Wednesday, February 7, 2018

“DIRTY BLONDE” THE STORY OF MAE WEST IN HER HEYDAY FROM 1930’S TO 1980 AT THE ANNENBERG


Steve Gunderson, Bets Malone and Larry Raben star in "Dirty Blonde". All photos by David A. Lee
“Why don’t you come up sometime and see me,” is an oft-misquoted line from the 1933 film “She Done Him Wrong,” where Mae West utters that now famous line to Cary Grant. However, 85 years ago, it was considered a scandalous exchange for movie audiences to hear. Over her career, Mae West uttered many a sexually code-worded dialogue to the delight of her fans and audiences. No so, however, to the censors of the day.

Some of her funnier quotable quotes were: “When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better” or “It’s not the men in your life that counts, it’s the life in your men.” Mae was Queen of the double entendre when it came to sexual situations.

She was a sensuous, sexy, bawdy, smart and funny performer who was an accomplished singer, actor, playwright, and screenwriter; and a genius at self-promotion; generating and capitalizing on sex-related controversy. Now, where have we heard and seen that type of behavior before? In the interest of full transparency, I saw Mae West perform in “Diamond Lil” at the Blackstone Theatre in Chicago, in 1948. Needless to say, I became an instant fan of the flamboyant and outrageous Miss West, and No, I’m not a relative of Dorian Gray, just a longtime theatre aficionado who is still passionate and still writes about theatre and film.

Which brings us to the highly entertaining Coyote StageWorks production of “Dirty Blonde”, written by Claudia Shear, from an idea conceived by Shear and James Lapine that is cleverly and crisply staged by professional director James Gruessing,Jr.

The story set in Los Angeles in 2015 centers around the memory of Mae West in a series of vignettes which flash backward, and forward again as we meet new characters who inhabit the world of Mae West. Setting the play in motion are two adoring fans of Mae, Jo (Bets Malone) and Charlie (Steve Gunderson) who meet at the gravesite of Mae West to pay homage to their idol.

Bets Malone as Mae West in "Dirty Blonde"
The brilliant cast of three professional/Equity actors performs 18 characters on the stage of the Annenberg Theatre, located inside the Palm Springs Art Museum. Bets Malone renders a star turn as Mae West and as Jo, a young office temp worker, and aspiring actor who idolizes West. Ms. Malone flawlessly captures the personality, sass, and brassy traits of the legendary Mae West even to that sultry voice that seduced many men over the years.

Assisting in this transformational production is the wonderful Steve Gunderson as Charlie, a film archivist so addicted to Mae West that he is a walking, talking, Mae West fan that has a collection of lookalike clothes in his closet, and lots of studio pictures and posters, and playbills from Mae’s long career. The talented playwright/director/actor Gunderson plays nine different characters in “Dirty Blonde”: Harry, Timothy, Lt. Gregg, The Judge, Duchess, Kid Moreno, W.C. Fields, and a muscleman.

Bets Malone and Larry Raben in "Dirty Blonde"
The incomparable Larry Raben, actor, director, and dancer plays seven parts: Man, Armando, Joe Frisco, Frank Wallace, Edward Eisnor, Ed Hearn, and a muscleman.

Mr. Raben is an acting company in himself. He does it all. Impeccable comedy timing and an instinct for inventiveness, – the works! Just four words sum up his performance. He’s simply the best.

Director Gruessing knows how to orchestrate the talents of his superb cast that result in a winning production. The technical components, led by Gruessing, also shine in their various disciplines. The Set Design by Josh Claybaugh is clean and sophisticated. The lighting Design by the redoubtable Ms. Moira Wilke, and the stunning costumes by Bonnie Nipar, along with Sound and Projection Design by David Engle compliment this stellar production by Producer Chuck Yates.

“Dirty Blonde” is a splendid evening of theatre that performs at CoyoteStageWorks, located inside the Palm Springs Art Museum, and runs through February 11th, 2018. For tickets go online to www.CoyoteStageWorks.org or call 760-325-4490.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

CV REP THEATRE OF RANCH MIRAGE PRESENTS A FOUR CHARACTER MUSICAL GEM

Conchita Belisle Newman, Eric B. Anthony, Robyn Cohen and Christopher Carothers
All photos by Jim Cox
It’s been said that love makes the world go around. So, its love and not climate change that has Mother Nature all upset. Remember that old TV commercial “it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature” back about ten years or so? Well, we shouldn’t have ignored her admonition. Regardless our actions or hers, the powerful emotion of ’Love’ is here to stay through all kinds weather. (now, that would be the basis for a wonderful song title).

CV REP Theatre, of Rancho Mirage, opened its second production of its 2017/2018 season with a delightful little four-character musical called “Romance/Romance”, that’s in keeping with this year’s theme of “Romance, Real or Imagined.” at the all-Equity valley theatre.

The small, intimate, and charming four-person musical production insightfully written by Barry Harman and Keith Herrmann, and smartly staged by artistic director Ron Celona, is divided into two separate acts. Act One, is titled ‘The Little Comedy”, based on the Arthur Schnitzler short story set in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. The text follows the romantic inclinations of Josefine, (Conchita Belisle Newman) a single, successful, but shy, proprietress of a high fashion women’s wear boutique and Alfred (Christopher Carothers) a wealthy, but bored bachelor, who likes the ladies but is not interested in marriage (he thinks).

Ms, Newman is the possessor of a lovely, classic, clear Soprano voice. In past musicals, soprano’s I’ve seen and heard, became a challenge to understanding the lyrics. With Ms. Newman, however, it’s a delight to listen and understand the lyrics when she sings in the upper register and she is also a fine actor.

Her co-star Mr. Carothers, is a handsome Lyric-Baritone, with the voice that perfectly complements his leading lady. Together, they make a handsome turn-of-the-century couple engaged in the time-honored European tradition of romantic love in Old Vienna. Two musical numbers, for me, stand out: “I’ll Always Remember the Song”, sung as a duet reminiscent of old MGM days of Jeanette Macdonald and Nelson Eddy, and Ms. Newman’s poignant solo number “The Night It Had to End”.

Act One flows seamlessly, thanks to nice directorial touches by Celona, where he punctuates and bridges scene changes by having dancer/actors Robyn Cohen and Eric B. Anthony gracefully waltz across the stage at the end of each scene; sweeping the audience along with them to the next scene.

Conchita Belisle Newman and
Christopher Carothers
Act Two, titled ‘Summer Share’ is from the French play “Pain de Menage” and flashes forward some 118 years to two homes in The Hamptons, on Long Island. Two married couples Barb (Robyn Cohen) and Sam (Christopher Carothers) ; Monica (Conchita Belisle Newman and Lenny (Eric B. Anthony) both with families are neighbors and longtime friends.

Romantic love is still in Vogue, but the world has seen some social changes. No longer is divorce a stigma. We’ve seen the changes that wars bring to society. Old strictures and traditions begin to slip away. We’re under the spell of the digital age now. We seek instant gratification. Fads come and go, but our romantic urges haven’t diminished, and we still look for those illusive arrows of Eros’ to hit their targets, if only for a short while.

Lenny and Monica and Sam and Barb are trusting, grounded, couples who are happy and content in their marriages. Monica and Sam have always enjoyed each other’s company in a Platonic way. Both love to flirt and share fantasies, sort of probing each other’s inner fantasies; testing the waters of infidelity with the possibility of a future affair. But, love affairs between married friends is a recipe for disaster. Two of the non-participants are bound to be hurt, and two families will never be the same, despite the short-term adrenaline rush one may get from the experience. Guilt, remember, also is a powerful and destructive emotion, and it corrosively remains for years. Let the buyers beware. But, no spoiler alerts from me here. One must come and see this splendid production for oneself.

Director Celona has cast his production well. Ms. Newman and Mr. Carothers have great on stage chemistry which is displayed throughout, but shines in the Act Two musical numbers: “It’s Not Too Late”, and solos by Ms. Newman, “How Did I end Up here?” and Mr. Carothers with “Moonlight Passing Through a Window”, are all rendered with tenderness and aching poignancy.

Robin Cohen and Eric B. Anthony
Ms. Cohen and Mr. Anthony’s rendition of “Small Craft Warning” and “Think of The Odds”, hits its mark informing the audience there’s dangerous waters ahead. And the numbers “So Glad I Married Her”, and “Romantic Notions”, sung by the entire company are all winning musical numbers, thanks to the four-person band of accompanying musicians: Jaci Davis on piano, Daniel Gutierrez on Keyboards, Dave Hitchings on percussion, and Bill Saitta on string base.

In the technical department, Emmy winning set designer Jimmy Cuomo doesn’t disappoint with another outstanding design, along with Lighting designer Moira Wilkie Whitaker, Sound designer Randy Hansen, Costumes Designer Julie Onken, Hair and Makeup designer Lynda Shaeps, and Stage Manner Louise Ross, complete the creative team led by director Celona.

“Romance/Romance” is another stellar production that performs at CV REP Theatre in Rancho Mirage, through February 11, 2018.

Monday, January 22, 2018

DELIGHTFUL JULES VERNE STORY “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” A WINNER AT NCRT



Front: Loren Lester; L-R Will Vought, Omri Schein, Richard Baird, Lovlee Carroll. All photos by Aaron Rumley.
North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT) of Solana Beach, CA is gifting its audiences with a ‘master class’ in farce/comedy ensemble acting with its delightful, whimsical, tongue-in-cheek, production of the Jules Verne classic tale “Around the World in 80 Days”.

For those of you who are familiar with the eponymous 19th-century novel, you may ask yourself how can a story about circumnavigating the world in 80 days, not only fit onto the NCRT stage but perform the miracle where 39 characters are played by just five extremely talented performers? As Sherlock Holmes always said, “Patience, Watson. All will be revealed.”

Audiences of a ’certain age’ will remember the epic sweep and grandeur of the 1956 Academy Award-winning movie where three extremely wealthy English gentlemen, while playing cards at their club one day, wonder if it is possible to for anyone to actually circumnavigate the globe in under three months now that railroads, sailing ships, caravans, and stagecoaches are accepted methods of travel?

As an inducement to find a candidate they agree to sweeten the adventure with a wager of 20,000-pound sterling to anyone who can accomplish the feat. If that sum feels paltry even for wagers in the 1870’s, the financial exchange rates in today’s economy would make it little over $ 2 million dollars on the line. That level of wagering is nothing to sneeze at. In fact, it was so intriguing a proposal that one of the gentlemen, Phileas Fogg (Richard Baird), boasts that he will not only accomplish the feat himself, he will do it in 80 days. One would think that the idle rich of Victorian England would have come up with more interesting ways of spending their money.

Richard Baird, Omri Schein and Lovlee Carroll
“80 Days”, freely adapted from the Verne novel, is a visual delight for ages eight to eighty. One doesn’t have to be over-engaged with the sprawling story to follow the absolutely creative execution of the story, by the actors thanks to five sensational Equity actors: Richard Baird as Phileas Fogg, Omri Schein as Fogg’s loyal French valet Passepartout, Lovlee Carroll as Auoda, the love interest of Phileas, Loren Lester as the non-threatening Scotland Yard Inspector Fix, (the opposite of Inspector “Javert” from ‘Les Miz’), and Will Vought as a wonderful theatrical general factotum of many characters.

Yes, there are echoes of the play “The 39 Steps”, a farce/comedy that also relies on the skill of its actors working at warp speed. One, however, is blown away by the energy and high octane performances and the impeccable timing of this cast and its pace set by director Allison Bibicoff.

Baird’s performance as Fogg is a study in English discipline, manners, and decorum. As Fogg, he’s calm, unflappable, completely in charge of every situation, and is a delight to watch him work his magic on an audience. Schein is a bundle of controlled energy that lights up the stage, especially, when physical comedy is called for. The task of melting the stiff-upper-lip demeanor of Phileas falls to the dark-eyed East Indian beauty Auoda, played by Lovlee Carrol. Lester is right there with his mastery of accents, as the redoubtable Inspector Fix and other characters. Vought, whose credits speak of him as a stand-up comedian, is the perfect actor to master many accents and costume changes; always in character even when he walks out of one door, only to reappear from another, maybe 10 seconds later as a different character. One can only imagine the controlled mayhem taking place backstage with actors, dressers, and backstage personnel, who no doubt, work their derrieres off to insure the audience doesn’t miss a beat of this enjoyable production.

Loren Lester and Omri Schein
“Around the World in 80 Days” is a true ensemble creative effort led by director Bibicoff, along with resident Design wizard Marty Burnett who has designed NCRT’s last 175 productions. His cohort, and Lighting designer Mattt Novotny, incorporates his creative lighting plot and between them this creative duo knows every nook and cranny of the North Coast stage. According some of the actors I’ve spoken to over the years, say it’s such a pleasure to work in stage productions designed by this duo.

The costume designs of Kim Deshazo are spot on for the period. Not only do they look authentic, they have been designed for those lightning costume changes required by all comedy/farce productions. The sound design by Dave Mickey lends that extra aural touch of reality; enhancing the overall visual experience. The Prop design by Holly Gillard is the icing on an already tasty divertissement. Technical teams and their attention to production details is what will separate a good production from a great production.

“Around the World in 80 Days”, is a stellar production that shines in the technical department as brightly as it does for the on-stage actors. “Around the World in 80 Days”, performs at North Coast Repertory Theatre through February 4, 2018.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

HELLO DOLLY!” THE MUSICAL RETURNS TO THE PALM CANYON THEATRE STAGE

The cast of "Hello Dolly! All photos courtesy of Paul Hayashi Photography
 Everybody’s favorite musical-matchmaker Dolly Gallagher-Levi, returns to the Stage of The Palm Canyon Theatre. Although Carol Channing, the original star of the musical has been a resident of the Coachella Valley for years, the iconic character of Dolly is currently being performed by Palm Springs star Se Layne. Layne, in addition to her many performing credits, is the Managing and Co-Artistic Director of the Palm Springs-based Palm Canyon Theatre (PCT).

“Hello Dolly!” is one of the most endearing musicals in Broadway history, running from April 1964 to 1969, making it at the time, the third longest-running musical production on Broadway. Channing played the sassy and clever matchmaker in 2,844 performances, without missing a show. That too is a record. It’s been revived four times on Broadway over the years with fifty-two actors playing “Dolly”. The last Dolly was ‘The Divine Miss M’, as she was known to her fans in her early years’ but everyone now knows her as the irrepressible Bette Midler, who won the 2017 Tony Award as Best Actress for her “Dolly” performance.

The iconic 1964 musical staged by the late Gower Champion, is written by Jerry Herman (lyrics and music) with a book by Michael Stewart. Based on the Thornton Wilder’s 1938 farce “The Merchant of Yonkers”, the role of Dolly Gallagher-Levi made an International star out of Carol Channing, who is so associated with the role that her fans just refer to her as Dolly Levi. Talk about the power and loyalty of fans.

The current musical now on the boards of the PCT, is staged, choreographed, and costumed-designed by talented triple-threat actor Derik Shopinski. Once again, Shopinski delivers colorful costumes for all the actor/dancer/singers in the ensemble, saving his glittering, gorgeous costumes for the ladies, with two stunning outfits for his star Se Layne: a radiant white outfit, with a large eye-catching white brim hat and, of course, Dolly’s signature ruby-red gown accompanied by her huge hat.

The implausible story set in NYC and Yonkers at the turn of the 20th-century centers around Dolly Gallagher-Levi (a beautiful, smiling, strong-willed Se Layne), who never takes ‘No’ for an answer. Dolly is on a quest to find a match for the miserly, well-known, unmarried half a millionaire Horace Vandergelder. In doing so, Dolly, convinces his niece, nieces’ intended, and two clerks form Vandergelder’s offices to travel to New York City. The musical is eye candy and a feast for the ears thanks to the appealing songs of composer/lyricist Jerry Herman; staged by director Shopinski.

“Hello Dolly!”, is an over-the-top comedy romp where the audience is way ahead of the characters, but nonetheless, is an enjoyable, energetic, eye-popping visual delight. It’s a huge cast of twenty-three actors/singers/dancers that perform fifteen wonderful Jerry Herman music and lyric numbers. Two numbers that have become classics: “Before the Parade Passes By”, and the signature number is known around the world as “Hello Dolly” is performed by the entire company.

Featured actors Allegra Angelo as Minnie Fay, Gaige Griffin as Ambrose Kemper, Anthony Nannini as the Imperious Maitre d’ Rudolf Reisenweber, Donald Kelley as Horace Vandergelder, Ben Reece as Cornelius Hackl, Leanna Rodgers as Ernestine Money, Herb Schultz as the Judge, Mat Tucker as Barnaby Tucker, and Jamie Leigh Walker as Irene Malloy offer solid support.

In the technical department the creative team led by Shopinski, receives high marks for the expansive set by Designer J.W. Layne, that not only creates space for the dancers, and actor/singers, in both acts, but provides a magnificent staircase that Dolly gracefully descends on her way to the stage floor as the company sings her signature song number “Hello Dolly!” lighting up the entire auditorium. Lights designed by J.W. Layne, and Kay Van Zandt, along with costume assistants Kathy Ferguson and Virginia Sulick, and Wigs by Mado Nunez, complete the creative team.

“Hello Dolly!” performs at the Palm Canyon Theatre, Palm Springs through February 11, 2018.











Tuesday, December 19, 2017

SOMETHING ROTTEN SMELLS LIKE A WINNER AT AHMANSON THEATRE


The cast of "Something Rotten" at the Ahmanson Theatre
All photos by Jeremy Daniel
The Center Theatre Group brings another winning Broadway musical to Los Angeles with the bright, clever and energetic “Something Rotten”, now on stage at the Ahmanson Theatre. The Bard goes musical in this fresh, witty, and highly entertaining production from the creative and inventive pens of brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell.

The Kirkpatrick brothers, although you may have not heard much about them until now, are journeyman show biz behind-the-scene professionals in the world of musical theatre, recording industry, and TV and film.

Wayne, the oldest by three years, has been a successful composer/songwriter for many of the top recording stars and entertainers like Bonnie Raitt, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Joe Cocker and Trisha Yearwood.

Karey is a neophyte to the world of the theatre. He has no credits, but, he’s been a successful TV screenwriter and filmmaker-director for years. Both were born in Baton Rouge, LA, and worked in separate fields of show business. One night, the creative spark of 'why don’t we write something together,' set Wayne and Karey on a mission to write a musical play revolving around Shakespeare the man and make him a character in their musical. Four years later “Something Rotten” finally opened on Broadway hitting the jackpot, becoming a smash Broadway hit that earned eight Tony nominations.

Unfortunately, their terrific musical comedy opened in the same season as “Hamilton” (2015) that almost ran the table of Tony Awards that year – nabbing eleven. Mel Brooks’ production “The Producers” still holds the record for Tony wins with twelve.

Rob McClure, Maggie Lakis and Josh Grisetti
The story of “Something Rotten”, in short, is set in 1590s England where playwright brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom, sensationally played by Rob McClure and Josh Grisetti respectfully, are desperate to write a hit play to pay their rent, keep food on the table, and pay back their theatre investors. But they’re stuck in the shadow of that Renaissance rock-star known as Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon (a self-indulgent, preening Adam Pascal).

When the local soothsayer Nostradamus (Blake Hammond) meets Nick, he predicts that the future of theatre involves singing, dancing, and acting all at the same time in a single production, sending our intrepid playwrights into a writing frenzy in their effort to become the world’s first musical producers.

Blake Hammond and Rob McClure
However, with the adrenaline rush and the excitement of their opening night draws near, the brothers Bottom realize that space on ‘top dog mountain top’ is very small indeed, and the effort to get there has many of “This above all, to thine own self be true” moments.

I would suggest one listen carefully to the lyrics, as well as to the many dialogue references to other Broadway productions and movies, that are slyly slipped into the narrative by some of the characters. Methinks the show has the flavor and whimsy of a Mel Brooks production (which, after all, isn’t that bad). 

Composer/lyricist Wayne and co-songwriter/lyricist Karey have written 14 original songs and musical numbers that are just flat-out dazzling and they’re choreographed and directed by Tony Award-winner Casey Nicholaw.

Adam Pascal
The high-octane opening number “Welcome to the Renaissance” sets the tone for what follows. Songs like “I Hate Shakespeare” sung by Rob McClure, and Josh Grisetti along with the Troupe are clever and funny. One of the best numbers in the production is the show-stopping “Musical”. The audience applause lasted almost 45 seconds. I know, I timed it. That’s an eternity when performers are on stage waiting for the audience to settle back into their seats. But I guarantee you no performer would have it any other way. Other musical number favorites are “Will Power”, by Shakespeare and the ensemble, “To Thine Own Self”, performed by Nigel, Nick, Shakespeare, Shylock, Nostradamus, and the Troupe, along with the eponymous title of the production “Something Rotten”, performed as a rousing anthem by the entire company.

Autumn Hurlbert and Josh Grisetti
With a large cast show (twenty-seven performers) it’s difficult to list everyone, however there are always standouts and “Something Rotten” is no exception. Solid support comes from Maggie Lakis as Bea, the on stage wife of Nick (and the off stage real wife of Nick), Autumn Hurlbert as Portia, Jeff Brooks as Shylock, and Scott Cote as Brother Jeremiah. Blake Hammond’s Nostradamus portrayal is a comic delight; with his impeccable timing, it’s hard to keep one’s eyes off him when he’s on stage.

In the technical department, led by Nicholaw, the creative team boasts three time Toni Award-winning Set designer Scott Pask, Tony Award winner Gregg Barnes who floods the stage with his colorful costumes of the period, Tony Award winner Jeff Croiter, skillfully designs his lights to maximize the total technical effects of this impressive, deliriously, entertainingly production. The sound designed by Peter Hylenski completes the technical team. Brian P. Kennedy is the Music Director and Conducts the Orchestrations by Larry Hochman.

It wasn’t easy in 1590s England to become top dog in show business, such as it was, and it’s definitely no walk in the park either to become top dog in the 21st century. But what the real-life Kirkpatrick brothers bring to the Ahmanson Theatre in “Something Rotten”, is a deliriously crowd-pleasing, gut-busting, hilarious, singing, dancing (tap too), musical comedy production. It also has the good fortune to be directed by two-time Tony-winning director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw, that is sure to entertain even the fussiest of theatre-goers.

“Something Rotten” performs in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theatre and runs through December 31, 2017.
-- Jack Lyons



Sunday, November 26, 2017

HILARIOUS COMIC FARCE “THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG” WOWS NYC AUDIENCES

Members of the cast of "The Play That Goes Wrong"
Front (L to R) Jonathan Fielding, Amelia McClain
Rear (L to R) Harrison Unger, Clifton Duncan, Alex Mandell
Production photos by Jeremy Daniel
 
Most older theatre mavens and fans of a certain age will probably remember playwright George Kelly and his 1936 satire/spoof "The Torch-Bearers", a play about amateurs producing and performing in what we now call community theatre.

Fifty-six years later, British playwright Michael Frayn struck gold with his hilarious and highly entertaining farce "Noises Off"; the play-within-a-play format, also set in the world of theatre, went on to become a huge hit and the gold standard in comedy/farce in London's West End, and on Broadway.

Now, arguably the wildest and wackiest comedy/farce of them all is, once again, about 'the world of theatre' arriving in America in 2016 following a two year run in London's West End where it won Best New Comedy at the 2015 Laurence Olivier Awards.

"The Play That Goes Wrong" is written by three talented British playwright/actors: Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields, who are members of the London-based Mischief Theatre Company. The current production, now wowing New York audiences at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway, features an all American cast determined to solve "The Murder at Haversham Manor". It is set in England on a dark and stormy night (is there any other kind night for a British mystery farce?), and once again this play also just happens to be a-play-within-a-play format. The whodunit mystery presented by the faux "Cornley University Drama Society" is now the comedy hit of the 2017 Broadway season.

Clifton Duncan, Mark Evans, Harrison Unger
Inventively directed by Mark Bell, this classic-style British farce must have auditioned every American actor in New York City who could muster a veddy British accent, and also understands the wild and frenetic farce genre that is so prevalent in many British comedies. Peter Sellers, Scottish actor Alastar Sim, and Monty Python's John Cleese were all masters of the genre. It should be noted that director Bell hit the jackpot with his American cast as well.

The Ensemble of "The Play That Goes Wrong"
The two level set designed by Nigel Hook is a deceptive and harmless looking creature that a first glance has all the visual trappings of an Agatha Christie play: an opulent manor house drawing room, large fireplace, tapestries, the family Coat of Arms, along with the obligatory painting of the family patriarch over the fireplace. In reality, the set becomes another character in the production, which is worth the price of admission alone.

Once the onstage slapstick mayhem begins, the laughs are infectious and nonstop. "The Play That Goes Wrong" unfolds in a series of comedy scenes performed by the amateur actors of the University's Drama Society as they struggle do their best to 'remain in character' despite loads of unexpected physical comedy sight gags, along with uncooperative props such as sticky doors that won't open, pictures that fall from the walls, and a host of miscues and delayed entrances - the whole ball of wax! It's right out of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton playbooks and it's hilarious.

Mark Evans
The story, such as it is, follows the earnest but bumbling British police Detective Chris Bean (Mark Evans) in the play who is desperately trying to solve the murder of Jonathan (Jonathan Fielding as a corpse whose movements belies the designation 'corpse').

The relatives and friends of Jonathan try to help Detective Bean solve this dastardly deed, but to no avail. Instead, the group of clumsy but well-intentioned relatives, including Akron Watson as Trevor, Preston Truman Boyd as Robert, Harrison Unger as Dennis, Amelia McClain as Sandra, Alex Mandell as Max, and Ashley Bryant as Annie, are priceless in their attempts to 'normalize' the on-stage zaniness.

As a side note: I had the good fortune at ATCA's annual luncheon with Broadway actors at Sardi's famous NYC restaurant two days later, to find myself being seated next to actor Ashley Bryant, who plays Annie. I politely leaned over and asked her if during the run have any of the cast sustained any injuries as a result of all the physical comedy taking place on stage? Ms. Bryant replied "Not any serious injuries like broken bones, but we've all had our bruises, and a few aches and pains from doing a physical show like this eight performances a week for almost six months." But it's labor of love for the actors. The production is just too funny and entertaining to spoil the experience for those who want to see it, so no spoiler alerts from me.

Alex Mandell, Amelia McClain
In the technical department, the award-winning set design by Nigel Hook is a work of mechanical miracles that allow the actors to perform in his topsy-turvy world of Haversham Manor without missing a beat. The lighting design by Ric Mountjoy, neatly compliments the costumes by Robert Surace. Sound design by Andrew Johnson, and original music by Rob Falconer, complete the creative team.

"The Play That Goes Wrong" is the perfect gift for Anglophiles and theatre-goers. It's at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway in an open-ended run,  however, I wouldn't wait. I would buy my tickets right now if you're planning on being in New York over the Holidays.

-- Jack Lyons


 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

ENGLAND’S ROYALS SCRUTINIZED AGAIN IN "KING CHARLES III" AT PASADENA PLAYHOUSE

Jim Abele as Prince Charles in
"King Charles III"
All photos by Jenny Graham

Patience, it is said, is a virtue. If that is true, then Prince Charles, son of Queen Elizabeth II, must be a saint. Charles, Prince of Wales, has been first in line to become England’s King for sixty-five years - longer than any other heir in United Kingdom history - which goes back to the reign of William the Conqueror in 1066.

But all that changed in 2014 when British playwright Mike Bartlett penned his controversial, fantasy/fictional play “King Charles III”, which Bartlett labeled as a “future history play”. After all, Queen Elizabeth II at age 91 is still firmly ensconced on the throne.

“King Charles III, is currently on-stage at the venerable 100-year-old Pasadena Playhouse as of Sunday, November 12th. Some of the Shakespeare-like quality of the text that combines verse and modern vernacular, make this intriguing production (directed by Michael Michetti) a provocative evening in the theatre that is resonating with audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

NY Times senior theatre critic Ben Brantley put his stamp of approval on the New York production going onto say “…the play is a dazzling presumptuous drama … a flat-out brilliant portrait of a monarchy in crisis.” After seven seasons of the blockbuster TV series “Masterpiece Theatre” on PBS, there are a lot of Anglophiles in America and a sizeable number of them live in Southern California. The Pasadena Playhouse production company features sixteen actors: eight principals and eight supporting actors plus a dedicated ensemble punctuated with glorious original music composed by Peter Bayne and recorded by the Pasadena Master Chorale.


Jim Abele, Mark Capri,
Dylan Saunders, Laura Gardner
The play begins with a procession of mourners/singers coming down the playhouse aisles on their way to Buckingham Palace following the funeral services of Queen Elizabeth II. The scene is one of muted pomp and circumstance.

Prince Charles (Jim Abele) is now technically the King, but is yet to be crowned in ceremonies at Westminster Abbey. The story explores the events that confront the new King, and the Royal family: Duchess Camilla (Laura Gardner), Prince William (Adam Haas Hunter), Duchess Katherine (Meghan Andrews), Prince Harry (Dylan Saunders) who wait to see what the new king and his advisor Reiss (Mark Capri) and Prime Minister (J. Paul Boehmer) and Parliament have planned for the country and its subjects.

Adam Haas Hunter and
Meghan Andrews
Prince William and Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, have plans to ‘assist’ King Charles in his quest to insure that most of the old laws are observed and not modernized too much. The king’s enemies consider him to possess the brain of a Brussel sprout, and believe him to be incapable of being the monarch. His prime minister and his cabinet ministers will not support him or his ideas; instead they plan on installing Prince William as a Regent-King.

Charles resists his ministers by refusing to sign the “Ascendency Act” that would transfer some powers away from the monarchy to Parliament, along with restricting the freedom of the Press. His continuing refusal to sign raises the issue of a constitutional crisis under English law. All of the events unfolding in this fictional tale, has a familiar ring to it for Americans. The opening night audience seemed to get this ‘ripped from the headlines story’ right from the get-go, laughing at some of the dialogue in places where laughter wasn’t exactly the appropriate response – it felt like I was listening to nervous gallows humor.

Jim Abele and
Laura Gardner
Jim Abele delivers a solid performance as the flawed, moody, misunderstood Charles. Laura Gardner’s Camilla has the right amount of pathetic, ditzy behavior along with her tossing non-sequiturs to amuse everyone – the characters as well as the audience. Adam Haas Hunter’s Prince William, at first appears to be a bored player merely waiting for the appropriate moment to embrace the plan hatched by the Prime Minister and Parliament to make him Regent-King. It’s a nicely nuanced performance, and along with wife Kate, the young Royal pair begin to relish the thought of becoming King and Queen of England. There’s enough palace and parliamentary intrigue taking place in this production to satisfy all fans of such storylines.

Prince Harry (Dylan Saunders), is the outlier in this Royal family. He’s independent, lives by his own rules and is harboring the thought of becoming a commoner in order live with his cockney-accented political activist girlfriend Jess (Sarah Hollis).

The staging of the production by director Michetti gets static at times with characters standing in a line. Also, the didactic approach in Act I of setting the characters in motion seemed a little unnecessary. American theatre-going audiences are pretty savvy when it comes to appreciating British history and the execution of its theatrical stage craft production excellence.

The real beauty of this production lies, not only in the ensemble cast’s talent, but also in the expertise of the creative team. The wide expansive playing area provided by Scenic Designer David Meyer allows Michetti to stage scenes on more than one level. The Lighting design by Elizabeth Harper creates the mood moments required by the narrative and the text especially in the Coronation scenes.

The costumes, wonderfully designed by Alex Jaeger, are visually stunning. It would take an experienced eye to determine that the ermine-robed, onstage characters with their crowns and tiaras and jewels aren’t the real deal. Everything just sparkles with authenticity. No one does English period pieces better than the Brits.

“King Charles III” performs at the Pasadena Playhouse through December 3, 2017. Don't miss it!

-- Jack Lyons