Arts In LA
The Biscuiteater
The Electric Lodge

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Jim Loucks

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

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

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

July 26, 2015
 
July 24–Aug. 9. 1416 Electric Ave. Fri–Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 65 minutes. $10-15.

www.brownpapertickets.com

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Romeo and Juliet
Independent Shakespeare Co. at the Old Zoo in Griffith Park

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal


Nikhil Pai and Erika Soto in ISC’s indoor production
Photo by Grettel Cortes

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

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

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

July 23, 2015

Next up: Much Ado About Nothing, opening Aug. 8.

July 3–26. 4730 Crystal Springs Dr., Griffith Park. Thu–Sun 7pm.Free. (818) 710-6306.

www.iscla.org

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Who Killed Comrade Rabbit?
Blank Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Ilia Volok
Photo by Phi Tran

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

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

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

July 20, 2015
 
July 8–26. 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Wed 8pm, Fri–Sun 8pm. $20. (424) 272-1135.

plays411.com/comraderabbit

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Singin’ in the Rain
Musical Theatre West at Carpenter Performing Arts Center

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann


Leigh Wakeford, Natalie MacDonald, and Justin Michael Wilcox
Photo by Caught in the Moment Photography

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

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

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

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

July 14, 2015
 
July 10–26. 6200 E. Atherton, Long Beach. See website for schedule. $20. (562) 856-1999, ext. 4.

www.musical.org

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Astro Boy and the God of Comics
Sacred Fools Theater

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Photo by Jessica Sherman

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

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

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

July 6, 2015
 
June 20–Aug. 8. 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 70 minutes, no intermission. $20. (310) 281-8337.

www.sacredfools.org

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Off the King’s Road
NKBL Productions at Odyssey Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Casey Kramer and Michael Uribes
Photo by Ed Krieger

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

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

June 29, 2015
  
June 27–Aug. 2. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West LA. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $25-30. (323) 960-7712.

www.plays411.com/kingsroad

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Not That Jewish
Jewish Women’s Theater

Reviewed by Bob Verini


Monica Piper
Photo by Patrick Conde

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

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

May 11, 2015
 

April 9–Aug. 23. The Braid, 2912 Colorado Ave. #102, Santa Monica. Thu & Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7:30pm. Running time 90 minutes. $35. (310) 315-1400.

www.jewishwomenstheatre.org

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Failure: A Love Story
Coeurage Theatre Company at GTC Burbank

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Joe Calarco and Kurt Quinn
Photo by John Klopping

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

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

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

July 27, 2015
 
July 24–Aug. 29. 1100 W. Clark Ave., Burbank. Thu–Sat 8pm (no perfs. Aug. 6 or Aug. 15; added perfs Aug. 9 and Aug. 23 at 7pm). Pay what you want. (323) 944-2165.

coeurage.secure.force.com/ticket

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Off Book
Falling Apple Productions at The Secret Rose Theatre

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal


Members of the ensemble

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

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

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

July 23, 2015
 
July 17–Aug 22. 11246 Magnolia Blvd. Fri–Sat 7:30pm. $20.

fallingapplesproductions.com

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Brighton Beach Memoirs
Kentwood Players at Westchester Playhouse

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Lori Kaye, Veronica Alicino, Laura Slade Wiggins (facing away), Matthew Van Oss, Katie Rodriguez (facing away), Louis Gerard Politan, and Harold Dershimer
Photo by Shari Barrett

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

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

July 13, 2015

Republished courtesy Daily Breeze

 
July 10–Aug. 15. 8301 Hindry Ave., Westchester. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $20 ($2 discount for seniors, students, servicemen, and Metro riders). (310) 645-5156.

www.kentwoodplayers.org

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A Permanent Image
Rogue Machine Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Tracie Lockwood, Anne Gee Byrd, and Ned Mochel
Photo by John Perrin Flynn

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

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

July 13, 2015
 
June 6–Aug. 17. 5041 Pico Blvd., West LA (street metered until 8pm except Sun) Sat 5pm, Sun 7 pm, Mon 8 pm. $30–35. (855) 585-5185.

www.RogueMachineTheatre.com

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The Bitch Is Back
The Edye at The Broad Stage

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Sandra Tsing Loh
Publicity photo by Ben Gibbs

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

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

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

July 10, 2015
 
July 9–Aug. 2. 1310 11th St. Santa Monica (ample free parking). Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 5pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. $35-55. (310) 434-3200.

thebroadstage.com

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American Idiot
DOMA Theatre Company at MET Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Jess Ford and Andrew Diego
Photo by Michael Lamont

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

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

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

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

June 11, 2015
 
June 5–Aug 2. 1089 N. Oxford Ave., LA. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm (dark July 4). General admission $30; VIP admission (includes reserved seating and a complimentary snack and beverage), $34.99; seniors and students with ID $20. (323) 802-9181.

www.domatheatre.com

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Undateable
Second City

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Amanda Blake Davis and Robyn Norris

Sometimes theater is about humankind’s greatest achievers. Sometimes it’s about supremely tragic figures. And sometimes, as with this show, it’s about the rest of us.
   A group of Second City’s fine performers went off piste and conducted a social experiment. After Robyn’s (Robyn Norris) friend posted a profile on a dating site and asked Robyn to check it over, Robyn set up an account to access the site. Robyn created the outlandish profile of an admittedly “crazy-insane person” she named TracyLovesCats. A shockingly large number of men—and women—responded, begging for various forms of contact with “Tracy.”
   Norris’s fellow troupe members Chris Alvarado, Rob Belushi, Amanda Blake Davis, Kate Duffy, and Bob Ladewig joined in, posting outrageous profiles no one could possibly think were anything other than a joke. These performers’ “sketch” show, Undateable, re-enacts verbatim the heartfelt responses by real, everyday people to these perverse personals.
   So, even though Rob (Belushi) pushed the intimacy-phobic envelope with DoorSlamEric, women think Eric is dateable. And although PioneerInABox (Kate Duffy) gets busted (she claims to function as if in the 1860s, yet she’s online), she manages to lure interest. Even Amanda’s (Blake Davis) age-questionable Old4U75 appeals to a prospective beau.
   The show, a fascinating concept, is well-structured and is imaginatively directed by Frank Caeti. It is also, of course, hilarious, though a strong strain of sympathy runs through it. And even though the show has been running for months, the performers have fresh energy. These performers are more interested in telling their story than in “being funny,” so the laughs come from the audience’s self-recognition and not from any obnoxious stage-hogging shenanigans.
   The troupe sings and dances—and not badly—to enhance several of their “scientific” points about romantic behavior. A few minutes of improv at the end of the show reflect the performers’ well-honed chops.
   Locational cautions: The venue is in Hollywood where street parking has a two-hour limit, metered until midnight on Fridays. The show is a mere one hour, but it undoubtedly will start a few minutes late. In addition, the theater is upstairs, and the site has no elevator. But if you’re swift and spry, head on up there for a dose of reality. It will probably provide you with more than several hearty belly laughs. It might also make you weep for mankind.

August 19, 2013

6560 Hollywood Blvd. Fri 9pm. $10.

secondcityhollywoodshows.com

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Bent
Mark Taper Forum

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Patrick Heusinger and Charlie Hofheimer
Photo by Craig Schwartz

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

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

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

July 27, 2015
 
July 26–Aug. 23. 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown LA. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 40 minutes, including intermission. $25-85. (213) 628-2772.

www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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A Night With Janis Joplin
Pasadena Playhouse

Reviewed by Bob Verini


The cast, with Mary Bridget Davies at center

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

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

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

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

July 26, 2015
 
July 22–Aug. 23. 39 El Molino Blvd., Pasadena. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 4pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. $55-150. (626) 356-7529.

www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

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Girlfriend
Center Theatre Group at Kirk Douglas Theatre

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz


Ryder Bach and Curt Hansen
Photo by Craig Schwartz

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

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

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

July 20, 2015
  
July 19–Aug 9. 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Wed-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. $20–55. (213) 628-2772.

www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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The Great Divide
Elephant Theatre Company at The Lillian Theatre

Reviewed by Neal Weaver


Kimberly Alexander and Mark McClain Wilson
Photo by Bren Coombs

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

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

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

July 18, 2015
 
July 11–Aug. 29. 1036 N. Lillian Way. Thu–Sat 8pm, Sun 5pm. Running time 90 minutes, including intermission. $25. (323) 960-4429.

www.plays411.com/divide

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Shiv
The Theatre @ Boston Court

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Monika Jolly and James Wagner
Photo by Ed Krieger

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

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

July 13, 2015

Republished courtesy Los Angeles Daily News
 
July 9–Aug. 9. 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm, plus Wed., Aug. 5 at 8pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $34 ($5 for Aug. 5 performance). (626) 683-6883.

www.bostoncourt.com

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Stanley Ann: The Unlikely Story of Barack Obama’s Mother
Davidson/Valentini Theatre at the Los Angeles LGBT Center

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Ann Noble
Photo by Michael Lamont

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

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

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

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

July 13, 2015
 
July 9–26. 1125 N. McCadden Pl., Hollywood. Thu–Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm. $20. (323) 860-7300.

www.lalgbtcenter.org/theatre

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Picnic
Antaeus Theatre Company

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Eve Gordon and Jordan Monaghan
Photo by Karianne Flaathen

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

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

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

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

July 1, 2015
 
June 25–Aug.30. 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. $30-34. (818) 506-1983.

www.Antaeus.org

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The Phantom of the Opera
Pantages Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Chris Mann and Katie Travis

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

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

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

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

June 19, 2015
 
June 17–Aug. 2. 6233 Hollywood Blvd. Tue-Thu 8pm, Fri 8pm; Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $29-250. (800) 982-2787.

www.HollywoodPantages.com

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Murder for Two
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Bob Verini


Jeff Blumenkrantz and Brett Ryback
Photo by Joan Marcus

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

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

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

June 6, 2015
 
June 3–Aug. 2. 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. (Additional perf. Mon, June 15, 8pm. No perf. Wed, June 17.) Running time 90 minutes. $69–74. (310) 208-5454.

www.geffenplayhouse.com

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