Thursday, November 5, 2015


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.


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


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


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.