Friday, May 22, 2020

GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE OFFERS WORLD PREMIERE OF LIVE, VIRTUAL AND INTERACTIVE THEATRICAL EXPERIENCE “THE PRESENT”


One of the most successful series of performances at the Geffen Playhouse have been the one man shows by Helmer Guimarães; the most recent was last summer's hit "Invisible Tango" directed by Frank Marshall. Guimarães's mix of mind-boggling magic combined with autobiographical memoir, has proven to be box office magic for the Geffen.

When COVID-19 put an end to live theatre as we know it, theaters were scrambling to reinvent themselves. The Geffen Playhouse (now known as the Geffen Stayhouse) was one of the first legit houses in Los Angeles that expanded their vision beyond the parameters of the physical building to create a vehicle by which starved theatergoers can get their fill of live performance. Using the Zoom platform, the Geffen has created THE PRESENT, an interactive show that not only invites the audience to view, but also to participate in real time, with magical results.

Portuguese native Guimarães is a gifted illusionist and master storyteller, as well as trained actor and writer; this collaboration with Frank Marshall has shown once again what can be accomplished when two great creators join forces for good. 

Rather than ignoring the fact that we are in a global pandemic, Guimarães hearkens back to a time in his own childhood where he endured three months of quarantine following a serious hit and run accident where he sustained cranial trauma. His parents keep him from school and, as they both work, have his grandfather come and keep an eye on him all day. The reserved grandfather and the recovering grandson forge a hard-won friendship over a deck of cards. The young Guimarães both teaches and learns about the power of magic and also discovers, albeit some years later, that his grandfather is a man of great depth and wisdom. The lessons they both experience change both of their lives profoundly.

Helmer Guimarães stars in a one-man
autobiography with illusions at
the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.
Photo by Ger Ger.
THE PRESENT takes place virtually via the Zoom platform with a maximum of 25 participants per show. Each participant is mailed a sealed mystery package in advance, the contents of which are only revealed during the course of each performance as Guimarães’ story unfolds. In a unique twist, the show provides both a virtual and physical experience for the audience, as magic also takes place in their own hands, in their own home environment.

The most intriguing item in the mystery box is a deck of cards; it's not a special deck, just your standard playing cards, but it allows the participants to actively do their own card magic at home and believe me, it's a stunner.

I have always believed in magic; I don't want to know how it's done, I just thrill over the "wow" moment that occurs at a trick's conclusion and enjoy the feeling of being a child all over again.
Kudos to the always excellent production team at the Geffen, including production design consultant Francois-Pierre Couture, costume design consultant E.B. Brooks, lighting design consultant Daniel Ionazzi and dramaturg Amy Levinson.

The show has proven to be a solid hit for the Geffen; there was a first extension, then a second, both which sold out within 30 minutes of being released. Currently, the show is playing through August 16, but may be extended again. Visit https://www.geffenplayhouse.org/tickets/the-present-notification/ to be notified when/if additional shows are added. Tickets are currently priced at $85.00 per household.   

The title THE PRESENT has multiple meanings: it deals with the here and now, as well as the infinite joy of discovering something that is unexpected and to be treasured. The same can be said of the talents of Guimarães and Marshall (who has a gentle, gifted hand with his star performer) and I eagerly await further collaborations between these two kindred spirits. If you get a chance to attend, you won't be disappointed.

-- Lisa Lyons

Saturday, May 2, 2020

INTRIGUING BIBLICAL FILM “MARY MAGDALENE” EXPLORES PROFOUND VISION OF THE APOSTLES


The Easter Holidays usually brings not only religious celebrations like Passover and Easter, but other arts entertainment as well.  For years audiences have been treated to the retelling of and recreating the lives of historical religious figures both of the Christian and Jewish faiths through books, plays, TV and films.

This year, however, an uninvited guest engulfed the entire globe with a visit from what we now know to be the COVID-19 Pandemic, resulting in the cancellation or postponement of all arts entertainment venues in California and across the country.

Frustrated theatre critics and arts writers have resorted to writing about the current state of theatre and its future and by reviewing films that appear on TV streaming platforms or by video rentals as a way of surviving during the country’s shutdown. The public’s appetite for entertainment, however, has not abated.  It keeps growing with lengthy quarantine lock downs fueling the need for coming to grips with those pesky “sheltering in place” mandates.

Showtime, recently screened the intriguing 2018 movie “Mary Magdalene”, written by Helen Edmundson and Phillipa Goslett, directed by Garth Davis.  This provocative, revisionist, version (with undertones of the current worldwide feminism movement) gives one the opportunity to think outside the accepted “biblical box” concerning the role of women in history both religiously and socially.

Patriarchy has been with us since first cave man ventured out with his club and returned with his mate; who no doubt was probably kicking and screaming all the way.  Mary Magdalene of the movie is a free spirited young woman who flees the marriage her family has arranged for her.  Mary, who prefers to make her own decisions about her life is hauntingly and introspectively portrayed by Rooney Mara, who projects an inner grace and glow of knowledge and enlightenment whereas the close male followers of Jesus – the twelve Apostles; in particular, Peter (nicely played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Judas Iscariot (solidly portrayed by Tahar Rahm, are not always convinced of the efficacy of Jesus’ mission.

Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene
in "Mary Magdalene" on Showtime
Will this new movement succeed in proselytizing others into joining it?  The obvious answer is yes.  However, it will take 300 years of incubation before Christianity becomes a major player on the religious landscape.  The beauty of this film lies in the bold approach of screenwriters Edmundson and Goslett in making Mary Magdalene the main protagonist, under the brilliant revisionist direction of Garth Davis.

The movie story set in the first century in the Holy Land during the time of Roman rule, explores the heightened messianic period of the time.  The Jews under the rule of King Herod a Roman puppet, are steadfast in honoring their traditions and loyalty to their messianic expectation; which one day will be fulfilled as their core prophecy states.

Amid the unrest and turmoil of these turbulent times Jesus of Nazareth played by gifted but quirky Academy Award-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix, is costumed to look more like the middle-eastern Jews of the period.  He has the look of authenticity: He is somewhat short, bearded, swarthy complexion, unkempt black hair, dark eyes and soft spoken.  Ironically, Phoenix’s Jesus visually resembles Charles Manson.

Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus
in Showtime's "Mary Magdalene"
Jesus, a young rabbi and carpenter is gathering large crowds wherever he goes to listen to his powerful message of a new beginning for the Jewish people and all others:  simply put, the redemptive power of Love and not the folly of war, is the answer to mankind’s tribulations and suffering.  God is still the Supreme entity, but this new message of “Love” is being introduced through the presence of Jesus, a member of the Jewish underclass who is its Herald of ‘the good news’ for earth from the Father, by way of the Son.

Director Garth Davis has gathered an international cast of talented actors to flesh out the familiar New Testament story line often referred to as ‘the greatest story ever told’, which in my opinion faithfully follows the biblical journey of Jesus. The freshness and POV of Davis’ creative team of artists, however, is what makes this film so compelling to watch.

Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus and
Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene in
"Mary Magdalene" on Showtime.
Rooney Mara’s Mary performance brings an almost ethereal inner quality of insight to her spiritual awareness portrayal.  It’s reverential and understated but it’s totally honest. And the camera loves her: high cheekbones, classical profile and the ability to sustain her on camera moments long after the scenes are over become performance pluses.  Noel Coward called actors who possess these attributes and gifts as having “star quality”. The on-screen chemistry between Ms. Mara and Mr. Phoenix is palpable. The two stars off-screen are a real-life couple which might account for their on-screen compatibility as both creative artists and as screen characters.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as the apostle Peter
in "Mary Magdalene" on Showtime.
Additionally, players delivering solid support include Irit Sheleg as Mother Mary; Theodoros Theodoridis as Lazarus; Luba Azabal as Susannah; and Shira Hass as Leah; nonetheless, “Mary Magdalene” is Rooney Mara’s movie. The irony of Mary Magdalene is that, of the twelve apostles who followed Jesus, she was the only one who actually “got” the message that he was preaching. In 2016, Pope Francis rectified this oversight, rightfully restoring St. Mary Magdalene as Christ’s true 13th Apostle.


There is a saying in Hollywood…”if you buy the premise, then you will also buy the bits.” It’s one of the best biblical movies I’ve seen in a long, long, time. But, it’s not without some required tidying up.  One, its pacing is glacial at times which doesn’t sit well with younger audiences or with this audience of one.  Two, it’s tad too long for some audiences with short attention spans, and three its biblical subject matter unfortunately is viewed as bit of a turn off by some audiences without ever seeing it.

It’s a pity that this provocative and intriguing movie with top-tier talent only earned $ 11.7 million in box office receipts. Now that America is experiencing stay-at-home warnings for a spell, you can now see it on various platforms and streaming services without ever leaving your couch or favorite chair.  Don’t keep challenging the premise of the film as you watch. Let it unfold on screen and go with its flow…then form your opinion.

 Remember a great nation deserves great art.  Support all the Arts!

-- Jack Lyons

Monday, April 6, 2020

LA JOLLA PLAYHOUSE LITERALLY SOARS WITH THEIR VISUALLY STUNNING MUSICAL “FLY”

Storm Dever as Wendy, and the chorus from
the La Jolla Playhouse production of "Fly". All photos by Kevin Berne.
The La Jolla Playhouse (LJP) has a terrific track record when it comes to producing plays that have binary production values.  By that I mean their first priority is always to the loyal subscription-based audiences.

However, the by-product or bonus in their play season’s selections and productions under the aegis of savvy artistic director Christopher Ashley, always provides a road map toward New York and Broadway when warranted. Their trophy case attests to their many awards for excellence.

Many of Mr. Ashley’s directing productions include: “Memphis”, a red hot musical that successfully made the leap from La Jolla to Broadway running for three years nabbing two Tony wins for Best Musical and for Outstanding Director of a Musical in the process.

In 2017, the heart-warming, inspirational  9/11-infused musical “Come From Away”, transferred its smash-hit La Jolla Playhouse production to Broadway; once again winning Tony Awards for Best Musical, with Mr. Ashley winning another Tony as Best Director.

There’s no doubt about it. Tony Awards are no strangers to the 73 year-old acclaimed La Jolla, California-based theatrical company founded in 1947 by Hollywood actor/stars Mel Ferrer, Dorothy McGuire, and Gregory Peck.

Eric Anderson as Captain Hook faces off against
Lincoln Clauss as Peter in "Fly" at the La Jolla Playhouse
Which brings us to the latest La Jolla Playhouse production “Fly”, a new, visually stunning musical re-imagining of J.M. Barrie’s “Peter and Wendy”, the popular and enduring children’s fantasy story about  adventures in a dream filled place called ‘Neverland’ where children never grow up into adulthood and where each has the ability to fly (with caveats, however, that must be observed).

All children have a secret desire to be able to fly, as do some adults (at least in our dreams).  In “Fly” it’s strictly a kid’s world forever… well, maybe not forever. Remember, as Dorothy says in the Wizard of Oz “there’s no place like home Toto.”

Lincoln Clauss as Peter and Storm Lever
as Wendy in "Fly" at La Jolla Playhouse
I’ve seen at least four or so previous iterations of the “Peter Pan, Wendy, and Captain Hook” story over the years, beginning with the 1954 Mary Martin version through to this 2020 La Jolla Playhouse winning interpretation.  Comparisons are odious at best, however, every revival or re-imagining brings a unique vision of the story to its audience. Director Jeffrey Seller stages his production as one that appeals to both children and adults by infusing his tale with a twist and an underlying celebration of the global feminist-movement.

Wendy becomes the protagonist while Peter is downgraded to a co-protagonist status with Hook remaining the antagonist. Hook now sports ‘mummy’s boy’ vs. complex societal issues. Whether these changes alter the dramatic intention of Barrie's original story version remains to be seen, but hope springs eternal for the purists.

Although it’s a 21st century produced production, there’s nary a line of “questionable dialogue” to be heard. Rare these days from the pens of some playwrights and directors who are determined to break theatre decorum barriers in the name of ‘honesty and the reality in life’.  That being said, I don’t need to experience the reality of a ‘character’ suffering from diarrhea to actually display that action on stage or any other similar character traits in the name of ‘reality’ or ‘truth’; thank you very much.

When inevitable societal changes come, as they must, to audiences of all of the art forms, resistance on the part of the “purists” can be fierce. I’m sure there are some today who would prefer to see Shakespeare performed in an Arden-like forest setting as it was 500 hundred years ago. They forget, however, that all of the roles then were performed by men.  It was English law in the era of the Divine Right of Kings. Thankfully those laws are no longer practiced or viable.  But we live in uncertain and perilous times, so stay tuned.

Eric Anderson as Captain Hook and
the pirate crew in "Fly"at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Today our diversity and gender-bending productions are still not fully embraced.  But they’re catching on especially, with much younger audiences. Diversity and gender-bending casting blessed us with Diane Venora performing as ‘Hamlet’ and most recently, the great English actor Dame Glenda Jackson at the tender age of 82, tackling ‘King Lear’.  Lear is arguably the most physically demanding of all of Shakespeare’s plays.  After all, the character of Lear is ‘crazy’ for most of the play.  Today’s medical analysis would probably say he is suffering from some form of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.  It takes incredible stamina to perform the role over two and a half hours on stage night after night.

When “King Kong, the Musical” debuted on Broadway in November 2018, I made a pact to review it with my Massachusetts-based theatre critic colleague Charles Giuliano, founder and editor of Berkshire Fine Arts website of which I am a contributing critic.

I was intrigued about how the producers of ‘King Kong’ were going to stage this legendary behemoth of the jungle. The on-stage ‘Kong’ was a 2000 pound, 20 foot tall character/puppet that required a crew of seven to bring him to life every night. The technical obstacles of the production were staggering; nonetheless, ‘Kong’ ran for nine months and it was jaw dropping in its execution.

My thought was to review the production from a ‘technical’ point of view on how the technical aspects enhanced the overall theatrical experience. Charles Giuliano’s thrust would cover the production from the performance assessment of the story adaptation, singers, dancers and actors.  We wrote two separate reviews that appeared in our separate publications.  Mine being the Desert Star Weekly in Palm Spring California as well as on desertlocalnews.com website. Mr. Giuliano’s appeared on Berkshire Fine Arts website in Massachusetts; our collaborative efforts 3000 miles apart worked beautifully.

Isabelle McCalla as Tinker Bell, Nahal Joshi as
Smee and Eric Anderson as Captain Hook
in "Fly" at the La Jolla Playhouse
The La Jolla Playhouse production of "Fly" is also a marvel of how creative, skilled technicians can enhance the overall quality and enjoyment of a production by gifted artists. Theatre is a collaborative art form as we all know.  A successful endeavor be it a movie, TV series, a ballet, musicians in the symphony orchestra, or an  opera, in any of the accepted performing arts disciplines knows it “takes a village” to successfully pull it off. The painter and/or novelist and other solitary art form practitioners know they will need the services of that ‘village’ to pull it off later on.

“Fly” is a sensationally performed musical that encompasses all of the components necessary to transfer the show to Broadway; probably they were looking at an October 2020 or February 2021 opening.  The creative team boasts enough Tony-winning and Tony-nominated artists with the energy and horse-power to field a Major League Baseball team. So another La Jolla Playhouse production had its creators packing their bags for Broadway following the LJP run and, then the coronavirus pandemic engulfed the entire globe.

As traditions and budget considerations drive decisions when it comes to Broadway, there will always be creative changes to the incoming Broadway production.  Frankly, as colorful and satisfying as this production is, it’s somewhat over produced. There are a lot of visual pyrotechnics taking place that compete with the lyrics, and the propulsive musical numbers and forward movement of the basic story can lead to disengagement on the part of an audience. It’s also a tad too long; typical running time for Broadway musicals is about two hours, fifteen minutes.

These are fixable issues that director Seller and his creative team of Librettist Rajiv Joseph, Composer Bill Sherman and Lyricists Kristen Childs and Rajiv Joseph, will no doubt judiciously solve before opening night, whenever that takes place. Right now, all theatre productions have been cancelled in California and New York, with more cities and states following suit weekly.

The Peter Pan-Wendy-Tinker Bell-Captain Hook story has been a children’s favorite since its debut more than 115 years ago. Multiple Tony-winning Director Jeffrey Seller is blessed with a cast of some twenty-five plus artists who dance, sing, and perform Andy Blankenbuehler and Stephanie Klemons’ flat-out sensational choreography to the hilt.

Lincoln Clauss as Peter and Storm
Dever as Wendy in "Fly" at the
La Jolla Playhouse
Principle performers, like fetching Storm Lever as Wendy and an assured Lincoln Clauss as Peter Pan, have wonderful on-stage chemistry in their always in-the-moment performances whether ‘flying’ some twenty-five feet above the stage along with Isabelle McCalla as Tinker Bell, eluding Eric Anderson as Captain Hook and Nehal Joshi as his somewhat bumbling second-in-command Smee or outsmarting a very boastful but inept gang of pirates, they make for many laughs and insights.

Director Seller also has his principles performing light-comedy turns instead of the nuanced darker sides of playwright Barries’ story that previous productions have mounted. Liisi La Fontaine, in a strong performance as Crocodile, sports a creative, shimmering dress designed by Tony Award winning designer Paul Tazewell, who does the same costume magic for the ensemble dancers and the pirates. Tony Award winner Howell Binkley’s lighting design allows to us appreciate the amazing aerial designs and choreography of Pichon Baldini, whose balletic-like moves for Wendy, Peter, Tinker Bell, seem natural in their execution of “flying”.  The Music supervision, arrangements and orchestrations are by Will Van Dyke, the Scenic design is by Anna Louizos, with Sound Designs by Nevin Steinberg.

Nehal Joshi as Smee and Eric Anderson as
Capain Hook in "Fly" at the La Jolla Playhouse
It’s a pity that all of this wonderful work and performances won’t be seen as scheduled. However, the health and safety of everyone, both audience and company of performers trumps any entertainment event until this COVID-19 pandemic nightmare memory for some, is declared over. If and when this impressive musical feast for the eyes and ears returns once again to perform at the La Jolla Playhouse, I urge you to attend.  For me this production is one of the most entertaining Wendy/Peter Pan/ Captain Hook productions I’ve seen in a long, long, time.

Remember… a great nation deserves great art.  Support the Arts.

-- Jack Lyons

Monday, March 2, 2020

DEZART PERFORMS OF PALM SPRINGS STAGES THE TRIUMPHANT PULITZER PRIZE DRAMA “SWEAT”

Corydon Melgoza, Theresa Jewitt, Mike Truelock
and Desiree Clarkevin "Sweat" at Dezart Performs
All photos by David A. Lee
Prolific, award-winning American playwright Lynn Nottage, the only female to win two Pulitzer Prizes in drama, is also considered to be one of the most produced playwrights not only in America but across the world.

That being said, how come most audiences don’t quickly recognize her name but always remember what her plays are about?  Perhaps, it’s because Ms. Nottage usually champions the underdog.  She’s ‘David’ in the David and Goliath battles. She exposes the inequities of life and tries to broker the best in all societies with her penetrating and passionate plays.

Those plays revolve around societal issues be it here in the USA with “SWEAT” (her second Pulitzer Prize in 2017) or her set in Africa drama “Ruined”  her first Pulitzer in 2013) that poignantly dealt with the wars and the rape of African women by waring soldiers over the last 20 years.

The subject matter of her plays can be dark, gritty at times, usually centering around the less fortunate among us where the vernacular of the street and its language rules the day. (A note of caution here: there is a plethora of adult language throughout the play with f-bombs being hurled from the stage so leave the kiddies and grandma at home).

Cary Thompson and Mike Truelock in "Sweat"
Not everyone wants to think introspectively about how the sum of society’s parts today illustrates the total problems the world faces in the twenty-first century.  The prospects, for most of us, regarding solutions, are too daunting, with many in denial about the future of America’s workforce.

The story of “SWEAT” takes place in Reading, Pennsylvania, in the years 2000 through 2008, where America’s industrial manufacturing plants are facing ever-increasing layoffs as jobs are moving elsewhere, even overseas.  It’s not a rosy picture.  Many fear the days of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the new mood of Corporate America, where their “bottom-line mantra” of financial belt-tightening policies will return and effect everyone.

 America’s Union movement is coming under increasing attack to accept less in negotiations with management. Most in America’s rust belt communities live from paycheck to paycheck. There are more worker bees than there are management types, with the union caught between these two powerful forces.

“SWEAT” is the compelling story of one such Pennsylvania factory where more friends work on the factory floor as hourly workers, must now come face to face with the inevitability of layoffs that test long-time friendships and even family relationships.

The Dezart Performs production produced by Michael Shaw and Clark Dugger, is brilliantly and seamlessly directed by Shaw.  His directorial vision of how to bring this potent story to the stage of the Palm Springs Woman’s Club is a story in its own right.  Ms. Nottage’s play features a cast of nine characters, each with a compelling story to share with the audience.  The Pearl Mc Manus theatre becomes the arena and a  metaphor for the struggles of all working-class Americas as they try to hang on to their piece of the “American Dream” in perilous times.

The central performing space, wonderfully designed by Thomas L. Valach, takes place in a neighborhood Bar frequented practically every day by the factory floor workers.  It’s so authentic looking in atmosphere, and in execution, there are real beer taps dispensing real beer – the audience applauded when the lights came up.  It’s the workers watering hole of choice where they gather over a beer or a shot of their favorite beverage to unwind, discuss their kids, politics, their fears, and dreams, as well as exchange gossip involving the company management demands of more work for less pay. 

Even though the production is chock full of highly nuanced individual performances by gifted actors, the strength of this impressive production lies in the ensemble performance of the entire company.  Director Shaw becomes the symphony conductor, so to speak, who orchestrates his cast into becoming a finely-tuned performing theatrical instrument.  There isn’t a false note by the actors in this gut-wrenching, blisteringly raw, and powerful drama. Yes, there is a lot of shouting taking place on stage, but the life-altering issues stretch the characters’ emotions to the breaking point.

Corydon Melgoza and Cortez Jackson
in "Sweat"
The outstanding cast includes: Eddie Stephens as Evan, who sets the tone of the production as a parole officer/advisor; Corydon Melgoza as Jason, a troubled society outcast for his many tattoos that adorn his body and for his frequent brushes with the criminal justice system; make him a ticking bomb waiting to explode; Cortez Johnson as Chris, also a past criminal justice system individual who is struggling to return to society; Mike Trulock as Stan, the bartender who runs but doesn’t own the bar, is charged with keeping the peace when things get out of hand as a result of the frustrations his patrons feel over the uncertainty of their jobs and their families.  I don’t know who is responsible for the authentic fight sequence in the Bar area, but it is one of the best-choreographed action scenes I’ve seen in a very long time.

Miguel Arballo as Oscar, the Puerto Rican the all-round bar-factotum employee; Theresa Jewett as factory floor worker Tracey and mother of Jason; Desiree Clarke as Cynthia, and mother of Chris; formerly a factory floor worker, who is recently elevated to be the floor workers Union representative, a step up the ladder that tests the friendship of Tracey, and Melanie Blue as Jessie, a besotted factory floor worker who made alcoholism her best friend as way of dulling the pain of her less than successful life; and a sensational Cary Thompson as Brucie, an addict, and father of Chris and ex-husband of Cynthia.  It’s a cast to die for.

In the technical and creative department led by director Shaw, the production features the incredible set design by Thomas L. Valach, that is enhanced by professional lighting designer Phil Murphy, allowing the costumes designs of Frank Cazares to be fully appreciated, along with the Hair and Make-up designs of Selene Colon and the Sound designs of Clark Dugger, who is also responsible for the informative projection designs that lend an extra element of detail to the production.  Often, attention to detail is what separates a good production from a great production. The Stage Manager is Sierra Barrick.  Well Done All!

“SWEAT” is an absorbing and profound production that grapples with the issues plaguing most of America’s workforce today.  The play performs at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, in Palm Springs, and runs through March 8, 2020. It’s a Must-See Show! For reservations and ticket information, contact the box office at 760 – 322 – 0179.

-- Jack Lyons

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

PALM CANYON THEATRE STAGES A REVIVAL OF THE ’50’S MUSICAL “THE PAJAMA GAME”

The cast of "The Pajama Game" at Palm Canyon Theater.
All photos by Paul Hayashi.

A September 2018 survey from Matress Advisor, an industry advocate who follows trends in the bed and sleep habits of Americans, found that 67% of American millennials (age 30 and under) sleep in the nude.  The rest of us male Americans, sleep in boxer shorts or briefs, or in the nude, and a few geezers (over 70) still cling to the pajama fashions of the 1940s and ’50s.

So what do these percentages have to do with the state of the American pajama industry?  Frankly, I’m not quite sure other than to discover that, like everything else in our ever-evolving American society, we have a perverse penchant for sharing our personal information with the world.  Facebook, thanks you profusely. You’ve made them the world’s first trillion dollar company on our planet without paying a dime to anyone for that priceless information.

Speaking about pajamas brings us to the Palm Canyon Theatre (PCT) musical production “The Pajama Game” that opened last weekend in Palm Springs. The musical debuted in 1954 on Broadway, as the Korean War was declared over, and pajamas back then was still considered the choice of men’s sleep-ware.

No matter the season on Broadway or theatres across America, ‘ love’ is eternally in the air, pajamas or not, and PCT’s production is no exception. Based on the novel “7 & Half Cents”, by Richard Bissell, the musical is written by Broadway legend George Abbott and novelist Richard Bissell, with music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, is directed by Richard Marlow.

Jamie Walker Sloane and Nicholas Sloan are
Babe and Sid in "The Pajama Game"
The story celebrates romance, which is blossoming at the “Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  When new superintendent Sid Sorokin (handsome tenor Nicholas Sloan) arrives to take over the running of the factory, he’s introduced to feisty union rep Babe Williams (a striking blonde Jamie Walker-Sloan), and before you can say “Bob’s your Uncle,” sparks are flying between these two appealing and talented performers.

Babe is a no-nonsense, strong, union leader but is also a female with romantic designs on Sid. Their attraction is mutual, but they land on opposite sides when the union demands that the company management should authorize the raises.  It’s one of the oldest running divides in industrialized societies: Management rights vs. Workers rights, where it takes the wisdom of a Solomon in such negotiations to make everyone happy and show willingness to return to work.

Musical plotlines of 60 years ago generally kept the story relatively simple and easy to follow.  The appeal that audiences were expecting came in the form the music and the lyrics, and the songs that the composers and the librettists provided.  Three outstanding numbers, “Hey There,” “Steam Heat,” and “Hernando’s Hideaway,” came from "The Pajama Game" which also won three Tony’s in the process.

“Hey There” features Sid and Babe in solo performances:  Nicholas Sloan in Act One and Jamie Walker-Sloan in Act Two.  These two talented performers have great on and off-stage chemistry as it turns out they’re married to each in real life, and it shows in their singing and acting numbers. A nice casting touch.

If ever a theatrical company needs a Bob Fosse-inspired dancer/choreographer for a musical/dance production, Anthony Nannini, as Charley, has to be on your wish list.  His execution and precision of Fosse-like dance moves is exciting to watch.  The “Steam Heat” number that begins Act Two is terrifically performed by Nannini and Rob Rota.  Kudos to choreographer Stephanie Eley.  Well Done.

The third number to emerge as an award-winning original number of years ago is performed by the spirited ensemble in “Hernando’s Hideaway”  The ensemble members are energetic even though there are traffic management issues on the small, somewhat cramped, and cluttered acting space designed by Toby Griffin. It’s a minor point, but back-stage actors can be seen moving around off stage by the audience. It’s an easy fix that black cloth curtains can do so as not to break the onstage mood and action.  The main thrust of the production, however, is that the basic human drive for love, romance, and hope is very much worth fighting for and is very much alive in this production.

The musical accompaniment is provided by musical director Phillip Hubler on piano, David Bronson on drums, and Larry Holloway on Bass.

The creative team for “The Pajama Game” led by director Richard Marlow includes the always striking costumes of Uber designer Derik Shopinski, who rarely disappoints with color schemes and colorful costume designs. Another kudo also goes to Wig Designer Mado Nunez for the many styles worn by the female ensemble.  Lighting Design is by J.W. Layne, with sound design by Sean Seymour.

“The Pajama Game” performs at the Palm Canyon Theatre, Palm Springs, and runs until March 15, 2020.  For reservations and ticket information, call the box office at 760-323-5123.

-- Jack Lyons

Thursday, February 6, 2020

DESERT ENSEMBLE THEATRE COMPANY LAUNCHES WORLD PREMIERE OF “ADOPTION ROULETTE”

Fergus Loughnane, Yo Younger
and Adina Lawson in"Adoption Roulette"
Motherhood is a powerful motivator that drives the need for mankind to fulfill its destiny – the propagation of our species.  But the rub of the matter is that some women are barren, unable to have children.  Their only recourse, in many cases, is either to have an in-vitro fertilization procedure or adoption.  Unfortunately, the latter option opens the door for “the charlatans” of the world to take advantage of vulnerable and anxious, naive young couples wanting to become parents.

“Adoption Roulette,” a world premiere play written by Elizabeth Fuller and Joel Vig, seamlessly and artfully directed by Shawn Abramowitz, is produced by Desert Ensemble Theatre Company (DETC) artistic director Jerome Elliott and Shawn Abramowitz.

The powerful drama about foreign adaptions is a true story based on an actual event that takes place in the Winter of 2004, in Weston, Connecticut, Moscow, Russia, and at Vovoysa, an orphanage near the Siberian border.

“Adoption Roulette” is an actors' play. The action takes place on a bare-bones stage with no props or set furniture.  The physical movements in the play are mimed, and the actors play multiple roles.

Yo Younger stars as Elizabeth Fuller, delivering an astonishing portrayal of a woman slowly melting down under the pressure of the fraught situation she finds herself in.  Liz is caught up amid the red tape of a foreign adoption in Russia, without speaking the language.  Remember, in 2004, America is immersed in the Iraq War.  Strained diplomatic relations between Russia and America also doesn’t help Liz without her loving husband Reuel Fuller, being by her side for support.

Fergus Loughnane and Yo Younger
in "Adoption Roulette"
Fergus Loughnane plays Reuel as well as a Delta Airlines pilot, Moscow taxi driver Igor, a Flight Attendant, and a Russian Agency Official. Reuel is frustrated and suspicious with the way the adoption process is going and wants Liz to rethink the adoption with another agency, perhaps at home in the States.  His Russian character accents are spot-on.


Adina Lawson and Yo Younger
in "Adoption Roulette"

Adina Lawson plays Olenka, the sly in-country guide and translator for the Fullers while in Russia. She is also Marion, the Fullers' friend and family lawyer, family friends Lois and Dianne, Orphanage Nurse Blatovsky, and a stern and unhelpful Russian Judge.  Ms. Lawson’s Russian accents are also especially convincing lending authenticity to her Russian characters.


The beauty of this production lies in the strong performances of the actors who play multiple roles.  One can only imagine the mayhem taking place back-stage as they jump from character to character, each requiring different costumes and each looking cool, calm, and unflappable when they do reappear in their scenes.   Kudos to the back-stage dressers that make it all happen.  Bless them all.  These are the magical moments that actors live for.

As the play unfolds, it becomes a bit difficult to accept the incidents being presented on-stage as believable.  The roadblocks erected by non-government private Russian adoption agencies for Americans seeking to adopt Russian children is filled with bureaucratic red tape, frustration, and disappointments, along with deceptive policies that Liz and Reuel face in trying to become parents. One forgets, however, that this is a true story and nightmare experience.

The opening night audience was introduced to playwright Elizabeth Fuller following the performance, who said she enjoyed the show and seeing herself portrayed on the stage by Ms. Younger, adding that it’s all true.  Everyone has a story to tell.  It’s just that some stories are more compelling and frightening to share than others.

Fergus Loughnane, Yo Younger and
Adina Lawson in "Adoption Roulette"
In the technical department led by director Abramowitz, the production is designed by scenic and costume designer Frank Cazares.  The lighting is designed by Ashton Bolanos.  Assistant director Cameron Keys, complete the creative team.  The production is stage managed by Sierra Barrick.

“Adoption Roulette,” is a riveting production that performs at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club on the Pearl McManus stage on Friday, February 7, at 7 pm on Saturday, February 8, (two performances – 2 pm and 7 pm) and Sunday, February 9 a matinee at 2 pm.  For reservations and ticket information, contact DETC by going online to: www.detctheatre.org.

--Jack Lyons

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

CVREP THEATRE LAUNCHES A NEW RE-IMAGINING OF THE MUSICAL PRODUCTION “BALLROOM”

Teri Ralston, Mary Ewing, Leslie Tinnaro,
Juliet Lapointe, Melodie Wolford and Joe Mitchell
in "Ballroom".  All photos by Jim Cox
As theatre and society, in general, evolve, especially here in the United States, “Ballroom,” the new re-imagined musical is a very appropriate production choice for CVREP to present to its 2019/2020 audiences. It’s another crowd-pleasing show that fits the 2019/2020 season theme of “New Beginnings.”

It’s also the boldest and most audacious production in CVREP history. The Cathedral City-based theatrical company headed by Founding Artistic Director Ron Celona, now in its 11th season of producing quality Equity productions here in the Coachella Valley, has become a beacon for more professional actors and creative artists who want work in the Valley’s newest, state-of-the-art theatre complex.

What began as a dream of Ron Celona’s long-held desire to create an Equity Regional Theatre in the Coachella Valley eight years ago is now a reality.  The stakes were high, but the passion and skills, plus hard work and the generosity of some of the Valley’s loyal Patron’s of the Arts, along with Celona’s dedicated and committed Board of Directors has won the day.

The birth and chronology of “Ballroom” is as follows: Born in 1975, it became an Emmy-winning feature film made for TV as a musical starring Maureen Stapleton and Charles Durning.  In the late 1970s, the show was refashioned into a musical play which had a short-lived run on Broadway and was filed away wherever failed Broadway shows go to die.

In 2019, however, artistic director Celona became interested in reviving the project as an updated musical that would make an excellent choice for his CVREP theatre to kick off the 2020 decade.  “BALLROOM,” like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, became a viable project again.

The production features the music of Billy Goldenberg, with a libretto by Jerome Kass, and the lyrics by multiple Oscar, Emmy, and Grammy award-winning songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman, under the direction of Ron Celona.

The production boasts a talented cast of twenty-four professional performers ranging in age from 50 to 70, making this entertaining and relevant musical a natural fit that should appeal to Valley audiences of a certain age – that includes both men and women.

The story centers around Bea Asher (a wonderfully sensitive and nuanced performance by Melodie Wolford), who is recently widowed.  Her Morrie (never seen) was her Prince Charming, who did everything for her in his loving and adoring husband way.  But now, Bea must learn to do everything for herself.  It’s a new beginning to Bea’s life that will test her as a respectful widow who now has to carry on with her life.  A life filled with many surprises that lie ahead.

The opening bittersweet number “Who Gave You Permission?” brings lumps and misty eyes to many in the audience.  Its ambivalent lyrics sets a haunting tone, not only to the song sensitively performed by Ms. Wolford, it’s also a definite “grabber number” that should bring every Ladies Club member in the Valley clamoring for tickets to see it.

Bea’s support group to ease her passage as a new widow (actually, Morrie has been gone for over a year) consists of her older, overly protective, tradition-bound sister Helen, played to the hilt by Marcia Rodd.  Almost every family has a relative whose advice is at odds with the feelings of the aggrieved.  After all, they think they’re only trying to help the survivor. Helen’s understanding husband Jack is cleverly and understatedly played by Bill Lewis.

Bill Lewis, Melodie Wolford, Marcia Rodd,
Aviva Pressman and Sean Timothy Brown in "Ballroom"
Bea’s daughter Diane (nicely played by Aviva Pressman), and Bea’s son David, performed by Sean Timothy Brown, are puzzled at Bea’s interest in her newfound group of ladies who gather at the local Bronx dance ballroom; eager to dance, gossip, and get out of the loneliness of their homes every week. They thought their mom wasn’t interested in ballroom dancing anymore.  Ah, adult children… who only see their parents as “parents.”

Bill Nolte and Melodie Wolford in "Ballroom"
What they didn’t see coming, however, was Alfred Rossi, a mild-mannered, shy, caring, mailman tenderly played and sung by Bill Nolte.  It’s easy to see why Bea has a renewed interest in ballroom dancing.  As a couple, Ms. Wolford and Mr. Nolte have nice on-stage chemistry that slowly draws them together, becoming a couple.

Solid supporting performances come from an energetic Angie, Bea’s hairdresser, that is winningly played by Teri Ralston, who first urges Bea to come to the Stardust Ballroom; Pauline, the current reigning Queen of the Stardust Ballroom, is nicely performed by Leslie Tinnaro, who sings and gets to name her choice for next year’s reigning Queen. Her ballroom co-host Artie at the microphone is sung and performed by Randy Brenner.

Angie’s friends and now Bea’s friends include Mary Ewing as Emily; Juliet Lapointe as Martha and Corinne Levy as Shirley. The ballroom performers and dancers feature Douglas Graham as “rubber legs Harry the Noodle”; Nathan Holland as Johnny Lightfeet; Lovely Alessandra Di Pietro as Sandy and handsome Robin Somes as Charley (a look-a-like Yul Brenner) who trip the light fantastic as a dance couple who possess exquisite and athletic dancing moves.

Jitterbug dances, sambas, tango dances. Rumbas and waltzes along with solid dance moves from Anthony Marciona as Petey, and Glenn Rosenblum as Moe, (sporting a Moe Shemp haircut of three stooges fame); from Terry “T-Mac” McLemore; and Lois Bondurich; Olga Morales; Lindsay Ouellette; Wayne Hundley, and Joe Mitchell as Joe the Bartender.  It appears that every bar, tavern, and gin-joint in the world has a Joe the bartender with broad shoulders to lean on and/or a sympathetic ear for listening to the lonely.  Frank Sinatra made millions by singing about those after-hours conversations.

In the technical credits department led by director Celona, two-time Emmy-winning resident design wizard Jimmy Cuomo delivers a breath-taking ballroom set that sports a seven-piece, live on stage orchestra, under the musical direction of Scott Storr.  Designer Cuomo’s New York street backdrop, a small boutique shop, and an interior living room area easily rivals any New York show you can see, but with Celona’s productions, you won’t have to leave the Coachella Valley to enjoy fabulous shows.

Orchestrations for “Ballroom” are provided by Richard Bronskill. The Eleven O’clock spot belongs to a clever, terrific musical number called “Fifty Percent” and the closing number “This Is More Than A Ballroom/I Wish You A Waltz,” both of which are sung by Ms. Wolford and both are winners.

Lighting Designer Moira Wilkie Whitaker provides just the right amount of light to see and appreciate the colorful costumes designed by Frank Cazares (although I’m not too sure about that kaleidoscopic-like cowboy jacket worn briefly by Mr. Brown).  However, the sharp choreography by Jose De La Cuestra neatly fills the stage with flowing movement and graceful dance moves.

“Ballroom” is an impressive and delightful production that will have its audiences smiling as they leave the theatre.  The musical performs at CVREP, Cathedral City, through February 16, 2020. For reservations and ticket information, call the box office at 760-296-2966.

-- Jack Lyons