Arts In LA
Theater Reviews
 
Clybourne Park
Kentwood Players at Westchester Playhouse

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Jen Kerner and Matt Landig
Photo by Sherry Barrett

Bruce Norris plays delve into uncomfortable topics. So skillfully has Norris’s Clybourne Park done so that it won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It’s in production by Kentwood Players at Westchester Playhouse, where it looks with a gimlet eye at American racial and class divisions.
   The structurally intriguing script sets Act 1 in 1959 and Act 2 in 2009. Norris recommends using a cast of seven actors who appear in both acts. The dialogue evidences an ear for how various people speak—and then don’t listen, or try to listen but don’t understand.
   The script also continues the story of Lorraine Hansberry’s great American play from 1959, A Raisin in the Sun , not coincidentally produced by Kentwood Players earlier this year.
   At the end of A Raisin in the Sun , members of the Younger family are moving from their home in an all-black neighborhood of Chicago to the middle-class all-white enclave of Clybourne Park, despite the subtle bullying of one Karl Lindner, representing Clybourne’s homeowners association.

Act 1 of Clybourne Park takes place two hours after Lindner has left the Youngers at home, packing up and readying to move. We’re now in the home they’ve bought, where the sellers are packed and awaiting the moving van. Lindner is still fulminating over the impending desegregation of his neighborhood. But not all else is peaceful in the sellers’ lives.
   Act 2 opens 50 years later. The Youngers long ago moved out, but in the intervening years the neighborhood has become all-black. And now, to the distress of the current homeowners association, the neighborhood is about to undergo white gentrification.
   At the top of Act 1, the sellers—Russ (Harold Dershimer) and Bev (Andrea Stradling)—quarrel over geography, as the armchair-traveling Russ devours his issues of National Geographic. In Act 2, the buyers—Steve (Matt Landig) and Lindsey (Jen Kerner)—quarrel over geography, though they’ve been to these places, the American middle-class having become more mobile if not more knowledgeable.
   Then the characters slowly reveal what ails them and what ails America. But by Act 2, the way Americans talk about these things has made the participants feel like every word could explode.
   And of course hearing one another is even harder when people walk away to take a cellphone call. But telling hurtful jokes, asking inappropriate questions, acting out of frustration—not much has changed in 50 years.

Director George L. Rametta stages the work well and carefully orchestrates the frequently overlapping conversations. But the dialogue alone includes much inherent humor, so his overlaying of in-jokes, mugging, and eye-rolling ruins the play’s subtlety.
   Several of the actors keep to that subtlety in both of their characterizations. Paulina Bugembe plays the black maid, Francine, in the first act and Lena, an activist homeowner, in the second. Francine is smart but uneducated and hampered by race and class; Lena is educated, but her anger at the trampling of her history gets the better of her. No frills, no stereotyping, Bugembe’s acting is simple and effective. Damon Rutledge likewise creates real people in Francine’s husband, the straightforward but savvy Albert, and in Kevin, Lena’s yuppie husband.
   As Karl Lindner, however, Landig goes way over the top. The character’s bigotry should be laughable enough without exaggerating him as a buffoon. Landig does much better as homebuyer Steve, letting Steve’s self-righteousness speak for itself. Playing Steve’s wife, Lindsey, Kerner aims for the realism of her character’s situation. Kerner also plays Karl’s wife, Betsy, a contented but totally deaf woman, whose speech patterns Kerner convincingly vocalizes.
   Dershimer has lovely moments in Act 1, trying to bury Russ’s sadness behind a placid veneer until all boils up. But in Act 2, Dershimer turns his character, who represents the blue-collar class left out of the conversation, into a clown. As Bev, Stradling conveys the heartache of an unfulfilled wife, then turns hardy when she plays Steve and Lindsay’s lawyer. Jeremy Patrick Hamilton quietly embodies the audience’s discomfort as he takes on clergyman Jim in the first act and the association’s lawyer in the second.
   The sturdy set (Jason Gant) gets transformed during the intermission by the sturdy cast and crew in an intricately choreographed set change. But once again, Rametta eschews subtlety for the second-act scenery, blasting the walls with graffiti, overgilding this already powerful lily.

May 17, 2016

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
 
May 13–June 18. 8301 Hindry Ave., Westchester. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $20 ($18 for seniors, students, servicemen, and Metro riders). (310) 645-5156.

www.kentwoodplayers.org

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Sci-Fest LA One-Acts Program A

Acme Theatre

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal


David Dean Bottrell in Program B
Photo by Ed Olen

Currently in the midst of its third annual incarnation, Sci-Fest LA’s uniquely focused collection of one-acts, divided into two “programs” running in repertory, runs the gamut from eerie to comedic. Though the one-acts succeed to varying degrees, it’s a fairly well rounded evening of fun no matter one’s level of affinity for the genre.
   Following an videotaped opening admonition by a futuristic spokesmodel forbidding cellphone usage, Rob Hollocks’s script, “Winged Cupid, Painted Blind,” kicks off Program A. A fast-spreading, global epidemic has trapped two romantically linked scientists in a government research center. With one infected, the other not, and separated by a force field–style barrier, they struggle to find a cure. Hollocks’s script is perhaps the most predictable of the evening’s lot, and neither director McKerrin Kelly nor cast members Nadege August and Michael Perl are able to raise the bar.
   “Prayerville,” penned by folk music legend Janis Ian, fares better with regards to creativity. A jaded earthly contractor, played with snarky delight by Tim Russ, and his newly hired protégé, played by Rebekah Tripp in a beautifully nuanced performance, have arrived on a distant planet. Their task is to deliver the bones of an alien soldier, who has died in a war while allied with the human race, to his family. The ritual this exotic culture demands serves as the primary conflict. Though intriguing, Ian’s final scene drags on a bit too long, breaking one of the rules that gave Rod Serling’s scripts their power: Common Man Speak is always more effective than pontificating.
   Rounding out Act 1 is Neil Gaiman’s rollicking “Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar.” A young American tourist, disgruntled over his less-than-enjoyable midwinter walking tour of the British coastline, stumbles into a small-town pub. There, he encounters a semi-surly barkeep, played by Joy DeMichelle, and a pair of Monty Python–esque locals, played to the gut-busting hilt by Alan Polonsky and Lawrence Novikoff. As the night wears on, it becomes apparent these two are not quite what they seem and that their survival hinges on paying homage to a greater master than the bottom of the next mug of ale. Gaiman does a yeoman’s job of laying out the clues so that his story’s final reveal seems strangely plausible.

Act 2 begins with Spencer Green’s “Arrival,” the slate’s best work on the dramaturgical and performance levels. A female astronaut, played touchingly by Kim Hamilton, awakens in a one-room apartment. Mentally grasping at straws, she is confronted by a male counterpart who, she quickly comes to realize, despite their inexplicably contemporaneous ages, is a long-sought-after NASA colleague who disappeared some four decades earlier. In a tour-de-force performance, Jonathan Slavin commands the stage as his character brings his newfound friend up to speed. Green’s writing is witty and charmingly chilling, producing audience gasps on the night reviewed, as Slavin, with matter-of-fact dryness, delivers the tale’s ultimate “twist.”
   “Randomized Skin,” credited to Chuck Armstrong and Charlie Stockman, brings the roster to a close. Another NASA space traveler, played by Shane Brady, is the lab rat of three alien beings. As the otherworldly scientists, Nelson Ascencio, Jordan Black, and Alden Ray are a gleeful trio, often speaking simultaneously with word-perfect, staccato precision. Unfortunately, as this one-act progresses, repetition sets in, and ultimately it falls prey to the performances becoming more interesting than the message.
   Truly holding the entire evening together are the production values. Andy Broomell’s scenic design allows for an amazing array of locales as panels and screens slide effortlessly in and out of view. Ben Rock’s interstitial video pieces, consisting of countless Sci-Fi–related clips, shown on three overhead monitors, keeps one’s mind occupied during the masterfully executed set changes. And Matt Richter’s and Adam Earle’s lighting designs, along with Broomell’s stunning video and stationary projections, are transporting in their beauty and effectiveness.

May 20, 2016
 
May 5–May 29. 135 N. La Brea Ave. See fest website for schedule. $26.

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In & of Itself
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Derek DelGaudio
Jeff Lorch Photography

Derek DelGaudio’s world premiere In & of Itself proves him to be a captivating performer and a mesmerizing illusionist. He is not quite yet the philosopher he purports to be, but kernels of interesting ideas weave through the piece—such as making personal pain disappear like a house of cards.
   The show borrows from old routines of cabaret magic acts, from one-man confessional shows, and from ancient myths and stories. Somehow, though, under the direction of Frank Oz (yes, the puppetry artist), the various strands come together for a freshly visual piece.
   Six alcoves in an upstage cinderblock wall hold the beautiful props that DelGaudio uses throughout, all under the vibrant lighting designed by Adam Blumenthal. At least, we think they’re alcoves.
   It’s also a moody piece, with paradoxically soothing yet disquieting music by Mark Mothersbaugh (yes, front man for Devo).

“Magicians” often use pomposity to shake their audiences’ confidence in their own perceptions. DelGaudio is anything but pompous, though snarkiness creeps in during a few of his seemingly improvised asides.
   Secrets and individual elements of the show won’t be spoiled here. Just know that brief, non-embarrassing audience participation is available, to those who want it, by merely standing up during the show’s impressive finale.
   But before that, DelGaudio builds his premises brick by brick (yes, a reference to something in the show). All is perception, including our individual identities, he tells us. Chance, fate, a bit of sculpting, and lots of hard work make us who we are and make this show what it is.
   The show uses the startlingly reconfigured Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater (the 99-Seat space) at Geffen Playhouse to bring the audience almost on top of the action. Even from an aisle seat, though, some of the illusions are not fully visible. At the problem’s worst, an origami boat gets deliberately knocked to the floor, where it may or may not have seemed to disappear.
   The work also includes a convoluted bit about inviting an audience member to come back the next night, which leads into an extreme stretch to get another audience member onto the stage.

The show’s root problem, though, is that it’s exceedingly difficult to be thinking about what DelGaudio is saying while watching what he’s doing—whether it’s intricate handiwork with a deck of cards or the seemingly random resorting of letters in stacked mail slots. Given the subject matter, we’d like to be paying full attention to his thoughts. But the illusions are far more intriguing.
   And yet, at the top of the show, he says, half-accusingly and half-sorrowfully, “You think I’m a liar.” We want to hear what he wants to tell us. We want to know that the audience member who seems to randomly pick out a letter from a stack honestly didn’t know he was picking out a letter written to him by a family member.
   We want to believe that the video of the card work is live.
   We want to believe that DelGaudio is not, as he tells us, a liar.
   Maybe that’s the magic of being an audience member.

May 13, 2016
 
May 11–July 10. 10886 Le Conte Ave., LA. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. Running time 65 minutes. $100-$150. (310) 208-5454.

www.geffenplayhouse.com

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Dry Land
Atwater Village Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Connor Kelly-Eiding and Tegan Rose
Photo by Darrett Sanders

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

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

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

April 18, 2016
 
April 9–May 28. 3269 Casitas Ave. Free onsite and street parking. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm & 7pm.
$25. (310) 307-3753.

www.EchoTheaterCompany.com

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On the Twentieth Century
Musical Theatre West Reiner Reading Series at University Theatre at California State University Long Beach

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz

Musical Theatre West has committed a treacherous crime. It chose a rarely produced musical (in LA at least), cast it with stellar actors who have fantastic chemistry, and presented it for one night only for its Reiner Staged Reading Series. That‘s a travesty that hopefully can be remedied with an extended run at a later date, because this production of Cy Coleman and Betty Comden & Adolph Green’s On the Twentieth Century was enchanting.
   Based on the 1932 play and film adaptation titled Twentieth Century, which was considered one of the seminal screwball comedies of the 1930s, On the Twentieth Century is a wild, satirical farce about the unstable relationship between Broadway and Hollywood, complete with sliding doors, escalating fights, and hammy personalities.

In it, theater impresario Oscar Jaffe (Chris Warren Gilbert) has hit the skids. He owes substantial sums of money and can’t get a new show produced. He hops aboard a luxurious train, the 20th Century Limited, with his two sycophants, Oliver (Gabriel Kalomas) and Owen (Jordan Lamoureux), because he has discovered that his former protégé, the famous movie star Lily Garland (Jill Van Velzer), will be onboard and in the next compartment. Lily and Oscar despise each other, and their reunion leads to fireworks.
   MTW and Musical Theatre Guild perform one-night concerts similar to New York’s popular Encores! series, but Director David Lamoureux‘s staging didn’t feel like a reading. Though the sets were bare-boned, the performances were of the highest caliber and the actors embodied their roles. Gilbert spewed pomposities like the great John Barrymore. He treated every line like it should be digested by the last row of the balcony. He turned every phrase into high drama and bulldozed his co-stars like an egomaniac.
   Meeting him halfway, Van Velzer was joyously viperish as the movie star, insecure and apt to overreact. Both are master singers and turned their tongue-twisting numbers into showstoppers. Tracy Rowe Mutz as the daffy religious millionaire Leticia Peabody Primrose was like a mischievous mouse. She scrunched her face in mock menace in “She’s a Nut,” bringing down the house. Kalomas and Lamoureux exploited their facial expressions to resemble the baboons the characters emulate. As the histrionic boy toy, Zachary Ford was a cartoon of the Hollywood pretty boy, aptly vapid and self-impressed.

Coleman and Comden & Green have written their lushest score, utilizing every instrument to evoke the sounds of a train and the waltzes of an old world operetta. The score contains many complicated songs, including a canon for four porters in “Life Is a Train” and a counterpoint for the six leads in “Sextet—Sign, Lily, Sign.” These numbers are not only intricate but also require precision from all the singers. For a cast to sound pitch perfect after minimal rehearsal is tremendous.
   For a reading, the sound of the 19-piece orchestra, conducted by musical director Ryan O’Connell was fluid and cohesive, hitting all the bombastic moments, particularly in one of the best overtures written. As well as the orchestra, the ensemble’s vocals sounded like a well-tuned operatic chorus.
   On the Twentieth Century should be perennial work for regional theaters. The score is buoyant, the lyrics biting, and the script uproarious. Hopefully, after seeing what a fantastic cast has been assembled by Musical Theatre West, audiences will be able to laugh with Oscar Jaffe and Lily Garland more often.

May 18, 2016
 

 
Loose Ends
The New American Theatre at The Victory Theatre

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal


Ally Gordon and Jeff Kongs
Photo by Kitty Rose

“Time heals all wounds,” or so goes the adage oft employed as a coping mechanism. In playwright Michael Weller’s dissection of an ultimately doomed relationship, nothing could be further from the truth. Originally published in 1979, this somewhat dated, bittersweet story of an on-again, off-again romance may seem frustrating in its one-sided dramaturgical outcome. And yet, as in real life, not everything ends in happiness.
   Paul and Susan, both on soul-searching vacations, meet on a beach in Bali, Indonesia. Some two plus hours later, having spanned nearly 10 years of their lives, Weller’s tale leaves this couple with not much more than they started with. To his credit, director Jack Stehlin certainly doesn’t sugarcoat the proceedings. Were he to have, the result would have shortchanged the spiraling effect that Weller clearly intended.
   On the whole, Stehlin is blessed to have actor Jeff Kongs, as Paul, carrying this show from both a dramaturgical as well as performance point of view. Kongs displays a welcome honesty in his scene work, while his skill in relaying Weller’s improvisatory-like monologues is riveting. Whether detailing Paul’s veil-lifting Peace Corps experiences or his second-act indictment of Susan’s marriage-destroying selfishness, his performance is always “in the moment.”
   As Susan, Ally Gordon is taxed with the clearly less sympathetic of Weller’s primary roles. Unable to set aside her personal desires for the greater good, Susan’s choices seem mired in subconsciously creating roadblocks between herself and Paul. Although occasionally falling prey to outwardly theatrical demonstrations of her position as this tale’s antagonist, Gordon does a respectable job with this rather unlikeable character, her best work coming in those scenes in which she and Kongs go toe-to-toe.

The rest of the cast, with unremarkably varying degrees of success, fills in the cracks of Weller’s episodically formatted script. In this play billed as a dramedy, most of the laugh lines fell surprisingly flat on opening night.
   Additionally, the production’s flow suffers at times from the periodically inconsistent blocking Stehlin employs in this exceptionally intimate venue. Characters are parked statically during confrontations that would otherwise involve physical thrusts and parries. At other times, such as the scene set in New York’s Central Park, they move about aimlessly in ways that would clearly catch the concerned attention of others wandering by, given the amplitude of the conversation.
   On the whole, it’s a rather depressing tome buoyed by a pair of strong performances that make this production still worthy of a look-see.

May 14, 2016
 
May 7–June 11. 3326 W. Victory Blvd. Ample street parking is available; additional parking at the Northwest Branch Library, directly across from the theater. Fri-Sat 8pm. Running time approximately 90 minutes. $18-25.

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The City of Conversation
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Jason Ritter and Johnny Ramey
Photo by Kevin Parry

It has been said that many of the biggest deals in Hollywood happen at cocktail parties. Back in the day, before national politics turned bloody and morphed into The Hunger Games, the same thing was often true in Washington, D.C. When playwright Anthony Giardina read an article centering on the more polite era of the 1950s and ’60s in a town Henry James once referred to as a “city of conversations,” his intrigue was piqued. Washington was then widely known as a place where wealthy socialites invited politicians from both parties to their Georgetown or Kalorama mansions for lavish sit-down dinners where everyone could relax, drink cognac, and smoke a big cigar before returning to congressional meetings the next day to heatedly argue their opposite perspectives.
   In Giardina’s smartly loquacious play spanning 1979 to 2009, Hester Ferris (Christine Lahti) is such a hostess. With a decided leaning toward the Great Society’s left wing and a live-in married senator (Steven Culp) for a boyfriend, Hester’s life in her stately Georgetown townhome seems to revolve around getting her causes quietly entrenched in the minds of her adversaries. It’s akin to the drip, drip, drip of Chinese water torture, with gushing compliments and silver plates full of hors d'oeuvres utilized to make her point rather than restraints.
   Just as she and her widowed sister–assistant Jean (Deborah Offner) are planning one of Hester’s most important evenings of the season, her son, Colin (Jason Ritter), arrives home after finishing his studies at the London School of Economics. Hester is at first appalled by Colin’s long hair and scruffy Country Joe McDonald appearance, but that melts quickly when she spots the girl he has brought home to meet mom and announce their engagement.
   Hester is instantly put off by Anna (Georgia King), from her knee-high fringed suede boots to her syrupy condescending attitude, eventually bluntly warning Colin’s intended to be careful, since in D.C. “they can smell ambition a mile away.” Hester’s wariness is quickly exacerbated as Anna bombards her with endless questions and suspect adoration.

Act 2 starts in 1987, and Colin and Anna are indeed married and parents of Ethan (Nicholas Oteri), the grandson Hester dotes over perhaps more than she ever did her son. The emasculated Colin has turned conservative and, thanks to his wife’s balls-out aspirations and expectations, is desperately trying to hold their teetering marriage together. To stop Hester from publishing an open letter condemning Ronald Reagan’s proposed appointment of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, Anna threatens to remove Ethan entirely from his grandmother’s life. In the final scene, taking place in 2009, the adult Ethan (Ritter) returns to the august but now barren old house to reconnect with his grandmother.
   There’s much promise and sharply whimsical, intelligent dialogue here, but the plot tends toward the melodramatic and easily predictable. Director Michael Wilson gleans fine performances from most of his cast, although why he hasn’t kept several of them from consistently playing important lines and speeches directly front is puzzling.
   Lahti gives a rich, exceeding multilayered performance as Hester, even though she and all the other characters who survive the story’s three decades never seem to age below Carol F. Doran’s period-defining wigs. Ritter finds credible nuance as Colin but melts hearts when he reenters as the adult Ethan, bringing along his African-American male partner (Johnny Ramey), which prompts Hester to reflect that without the fight she waged, in 2009 barely remembered or honored, they would not be able to “live your lives fully.”
   Offner, Culp, and Ramey make considerable points in less-pivotal or less-written roles, while King is yet to overcome and soar above the continuous clichés penned into her abrasive character. David Selby falls into all the pits as the old-school, bellowing Kentucky-machine politico who, if he were any more Southern, could out-bluster Foghorn Leghorn himself. Michael Learned, however, in a too-brief cameo as that senator’s obviously long-suffering and unobtrusively patient wife, steals her one scene handily, only opening her mouth when what will come out of it is too shrewdly calculated to be overlooked.

The point here isn’t hard to grasp, as the participants in the grand old-style political circus that spawned the near apocalypse of our government today lead lives as dysfunctional and flawed as anyone else. Yet despite the crispness of the dialogue and a magnificent design team galvanized around Jeff Cowie’s richly spectacular set, Giardina’s arguments and his characters remain unsurprising and even somewhat trite. But even if the denouement is easy to foresee, thanks to the skill level of the major players it’s deeply moving.

May 24, 2016
 
May 20–June 4. 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. $49–110. (310) 746-4000.

www.thewallis.org

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La Cage
Aux Folles

East West Players at David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Gedde Watanabe
Photo by Michael Lamont

By nature, this 1983 musical, adapted by Harvey Fierstein, with a classically infectious and hummable score by Jerry Herman, based on the 1973 French play of the same name and its 1978 film version, is gaudy, oversized, and incredibly ostentatious. Ironically enough, however, this flashiness is also always a major distraction from the story, with those in the position of producing and designing it feeling the pressure to throw around more glitter and feathered boas than those adorning a flatbed truck full of drag queens at the annual West Hollywood Gay Pride Parade.
   What was so sweetly charming and wickedly funny in its original French nonmusical version, something echoed in the 1996 American film adaptation The Birdcage thanks to the unearthly talents of its stars Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, instantly becomes a cheap target for overproduction. East West Players, an all–Asian American theater company, is giving it a fresh new production that’s just as charming and wickedly funny as the original play and film version, simply because it doesn’t go for over-excess. It instead aims directly for the heart.
   Strip away the squealing cross-dressing chorus boys adorned in massive quantities of sequins and attitudes to match, and underneath the glitz is the unpretentious tale of a longtime gay couple who live above their bawdy Saint Tropez nightclub called La Cage Aux Folles—a slang term for effeminate homosexuals literally translated to mean “the cage of mad women”—and what lurks beyond the satin gowns and high heels is a guileless, gently engaging homage to the nature of enduring love.

Playing Albin, the aging yet flamboyantly girly star of the club’s drag revue and the “wife” in the owners’ longtime union, the inimitable Gedde Watanabe is softly yet spectacularly on the money in this coveted role, making the audience fall in love with him despite Albin’s continuously edgy nature and outbursts of Alexandra Del Lago–style dramatics. When Jean-Michel—the son of Albin’s partner, Georges (Jon Jon Briones)— announces he has fallen in love and is engaged to be married, Albin is thrilled and deeply moved—that is until Jean-Michel (Jinwoo Jung), raised by both partners as their own child, announces he wants his surrogate mom to disappear so he can bring his intended and her ultra-conservative parents home to meet his dad.
   Watanabe is anything but the usual put-together Albin, looking a little disheveled and lost in the characters’ more subdued wardrobe, here designed by Anthony Tran. There’s an air of helplessness permeating his performance that soon ingratiates him to us. But when he steps to the front of the stage to deliver the showstopper “I Am What I Am” ending the first act, he proves a formidable musical comedy diva and a superb tragedian—as though he were the offspring of a hidden relationship between Ethel Merman and Edith Piaf.
   As the more masculine, uber-patient parent Georges, Briones is also endearing. Unlike so many of his bizarrely inappropriate predecessors in this more subdued role, Briones holds his own beautifully, especially in Herman’s plaintive ballad “Look Over There.”

Allen Lucky Weaver is hilarious as Albin’s butler, who wants to be recognized instead as his maid. The supporting cast is uniformly beguiling, particularly Christopher Aguilar, Carlos Chang, DT Matias, Alex Sanchez, and Reuben Uy as the significantly pared-down Cagelle dancers. Under the sharp yet fluid direction of Tim Dang, complimented perfectly by his remarkably clever design team and the energetic, delightfully tongue-in-cheek choreography by Reggie Lee, instead of relying on Ru Paul overindulgence, the modest but versatile David Henry Hwang stage is filled with energy and personal passion without huge sets resembling a hotel lobby in Dubai. La Cage is, to paraphrase the famous words of its own legendary composer-lyricist, back where it belongs.
  

May 21, 2016
 
May 12–June 26. 120 Judge John Aiso St., downtown LA. Wed-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $48–$58, student and senior discounts available. (213) 625-7000 x20.

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I Only Have Eyes for You
Ricardo Montalban Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


The kick line
Photo by Michael Lamont

A musical based on the life of Busby Berkeley’s lyricist Al Dubin is a great idea. However, I Only Have Eyes for You, the musical about Dubin that recently opened at the Montalban Theatre in Hollywood, is far from a great idea.
   There are a tremendous number of problems here that not even über-talented director-choreographer Kay Cole and her splendid ensemble of some of LA’s best musical performers can overcome. Cole’s task of moving her players around the Montalban’s cavernous stage, with only one long stationary platform in the rear and most other scenes presented on rickety and cramped mobile trucks pushed and pulled on and offstage by stagehands wearing matching overalls, would be a daunting mission for anyone without overdosing on industrial-strength Tylenol. And although Cole’s choreography shines brilliantly throughout, executed with precision by her veteran troupe of hoofers, it’s what comes between them that drags the effort down to the depths and makes one wish the dialogue would disappear and this had been mounted instead as an all-singing, all-dancing musical revue.
   Jared Gertner as Dubin, a brash and at first seemingly self-assured man who brags he could rhyme birdseed with taxicab, is incredible in the role. Not only does he capture the descent of this once-successful self-destructive little man, he knocks his songs out onto Vine Street, especially with a lovely rendition of “For You” and later a plaintive interpretation of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” As his long-suffering wife, Helen, Nikki Bohne soars in her opening numbers, “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” and Dubin’s suggestive early “Frankfurter Sandwich,” written with composers Ed Nelson and Harry Pease before Dubin met Harry Warren. Bohne’s final torchy rendition of the title song is also a memorable turn, but in the nonmusical scenes she doesn’t stand much of a chance, considering that Jerry Leichtling and Arlene Sarner’s script gives her little to do except look tortured and distraught as Helen’s marriage faces more dips than a rollercoaster.

Justin Michael Wilcox is rather remarkable mimicking the voice and presence of Al Jolson performing “About a Quarter to Nine” at the Coconut Grove when the Dubins and Warrens first relocate to Hollywood and, as Dubin’s also long-suffering wife, Ruby Keeler, Kayla Parker sings and dances far better than the original, who talk-sang Dubin’s lyrics in all the Berkeley films and resembled one of the hippos in Fantasia whenever she started to tap. The estimable Valerie Perri has too-brief moments as Dubin’s stiff-backed mother, Minna, especially taking the stage to deliver a haunting version of “September in the Rain,” a highlight of the evening along with Cole’s showstopping first-act finale featuring the ensemble performing a well-rehearsed version of “42nd Street” which pays sly homage to Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett at the same time.
   Still, although the sad downhill spiral of one of the era’s most successful songsmiths is indeed worthy of retelling, this production tries to tell it utilizing Dubin’s own mostly exceptionally light and cherry music. As his depression and substance abuse problems deepen, worsening after he and Warren won an Oscar for “Lullaby of Broadway,” linking Dubin’s plight with tunes like “Don’t Give Up the Ship” and “Painting the Clouds with Sunshine” is a major stretch. Without the mad and glitzy Berkeley touch, with cameras above the stage shooting a sea of showgirls lifting their legs with uniformity, the songs seem sappier and more terminally corny than tongue-in-cheek, as they did when all those wonderful old musicals helped raise the spirits of the nation during the Great Depression. Poking fun at the silly exaggerations of the genre is what works for the stage version of 42nd Street; trying to tell a serious tale between production numbers featuring a line of desperately grinning tap dancers does not.

The next problem is the venue. Why anyone would try to mount the debut of such a grand and obviously expensive musical production in a behemoth of a theater with 1,038 seats to fill is puzzling; it looks as though it were a little kid floating in the too-big clothes of an older sibling. Not even the skills of set designer John Iacovelli and sound magician Cricket Myers can make this production seem intimate. The many sets, including those plywood-looking mobile trucks and other locations flown in on weaving painted canvas drops, look surprisingly flimsy and unfinished, dwarfed by the size of the Montalban’s stage, while the heavily body-miked performers sound as though they’re talking through Rudy Vallee’s megaphone. The use of a decorative false proscenium could have reined the space in—not to mention kept the audience, even on the far sides of the Montalban’s center section, from watching the stagehands outfit the trucks in the wings with new panels and set pieces before rolling them on for each new scene.
   Beyond all other problems, however, looms the real elephant in the room or, in this case, the dinosaur. Leichtling and Sarner’s book is just plain awful—dated, silly, and, above all, wincingly predictable. And just when one would think the worst song intro ever written happened when Raul Roulien first romanced Dolores Del Rio in Flying Down to Rio, try this one, as Helen asks Al if he really means it when he says he loves her: “Of course!” he answers, “and that’s why I wrote this for you,” before launching into “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”

May 16, 2016
 
May 13–June 12. 1615 Vine St., Hollywood. Wed-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. $40–80. (323) 461-6999.

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The Boy From Oz
Celebration Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Andrew Bongiorno and cast
Photo by Casey Kringlen

The Celebration Theatre could not have provided a more impressive welcome for the long-overdue West Coast debut of this once-lavish ultraglitzy musical extravaganza, for which Hugh Jackman won a Tony Award in 2004 playing Peter Allen. Ironically, the Celebration’s new location, the former 55-seat Lex Theatre, would at first glance seem to be quite a comedown for The Boy From Oz after first premiering in 1998 at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney, Australia, and playing to more than 1.2 million patrons in Allen’s native country before opening on the Great White Way some 13 years later and running nearly a year at the 1,400-seat Imperial Theatre.
   Oddly, this diminutive venue is ideal for recounting the life story of the irrepressible and ubertalented Allen, even though, as Ben Brantley noted in his original review of the Broadway production in The New York Times, it’s an “indisputably bogus show.” Granted, this is a highly whitewashed CliffNotes version of Allen’s fairytale (no pun intended) rise from farm boy to stardom. Regardless, it also handsomely represents the unquenchable spirit and courage to be himself at any cost that made Allen’s career something to applaud. In an age long before a musical performer’s sexual orientation became a non-issue, no one tested the waters and broke barriers better than he did.
   The Lex’s postage stamp–size stage would make any less adventurous director or choreographer run for the hills, but thankfully, it’s Michael A. Shepperd and Janet Roston who here whisk us off to Oz, showing anyone lucky enough to see this production that the Celebration clearly knows how to celebrate. Shepperd’s staging and Roston’s dance moves could not more impressively utilize every inch of this playing space, filling it with contagiously overachieving performances and featuring a high-spirited live band in view just above the action. Add in strikingly glittery imaginative costuming by Michael Mullin, giving pause to wonder how they could be created on an intimate-theater budget, and this Oz has everything but a yellow brick road and a horse of a different color.

The first daring yet ultimately wise decision was to slim down the size of the musical’s ensemble, casting an energetic, infectiously ballsy squad of 12 to assay every character who energized Allen’s journey from rural Tenterfield, New South Wales, to international superstardom, an Academy Award, and his sad untimely death from AIDS at age 48. Only five castmembers play single characters throughout: Andrew Bongiorno, never offstage as Peter; Kelly Lester as his patient mother, Marion; Michayla Brown as the entertainer as a child; Bess Motta as Judy Garland, Peter’s first mentor; and Jessica Pennington as her daughter and eventually Peter’s ex-wife Liza Minnelli. All other players take on multiple roles and morph into an exceptional all-singing, all-dancing chorus to deliver the show’s big production numbers.
   To Shepperd’s credit, the cast is also an eclectic troupe. In this substantially spare Emerald City cleverly designed by Yuri Okahana, telling a tale traveling from Australia to Hong Kong to New York, the performers range from the exceptionally tall Marcus S. Daniel to the teeny-tiny Shanta Marie Robinson whom Shepperd and Roston place at either end of a dance line seemingly to emphasize and perhaps even poke fun at the diversity of their casting choices. And when Daniel cross-dresses as a leggy Radio City Rockette, he reveals an unmistakable resemblance to Charlotte Greenwood, who once described herself as the only woman in the world who could kick a giraffe in the eye.
   Bongiorno has all the charm and much of the unstoppable charisma of Allen, who was a nearly impossible act to follow. Lester is a standout as his long-suffering mother, especially delivering the plaintive “Don’t Cry Out Loud” as her son battles his final unwinnable battle. The seriously adorable Brown is delightful playing Peter as a child, cast presumably when it proved impossible to find a male that age able to play the precociously flamboyant Peter Woolnough, a kid with an instinctual and uncontainable need to sing, dance, and pose in style.
   Still, the most jaw-dropping performances come from Motta and Pennington. Both prove physical dead ringers for the mother and daughter. Pennington finds much of Minnelli’s sweetness, her early discouragement existing in the darkest corners of her mother’s enormous shadow, and her discomfort with her own eventual stardom—which never brought the happiness she’s always sought. She knocks it out of the park belting the spirited “She Loves to Hear the Music” and later teaming with Bongiorno for the haunting ballad “You and Me (We Wanted It All)” during the onetime couple’s final goodbye.
   Motta channels every tick, every passionately clumsy body movement, every vocal crack, every eye-roll of the tortured Garland in unearthly detail. From her first appearance, in 1966 when Garland’s fourth husband and Allen’s latest trick Mark Herron checked her out of the hospital to see him perform at a club in Hong Kong, Motta is totally sensational, finding Garland’s wicked self-deprecating humor and entitled irascibility with ease. After waking from a nine-day coma to see Peter and his partner Chris Bell (Daniel) perform, Garland soon ribs him for being so green, solidifying their ensuing longtime friendship after seeing his gleeful reaction to her quipping, “I’ll bet you haven’t even had your stomach pumped yet.” Asked to sing a number for the crowd, Motta wails a plaintive “All I Wanted Was the Dream,” which Garland soon added to her repertoire after Peter and Bell began touring as her opening act.

There are inaccuracies in Martin Sherman and Nick Enright’s book, most glaring in the depiction of Allen’s longtime lover Greg Connell (Michael Mittman). The book portrays the sweetly ethereal Texas top fashion model as a butch and somewhat pushy businessman working in advertising when the two met; instead, Connell was managing a restaurant in Greenwich Village at the time. Still, the unfolding of their amazingly loving and supportive relationship is poignantly told.
   Above all, however, it’s the score that makes this such a striking tribute to Allen’s world-class talent. Although the program credits all music and lyrics culled from his own staggeringly prolific songbook, ignoring except in the small print the contribution of Carole Bayer Sager as lyricist in many of his later tunes, the creative genius of this one man is beautifully honored. From “Everything Old Is New Again” to the Olivia Newton-John hit “I Honestly Love You” to the Oscar-winning “Arthur’s Theme (When You Get Caught Between the Moon and New York City)” to the spectacular “I Go to Rio”—which, enhanced by Mullin’s insanely fantastic costuming, affords a suitably showstopping finale—The Boy From Oz chronicles a time when it took an idiosyncratic artist with the soul and audacity of Allen to help change the world in the most melodic way.

May 9, 2016
 
April 29–June 19. 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $40–45. (323) 957-1884.

www.celebrationtheatre.com

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