Thursday, June 25, 2015


Nothing gets conversation started as quickly and passionately as aficionados of sports, or the divisiveness of political discourse or the radio-active subject of religion with its deep-seated tenets, even among families, let alone the general public.

Which brings us to the highly entertaining but prickly subject matter embedded in the premise and dialogue of “Bad Jews,” a new modern comedy written by acclaimed young playwright Joshua Harmon. The ambiguously titled and talky play currently on stage at the Geffen Playhouse is directed by Matt Shakman, who helms his production with one directorial foot planted in tradition and the other directorial foot solidly rooted in the secular 21st century. What’s a young, talented, cast to do when faced with the dichotomy of a comedy/mellow-drama with such parameters? Why, just act the hell out of it and let the chips fall where they may.

 Raviv Ullman and Molly Ephraim in Bad Jews. Photo by Michael Lamont.

The story revolves around ”good Jew” Daphna Feygenbaum (Molly Ephraim) who swears to one and all that she is the most devout Jew in her family. However, when her less than observant “bad Jew”cousin Liam Haber (Ari Brand), arrives to claim a treasured family heirloom – a chai – a religious symbol from their late grandfather and Holocaust survivor, Daphna employs her considerable skills of persuasion and intimidation on her two male cousins that she should have the chai which then develops into a screeching, funny battle of Old Testament proportions.

We’re not talking Neil Simon comedy zingers here. We’re dealing with a brainy, savvy, envious, irritating, and mean-spirited young know-it-all Vassar senior who is taking on her older, highly educated, high-strung cousin Liam who gives her more Biblical quotes, sociology lessons and philosophical food for thought than she bargained for. It is delicious confrontational dialogue and theatrical craftsmanship at its finest. It is talky but everything that needs to be said is accomplished in 87 minutes. There is no intermission.

One doesn’t have to be Jewish either in order to relate to the verbal fisticuffs and comedic poison-tipped darts being hurled by a proactive Daphna toward a non-receptive Liam and his girlfriend Melody (Lili Fuller). We’ve all seen relatives, husbands and wives (Albee’s George and Martha come to mind) and friends perform their comic and sad verbal dances of animus. Self-destructive comedy can be entertaining at times but only when viewing it from outside the war zone.

Ari Brand, Raviv Ullman in Bad Jews - Photo by Michael Lamont

One character Jonah Haber (Raviv Ullman), the younger cousin, is calmly and emotionally detached from the heated, invective-filled debate – lots of f-bombs being tossed – between his brother and Daphna. “I do not want to become involved at this time,” Jonah frequently says while resisting the urge to be drawn into the family squabbles when asked for his opinion.

Raviv Ullman, Molly Ephraim, Ari Brand and Lili Fuller in Bad Jews. Photo by Michael Lamont.
Raviv Ullman, Molly Ephraim, Ari Brand,
Lili Fuller in Bad Jews - Photo by Michael Lamont

“Bad Jews” is an off-putting title and it’s misleading as well. It may dissuade some from attending a crackling energetic production. That would be a pity, because one would the miss seeing four fantastic actors performing at the top of their games: Molly Ephraim is maddeningly effective as Daphna, despite that high-pitched screeching delivery. Ari Brand is a controlled IED device just waiting to be stepped on. Both Ephraim and Brand deliver exquisite performance gems. Also, Lili Fuller shines in her understated girlfriend portrayal caught between the feuding Ari and his cousin Daphna. Raviv Ullman is a bit of the mystery man in the proceedings but he has a very special moment just before the curtain comes down.

In the technical department the creative team, led by director Shakman, has his set designer John Arone render a one-set, messy apartment; strewn with bed-sheets, blankets, and clothing, it provides the look that twenty somethings just seem to relish. Lights by designer Elizabeth Harper deliver just the right amount of light in order to see the onstage action and the costumes of designer E.B. Brooks.

If I had to be picky about one aspect of this stellar production it would be to ask the director to lower the volume and modulate the vocal delivery of Daphna and Liam. When one begins the play with everyone at the top of the decibel ceiling it’s tough for the actors to grow; the narrative flow begins to sound like a Johnny one-note performance with everyone yelling.

On exiting the theatre, one could hear snatches of patron conversation. From “Did you think the young Jewish girl was right?” to “I thought the quiet brother was really involved without saying much.” I spoke to a patron who said “Boy, the young actress was really a despicable person, but that’s what the playwright wanted her to be I guess.” When plays produce comments like these, one knows the actors are doing their job in spades and loving every minute of it.

“Bad Jews” performs at the Geffen Playhouse and runs through July 19, 2015.

Thursday, June 18, 2015


One never knows where the next small, exquisite gem of a play or musical will come from. Story ideas are all around us just waiting to be discovered by talented and creative people. Whenever the La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley gets wind of a new and fresh project, it’s a pretty safe bet that Playhouse audiences are going to be in for a special treat.

The musical “Come From Away,” by the Canadian husband-and-wife team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein and directed by Ashley, made its World Premiere debut at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre last weekend to thunderous applause and standing ovations.

(L-R) Astrid Van Wieren, Caesar Samayoa and Chad Kimball-photos by Kevin Berne
Astrid Van Wieren, Caesar Samayoa and Chad Kimball. Photo by Kevin Berne

Big things often have small beginnings. For America, nothing was bigger and more horrifying than the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It’s been a defining moment in modern American history. How to expiate the demons of that day, and its immediate aftermath, hasn’t really been addressed by many American writers yet. The scars are too deep. Yet, there are stories to be told and some, no doubt, with an unexpected or particular point of view.
In “Come From Away” the story informs the audience in song, dance, and narrative about the generosity and compassion of our Canadian neighbors north of the 45th parallel. When the first-ever national “ground stop” of all aviation in US airspace took place, 38 jetliners were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, along with 7,000 passengers from countries all over the world, all left sitting for five days in an airport that most had probably never heard of.
One of the most interesting aspects of this unique production is that the show is chock full of adult singer-actors, many of a certain age. One also gets the feeling of Canadian verisimilitude the minute the curtain goes up. The song "Welcome to Newfoundland" gives one insight into the warm and winning character of our Canadian cousins.

The splendid ensemble cast of twelve performers, who portray multiple characters, immediately lays out the story plot in their musical intros and dialogue exchanges. Toe-tapping, Celtic-infused musical accompaniment from the eight-person onstage orchestra, led by musical director and conductor Ian Eisendrath, is a plus in helping to propel the somber backstory toward an uplifting conclusion employing the healing elements that come at times with humor.

The cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere musical COME FROM AWAY all photos by Kevin Berne.
The cast of "Come From Away" - Photo by Kevin Berne

The inspired cast, led by Joel Hatch playing the Mayor, generate enough energy to light the city of La Jolla and surrounding areas. Large casts are not always conducive to naming each performer, but this excellent ensemble cast deserves the honor: The aforementioned Joel Hatch; Jenn Colella; Petrina Bromley; Rodney Hicks; Lee MacDonald; Allison Spratt Pearce; Caesar Samoya; O. Smith; Sharon Wheatley and Astrid Van Wieren, are nothing short of terrific. Such musical numbers as “Stop the World," “Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere” and the finale by Hatch and the company are proof that our society, despite its uglier sides and moments, just might be worth saving after all.

“Come From Away” performs at the La Jolla Playhouse Potiker Theatre and runs through July 12, 2015.

Friday, June 12, 2015


It’s a huge cast show that is colorfully uber-produced beyond belief. More than 30 actors, singers, dancers and performers, plus a world-class technical team of gifted, talented, and incredibly inventive theatrical wizards, all come together in support of one little girl: Matilda, who has a love and passion for books, words, and storytelling that transcends logic.

Evan Gray (top center) and the company of "Matilda The Musical" National Tour.-Photo by Joan Marcus
The company of “Matilda The Musical” National Tour. Photo by Joan Marcus

That’s why it is one of world’s most beloved children’s book and now a musical that will be seen by thousands across the country as its National Tour is launched. “Matilda: The Musical” is based on the novel ‘Matilda’ by the late British author Roald Dahl. Dahl was a writer who understood the power of imagination and the belief in magic when it came to entertaining young children.

The production now on stage at the Ahmanson Theatre (part of Center Theatre Group) in Los Angeles, was awash in tween and teen excitement to such a level that the adults at the opening on Sunday, June 7, probably thought the 2200 seat Ahmanson Theatre was going to explode due to all of the pent-up energy packed into the auditorium. Once the house lights dim, however, and the music begins, all one sees are rapt faces of sons and daughters, along with their parents, with all eyes glued to the stage.

Mabel Tyler, Jennifer Blood in
"Matilda the Musical" - Photo by
Joan Marcus
The story revolves around Matilda Wormwood (Mia Sinclair Jenness, at the performance I attended; Gabby Gutierrez and Mabel Tyler, along with Jenness will alternate the role during the run), an extraordinary little girl who dreams of a better life than the one she is living at home with her non-caring, self- absorbed parents and dull brother. Armed with a vivid imagination and a sharp mind, Matilda dares to take a stand and change her destiny. The first step in her journey toward change begins at her school.
The bullying and fearsome Headmistress Miss Trunchbull (a brilliant and inventive Bryce Ryness), is determined to teach Matilda not to interfere with her rules and regulations concerning any of her students. The edicts of Miss Trunchbull sound suspiciously like those of Miss Hannigan in “Annie” (another musical about young children). However Matilda’s teacher Miss Honey (a caring and sensitive Jennifer Blood) helps the young girl not only survive in her encounters with Headmistress Trunchbull, but helps her at home with her parents played by Quinn Mattfeld as Mr. Wormwood and Cassie Silva as Mrs. Wormwood. The comic relief character of Mrs. Phelps, the school Librarian (Ora Jones), charms as the storytelling ally and listener to all of Matilda’s stories in a warm and sympathetic portrayal, and sports a lovely lilting Jamaican accent in the process.

The company of “Matilda The Musical” National Tour. Photo by Joan Marcus
One of the most entertaining aspects of this production is the talent and energy of the “children ensemble”. Their athleticism, stage presence, poise, and performances are astonishing in actors of such a young age. They make it look easy and lots of fun. One can only imagine, however, the hectic backstage activity taking place with such a large cast of actors, singers, dancers, and technicians all working to make the magic of “Matilda” happen. The special effects in the production are spectacular in their execution; along with the high octane choreography of Peter Darling, giving featured dancer Jaquez Andre Sims as Rudolpho, a chance to strut his stuff.
The production written by Dennis Kelly, with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin is under the inspired direction of Tony Award winner Matthew Warchus. He has tons of experience and awards and it shows with this highly entertaining and visually impressive musical.
“Matilda: The Musical” performs at the Ahmanson Theatre and runs through July 12, 2015.

Thursday, June 11, 2015


The late British playwright and Nobel laureate in Literature, Harold Pinter, was a master of the oblique and sometimes even the opaque, when it came to complex or complicated characters and plot situations. He was a playwright that forced one to become fully engaged in what was taking place in order to understand and appreciate the slices of English life he was illuminating on the stage.
Carla Harting and Richard Baird-All images courtesy of Aaron Rumley
American audiences often found his work too elliptical, bewildering and esoteric to the point of losing his audience along the way; producing such comments as “boring” or “what is he trying to tell us”? We Yanks have been known to have short attention spans, causing some of us to leave the theatre at the interval shaking our heads. However, when one gets on Pinter’s wavelength, the journey can be extremely revealing, rewarding and entertaining.
Pinter’s quasi-tragic, autobiographically-based drama “Betrayal”, seamlessly and sharply directed by Frank Corrado, is in good hands.   Corrado is considered a Pinter expert, having produced and directed Pinter’s entire canon at Seattle’s ACT Theatre over three seasons.
Betrayal_02 2-web
Richard Baird, Carla Harting and Jeffrey Fracé -All images courtesy of Aaron Rumley
The North Coast Repertory Theatre’s potent production of marriage infidelity and betrayal is full of clever directorial touches, like the timing of Pinteresque pauses and the overall pacing between the excellent ensemble cast of Carla Harting, Jeffrey Frace, and Richard Baird, with Benjamin Cole contributing as a pompous and frustrated European waiter.
Pinter’s usage of reverse chronology as a method of telling the story was innovative for its day (1978). The play begins in 1977 with a meeting between adulterous lovers, Emma (Carla Harting) and Jerry (Jeffrey Frace), two years after their affair has ended. During the nine scenes of the play, we move back in time through the various stages of their seven year affair, with the play ending in the home of Emma and Robert (Richard Baird) her husband, who is Jerry’s best friend.
The actors have insightfully captured the essence of what is usually referred to by Europeans as the coolness and passionless nature of the English. Harting nicely displays an understated English Rose exterior as well as her desire to get more excitement out of life as the lover of her husband’s best friend Jerry. Frace as Jerry, although married with children, lets his hormones make the decision to begin his affair with Emma following an evening of too much drinking at a party. Frace is a very determined, smooth, and an accomplished seducer who knows his way around infidelity.
Frank Corrado directs a stellar cast: Richard Baird,* Jeffrey Fracé*, Carla Harting*, and Benjamin Cole. The cast-images courtesy of Aaron Rumley
Baird’s knowing cuckolded Robert, is a study of a man wounded and betrayed by his best friend. Baird’s controlled bluster on the outside belies the seething energy inside. We’re not sure what Robert is capable of doing, but over drinks in a Venetian restaurant one summer, we find out that Robert is no angel either. It’s a disciplined gem of a performance. One is reminded, at times, of the poignancy of that most achingly English of all illicit love-affair plays and movies: “Brief Encounter”, from the pen of the great Noel Coward.
The technical credits at North Coast Rep are always first rate. The creative team led by director Corrado once again provide the splendid one-two technical punch team of Set Designer Marty Burnett and Lighting designer Matt Novotny. Costumer designer Alina Bokovikova, as always creates spot-on costumes, along with sound design by Melanie Chen.
“Betrayal” is a sophisticated and provocative production for grownups that runs through June 28, 2015.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Remembering Harry Nilsson's Magical Musical Legacy in SD Repertory's "Everybody's Talkin'"

San Diego Repertory Theatre, one of the country’s finest urban theatre venues has a winning world premiere hit on its hands thanks to two Tony Award-winning actors in Alice Ripley and Gregory Jbara, along with local San Diego tenor Kurt Norby and the musical direction of Korrie Paliotto and her onstage band of musicians.

Alice Ripley Gregory Jbara by_Daren_Scott-web
 Alice Ripley, Gregory Jbara - Photo by Daren Scott
The company, under the direction of Javier Velasco bring the music of Harry Nilsson, one of America’s unheralded and relatively unknown singer/songwriters, to vivid life.  The musical tribute to the late singer the Beatles called their favorite American artist, is conceived by actor and musical arranger extraordinaire Steve Gunderson and Javier Velasco, the artistic director of the San Diego Ballet.
“Everybody’s Talkin’” is more of a free-flowing musical tribute than a traditional book musical.  There isn’t one line of scripted dialogue spoken by the performers.  It’s just the genius of Nilsson who was a poet/philosopher and a reluctant troubadour performer, whose songs lend themselves to the inspired arrangements by Gunderson and the staging by Velasco that propel the show along.

Gregory Jbara Kurt_Norby Alice Ripley by Daren Scott-web
Gregory Jbara, Kurt Norby, Alice Ripley 
Photo by Daren Scott
More than fifty musical numbers lovingly and beautifully performed by Ripley, Jbara and Norby deliver the clever and off-beat lyrics and music to the audience that illuminates the insight and genius of Nilsson, and his uncanny knack of being able to connect with his fans on their wavelength.  If you have ever been in love, crazy love, and lost that love, then you’ve experienced the emotions and feelings that Nilsson so brilliantly engenders in his music and lyrics
(bring two hankies – the love game is a rough and tough competition).
The American singer songwriter Bill Withers also had the talent and skill to tap into those aching emotions with his “Ain’t No Sunshine” lament back in 1971.  Belgian Jacques Brel was another singer songwriter who excelled in the game of love, loss, and pain with his haunting song “If You Go Away”.

What is so entertaining about “Everybody’s Talkin’ is the variety and range of the songs performed by mezzo-soprano Ripley.  She has that wonderful instrument that produces a vocal range from softness to off-the-charts power, when called for.  It also helps that she is an accomplished actor and musical theatre performer who just doesn’t sing the lyrics, she acts them out and lives the lyrics. It’s an impressive performance.

Cast and Band by Daren Scott
Cast and Band by Daren Scott
Jbara’s light comedy baritone has just the right amount of whimsy and an easy manner to engage the audience.  The chemistry between Ripley, Jbara, and Norby in three part harmony is the sizzle that sells the steak in all of their musical numbers especially these standouts: “Ten Little Indians”; “Coconut”; “I Said Goodbye To Me”; “All I Think About Is You”; and the haunting “I Will Never Leave You” and the achingly poignant “Without You”.  And, of course, the finale number by the entire company singing “Everybody’s Talkin”.

The technical credits are first rate beginning with Musical Director Korrie Paliotto and her musicians: Jessie Audelo on Woodwins; P.J. Bovee on Guitar and Keyboard; Issac Crow on Bass and Percussion and Dave Rumley on Drums and Vibraphone.  The set design by Sean Fanning is a study in circular levels that work well for the performers who need the space to move about without leaving the stage.  The lighting design by Philippe Bergman is especially sharp and effective in making sure the stars are always in their light whether moving or stationary.

It’s a delightful evening of theatre: Three highly accomplished performers singing the songs of the late, gifted and talented Grammy- winning singer/songwriter/performer Harry Nilsson.  It doesn’t get much better than this.

This splendid production performs at San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Lyceum Stage at Horton Plaza through June 21, 2015.  Don’t miss it!


Just as there are horses for courses, as they say in the racing game, there are actors for roles in the theatre game and Lauren Blumenfeld is the actor for the title role in The Old Globe’s West Coast Premiere of “Rich Girl” hands down.
 (foreground) Meg Gibson as Eve and JD Taylor as Henry with (background, from left) Lauren Blumenfeld as Claudine and Carolyn Michelle Smith as Maggie-Photo by Jim Cox.
(foreground) Meg Gibson as Eve and JD Taylor as Henry with (background, from left) Lauren Blumenfeld as Claudine and Carolyn Michelle Smith as Maggie-Photo by Jim Cox.
Henry James’ novel Washington Square, which became the stage and screen classic The Heiress, has now been smartly and sharply updated by Victoria Stewart into a modern-day, clever exploration of the mother-daughter, love-hate relationship, set against the backdrop of money – lots of it – dishing up a tasty feast for the actors called “Rich Girl” (and no, we’re not talking Paris Hilton).
Solidly directly by James Vasquez, The Old Globe’s Sheila and Harvey White stage features four talented actors playing four interesting characters that draw one into the vortex of a play you thought you knew only to find yourself forgetting all about that dark old drama from the past.
Yes, Olivia de Havilland was marvelous in the 1949 movie with a story suited to the culture of its time. But we’re now ensconced, for better or worse, in the 21st century and the events that capture the imagination of today’s audiences often reflect comedy and drama with a dash of the absurd all tossed into the mix in a single production. It’s a way of keeping audiences on their toes; waiting to find out happens at the end.
 JD Taylor as Henry and Lauren Blumenfeld as Claudine -Photo by Jim Cox.
JD Taylor as Henry and Lauren Blumenfeld as Claudine
-Photo by Jim Cox.
“Rich Girl” features a sensational Lauren Blumenfeld as Claudine, the geeky, gangly, sweet and introverted daughter of mega star TV personality Eve Walker (Meg Gibson). Eve, the doyen of a successful wealth and management foundation has it all, except time for her underachieving daughter Claudine who is withering in the shadow of her famous mother. Rather than interact with her daughter Eve assigns that chore to her personal assistant Maggie (Carolyn Michelle Smith) a savvy and empathetic friend of Claudine. Maggie acts as a surrogate therapist and business mentor to Claudine who is struggling to become a person of her own while working in the family business. Clever Maggie continues to enjoy the personal relationship she has with both Eve and Claudine, despite Eve’s maddening, at times, bad behavior concerning Claudine.
Into this triangle of women in business seeking more out of life comes JD Taylor as Henry, a young, theatrical director in search of funds for a project he has been trying to produce. Red flags immediately spring up around Eve, but not for Claudine who is overwhelmed by all of Henry’s attention to her. Maggie is waiting to see what develops between Claudine and the handsome hunk Henry before she makes up her mind as to what’s really happening. But Eve is already onto the opportunistic pseudo-suitor Henry
Playwright Stewart’s adroit retelling of the James novel concerning the conundrum of whether love and money can ever coexist, especially when it comes to the romantic love choices made by children of wealthy parents, is particularly compelling in “Rich Girl”. Does the phrase “I’m only doing this for your own good”, sound familiar? Bette Davis, as Charlotte Vail heard it from her wealthy mother Gladys Cooper in ‘Now Voyager’. When Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce utters the phrase, to Anne Blythe there were real dire consequences at stake. Mother love can be a two-edge sword.
(from left) Carolyn Michelle Smith as Maggie, Lauren Blumenfeld as Claudine, JD Taylor as Henry, and Meg Gibson as Eve-Photo by Jim Cox.
(from left) Carolyn Michelle Smith as Maggie, Lauren Blumenfeld as Claudine, JD Taylor as Henry, and Meg Gibson as Eve-Photo by Jim Cox.
The talented cast are a delight to watch as each actor gets his or her moment to shine, however, the bulb that burns brightest is turned on by the performance of Lauren Blumenfeld who grows from an introverted twenty something into a confident adult businesswoman. It’s an astonishing transformational arc to watch unfold on a stage. Her focus and in-the-moment performance is riveting in its nuances especially in the chilling denouement at the end. It’s great stuff.
Director James Vasquez has staged his production in the round with nice pacing and good traffic management. However, if I had to be picky about this splendid production it would be to ask the actors not to drop their voices when they’re just two or three words from the end of their speeches. I realize we’re no more than twenty feet from the stage, but we are watching a performance in the round. Someone at some time will have their back to the audience. We don’t want the audience to miss any of those dialogue gems or those emotional moments.
In the technical department: Scenic Designer Wilson Chin’s circular stage area is sleek, spare, and functional. It even allows for Meg Gibson to interact with the audience when she is on her TV program. Amanda Zieve’s lighting design complements the costumes of Shirley Pierson, along with original music and sound design by Lindsay Jones, and the video design of Mark Holmes and Paul Peterson.
“Rich Girl” performs on The Old Globe Sheryl and Harvey White Stage and runs through June 21, 2015.