’s season titled Breaking and Entering, which Artistic Directors Geoff and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott define as toppling the walls of fear and ignorance and shattering comfortable old notions, You Never Can Tell is a masterful comic farce in the hands of director Stephanie Shroyer. From the early moments of the play, the stage is set for absurd pronouncements, sly innuendo, and genuine laughs as the nimble ensemble takes on Shaw’s keen satire.
   The plot is multifaceted. A mother, Mrs. Clandon (Deborah Strang), and her three children arrive back in an English seaside town after living in Madiera for 18 years. Gloria (Jill Renner) is in her early 20s and is a disciple of her mother, an ardent feminist. Twins Dolly (Erika Soto) and Phillip (Richy Storrrs) are 18 and irrepressible.
   From the first they act as a comic tag team in the presence of a dentist, Dr. Valentine (Kasey Mahaffy), who is just beginning his practice, and not too successfully. They are long absent from England because Mrs. Clandon was fleeing a difficult marriage to Mr. Fergus Crampton (Apollo Dukakis), a shipping magnate. Mrs. Clandon’s children do not know the identity of their father, and when he is revealed, the action escalates. The convoluted shenanigans that lead to love and compromise among the characters encompass the substance of the story, but the icing on the cake is the lively direction and skill of the actors.

Dukakis is blustery and cranky, a perfect pompous Englishman. Strang opposes him graciously but shudders at the memory of their marriage. Renner easily convinces as a young woman who shuns the idea of marriage but abruptly yields to passion at the disarming hands of Valentine.
   The comic trio of Soto, Storrs, and Mahaffy get the real action in this satiric farce. Shroyer gives them ample latitude to deliver over-the-top characterizations with high spirits. Mahaffy’s sardonic lift of an eyebrow or a casual pronouncement followed by a bit of stage business keep all eyes on him as he woos Gloria. Soto is a natural comedic actor, easily matched by Storrs, uncannily convincing as twins.
   Other characters are Mr. Finch McComas (Jeremy Rabb), fervently trying to bring reason to the skirmishes); Walter Boon (Wesley Mann), a waiter who steals the show as he delivers the signature title line, “You never can tell,” throughout; and his son, Bohun (Freddy Douglas), a lawyer whose stentorian pronouncements make all the principals come to an understanding.

Don Llewellyn’s clever scenic design includes several locales, particularly a hotel restaurant. The scene changes choreographed by the characters are a delightful ballet. Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes are elegant, adding authenticity to the period. Composer–sound designer Peter Bayne and lighting designer James Taylor also add the requisite atmosphere with style.
   Individually and as an ensemble, the actors and director bring this Victorian comedy of manners to life in a fresh way, easily enjoyed by modern audiences. Played for laughs, it nevertheless pays homage to Shaw’s use of language and acerbic observations about society, relationships, and the unpredictable nature of love.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
March 16, 2016
 
Sex With Strangers
Geffen Playhouse

The title Sex With Strangers may be the most exciting thing about this production. A flat script, uninspired direction and a robotic performance turn it to lead.
   Written by Laura Eason, it’s at Geffen Playhouse’s black-box space through April 10. Under the direction of Kimberly Senior, the play’s appeal is as lacking as any chemistry between its two characters.
   It stars Rebecca Pidgeon as the “older” novelist Olivia and Stephen Louis Grush as the “younger” blogger-turned-screenwriter Ethan. That blog, titled “Sex With Strangers,” documented Ethan’s bedding of a different woman each week over the course of a year. Hey, he says, girls want to be written about.
   Ethan comes to Olivia in her room at a writers’ retreat in snowbound Michigan. Before he even knocks at her door she calls out, “Who are you?” Then she opens the door to this stranger. At the end of this first scene, he quotes from her book, and she becomes his latest bed buddy. But sex is the least complicated part of their interactions. The play seems to ponder whether and how much we use each other only for our own gain.

Even the “sex” portions of this production, starting with kissing and swiftly moving offstage, are without heat. Most problematically, they’re used to conclude scenes when nothing else in the writing has built to those breaks.
   Perhaps the age difference was meant to provide a frisson. Played by these actors, Olivia and Ethan don’t seem age inappropriate for each other. But generationally and attitudinally they are an abyss apart. She, of the “older” generation, wants to be the author of tangible, bound books. He, of the “younger,” thrives on digital media. She was battered by the reviews of her first book and now can’t abide even the possibility of anonymous Internet reader reviews.
   Considering her complete lack of confidence, she’s ripe for whatever picking he might do. But this dark knight claims to have arrived on her isolated doorstep with a plan to rescue her.

One might wonder how much of this is occurring in her mind, though that possibility dwindles as the play goes on. One might also wonder how much of the play is occurring in the audience’s mind. Senior’s direction does nothing to shape the work and give it dynamics.
   She has configured the audience area around the sides of the stage, so audience members are always seen watching the play, giving a voyeuristic feel to the pair’s physical interactions.
   Senior also allows Pidgeon to deliver every line at the same pitch, intensity and pace. Grush is left to create for himself each scene’s reality, as if he were working alone onstage.
   Sibyl Wickersheimer’s set design is gorgeous. It thoroughly evokes the writer’s retreat in the play’s first act. It makes a beautiful apartment for the play’s second act. But without tremendous suspension of disbelief, there’s no doubt they’re the same room, with the furniture moved a bit and many more books lining many more shelves. Could no one remove the coat rack from the back wall between acts?

For those who wish to see this production, note: Seats that offer an unobstructed view are in the front rows, and a relatively unobstructed view is available from the risers of the center (permanent) section. Otherwise, sightlines are very much obstructed.

  Reviewed by Dany Margolies
March 13, 2016

Republished with kind permission of Los Angeles Daily News

 

The 39 Steps
Torrance Theatre Company

Richard Hannay is world-weary. At 37 years old, returning to prewar London after traveling, he fears there’s nothing left of life. Suddenly remembering the one place that could brighten his outlook, he dashes out—and heads to the theater.
   How’s that for a snappy beginning to The 39 Steps, adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film?
   Things only get snappier. Adventures galore await Hannay. He meets a glamorous foreign agent at the theater, who mentions a place in Scotland and then is murdered, so Hannay hops a train to find the place, but the police search the train for him, thinking he murdered the woman, which forces him to jump from the train….
   The whirlwind plot would be fun even with ordinary stagecraft to enact it. But the treat of Barlow’s adaptation is his suggested casting: one man to play Hannay, one woman to play the three main female characters, and two men (which the script names Clown 1 and Clown 2) to play all the other roles (which Barlow estimates total near 250).

At Torrance Theatre Company, director Mark Torreso is more than up for the challenge. The script doesn’t divide the supporting roles between the two men, so Torreso must have had hours of homework piecing together that part of his staging. For the rest, he shrinks the already tiny stage area, adding wing space from which beds, windows, hotel desks, train cars, and bridges can be whisked on and off the stage.
   But Torreso, being a good director, made sure he had very competent help. Much comes from wigmaster Michael Aldapa, who generously dipped into the daffy side of his collection, and costumer Diana Mann, whose work had to not only instantaneously establish nationality and occupation but also ensure that the two Clowns can leap into and out of the many outfits, sometimes while onstage. A video screen upstage provides additional help, setting scenes, adding characters and a few sight gags.

Still, this show can’t work without a superb cast, and it has one. Nathan Gebhard plays the debonair Richard Hannay with a vast reservoir of twinkle, leaving only a fine line between the dangers supplied by the plot and the staging mishaps—intentional, of course—that occur in putting on this show.
   Amanda Webb skillfully morphs among the dazzling German agent Annabella, the sweetly melancholic Scottish wife Margaret, and the principled and pretty Pamela who tracks Hannay’s adventures with changing opinions about him.
   Playing Clown 1, David Joseph Keller follows in the noble tradition of commedia: his face malleable, his arsenal of accents well-stocked, his glee in playing elderly Scottish women boundless.
   Whether Torreso took a cue from the script’s happy depiction of women as strong creatures up to the tasks of men, or whether he found in this actor all the skills, and then some, needed, he cast Megan Farber as Clown 2. She is fabulous, with energy and a voice that shake the walls of the theater, as she plays huckster, milkman, salesman, policeman, the professor with the missing finger, the doddering old political host with the missing hearing, and a hundred more zany characters.
   This production adds two “Dark Clowns.” To paraphrase Churchill, they also serve who only move the furniture and play a flock of sheep. Such is the selfless joy of making theater. Like Bunraku puppeteers, Frank Pepito and Leo Zapata are clad and hooded in black but make much of the stagecraft possible and add a few of their own shenanigans.

If anyone in the audience wants to get all thoughtful ’n’ stuff, the show is also about romantic love and love of our fellow beings. Hannay couldn’t find romance until he found his adventurous side, and he finds that side with a woman (we won’t say which one) who sees him for himself and not for what others say about him.
   True love, and true theatricality, triumph. And the audience goes home with sore sides from laughing so much.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
March 13, 2016
 
Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
 
Man of La Mancha
Kentwood Players at Westchester Playhouse

Although this musical premiered in 1964, in this production it feels timeless and yet a balm for today. Kentwood Players’s pretty much flawless presentation inspires its audiences to become better people by treating one another with unfailing respect.
   With its book by Dale Wasserman (inspired by the stories of 17th-century Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes), music by Mitch Leigh, and lyrics by Joe Darion, the show pulsates with tales of derring-do, music of a vibrantly Spanish flair, and, whimsically, its easily understood in-jokes about the theater.
   But productions of it can be kitschy, particularly because the derring-do tales are recounted by a writer playing a madman. It certainly is not kitschy here, directed by Susan Goldman Weisbarth. It’s full of heart and truthfulness, beautifully staged and sung with full-throttle commitment.
   It takes place deep inside a Spanish prison, where prisoners of the Inquisition await interrogations. Cervantes (Ben Lupejkis) is tossed in among them, along with his belongings and his loyal servant (Bradley Miller).
   The prisoners tear into his possessions, but he is most protective of what seems to be a manuscript. To secure its return, he promises to tell tales to entertain them, and, wisely, he casts each prisoner in the stories.
   Fortunately, Cervantes is an actor and writer. With a little fake facial hair and a lot of physicalizing, Cervantes becomes Alonso Quijana, who, from an abundance of reading about ethics, has gone “mad.” He renames himself Don Quixote and sets out on quests with his servant, Sancho Panza (Miller), to right unrightable wrongs.
   Adventures abound, but most notable is Don Quixote’s coming upon inn that he believes is a castle. He refuses to see the resident serving wench and prostitute Aldonza (Rachel Mann) as such. Instead, he believes her to be Dulcinea, his ideal woman, whom he dignifies with respect and kindness.

Musical direction by Mike Walker brings out songwriter Leigh’s glorious harmonies, and the backstage band burns with the sounds of Iberia. But even more thrillingly, the performers bring out the souls of their characters. So instead of going for a Robert Goulet–style throaty delivery of the show’s famous highlight, “The Impossible Dream,” Lupejkis uses his warm baritone to touchingly and inspiringly reveal to his audience the feeling of standing up for right and goodness, even if that means standing alone.
   Mann, too, sings ferociously from her heart. So, although clearly she has a beautiful voice, she puts the focus on the horrors of Aldonza’s life and the gift of respect Don Quixote gives her.
   To brighten the mood, the charming Miller provides comedic sparkle, as well as a lovely tenor voice. Second leads reflect depth in Kentwood’s vocal bench, particularly Daniel Kruger as the doctor and Peter Miller as the priest.
   Weisbarth’s staging includes exhilarating nonstop fight choreography, by Drew Fitzsimmons—who, in addition to appearing as the Inquisitor, created a delightful prancing dance for the story’s horse and donkey.
   Weisbarth’s visuals are stunningly beautiful and solid. The set design, by Jim Crawford and Scot Renfro, turns the entire stage, including the proscenium arch, into a cavern, leaving barred windows upstage through which we can glimpse the musicians. The lighting design, by Richard Potthoff, uses a dusty Mediterranean palette.

Two notes of caution to audiences: The two-hour show runs without an intermission, and it includes a rape scene, though Weisbarth stages it with discretion.
   In literature, the insane and the foolish speak the truth and open our eyes to our own behaviors. Here, when Don Quixote speaks of the best in people, the power of his words is mightier than his mangled sword, affecting the characters around him, and us, deeply.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
March 13, 2016

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
 

The Mystery of Love & Sex
Mark Taper Forum

Family has not changed since ancient times. Our perceptions of family have. Playwright Bathsheba Doran seems to celebrate this her play The Mystery of Love & Sex. That’s the lovely part of this work. It centers on one family, nuclear and graciously extended, somewhere “in the American South.” But in this production, directed by Robert Egan, the play spreads itself far too thinly over too many issues.
   At the top of the play, Charlotte (Mae Whitman) is in college—though not at Yale, because, she explains, she wanted to experience her university years with her childhood friend and next-door neighbor, Jonny (York Walker). As Doran posits him, he, being black, didn’t have the opportunities Charlotte had. His single-parent mother didn’t push him academically. Charlotte’s parents pushed her.
   Charlotte’s parents are the Jewish New Yorker Howard (David Pittu) and the converted, formerly lapsed-Catholic Lucinda (Sharon Lawrence). Jonny “grew up in” their home, although his mother lived next door. Howard and Lucinda seem to offer their daughter unconditional love. They don’t agree with all of her choices, and they nose into her business, but they always respond with forgiveness and a bit of steadying advice.

So much is clear. The unanswered questions start with Jonny’s unexplained childhood presence at Charlotte’s house. And the questions continue with why Jonny nonetheless seems like a stranger to everyone there, in the script and on the stage as Egan has developed him.
   And why did people with so much logorrhea, living in this atmosphere of acceptance and support, wait for decades to reveal such large aspects of themselves? The play’s action seems to come more from Doran’s manipulation than from any growth or introspection from the characters.
   Among the contrivances here is the nudity. In the play’s second scene, Charlotte confesses her lesbianism to Jonny, then strips to her skin to try to seduce him. The only moment even more forced occurs when Jonny, at play’s end, strips to his skin as a gesture of leveling the balance between them.
   But more troublingly, Jonny and Charlotte have supposedly been best friends for 12 years and now are masquerading as lovers, revealing plans to move in together for grad school, yet neither has spotted the homosexuality in the other.

Is this play about the perils of self-absorption? One note of this is plucked by Howard, who tells Jonny to call home because his mother is dying. Jonny seems to know differently. Meanwhile, Howard and Lucinda tease and coo but have been unhappily married for far too long, hiding an affair and a smoking habit from the other spouse.
   Is this a play about lost opportunities? Charlotte sat hidden in the back of the church at Jonny’s mother’s funeral; Jonny sat in his garden during Charlotte’s wedding next door. Lucinda sold her wedding dress. Howard cared more about his authorship than about the feelings of those around him. These issues would make for strong playwriting, had they been explored. Instead, they’re merely character traits here.
   Director Egan seems to have delved into character interactions, but his staging distracts from the storytelling. Why do the actors spend the first few scenes yelling their lines? (Pittu is on the less-offensive end of this spectrum, Whitman at the shrill end.) On opening night they finally quieted down, perhaps because that level of yelling is just exhausting—for themselves and for the audience. Egan’s actors move the furniture between scenes. Any chance of becoming involved with the story is dashed when we watch Lawrence move a sofa.
   But in the play’s most focused denouement, we learn that Charlotte had a scarring experience at school when she was 9, soon after which she tried to kill herself. Lucinda has been secretly blaming herself all these years. Meantime, Charlotte felt she couldn’t reveal her secret to her parents. Yet Charlotte grew up in the shelter of unconditional love. So what happened to her relationship with her parents that made her fear their reactions?

The characters tried to live as someone they’re not. They wasted years of their lives doing so. Yet without giving her audience better clues in this two-hour-and-40-minute Mystery, Doran makes us too familiar with that feeling of regretting an unsatisfyingly, puzzlingly wasted time.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
February 22, 2016

Republished with kind permission of Los Angeles Daily News.
 
Barcelona
Geffen Playhouse

Ever find yourself walking in a park in the morning, or through a mall in the afternoon, or down a main drag like Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard at night, enjoying the sights and sounds and people, and suddenly you say to yourself, “Holy crap, what if there should be an incident right now? What if somebody with a bomb or a gun is right around that corner?”
   That kind of unexpected juxtaposition of relaxation with unease and even panic—whether or not it’s based on reality—is probably a fairly modern phenomenon, and maybe a mostly Western phenomenon at that, since it’s a syndrome tailor-made to those with the luxury of taking material comfort and everyday security for granted. It certainly animates Bess Wohl’s Barcelona, a play that seems uniquely of-the-moment in that it never, not for a second, lets you rest easy.
   Incongruities abound from designer Japhy Weideman’s first light cue on the main stage of the Geffen Playhouse. We dimly make out Mark Wendland’s re-creation of a cluttered loft apartment, boxes and crap everywhere, in contrast with the panorama of a glowing Barcelona after midnight, brilliantly if distortedly visible through filthy windows.

Banging into the room—no pun intended—are young, boozed-up American tourist Irene (Betty Gilpin) and Manuel, elegant, older Spanish escort (Carlos Leal), who proceed to engage in one of the most-explicit onstage acts of coitus in recent memory. It’s giggly and messy and full of comic biz, yet vaguely ambiguous too, in its overtones of sadism and near-rape.
   Uncertainties continue as clothes are donned and backstory emerges. Why has Irene, part of a prenuptial bachelorette party flown in from the States, abandoned her friends for a stranger she keeps calling “Manolo”? Why has this clearly affluent Madrid businessman settled in this Catalan dump? We find out the building is slated for the wrecking ball the next morning, so why is he so casual about packing up all the stuff and getting it out? And most of all. what is going, and what is about to go, on?
   Wohl, director Trip Cullman, and their stellar cast expertly exploit that aforementioned 21st-century sense of not being quite sure whether a stranger possesses malevolent intent, and whether danger may be lurking beneath the most casual gesture. As a US audience, we naturally see most of it through Irene’s eyes, and Gilpin’s brilliant veering sharply between fear and comfort, suspicion and consolation, complicates all of our responses.
   For his part, Leal couldn’t be more skillful at sending out mixed signals as to his feelings about Irene and about Americans in general, and what those feelings are prompting him to do as a result. When Manuel pours his guest a drink, it’s partly images of Bill Cosby that make us (and Irene) wonder whether something’s up; but it’s mostly Leal’s acting that sustains our apprehension.

Before it’s through, Barcelona manages to touch upon a myriad of timely themes, from America’s perception and role internationally, to terrorism, to the underlying paradigms of love. If it’s likely to resonate more during its running time than afterwards, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a play that’s simultaneously this funny and this tense; one that seemed to promise a straightforward romantic comedy and evolved into something quite different.
   If theater economics means we’re all going to be doomed to a steady diet of two-hander plays, we could do a lot worse than encounter two-handers as complex and engaging as this one.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
February 20, 2016
 
West Side Story
Musical Theatre West at Carpenter Performing Arts Center

The curtain rises to reveal a New York stoop, as the overture blossoms into an iconic score and eight young men in jeans and tennies burst into a dance of seething frustration and endless energy. Unmistakably, this is West Side Story. And unmistakably, this production of it is setting a sky-high bar.
   Musical Theatre West’s orchestra, configured to play the 30-instrument version of Broadway’s 1957 original production, sounds thrilling under the baton of music director David Lamoureux. But that thrill is expected. The unexpected thrill comes from the young dancers, well-versed in 1950s jazz, moving in well-honed unison. Can the rest of the show keep up this pace?

First, the show’s stellar credits: book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and original conception and choreography by Jerome Robbins. Here, Joe Langworth directs, with choreography reproduced by Hector Guerrero.
   The musical, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, centers on a New York neighborhood where teenage gangs would rather fight to the death than get along. The Caucasian Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks can’t even walk past each other without name-calling, spitting, shoving and eventually knife-fighting.   Tony (Michael Spaziani), a former Jet but still best friends with Jets leader Riff (Tyler Matthew Burk), attends a dance at the local gym that brings together both gangs.
   The scene allows for even more exhilarating dancing but also lets Tony set eyes on Maria (Ashley Marie), who happens to be the sister of Sharks leader Bernardo (Cooper Howell). Tony and Maria instantly fall for each other. But Maria knows her family and friends, including her brother’s girlfriend Anita (Lauren Boyd), won’t approve—because of the couple’s ethnicities but also because the family has planned her arranged marriage to Chino (Julian Marcus De Guzman).

“The most beautiful sound I ever heard,” sings Tony of Maria’s name. The same can be said of her portrayer’s singing voice. Marie has vocal chops that put one in mind of Marni Nixon: clear, silvery, operatic.   Spaziani’s voice is lovely and unforced. He occasionally goes off pitch in his solos, but when he sings in duets with Marie, each singer is perfect, and the unison and complete clarity of their lyrics is a wonder, likely thanks to much polishing with their director and musical director.
   The dances, too, reflect hours of disciplined rehearsal. A few of the men, in particular Daniel Kermidas as the hat-wearing A-Rab, are spectacular dancers. So is Boyd, particularly when Anita and her friends strut to the rhythmically complex, melodically and lyrically lively “America.”
   One misstep mars the pleasure here. Marie and Spaziani are not dancers. Yet they get shoehorned into a dance number during “Somewhere.” And, perhaps to camouflage the problem, Langworth bookends them with two couples who are not the show’s most-skilled dancers either.
   Fortunately, that number is followed by the lively, comedic “Gee, Officer Krupke,” in which the Jets offer observant socio-economic explanations for their behaviors.

Yes, the show keeps up its starting pace, through long aerobic dance numbers, over vocally sustained notes, through swift scenic changes (the set is uncredited but picture-perfect) and even though it tells a well-known story.
   For a show written in the 1950s, based on a play from the 16th century, the subject matter of West Side Story is surprisingly and sadly topical, as gang warfare, police corruption and racism still ravage our cities.
   Its finale, though, as the gangs grudgingly but at last recognize that it’s time to live in peace, might change the minds of young audiences. Here’s hoping they’ll have the chance to see this production—for its inspiring message and for its equally inspiring artistry.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies  
February 15, 2016


Republished courtesy of Long Beach Press-Telegram
 
Candide
Long Beach Opera

The concept framing Long Beach Opera’s Candide, of life as a first rehearsal, is apt. We’re given little stage direction and then blindly stumble through this world. So the title character—after discovering that life is tragic, cruel, and random—learns that the best one can do to survive is to find the simple joys in life. The execution of that concept by director David Schweizer gets lost in translation. However, an opera’s main focus is its sound. And even with a tiny cast of eight, Leonard Bernstein’s music sounds grand.
   Based on Voltaire’s 18th-century satirical novella, the operetta regales with the adventures of Candide, a innocent who is beaten, drowned, has lost his lady love to pillagers, yet remains insistent that this is the best of all possible worlds. His great love, Cunegonde, a royal lass who expected a cushy life full of riches, suffers indignity after indignity: rape, murder (though it doesn’t take), prostitution, and destitution. Only her love for Candide keeps her moving, along with her devotion to shiny jewels.
   Candide may be the most beloved flop in Broadway history. The original production, in 1956, lasted 73 performances, but the cast album lives on due to Bernstein’s glorious score. The sweeping melodies, the farcical elements of his comedy numbers, and the witty lyrics by Richard Wilbur (with additional tinkering over the decades by Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Bernstein) are entrancing. The overture, so wild and exciting, almost immediately became part of many an orchestra’s repertoires. Cunegonde’s aria “Glitter and Be Gay” is both a hilarious comedy number and a showcase for coloraturas because of its vast range and heady voice requirements. “Make Our Garden Grow” has become an anthem for self-reliance and hope.

The musical usually requires a cast of 50 to reach the score’s epic scope, but in this intimate space, the LBO cast, aided by a stirring orchestra, sounds splendid. Todd Strange as the title character captures Candide’s earnestness and unabashed optimism. Suzan Hanson is wickedly funny as the old lady with one buttock. As the naughty Paquette, Danielle Marcelle Bone is coquettish and yet guileless. In various roles, Roberto Perlas Gomez, Arnold Livingston Gels, and Zeffin Quinn Hollis build distinct and hilarious characterizations such as a valiant sidekick, a fey governor, and the stoned King of El Dorado. Robin Buck, though, as the Narrator and Candide’s philosopher friend Pangloss, brought out little of the laughs and had a thin voice. But, as the frivolous Cunegonde, Jamie Chamberlin’s “Glitter and Be Gay” is jaw-dropping. No matter what octave she’s in, she has the power of an ox. Her breath control is perfect, her comic timing sublime. She stops the show and keeps that energy going throughout the evening.
   Because director Schweizer chose such a fantastic cast and orchestra, under conductor Kristof Van Grysperre, it’s a shame his rehearsal format comes off as stale. First, the script—an amalgam of Hugh Wheeler’s book for the Hal Prince 1974 production and John Caird’s 1999 version, with some additional cutting—makes one wish they had dropped the book completely and just performed a concert version. The jokes seem more shticky and the characters less fleshed out than usual. The production uses shadow puppetry in the place of sets, but those images on the scrim appear chintzy instead of clever. The one time this effect works beautifully is for the haunting shadow of Cunegonde as the narrator describes her death. Chamberlin stands behind the light and the image on the curtain looks twisted and deformed.
   Most criminally, Schweizer has performers chit-chatting and noisily setting up chairs while the orchestra gallantly performs the overture. It feels irreverent and keeps the audience from hearing it at its best.
   For newcomers and enthusiasts of this classic operetta, this Candide showcases Bernstein’s supreme score. If only the direction had enhanced the attributes instead of inhibiting them.

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz
January 25, 2016
 
Ham: A Musical Memoir
Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Renberg Theatre

At the height of Sam Harris’s meteoric success after the Sand Springs, Okla., homeboy was the supreme winner of the first season of Star Search, in 1983, a letter to the editor in a newspaper referred to him as a cross between a police siren, Ethel Merman, and Arnold the Pig. In his solo attempt at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Renberg stage to turn his bestselling memoir Ham: Slices of a Life into musical form, Harris unremittingly lampoons himself and his well-documented performing persona, which always was, shall we say, a little bit grand?
   Beginning with his opening number, a self-penned warning of things to come, appropriately called “Open Book,” immediately followed by the self-deprecating “Ham,” which Harris co-wrote with his accompanist Todd Schroeder, Harris lets us know we aren’t attending a Michael Buble concert where they need to pass out amphetamines at the door. Harris is at first a tad over the top, squealing out his best Arnold sound effects while twirling, making jazz hands, and lifting one leg at the knee whenever going for the highest notes—which, of course, he accomplishes impressively. The lyrics of his title song express how aware and comfortable he is with his flamboyant style and a singing voice so loud he could probably be heard at Highland and Santa Monica.
   Under co-directors Billy Porter and Ken Sawyer, Harris crashes through the fourth wall like a male Liza Minnelli during the popper years, thundering through tales of growing up in Sand Springs. As a kid, he never fit in despite—or because of—his success in community theater and in all of his school’s theatrical extravaganzas, in which he contributed in “multiple categories” and won the first three prizes in one particular effort. His distant, disappointed father didn’t help much, except for one revelation spoken during a commercial break from Sunday sports-watching: “Son, life is a bowl of shit—and we just stir it up.”

Stir it up Harris did in his life, and we quickly realize we should be ready to duck. As he finishes his first song, he asks for a towel, adding “I’m going to need it.” By the time the show concludes, that towel could have been wrung out like a washcloth still pinned to a clothesline after a thunderstorm.
   Using familiar showstopping songs to punctuate his stories, including Bob Merrill and Jule Styne’s “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and Jerry Herman’s “If He Walked Into My Life,” it’s clear that in a less-traditional world, Harris would be quickly cast as all the great larger-than-life female legends from Fanny Brice to Mame Dennis and beyond; in his prepubescent years, he lobbied to be cast as Helen Keller in a local amateur production of The Miracle Worker.
   At first, Harris’s delivery is indeed off-putting, making it easy to see why, soon after he became a household name—a time when he “wanted to be so famous I would be hated by the people I admire the most”—he was not universally adored. Just as we might be thinking the first half-hour of this show might be quite enough, he starts to scratch below the sequined surface of his 15 minutes of fame, beginning with a thwarted suicide attempt after falling in love with his first chorus boy. “Love,” he observes, “is a mismatch between peril and promise.” Then as he enters the years when his initial high-shooting star started to dim, he again pokes fun at himself.

As the journey continues, his delivery, like his life, becomes less diva-centric and more grounded. Calmly, sweetly, he luxuriates in his contentment with his own identity after finding the love of his life 20 years ago. Here, Harris sings a hauntingly beautiful rendition of his Star Search signature “Over the Rainbow” as a lullaby to his and his husband Danny Jacobson’s 7-year-old adopted son, Cooper.
   Early on, Harris reveals that he fears that less is always just less, while more is never enough. What he discovers along the way is, as long as you’re true to yourself, less or more will be just right. He may be a tad mature now to ever be given the opportunity to play a Brice or a Mame, but if anyone ever finally wants to cast him in The Miracle Worker, forget Helen Keller; Sam Harris definitely has the cajones these days to assay a mean and relentlessly sturdy turn as Annie Sullivan.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
January 24, 2016
 
Thom Pain (based on nothing)
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse

Things appear to be off to a rocky start when Rainn Wilson as Thom Pain tries to light a cigarette in the still-darkened theater. The light is snuffed out. “How wonderful to see you all,” he says without a hint of irony, with a notation here that the stage is still in pitch blackness. He tries another match. Then another. “I should quit,” he tells us. He gives up and next tries to perform an even tougher task in the dark, to read something from the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s the definition of the word “fear.”
   Soon after, the lights finally rise in a blinding flash on Wilson’s rumpled, nondescript Everyman, who squints into the glaring brightness before he proceeds to clean his eyeglasses as the lights are adjusted to a less painful level. He stares out at the audience, glancing from one person to another, a bird of prey on a hunt trying not to give away his intentions. Silence. Then, finally, dryly, “I’ll wait for the laughter to die down.” There is none.
   A few minutes later, a patron in the middle of the fourth row gets up and plods to the aisle, leaving abruptly. Mr. Pain—or is it Mr. Wilson?—calls out as the auditorium door closes behind the man, “Goodbye. Au revoir, cunt, if you’ll pardon my French.” Is it Wilson who’s just been challenged here or is the guy’s departure scripted? Considering the mind of this work’s author, Will Eno, the question is unanswered, although there’s a hint when Wilson stops midsentence a few lines later, glares back at the door, and reveals, “I’m like him. I strike people like the person who just left. You know, you might have been better off if you’d gone like our friend, who just left with his heart and the rest of his organs. I don’t know. This was an aside. Pretend I didn’t say that.”
   This 65-minute basically monochromatic screed of a monologue is the antithesis of a Shakespearean address, yet, oddly, comparing it to one of the elaborate soliloquies of the Bard is somehow fitting, if only in its searing indelibility. The fictional Mr. Pain is aptly named. He recounts a horrendous story of a little boy in a cowboy suit who watches as his beloved dog is electrocuted lapping water from a puddle compromised by a downed power line. “This can be an example of how days can go,” Thom concludes in a toneless sort of apology. “Does it scare you, being face to face with the modern mind?” he wonders, followed by the declarative, “It should.”

One could say Thom Pain (based on nothing) is a metaphysical experiment. But although it seems to consist of a rambling, entirely random torrent of words and disconnected ideas, by its end it’s anything but. Eno’s stream-of-consciousness tirade follows no rules of dramatic literature: no conventional theatrical character arc, no clearly stated conflict, no concrete resolution obvious to pigeonhole it and easily define the piece’s genre. Still, it is an arrestingly moving experience, as the audience lives through the character’s agony and discomfort with him and comes out the other side haunted by the darkness of his tortured, Bukowski-esque existence.
   This production is a quintessential example of artistic collaboration at its most important. There’s not even a remote possibility that Eno’s topic-jumping ontological diatribe—interrupted by promises of raffles, dogs barking and banging from the wings, and areas of the stage where Daniel Ionazzi’s lighting plot does not illuminate our hero if he wanders there—could possibly succeed without the talents of artists such as director Oliver Butler and his incredibly moldable tool: the unearthly, transcendent Wilson. The simplicity of this actor’s work—unembellished except for a moment or two when a lone tear falls shining down his weakly quivering cheek or he suddenly screams, “Boo!” with the chilling bearing of a serial killer—could truly be unmatchable. On Ionazzi’s basically blank stage, only adorned by the corner of a theatrical poster on one side peeking through the curtains, as well as costumer Candice Cain’s perfectly nebbish-y and somewhat unfitted suit, Wilson reigns supreme, successfully tackling a major challenge akin to if Samuel Beckett melded Richard II and Richard III into one tortured character.
   Oddly, no matter how abstract Thom Pain might at first appear, it is the opposite. It is the personification of each of our own realities surviving the daily assaults of a troubled world, easily identifiable to those of us, like him, who feel our “childhood running out” as we become foreigners to our upbringing and to the place where we were born, searching desperately for windmills like modern day Quixotes for what Eno calls “un-aloneness at last.”

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
January 14, 2016
 
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