Steven Stanley’s StageSceneLA is changing, with exciting new features and an all new look by JasonFrazierCreativeDesign.com debuting August 12.

In the meantime, thank you for visiting this temporary site, on which you will find reviews of all currently running productions, as well as some which have closed recently.

Visit the new StageSceneLA starting August 12 and the first thing you’ll find will be all the latest reviews and interviews, beginning with the most recent.

All reviews will now be “tagged,” allowing StageSceneLA readers to make a quick list of each and every “Now Playing” production as well as those tagged with a “WOW!.” You will also be able to find reviews by “genre,” “location,” and other tags. Interviews will be tagged as well, allowing for quick accessing of all StageSceneLA interviews.

A brand new search function will allow readers to find any play or musical by name, as well as any reviews in which a particular actor performed, which a particular director directed, or which a particular designer designed, etc.

The new StageSceneLA will continue to feature complete lists of all StageSceneLA Award winners over the past six years—with our 2010-12 Awards to be announced mid-September. StageSceneLA will no longer feature listings of upcoming and unreviewed productions, the better to concentrate on its forte: Spotlighting The Best In Southern California Theater in its reviews and interviews.

Review archives will be restored gradually—hopefully by the end of September 2011. In the meantime, please feel free to send an email request for a PDF file of any previous StageSceneLA review to StageSceneLA@gmail.com.

Thanks as always for visiting Steven Stanley’s StageSceneLA: Spotlighting The Best In Southern California Theater. And thanks especially for your patience during this exciting period of transition.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

PASSING PROPER/PASSION AND PRECISION



A would-be screenwriter attempts to navigate the shark-ridden Hollywood waters in Passion And Precision, the second of a matched set of one-acts by Joe Davis Massingill. That the first of the two, Passing Proper, just happens to be a staged version of the very screenplay the writer is hoping to sell is just one of several reasons to check out the two plays running on a single bill at Theatre 68.

Passing Proper stars Massingill and Forrest Lancaster as Bud and Will, a pair of Arizona outlaws who’ve hopped a California-bound freight train with five thousand dollars in stolen bills and no idea of what their next move will be. Before long, a Spanish-accented stranger named Carl (Ray Cosico) has popped into their car and explained the reason for the stacks of long-untouched boxes surrounding them. “Folks call this the ‘Ghost Train,’” Carl reveals. “This baby rolls back and forth across the Southwest, with twenty five cars that carry tons of nothing. Lost, roaming the desert, lost without a purpose.” Sort of like our ragtag pair of antiheroes.

Carl doesn’t stick around for long, and his place is soon taken by Lily (Alex Oliver), a pretty, guitar-strumming drifter who’s fallen in love with the ghost train and made it her home.

It takes only a short while for Lily to provide Bud with yet another reminder of what it’s like to be sidekick to a hottie like Will. (“Women choose to sleep with you, just for the joy of sleeping with you,” Bud has commented earlier on. “To sleep with me, she's either gettin' something else out of it, she loves me, or she's making a mistake that she won't realize till she sees me naked in the morning.”) With Bud still bleeding from a gunshot wound and sexual sparks a-smoldering’ between Will and Lily, anyone who expects the trio to ride off into the sunset together might want to rethink that notion.

Passion And Precision begins Film Noir style with screenwriter Trick (Massingill) flashing us back to his first meeting with up-and-coming literary agent Jake (Lancaster). “I had been in Los Angeles for six months, spinning my wheels,” he recalls. “I saw an ad on-line for a screenplay contest. The only thing I'd written was a play, about a ‘Ghost Train,’ so I adapted it, best I could. Never heard from the contest, but a couple weeks later, I get a call from a guy…”

The scene then shifts to Jake’s mostly unfurnished office as he interviews (and simultaneously hits on) Michelle (Oliver), a smart, sassy, sexy redhead who’s come about a job opening as his assistant. Since Michelle is not only a looker but can give as good she gets, it’s no wonder the job is soon hers.

Enter Trick, whose excitement about Jake’s interest in his work soon turns to disappointment when he learns what The Edge Network really has in mind—an hour-long dramatic series based on his screenplay. Unwilling to sacrifice his principles even if it means giving up big bucks and waiting another five years for his big break, Trick resists Jake’s every effort to wear him down, unaware that the agent’s motivations may well be even shadier than they seem.

Massingill’s dialog crackles, particularly in the Mametian second act, and he has written Lancaster, Oliver, and himself two terrific pairs of roles. Each play could stand some pruning, however, particularly the rather too talky Passion And Precision, whose length dilutes the impact of its nifty payoff. (A two-hour running time including intermission would be ideal for the two-play package.) This reviewer also found it hard to imagine how “Ghost Train” could be expanded into an episodic series, but then again, I’m not a network exec.

No quibbles can be made, however, about the cast’s crackerjack performances, honed razor sharp under Jamison Jones’ assured direction. Lancaster, like Alec Baldwin in his 20something days, possesses leading man good looks, a sexy edginess, and acting chops to match. Particularly in Act Two, the handsome 6-footer manages Massingill’s rapid-fire dialog with spontaneity, fire, and not a moment of uncertainty. Oliver’s folksy, sultry Lily and her smart, sassy Michelle reveal a promising, highly watchable young actress who can more than hold her own opposite any scene partner. She’s also quite a singer-guitarist (and co-wrote “Over The Border” with Massingill). Massingill is, like Jack Black, a character actor with leading man appeal who just happens to have written himself a bang-up acting showcase. Cosico is so dynamic and appealing as street-smart Carl that one wishes the playwright had figured out a way to use him in Act Two. (Poor guy doesn’t even get a curtain call.)

Danny Darst’s original background music enhances Massingill’s storytelling. Design elements are uncredited. Lighting, sound, and costume designs are all first-rate; however, intimate theater aficionados may be disappointed in the two plays’ merely workmanlike scenic designs. Angelica Santos is producer, Kourtney Sonntag stage manager, and Tanya Wilkins and Dan Hutchinson techs.

Though no writer enjoys deleting pages of dialog he’s worked hard to create (and no actor enjoys losing them), Passing Proper and Passion And Precision represent a case when less might add up to considerably more. Even at a longer than optimum running time, however, they introduce a talented new playwright to Los Angeles audiences and some exciting new L.A.-based performers as well.

Note: Sunday evening performances feature an alternate cast of seven actors, each playing a single role.

Theatre 68, 5419 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. Through August 21. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 3:00 and 8:00. Reservations: 323 960-5068
www.theatre68.com
www.passingproper.com
--Steven Stanley
August 7, 2011



Monday, August 8, 2011

CORPUS CHRISTI




WOW!
CORPUS CHRISTI

I’ll admit it. I was a Doubting Thomas. As curious as I was about seeing a fresh new take on Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, the one production I’d seen previously at Long Beach’s Garage Theatre had not boded well for a second, nor did the discovery that the show was being helmed by a young actor making his directorial debut. Still, the chance to see Corpus Christi again was too tempting to turn down, and August being the quietest theatrical month of the year, this skeptic decided to give the Garage a second chance.

Now I’m not sure if the Biblical Doubting Thomas had a hat to eat, but having now seen Corpus Christi at the Garage, this reviewer humbly eats his chapeau. I was blown away by Tito Ortiz’s brilliant directorial debut in a beautifully conceived, designed, and executed production of one of McNally’s most loved, hated, and misunderstood plays.

Corpus Christi is the Tony Award-winning playwright’s highly controversial reimagining of the Gospels as set in his hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas—written to be performed by an all-male cast playing both disciples and supporting roles, male and female.

Where McNally and his play drew the ire and protests of religious fundamentalists was in its depiction of Jesus as a gay man, at least some of whose disciples were also gay, including Judas, whom McNally imagines to be the proverbial love of His life.

Protestors, virtually none of whom had seen or read the play, missed the point (as they seem to do so well in matters Biblical). Corpus Christi is not about a “gay Jesus” per se, nor does it “defame His Holy Name” as picketers insisted. What it does do—with humor, drama, and more than a few four-letter epithets—is present Jesus’ life and words in a new context, and to an audience whose experiences with organized religion may have made them resistant to what is in essence a very humanity-affirming message.

This message has now come to Long Beach in a production that deserves to be seen by any lover of fine theater within driving radius of the Garage. Corpus Christi’s message spoke so strongly to the production’s 20something fledgling director that he convinced the Garage, not only to include Corpus Christi as part of its current season, but also to entrust him with its staging, a decision whose wisdom is borne out by this quite miraculous production.

Ortiz has reconfigured the black-box Garage so that a mere two rows of thirteen seats each—running lengthwise opposite sides of its rectangle—make its audience an extension of Corpus Christi’s cast of thirteen, a concept particularly effective when the Last Supper is performed at one end of the rectangle, the table extending to include the entire audience as supper guests.

Corpus Christi begins with one of its actors informing those in attendance that “there are no tricks up our sleeve. No malice in our hearts.” Then, as another actor begins to sing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” each performer is welcomed into the play by the actor portraying John The Baptist with the words, “I bless you. I baptize you and recognize your divinity as a human being. I adore you, and christen you …,” followed by the name of the disciple he will be playing.

Ortiz gives his actors free rein to enjoy these opening moments, as the baptized receive anything from a few drops of water to a real drenching, a joyously irreverent (though by no means sacreligious) tone that will be maintained throughout the production’s engrossing, intermissionless hour and forty minutes.

Whatever initial qualms this reviewer had about the production’s entirely non-Equity cast were erased from the moment each one first spoke. Whether BFA grads or theatrical neophytes, Ortiz’s cast display a naturalness and ease with McNally’s words which belies their youth and (in some cases) lack of a lengthy résumé. Twelve very different actors, each with a distinctive take on his role(s), and at their center, Jeffrey Fargo’s revelatory work as Joshua, as McNally has rechristened the Jesus of Corpus Christi.

Words cannot suffice to describe the many ways director Ortiz, his cast, and his topnotch design team have brought Corpus Christi to such vivid life. As a director, Ortiz is unfailingly imaginative, particularly considering the production’s obvious shoestring budget. Yammy Swoot’s lighting design (Swoot’s name seems suspiciously close to assistant director Jamie Sweet’s) and Matthew Anderson’s sound design combined with Geraldine Uy’s costumes and highly ingenious props work wonders with Ortiz and Sweet’s simple but effective set design.

No Corpus Christi can succeed without a commanding leading man, and Fargo’s performance commands attention from his first words, despite (or perhaps because of) being cast against type. Where other productions may have cast a more traditional leading man in the role, Ortiz’s choice of an actor more easily imagined as math geek or theater nerd proves inspired. McNally does after all paint Joshua as a bullied misfit of a child, one more likely to break out into South Pacific’s “I'm In Love With A Wonderful Guy” than play football with the jocks, and it’s precisely because Fargo is not the first actor you’d imagine playing Jesus that his performance works so well, that and the indefinable something called talent that commands an audience’s attention and wins their hearts.

Supporting Fargo are Paul Anderson (Bartholomew, Motel Manager, Peggy Powell, Nun), Jeff Budner (James The Less, God, Billy Brown, Poor Woman), Matt Craig (Andrew, Bert Moody, Pilate’s Wife, Crucified Man), Robert Flores (Thaddeus, Room Service #2, Centurion, Barabbas), Will Gorin (Matthew, Coach/Priest, Truck Driver #3, High Priest) , Matt Guerra (James, Woman Next Door, Mrs. McElroy, Little Boy), Brandon Kasper (John, Dub Taylor, Simon of Cyranae), Beau McCoy (Philip, Joseph, Beau Hunter, Truck Driver #2, Carpenter, Pilate), Raymond McFarland (Judas), Will Proctor (Thomas, Room Service #3, Patricia Rudd, Sister Joseph, Lazarus, Soldier), Shawn Stenger (Simon, Room Service #1, High School Singer, Penny, Crucified Man), and Evan Wallace (Peter, Mary, Spider Sloan, James Dean).

While each of the above contributes immeasurably to Corpus Christi’s success, a number of cast members stand out in particular. Gorin’s versatility shines as a bullying coach/priest, a blind trucker with a Texas twang, and a menacing high priest; Guerra’s drama teacher Mrs. McElroy is a fluttery delight; McCoy gives power and stage presence to hustler Philip and a half-dozen others; Proctor makes for an adorably dorky Patricia and a divine Sister Joseph; and Wallace’s chain-smoking tough gal Mary and sexy James Dean are both star turns. Finally, McFarland positively smolders as a smooth-talking, muscular, nipple-ringed Judas, whose interracial relationship with Joshua adds an extra layer of edginess to McNally’s already envelope-pushing play.

A Word To The Wise: A mere twenty-six seats are available for each performance of Corpus Christi’s remaining three Thursday-Friday-Saturday weekends, adding up to a total of only 234 very lucky ticketholders (barring an extension or move to another space, either of which this reviewer highly recommends).

Tito Ortiz and company have turned this Doubting Thomas into a True Believer just as they have turned this production of Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi into something quite miraculous indeed.

Note: Thursday performances are Trevor Thursdays. 1/2 of all ticket sales will go to help The Trevor Project. www.thetrevorproject.org All Thursday performances will be followed by a talk-back with the cast and crew of Corpus Christi.

The Garage Theatre, 251 E. 7th St., Long Beach. Through August 27. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Reservations: 866 811-4111
www.thegaragetheatre.org
--Steven Stanley
August 5, 2011
Photos: www.freshframefoto.com



Sunday, August 7, 2011

THE DEVIL AND DAISY JANE



WOW!
THE DEVIL AND DAISY JANE
When Andy Warhol spoke about a future in which everyone would get his or her very own Fifteen Minutes Of Fame, he might well have been talking about today’s World Of Reality TV—a universe in which no-talents like the Kardashians, the Hiltons, and John & Kate can become overnight sensations just by being themselves.

Though admittedly it does take more than mere luck to become a finalist on American Idol, many a gifted vocalist has discovered that talent alone cannot guarantee enough Yes votes to reach even the semifinals, a fact that may have inspired Lisa Marinacci and Jeremy Lewit to write The Devil And Daisy Jane, their clever, biting, always entertaining pop/rock satire of A.I. and its many imitators—a musical that transposes the legend of Faust into the world of 21st Century pop.

Daisy Jane (Marinacci) and boyfriend Ben (Harley Jay) are contestants 9,000,006 and 9,000,007 to vie for a top spot on America’s Next Super Pop Star, a show that has already brought pop stardom to diva divine Zora (Katherine Malak) and The Pop Tartz (Gina D’Acciaro, Jayme Lake, and Cloie Wyatt Taylor). Unfortunately, the acoustic pop sound of Daisy and Ben’s self-penned “Enough” (“The guitar is my blanket, I live inside my song”) gets them cut off almost immediately by judges Zora (“Can we talk about what you’re wearing? Where’d you even get that?”) and Mo (“Take your tambourine back to your local karaoke bar, because that’s as far as you’ll ever get in this business.”) and host Bobby Shrub (“We’ll be back with more stars-in-the-making and pathetic wannabes right after these messages.”).

Daisy Jane’s failure is the only cue needed by Soul Blaze Records president Lucas Smith Jr. (Anthony Manough) to offer the singer-songwriter an exclusive deal—and certain stardom, and all she has to do is drop appendage Ben and become Luc’s exclusive property. Though at first Daisy isn’t all that sure she wants to leave her boyfriend/song partner in the lurch, a glimpse at the homeless subway rider Luc offered a deal to years ago (“but he wasn’t willing to do what it takes”) is enough to convince Daisy to sign on the proverbial dotted line.

Before long, Daisy Jane has become Pop Tart Number Four, taking lessons from Zora in “Altitude” (“You gotta own the stage, you gotta strut and flaunt”) and demonstrating so much starisma that Lucas offers her very own solo album deal, that is after he cancels Zora’s tour, the better to focus all eyes on Daisy.

As for Ben, his every effort to get past Luc’s gay assistant Byron (Patrick Hancock) proves in vain (“The doors are always locked, There’s no way in”), and he can only watch as Daisy begins dating “super-hunk” Chad Hammock, appearing on shows like the Performer’s Pick Awards, making music videos, and becoming America’s “biggest baddest star.”

Will Ben find a way to get even one of his love letters into Daisy Jane’s hands? Will Zora ever get out of rehab and back to the top of the charts? Will Daisy regret her decision to sign with Luc?

The answers to these (and other) questions may not be all that hard to divine, but in The Devil And Daisy Jane, the fun is in the getting there, and considerable fun that is, thanks to Marinacci’s rocking good songs, the clever book she’s written with Lewit, and the all-around sensational work being done on stage by the Daisy Jane cast (under the devilishly inspired direction of Robert Marra) and musicians (under Brent Crayon’s splendid musical direction).

You know you’re in for an evening of fun when even character names (Bobby Shrub, Chad Hammock, Juliette Della Pants) get laughs, but Marinacci’s and Lewit’s book is jam-packed with hilarious lines from start to finish. Here are some personal favorites:

Luc: See Zora, it only took you a month to turn bright and shiny into slick and skanky.

Bobby Shrub: Stay tuned for more updates from inside the litter box. We’re sniffing out the poop and giving you the scoop. I’m Bobby Shrub.

Luc: Remember Alanis Morissette, the queen of anger? She started saying things like “Thank You India” and poof, no one cared.

As the last quote suggests, the talent behind The Devil And Daisy Jane know well the music industry about which they write, and their musical is all the more entertaining for being incisive—as well as loads of fun. It may also be the most PG-13 show (with an emphasis on the 13 for adult language and themes) ever staged at Actors-Co-op , though it comes nowhere near an R, in case you’re worried about taking teens to see it.

The performers assembled on the Crossley Theatre stage by Actors Co-op simply couldn’t be better, or better cast, beginning with Marinacci, whose girl-next-door prettiness and powerful rocker’s voice make her the perfect Daisy Jane. Jay brings his boy-next-door-with-an edge charm and terrific pipes to the role of Ben, leaving one only to wish that the role offered the StageSceneLA Award winner a chance to show off his Footloose footwork. As for the titular Devil, no one in L.A. theater sings more dynamically or soulfully than the charismatic Manough, making Daisy’s decision to sign on the dotted line a no-brainer.

A trio of performers provide the scene-stealingest supporting turns in parts any comedic actor would make a deal with the Devil to book. Byron is easily the most flamboyantly gay character ever seen at the Co-op, and Hancock plays the role with such infectious joie-de-vivre that you want to bottle his performance, take it home, and savor it whenever you’re feeling “a little self-conscious anxiety resulting in non-specific sadness.” (Theater queens will get the reference.) Malak virtually redefines Pop Diva in the role of Zora, a part she plays with the ferocity of a tigress and the outrageousness of a Saturday Night Life comedienne at her most outrageous, along with one-of-a-kind dance moves that even a thousand words could not properly describe. Tauzin lucks out with a grand total of eight cameos, ranging from street-talking Mo to dazed-and-confused Homeless Musician, to fabuleux French Music Director to heavy metal guitarist G-String—each and every one a dazzler.

As the Pop Tartz, D’Acciaro (ghetto girl Shalisa), Taylor (dumb blonde Tanya), and Lake (sexy stoner Carmen) are fabulously funny and fiercely fabulous, with vocal chops to match. Kyle Nudo’s hilarious Bobby Shrub is the epitome of every slick-surfaced, vacant-eyed TV personality ever to host a reality show. Lovely Megan Yaleney is a hoot in half-a-dozen cameo roles, my personal favorite being the abovementioned Juliette Della Pants, the amalgam of every glamour-gowned showbiz reporter to red-carpet interview Hollywood celebs.

Orchestrator/music director extraordinaire plays live onstage keyboards alongside guitarist Chris Mello, bassist Oliver Steinberg, and drummer Jim Hardiman, giving cast members the best possible musical backup.

Mark Svastics has designed a dramatically effective set, with metal scaffolding which morphs quickly into a bunch of different locales, aided by Kris Fitzgerald’s visual media design and Svastic’s own Vegas-style lighting design. Ariel Boroff’s costumes are eye-catching treats. Opening night sound problems plagued several characters, making it hard to comment accurately on live audio technician Anna Gramlich’s sound design. Fritz Davis is audio/video technician, Kevin Cantens audio technician, Caitlin Barbieri stage manager, and Jacquie Adorni assistant stage manager. Audio/video systems have been provided by Digital Theatre Technologies. The Devil And Daisy Jane is produced by Marinacci and D’Acciaro.

A Daisy Jane reading last January prompted this reviewer to write, “Can't wait to see it in full production and give it a WOW!” Now a featured selection of the Los Angeles Festival of New American Musicals, The Devil And Daisy Jane does indeed get an enthusiastic WOW! in fully-staged form. As for its future life beyond its current all-too-short two-week run, no pact with Satan need be made to insure its future success. With its combination of pizzazz and bite, The Devil And Daisy Jane makes for one deliciously devilish (and devilishly delicious) show.

Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood. Through August 14. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:00. Sundays at 2:30. Saturday matinees are May 14 and 21 at 2:30. Reservations: 323 462-8460 x 300
www.actorsco-op.org
--Steven Stanley
August 4, 2011

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

HIGH FIDELITY



WOW!
HIGH FIDELITY

“I just can't understand critics. If a musical isn't completely unique it gets trashed. I read some of the reviews and could not believe what I read. Good Songs, Good Acting, Good Chemistry, Good Creative team, etc, etc, etc. So what was wrong? Well, the answer is … nothing!”

Amazon.com customer Lance J. Hermus took the words right out of my mouth in reviewing the Original Cast Recording of High Fidelity—and for proof that this Broadway flop does in fact do everything right, simply head on down to Fullerton for an out-and-out sensational High Fidelity that puts New York Times Theater Critic Ben Brantley to shame.

Granted, a musical about the owner of “The Last Real Record Store On Earth” may well be TGFB (Too Grungy For Broadway) and ought perhaps to have opted for an off (or off-off) Broadway run. As a matter of fact, High Fidelity probably works best in a venue like Hunger Artists’, hidden inside a Fullerton industrial park and therefore not all that far removed from Championship Vinyl, the used record shop where our antihero Rob and his ragtag band of friends and customers hang out from dawn to dusk.

Even so, with music as eminently hummable as Tom (Next To Normal) Kitt’s, lyrics as clever as those written by Amanda Green (daughter of fabled lyricist Adolph), and a book as winning as David (Rabbit Hole) Lindsay-Abaire’s (based on Nick Hornby’s popular novel), High Fidelity deserved a far, far better fate than a mere month on Broadway, and there ought to have been dozens of regional productions over the past five years, rather than a mere handful before Hunger Artists’ auspicious West Coast Premiere, directed with energy, imagination, and verve by Anthony Galleran.

High Fidelity opens with the introduction of the aforementioned Rob, a 30ish dude whose life consists of “cable and a girlfriend who is pissed off (but she's hot), records that it's taken me a lifetime to amass,” and Championship Vinyl. Assisting Rob in his day-to-day labors are Barry and Dick (“They came as temps. But then they started showing up here every day! It's been four years. They just won't leave.”) As for the threesome’s lives afterhours, Rob’s rent check has just bounced, Barry still lives at home, and Dick stays up all night watching Mary Tyler Moore. Not unexpectedly, their love lives aren’t all that much better. (Rob’s girl holds out, Barry’s inflates, and Dick thinks he had sex once but he’s not sure.)

All this we find out in “The Last Real Record Store,” an opening number so exciting and imaginative that most musicals could only wish they had one half this good. With thrilling melody, rhythm, and key changes coming one after another, Kitt and Green’s humdinger of a song gives us ten of the most exhilarating minutes ever to open a tiny little musical, fills us in on exactly what life inside Championship is like, and promises one heck of an entertaining ride to come.

Rob soon informs us (in one of his many heart-to-hearts with the audience) that a) his girlfriend Laura has broken up with him and that b) if he were to make up a list of his Top Five Breakups, she wouldn’t even make the Top Ten. (Of course we know he’s lying, since it’s clear from the get-go that he and Laura are MFEO.) In any case, regardless of the veracity of his claim, it serves as a pretext for a Musical Number #2, one that nearly matches the first in sheer high-spiritedness, as Rob enumerates his “Desert Island Top 5 Break-Ups,” backed by a quintet of exes who can sing and move as good as they look—which is pretty darned good indeed. (We’ll see more of this “Greek Girl Chorus” as the show progresses, and ingeniously so.)

Rob's story arc, as conceived of by Hornby in his novel and Lindsay-Abaire in his ingenious musical stage adaptation, is far more a journey towards adulthood, towards adult commitments, than a simple boy loses girl, boy gets girl back cliché—and is all the richer for not taking the easy romcom route (though we do indeed follow Rob’s efforts to win Laura back as well as his two coworkers’ attempts at forging lives for themselves outside the shop). Supporting characters include Rob’s ballsy best friend Liz, his new-agey upstairs neighbor Ian (who has a thing for Laura), and Championship Vinyl denizens Middle-Aged Guy, TMPMITW (The Most Pathetic Man In The World), Hipster, and Mohawk Guy.

In addition to their opening pair of showstoppers, Kitt and Green have written a number of terrific follow-up songs, including the joyously rocking “Nine Percent Chance” (these are the odds Laura gives Rob of coming back to him), “I Slept With Someone (Who Slept With Lyle Lovett” (which has Rob nearly jumping for joy to be “sleeping with a rock star. Well, a rock star once removed…”), the power-ballady “Cryin’ In The Rain,” and the soft-rocking “Turn The World Off (And Turn You On).” “Conflict Resolution” crosses over to Heavy Metal territory, and therefore is one I usually skip over on the CD, but with its repeated fast-rewinds performed live by some amazingly dexterous actors, it adds up to a good deal more fun on stage than on disk.

Of course none of the above would matter a whit were Hunger Artists’ intimate staging not blessed with a star-making lead performance by Sheldon Morley heading an all-around splendid cast, a trio of rockin’ good onstage musicians, and designers who make the very most of an obviously limited budget.

About Morley’s performance in The Full Monty a few years back, I wrote, “Sheldon Morley is the first Jerry I’ve seen who truly looks the part. (He) is also an excellent actor,” remarks which explain just two of the reasons he once again merits raves for his star turn as Rob. It’s easy to buy this big, scruffy dude as owning a rundown record shop, loving his 45s more than life itself, and screwing things up with a babe like Tara Pitt’s Laura (just as it’s easy to believe that Laura would fall for this Rob’s big big heart). Effortless at chewing the fat with the audience and never anything less than spontaneous in his interactions with other characters, Morley happens also to have just the right rocker pipes to belt out Rob’s songs precisely the way they should be belted.

Pitt is as lovely and engaging as ever, making the pre-Broadway excision of Laura’s big ballad “Too Tired” all the more regrettable. (Pitt deserves that song, and I would have loved to hear her sing it.) Lindsay Lee Lusk, Andrea Martyn, Katt McLaren, Sandy Moore, and Jennifer Pearce are Rob’s five exes, and as super as they are individually, they are even more terrific as a group, their “girl power” multiplied by five. Martyn doubles to fine effect as Rob’s tough-love bestie Liz, a sweet, sexy Moore also gets to play songstress Marie (the one who slept with Lyle Lovett), and the charming Lusk’s second role is as Anna, a cute nerdette who gives Dick hope that there may be a “a point, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, one percent chance she'll say yes.” As for Dick, Max Obita looks like he could easily have wandered in from a nearby record shop (or video arcade) were it not for his first-rate acting chops and vocals that make you realize, “Hey, the dude is a bona fide performer!” Duncan Hutchinson and Rocky Balboa too are absolutely believable as daily fixtures at Champion Vinyl.

A pair of supporting performances deserve special mention. Jeffery R. Rockey is a hoot and a half as Ian, milking the love guru’s every hippy-dippy moment for all its worth, and Topher Mauerhan, in addition to his bang-up work as Big Bad Barry, makes the show his own for five or so minutes as The Boss himself, Bruce S., in the showstoppingly Springsteenesque “Goodbye And Good Luck.”

Steeve Jacobs (TMPMITW) performs in the production’s excellent onstage three-piece band led by musical director Sarah Weinzetl, and sings a mean Neil Young. Though there’s more “movement” than dancing in High Fidelity, choreographer Katheleen Switzer has her entire cast moving to energetic perfection.

Ashley Martin’s scenic design has the look and feel of a rundown record store, and converts effortlessly and effectively into the High Fidelity’s other locales. Designers Nicholas Saiki (lighting) and Kris Kataoka (sound) get thumbs up for their excellent work, as does Mary Poplin for costumes that are exactly what you’d expect these folks to have bought for themselves. Jessica Kelly is stage manager.

Though High Fidelity may never be able to completely overcome the stigma of its untimely death by Brantley on the Great White Way, it more than merits a long afterlife in regional theater. St. Louis, Chicago, and Washington DC productions have garnered it the kind of positive notices that might have made it a New York hit the first time round. Then again, perhaps High Fidelity was never meant for a Broadway audience, but rather for folks like Rob and Barry and Dick themselves, each of whom would surely give the show a high five of approval. Then again, I’m as big a musical theater fan as they come, and it gets a high five from me too—and who knows? It might even get one from Ben Brantley, that is if he could ever be persuaded to give the show another look-see.

Hunger Artists Theatre Company, 699-A South State College Blvd, Fullerton. Through August 28. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 7:00. Special Thursday Night Performance, August 18 at 8:00. Reservations: 714 680-6803
www.hungerartists.com
--Steven Stanley
July 31, 2011
Photos: Thai Chau

Monday, August 1, 2011

ON GOLDEN POND



WOW!
ON GOLDEN POND

Hal Linden and Christina Pickles as Norman and Ethel Thayer in On Golden Pond. What more needs to be said? With stars like these in a play as beloved as Ernest Thompson’s Drama Desk Award-winning Outstanding New Play of 1979, Burbank’s Colony Theatre could well have its biggest hit ever, and justifiably so. Linden and Pickles deliver award-caliber performances in a play that hasn’t lost an iota of its humor or charm, directed to pitch perfect perfection by Cameron Watson, and featuring a supporting cast every bit as wonderful as its two stars.

If ever there were a play that hardly needed synopsizing, it’s On Golden Pond, the reason being of course its 1981 film adaptation, second only that year to Raiders Of The Lost Ark in box office receipts. Is there anyone who hasn’t seen Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn as the long-married Thayers enjoying perhaps their last vacation On (Lake) Golden Pond, accompanied that summer by their daughter Chelsea’s thirteen-year-old stepson-to-be? It’s hard to imagine a Colony theatergoer who doesn’t remember Ethel’s “Don’t be such an old poop” or Norman’s “‘Ethel Thayer.’ It thounds like I'm lithping, doethn't it?,” or teenage Billy’s revelation to Norman that when he and his friends “cruise chicks,” it’s cause they want to “suck face”?

Yes, indeed, On Golden Pond is the kind of play that brings back a flood of memories … to people who may well never have seen it live on stage—all the more reason to not to miss this superb revival.

Diehard movie fans may carp that some of the film’s most famous scenes are missing. You won’t witness Norman’s immediate terror as he finds himself lost in the woods, or Chelsea’s finally managing the back flip she could never do as a child, or the slap Ethel gives Chelsea when she feels her daughter has disparaged her father once too often. Missing too, for obvious reasons, are the film’s many scenes On Golden Pond itself, including those wonderful bonding moments between Norman and his surrogate grandson, fishing poles in hand.

Even in its original one-set form, however, On Golden Pond is about as sure-fire a crowd-pleaser as you’re ever likely to see on stage, and play-to-movie buffs will relish seeing how then thirty-year-old playwright Thompson was able to tell the same story he did in his screenplay without ever leaving the Thayer’s summer living room, and how he explored themes of mortality, marriage, and intergenerational miscommunication with equal depth and finesse.

It takes two powerhouse performers to stand up to memories of Fonda and Hepburn, but Linden and Pickles deliver the goods from delightful start to poignant finish, TV’s Barney Miller and (St. Elsewhere’s) Nurse Helen Rosenthal possessing the requisite charisma and virtuosity to make Norman and Ethel their own. That Linden and Pickles are the ages of the characters they play (and in one case several years older at that, though you’d never guess) adds to the production’s realism—and power. (The original Broadway stars Tom Aldridge and Frances Sternhagen were respectively 29 and 20 years younger than their roles back in 1979.) Not only are Linden and Pickles on top of their parts in a way actors half their age might fail to be, they make us feel almost as if we were discovering these iconic characters for the very first time, the two stars convincing us that this cranky old man and his long-suffering but adoring wife have truly been married for forty-eight years.

Supporting these two virtuosos are four of L.A.’s finest acting talents, beginning with the incandescent Monette Magrath as Chelsea, whose powerful scenes opposite Linden and Pickles reveal decades of a daughter’s built-up hurt and resentment. Brentwood School sophomore-to-be Nicholas Podany is, as they say, a find, bringing to the role of Billy a real-life teenager’s spontaneity, authenticity, and bravado. (It’s a shame the talented newcomer is given less to do than Doug McKeon was in the movie, because who wouldn’t want to spend more time with such a great kid?) As Chelsea’s fiancé Bill, Jonathan Stewart takes a part that might well come across a caricature in less skilled hands and makes the loquacious California dentist a real, sympathetic individual. Last but most definitely not least is Jerry Kernion’s brilliantly achieved featured turn as Charlie, Maine’s jolliest mailman, whom Kernion (so memorable a few years back in Rounding Third) gives a hilariously syncopated six-beat laugh that is only one of multiple reasons his work earns him a spontaneous round of applause on his first exit—and eager anticipation of his next entrance.

As for the sense of place so gorgeously rendered on film three decades ago, the Colony’s crackerjack design team come pretty darned close to matching it without a single exterior scene. Scenic designer John Iacovelli has created a living room set rich in the lived-in look the Thayers’ lakeside home would have had after half a century or more of use, with MacAndME’s marvelously detailed properties design and set dressing aiding immeasurably. (Only a 1990s-style cassette player seems out of place.) Lighting designer Jared A. Sayeg bathes the set in vivid summer hues, with distinctive patterns for each month and time of day, and a gorgeous approximation of the ripples of Golden Pond between scenes. Rebecca Kessin’s excellent sound design situates us smack dab in the middle of lake country, with its haunting loon calls, so integral to Thompson’s script. Ryan Shores’ original music has just the right “watercolored memories” feel to it. Terri A. Lewis costumes the cast in just-right late 1970s garb, with attention paid to each character’s age and personality traits. Alexander Berger is production stage manager.

On Golden Pond harkens back to the plays and productions that made the Colony’s reputation back in its 99-seat plan days, with the bonus of a considerably larger Equity budget. Older subscribers will find this particular Colony offering particularly up their alley, but anyone of any age will discover characters with whom to identify. Many are going to dub this production “Broadway caliber,” however since these days that might not be the compliment it once was, I’ll simply say that the Colony Theatre’s revival of On Golden Pond is Los Angeles theater at its very finest—and that is very fine indeed.

Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank. Through August 28. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00, Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00 and Sundays at 2:00 and 7:00. Reservations: 818 558-7000X15
www.colonytheatre.org
--Steven Stanley
July 30, 2011
Photos: Michael Lamont

Sunday, July 31, 2011

OUT OF MY HEAD



WOW!
OUT OF MY HEAD

Five 20somethings work on resolving personal issues via "free group therapy" as Mechanicals Theatre Group presents Out Of My Head, Ryan Scott Oliver’s highly enjoyable “song-cycle about breakdowns and breakthroughs.”

Though technically Out Of My Head's Los Angeles Premiere, all but three of the songs come from Oliver’s Making Beautiful, which played the Powerhouse Theatre back in 2005, about the time the Pasadena native and UCLA grad moved to New York to pursue his MFA studies at NYU. Unlike Making Beautiful, however, Out Of My Head gives each character a more clearly defined storyline thanks to Kirsten Guenther’s and Oliver’s fresh new book (and several new songs).

Under Jacob Harvey’s nuanced, imaginative direction, Out Of My Head introduces Angelinos to fourteen RSO creations as performed by an all-around terrific cast.

Jeni Incontro is the The Therapist (the only character who doesn’t sing), to whose “Facing Our Issues Head-On” therapy group our quintet have come, each with different issues to face.

They are (in order of first solo):

Anna Bowen as Woman 1, a painter struggling to get her inner thoughts and feelings out of her head and onto canvas, a young woman seeking to find herself as both artist and human being.

Gary Brintz as Man 2, a “Love Killer” who’s looking for someone “smarter and funnier and better” than he is, yet so unwilling to lower his standards that he ends up cheating on the perfect woman—because of her “cankles.”

Saro Badalian as Man 1, a young gay man attempting to reconcile his religious beliefs with his sexuality, someone who hears sexual innuendos everywhere, all the while dreaming of finding a Jesus Freak who’s “hot as hell.”

Emily Clark as Woman 3, who calls herself the “Helen Keller of gaydar” for her inability to distinguish between straight and queer. Although she’d rather date “someone who’s not homosexual,” it may be easier to be rejected for being the wrong gender than for being the wrong woman.

Robyn S. Clark as Woman 2, a hypochondriac’s hypochondriac, who imagines how perfect her life would be if she could find someone who’d love her in spite of her “Overly Dramatic Ways.”

Over the course of Out Of My Head’s seventy-five minutes, these five very different young people sing their hearts out—and grow stronger and braver and more fulfilled in the process.

Song highlights include the opening ensemble number “Making Beautiful” (“I can make something out of me. I’ll show the world that I’m making beautiful.”), Anna’s “Crayon Girl” (“She said it was the neatest bird a sky had ever seen. And I said ‘Mom, it’s not a bird at all. It’s me.’”), Gary’s “Love Killer” (“I’m a love killer, cause I kill love”), Emily’s “Perfect” (“Justin, Blake, Timmy, Beau, they were perfect … and they were perfectly queer.”), Saro’s “Deny Your Creation” (“How can you deny your creation? Why put the apple there and forbid it?”), and Robyn’s “Hypochondriac Song” (“If you can catch it, then I’m sure I’ve caught it, or at least I’ve thought it.”).

“Quartet” has Emily, Gary, Robyn, and Saro revealing all their doubts and confusions about love in gorgeous four-part counterpoint. The amusingly titillating “Kama Sutra” has Saro reading from the infamous love manual as the three woman (faces hidden by feathered masks) undulate to Sydney Blair’s cleverly choreographed moves. “Some Other Way To Feel,” sung in Making Beautiful by the gay character and Woman 3, is now a duet between Men 1 and 2, thereby expressing even more effectively that love is essentially the same for us all, regardless of our sexual orientation.

By the end of the evening, Out Of My Head has allowed us to know all these characters a bit better, even as they themselves have done the same. We’ve also gotten a glimpse of songwriter Oliver’s talents, and those of the all-around terrific ensemble, each of whom couldn’t be better cast, or perform his or her role with greater finesse and pizzazz.

Ryan Cantwell provides impeccable musical direction, accompanying the cast on offstage piano with help from Brian Boyce on drums.

Maxwell T. Robin has designed a splendid therapist’s office set which looks great on the Pico Playhouse stage, especially as lit by the oh-so talented Ric Zimmerman. Cantwell gets additional snaps for his excellent sound design. Kudos too to costume consultants Kathie Urban and Alexander Cole Gottlieb. Out Of My Head is produced by Courtney Bell. Sabba Rahbar is stage manager.

If I have any gripe with Out Of My Head, it’s with its choice of setting. Since there’s nothing intrinsically Big Apple-esque about its characters or songs, why not set it here in L.A., particularly since it was originally written here, by an Angelino no less, and is being performed in Los Angeles by an L.A. theater company? Robin’s excellent projections could just as easily have shown the Los Angeles skyline as Manhattan’s, so why not?

Other than this minor caveat, I heartily recommend Out Of My Head as an introduction to Ryan Scott Oliver’s clever songs, and to some particularly talented young triple-threats, most or all of whom may be new to you, but certainly won’t be for long.

Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. Through August 21. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 7:00. Reservations:
www.mechanicalstheatregroup.com
--Steven Stanley
July 29, 2011
Photos: Matthew Murphy www.MurphyMade.com

WATSON




WOW!
WATSON

You don’t have to be a Sherlock Holmes fan to deem Jaime Robledo’s Watson theatrical magic, as its return engagement at Sacred Fools Theater Company makes abundantly clear. No wonder Watson (aka The Last Great Tale Of The Legendary Sherlock Holmes) won a pair of coveted LA Weekly Awards—for Robledo’s direction and Henry Dittman’s bravura comedic work—in its initial run last fall. Robledo’s comedy thrills and astonishes again and again, making its midsummer encore the best possible news for Los Angeles theatergoers in the mood to be dazzled.

Developed over a period of twenty-one weeks as part of Sacred Fools’ hit late night series Serial Killers, Watson features a plot that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle might have been proud to call his own.

We first meet our titular hero (Sherlock Holmes playing second fiddle for perhaps the first time in his life) in the purportedly deceased detective’s Bakers Street digs. The discovery of a journal of the pair’s last adventure together sends Watson (and us) flashing back in time, back to when Her Majesty Queen Victoria sent detective and sidekick on a journey across Europe to the Middle East. Their mission: To transport a mysterious puzzle box to an international conference between Ottoman chief Abdul Hamid and Russian Czar Alexander III, both of them vying for possession of Cyprus. Watson and Holmes’ seemingly simple task soon turns into a transcontinental chase, the adventurous pair pursued by legions of evil Turks and various other villains—including arch Holmes nemesis Professor Moriarty, aka The Napoleon Of Crime.

Got that?

No matter if you didn’t. The real fun in Watson are in the theatrical pyrotechnics unleashed by Robledo, his cast (in particular a quartet of thesps who give new meaning to the term “ensemble”), and the production’s gifted designers.

Here’s a taste of what’s in store for you in the 99-seat house Sacred Fools calls home:

• Holmes and Watson searching in vain for each other in possibly the densest London fog in theatrical history.
• A thrilling fistfight between hero and villain atop the cars of a speeding train.
• A band of treacherous Turks pursuing our intrepid heroes on horseback.
• Holmes and Moriarty engaged in a daring duel of wits at the edge of the Cliffs Of Dover.
• Our heroes on a sky-high hot air balloon ride over Europe.
• Two of the above clinging for their lives from the rooftop of a Turkish minaret.

As to how all this is accomplished, I will simply say that none of it could be done without the abovementioned quartet of ensemblists, who work hard indeed for their gas fare as they maneuver assorted trunks, chairs, a chandelier, and a particularly large white bed sheet (courtesy of prop master C.M. Gonzales). Add to that the contributions of composer Ryan Johnson and a trio of prerecorded musicians, designers Matt Richter (lighting) and Ben Rock (sound), and fight choreographer Andrew Amani, and you’ve got one heck of a team of creative artists creating theatrical marvels on a shoestring budget.

Besides adventure, Watson offers laughter galore thanks to some of the most brilliant comedic performances of the year (and some off-the wall dialog thrown in for good measure).

A seemingly inexhaustible Scott Leggett gives us a Dr. John H. Watson no longer the bumbling sidekick we remember from countless Sherlock Holmes adaptations, but rather a loving husband, faithful friend, and courageous adventure hero. As Holmes, rubber-bodied Joe Fria is every bit as outrageous as Leggett is understated, Sherlock’s cocaine addiction offering the award-winning actor the chance to perform some of the most inspired physical comedy since the silent movie greats showed us how back in the 1910s and ‘20s. LA Weekly-awarded Dittman makes for a deliciously fiendish Moriarty, but it’s his tour de force turn as a Londoner, his wife, a train conductor, a pint-sized street urchin, a police “bobby,” and a pair of foppish twits—all in the space of a few dazzling minutes and achieved only with the switch of hats and some breathtaking acting versatility—that make his the production's most talked about performance.

Eric Curtis Johnson (Mycroft Holmes), Rebecca Larson (Irene Adler), and CJ Merriman (Mrs. Dr. Watson) provide Grade A support, while the one-and-only French Stewart brings both Queen Victoria and Sigmund Freud to outrageously quirky life, stopping the show time and again with his inimitable French Stewartisms.

As for the ensemble, the stellar Lisa Anne Nicolai, Colin Willkie, KJ Middlebrooks, and Laura Napoli get the workout of their lives creating illusions it would take multi-millions of dollars to bring to the silver screen, acting various minor roles, and giving new meaning to the word “stagehand.” (The window-frame scene in Freud’s office alone is nearly worth the price of admission.)

Choreographers Natasha Norman and Caesar F. Barajas add to Watson’s many visual delights, aided by Merriman’s dance gifts in simulating Holmes’ cocaine trances. Jessica Olson’s costumes are yet another treat for the eyes, and Ruth Silveira’s puppets are terrific too. Watson is produced by Brandon Clark, Stewart, and Brian Wallis. Monica Greene is assistant director, Suze Campagna stage manager, Nicole Agredano scenic painter, Fria Suzuki trainer, Padraic Duffy dramaturg, and Joseph Beck associate producer.

With a publishing deal already signed, it’s a sure bet that Watson’s return to Sacred Fools is only the latest step on its road to national and maybe even international hit status. If you’ve not seen Watson yet, do it! And if you’re one of the lucky ones who caught it the first time around, here’s your chance to do it again. Newbies and return visitors are likely to find themselves in perfect agreement that there's not a more magical show in town.

Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., Hollywood. Through August 20. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Reservations: 310 281-8337
www.sacredfools.org

--Steven Stanley
July 29, 2011
Photos: Brian Taylor

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

BLACKBIRD




WOW!
BLACKBIRD

A 30ish woman confronts the 60ish man who had sex with her when she was only 12 in David Harrower’s harrowing Blackbird, now shocking, disturbing, and dare I say entertaining audiences in equal measure in its Los Angeles premiere by Rogue Machine Theatre.

Before I’m accused of giving too much away in my first sentence, let me assure you that this startling bit of information comes out a mere ten minutes into the play, and any attempt to discuss Blackbird without revealing its central conceit would be frustrating at best. In any case, whatever preconceived notions you might have of Blackbird as a staged version of a cable TV revenge melodrama will quickly be dispelled by the playwright’s unclichéd (and even poetic) dialog and unpredictable plot twists, especially as directed to razor-sharp perfection by Robin Larsen and performed by a pair of utterly brilliant actors.

Our first glimpse of Peter (Sam Anderson) and Una (Corryn Cummins) finds them mid-conversation in the trash-strewn break room of an unnamed company, and though we’re at first unaware of the reason for their confrontation, one thing is crystal clear. Peter wants out and Una is not about to let him get away. Peter’s coworkers, whose shadowy figures are glimpsed through the room’s translucent windows, seem as curious as we are about what’s going on between this disparate pair, but we have the advantage of being inside the room with them. Indeed, because Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s scenic design in Theatre/Theatre’s smaller space is so utterly realistic, it seems almost as if chairs and risers had been added to a preexisting factory room, and not the other way around.

Were Blackbird a novel, a writer like Jodi Picoult (whose 400+ page tomes deal with precisely this type of dark, twisted subject matter) would fill us in with every detail of Peter and Una’s past relationship from both points of view, and from the points of view of the people who surrounded them, and quite a compelling novel it would make.

The challenge—and the excitement—of Blackbird as an eighty-minute, two-character play is that whatever we know about the older man and younger woman comes from what they tell each other during their real-time encounter. We hear her story as she remembers it, and his as he does, or at least in the way that each one wants the other to think that he or she remembers it. As for the details of Peter’s current life or Una’s, we have to take their word on it, and do so with a grain of salt, since the potential for prevarication is very real indeed. Thus, playwright Harrower keeps us particularly on our toes, filling in the blanks as best we can, and his play is all the stronger for making its audiences think.

Blackbird is far too complex for clichés, and anyone expecting a black-and-white predator-victim tale will have to search elsewhere. Is Peter the serial molester that child abuse advocates would like him painted as, or was Una (as he insists) only a one-time thing? Is he being honest about the man he claims to have become, or merely describing a life he wants her to see him in? Is Una a grown-up abuse survivor looking simply for closure, or does her visit hide far different urges? Be prepared to hash over these questions with your fellow playgoers as you exit the theater following Blackbird’s disquieting blackout.

One more thing about Harrower’s script as published by Dramatists Play Service Inc. and staged by Rogue Machine. Whoever tweaked it for American audiences deserves major props, as there’s not a moment you’d think that it was written by a Scottish playwright, save the unlikelihood of Una's surname.

Lead performers Anderson and Cummins can now be added to the list of the year’s stunning dramatic duos, which have included Johnny Clark and Michelle Clunie, Mike Farrell and Jim Parrack, and Morlan Higgins and Adolphus Ward.

Anderson, StageSceneLA Award winner for his unforgettable work in The Bird And Mr. Banks, is equally unforgettable here as a man whose seeming harmlessness (he looks to be the last person any parent would worry about leaving their child with) makes his past transgressions all the more shocking, and whose air of sincerity makes his claims of redemption all the more credible should we choose to believe him. It is as tough a role as Anderson has ever undertaken, emotionally and physically draining (credit fight choreographer Edgar Landa for the latter), and he is as on top of it as you’d expect an actor half his age to be.

The remarkable Cummins is equally well cast. There’s a toughness to her that makes you wonder how she could ever have been a victim, yet the lone tear that falls unexpectedly down her cheek reveals the wounded child within. The talented young actress brings a feline fierceness to the role, matching Anderson in power and depth every step of the way, so that when …

I’ll stop myself before giving anything more away. Suffice it to say that Anderson’s and Cummins’ work must surely match the best of any actors who may have tackled these roles in previous productions.

Casey Burke makes a highly effective eleventh hour appearance. Dana Lyn Baron and Alec Tomkiw are seen mostly only as distorted images through frosted glass, but their presence adds significantly to the realism of Larsen’s staging.

Leigh Allen’s lighting design is remarkably varied considering the one-set, real-time nature of Harrower’s script. Christopher Moscatiello’s sound design adds subtly to the suspense. Jocelyn Hublau Parker’s costumes suit each character to a T. Property designer Ilona Piotrowska gets a round of applause for filling Schwartz’s set with fast food detritus like you may never have seen on the legitimate stage. Sasha Sobolevsky is stage manager, David Mauer technical director, Amanda Mauer production manager, and Darryl Johnson assistant director. Blackbird is produced by John Perrin Flynn, Matthew Elkins, and Edward Tournier.

I had avoided Blackbird when it first opened, the darkness of its subject matter suggesting a play that might prove overly disturbing to this somewhat faint-hearted reviewer. Disturbing it is indeed, but (as mentioned in the first paragraph) highly entertaining as well, and well worth seeing for that reason alone. Even amidst the darkness and despair, it is a theatergoing treat to savor the superb work being done by Anderson and Cummins—literally within touching distance. Blackbird gives playgoers one more reason to sample the many treasures of Los Angeles theater.

(Note: Blackbird’s current schedule—Saturdays and Sundays at 5:00 and Mondays at 8:00—makes it particularly easy to program into even the busiest theatergoing schedule.)

Rogue Machine, Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles. Through August 15. Saturdays and Sundays at 5:00, Mondays at 8:00. Reservations: 855 585-5185
www.roguemachinetheatre.com
--Steven Stanley
July 25, 2011
Photos: John Flynn

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

THE INSIDIOUS IMPACT OF ANTON



WOW!
THE INSIDIOUS IMPACT OF ANTON

You could hardly call Francesca “The Girl Who Has Everything,” but she for one is not complaining. She has a job and a small circle of sort-of friends, and while she doesn't have a husband or a boyfriend, what she does have is a life which includes "people, cable, books on occasion, sex when required. And an apartment that always gets compliments.” And then she meets Anton.

Francesca is the 30something heroine of David Hilder’s highly entertaining romcom The Insidious Impact Of Anton, whose snappy World Premiere production at the El Centro proves a terrific showcase for the New York playwright’s quirky spin on life and a just-right star vehicle for its leading lady Tracy Eliott under Richard Tatum's ingenious direction.

Francesca spends her days not particularly challenged by the office job her uncle Victor offered her when she got tired of retail—and not particularly interested in anything or anyone else. Conversations with co-workers Miranda and Adele rarely go farther than who’s cute on this season’s American Idol. Richard, her ex, still carries an obvious torch for “Chess,” and though the possibility of a roll in the hay for old-time’s sake does exist, it’s unlikely to lead to an honest-to-goodness rekindling of old flames. Gaybor (i.e. gay neighbor) Nate does add a certain sparkle to Francesca’s evenings at home, but unlike Francesca, Nate has a dating life, so his visits tend to be pop-bys that don’t last all that long.

Then comes that meet-cute with Anton in the office kitchen. (“I wish you to move aside when you put milk in your fucking coffee,” she informs him in a sarcastic imitation of his Eastern European syntax which flies right over Anton’s seemingly fresh-off-the-boat noggin.) And that’s just the start of a series of seemingly chance meetings—at the bus stop, at the dry cleaners... You name it, he's there. Before long Francesca has agreed to dinner with the ubiquitous gent, “which is not a date” because she has “absolutely no romantic interest in him, and if he wants to have sex with me, he can fall off the nearest log.”

Dinner does indeed turn out to be just dinner that first time, but before long Anton has turned into considerably more than a mere dinner companion. Having lost her job due to her “halfhearted work ethic and frequent—and on occasion truly stunning—expletives,” Francesca now finds herself working for Anton as his personal assistant. And that’s not all that changes in Chess’s life. Instead of sitting around an office all day with boring coworkers, she’s picking up dry cleaning for a living, and even more surprisingly, she’s starting to use expressions like “for the love of Mike” instead of her habitual “oh for Christ’s sake.”

Who the heck is this Anton (who by the way no one in Francesca’s life has ever seen) and why is he having such an insidious impact on her life?

Far be it for this reviewer to spoil the end-of-Act-One surprise playwright Hilder has in store for you or the many comic delights of Act Two. Suffice it to say that the surprise is probably not what you’re expecting—and there are numerous reasons to return to your seat after intermission, not the least of which are the performances of Insidious Anton’s two leading players, and several delightful supporting turns as well.

The role of Francesca proves a terrific showcase for Eliott, who like Katharine Hepburn before her combines a gift for the acerbic with snappy comic timing and off-center romantic appeal. It’s a huge role, one that has the actress never leaving the stage, frequently addressing the audience, zipping from scene change to scene change, and never missing a beat.

Opposite her, Mikhail Blokh is a foreign-accented, English syntax-mutilating charmer, just the sort to wear a girl’s resistance down in a case of opposites attracting—with sizzle!

Daniel Montgomery is so utterly winning as Francesca’s gayboy-next-door that you wish Hilder would write a spin-off play just for Nate—on condition that Montgomery be guaranteed the role. June Carryl and Patty Jean Robinson provide solid office support for Eliott, with a cast-against-type Carryl particularly funny as flighty flibbertigibbet Adele. Warren Davis is spot-on as Francesca’s all-business, no-charm uncle Victor. As Robert, an amusing John Gale does his best to embody the lovable hetero lug of Hilder’s script.

Hilder’s script requires instantaneous scene changes (“shift to a bus stop,” “shift to a restaurant,” “shift to work,” etc.) that could easily bog down a production less inventively directed and designed than the one the splendid Tatum and his crackerjack team have come up with here. Katie Polebaum’s cleverly off-kilter set cues us in from the get-go that we’ll be in the not-quite-real world, and together with Corwin Evans’ ingenious projections—which show us what’s atop whichever location we’re supposed to be in—make for lickety-split scene changes. (I love the way Victor is pushed on and offstage on his castered office chair.) Christopher Moscatiello’s sound design is a winner too, working in precision tandem with Michelle Stann’s lighting design to create a whimsical, occasionally otherworldly mood, though Stann’s lighting could do a better job at flattering Eliott in her “close-up” moments. Sarah Le Ferber’s costumes are just the character definers they ought to be. Shelley Delayne is scenic painting assistant, Antonina Flowers costume assistant, Stephanie Boltjes stage manager, and Rachel Landis assistant stage manager.

The Insidious Impact Of Anton is precisely the kind of under-the-radar production that might easily escape notice in the more theatrically crowded seasons of fall, winter, and spring. Fewer summer offerings give it considerably more of the visibility it richly deserves, and theatergoers in search of romantic comedy with a bite could do no better than to seek it out. Anton’s impact may well be insidious, but it’s pretty darned appealing as well.

El Centro Theatre, 804 North El Centro Avenue, Hollywood. Through August 28. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 7:00. Reservations: 323 230-7261
www.absolutetheatrela.org
--Steven Stanley
July 24, 2011
Photos: Sarah LeFeber

Sunday, July 24, 2011

ONCE UPON A MATTRESS



Recommended
ONCE UPON A MATTRESS

If America is the land of opportunity, nowhere is this more true than in the world of community theater. There’s probably nowhere else in the world where software developers, college math teachers, office workers, Air Force officers, and children’s book illustrators are offered so many opportunities to take to the stage and enjoy the delights of performing live theater—without having to quit their day jobs.

For an example, check out The Aerospace Players’ revival of perennial community theater favorite Once Upon A Mattress, now providing nearly forty Southern Californians with their moments in the spotlight in a production sure to entertain friends and family members alike.

Mattress shares key elements with its sister show, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Both debuted in the late 1950s, both are based on classic fairy tales (Mattress comes from The Princess And The Pea), both are about royal offspring, and both feature a Rodgers score, though in the case of Once Upon A Mattress, the Rodgers in question is the legendary Broadway composer Richard Rodgers’ daughter Mary—who wrote a supremely catchy bunch of tunes you’re guaranteed to leave the theater humming.

Mattress features an absolutely hilarious book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer. Add to that Barer’s clever lyrics, a scene-stealing leading character originated by Carol Burnett on Broadway, and a supporting cast of fairy tale archetypes tweaked just enough to make them memorable, and you’ve got a family musical which even adults can love.

In “Many Moons Ago,” the Minstrel (Stephen Cathers) recounts the tale we’ve heard time and time again. (“‘I will test her thus,’ the old queen said, ‘I’ll put twenty downy mattresses upon her bed. And beneath those twenty mattresses I’ll place one tiny pea. If that pea disturbs her slumber, then a true princess is she.’”) Once Upon A Mattress then proceeds to tell us “the real story.”

Mattress’s medieval kingdom is ruled by a Queen (Jennifer Pawlikowski) who won’t shut up and a lecherous King (Ken MacFarlane) who is mute. Courtiers of marriageable age are getting antsy because not a one is allowed to walk down the aisle until cute and cuddly Prince Dauntless (Joe Essner) finds a bride, and candidate number twelve has just struck out. (In “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” fashion, she lost on the final question “What’s the middle name of the daughter-in-law of the best friend of the blacksmith who forged the sword that killed the dragon killed by St. George?”, ending up with only a rubber chicken as a consolation prize before being thrown into the moat.)

Particularly peeved are a pregnant Lady Larkin (Erin Callaway) and her bun-in-the-oven’s dad, Prince Harry (Brian Grundy). “Why should we both suffer because you had a moment of weakness,” wonders Harry in a way not likely to win friends amongst medieval women’s-libbers.

Fortunately, though, when all seems doomed, who should climb out of the moat but the brash and brassy Princess Winnifred The Woebegone (Kristin Towers-Rowles), who informs the populace in a voice matching Merman’s in volume that “I'm actually terribly timid and hoooribly shy!” (She’s obviously not.)

Will Winnifred (aka Fred) fail Queen Aggravain’s test of “Sensitivity” by falling fast asleep atop twenty mattresses and a single tiny pea? Will Winnifred and Dauntless live happily ever after or will the Princess end up back in the moat she climbed out of? Will Lady Larkin give birth to a royal bastard?

Anyone not familiar with the answers to these questions must have fallen asleep too quickly at bedtime. Fortunately, in Once Upon A Mattress, the fun is in the getting there, particularly for cast members, who are clearly having a fairytale ball bringing these characters to life.

Michael-Anthony Nozzi’s direction is often clever indeed, adding to the abovementioned characters and supporting players—which also include a Jester (dance captain Drew Fitzsimmons) and a Wizard (Kevin Wheaton)—a number of fairytale and fairytale-adjacent figures not in the Broadway original: the Three Fairies from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, a Notre Dame-style Hunchback, Disney Cinderella’s two ugly stepsisters, Nanny McPhee, and (in a tip of the hat to the original Winnifred) a Charwoman out of the Carol Burnett show.

A number of performances stand out, particularly those of velvet-voiced Cathers, pantomime whiz MacFarlane, Lancelot-like Grundy, and blonde charmer Callaway. Essner is a hoot as the Prince, Fitzsimmons a terrifically soft-shoeing Jester, and Wheaton a suitably mysterious Wizard. Pawlikowski’s Queen has a number of divalicious moments, but this is a case where even bigger and broader would make the role the true scene-stealer it has the potential to be.

Still, all of the above must bow in the presence of Towers-Rowles, who follows Best-Of-Show performances in Kiss Me Kate and Sunday In The Park With George with a Princess Winnifred which pays tribute to the Burnett original, all the while making the part very much her own. “Fred” offers Towers-Rowles the chance to show off tiptop slapstick skills, charisma that belies her petite stature, and one heck of a Broadway belt.

The cast is completed by José Acain, Nancy Arnold, Shari Bennett, Crystal Boyer, Susane Button, Mark Bruce-Casares, Conna Condon, Lisa Golden, Kathleen Hart, dance captain Laura Hecht, Michael Heidner, Jacob Helfgott, Brittany Hooper, Mary Kay, Arthur “Bud” Krause, Amparo Lomas, Tony McQuilkin, Ida Miller-Krause, Bib Minnichelli, Joey Minnichelli, Flora Morin, Katie Neagle, Ryan Raleigh, Cynthia Reyes, Jason Stout, Lisa Stout, Tim Wade, Rachel Claire Willenbring, and Robin Wohlman, all of whom perform with high energy and dedication.

As choreographer, Nozzi has astutely designed moves which fit an ensemble with few trained dancers, e.g. the jitterbug fingers in “Opening For A Princess.” Particularly inventive is “Spanish Panic,” which the Queen hopes will make Winnifred dance until she drops, a production number to which Nozzi has added salutes to Saturday Night Fever, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Madonna’s “Vogue,” and even a bit of Beyoncé. The show’s liveliest production number, “Song Of Love,” gives Towers-Rowles the evening’s biggest weightlifting, drinking, wrestling, and playing the lute as courtiers and cheerleaders sing, “I’m in love with a girl named Fred. She wrestles like a Greek. You will clap your hands in wonder at her fabulous technique. With an F and an R and an E and a D and a F-R-E-D Fred YEAH!”

With a running time of nearly three hours, this Once Upon A Mattress could definitely benefit from snappier pacing. As is, it runs twenty or so minutes longer than the 1996 Sarah Jessica Parker Broadway revival, far too long for a musical as frothy as this one. Scene/scenery changes drag, despite some clever mini-skits added to keep the audience entertained while set pieces get moved behind a curtain—again and again—throughout the production. Perhaps because of the slow pace, several numbers, including “The Swamps Of Home” and “Very Soft Shoes,” end up making a long show feel even longer, despite the talents of their performers.

Singers are music directed by (Bob) Minnichelli and accompanied by a twenty-four piece orchestra under the baton of Joseph Derthick. The uncredited sound design needs to up the volume of vocal performances to insure that they are heard loud and clear over musical instruments.

By far the finest design elements are Maria Cohen’s imaginative, colorful fairytale costumes and Arlene Cohen’s equally fanciful hats. Kudos go too to Miller-Krause’s properties design and to an uncredited lighting design. Nozzi’s set design is a strong one considering the size of the stage to be filled and a budget which must have been considerably less than a professional production’s.

While Once Upon A Mattress does not reach the heights of a CLO revival or National Tour, it offers many entertaining moments, a stellar lead performance, a good number of laughs, and one of the most tuneful scores of the 1950s. Audience members are sure to be cheering friends and family through the end of the production’s limited two weekend run.

James Armstrong Theatre, 3330 Civic Center Drive, Torrance.
www.aeaclubs.com/theater
--Steven Stanley
July 23, 2011
Photos: Kris Maine

Saturday, July 23, 2011

THE SOUND OF MUSIC



WOW!
THE SOUND OF MUSIC

The hills of Thousand Oaks are alive with _____.

If anyone reading this is incapable of filling in the blank, this reviewer can only wonder where you’ve been during the half century since The Sound Of Music made its Broadway debut. Is there anyone in America who hasn’t seen either the 1964 movie adaptation—the third biggest moneymaker in film history when adjusted for inflation—or any one of a gazillion regional, community, or school productions of the Rodgers And Hammerstein classic?

It’s no wonder then that the Fred Kavli Theatre for the Performing Arts was jam packed for last night’s gala opening of the gazillion-and-oneth revival of the Tony-winning smash—one so impeccably staged and performed that it might even sway those who’ve suffered through a mediocre amateur production or two and vowed never to see another.

Yes, there are still moments in The Sound Of Music that will prove too sugary for theater sophisticates. Yes, a stageful of singing nuns can still at times be about a dozen too many. And yes, historical purists still have every right to carp about the show’s factually inaccuracies. (How’s this for fudging with geography? An escape over Maria’s beloved mountains would have taken her and the von Trapp Family Singers smack dab into Nazi Germany and not into Switzerland, 200 miles away.)

Still, with performances as rich and layered as those of Shannon Warne and Tom Schmid (who also happen to have some of the Broadway-readiest pipes around), direction as spot-on as Lewis Wilkenfeld’s, a terrific supporting cast of theater pros and relative newbies, and a Broadway caliber orchestra under the impeccable direction of Darryl Archibald, even the grumpiest theatergoer may fall under this Sound Of Music’s spell.

I’ll forgo the usual synopsizing (for obvious reasons) and simply list the five best reasons not to miss Cabrillo Music Theatre’s smashing Sound Of Music revival.

Reason #1: Warne, whose starring roles over the past five years or so have taken her to the top echelon of L.A.-based musical theater stars. Few can match Warne’s blend of captivating stage presence, bona fide acting chops, and an instantly recognizable voice that can slide imperceptibly from pop to legit and back again. Needless to say, Warne makes the future Baroness von Trapp so feisty, fun, and fantastically her own that you’ll likely forget any previous Marias—at least for the duration of the show.

Reason #2: Schmid, whose performance captures all of the Captain’s complex mixture of coldness, repressed pain, military bearing, and fatherly adoration, and whose golden pipes make his Captain von Trapp one of the best sung ever.

Reason #3: The von Trapp children (Alison Woods, Michael Kennedy, Lyrissa Leininger, Mason Purece, Audrey Miller, Natalie Esposito, and Kristina Van Horst), who perform with professionalism, harmonize to perfection, and for the most part avoid child actor precocity. Woods makes for an absolutely enchanting Leisl, and Tyler Matthew Burk (Rolf) displays triple-threat talents to match his song-and-dance partner's.

Reason #4: The nuns, whose exquisite harmonies are the closest thing to heavenly Cabrillo audiences have likely heard since the CLO’s 2001 revival, with Mother Abbess Marilyn Anderson’s “Climb Every Mountain” every bit the inspirational showstopper it’s supposed to be. Along with Anderson, the delightful trio of Farley Cadena (Sister Margaretta), Becca Cornelius (Sister Sophia), and Karen Sonnenschein (Sister Berthe) join voices (and opposing viewpoints) in a futile but very funny attempt to "solve a problem like Maria" in song.

Reason #5: The musical numbers, including the now standard “The Sound of Music”, “Edelweiss”, “My Favorite Things”, and “Do-Re-Mi,” backed by Cabrillo’s Broadway-caliber Music Theatre Orchestra and vocalized to perfection by a cast of thirty-nine. Add to that “Sixteen Going On Seventeen,” a charming showcase for Woods and Burk—and for choreographer Heather Castillo, whose Agnes DeMille-inspired dance moves give the iconic puppy-love duet added beauty and depth. “I Have Confidence” and “Something Good,” written for the movie adaptation, have shrewdly been inserted into the Cabrillo revival. “How Can Love Survive” and “No Way To Stop It,” sung by von Trapp family friends Max and Elsa, were cut from the movie but not in Cabrillo's staging, providing here a needed dose of tartness amidst the sweetness around them.

Michael G. Hawkins and Laura Cable furnish dandy support as the acerbic duo, though why Cable should be the only major player with vaguely foreign diction is anyone’s guess. Gloria Bennett, John McCool Bowers, David Gilchrist, Patrick J. Saxon, and Robert Weibezahl do first-rate work in smaller roles.

Ronni Coleen Ashley, Carol-Lynn Cambell, Carolyn Freeman Champ, Judi Domroy, Lori Merkle Ford, Heidi Goodspeed, Stephanie Hayslip, Julie Jones, Laura Leininger, Maegan Mandarino, Jacqueline Elyse Rosenthal, Christanna Rowader, Catherine Wallet, and Emily Works are marvelous as singing nuns and other assorted female characters. The male contingent is brought up by David Kennedy, Mark David Lackey, Bart Leninger, and Jesse Test.

The production looks great, with sets originally created in the early 1970s for the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera and provided by Musical Theatre West, and costumes provided by FCLO Music Theatre and supervised by Christine Gibson, all of the above lit to perfection by Rand Ryan. Jonathan Burke’s sound design is one of his best, filling the Kavli with as celestial a blend of voices as might be heard in a Salzburg cathedral. Thumbs up too to hair and makeup designer Mark Travis Hoyer, production stage manager Allie Roy, assistant stage managers Taylor Ruge and Jessie Standifer, technical director Tim Schoepfer, and crew captain Char Brister.

The Sound Of Music may never end up on every Rodgers And Hammerstein fan’s list of their “Favorite Things.” Still, even those who prefer Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, or The King And I will likely concur that you’d be hard-pressed to find a better TSOM than the one currently on stage in Thousand Oaks. I defy any heart not to melt when the Captain’s own is thawed by his children’s voices raised in song, or any theatergoer not to be moved as the von Trapps begin to ascend that mountain towards whatever destiny awaits them on the other side.

Cabrillo Music Theatre, Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Boulevard, Thousand Oaks.
www.cabrillomusictheatre.com
--Steven Stanley
July 22, 2011
Photos: Ed Krieger

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

I'M JUST WILD ABOUT HARRY





WOW!
I’M JUST WILD ABOUT HARRY

Take an 1892 British farce that broke records with its 1466-performance London run. Add to it nearly two-dozen song hits from the 1900s, ‘10s, and early ‘20s. Cast it with a terrific bunch of actors who can also sing and dance. Add to the mix a director, musical director, choreographer, and trio of designers, each of whom is blessed with ingenuity and flair. Do all of the above and the result is I’m Just Wild About Harry, Gary Lamb and William A. Reilly’s delightful jukebox musical now playing at the duo’s Crown City Theatre Co.

The British farce in question is Brandon Thomas’s classic Charlie’s Aunt, originally adapted for the musical stage by Frank Loesser in 1948 as Where’s Charlie, a show which has mostly disappeared into musical theater limbo and whose songs (other than “Once In Love With Amy”) have largely gone unremembered.

I’m Just Wild About Harry takes the same rollickingly farcical plot but makes sure that its songs ring musical bells (in addition to being in pre-1923 public domain). The result is a show which doesn’t cost its creators a dime in royalties—both a savvy business decision and one that yields considerable artistic rewards.

Lamb and Reilly’s adaptation sticks close to the original’s plot, though it switches the setting from 1890 Oxford to 1910 Old Milwaukee U., and changes co-protagonist Charley Wyckeham’s name to the more American-sounding Harry Whitman, the better to match the show’s (and its title song’s) title. The rechristened Harry still has a roommate Jack Chesney, but the duo’s girlfriends are now named Margie and Katy. (Three guesses why.)

As in Thomas’s original, our two heroes are aiming to propose to their ladies fair, but there’s a hitch: Neither girl is willing to visit Harry and Jack’s campus digs without a female chaperone on hand. Fortunately Harry receives word that his wealthy widowed aunt, Donna Lucia d'Alvadorez, is arriving from Brazil just in time to be of assistance. Unfortunately Donna Lucia is delayed. Fortunately their music professor Benjamin Babberey (aka Babbs) happens to be appearing as Lady Bracknell in The Importance Of Being Earnest, and has shown up at Harry and Jack’s door, costume in suitcase in hand. Fortunately too, Babbs has just put on his costume to run lines when Margie and Katy return, and Harry and Jack, clever chaps that they are, introduce him/her as Aunt Lucia.

Adding to the madcap mix are Katy’s uncle (aka Old Spettigue), Jack’s father Frank, Babbs’ sweetheart Ida Delahay, and the real Donna Lucia d'Alvadorez, giving the boys a pair of dueling Aunt Lucias to juggle as they make their way towards the happy ending any farce fan worth his or her salt can see coming from lights up.

Lamb and Reilly open the show with a series of deliberately corny jokes to set the farcical mood (A: Where can you find a one-legged dog? B: I don’t know, where? C: Right where you left it.) blended into a song-and-dance number featuring the entire cast warbling and tapping their feet to “I Love A Musical Comedy Show,” a song so fresh and new sounding that it comes as a surprise to learn that it was written way back in 1919.

Under Joanne McGee’s snappy direction, I’m Just Wild About Harry never stops entertaining with its razor-sharp timing, clever running gags, and the one of the funniest cross-dressing leading men (leading ladies?) ever. It is sophisticated enough to please your most Broadway-savvy musical theater queen and sufficiently family-friendly to charm your churchgoing maiden aunt.

Among the musical chestnuts which fit so nicely into I’m Just Wild About Harry’s deliciously convoluted plot are “Look For The Silver Lining” (Harry’s and Jack’s advice to Babbs when they learn that the girl he loves skipped town before he got a chance to propose), “Runnin’ Wild” (the fake Donna Lucia’s done-with-love mantra), “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” (which has Margie and Katy attempting to explain love in simian terms to Lucia, who comes from “a veritable monkey, nut banana land”), “Spanish Love” (one of Donna Lucia’s late husband’s favorites—even though he was Portuguese); and “You Made Me Love You” (Ida’s second chance at declaring her love to Babbs). “Margie” is Jack’s way of proposing to his intended (no wonder they changed her name from Kitty) and “K-K-K-Katy” serves the same purpose for Harry, who has conveniently revealed in an early scene that the very idea of p-p-p-popping the question to his b-b-b-beloved makes him stutter.

Director McGee has made sure that her entire cast remain on the same page stylistically, playing their roles (relatively) straight yet just heightened (and campy) enough to give a wink to the show’s present-day audience. Mikhail Roberts (Jack) and Matthew Thompson (Harry) make for an utterly delightful pair of leads, with Sarah French (Margie) and Melanie Taylor (Katy) matching them in adorableness and charm. Louis Silvers makes the part of Mr. Spettigue uniquely, outrageously his own, Dave Berges (Frank) and Carol Jones (Donna Lucia) are a terrific pair of “older” lovers, and Lisaun Whittingham is not only lovely as Ida but the evening’s vocal standout. Finally, there’s the stellar Douglas Thornton doing Milton Berle, Harvey Korman, and Flip Wilson proud as both Babbs and Donna Lucia.

Stephanie Pease’s choreography pays tribute to early 20th Century dance steps while giving them a contemporary, campy pizzazz. Musical director/arranger Reilly provides splendid live piano accompaniment (with occasional help from Roberts on percussion). Keiko Moreno’s set design (a cleverly detailed 1910 campus apartment) is a winner as are costume designer Tanya Apuya’s early 20th Century fashions and Zad Potter’s lighting design. I’m Just Wild About Harry features additional lyrics by Reilly. Potter and Moreno serve as stage managers.

I’m Just Wild About Harry proves yet another winner from North Hollywood’s Crown City Theatre Co., a company that never fails to surprise and impress with its varied assortment of offerings. A definite crowd-pleaser, their latest is not only a thoroughly entertaining evening of Los Angeles musical theater, but one that ought to prove attractive to community, college, and regional theaters nationwide. Hats will be eaten if you’re not wild about it too.

Crown City Theater, St. Matthew’s Church, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood. Through August 14. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 3:00. Reservations: 818 605-5685
www.crowncitytheatre.com
--Steven Stanley
June 10, 2010
Photos: Ben Rovner

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

AFTER THE AUTUMN



WOW!
AFTER THE AUTUMN

If horse-blinder Alan Strang was a tough nut for psychiatrist Martin Dysart to crack in Peter Shaffer’s Equus, then the nameless Army Captain in Matthew Kellen Burgos’ engrossing new dramatic one-act After The Autumn proves an even greater challenge to the doctor assigned to his case.

Now getting its World Premiere production by Vanguard Rep under the La Canada Flintridge stars, After The Autumn takes us on a non-linear journey, introducing us in flashback to the Doctor (Sam R. Ross), his patient (Clay Wilcox), two nurses (Alice McFarland and Adam Burch) charged with the Captain's daily care, and the officer’s former subordinate (David Ross Paterson), as the actors recite from a redacted (i.e. heavily censored) report from the Doctor’s malpractice hearing. (We hear only beeps whenever a name is mentioned.)

The Captain’s day nurse fills us in on the facts. The officer has recently been transferred to the Ascension Military Recovery Clinic, “where they send the ‘ghosts,’” his symptoms including, “but not limited to insomnia, lasting depression, disturbing nightmares, difficulty in social settings, and anger management issues.” And if that weren’t already enough, the Captain appears virtually mute, that is except for outbursts of anger during which words emerge from his mouth that seem to make little or no sense.

We learn that the Doctor has been given the Captain’s case by the Medical Licensing Board as a probationary assignment to be fulfilled while attempting to recover from an addiction to sleeping pills and pain relievers. Should he not be able to kick the habit, the Doctor’s medical license will be permanently revoked.

In words eerily reminiscent of Dr. Dysart’s in Equus, the Doctor recalls his initial reaction to his troubled patient: “I have to get closer. Just a little closer. Just as I’m close enough to hear what he’s saying, suddenly his mouth opens wide. Impossibly wide. He screams with many voices all at once. God, the noise. Loud. So loud.”

As the Doctor begins his attempts at therapy, he discovers that the Captain has been so heavily sedated as to make communication virtually impossible. Vowing to wean his patient from his overprescribed meds, the Doctor is surprised one day when the Captain speaks words that seem far too formal for an Army officer. “Better be with the dead whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,” begins the officer, “than on the torture of the mind to lie in restless ecstasy.” Though the words mean nothing to the man of medicine, the Captain’s night nurse recognizes them. “Crazy bastard’s rehearsing a one-man Macbeth.”

Somehow, the Doctor now realizes, the Captain is using the words and themes of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play to express some secret inner torment, and feeling inspired for the first time in a good long while, the Doctor vows to root out the cause of the Captain’s trauma before his patient is committed to spending the rest of his life as a sedated vegetable. What he does not initially realize is that this may mean uncovering secrets the military would do anything not to see made public.

Playwright Burgos takes considerable risks in having his Army Captain speak only in the words of Shakespeare, courting protests that something like this would never happen in real life. Still, as a theatrical conceit we go with it, particularly since Burgos has come up with that rarity, a World Premiere play which proves absolutely apt for a Shakespearean season. As for the performances director Burgos has elicited from his stellar cast, they simply could not be better.

Ross, StageSceneLA Award winner for his Dramatic Performance Of The Year in Breaking The Code is utterly compelling as a man charged with healing a wounded soul, all the while dealing with inner demons virtually as relentless as those of his patient. Wilcox matches Ross every step of the way as the Captain, his eyes at once hollow and filled with pain, a shell of a man still possessed of the strength to do violence, though perhaps not enough strength to face life once again among the living.

The elegant Paterson disappears inside the Sergeant’s considerably coarser skin in a performance that transcends stereotype. McFarland gives the day nurse an Upper Midwest accent you could slice with a knife and layers of caring and warmth. Burch is terrific too as the night nurse with a junior college minor in theater and little tolerance for the Doctor’s efforts to save a patient he thinks would be best left to vegetate.

Ric Zimmerman’s lighting is as striking as Jason Knox’s sound design, with its censorship beeps and tape rewind whirs. Bethany Richards gets high marks for well chosen costumes. Elisa K. Blandford is stage manager.

Opening the evening is a brief performance piece, Tragic Women, adapted from Shakespeare by Ross, who directs it as well. The short one-act has the spirits of Ophelia (Eliza Kiss) and Desdemona (Kirstin A. Snyder) mentoring suicidal neophyte Juliet (Chelsea Taylor) entirely in words from Hamlet, Othello, and R+J. It features graceful choreography by Elizabeth Ross set to Nino Rota’s theme from Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo And Juliet. A worthy experiment, Tragic Women offers its three actresses the chance to do first rate work, with Kiss exhibiting a fine singing voice as well. Vocal arrangements are by Kathryn Gallagher and piano arrangement by Ben Coria. Richards costumes Tragic Women as well.

Still, the evening belongs to After The Autumn, a play that stands on its own and deserves future stagings. You will likely admire the imagination that went into Tragic Women, but it is the powerful After The Autumn that will stay with you long after the lights have dimmed.

Byrnes Amphitheater, Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, 440 St. Katherine Dr., La Cañada Flintridge.
www.vanguardrep.com
--Steven Stanley
July 17, 2011