Thursday, November 27, 2014

British Farce Becomes Mark Taper Forum Revival

If you’re old enough to remember the old “Carry On” series of British movie farces of the 1960s and 70s (more than 30 plus films) and the more recent nuttiness of the Monty Python TV shows, then you’re going to love the current production now on the boards of the Mark Taper Forum.

"What the Butler Saw”, written by English playwright and ‘enfant terrible’ Joe Orton, is classic English farce performed with stiff upper lips by a cast of clueless characters that looked as if they just stepped out of a West End theatre production to find themselves on the stage of the Mark Taper Forum, bewildered as ever, but supremely confident in the correctness of their decisions.

Sarah Manton and Paxton Whitehead in Joe Orton’s “What the Butler Saw”
Orton was a star-crossed performer/playwright that enjoyed brief success on the British stage before an early and tragic death took him at age 34. For three years in the early 1960’s he penned 10 plays of varying quality. “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” and “Loot”, two of his earlier efforts were popular but his most successful play was “What the Butler Saw.”

Directed by John Tillinger with flair and style, the improbable story revolves around Dr. Prentice, a London psychiatrist played by Charles Shaughnessy who runs a private medical clinic during the 1960’s. Prentice has a penchant for seducing his pretty female patients.

As the play opens, Prentice is interviewing perky and cute Geraldine Barclay (Sarah Manton) who has applied for the position of the doctor’s secretary. During the interview, Prentice convinces Geraldine that it’s perfectly proper for him to conduct a complete medical examination as well the employment interview, and asks her to undress. Just as he begins the faux medical exam, his wife Mrs. Prentice enters the room and he hastily covers up his activity telling Geraldine to hide behind the medical curtain.

Mrs. Prentice (Frances Barber), however, has her own problems and is being blackmailed for her sexual indiscretion by Nicholas Beckett (Angus McEwan), and she offers the position of the clinic secretary to her husband, which ads further confusion, including Nicholas and Geraldine dressing as the opposite sex. Are you still with me to this point? Good. It’s a British farce, remember? But I digress.

Dr. Prentice’s clinic is then faced with a government inspection. The inspection is conducted by Doctor Rance (a delightfully clueless Paxton Whitehead), a product of the old boy, fuzzy-thinking network, who reveals that the chaos and odd situations going on in the clinic will make for interesting case-study entries in his new book “The final chapters are coming together very nicely” he says, “incest, buggery, outrageous women, and strange love cults catering to depraved appetites” rubbing his hands together in gleeful anticipation of publishing day.

In most British farces, the police constabulary is somehow always involved in the plot. It’s a staple of the genre becoming the comedy icing on top of the farce genre cake that’s offered to the audience. The convention allows one Sergeant Match (yes that’s his name) played with ferocious authenticity and commitment by Rod McLachlan to burst through the clinic’s door in search of suspects and clues to shenanigans going on at the clinic, whereby he immediately begins interrogating everyone in the room.

The dialogue is delivered at warp speed, along with impeccably timed pauses by this splendid ensemble cast of farceurs. It’s the stuff and silliness that made the Monty Python comedy group famous.

One of the character traits I admire most in the English culture is their ability to laugh at themselves as a people. This manifests itself mainly in their comedies. Alas, we Americans on the other hand, never seem to understand parody, satire, or jokes about our country or our idiosyncrasies. Hey America, it’s really okay and even healthy to poke our collective fingers into our culture’s eyes from time to time.

The technical credits under the watchful eye of director Tillinger and his creative team: scenic designer James Noone, Costume designer Laurie Churba Kohn. Lighting designers Ken Billington and John McKernon, sound designer John Gromada are all first rate.

“What the Butler Saw” runs at the Mark Taper Forum through December 21, 2014.


The La Jolla Playhouse, one of the country’s leading Tony Award regional theatres, is a recognized leader in the art of transferring its productions from La Jolla to Broadway, and they have a genuine, bona fide candidate with the Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz, Peter Parnell production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”.

The libretto by Parnell is based on the 1831 Victor Hugo epic novel (it seems he only wrote epic novels) but it should not be confused with the 1996 Disney animated movie. That movie was for the kiddies.

This magnificent production, now on stage at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, is for grown-ups. Under the inspired direction of Scott Schwartz (son of Stephen Schwartz) the production soars both literally and figuratively. The astonishing set design by Alexander Dodge is breathtaking in its attention to detail in recreating a 30 foot-tall Notre Dame Cathedral for the actors to perform their magic, complete with gigantic bells and ringing ropes, choir stalls, and street scenes of 1482 Paris. When one walks into the Weiss auditorium it becomes immediately apparent that everyone is in for a very special evening of theatre.

The story revolves around Quasimodo, the deformed hunchbacked Notre Dame Cathedral bell-ringer (Julian Decker the night I attended), the beautiful gypsy girl Esmerelda (Ciara Renee), the obsessively enthralled and conflicted Dom Claude Frollo, the archdeacon of Notre Dame Cathedral (a superb and mesmerizing Patrick Page), who falls under the spell of Esmeralda and the young handsome Captain of the Cathedral Guard, Phoebus de Martin (Andrew Samonsky) who also has fallen for the young gypsy beauty.

Victor Hugo’s poignant tale allows us to peer into the lives and the emotions of society’s outcasts during the Middle Ages: the poor, the disenfranchised, people of color; those with no hope or chance of escaping their destinies in their search of a better life in the Paris of 1482. The character of Clopin, King of the Gypsies, is symbolic and represents the “outcasts” Erik Liberman’s sly, wry, and inventive gypsy king portrayal shines in the lively “Topsy/Turvy” number in Act I, and in Act II with “The Court of Miracles” number.

Hugo’s story of religious men in positions of power taking advantage of women have been the basis for many Hollywood films and plays over the last eighty-years From “Rain” (1932) with Joan Crawford as Sadie Thompson, to Rita Hayworth’s Miss Sadie Thompson” (1953), both playing alluring social outcasts to hypocritical religious men and pillars of society. In “Elmer Gantry” Shirley Jones won a Best Supporting Oscar playing a prostitute who brings down the slick talking tent revivalist/preacher Burt Lancaster, who also won the Best Lead Actor Oscar for his portrayal. The appeal of stories that feature men and women grappling with their personal morality and the concepts of good and evil is a favorite subject matter for playwrights and screenwriters to this day. To date, that dynamic hasn’t been resolved but it sure does make for compelling theatre.

The masterful staging and direction of Scott Schwartz, who combines new orchestrations for this production from Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s 1996 original score, is blessed not only with a solid cast of supporting players and ensemble performers, but benefits from the local San Diego area SACRA/PROFANA choir whose singing and Gregorian chanting enriches all of the musical aspects of this impressive production.

When the production opens inside the Cathedral, the company of players, singers and choir fill the Weiss Theatre with a glorious sound that shakes the building as a cast of twenty-five plus performers fill the stage in full-throated song with “The Bells of Notre Dame” number. What a splendid way to introduce your cast to the audience.

Leading the cast of principal performers is Julian Decker as Quasimodo. His strong tenor voice is all the more outstanding as it soars out of the deformed body which he twists and turns in his portrayal of a deprive-from-birth individual who has lived his entire life inside the great cathedral hidden from the outside world. One can feel his pain and his yearning with his poignant rendition of “Out There”. Ciara Renee’s Esmeralda performance speaks volumes with her beautiful soprano rendition of “God Help the Outcasts”. As Lincoln once said, “God must dearly love poor people because he made so many of them”. The Middle-Ages was not a compassionate time period to be alive if one was not part of the upper classes.

Anchoring this splendid production is the performance of Patrick Page as Dom Claude Frollo. Page is widely recognized as one of America’s leading classic actors and is an Artist in Residence at San Diego’s Old Globe. His deep Bass-Baritone voice grabs the audience, and never lets go. His “Sanctuary” duet with Decker is haunting and spellbinding. The “Hellfire” number with Esmeralda and the congregation is spectacular with the burning of Esmeralda who has been declared a witch by Page. His conflicted archdeacon passes sentence on her while still secretly desiring her.

The creative team led by Schwartz delivers a spectacular set design by the aforementioned Alexander Dodge, with mood inducing lighting by Howell Binkley, along with a powerful sound design by Gareth Owen. The costumes of Alejo Vietti provide the ring of authenticity for the period. Special mention goes to the Music Supervision/Arranger Michael Kosarin, Music Director Brent-Alan Huffman, and Orchestrator Michael Starobin. All the technical elements are first rate.

Under the Artistic Directorship of Chris Ashley, the playhouse is, once again, well positioned to send another of Ashley’s selections east to Broadway in search of yet another Tony win.

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” runs at the La Jolla Playhouse in the Mandell Weiss Theatre through December 14, 2014.

World Class Classical Pianist Hershey Felder Becomes Irving Berlin

Many are called to become piano virtuosos, but few, very few, are chosen.  Fortunately for audiences of LA’s Geffen Playhouse, Hershey Felder likes the intimate confines of the Gil Cates Theatre.
Hershey Felder, the brilliant and creative concert pianist, also had theatrical ambitions to go along with his life as a world class entertainer. Fifteen years ago, Felder created a series of bio-concerts which he labeled his “Composers Sonata.”  He researched the lives of history’s great composers, selected the pieces that were to be played on his gleaming grand piano, and then assumed the identity of the composer, morphing into and becoming the actual character, all the while dazzling his audience with amazing anecdotes about his characters, as well as, displaying his technical skill as a world class concert pianist.
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin Photo by Eighty Eight Entertainment
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
Photo by Eighty Eight Entertainment
“Monsieur Chopin” (2005), became the first in the sonata series, followed by “Franz Liszt in Musik”, then “Beethoven, As I Knew Him”(2008), “George Gershwin Alone”, then “Leonard Bernstein: Maestro” (2010) and now “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin”, in 2014.
Felder is uncanny in capturing the persona of each composer. He convinces the audience not only through acting, and piano performance and song, but in strategically placed projections that help sweep the audience along, with photos, newspaper headlines, and clippings that punctuate Felder’s performances.  It may not be unique now, but fifteen years ago when he embraced his new technique, it blew audiences away.
In addition to his “Composers Sonata”, Felder performed his “Abe Lincoln’s Piano” show at the Geffen this January.  Also, Felder was the co-creator/writer and director of classical pianist Mona Golabeck’s one woman tribute to her mother Lisa Jura (also a classical pianist), with “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” performed on the Geffen’s Audrey Skirball Kenis stage in 2012.
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin Photo by Eighty Eight Entertainment
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
Photo by Eighty Eight Entertainment
In “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin”, directed by Trevor Hay, now on the boards of the Gil Cates Main stage theatre,  the genius of Berlin, is not only his longevity (he lived to be 101 years-old), but the prodigious output of his canon.  We’re talking over one thousand songs over his career, many becoming major hits, which made him a household legend before he turned thirty.
Twenty-five of his songs went to the top of the music charts and are still re-recorded to this day.  His music forms a great part of what we call today “The Great American Songbook”.  Irving Berlin penned scores for nineteen Broadway shows and eighteen Hollywood films.  His most famous song “White Christmas”, crooned by Bing Crosby, is the most recorded and best-selling song of all time.
George Gershwin, a contemporary of Berlin, called him “the greatest songwriter that ever lived.”  High praise from a pretty fair composer himself.  The great Jerome Kern concluded that “Irving Berlin has no place in American music – he is American music.”  High praise, indeed, from the Pantheon of American composers.
The technical credits for this splendid production featuring the piano artistry and performance of Felder and insightful direction of Trevor Hay, benefit from the mood-enhancing lighting by designer Julian Pike, and the projection designs by Andrew Wilder.
Hershey Felder’s loving tribute to one of America’s musical legends is performed without an intermission, in 110 minutes, which fly by all too quickly but will remain with you for years.  “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” runs through January 4, 2015.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

CV Rep Launches 2014/2015 Season with Poignant Drama “The Chosen”

The desert’s most intimate and quality Equity theatre CV REP, launched its 6th season with the insightful, drama “The Chosen” adapted by Aaron Posner and the late Chaim Potok, based on Potok’s novel of the same name.


Directed with intelligence and sensitivity by CV REP’s founding artistic director Ron Celona, the poignant coming of-age-story between two young Jewish teenagers and the cultural divide on the part of each father’s religious position is a key element in this thoughtful and heart-warming production. Celona is an award-wining director with tons of experience, and I believe this may be one of his finest directorial efforts.

The story follows young Reuven Malter (Drew Feldman) and his friend Danny Saunders (Daniel Seigerman) as they grow up the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, in the 1940s. The action takes place over a period of six years, beginning in 1941 when the two are fifteen years old. The theatrical convention of a narrator is employed whenever flash-back scenes are required for clarity and to keep the ebb and flow of the text ongoing. David Natale, opens the play as the adult Reuven; setting the story in motion and acting as our narrator/tour guide throughout the play. It’s a flawless performance.


Drew Feldman as young Reuven, a mathematics whiz, may be a young actor (23) but his performance speaks volumes for his interpretation of a loyal but conflicted friend when “the rubber meets the road” and it comes time to honoring one’s parental advice versus friendship. It’s a sensitive and compelling performance. And the same can be said of Daniel Seigerman’s Danny Saunders’ portrayal. Danny has a photographic memory and harbors a secret desire to become a psychologist, like his hero Sigmund Freud. In Danny’s case, the pressure to be and become his own person vs. what his Hasidic, traditionalist “tzadik” father expects – that of following in the tradition that the oldest son must become the congregation’s spiritual leader – has been gnawing at him for two years. It’s a career path Danny does not want to follow. Seigman’s understated performance vs. Feldman’s outgoing portrayal makes their scenes together most compelling, relevant, and entertaining.


Dennis Gersten as David Malter, Reuven’s father, is a marvel of an actor completely in charge of his character who knows and understands how to modulate and orchestrate his delivery of Potok’s powerful imagery and meaningful text with the skill of a Symphony musical conductor. His powerful radio speech endorsing the movement of creating a Jewish state in Palestine is rousing and inspirational which is in contrast to his thoughtful and quiet scholarly demeanor at home with his son.

David Light as Reb Saunders, Danny’s intimidating father delivers an achingly nuanced spot-on portrayal as the religious leader of the Orthodox Hasidic community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Light wears his deeply held emotions on his sleeve. And during his religious instruction sessions with Reuven and Danny, as all three read from the Talmud, one gets a peek into the dual personality of an old man leading his traditionally religious community and that of a father raising a son in a very secular and alien culture. Reb Saunders is opposed even to talk of a permanent homeland for Jews in Palestine; considering such a movement to be heretical. He goes so far as to forbid his son Danny from seeing or talking to Reuven or his father thus driving a wedge between the two friends. Their relationship is definitely affected but not their friendship. One can feel real empathy for the traditionalists and the Reb Saunders’ of this world. After all, as Kermit says, “It’s not easy being green.”

“The Chosen” swoops into the audience’s heart and neatly captures the essence of Potok’s affecting human message of hope. Even in a diverse and secular America of 310 million citizens, every culture and every religion has the ability to leave the “old world” of European Jewry behind and blend into the “new world” of America, and still remain true to one’s Jewish traditions.

Celona cleverly blends the melodramatic elements of the story with the realistic and textured narrative threads which offer this outstanding cast the opportunity to shine when their individual moments arrive. The set created by resident set designer Jimmy Cuomo is a creative marvel of what can be accomplished on a small stage without compromising the dramatic intention of the playwrights, or the personal vision of director Celona.

“The Chosen” is a potently acted impressive piece of work that needs to be seen. It runs at CV REP, Rancho Mirage, through November 16, 2014. Don’t miss it!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Chanteuse Irina Maleeva Recalls Her Life's "Illusions" in a Solo Musical Memoir

The European tradition of musical storytelling is one that most Americans have not been exposed to, unless they have seen footage of famed French singer Edith Piaf or the legendary Marlene Dietrich.

A chanteuse who shares her views,both bittersweet and personal, is fully on display at Hollywood's Hudson Theatre Mainstage as Bulgarian-born actress, singer and artist Irina Maleeva regales the audience with stories and songs in her one woman musical memoir "Illusions."

Irina Maleeva in "Illusions"
Maleeva, a beautiful and generous performer, uses songs from well-known singers and composers including Amanda McBroom, Leslie Bricusse, Jerry Herman, and Johnny Mercer, to tell her own story of love, loss and remembrance.

The daughter of a famed Bulgarian actress, Maleeva was raised without knowing her father, a wartime hero who lingered for years in prison after helping to save thousands of Jewish refugees by removing them from the trains bound for the concentration camps as they passed through Bulgaria. Her early love of all things artistic informed her life and, by age seven, she was the Bulgarian "Shirley Temple" much to her mother's chagrin.

A teenaged Maleeva with
some of her paintings
She went on to study both theatre design and art, but realized she wanted to be an actress like her mother. While living in Rome she attended a famed theatrical school and was recruited for film work by Federico Fellini, appearing in several short films for him. She also worked with the great Orson Welles who cast her as Jessica, the daughter to his Shylock,in a BBC television production of "The Merchant of Venice." Her recollections of the power of Welles's commanding performance and expectations of her talent create some wonderful moments on stage.

The highly charged mother-daughter relationship, seemingly unresolved during their lifetime, forms the basis of this musical reverie; Maleeva wonders why her mother wasn't able to tell her how much she loved her when she needed to hear it the most.

Maleeva's admonition to the audience to tell those we love how we feel about them is perfectly captured in the song "Kiss Her Now" while her tearful rendition of Amanda McBroom's "Portrait" is heartbreaking and sincere.

Ultimately, we see the triumph of the spirit over circumstances and Maleeva finishes the evening with Piaf's soulful anthem "Mon Dieu."

Co-written and directed by recent Tony-nominee Randy Johnson ("A Night with Janis Joplin"), the show is aided immensely by the accompanying musicians led by music director, arranger and pianist Ed Martel, Bill Brendle and Steve Welch on synthesizer and Larry Tuttle on upright bass. Also featured  is a fine singer and performer John Paul Batista who portrays various men in Maleeva's past, including her father in a haunting version of the traditional Bulgarian hymn "Beautiful Forest." Many of the songs are featured on Maleeva's "Illusions" CD which is available online.

If you have never experienced the world of Jacques Brel, Yves Montand and Lotte Lenya, treat yourself to this musical tapestry, consider it a gift from Irina Maleeva to you.

"Illusions" plays at the Hudson Theatre Mainstage Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 8 pm and Sunday matinees at 3 pm, through November 23. Tickets are available through the websites, Eventbrite and Goldstar.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Geffen Playhouse's "Discord" Offers Intellectual Comedy Satire for Modern Thinkers

Sometime the only way to communicate controversial or ambiguous ideas is to employ the theatrical conventions of comedy and satire as the messenger of enlightenment.

In the Geffen Playhouse’s current production “The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord”, written by Scott Carter and directed by Matt August, three of history’s great thinker/writers come together in a blisteringly funny battle of wits to explain their divergently held opinions.

David Melville, Larry Cedar and Armin Shimerman
Photo by Michael Lamont

Playwright Carter said that the story had been incubating in his mind for over two decades. He just needed an Epiphany to bring clarity and the direction needed to turn his thoughts into a theatrical script. With the help of friend and director Matt August, the property has been turned into a clever amalgamation of theories, ideas and opinions, some of which, reveal the private thoughts and lives of Carter’s three characters: Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy. Each character representing a different century in which each lived. The production is reminiscent of, and a takeoff on, the old Steve Allen TV show “Meeting of Minds” back in the late 70’s. It worked then and it works once again.

Los Angeles is primarily a movie and TV town, so it comes as no surprise that the cast portraying the three individuals of the play’s title have that sort of bent. So was the opening night audience. It was sprinkled with lots of actors and industry types.

Director August begins the evening revealing a completely dazzlingly white stage, with one door, which after a beat or two opens, and allows 18th century Thomas Jefferson, the man of logic and reason, portrayed in full Jeffersonian costume, by Larry Cedar to enter. Then the door locks shut. Cedar bewilderingly glances about to assess his situation and location (the logician). Then quickly realizes he is a prisoner of sorts but doesn’t understand why, and then becomes the narrator, tour guide, and the man of reason during this 85 minute adventure in words and ideas.

When the door opens a second time Charles Dickens (David Melville), the 18th century novelist and wordsmith walks in and quickly comes to the party as Jefferson explains we’re here to be judged by some tribunal of sorts. Dickens in full theatrical delivery flamboyantly demands to be allowed to leave. When nothing happens the 17th century sits down with the 18th century and both wait for the 20th century figure to arrive. When the door opens Count Leo Tolstoy (Armin Shimerman) enters complaining in full-throated, heavily accented Russian, his displeasure at his treatment. With all three participants present and introduced, the trio for the evening’s entertainment agree to defend their divergent opinions.

The discourse or “discord” as the title implies, is spirited and heated at times as each tries to convince other of the error of his position. What these three historical figures do have in common, however, is that each has written his own version of the Bible by which to believe and to live his life. It should come as no surprise to learn that all three historical figures in real life didn’t follow their own advice during their lifetimes.

Playwright Carter’s premise is rich in promise and entertainment value, however lurking just beneath the surface of the narrative text is a touch of the didactic approach as a way of engaging and imparting the information necessary to enjoy the splendid performances of Cedar, Melville, and Shimerman. Nevertheless, the audience can still come away with a stimulating evening of comedy and satire in the theatre, thanks to director August and his creative team led by scenic designer Takeshi Kata whose stark, spare hospital-like operating theatre room, sans the medical trappings, is visually arresting, and sets the tone for what is to follow. The lights by designer Luke Moyer, complement the costumes designed by Ann Closs-Farely, along with projections by designer Jeffrey Elias Teeter, and sound support by designer Cricket S. Myers, make for a seamless production.

Ambiguous endings from playwrights and screenwriters are all the rage these days, so it’s okay to dream up your own ending. Whether you do or don’t, you’ll still enjoy this production.

“The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord” at the Geffen Playhouse runs through November 23, 2014.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

North Coast Rep Theatre Triumphs with “Freud’s Last Session”

At last, a thinking person’s play about the vexing concepts and issues concerning the philosophy of science versus the philosophy of faith in today’s society. It wasn’t much of an issue, say, 5000 years ago. Then again, there wasn’t much of a scientific community or advocates to challenge the established order. But, today it’s a much different kettle of fish.
Bruce Turk and Michael Santo ~Images Aaron Rumley

Playwright Mark St. Germain has crafted “Freud’s Last Session” – brilliantly staged and directed by North Coast Rep Theatre artistic director David Ellenstein – in order to bring together, one afternoon in 1940, two of the 20th century’s most influential writers and thinkers in a head to head spirited discussion.

The story in short, is set in WW II England, during the Blitz of London and revolves around a fictional meeting between Sigmund Freud and novelist C.S. Lewis. Near the end of his life, Freud has one final visitor, C.S. Lewis, the writer and former atheist now a convert to Roman Catholicism who is soon to publish “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. The two men are a contrast in styles. Freud (wonderfully played by Michael Santo) is irascible, highly opinionated, prickly and suffering from painful mouth cancer. Lewis (an introspective, low key Bruce Turk) is a glass-half-full, sunny outlook sort of a fellow and is unflappable most of the time. The result of their meeting is a lively debate touching on love, religion, politics and life in its many iterations.

Of course, the most spirited exchanges between polar-opposite philosophies inevitably boil down to either politics or religion or both as in our modern-day society. Despite one’s position on the issues, it’s a stimulating, thought-provoking, amusing, and engaging evening of theatre. And it all takes place in about 85 minutes.

Director Ellenstein’s entertaining production has two extremely talented actors in Santo and Turk, plus an erudite, richly-textured, intelligent premise and script from playwright St. Germain with which to have fun, as well as to tantalize his sophisticated theatre audience. Freud relishes his exchanges with Lewis occasionally punctuating his comments with “thank God”, at the end of sentences, which always get a laugh from the engaged and savvy audience. When pressed by Lewis, Freud replies, “It’s an old habit I’ve been trying to overcome for years”. The genuine mutual respect the characters have for one another is apparent from the outset, and the fluidity of their performances have Ellenstein’s creative fingerprints all over them.

The format is an old one. Two famous characters come together to discuss and/or debate their philosophically held public and personal opinions. Its “fight-night” in the theatre, between two highly educated and refined gentlemen, but without the rancor or “the win-at-any-cost” street-fighter tactics that pass today for civilized discourse. Words have power and are meaningful in St. Germain’s and Ellenstein’s highly literate and entertaining production, and surprise of surprises, there isn’t one “f-bomb” hurled from the stage into the audience (emerging playwrights please take note. Buy a thesaurus and apply generously to your dialogue).

St. Germain, Ellenstein, Santo, and Turk, are the main reasons this splendid production resonates with the audience. However, a great deal of the success of North County Rep Theatre productions rests on the creative shoulders of its talented production staff led by Resident scenic designer Marty Burnett, who provides the actors in this production a pitch-perfect rendering of Sigmund Freud’s Vienna home before Freud and his daughter Anna escaped from Austria to England. Its mahogany walls and built-in bookshelves lined with stacks of books, tables, and Freud’s large desk set the tone from the moment the audience walk in. It’s my belief that a great set has a lot to do with inspiring a talented cast.

Lighting designer Matt Novotny’s atmospheric lighting plot provides just the right amount of light to see the wonderfully spot-on period-perfect costumes of Alina Bokovikova from Santo’s classic black pinstripe, to Turk’s wartime clothes-rationing look. Turk looks as if he just stepped away from his teaching position at London University to meet Freud; complete with brown shoes and socks with a gray jacket, blue sweater, a light green, slender knotted tie and the ubiquitous trench coat, in the event it rains (It usually did when I lived there). Props design and stage dressing by Benjamin Cole enhance the overall look and feel of this impressive production which is definitely a triumph for North Coast Rep.

“Freud’s Last Session” at North County Rep runs through November 9, 2014.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Old Globe Theatre Presents World Premiere of Steve Martin Musical

A.J. Shively as Billy Cane and Carmen Cusack as Alice Murphy ~ Photo by Joan Marcus.
A.J. Shively as Billy Cane and Carmen Cusack as Alice Murphy
Photo by Joan Marcus
Life is a journey and every journey has a story to tell. The musical fable now on the stage of the Donald and Darlene Shiley theatre is the new musical “Bright Star”, co-written and composed by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, and deftly directed by Walter Bobbie.

The immensely multi-talented Steve Martin – actor, playwright, director, musician, producer author – has joined creative forces with Southern songwriter-singer Edie Brickell becoming of one America’s newest and successful musical writing teams in the process.

In “Bright Star” Martin and Brickell take us back to a time when Americans lived in a kinder and gentler society. One where Norman Rockwell drawings were the mirror of who and what we were; when rural America held County Fairs, church socials, and actually knew their neighbors no matter how far they lived from one another.

“Bright Star” is a gentle story set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Thomas Wolfe country, Asheville, North Carolina. It tells the beguiling story of Billy Cane (A.J. Shively), a young southern soldier, who has just come home from WW II, harboring a passion for writing and a desire to be become another Thomas Wolfe, He meets Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), the brilliant, but prickly, editor of a southern literary journal and together they discover a powerful secret that alters their lives forever. The story flashes forward and backward from 1923 to 1945. It’s also a tale about the timeless trans-formative power of love and hope despite what trials and tribulations life throws at us. It’s not all peaches and cream down south, so it has some dark moments as well. However, no spoiler alert here.

The cast, featuring eleven speaking, and or singing roles is led by Carmen Cusack as Alice, in a sensitive and winning performance; one steeped in the haunting lyrics delivered by a voice that has seen and endured pain. Cusack’s husky, smoky delivery is mesmerizing as a young Alice and is commanding as the older Alice the editor of the Literary Southern Journal.

Equally appealing, is Wayne Allen Wilcox as Jimmy Ray, Alice’s erstwhile lover. Their on- stage chemistry produces nice moments in the numbers “A Night Like This” and “I Had a Vision”. A. J. Shively as Billy, the character that sets in motion the story of Alice, Jimmy Ray and Billy scores with his numbers “Bright Star”, “Sun’s Gonna Shine”, and in his duet“ Always Will”, with lovely Hannah Elless portraying Margo Crawford as his sweetheart. Libby Winters as Dora Murphy, Stephen Lee Anderson as Daddy Murphy, Patti Cohenour as Mama Murphy, and Stephen Bogardus as Daddy Cane, provide solid support.

Wayne Duvall as Mayor Josiah Dobbs, gets his proper due during the curtain call much to the delight of the audience and Duvall himself; no more said on this. Jeff Hiller as Daryl Ames, the general factotum at the literary journal and Kate Loprest as Lucy Grant an assistant, provide most of the comedy moments in the production.

The nine member ensemble company who sing and dance under the baton of Rob Berman and the choreography of Josh Rhodes includes: Allison Briner, Max Chernin, Leah Horowitz, Joe Jung, Lulu Lloyd, Ashley Robinson, Greg Roderick, Sarah Jane Shanks, and Scott Wakefield who immeasurably enrich the overall musical experience of the production.

When it comes to the technical credits of a production, the Globe has few equals. “Bright Star” is dominated by the set design and visuals of award-winning and Theatre Hall of Fame Set Designer Eugene Lee whose mobile set pieces and wagons, house both scenes for the actors and provides a “home base” for the musicians who appear on-stage throughout the production. Lighting Designer Japhy Weideman adds to the dreamy overall quality of the story with his mood-enhancing shafts of light. Even more creative is the activation of the upstage drop curtain, which has been cut to suggest a silhouette of a mountain range beyond the town. The scenes, when splashed with an evening lighting effect, produce a stunning visual effect.

What separates, at least for me, “Bright Star” from the general run-of-the-mill musicals by today’s young composer/lyricist/ playwrights is the fresh choices of music, instruments, and style of the production. Martin and Brickell both work as performers in alt-rock, and bluegrass. Martin has his own bluegrass band – the Steep Canyon Rangers – and banjo-featured renditions and instrumentals are a big part of their success, so it comes as no surprise that bluegrass and the banjo orchestrations are front and center in this heart-warming production.

It’s the music and the orchestrations that propel the story forward, taking the audience along with it. What Aaron Copland did for “American” music with “Appalachian Spring” and “Rodeo”, Martin and Brickell do for Bluegrass, thanks to some wonderfully creative orchestrations from August Eriksmoen, and musical director Rob Berman. Walter Bobbie was a wise choice as the director. He brings many clever directorial touches to this impressive production.

Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein is on a roll when it comes to selecting and mounting winning productions. First, “The Winter’s Tale now to “Bright Star”. Let the good times roll. The production is not only a love valentine to aficionados of bluegrass music, it’s an entertaining evening of musical theatre, despite, perhaps, a song or two too many, but nonetheless is a new musical whose time has come. Don’t Miss It!.

“Bright Star” runs at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre through November 2, 2014.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Pasadena Playhouse Stage Sizzles With “Kiss Me, Kate” Musical

Company of Kiss Me, Kate.  Photo by Earl Gibson III.
Company of Kiss Me, Kate - Photo by Earl Gibson III
Any time a theatre presents a Cole Porter musical, expectations run high. After all, we’re dealing with a giant of the American musical theatre. Porter is one of the most iconic and sophisticated composer/lyricists in Broadway history. A Cole Porter show borders on being almost bulletproof in the hands of a skilled director with a vision and a talented cast committed to seeing that the vision is fulfilled.

The Pasadena Playhouse launched its 2014/2015 season with an inspired production of “Kiss Me, Kate”, brilliantly directed by Playhouse Artistic Director Sheldon Epps, and a cast of seventeen wonderful singers, dancers and actors. More about the production in a moment.

Prior to the curtain going up at Sunday's opening, the Playhouse audience was treated to a gala-like atmosphere where a special honor was awarded to Miss Diahann Carroll for her years of support and commitment to the Wells Fargo Theatrical Diversity Project. She was a true trailblazing actor and performer as the first African-American actor to have her own TV series, “Julia.” The beautiful, ageless and stunning looking 79 year-old actress, singer and performer didn't disappoint when she graciously accepted the award and made a few remarks to the audience.

Another additional treat for the opening night attendees was the introduction of the original Kate of “Kiss Me, Kate” (1948), the lovely 99 and half years-young star of Broadway and Hollywood, Miss Patricia Morison. And seated next to her was the elegant and vibrant Kate of the 1949 USA touring company, Ms. Anne Jeffreys. Both legends received a well-deserved thunderous ovation. Also spotted congratulating the two actors were Jane Kaczmarek, Jason George, French Stewart and Sharon Lawrence representing the “younger generation” of actors who have graced the Playhouse stage.

This production of “Kiss Me, Kate” is a loving homage to the trailblazing African-American touring troupes of the early 20th century who brought the work of Shakespeare not just to New York City, but to theatres all over the country. Famous actors such as Paul Robeson, Ira Aldridge, Jane White and Hattie McDaniel brought literal "color” to the great classical roles, opening up doors for others who would follow.

In Sheldon Epps’ 2014 version, the musical begins to the strains of a sultry, haunting saxophone solo wafting over the audience as the ensemble company, led by Hattie (Jenelle Lynn Randall) and dancers, singers and actors, slowly begin to appear on stage in the prelude number “Another Op’nin, Another Show”, which quickly turns into fast-paced energetic dance number that sets up the audience for the high-octane numbers that follow.

(l-r) Armando Yearwood, Pat Towne, Kimberly Moore, Theresa Murray, Joanna A. Jones, Wayne Brady, Carlton Wilborn, Eric B. Anthony, Saudia Rashed, Jay Donnell, Shamicka Benn-Moser. Photo by Earl Gibson III.
(L-R) Armando Yearwood, Pat Towne, Kimberly Moore,
Theresa Murray, Joanna A. Jones, Wayne Brady,
Carlton Wilborn, Eric B. Anthony, Saudia Rashed,
Jay Donnell, Shamicka Benn-Moser. Photo by Earl Gibson III
For anyone not familiar with the story just think of combining Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” with Cole Porter’s music and lyrics and you have “Kiss Me, Kate.” If you 're still not on board, it’s the story of actors Fred and Lilli (Wayne Brady and Merle Dandridge respectively), who were once a married couple but are now divorced and starring in a musical version of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” in Baltimore.

All of the principal supporting actors in the production portray two characters both onstage and backstage as is traditional in a show that is performed as a play within a play. Dandridge is not only beautiful, she has the voice to match. Her poignant solo “So in Love” is a real heart-breaker. Brady is a handsome, solid leading man, with a smooth baritone and the cockiness worthy of Petruchio’s through the ages. Their “Wunderbar” duet number is cleverly staged, allowing the two stars to banter and needle each other while performing on stage where they must stay in character. It’s a delightful scene.

Assisting Brady and Dandridge in a series of scene stealing numbers are principal cast members Lois/Bianca (Joanna A. Jones) and Bill/Lucentio (Terrance Spencer). Their duet "Why Can’t You Behave?”  the spirited “Tom, Dick or Harry” with Jay Donnell as Hortensio, Eric B. Anthony as Gemmio and Spencer again, and most notably the sensational show-stopping '11 O’Clock Spot' number “Always True to You in My Fashion” are all performed with sass and impeccable timing by Jones.

The stage fairly drips with sexuality in the sizzling “Too Darn Hot” number performed by Paul (Rogelio Douglas Jr.) and the ensemble led once again by Hattie. Another Porter classic “From This Moment On,” is ably performed by Lilli's fiance General Howell (Pat Towne) and Lilli. There are always the comedy relief performers in musicals, and this terrific production is no exception. Playing the two wise-guys/bag men enforcers are David Kirk Grant (the tall one) and Brad Blaisdell (the short one). Their “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” number is cleverly and hilariously staged and is always an anticipated crowd pleaser. This production has so many creative and inventive directorial touches by director Epps, one may lose track of the count but never the enjoyment.

It was a wise decision to have a live orchestra for this splendid production. There is really no alternative when performing Cole Porter music other than a live orchestra in the pit to accompany the singers. It shows class and respect for the audience and is money well spent. Music Direction by veteran Rahn Coleman and choreography by Jeffrey Polk are audience-pleasingly first rate.

The technical credits are always strong at the Playhouse. Scenic Designer John Iacovelli’s dressing rooms set on movable wagons makes the set changes a piece of cake. The handsome costumes for the men, and the sexy-looking costumes for the ladies designed by David K. Mickelsen make for a visual feast. Lighting by Jared A. Sayeg and sound by Jon Gottlieb also complement this dazzling production. It’s an impressive and auspicious production to begin the 2014/2015 Playhouse Season, and one that should not be missed.

“Kiss Me, Kate” runs through October 12, 2014.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Mark Taper Forum Presents World Premiere Drama “Marjorie Prime”

L-R: Lisa Emery, Frank Wood and Lois Smith ~ Photo by Craig Schwartz
L-R: Lisa Emery, Frank Wood, Lois
Smith - Photo by Craig Schwartz
Sometimes it’s difficult to label a play in the traditional manner; Is it a drama, a comedy, is it both, or is it a mystery? In the case of the World Premiere production ”Marjorie Prime,” now on stage at the Mark Taper Forum, it’s a safe bet to say that it’s a little bit all of the aforementioned.

Written by young (37), seasoned, award-winning playwright Jordan Harrison, and directed by Obie winner Les Waters, “Marjorie Prime” is an outside-the-box creative and enigmatic story- premise whose time has come. And, it all takes place in less than 100 minutes.

What takes place on the stage of the Taper is playwright Harrison’s thought provoking “Marjorie Prime,” a drama of the future. It’s the sort of story that is right up director Les Waters’ alley, and one that writer Rod Serling would most assuredly endorse. Despite all of the electronics and gadgetry in our tech-heavy society, human stories are still the most engaging and interesting.

The play asks questions about the difference between a life lived and a life remembered in this, at times, very poignant drama. Everyone’s life is filled with laughter and tears and Harrison hasn’t left out any of the irony or the comedy in Marjorie’s story. It’s how we juggle and accept or reject life’s events that makes one’s journey so compelling and interesting.

The story in short, is set in motion by Marjorie (a wonderfully wry Lois Smith) a clever woman who at age 85 finds her memory is failing. She is living out her days at an assisted living facility where she is frequently visited by her anxious daughter Tess (Lisa Emery) and her kind, easygoing son-in-law, Jon (Frank Wood). With the urging of Jon and the facility, and despite Tess’ misgivings, a mysterious young man, Walter (Jeff Ward), joins the group with the hope that he can help reverse Marjorie’s decline. Through an ingenious series of shifting realities, Walter’s nature is revealed, and the family’s memories gently unfold into a cathartic meditation on life and loss, and the desire to keep our dearly departed with us.
Marjorie Prime Photo 12
Jeff Ward and Lois Smith - Photo by Craig Schwartz

There is no test to be given at the end of the play, but Harrison and Waters definitely challenge the audience to be patient, stay engaged and focused on the story in order to fully appreciate the magic that is taking place in front of them by these four talented actors. The splendidly executed ensemble paints a portrait of a future society we may all be destined to confront one day like it or not. So, pay attention and discover the relevancy of what’s being said on the stage. It may come in handy.

The Taper’s technical credits are always first rate and this production is no exception. Director Waters leads a creative team that includes: Set Designer Mimi Lien who provides a spare, monochromatic and functional stage, along with Lighting Designer Lap Chi Chu’s mood-inducing lighting that meets the look required for the assisted living requirement.

“Marjorie Prime” may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if one goes with the flow and vision of the director and the ideas behind the playwright’s imagination, it can be an intriguing, provocative, and interesting evening in the theatre. The production runs through October 19, 2014.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

La Jolla Playhouse World Premiere Drama "Kingdom City"

When the world is going through upheavals of all sorts: Global unrest, regional wars, economic instability, and who knows what else, the writers of the world begin writing in an attempt to help us understand what’s going on. Language in the hands of a skilled practitioner can be a powerful weapon or tool for social change, or at least, for clarity. But remember: be careful for what you ask… you just might get it.
Kate Blumberg as “Miriam” and Todd Weeks as “Daniel” Photo by Jim Carmody
Kate Blumberg as “Miriam” and Todd Weeks as “Daniel”
Photo by Jim Carmody

The La Jolla Playhouse launched the world premiere of “Kingdom City” by playwright Sheri Wilner last Friday. Directed by Jackson Gay. “Kingdom City” is playwright Wilner’s take on the state of censorship in the United States in the 21st century. Like Arthur Miller before her she uses the metaphor of “The Crucible” to examine thorny problems and issues plaguing American society when it comes to religious issues versus political situations and protected First Amendment rights to free speech.

In short, the story revolves around and is set in motion by the decision of Miriam, a New York City stage director (Kate Blumberg) and her novelist husband Daniel (Todd Weeks) who find themselves in a small town in Missouri during the summer break at the local High School.
(L-R) Austyn Myers as “Matt,” Ian Littleworth as “Luke” and Cristina Gerla as “Katie”  Photo by Jim Carmody
(L-R) Austyn Myers as “Matt,” Ian Littleworth as “Luke” and Cristina Gerla as “Katie” Photo by Jim Carmody

Miriam has been asked to direct a production of Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” using high school students. Once rehearsals begin her vision and style of directing sets off a firestorm of controversy with school officials, parents, and the ire of local Christian youth counselor Luke (Ian Littleworth) to the point that the production is in danger of being cancelled. Cast members Katie (Christina Gerla), Matt (Austyn Meyers), and Crystal (Katie Sapper) are beginning to discover new feelings and insights in themselves through the characters they portray in this play within a play. Their hope is that Miriam will stay on and continue with the show.

In the meantime, Daniel with time on his hands and a case of writer’s block, has been exploring the town of Kingdom City, where he meets Luke. Over time Daniel is drawn to the slower paced, small-town outdoor lifestyle, in the small Christian community and strikes up a friendly relationship with Luke, the town’s Christian youth counselor. When Miriam decides to leave the production and return to New York City, the couple begin to reevaluate their priorities and motives. They’re joined at the hip and both are willing to make life choices together. Stay in the Midwest or return to the Big Apple? Stay tuned.

The production under Gay’s direction is weakened somewhat by her decision not to stage the production in the traditionally configured PotikerTheatre. Instead, she chooses to use the convention of a long narrow rectangular area as the staging space; placing the audience facing one another like fans in a football stadium. This choice, at times, makes it somewhat difficult for dialogue to be heard at either end of the rectangle when action and blocking is called for at those points.

However, the cast has no trouble in being heard hurling numerous expletives and sexual innuendos along with more than 100 F-bombs at the audience (always in character of course). Actor Katie Sapper as Crystal, the teenager from Hell, and the character you love to hate is the worst offender. I’m sure there were some audience members who just wanted to smack her up the side of the head, and then have a chat with her parents; offering a large bar of soap to go along with their chat for later use. When feelings like that spill over, you know the actor is doing an outstanding job, which is exactly what Miss Sapper does in this production.

Each talented cast member performs solidly and when an ensemble scene is called for, the cast responds with conviction. Blumberg and Weeks are especially effective as the “outsiders.” Littleworth’s youth counselor is empathetic and his firmness in rationally stating in his opposition to Miriam’s play direction is well presented.

There has been a lot of talk and hand-wringing these days over the lack of young and talented playwrights emerging from the playwright pipeline. My fervent hope is that when they do pop out of that pipeline, they rush to the nearest bookstore and purchase the latest thesaurus. Our writers need to come up with more synonyms and vocabulary on how to express themselves when it comes to discourse and dialogue without using adjectives that employ “f…ing” in between every other word. And, I refuse to accept the excuse that it’s “real life” dialogue spoken in the vernacular of the day. Yes, of course it is, so are vomiting and diarrhea “real life” experiences, but I don’t care to see them on a stage performed by actors. What’s wrong with a little judicious editing in the number of times the country’s favorite shock and awe word is used? But I digress.

Director Gay leads her creative team with a spare, space-staging design by Robert Brill, neatly lighted by Paul Whitaker. The costumes designed by David Israel Reynoso and sound by Nicholas Drashner ably support the production. “Kingdom City”, runs at the PotikerTheatre through October 5, 2014.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

North Coast Rep Theatre Launches 33rd Season with Noel Coward's "Fallen Angels”

Joanna Strapp and Summer Spiro

When a theatre decides to present a Noel Coward play, be it in the San Diego area or anywhere else for that matter, it had better have a director with the understanding and appreciation for the gifted and prodigious playwright (more than 50 plays) from Teddington, Middlesex, England.

Coward was not only a bold and stylish writer of English drawing room comedies and dramas of wit and bite, he was also an equal opportunity offender. He delighted in skewering England’s upper class society in particular – a class he yearned to join and eventually did, becoming Sir Noel Coward in 1969. He, more than most playwrights of the 20th century, best understood and reflected the uniqueness of his fellow countrymen, presenting their quirks and idiosyncrasies, warts and all, as well as focusing on their finest hours and becoming rich and famous himself in the bargain.

North Coast Rep Company of Solano Beach, CA, launched its 33rd season last weekend and hit the ground running with Noel Coward’s delightful spin on the 1920’s comedy-of-manners genre “Fallen Angels.” This wonderfully hilarious and fast-paced romp has the very good fortune to have San Diego-based director Rosina Reynolds at the helm.

Reynolds, an actor/director and Coward aficionado, has her creative fingerprints all over this entertaining and stylishly directed comedy that is chock-full of deft and inventive directorial touches. The production also is blessed with a cast that knows its way around English drawing room farce when they find themselves in one. More about them later.

The story, set in the Jazz Age, is about two wealthy upper-class young women and their two clueless husbands. The bored wives, whose home sex lives have stalled after five years, are tempted and energized by the news of the return to England of a former French lover who bedded them both before they were married. This is fertile ground for Coward to mine the “seven deadly sins” on stage and he does so with verve, style, and panache. Toss into the mix a dry-witted, scene-stealing housemaid who apparently is always right on all domestic issues, and who, at times, plays and accompanies herself on the baby grand piano in the living room, as well as serve the meals. Well, when that happens, one has a recipe for a madcap evening of comedy/farce.

Julia, played by Joanna Strapp, is the personification the typical bored female Coward leading lady: spoiled, attractive, rich, lithe, liberated, and ready for an adventure. The timbre in Strapp’s voice sends sultry signals to any within earshot, but one has to be listening. It’s a finely judged performance underscored by impeccable timing. Summer Spiro playing best friend Jane, is a bundle of bored energy as well, but has a penchant for martinis that soon gets the two women involved in a classic drinking scene that is one of the highlights of the evening. Strapp and Spiro have wonderful onstage chemistry that has them feeding-off each other. It’s a delight to watch them work.

Jacquelyn Ritz as Saunders the maid, shines in her scene-stealing moments, when singing and playing the piano in front of guests, much to the chagrin of Julia and her husband, stick in-the-mud Fred played with controlled frustration by Thomas Miller. Jane’s priggish husband Willie, played by Jason Maddy, is appropriately aghast at the shenanigans going on with their two wives while he and Fred have been golfing all day. I last saw Maddy in San Diego Rep’s excellent production of “Red." His co-starring portrayal there is 180 degrees opposite from his Willie character in “Angels.” As for the mysterious French lover Maurice Duclos played by Richard Baird, Maurice only makes one entrance at the end of the play, but we couldn’t say good night without him. All the men have their moments, but the evening definitely belongs to the ladies of “Fallen Angels.”

In the technical credits department, director Reynolds leads a creative team consisting of Scenic Designer Marty Burnett, who provides a rich looking London apartment, with plenty of space for the actors to perform their magic. The lighting design by Matt Novotny complements the costumes of Alina Bokovikova. Also, it’s always nice to see attention paid to the little details like real tea sets and spot-on props, plus lights that can be seen when doors open in the daylight or when characters leave a room. Very few people in real life just wander off or exit into darkness. Small details like these are what separate good shows from great shows.

The North Coast Rep Theatre begins its 33rd season with a thoroughly splendid and entertaining production of Noel Coward’s “Fallen Angels” that runs through September 28, 2014. Don’t miss It!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Theresa Rebeck Comedy Satire On Stage At Palm Desert’s Arthur Newman Theatre

Theresa Rebeck Comedy Satire On Stage  At Palm Desert’s Arthur Newman Theatre

The lure of show business is magnetic and all-consuming if you’re an alpha male or female. Plays and Hollywood movies are usually about young and hungry actors with a burning fire in the belly to perform anything, anywhere.

Theresa Rebeck is a playwright and screenwriter with credits on and off Broadway and on television. She’s also a bit of a darling with the younger set, thanks to the more modern on-the-nose-dialogue she gives her characters (translation: beaucoup F-bombs).  Stories and subject matter that attract and pique her interest are more in tune with the 25 to 40 year-old age demographic (she’s 56). We are not watching the type of a comedy play your father and grandfather enjoyed. And she is a fierce supporter and activist in the movement to employ more female writers in every aspect of the arts. She’s smart, clever and popular.

“Seminar,” written by Rebeck and directed by Desert Theatre Works co-founder and DTW’s artistic Director Lance Phillips-Martinez, is currently on the stage of the Arthur Newman Theatre in Palm Desert.The play explores the passion of writers, novelists and authors instead of actors who once were the favorite characters of choice by playwrights and screenwriters.

The story in short, is set in present day New York City, and follows four young aspiring writers: Kate (Mari Kerber); Martin (Gabriel Lawrence); Douglas (Tanner Lieser); and Izzy (Brittney De Leon Reyes) each of whom have paid a $5000 fee to be included in Professor Leonard’s (Luke Rainey) ten-week long writing seminar.

The action takes place in Kate’s parent’s Upper West Side nine-bedroom apartment that affords plenty of space for the group’s raging hormones, heated literary discussions and critiques of each other’s work to take place. Also the apartment affords the group the time and place to dissect the jaded, cynical, and acerbic Leonard’s background and history in the New York literary world when he’s not around. He was once a promising new talent but instead of growing as a writer he sputtered, crashed and burned after just two novels. His passion for writing never returned; instead, he became a sought-after writing coach and guru to aspiring young talent. But his students had better come to his seminars with skin and egos as thick as elephant hides. He berates, he scolds, he goads the students to look inward and to “suffer a little” for their craft and their future profession. “Seminar” is a blistering satire on the aspiring writer genre.

The ensemble cast throw themselves into their portrayals with gusto, sometimes, a little too much gusto. But that is not necessarily all their own doing. This is one of Rebeck’s lightweight plays and evening in the theatre. There is very little new ground being broken here. The one dimensional characters are shallow and uninteresting, failing to engage me enough that I found myself unable to root for any of them. Having said that, Luke Rainey as Leonard has a very poignant and introspective five-minute monologue in the second act that delves into the scary and frustrating lifestyle of professional writers. It’s an illuminating and instructive peek into the professional writing world.

By the same token, Gabriel Lawrence as Martin gives us the viewpoint of the tortured aspiring young writer in a lengthy first act monologue who is unsure of his ability to write meaningful stories and characters and, as a result, hesitates in participating in Leonard’s bruising exchanges when critiquing the writing of his students. Leonard’s trial-by-fire method is too intimidating for the men of the class but not for the young women who seem to have a secret weapon that protects them from the Leonards of the world ( hmm, I wonder what that three letter weapon could it be?).

“Seminar” is not a study in intellectual rigor by a long shot, but it can be an entertaining evening of theatre if one goes not expecting to challenge the gray matter in one’s head. The comedy runs through September 13, 2014.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Role of the Critic / Role of the Audience ... As I See It

My dear anonymous letter writers, if you think it is so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet or a painter or film experimenter, may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, so many poets.
- Pauline Kael, "I Lost It at the Movies"

Most people believe the role of a critic/reviewer is an easy one. However, that role is often misunderstood. I agree with Ms. Kael who hit the proverbial nail on the head. Being a critic/reviewer isn't easy or very popular. For starters, both audiences and reviewers alike are there to enjoy the production. The audience has the expectation they are going to see a play, show, or movie that meets a certain personal acceptance and enjoyment level. The reviewer goes hoping to see his or her expectation level exceeded. No one goes to the theatre thinking "I'm not going to like what I'm about to see."

A positive attitude on the part of the audience can actually enhance the enjoyment of the impending performance or it can soften the blow of disappointment when the play fails to live up to the hype or expectation. In the case of those audience members who went looking for more and came away disappointed, all they can do is shrug, grumble about the play saying it stunk, and then tell their friends to forget about going to see it. Those that enjoyed the experience, however, become the bearers of great news and music to the ears of the performers, to say nothing of anxious theatre producers looking for that mega hit and long lines at the box office.

Nothing speaks as loud as "word of mouth" praise; it's the most powerful validation and best form of advertising one can receive. Performers are in the business of performing in front of audiences and the more the merrier!

For critics, we don't have the luxury of dismissing the entire evening with a shrug and then go home to the comfort of a loving family or loyal pet. We are at performances to observe, evaluate, and report on the experience of the evening for the benefit of those not in attendance.

A popular held belief by the public is that critic/reviewers go to see plays or movies hoping they are bad so they can write witty and clever reviews denigrating the actors, the director, and the other technical elements; and by so doing, elevate their own importance. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least, not by the reviewers and critics I've known. To a person, we all wish that every production we review will be worthy of the audience's hard earned dollar outlay and applause.

In our effort to assist both audience and theatre producers and performers, we like to think we can make a contribution by offering a professional and experienced independent eye to the proceedings; someone who can be relied upon to offer a fair and honest evaluation of what went on at the theatre that night.

Sometimes the review disappoints those we know in the production. But friendships with performers have to take a back seat when it comes to maintaining standards and credibility with readers or listeners. One doesn't have to be cruel or mean-spirited. One doesn't "kick the chorus girl" just because the star sings off key. We just try to be as professional as one can when doing the job.

I have been attending plays for over 50 years and have been writing reviews and critiques for more than 40 years. I have been an actor, writer, producer, director, and a passionate supporter of live theatre and movies since I can remember. I'm a member of several professional unions and can honestly state I am eager to see all creative endeavors not only succeed, but flourish and thrive. My wife was an actress who also directed, so all forms of creative art were and are a very important component in my life. I would like that component to become important in the lives of others, as well.

My role as a critic/reviewer is to report what is presented on the stage at the performance I attend. Good, bad or indifferent, I always look to see if the performers achieved what they set out to do. What are they trying to accomplish and how successfully have they done it ? That's the main criteria and measuring stick I use. Imagination, innovation, and the marshaling of the available technical elements is also a major factor, as is the vision of the director. Sometimes these elements are MIA and the critic is faced with a review that is not going to please the producing organization.

I always try to be positive in my criticism, offering a suggestion or two where appropriate, which might help shore up an unsteady scene or moment. Remember: it's easy to criticize a problem area but one should also be prepared to offer solutions to fix it as well. I also take into consideration the disparity between the professional actor working along side the non-professional performer in the same production. It doesn't happen very often in most of the cities where I review, but it does take place every now and then.

Your role as the audience is to attend live theatre and be open to new experiences and allow the performers to write on the blank slate each of us brings to the theatre that evening. When the performers capture lightning in a bottle, and the theatre gods smile down on the stage, it can be a magical moment indeed, and an evening one remembers for years. So enjoy and savor your next theatrical experience.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Love Is In the Air at San Diego's Old Globe

Hubert Point-Du Jour as Valentine and Britney
Coleman as Silvia - Photo by Jim Cox
If you haven’t seen a production of the Old Globe’s Summer Shakespeare Outdoor Theatre Festival this year you still have time to catch “Two Gentlemen of Verona” in the Lowell Davies Outdoor Theatre in Balboa Park. Whether Shakespeare is writing stories about comedy, drama or tragedy, the subject of love is never far away. It’s the universal engine that stokes the fires of romance which acts as a powerful elixir and a necessary component in all Shakespearean plays.

This time The Old Globe wraps up their highly successful 2014 Shakespeare Summer Season with the delightfully entertaining rom-com “Two Gentlemen of Verona” directed by acclaimed Globe alum and Tony Award nominee Mark Lamos.

The play is considered to be among Shakespeare’s earliest efforts in playwriting, and features themes of male friendship and bonding, both fidelity (on the part of the ladies), and almost infidelity (on the male side), cross-dressing, a touch of bawdiness and, of course, true love. It’s Shakespeare’s version of a coming-of-age tale between two friends and the women they love.

The story revolves around two young men Proteus (Adam Kantor) and Valentine (Hubert Point-Du Jour) who are boyhood best friends. Thanks to the energetic company ensemble, we see them in their various classes performing fencing, physical training, dancing, and doing the things that gentlemen of that time did to prepare for life’s adventures. When the time comes for them to venture out from Verona into the big city of Milan to make their fortunes, decisions have to be made.

Valentine wants Proteus to join him on the way to Milan. Proteus, however, has a different plan. He’s in love with Julia (Kristin Villanueva) and wants to remain close to her in Verona. A disappointed Valentine then sets out on his own. Proteus’ father Antonio (Arthur Hanket), thinks Proteus should follow his friend to Milan (during the Renaissance children followed the advice and suggestions of their parents).

In Milan, Valentine and Silvia (Britney Coleman), the daughter of the Duke (Mark Pinter) have met and are in love. When Proteus arrives, he too falls for the lovely Silvia. Later, he reveals to the powerful Duke that Silvia and Valentine plan to elope, whereby Valentine is banished from Milan leaving the field clear for Proteus to present his case for her love.

Meanwhile, Proteus’ earlier love, Julia, assumes the disguise of a male page and travels to Milan to find him. The now-banished Valentine meets a band of rowdy outlaws in the forest and becomes their leader. Are you still with me? Good. Silvia in search of Valentine is seized by his outlaws and is rescued by Proteus, who once again professes his love for her. Silvia again spurns Proteus. Once she gets back to her father’s castle with Valentine and Proteus, Julia arrives and reveals her true identity to all, regaining a contrite Proteus’ love. Two weddings are then arranged: Valentine with Silvia, and Proteus with Julia. Shakespeare’s plays are heavily plotted and dense with narrative threads that go off in all directions. So, let’s just say that they all lived happily ever after.

There are some finely judged and very funny performances in this production. With a cast of 23 performers it is difficult to list everyone, however, there are always standouts: Adam Kantor as Proteus, Hubert Point-Du Jour as Valentine, Britney Coleman as Silvia and Kristin Villanueva as Julia fill those standout roles.

Solid support comes from Lowell Byers as Turio, the foolish suitor of Silvia (with a cod piece that stands out as well); Mark Pinter as the Duke; Rusty Ross as Speed, the crafty servant to Valentine, and Richard Ruiz as Launce, the clownish servant to Proteus and on-stage handler of a scene-stealing black lab retriever-mix named Crab that reinforces the W.C. Fields dictum to never appear in a scene with an animal or a small child. Both are tough acts to follow. I loved Fields’ snarky, sarcastic, response when asked years ago if he liked children. “Yes”, he replied, “when they’re cooked properly.” Not only is Crab's portrayer Kokomo a scene-stealer, but she receives thunderous applause following every exit.

The creative team led by director Lamos is first rate. The gorgeous costumes designed by Linda Cho fill the stage with a palette of colors. From dazzling red and sparkling diaphanous white, and long pink flowing gowns to the rich looking blue doublets and cloaks - costumes of the aristocracy - coupled with the contrasting scruffy-looking brown costumes of the outlaws renders the stage design by John Arnone, awash in color. The lighting design by Stephen Strawbridge and the sound design by Acme Sound Partners further enhance the vision of director Lamos, who stages his production with a sure and steady hand.

Even though “Two Gentlemen of Verona” is an early Shakespeare play, his writing style, plot, and characters are very relevant for today’s society. Once the audience gets the hang of the rhyme and meter of the language, it’s easy to follow, whether it’s Renaissance Italy or 21st century San Diego.

There has always been a certain amount of scholarly concern over Shakespeare’s intentions when crafting “Two Gentlemen.” Is it a comedy underpinned with overtones of farce, or is it a farce outright, laced with comedic shadings concerning friendship and the effects of love? The production is a visually stunning, light and entertaining rom-com romp that sends the eternal message that what this troubled world needs now, more than ever, is love sweet love. So enjoy.

“Two Gentlemen of Verona” runs through September 14, 2014.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Future of American Theatre is in Good Hands

Some in the professional theatre community view critics as their natural enemy out to destroy or trivialize the efforts of all theatrical companies. Over time, a tradition of sorts began – something akin to the bridegroom not seeing his bride before the ceremony – in other words, bad luck or a doomed marriage. Bull. I’ve never met a fellow critic who walked into a theatre hoping the production would be bad, boring or worse in order to write a clever, witty review that denigrates the production as a way of elevating their own importance.

As a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), I thought it would be interesting to see what and how theatre professionals, both administrative and creative types, discuss and approach their work. How they grapple day to day with such thorny issues as work ethics, problem solving (marketing and finance issues) the creative process in general, and how they plan for the growth of a necessary industry during difficult times in a challenged American economy.

When seeking news of what’s happening in American not-for-profit theatre, you can track those happenings via the Theatre Communications Group (TCG). Once a year the organization convenes its National Conference in a different city, allowing members and interested parties to come together, press the flesh, attend workshops and panels, and exchange ideas on the state and future of American theatre.

Started over 50 years ago by the efforts of a handful of theatres, it has grown to represent nearly 700 member theatres and more than 12,000 individuals nationwide. In addition to offering its members networking and knowledge-building opportunities, it also publishes the award-winning American Theatre magazine, considered an essential source for those seeking a career in the arts.

So when TCG selected the city of San Diego to host their 2014 National Conference, it presented me with a perfect opportunity to satisfy my critic’s curiosity to observe the current state of the art. If you are not familiar with TCG, it is the national organization whose mission is to strengthen, nurture, and promote the professional not-for-profit American theatre.

More than 900 theatre professionals from all over the United States attended the conference in June and the energy level at the Welcome for Newbies and First Timers session was intense on day one, rising even higher on days two and three. I would estimate that about 75 percent of the attendees was under 40 years of age. That’s good news for those of us older folks who are happy to see the legacy of American theatre is secure.

Due to my being on a “No Fly” list of sorts (critics are not permitted to attend certain workshops and panels), I had to glean bits of information and breaking news from the four plenary sessions that everyone could attend, mostly in the form of insights shared during liquid-fueled epiphanies in the hotel bar post-sessions. The three-day experience led me to conclude that America’s theatre professionals are mostly upbeat about the prospects for America’s not-for-profit theatres.

As the saying goes, “it’s not your father (or grandfathers’s) theatre any more”. That’s not to say that today’s makers and shakers are stuck in a time warp. Quite the contrary. But the landscape is beginning to take on a new look when it comes to confronting the reality of creating and producing theatre as we know it today.

Theatre is an evolving art form and always has been. Sometimes, it’s just not easy to recognize change when it arrives

I think when theatres begin their season selection process, a blending of the familiar with the bolder choices that are being made by new and emerging theatrical companies is a prudent way to go. Both sides of a critical component need to have their day in the court of paying patrons – the ultimate arbiter of which way is better in the theatre – to prove their case.

It reminds me of the heated and passionate discussions of fifty years ago when many theatres, actors, directors, and boards of directors wrestled with a critical decision when it came to making an immutable theatrical choice: do we build a proscenium stage or a stage in the round? Thus the thrust stage was born, and the Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont and the Mark Taper Forum’s thrust stages have led the way in producing plays and musicals without compromising audience enjoyment.

While “compromise” as a position is not in favor in our current highly partisan environment, I also believe that the arts communities in America are smarter and wiser when it comes to working together than the folks in Washington D.C.

Overall I came away from the TCG Conference with the conviction that torches have been passed to younger professionals who are smart, creative, and eager to embrace the challenges of ideas and concepts that not only nourish one’s soul, but please their audiences in the bargain. Despite having to accomplish their goals on limited budgets the new generation is eager and capable of thinking “outside the creative box” when it comes to protecting and keeping the American theatre dream alive.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Geffen Playhouse Premieres Neil Labute Drama "Reasons to Be Pretty"

Shawn Hatosy and Amber Tamblyn - Photo Michael Lamont

Playwright Neil LaBute is a prolific writer of plays and screenplays. But he rarely appears on the radar screens of mainstream American theatre-goers. Some accuse him of being a misogynistic playwright on steroids.

That label may be a little unfair. They said the same thing about G.B. Shaw’s take on women, but Shaw performed his misogyny surgery with wit, style, and intellectual rigor; whereas LaBute assaults his audiences with characters that boast a raw, street smart approach to the modern man/woman relationship, complete with a plethora of F-bombs, shouted at the top of their voices, and other favorite sexual expressions that pass for dialogue these days. If one scratches beneath the surface of our ever changing society, one will discover complicated and somewhat pathetic characters that continue to hold a fascination for LaBute as well as for others.

In his latest play “Reasons to be Pretty” (directed by artistic director Randall Arney, now playing on the Gil Cates Stage of the Geffen Playhouse), LaBute introduces us to four characters in their mid-twenties who are what some might label as borderline losers. The younger generation come off as spoiled, self-indulgent and suffering from a lack of parental oversight when they were growing up - and they’re still not grownups when we catch up with them.

The play opens with Stephanie (Amber Tamblyn) screaming at the top of her lungs a series of four-letter expletives directed at her live-in boyfriend Greg (Shawn Hatosy) who is trying to calm her down. Not an easy task. This is a marital squabble (sans wedding rings and license) between a live-in couple who have trouble communicating. It seems Greg dropped a casual remark to his best buddy Kent (Nick Gehlfuss) about women in general and their beauty in particular. There is nothing unusual about that, except that Greg failed to defend Stephanie’s specific beauty, and when the two buddy’s exchanges came back to Steph via her “friend” Carly (Alicia Witt), all hell broke loose. Whatever would the world do without gossip as fodder material for writers?

Alicia Witt and Nick Gehlfuss - Photo Michael Lamont
In the case of their friends Kent and Carly and their situation Carly, who works as a night security guard, loves her husband Kent. The issue for them is that Kent has a roving eye for the ladies and for Crystal, a new young hottie at the factory where he works. The set-up is complete. Now we wait to see how all this will unfold. One problem for the audience is that these four flawed characters are not easy to like or to root for.

Director Arney has each character deliver their “A-ha monologue” in a spotlighted area straight out to the audience. It’s this convention that gives us some insight into the world of these fallible creatures. I just wish he took a firmer hand in the vocal modulation and orchestration of the actor’s emotions and delivery.  At times, less is better when it comes to the actors shouting at each other all the time. Also, there were times when 18-wheeler big rigs would have no trouble slipping in between dialogue cues.

For two and a half hours these talented actors have to maneuver the minefield of LaBute's, sometimes raw and sometimes banal dialogue which is liberally peppered with references to “beer, broads, baseball and sex.” It is almost like being back in my old military barracks. It was tolerable then, but now fails to engage and just comes off as tedious.

According to LaBute’s program notes, the world is obsessed with how people wish to be seen by others and that’s very true. Everyone wants to be perceived as being pretty or handsome. Unfortunately, life just isn’t that way. Real beauty is always in the eye of the enlightened beholder. We can still be happy inside our own skins, despite what the world thinks or says.

The technical credits are always solid at the Geffen, and this production is no exception. The set design by Takeshi Kata makes good use of wagons in expediting scene locations and scene changes and still provide enough space for the actors to do their things. Lighting designer Daniel Ionazzi provides just the right amount of illumination for mood enhancement, yet still allows the costumes of David Mickelsen to be seen and appreciated.

“Reasons to be Pretty” at the Geffen Playhouse may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but one cannot deny the dedication and the commitment on the part of the talented ensemble cast. The production runs through August 31, 2014.