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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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

Monday, July 18, 2011

DOUBTING THOMASON



WOW!
DOUBTING THOMASON

Los Angeles theater buffs may recall one of the biggest Ovation Award upsets ever, when the under-the-radar West Coast Premiere of Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe went on to win four crystal statuettes, including Best Production, Best Ensemble, and Best Direction. Far fewer will be aware that, at about the very same time as that production was set to open, another group of L.A. actors were rehearsing the very same play, only to discover a week before their own opening that someone else (the future Ovation winners) had the rights to Killer Joe—and they didn’t.

Writer/actor Christopher Brewster was part of that ill-fated second production, but in a storybook example of turning lemons into lemonade, a brand new script was written to fit the five-actor cast in one frenzied week.

Doubting Thomason is playwright Brewster’s look back at that experience, and a more hilarious comedy could not have been come out of near disaster than the one now provoking gales of laughter at North Hollywood’s Avery Schreiber Theatre.

Doubting Thomason opens with two of its actors pummeling a third to shouts of “Kill her! Kill her, Joe!”—only to have company member Thomason (Brewster) read aloud this blurb from The Acting Thespian: “New this week at the Sacred Tostada Theater is our Pick of the Week, Killer Joe, by Tracy Letts.”

Six weeks into rehearsals with only a week remaining before their first performance, five desperate actors suggest possible substitutions (including Sexual Perversity In Chicago, Love! Valor! Compassion!, 12 Angry Men, Key Exchange, and Beyond Therapy), but none of the above has exactly three male and two female roles, and as one of the thesps comments, “Even if we think of a play we still have to get the stupid rights.”

Blonde bimbo Kate (Kelly Kemp) is in near hysterics; after all, Days Of Our Lives casting director Marnie Siatta is coming to see her. Pseudo-Brit Teddy (Paul Storiale) refuses to jeopardize his “Equity-eligible” status by doing a show illegally. Stoner dude Jake (Artie Ahr) finds their situation a “serious buzz kill,” and contemplates making his move to Hawaii a few months ahead of schedule.

When Thomason announces his plan to save the day (“I will write a play this week. We will rehearse it as I write it and we’ll perform it on opening night!”), skeptics Kate and director/cast member Lynette (Bree Pavey) remind the would-be playwright that his last opus took him two years to write (“and you didn’t even finish it”). Still, Thomason is bound and determined to put his plan into action since, unbeknownst to the others, he’s used Teddy’s $1000 investment to buy his unsupportive parents a pair of first-class plane tickets to Opening Night.

In the immortal words of whoever first said them, “The Show Must Go On,” and go on it does, though Teddy has provisions. “I will agree to proceed with this theatrical carrion on one condition,” he informs the playwright, “that you include a man-man kissing scene,” then goes on to add, “Don’t forget the nudity. That auspicious little disclaimer on an ad that reads, ‘Warning: This Play Contains Violence And Nudity’ is good for at least half a house per night.”

The storyline that Thomason comes up with bears a certain resemblance to Killer Joe’s, though instead of having a down-on-his-luck drug dealer plot his mother’s murder with the help of his father and his mother-in-law, “Murderin’ Ted” has trailer trash lovers Bonnie and Lee hiring the titular hit man to bump off Bonnie’s hubby Robert, who unbeknownst to them is having an affair with Lee’s wife Blake. Got that?

Avid L.A. theatergoers will relish Doubting Thomason’s tongue-in-cheek look at our local stage scene, where “Equity-eligible” divas like Teddy insist on their 99-seat plan stipends (a grand total of $108 to be paid in addition to reimbursement of his $1000 investment) and TV-star wannabes like Kate break the “No Cell Phones” rule because “it’s a business call. It’s about a seminar at Actors Acting in Action with someone who knows a casting director really well.” (In the interest of accuracy, it should be noted that this does not reflect the Best-Of-L.A. productions spotlighted here on StageSceneLA.)

Thomason’s clever script alternates between behind-the-scenes looks at a production in chaos and the equally chaotic script they are rehearsing, giving each of the company’s actors two very different roles to play … and play quite dandily, credit shared with director Pavey (who starred in both previous productions of Doubting Thomason) and co-director Steve Jarrard (who directed those earlier stagings).

The evening’s standout performance belongs to Ahr, StageSceneLA Award winner for his devastating work in the original production of The Columbine Project. Looking like a cross between a young Brad Pitt and Matthew McConaughey, the charismatic Ahr makes for the most hilarious dazed-and-confused stoner since “Dudes” Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott went looking for their car, then turns things around to downright scary effect as Murderin’ Ted, a cold-hearted killer who could give Arnold in Terminator a run for his money.

Brewster merits four rounds of applause for a) creating Doubting Thomason in a moment of crisis, b) playing quite niftily both harried Thomason and self-described “stallion” Robert, c) producing the whole kit and caboodle, and d) being quite a looker both in and out of his clothes. Kemp, who provided some of the few bright moments in a recent Three Sisters, is a delicious hoot as a) an actress more interested in booking a soap gig than in honing her craft and as b) trashy-but-sweet sexpot Blake. A delightfully droll Storiale has tremendous fun with both Teddy’s pretentions and Lee’s dimwittedness. Pavey, in a 180 degree turn from her dramatic roles in The Columbine Project, proves herself an deft comedienne as both Lynette and Bonnie, the latter role providing her with the opportunity to strut her dramatic stuff as well.

Doubting Thomason does indeed deliver on its promise of a man-man kissing scene. There are in fact two of them, though not perhaps what Teddy had in mind when he made his stipulation. There is also blink-and-you-miss-it full frontal male nudity from Thomason and Storiale, though Kemp and Pavey are considerably less coy than the men in their topless scenes.

The production’s uncredited set and costume designs are precisely what you might expect from the ragtag group of actors putting on Murderin’ Ted. In other words, they are just right for Doubting Thomason. Cory Price gets thumbs up for equally bare-bones but entirely appropriate lights and sound. Behind-the-scenes personnel do not receive program credit.

Doubting Thomason is precisely the kind of play to inspire the oft-quoted refrain, “It ain’t Shakespeare,” and the equally oft-quoted response of “So what?” I laughed out loud from start to finish, as did Saturday’s nearly sold-out house, and in the words of another oft-quoted remark, “What more can you ask for?”

The Avery-Schrieber Theater, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Through August 13. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Reservations: 818 795-0690
www.doubtingthomason.ticketleap.com
--Steven Stanley
July 16, 2011

MARY POPPINS



WOW!
MARY POPPINS

Mary Poppins has soared into Costa Mesa (by umbrella of course), the arrival of the London/Broadway hit the best possible news for Los Angeles and Orange County children of all ages, from today’s kindergartners to the 50&60something Boomers who first fell in love with the 1964 Walt Disney film on which it is based. Heck, you can make that children in their nineties, Mary Poppins having first debuted way back in the 1930s as a series of novels by P.L. Travers.

While film purists may protest the excision of Uncle Albert (and “I Love To Laugh”) as well as Mrs. Banks’ extrafamilial role as “Sister Suffragette,” the 2006 Broadway smash restores the novels’ come-to-life statues and a visit to Mrs. Corry’s gingerbread shop. The majority of the now-standard Sherman Brothers songs remain (“A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Jolly Holiday,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Feed the Birds,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” and “Let's Go Fly a Kite”), with an extra half dozen or so George Stiles/Anthony Drewe creations added to compliment Julian Fellowes’ somewhat darker book, Mary Poppins’ self-congratulatory anthem “Practically Perfect” and the infectious eleventh hour “Anything Can Happen” proving particular joys.

The very best way to enjoy Mary Poppins The Musical is to cast aside any preconceptions you may have from either movie or books and simply enjoy its magical ride.

And what a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious ride it is, this uber-high-end National Tour giving new meaning to “touring production.” No “bus-and-truck” tour this one, with its 11,000-pound Banks House, 350+ lighting cues, 250 complete costumes, and a two-and-a-half day move-in time required for each Mary Poppins stop.

A hit musical must, however, be more than its sets and costumes (though Bob Crowley’s scenic and costume designs are some of the most spectacular you’ll see on Broadway or anywhere else), and Mary Poppins has everything a musical smash must have—hummable songs, unforgettable dance numbers (choreographed here by the masterful Matthew “Swan Lake” Bourne), and performances to rave about, all under Richard Eyre’s and co-director Bourne’s expert directorial hands. Oh, and there’s magic too, and not just when Mary Poppins pulls a roomful of fixtures out of her trademark carpet bag purse.

Pert blonde All-American Steffanie Leigh vanishes inside Mary Poppins’ prim-and-proper brunette (and veddy British) skin, as pretty as a picture and with a voice and acting chops to match. Canadian Nicolas Dromard morphs into Cockney Bert, with a showstopping performance of “Step In Time” that has the triple-threat tap-dancing upside-down from the top of the mile-high Segerstrom Center proscenium—only one of Dromard’s many stellar chimney-sweep moments. Together, Leigh and Dromard make for one of the most enchanting song-and-dance duos since Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke first went on a “Jolly Holiday” forty-seven years ago.

Fellowes' book turns the Banks family considerably more dysfunctional that in the film, making George a near absentee father (and victim of his own emotional childhood abuse) and Winifred a former actress who longs to be more than simply an extension of her stuffed-shirt of a husband. Laird Mackintosh and Blythe Wilson couldn’t be better as the not-quite-happy couple, the stage version giving Mackintosh a big solo moment in “Precision And Order,” which turns into a major production number featuring a stageful of bank clerks, and Wilson a heartfelt center-stage turn in “Being Mrs. Banks.”

In supporting roles, Rachel Izen and Dennis Moench make for a terrific comic duo as housekeeper Mrs. Brill and underling Robertson Ay, Bird Lady Janet MacEwen sings a touching “Feed The Birds,” and Josh Assor may well be the most captivating dancing statue ever as Neleus. Michael McCarty is a fine Admiral Boom, though the role gives him far less to do here than in the movie. Alternating as Jane and Michael Banks (considerably naughtier in musical than in film) are Camille Mancuso and Marissa Smoker, and Talon Ackerman and Tyler Merna. Finally, in the scene-stealingest supporting turn of the year, Q. Smith both dazzles and terrifies as Nanny-From-Hell Miss Andrew, a tour-de-force “Brimstone And Treacle” sending Smith’s powerhouse alto into the stratosphere. In smaller roles, Debra Cardona (Miss Lark), Eric Coles (Northbrook), Mark Harapiak (Von Hussler), Eric Hatch (Valentine), Michael Dean Morgan (Park Keeper), and Michelle E. White (Mrs. Corry) acquit themselves with kite-flying colors.

Completing the Broadway-caliber cast in tracks which require Grade A song-and-dance talents (and countless costume changes to book) are Jacob ben Widmar, Kiara Bennett, Elizabeth Broadhurst, Arielle Campbell, Hannah Chin, Anthony Christina Daniel, Tyler Foy, Molly Garner, Eric Giancola, Koh Mochizuki, Chuck Rea (Policeman), Nic Thompson, Rachel Wallace, and Neka Zang. Swings (who may assume ensemble tracks at certain performances) are dance captains Elizabeth Earley and Geoffrey Goldberg, Lisa Kassay, and Sam Strasfeld.

Particular mention must be made of the show’s remarkable production numbers, another feather in the cap of the choreographic genius that is Bourne, who has statues leaping and pirouetting, toys and bankers kicking up their heels, and chimney sweeps tapping and high-kicking like Radio City Rockettes, not to mention the myriad kites flying high above the stage in “Let’s Go Fly A Kite.”

The fluidity of the production’s innumerable scene changes, aided and abetted by Howard Harrison’s vibrant lighting design, bear mentioning as well, as does Steve Canyon Kennedy’s crystal clear sound design. Musical director Daniel Bowling conducts the Mary Poppins orchestra to perfection. Stephen Mear is co-choreographer. Jimmie Lee Smith is production stage manager. The contributions of other creative and technical artists are truly too numerous to mention.

Even at two and three-quarter hours (including intermission), Mary Poppins keeps its youngest audience members every bit as enthralled as are their parents, grandparents, and other assorted adults. Truly in a class by itself, Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins is the best kind of family entertainment, i.e. the sort no one is ever too old to love.

Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
www.scfta.org
--Steven Stanley
July 15, 2011

Photos: Joan Marcus

Saturday, July 16, 2011

TWIST: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL



WOW!
TWIST: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL

Simply put, the first fifteen to twenty minutes of Twist: An American Musical are as breathtakingly thrilling as any I’ve ever experienced inside a theater. An honest-to-goodness overture previews some of the tunes we’ll be hearing, and how exciting it feels to have this mostly lost tradition revived. Then comes “Back By Demand,” the kind of dazzling tap extravaganza one might have seen at Harlem’s legendary Prohibition-era Cotton Club, though here it is set in Louisiana’s Big Easy, aka New Orleans, and the applause it inspires seems to go on forever. Cheers soon turn to gasps of horror as Ku Klux Klansmen set about lynching one of the opening number’s dance duo, an African American about to head north with his pregnant white girlfriend. The expectant mother soon finds herself on the steps of the Parish House Orphanage, where she dies giving birth to a son. A decade later, the parentless mulatto child, who’s been named Twist, has been fooled by his fellow orphans into asking for meat on his tenth birthday, leading to a high-energy song-and-dance show-stopper entitled “Meat On The Bones,” one which outdoes anything Annie’s girls or Oliver’s boys ever did on the Broadway stage.

Though the remaining two and a half hours of Twist: An American Musical don’t live up to those spectacular opening numbers, and though there is room for a good deal of improvement in this not-yet-ready-for-Broadway musical, what is already up there on the Pasadena Playhouse stage provides more than enough entertainment to warrant the standing ovation the show received on its Opening Night.

Book writers William F. Brown and Tina Tippit have taken as their inspiration both the Dickens classic and (unofficially) its stage and screen musical adaptations. Twist (Alaman Diadhiou) is sold by orphanage caretakers Potlatch (Paul Aguirre) and Miss Cotton (Diane Delano) to an undertaker named Crazah Chesterfield (Cleavant Derricks), only to end up on the streets of The Big Easy. There he meets Artful Dodger stand-in Pistol (Joshua Bolden), who introduces Twist to bootlegger Boston (Matthew Johnson), who just happens to have been the dance partner of the lynched Roosevelt (Jared Grimes). As a fledgling member of Boston’s gang of youthful rum-runners, Twist is soon sent to jail, then rescued by Mr. Prudhomme (Cliff Bemis), who just happens to be lawyer to Twist’s mother’s family, and who recognizes something in the ten-year-old that rings a bell. Meanwhile, Twist’s evil uncle Lucius (Pat McRoberts) plots to prevent his nephew from inheriting his late sister’s half of the family fortune, his own half of which he has squandered till there’s hardly a cent left.

The closer Twist adheres to Dickens’ original, the better it is. It’s when introducing its own characters and plot twists that the show could stand a return to the source. In the musical Oliver, we know exactly whom to root for (Oliver and Nancy), whom to hiss (Bill Sykes), and whose comic presence to simply enjoy (Fagin). Here, the lines aren’t so clearly drawn, with Boston’s moral ambiguity proving particularly frustrating. Also, in Oliver The Musical we knew exactly where our young hero’s happy ending lay—with Mr. Brownlow, his grandfather. By making Twist a biracial child in the segregated 1920s, there’s little likelihood of a happy reunion with his Caucasian mother’s family, and the book writers seem stumped about what constitutes happily ever after for young Twist. As of Opening Night, it’s frustratingly unclear who will take care and custody of the lad.

Make no mistake, Twist has a heck of a lot going for it, first and foremost Debbie Allen’s dynamic choreography, executed by a cast who don’t seem to know the meaning of “No Can Do.” Among the evening’s dance showstoppers are a spooktacular “Coffin Nightmare” (though opening night technical difficulties prevented the deceased from levitating as shown in production stills), “Heir To The King” (featuring Pistol, Twist, Boston’s Boys, School Girls, and just about everybody else in the 32-member cast), and a “Mardi Gras” celebration with an entire stageful of N’Orleans revelers.

Twist’s songs (lyrics by Tena Clark and music by Clark and Gary Prim) are full of hummable hooks, but there are just too many of them—seventeen songs in Act One alone, some of which stop the show (literally) when they ought to be advancing the plot. An Act Two song-and-dance dream sequence featuring Roosevelt, Al Jolson, and Josephine Baker, while performed with ample pizzazz by Grimes, Robert Loftin, and Vivian Nixson, seems ill-conceived from the get-go. Are we really supposed to believe that a white 1920s lawyer has converted one room of his house into a shrine to African-American performers, and that he has hung a huge framed photograph of a blackfaced Al Jolson next to equal sized photos of Roosevelt and Miss Baker? Though the number does allow Twist to get to know his late father, it truly needs rethinking.

Still, despite its current “Diamond In The Rough” status, Twist shines brightly due not merely to the dazzle of director/choreographer Allen’s dance sequences but also to an all-around phenomenal cast.

Diadhou, who originated the role of Twist in its World Premiere at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater last September, is such a natural charmer that he earns audience love and sympathy from his first appearance. Johnson and Grimes deserve a standing ovation simply for their amazing, seemingly inexhaustible footwork in “Back To Demand,” Johnson getting extra points for vocal prowess in several solos and duets. McRoberts, who created the role of Lucius in Atlanta, makes for a vocally strong, easy-to-hiss villain, and Bemis is an equally strong though considerably more sympathetic Mr. Prudhomme.

Adding Broadway/TV star power to the Pasadena Production are the stunningly beautiful Gray and legendary powerhouse Derricks. Gray, of American Idol fame, combines Dorothy Dandridge glamour, phenomenal vocal chops, and first-rate acting to make Della the moral center of Twist. Dreamgirls’ original James Thunder Early, Tony-winner Derricks is a veritable force of nature as funeral director Crazah, working himself and the audience into a frenzy in “Death Is Alive And Well” and “Ashes To Ashes.”

Aguirre and Delano are comedic standouts as an oh-so-colorful pair of orphanage caretakers, Aguirre exhibiting gorgeous pipes, and baritone-voiced Delano (so memorable in the Playhouse’s Mask) scoring bonus comedy points for an unbilled and virtually unrecognizable gender-bending turn in Act Two. As Twist’s doomed mother Angela, Ava Gaudet sings a beautiful, gut-wrenching “Why?” before joining the ensemble for the remainder of the show.

The kids in the cast are all-around stupendous teen and preteen performers, headed by a trio of young firecrackers: Bolden as Pistol, Kyle Garvin as Skillet, and Chase Maxwell as Yancy.

Completing the terrific ensemble in both younger and older roles are Kevin C. Beacham, Jr., Nickolas Eibler, John Fisher, Chantel Heath, Joshua Norton, Holly Hyman, Olivia-Diane Joseph (who originated the role of Della in the Atlanta production), Wayne Mackins, Micah Patterson, Malaiyka Reid, Carla Renata (who plays Naomi), Julianna Rigoglioiso, Isaac Spector, Terrance Spencer, Dougie Styles, Dempey Tonks, and Armando Yearwood, Jr. Coco Monroe performs the role of Twist at certain performances.

Though several of Clark and Prim’s songs seem more designed for Adult Contemporary Top 40dom than as representations of a specific 20th Century time and place, they are a highly hummable lot, particularly as performed under the musical direction of Jim Vukovich, who also did the vocal arrangements and conducts the show’s sensational thirteen-piece orchestra.

Tony-winning set designer Todd Rosenthal and costume designer ESosa repeat from the Atlanta production, creating together a vivid sense of Prohibition-era New Orleans. Howell Binkley lights both designs to perfection, with Peter Fitzgerald’s sound design insuring that vocals and instrumentals blend to perfection.

Joe Witt is production manager, Alex Britton production supervisor, and David Blackwell production stage manager.

If Twist: An American Musical still needs work, then so has just about every other Broadway-bound musical in its early, out-of-town stages, including Pasadena Playhouse premieres Sister Act, Baby It’s You!, and Vanities, all three of which moved on to the Big Apple. Even in its still imperfect form, Twist is quite a show, and well worth seeing for its powerhouse performances. (And don’t you dare arrive late, or you’ll miss the most thrilling opening numbers of the year.)

Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.
www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
--Steven Stanley
June 26, 2011
Photos: Craig Schwartz

THE TROUBLE WITH WORDS




WOW!
THE TROUBLE WITH WORDS

“If I could find the words… If I could speak my heart. If I could open up… If I could sing my love…”

Anyone wondering who the next Jason Robert Brown, William Finn, or Adam Guettel might be need look no further than Hollywood’s Actors Circle Theatre where Gregory Nabours’ The Trouble With Words has just opened to standing ovations.

Like Brown’s Songs For A New World, Finn’s Elegies, and Guettel’s Myths And Hymns, The Trouble With Words is a “song cycle,” a collection of solos, duets, and ensemble pieces with relatively little book but a through-theme, in this case (to quote press materials) “the relationships people have with words as well as with each other.” However you want to describe The Trouble With Words’ nineteen songs, they make for exquisite musical theater and a breathtaking introduction to a talent we’ll be hearing about (and from) for years to come.

Directed with consummate imagination and flair by Patrick Pearson, The Trouble With Words features a center-stage Nabours leading a six-piece orchestra on piano as a sextet of supremely talented young performers bring his music and lyrics to life.

Combining a quarterback’s physique and the voice of an angel, Josh Eddy solos “Never Let You Fall” to an unseen newborn child, following that later with the sexy double-entendred “The Kid With A Heart On” (“I’m just a kid with a big heart on…his sleeve”) which he croons in classic lounge singer mode.

Stunning soprano Julianne Donelle impresses with the bittersweet “I Remember Christmas” (which ends up sung in counterpoint with “Never Let You Fall”) and a deeply moving “Johnny,” whose melodic inspiration may be the patriotic “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” but whose antiwar message (“Blood is dripping from our hands as we raise them to salute”) rings as powerfully as ever in 2011.

Boy-next-door Ryan Wagner entertains with the amusingly seductive “Tongue Tied” in nerdy horn-rims (“You haunt my daydreams in the light, then grace my nightmares come the night”), then both dazzles and wrenches hearts with his vocal and dramatic tour-de-force performance of “The Silence And The Rain.”

Pert blonde Sarah Phillips opens with a quietly introspective “Here We Go Again,” backed by Brian Cannaday on vibes, then amuses with a comedic “The Ballerina’s Lament,” a blues-with-a-beat number that shows off her big belt of a voice to Nabours’ witty lyrics: “When the shit hits the fan, you pick up a pen and draw a new floorplan.”

Quirky Christopher Roque’s gorgeous tenor is showcased in the jazzy pop “Listen,” to which he accompanies himself on guitar, and in the transcendently beautiful “Raincloud.” (“If I’m not afraid of bleeding, then I won’t be afraid of blood… And maybe there’s a way to find the man that I once was, before I learned to lie… and let life pass me by.”)

Rich-piped stunner Aimee Karlin completes the sixsome, first as a picket-carrying social activist in “The Busiest Corner Of The Street,” set to a medieval-sounding waltz with lots of strings, and then with the seductive “Fool’s Gold,” a torch song (“Baby loves me like Fool’s Gold”) with a honky-tonk beat.

Wagner and Karlin duet “You’re The One,” a gorgeous romantic ballad with a pulsating beat. Eddy and Phillips blend voices to the tango rhythms of “Don’t Try To Go,” which sends two of the three onstage couples for a walk on the gay side. Roque and Donelle score laughs with “The Haircut,” which has the former informing the latter that her new haircut is “different” and “nice,” a war-between-the-sexes duet which takes a surprisingly serious turn.

The entire cast open the show in six-part harmony with its bluesy title song (“The trouble with words is when things get rough they carry you away”), close it with “No Words” (“No words to make you understand: The scent of the rain, the longing to dance...”), and blend voices mid-cycle to the Dixieland blues strains of “Gotta Get Laid” (“A little sex goes a real long way”) and the sensual Brazilian cha-cha/samba rhythms of “Sextet” (“I love the way you love me. I love the way you hate me”).

The Trouble With Words moves dazzlingly from the comedic to the sensual to the profoundly moving and back again, Nabours’ exquisitely varied songs combining the best of the three supremely talented gentlemen mentioned in the opening paragraph—the complexity of Guettel, the hummability of Brown, and the humor and sheer gorgeousness of Finn.

A savvy Pearson makes sure that there’s always a spotlight on the unassuming composer-pianist, allowing him to face his six performers (and the audience) from his upstage center keyboard. The Trouble With Words is about Nabours and his music, and this inspired bit of blocking keeps us ever aware of the creative force behind it.

In addition to Nabours and Cannaday, The Trouble With Words’ superb orchestra is made up of orchestrator Brian Morales on reeds, Benjamin Coyote on cello, Daryl Black on violin, and David Lee on guitar.

Tiffany Cole merits big thumbs up for her imaginative and varied choreography, as does stage manger Michelle Stann for her vivid lighting design. The cast’s eye-catching costumes are by Debbie Dufour and Erik McEwen, with quintuple threat McEwen scoring bonus points for his hair and makeup design. Kudos go also to Jeremy Lewis (assistant director), Ric Perez-Selsky (technical director/sound design), Gedaly Guberek (web design), Brian Ludmer (scenic design), and Wagner (graphic design). The Trouble With Words is produced by Jeremy Lelliott.

The Trouble With Words represents the greatest achievement to date of Coeurage Theatre Company, which bills itself as “Los Angeles’ only pay-what-you-want theatre.” (They’ve even trademarked the slogan.) No one will be turned away for lack of big bucks, however those with deep pockets will likely be more than happy to dig deep.

In this reviewer’s humble opinion, it’s not too soon to declare The Trouble With Words well on its way to a New York run. Nabours’ songs beg to be heard again and again (cast album please), and as brought to life by the brilliant Pearson and a couldn’t-be-better cast and orchestra, they represent the first of many great things to come from their creator.

Coeurage Theatre Company, Actors Circle Theatre, 7313 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Through August 27. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Reservations:
www.troublewithwords.com
www.coeurage.org

--Steven Stanley
June 11, 2011

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM



WOW!
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

It takes a good deal of chutzpah to chop an hour off the running time of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a great deal of talent to pull it off, a feat which Vanguard Rep has performed to perfection—and to gales of laughter—in an open-air production certain to delight audiences of all ages, and that includes Shakespearephiles-and-phobes alike.

Credit adapters Matthew Kellen Burgos and Sam R. Ross with the inspiration and director Ross with the execution of a ninety-minute Dream that whisks on by in a flash, is as easy to follow as any contemporary comedy, and features a cast of twelve (plus two) that enchant the eyes and ears and tickle the funny bone in equal measure.

Performing at the outdoor Byrnes Amphitheatre on the campus of La Cañada’s Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, Vanguard Rep trumpets their Midsummer Night’s Dream as “an irreverent reconstruction of the classic summer comedy … complete with music, laughter and pure ridiculousness … all told through the eyes of Puck.”

That this is a reconstructed Dream is evident from the get-go. Burgos and Ross have the inspired audacity to flip-flop Scenes One and Two, opening the show with Peter Quince and his madcap band of strolling players readying their adaptation of “The Most Lamentable Comedy And Most Cruel Death Of Pyramus And Thisbe,” one which we’ll later see performed a la Monty Python by this troupe of comedic whizzes.

It’s only now that we meet A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s two mismatched pairs of lovers in a scene which jettisons a good deal of exposition, the better to get the foursome off into the woods in record time.

The relative simplicity of AMND’s plot makes it one of Shakespeare’s most suitable for pruning. All you really need to know is that when Puck (servant to Oberon, King Of The Fairies) dabs a bit of magical flower juice on the eyelids of any of the dramatis personae, he or she will fall instantly in love with the very first person he or she sees upon awakening—a plot “hook” that could work just as well today as it did in Elizabethan England.

To go into a bit more detail:

Hermia (Elisa K. Blandford) and Lysander (Jeramy Felch) are in love, but Hermia’s imperious father Egeus (Clay Wilcox) is forcing her to marry Demetrius (Zach Kraus). Hermia’s bff Helena (Lauren Dobbins Webb) carries a torch for ex-boyfriend Demetrius but he wants nothing more to do with her. When the quartet of mismatched lovers head off to a nearby forest, Puck (Jason Vizza) mistakenly anoints Lysander’s eyelids with magic juice, causing the young man to fall for Helena. Soon after, Demetrius gets the same love juice applied to his eyelids (just before gazing at Helena) and Helena suddenly finds herself with a pair of lovestruck suitors and poor Hermia with none.

Elsewhere in the woods, Quince (Matthew Burgos) and his band of strolling craftsmen are busy rehearsing their play about Pyramus and Thisbe. When impish Puck transforms the head of their leader Nick Bottom (David Ross Paterson) into that of an ass, then applies some magic juice to the eyelids of sleeping fairy queen Titania (Kirstin A. Snyder), it’s donkey-eared Bottom who becomes the object of her royal affection.

Soon, Hermia and Helena are cat-fighting, Demetrius and Lysander exchanging blows, the troupe of players donning costumes for their hilarious play-within-a-play, as we in the audience enjoy our very own early summer dream of an evening under the La Cañada Flintridge stars.

Even more than usual, this particular Midsummer Night’s Dream belongs to Puck, the charismatic, multitalented Vizza remaining onstage (or in its proximity) from start to finish while providing a running Flamenco-tinged soundtrack on the acoustic guitar, his facial reactions as worthy of attention as the actions of those foolish mortals performing center stage.

The mismatched lovers couldn’t be in better hands than they are here, beginning with Blandford’s poodle-skirted Hermia who is to Webb’s nerdy Helena what Galinda is to Elphaba in a certain Broadway musical smash, prom queen vs. eternal outsider. By the same token, Felch’s Lysander is a big-man-on-campus Fiyero to Kraus’s unrequitedly lovestruck Boq. (Those unfamiliar with Wicked will just have to take my word for it that these are four absolutely delightful performances with plenty of physical comedy thrown in for good measure.)

Paterson’s sensational Nick Bottom is guilty of comic larceny, stealing every scene he’s in, first as a full-of-himself Master Thespian more than willing to undertake every single Pyramus And Thisbe role himself, then as a black-pompadoured, donkey-eared, hip-swiveling, scream-inducing Elvis of an ass (as in long-eared animal, not body part or verbal putdown).

A marvelous Matthew Burgos plays Peter Quince in auteur mode (think a younger, thinner, handsomer Francis Ford Coppola on set), supported by the equally terrific trio of Walter Wolfe (Francis Flute), Eliza Kiss (Tom Snout), and Sean F. Toohey (Snug), as hilarious a band of strolling players as you’ll see this or any Midsummer Night. (Starvling has been axed as have every one of Puck’s fairy attendants.)

Wilcox and Snyder double splendidly as Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania, the Rubenesque Snyder making for a particularly fabulous romantic comic foil for Paterson’s Bottom (in donkey mode).

A pair of unbilled teen girls serve as Puck’s assistants, and they are every bit the pros that their more seasoned, credited castmates are.

The unbilled abstract scenic design is simple but esthetically pleasing, and made even more so by Ric Zimmerman’s gorgeous Technicolor lighting design. Bethany Richards’ costumes are marvels of fancy and imagination. Kudos go also to Tracey Bonner’s choreography, Jason Knox’s sound design, and Dennis Kull’s props design. Kristen Salacka is stage manager and Brent Mason scenic painter.

Plan to picnic on the hilltop lawn overlooking the San Gabriel Mountains before the show. Bring along a cushion to sit on during the performance and something warm to wear in case the night should be a chilly one (though at the performance reviewed here, my guest and I were comfortable in short sleeves throughout the evening). Mostly, be sure to make room on your summer calendar this year and next and the one after for Vanguard Rep., an exciting addition to the thriving Los Angeles professional theater scene. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing in repertory with a pair of original plays (Tragic Women and After The Autumn), to be reviewed here soon. This is ninety minutes of Shakespearean fun and frolic you won’t want to miss.

Byrnes Amphitheater, Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, 440 St. Katherine Dr., La Cañada Flintridge.
www.vanguardrep.com
--Steven Stanley
July 1, 2011