Monday, December 9, 2019


Jennette Cronk, Jenna Cormey, Clint Hromsco,
Danielle Trzcinski in "Little Black Dress The Musical"
Photos by Rebecca McNicholas 
IMHO, "Little Black Dress The Musical" (aka LBD), is a show that is perfect for GNOs and fans of raunchy improv humor. A combination of original songs, audience participation, improv and a smidgen of drama, the brand new musical is in search of a wider audience in its initial tour.

Written by predominantly women, the show hits the mark on many topics that will resonate with women of all ages, and even some men. From first kiss, to first sexual encounter, job interviews, proposals and eventually funerals, the LBD has played an important part of many lives.

In a nutshell, the story centers on best friends Dee (Danielle Trzcinski) and Mandy (Jennette Cronk) who at age 13 pledge to be BFFs for life and to take a dream trip to "Paree!" when they grow up. When Dee's mom (Jenna Cormey) takes the girls to a boutique to find dresses for their upcoming school dance, they are introduced to and fall in love with the LBD.

Jennette Cronk as Mandy and Danielle Trzcinski
as Dee in "Little Black Dress The Musical"
The rest of the show covers the progression of time where the two womens' futures diverge, but they hang on to their friendship despite many setbacks. Dee marries Mark (Clint Hromsco) and has a baby girl Madison, while Mandy remains defiantly single as she forges her own path in life.

There are times in the show where the actors call on audience members to share their own memories of first kisses and bachelorette parties, which leads to some unexpected shenanigans. The night I went, one woman was so startlingly raunchy that the performers struggled to keep a straight face during the "A Night You'll Never Forget" number. There is always a risk in improvised segments, as they can often slow a show down, but again the ladies (and gentleman) had it under semi-control. LOL.

Danielle Trzcinski as Dee
in "Little Black Dress The
The set is simple (perfect for road shows and local theater companies), the LBDs could have been a tad more stylish, and some of the choreography and staging was a little dodgy, but overall it charmed the audience who gave the performers a rousing, well-deserved ovation at evening's end. Both Trzcinski and Cronk are powerful singers, while Hromsco and Cormey both do quadruple duty in the show and always hit the comic bullseye.

Kudos to all the talented folks who brought "Little Black Dress The Musical" to life including creators Amanda Barker, Natalie Tenenbaum, Danielle Trzcinski and Christopher Bond who also directed.

"Little Black Dress The Musical" is at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City until December 15 only, so if you suffer from FOMO, hustle on down and buy your seats ASAP at

-- Lisa Lyons


Rex Smith (center) and the cast of "Love Actually LIVE"
All photos by Kevin Parry
Next to "It's a Wonderful Life," one of the most beloved Christmas big screen films is "Love Actually", directed by Richard Curtis, that counts down the drama-filled weeks leading up to Christmas in the lives of five separate yet intertwined Londoners. The show is back after last year's sellout run at the Wallis Annenberg Theatre in Beverly Hills, and is now playing there through December 29.

In the tradition of the live sing-along nights at the Hollywood Bowl, "Love Actually LIVE" is a multi-media concert experience where the film and live action seamlessly intertwine throughout the London setting. The result is a satisfying trip down memory lane for the audience and the opening night theatergoers responded with wild enthusiasm.

John Battagliese as David
in "Love Actually LIVE"
To briefly recap, the families and friends whose lives we enter are David, the newly elected Prime Minister of London and his working class assistant Natalie; recently widowed Daniel and his adorable stepson Sam; newlyweds Peter and Juliet and his lovelorn best friend Mark; lonely editor Sarah and her erstwhile crush Karl; Sarah's cynical boss Harry and his wife Karen who suspects he is having an affair with sexy Mia; Billy Mack, a faded rock star angling for a comeback with the support of his long-suffering manager Joe; and jilted author Jamie, who is writing his newest book in France, and his beautiful Portuguese housekeeper Aurelia who speaks no English.

Original songs as well as featured numbers from the movie soundtrack are presented on a gorgeous set with a 10-foot-high decorated Christmas tree at center and two side areas where scenes are played out. There is a fantastic live orchestra that plays both onstage and, at some points, in the auditorium that adds to the evening's festivities.

The number of talented singers on stage is awe-inspiring and you'd be hard pressed to single them out, but I'll try. Several performers from last year's production are back including heartthrob recording artist Rex Smith (Billy Mack), Tomasina Abate (Karen), and Doug Kreeger (Harry), are among those who give solid performances.

Carrie Manolakos as Natalie
in "Love Actually LIVE"
Powerful women's voices soar into the rafters including standouts Carrie Manolakos (Natalie), Gabriella Carrillo (Aurelia), Aubrie Sellers (Sarah) and Nayah Damasen as Joanna, Sam's secret crush in the school band.

The men are also well-represented by Smith (who still looks damn fine in his gold lame shorts and Santa hat), young Levi Smith (Sam), James Byous (Mark), John Battagliese (David), Jon Robert Hall (Daniel), Declan Bennett (Jamie) and Rogelio Douglas, Jr. (Peter) who blew the top off the theater with his reinvented, gospel-inspired version of "White Christmas."

Ruby Lewis and Rogelio Douglas, Jr in
"Love Actually LIVE"
Huge kudos to the behind the scenes team who created a warm and welcoming world at the Wallis. They include director and adapter Anderson Davis, music supervisor Jesse Vargas, vocal designer AnnMarie Milazzo, musical stager Sumie Maeda, scenic designer Matthew Steinbrenner, lighting designer Michael Berger, sound designer Ben Soldate, costume designer Steve Mazurek, video designer Aaron Rhyne and the fantastic 15-piece orchestra.

Levi Smith as Sam in "Love Actually LIVE"
The show is basically family friendly, although be warned there are some naked body parts and suggestive actions in the filmed sequences, so maybe not great for kids under 10...just sayin'.

For fans of the film, this is a perfect kickoff for the holiday season. If you have never seen the film, shame on you! Many in the audience left the theater vowing to go home and watch the original film, so a whole new generation of "Love Actually" fans is in the making.

Tickets prices are $39-$125 (subject to change) and can be purchased by calling 310-746-4000 or visiting

-- Lisa Lyons

Tuesday, November 26, 2019


I’ve noticed a trend lately in our ever-changing theatre scene that states in the playbill/programs that “This production will be performed without an intermission.”  It appears to be a sign of the times  indicating that budgetary issues are definitely impacting not only the subject matter of stories being written by playwrights, but also the size of the casts employed by producers as a result.

Is it a harbinger and sign of the times?  It certainly looks like it.  The fate of the three and two acts play structures over the last 75 years, (unless one was watching a Shakespearean play that told its story in 5 acts back in its day) is likely to be as relevant in today’s theatre productions as a buggy whip.

It’s difficult to actually pinpoint when producers introduced the “90 minute” production concept; ranging in cast size from the “two-hander” to casts up to six characters, but it’s been at least ten years by my count.

Today’s American society in general have short attention spans.  We are an instant gratification-driven society.  We want everything and we want it now!  “Immediate seating, no waiting” is music to our ears, be it entertainment or dinning choices. Alas, it’s no wonder we’re constantly stressed out much to the delight of the pharmaceutical industry.  I believe our playwrights and theatre professionals deserve much better than this.

The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) usually holds its New York City Broadway visit event in late October/ early November to coincide with its member conference and plays availability from Broadway producers.  This year’s conference was short and sweet.  It ran from November 1st thru November 3rd.  Not much time for the average person to see many plays, however, theatre critics thrive on overdosing and binge reviewing as many plays as possible within that short window of opportunity.

To wit:  I saw three productions in that time span and each one as it turned out was performed without an intermission; running approximately 85 to 90 minutes.  A perfect time frame for the current state of today’s theatre-going audience demographic choices.  And I still had time to attend an all-day session of panels and discussion groups.  How do we do it you wonder?  Ah, that’s the mystery and the magic of the theatre.

In order of the productions seen and reviewed, “Betrayal”, by Sir Harold Pinter is a must see show for Pinter fans.   Its devilishly written dialogue and non-linear plot is deftly performed by a terrific cast of actors led   by British leading man Tom Hiddleston as writer Robert, husband of Emma, a sultry Zamwe Ashton, and Charlie Cox as Jerry, Robert’s agent and best friend and the other man in this love triangle production.  Eddie Arnold, lends solid support as the Waiter and performs other yeoman duties as well.

Harold Pinter, in a moment of complete candor said he based this play on his own marriage woes involving infidelity and betrayal as the key components.  The powerful production, exquisitely directed by Jaime Lloyd, features strong emotional content mixed with achingly poignant moments of truth and boldness as it explores the rush that sex and infidelity sometimes, for some, can inject into a marriage.

The stark, minimal set design by Soutra Gilmour matches and achieves director Lloyd’s vision on how best to capture Pinter’s edgy and all-so-civilized-sophisticated drama.  The characters are playing with dynamite which almost always leads to one or all in the triangle being forever scarred and even destroyed.

The timing and pacing may appear glacial at times, but this non-linear play is so compellingly well-acted by this cast that it keeps one engaged and on our toes until the payoff moment that is so Pinter-esque. The sex triangle characters are fully formed adults who know what they’re buying into when the play begins, but we the audience, must wait to find out how it all sorts out.  And it’s all accomplished in less than 90 minutes.

The second play reviewed was the Irish Repertory Theatre production of Conor McPherson’s self-loathing melodrama “Dublin Carol”.  The Irish Rep Company has a fabulous reputation of bringing the light and dark side of Celtic heritage to its productions that celebrates the many styles of story-telling yarns for which the Irish are famous.

“Dublin Carol” is a penetrating portrait of Irish culture with a leitmotif of alcohol addiction, guilt, remorse, and redemption running rampant throughout its 89 minutes of the stage performance.  Needless to say, it’s not an O’Casey-like comedy.  But, it is an ever so brilliant tour de force performance by Jeffrey Bean, as Dublin funeral parlor employee John Plunket who is constantly warring with his demons that will not stop coming out of the Jamieson whiskey bottles he keeps in his cupboard.

The play set in Dublin on Christmas Eve in 1999, centers around John’s relationship with his estranged daughter Carol (Sarah Street) who has not spoken to her father in eleven years who now suddenly shows up on his doorstep to inform him that her mother is dying of cancer.    Carol has a love/hate relationship with her father.  She wants to have a closer family relationship, but she can’t bring herself to forgive him for his “abandoning” of the family years ago.

Guilt is the powerful enabler and the enemy of remorse and redemption.   No character feels that pang more acutely than John.  The nephew of John’s friend is a young Dublin lad of twenty named Mark – who has recently joined the family funeral business – is nicely played by Cillian Hegarty. His purpose is to help flesh out the deeply held emotions and insecurities of John as sort of a sympathetic ear and shoulder for John to lean on when the “urge” to enjoy the comfort of those Jamieson whiskey bottles become too strong to resist.

The Irish aren’t considered as having the “gift of the gab” for nothing. “Dublin Carol” is a talky play.  The beauty of the production, however, lies on the performance of Jeffrey Bean as John.  It’s a tribute to Bean’s talent, experience and stamina if nothing else.  He’s on that stage for about 80 of its total 89 minutes.   It’s an astonishing performance.

The last production reviewed in this three- mini review piece is “The Height of the Storm”, written by French playwright Florian Zeller, with an English translation by Tony and Oscar award-winning author/playwright Christopher Hampton.

The 2018 Olivier Award-winning play stars British theatre legends Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce in two riveting star-turn performances as an aging couple of some 50 plus years of marriage who find themselves needing one another more than ever as the medical term of “dementia” begins to rear its ugly head.

Playwright Zeller is a huge fan of playwriting Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter, which accounts for the echoes of Pinter-like plotting, the opaqueness of structure, the content, and the style so associated with Pinter plays.

For example, the audience, at the beginning, isn’t quite sure whether the characters of Andre (Jonathan Pryce) and Madeleine (Eileen Atkins) are even alive as characters. They are seen interacting with their two daughters Anne (Amanda Drew) and Elise (Lisa O’Hare).  But they too may even be ghosts or perhaps, figures of the imaginations of the other on-stage family members, as well as two non-family visitors: The Woman (Lucy Cohu) a woman who claims to be from Andre’s past whom he doesn’t recognize or knows, along with The Man (James Hillier) the boyfriend of Elise; all of whom meet and interact with one another. Confusing?  You bet.

One thing we know for sure is that either Andre or Madeleine must be deceased.  Which one passed first is revealed at the end.  Everyone else appears to be caught in a dream, and/or in denial.  Frankly, even for me, a Pinter fan, Zeller has tossed in too many red herrings into his French onion soup that lacks clarity and cohesion.  I’m not sure if the play’s clarity problems lies in the original French version or in Hampton’s English translation.

Regardless of clarity concerns of the story directed by Jonathan Kent, one cannot deny the power and precision of the performances of Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins. These two stars possess the talent and acting chops to still knock your socks off, along with solid support from this impressive ensemble cast.

Friday, November 8, 2019


Lenny Wolpe and James Sutorius star as "The
Sunshine Boys" at North Coast Repertory Theatre.
All photos by Aaron Rumley.
Most theatre audiences acknowledge that playwright Neil Simon was the true and anointed “King of Comedy” not only in America but worldwide.  They also realize they’re not likely to see his stripe and genius for comedy that the ‘common folk’ have embraced for 42 years.

Most of his plays were New York centric-written.  His sharply observant eye, and knack of capturing the situations and dialogue of New Yorkers, made them maddeningly eccentric but lovable at the same time, winning the hearts of all urban Americans.  Who can forget the antics of “The Odd Couple”?   Or the zaniest of situations where the toilet flushed upward and “black salads” were unappetizing restaurant first courses that one didn’t just dig into in, “Barefoot in the Park”.  And the list of Simon ‘zingers', as they came to be called, was his hallmark.

His comedy dialogue was sublime and actors couldn’t wait to perform it. He was a true son of New York whose legacy of being the most successful American comedy playwright ever merited the laurels heaped upon him.  He passed in 2018 at the age of 91. The King of Comedy is dead.  Long live the future playwright kings and/or queens of comedy who follow. Simon was one of a kind and will be greatly missed...and the beat goes on.

North Coast Repertory Theatre of Solana Beach, CA has enjoyed much success with Simon’s plays over the years.  Their recent “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is among five or six memorable Simon productions that are still vivid in NCRT audience memories and this audience of one as well.

“The Sunshine Boys”, currently on stage at NCRT, is another hilarious crowd pleaser.  Wonderfully directed by Jeffrey B. Moss, it stars James Sutorius and Lenny Wolpe as Al Lewis and Willie Clark respectfully, as the ‘Sunshine Boys’ with a winning performance from Bryan Banville as Ben Silverman, Willie’s nephew, lawyer, and agent; plus a fine supporting cast of Portia Gregory as the Registered Nurse; Samantha Roper as the TV show skit Nurse; Phillip Korth as Eddie, and John Tessmer as the Patient in the comedy skit.

“The Sunshine Boys” is a smartly observed comedy with edges of poignancy creeping out from its core center that is insightfully culled from Simon’s exploration of growing old and grappling with the actor’s bane – that of not being able to get cast in a show because of one’s age. And it’s still an issue in 2019.

The story, in short, is set in the 1970s in New York City, and revolves around two long- time partners/actor performers who have ‘retired’ their Burlesque act of 43 years.  Al Lewis (James Sutorius) decided to retire without consulting his actor partner Willie Clark (Lenny Wolpe) after 43 years of performing their famous “Doctor” skit.  The “retiring of their act” by Al was a one person decision, according to Willie. It’s a betrayal in Willie’s eyes; as a result, the two men have not spoken to each in eleven years.

Bryan Banville and Lenny Wolpe in
"The Sunshine Boys"
Ben, Willie’s agent and nephew, has finally arranged for Willie to perform in a huge CBS TV Special honoring America’s greatest comedy performers of the past fifty years. Willie is excited by the idea of working again.  For Willie, his life IS performing. The idea of performing is what has kept him going since the split with Al.  There’s just one hitch: CBS wants the ”old act”.

They want “Lewis and Clark” together as in days of yore.  "Look, I’m not doing the show if Al Lewis is involved. Period!” Willie roars at Ben, who then gently explains to Willie that there is no Al Lewis, no hefty CBS TV money contract for doing the old act just one more time.

The beauty of this comedy gem for actors of a certain age lies not only the experience and talent they bring, but also in the  vision of director Moss who seamlessly and intelligently stages Simon’s play, orchestrating the “master class” performances of Wolpe and Sutorius, two pros whose exquisite comedy timing is flat-out mesmerizing to watch.

Lenny Wolpe, Samantha Roper and
James Sutorius in "The Sunshine Boys"
Wolpe shines as the wise-cracking kvetch Willie. Sutorius delivers a finely judged, nuanced turn as the cool but cautious Al, not knowing what to expect from Willie after eleven years of not speaking to him.  It’s classic Neil Simon. There are echoes of Oscar and Felix from “The Odd Couple” all over again but with a twist.

If truth be known, both are unsure of the meeting and the outcome but both characters secretly still enjoy needling one another. In reality, they’re two grumpy old men who are in need of the negotiating skills that Bryan Banville supplies as lawyer Silverman. That’s it. No spoiler alerts here; to learn how this splendid production turns out, one has to see the production for one’s self.  How these characters resolve the issues that kept them from reconnecting is the stuff that made Neil Simon world famous. His skill as a comedy playwright was nonpareil.

The technical credits at NCRT are always first rate and this production is no exception. The creative team, led by director Moss, features a colorful, wonderful Set Design by Marty Burnett that is eye appealing and functional.  Lighting Director Matt Novotny works his magic allowing for the costumes of Elisa Benzoni to be seen and appreciated for their spot-on 1970s period.

The Sound Design by Aaron Rumley is top drawer and nicely executed, especially in Wolpe’s scenes in his apartment as he putters around in his pajamas and bathrobe forgetting where things are located, and his inability to open the front door when visitors arrive is priceless.  As the kids say these days, ‘growing old sucks’. The Props design is by Phillip Korth, and Hair & Wig design by Peter Herman, complete the creative team.  The Stage Manager is Danielle Stephens.

“The Sunshine Boys” is a fun and enjoyable evening in the theatre without one f-bomb being hurled from the stage, so it’s okay to bring grandma and the kids.  The play running at North Coast Repertory Theatre, has been extended to November 24, 2019.  It’s a Must See!

-- Jack Lyons

Sunday, November 3, 2019


Nick Hardcastle stars as Academy Award-winning costume designer Orry-Kelly
in his one manshow "Orry" at West Hollywood's Lee Strasberg Theatre.
Photo by Tony Duran.
Australia's Orry-Kelly was born in a small town in New South Wales called Kiawa, famed for its blowhole. The only child of an alcoholic tailor father and a proper British housewife, Kelly longed for a more artistic path in life. He brought his wit, wiles and 'wicked' ways to America in the 1920s, first as an aspiring vaudevillian, then a Prohibition-era bootleg gin supplier, and finally ascending the Hollywood ladder as a top costume designer to the talented leading ladies of the time including Ava Gardner, Mae West, Fanny Brice (a lifelong friend) and Bette Davis, among others. Kelly was on the A list of designers, earning three Academy Awards - for An American in Paris, Les Girls and Some Like It Hot. But beneath the shimmering facade of his glamorous life, Kelly had a not-so-well-kept secret - he was a gay man with a drinking problem nursing a broken heart from a years long affair with debonair actor Cary Grant.

Orry-Kelly fitting Ava Gardner's
toga in "One Touch of Venus"
Some 51 years after his death in 1964, a handwritten memoir of his rise and fall was discovered tucked away in a pillowcase in suburban Sydney. "Women I Undressed" was never sent to a publisher, but when it was finally published in 2015, its sensational secrets were catnip to hungry-for-gossip movie fans.

When writer/performer Nick Hardcastle, himself an Aussie and native of New South Wales, saw a documentary about Kelly from Oscar-winning director Gillian Armstrong, he was enthralled and determined to share the story of this talented yet complicated man to the world at large. The result is "Orry", a one man show best described as a theatrical distillation of the memoir combining song and dance, archival footage, puppetry and even one or two of Orry-Kelly's original designs.

Nick Hardcastle as Orry-Kelly in "Orry"
Photo by Tony Duran

Opening with a re-imagining of Kelly's funeral at Forest Lawn, complete with eulogy by Jack Warner, we meet the impish title character who leaps from his all-white coffin to address the audience and introduces us to his early life - including his invisible friend "Bijou" and his lonely life as "different" from his schoolmates. 

Hardcastle is a handsome and ingratiating performer who quickly makes the audience fall for this Down Under devil. His singing voice, while not powerful, is elegant and well-suited to the demands of the role. The Soubrette played by lovely lyric soprano Danielle Heaton portrays Bijou, Fanny Brice, and a variety of other colorful characters from Kelly's life and does so with effortless charm. 

The set by Emmy award-winning scenic designer John Iacovelli is simple, functional and understated with the coffin center stage, a sewing machine stage right and piano stage left. 

Musical director Anthony Zediker accompanies Hardcastle as he weaves popular songs of the era throughout the performance as a commentary on the action. Lighting by Jared A. Sayeg is subtle and the costumes by Kate Bergh are spot on. Director and dramaturg Wayne Harrison (the former artistic director of Sydney Theatre Company) keeps it simple, playing most scenes front and center, letting his leading man control the pacing of the approximately 100 minute one-act with great success.

We don't discover much about Kelly's life in the 50s and 60s - Kelly apparently was discreet and never mentioned names of his lovers other than Grant and a rascally con man in Sydney known as "Gentleman George" - but the amazing designs and artwork he produced spoke volumes about his view of life and the legacy he left behind which comprised an astonishing 300 films between 1932 and 1963.

For a titillating and swellegant evening, I encourage you to visit the Lee Strasberg Theatre, located at 7936 Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. ORRY is playing for a limited run closing November 11, so get your tickets soon by calling 855-326-9945 or visiting

-- Lisa Lyons

Saturday, October 26, 2019


Writer, director and performer Jose Torres-Tama stars in "Aliens, Immigrants and Other Evildoers" now playing at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in downtown Los Angeles through November 3, 2019.  Photos by Jonathan Traviesa.
For an evening of pointed examinations of the plight of brown Americans throughout history, come explore the sacred rituals surrounding that history, brought to shimmering life by performance artist Jose Torres-Tama in his one man show "Aliens, Immigrants and Other Evildoers" now playing for a limited run at the Los Angeles Theatre Center's Luis Avalos Theatre in downtown Los Angeles.

Using a unique blend of spoken word, mime, archival footage and original music and art, writer, director and performer Torres-Tama tells the stories of the forgotten brown people who have built and rebuilt our cities with little or no credit. This all plays out in a series of 10 ritualistic movements with no intermission.

Torres-Tama satirizes the status of Latino immigrants as "aliens" and explores the rise in hate crimes against Latinos across the United States. While the topic is tragic, Torres-Tama uses his considerable acting skills and comic sensibility to shape-shift into a series of Latino "extraterrestrials" in bilingual rituals that challenge the hypocrisy of a country build by immigrants that in turn criminalizes those people while exploiting their often unpaid labor. He portrays a young re-construction worker, a grieving Ecuadoran woman and even a 'Cracker' politician, all with expert emotional resonance. There are definite references to the current occupant of the White House whom he deems a "Corporate Klansman preaching hate and fear in the most dangerous live reality TV show ever in our history."

At the end of the almost 100 minute experience, one comes away with a profound disappointment in our behavior toward our fellow citizens, yet still inspired to believe change is possible for our nation, provided we act from our hearts rather than our political posturing.

Torres-Tama's program note states "As an artist, it is my social, intellectual and creative responsibility to remember and expose the lies that may be passing for truth." "Aliens, Immigrants and Other Evildoers" was first presented in 2014 at Encuentro, the largest Latinx Theatre Festival in the country.

Kudos to the behind the scenes team which includes Lighting Designer John Grimsley, Video Shorts by Bruce France, original Sci-Fi music by Billy Atwell, Classical Vocalist Claudia Copeland and Production Stage Manager Cobalt McAvinue.

The Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC) is located at 514 S. Spring Street, Los Angeles 90013. Tickets for "Aliens, Immigrants and Other Evildoers" are available at the LATC box office by calling 213-489-0994 or by visiting www.thelatc,org.

-- Lisa Lyons

Thursday, October 24, 2019


All photos by Darrett Sanders
There is an  old adage that "a fool and his money are soon parted", but if you want to have an evening of unparalleled silliness, then I urge you to part with your money and see NEIL SIMON'S MUSICAL FOOLS, performed by the Open Fist Theatre Company at the Atwater Village Theatre.

Based on one of Neil Simon's least popular plays, FOOLS tells the tale of the village of Kulyenchikov which has labored under an ancient curse that dooms all inhabitants to be seriously stupid. Now while they are deliberately dense, they are not without wiles, guiles and street smarts and they use all of those sharp tools to stumble through their lives.

As the show opens, we meet Leon Tolchinsky (portrayed opening night by Demetris Hartman), an optimistic, bright-eyed and handsome young schoolteacher, journeying to the small village where he has been hired by Doctor Zubritsky to serve as tutor to his daughter. Once he arrives, he  discovers that the IQ level of everyone he meets is in single digits. Nonetheless, he is determined to bring education, knowledge, and wisdom to the residents and professes this to his new pupil, the dim but beautiful Sophia (a lyrical, lovely Clare Snodgrass).

Imagine Fiddler on the Roof with a cast of idiots and you'll get a feeling for the tone of FOOLS. A large and talented ensemble bring the residents of Kulyenchikov to life, often with hilarious results. The Doctor (played opening night by Bruce Green) and his daffy wife Lenya (slyly played by Robyn Roth); the village merchant Yenchna (a scene-stealing Cat Davis) and her erstwhile suitor Mailman Mishkin (a hapless Hank Jacobs); silly shepherd Snetsky (a droll Parvesh Cheena), butcher Slovitch (Brendan Mulally), town crier and magistrate (Beth Robbins) and various villagers including Nina Genatossio, Juliane Hagn, Bolor Saruul, Diane Renee and Jack Sharp, who mine the humor for all its worth.

Jason Paige as Count Gregor in
The show is very nearly hijacked by the presence of Jason Paige who plays Count Gregor, the descendant of the original curse bestower, who is dogged in his pursuit of Sophia's hand in marriage which she refuses to bestow, even though by doing so, she would end the curse. Paige's over-the-top-in-a-good-way musical numbers are built-in scene stealers and he makes the most of his time in the spotlight.

Overall, the talented cast do their best to make the buffoons of Kulyenchikov real and sympathetic characters. However the book, while clever, is very pat in its observations about love, life and wisdom; the music and lyrics were composed by Phil Swann and Ron West (who also directs the production) and sad to say there is not a memorable, hummable tune in the score. That's a shame because there are some wonderful voices on that stage, particularly sparkling lyric soprano Snodgrass. The music director Jan Roper, oversees the arrangements by Luke Harrington and leads the onstage band consisting of Adan Snow, Ross Wright and Matt Germaine.

Kudos must go to the scenic designer Jan Munroe who creates a charming pastel-themed set consisting of painted blocks that were inspired by the visual tradition of Ukrainian pysanky eggs; the program notes that at the end of the run, the pieces will be available for purchase with the proceeds going to benefit the Open Fist Theatre Company.

There is probably a reason that the original FOOLS was not a huge hit for Simon despite having a stellar cast; popular mythology says that he intended this play to fail as the profits earned would be part of his nasty divorce settlement with actress-wife Marsha Mason. But whether true or not, the show now has a another chance to entice audiences to visit Kulyenchikov for the evening. Perhaps reworking some of the musical numbers would be a not-so-crazy idea to send theatergoers home humming a tune or two.

NEIL SIMON'S MUSICAL FOOLS is playing through November 17 at the Atwater Village Theatre, located at 3269 Casitas Avenue, Los Angeles 90039. On-site parking is free (although on weekend nights, street parking is available but tough to find in this small theater-heavy neighborhood) and tickets range from $15 for students up to $35 on Saturday and Sunday nights at 8pm. For reservations and more information, call 323-882-6912 or visit

-- Lisa Lyons