Tuesday, December 22, 2015

PROVOCATIVE AND INTRIGUING DRAMA TESTS TENETS OF FAITH

As the old saying goes, two subjects considered to be off-limits for discussion by polite society at social gatherings or at dinner parties, are the prickly subjects of religion and politics.

Andrew Garman stars in
"The Christians" at Mark Taper Forum
Photo by Craig Schwartz
But what if the highly-charged subject of religious beliefs and tenets is introduced by none other than the founding pastor of a highly visible mega-church during Sunday services, who claims to have experienced a religious epiphany when it comes to certain passages in Biblical scripture?

If that’s the case, then you must have been sitting in the audience watching a performance of the Mark Taper Forum’s provocative, new, religious shout-out play “The Christians”, smartly written by Lucas Hnath and deftly staged by award-winning director Les Waters.  Waters also staged two earlier productions for Center Theatre Group: “Marjorie Prime” at the Taper in 2014 and “Girlfriend” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in July of this year.
Larry Powell (L) and Andrew
Garman (R) in "The Christians"
Photo by Craig Schwartz
“The Christians” revolves around the charismatic and highly successful Pastor Paul (an absolutely mesmerizing Andrew Garman) of a Christian congregation who suddenly announces during his Sunday homily that he has had a change of heart concerning the Bible’s representation of the place known as “Hell”. In fact, he claims there is no such place.

This stunning declaration throws the church and its followers into a tizzy. Sides are taken. Should the church elders, led by Elder Jay (Philip Kerr) ask Pastor Paul to leave? What for instance, is the position of the associate pastor Joshua (sensitively and intelligently played by Larry Powell)? Joshua sadly disagrees with Pastor Paul’s position.

Linda Powell and Andrew
Garman in "The Christians"
Photo by Craig Schwartz
Even Pastor Paul’s loyal wife Elizabeth (nicely underplayed by Linda Powell) waivers on which side of this explosive and divisive religious issue she will come down on.  Will she support her husband’s new position? Or will she stand with the majority of the congregants?  Everyone is faced with being on the horns of a dilemma. Hobson’s choices are rampant in the church.
Emily Donahoe in "The Christians"
Photo by Craig Schwartz
Choir congregant Jenny (earnestly played by Emily Donahoe) is a young divorced mother who is searching for guidance and answers from Pastor Paul on how to explain to her young son all this turmoil voiced by the congregation. Her character acts as sort of a Greek chorus where every question that Jenny asks, is followed by a response from Paul, which then leads to new and more probing question from Jenny.

When Paul realizes he cannot give her definitive answers to her questions anymore, their discussion may be over but the basic core issue still remains unresolved. At this point Jenny silently leaves the stage, signaling the exit of congregants leaving Pastor Paul’s church to join Pastor Joshua in his new church.

The play, as written by Hnath, is a serious investigation into the nature of faith. It’s also clever in how it challenges some Protestant core beliefs in the Bible without offending too many believers.  Any kind of change is always troubling, even disturbing, when deviations occur that threaten the status quo. Just ask Martin Luther and Pope Leo X about change and its aftershocks. Their little ecclesiastical ‘dust-up’ produced the Protestant Reformation in 1517.

The staging of the play itself by Waters becomes a ‘character’ in the production, thanks to Scenic Designer Dane Lafferty’s creation of an onstage church complete with singers drawn from local Los Angeles churches and choirs. They begin each performance with rousing gospel music conducted by Scott Anthony, which lends an air of authenticity to the story and the action that takes place on stage.

Scott Anthony leads the onstage choir in
"The Christians" - Photo by Craig Schwartz
If one wants to know how convincing the setting is and the services being conducted in the faux onstage church, when Paul says to the congregants “Let us pray”, heads in the audience lowered as if to join in the prayers with the actors. Now that’s really being caught up in the moment with the onstage performers.



All of the verisimilitude of “The Christians” is accomplished without any of the actors raising their voices when stating their feelings or positions, except for a two minute scene between Pastor Paul and his wife Elizabeth near the end of the play. This is just good, old-fashioned, inspired direction on the part of director Waters who wonderfully orchestrates all the voices and their pacing.  The power of the play comes from the writing and the actors. It’s an interesting intellectual think piece that explores the complexities of religion, performed by a stellar cast of six actors and a choir of twenty on-stage singers that are drawn from a pool of forty-four who rotate their performances.

Playwright Hnath explains in program notes what he’s getting at in the play. “It’s true that there is no resolution in the play,” he says, adding “Here’s something I believe: a church is a place where people go to see something that is very difficult to see.” It’s a place where the invisible is – at least for a moment – made visible.”  I would categorize that play synopsis in one word - faith.

Hnath asks true believers to process this intellectual religious dichotomy of information without waiting for the ‘Godot moment’, so to speak, saying that this is why there is no resolution to his play. That may be the case but it sure is a provocative and entertaining journey while we’re observing everything from the audience’s point of view.

This splendid production is performed without an intermission and runs at the Mark Taper Forum through January 10, 2016.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA THEATRE CRITIC CHIMES IN WITH TOP TEN FOR 2015

When it comes time to pen the ubiquitous Top Ten Lists at year's end, it's tough limiting theatre venues to just ten best productions of the year, especially when this critic is covering Los Angeles, San Diego, La Jolla, and Pasadena theatres.

But this intrepid writer will attempt to do just that. The following shows, in no particular order, are my selections for Best Productions of 2015.

The Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles had two such outstanding productions : 


"Bent", the poignant and compelling story of German Jews being sent to concentration camps in 1936 Germany, teaches one about the transformative power of love.
"The Price", Arthur Miller's classic play about the choices one New York family makes in the highly charged emotional barter and life assessments, is Miller at his outstanding best.
"Come from Away" at the La Jolla Playhouse was the uplifting musical written by a Canadian husband and wife team about the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania and the impact 4000 unexpected passengers had on the tiny community of Gander, Newfoundland.

"Baskerville: A Sherlock Homes Mystery", at San Diego's Old Globe. An energetic highly creative, and entertaining mystery/farce production where five performers play over 45 roles at breakneck speed.

"Chapatti", at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach, was a delightful and charming tale of love finding two senior citizens in the Emerald Isle.


"Happy Hour" at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre was a world premiere comedy/drama about an aging father and his son coming to grips with the reality that Dad can't live on his own anymore.

"Bad Jews" at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. The biting comedy of a dysfunctional family squabbling with their cousin over family heirlooms, and who should get what, featured delicious confrontational dialogue and theatrical craftsmanship at its finest. 

"Real Women Have Curves" at the Pasadena Playhouse was a comedic and poignant exploration of the vexing issue of illegal Latina women working in Los Angeles' garment industry. Not only do they worry about deportation, they would like be appreciated for their individuality at work and at home by their families and spouses.

San Diego Rep Theatre, now in their 40th season, also had two stellar productions in the Top Ten for 2015.

"Oedipus El Rey" was a powerful adaptation of Sophocles' tragic tale of murder, ambition, and incest. Only this time the characters are Hispanics living in a Los Angeles 'barrio' instead of in the city-state of Athens some 2400 years ago.

"Uncanny Valley" was a provocative drama about the relationships between creators of robots and their avatar creations. Will science ever be able to give robots the power to think independently? The premise of such exploration may be further along than we think.


Southern California theatrical venues have sent many productions to Broadway and to regional theatres everywhere including London's West End.

If you see any of the above 2015 plays upcoming in your area, by all means, attend. You won't be disappointed.

Monday, December 7, 2015

AMERICAN MUSICAL PHENOMENON "HAMILTON" WOWS BROADWAY

A fresh and a creative wind has blown into the Great White Way in game-changing fashion, potentially altering the way some American musicals will be staged and produced in the future.

“Hamilton”, the captivating musical/opera with a book, music and lyrics by MacArthur Genius Award recipient Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a breathtaking historical ride back to our nation’s Revolutionary War roots. Miranda also stars in the title role of Alexander Hamilton.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of Hamilton
This time, the story is fueled by the drive, energy, and beat of Hip-Hop and Rap music, performed by a superb multi-racial cast directed by the uncommonly talented and gifted director Thomas Kail. Miranda and Kail are the same creative team that garnered four 2008 Tony Award trophies for their ground-breaking musical juggernaut “In the Heights” which ran for over 1000 performances at the Richard Rodgers Theatre – the same theatre where “Hamilton” is performing.  Can lightning strike twice at the same theatre venue for the same team?  You bet it can and it is.

“Hamilton” had been percolating in Miranda’s creative brain for more than six years before finally debuting off-Broadway and selling out performances at The Public Theatre earlier this year. Theatrical ventures – musicals in particular – have a gestation period far longer than elephants (two years for them), which most normal people would consider a long time before giving birth to anything. Not, however, in the world of theatre and Broadway.

It’s the hottest ticket in New York City, boasting $ 27 million advance ticket sales in just the first few weeks since opening. Rumors have it that orchestra tickets are selling on the street in excess of $1300 a piece for a weekend performance. The average theatre-goer can’t even imagine tickets commanding prices like that.  It’s a sea-change show that will run for several years on Broadway, to say nothing of a national tour and then onto the major Regional Theatre circuit.

What makes this musical so successful?  For starters, I believe it’s a production where the critical mass of creativity meets an abundance of talent. The result of that marriage becomes a confluence; a coming together at just the right time in America where a savvy theatrical team produces a musical that appeals to the new emerging American theatre-going demographic. “Hamilton” is not your father’s remembrance of 20th century American musicals.

Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr and the cast of Hamilton.
All photos by Joan Marcus
The thirty-two cast members that breathe life into this highly entertaining history lesson with a beat on the rise and fall of Alexander Hamilton, move as one, never out of step, never out of the moment. It’s a visual feast both for the eyes and the ears of the audience. It also introduces Hip-Hop with a blending of Rap as the platform of preference in entertaining its audience. We’re not talking ‘gangsta’ rap’ here. We’re witnessing the birth of a new communication/entertainment platform for future musical productions. Hip-hop style, with its rhyming and propulsive lyrics and dance movements, more and more reflects the society in which millions live.

Before the over-fifty set dismiss the phenomenon of “Hamilton” as not an entertaining style for a musical, one should see the new face of the American musical, and then make a decision as to its relevance in our changing society.

Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton, 
Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler
and Jasmine Cephas Jones as Peggy Schuyler in Hamilton
The story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the brightest and best of our founding fathers, resonates with young people. One, he was an immigrant and an orphan; two, he was a man of color – it’s rumored that he was an Octaroon; three, he was an ambitious self-made man who attended a prestigious university, becoming a successful lawyer, and an aide to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. He was also a handsome ladies man who married well into New York political and social circles. With a resume like that it’s no wonder that he’s a historical character who appeals to young people, who are apparently making up half of the show's audiences.

Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson and the cast of Hamilton
The tale of two powerful and ambitious men of American history is the story that playwright Miranda wants us to explore; two men whose paths are destined to cross with deadly results. Alexander Hamilton is wonderfully played by Lin-Manuel Miranda. As Aaron Burr, Leslie Odom, Jr. delivers a finely judged and nuanced performance as Hamilton’s political rival that sets in motion their tragic political arc ending with the death of Hamilton in a duel by the hand of Burr. Their story is as compelling and dramatic as it gets.

As my colleague Charles Giuliano mentions in his review of “Hamilton”, the two roles written by Miranda are of equal heft and importance, much like Shakespeare’s Othello and Iago pairing, adding that he wouldn’t be surprised to see both actors nominated for Tony Awards come this April 26th when award nominations are announced. I couldn’t agree more.

Gifted as those two lead actors are, however, this splendid production boasts many talented performers in this opera-like musical who sing and dance the story of “Hamilton” as there is no narrative text employed as a way of moving the story forward.

Daveed Diggs as Marquis de Lafayette, Okieriete Onaodowan as
Hercules Mulligan, Anthony Ramos as John Laurens
and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton
All the major supporting actors are outstanding and they include: Daveed Diggs who plays both the flashy Marquis de Lafayette and our third President Thomas Jefferson; Sydney James Harcourt as George Washington is a commanding presence; Okieriete Onaodowan plays Hercules Mulligan and James Madison; a stunning Renee Elise Goldsberry with a wonderful singing voice plays Angelica Schuyler, Hamilton’s sister-in-law, whom some have said was his first choice for a wife. But Anjelica was already married making the younger Schuyler sister Eliza, played by lovely Phillipa Soo, eligible to become Eliza Hamilton. Jasmine Cephas Jones portrays both Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds; and Andrew Rannells ("The Book of Mormon") renders a fresh, comical, turn as King George III.

This splendid production is blessed with a committed and dedicated ensemble cast that crisply executes the remarkable choreography created by the fabulous Andy Blankenbuehler, and the equally gifted Music Director/Orchestrations/Co-Arranger Alex Lacamoire, and Lighting designer Howell Binkley, all of whom are returning creative team artists from “In the Heights”. Why break up a winning team when everyone is on a roll? Why, indeed.

David Korins’ spacious two-level scenic design gives the entire company plenty of space to perform their magic in the colorful and elegant Revolutionary period costumes designed by Paul Tazewell.

If you find yourself in New York City next year with some discretionary income in your pocket, I strongly suggest you catch a performance of “Hamilton” at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway.  The good news is, you won’t be disappointed. The bad news is, the box office is only taking reservations for performances after October 2016.  That’s what happens when a phenomenon arrives on Broadway.

                                                                          

Kirk Douglas Theatre Premieres New Comedy with an Agenda

Plays can have hidden agendas,veiled or guarded plot points, and various twists on the endings. Usually, it’s a device to keep the narrative text from tipping off the audience before the playwright has made his or her case as to how the play will end.

Tradition has followed the linear format – beginning, middle, and end – for a couple of hundred years. Audiences long ago embraced this format. It’s familiar, comfortable and satisfying.

Richard Riehle, Gary Wilmes, Frank Boyd
and Brian Slaten. Photo by Craig Schwartz
However, when a play comes along by a playwright with a purposeful agenda to test and challenge audience perceptions, almost daring them figure out what is taking place on-stage well then, you must be watching a play by Korean-born but American raised and educated New York City-based Young Jean Lee, a veteran playwright with an east coast following. This is her first linear written play, and it’s one with lots to think about when it comes to a family of four straight white men living in the Midwest.

As Ms. Lee explained to a group of theatre-goers prior to the performance, she wanted to shake up and force the audience out of its comfort zone with this play. During the previews of “Straight White Men”, a comedy with deceptive dramatic undertones, audience feedback revealed that audiences had a difficult time understanding what the play was about even though they had just witnessed it.

Most playwrights and directors would be worried as to the longevity of a production after hearing such comments. For Ms. Lee who is both the playwright and the director it was music to her ears. Part of her plan for the play is to deconstruct whiteness in America and have the privileged ‘white class’ perform a mental self-awareness test. Changes are coming in 21st century American society as rainbow coalitions and multi-racial and multi-culturalism become the norm rather than the exception.

Ms. Lee’s story is set in the Midwest at Christmas and revolves around retired, loving, and non-judgmental father Ed (Richard Riehle) and his three 30-something adult sons. Matt (Brian Slaten) is an introspective, PhD dropout who has been forced to move back and live with his father. Jake (Gary Wilmes) is the middle son and a successful banker, now divorced. Drew (Frank Boyd) is the youngest son and an earnest writer/academic professor who has gone through therapy and is now a champion of its precepts. There is nothing more zealous than a convert to anything, and Drew is determined to help Matt overcome whatever it is that’s troubling him regardless of whether he wants the help or not. He doesn’t.

Gary Wilmes, Frank Boyd and
Brian Slaten. Photo by Craig Schwartz
The boys always gather at Christmas time to be with their widowed father where all get to ham it up, tease one another and play the games of their youth as a way of diverting the boredom of the three day holiday. Matt is having the hardest time coming to grips in understanding his depression and who he is and how he fits in with society. How the four family members respond to these events is the guts of the story.

Plays may be ‘the thing’, however, it’s the players that bring order and clarity to the psychodrama unfolding on stage. As an ensemble piece, we are treated to four finely judged and nuanced performances by four talented actors, making it an exhilarating display of individual brilliance within a team format.

In the third act, the story takes a more somber and highly emotional turn when Matt and Ed have a powerful and poignant scene between father and son that is so simple and yet so heart-wrenching, one feels this must be the cathartic moment the audience has been waiting for. But wait… (no spoiler alert here) there’s more great stuff to come.
Richard Riele and Matt Slaten. Photo by Craig Schwartz
Even after seeing the play performed, it’s still too early to tell whether Ms. Lee will succeed in getting her coded message about the ‘real story’ of “Straight White Men” being accepted by mainstream audiences. Only time will tell.

In the technical department, director Lee heads the creative team of scenic designer David Evans Morris, lighting designer Christopher Kuhl, costume designer Enver Chakartash, and sound design by Chris Giarmo and Jaime McElhinney.

The intriguing play is performed without an intermission.

“Straight White Men” performs at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, and runs through December 20, 2015.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

NEW MUSICAL "BREAKING THROUGH" DEBUTS AT PASADENA PLAYHOUSE

There are so few really good original musicals being written and produced these days. Money always plays a role in the decision to produce or not. So when a major regional theatre like the Pasadena Playhouse schedules a new show, one looks forward to seeing a promising story-line with a high powered cast.

It is only logical for expectations and hope to run high for a hit. It’s a bit disappointing then when the anticipated ‘smash hit’ falls instead into the category of a missed opportunity.

The world premiere of “Breaking Through”, a musical with a book by Kirsten Guenther and music and lyrics by Cliff Downs and Katie Kahanovitz, is now on stage at The Pasadena Playhouse under the direction of Playhouse Artistic Director Sheldon Epps. Epps is one of the savviest directors working these days. He has a winning-track record, with musicals being one of his strong suits on Broadway and elsewhere.

His “Blues in the Night” and “Play On” productions received Tony Award nominations. But even the best can only do so much when the original material, in this case a weak book bordering on a formulaic, soap-opera feel to the characters, along with banal lyrics and text by Librettist Guenther, make “Breaking Through” an uphill battle.

Allison Luff and the Ensemble in BREAKING THROUGH
Photo by Jim Cox Photography
The Faustian bargain-like story about today’s music industry business, with its talented singers, songwriters, performers, and creative producers who sell their souls in order to grab the brass ring for a while along with those nasty sex-driven moguls, is not new. Such a concept might appear at first to be a great idea for a musical.

Others, however, have tried to capture the music industry in two acts this season in LA. The Geffen Playhouse fell into the same trap with its production of “Those Paper Bullets”. Both “Breaking Through” and “Those Paper Bullets” fail to fully engage the audience and the credulity gaps in both productions was a little too wide to overcome.

However, having said the above, the production of "Breaking Through” is rich in performing talent. The character of Charlie Jane, a talented, young singer/songwriter who arrives in New York City to share her songs and feelings with America, is wonderfully played by Alison Luff. Luff is a performer blessed with star quality and stage presence, along with a soaring vocal range and performing firepower second to none.

Alison Luff and Matt Magnusson
Photo by Jim Cox Photography
In strong support are Matt Magnusson as Scorpio, Charlie Jane’s co-star in the music videos the two are making to publicize the record company’s star line-up; Kacee Clanton as Karina, an about-to-be-washed up older performer (shades and echoes of the Norman Maine character of “A Star is Born”) in record mogul Jed’s (Robert W. Arbogast) powerful label. Will Collyer as Smith, a young caterer in the building, who is drawn to the sweetness and naivete of the young Charlie Jane, provides her love interest. Nita Whitaker as Amanda, a music industry veteran and old family friend of Charlie Jane's long-missing mother, tries to help Charlie navigate the shark-filled waters known as the music business.

Alison Luff, Kacee Clanton, Matt Magnusson in
BREAKING THROUGH  Photo by Jim Cox Photography
All of the singing performers boast strong voices, as is the score, but the lyrics lack the bite and sophistication needed to elevate the narrative by moving it in a less predictable direction.

The creative team, led by director Epps, features solid technical credits. The playhouse theatre building may be 91 years old but the technical components are state of the art. Scenic Designer John Iacovelli, Costumer Designer Alex Jaeger, Lighting Designer Jared A. Sayeg, and Sound Designer Peter Fitzgerald give the production a polished look. The orchestra, under the baton of David O., delivers the necessary energy and drive for a musical featuring soloists and dance numbers choreographed by Tyce Diorio. But that problematic libretto keeps rearing its intrusive head.

“Breaking Through” performs at the Pasadena Playhouse through November 30.

CV REP'S DEBUTS ITS FIRST WORLD PREMIERE PRODUCTION "HAPPY HOUR"


Friday, October 30, 2015 was a very important day for CV REP. It marked the day the Rancho Mirage-based Equity theatrical producing company launched its first World Premiere production under founding artistic director Ron Celona.

It was also an important day for Massachusetts-based playwright George Eastman as well. It was his first play to be produced in a professional Equity theatre. It was an evening where theatre professionals director Celona, playwright Eastman, and cast members Gavin Macleod and John Hawkinson, knocked the socks off the opening night audience. As we say in the theatre, when a two-hander (just two cast members) is ‘cooking on stage’ everyone in the audience is transformed as well.

Photo Credit: Sal Mistretta
Gavin Macleod and John Hawkinson: Photo Credit: Sal Mistretta

“Happy Hour” centers around aging widower Harry Townsend (Gavin Macleod) and his forty-year old son Alan (John Hawkinson) who come to grips with the vexing, but immutable, fact that aging is a human process that comes to most of us. The one longer lives, the tougher it becomes to accept it. A frequently asked question by people of a certain age is ‘how did I get so old so quick?’

The answer is it happens in the blink of an eye, which is why it is so important to slow down, smell the roses, and pay immediate attention to the people you love. Forget pride; pride is an assassin sent by the dark side to kill what we all hold dear: our families and our memories.

Harry Townsend is a case study in the manly/machismo philosophy. Don’t show anybody your soft side, even your children, or you’ll lose control. What is it they say about that philosophy? Oh, yes. It’s called pride. And stubborn pride definitely goes before a fall.

Photo Credit: Sal Mistretta
Gavin Macleod and John Hawkinson: Photo Credit: Sal Mistrett

On the flip side of that coin, however, are the children and/or family members who must walk a very fine line so as not to alienate, and in this story, the recently widowed 84 year-old Harry is becoming increasingly grumpy, forgetful and despite falling several times without telling anyone, is determined not to be shipped off by his son Alan and his daughter Sarah (referred to but not seen) to the sterile confines of a senior care facility. His adamant NO is heard loud and clear over and over.

There is a lot of give and take between and Harry and Alan in this two act comedy drama. There are of echoes of “On Golden Pond”; the subject matter of how do we do the right thing for our aging parents like keeping them safe with proper care without smothering the flame that keeps them still with us.

There isn’t a blemish or flaw in Macleod’s portrayal of Harry. It’s a mesmerizing and riveting performance that is chock full of inspired moments of discovery. Harry is a man we all have all seen and known; perhaps, even seen within our own family. The audience resonates with his plight and that of Hawkinson’s Alan.

Photo Credit: Sal Mistretta
Gavin Macleod and John Hawkinson: Photo Credit: Sal Mistrett

Alan is stuck with the unenviable task of convincing his father to leave a home that is filled with a lifetime of memories that he and his mother Jenny built from the ground up. I wouldn’t swear to it, but I think I heard a sniffle or two in the audience. I also heard the booming laughter and guffaws at the dialogue which sparkles with Neil Simon-like zingers throughout. There are a couple of moments of adult language being bantered about, so you might want to leave the kiddies at home.

What makes the play so compelling is the honesty and craftsmanship of playwright Eastman. I saw a workshop performance of the play last year. This world premiere production has been reworked by Eastman and director Celona. The story now digs deeper via more backstory of Harry and Alan’s relationship as well as with the unseen Sarah. The play now is more nuanced thanks to the personal vision director Celona brings to this production. I believe it’s safe to say that Macleod’s magnificent tour de force performance would be slightly unbalanced without the steady counterpoint of Hawkinson’s Alan. Hawkinson is always in the moment and right there when Macleod’s Harry needs him to bounce off of. There is excellent on-stage chemistry between these two fine actors.

Celona’s seamless staging of this production, if not his best ever, is certainly one of his top three. He won the Desert Theatre League (DTL) Desert Star Award for Best Director with his sensitive direction of “The Chosen” last month. His staging of “Happy Hour” will be a strong contender again for the 2015/2016 season.

The technical credits are always first rate at CV REP, and this stellar production is no exception. Award winning Set Designer Jimmy Cuomo has given the actors the look and feel of a Vermont woodsy cabin in which to perform their magic. Lighting designer and overall technical director Eddie Cancel and his crew paint the stage in lighting that lets us see the costume designs of Aalsa Lee, all of which enriches this splendid production.

“Happy Hour” is a play that should not be missed. It runs at CV REP theatre through November 22, 2015.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

THE LILT OF IRISH LAUGHTER CAN BE HEARD AT NORTH COAST REP

Love is the one human emotion that the entire world is constantly seeking and responds to no matter one’s age. How we respond to it is the stuff of theatre, movies, and novels.

One need look no further than the stage of North Coast Repertory Theatre to enjoy and appreciate how the emotion called love drives the behavior of two people of a ‘certain age’ who are seeking its benefits, no matter the cost or the age of its participants.

Annabella Price and Mark Bramhall: Photo Credit: Aaron Rumley
Annabella Price and Mark Bramhall
Photo Credit: Aaron Rumley

From the pen of Irish playwright Christian O’Reilly, comes “Chapatti”, a tender, poignant, and charming tale that bubbles with the lilt of Irish laughter, wit and charm for which those silver-tongued Gaelic writer/philosophers are known.

If you thought that ‘alchemy’ was a lost art, think again. Award-winning Broadway and Hollywood director/actor Judith Ivey brings her considerable talent and skills to the stage of North Coast Rep to create gold in the form of a two person cast that stars actors Mark Bramhall and Annabella Price. Kudos to artistic director David Ellenstein for once again bringing the gold standard in talent to the audiences of North Coast Repertory.

Judith Ivey, Annabella Price and Mark Bramhall: Photo Credit: Aaron Rumley
Judith Ivey, Annabella Price and Mark Bramhall
Photo Credit: Aaron Rumley

Director Ivey imbues her bittersweet play with intimacy to great effect by placing separate living quarters side by side, allowing the actors to break the fourth wall and address the audience. The convention creates a homey safe zone effect where everyone is in the same room having a cup of tea with the actors. When I ask her at the opening night after-party, what drew her to this little, but ever so insightful story, she smiles and replies “I fell in love with this particular story because playwrights don’t write many love stories revolving around senior citizens.” Christian O’ Reilly writes honest dialogue with a believable premise, and according to director Ivey, “… people would be surprised to know that stories like “Chapatti” happen in real life more than you would expect.”

The story of Dan and Betty is a tale of two senior working-class suburban Dubliners who discover one another by coincidence at a veterinarian’s office. He’s a dog lover. She’s a cat person. Dan’s a widower who’s having difficulty in getting through his grieving period. He keeps thinking of his Margaret all alone up there, waiting for him to join her. He is a bit of the working-class dreamer when it comes to facing reality.

Betty, on the other hand, is a divorcee who knows she still has plenty of love and compassion in her and is just waiting for the right man to come along to share her feelings. Her dialogue is achingly poignant at times and delivered with such a ring of authenticity that her astonishing performance can’t help but resonate with the females in the audience (and a few of us men as well).

Dan is winningly and guilelessly played by Mark Bramhall in a nicely nuanced performance. Annabella Price is an absolute gem of an actor who looks and sounds as if she just finished a performance run at Dublin’s famed Abbey Theatre. And the onstage chemistry between Price and Bramhall is a delight to behold, in the bargain.

Between Bramhall’s laidback Dan and Price’s no-nonsense Betty, the audience can cancel their airplane tickets to Ireland in the hope of seeing a slice of working-class Irish life. That experience can be seen and felt by attending a performance of “Chapatti”. Incidentally, the title of the play is the name of Dan’s dog, a stray he rescued to later name it after a favorite Indian food of his and Margaret’s.

The technical credits are always first rate at North Coast Rep, and this production doesn’t disappoint. Scenic Designer Marty Burnett and lighting designer Matthew Novotny, the two man team responsible for the many outstanding set designs over the years, score again. The costumes designed by Elisa Benzoni are picture-perfect for each character. A special kudo goes to dialect coach Jan Gist for coaching two Yanks and transforming them into authentic sounding Dubliners that would make believers out of the real residents of the Emerald Isle. Or, as the locals might say” It’s the likes of you actors that makes the likes of us enjoy the evening in the theatre.”

“Chapatti” runs at the North Coast Repertory Theatre through November 15, 2015. Don’t miss it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

ARTHUR MILLER CLASSIC "ALL MY SONS" STILL RINGS TRUE AT A NOISE WITHIN

A Noise Within (ANW) Theatre’s production of Arthur Miller’s powerful drama “All My Sons” opened on the actual date and year of Miller’s 100 year anniversary. He was born on October 17, 1915. It was a good omen.

A Noise Within is one of California’s finest production companies that present, in repertory, mainly classic theatrical productions along with iconic American playwrights like Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill. ANW’s Fall 2015 Repertory Season consists of Feydeau’s classic farce “A Flea in Her Ear”, and Anouilh’s “Antigone” along with Miller’s “All My Sons”.

Rafael Goldstein (Chris Keller)and
Deborah Strang (Kate Keller)
© All photos by Craig Schwartz
Arthur Miller is one America’s greatest playwrights and one who understood the term ‘experiencing the unique American dream’; along with its melting pot cultural contributions that are woven throughout his work. Miller and Paddy Chayefsky, arguably two of the finest writers with the greatest ‘ears’ for dialogue of working-class America, along with the argot and speech patterns of the immigrant populations that swept out Europe and into the east coast of America’s urban cities during the early 20th century. Where Miller and Chayefsky captured the flavor and speech of northern urban America, Williams understood and wrote his dialogue profiling the strength of Southern women.

America went to war in 1941, but not all of America. There were those who had to stay at home and man the war industries of building airplanes, ships and the weapons of war. “All My Sons”, nicely directed by ANW co-founder Geoff Elliott, centers around the Keller family of a fictional Ohio city set in 1946.

Jeremy Rabb (Dr. Jim Bayliss) and June Carryl (Sue Bayliss)

Joe Keller (Geoff Elliott) a businessman and owner of a manufacturing company that supplied airplane engine parts to the government during the war is caught up in a scandal surrounding the deaths of twenty-one pilots whose planes crashed due to faulty engine parts. Keller during the investigation, blames his partner and next-door neighbor Steve Deever for knowingly shipping the faulty parts. Keller, is exonerated while Deever serves a long prison sentence.

Elliott delivers a finely judged performance as Joe. Some may come to the performance expecting to see a Lee J. Cobb interpretation (he created the role on Broadway) or Edward G. Robinson’s disciplined turn in the movie version. No matter your expectation, you will leave the theatre knowing you saw the plight of a real family in crisis mode.

Kate Keller (Deborah Strang) plays Joe’s wife and the mother of Chris (Rafael Goldstein) and older son Larry, a WW II fighter pilot who has been listed as MIA, and presumed dead by the government. She is living in a state of denial concerning her missing son Larry. She refuses to believe he’s dead. Family and friends know better but no one wants to be the one that sends Kate over the edge. Strang’s heart-rending final scene is achingly poignant and connects emotionally with every parent in the audience.

Aaron Blakely (George Deever), Deborah Strang (Kate Keller),
Rafael Goldstein (Chris Keller), Maegan McConnell (Ann Deever)
The Kellers are a flawed family with secrets that ultimately set in motion a series of confrontations between father, son, and mother, along with their neighbors, that even affect Ann Deever (Maegan McConnell) Larry’s old girlfriend. Chris wants to marry Ann who has accepted that Larry is never coming back alive. But the sticking point in accepting Larry’s death and Ann becoming a daughter-in-law to Kate, is the public acknowledgment and acceptance of Joe’s culpability in the death of his older son Larry. Neither parent can face or process that information. It’s just too painful.

Solid support comes from Rafael Goldstein as Chris, Maegan McConnell as Ann, and a nicely controlled performance from Aaron Blakely as George Deever (a role that can easily get too intense, if one is not careful).

Miller was heavily influenced by the great Greek playwrights Sophocles and Aeschylus, who dealt with the Gods and the tragedy that befalls the ‘common man’ when he steps out of line. Joe Keller is one of Miller’s common men, caught up in a situation that is of his own making, but whose actions set off a domino effect producing collateral damage to those around him.

“All My Sons” is realistically mounted on ANW’s thrust stage and is energetically and intensely performed by a talented company of actors. Even today, the story of the flawed Keller family dealing with deep-rooted conflicts still resonates sixty-nine years later. That sort of tells us that either we haven’t learned a thing about ourselves or that nothing in society has changed in the intervening years.

The technical team credits led by Director Elliott are first rate. Scenic Designer Frederica Nascimento provides a generous space for the actors to perform their magic under lights designed by James Taylor; allowing us to see the spot-on period costumes designed by Leah Piehl. Audiences, however, should be prepared to fasten their seat-belts while watching this potently performed production.

“All My Sons” performs in repertory at A Noise Within theatre through November 21, 2015.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

UPLIFTING DOCUMENTARY “BIG VOICE” HITS ALL THE RIGHT NOTES

Films about high school music concerts, choral groups and choirs have been around for years. “Mr. Holland’s Opus”, starring Richard Dreyfuss, as a music teacher aspiring to compose just one great piece of music, and the TV shows “Glee” and “Fame” come quickly to mind. But documentaries about music departments, teachers, and high school students on the subject vary, depending on the vision of the documentarian and the willingness of real students and adults to participate.

The film “Big Voice”, made by award-winning filmmaker Varda Bar-Kar, receives its World Premiere screening at the Heartland Film Festival of Indianapolis, Indiana on October 18th. It makes its local festival debut at the LA Femme International Film Festival on October 17th in Beverly Hills.

As with many things in life, big events often have small beginnings. Filmmaker Bar-Kar was attending a Santa Monica, California, High School music concert one year and was moved to tears by the beauty of the choir’s ‘voice’. 

“I wanted to find out how Santa Monica High School music teacher and Choir Master Jeffe Huls did it. I realized that a documentary film that told the story of a dedicated teacher who makes a profound difference in his students lives and reveal how valuable arts education can be [in our society]”, became a reality in a year-long filming effort chronicling events that became the film “Big Voice” now playing on America’s film festival circuit.

Santa Monica High School Music Teacher and
Choir Director Jeffe Huls
Huls is not only a charismatic and articulate teacher, he is also a creative, caring, and understanding person. High school teenagers, some feeling their oats from time to time or coming to grips with their real or perceived inadequacies, can be challenging to convince that they all possess talent. Huls is a gifted leader who understands his role as one similar to that of a military drill instructor during basic training. He teaches his raw recruits. He shapes them turning them into a polished unified choral group that gives each student a sense of self-worth and a purpose and a place in the world.

There are several of scenes of Huls either in repose, thinking, or planning that poignantly will resonate with teachers.Teaching is truly a noble profession, but at times one also can sense the feeling of what it must be like to feel the loneliness of the long distance runner/teacher. They can never really be your sons or daughters. They belong to society. But like parents everywhere, we worry and are concerned about their futures.

But it’s all up to these eager youngsters as Huls continually counsels them. The class and a year-end choral presentation by the students demand discipline, hard work, commitment and dedication. That’s the mantra they hear from Huls. To watch the young choir grow in skill and self-confidence is what makes “Big Voice” so compelling a film.

Obviously, the star of the documentary is Jeff Huls, but director Bar-Kar wouldn’t have so compelling a film without the cooperation of the students who feel pretty comfortable being trailed around by a camera crew. Their articulate observations and commentary is most impressive when one considers they’re just high school youngsters. But, on the other hand, it all takes place in Santa Monica, near Hollywood, where the living is easy and laid-back.

“Big Voice” is easy on the eyes and is very technically proficient documentary thanks to the director of photography Keet Daron and editor Robert McFalls, who know how photograph and edit all the footage shot over the course of an entire high school year.

This is a film that needs to be seen on PBS and screens all over America. And by the way, our education system and our society now more than ever needs the Jeffe Huls of this world.

Monday, October 5, 2015

MARK TAPER FORUM'S "APPROPRIATE" SHOWS DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILIES ARE STILL INTRIGUING TO WATCH

Dysfunctional families have always been low-hanging fruit as subjects for stories, plays, movies, TV series, and novels for centuries. And why not. It’s reflective and resonates everywhere as to the foibles of families and a continuing fascination with the human condition.

Broadway and the movies for years made hefty profits off the behavior of flawed families and their secrets. The darker and quirkier the secret the more audiences clamored for tickets to watch avatars of themselves or, perhaps, someone they knew.

L-R: Robert Beitzel, Will Tranfo and Melora Hardin photo Craig Schwartz
L-R: Robert Beitzel, Will Tranfo and Melora Hardin Photo by Craig Schwartz
One has to go back only a few Broadway seasons to remember the awards heaped on “August: Osage County”, a comedic-drama that celebrates: alcoholism, drug addiction, adultery, incest, and a few lesser venial sins; all within one family who hurl more than 50 f-bombs from the stage, by its various characters, into receptive audiences.

The Mark Taper Forum is currently presenting “Appropriate”, a dark comedic drama written by Obie Winning playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and directed by Eric Ting. For some audiences watching the play it must feel a little like driving past a roadside traffic fatality. We know we shouldn’t stare at the tragedy, but it’s so damn fascinating and riveting that it’s difficult to take one’s eyes away from the mayhem.

In the case of the Taper’s production it’s all about how each family member reacts to secrets revealed following the death of the family patriarch. It’s an old reliable format that allows the audience to see those dysfunctional family foibles up close and personal; where all get to ‘gunny sack’ one another over real or imagined slights that go way back and where all get to play the blame game.

L-R: Zarah Mahler, Robert Beitzel, Melora Hardin and David Bishins -photo Craig Schwartz
L-R: Zarah Mahler, Robert Beitzel, Melora Hardin and David Bishins. Photo by Craig Schwartz
I was reminded of the deliciously rueful comedic line delivered by Eleanor of Aquitaine, in James Goldman’s brilliant comedy drama ‘The Lion in Winter’, when she deadpans to the audience: “What family doesn’t have it ups and downs?” The formula worked in “Dividing the Estate”, “Daddy’s Dying Who’s Got the Will”, and to some extent “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, the first two being comedies, and the latter a drama.

Playwright Jacobs-Jenkins is a storyteller who has a great ear for 21st century dialogue in America. In the hands of a very talented ensemble cast and its director, the play transforms a dense and very talky play into one that makes sense, despite that fact that we know where this story is going. Yet, we’re still intriguingly on board to the end.
When it comes to a brief overview of the story and what takes place on stage, perhaps, one word may be helpful in understanding the main characters’ shenanigans and actions: Baggage. Everything flows from their baggage. We all have it but only the flawed Lafayette family has it spades. Spoiler alerts make it difficult to summarize. But as I said before, we know where the narrative threads are headed, now it’s a matter observing these flawed people flail and wail. They don’t have a clue as to how traditional families function.

L-R: Melora Hardin, Zarah Mahler, David Bishins, Robert Beitzel, Grace Kaufman, Missy Yager and Will Tranfo All Photos by Craig Schwartz.
L-R: Melora Hardin, Zarah Mahler, David Bishins, Robert Beitzel, Grace Kaufman, Missy Yager and Will Tranfo. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
That’s one of the interesting and appealing aspects of “Appropriate”; that, and the stellar performances of the eight member ensemble cast. One gets to appreciate the exhilarating display of individual brilliance within a team framework. Ensemble casts need generous actors to pull it off. 

With that said, special mention must go to Melora Hardin as Toni Lafayette, the titular head of the family who must run everything without being challenged. Everything is always all about her. She’s the sort of character audiences love to hate. She gets on everyone’s nerves with her irritating superior attitude including her brother Bo Lafayette (David Bishins), who isn’t that confident about challenging her on touchy family issues. Robert Beitzel as Frank, her flaky son, and his outlier girlfriend River Rayner (Zarah Mahler), who is not buffaloed by Toni’s bellicose attitude and manner, and Missy Yager as Bo’s fiesty wife Rachel, are outstanding. Solid support comes from Will Tranfo, Grace Kaufman, and Alexander James Rodriquez at the performance I attended (the part is rotated with Liam Blair Askew).

It’s been some time, however, since I’ve seen a three-act production. They just don’t write that many anymore. Our millennials have short attention spans which producers normally understand, but hope springs eternal when trying to capture audiences for the future.

The technical team led by director Ting features a picture–perfect southern plantation home which has the look and feel of a lived-in home wonderfully designed by Mimi Lien. Lights by designer Christopher Kuhl, costumes designed by Laura Bauer and sound by Matt Tierney, lend a ring of authenticity to entire production. 
However, I was puzzled by the opening of the play, which begins in darkness preceded by a prolonged loud buzzing sound lasting about 30 to 40 seconds, and is repeated and the end of each scene and at the end of every act. (hmm?) The audience (and I) could benefit from a program note cluing us in. Is it playwright dictated or director’s POV?

“Appropriate” performs at the Mark Taper Forum and runs through November 1, 2015.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

KEN LUDWIG FARCE AT NORTH COAST REPERTORY THEATRE

Some people think golf is a silly game played mostly by aging, white seniors who are struggling with their ‘arrested development’ syndromes and plunging testosterone levels. Mark Twain said it best with the pithy observation: “golf is a good walk spoiled.” There is a lot of truth in that lament; however, the people who keep trying to master the game make great ‘characters’ for plays, movies, and novels.

Jacquelyn Ritz, Brian Salmon and Kevin Bailey
Ken Ludwig, one of America’s great practitioners of the art form known as farce is keenly aware of the foibles and folly of human behavior has written a comedy/farce set against a golf background that should please his legion of fans.

“Fox on the Fairway”, helmed by Director Matthew Wiener, has a stellar cast who try to bring this lightweight comedy/farce to life, however, this Ludwig effort isn’t up to level of his blockbuster plays that took home two Best Play Tony Awards for “Lend Me A Tenor” and “Moon Over Buffalo” several seasons ago.

Jacquelyn Ritz and Roxane Carrasco
The story is set at the fictitious Quail Valley Country Club where the annual country club challenge tournament between Quail Valley and Crouching Squirrel Country Club is being held. It’s a glittering evening for the ladies and it’s a heavily wagered event by the two club presidents. This time the bet is $100,000 to the wining club president. Henry Bingham (Kevin Bailey) of Quail Valley and Dickie Bell (Brian Salmon) of Crouching Squirrel, Bingham’s obnoxious, malapropism- quoting, bloviating rival, are both looking for any angle that will give them an edge in the golf tournament.

Kevin Bailey, Kyle Sorrell,
Jacquelyn Ritz and Ashley Stults
Bingham hires a new assistant Justin Hicks (Kyle Sorrell) and is counting on new Quail Valley member and ‘ringer’ named Tramplemaine to play for the team. The trouble begins when Bingham learns the morning of the tournament that Dickie has lured Tramplemaine to play for Crouching Squirell instead. What’s an outmaneuvered fellow to do? Why, just let the silliness and the madcap and zany farce antics begin. 

Other players in the scenario are Louise, clubhouse waitress and Justin Hicks’ new fiancĂ©e, and Pamela, the Board Vice President (Jacquelyn Ritz), who is always on the lookout for a new toy to play games with, and at the moment Henry Bingham is in Pamela’s cross-hairs and Muriel Bingham (Roxane Carrasco) the screeching, battle-axe wife of Henry.

Directors usually bring their personal visions to the productions they oversee; which at times, can either enhance or impede the success of a production. We’re dealing with a wild and woolly farce here. Yes, the action calls for broad on-stage action: slamming doors, improbable situations, ridiculous solutions, etc. If everyone is trying to move the story along, would it be too much ask that it should be at least within the zip code of believability? It’s difficult to buy the various 'bits’ when the premise is flawed from the get go. All the laughs in the world can’t win the day or the $100,000 wager if there isn’t a scintilla of believability in the whole ball of wax.

One should never be surprised, however, when good actors make something out of nothing. Kevin Bailey, Jacquelyn Ritz and Ashley Stults give it their best and come off as having a good time as well as giving good performances.

The set design by Marty Burnett is picture-perfect for a golf club Tap Room. The lights designed by Matt Novotny are always right on the money. The costumes by Elisa Benzoni are appropriate for the farce underpinnings, but anachronistic knickerbockers! They went out of style in the 1940’s. That’s either stretching credulity or pandering for laughs. Whatever happened to controlled subtlety?

“Fox on the Fairway”, now on stage at North Coast Repertory Theatre, runs through October 11, 2015.

Monday, September 28, 2015

STUNNING WORLD PREMIERE MUSICAL DANCE PRODUCTION AT SAN DIEGO’S OLD GLOBE THEATRE

Don’t be surprised to discover that there are less than a half-dozen scripted words of dialogue spoken in the entire production of “In Your Arms,” the World Premiere dance-theatre-musical production that debuted at The Old Globe Theatre on September 24th.This magical production, however, doesn’t need help of any kind in order to dazzle its audience.
Samantha Sturm (center) with the cast in
Carrie Fisher’s vignette “Lowdown Messy Shame"
All photos by Carol Rosegg
It’s an exhilarating and enthralling production as rich in visual imagery and emotion as any 1000 page Victor Hugo novel, and it’s all accomplished without a single word of dialogue.

“In Your Arms” is the brain-child of brilliant choreographer/director Christopher Gattelli and Broadway producer Jennifer Manocherian. Serendipity often plays a key part on how theatrical ideas become creative realities. In 2007 a chance phone call from producer Manocherian to dancer/director Gattelli led to a collaboration for a then unnamed dance show to be developed.

Jonathan Sharp (foreground) with the cast
in Douglas Carter Beane’s vignette 
“Artists and Models,1929"
Gestation periods for new show ideas can take up to years before giving birth. Money, performer availability and schedules, and other variables always impact the project. In the case of “In Your Arms” the co-conceivers bit the bullet and forged ahead anyway, contacting playwrights and writers asking them to create stories that would then become a series of free flowing vignettes; running less than ten minutes each and performed by a company of top-tier dancers. Ten of Broadways finest and renowned writers made the cut with stories they wanted to share using just music and dance.

The evening opens with a classically performed ‘Prologue’ danced by Spencer Clark and Lyrica Woodruff, as the star-crossed young lovers in ‘Romeo and Juliet.’

“Love” is a leitmotif thread that is creatively woven and embedded into the tapestry of love won, and love lost, as danced by the company in all vignettes.

Broadway veteran and dance legend Donna McKechnie leads off the evening’s signature number “In Your Arms” with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and performed with the company.

Let me list, in no particular order, the ten authors and the titles of their pieces brought to life by the gifted artists that comprise the company.

George Chakiris and Donna McKechnie (center) 
with the cast in Terrence McNally’s 
vignette “Sand Dancing"
“The Lover’s Jacket” by Nilo Cruz features high-energy Flamenco dancers and lovers Glenda Sol Koeraus and Oscar Valero who become separated by political events set in Franco’s Spain. If there is one dance that stirs the blood and the emotions to a boiling point, flamenco has to be it. The vignette just sizzled.

“Lowdown Messy Shame” by Carrie Fisher is a screw-ball comedy (naturally) tale danced by Jess LeProtto and Samantha Sturm with Jenn Harris and the company.

“Love with the Top Down” by Alfred Uhry vibrantly celebrates young love and jalopies in Midwest America by perky Haley Podschun and energetic Brandon Stimson.

“A Wedding Dance” by Lynn Nottage takes place in Africa where two lovers Marija Juilette Abney and Adesola Osakalumni exchange their wedding vows partly performed with an intricate shadow sequence, then seen in full creative choreography along with the company.

“Artists and Models, 1929” written by Douglas Carter Beane is a throwback number to the famous ‘drag show performers’ of the roaring 20s who let their hair down and camped it up at their annual glitzy A & M Ball. Jonathan Sharp and Ryan Steele, along with the company, take charge with some fancy footwork.

“Life Long Love” by Marsha Norman is a bittersweet tale of three lovers who part only to meet again. The poignant vignette features dancers Henry Byalikov and lithe Karine Plantadit with Stephen Bienskie who not only recall their memories through dance, but now realize each must make a difficult choice for their futures.

“White Snake” by David Henry Hwang is an ‘East meets West’ vignette that is gracefully, lyrically, and traditionally danced by Alex Michael Stoll and Erica Wong.

“Intergalactic Planetary” written by Rajiv Joseph is a futuristic tale about an astronaut who meets an Alien female on a mission to a distant planet, who then desires to get closer to find out more about this statuesque creature. The space odyssey dance number is amusingly performed by Claire Camp and Jeremy Davis.

One will have difficulty in finding a more exciting and energy-filled 11 o’clock spot than “The Dance Contest” written by Christopher Durang, with lyrics by Durang. The number is a beautiful, creative, exercise in precision movement with style and flair as the dancers perform the various prescribed genres required in all dance competitions. The pairs are Stephen Bienskie and Jenn Harris, with Henry Byalikov and Haley Podshun, and the company.

The penultimate episode, “Sand Dancing” by Terrence McNally, is a sweet tribute to growing older but still remaining true to one’s passion and one’s life long lover. George Chakiris and Donna McKechnie perform this tender vignette with the company.

The signature number “In Your Arms” is reprised by McKecknie with the entire company, bringing to a close a memorable and mesmerizing evening of music and dance that produced a standing ovation and several curtain calls.

Theatre in all its forms is a collaborative team effort. A scintillating production like “In Your Arms” would be impossible to stage without the music which provides the dancers the precise timing they need to execute their steps and routines. The pit orchestra under the baton of Music Director Steven Malone and Orchestrator Michael Starobin play major roles in making the onstage magic happen.

The creative team led by the brilliant and innovative choreography/director Gattelli has Scenic Designer Derek McLane, render a large dance area that Lighting Designer Donald Holder, generously illuminates in order to see the costumes of Jess Goldstein. One gets and appreciates the wide technical ‘tapestry effect’ that fills the stage with movement, color, and enchantment.

This astonishing and dazzling production performs on The Old Globe’s Shiley stage and runs through October 25, 2015. And by the way, one doesn’t have to a dancer to enjoy the production. Don’t miss it.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

POWERFUL AND PROVOCATIVE CIVIL RIGHTS ERA DRAMA AT LA JOLLA PLAYHOUSE

Before the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s there were organizations and individual leaders in the 1950s who were pushing the civil rights envelope, energizing those who would ultimately follow and become its leaders.

One such early civil rights activist was the brilliant, openly gay, avowed atheist and strategist Bayard Rustin. Rustin preferred to achieve his goals by championing non-violence as the best method of changing the social landscape in America during the 50s and 60s. He admired the tactics of Mahatma Gandhi in achieving his goals for the Indian people. Unfortunately Jim Crow laws, still in place in the American South of the 1960s, made many demonstrations for equality extremely dangerous and difficult.

Playwright Michael Benjamin Washington as “Bayard Rustin”
and Ro Boddie as “Martin Luther King. Jr.” Photos by Jim Carmody
Playwright/actor Michael Benjamin Washington had zeroed in on Bayard Rustin, back in 2013 as an interesting person and subject for a future play. He brought his idea for a workshop reading to La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director Chris Ashley to see if Ashley and the playhouse had any interest. Two years later “BluePrints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin” debuted as a World Premiere production with the playwright/actor in the lead role as Rustin on September 20th at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre.

The provocative and insightfully written drama by talented playwright/actor Michael Benjamin Washington is crisply directed by Lucie Tiberghien, opens a window into the life story of an individual not many are familiar with: Bayard Rustin, the chief organizer of the 1963 ‘March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom’.

Playwright Michael Benjamin Washington as “Bayard Rustin” 
and Mandi Masden as “Miriam Caldwell”
The sponsoring organization for the event headed by A. Philip Randolph (Antonio T.J. Johnson), the leading African-American labor union president, socialist and champion of Rustin, is in need of the highly principled, intelligent, organized strategist to be his organization’s number one man. However, Randolph is concerned that Rustin’s sexual orientation (still a taboo stigma) and his avowed atheism will dampen the support of the straight community and money donors in the long run.

He asks that Rustin keep a low profile, in fact, Randolph prefers that Rustin doesn’t make any public appearances or statements concerning the march and subsequent meetings and press conferences, going so far as to tell Bayard to run everything from his office indicating that he, Randolph, will be the public face of the march. Bayard chides him saying “I thought all you Baptists feel uneasy when speaking in public?” These are close friends. Rustin, however, sublimates the hurt of being demeaned and shut out from any recognition for his work on the march. He bites the bullet and soldiers on.

Rustin’s tiny office where he plans and directs the logistics of the march is in desperate need of a secretary and general factotum. When recent college graduate Miriam Caldwell (Mandi Masden) knocks on the office door looking for an internship, she’s hired on the spot. Rustin now has the beginning of a core group.

When old friend Martin Luther King, Jr. (Ro Boddie) walks into the office to meet and chat with Rustin, Miriam gets all flustered and is now really impressed with her new boss. Washington’s play, to his credit humanizes both Rustin and King, Jr. Neither men are saints, nor do they claim to be. One day Davis Platt, Jr. (Mat Hosteteler) and former lover of Rustin walks into the office asking to see Bayard.

Davis still longs and aches for Rustin to begin again, but both men really know that whatever sent them in different directions before will probably happen again. It’s a very poignant scene between two former lovers that resonates with the audience, whatever one’s sexual orientation might be.

Washington the actor renders a powerful, nuanced and riveting performance as Bayard Rustin, which no doubt definitely pleases Washington the playwright, thanks to the ever watchful eye of director Tiberghien. Lots of nice directorial touches enrich this overall production.

Offering solid support in this stellar production is Ro Boddie as Martin Luther King, Jr. Boddie shapes and shades his character, letting us see the famous preacher and the private man away from his pulpit as very few ever saw him. It’s a finely judged performance.

Mandi Masden as Miriam, Antonio T.J. Johnson as Randolph, and the aforementioned Mat Hostetler, help illuminate Bayard Rustin, the man that some have called the ‘lost prophet’ of the civil rights era.

As a side bar: it is promising to see more talented and gifted playwrights of color like Washington and Alvin Terrell McCraney, Katori Hall, and Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage being produced. The theatre is in the arts vanguard of the era of ‘diversity’. It’s been a long time getting here, but the wait has been worth it.

In the technical department the creative team led by director Tiberghien is solid thanks to Scenic Designer Neil Patel, who recreates the Washington, D.C. and New York City office settings, and the Lighting Design by Lap Chi Chu, along with costumes by Beth Goldenberg, and Sound Design by Joe Huppert, and the Projection Designs of John Narun.

‘Blue Prints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin’ is a 90 minute, no intermission, splendid evening of theatre for discerning audiences. The powerful and engaging drama performs on the Shelia and Hughes Potiker stage at The La Jolla Playhouse through October 4, 2015.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

OLD GLOBE THEATRE PRESENTS A DAZZLING COMEDY GEM

Shakespeare’s classic comedy tale of mistaken identity – long a staple arrow in the quiver of Playwrights ranging from Greeks and Romans to no less a savvy pilferer of stories and plots, than the Bard himself – is playfully, zanily, and brilliantly staged, in the Outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, by eight time-Tony Award nominee Scott Ellis, along with an inspired cast and ensemble.

The venerable Old Globe Theatre, in Balboa Park, is celebrating its 80 birthday. And what a celebration party they’ve been serving up to their many loyal patrons. The eclectic season of plays selected for the year-long 80th celebration by Artistic Director Barry Edelstein has been a series of winners for San Diego audiences and all true patrons of the arts.
(foreground, from top) Glenn Howerton as Antipholus of Ephesus/Antipholus of Syracuse and Rory O'Malley as Dromio of Ephesus/Dromio of Syracuse with (background) Nathan Whitmer in The Old Globe's 2015 Summer Shakespeare Festival production of The Comedy of Errors, directed by Scott Ellis, Aug. 16 - Sept. 20, 2015. Photo by Jim Cox.
Glenn Howerton as Antipholus of Ephesus/Antipholus of Syracuse and Rory O’Malley as Dromio of Ephesus/Dromio of Syracuse with (background) Nathan Whitmer   Photo by Jim Cox.


Book-ended with the traditional Old Globe Christmas production of ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ to “Murder for Two”, “The Twenty-Seventh Man”, ‘The White Snake” “Buyer & Cellar”, “Arms and the Man”. “Rich Girl”, “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” to the Outdoor Summer Shakespeare Festival featuring the plays: “Twelfth Night”, “Kiss Me, Kate” and “The Comedy of Errors”, in repertory, brings to a close another highly successful and entertaining season of quality theatre at the great Tony Award-winning Regional Theatre in Balboa Park.

“The Comedy of Errors” is a crafty selection, by Edelstein, to close out the ‘summer season’ at The Old Globe. Under Director Ellis’ creative staging, the masterful production, has been moved up in time from an Elizabethan setting to the jazz-age, sexy, wide-open, ‘laissez les bon temps rouler’ lifestyle of 1920’s New Orleans (NOLA).

The text, however, with its zany narrative and sharply executed shenanigans along with Shakespearean accented speeches, are still in place, but now there is an insouciance and a cultural overlay in this production that compliments the NOLA of then as well as today. The comic farce resonates in 2015 just as effectively as did the Abbott and Costello baseball routine of mistaken identity in “Who’s on First” did back in the 1940’s.
The cast of The Old Globe's 2015 Summer Shakespeare Festival production of The Comedy of Errors, directed by Scott Ellis, Aug. 16 - Sept. 20, 2015. Photo by Jim Cox.
The cast of The Old Globe’s 2015 Summer Shakespeare Festival production of The Comedy of Errors, directed by Scott Ellis, Aug. 16 – Sept. 20, 2015. Photo by Jim Cox.

It’s a given that when a story centers around two pairs of identical twins, (in this case, boys each a mirror image of the other separated at birth by their parents and sent to live and be raised in different cities), that the possibilities for comedy scenarios are endless, especially when they constantly keep missing one another only to finally meet at the end. It’s a credit to this wonderfully talented cast of actors and dancers that the hilarity of mistaken identity in one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies is so entertainingly presented with style, wit, imagination, and high-octane energy.

Portraying the very confused sets of twins are gifted actors Glenn Howerton as Antipholus of Ephesus/Antipholus of Syracuse and Tony Award nominee Rory O’Malley as Dromio of Ephesus/Dromio of Syracuse. Megan Dodds as Adriana and Barrett Doss as Luciana score as the love interests of the twins. Strong support also comes from Austin Durant as Duke Solinus and as Doctor Pinch and from Garth Schilling as the Courtesan, each delivering show-stopper moments along with San Diego favorite Deborah Taylor as Emelia, and Patrick Kerr as Egeon the father of the twin boys and the person responsible for setting all of this entertaining silliness in motion.

The Old Globe Theatre has few equals when it comes to technical disciplines. Director Ellis masterfully orchestrates the gifts that Scenic Designer Alexander Dodge provides in recreating a New Orleans we all have seen and know.

The colorful costumes for the ‘ladies of the night’ and those playing the locals, by designer Linda Cho are picture-perfect in style and period authenticity. And thanks to a lighting design by Philip S. Rosenberg, we get to see and enjoy the impeccable timing and pacing taking place on-stage.

Ellis even manages to squeeze in a traveling group of street musicians at the proper moments which greatly enhances the on-stage action and the overall production. I was ready for a hearty, delicious-tasting, bowl of gumbo following the 90 minute, no-intermission show.

“The Comedy of Errors” production, now performing in the Lowell Davies Outdoor Festival Theatre is a splendid evening in the theatre that runs through September 20, 2015.