Tuesday, October 13, 2015


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


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


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.