Arts In LA
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Around the World in 80 Days
Long Beach Playhouse

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Stephen Alan Carver and Rick Reischman
Michael Hardy Photography

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

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

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

April 11, 2016

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
 
 
 
April 9–May 7. 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $14-24. (562) 494-1014.

www.lbplayhouse.org

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Dry Land
Atwater Village Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Connor Kelly-Eiding and Tegan Rose
Photo by Darrett Sanders

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

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

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

April 18, 2016
 
April 9–May 15. 3269 Casitas Ave. Free onsite and street parking. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm & 7pm.
$25. (310) 307-3753.

www.EchoTheaterCompany.com

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

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


The cast of The Full Monty
Photo courtesy 3–D Theatricals

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

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

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

April 19, 2016
 
April 16–May 8. Show continues at Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $25–95, plus $3 handling fee per ticket. (714) 589-2770, ext. 1.

3dtshows.com

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You Never Can Tell
A Noise Within

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann


Kasey Mahaffy and Jill Renner
Photo by Craig Schwartz

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

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

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

March 16, 2016
 
March 6–May 15. 3352 East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. Repertory schedule. $48–76. (626) 356-3100 ext. 1.

www.anoisewithin.org

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Sister Act
Musical Theatre West at Carpenter Performing Arts Center

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Constance Jewell Lopez
Photo by Caught in the Act Photography

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

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

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

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

April 12, 2016

Republished with kind permission of Long Beach Press-Telegram.
 
 
 
April 9–April 24. 6200 E. Atherton St., Long Beach. Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. $17–100. (562) 856-1999, ext. 4.

www.musical.org

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Stage Kiss
Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Glenne Headly and Stephen Caffrey
Photo by Michael Lamont

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

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

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

April 24, 2016
 
April 13–May 15. 10886 Le Conte Ave. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. $32–76. (310) 208-5454.

www.geffenplayhouse.com

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A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder
Ahmanson Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Kristen Beth Williams, Kevin Massey, and Adrienne Eller
Photo by Joan Marcus

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

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

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

March 27, 2016
 
March 23–May 1. 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. $45–130. (213) 972-4400.

www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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