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.