Arts In LA
Theater Reviews
 
Dream Catcher
Fountain Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Elizabeth Frances and Brian Tichnell
Photo by Ed Krieger

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

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

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

February 4, 2016
 
Jan. 30–Mar. 21. 5060 Fountain Ave. Secure, on-site parking, $5. Mon 8pm, Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm & 7pm. $15-34.95, Mondays are pay what you can. (323) 663-1525.

www.FountainTheatre.com

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Cabrillo Music Theatre at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz


Nick Santa Maria, Larry Raben, David Ruprecht, and Andrew Metzger
Photo by Ed Krieger

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

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

February 2, 2016
 
Jan. 29–Feb. 14. 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. Thu 7:30pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. $30–69. (800) 745-3000.

www.cabrillomusictheatre.com

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Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Torrance Theatre Company

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Jay Castle, Liliana Carrillo, and Rebecca Silberman
Photo by Alex Madrid

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

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

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

January 25, 2016
 
Jan. 17–Feb. 14. 1316 Cabrillo Ave, Torrance Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $25. (424) 242-6882.

torrancetheatrecompany.com

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Dirty Dancing
Pantages Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Christopher Tierney and Gillian Abbott
Photo by Matthew Murphy

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

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

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

February 3, 2016
 
Feb. 2–Feb. 21. 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. Tue-Thu 8pm, Fri 8pm; Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 35 minutes, including intermission. $29-150. (800) 982-2787.

www.HollywoodPantages.com

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Empire
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann


Kevin Earley (at center)
Photo by Michael Lamont

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

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

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

January 26, 2016
 
Jan. 22–Feb. 14. 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. Wed-Thu 7:30, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm (no 7pm perf April 13). $20-60. (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.

www.lamiradatheatre.com

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Thom Pain (based on nothing)

Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Rainn Wilson
Photo by Michael Lamont

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

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

January 14, 2016
 
Jan. 13–Feb. 14. 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles. Wed–Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. $76–99. (310) 208-5454.

www.geffenplayhouse.com

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