Arts In LA

Archives 2017

The Monster Builder
South Coast Repertory

Self-identified genius Gregor (Danny Scheie) has just built a modern, stark-white castle on a grand scale, and two young architects, Rita (Susannah Schulman Rogers) and Dieter (Aubrey Deeker), have arrived to visit Rita’s classmate, Tamsin (Annie Abrams), who is Gregor’s wife. Rita is wowed by Gregor’s bold design, but Dieter is less enthusiastic.
   Thomas Buderwitz’s stunning architectural setting provides a backdrop for playwright Amy Freed’s newest comedy about the creative process gone awry. As destination architecture has seemingly become the raison d’etre for worldwide installations by famous architects and upsetting the status quo, Freed’s apocalyptic treatise on the ways creation by the master is fodder for satire is witty and timely. Taking a look at “starchitects”—those celebrated idols who have built grandiose buildings to critical acclaim—Freed mocks the outrageous and pretentious nature of their fame.
   Gregor is larger than life, and he revels in his celebrity. When he learns that Dieter and Rita have a potential commission for the renovation of a historic landmark, he pulls strings to get the job for himself. Meantime, the couple has gotten a job with Pamela (Colette Kilroy) and Andy (Gareth Williams), two wealthy clients whose architectural plans also add a humorous dimension to the unfolding story. Luring Rita into a professional relationship, Gregor sets about unleashing evil genius on his unsuspecting disciple.

The story is clever and full of conspiracies, and the collaborative acting skill of the ensemble elevates the production far beyond the pedestrian. Scheie gleefully takes command of each scene, allowing every cast member to play off his energy. Abrams has a flair for comedy, producing memorable moments as the not-so-bright trophy wife. Kilroy is the quintessential rich matron whose wealth doesn’t comport with good taste, and Williams is a genial self-made millionaire whose practical approach to life comes in handy in dealing with Gregor. Deeker acquits himself well as the betrayed builder, and Rogers has fine moments under Gregor’s spell.
   Kent Dorsey’s lighting adds dimension to Buderwitz’s several settings, and Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes are appropriately contemporary. Rodolfo Ortega’s original music and soundscape also beef up the storyline. Directed by Art Manke with superior tongue in cheek, the production heats up as the villain needs to be vanquished.
   The satire is broad, the humor Mephistophelian, and the audience responds accordingly. A clever special effect at play’s end puts the finishing touches on the melodramatic story of sophisticated mayhem. Freed continues to be a master of theatrical comedy.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
May 21, 2017
 
The Bodyguard
Pantages Theatre

If in 1992 the films on your must-see list included Reservoir Dogs, The Player, Howard’s End, Orlando, or even Wayne’s World, Lawrence Kasdan’s The Bodyguard probably didn’t make your list.
   But that film has indeed been musicalized and brought to the stage, adapted by Alexander Dinelaris. Its national tour is basking at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre, where the late Whitney Houston’s legion fans can hear her megahits receive full power-ballad treatment.
   Alas, those who want meat on the bones of their musical theater might want to pass on this one. Light on character development, light on songs that delve into emotions, and yet light on lightness, its book disappoints.
   On the memorable side, the show starts with gunshots, while the audience is still chatting, before the house lights have gone out. That’s a brave start for director Thea Sharrock.
   With interruptions along the way by a parade of Houston hits, however, the remainder of this show is a shallow, wish-fulfillment thriller.
   What kinds of wishes? For some women, it’s lounging at home in skinny jeans and voluminous sweaters on a great hair day, while a large staff stokes the home fires. For some men, it’s melting and bedding an icy celebrity. For some celebrities, it’s stepping into a pair of thousand-dollar rockstud boots and slipping into a dive bar for karaoke while remaining kinda sorta incognito.

Deborah Cox stars as Rachel Marron. Like Houston, Rachel is a megastar worshipped by fans, some of whom worship too much. She has a stalker (Jorge Paniagua), a former military man who has the smarts and means to breach all the security around her thus far.
   Judson Mills stars as the bodyguard her staff hires to give her greater protection. A former Secret Service agent, Frank claims he’s uninterested in entering the world of celebrity. Then he hears Rachel has a 10-year-old son and quickly agrees to take the job.
   His relationship with young Fletcher (the adorable and talented Kevelin B. Jones III, alternating with Douglas Baldeo) brightens the show. And, despite possible audience concerns about Frank’s motives, Frank seems to have a better parental relationship with Fletcher than does Rachel.
   Frank and Rachel get it on, then don’t. Rachel’s sister (Jasmin Richardson) feels the warmies for Frank, who to her surprise doesn’t reciprocate.
   Rachel’s emotional peak comes at the show’s end, when she gets to sing “I Will Always Love You.” The show’s comedic peak comes when Frank sings karaoke, badly. Dance highlights (choreography by Karen Bruce) re-create or perhaps mock the pulse-pumping onstage gyrations of pop concerts.
   Cox has many of Houston’s astounding vocal abilities. But, at least on opening night, she displayed little emotional heft and none of the outsize star power of Houston. Mills is appropriately cool, and chisel-jawed. Rachel’s entourage is played by actors who fit the bill but, like the two leads, aren’t given material to make their roles indelible: Alex Corrado as Rachel’s personal security guard, Charles Gray as her manager, Jonathan Hadley as her publicist, and Jarid Faubel as an FBI agent.

On the way out after the show, what was the audience talking about? Voices, dancing, missing Houston, transposing the movie to the present despite our gun-wielding society? Nope. Indeed, no one was humming the world-famous tunes. The audience was singing the praises of the taut abs onstage. You can’t wrest that kind of enjoyment from Reservoir Dogs.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
May 8, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 

The Music Man
Palos Verdes Performing Arts at Norris Theatre

Even among the best of musicals from the Golden Age, The Music Man stands out for its exhilarating score, classic storytelling, and memorable characters. This production of it lives up to the musical’s name.
   The book, music, and lyrics by Meredith Willson, based on a story by Willson and Franklin Lacey, tell of an Iowa town, usually beset by gossip and indolence, during the month when traveling salesman Harold Hill upends that world.
   How good is the score? It won the 1958 Tony Award for best musical, snatching the honor away from West Side Story. It includes such classics as the invigorating “Seventy-Six Trombones”; the soaring encapsulation of finding love, “Till There Was You”; and that beautiful song about hope in our lives, “The Wells Fargo Wagon.”

But face its basic fact: It glorifies a conman, ultimately promising his redemption and his faithfulness to the lovely woman who rescues him.
   Still, doesn’t Harold’s con improve their lives? He puts music in the souls of these folk. The school board members who have loathed one another suddenly form a barbershop quartet and can’t bear to be apart. Tommy, the town hoodlum whose father is a (gasp) day laborer, finds in Harold an adult who trusts him with responsibility, and suddenly Tommy shows industriousness, ingenuity and leadership. And, as any music teacher will agree, giving children the opportunity to play music together builds a group ethic and a sense of belonging.
   There’s only one problem: Hill doesn’t know one note from another, and the one woman he doesn’t spellbind is the town’s librarian and piano teacher, Marian Paroo.  

At the Norris, Brent Schindele makes Harold a bounding, charismatic figure, performing with ease but always hinting at Harold’s underlying compulsion to scam and scram.
   Katharine McDonough plays Marian, the character from literature through the ages whose pure love redeems a miscreant. McDonough makes Marian savvy yet caring, her defiant chin at the show’s end worth a thousand words. Above this, her voice is glorious: silvery and clear, yet expressive.
   Cathy Newman plays Marian’s mother with warm charm, adorably desperate for Marian to marry. Travis Burnett-Doering plays Marian’s tiny brother, Winthrop, whose transformation from morose to joyous is not only believable but also inspiring here. Olivia Park plays Marian’s piano student Amaryllis, impressively singing and acting, darling in her duet with McDonough.
   Greg Nicholas is Mayor Shinn, a big blustery politician who can’t get his facts and the city’s laws straight and who can’t seem to speak a complete thought but always manages to squeeze in a malapropism. Mary Murphy-Nelson plays the mayor’s wife, not as outrageously over the top as Hermione Gingold’s 1962 film portrayal but about as funny.

Thanks to director Todd Nielsen, as much fun as the production provides, it seems infused with old-fashioned charm and dignity. His sets and staging are simple when they can be, elaborate when they need to be. Sets, provided by The Music and Theatre Company, slip in and out unobtrusively and are wielded by a well-rehearsed stage crew.
   The chorus sounds superb under music director Sean Alexander Bart, and choreographer Daniel Smith pays lovely homage to the show’s original choreographer, Onna White.
   The ending feels a little abrupt. Perhaps the film version, in which the handful of ragtag, out-of-tune kids morphs into the marching band of our imaginations, has spoiled us. At least a sing-along chorus of “Seventy-Six Trombones” for the bows here might have soothed our savage breasts.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
April 24, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

 
 
Laughter on the 23rd Floor
Little Fish Theater

1953, America. Mass media are contributing to the dumbing down of the nation, women are battling second-class status, and a toxic demagogue who strangely worked his way into a position of power has a stranglehold over decent, law-abiding citizens.
   At the same time, national television consists of three networks. Among the most-watched programs, at least on the coasts, is comic genius Sid Caesar’s variety-comedy series Your Show of Shows, still considered a broadcasting landmark.
   One of the writers on that show was a young Neil Simon. In 1993, Simon immortalized his time there in his play Laughter on the 23rd Floor, currently enjoying a befitting run at San Pedro’s Little Fish Theatre.

Holly Baker-Kreiswirth directs this snappy show, well calibrating the comedy, giving the laughs breathing room while keeping the action scooting along. She also cast well.
   According to rumors—and Simon’s admissions—the characters here are based on the real-life talents penning Caesar’s show. Max Prince (Don Schlossman) is Caesar, and he’s as much a zany whacko in the room as Caesar was on television. Sure, Schlossman goes over the top, but who’d want to watch a sedate, businesslike genius of comedy?
   Also over the top is Ira (Daniel Tennant), unsurprisingly a stand-in for Mel Brooks. Tennant plays the rather vulgar, exceedingly hypochondriacal, unpopular but undeniably talented Ira unapologetically full out.
   Head writer Val (Richard Perloff), likely the real-life Mel Tolkin, still has the heavy Russian accent of his youth, but his commands of English and comedy are all-American. Perloff does superb work weaving some of the show’s funniest lines into the jittery sobriety of a mature man who is wise enough to fear his boss.
   Kenny (Chris McNair) is likely Larry Gelbart, who began his professional writing career at age 16. Brian (Ryan Knight), the token gentile, is the kid who despite the odds believes he can make it to Hollywood—and eventually does. Milt (Bill Wolski) is our hilarious introduction to the lunatics in this very talented asylum.

Women have broken the glass ceiling, or at least through to the 23rd floor here, though they’re not finding it completely sexism-free. Carol (Melissa Brandzel) keeps up with the men in the comedy quips, even through her pregnancy (yet always wearing a hat to work, courtesy of Diana Mann’s period-evoking costuming). And though Helen (Kathryn Farren) is Max’s secretary, she wants to write, aptitude be damned.
   And the young Simon on his first job? Here he’s Lucas, played by Jeff Rolle Jr. Rolle is African-American, and frankly it takes a moment for our lizard brains to accept him as Simon. But Rolle is adorable, our warm and hospitable guide to the mad world of television writing, and he’s funny without forcing a moment.
   The play turns serious and slower in its third act, but that befits its historical background. The nation was barely beginning to recover from the war when we were asked to deal with our own monstrous fear-monger. Here, Max must face the network’s edicts: trim the show by a half-hour, lay off a writer and accept babysitting by a management representative.

The f-word gets used, a lot. Somehow Simon makes it funny and not inappropriate for a group of writers pressured to create on schedule, and who did so perhaps better than anyone else in entertainment history.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
April 24, 2017


Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

 
Farragut North
Odyssey Theatre

What’s it like being a high-level presidential campaigner? You know, one of the folks who tell candidates what to say and how to say it. They ain’t no lilies of the field. They toil, gruelingly long hours, and oh do they spin. They’re characters in Farragut North, a 2008 play by Beau Willimon. You know, the creator of the Neflix series House of Cards, about horrifyingly dastardly power plays in Washington, D.C.
   Willimon’s play, a guest production at the Odyssey in West Los Angeles, follows a day in the life of Stephen (Jack Tynan), the 25-year-old press secretary for Democratic presidential candidate Gov. Morris (unseen). Stephen’s boss is Paul (Geoffrey Lower), the governor’s campaign manager. We meet them as they’re having drinks with The New York Times political reporter Ida (Jennifer Cannon), who in this production of the play is getting very handsy with the men, while Ben (Adam Faison), the young deputy press secretary they treat as a go-fer, soaks up every word.
   While Ben observes them, we observe director Cathy Fitzpatrick Linder’s choices. On opening night, not all the voices were fully audible. More troublingly, not all the characters were fleshed to their optimums.

One imagines a person in Stephen’s position to be sharp-witted, thoroughly impassioned and single-mindedly driven. Tynan doesn’t play him this way. His Stephen pleasantly poses as a strategist, as if he were still wondering what his career path might be. He certainly doesn’t appear smart enough to tame the traveling press corps. So when he meets in secret with Tom, the rival candidate’s campaign manager (Andy Umberger), it probably wouldn’t occur to the audience that Stephen would be savvy enough to consider, even for a moment, a double-cross. But there it is, dropped into his unwitting lap. Out of stupidity, avarice or the belief that he’s invincible, he meets with Tom in an out-of-the-way bar, and Tom invites him to join the rival campaign.
   We don’t see in Stephen’s face or actions why he took this meeting. There’s certainly no malice, no duplicitousness here, just wrong place at the wrong time. That’s not of great dramatic interest and doesn’t turn the character into a tragic hero.
   Molly (Margaret Fegan), the 19-year-old intern, has entered the mix. She’s opportunistic and seems to love wielding power as much as Stephen does. Yet Linder has her actors play the bedroom scenes as a romance. These people are backstabbers. Proving that the scars they leave are borne by the voters, a sweet waiter named Frank (Francisco J. Rodriguez, doubling as a Los Angeles Times reporter given, natch, short shrift) speaks from the heart about what the previous presidential administration has done to his family.

Throughout the play, the f-word gets used inordinately frequently and begins to distract. Maybe that’s what one hears on campaigns, but a more judicious use of it would have been appreciated.
   One other issue may keep the audience from becoming engaged with the characters: The lighting doesn’t sufficiently illuminate the actors. Every scene takes place in murky, dappled twilight, whether in a hotel room, airport lobby, bar or press conference.
 But shining through the dimness is Lower as Paul. We can feel Paul’s competence, his passion, his fighting through the weariness of a long, bitter political battle. Paul’s monologue about his first campaign, as he poured his own money into his candidate’s run, provides the most absorbing moments of the production.
   The play’s title refers to the D.C. Metro stop that underlies the heart of Washington’s lobbying and political-consulting district. According to Willimon, this is where political has-beens work. It’s where Tom tells Stephen he’ll end up. But this Stephen is so convivial, seems so harmless, he’ll have no trouble finding work back on some other foolish candidate’s campaign.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
April 17, 2017

Republished courtesy of Los Angeles Daily News
 
An American in Paris
Pantages Theatre

Most musicals either grab the audience or do not. It’s a risk to leave the audience a bit unsettled by intermission since there’s the chance people may walk out. An American in Paris takes that gamble, never giving audiences the assurance that the dangling story lines will ever gel, but by Act Two, it’s clear that the adaptation of the Oscar-winning 1951 musical is in very assured hands and quite a marvel. Featuring luscious George and Ira Gershwin songs and inventive dance, An American in Paris is a treat.
   It follows the storyline of Alan Jay Lerner’s Oscar-winning screenplay. Jerry Mulligan (Garen Scribner), an ex-GI, lives the bohemian life in Paris after the fall of Nazism. The musical, with a libretto by Craig Lucas, focuses on Jerry falling in love with Lise (Sara Esty), the fragile ballerina from Monte Carlo, with whom his two friends Henri (Nick Spangler) and Adam (Etai Benson) are also smitten. Once each discovers that the other two have designs on her, resentment festers. Adding to the romantic entanglements, pretty heiress Milo (Emily Ferranti) sets her sights on Jerry even if it means paying for his attentions.
   It takes two acts to understand how subversive and shrewd Lucas’s libretto truly is. The audience spends Act One following Jerry, who is a cad and not very compelling. Gene Kelly played the central character in the movie and his Jerry was self-involved and cock-of-the-walk, but he always followed his heart; Scribner’s Jerry is an extreme version. Only after absorbing the whole story does one realize that, despite the order of the curtain calls, Jerry Mulligan is not the protagonist.
   The character who grows and learns, who endears himself to the audience, who captures the musical’s major themes, is Adam, the American piano player, who was injured in the war and remained in Paris to compose music and heal his heart from the damage of mortal combat. Throughout the musical, Jerry is a snake who stalks a girl and hurts everyone around him, while Adam is the romantic. Adam personifies the fragility and talent of composer George Gershwin, while Jerry is only an obstacle to everyone.
   The musical doesn’t even bother to showcase Jerry’s talents. We know Adam is talented, since he wrote lovely songs such as “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” and “I Got Rhythm.” Lise is a passionate dancer we see showcased throughout the evening. Yet the audience never sees Jerry’s art (if the gorgeous projections are his, there’s no indication given). The only artistry of Jerry’s that we witness is designs for the title ballet, yet they look tacky, like they were inspired by the Partridge Family bus.
   After spending much of the musical annoyed that there is no compelling reason to care about Jerry’s travails, it’s revelatory to understand Lucas doesn’t want the audience to care about Jerry. This is Adam’s story, obvious from the beginning since Adam, not Jerry, opens the musical talking to the audience, essentially narrating.
   Lucas also veers away from the movie by bringing the shame, betrayal, and anger of post-war Paris into the story. Many of the characters are hobbled or motivated by what they experienced in the war. The book always recognizes that good people can do thoughtless things and calls the characters on their selfishness.

Of the cast, the two actors who grab the audience are Benson as the damaged but lovable composer and Ferranti as the wealthy patron. Both are triple threats and have the strongest voices in the lead cast. Esty and Scribner are outstanding, athletic dancers, but their acting and singing are only fair. Spangler believably plays the hapless Parisian, who adores a woman who doesn’t love him back. as a dope, trapped between his desire to be a good person and his compulsion to have what he feels he deserves.
   The orchestra sounds vibrant, playing some of the American Songbook’s gems. Mixing the Gershwins’ hit parade songs “S’Wonderful” and “The Man I Love” with George’s interludes such as “Cuban Overture,” the score features the best of the best. Bob Crowley’s costumes are haute couture, with the dresses for Milo, particularly a striking green number, standing out. The Tony-winning sets and projection design by Crowley and 59 Productions are spellbinding. From the locales that are both realistic and impressionistic to the lake that is a mixture of projection and physical, the visuals are inspired.
   Also Tony-winning, Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography is poetic, jazzy, and toe-tapping. After keeping the balletic motif throughout the musical, when Wheeldon switches to tap for the showstopping “Stairway to Paradise,” it sets itself apart. The cast members are consummate dancers and perform Wheeldon’s moves with aplomb.
   Both a treatment of the classic MGM musicals of the 1940s and ’50s and a skewed reflection of the quintessential Gene Kelly persona, this American in Paris does more than just transplant a beloved film to the stage. It reinterprets it while conserving the film’s major attributes: the score and the joy of magical dancing.

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz
March 24, 2017
 
The Cripple of Inishmaan
Torrance Theatre Company

Sticks and stones can break our bones, but words hurt more, in this dark comedy by Martin McDonagh. The sticks and stones are wielded by these all-too-human characters, but the more-damaging cruelty is in what they say to one another. And even when they try to be kind, the harm they may be doing might be worse than that caused by unsparing words.
   The time is decades ago, the place an island off the Irish coast, and the characters quirky, but the story feels strikingly immediate in the play’s production at Torrance Theatre Company.
   It centers on Cripple Billy (Kawika Aguilar), a good-hearted young man whose hand is paralyzed and who walks with an obvious limp. But his soul is even more damaged, as he has spent his life believing his parents didn’t want him because of his physical limitations.
   He lives with his Aunt Eileen (Shirley Hatton) and Aunt Kate (Virginia Brown), who run the local grocery. Eileen copes with life by sneakily stress-eating the store’s latest shipments of candy, and Kate calms herself through conversations with stones she lovingly cups in her hands.   Billy longs for a kiss from the town’s prettiest girl, Helen (Alberie Rachele Hansen). She, however, is busy trading those kisses around town for products and services.
   The play’s plot is set in motion when news comes, via the town busybody Johnnypateenmike (John Ogden), that a film crew from Hollywood has landed on the neighboring island to make a movie. Billy and Helen insist on heading to the filming location, certain stardom awaits them. They hire Babbybobby (Jonathan Fisher) to row them over.
   But Johnnypateenmike, who tends his 90-year-old Mammy (Christi Lynch) by pouring whiskey into her, might have gotten the details of the film shoot, as well as many other bits of “news” he spreads, rather wrong.

Sasha Stewart Miller directs, leaving no stone unturned. She brings out whatever truths are possible to glean about each character, and her staging puts the action together like a jigsaw puzzle. That action leaps from store to moored rowboat to bedside, on scenic designer Mark Wood’s compact, sturdy, effective set, mistily lit by Katy Streeter of StreetLite, LLC.
   McDonagh writes in multiple levels of meaning and knotted plot twists. By the play’s end, the audience might be growing less certain about who has done what and why.
   Billy sees the good in Bobby, despite Bobby’s retributive temper, and in Helen, who despite teasing her little brother Bartley (Nick Jordan Bell) for his obsession with telescopes, says she bought him one for his birthday. If there’s a fault with McDonagh’s script, it’s that everyone seems to have lied, so we don’t know if anything they claim at the play’s end is true.
   So we’re not sure whether the kindly town physician (David McGee) is hiding facts about Billy’s health or isn’t competent enough to know. Or did Billy’s words have the power of transforming his health?
   Speaking of the power of words, the actors use strong Irish accents—and strong Irish invective, though the f-bomb here sounds happier and funnier rhyming with “heck.”

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
March 20, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 

A Wrinkle in Time
Sierra Madre Playhouse

Imaginative direction, striking designs, and two vivid performances bring the thrilling journey of Madeleine L’Engle’s science-fantasy novel to life onstage at Sierra Madre Playhouse. Whether L’Engle’s deeper messages could possibly have been woven through what is essentially young persons’ theater—though a delight for adults, too—remains a reason for long chats after the show.
   The novel—about time-and-space travel, good and evil, growing up as our authentic selves at our own pace, family and friendship, and more—has been adapted for the stage by John Glore. Director Christian Lebano uses six actors to create the story’s many characters, and he establishes the many settings using a translucent set with doors and windows cut into it.

It was a dark and stormy night, as we are told by the narrators, the printed words projected onto the set, and Christopher Moscatiello’s excellent sound design. That’s when we first meet our protagonist, Meg Murry (Cate Jo). Meg can’t sleep, so she heads downstairs (a delightful moment between Jo and the stairway video of set- and projection designer Matthew G. Hill). Meg’s 5-year-old brother, Charles Wallace Murry (Boone Grigsby), preternaturally sensing and intelligent, has been expecting her. With hot cocoa and sandwiches, he welcomes Meg and their mother (Kristyn Chalker) into the cozy kitchen.
   Charles Wallace then introduces them to Mrs. Whatsit (Lena Thomas), a wonderfully peculiar stranger he found during his wanderings in the neighboring woods.
   Where is Father? Ah, that’s the mystery and launching point for the voyages of Meg, Charles and their newly met friend Calvin (Mike Rose), as they bend time and space to visit the unique but archetypal planets Uriel, Camazotz and Ixchel.
   What they learn, and we are reminded of, are the perils of dictatorships, the danger of creeping mind control, the damage caused by trying to make people exact copies of one another. Very much missed from the book are the Judeo-Christian references and its lessons in confidently being oneself even as an outsider.

Lebano nicely brings the book to theatrical life, seasoning the stage with humor and keeping the action bubbling along. He is helped a good amount by Chalker, who doubles as the entertaining eyeglasses-wearing Mrs. Who and the extraordinarily maternal Aunt Beast; and even more by Thomas, who makes a hilarious pratfalling clown, and an eccentric but beautiful-on-the-inside fairy godmother.
   Most effective at bringing all the characters to life are the costume designs, by Vicki Conrad. Calvin has his letterman’s jacket, Aunt Beast has her furriness, and Mrs. Whatsit is a glory of mismatched yet appealing, layered yet unrestricting outfits.
   All is highlighted by original music, composed by Sean Paxton, in a pleasing mix of 1970s synthesizer and sci-fi eerie exhilaration. Rebecca Hairston’s lighting design can too-brightly flash but certainly adds excitement, particularly when it helps create IT, the brain that thinks for its planet’s citizenry so they don’t have to.
   Naturally the traveling trio brings back Father (Clayton McInerney) for a very happy ending—even though, as most of us know, terrible darkness still lurks out there.

For fun before the show, the lobby can barely contain all the displays and activities the Playhouse provides. Most entertaining might be the opportunity to make a mask, imagining what creatures on other planets might look like.
   The show is double cast. The “Space” cast is reviewed here.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
March 13, 2017


Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 
 
33 Variations
Actors Co-op

Spanning nearly two centuries and the Atlantic Ocean, this time-traveling, paralleled account of a musicologist suffering the slow debilitation of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) while researching an obscure mystery surrounding the then equally health-challenged Ludwig van Beethoven comes to beautiful fruition in this moving incarnation.
   Director Thomas James O’Leary and his impeccable cast of seven, along with top-drawer production values, elevate playwright Moisés Kaufman’s already near-perfect script to an almost heavenly realm. As the primary catalyst of this story, Dr. Katherine Brandt is a renowned specialist in compositional analysis. In light of her terminal diagnosis, she seems hell bent on avoiding, for as long as possible, an irreversible fate. Nan McNamara’s handling of this iron-willed character who eschews even the most personal of human contact is powerfully arresting. Her interactions with Greyson Chadwick, who matures before our very eyes as her daughter, Clara, are a pas de deux of agonizingly mixed signals and emotional near misses. It is a relationship afforded great investment by these actors and director O’Leary.

Early on, we are introduced to a young male nurse, Mike Clark, brought to life with a boy-next-door charm by Brandon Parrish. Mike is Katherine’s connection to the realities of her medical condition and through a series of often comical interludes comes to serve as helpmate and love interest for Clara. Just as critical to this emotionally fractured mother-daughter team is a German archivist, Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, played by Treva Tegtmeier. At first frosty to what she believes may be the less than valid investigation by Katherine, she slowly warms to her American counterpart. Tegtmeier’s work, simple and true, seems born of an all-consuming dedication to individual moments which when compiled render a character arc that is the very essence of believability.
   On the flip side of this somewhat surreal storyline is a trio residing in early 19th-century Vienna. There is Anton Diabelli, a struggling musical publisher and wannabe composer whose original waltz served as the basis for a planned notebook of variations penned by numerous composers of the day. Played here with frustrated bemusement by Stephen Rockwell, Diabelli is a sympathetic portrait. As the closest confidante and self-proclaimed “friend of Beethoven”—it’s right there on his calling card—Anton Schindler, John Allee is delightfully unctuous. Dr. Brandt’s research eventually reveals that Schindler, who is dedicated to his “master” at every turn, may have harbored a historical perspective slightly less accurate than first believed.

And then there is the prodigy around whom this entire premise revolves, a man so wracked with inner genius that one variation on Diabelli’s original isn’t enough and thirty-three were not too many. Portraying Beethoven, Bruce Ladd challenges one’s ability to choose the appropriate adjectives. Aside from bearing an uncannily striking resemblance to the composer, Ladd gives a performance that transcendently captivates the senses. In one particular instance, aided by the unblemished assistance of onstage pianist and musical director Dylan Price, Ladd nearly stops the show with his astonishing interpretation of Beethoven, his hearing gone and his health in utter disarray, as he composes the final piece of this play’s title.
   In addition to collecting such an impressive ensemble, O’Leary is blessed beyond measure with a support system of theatrical artisans. Scenic designer Nicholas Acciani’s acumen is gloriously displayed via set pieces that double, even triple, as various items and locales, each delicately illuminated thanks to the prowess of lighting designer Andrew Schmedake. Meanwhile, Acciani’s breathtaking video and photographic projections flood the stage with images that transport us across the miles and years contained in Kaufman’s script. David B. Marling’s sound effects are equally crucial to the cascading series of scenes one witnesses. Rounding out this assemblage of expertise are Vicki Conrad’s costuming, E.K. Dagenfield’s obvious skills in dialect coaching, and Michelle Parrish’s subtly austere, show-ending choreography as all of Kaufman’s characters, living and dead, join together symbolically in bringing closure to what is an ornate yet simple tale of two lives’ interconnected paths.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
February 13, 2017
 
Once on This Island
3–D Theatricals at Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center

The visuals are gorgeous in 3–D Theatricals’s production of the infrequently produced Once on This Island. Costuming, lighting, choreography—everything that appeals to the eye gets a lavish treatment in this lively, charming show. Unfortunately, at least on opening night, too many of the voices sounded off-pitch, and the lyrics were too often indecipherable.
   The 1990 musical, with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty (both of Ragtime), is based on the 1985 novel My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl, by Rosa Guy. It’s set on a Caribbean island—director Rufus Bonds Jr. specifies Haiti—where color and light are vivid. In this production, days are sunny and earthy, nights are neon and gods are jewel-toned. Under Jean-Yves Tessier’s rich lighting, Stephen Gifford’s revolving set evokes warm sands and lush greenery, and Nephi Garcia’s costuming establishes the characters while making the audience want to leap onto the stage and join the party.

In the story, a little girl (Kayla Joy Smith), frightened by a thunderstorm, is calmed by her fellow islanders who tell her a tale to pass the time. They sing of a young girl named Ti Moune (Smith again), orphaned by a storm and found in a tree by the kindly Mama Euralie (Erika Bowman) and Tonton Julian (Keith Jefferson). Ti Moune grows up (Leah Stewart), lovely but coveting life on the other side of the island, where richer, whiter people live a fast life. She prays to the gods, in “Waiting for Life.” And as gods do in literature, they bicker and then challenge her with overly literal interpretations of her requests, in “And the Gods Heard Her Prayer.”
   Then the goddess of love (Daebreon Poiema) suggests love can conquer all. Relenting, the god of water (Jay Donnell) will provide the place where she will meet her true love. The mother of Earth (Dominique Kent) promises Ti Moune safe passage. The top-hatted demon of death (Edred Utomi) offers Ti Moune an escape clause from his ultimate price.
   And so Ti Moune meets Daniel (Cooper Howell) when he crashes his car on her side of the island. She nurses the unconscious lad, smitten and faithful to his care. The ending of Ti Moune’s life has purpose and hope, but it is unhappy.

Unhappily here, the sound of the show is problematic. The audio system might have been awry on opening night, when lyrics for plot-establishing songs couldn’t be fully understood. Also partly to blame, too few singers enunciated as well as the better ones did.
   And too many of the singers seem to have learned vocal production from popular culture rather than from formal training, so loudness takes precedence over pitch and dynamics.
   But the cast fully and ebulliently commits to Yusuf Nasir’s spirited, African-inspired choreography, as Bonds’ staging seems to effortlessly breeze through this 90-minute intermissionless show.
   And, happily, there’s purpose and hope for a new generation of performers. Here, congratulations to the very young children’s ensemble of Kennedy Nibbe, Mackenzie Nibbe, and Inaya Reddick, each of whom, along with Smith, joyfully nails the choreography.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
February 13, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 

Shades of Disclosure
Skylight Theatre

In the nearly four decades since HIV/AIDS, once referred to as the “gay disease,” brought worldwide scorn and judgment to those living an alternate lifestyle, close to 40 million people have died, and today 37.6 million people are living with the scourge of it. Aside from the great sorrow AIDS has brought to our world, the disease has also become a major source of discrimination against the gay community—mainly by all those self-aggrandizing conservative religious bigots who pretend to live under their savior’s pleas to practice charity and nonjudgment.
   “I’ve felt indelibly stained,” one participant in QueerWise’s unforgettable new performance piece Shades of Disclosure admits, “by the sickness I’ve brought on myself.” For the 17 participants in this eye-opening testimonial experience courageously telling the stories of how HIV/AIDS has affected their lives, such honesty is the norm, not the exception. Michael Kearns, the tireless LA-based writer-actor–AIDS activist who originated the concept for the evening 31 years ago when AIDS/US first debuted on this stage, masterfully directs now, when Shades could not be more timely in this frightening era when our freedom suddenly feels desperately precarious.
   The participants, who collectively wage war on our society’s damaging and demeaning labels—all but two of whom play themselves and read the stories they crafted based on their own personal experiences—relate their tale to 16-year-old Sophie Kim, a LGBTQ activist at Harvard-Westlake High School who found a home in QueerWise after coming out to her parents at 14. As she videos their comments, one by one the members of the eclectic ensemble recount who they are and how they—and we all—are connected despite our differences.

The members of QueerWise include writers, spoken word artists, social workers, and educators who commit their efforts to create and perform events such as this. Noted actors such as Darrell Larson, who bravely explains how his diagnosis led to admitting his lifestyle to his wife and daughter and signaled the end of his marriage, is joined by transgendered psychotherapist—and knockout guitarist—Jessie Jacobson, who shakily faces her patients while trying to grapple with her own identity; floundering young nomad Mason Mahoney, wondering if there will be a place for a biracial gay man in the current climate of America; Guatemalan immigrant Roland Palencia, who fears for his own future in his adopted country; and Kim’s teacher from Harvard-Westlake, who wonders if her youthful student will grow up to love and fight for the rights we, her elders, fought so hard to protect.
   These stories and others are gently related to Kim as the members of QueerWise offer their “truths now with swift purpose and quiet grace.” Although Shades of Disclosure works best when its storytellers lift their eyes from the scripts they carry, the honest telling of each person’s tales provides a jarringly evocative evening reminding us that our war against bigotry, racism, gender equality, and a disease that has decimated millions is not only not over yet but is a fight that right now at this scary and insecure moment in time must be renewed with vigor and relentless determination.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 6, 2017
 
Grimly Handsome
City Garage

Everyone involved in bringing Grimly Handsome to life at Santa Monica’s City Garage has done all the necessary work. Still, the play will feel like a farrago, unless the audience is willing to patiently dig in to sort out the threads.
   Julia Jarcho’s script, the 2013 Obie-Award winner, now in its West Coast premiere, is an intermissionless three-parter. First, on a frigid evening, two men wait for customers at a Christmas tree lot in New York City. They are Gregor (Andrew Loviska) and Alesh (Anthony M. Sannazzaro), each an Eastern European. We find this out when they speak heavily accented and hesitant English, though when they’re speaking in their native tongue, we hear it as flawless English.
   Alesh wants to be an American policeman. Gregor, wearing an eye patch, chides him with a reminder of police corruption back home. Or, is “the village” they refer to “The Village?”
   A girl, Natalia (Lindsay Plake), looking like Red Riding Hood browses the trees. She’s stunned at the high prices, so Gregor, with apparent sarcasm, gives her a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.
   When she leaves, Alesh and Gregor role-play picking up women. And then they role-play drugging, raping and killing them.
   We next see Natalia curled up on her sofa, the tiny awkward tree on display, as she reads a detective novel. And then she returns to the lot, where she takes a cup of tea from Alesh the way Snow White trustingly took an apple from the queen. Alesh carries her lifeless body away.

So far, so grim. Or, should that be “Grimm?”
   Director Frédérique Michel gives this first scene high style and deliberate pacing, so the work feels suspenseful. She then choreographs her use of Josephine Poinsot’s costumes, so Plake quickly re-emerges from backstage to start putting on the bits of costuming Sannazzaro had taken off: cap, flannel shirt, scarf.
   Plake’s Natalia thus transforms into Nally, an easily distracted man called in for interrogation by New York Police Department detectives Greggins (Loviska) and Alpert (Sannazzaro) as they investigate a series of Christmas slayings.
   Except, under Michel’s hand, it’s not clear that they truly are detectives. The words they say could pass for cop talk, but here, again, they speak with high style and deliberate pacing. Is Natalia dreaming them up? Note the dial phone in the room.
   More twists and surprises follow along these lines. Themes of identity and identifying with, interrelatedness, and natural evil waft through the 90-minute work.
   But most surprising, and certainly a highlight of the costuming, is the third segment. It seems to leave us with the idea that animals have better ethics than we do—or at least that they learn from their collective unconscious. Ignorance will be our downfall, we are warned.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
February 6, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 
Witness for the Prosecution
The Group Rep/Lonny Chapman Theatre

Originally published as Traitor Hands in the Jan. 31, 1925, edition of Flynn’s Weekly, this stalwart among the prodigious catalogue of Agatha Christie’s works has enjoyed numerous incarnations, including a slew of film and television versions. Its theatrical debut took place October 28, 1953, at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre. Though arguably not one of Christie’s most-gripping forays in adapting one of her novels for the stage, this three-act piece still can be quite engaging, especially when given dedication to detail as evidenced in this production.
   Director Jules Aaron keeps things humming along with a provocatively crisp pacing that maintains an aura of “What’s coming next?” Christie’s clues are all there, and this cast of 14 exercises the pithiness of her language with ease. Kudos to Linda Brennan, the production’s dialect coach, for a commendable slate of accents employed by her charges.

Defendant Leonard Vole, played with a mixture of befuddlement and righteous indignation by Patrick Skelton, is on trial for the bludgeoning murder of Miss Emily French, a 66-year-old woman who, as an indication of the play’s age, is repeatedly referred to as “elderly” throughout Christie’s script.
   Vole’s legal team consists of Sir Wilfrid Robarts, brought to life with scene-stealingly delicious perspicacity by Larry Eisenberg, and Mrs. Joan Mayhew, given an energetically optimistic turn by Michele Schultz. Aaron chose non-traditional casting in changing Mayhew from John to Joan. The resulting relationship between these two barristers is captivating and serves to further highlight the tale’s occasional comedic moments.
   Romaine, a German national Vole married and brought back to England, is his only true source of an alibi as the circumstantial evidence mounts against him. She turns out to be the titular character. Divulging any more of the plot’s twists and turns would be unfair to the production and detrimental to our dear readers’ enjoyment of this expertly directed, multilayered mystery. Suffice it to say that Salome Jens offers a remarkably adroit performance as this often maddeningly enigmatic woman.
   Thanks to J. Kent Inasy’s stunningly ingenious scenic design involving pivoting double-backed walls and platforms, we are transported from Sir Wilfrid’s chambers to the Central Criminal Court of London, better known as the Old Bailey.

Here a collection of memorable characters is introduced—including Lloyd Pedersen’s drily humorous Justice Wainwright; Chris Winfield’s frustratingly self-assured prosecutor, Mr. Myers; Sherry Michaels’s witness Janet Mackenzie, Miss French’s housekeeper who makes no bones about her distrust of defendant Vole; Bruce Nehlsen’s sometimes fed-up, over-confident Scotland Yard Inspector Hearne; Mikel Parraga-Wills’s court clerk, with his silver-tongued delivery of the sessions’ calls to attention and administration of witness oaths; and Todd Andrew Ball’s and Roslyn Cohn’s uniquely drawn medical specialists, after both double as Sir Wilfrid’s legal staff in the opening scene of Act 1.
   Inasy’s lighting complements not only his notable set but also Angela M. Eads’s period-perfect costuming and Judi Lewin’s hair and wig designs. Aaron and sound designer Steve Shaw incorporate well-chosen musical pieces as scene segues. Aaron’s choice to make the audience the jury is well-thought-out; however, the use of taped crowd sounds at various points throughout the courtroom scenes is a tad distracting, especially when the onstage characters begin talking over disruptions that the presiding judge would most certainly quiet from the bench before allowing the case to proceed. Still, this is but a quibble with an otherwise uniformly excellent production.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
January 31, 2017
 
The Found Dog Ribbon Dance
Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

Coping is an intensely personal matter. The impact of a loss, whatever form it takes, is quite often inexplicable to the outside world. How one handles it and the potential need for comfort is the big picture in playwright Dominic Finocchiaro’s world premiere piece. Finocchiaro populates his play with unique people brought to life by a uniformly excellent cast under the able direction of Alana Dietze.
   As strange as it may seem at first, Norma, played with exquisite simplicity by Amanda Saunders, is a New York City–based professional “cuddler.” Blazing a path into this heretofore little-known job category, she encounters a widely varied clientele.
   There’s Dave, a pajama-clad divorcé, played by Eric Gutierrez whose moment of angst upon misreading Norma’s empathy is heart-wrenching. Harrison, a balls-to-the-wall stock market analyst, given a strong portrayal by West Liang, serves as a superlative muse for challenging Norma’s outwardly calm demeanor.
   Meanwhile, Trista, played by Clarissa Thibeaux, is Norma’s first female client, an 18-year-old given to “cutting” as she obviously struggles with her sexual identity. And Gregory Itzin is outstanding as a quietly empathetic older gentleman named Xeno who winds up providing Norma with the very connection and opportunity for reflection that she is supposedly offering him.
   Throughout, Norma sponsors the titular canine character, brought to life here by Daniel Hagen, whose work is engagingly perfect. Director Dietze along with Saunders and Hagen have avoided any pitfalls of disbelief the audience might foster, given this human-animal cohabitation. Theirs is a reality one buys into immediately and wholly.
   As Norma attempts to locate Dog’s owner, she runs headlong into a pair of characters who, frankly, could use her professional services. Gabriel Notarangelo plays Colt, a streetwise skateboarder whose foulmouthed invectives mask the heartbreak of having lost his own canine companion. Julia Dretzin embodies Miranda, a nearly heartless, or so we first assume, businesswoman whose mission is to bring home any dog in order to placate her children over their missing pet. Notarangelo and Dretzin spin gold with these cameo appearances, as their characters challenge Norma’s comfort zone.

On the flip side, all is not drama and depression. While posting a flier at a local coffee shop, Norma encounters an older-than-average—early 40s—barista named…wait for it…Norm! Steven Strobel is flawless as this charmingly goofy, occasionally immature, yet surprisingly deep man whose hobby is described by the other half of the play’s title. Strobel’s and Saunders’s scenes, touchingly directed by Dietze, are equal parts giddy teenage infatuation and quietly wistful moments of introspection. One finds oneself hoping for this relationship to take root and flower as Norma’s long-suppressed losses are given freedom to emerge, thanks to this unusual union.
   Dietze’s production staff complements her work with aplomb. Kirk Wilson’s arena-styled scenic design welcomes the audience to sit in any of the three sections surrounding the playing space. Jesse Baldridge’s lighting of the many locales in Finocchiaro’s script is warmly appealing.


Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
January 27, 2017
 
The Great Kooshog Lake Hollis McCauley Fishing Derby
Torrance Theatre Company

Torrance Theatre Company’s latest offering is another charmer from Canadian playwright Norm Foster. Titled The Great Kooshog Lake Hollis McCauley Fishing Derby, it shows the city mouse in all of us that small-town folk have all the wisdom we could hope for but perhaps none of petty stresses we cling to.
   The play has the feel of a fairy tale. A man who has misplaced his enjoyment of the important things in life becomes stranded for just the right amount of time in the lovely surroundings of Kooshog Lake, where three fairy godmothers and one fairy godfather wryly readjust his priorities.
   With a title like that, it’s no surprise the play is also a bit about names. What we call someone influences how we think of that person, and what we’re called influences how we think of ourselves.
   It’s about James Bell (Nick Brustin), tightly wound big-city big-shot banker, who was driving through the area on his way to a conference when his fuel pump opportunely broke, stranding him here just long enough.

He has been giving his life to his job. That job, it seems, will no longer be giving back to him. At Kooshog Lake, he comes upon Sienna Grey (Jennifer Faneuff), the earth-mother (thus the name) general-store owner whose afternoon nap James interrupts. She’s mourning her only son, who moved away and hasn’t called. But this doesn’t mean she’ll treat James with any apparent motherliness.
   The father figure in this mix is Kirk Douglas (Ron Gould), who starts to mess with James’s mind by pretending he doesn’t know who the real Kirk Douglas is. When the townsfolk tell James there’s only one phone in town, James loses all perspective.
   As if she could sniff out the presence of a new man in town, Rhonda (Eleen Hsu-Wentlandt) stops by the store. She may be a remorseless flirt, but she also runs most of the lakeside businesses. Despite his urban sophistication, she scares James. That’s likely why he quickly turns to the luminous Melanie Morningside (Rachel Baumsten), who evidences good sense and a sweet but currently aching heart.
   So, who is Hollis McCauley? He’s the catfish the locals have been trying to hook for more than 20 years, in their annual fishing derby with an enviable purse to be won for his capture. If he were to be caught, would anyone hang on?

The Kooshogians aren’t perfect. They’ve done things they regret, and they tease James until he doesn’t know joke from truth. But they’re exactly what he needs right now.
   Exactly what the play needs is a director with warmth and humanity, and it gets just that in Gia Jordahl, who makes this Foster comedy remarkably rich yet delicate—well, except for Brustin’s frequently mugging delivery.
   The scenic design and construction by Mark Wood takes the audience far away from Torrance and into a piney, weather-beaten haven. Lighting by Katy Streeter evokes warm morning and evening northern sunlight. Bradley Allen Lock’s costumes set a relaxed, timeless tone.
   Kooshog’s townsfolk feel a strong sense of community. They don’t lock their doors, because, as Kirk Douglas says, “If someone steals from one of us, they steal from all of us.” What a lovely place in which to retreat for a few days. Or a lifetime. Or two hours, including intermission.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 23, 2017
 
Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 
Adler & Gibb
Kirk Douglas Theatre

Something is strangely fascinating about Adler & Gibb, the latest from the strangely fascinating theatermaker Tim Crouch.
   In 2010, he brought to Los Angeles An Oak Tree, in which Crouch ushers an unprepared actor, different each night, onto the stage and feeds him or her direction and dialogue over earphones. In 2011, Crouch returned with The Author, about our various roles in and accountability for the theater.
   The British iconoclast is back with his 2014 work Adler & Gibb, about the nature, making, performing and celebrity of art. It’s co-directed with his frequent collaborators Andy Smith and Karl James.
   As with all his work, it is not suitable for everyone, nor, probably, is it intended as mass entertainment. It is best enjoyed by those with an interest in theater and culture, or those with a thirst for and willingness to sit through something this different.

Before it begins, or perhaps for its beginning, a child (on the night reviewed, the remarkably disciplined and adorable Olivia Abedor) interacts with the audience, handing out props and retrieving them, all based on instructions she hears via headphones. Instructing the child throughout this 90-minute work, Jasmine Woodcock-Stewart sits upstage, a microphone in hand, matter-of-factly showing the audience that art is being made with technology and with theater magic.
   Then comes a slightly more concrete beginning. As in conventional work, we watch an actor apparently playing a character. Jillian Pullara is Student, beginning her academic presentation about art-world icon Janet Adler, who hit the heights in the 1980s, walked away and into obscurity in the 1990s, and died in circumstances prompting ghoulish speculation.
   Lest you wonder, Adler is fictitious, though you couldn’t prove it by Adler & Gibb. She seems real to the audience, perhaps more real than the people trying to describe her, perhaps more real in contrast to Crouch’s deliberately distancing, deconstructed, elliptical and fractured style of storytelling.
   Adler is the subject of a proposed film, to be enacted by Louise (Cath Whitefield) and bankrolled by her (unseen) betrayed husband. Louise is bloated with need and ego, soothed and stoked by her acting coach Sam (Crouch).
   Sam and Louise do an acting exercise about trespassing on the retreat built by Adler and her life partner Margaret Gibb (Gina Moxley). Then they’re either inside Gibb’s home, uninvited and unwanted, or imagining they’re there.

The script mocks art, but it does so in the most artistic of ways. It mocks the cult of the artist, it mocks art criticism. It ponders ownership—of art, artist, representations of art and artist, property, love, life.
   It paints in violence. The dialogue speaks of the beating of Gibb’s dog. The moment is acted by Whitefield and Abedor, as Louise takes a bat and, while we watch, thrashes the little figure.
   Now, the child has donned a padded jacket, the beating is done with a “pool noodle,” and, the Kirk Douglas Theatre assures us, the child is safe and protected by her headphones from the fouler language and “graphic imagery” of the production.
   But the opening night audience didn’t seem to even flinch at this point. Is it that we’re Hollywood-ized, that we know these things are created through careful craft and through adherence to California law if not union regulations? Or is it that we were busy wondering which to react to: the beating death of a dog, the (not) possible bruising inflicted on a young actor, or the coaching we imagined was needed to reassure the child that this was “just acting.”
   Who fired the gun at the story’s end? If Louise, is that any worse than what we have watched her do to Gibb? And, speaking of brutality, why doesn’t Louise ever thank her acting coach?
   The story, which has begun very much in the world of theater, ends in the world of film. There’s no bright line dividing those worlds in here, and perhaps Crouch is saying there isn’t one out there.

But none of this is the strangest part. What’s stranger is how Adler & Gibb leaves an emotional residue. Despite all its elements shining a light on how the magic is made, somehow we care, feel, are left wandering through a melancholic mist as we leave the theater. So, ticket-buyer, beware. Just as you should see a horror film only if you want to be scared, you should see this production only if you want to be made to observe and think—and perhaps feel a peculiar disquiet.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 23, 2017
 
Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 
The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage
The Theatre @ Boston Court


With the onslaught of media access, be it corporate or social, it seems vicarious experiences rule the day. Whether those experiences come in the form of shameless celebrity or the average human’s willingness to expose the most slovenly of personal foibles, we take a certain comfort in musing, “Well, at least my life isn’t like that.” Even if it were, why would people want to expose their deepest, darkest secrets to the light of public scrutiny?
   To playwright Dan O’Brien’s credit, his world premiere cradles in gloved hands just such a possible sequence of familial confidences. Mysteriously estranged, not by his own choice, from his self-admittedly bizarre parents, O’Brien autobiographically details his attempts to discover the truth in this play about writing a play. The result is a 90-minute work poetically crafted around a series of true-to-life encounters with a variety of members from his extended lineage. Some are distant, while others are in denial. Still more of these odd characters contain flashes of sympathetic concern buried beneath decades of disconnection that has left them unable to offer more than a few confirming facts.
   Director Michael Michetti guides us through O’Brien’s sometimes disturbing, highly compelling chronology of meetings and visits with an obvious sensitivity. Along the way, an almost Shakespearean sequence of preventable moments surface, any of which, if reversed or avoided, would have led to a much more positive outcome for O’Brien.

That Michetti has so remarkably cast this production is a blessing. As the current-day version of the playwright, Brian Henderson exudes his creator’s curiosity and frustrations with a grounded believability even when the piece incorporates sequences of presentational surrealism.
   As Henderson’s lone companion, Tim Cummings inhabits the remaining cornucopia of roles with a stunningly impactful performance. Kudos to O’Brien as well in dramaturgically forgoing a chorus of secondary players and instead employing a lone actor’s talents the likes of which Cummings brings to the stage.
   A stark focus on the proceedings is achieved by way of scenic designer Sara Ryung Clement’s raked stage featuring nothing more than a pair of metallic straight chairs. Augmented by Elizabeth Harper’s lighting, John Nobori’s sound design and Tom Ontiveros’s highly evocative series of projection sequences, Michetti and his charges provide a momentum that snowballs to the production’s conclusion.
   And therein rests the takeaway from O’Brien’s piece. Not all the questions may be answered or the relationships repaired. Still, it’s clear that O’Brien has come to a happy medium with his issues. Perhaps, in our own lives, that’s all to which any of us can truly aspire.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
May 19, 2017
 
Cat’s-Paw
Actors Co-Op

One would think that a terrorist-based piece, even three decades past its premiere and updated in 2011 to include at least a noticeable albeit passing reference to Al Qaeda, would retain some relevancy today. And yet, playwright William Mastrosimone’s treatise on “Eco-Warriors” and the battle between personal agendas seems surprisingly lackluster.
   Perhaps it’s that we live in a world where the hideous has become commonplace. So much so, that fictional behavior of the sort, predicated on the antagonists’ aversion to water pollution, seems less identifiable to audiences who are faced with torture, beheadings, and mass attacks on a near daily basis.
   Director Stephen Rothman’s production struggles to get off the ground until well into its hour-and-45-minute running time. To be fair, the blame can be laid, for the most part, at the feet of the author. Mastrosimone spends more time than needed laying out his backstory and the rationalization for the militants’ actions via a repetitious exchange between the group’s leader and a female television journalist who has been kidnapped for the purpose of interviewing him.

When a previously seized low-level Environmental Protection Agency official, seen briefly at the play’s onset, returns to the stage, along with the protesting group’s second-in-command, the stakes finally ratchet up enough to foster some concern over what might happen to any of these beings.
   Walking a tightrope of character-driven pontification spiked with rare flashes of rage is Sean McHugh in the role of Victor, the “Earth Now” army’s chief. McHugh certainly embodies the strength and stature necessary for maintaining a threat of physical power over his minion and their captives. Unfortunately, his interchanges with them and while relaying Mastrosimone’s numerous monologues never make the transition from the page to the present. The result is a sense of speech-making rather than a genuinely heartfelt devotion to a cause that would lead to the play’s offstage car-bombing near the U.S. Capitol building, which has claimed the lives of a dozen senators and scores of bystanders.
   Deborah Marlowe as heralded news reporter Jessica Lyons serves as Victor’s adversary and, by necessity, therapist. Hoping to survive her encounter, Jessica must suggest, cajole, mediate, and occasionally acquiesce in order to achieve her primary objective while providing the world with the glimpse into Victor’s agenda that he so desperately wants to put forth. Marlowe handles this assignment with vigor and an excellent array of emotional adjustments in response to the occasional changes in Mastrosimone’s plot structure.
   Cathy, Victor’s underling, played by Ivy Beech, is perhaps the most challenging role in the show. She serves as support to her captain’s plans while being torn between her allegiance and the discovered realities of the situation in which she plays a part. Beech does a fine job in her role by never overshadowing the circumstances. She too, however, suffers from some rather abrupt and difficult character changes that flow from Mastrosimone’s pen.

Where this piece gives way to what might have been is when Vito Viscuso takes the stage in the role of EPA bureaucrat David Darling. Having been held for an indeterminate, but clearly lengthy, period, Darling exudes the expected effects of his unwilling incarceration. Viscuso’s performance is gripping at every turn. Fearful of speaking unless given permission, apologetic for any perceived overstepping of bounds, placating his captors, Viscuso epitomizes his character’s terror of the unknown. Even when he’s cowering in silence, it’s almost impossible to take one’s eyes off of him.
   David Pott’s basement scenic design works seamlessly in this venue, offering director Rothman an excellent surface on which to maneuver his players. One can almost smell the must and chemical odors of the various bomb-making components on display, meticulously accoutered with Lori Berg’s properties and dressing. Adam Macias provides an array of sound effects that enhance the sub-surfaced locale. And although James Moody’s lighting is quite effective throughout the show, some of the actors were left standing in strangely darkened portions of the stage during the production’s curtain call.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
April 4, 2017
 
Transition
Lounge Theatre

On Nov. 10, 2016, President Barack Obama and President-Elect Donald Trump met for nearly 90 minutes at the White House. To borrow from a previous administration, this much is known known.
   What’s not known, and won’t be known until the lure of a tell-all book is too much for one of them to resist, is what they revealed to each other as they interacted there, just the two of them, in the presumably wiretap-free Oval Office.
   Right now, though, we have this Ray Richmond world premiere comedy, in which Richmond imagines what was said at that historic meeting, and his version is probably as close to the real-life goings-on as we’ll get in the near future.
   Sure, the piece feels like a long comedy sketch. But that sketch is well-rendered by all involved.

Under Lee Costello’s direction, the comedy stays out of the danger zone of ludicrousness, even when the situation doesn’t.
   Harry S. Murphy plays Donald Trump, yes under a wig of thick, golden, carefully tended hair. His facial features may more resemble those of George W. Bush. But Murphy has captured the breathing patterns, facial expressions and hand gestures of Trump.
   Joshua Wolf Coleman portrays Obama, perfectly matching our former president’s vocal quality, speech cadences and physical tics.   But these performances are not just Vegas impressions. They get to the crux of these men, particularly Coleman, as Obama finds his world and ours turned on end.
   Trevor Alkazian portrays a presidential aide. Though onstage infrequently, he displays crisp comedic timing and a few looks that could kill—but don’t, because no one involved is suborning a homicide. Really.

But Richmond is in the leadership position here, and he gives us something we might not expect. He starts with audios of Obama calling Trump “unfit” and Trump calling Obama “a disaster.” And then we see the two as they’re now obligated to graciously come face to face in the Oval Office—starting with Trump’s oft-mocked handshake.
   They discuss pretty much everything we’d imagine: gun control, health care, tweeting, fast food inside the White House, real estate and Elizabeth Warren. Sometimes the conversation seems completely, chillingly, real; sometimes it’s hilariously unreal.
   Pete Hickok’s set includes Obama’s rug into which was woven Martin Luther King’s quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Trump wants a sign on his Oval Office desk that reads, “The buck starts here.” That’s how the balance between these two starts out. It doesn’t shift much when Trump demands, “Apologize!” and, after the slightest pause, Obama comes up with, “I’m really sorry you feel that way.”

But late in the conversation, the elegant, intellectual, poised, measured Obama loses his stuff. Trump couldn’t care; he’s in the catbird seat. Or perhaps he just doesn’t know what a “malignant narcissist” is. Either way, Trump has gotten under Obama’s skin, and the balance of power has shifted. And when the two don’t speak, sound designer David B. Marling’s ticking clock disquiets us even more.
   After seeing this show, you might secretly hope Richmond next turns his attention to Michelle, Melania and the meme-worthy blue gift box.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
March 27, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 

At Home At the Zoo
Lovelace Studio Theater at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Edward Albee received his first recognition when his groundbreaking one-act The Zoo Story, written in 1958, first grabbed New York by its theatrical short hairs in 1960 after debuting in Berlin the year before. It has remained one of his most-celebrated works, the first signal to the world of the prolific genius that was to follow before his death at age 88 last September.
   In 2007, the equally prolific and artistically unstoppable Deaf West Theatre mounted its extraordinary version of The Zoo Story starring two of its finest company stalwarts, Troy Kotsur and Tyrone Giordano, who signed the play’s rushing explosion of ideas while speaking actors stood nearby, watching the story unfold as they delivered Albee’s torrential dialogue. It was the culmination of a longtime respect and love affair between the playwright and Deaf West, which began several years earlier when the company contemplated mounting Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf starring Phyllis Frelich.
   That production never came to be, but the relationship it fostered remained. In 2004, working under a commission from Hartford Stage Company, Albee created a prequel to The Zoo Story, titled Homelife, exploring the moments before Peter heads to what he hopes will be a quiet corner of Central Park where he can read a book and smoke his pipe in peace. Instead he meets a troubled stranger named Jerry, who insists Peter stick around so he can tell him what just happened to him during his visit to Central Park Zoo.
   The two plays have been jointly titled At Home At the Zoo, and Deaf West was a logical choice to be awarded permission for the LA debut of the expanded work—not only with the blessings of the author, who insisted on personal approval in granting rights for all his works, but even with Albee talking about being in attendance. Unfortunately, the tenuous financial times postponed those plans, and now that the production has finally come to fruition in collaboration with the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Deaf West and director Coy Middlebrook have had to make magic happen without its creator nearby.

Albee would have been mighty proud. Homelife brings to the story a clear reason why Peter (Kotsur, who reprises his arresting 2007 turn in the role) becomes so intent on defending his masculinity as he and Jerry (the phenomenal Russell Harvard, who rocks the role until March 16, when Giordano takes over) devolve from respectful pleasantries into a violent confrontation as each defends possession of the public bench each considers his own personal property.
   Kotsur (voiced by Jake Eberle) is brilliantly subtle in what at first seems to be the less complex role, as Peter tries diligently to communicate in the first act with his loving but sexually frustrated wife Ann (Amber Zion, voiced by Paige Lindsey White), who is desperate to find some new excitement in their predictably complacent relationship. Ann loves her reserved book-editor husband, their daughters, parakeets, cats, and the life they’ve established together in their comfortable upper-middle-class Eastside Manhattan apartment.
   Of course, only Albee could take their conversation where it goes, from a 10-minute discussion about circumcision to Peter’s eventual confession chronicling the bloody details of a suppressed brutal sexual encounter during a drunken college frat party. By the time designer Karyl Newman’s slickly 1970s New York flat revolves into massive backlit triangles of fall-like Central Park views, what makes Peter stick around and listen to the increasingly more delusional Jerry (mesmerically voiced as in 2007 by Jeff Alan-Lee) is explained for the first time as his tormentor delivers his infamous lengthy rant about his encounter with his drunken landlady’s dog.
   Middlebrook does an exceptional job staging what could be a painfully static two hours of Albee’s familiarly complex dialogue. Deaf West chooses its projects based on how successfully a play can be translated into American Sign Language, and At Home At the Zoo is a perfect match. There’s a kind of expressive style, a remarkably innocent freedom and grace that identifies the performances of most hearing-impaired actors, which beautifully accents and pays homage to the signature gifts of one of the last century’s bravest and most thought-provoking wordsmiths.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
March 16, 2017
 
Good Grief
Kirk Douglas Theatre

Our pasts cannot be changed. We can try to relive them, but in reality all we store in our memories is our reactions to them. These ideas thread through this psychological, mythological, archetypal, and still utterly affectionate and charming work, by Ngozi Anyanwu, in its world premiere.
   Set in a Pennsylvanian suburb, the play centers on Nkechi, a young first-generation Nigerian-American. Though primed to live her immigrant parents’ idea of the American dream, she has dropped out of medical school. She says it didn’t suit her, but in reality she is grieving—for the love of her life killed in a car crash, and for her lost youth and happy moments that are now mere memories.
   The playwright plays Nkechi. Instead of venting too-personal traumas, however, the writer-actor gives us a thoroughly universal picture of growing pains and a wonderfully specific picture of an exceedingly bright, perceptive, funny girl who thinks no one understands her. The enchanting Nkechi is surrounded by totally relatable characters, played by a flawless casts. On opening night, they won giggles, groans, cheers and sighs as the various characters wafted through Nkechi’s recalled life.

First in importance to Nkechi are the boys she liked. Her dream boy is Jimmy Deering (Mark Jude Sullivan), for whom she spent her adolescence pining. But her best friend, possible romantic interest and likely soon-to-be lover is Matthew (Wade Allain-Marcus). He, to his endearing credit, has loved Nkechi since the moment he met her, in their grade-school homeroom. Gods and godlike archetypes watch over and help recount her story. Nkechi’s mother (Omozé Idehenre) is the intellect, a psychiatric-nursing student with clipboard in hand, objectively observing how Nkechi processes grief.
   Meanwhile, other mothers (Carla Renata) overreact in exaggerated emotions, including a World Wrestling Entertainment–style bout in Ahmed Best’s fight choreography. Nkechi’s brother (Marcus Henderson) is the jester, likewise trying to usher the grieving process along. Hilariously, his coping mechanisms are marijuana, booze and 1990s rap. Papa (Dayo Ade) is the pragmatist, sternly but lovingly urging Nkechi to just move on.

This is a memory play, not a straightforward chronology. Its fragments of recollections, or perhaps dreams, are carefully sorted out by director Patricia McGregor. She also adds much humor, none of it mean, most of it universal. The 1990s references pile up as Nkechi recalls her youth.
   Sound designer Adam Phalen ensures that the soundtrack of Nkechi’s life seems to come from the tiny radios onstage, though audiences unfamiliar with the songs might have trouble hearing the lyrics. But the fact that gossip and reputations fill our minds, sometimes barring us from getting to know the person, is unfortunately timeless.

The scenes take place in and around Matthew’s bedroom and Nkechi’s. They’re designed, by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, with white LED lights that outline the homes as if a child drew them, constructed on moving platforms so that the scenery swiftly swings into place. The area between the houses becomes a wrestling ring, a road on which Papa urges his shell-shocked daughter to learn to drive, and the living room where Papa shouts at the Eagles from his armchair.
   Nkechi dropped out of her Philadelphia med school. Perhaps her imagination was too vivid to allow her to focus on such objective studies. Or, perhaps all of us seek solace in imagination and memory when our souls are taxed by death and disappointments. Whatever the case, Nkechi would make a great medical doctor, the type who takes the whole person into consideration in her diagnoses and who clearly explains causes and effects to the patient.
   On the other hand, that also describes a great playwright.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
March 7, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 
Die, Mommie, Die!
Celebration Theatre at the Lex Theatre

Just when the world seems to be going completely nuts, the victimless madness of Charles Busch could not be more welcome. Die, Mommie, Die!, his outrageous parody of those silly old film noir monster-diva movies, debuted in LA at the Coast Playhouse in 1999 with its creator appearing in high drag as dastardly Angela Arden, a well-married Hollywood has-been in the late ‘60s who rules her tony Beverly Hills mansion with an iron mascara brush. The production went on to a lengthy New York run and became a feature film in 2003, both also starring Busch as his murderous heroine.
   Celebration Theatre’s lovingly remounted revival begins with the Bacall-tinged voice of its own celebrated Angela, Drew Droege, thanking us all for braving our horrible LA winter to attend the show. After threatening bodily harm if audience members don’t follow the rules of theater etiquette—much to the trepidation of the wary five patrons chosen to sit onstage on two ornate period couches flanking either side of the stage—Busch’s signature send-up of latter-day campy Bette Davis slasher melodramas takes no prisoners. Not even the overly made-up droopy-faced Angela survives, staring into her ornate but smoky mirror, as she prepares to attend the Beverly Hills Psoriasis Ball, to see nothing looking back besides “just hair and makeup and some very important jewelry.”
   With the obvious blessings of Ryan Bergmann’s unstoppably convention-free direction, this seriously over-the-top ensemble of shameless players takes the story one step further than ever before. These folks would drop their pants for a laugh if they could—no, wait, they actually do—most notably Pat Towne as Angela’s wealthy film producer husband Sol Sussman, who takes his drawer-drop one step further by letting Droege as his grimacing wife shove an enormously oversized suppository into his nether regions live onstage. One can only be grateful not to have been picked to sit in those onstage seats.

Where Busch’s deadpan Eve Arden–style performances have always been acerbic and dry as the Mojave, exhibiting his unearthly ability to circumvent the comedic pratfalls he wrote into his roles, Droege’s Angela could not be more blatantly campy, like a Zolpidem-sedated Ruby Keeler in her geriatric years playing Baby Jane Hudson wearing Joan Crawford’s real-life wardrobe. Before we are ever even introduced to the bigger-than-life mistress of the castle, however, we hear from her neglected daughter Edith (Julanne Chidi Hill) that her once-illustrious songstress mother now has a “vibrato as wide as Mr. Ed’s asshole” as we’re brought up-to-date watching a newsreel-style video showcasing Angela’s downward-spiraling career, culminating in a poster hawking her appearance playing the title role in Peter Pan at the Wichita County Fair.
   Entering from the estate’s garden, apologizing to the family and all in attendance for being “up to my elbows in manure” as Angela models her best gardening finery, Droege immediately takes Busch’s classic role and makes it his own. From sipping bottomless martinis to plotting Sol’s early demise utilizing an arsenic-dipped suppository to camouflage the treachery to spouting an endless barrage of low-registered bon mots, mispronouncing words Angela believes sound classier with a little French affectation added, Droege is a treat to behold, out-Garlanding the revered Dame Judy at every opportunity.
   Andrew Carter as resident gigolo Tony is a quintessential foil for Angela’s horny scramblings as she towers over her pocket-sized lover, a former TV series star waiting for a new pilot with the range and class of his Squad Car 13, who now supports himself by giving tennis lessons—that is when not utilizing his massive member (kudos to Allison Dillard for designing costuming that makes it possible to keep his kielbasa-sized tool erect for more than two hours) to keep wealthy matrons happy. Towne overcomes the obnoxious Hollywood executive stereotype and Jewy-slang dialogue written into the role of Angela’s oy-veying husband and is a hoot as the slimy Sol, whose life’s work has been “made a mockery of by pretentious fag and bulldyke film critics.”
   Hill has her best moments spouting off about her hated mother or pawing Sol in the most delightfully inappropriate father-daughter relationship since the invention of 24-karat friendship rings. The impossibly wide-eyed Gina Torrecilla as Bootsie, the family’s longtime maid who is hot for Sol, although her main purpose in life is saying her prayers to help send Dick Nixon to the White House in ’68, is a tremendous asset to this slickly entertaining production. And as the Sussmans’ emotionally fragile shrink-managed son, Lance, home from college after blowing his school’s entire math department in the faculty lounge, it’s hard to imagine anyone funnier or more uninhibited than the wonderfully wacky understudy Nathan Mohebbi (in for Tom DeTrinis).

“This family, frankly, exhausts me,” Angela—or is it her twin sister, Barbara?—admits, leading one to stop and wonder how this superlative cast, led by someone with razor-sharp timing and the ability to bring down the house with a flash of an errant eyelash, can get through a string of performances of Die, Mommie, Die! without sleeping 20-hour stretches between shows. Having such a clearly infectious good time together, and sharing that gift with their grateful audience onstage and off, must keep the adrenaline pumping at warp speed.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
March 6, 2017
 
Fun Home
Ahmanson Theatre

Saturated with multiple awards and honors, including the Tony for Best Musical and finalist status for the Pulitzer Prize, Fun Home is without a doubt one of the most important and groundbreaking musicals of all time. Without a single real good clambake or surrey with fringe on top in sight, the arrestingly personal story of real-life cartoonist Alison Bechdel ellipses the problem of Maria many times over without offering even one spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.
   Bookwriter Lisa Kron has lovingly adapted Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, her graphic memoir detailing her clumsy coming out as a lesbian in college and her close but puzzling relationship with her funeral director–English teacher father (Robert Petkoff), who killed himself by stepping in front of a bus while she was away at school discovering her identity. As the fortysomething Alison (Kate Shindle) wonders where her life is going and if her unresolved issues with her father and the lingering fear that her startling lifestyle revelation were the cause of his suicide, her younger selves share the stage with her as she narrates, portrayed at age 10 (by a delightfully precocious Alessandra Baldacchino) and during her breakout college years (by Abby Corrigan).
   Stumbling upon a tattered old box of family mementos, Alison reminisces about her staid and unwelcoming Victorian family domicile that her dad has painstakingly restored and the funeral (“fun,” get it?) home he owns where she and her brothers (Pierson Saldavor and Lennon Nate Hammond) frolic and play in and out of the caskets in the display room. Her father morphs with instantaneous incomprehension from doting, supportive parent into a volatile Daddy Dearest clone, one minute praising his daughter’s artistry and the next calling her names and telling her that her drawings suck.

When Alison writes home, admitting she has entered into an affair with the patient and nurturing Joan (Karen Eilbacher), the answer is basically silence beyond dear old Pop noting she’s off on a new adventure and telling her not to fall for labels until she decides who she really is. Frustrated with her parents’ unwillingness to really discuss her sexuality, she brings Joan home for a visit, where her long-suffering mother (beautifully and understatedly assayed by Susan Moniz) pours out a startling confession along with a tongue-loosening glass of vino in the early afternoon—something with which she appears to be familiar.
   Alison’s father, she’s told, has been having affairs with guys since even before the marriage started, resulting in many problems for the couple in their nosy small town—especially for anyone as closeted and self-hating as dear old dad. When he breaks the wall between himself and the narrator-observer Alison and invites her on a drive, she excitedly notes all the similarities between the two of them, but he is unable to respond, cutting the ride short and leaving her stunned by his inability to share and communicate. Soon after, that public convenience forever ends the possibility of any interaction between them, and she wonders, as she sketches her poignant images, if chaos never happens if it’s never seen. “I can draw a circle,” Alison mourns aloud, thinking of her sadly tortured father. “His whole life fits inside.”
   Nope, this is not musical comedy by any means—although the early “Come to the Fun Home,” as the three youthful siblings create an imaginary TV commercial for their dad’s business while popping in and out of a display casket, will surely make you laugh out loud. As a significant and welcome entry in the evolution of musical comedy transforming into musical theater, however, this is the best of the genre since 2009’s Next to Normal, until now the most arrestingly notable new musical in many, many years. The cast is one of the best touring ensembles in a long time under the tutelage of director Sam Gold, who does a yeoman’s job melding the characters and situations between the story’s three periods of time and manages to adapt the once-intimate theater piece into something that impressively fills the cavernous Ahmanson stage.

Petkoff does a phenomenal job as Alison’s tormented dad, a role that must require about 20 hours of sleep daily and maybe a generous prescription for Zanex to make it through a lengthy national tour without eyeing a bus or two on one’s own. Moniz, as the mother patiently staying in the shadows as she deals with the heartbreak of her life as she tries to shield her kids from the reality of the situation, breaks out gloriously in the haunting 11th-hour ballad “Days and Days.” Corrigan also brings down the house with the delightful “Changing My Major”—in this case from Art to Joan—creating the evening’s most affecting performance that elicited two separate ovations on opening night after scenes with nary a song to put a button on ’em.
   Above everything and ascending to the top of the wonders here is the musical genius of Jeanine Tesori, who with lyrics by Kron has brought to the world the most innovative and ambitious score since the discovery of Stephen Sondheim, almost qualifying the musical as an operetta more than something that will comfortably stand in time alongside works by Rodgers and Hammerstein or Meredith Willson. There’s even a hint of homage to Sweeney Todd or Pacific Overtures or A Little Night Music in the mix, especially when Alison sings as she draws a “dark shaded stripe/bum bum bum.”
   There are not enough adjectives to adequately describe Fun Home. But, when an artistically well-pampered and sophisticated opening night audience winds its way out of the Ahmanson in silence and tears and the inability to make conversation beyond tight hugs with friends and familiar fellow first-nighters, you can bet you’re experiencing something uniquely special, something historic, something unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 24, 2017
 
Finding Neverland
Pantages Theatre

It’s back, just past the second star to the right and straight on til morning, yet another telling of the Peter Pan story. Even for those among us who run from sappy musical theater offerings, right now, as the world crumbles and burns around us, Finding Neverland could not be more gratefully welcome. Based on the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan and the 2004 film version, this grand-scale Broadway musical adaptation follows the relationship between playwright J. M. Barrie (Billy Harrigan Tighe) and the fatherless London family that became his inspiration for Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, which debuted on the London stage nearly 100 years before Johnny Depp ever donned a nicely pressed ascot.
   Just at the point where Barrie’s successful playwriting career was stymied in a massive writer’s block and his stressed-out producer Charles Frohman (Tom Hewitt, who doubles as a delightfully ominous Captain Hook) was thinking of checking out another, fresher protégé, in a classic bit of serendipity Barrie met lovely young widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Christine Dwyer) and her obviously pre-Ritalin litter of energetic sons (including the infectiously talented Jordan Cole, Finn Faulconer, and Mitchell Wray at the performance reviewed) in a local park.
   Sensing the reclusive, solitary detachment of the brood’s eldest brother Peter (the sweet and angel-voiced Ben Krieger), it doesn’t take long for Barrie to take the kid and his siblings under his wing, something that shocked the tight-corseted denizens of proper conservative London society. The bond between Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family may or may not have sped up the demise of the his already floundering marriage; but, in the process, it also brought the world one of the most-familiar and beloved children’s stories of all time.

This musical version couldn’t be much better. After a New York run starring Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer, it has taken to the road without losing any of its high-tech visual marvels. The incredibly kinetic staging by director Diane Paulus and the spirited, charmingly cheery choreography by Mia Michaels are perfectly accentuated by an eager ensemble and a world-class production team on every level. Yet, even the veteran expertise of set designer Scott Pask, lighting magician Kenneth Posner, and costumer Suttirat Anne Larlarb take a back seat to Jon Driscoll’s amazingly fluid and ever-moving visual imagery that, on the massive and towering Pantages stage, steals the show.
   In an era when traditional movable and fly-able set pieces are often replaced using striking visual projections—a special boon for touring productions—Posner’s towering and moody views of stormy London skies, with dramatic clouds and graceful soaring birds crashing across a romantic moon, are brought to dreamlike life. Although sometimes creating such modern industrial-strength illusions can prove an easy way out, here it works as magically as, well, a healthy sprinkle of pixie dust itself.

Aside from everything this charming adaptation has going for it, however, there’s the hauntingly lovely score by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy. From Dwyer’s solo turns with the lyrical ballads “All That Matters” and “Sylvia’s Lullaby” to the show-stopping production number “We’re All Made of Stars,” which features Krieger, Faulconer, Wray, and Cole in the most smile-inducing specimen of bonded sibling behavior since Seven Brides for Seven Bothers, we might not be prepared to hum a few bars of “Circus of Your Mind” as we leave the theater, but it may just motivate immediately going out and purchasing the CD.
   Everything about Finding Neverland runs like a well-oiled machine, but without losing any of the momentary enchantment that can take us all, regardless of our age, back to the time when we first saw Peter Pan take flight and longed to help him get that shadow of his sewn back on and journey through the night skies with him to join the Lost Boys. Never growing up to face a world gone totally mad is a consummation devoutly to be wished there days, and it’s a lovely treat when any fantasy can transport us away from the daily barrage of evening news insanity.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 22, 2017
 
Liana and Ben
Circle X at Atwater Village Theatre

The pedigree that came along with the announcement of this world premiere was instantly thrilling. Circle X, one of LA’s best, bravest, and most inexhaustible theater companies, was about to take on a new work by one of our town’s most breathtaking wordsmiths, Susan Rubin. And along for the rollercoaster ride of what surely would be an unregimented effort to bring Rubin’s Faustian-inspired epic to fruition was one of our most innovative directors, Mark Bringelsen, leading a world-class cast of heavyweight LA theatrical talent.
   Whatever went wrong, whatever might be learned from this effort, can hopefully benefit future productions of Rubin’s Liana and Ben, a play more than worthy of further exploration. Still, this production is an astonishingly unexpected disappointment. Perhaps a big part of this outcome is the staging, with audience placed on either side of a long, slender playing space dominated by two huge seesaws. It’s not difficult to see what an inventive idea this was on the drawing board, but to say it doesn’t work in actuality is a major understatement. Even while an audience might appreciate the ingenuity that went into creating the apparatus, it limits the actors’ playing space and is also a rickety distraction, particularly when on the move into another position.

As we stare ahead directly into the equally confused faces of patrons on the other side of the action—not to mention, on opening night, two brightly lit older gentlemen desperately struggling to stay awake in the front row—the gifted and quite courageously game quartet of players is surely directed to use the space. The result, however, is that the boldly gorgeous visual designs by Jason H. Thompson are lost as projected onto the floor and the walls on opposite ends of the playing area, while conversations between characters often are staged so far apart that one begins to feel like a ping-pong ball trying to take in both actors at once.
   Bringelsen further accentuates this divide by directing his performers to continuously make slow, motivation-free moves from one place to another, especially in the case of Kimberly Alexander as Liana, who repeatedly does so with sensually charged balletic movements.
   If there is a reference to Alexander’s time-traveling character having a history in dance during her 250-year lifespan, a result of a pact negotiated with Ben (Jonathan Medina), a guy who, it doesn’t take long to realize, is the busy boss-man of that infamously fiery mythological world down below, it’s not clear. As sweepingly poetic and jarringly insightful as Rubin’s script proves to be, the meat of the story—the quest for Liana to save her soul by proving to her nemesis that our world is worth saving—is obscured far too long and not really apparent until Act 2, when our heroine travels to Hades in an effort to sort things out.

There is no doubt the acting is committed and admirably risky; but again, the directorial eye to keep everyone and their individual styles on the same track is surprisingly absent. Alexander has the biggest challenge as she spouts Rubin’s classically tinged poetic observations on life, but it seems she is often reciting her dialogue without connecting with it or making any discoveries as Liana zips through her emotional life lessons.
   Perhaps the other even more omnipresent problem about mounting this play, with its rather foreseeable theme of good always being able to conquer evil peeping through its beautifully lyrical passages, is doing so at this point in our country and our world’s self-destructive race to trigger our own oblivion. “The truth lies in stories,” a character in Liana and Ben reminds us—or is it preaches? But sadly, where once was hope and faith in the future of our species, something inspirational when comfortably reflected in our art, there’s a lingering unshakable malaise that now overshadows so many scared and depressed people with a soupçon of intelligence.
   It’s painfully difficult in these precarious days to not to let those incredibly unwelcome feelings drown us in cynicism and disenfranchisement about how art and artists, as we’ve always been led to believe, can change the world. Art heals, yes, but sometimes the drip-drip-drip of water torture as it happens with such agonizing sluggishness is too much to bear.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 20, 2017
 
Mess
Theatre of NOTE

Well, here’s another nice mess Kirsten Vangsness has gotten us into. See, in the eccentricity department, Criminal Minds’s eccentric computer geek Penelope Garcia has nothing on her creator, who now takes to the stage of her beloved Theatre of NOTE to present the latest incarnation of her prodigiously personal solo piece Mess, in which the fearlessly unfiltered storyteller confesses that the title of her show couldn’t be more appropriate—even if she has become skilled in covering her mess with stuff she gets from Sephora.
   Our perception of life and our challenging of whether time is indeed even a linear concept are examined through Vangsness’s outrageously in-your-face humor, based on a Ted Talk called “Making Sense of a Visible Quantum Object” by Aaron O’Connell. As she zips back and forth at time-warping speed through various periods in her life past, present, and future, she morphs with jaw-dropping alacrity to ages 4, 7, 14, 44, and 54. As her breakneck performance tumbles forward, the phenomenally talented Vangsness champions every one of her life’s pivotal passages.

There is the 4-year-old Kirsten, surprised to find, as her mother “closes her eyes” on the kitchen linoleum, that she has inadvertently created her first chaotic mess in her room. This proves something her mom, complete with the geometric pattern of the floor still pressed into her cheek, warns her is why the rain forests are disappearing and the tigers are dying at an alarming rate.
   By age 7, she has realized that growing up in the sheltering arms of her family would never afford her an ideal Beaver Cleaver-esque nurturing experience, especially when confronted by a scary father she calls her “not kitten, not Fred Rogers dad.” Instead, her exploding young mind turns to visits from possible space aliens willing to offer her better advice, beginning with the one mini-monster she discovers waving at her from the depths of the crawlspace under the stairs of their new home.
   When her teen years appear to be even more angst-ridden than they are for most, she succumbs to peer pressure and takes a summer break with a friend at a church-run summer camp. There she realizes that a fellow camper has lovely little nipples resembling small cupcakes, that the priests are lots hotter and sexier than she expected, and that the kids finger-banging one another under a bridge in the adjoining woods, when joined in the chapel to praise Jesus, sound a lot like Liv Tyler in Lord of the Rings when they talk in tongues.

Vangsness spills out her story with manic energy, her fingers splayed out vertically before her like she’s nursing a drying manicure and her signature quirky body language resembling a kid in water wings floating for the very first time. As she navigates the admittedly self-induced Mess of her life, she shares with us the realization that, no matter how high the piles of junk grow around you, no matter how many kitten-hating fathers or linoleum-patterned mothers or hypocritical Jesus-freak teenyboppers named Tiffany or imaginary monsters intrude on your life’s personal journey, there’s also a multitude of paths to take and a butt-load of channels to click onto. When you’re as strong and as incredibly gifted as Vangsness, our messy conquering hero reminds us that we get to choose the channel, and it’s up to us just how much we want to let it take us wherever we want to go.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 20, 2017
 
Circus 1903: The Golden Age
of Circus

Pantages Theatre

It must be hard for circus-themed touring productions to exist in the massive and glitzy shadow of Cirque du Soleil. There have been many animal-free Cirque clones popping up over the last years—and most of them hang for dear life onto the coattails of the Montreal conglomerate with varying degrees of success. None, however, has been as imaginative or downright captivating as Circus 1903: The Golden Age of Circus, now loaded into the Pantages for a too-short stay.
   Beginning with the premise that this usual troupe of death-defying aerialists, acrobats, jugglers, and tightrope artists are setting up their wares alongside a railroad depot in a small town at the turn of the last century, Circus 1903 is different from its competitors. Not only were the producers smart to hire notable magician David Williamson to play their wisecracking, slightly world-weary ringmaster Willy Whipsnide, they also brought on board costumer Angela Aaron to re-create the players’ painstakingly accurate period wardrobe, as well as scenic wizard Todd Edward Ivins and lighting designer Paul Smith to add to the illusion of the members of the ensemble joining to raise their tents and festooning them with strings of lights and colorful banners.
   By the second act, their smoky, atmospheric preparations give way to a full-blown performance, and the result may be slightly minimal but still, most charmingly magical.

And speaking of magic, the other distinctive thing this traveling entertainment has going for it is the participation of Mervyn Millar and Tracy Waller of Significant Object, who bring to life the show’s resident star attractions: the enormous, incredibly graceful “Queenie” and her adorably goofy and energetic baby “Peanut.” Millar and Waller’s pair of life-size elephant puppets are manipulated by several retro-costumed puppeteers walking next to and visibly moving inside the beautifully rendered creatures, instantly reminiscent of the enchanted animals dominating the National Theatre’s adaptation of War Horse—of which Millar was part of the creative team. Bringing these glorious beasts to life proves a feat of extraordinary artistic alchemy, only making their delighted audiences wish for more. A few future lions and tigers and bears, maybe? Oh, my. We can only hope.
   Surely Circus 1903 doesn’t have the limitless resources available to the world-full of nonstop wonder fashioned for one of Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix’s empire of enchanted dreamscapes, but what Circus 1903 does with what it has got is, simply, magical on its own.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 17, 2017
 
946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips
Wallis Center for the Performing Arts

Like a cat that doesn’t want to be caught, theater that satisfies adults and children can be elusive. But Britain’s Kneehigh theater company caught an adorable cat firmly by the scruff with this production.
   And what a gorgeous, joyous, meaningful piece of theater Kneehigh has devised, using creative storytelling, lively song and dance, and thoroughly endearing puppetry. In this adaptation by Michael Morpurgo (War Horse) and Emma Rice from Morpurgo’s novel, the stage at the Wallis has become a seaside town (Lez Brotherston’s set and costumes), where a second-story band shell houses musicians, many of whom are also actors in the show, as talents abound here.

At the home of Grandma and Grandpa, a kindhearted geeky-grungy grandson (Adam Sopp) visits. Grandpa (Chris Jared) passes on, tenderly staged as he rises youthfully and without handicap from his wheelchair and ascends a ladder to the bandstand. Granny (Mike Shepherd) ignores her disapproving children and bolts out of the funeral on her motorcycle, but not before she hands her grandson her diary from her youth.
   As he begins to read it, we’re transported to 1940s Devon, England. Living on a struggling farm are preteen Lily (Katy Owen), her overworked mother (Kyla Goodey), and Lily’s grumpy grandfather (Shepherd). The town’s schoolteacher, Madame Bounine (Emma Darlow) has her hands full with Lily and the other undisciplined students, but like everyone in town, nevertheless she persists.
   Refugees, including a charming young geek named Barry (Sopp), come from London and aren’t particularly welcome. Lily lashes out and is surprisingly bratty, both for a wartime Brit and for a story’s heroine. But when it’s needed, Lily’s golden heart takes over.
   And then, American soldiers take over the area, requiring displacement of the residents. Yes, this happened, for real, in the Devon town of Slapton Sands. There, as history now tells us, soldiers disastrously rehearsed the D-Day invasion. The 946 in the play’s title commemorates the number of American lives lost.

The show also commemorates American gum-chewing. Alas, this seems to be how so much of Europe remembers our soldiers. Here, the GIs include the African-American Adolphus T. Madison (Ncuti Gatwa) and his faithful friend Harry (Nandi Bhebhe).   Grandpa can’t understand why the “ruddy Yanks” need to disrupt his life. Then Barry, unwanted elsewhere, moves in with the family. This city boy is a dab hand at repairing the broken farm machinery and an enthusiast for the farming way of life. Attitude is contagious.
   Still, Lily is slower to appreciate Barry. She’d rather spend time with Tips, her cat. Tips is playful, affectionate, smart, and portrayed by a puppet wielded by the actors, primarily Bhebhe. Tips apparently refuses to evacuate and is lost to Lily. The can-do Adolphus and the quiet but observant Harry promise Lily they’ll search for her, and they do. But, being a cat, she’s independent.
   Dramaturgically, her independence allows people of various ages, nationalities and races to get to know one another. Not surprisingly for those days, the countryside Brits hadn’t come in contact with many blacks. And, as Harry later admits, he had never met whites who took him to their hearts like these folks do.
   Remarkable about Owen’s performance as a child just turning 12 years old is Owen’s willingness to launch, skid, and plunge over and off the stage, with no fear of a broken hip. Remarkable about the performances of all the actors are the commitment, freshness, and auxiliary skills they ply, including playing instruments under Pat Moran’s music direction and eccentric dancing incorporating period fads, choreographed by Rice and Etta Murfitt.

You know by the show’s title that adventures abound. So does destruction, sacrifice, death. So does rich theatermaking, from obvious drag through references to Brecht. And so does joy, in little plot twists that reveal the power of love to heal and unite, the remarkable resilience in each of us if we free it.
   Now, curiosity kills cats. But why doesn’t the audience see the cat’s adventures here? And what is soldier Madison’s middle name?

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
February 13, 2017

Republished courtesy Daily Breeze
 

Future Sex, Inc.
Lounge Theatre

When a malevolent Trump-like conglomerate called Monocorp falsely alarms the public that sexual activity must be stopped due to an impending epidemic, the prospect of future sex for our species is jeopardized. The only solution is strapping on—the wrist…what were you thinking?—a little apparatus Monocorp manufactures called the Love Light, which, when activated, stimulates an orgasm of epic proportions. In offering this product for worldwide utilization, Monocorp can soon, of course, control the planet.
   With an infectious score that, as a character tells us with tongue firmly in cheek, runs the spectrum all the way from hip-hop to rap, this outrageously X-rated pop musical melds Arthur C. Clarke, Lady Gaga, and a North Beach-y peep show vibe with surprising success. The weakest part is writer-composer John Papageorge’s predictable and rather silly script, which has the feeling of being created on the spot as the play progresses and oddly makes one wish, if he wanted to go for adult humor and off-color double-entendres, he’d gone a little further.
   Still, the music is worth suffering through the dialogue and situations, which also boasts exceptional performances, surprisingly fluid staging by director Kiff Scholl on the Lounge Theatre’s extremely limited playing area, steamy choreography by April Thomas, and comically sexy strip-clubby costuming by local glitter-god Michael Mullen that makes one immediately wonder just where this guy shops.

Ally Dixon and the Pee-wee Herman–suited Kevin McDonald have a splendidly good time as the corporation’s evil henchwoman Vivian and her nerdy suitor George O. Thornhill, while Tanya Alexander and Michael Uribes scenery chew with hilarious results as Monocorp’s devious CEO and a sketchily talented magician whose allegiances waver from bad to good. Jolie Adamson steals every one of her scenes as Cherry, a Valley Girl-accented robot with moves like C-3PO and outfits inherited from Britney Spears. Maya Lynne Robinson, as a fallen pop star who tries out a Love Light, vibrates and twitches and rolls her eyes back in the lengthiest and most memorable onstage “happy ending” in the history of the American theater.
   Alex Vergel as the wisecracking deejay-MC; Sean Leon as Alexander’s hunky “enforcer”; and Erica Ibsen, Natalie Polisson, Briana Price, and Elise Zell as the gamely raunchy dancing ensemble fill out the ensemble with spunk, much to the delight of one single older man in a wrinkled overcoat seated directly in the front row who looked so much like a drooling, knee-slapping denizen of a real-life gentlemen’s club that he almost seemed like a plant. Yup, Future Sex, Inc. is, as Papageorge’s dialogue tells us, a “one of a kind—like a snowflake or a cum stain.”

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 9, 2017
 
Chapatti
Laguna Playhouse

Christian O’Reilly’s delightful Irish play about two lonely souls of a certain age is both witty and poignant. From the first moments when bachelor Dan (Mark Bramhall) speaks to the audience as storyteller, we are engaged in a tale that is deceptively simple yet thoroughly affecting.
   Dan is lonely after his many-decades lover has died. Dan fills his time with visits to the vet with his small dog, Chapatti. When the vet suggests that he is coming too often with a dog that has no health issues, Dan determines that he has nothing to live for, but what will he do with Chapatti?
   As luck will have it, he bumps into an elderly neighbor, Betty (Annabella Price), a personable soul who cares for 19 cats. She is just as outgoing as Dan is withdrawn. With a history of an unhappy relationship, she sees Dan as her last hope for love.

Price and Bramhall have an easy chemistry and elevate what could be predictable into a warm and uplifting story full of heart and a few surprises along the way. O’Reilly artfully balances comic moments with an exploration of human needs as the characterizations unfold. While both characters have had disappointments in life, the play is never maudlin nor contrived.
   Marty Burnett’s set design effectively creates Dan’s and Betty’s houses and an outdoor space. Elisa Benzoni’s costumes are notable, especially in a scene where Betty and Dan are tentatively exploring romance. Lighting by Matthew Novotny and sound by Melanie Chen successfully round out the production. Dialect coach Jan Gist needs a mention, as Bramhall and Price make believable their Irish characterizations. Director David Ellenstein’s adaptation of Judith Ivey’s original direction has just the right touch for the story.

In this time of in-your-face drama and overtly preachy storylines, O’Reilly’s gentle and very human narrative is a welcome addition to Laguna’s theatrical season.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
January 27, 2017
 
Nunsense
Palos Verdes Performing Arts at Norris Theatre

If you insist on a little sense in dramatic literature, you might note that Nunsense has not a lot. Character development goes nowhere. Identity, devotion, sisterhood, a calling? These get mentioned here but get no payoff. And yet this musical was the second-longest-running show in Off-Broadway history, lasting more than 10 years there.
   But if you want to be cheered up, perhaps tell a joke to the crowd, and play a quick but hilarious round of bingo, this show will serve you well. In large part that’s thanks to its five heaven-sent musical-comedy performances.
   With book and music by Dan Goggin, based on his line of greeting cards, Nunsenseis pretty much an excuse for more than a few songs and more than a few gags. It also calls upon its cast to showcase multiple talents, from expected song-and-dance skills to unexpected skills.
   As the backstory goes, the convent’s chef accidentally introduced botulism into her vichyssoise, killing 52 sisters. The survivors had money to bury only 48 of them; four are in the freezer, awaiting interment (cue joke about blue nuns). And so this fundraiser. That’s how hard Goggin worked to set up this revue by the Little Sisters of Hoboken.

The sisters warmly welcome the audience (be prepared to answer or perhaps tell a nun-related joke). Then Reverend Mother (Dawn Stahlak) arrives. She’s witty and savvy, though she becomes inebriated sniffing a bottle of rush. And of course at one point in her youth she wanted to go into showbiz.
   Joining her “onstage” is young novice Sister Mary Leo (Noelle Marion), who can dance, as she shows us in her red satin pointe shoes. Fortunately, Marion can dance too, in her ballet solo “Benedicite” and in the group’s tap number, “Tackle That Temptation With a Time Step.”
   Beyond her skill in hot-wiring cars, Sister Robert Anne (Rebecca Lumiansi) likewise had aspirations to perform, and a bit of talent, which she proudly displays in “Playing Second Fiddle,” about being an understudy onstage and in life.
   The charmingly wacky Sister Mary Amnesia (Silvie Zamora) lost her memory when a crucifix fell on her head. Zamora sings in a light soprano as the sister’s tremulous self. But when she brings out a puppet as part of the “act” (how they got that puppet to look just like Mary Amnesia is a modern miracle), Zamora turns her puppet into Ethel Merman.
   And, given the 11 o’clock number (unless you attend the Saturday or Sunday matinees offered at the Norris, in which case it’s technically a 4 o’clock number) is Sister Mary Hubert. She’s played by the stellar Jennifer Leigh Warren, who belts the gospel “Holier Than Thou” to shake the heavens—or at least the audience seated in the balcony.

The show is directed with heart and wit by Ken Parks and choreographed with wisdom and simplicity by KC Gussler. Bless Palos Verdes Performing Arts for including a live orchestra, which sounds great, under conductor–music director Jake Anthony, from the playful musical-theater tunes through the classical-music themes wafting through Goggin’s score.
   No one from the audience is asked to tithe—mainly because a source of funds is revealed at the show’s end, but also because Nunsense is ultimately a very gentle show, despite the presence of a 12-inch ruler at one point. These nuns do not berate, they do not punish, they even welcome Protestants among the audience.
   And despite the incontrovertible truth that this show consists of singing, dancing, acrobatic nuns, there’s a joy in watching characters who have fanciful dreams yet love their day job—and a joy in watching the actors who revel in playing those characters. The bingo is a blast, too.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 23, 2017
 
Republished courtesy Daily Breeze
 
Dinner With Friends
Little Fish Theatre

Karen and Gabe are hosting their longtime friend Beth for dinner. She sits silently, seeming to listen but physically uncomfortable, shifting in her chair.
   Karen and Gabe chat over each other and finish each other’s sentences. The milestones in their marriage seem to be meals, which they recall in zealous detail.
   Yet, as we observe in Dinner With Friends—Donald Margulies’ 2000 Pulitzer-winning play, in production at Little Fish Theater—Karen and Gabe’s marriage seems as solid as they come. Beth, however, unexpectedly announces her split from her husband, Tom. As she tells it, Tom has left her for another woman. Beth’s hosts are stunned.
   Later that night, Tom shows up at Karen and Gabe’s, insisting on telling his version of the marriage and breakup. Karen, shaken, wants none of his excuses. Gabe, as deeply shaken, gives Tom somewhat of a chance to explain.
   Tom’s excuses, delivered in desperation, elicit a few snorts of derision from the audience. Later in the script, months later in the story’s chronology, during a man-to-man with Gabe, Tom mentions a better, solid reason for leaving the marriage.

Margulies paints in subtleties. Every moment in his script is realistic and not “theatrical.” Director Mark Piatelli and his actors have delved into the characters, so we see real people onstage. Particularly good are Christina Morrell as Karen and Patrick Vest as Gabe, as they go through the couple’s daily tasks and then, at play’s end, appreciate the bedrock of their marriage.
   Opposite them, Renee O’Connor plays Beth and Doug Mattingly plays Tom. O’Connor’s task may be the toughest, as Beth proves to be the least likeable character. Mattingly may be miscast, although his first, thug-like appearance may be intended to lure the audience into seeing him as the villain.
   Piatelli uses a bit of interesting blocking in the first scene: Beth gets up to leave, is persuaded to stay, and sits in a different chair so the audience looks at her from a different angle. This attention to movement seems to wane in the second act when, repeatedly, two characters sit at a table and don’t budge for the entirety of their scene. That may be how we behave in life, but it makes the characters’ conversations sound the same, and they’re not.
   Also problematically, although the play’s chronology is not straightforward, and although the dialogue indicates Beth and Karen have lunch outside and Tom and Gabe have drinks at a bar, here they seem to be seated in Gabe and Karen’s present-day kitchen.
   These physical indications of time and place should not have been left solely to costumer Diana Mann, who takes her cue from Margulies’ subtlety and attires the actors in outfits that gently hint at their eras and locales.
   Among the actors, Mattingly is best at being younger and happier in those early days. He smiles more, sometimes happily, sometimes flirtatiously, before Tom’s unhappiness took over.

Should some couples never have married? Can everyone cope with marriage if we only realize change is inevitable and adaptation is our greatest resource? Margulies shows us one thing for certain: Getting “back to where we were” isn’t the key to a happy marriage.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
May 15, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 

Archduke
Mark Taper Forum

Rajiv Joseph’s world premiere play Archduke, as its title evidences, centers on the assassination history tells us led to World War I. It also examines our innate need to live a meaningful life.
   Three Balkan boys in their late teens are adrift. It’s 1914, and not much is available to them, including longevity. More troublingly, each seems alone, uneducated, unloved.
   One of them, Gavrilo (Stephen Stocking), has at long last sought medical attention from kindly physician Dr. Leko (Todd Weeks), who offers free examinations to the town. Leko diagnoses Gavrilo with tuberculosis. Gavrilo is of course Gavrilo Princip, the real-life assassin of Franz Ferdinand, archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife Duchess Sophie.
   These young men are undernourished—lacking food, emotional support and intellectual stimulation. They have never seen curtains; sandwiches are the treat of a lifetime.
   Leko wants to soothe and heal such boys. He is a flawed yet angelic man. But at his door appears Dragutin Dimitrijevic (Patrick Page), who is the devil incarnate, inexcusably abusive, savagely murderous. Dragutin wants to use such boys to perpetrate political violence. “I’m a man of the people,” he proclaims. He extolls his own patriotism. He’s adeptly manipulative, recruiting one lad with the promise of a job, another with the promise of a purposeful existence.
   Dragutin demands that Leko “send” sick boys to him. Leko refuses. So Dragutin sends in young Trifko (Ramiz Monsef), who pulls a knife on Leko. The doctor quickly calculates how to save more lives: Should he do wrong now and stay alive, or should he protect these lads. He chooses to stay alive.
   So Gavrilo, Trifko, and the third boy, Nedeljko (Josiah Bania), are welcomed into Dragutin’s satanic embrace. At Dragutin’s dining-room table, they’re fed and flattered. You know the rest of the story. Like many boys today, they find their missing pieces through evil men who bring the cool, becoming so-called martyrs for a cause of someone else’s making.

With this fascinating true-life metaphor, Joseph encapsulates this syndrome. The script is not yet flawless: It’s still a little long and a little repetitive. Bits of both acts could be cut, and so could the intermission. Yes, we feel horror as we watch these three ebulliently enjoy their train trip as they make small talk while hurtling into destiny, but somehow their conversation seems padded.
   But Joseph includes another important layer: the treatment of and status of women. It’s an integral part of the psychology of these characters. They either overly idolize women or demonize them. Dragutin is the worst offender, sexualizing women he perceives as outranking him.
   His servant Sladjana (Joanne McGee), however, merely ignores him. She’s too wise, too experienced, to heed him. And despite her second-class status, if even that, she’s the person giving Gavrilo the means for survival and better health.

Giovanna Sardelli directs her outstanding cast with subtlety but much physical humor ranging from commedia to a Trumpian handshake. The humor keeps the play bubbling along. But meantime, it increases our shame because we laugh, even though we know the outcome here and we know the outcome of acts by our century’s boys seduced into terrorism.
   The scenic design, by Tim Mackabee, takes the characters’ environments from stark impenetrability to deluxe mobility.
   Thanks to Lap Chi Chu’s lighting design, we’re looking at the world through early color films of the 1900s, peering through a pallid night and then luxuriating in the newfangled electrical lamps of the train car. Daniel Kluger’s lavish sound design and intriguing music enhance the theatrical experience.
   And this is how the three boys were lured into extremism to achieve the immortality they dreamed of. How the intelligent, educated Dimitrijevic developed into a monster would make another fascinating play.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
May 8, 2017


Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 

The Legend of Georgia McBride
Gil Cates Theater at Geffen Playhouse

In The Legend of Georgia McBride, women’s clothes certainly turn a childlike lad into a maturing gentleman. Still, Matthew Lopez’s play, enjoying its West Coast premiere, reminds us that our true selves are who we are at heart, having nothing to do with our outer adornments.
   Casey (Andrew Burnap) is a young man trying to make a living as an Elvis impersonator at a Florida Panhandle bar. He’s spending more on gasoline than he takes in at his shows. His wife, Jo (Nija Okoro), the sensible half of this couple, is at wits end and prods him into facing reality. He’s so good-natured, though, that he’s not even sure they’re having a fight.
   Like a fairy godmother, the deliciously haughty drag queen Miss Tracy Mills (Matt McGrath) suddenly materializes at the bar, where Eddie the owner (Nick Searcy) gives her Casey’s stage time. Casey, all agree, can stay on as a bartender.
   But when Miss Tracy’s sidekick, Miss Anorexia Nervosa (Larry Powell, doubling as Casey’s landlord, though we need the program to prove it), overindulges on vodka, Casey steps into her shoes—and corset, padded bra, wig and little black dress. And we witness the birth of the legend of Georgia McBride.
   Clothes may make the man, but costume designer E.B. Brooks made the clothes, and they’re fantastic. They turn male bodies into female shapes, while adding whimsy. They’re aided, though, by envy-inducing cellulite-free legs, as well as by the artistry with which the legs are wielded.

The tale is predictable, but comfortingly so. Of course everyone slots neatly into his or her role. Of course forgiveness prevails and love triumphs.
   Directed by Mike Donahue, choreographed by Paul McGill, every moment is a smooth, sweet look at these warm, accepting characters. And just when we begin to think the tale is getting too frivolous, Miss Tracy finally appears as the man who creates her, wigless and unadorned, and gives Casey the straight scoop on being a responsible adult.
   But first, our protagonist tells a lie and makes things worse by not coming clean. It’s the storytelling cliché that ruins any chance of a unique tale here. Further, Casey is so sweetly naive, it seems unlikely he’d be able to lie to Jo for just one night, let alone the months this has been going on.
   Another possibly unlikely element: Could Panama City Beach gather so many appreciative, let alone accepting, audiences, enabling Casey to come home every night loaded down with dollar bills?

Donyale Werle’s set packs living room, dressing room, bar, and Miss Tracy’s front lawn onto the Geffen stage, while Josh Epstein’s lighting differentiates among the settings. The music is uplifting, the pop references span Edith Piaf to Beyoncé (how’s that for range?), but mostly the characters are ultimately kind to one another. If our hearts are pure and good, they’re what make us—man, woman or, these days, acceptably in between.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
April 17, 2017

Republished courtesy of Los Angeles Daily News
 
Into the Woods
Ahmanson Theatre

One of the theater’s most enduring modern classics began in the Southland in 1986 at San Diego’s Old Globe, and there’s no doubt Stephen Sondheim’s indelible Tony-winning score for Into the Woods is one of the most impressive efforts ever to transform the genre musical comedy into the complexities of musical theater. Colorful denizens of some of the world’s most famous fairy tales—Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and poor Jack of beanstalk-climbing fame—collide onstage in a joint quest to rid their beloved woods of one nasty giant.
   It’s understood that Into the Woods has hardly been ignored in the years since it premiered in New York in 1987, with many touring companies tromping all around the globe throughout the ensuing years, including a 1988 US national tour, a 1990 West End production, a 10th-anniversary concert version in 1997, a return to Broadway in 2002, a 2010 London revival, another in 2012 as part of New York’s outdoor Shakespeare in the Park series, and then there’s the star-studded film version directed by Rob Marshall in 2014 that garnered Meryl Streep as the Witch something like her 4,987th Oscar nomination.
   It is difficult to imagine something fresh and different could possibly be done while attempting to reinvent this show, when Sondheim’s haunting music and director James Lapine’s incredibly clever and irreverent book—based on The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim which, when published in 1976, analyzed popular fairy tales in terms of Freudian psychoanalysis—were so groundbreaking and inventive in the first place. This production, however, which Fiasco Theatre Company debuted Off-Broadway at the 410-seat Laura Pels Theatre in 2015 to great acclaim, manages to do just that.

Under the truly visionary direction of Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, this reinvigorated journey through the bewitched underbrush is meant to be extremely barebones, with 10 incredibly energetic and charismatic actors play all the characters, switching between them with lightning-fast alacrity. Featuring Derek McLane’s simple floor-to–light grid jumble of theatrical rigging to indicate the ominous forest of trees, an industrial-sized ladder to evoke Rapunzel’s tower, and a small-statured actor illuminated like a shadow puppet to gargantuan proportions on the back wall to make that notorious lady giant come alive—and subsequently die a most dramatic death—no special effects or wildly intricate projections are utilized to tell this cautionary tale of once-upon-a-times that don’t always portend happy endings.
   What’s best about this production is how the simplicity of it accentuates the music, fiercely and grandly played onstage on an extremely movable piano by musical director and sometimes performer Evan Rees. The voices of the ensemble could not be better, perfectly delivering Sondheim’s intricate and most difficult score when they’re not donning bonnets and grabbing wooden hobbyhorses to morph from one character to another.
   What’s somewhat lost in the shuffle of imagination over substance, however, is the message lurking below the surface of Bettelheim’s original concept, which presented the case that fairy tales help children solve certain existential problems such as separation anxiety, oedipal conflicts, and sibling rivalries. The extreme violence and ugly emotions of many fairy tales serve, he believed, to deflect what may well be going on in a kid’s head anyway, even if he or she is reluctant to reveal those puzzling thoughts. Although Sondheim’s lyrics often delve into the Caligari’s cabinet nature of the original production, this remounting is considerably less dark and more appropriate for children—if they can stay awake for the show’s three-hour duration.

There’s also a kind of preciousness that overshadows this journey, making one think it must have been a lot more charming to see unfolding for the first time at the 410-seat Laura Pels rather than the cavernous Ahmanson Theatre. Even the cast members’ first stroll onto the massive stage to wave to audience members and sit casually on the lip of the stage to greet and kibitz with the folks in the first row seems a long way off from the 16th row, let alone how that must feel up in the second balcony. It’s as though we’re supposed to enter another fantasy: that the cost of mounting this production at the Ahmanson was still an austere effort when the expense of bringing it here and converting it for this space must have been considerable. The evolution here, though incredibly sincere, is not completely…well…believable, if you’ll excuse the expression.
   Still, no narrative tool is more contagious than belief—just ask audiences who for years shouted their belief in fairies to help that boy who wouldn’t grow up resurrect his faithful Tinkerbell. In that regard, Brody and Steinfeld’s fanciful direction and the heartfelt performances by this troupe of supremely gifted performers, who all sing like birds and conjure a tornado of personality, still gamely create the essential necessary magic once again.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
April 8, 2017
 
The Siegel
South Coast Repertory

Fresh from the 2016 award winning Cloud 9 at Antaeus Theatre Company, savvy director Casey Stangl takes on a world premiere comedy by Michael Mitnick, designed to examine love and its complications. It has plenty of humor and a bit of food for thought along the way.
   At play’s opening, Ethan (Ben Feldman) has just arrived, flowers in hand, to propose to Alice (Mamie Gummer). She’s not there, so he chats with her parents, Deborah (Amy Aquino) and Ron (Matthew Arkin). The hitch is that Ethan and Alice broke up two years previously, and they haven’t seen each other since. When reminded of this fact, Ethan declaims it doesn’t matter, because they are destined to be together. Absurd? Absolutely, but the chase is always the most highly interesting aspect of any love relationship.
   With a nod to Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull and its convoluted romantic relationships, Mitnick takes on Ethan and Alice, her parents, and Alice and her new boyfriend, Nelson (Dominique Worsley). When Alice is flummoxed by Ethan’s declarations and offers him the standard end-of-romance-line, “You’ll find someone special,” he retorts, “I don’t want someone special. I want you.”

Aquino and Arkin are delightful as the wry intellectuals, a doctor and a lawyer, respectively, who have had twists along their own romantic path. Arkin, in particular, has very solid moments.
   Gummer is a perfectly assured millennial who rejects the goofy Ethan initially, but as they interact, it is the audience who must decide if this coupling will work out or if it is doomed to certain failure. Worsley, too, provides genuine laughs as the urbane suitor who begins with confidence and devolves into angst as Alice and Ethan spend more time together. Feldman delivers his offbeat protestations of love and zany logic charmingly enough to act as theatrical catalyst for the subsequent interplay among the actors. Devon Sorvari has a nice cameo in the production.
   Mitnick has a knack for comic lines, and there are plenty. Stangl handles them with a light touch and great comic timing. Michael B. Raiford’s stylish revolving set keeps the action moving, and Elizabeth Harper’s lighting design allows for effective scene changes.
   In a clever twist at the end of the play, Mitnick allows himself a little editorial commentary on love’s uncertainties that elevates the message. It is in these moments that the production finds its heart.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
April 4, 2017
 
Pie in the Sky
Victory Theatre Center

The world premiere of Lawrence Thelen’s lovely little two-hander Pie in the Sky has a unique hook: As the play’s rural mother and daughter banter about their lives and loves and lifelong differences in the middle of the night in an Abilene, Texas, trailer park, they peel apples, measure out brown sugar, manipulate “store bought” crust into submission, and bake a pie. Actually bake a pie. Live. Onstage.
   Not only is the Little Victory filled with warmth and sweetness from the quietly heartfelt performances of K Callan and Laurie O’Brien, but by the time the oven’s timer dings, the intoxicating and comforting smell of homemade apple pie permeates the entire playing space—and those in attendance, suffering the Pavlov’s dog effect from the aroma, are treated post-performance to a bite of the ladies’ culinary creation.
   Thelen’s story is simple, and the familial revelations Mama (Callan) divulges to her lonely widowed daughter Dory (O’Brien) as they shuffle about the trailer’s kitchen at 4am are surely shocking to her, yet for the audience, most everything that’s revealed is rather predictable, especially the ending. Anyone who does not guess ahead of time what’s about to happen when that fateful final timer buzzes has to be thinking more about the smell of pie baking than the characters in the drama and the constant hints they’re dropping.

Despite moments when it appears the chopping and coring and measuring and mixing of some of the dessert’s ingredients, not to mention Dory’s constant eye-rolling over her mother’s demands and inappropriate comments, are robbing viewers of our precious and fleeting time on the planet, what makes it all work are the sincerity and downhome spirit of these two veteran actors and the insightful leadership of their director, Maria Gobetti.
   Life is full of little secrets, as Dory’s feisty octogenarian mother proclaims, and just when we think we’re starting to figure it all out, it starts to fall apart. “Peel, slice, stir, repeat” is Mama’s mantra, the repetition of which would be the downfall of Thelen’s Pie in the Sky if it were not for the serendipitous inclusion of this production’s triumvirate of world-class talents, three strong and incredibly gifted artists named Gobetti, Callan, and O’Brien.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
April 2, 2017
 
The Snow Geese
Independent Shakespeare at Atwater Crossing Arts + Innovation Complex

At times reminiscent of Tennessee Williams’s penchant for multigenerational conflicts, denial of obvious truth, and family dysfunction, this West Coast premiere of playwright Sharr White’s engaging work soars on the back of precise direction and an impressive ensemble.
   Director David Melville has crafted, in this remarkably intimate venue, a production that never lags, even during White’s rare tangential sidetracks. Likewise, Melville’s sound design, punctuated throughout with period-perfect musical selections, fills the space more than adequately. Adding gild to the lily are Bosco Flannagan’s lighting and Ruoxuan Li’s costumes that, spanning the Edwardian and World War I periods, are noteworthy aspects of the show’s overall first-rate production values.
   We are “welcomed” into the lodge-like abode of the Gaesling family on Nov. 1, 1917. The matriarch, Elizabeth, a widow of only eight weeks, struggles to maintain a grip on her psyche and on the relational issues posed by her two sons as well as an older sister and brother-in-law. Along the way, secrets are revealed, denials scuttled, and realities forced into acceptance, all of which threaten to permanently destroy this tenuously fragile ecosystem.

Melville’s strong suit is in his casting of this piece. Melissa Chalsma is equal parts rock and tissue paper as she brings Elizabeth to life. Her beautifully wrought performance, complex beyond words, anchors White’s character-driven narrative, which quite often turns on a dime given its emotional upheavals.
   Eldest son Duncan, played by Evan Lewis Smith, is clearly the favored progeny. Having been raised for greatness including a stint at Princeton, he is home from boot camp for an overnight visit before heading off to Europe where America has finally been forced to join the horrors of WWI. Meanwhile, the role of younger brother Arnold, portrayed by Nikhil Pai, is that of the forgotten one. Always given the back seat, the crumbs, and the proverbial pat on the head, he is left to struggle for acceptance and respect.
   Smith and Pai are tremendous in fulfilling of their assignments. Melville’s nontraditional casting in compiling a family of obviously different racial make-ups is quickly and easily forgotten as these two actors create a relationship that is believable in its rivalry and its love. Smith exudes a rakish confidence that belies his character’s eventually exposed fears and insecurities. Pai’s depiction of Arnold’s pent-up frustrations floods the stage with a near-childish tantrum that is understandably justified. In the hands of these two actors, we witness the characters mature.
   Walking a tightrope of emotions and position within this tribe are Bernadette Sullivan and Bruce Katzman as Elizabeth’s sister, Clarissa, and brother-in-law, Max Hohmann. The sisters’ exchanges are more often than not quite prickly as Clarissa has chosen to shroud herself in an outspoken devotion to Methodist spirituality. Still, Sullivan brings such a quality of well-timed empathy to this role that one is thankful for her character’s straightforwardness and common sense.
   Katzman too, rises to the challenge of playing a secondary character whose backstory is equal to those of the leads. Max, a decades-long resident of the USA, is a physician whose patients have abandoned him in the face of America’s growing anti-Germanic sentiment. Katzman does yeoman’s job personifying the patience and, at times, the male leadership this unit grapples for in the face of their patriarch’s recent passing.
   Rounding out the troupe is Faqir Hassan, in a well-played cameo as the now dead Theodore Gaesling, and Kalean Ung as the household’s last remaining servant. Hassan’s single scene brings into perspective Elizabeth’s mental issues and provides White’s strongest method for fleshing out why the members of this family have assumed their varied and dubious roles. Ung is a stellar example of subtlety and restraint in her role as Viktorya, a formerly wealthy Ukrainian ingénue now forced into the menial duties of cook and maid. Her delivery of Viktorya’s advice and wisdom, well-timed and pithy throughout, leads the family to view her as an extension of them.

Returning to the comparison with Williams, the welcomed difference between his work and White’s saga comes in the form of a begrudgingly won optimism here. It’s welcome, leaving one with hope for the future of this tale.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
March 24, 2017
 
Ah, Wilderness!
A Noise Within

In his nearly 30 years of playwriting, Eugene O’Neill experimented with myriad stage conventions, winning Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. Though most of his dramas were melancholy or tragic, in 1932 he penned a comedy that portrays the Miller family of Connecticut on the Fourth of July, 1906. Its protagonist is almost-17-year-old Richard (Matt Gall), certainly O’Neill’s alter ego, who is flush with first love and bursting with ideas culled from classic literature his mother finds improper for a boy his age.
   The family also consists of younger brother Tommy (Samuel Genghis Christian); younger sister Mildred (Katie Hume); elder brother Arthur (Ian Littleworth); father Nat (Nicholas Hormann); mother Essie (Deborah Strang); Nat’s sister, Lily (Kitty Swink); and Essie’s brother, Sid (Alan Blumenfeld). The conflict for Richard is that his love, Muriel (Emily Goss), has written Richard a note ending their relationship as commanded by her father (Marcelo Tubert), who has found love letters quoting poetry from said books that he finds scandalous. In his despair, Richard goes on a double date with Arthur’s friend, Wint Selby (a breezy Conor Sheehan), who takes him to a bar where he meets a prostitute, Belle (Emily Kosloski), and gets drunk. Returning home, he faces his parents, who discuss what punishment he should receive.
   As simple as the story is, under the skilled direction of Steven Robman and with a superb cast, the story unfolds with many opportunities to examine a family dynamic, love in its many forms, and ideas and ideals nostalgically depicted.

Strang and Hormann are pluperfect as Richard’s parents, penned by O’Neill with just the right amount of loving and wise concern. Swink and Blumenfeld are also excellent as characters who can’t consummate their relationship, as Lily can’t overcome her aversion to his drinking, and he seemingly is too weak to make a success of his life. All four bring depth to their characterizations.
   Gall’s characterization of Richard is multifaceted and touching as he navigates the waters of adulthood. When he discovers that Muriel is still in love with him, his naivete and youthful exuberance make for tender and delightful moments. Goss is charming as Richard’s sweetheart.
   Littleworth, Hume, and Christian make for wonderful, period-perfect siblings, enhanced by Garry D. Lennon’s excellent costume design and just the right touch of ’30s sensibilities. Tubert ably portrays a stuffy prude as Muriel’s father, and Kosloski is also fine as the slightly racy working girl. Kelsey Carthew makes the most of Norah, the stereotypical family serving girl, and Matthew Henerson is a hearty salesman who helps Richard home from the bar.

Director Robman has interjected musical numbers performed by the actors into the story from the time period that serve as atmosphere and enhance the scene changes and passages of time. They are a diverting addition to the production, music-directed by Jonathan Tessero. Frederica Nascimento’s simple scenic design and Tom Ontiveros’s lighting design also enhance the play.
   This is a glimpse into a less complicated period, often attributed to O’Neill’s desire for the life he didn’t have growing up but wished for. It is a staple of American theater, and A Noise Within presents a polished and enjoyable production.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
March 22, 2017
 
For Piano and Harpo
Falcon Theatre

Noted musician, composer, and author Oscar Levant was one of those larger-than-life figures prominent from the 1930s until his death in 1972. In his New York days, he was a member of the Algonquin Round Table along with Dorothy Parker, Alexander Wollcott, and Robert Benchley. He was a a sought-after concert pianist. He was a regular panelist on the radio show Information Please, providing mordant wit, which led to his later career in Hollywood, notably in films The Barkleys of Broadway and An American in Paris, playing an eccentric version of himself.
   Playwright Dan Castellaneta, himself an eclectic actor, comedian, and voiceover artist (The Simpsons, Darkwing Duck, Rugrats, The Tracey Ullman Show) has taken on the task of exploring a dark period in Levant’s life when he was frequently committed to mental institutions.
   Part vaudeville, comedy sketch, and melodrama, Castellaneta’s fluid foray into Levant’s life attempts to portray the figures who influenced Levant and the inner workings of his genius. From an autocratic father who certainly contributed to his neuroses to longtime friend George Gershwin, he traversed a life of celebrity and addiction. Sometimes confusing as the play morphs from past to present, it nevertheless presents an affecting picture of a man whose talents were frequently overshadowed by his psychological angst.

As Levant, Castellaneta is suitably funny and tragic. In Act 1, the story is theatrical as well as expository with a fine cast of characters—JD Cullum, Deb Lacusta, Gail Matthius, Phil Proctor, and Jonathan Stark—playing multiple roles as Gershwin, Levant’s wife, Harpo Marx, Levant’s parents, Jack Paar, and others. Because the piece is structurally complicated, it is tough going at times for the characters to make seamless switches from person to person, so sometimes there’s a glitch or two. Act 2 is more measured, and during this interpretation of Levant’s life the emotional heft of the story is most affecting.
   Cullum is particularly notable as Charlie, a mute patient Oscar meets as he spends time in the hospital. Many of the best moments of the story are played out in their exchanges. He also adds considerable humor as Harpo. Lacusta is affecting as his wife, and Matthius has funny moments as Fanny Brice and a fellow mental patient. Proctor is a reliable character actor who does yeoman work as Levant’s father, Harpo’s butler, and others. As Paar, on whose show Levant was a frequent guest, Stark is noteworthy. He also fills in as doctor and Gershwin.
   Music supervisor–pianist David O provides Levant’s musicianship only partially concealed behind the scenes, and harpist Jillian Risigari-Gai delivers Harpo’s music as the two characters mime the music in the foreground. It is a significant addition to the play’s overall mood. Also striking is Jean-Yves Tessier’s lighting design, transforming the nearly bare stage into multiple settings like Harpo’s home where Levant spent much time, the hospital with its struggles, and his home with his wife.

Director Stefan Novinski balances the comedy with adversity nicely as he maneuvers his cast through the many overlapping scenes. As Levant was noted for his one-liners, including “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin,” Novinski makes their many inclusions in the script seem believable as dialogue.
   Though the play challenges the audience to keep the time periods and events sorted out, it works best as a theatrical endeavor when it focuses on the human aspects of the story rather than the biographical. The ensemble’s considerable talent makes for a worthwhile exploration of this complex and intriguing man.
Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
February 14, 2017
 
Zoot Suit
Mark Taper Forum

The history of Los Angeles is a fascinating and often sordid tale. This is particularly true of the bigotry and racial profiling which has befallen, and continues to befall, our pivotal Chicano population over the years. It makes the Taper’s sparkling revival of Luis Valdez’s groundbreaking musical Zoot Suit, which premiered at the same theater way back in 1978 when the dinosaurs still roamed the earth and the mastodons had not yet gotten hung up in the tar pits, more timely than ever—before our current administration brings back tar and dumps us all in it for a swim.
   As the news continues to be chockful of reports of Trump-inspired ICE raids and deportation roundups that have rocked Los Angeles and the country this weekend, recent National Medal of Arts recipient Valdez, who once again directs his own masterpiece with the participation of his son and longtime collaborator Kinan as his associate director, takes us back to 1942. While World War II raged across our globe, the LA pachuco society was the relentless target of brutality and the stomping on of human rights by the police and the military.
   Valdez returns to his story of the infamous Sleepy Hollow murder trial and the resultant Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, aided by a passionate cast and designers who have obviously worked tirelessly to do their homework. Designer Christopher Acebo’s soaring metal industrial structures, looming in front of a mysterious night-lit backdrop of the East LA barrio smoldering below a rendition of City Hall, is a perfect tool for Valdez’s stark staging and the hot-blooded dance numbers choreographed by Maria Torres to the infectiously cheery original score by the legendary late “father of Chicano music” Lalo Guerrero.

Speaking of research, costumer Ann Closs-Farley’s amazing period costuming defines her as a vital member of the exceptional team that has brought this production back to life, whether it be finely tailored Joan Crawford-esque suits for reporter Alice Bloomfield (Tiffany Dupont) or the spectacularly colorful dancewear moving seductively with every jerk and stretch of the energetic and rubber-limbed ensemble. . Her work is accentuated by the gorgeously detailed “drapes” that adorn the ghostly El Pachuco (Demián Bichir) and members of the local gang who became victims of the American court system. Once referred to by a young Malcolm X as a “killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell,” Closs-Farley’s brilliantly day-glo-ing zoot suits, complete with their signature watch chains dangling from the belt to below the knee, could make a comeback due solely to the success of this revival.
   Bichir is a dynamic presence as he bravely attempts to fill the well-worn pointed-toed shoes that became the springboard to fame for his predecessor in the role, Edward James Olmos. Bichir is wonderfully sparse in his choices as he prances and poses as the continuously dominant spirit figure gliding through the action as the conscience of the falsely accused Henry Reyna (Matias Ponce), although his gravelly, raspy delivery of some of his key lines does tend to get lost in their own gargle. Ponce also seems to keep his delivery more to the bone than do many of his castmembers, as does Jeanine Mason as his spunky love interest Della. A special treat is the casting of Daniel Valdez (who also doubles as musical director) and Rose Portillo as Henry’s longsuffering, endearingly simple immigrant parents, since they are the actors who, four decades ago, played the roles of Henry and Della in the original cast.

Of course the saddest thing about seeing Zoot Suit so painstakingly returned to its original venue is to realize how little has changed since the Sleepy Lagoon murders and the subsequent Zoot Suit Riots, which shook Los Angeles to its core and subsequently spread around the country 75 years ago. Like studying the arc between Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in 1905 and Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County 100 years later, the endurance of great art unmistakably exposes how our conflicted species refuses to modify our behavior and learn from our mistakes, how little we really, truly try to honor and to practice the humanity we profess to hold so dear.


Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 13, 2017
 
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Geffen Playhouse

“I was so healthy before Edmund was born,” says matriarch Mary Tyrone in playwright Eugene O’Neill’s epic Long Day’s Journey Into Night, considered a masterpiece of American theater of any era. Set in 1912, written in the 1940s, but at O’Neill’s request unpublished during his lifetime, the play remains timeless. So do the alternative facts wielded by the Tyrone family.
   It’s probably not the first time Mary has heaped this blame and guilt on her son, who did nothing to deserve it. But whereas the sticky web of delusion they live in is of their own making, the various addictions each suffers are genetic. And in those days, professional help wasn’t readily and affordably available.
   This semi-autobiographical play explores a day in the life of James and Mary Tyrone, in their Connecticut seaside home, with their two adult sons. Jamie is the elder child, trying a career as an actor primarily because his father had been one. Edmund is the younger, who caught tuberculosis as a merchant sailor.

If it’s not immediately apparent, the audience learns each character has an addiction. For James, it’s bourbon. For Mary, it’s morphine. For James, it’s prostitutes. For Edmund, it seems to be returning home and trying to help.
  They talk. On this day they talk morning, noon, evening and midnight, through four acts and three and a half hours of theatergoing time. O’Neill gives the audience everything, no more and no less, needed to understand and feel for these characters.

So, in its current production at Geffen Playhouse, what imprint would its director, Jeanie Hackett, lay on it? The humor is in the lines; Hackett neither imposes nor allows clowning to encourage the laughs. The tragedy is in the characters; Hackett brooks no bodice-ripping. Instead, she kneads the painful relationships, revealing them through byplay and undercurrents, as alliances form and break, egos flare and fade. There’s love within and for this family, but it can’t rise above the neediness.
   Among Hackett’s directorial choices, the less-successful are the scene-break divertissements, in which O’Neill’s recorded voice plays over projections of photographs and a wash of purple-and-turquoise fogs. Some of us would rather stay in the Tyrone house, quietly assessing our thoughts and feelings. On the other hand, those tired of watching actors move furniture and props during plays have something to distract them.
   The most-successful choice might be the casting of Colin Woodell as Edmund, the stand-in for the playwright. (To be clear, the “Eugene” mentioned in the play is the deceased son born before Edmund.) Woodell plays the consumptive, soulful Edmund with layers of colors, yet the portrayal looks luminous and simple—and includes a realistic consumptive cough.
   Stephen Louis Grush plays the underachieving Jamie, a disappointment to his father and likely to himself, seeming to fade into the already worn background, at least until his night of carousing gives him courage, which he uses to lash out.
   Alfred Molina plays patriarch James, regretful over his misguided acting career, in love with Mary but completely lacking the tools to help her. Molina’s moments of James’ theatricality entertainingly liven the dark conversations.
   Jane Kaczmarek plays Mary, very much a product of her time but very much suffering in contemporary ways. This Mary is strong but shackled, so she escapes through painkillers. Kaczmarek turns into a joyful girl when Mary recounts meeting James for the first time.
   Angela Goethals plays housemaid Cathleen, weighted by her own need for alcohol but blessed with a sense of humor.

Tom Buderwitz designed the windswept, sun-bleached, spectral house, perfect for setting the mood, as well as for peeking into various rooms and up the staircase that plays a role, lit by lighting designer Elizabeth Harper’s subtle artistry. Other directorial choices include framing devices. Just before the action begins, Eugene wanders up and gazes at the house, like Tom in The Glass Menagerie, setting this up as a memory play. At the play’s end, lights shine into the audience, as if to say, “Et tu?”

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
February 13, 2017
 
Republished courtesy Daily Breeze
 

Lyrics From Lockdown
The Actors’ Gang at Ivy Substation

In a political climate where disagreements are labeled as “unconstitutional,” “destructive,” even “treasonous” or “evil,” refreshing is the message that’s both timely in its relevance and balanced in its presentation. In this case, the message, that of a justice system that, at times, is most certainly unfair to its participants based on no more than a series of immutable factors such as race, ethnicity, or the supposedly guaranteed “freedom of association.”
   In this moving, often comical, power-punch of a solo performance, author Bryonn Bain details his amazingly overflowing cup of life. Having broken with the tradition of his Brooklyn upbringing to serve as the four-time president of his class at Columbia University and eventually graduate from Harvard Law School, Bain seemed on track for what by all standards would be success at every turn. And yet, the path his life was to take proved to be the positive outcome of a blindside.
   Racially profiled and wrongfully incarcerated by the New York City Police, Bain has produced a stunning array of work and social activism, which even included serving as the topic for a segment of CBS’s Sixty Minutes in which he was interviewed by the venerable Mike Wallace. In this theatrical production, he parallels his autobiography with that of Nanon Williams, sent to Texas’s Death Row at age 17 (a sentence converted in 2005 to life imprisonment), both of whom have spun gold from dross through their unveiling of the ills found within our nation’s incarceration industry.

Bain’s ability to offer his thoughts and feelings without drubbing his audience over the head is perhaps the most admirable quality of his work. Instead, he introduces us to his family: a father known for his love of Calypso music, a Bible-thumping mother, and two brothers, one of whom walked the tightrope between lawfulness and the gangsta lifestyle. In doing so, Bain humanizes himself, and his message is thereby saved from being overshadowed by the unforgiving militancy so often found in those who espouse a “cause.” It’s one of many wise choices that he and director Gina Belafonte have made in crafting this fast-paced one-act.
   So too are the incorporations of musical stylings, credited to the playwright’s father, B. Rolly Bain, which transform this poetry into gripping lyrics backed by an onstage three-piece ensemble. John B. Williams on the double bass and Isaiah Gage on the cello, along with the remarkable talent of an artist identified as “Click the Supa Latin” serving as a human beatbox, make amazing use of what are normally considered traditionally staid instruments. Although untitled, Bain’s compositions run the gamut from blues to calypso and classical to hip-hop. In particular, he riffs on subjects which for the purposes of this review shall be referred to as “Growing Up on Marcus Garvey Boulevard,” “Things Are Not Always What They Seem,” “On My Way,” and “Scribble On.”

Equally valuable is a trio, artistes in their own right, inhabiting the theater’s tech booth. Billed as the designer and video DJ for the production is Omolara Abode. In addition to a pair of traditional suspended screens marking the set’s upstage area, Abode’s almost ceaseless array of video and still projections fill the side walls of the Ivy Substation’s decades-old, brick-walled interior. Meanwhile, Pierre Adeli’s sound cues, including live vocal interjections from the booth, flawlessly augment and accentuate Bain’s 75-minute monologue. Seamless lighting transitions, under the guidance of technical director Jason Ryan Lovett, are provided throughout the show by Cihan Sahin.
   Concluding his performance with “So Many People in Need,” perhaps the most poignant of all his sung works, Bain and director Belafonte send their audience out onto the street moved and perhaps encouraged to action rather than merely ruminating over what has just been experienced.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
February 12, 2017
 
Beckett 5
Odyssey Theatres

Just the name conjures a headache in some and bliss in others. Playwright Samuel Beckett is considered one of the most-influential 20th-century playwrights, certainly within Theatre of the Absurd style, his Waiting for Godot at the peak of those works.
   At the Odyssey Theatres, five of Beckett’s short plays are being performed under the umbrella title that bears his name. With that much advance notice, the audience certainly should know what to expect.
   And knowing that the Odyssey’s resident company of superb veteran actors, the KOAN Unit, under director Ron Sossi, is bringing the works to life, we are assured the production will be deep and sharp.
   The works are staged on set designer Mark Guirguis’s simple black-box area. A raised platform upstage, where doors open into unseen rooms, gets used for one of the pieces but remains in murky darkness for others, thanks to lighting designer Chu-Hsuan Chang’s mysterious but warm illumination.

“Act Without Words II” opens the production. Alan Abelew and Beth Hogan hunker inside white plastic sacks, until each is goaded (Norbert Weisser clad head to toe in black, wielding a spear) into a day’s action. Abelew, as “A,” loathes every moment. Even his food, a tasty-looking carrot pulled out of his pocket, prompts A to spit out his sole sustenance. A has turned to prayer and pharmaceuticals to get through his days.
   Hogan, as “B,” loves every moment of the day, though the manic pace might take its toll. Chronically checking her watch, compulsively exercising, obsessed with her appearance, at least she relies on herself to get through it all, ending with a bit of self-reflection.
   Beckett reputedly felt annoyed when people presumed references to his earlier plays, but the carrots, black suit and bowler hat of Godot greatly tempt us here.
   “Come and Go” finds three women gathered on a bench in an enigmatic reunion. Diana Cignoni and Sheelagh Cullen join Hogan to perhaps relive their school days, giggle girlishly, share information or spread misinformation, and still find communal support.
   Their names—Flo, Vi, Ru—evoke flowers, and they’re dressed in floral pastels, with pristine white satin Mary Jane shoes. But something darker is at work. Each one of the three wanders off while two stay behind to whisper. What they share might be salacious gossip, or it might be news of impending death.

The plays get even darker with “Catastrophe,” in which Director and Assistant literally and figuratively manipulate Protagonist, who represents actor, audience, and nation. Sossi has swapped genders of Director and Assistant, casting Hogan as the imperious Director, oblivious to the figure’s suffering, and Abelew as the obsequious Assistant, who was only following orders. Weisser’s Protagonist doesn’t collapse, likely fearful of the consequences. But when the others leave, he prods us with a chilling, astonishing, richly emotional stare.
   “Footfalls” finds Diana Cignoni as a daughter, pacing in front of her mother’s doorway, and Sheelagh Cullen (unseen) voicing the mother. It’s perhaps the most deeply psychological of the plays here, yet it’s also full of wordplay. The mother may be dead or dying, the daughter may be living in the past or living an unfulfilled life now, but Christian imagery reflects constraints on the peripatetic figure.

After an intermission that lets the audience gather breath and wits, “Krapp’s Last Tape” stars Weisser in one of Beckett’s better-known short works. A “wearish old man” listens to tape recordings of himself at younger ages. At each age, he has looked back from a vantage of more experience and more disdain. Despite the shabby appearance and goofy antics, Weisser is an elegant Krapp of rue, nostalgia, wryness, and the wisdom of age and experience.
   Beckett included detailed stage directions with his scripts. In “Come and Go,” for example, his directions are longer than the dialogue. Sossi uses some, leads his troupe elsewhere on others, encouraging intellectual and emotional responses to Beckett’s works.
   Costume designer Audrey Eisner provides the crisply evocative looks, while sound designer Christopher Moscatiello creates atmospheres of subtle mystery.
   So, what to expect here? As in life, those willing to observe, to think, to accept that some things are imponderable but still worth considering, will fare best.
  

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 25, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 

The Lion
Geffen Playhouse

It’s a given that most self-created solo shows dig deep into the past and the personal demons haunting their authors. Benjamin Scheuer takes it one step further with The Lion, adding one component fairly unique to that genre: unflinchingly recounting the bittersweet memories of his life and individual trials and using gloriously evocative music.
   Scheuer offers a bravely unembellished look at growing up in a difficult situation, letting his story unfold through powerful and hauntingly poetic ballads, his sandpapery vocal dexterity, and some truly ferocious skills as a guitarist. Yet austerity is the key here, Scheuer moving from stool to stool, picking up a half-dozen guitars showcasing his versatility, on the Geffen’s intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis stage. His only co-conspirators in showcasing his massive talent are the unobtrusive but effective direction by Sean Daniels, complemented by Neil Patel’s ever-changing sound studio design, lit simply but chameleon-like by Ben Staton.

Scheuer tells of his uncomfortable relationship with a demanding father whose expectations do not mesh with his son’s free spirit, ending in a bitter argument never resolved before his dad, whom he obviously adored, suddenly died of a brain aneurism. A gifted hobbyist musician, Scheuer’s father was a notable mathematician.
   Although he shared his musical passion with his son—even building him a homemade banjo in the basement—his frustration that his offspring didn’t inherit his analytical skills or wasn’t interested in academic success destroyed their time together.
   Scheuer’s story trudges on through a love affair, catastrophic illness, and numerous attempts to find himself in some way that does not involve his passion for music, told by these gifted hands in this quiet and unvarnished production.
   Scheuer is the quintessential product of singer-songwriters from a groundbreaking generation past, a Leonard Cohen or Cat Stevens or James Taylor for the millennium, only taken a step further with a personal tale he shares without filter or embellishment—and we, his sufficiently mesmerized and emotionally transported followers, are his grateful beneficiaries.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
January 16, 2017
 
Pick of the Vine 15
Little Fish Theatre

Nine short plays by nine playwrights fit together snugly to make a brisk evening of theater in Little Fish Theatre’s 15th annual Pick of the Vine play festival.
   Subjects and themes this year include birth and death, truth and lies, sexuality and gender, parenting, revenge, and, topically, politics. And even if none of the plays hits home in every viewer, the collection offers the opportunity to sample these playwrights while watching uniformly superb acting by the evening’s eight performers.
   First up is “I Don’t Know,” by James McLindon, directed by Madeleine Drake. Soldiers march to their sergeant’s cadences, but the sentiments expressed don’t fall in line with the sexual politics of a younger and more liberal generation. The drill sergeant (Rodney Rincon) gets an ear-opening lesson from his soldiers, also in rhyming cadences.


For a couple’s 30-year-old, live-at-home son (Brendan Gill), it’s time to grow up and hear the truth, in “Santa Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” by Patrick Gabridge, directed by Gigi Fusco Meese. However, maturity doesn’t mean we can’t keep the magic of Christmas alive, as his parents (Geraldine Fuentes, Rincon) eventually agree.
   In the sensual and disquieting “Wheelchair,” by Scott Mullen, directed by Richard Perloff, two strangers (Olivia Schlueter-Corey, Bill Wolski) meet on a park bench, where a seemingly random wager ends in revenge.
   In “The Holy Grill,” by Gary Shaffer, directed by Drake, a young couple (Jessica Winward, Wolski) face their premarital interview at their local church. But the priest is supposedly not available, so two detectives step in (Rincon, Don Schlossman), leaving the couple to try to lie to law enforcement of the earthly kind.

“A Womb With a View,” by Rich Orloff, directed by Perloff, whimsically imagines what goes on behind the scenes in getting a baby (Holly Baker-Kreiswirth) ready for birth.
   “Screaming,” by Stephen Peirick, directed by Perloff, looks at parents (Jessica Winward, Wolski) with a 3-month-old child. Of the nine plays, this one seems the toughest to bring to life: It’s less play than serious conversation between one character who’s not listening and one who’s not forthcoming. Unlike Perloff’s other two, more-successful, pieces, here he aims for the straightforward, leaving the audience to decide how to react.
   “Thick Gnat Hands,” by Erin Mallon, directed by Elissa Anne Polansky, is a lovely study of the wisdom we can glean from illness. Polansky’s actors (Schlossman, Wolski) are far upstage, distanced from the audience, but the actors lure us toward them as the story reminds us to forgive ourselves and live each day with a conscious joy.

Equally tender is “The Way It Really Truly Almost Was,” by Brendan Healy, directed by Polansky. A husband (Schlossman) sits at the bedside of his comatose wife (Baker-Kreiswirth), attempting a revisionist look back at his marriage. His wife sets him straight.
   The comedic highlight is “A Very Short Play About the Very Short Presidency of William Henry Harrison,” by Jonathan Yukich, directed by Meese. The story of the ailing brand-new president (Rincon) who won’t take the advice of his wiser aide (Schlossman) bursts with witty, pointed, political commentary, plus a bit of toilet humor.

Throughout the nine plays, a piece of the set becomes refrigerator, dialysis machine, park bench, deathbed, birth canal, and more. That’s all the audience needs. But the upstage structure, in a mud-brown pattern against painted brown wood, distracts, as we expect it to be turned around into something, anything, for a finale.
   We expect this because Little Fish usually offers well-designed and well-constructed sets. This one remains static and unappealing. Better to have kept the background plain, leaving the audience, well-stimulated by the writing and acting, to imagine the settings.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 16, 2017

Republished courtesy Daily Breeze
 
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