Thursday, April 20, 2017

PASADENA PLAYHOUSE’S “THE ORIGINALIST” BRINGS THE LARGER-THAN-LIFE SUPREME COURT JUSTICE TO LIFE

Edward Gero stars as Justice Antonin Scalia 
in "The Originalist"- Photos by Jim Cox Photography 
Whether you loved him or hated him, no one could deny the powerful influence that Justice Antonin Scalia held over the Supreme Court since his appointment by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. Always a polarizing figure with an incisive mind, savage wit and superlative writing skills, Scalia delivered many dissents that will be remembered for generations to come.

Before Scalia’s unexpected death in February 2016, playwright John Strand had written “The Originalist,” a one act that paid tribute to the legendary jurist and his dedication to interpreting the Constitution of the United States as the Founding Fathers wrote it, not open to modern re-interpretation. The “dead” versus “living” document status of the Constitution has been debated for decades, but never so passionately proclaimed as in those scathing dissents by Scalia.

Set against the backdrop of the 2012-13 Supreme Court session, the play focuses on the esteemed jurist (magnificently portrayed by Edward Gero) and his brash and brainy social-leaning law clerk Cat (Jade Wheeler), who relishes playing devil’s advocate to the Justice – and Brad (Bret Mack), another clerk with decidedly Federalist Society leanings who seeks to impress the Justice with his own originalist ideas.

The show opens with an operatic aria playing as Scalia addresses a law school graduate class and answers questions from the audience. His scripted remarks are interrupted not once but several times by a young woman who will not be silenced: it is Cat, who informs him that she has just applied to be his summer law clerk. Egad!

Edward Gero and Jade Wheeler in
"The Originalist"
Their subsequent interview for the clerkship doesn’t go well, with the combative tone being set from the start but, despite his irritation, one can see something in this young black woman’s grasp of facts and assertive tone has resonated with him. He hires her as his new “sparring partner” and sounding board, while Cat is seeking both insight into the man she calls a “monster” as well as a potential mentor.

Jade Wheeler and Bret Mack in "The Originalist"
The crux of the play’s plot – whether Cat will be able to insert her own personal beliefs into the opinions that Scalia permits her to draft for a controversial case – comes to a head when jealous Brad “outs” Cat as a lesbian and raises the possibility that her sexual orientation will prove an embarrassment to the Justice in the aforementioned action.

That is because the dissent is a landmark case, United States v. Windsor which aimed to overturn the federal ban on same sex marriage. As a devout Catholic and constitutional purist, Scalia’s antipathy toward gay marriage and refusal to acknowledge homosexuality as a legitimate identity, was well documented.

The personal pasts of both Scalia and Cat are introduced in separate vignettes, designed to show perhaps the areas in which they are very much alike; but since the play is based on a real person who was notorious for protecting his privacy, it takes a huge leap of faith to believe that these conversations would have occurred. However, if you can suspend your disbelief and just let yourself get lost in the glorious world of words, you will be treated to an evening of superlative theater.

Director Molly Smith orchestrates this 95-minute chamber piece, ably balancing the operatic crescendos of Scalia’s personality with the counterpoint of the two clerks, one strident, the other thoughtful. She is helped by her talented cast, particularly Edward Gero who not only resembles Scalia, but has captured his overlooked charm that was obscured by his often acerbic personality. Gero had the good fortune to observe Scalia in the court as well as at dinner and was able to slip into many of his mannerisms and expressions. He never makes a mockery of the man who described himself as a “monster” in the eyes of the liberal left and a hero to the conservative right.

Bret Mack, Edward Gero and Jade
Wheeler in "The Originalist"
The character of Cat is tricky to pull off as she is an obvious device to raise the important questions that drive the play forward. It takes a subtle and intense performer to make it work and while Jade Wheeler’s projection and intent was fine, she didn’t seem truly comfortable in Cat’s skin. Some line deliveries and body positions seemed awkward and unsure, which I don’t think was Smith or Wheeler’s intent. Bret Mack has a thankless role of the smarmy Brad, but he does his best to make him more than a comic book baddie.

Kudos to the simple, classic stage design by Misha Kachman; it evokes the operatic motif of red velvet curtains and crystal chandeliers, creating both the solemnity of the judicial chambers and the awe-inspiring expanse of a Catholic cathedral. Lighting design by Colin K. Bills, costume design by Joseph P. Salasovich, and sound design of Eric Shimelonis completes the technically-excellent creative team.

According to sources, Justice Scalia never did see the original 2015 Arena Stage production in Washington DC, due to his concern that an appearance at the event might be construed as an endorsement of the portrayed incidents or a potential conflict of interest. Shame, because I think he would have been pleased with Gero’s respectful homage to him. However, I think he would be indignant at Strand’s suggestion that he lusted after the Chief Justice position (eventually filled by John Roberts); his guilt and remorse over his role in that drama was Shakespearean according to the play, but we’ll never know the truth of that. “The Originalist” does however show us that he was a brilliant man who was a true original to the end of his life.

“The Originalist” runs through May 7 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Drive in Old Town Pasadena. More information and tickets can be obtained through the Box Office or online at www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.

--Lisa Lyons


Monday, April 10, 2017

SAN DIEGO’S OLD GLOBE EXPLORES THE BEAUTY OF 'THE OUTSIDER' IN LOLITA CHAKRABARTI'S "RED VELVET "

The cast of RED VELVET at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre
In the history of theatre, from the ancient Greeks to contemporary multi-casting, the idea of casting a black actor to play “Othello” has been seen as earth-shaking in its audacity. Why that should be so and what black actors had to endure to make it an accepted custom is the basis of Lolita Chakrabarti’s “Red Velvet”, now playing at San Diego’s Old Globe on the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage.

The show tells the story of Ira Aldridge (Albert Jones), a classically trained American actor who was the first black actor to play Othello at London’s prestigious Covent Garden in 1833. The renowned tragedian Edward Kean had been stricken and hospitalized, and rather than go dark (unheard of in the Garden’s history), the company’s French manager Pierre Laporte (Sean Dugan) makes a unilateral decision to hire Aldridge as Kean’s replacement.

John Lavelle and Allison Mack
This doesn’t go down well with Kean’s petulant son Charles (a scene-stealing John Lavelle) who feels he should rightly step into his father’s shoes despite his obvious lack of talent. Charles’s fiancée and leading lady Ellen Tree (a sparkling Allison Mack) is at first shocked, then intrigued and eventually won over by the larger-than-life Aldridge. The other players seem divided over the appropriateness of the casting, especially older, more staid members like Bernard Warde (Mark Pinter) who cautions that “The British are open - to a point…We like what we know, and we know what we like!” he states firmly.

All of this is set against the British Abolition Movement which was causing rioting in the streets along with calls for the abolition of slavery. The fear that such a provocative move may further inflame London society is dismissed by Laporte who has more faith in the broad-mindedness of the theatre-going public. It will be up to the talent and sheer bombast of Aldridge to pull off the role he has most longed to play.

Allison Mack and Albert Jones
The thought of a large black man grabbing the wrist of the lily-white Desdemona is deemed inappropriate and offensive by the press. But Ellen is fascinated by Aldridge’s idea that, rather than declaiming lines to the audience, that Othello and Desdemona should look at each other, truly feeling the emotions of this tragically mismatched couple; shades of early “method acting” which seems obvious now, but was groundbreaking in 19th century British theatre.

She eagerly embraces the new intimacy and power she feels onstage; but sadly, the reception to the performance is not what any of them (save Charles Kean) expected and desired. The critics are brutal in their reviews of Aldridge’s performance (which playwright Chakrabarti takes from the actual newspaper texts of the time), stating “Owing to the shape of his lips, it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English” and labeling him “an unseemly n*gg*r”.

The fallout from Laporte’s brave casting had a toxic effect on not only the actors but on the casting of ethnic actors in major roles for many years to follow. Aldridge was a ground-breaker on many levels and it’s sad that apart from theatre historians, his contributions are mostly unknown to current generations.

Albert Jones and Sean Dugan
As portrayed by Albert Jones, Aldridge is much like the tragic figures he portrays – Othello, Lear, Richard III – a man full of talent, anger, longing, imagination and audacity. He is, as most flawed heroes, his own worst enemy. He will not be swayed by logic or reason, only carried aloft on his aspirations and belief in his own talent. He ignores Laporte’s subtle advice to “move gently” into the intensity of Othello’s emotions that the conservative audiences may recoil from initially; he believes fervently in the truth of drama and his right to portray this most ego-maniacal of Shakespeare’s leading men. Jones has the physical presence and vocal power to inhabit Aldridge’s persona yet to make you feel some pity towards him when the world turns against him.

Mark Pinter, Amelia Pedlow and Albert Jones
The supporting actors are outstanding and imbue their characters with real distinction. There is a star turn by Amelia Pedlow, who brilliantly portrays three separate characters: a persistent Polish journalist, a ditsy ingénue and a warm and loving first wife to Aldridge. Monique Gaffney brings her usual depth of character to the role of Connie, the company’s servant, and Michael Aurelio is a dashing Henry Forrester, the young actor playing Cassio who is delighted at Aldridge’s casting as he is in support of the abolitionist movement. Mark Pinter plays both Aldridge’s dresser Terrence and the charmingly fusty Bernard Warde, never drifting into parody in either role. As previously noted, John Lavelle has a scene-stealing turn as the arrogant and delusional Charles Kean. His fabulous “hair toss” had the audience laughing aloud on opening night. Sean Dugan brings a boyish enthusiasm and simmering anger to the complex Laporte who is forced to betray his old friend for the sake of business.

Director Stafford Arima, who previously helmed “Allegiance” and “Ace” for the Globe, has a sure hand with this material, finding the oh-so-relevant references to race and nationalism in the material. He keeps things moving forward, although I had a problem with the decision to have the show open with two characters speaking in Polish for several minutes.

As usual at the Globe, the scenic design, costumes and lighting are perfection. Jason Sherwood’s rotating, cathedral-like proscenium arch is both beautiful and grotesque with macabre touches hidden in its skeletal frame. The lighting design of Jason Lyons captures how theatre must have looked to the audiences in the 1800s with flickering footlights and stately chandeliers casting long shadows. The costumes by David Israel Reynoso are richly elegant, especially Aldridge’s robes as Othello. Kudos to the dressers who make some remarkably speedy changes for Pinter and Pedlow in their multiple roles.

In a climate that is full of uncertainty, with politics, art and race relations under siege, “Red Velvet” seems profoundly prescient despite its being written in 2011. Could Chakrabarti have had a premonition of “Brexit” and “Black Lives Matter”? Finding the universal truths in life is the hallmark of a talented writer, and she is deserving of the many awards the play has received.

If you love theatre go see “Red Velvet” and discover the story of the actor who has a memorial plaque at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in honor of his contributions to the performing arts and another in Lodz, Poland where he was buried after dying while on tour at age 60 in August 1867.

The show plays until April 30, and tickets can be purchased at the Box Office, by calling 619-23-GLOBE or online at www.TheOldGlobe.org.

-- Lisa Lyons

Monday, April 3, 2017

"LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT" A SUPERB PRODUCTION AT GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE

Alfred Molina, Colin Woodell, Jane Kaczmarek
and Stephen Louis Grush. All photos by Chris Whitaker.
Eugene O’Neill became America’s first Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1936. His canon of more than 30-plus plays, including four prestigious Pulitzer Prizes in Drama (the most wins to date), culminated in what is now considered to be his masterpiece “Long Day’s Journey into Night”, penned in 1953 and posthumously produced three years after his death in 1956.

O’Neill was a prolific but streaky playwright, who along with Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee, were arguably the four greatest American dramatists of the 20th century. There are those who say O’Neill plays, although groundbreaking at the time, didn’t keep up with an ever changing American experience. This is one reason why many of his plays are not being widely produced anymore.

Fortunately for us, the Geffen’s Artistic Director Randall Arney, took on the challenge of producing O’Neill’s masterpiece. Staged by acclaimed director Jeanie Hackett, this revival of “Long Day’s Journey into Night” features a stellar cast of gifted actors: the superb Alfred Molina as James Tyrone the family patriarch, the brilliant Jane Kaczmarek as morphine addicted Mary Tyrone, Stephen Louis Grush as the star-crossed and fated Jamie Tyrone, and Colin Woodell as young Edmund Tyrone (the alter-ego of Eugene O’Neill), a poet/writer battling tuberculosis and alcoholism, a Tyrone family trait. All the Tyrones suffer an addiction of some form or other.

The story is set in August of 1912 in the Tyrone family’s summer home in New London, Connecticut. The creative Scenic Designer Tom Buderwitz delivers a multilevel and functional New England style summer home that allows the actors plenty of space for their magic to take place. Buderwitz’s design also displays on-stage nooks and crannies for the actors to be seen or momentarily hide depending on the situation. The mood-enhancing lighting by Lighting Designer Elizabeth Harper definitely renders that somber and melancholy tone of events taking place within the Tyrone family home. The costumes designed by Denitsa Bliznakova are spot on for the early 1900s time frame. Original Music and Soundscape Composed by Michael Roth, and Projection Designs by Jason H. Thompson complete the creative team.

Wags in the past have been known to say that if the Englishman’s vice of that era was young boys, then the Irishman’s vice comes in a bottle or a keg of beer. And, there is definitely of a lot of drinking accompanying the rich and potent dialogue taking place on the Geffen stage. Although the production runs a little over three hours – with one intermission – the narrative flies by thanks to the stage presence of its four gifted actors that keep the audience fully engaged.

O’Neill’s characters are the epitome of a dysfunctional family. A patriarch and actor/father James Tyrone who turned his one performance as an actor into playing the same character for more than 6000 performances, never fulfilling his promise to become a complete actor, is wonderfully portrayed by Mr. Molina. Mary Tyrone the matriarch laid waste by morphine addiction following complications from Edmund’s birth, is sensationally played by Ms. Kaczmarek in a tour de force performance.


Angela Goethals and Jane Kaczmarek

Jaime Tyrone (Grush) can’t let go of the alienation of his mother for years because he mistakenly thinks she secretly has always favored Edmund over him. His answer to his parent’s behavior is to take to the bottle for surcease; stunting any chance of an acting career in the theatre just like his father. Mr. Grush brings an intensity and bellicosity to Jaime that signals that he is a volatile loose cannon and likely to explode at the slightest provocation. One can also feel his mixed love-hate emotions concerning his younger brother Edmund.

Colin Woodell as Edmund Tyrone, delivers a finely nuanced performance as the brooding, poet and writer suffering from tuberculosis and alcoholism. Edmund, stifled by his home life, struggles to be free from the pressures of his dysfunctional family baggage that surrounds him at home, is nicely realized by Mr. Woodell.

O’Neill’s early life propelled him to expiate the “sins” of his family by creating melancholy characters in his plays that resonated with American audiences by employing the vernacular of the working and middle classes. Arthur Miller followed the same path when it came to capturing those same audiences in his “View From the Bridge” and “Death of a Salesman” plays.


Stephen Louis Grush, Colin Woodell and Alfred Molina.

The wonderful ensemble cast that includes Angela Goethais as Cathleen, the young housemaid, who also has a ‘taste for the sauce’, work together like a well-oiled machine (no pun intended).

This splendid production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”, seamlessly directed by Jeanie Hackett, performs on the Gil Cates stage at The Geffen Playhouse, and runs through March 18, 2017.​

-- Jack Lyons

Picasso at the Lapin Agile Brings Icons to Life with Laughs


Memories come and go, including mine. But if memory serves me right, the version of “Picasso at the Lapin Agile”, production I saw at the Westwood Playhouse back in 1994 (now called the Geffen Playhouse), wasn’t quite what I witnessed on the Shiley Stage at San Diego’s venerable Old Globe Theatre last week.

Twenty three years later, we’re immersed in a culture with innovative ideas and creative ways to bring them to today’s theatre audiences. When the Old Globe Theatre appointed Barry Edelstein its Artistic Director in October of 2012, the bridge from the past to an exciting and innovative new era became a reality. The last five years of Edelstein’s stewardship has been nothing short of theatrical excellence, in all its forms: old, new, and its experiments with the classics, the standards, and, now, the many challenging stories the twenty-first century will present to its audiences.



Philippe Bowgen as Pablo Picasso and Justin Long as Albert Einstein. All photos by Jim Cox.

The revival production of Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile”, now on the Shiley stage, benefits from the close working association between Erna Finci Viterbi play director Barry Edelstein and playwright Martin. This production marks the third play to grace the boards of the Old Globe that have been written by Martin; the other two being the 2014 musical “”Bright Star”, and the 2016 sophisticated comedy “Meteor Shower”.

Edelstein, has gathered for this revival version of “Lapin Agile”, an outstanding group of actors, comedians, and farceurs, all with impeccable timing who generate enough on-stage energy to light half of San Diego.

The story in short, is set in 1904 Paris at the Lapin Agile Bar, a beloved watering hole to struggling artists and would-be geniuses. The regulars prepare for the arrival of two soon-to-be legends Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso who are scheduled to drop in for one extraordinary night where the two ego maniacs, as big as their intellects, spar with the patrons and each other about art, science, inspiration, love, and the promise of the 20th century. Toss into this mix a character known only as “the visitor”, and one is in for brilliant, witty, and a highly entertaining evening in the theatre. Steve Martin wasn’t known as a ‘wild and crazy guy for nothing. Like the pizza man – he delivers. Actually, he’s a very intelligent and accomplished writer, playwright, actor, and musician, and an all-round Renaissance Man.



Hal Linden as Gaston, Philippe Bowgen as Pablo Picasso, Justin Long as Albert Einstein, Donald Faison as Freddy, and Luna Veléz as Germaine

The stellar cast ‘in order of appearance’ (remember this notation it will produce a laugh later) includes: Donald Faison, as Freddy, the owner/bartender of the Lapin Agile, Hal Linden as Gaston, the old gent with a weak bladder problem who delivers loads of zingers, Luna Velez as Germaine, the girlfriend/philosopher of Freddy, Justin Long as Albert Einstein, the world’s, at this moment in time, is a youthful, confident, and oddly appealing genius in waiting, Liza Lapira as the sexy Suzanne, a one-night-stand partner of Picasso, Ron Orbach as Sagot, the slick art dealer, Philippe Bowgen as Pablo Picasso, in all his preening and womanizing self, Marcel Spears as Charles Dabernow Schmendiman, a self-proclaimed business genius with a touch of P.T. Barnum in his resume, and Kevin Hafso-Koppman as the mysterious ‘visitor.

The ‘visitor’ maybe mysterious, but it’s no mystery as to why this production just soars. When nine highly talented actors are directed by the brilliant and inventive Mr. Edelstein, there can be only be one result: a first class production. The stage literally becomes a kaleidoscope of color along with comedy-insight, thanks to the talents of Scenic Designer John Lee Beatty, and Lighting Designer Russell H. Champa, who both recreate and pay homage to the City of Light, just as this terrific ensemble cast does. Costumes designed by Katherine Roth with original music and sound designed by Lindsay Jones, complete the technical team.

As a side bar: The Old Globe nabbed the Outstanding Resident Musical Award last week for their production of “October Sky” at the prestigious Craig Noel Awards ceremonies hosted by the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle.

“Picasso at the Lapin Agile” performs without an intermission (approximately 90 minutes) at The Old Globe Theatre’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage through March 12, 2017.​
--Jack Lyons

Zoot Suit Enjoys Revival at Taper after Forty Years


Seventy-five years ago a murder was committed in Los Angeles in an area known as the ‘Sleepy Lagoon reservoir’. Four young Latino men were charged with the crime of murder, and the ensuing, highly controversial trial introduced a new word into the main-stream American lexicon – “Pachuco”.

In 1977, playwright/director Luis Valdez, brought his play “Zoot Suit” to Gordon Davidson, the Artistic Director of the Mark Taper Forum with the hope that one of the country’s most prestigious Regional Theatres would produce his controversial story of social injustice and police brutality toward Latino’s in the city of Angels. And he wanted to do it with a cast of mostly Latino performers.



Demian Bichir in the revival of “Zoot Suit.” All photos by Craig Schwartz.

Not only did Davidson agree to produce the play, he helped guide it through development stages giving director Valdez full support and resources of the Mark Taper Forum. Davidson’s belief and Valdez’s powerful play helped change the creative theatrical climate of Los Angeles. Not only did it open the door of diversity in casting, it made edgier and non-traditional subject matter plays acceptable; solidifying the reputation of the Mark Taper Forum as a welcoming place for new work by America’s emerging playwrights.

The Taper’s revival musical production, now onstage of “Zoot Suit”, is faithful to Valdez’s original story. This production has had a little tweaking by playwright-director Valdez here and there. I saw the original production in 1978, starring Edward James Olmos as the narrator/guide El Pachuco, It was an astonishing performance and production. Actors Daniel Valdez who portrays Henrique Reyna and Rose Portillo who plays Delores Reyna in the 2017 production, were both in the original 1978 show. Daniel Valdez is also the Music Director for the 2017 production.

The power of Valdez’s story and the potent dialogue of the original show is still intact and still affecting. The stage is splashed in colorful costumes of Costume Designer Ann Closs-Farley, especially in her Pachuco costumes sported by Henry and El Pachuco right down to the long single feathers in their hats and their three foot long pocket chains. The cultural heat and moves of the barrio dancers under the direction choreographer Maria Torres heightens the excitement and energy of the entire production.



L-R: Jeanine Mason, Daniel Valdez, Rose Portillo and Tiffany Dupont in the revival of “Zoot Suit.”

Christopher Acebo’s spacious set provides all the room required by director Valdez to bring his 1940’s musical of barrio life along with five songs composed by the late great Lalo Guerrero. Guerrero was considered to be the father of Chicano music. “Zoot Suit” also features the music of Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Felipe Valdes Leal, Daniel Valdez, and Jorge Negrete.

Even though the story is based on actual events, there are echoes of gang warfare moments from “West Side Story” and a taste of family warfare as in “Romeo and Juliet”. Alas, it would appear this tired old world hasn’t learned very much from our forebears when it comes to tolerance and understanding. As a theatrical piece, however, “Zoot Suit” still has the goods to move an audience emotionally and intellectually to appreciate our diversity by listening to our better angels; thanks to the skill of this outstanding cast of 25 solid, actors, led by a mesmerizing Demian Bischir, as El Pachuco, ‘a messenger’ who embodies both good and bad spirits.



L-R (Bottom row): (Tiffany Dupont, partially obscured), Jeanine Mason, Demian Bichir, Matias Ponce, Daniel Valdez and Rose Portillo; (top row) Evan Strand, Fiona Cheung, Mariela Arteaga and Holly Hyman in the revival of “Zoot Suit.”

Matias Ponce as Henry Reyna, delivers a potent performance of a cynical man when it comes to his view of society, and rightly so. He is brutalized both by his culture in the barrios, and in the treatment of his brothers by the ‘gringos’ who control the power levers in his world. While viewing the police vs. the pachuco scenes, I felt the obvious bias of the justice system could have been toned down a bit. We get it and seeing it through the lens of 40 years later, too much cruelty can be off-putting to some, regardless of its veracity. Many times, less can make a more powerful and convincing statement.

Henry’s one bright spot in life is his love for his girlfriend Della, appealingly played by Jeanine Mason. When the rumble in the Sleepy Lagoon area goes sideways and a rival gang member is killed, Henry, and his three compadres are caught up and sacrificed on the expediency alter of political and police department agendas. Then as now, instilling fear (in “Zoot Suit” it’s the ‘Pachuco’ gangs), is a useful tool and a necessary component in maintaining control by governments worldwide.

In the jail and courtroom sequences Brian Abraham as George Shearer and Tiffany Dupont as Alice Bloomfield, Henry’s attorneys respectively, display their frustration in fighting a system where one can easily compare barrio life to the old Jim Crow rules of down south before the Civil Rights movement became law.

This triumphant production has been taken to the hearts of 2017 audiences, as was the 1978 production. It has been extended three times to accommodate the clamor for tickets.

“Zoot Suit”, at the Ahmanson Theatre, now runs through April 2, 2017. Don’t Miss It!
-- Jack Lyons

Poignant Tony-winning Musical "Fun Home" Comes to Ahmanson


The ‘boys’ won Tony Awards in the 80s with such gay-themed shows as “Torch Song Trilogy and nabbed another with the musical “La Cage aux Folles “(1983), and yet another, with the blockbuster musical hit “Kinky Boots” in 2013; all from the creative brain of Harvey Fierstein. Now it’s the ‘girls’ turn in the first decade of the 21st century to begin collecting Tony Awards. First and foremost is the success of the 2015 Tony Award winner “Fun Home”, based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, with music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics and book by Lisa Kron.



Kate Shindle as ‘Alison’ and Robert Petkoff as ‘Bruce’ in Fun Home. All photos by Joan Marcus.

The musical’s national tour production, now on the stage of The Ahmanson Theatre, is an eye-opening and somewhat of a ground-breaking production, in that it tells the story of a gay young woman’s sexual awakening in a troubled Pennsylvania family. American families have been dealing with gay children not knowing how to “come out” to their parents or society in general, for years. For me, “Fun Home” should be required reading or viewing for all parents, relatives, and education professionals who interact with students. I’m no health professional or an academic, but it appears to me that “Fun Home”, comes across as a pretty good vehicle for a ‘Sexual Identity Course 101’, help aid.



Abby Corrigan as ‘Medium Alison’ and Karen Eilbacher as ‘Joan’

The intriguing and compelling story, brilliantly directed by Sam Gold, becomes all the more revealing when everyone has an opportunity to view, up close and personal (even in a theatre setting) the emotions of young people who do not understand what is happening inside their bodies, and who only know that they feel estranged, in some way, from society. The biggest fear of course, is the fear of rejection and stigmatization on the part of their parents and friends. Without some guidance that is a very scary prospect indeed.

Director Gold cleverly employs cinema techniques in the telling of the “Fun Home” story. Through flashbacks and flash-forwards, Kate Shindle narrates for the audience the character of Alison (Alison Bechdal’s alter-ego). We see her at various stages in her life: Small Alison, an elementary student wonderfully played and sung by Alessandra Baldacchino, and Medium Alison, an astonishing Abby Corrigan, as a high-school senior entering college, who, when she meets classmate Joan (played by Karen Eilbacher), she falls head over heels and has an epiphany as to her sexuality.



L-R: Alessandra Baldacchino as ‘Small Alison’, Pierson Salvador as ‘Christian’ and Lennon Nate Hammond as ‘John’

When Alison in flashback discusses her home life growing up, we meet her Father Bruce, (Robert Petkoff in a finely judged performance), a closeted gay man who loves his wife Helen (steadfastly and knowingly played by Susan Moniz) and his three children: Alison, John (Lennon Nate Hammond) and Christian (Pierson Salvador), but handyman Roy (Robert Hager) also has Bruce’s attention. The story that takes place on the Ahmanson stage, and I’m guessing here, is probably not that much different from what takes place in the homes of families all over the world.

Despite the emotional content of the story, “Fun Home”, is after all, a winning musical with singing and dancing, and lots of light comedy moments. The beauty of the production lies in the compelling and poignant performances of the cast. The opening night audience was definitely on the wavelength of Alison Bechdel, Jeanine Tesori, and Lisa Kron. Every nuanced scene and innuendo that the straight audience couldn’t decode, brought knowing smiles and on-the-nose laughter from those in the audience as having ‘been there, done that’ too.

Director Gold’s staging of his three ‘Alisons’ is somewhat analogous to cinema’s ‘dream mode’, in that the characters can see themselves in a scene or sequence while the action in the story unfolds. It’s very effective and helps the audience to keep track of all the moving parts in the production in perspective.

Gold’s creative team led by Scenic Designer David Zinn, who also designed the Costumes delivers the goods in both disciplines. The Lighting Design is created by Ben Stanton and the Sound Design by Kai Harada, along with Hair and Wig Designer Rick Caroto, complete the team. Music director Micha Young, along with Orchestrations by John Clancy and Music Coordination by Antoine Silverman and a nine-person orchestra, put the finishing touches on this splendid and entertaining production.

“Fun Home” performs at The Ahmanson Theatre and runs through April 1, 2017.​
-- Jack Lyons

Friday, March 10, 2017

North Coast Repertory's "The Illusion" Offers Romance, Intrigue and Magic

John Herzog and Kandis Chappell in
"The Illusion". All photos by Aaron Rumley
Tony Kushner, one of the country’s premiere intellectual playwrights is an award-winning dramatist who is best known for his monumental Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning, two-part epic “Angels in America”. In that play, he tackled the worldwide Aids epidemic.

In the current North Coast Repertory Theatre production he switches 180 degrees to translate and adapt 17th century French playwright Pierre Corneille’s “L’IIlusion Comique” into a delicious and superbly acted French soufflé of a comedy/farce called “The Illusion”.

French comedy/farces have not fared well with American audiences over the years. Even the great comedy playwright Moliere couldn’t win over American audiences. European society with its rigid rules of the ‘master-servant relationship’, a key component in French comedy and farce, never resonated with the independent, rugged, ‘self-made man’ image that is the hallmark of American society.

North Coast Repertory Theatre Artistic Director David Ellenstein, however, does indeed understand the rules of French farce; having acted in ‘The Illusion” himself some twenty years ago. He has orchestrated his flawless cast of comedy farceurs in a way that plays to their strengths. All the elements of theatre that deal with romance, intrigue, love, yearning, insight, and magic, plus a little sword play thrown in for good measure, are embodied in this splendidly performed production.

The tale in short, follows a clueless but contrite father, Pridamant, a lawyer of Avignon, nicely played by John Herzog, who is seeking news of his prodigal son from the sorceress Alcandre (wryly and cleverly played by Kandis Chappell). In her cave setting (wonderfully realized by resident set design wizard - no pun intended) Marty Burnett, Alcandre conjures three episodes for Pridamant from his young son’s life. Inexplicably, each scene finds the son in a slightly different world where names change and allegiances shift. Pridamant watches, sometime confused and sometime aware, but only when the strange tale reaches its conclusion does he learn the ultimate truth about his son. Sorry, but no more spoiler alerts here. You’ll just have to come and see for yourself.

In comedy/farce, there are always pretty girls who tempt the men and then immediately fall in love in their search for excitement and romance. “The Illusion” is no exception. Two women play three different characters in the three conjured scenes. Sharon Rietkert, portrays upper-class Meliba, Isabelle, and Hippolyta. I have fond memories of her sultry femme fatale role in “Gun Metal Blues” at NCRT and her memorable portrayal of Elinor Dashwood, in “Sense and Sensibility” at The Old Globe in 2015.

Christina L. Flynn, Michael Polak, and
Sharon Reitkerk in "The Illusion"
The servant/companion roles in the conjured scenes of Elicia, Lyse, and Clarina, are winningly played by a pert Christina L. Flynn, along with a twinkling smile that also displays her classic training, timing, and delivery in comedy/farce. Ms. Rietkerk and Ms. Flynn are easy on the eyes and a delight to watch as they work their magic on the audience.

The gentlemen in the production also get to strut their stuff. Michael Polak, as Clindor, the son of Pridamant in scene one, and Calisto, in scene two, and Theogenes, in scene three, plays a suitor who gets the girl in all three scenes. Lucky fella.

The bumbling buffoon character Matamore who is decked out in a costume fit for a Cardinal Richelieu guardsman is wittily played by energetic farceur Andrew Ableson. Every 17th century comedy/farce has to have one character who is the comedy relief. Fortunately, for us, Mr. Ableson is that character.

John Greenleaf as The Amanuensis, the mute servant to the sorceress Alcandre in scene one, also portrays Geronte, the unsympathetic and harsh father of Isabelle in scene two and as an actor, Mr. Greenleaf could easily draw boos from any audience for his cruel treatment of his daughter if this play were an old fashion melodrama. Ah, the world so dearly loves theatrical villains, and so do the actors portraying them. Paul Turbiak, also plays the characters of Pleribo, Adraste, and Prince Florilame, a rival of Clindor, Calista, and Theogenes. It may sound confusing in words, but it makes perfect sense when viewed by an audience.

John Greenleaf, Kandis Chappell
and John Herzog in "The Illusion"
In the technical department, Marty Burnett’s production design that is set in a cave and other locations, is up to his usual high standards, along with Matthew Novotny’s lighting design that lend both a properly eerie mood when called for by the action in each of the play’s various locations. These two creative professionals continue to amaze me as to how cleverly they solve the challenges that “Illusion” director Ellenstein and visiting directors require when staging a production at North Coast Repertory Theatre.

The sleek, and at times, rich costume designs by Elisa Benzoni are eye catching and pitch-perfect for the time period. The costume for the character of Matamore, for example, looks as if it just came from the MGM costume department. Melanie Chen is the sound designer, and the realistic sword fighting scene is courtesy of actor Michael Polak.

“The Illusion” is a highly entertaining production which performs at North Coast Rep Theatre, Solana Beach, and runs through March 19, 2017.
-- Jack Lyons