Arts In LA
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.


Bad Jews
Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Raviv Ullman and Molly Ephraim
Photo by Michael Lamont

In the West Coast debut of Joshua Harmon’s hilariously and savagely discursive Bad Jews, it’s almost uncomfortable being a fly on the wall of millennial brothers Jonah and Liam Haber’s Upper Westside Manhattan studio apartment bought for them by their wealthy parents. When their less-well-off cousin Daphna (“Compared to your family,” she complains, “we’re like the Joneses”) plops down on an air mattress on their floor while in town to lay their beloved concentration camp survivor grandfather to rest, long-smoldering sparks instantly ignite—especially when Liam shows up the evening after the funeral because he lost his cell phone on his skiing trip to Aspen, arriving with his latest in a string of cheerfully vacant shiksa girlfriends on his arm.
   Israel-obsessed rabbinical student Daphna is a terminally whiny, intensely angry, resolutely Jewish-identifying motor-mouth. Liam begs his blonde airhead girlfriend, Melody, not to offer any pertinent information to Daphna, because it is traditionally absorbed, rattles around in her miserably unhappy brain, and then gets spit back with an expert ability to seek and destroy. This is particularly true when she points out to anyone around her the depth of her personally solemn cultural and religious commitment. The brothers don’t seem to share this commitment, and this infuriates her. For Liam, however, Daphna is “about as Israeli as Martin Fucking Van Buran.”

As played by Molly Ephraim with an obvious nod to the discernably accomplished directorial hand of Matt Shakman, Daphna emerges as the fast-paced comedy’s most memorable and even sympathetic character. She is truly a nonstop monster: brusque, frustratingly argumentative, unbelievably annoying, and with a voice that could give anyone a migraine in about two minutes. It’s not usual for such a personality to emerge as someone audiences appreciate or with whom they identify, but the unearthly depth of Ephraim’s creation, fashioning Daphna as somebody who never for a moment relents from her abrasive conduct, but who still subtly lets her character’s monumental sadness, insecurity, and loneliness show through, makes her one of the most multifaceted antiheroes since Charles Laughton assayed Inspector Javert.
   As Liam, who should have checked into a hotel or at least should have downed a handful of valium before greeting his adversarial cousin, Ari Brand is a perfect foil for Ephraim’s sharp verbal thrusts directly to the gut, insisting on calling her by her birth name, Diana, as intently as she spits out his Hebrew name, which unfortunately for him is Schlomo. Lili Fuller, as that stranger in a strange land Melody, is in contrast sweetly dumb yet truly endearing, especially when she innocently takes on Daphna’s wickedly nasty challenge to exhibit her abandoned training as an opera major, delivering the most sidesplitting and unforgettable rendition of “Summertime” ever presented before an audience.

Fuller and Raviv Ullman as Jonah spend a lot of their time trying desperately to stay out of the fight between Daphna and Liam. Even more than their lifelong hatred for each other, this fight centers on inheriting their Poppy’s chai, the religious relic their late grandfather inherited from his exterminated father and wore around his neck all his life, except for his three years in the camps when he kept it hidden under his tongue. Ullman is impressive in the role of the quiet, hapless brother, delivering a wonderfully subtle performance that, without words, provides a conduit for the rest of us to look on as well—and with equal discomfort and horror.
   Perhaps you need to be a bit of a bad Jew to truly appreciate Bad Jews in all its thorny, irreverent splendor—as evidenced by some of the better Jews in attendance for the Geffen’s opening night performance, many of whom sat stone-faced throughout the fast-paced intermissionless 90 minutes, looking as though they wished they could leave, never considering for a moment breaking through with a tiny titter of appreciation. Sadly, what they missed, by focusing only on what could for some be highly offensive language and behavior, is Harmon’s far more valuable message, which cuts through the biting humor like a knife and ultimately is far more universal. Lord, what might be accomplished if members of our muddled species would learn to swallow our pride and join together to embrace our heritages, whatever that may be.

Bad Jews is a play about sanctimonious comportment as it clashes headfirst with egocentricity—and how such behavior trumps the precious and moving history these particular people should be proud to share. The story does not end with a neat reconciliation, leaving us to wonder if these cousins, instead of worrying about who is treating whom the worst, will ever resolve their differences. As with so many families, in all cultures and stations of life regardless of religion, ethnicity, or political differences, it seems as though this generation of the family will be battling and pounding their own chests right through Thanksgiving, on to Passover, and continuing over the next few decades until they are left to bury one another. What we miss in our lives while brooding about the past and lugging around grudges about how we’re treated!

June 21, 2015
June 17–July 26. 10886 Le Conte Ave. (parking around the block adjacent to Trader Joe’s). Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. $39–79. (310) 208-5454.


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–July 26. The Braid, 2912 Colorado Ave. #102, Santa Monica. Thu & Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7:30pm. Running time 90 minutes. $35. (310) 315-1400.


Private Lives
Little Fish Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Amanda Karr, Lukas Bailey, Leona Britton, and Noah Wagner
Photo courtesy Little Fish Theatre

Appallingly feuding but passionately attracted couples are not new to the stage. Shakespeare drew them in The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing. Edward Albee penned them in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
   Amanda and Elyot are quintessentially creations of the great British wit Noël Coward, in his 1930 play Private Lives. Coward, a master at cheekily spotlighting human foibles, gibes at the mores and marriages of his time. Amanda and Elyot had admittedly made each other miserable in their three-year marriage. Now, five years after they divorced, they find themselves on a balcony of a hotel at a French seaside resort. Unfortunately it’s the first evening of their honeymoons with their respective new spouses.
   Elyot and his new wife, Sibyl, clearly aren’t the happiest of couples, either, as evidenced by Sibyl’s relentless probing into the causes of Elyot’s divorce. Meanwhile, Amanda’s new husband, Victor, is similarly interrogating Amanda. But once Elyot and Amanda catch sight of each other, the lust and the violence flow again.
   The former couple runs off together, to her Paris apartment, where they hunker down as only English sophisticates can do. Their new spouses find them there—no sense asking how, nor, if it’s not too middle-class American to wonder, what each does for a living.
   In the decades after Coward wrote the play, laws and mores have changed in the marriage department, but his points about love are evergreen, and those points are given further honing in this production, directed by James Rice.

The only disappointments here are in the design elements. The Act One balcony is packed with what look like paint-flecked tarpaulins tossed over presumably patio furniture—in reality hiding Act Two’s Parisian living-room setup. The audience would believe the setting is a badly neglected American backyard before it could possibly believe this is a honeymoon retreat on the English Channel.
   Costuming is eye-catching though not period-defining. Garbing the hapless Victor in tails and spats might be a hint about his lack of couth, but it comes across as a design error.
   Nonetheless, the actors soon lure the audience into the lives of these Bickersons. Rice’s cast may not display the frothy English sophistication Coward was known for, but the actors create real people onstage, particularly Rice’s two leads.

They are Noah Wagner, playing Elyot, and Amanda Karr as Amanda. In the role originated in London’s West End by Coward, Wagner gives Elyot a red-blooded presence. It’s needed, because Karr has a personality that envelops the stage. There’s no fear one or the other character will lose—nor get injured—in the verbal and physical battles that this romance comprises (excellent fight choreography by Mike Mahaffey).
   By perfect contrast, Lukas Bailey makes a stiff-upper-lip Victor, and Leona Britton is a fluttery, wailing Sibyl. Elizabeth Craig completes the cast, playing the French maid, swiftly speaking only French and adding masses of Gallic disdain.
   In real life, Amanda and Elyot would not be not the kind of couple with whom most of us would want to spend an evening. Fortunately, in the hands of Little Fish, they are separated from us by the nice, safe fourth wall of theater, so we admire the quality acting.

June 15, 2015

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

June 12–July 18. 777 Centre St., San Pedro. Entrance and parking behind the theatre; access through alley between 7th and 8th streets. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $25-27. (310) 512-6030.


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.


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.

The following have generously supported

Lucy Pollak
   Public Relations

Judith Borne
   Public Relations

Ken Werther

Philip Sokoloff
  Publicity for the Theatre

Jerry Charlson
   Up & Running Arts Management and Consultants

(323) 733-7073 

Lynn Tejada
Green Galactic

Sandra Zeitzew
Director of Public Relations
Santa Monica Playhouse


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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.16. 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. $30-34. (818) 506-1983.


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.


Matilda The Musical
Ahmanson Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Mia Sinclair Jenness and company
Photo by Joan Marcus

The audience for the opening of Matilda The Musical was packed with children, certainly drawn by the fact that this wondrous production was adapted from the popular classic novel by the late Roald Dahl, perhaps the most successful writer of children’s books since Hans Christian Anderson or Lewis Carroll. And, like that of those particular authors, Dahl’s work was not all about fuzzy bunnies or how to adopt perfect manners to please one’s parents. His work was often dark, twisted, and unruly, even perceived as potentially inappropriate or troubling for his young readers by more-conservative critics. This wily, celebratory musical adaptation of one of his most enduring works is no exception.
   The multi-award-winning Matilda, which before landing here took London and New York by what a character calls her “ouchy front bottom” is, like the rest of Dahl’s prolific body of work, an edgy, incredibly inventive offering. Thankfully, it’s one for the history books that can help upgrade the perception of musical theater as merely the place where people consider the problems of Maria and try to get to the church on time.

Dahl’s story follows the title character (impressively played opening night by Mia Sinclair Jenness), a brilliant little lassie who devours novels that include Jane Eyre and Crime and Punishment, much to the horror of her disapproving family who won’t even acknowledge that their “creep of an offspring” is a girl. Her gloriously slimy used-car-salesman father (Quinn Mattfield) sings a number right to the audience: telling the kiddies that they don’t need anything but the telly to help them grow up to be just like him, and stating that TV is “All you need to fill your muffin/Without really having to think of nuthin’.” Matilda’s mother (Cassie Silva) has a breakneck schedule as a parent since microwaves don’t cook themselves, and, when she’s not practicing her… um…moves with her overbuilt competition dance coach Rudolpho (a hilarious Jaquez Andre Sims), she follows her mantra that “Looks are more important than books.”
   Everywhere Matilda turns, she is met with disapproval and shock that she is smart, except when visiting her friend Mrs. Phelps (Ora Jones) at her beloved library or when her promise is noted by her sweet new teacher Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood). But even that is not enough to keep our pintsized heroine from the clutches of her school’s dastardly bulldyke-y headmistress Miss Trunchbull (Bryce Ryness in the most outrageous nightmare-inducing drag since John Travolta played Edna Turnblad), a dastardly former Olympic hammer thrower whose motto is “Bambinatum est maggitum (children are maggots). It’s Trunchbull’s belief that to teach a child, one must first break that child—the practice of humiliating or otherwise torturing her wee charges being something she admits “gives me a warm glow in my lower intestine.”

The all-stops-out adult ensemble is genuinely glorious, under Matthew Warchus’s animated direction, obviously encouraged to play the cartoon quality of their characters for all it’s worth. Ryness is particularly memorable as Trunchbull, his “The Hammer” and “The Smell of Rebellion” proving to be two of the most delightful musical offerings of the evening. Mattfield and Silva are equally courageous in their comic abandon, as is the hysterically low-key Danny Tieger as their worshipped elder son Michael, whose sweatshirt proclaiming “genius” emblazoned across the chest could not be farther from the truth.
   Jenness (who alternates in the demanding role with Gabby Gutierrez and Mabel Tyler) is an understated standout in the title role, one that doesn’t allow much offstage time to recover, and the children’s ensemble is jam-packed with adorable and infectiously precocious kiddies belting and tumbling into our hearts at every turn. If anything is amiss in this mounting of the musical, however, it is in how often difficult it is to understand the words of Dennis Kelly’s ingenious book or the lyrics of Tim Minchin’s masterful score when intoned by the children in the cast. Perhaps due to the thickness of the kids’ faux-cockney accents or the problems inherent in sound designer Simon Baker’s efforts to overcome the cavernous Ahmanson’s echoes, the fact that the adult performers are able to be understood makes it seem the problem is not insurmountable as the run continues.

It’s a shame when anything cannot be heard here, since Kelly and Minchin have together created such an incredibly masterful homage to Dahl—one that keeps the children in the audience enthralled, despite the production’s nearly three-hour running time, while never missing the opportunity to add quips and situations for adults to savor as they zip directly over the heads of the young ones. There’s a wonderful Pee-Wee’s Playhouse feeling about the proceedings, with deliciously exaggerated characterizations and designer Rob Howell’s costuming only adding further colorful embellishments.
   From the opening number “Miracle,” which sends up parents who dote on their children as the main reason for living, to brilliantly onboard choreographer Peter Darling’s energetic staging of the children’s “School Song” and his cleverly tongue-in-cheek parody of Spring Awakening in the eleventh-hour “Revolting Children,” to paeans to the glories of ignorance and of being “Loud” (a showstopping tango number performed by Silva and Sims), nothing is off-limits for bookwriter Kelly, director Warchus, and this gloriously gifted comedic company of players.
   The true star of all this, however, is the amazing score and lyrics by Minchin (aided by knockout multilayered vocal orchestrations by Chris Nightingale), which continuously accentuates Dahl’s original message, an important reminder to kids and adults alike: that although we can’t choose how we’re born or how we’re raised, we sure can choose to take over from there, manage our own lives, and work tirelessly in our brief time on this conflicted planet to create our own happiness.

June 8, 2015
June 7–July 12. 135 N. Grand Ave. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. $25–175. (213) 972-4400.


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.

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