Arts In LA
Blithe Spirit
Ahmanson Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Susan Louise O’Connor (standing), Sandra Shipley, Charles Edwards, Angela Lansbury, Charlotte Parry, and Simon Jones
Photo by Joan Marcus

Well, of course it’s an enormous privilege to see the super-legendary Angela Lansbury reprise her 2009 Broadway turn as the infamous Madame Arcati in Noël Coward’s enduringly popular 1941 drawing room comedy. It’s also a great treat to experience such a grand homage to Coward, directed by the venerable Michael Blakemore and featuring an exquisite design team in every category. Also a given, the mounting’s ensemble cast could not be populated by better or more worthy veteran performers—although surprisingly, under Blakemore’s otherwise sturdy direction, it’s disappointing how little most of the supporting players understand the style that makes Blithe Spirit …well… spirited.
   With the exception of each welcome entrance of Lansbury’s outlandishly quirky Arcati, which immediately fills the stage with a presence so rich one can almost smell her perfume way back in the cavernous Ahmanson’s row P, and also excepting the delightful performance of Susan Louise O’Connor as the Condomines’s nightmare of a maid Edith, everyone else is too dry and way too serious. The scenes between Charles Edwards as poor haunted Charles Condomine and Charlotte Parry as his terminally British second wife, Ruth, are technically proficient but deadly dull.
   Only on two occasions does Edwards unearth the endearingly stuffy over-the-top idiosyncrasies of Charles, necessary to make his character lovable, and never does Parry do anything to bring Ruth to life in all her overly dramatic excess. Jemima Rooper does better as the ghost of Charles’s unwelcome first wife, Elvira, but as a whole, the scenes featuring these three leading characters are a disappointment, causing the nearly three-hour running time to seem agonizingly brittle and even longer than it needs to be.

Lansbury totally breathes life into the broad farcical elements of the play that, when it opened, took Londoners out of their wartime mindset. This is particularly true in the juicy séance segment, where Lansbury does a bizarre little Isadora Duncan–esque dance that looks like one of the Marx Brothers attempting to play Cleopatra in a musical comedy. Arcati is always the most talked about character, but, in this production, Lansbury is without a doubt purposely the center of attention, Blakemore’s staging focusing on her instead of any of the other performers.
   The design of this revival is truly magnificent, from Simon Higlett’s sweeping set, faultless right down to the Jean Miro toss pillows (which Charles and Parry toss more than they need to for something to do) and featuring “fresh” floral arrangements that change with each new scene. Higlett’s costumes are also perfection, as are the incredible sparkly outfits designed by Martin Pakledinaz and worn by Lansbury. Mark Johnson’s lovely lighting, which easily evokes the changes of time and season at the Condomines’s country estate in Kent, and the sound design by Ben and Max Ringham, with seemingly different species of British birds chirping in every corner of the Ahmanson, are fine additions to this most respectful tribute to Coward—who created characters who believe anyone can write a book but it takes a real artist to make a dry martini.

There’s no doubt the major reason to journey back into the familiar world of Blithe Spirit is seeing the illustrious 89-year-old Lansbury onstage, reprising the role that won her an unprecedented fifth Tony Award, capping her 70 years as one of the planet’s most beloved and prolific actors. Whatever role she takes on next, it will surely nab her a sixth Tony sometime in the near future.

December 17, 2014
 
Dec. 14–Jan. 18. 135 N. Grand Ave. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm (but see theater website for holiday changes). Running time 2 hours and 50 minutes, including intermission. $25–140. (213) 972-4400.

www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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Possum Carcass
Theatre of NOTE

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Alana Dietz, Lauren Letherer, Travis York, and Jonathon Lamer


Just as in The Seagull, friends and family members gather to be the first to see the artistically challenged Conrad’s attempt to create a work of counterculture art. A character wonders aloud if it’s going to be one of those plays with a sticky start. “No, no,” she’s told, “this is a professional play.” Soon after, Conrad (Kjai Block) reminds his typically skittish star, Nina (Nadia Marina), that their debuting effort is a performance, not a play. In other words, there are many familiar references to Chekhov’s masterpiece in David Bucci’s wily adaptation of the great 1896 classic, once again pointing out how enduring the work of the great Russian dramatist has remained.
   In Bucci’s contemporary update, Conrad’s famous actress mother, here called Mona (Lauren Letherer), had her former husband build her her own black box theater on their New York City rooftop instead of maintaining a makeshift outdoor stage on the shore of her lakefront estate. Bucci’s tongue-in-cheek nods to the original story are consistently clever, and his dialogue beautifully recalls and honors the original. Masha has become Lydia (Alana Dietze), arriving to see Conrad’s not-play performed, still dressed in her waitress uniform on a break from work, and Mona has brought along Boris (Jonathon Lamer), a successful screenwriter she has taken as her latest lover.
   All this is viewed and commented upon by Mona’s former brother-in-law Angus, who lives in her brownstone but tries valiantly to convince her to let him come live in her LA beach house despite how much he hates her. Of course, Conrad shoots a possum rather than a seagull, but most of Bucci’s scenes mirror ol’ Anton’s original scene by scene. Lydia still hates Nina (“Dead dogs move faster than that chick”); and Mona supports her favorite charity, although here the recipient of her dubious caring is an organization called Artists Anonymous, a group intent on rehabilitating poor souls suffering from Amateur Syndrome.

As gifted as director Alina Phelan is, and as inspiring as Bucci’s shrewd and irreverent adaptation seems to be, Possum Carcass is not entirely successful. There are odd glitches in the staging, clearly distracting when characters talk about going downstairs and then climb stairs leading upward and visa-versa. And when Conrad’s preserved dead possum (extra kudos to propmaster Misty Carlisle for coming up with such a thing) is tossed unceremoniously onto a table, no one reacts very much—nor does anyone later entering the scene, even Conrad, seem to notice its presence once it’s lying there in the middle of all subsequent action, all four tiny clawed feet facing hopefully skyward.
   The most obvious problem, however, is the glaringly uneven performance style of the ensemble cast. Theatre of NOTE stalwarts Letherer and Dietze are wonderful, and Travis York is lovable as poor lovelorn Angus, but the other performances appear to be assayed by actors who rehearsed to appear in another far more broadly played production. This is especially true of Block’s annoying take on Conrad. This is not to say the actor doesn’t intellectually understand the character, only that he should be more trusting that his audience may be smart enough to understand Conrad too without him working so hard—or delivering every line so loudly in this intimate Hollywood black box that it leaves those on the other side of the fourth wall with a raging headache by final curtain.

December 15, 2014
 
Dec. 4–Jan. 10. 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm. $20-25. (323) 856-8611.

www.theatreofnote.com

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She Loves Me
Chance Theater

Reviewed by Bob Verini


Beach Vickers and Daniel Jared Hersh
Photo by Doug Catiller
True Image Studio


Ill-advised, intrusive direction plagues the Chance Theater’s She Loves Me, and the casualty is the easy, unforced enjoyment traditionally associated with this jewel box of a musical, adapted from the 1940 Lubitsch classic The Shop Around the Corner.
   This is the one about feuding shop clerks, who are longtime lonely-hearts correspondents unbeknownst to each other. It’s had many incarnations, from the MGM’s frothy In the Good Old Summertime to the somewhat shopworn modernization You’ve Got Mail, but the key to every one has been: Keep it light on its feet and emotionally real.
   In the infrequent instances when director Sarah Figoten Wilson respects both criteria, this She Loves Me charms. There’s nice rapport between blustery proprietor Maraczek (Beach Vickers) and youthful delivery boy Arpad (Daniel Jared Hersh). Our leading man, Stanton Kane Morales, finds a good balance between chief clerk Georg’s professional stiffness and the champagne brio his “Dear Friend” pen pal is destined to uncork. The source of that bubbly, Erika C. Miller as Amalia, has a dear way with ballads like “Will He Like Me?” Indeed, the entire cast does justice to the delicate melodies—even the big numbers are delicate—as penned by Bock and Harnick, who bounced back from this 1963 Broadway succès d’estime to unveil Fiddler on the Roof a year later.

But again and again, this production falls victim to undercooked ideas that subvert the material. Bruce Goodrich’s set, for instance, is a giant wooden box on wheels, which opens up to reveal the parfumerie. Our first view of the shop floor is pleasant, but the set piece soon becomes the elephant in the room, killing the rhythm with long waits as it opens and closes and swings around, sometimes getting pushed aside altogether. Its literalness is matched by that of a two-sided wall representing Amalia’s flat. Does Wilson credit us with insufficient imagination to conjure up a simple interior? The heart sinks every time an actor grabs a wall and prepares to push or pull, because we know the froth is about to dry up.
   The musical staging (choreography credited to Christopher M. Albrecht) is mostly a mess of irrelevant business and uncertain focus. “Tango Tragique,” a usually foolproof counterpoint to the “Romantic Atmosphere” created in a Budapest café, becomes virtually unwatchable as the headwaiter (Matt Takahashi) mugs and preens and practically throws himself against the proscenium to beg for laughs, which don’t come. The priceless “A Day at the Library”—in which a flirtatious cocotte (Camryn Zelinger) describes her transformation at the hands of a studious optometrist—comes to naught as she’s directed to toy with a colleague’s bald head and handle Christmas garlands, thus suggesting she’s an unredeemed coquette after all.

There is no prop too irrelevant and no bit of burlesque too low for Wilson to banish. Miller is directed to engage in enough takes and mugging for a full season of Carol Burnett sketches. An opening customer sequence is so frantically busy it kills the plot-required impression that the shop is in deep financial trouble—not to mention the impact of Act Two’s “12 Days to Christmas,” when things are really supposed to pop.
   Then there are the gimmicks, or “doodles” as Wilson condescendingly refers to them in her director’s notes, but she should confine her doodling to her own sketch pad. Set aside the obvious ones: the cross-dressing lady customers—never has drag been so colorlessly or uselessly employed—or the lady violinist (Tina Nguyen) who magically keeps appearing to intrude on the title song and generally throw us knowing winks. (A fiddler at the shop? Sounds crazy, no?)
   But disrupting the musical’s emotional center is another thing altogether. That feat is pulled off by having Elizabeth Adabale, as a café chanteuse, stand next to the leads while crooning Gershwin classics. Regardless of how the Bock or Gershwin estates, or the licensors of She Loves Me, would take to such interpolations, all they do is distract from the exquisite scene Miller and Morales are trying to play. The romance of Georg and Amalia is at cross-purposes enough, without having to battle “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

December 14, 2014
 
Nov. 28–Dec. 28, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills. (Free parking in front of the theater.) Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission. $45 (general admission). (714) 777-3033.

www.chancetheater.com

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Love,Noël:
The Letters and Songs of Noël Coward

Lovelace Studio Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz



Harry Groener and Sharon Lawrence
Photo by Kevin Parry

Noël Coward’s songs should be standards, heard often, like those of his contemporaries Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart and Irving Berlin.  Coward’s cabaret tunes and show numbers are just as witty, his melodies just as harmonious. But other than “Mad About the Boy,” few of his songs are heard these days. Perhaps that’s because he’s more cherished for his classic plays, such as Blithe Spirit or Private Lives, than for his musicals, such as Sail Away and The Girl Who Came to Supper.
   Coward’s music deserves the spotlight, and
Love, Noël, a combination of his songs and his correspondences with his famous friends, gives his songs the respect they deserve. The show has returned to the Wallis, after a run in February, again directed by Jeanie Hackett, with a new winning cast of two: Sharon Lawrence and Harry Groener.

C
oward was the bon vivant of the 20th century. He dined with Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother; wrote plays for his friends The Lunts, Gertrude Lawrence, Elaine Stritch, and Bea Lillie; and was the confidant for Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. His letters were pithy but illustrated a dear love he had for all the people in his life.
   Coward expert Barry Day forms an evening around the letters he published in
The Letters of Noël Coward. The music, played on piano by musical director Gerald Sternbach, captures a blend of Coward genres: from the comical “Nina” and “Why Do the Wrong People Travel” to the operatic “I’ll See You Again” to the reflective “If Love Were All” to the paean of war-torn 1940s Europe “London Pride.” Coward fans will delight in the presentation of Coward’s lovely tunes while newcomers will marvel they haven’t heard some of these numbers before.

G
roener, who made a splash on Broadway in Crazy for You, Cats and the ’79 revival of Oklahoma!, captures Coward’s snarky turn of phrase, as well as his empathy for the pain felt by those for whom his heart breaks. Lawrence plays an array of famous women, from Gertie L to Stritchy, Queen Mum to Edna Ferber. Lawrence invests in each role, not only converting her voice to each lady’s cadence but also contorting her face to capture each’s flavor. Lawrence doesn’t have the belt for some songs and her upper register is light, but she still enhances each tune with a lovely alto voice and acts each song with gusto. 
   The cabaret act plays in the Wallis’s smaller space, arranged like a supper club, giving the evening the class found in New York’s famous Café Carlyle. The evening is as elegant as the setting.

December 8, 2014
  
Dec. 5–28. 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills. Wed-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 4pm & 8:30pm, Sun 2:30pm. Running time 1 hour and 45 minutes, including intermission. $75 (general admission), seating at nightclub tables. (310) 746-4000.

www.thewallis.org

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Into the Woods
Kentwood Players at Westchester Playhouse

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Brad Halvorsen and Brandie June
Photo by Shari Barrett

Traditional fairy tales begin with characters who have far to travel, while the promise of adventure perfumes the story. And at the conclusions of these tales, the righteous get their rewards, while the wrongdoers are punished or worse.
   But that’s only Act One of Into the Woods. Then what? What if the prince climbs up Rapunzel’s yards-long golden tresses, only to abandon her before she bears his twin babies? What if Cinderella finds that her prince is a carefree lothario? On the other hand, what if the giant that Jack has killed after the young lad climbs that beanstalk has left a widow—and she’s infuriated?
   What the heck happened to “happily ever after?” More to the point of this show—with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine—aren’t we responsible for our own actions? Further, aren’t we, as members of society, responsible for other people, too?

Into the Woods begins as fairy tale characters state their wishes. A baby, money, travel opportunities—the characters ask for different, better, more-exciting lives. Cinderella (played here by Heather Barnett) wants to escape her drudgery and go to the king’s festival. Jack (Brad Halvorsen), to the despair of his Mother (Patricia Butler), wishes his starving but beloved pet cow Milky White (Brandie June) would give milk. And the Baker (Terry Delegeane) and the Baker's Wife (Amy Coles) are desperate for a baby.
   All of them—as well as Rapunzel (Alicia Reynolds), Little Red Ridinghood (Carly Linehan), two extraordinarily tall princes (Matthew Artson and Jon Sparks), a very Mysterious Man (Ben Lupejkis), and a secretly beautiful Witch (Elizabeth Bouton)—do indeed go into the woods, hoping to find what they need there.
   This being Sondheim and Lapine, the woods are a metaphor. So perhaps it’s best, in this show’s spirit of existentialism, to leave interpretation to each audience member—unless that audience member wants to just enjoy being greatly entertained.

And this Kentwood Players’s production certainly entertains. Shawn K. Summerer directs a smooth, lively, pointed, and crisp production. There’s wit in every characterization and physicality at every moment—including lots of pratfalls. Most of the singing voices are knockouts, and all of the portrayals are sharp, with performances that understate the humor rather than playing for laughs.
   The music direction, by Catherine Rahm, is gorgeous, at least once the performers found their bearings on opening night. Sondheim is melodically and rhythmically complex and unpredictable. But very soon this cast became note-perfect—as is the small but mighty orchestra, conducted by Daniel Gledhill.
   Sure, we might wish the Witch’s mask didn’t hide her expressions and perhaps muffle occasional lyrics. And the tree that supposedly falls seems to still be standing. But if we learned anything from this musical, we’re better off focusing on the good of what’s already there.
   The character-defining costumes—by Kathy Dershimer, Elizabeth Summerer, and Jon Sparks—notably include a cow’s mask for Milky White that enables the Baker to feed her all the items the Witch has demanded, and yet nothing spills out during the scene. Tony Pereslete’s set turns the small stage into spacious woods, and Robert Davis’s lighting gorgeously establishes place and tone.
   This exceptionally deep musical is about choosing and decisiveness, consequences and responsibility. It’s also just a joy to watch.

November 16, 2014
 
Nov. 14–Dec. 20. 8301 Hindry Ave., Westchester. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $25 ($2 discount for seniors, students, servicemen, and Metro riders). (310) 645-5156.

www.kentwoodplayers.org

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Brighton Beach Memoirs
Torrance Theatre Company

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Patrick Gallagher, Billie Foley, Price Morgan, Geoff Lloyd, Shirley Hatton, Ariane Alten, and Eliza Faloona

Widely considered the best of writer Neil Simon’s well-made plays, Brighton Beach Memoirs—about a Jewish family in 1930s Brooklyn—has landed in the South Bay through Dec. 19 at Torrance Theater Company. But can this Southern California cast give it that New York zing and Jewish bittersweetness?
   The kitchen-sink comedy centers on 15-year-old Eugene Jerome and his family, modeled after Simon and his family—or, to be precise, Simon’s fantasy of a family. Eugene’s home is crowded with his father, mother and elder brother, plus his mother’s sister and that aunt’s two daughters.
   Eugene wants to become a writer, if the Yankees don’t come calling first. He keeps thorough notes because he knows what goes on in that home and the hilariously remarkable things his family says will become his artistic material.
   The abrasion at every turn sparks some of the funniest lines ever spoken from the stage. But each family member encounters his or her roadblocks. And those roadblocks are true-to-life, whether in the 1930s or now. Job loss, loneliness, ill health, intra-family strife—the characters must navigate each with loyalty and integrity.

K.C. Gussler directs this production. And, yes, he shepherds the zings and the tenderness. He starts with a cast of skilled actors who understand the sadness of Simon’s comedies, the heightened stakes each character feels in the story.
   Each actor’s timing is gorgeous, not only comedically but also in the way conversations and emotions build. The actors know they’re in a comedy, but no one tries to force the laughs, and so they get them.
   Heading the pack is Price T. Morgan as Eugene. A pepper pot, the young actor plies Simon’s wryness and Eugene’s tremendous, endless energy. Patrick J. Gallagher brings a heroic quality to the levelheaded, fair-minded Stanley, and Geoffrey Lloyd is a steadying force onstage as the brothers’ weary but patient father, Jack.
   Playing Eugene’s younger cousin and the least-likeable character, Laurie, Billie Foley unselfishly disappears into this unattractive, indulged little girl. Playing her elder sister, Eliza Faloona skirts petulance to give Nora’s longing for her late father much genuine heft.
   Ariane Alten delicately plays widowed aunt Blanche, who has voluntarily assumed the status of a second-class family member until it’s time to throw off that mantel. And holding the family together, sometimes like magnets and sometimes like a skewer, is Eugene’s mother, Kate, given an intense, firm, and loving portrayal by Shirley Hatton.
   Crisp sound design and impeccably timed work by the crew help the actors navigate the cramped quarters.

Sharing a bedroom with prickly brother Stanley, sharing a bathroom with the luscious Nora, sharing a dining-room table with all, Eugene will never lack for material. His alter ego didn’t, either. Simon has written more than 30 plays, earning four Tony Awards and one Pulitzer.
   Two of those plays are sequels to this one: Biloxi Blues, which follows Eugene into Army basic training in Mississippi, and Broadway Bound, in which Eugene and Stanley become professional writers in New York City. But right now, in Torrance, there’s a bit of 1930s New York and a loving family about to thrive—zing and bittersweetness and all.

November 10, 2014
 
Nov. 8–Dec. 14. 1316 Cabrillo Ave, Torrance. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. $25. (424) 242-6882.

FriendsofTTC@gmail.com

torrancetheatrecompany.com

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Cannibal! The Musical
Coeurage Theatre Company at Lyric-Hyperion Theatre & Cafe

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Peter Larney and Mikey De Lara
Photo by Nardeep Khurmi

Seeing Trey Parker’s name on any project is enough to let you know you’re in for a ride. In 1993, the 23-year-old co-creator of South Park and The Book of Mormon wrote, directed, produced, co-scored (along with fellow University of Colorado at Boulder student Rich Sanders), and starred in a three-minute trailer made for their college film class. After news of its outrageousness spread around campus, Parker, joined by another student featured in the film who went on to become his future writing partner Matt Stone, raised $125,000 and turned Cannibal! The Musical into a full-length film. Although it was shot during weekends and on spring break, according to Coeurage Theatre Company’s resident composer and here keyboardist-actor Gregory Nabours, most of the crew members failed their film history class as a result.
   Parker’s early filmic sign of greatness was loosely based on the true story of Alferd Packer (played here by Kurt Quinn, master of the Ben Turpin deadpan), a prospector with a questionable interest in his beloved horse Liane (represented by a small stuffed puppet suggestively manipulated by the definitely life-sized Kalena Ranoa). Historically, Packer was the lone survivor of an 1872 journey from Utah to Colorado in search of gold, an ill-fated trek that left his five fellow travelers dead—and partially eaten.

The musical begins as Packer languishes in jail, charged with cannibalizing his buddies, as he tells his side of the bloody-funny tale of the expedition in flashback to Polly Pry (Ashley Kane). She’s a comely young newspaper reporter with a “heart as full as a baked potato” whose own motives might include replacing Liane as an object of Packer’s affections. Just as in every John Ford movie ever made, the party meets many obstacles and hardships along the way. These include Injuns (played by geisha-bowing, Japanese-speaking Asian actors Kari Lee and Jane Lui, along with Mikey De Lara, who also doubles as guitarist for the onstage band), as well as a group of sadistic trappers (Joe Tomasini and twin brothers Ryan and Mike Brady) who whisk away poor Liane with possibly inappropriate intentions for her wellbeing.
   With an inventively over-the-top troupe of actors, each ready and willing to “play-act like a Kansas City queer” under the spell of director Tito Fleetwood Ladd, the boundlessly ambitious and youthfully energetic Coeurage Theatre Company is the quintessential LA entity to take on Parker’s minor film epic and turn it into bloody good counterculture entertainment. Carly Wielstein’s delightfully off-kilter choreography is equally welcome, as the actors earnestly playing faux-rugged Old West characters send up every Broadway style from De Mille to Fosse to Robbins. Simply put, cowboys and cattlemen haven’t been so physically unfettered since the creation of the Dream Ballet in Oklahoma!

Castmembers enthusiastically munch on propmaster Ryan Lewis’s occasionally realistic-looking human legs and other appendages (made from Fruit Roll-Ups and gelatin, I’m told by a reliable source) and fling around a considerable amount of splattering stage blood with great abandon as their characters face the wilderness with dubious frontier survivalist decisions like “Let’s build a snowman!” when the weather changes on their journey, all of which contributes to making this production more fun than a barrel of edible monkeys.
   Although Parker’s book and lyrics are hilarious, signaling the future Cartmans and Kennys to come, his score written with Sanders is a bit generic. Still, it’s made palpable here by musical director¬–keyboardist Nabours’s vocal arrangements and his band of fellow actor-musicians. And with song titles such as Packer’s lovelorn lament to his missing mare Liane, titled “When I’m On Top of You,” and featuring spirited dance numbers such as the disco-y solo swansong by sequined and heavily bedazzled rhinestone cowboy Swan (Travis Dixon, whose character’s hazy sexuality in middle of the man’s man world of the 19th century American plains might almost rival the suitability of Packer’s feelings for all things equine), there’s not a moment of this wonderfully silly musical treat that won’t make you howl with laughter. If it starts giving you a taste for barbequed ribs, however, consider getting some professional help before it’s too late.

November 8, 2014
 
Oct. 31–Dec. 20. 2106 Hyperion Ave. Street parking is available. Fri 8pm, Sat 8pm & midnight. All seats are available on a pay-what-you-want basis. (323) 944-2165.

www.coeurage.org/tickets

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Phantom of the Opera
Vox Lumiere at Los Angeles Theatre Center

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz


James Lynch
Photo by Johanna Siegmann

Kevin Saunders Hayes’s ambitious multimedia experimentations with silent films returns to Los Angeles with a funhouse version of the Lon Chaney classic Phantom of the Opera. Projecting the film on the big screen, the production comments on the movie by intensify the experience with original songs, dance, and wild costumes. Though the quality of the songs is uneven, the intriguing premise and Natalie Willes’s scandalous choreography make for an amusing evening.
   The Carl Laemmle 1925 version of Phantom won worldwide acclaim for its epic sets, frightening sequences, and Man of a Thousand Faces’s most horrifying makeup creation. Manipulating and punishing his own face with tape and wires, Chaney pulled back his features to construct a chilling monster. Both maniacal and pitiable, Chaney’s Erik was a complex villain, since Erik is haunted by unrequited love.

Saunders Hayes collides early- and late-20th-century influences, making the silent masterpieces palatable for school-age children who grew up in an MTV universe. The production, with strobe lighting, thumping beats, and grotesque body movements that border on camp, is a live version of a music video. Because the screen is not obscured, the audiences can delight in the modern fixings while imbibing one of the great horror films. It’s a shame that nitrate deterioration has blurred a lot of the film, but hopefully celebrations like this will continue the fight for movie restoration after such carelessness in the studio system during the mid-20th century.
   Willes’s choreography is Saunders Hayes’s asset. Ballet, interpretive jazz, and hip-hop are mashed-up with precision. The aerial partnering sequences are dazzling and innovative, something you’d see in a Cirque du Soleil show. She has employed dancers who have flawless technique.

The peculiar original score is problematic. The opera numbers are piercing, effectively melding with the visions on the screen. They are exquisitely sung by Danielle Skalsky as the Grand Dame, Julie Brody as Carlotta, and Marisa Johnson as the onstage version of Christine. The pop songs, many with an industrial sound that were utilized by ’80s bands like Styx, are less successful. The melodies are loud and monotonous.
   Because of the theater’s sound system, the lyrics are indecipherable. When they could be heard, they were the same phrases over and over. Some, like the Faust character singing again and again, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi” and “Let’s party like it’s 1899,” are insipid. On the other hand, the use of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana is creepily commanding. Sharell Martin’s costumes—bustiers and metallic skirts for the women and shield-like cut-off shirts for the men—create a sexy, robotic punk mood. The Phantom is dressed in tight leather, blood red and black, night goggles and a mad hatter top hat, a clever variation of the boogeyman.

The concept of Vox Lumiere is a sterling idea: making forgotten films accessible to the new generations. Given better songs, it would have the potential to evolve into something startling, adding new dimensions to many gems of masters like F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Sergei Eisenstein, and D.W. Griffith.

October 14, 2014
 
Sept. 19-20, Oct. 10-11, Nov. 21-22, and Dec. 12-13. 514 S. Spring St. (parking behind the theater). Fri-Sat 8pm, once per month. $40-75. (844) 809-7025.

www.voxlumiere.com

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Bob’s Holiday Office Party
Pico Playhouse

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Rob Elk and Pat O’Brien
Photo by Ed Krieger

Every December for the past 19 years, producer-playwright-actors Joe Keyes and Rob Elk have untangled their strings of walnut-sized Christmas lights of our younger days; dragged their plastic snowmen, cardboard “Season’s Greetings” signs, and Ann Randolph’s tattered pantyhose out of storage; and included a truckload or so of Coors Light and a heaping supply of Cheez Whiz on their annual list of preshow needs. With all this familiar gear in tow and surely including an intrepid band of courageous elves to clean up the destroyed stage after each performance, they have mounted their incredibly popular Bob’s Holiday Office Party at some lucky theater each year, a feat that remains one of the true highlights of the holiday season in Los Angeles.
   You’ve gotta feel the pain of poor Bob Finhead (played all 19 years by Elk), who is trying to adorn his tiny insurance office in downtown Neuterburg, Iowa—known by residents as the “Gateway to the rest of the Midwest”—for his regionally acclaimed holiday bash, thrown each year for clients, friends, and the mayor’s wife Margie Mincer (Andrea Hutchman, alternating with Dawn Brodey in the role), with whom he shares hanky-panky in the backroom at her Knick Knack Knook every Tuesday afternoon at 4pm. Bob has filled the downstage-center aluminum tub with copious amounts of beer and brought out decorations that would make the seasonal kitsch sold at 99-Cents Only Stores look like treasures from Cartier.

Somehow this year, however, Bob’s heart is not with it. Instead, he’s thinking of getting out of town and heading for urban climes: Des Moines. There, his dream is to become an inventor, perhaps starting with his newest creation, the Crapper Clapper (no explanations necessary or offered here). When the town’s former resident bullying victim Elwin Bewee (Nelson Ascencio, alternating this year with Bewee veteran Pat O’Brien) returns with a proposition to buy out his insurance business, Bob is torn between his existence in Neuterburg and the magic lure of the big city. Once again, just as a reminder, that big city would be: Des Moines.
   His decision becomes more and more unfettered by reluctance to run from his life, especially when exacerbated by the arrival of the town’s opinionated sheriff Joe Walker (Elk’s co-conspirator Keyes), whose immediate action, centered on the office’s doorless bathroom, provides a chance for Bob to test out his Crapper Clapper on the spot. Joe nixes the offer for a beer since he has recently joined AA (although the Anonymous part is rather a joke in a town the size of Neuterburg), opting instead to swallow huge gulps from his ever-present Jack Daniels bottle.

Then there are the Johnson twins, LaDonna and LaVoris (Johanna McKay and Maile Flanagan), the richest farmers in the tri-city area who are so committed to their Tea Party ways they have Fox News tweets on in the milking barn. The arrival of the Johnsons, dressed in identical wear that could win top prize at any Ugly Sweater Day party on the planet, gives Elk and Keyes a perfect opportunity to update their hilariously inappropriate script each season, this time out giving the sisters a chance to spout out about Obamacare, Super Pacs, global warming, and missing George Bush.
   Add in such rich characters as local alcoholic druggie, community theater star (you should see his Rum Tum Tugger), and Jeff Spicoli clone Marty (Cody Chappel, alternating with Mark Fite), who comes to the party not only for the beer but also to put in his 16th accident report for the year after totaling Margie’s parked car on the way to the party. Then there’s Margie’s husband, Ray Mincer (David Bauman, alternating with Pat Towne), whose relationship with his best friend Derek is as much a well-kept town secret as is his wife and Bob’s Tuesday afternoon dalliances in the back of the Knick Knack.
   And just when you think all the over-the-top revelers are gathered to start spraying Coors and throwing Cheez-Its at one another, the friends are joined by the production’s two most delightfully off-center Neuterburg legends, both played by Bob’s legend Ann Randolph, alternating with Sirena Irwin). The first is the town’s resident cuckoo, Carol, who brings along her guitar and entertains the partygoers with an increasingly agitated folk song about her cheating husband. She is followed by Brandy, Neuterburg’s most available free pump, who joins the gathering when she realizes all the usual customers at her home away from home, the Tip Top Lounge, have left for Bob’s annual gala.

Under the direction this year of Craig Anton, Elk and Keyes’s raucous holiday treat has lost none of its outrageous humor—nor has it become any easier for the aforementioned clean-up crew, who each night must return the Pico Playhouse stage back to a place that would not be condemned by the Health Department. Without a doubt, this production has become a vital part of every Christmas season in our fair city—at least for anyone who enjoys delightfully tasteless nonstop laughs generated by a world-class ensemble of comedians unafraid of going beyond the usual holiday celebrating, assaying antics that fall somewhere between the Three Stooges and a Ron Jeremy movie. Beyond the traditional eggnog and the tired old carols about mangers and flying reindeer, Bob’s Holiday Office Party should be heralded as the quintessential ambassador of Christmas in LA.

December 14, 2014
 
Dec. 6–21. 10508 W. Pico Blvd., West LA. Thu-Sat 8pm Sun 7pm. $20-25. (323) 821-2449.

www.plays411.com/bobs14

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Luna Gale
Goodman Theatre at Kirk Douglas Theatre

Reviewed by Bob Verini


Mary Beth Fisher, Colin Sphar and Reyna de Courcy
Photo by Craig Schwartz

What makes playwright Rebecca Gilman so great is not that she writes plays on hot-button issues: racial discrimination accusations on campus (Spinning Into Butter), child disappearances (The Joy of Living), sexual stalkers (Boy Gets Girl), or the problems of child custody and bureaucratic maneuvering, as in her newest work, Luna Gale. (The Kirk Douglas is hosting the original Goodman Theater of Chicago production.) It’s that instead of exploiting any of those issues in the manner of a knockoff TV movie, she uses them as a jumping-off point for something much more robust and stinging. Each play goes far beyond its fundamental conceit, and her work always surprises.
   One of Gilman’s pet themes is action in the face of uncertainty. Her protagonists are trying desperately to find out the truth about this accusation or that new acquaintance. But when they think they’ve got it all figured out and take steps accordingly, the result tends to be a total cock-up. “The truth,” after all, is rarely clear-cut and almost always in the eye of the beholder.

A
ll of which makes for absorbing drama, not to mention serving as a rich metaphor for America in the 21st century. Our social and political (and even personal) crises, today, seem so much more confusing and complicated than in bygone days, don’t they? Gilman has her finger squarely on the pulse of modern absurdity.
   Few of her protagonists battle personal and official absurdity quite so feverishly as Caroline Cox (Mary Beth Fisher), the child welfare case officer at the heart of Luna Gale. In her 50s, Caroline remains passionate about protecting kids and making their lives right, but the obstacles are starting to mount up. Her ambitious, narrow-minded supervisor (Erik Hellman) clashes with her in style and substance. She can’t figure out whether two unwed parents hooked on meth (Reyna de Courcy and Colin Sphar) are redeemable or a threat to their infant daughter. Nor can she be sure the baby’s grandmother (Jordan Baker) is a more fit guardian.

I
n the “recent success” department, a young woman (Melissa DuPrey) newly “emancipated” from foster care, and seemingly successfully launched in college, may not be quite as stable as she appears. Most of all, Caroline is confounded by The System— a morass of rules and forms and procedures that offers too few resources, and presents too many contradictory choices, for anyone’s comfort.
   Still, a precious, vulnerable child is at stake, and the fate of baby Luna will hinge on how effectively Caroline can navigate the difficult waters in which playwright Gilman has placed her.
  The plot gets into the clashes of devout belief and atheism, as well as accusations of past sexual abuse and standards of professional conduct. So much is thrown into the hopper that occasionally you sense Gilman deliberately stacking the deck, rather than letting the plot developments evolve naturally. But director Robert Falls’s firm command of pacing, and Fisher’s extraordinary depth of intellect and feeling, keep the theatrical event compelling and focused.

December 7, 2014
 
Dec. 2­–21. 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Free parking underneath City Hall, immediately south of the theater. Wed-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30 pm. $25–55. (213) 628-2772.

www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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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.

www.secondcityhollywoodshows.com

goo.gl/maps/kGBj
 

 

 
Announcing ArtsInLA.com’s
Sage Awards
for theater in 2013


   Who says critics don’t like anything? Our theater critics chose their tops of 2013, from best production through best fight choreography, and the crossover among our choices gave rise to a surprisingly large list.
   And so we have decided to inaugurate our Sage Awards—named for the obvious reference to the wisdom we hope for, but also for the plant that covers the Los Angeles area, as we do.
   Congratulations to the Sage Award winners, and we hope to share more great theater in 2014.


PRODUCTION

Ah, Wilderness!, Actors Co-op

El Grande de Coca Cola, Ruskin Group Theatre

Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Ahmanson Theatre

One Night in Miami…, Rogue Machine

Our Class, Son of Semele Ensemble at Atwater Village Theatre  

Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre

The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre

We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915, Matrix Theatre

PLAYWRITING

Jennifer Haley, The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

Bruce Norris, A Parallelogram, Mark Taper Forum

Kemp Powers, One Night in Miami…, Rogue Machine

Christopher Shinn, Dying City, Rogue Machine

Jackie Sibblies Drury, We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915, Matrix Theatre

ADAPTATION

David Ives, The Liar, Antaeus Company

Nancy Keystone, Alcestis, The Theatre @ Boston Court

Jessica Kubzansky, R II, The Theatre @ Boston Court

MUSICAL SCORE

Joe Iconis, The Black Suits, Kirk Douglas Theatre

John Kander and Fred Ebb, The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre

DIRECTION

Matthew McCray, Our Class, Son of Semele Ensemble at Atwater Village Theatre

Michael Peretzian, Dying City, Rogue Machine

Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Ken Sawyer, The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre

MUSIC DIRECTION

Dennis Castellano, The Fantasticks, South Coast Repertory

Eric Heinly, A Midsummer Saturday Night’s Fever Dream, Troubadour Theater Company at Falcon Theatre

Ross Seligman, One Night With Janis Joplin, Pasadena Playhouse

Robyn Wallace, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Chance Theater  

CHOREOGRAPHY

Rob Ashford, Evita, Pantages Theatre

Matthew Bourne, Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Ahmanson Theatre

Lee Martino, Nuttin’ but Hutton, NoHo Arts Center

Arlene Phillips, The Wizard of Oz, Pantages Theatre

Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre

Kelly Todd, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Chance Theater

FIGHT CHOREOGRAPHY

Ken Merckx, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

SCENIC DESIGN

Adrian W. Jones, The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

Keith Mitchell, Billy & Ray, Falcon Theatre

Allen Moyer, Parfumerie, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Jeanine A. Ringer, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Thomas A. Walsh, Annapurna, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and Evidence Room, at Odyssey Theatre

LIGHTING DESIGN

Ken Booth, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Paule Constable, Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Ahmanson Theatre

Christopher Kuhl, The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

David Lander, Parfumerie, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Justin Townsend, One Night With Janis Joplin, Pasadena Playhouse

COSTUME DESIGN

Angela Balogh Calin, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Lez Brotherston, Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Ahmanson Theatre

Michael Krass, Parfumerie, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

SOUND DESIGN

Jonathan Snipes, Wait Until Dark, Geffen Playhouse

PERFORMANCE IN A (PRIMARILY) STRAIGHT PLAY

Mark Bramhall (grandfather), Walking the Tightrope, 24th STreet Theatre

Phil Crowley (Nat Miller, father), Ah, Wilderness!, Actors Co-Op

Jason Dechert (young Pericles and pandar), Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Arye Gross (Mr. Sipos), Parfumerie, Wallis Annenberg Center

Robert Lesser (lawyer/Greek chorus), A View From the Bridge, Pacific Resident Theater

Dakin Matthews (Doyle), The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

Seth Numrich (Eli), Slipping, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at Lillian Theatre

Deborah Strang (narrator), Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Paige Lindsey White (Esme the granddaughter), Walking the Tightrope, 24th STreet Theatre

PERFORMANCE IN A (PRIMARILY) MUSICAL PRODUCTION

Sabrina Elayne Carten (Blues Singer), One Night With Janis Joplin, Pasadena Playhouse

Nate Dendy (The Mute), The Fantasticks, South Coast Repertory

Mary Bridget Davies (Janis), One Night With Janis Joplin, Pasadena Playhouse

Jamie McKnight (Scarecrow), The Wizard of Oz, Pantages Theatre

Josh Young (Che), Evita, Pantages Theatre

SOLO PERFORMANCE

Lorenzo Pisoni, Humor Abuse, Mark Taper Forum


ENSEMBLE PERFORMANCE

The Katrina Comedy Fest, Bayou Playhouse and Flambeaux Productions at Lounge Theatre: Peggy Blow, Deidrie Henry, Travis Michael Holder***, Judy Jean Berns, L. Trey Wilson, and Jan Munroe

One Night in Miami…, Rogue Machine: Giovanni Adams, Kevin Daniels, Jason Delane, Matt Jones, Ty Jones, Jason E. Kelley, Burl Moseley, and Jah Shams

Our Class, Son of Semele Ensemble at Atwater Village Theatre: Melina Bielefelt, Sharyn Gabriel, Matt Kirkwood, Michael Nehring, Gary Patent, Gavin Peretti, Sarah Roseberg, Kiff Scholl, Dan Via, and Alexander Wells

The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre: Johanna Chase, Paul Haitkin, Michael Hanson, Elizabeth Herron, Carl J. Johnson, Che Landon, Ed F. Martin, Ann Noble, Dylan Seaton, Christine Sloane, and Paul Witten

The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre: Gilbert L. Bailey II, David Bazemore, Ayanna Berkshire, Shavey Brown, Christopher James Culberson, Joshua Henry, Trent Armand Kendall, Max Kumangai, Hal Linden, JC Montgomery, Justin Prescott, Clinton Roane, Cedric Sanders, Deandre Sevon, Christian Dante White, and C. Kelly Wright

We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915, Matrix Theatre: Daniel Bess, Julanne Chidi Hill, Joe Holt, Phil LaMarr, Rebecca Mozo, and John Sloan


***Travis Michael Holder reviews for ArtsInLA.com. He did not nominate himself, nor did he nominate his show.


The voting theater critics of ArtsInLA.com: Travis Michael Holder, Dany Margolies, Julio Martinez, Dink O’Neal, Melinda Schupmann, and Bob Verini

January 5, 2014
 

 
The Snow QUEEN
Troubadour Theater Company at Falcon Theatre

Reviewed by Bob Verini


Joseph Keane, Lisa Valenzuela, and Misty Cotton
Photo by Jill Mamey

As surely as the Rockettes annually turn out to Occupy Radio City, Troubadour Theater Company uses December to command Burbank’s Falcon Theatre for a celebratory holiday mash-up of some sort of Christmas tale and a particular pop songbook. The Snow QUEEN, the sixth such expression of wassail I’ve encountered, is one of the company’s very finest: clever and vulgar and warm by turns, always funny and marked by superior theatricality.
   Troubie extravaganzas work best when the narrative and catalog tossed into director–head writer Matt Walker’s Cuisinart come out tasting better than they did separately. Here, the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen isn’t quite as robust as other material the Troubies have pilfered. Young Gerda (an amazing Misty Cotton) and Kai (Joseph Keane, delightful) live together in a home where, as HCA puts it, “they were not brother and sister, but they cared for each other as much as if they were.” (To which narrator Walker responds edgily, “Annnnnnddddd…that’s not creepy at all.”)
   As is their wont, the troupe sticks closely to the story’s characters and incidents, as a brainwashed Kai is separated from Gerda, whose quest is to find and restore him. But with the title character basically remaining on the sidelines until needed at the 11th hour, a lot of rewriting was needed to keep some momentum going, as was the case with Disney’s Frozen, inspired by the same yarn. (Walker contributes a droll cameo as an officious exec who sees to it that as far as Disney’s intellectual property is concerned, the Troubies Let It Go.)
   Dramaturgical efforts pay off, preserving priceless analogues to Andersen’s Raven (a hilarious Rick Batalla manipulating a horny puppet head while his skin-tight black leotard rides up in back) and Old Woman (Beth Kennedy brilliant as a snaggle-toothed crone).

Most important, the beefed-up storytelling jibes nicely with the score, executed impeccably by musical director Eric Heinly and his mates. The music of Queen, for all its superficial glitz and hints of sexual subversion, has always struck me as warmhearted and sweet, even a little quaint with all that “Galileo” and “Mamma mia” and “Scaramouche/fandango” fey stuff. (It was no clash when they scored the campy Flash Gordon back in the day.) So when “Killer Queen” becomes “Chiller Queen,” or “We Will Rock You” turns into the more polite “We will/We will/Ask you politely to leave the premises,” it simultaneously satirizes and celebrates.
   And the unveiling of the Snow Queen turns into a triumphant 11th-hour turn when John Quale trots out as a frosty-freeze version of Freddie Mercury, with deeply mascara’d eyes peeping out of blue- and whiteface, a glittering blue/white jumpsuit (congrats, designer Sharon McGunigle), and a white upswept hairdo that looks as if Marge Simpson walked into her hairdresser’s and demanded, “Dye it white, and make it look like Carvel.” Quale’s amazing singing and singular presence honor his inspiration. Annnnnnddddd…I bet Freddie would feel it wasn’t creepy at all.

December 15, 2014
 
Dec. 12–Jan. 18. 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank. Wed-Sat 8pm, Sun 4 pm & and 7pm (check website for holiday schedule changes). Running time 80 minutes, no intermission. $36.50–44 (discounts available). (818) 955-8101.

falcontheatre.secure.force.com/ticket

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Into the Woods
Oregon Shakespeare Festival at Wallis Center for the Performing Arts

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


John Tufts and Jeremy Peter Johnson
Photo by Kevin Parry

“I wish.” So begins this Stephen Sondheim–James Lapine musical. Fairy-tale characters express their most-fervent desires. Cinderella wants to stop cleaning out the fireplace and instead go to the king’s festival. Jack wants his ultra-beloved cow to give milk so his mother won’t make him sell this pet. The Baker and the Baker’s Wife want a real-life bun in the oven. And so each wishes aloud.
   These characters and more make occasionally humorous, always intelligent commentaries about their lives and ours, revealed in Sondheim’s lyrics—perhaps the best in the musical theater canon. Those lyrics are sung to Sondheim’s music, consisting of oddly appealing atonalities and challenging rhythms, sometimes as simple as a children’s rhyme, sometimes evoking rap, sometimes operatic.
   I wish. I wish I weren’t so judgmental about a show before it even begins. I wish I could relax and let a director do her magic. As for what follows in this review, I wish you would stop reading here if you don’t want to know spoilers about Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production at the Wallis. Buy a ticket and see it with fresh eyes.

Amanda Dehnert directs this version, giving us a deconstructed musical. There is no curtain dividing the stage from the audience before the show. The actors putter, wearing what appear to be street clothes, and the orchestra is seated in upstage scaffolding, also in street clothes. The actors are glancing at their scripts, which rest on music stands haphazardly placed across the stage. What? We’re seeing a concert version? Where are the storybook sets? Where are the whimsical costumes? How can the witch’s spell be broken if she’s not an ugly hag? Is it a waste of time to have come out on a rain-soaked weeknight?
   Well, the performers’ “street clothes” seem to be in a palate of putty and beige. They could be considered costumes, right? And then those performers start to sing. And that young lad playing Jack (Miles Fletcher) sure has a good singing voice. Oh, look the witch (Miriam A. Laube), in fabulous makeup, is in a wheelchair, being tended to by a put-upon assistant (Royer Bockus) who’s good enough to have a bigger role.
   Oh, my. Cinderella’s stepsisters have gone backstage and are re-entering in rather whimsical costumes (yes, more to come, in ever-increasing visual pageantry, designed by Linda Roethke).

The mixing of characters and audience, characters and orchestra, story and metatheater, wears thin after Dehnert introduces and reintroduces her concept. On the other hand, she has fun with the Wallis. The beanstalk is evoked by green lights glowing behind the slats of the side walls (lighting design by Jane Cox), and the giantess appears via giant video screens (a commentary on the media?).
   Rapunzel's Prince (John Tufts) and Cinderella's Prince (Jeremy Peter Johnson) get to ride around the stage, not on handsome steeds but on tricycles, befitting their emotional ages, as they sing the hilarious “Agony.” On the other hand, the Wolf is played by a singer (Johnson) and a performer (Howie Seago) who uses American Sign Language—a puzzling bit of theatricality.
   The passion of Dehnert’s performers is undeniable, though, and Denhnert particularly illuminates the musical’s themes of parent-child relations. Kjerstine Rose Anderson’s Little Red Ridinghood is a grunge but perky example of parental absence, while Bockus’s Rapunzel (yes, that performer gets a bigger role) is an example of emotional and physical abuse. Near the evening’s end, Laube’s Witch rises above her curse to pleadingly deliver “Children Will Listen.”
   The second-to-last chorus is given over to the entire cast, which sings a capella, each voice seemingly getting its own harmony, creating a stunning sound. And then, in an even more stunning moment, Dehnert gives the last chorus to the Baker (the sensational Jeff Skowron) as a solo, which he sings to his baby as a pianissimo lullaby. After all, the Narrator (an endlessly fascinating John Vickery) tells us, someone has to pass our story along. And someone has to break the cycle of parental use, abuse, and abandonment of their children. I wish.

December 8, 2014
 
Dec. 2–21. $29–110. 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. $49–129. (310) 746-4000.

www.thewallis.org

Map
 

 
Northanger Abbey
Box Tale Soup at the Edye at Broad Stage

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Noel Byrne and Antonia Christophers

The six novels of the great 19th century author Jane Austen lend themselves to updates and adaptations, viz. wit Bridget Jones’s Diary and Clueless. In the, ahem, hands of Box Tale Soup, Austen’s first-published novel is entrancingly recounted by two fabulous actors and seven smoochable puppets.
   Austen’s Northanger Abbey follows young Catherine Morland. The sturdy child grows into teenhood with a love of reading—but she reads the potboilers of her days, which Austen points out might not be the most educational and inspiring literature for young women.
   So when Catherine is taken on holiday by family friends (as heroines always are in Austen novels), and they go to the charming English town of Bath (as heroines frequently do in Austen novels), Catherine meets people of noble ethics (as always appear) and ignoble ones (as her readers expect).
   Antonia Christophers plays Catherine and Noel Byrne plays Henry Tilney, the gentleman who accepts and enlightens Catherine’s spirited mind. But each also plays the various other characters, using puppets. Those puppets are about 3 feet tall, and each looks basically alike, fortunately with bright eyes and engaged eyebrows. Only wooden hairstyles (curls and comb-overs) and bits of fabrics distinguish each character. So, the Tilneys wear touches of purple, Catherine’s hosts green, the reprehensible Thorpes red, and Catherine and her brother blue.
   But the actors—their voices and physicalities—help let the audience know at every moment which character is speaking. Byrne in particular has a childlike immersion in his puppetry, so his whole body, and that of his puppets, engage in the storytelling. Christophers, on the other hand, realistically limns the youthful naïveté of her young character. Both actors charmingly evoke the manners and deportment of Regency England.
   Directed by Robert Soulsby-Smith, the physical production emerges from a rugged, antique-looking suitcase. Clothing, books, bedclothes, candelabras, gardens, and whatever other scene-setting items are needed are tenderly unpacked as the show gets underway. Left as a surprise is the towering figure of Henry Tilney’s father, whom Catherine believes in her febrile state to be a Gothic figure with nefarious purposes.
   Soon the audience is immersed in the story of Catherine; the opportunistic Isabella Thorpe and her boundary-pushing brother, James; the society-conscious hosts; and the gentle, amiable Eleanor Tilney and her wise and handsome brother, Henry.
   Catherine learns her lesson—not to stop reading but to read with intelligence and think about what she reads. The audience will likely learn its lessons—to forthwith read or reread Austen, and of the delights of great storytelling.

December 8, 2014
 
Dec. 5–14. 1310 11th St. See Broad Stage website for schedule. Running time 85 minutes, no intermission. $50-85. (310) 434-3200.

thebroadstage.com

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What the Butler Saw
Mark Taper Forum

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Frances Barber, Angus McEwan, and Paxton Whitehead
Photo by Craig Schwartz

Perhaps the most overwhelmingly bittersweet thing about Joe Orton’s final play is to imagine where his boundless and insightful comedic genius might have taken him if his life hadn’t been prematurely snuffed out in 1967, halfway through his 34th year and only weeks after he had completed this wildly off-kilter farce. Orton’s star was at the height of its brightest luminosity, his soaring career the talk of the town after the success of his earlier and equally controversial comedies Loot and Entertaining Mr. Sloane—both of which are, a half-century after his untimely demise, presented more frequently than this one. Perhaps this is because, unlike his other works, Orton died before he could embark on the myriad rewrites for which he was famous, his obsession with detail cut short when he was found dead in his tiny bedsitter at 25 Noel Road, Islington, bludgeoned to death with a hammer by Kenneth Halliwell, his lover and mentor for 16 years.
   No one was more notoriously audacious than Orton, skewering upper-class rigidity and political foibles with more comic precision than anyone since Molière. With an outrageous disregard for the hypocritical morality and social taboos unspoken in polite society since Queen Victoria’s repressive reign, he took on topics that scandalized and enraged the more-conservative drama critics of the era, one of whom declared about this particular swansong that it was a “wholly unacceptable exploitation of sexual perversion.” Audiences ran from the theater in droves, quickly replaced by other patrons eager to be simultaneously appalled and surreptitiously titillated beyond their acceptably reserved reactions.

By today’s standards, however, even the sea of conservative white heads populating a typical Mark Taper Forum audience is way beyond being shocked by the antics of doctors Rance and Prentice, proprietors of the private psychiatric clinic that is such a perfect setting for the master’s last gasp of absurdist creativity. Even when everything wraps up at the end as intricately and cleverly as in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, or when a huge brass phallus missing from a statue of the venerable Winston Churchill is held high for all to see, no one seems nearly as scandalized as Londoners professed to be in spring 1969.
   There are no servants, let alone butlers, in this hilarious Chaucerian romp filled with slamming doors and naked civil servants. This leaves its audience to assume the POV of the domestic help eagerly peeking through the clinic’s many keyholes as its proprietor Dr. Prentice (Charles Shaugnessy) pulls back the bed curtains to provide a suitable nest in which to seduce poor put-upon Geraldine Barclay (Sarah Manton), the innocent waif from the employment agency come to interview for a position as his secretary despite her inability to grasp the intricacies of the typewriter keyboard. Prentice was once on a mission, dedicated to teach others about the rampant lunacy lurking just below societal mores. But because he has proven himself to be “unable to achieve madness himself” and finds himself beyond caring much about his harpy of a wife’s amorous nymphomania, he decides to join the habits of the great unwashed he treats—with disastrous but hilarious results.
   Along the way, poor Geraldine is pushed and pulled, stripped and coerced until she appears— shoulder-length red locks clipped to the scalp, in a Standard Hotel bellboy’s uniform—to pass herself off as a boy. Meanwhile, her counterpart—randy blackmailing bellboy Nicholas Beckett (Angus McEwan)—romps through the action in women’s clothes when he’s not running across the stage in his birthday suit with a strategically placed policemen’s helmet covering his private parts, albeit a little late. Only Dr. Prentice and his superior, Dr. Rance (Paxton Whitehead), stay fully clothed before the play’s crashing rollercoaster of a culminating chase sequence, Geraldine and Nicholas joined by the good doctor’s scotch-swigging, hotel worker–boffing wife (Frances Barber) and a compromised London bobby (Rod McLachlan), characters also compelled to lose their clothing by the end—or, in Sgt. March’s case, trading his uniform for a most chic leopard-print dress belonging to the mistress of the house.

No one understands directing Orton better than John Tillinger does. He has previously helmed Loot and Entertaining Mr. Sloane on this stage and is a virtuoso at bringing to life the playwright’s mantra that, as Dr. Rance notes, “Just when one least expects it, the unexpected always happens.” Tillinger’s cast does a remarkable job finding the delightfully silly tone and playing it right to the bone, without the physical and vocal exaggeration that usually accompanies such a performance. Barber is particularly successful as Mrs. Prentice, getting away with extravagant full-body reactions to most everything she encounters on each entrance and dropping continuous dry British witticisms with a vocal delivery landing somewhere between Tallulah Bankhead and Carrie Nye. Whitehead is also an expert at dryly dropping Orton’s continuous pronouncements, about the state of the world and the mental health community of the time, with well-polished ease.
   The wide Taper stage might be the biggest problem, making the quickness of the characters’ rapid entrances and exits a tad difficult to assay. The sound system, which can’t seem to allow for the actors to keep up the timing while still being heard over the laughter lingering from the previous line, also detracts, especially when it’s so important to hear everything the soft-spoken septuagenarian Whitehead has to propose. Still, this is a worthy denizen of an era when everything changed in British comedy, signaling the even braver future days of farceurs Caryl Churchill, Alan Ayckbourn, and Michael Frayn, not to mention the unstoppable comedic outlandishness of Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python. As Dr. Rance observes, “Radical thought comes easy to the lunatic.” Thank Lord God Terpsichore for the brief stay on this planet of the lunatic Joe Orton, who uproariously and courageously opened—and slammed—so many secret doors and private closets.

November 28, 2014
 
Nov. 23–Dec. 21. 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown LA. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 10 minutes, including intermission. $25–70. (213) 628-2772.

www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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Dirty
Zephyr Theatre

Reviewed by Bob Verini


Max Lesser and Anna Konkle
Photo by Erica Brown

First things first: Dirty is by no means dirty, at least insofar as habitues of Melrose Avenue’s Zephyr Theatre might expect. That particular venue has hosted more than its share of full-frontal nudity and simulated sex acts over the years.
   No, what playwright Andrew Hinderaker finds dirty, in this work transplanted from Chicago, are the machinations, betrayals, and moral blind spots of those who would set out to make a really big score. In short, Dirty joins Other People’s Money and Glengarry Glen Ross on the short list of indignant dramatic indictments of the American way of doing business. Choir members will already be well familiar with the ideas and the melodies. Others may be less-readily persuaded by the author’s heavily stacked deck.
   Our virtue-challenged protagonists are investment banker Matt (Max Lesser) and pregnant wife Katie (Anna Konkle), one-percenters who crave a greater share of that 1 percent. Matt clearly lacks the rapacious gene of his boss Terry (Lea Coco) while wanting the good life for his family, while Katie seeks the wherewithal for her various philanthropic enterprises, mostly of a feminist variety.
   Matt and Katie, as it happens, are porn aficionados, but not the dirty fantasy-filled stuff. They like the down-to-earth scenes featuring women who are accomplished and smart. Such high-toned X-rated vids are understandably tough to come by, so Max conceives of a sure-fire venture: a porn studio that will hire no talent under 25 and that will devote a significant part of the proceeds to Katie’s pet projects. What a swell idea, a sex film enterprise supporting the causes of the liberal elite. Maybe Hinderaker has Ben and Jerry’s in mind? Though, dishing out scrumptious ice cream would hardly seem analogous to cranking out digital sex.

Setting aside the dubious underlying ideology, Hinderecker seems to think that setting up shop as an X-rated filmmaker is about as difficult as running a lemonade stand in the front yard, once one makes the commitment to it, that is. So he devotes the entire first act to tedious conversations with Katie about the venture’s morality, and tedious confrontations with Terry about providing the financial backing. How so, tedious? Because if Katie doesn’t agree to the scheme, and if Terry doesn’t put up the cash, there’s no play. The act ends exactly as it must—Katie will reluctantly participate, and Terry will put in the cash with huge conditions—and we’re left with the sole dramatic question: Will all concerned be able to keep their hands clean as they embark on their quixotic adventures in the skin trade?
   Can there be any doubt? As Act Two begins, somehow they’ve gotten the equipment and talent and marketing and distribution in place and are chugging profitably along, even though Matt seems no more capable of running that aforementioned lemonade stand. Golly, if it’s this easy, why doesn’t everyone do it? But that old devil Greed enters and begins to prey on our hapless heroes. Along comes a dazzlingly beautiful, multicultural, articulate law student (Zuleyka Silver) with an unaccountable interest in having sex on camera. So what if she’s not yet 25, Matt and Terry reason; she’ll be a sensation. You’re pushing the line, Katie complains, and if you continue I’m not sure I’ll be here when you get back. Or words to that effect. Dirty features more clichés per scene than many another play of the season, despite its ostensibly fresh and frank milieu.

There are a couple of twists one can see coming a mile away. But even more clear in the distance, from the first scene on, are the phony moral dilemmas the playwright insists on setting up, in order to cast a baleful eye on anyone who’s trying to produce something and create jobs. There are crackerjack dramatic possibilities in a critique of American enterprise, but they await a more plausible human construct than the text of Dirty offers. The cast and director Shannon Cochran do their best under the irritating circumstances.

November 24, 2014
 
Nov. 14–Dec. 21. 7456 Melrose Ave. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm, no shows Thanksgiving weekend. $25. (323) 960-4429.

https://www.plays411.net/dirty

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The Vortex
Amanda Eliasch and Vespa Collaborative at Matrix Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Craig Robert Young and Shannon Holt
The McCarthy Studio

There’s nothing much harder to perform than anything written by Noël Coward. This once-scandalous 1924 play, in which the fledgling dramatist wrote a juicy role for himself in an effort to propel himself to stardom, is particularly difficult. Although his strategy worked and his performance as the coke-addicted upper-crust dandy Nicky put him on the map as an actor and as a playwright, his once highly controversial play has not survived the ages as well as some of his other classic works.
   When the play was first financed in London by its author, the themes of drug abuse (thought by some scholars to be a mask for Coward’s still-hidden homosexuality) and marital infidelity were far more novel and certainly more provocative than they are today. But director Gene Franklin Smith and his fine band of actors have thrust themselves headfirst into the manners and posturing of Coward’s style, refreshing ever-present cocktails and lounging across convenient chaises longues while confidently uttering the master’s notoriously brittle bons mots. It is a noble effort, finding a base from which to interpret the blurred humanity of people from a bygone era who have been “living their lives on pretense for years.”

Aging and intolerably vain socialite Florence Lancaster (Shannon Holt) lives a busy life overshadowed by her desperate need to stay youthful, especially since it’s “too late to become beautifully old” at this point in her journey. Brazenly carrying on in front of her presumably long-suffering husband, David (John Mawson), and her continuously traumatized eye-rolling friends Helen and Pawnie (Victoria Hoffman and Cameron Mitchell Jr.), Florence parades her latest boytoy, Tom Veryan (Daniel Jimenez), at a gathering at her London flat. Perhaps if her dandy of a son, Nicky (Craig Robert Young in the role Coward wrote for himself), wasn’t preoccupied courting a vapid young thing named Bunty Mannering (Skye LaFontaine) and regularly sniffing that demon powder, he might be more concerned about his mother’s dalliances—something that changes rapidly after Bunty and Tom leave their respective Lancasters behind for a go at each other.
   Although the verbal sparring between these purposely insipid characters is recognizable as Coward’s dialogue, far less of the expected droll humor is offered here than in the master’s more-enduring drawing room comedies such as Private Lives or Blithe Spirit. This includes the shattering ending that seems lifted from another play—or could have been a product of one of the writer’s well-documented lifelong mood swings.
   It’s a tough transition, from playing period cocktail banter tossed about by the hoity-toity of London society in the ’20s—with most of the juiciest lines delivered as though the fourth wall is one gigantic room-length mirror—to the final emotional and physically draining confrontation in Florence’s bedroom between the troubled mother and son. Still, Holt and Young tackle the scene and each other with all barrels blazing. Meanwhile, their game fellow actors, around mostly to guide the pair to that moment, do so admirably, albeit hampered by their small well-dressed band of underwritten stereotypical supporting characters.

Resetting the period from the 1920s to the 1960s, although an interesting choice, particularly in the first scene as all actors frug their hearts out Laugh-In style to Dusty Springfield and Diana Ross, is not entirely successful—even if it does give costumer Shon LeBlanc a swell opportunity to parade a knockout collection of Carnaby Street–inspired finery. But revisiting an old warhorse like The Vortex affords a perspective on the attitudes and mores of its playwright’s era. By the swingin’ ’60s, Florence’s lifestyle and Nicky’s drug use were hardly shocking. So, here the updating thins the message Coward intended to convey and dilutes the reason the work was so eagerly embraced in its own time.
   Glitches needed ironing out during the opening weekend after this production transferred from Malibu Playhouse to the Matrix, including sound cue issues that would have made Coward quite vociferously annoyed (this from the outspoken fellow who once gave his opinion of Lee Strasberg’s class at the Actors Studio as “pretentious balls”). Still, it’s a treat to see The Vortex performed and appreciated again, especially by such a dedicated, plucky troupe of fearless artists with such obvious respect for the material and its creator.

November 16, 2014
 
Nov. 13–Dec. 14. 7657 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm. (323) 960-7735.

www.plays411.com/vortex

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Completeness
VS. Theatre Company and Firefly Theater and Film, at VS. Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Emily Swallow and Stephen Klein
Photo by Ed Krieger

She’s a grad student studying yeast cultures; he’s working on algorithms. With the exception of Tom Stoppard, Itamar Moses is the only playwright who could write a talky two-act play in which two horny young college science geeks (Emily Swallow and Stephen Klein) use incessant technologically savvy conversation as foreplay for hot sex.
   Molly and Elliot meet in a college library where each is distracted from the glowing light of computer screens by the presence of the other. Soon they have retreated to Elliot’s dorm room in the guise of establishing a work connection, but, of course, before long they are humping like rabbits (“I love the moment when you’re suddenly allowed to touch someone,” Elliot proclaims). In record time, they dump their current friends with benefits (Nicole Erb and Rob Nagle) in favor of exploring the possibly passionate future of what might prove to be newly minted potential soulmates.
   The sensations of their new relationship lead the lovers on. Between orgasms they sit on Elliot’s bed in their underwear, discussing the usual emotional scars of past loves, tentatively exploring what surprises might emerge from beneath the studied flannel-shirted nerd-wear (“I feel like I tricked you into thinking I’m happy or interesting or fun to be around,” Molly warns), and hesitantly deliberating whether those pesky stars might actually be in alignment this time around. It isn’t long, though, before they begin to sniff out other prospective mates (all played by Erb and Nagle) entering into their daily lives, making the journey of Molly and Elliot more rocky than a hike down Runyon Canyon after dusk.

This play must be a roller coaster to interpret, in danger of drowning in Moses’s ever-present textual dexterity, a palpable presence that could easily come off as bang-on-the-head pretentiousness. In lesser hands, Completeness might turn out to be anything but complete, but this mounting is blessed with a quartet of exquisitely multilayered, bittersweet performances that honor and match its author’s tech-swollen dialogue. His jigsaw puzzle of a play is able to rise above its inherent traps thanks to the commitment of its obviously driven cast, the understated but passionate vision of director Matt Pfieffer, and Darcy Scanlin’s incredibly smart, strikingly spare, versatile set design ingeniously filling VS. Theatre Company’s challenging playing space.
   The message is clear even if, alas, no answers are offered. Behind the scientific and technological loquaciousness that spews in torrents from these characters’ mouths, there’s an abundance of Chekhovian subtext that reveals in a snap that these are all are people broken well before their years. “This is just a terrible time in all our lives,” Molly admits, “and a terrible, terrible generation to be a part of.” Technical advances in all our lives, it seems, have trumped and all but eliminated our old values and most established rules of human engagement. There’s nothing new to be offered beneath Moses’s clever, sharply contemporary dialogue, which in the final analysis is a sad indictment of the state of anthropological interaction in our wildly stepped-up, media-obsessed society.

November 11, 2014
 
Nov. 7–Dec. 7. 5453 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles. Metered parking until 8p.m. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $25. (323) 739-4411.

www.vstheatre.org

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