Monday, July 27, 2015


Angelina Réaux and Rena Strober
All photos by Aaron Rumley
Stephen Sondheim is arguably the most influential American lyricist over the last 50 years; forever changing the face of the American musical genre.

Learning the craft at the knee of the great Oscar Hammerstein II as a young teenager, Sondheim became the face and the force of the modern American musical audience over the years. He captivated audiences and performers alike with his brilliant innovative and fresh approach on how to tell a theatrical story in words and music. Performers lined up to be cast in his shows. His supporters are legion. His canon is enormous.

The North Coast Repertory Theatre production of “Side By Side By Sondheim”, does Mr. Sondheim proud! That enormous canon is selectively and lovingly brought to life by four gifted and talented singer/actors in a 90 minute free flowing tribute to his genius under the inspired direction of North Coast artistic director David Ellenstein. With over 30 numbers that capture the memories, the moods, and the full range of the human experience, Ellenstein’s sensational cast just sizzle and shine on stage, both in solo turns and in two and three-part harmony ensemble numbers.

Rena Strober, Randall Dodge, and Angelina Réaux
The four Equity artists bring a wealth of performing experience ranging from East Coast theatres, including Broadway, to West Coast stages and in between, with a dash of the international opera scene in the bargain.

Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper as Narrator, Randall Dodge as the Man, Angelina Reaux as Woman 1, and Rena Strober as Woman 2, are accompanied by onstage pianist 1 and Musical Director Alby Potts and Pianist 2 Tom Abruzzo. It’s an ensemble group made in heaven for aficionados of Sondheim music and lyrics.

It’s really a treat to hear and see singers diaphragmatically breathe while performing. The tone and clarity of the lyrics is enhanced as well as the music when artists employ their training. Alas, we don’t see enough that these days. If one sings in the shower and their friends tell them how great they sounded last night in the bar that apparently is all of the training they want to endure. Pity. Many a short career lies ahead for tyros.

Not so with this wonderful group of pros. There are so many beautiful, poignant, and memory-inducing moments in this dazzling production that it is difficult to list them all. However, there are always favorite numbers that hit their emotional marks and are felt by all audiences.

Angelina Réaux, Nicholas Mongiardo Cooper,
Randall Dodge and Rena Strober
My personal favs in this show were: “If Momma Was Married” sung in two-part harmony by Angelina Reaux and Rena Strober; “Getting Married Today” by Rena Strober is the breath-challenging number that never fails to get applause at its conclusion; “Can That Boy Foxtrot” by Reaux and Strober is a clever little ditty of double entendres that bring smiles to the faces of the singers as well as the audience. “Barcelona” by Dodge and Strober hit a chord with many in the audience if the knowing laughs I heard from the audience were any indication.

Angelina Reaux’s rendition of “I Never Do Anything Twice”, with more trills than a bird aviary, plus her emotionally-haunting “Send in the Clowns” number were two show stoppers among many. Mongiardo-Cooper and Dodge made the number “Beautiful Girls” from Follies come alive once more. Reaux and Strober’s electrifying “A Boy Like That” from “Westside Story” makes the hair on one’s nape of the neck quiver with emotion. Mongiardo-Cooper’s rendition of “Being Alive” is powerful and moving. Strober’s “Losing My Mind” is another love song that goes to the core of love and marriage relationships; a leitmotif present in many of Sondheim scores and shows. It’s great stuff not to be missed!

The creative team led by director Ellenstein includes the North Coast Rep Company’s one-two punch duo of Set designer Marty Burnett, and Lighting designer Matt Novotny, along with costume design by Renetta Lloyd, and Sound design by Melanie Chen; with Props by Benjamin Cole; and projection designs by Aaron Lumley. As usual the technical credits are first rate at North Coast.

It’s a splendid and entertaining evening of theatre that will last in one’s memory throughout the entire summer. “Side by Side By Sondheim” performs at North Coast Repertory Theatre through August 16, 2015.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015


Gay teenage angst may not be a mainstream issue for a lot of people but times are a-changin’. Growing up in America, or anywhere else for that matter, was never a picnic; however, growing up gay was definitely a private matter that led to a lot of alienation and confusion producing hurtful, harmful, and ambiguous situations for many sons, daughters, parents, and friends.

Ryder Bach and Curt Hansen - Photo by Craig Schwartz
Todd Almond’s new rock musical “Girlfriend”, with music and lyrics by Matthew Sweet, is a vanguard production that addresses the issues of understanding and acceptance, as well as the hopes and dreams of two gay teenage boys who discover one another in rural Nebraska in the summer of 1993.

Tenderly and sensitively directed by Les Waters, artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL) KY, “Girlfriend” is a perfect fit for Waters, who directed “Marjorie Prime” at the Taper last October which I reviewed, and who is also scheduled to direct “The Christians” at the Taper in January of 2016. I attended the Louisville Humana Festival in 2014 and reviewed the play “The Christians”, directed by Waters who blew me away with its brilliant inventiveness. Audiences at the Taper are in for a real treat come January of 2016.

“Girlfriend” is a compelling two-hander that stars Ryder Bach as Will and Curt Hansen as Mike. Will, acts as his and our Greek chorus. He sets the stage as to his own sexuality, pondering how he will ever survive another hot, dusty, Midwest summer of being miserable without any “real” friends to share the vexing issues of growing up in a predetermined, socially rigid America.

Ryder Bach and Curt Hansen - Photo by Craig Schwartz
Mike outwardly is a jock. A star baseball player, a popular man on campus and well liked with a girlfriend. But he too isn’t fully integrated and ready for full entry into the fabric of American life.

Their first short and sweet encounters as classmates at school are guarded and cautious. No one wants to make a false assumption about the other. Eventually, there is a crack in the ice and two begin a journey of discovery. As in life, choices must be made with decisions that are painful.

The performances of Bach and Hansen are riveting and mesmerizing to watch. Two young men at the height of their powers who have the talent to attack any situation the characters find themselves in and draw their audience right along with them. The youthful audience was noisy at first, but immediately quieted when the highly charged on stage moments arrived. One could hear a pin drop from an audience of over 300 rapt patrons as the two young actors exchanged their first kiss.

The narrative and action of the story is punctuated by a red hot, four-piece rock band lead by Musical Director Julie Wolf, featuring guitarists Vivi Rama and Janet Robin, and the Buddy Rich performance style of drummer Jyn Yates who really rocks the auditorium.

Waters’ low key, unseen directorial hand overall is right on. However, if I had to be picky about the production it would come in the area of the glacial pacing and pauses between Will and Mike in the scenes where each makes a decision to close the gap and space that guardedly separates them from full commitment to each other. The production which is performed without an intermission, could easily lose a full ten minutes from its current running time of 90 minutes.

Director Waters leads a creative team of scenic and costume design by David Zinn, a snappy lighting design by Ben Stanton and an appropriate sound design by Jake Rodriguez.

“Girlfriend” performs at the Kirk Douglas Theatre and runs through August 9, 2015.