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.