Saturday, December 31, 2016


Adam Chanler-Berat and Phillipa Soo star in "Amelie"
"Amalie", the new musical based on the film of the same name, is like a French macaron – deliciously light with a sweet filling. When the show premiered last year at Berkeley Rep, it was still finding its soft center. The book is by Craig Lucas, award-winning playwright (Prelude to a Kiss) with music by Daniel Messe and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Messe. But with the addition of “Hamilton” leading lady Philippa Soo as the gamine star, along with a strong ensemble cast directed by Pam McKinnon, this current production at the Ahmanson is now heading for a Broadway engagement in Spring 2017.

Will audiences there be as taken with this whimsical tale of a shy girl who discovers her path in life is to lead others to happiness? If the opening night audience at the Ahmanson is any indication, the show should charm the pantalons off Broadway theatre-goers.

The show calls to mind the musical “Matilda” in its use of colorful sets, eccentric costumes and exaggerated characters, and also includes a delightfully sassy little girl (Savvy Crawford) as the young Amelie who re-appears to converse with her older self at key moments in the show.

Phillipa Soo, Savvy Crawford in "Amelie"
For those who may have forgotten the plot of the 2001 film, which made a star of Audrey Tatou, Amelie is an only child born to a detached physician father (played by Manoel Felciano) and a schoolteacher mother (played by Alison Cimmet) who are unprepared to deal with this imaginative and gifted daughter.

Papa only touches Amelie during her annual physical exam and, when her heart races with excitement, he concludes she has a heart condition and must be closely monitored. They are so protective that she ends up home schooled and grows up unable to form deep emotional connections to others. Even her pet goldfish Fluffy (Paul Whitty) must be given up for her health’s sake.

Phillipa Soo, Adam Chanler-Berat in "Amelie"
After her devout mother’s untimely and ironic death, and her father’s retreat to the serenity of his garden and its denizens, Amelie learns to take care of herself and eventually moves to the big city: Paris. She finds a small apartment with an eccentric retired painter (Tony Sheldon) and soon finds work at a local café owned by ex-circus artist Suzanne (Harriet D. Foy), where she listens and learns about the longings of her co-workers and others; it is also there she discovers her true calling in life – to bring happy endings to the people she meets.

A chance encounter with Nino (an appealing Adam Chanler-Berat) at a metro station photo booth affects her in a most personal way - she is instantly smitten with this young man whose hobby is collecting discarded photos from the booth and turning them into collages. Despite the meet cute, the path to love is not smooth; it takes the good part of the 90-minute show to finally give these two soul mates their own happy ending.

The hardworking ensemble of "Amelie"
The talented supporting actors play multiple roles and kudos to each of them for creating unforgettable characters. The ensemble is completed by David Andino, Randy Blair, Heath Calvert, and Maria-Christina Oliveras.

The technical wizardry involved is so inventive that it almost proved distracting to some audience members, who spent so much time trying to figure out “how they did that”, often missing the action on stage.

Bringing the magic to glorious Technicolor life are scenic and costume designer David Zinn, co-lighting design by Jane Cox and Mark Barton, sound design by Kai Harada, wig design by Charles G. LaPointe and production design by Peter Nigrini.

The live orchestra sounds great under the direction of Kimberly Grigsby and the fast-paced and amusing musical numbers are staged and choreographed by Sam Pinkleton.

One inherent problem with the show is that the main character of Amelie is somewhat of a cipher. Things happen to her but we never really understand her deeper motivations, as she is always the instigator of cascading events. Perhaps one more solo number where Amelie can reveal what lives in the depth of her heart would flesh her out more. Philippa Soo has a lovely soprano voice and a bubbly energy in this star turn; with a little extra push, she could erase all memories of Audrey Tatou’s portrayal and make this Amelie her own.

Amelie is at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles until January 15. Come and wish the production “Bon Voyage” on its trip to Broadway.

-- Lisa Lyons

Friday, December 23, 2016


As the year 2016 comes closer to becoming the year 2017, it may be a good time to sample three genres that that hopefully scored with its fan base, perhaps luring new fans that the writers, producers, and directors have been trying to reach and seduce.

America’s movie going public has definitely undergone changing demographics over the last ten years to a point where films and their stories are less linear and less narrative-driven.  Now more emphasis is placed on warp-speed visuals, CGI actions sequences, along with ear-splitting sound tracks and dialogue delivered in mumbled, whispered tones by the actors, and I’m guessing here, in order to give the impression of danger, urgency, or menace, that is, if we’re talking thriller, drama, mystery, or action genres.

A great number of films released today are apparently not being produced as a way of enlightening their viewers through understanding the spoken dialogue, or the clarity of story points, or communicating to the viewers in general. They’re meant to be merely chewing gum for the eyes and ears.  And people wonder why no one reads books or newspapers anymore.  We’ve been dumbing down our society for years to the point that critical thinking and challenging the status quo is for fuddy-duddies, and bygone generations.  Which brings us to the three films I’ve seen this week.  All three films are in general release. In no particular order they are: “Allied”, “Arrival” and “The Accountant”.

“Allied” is an old fashion WW II espionage thriller starring Hollywood power actors Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. Pitt plays Canadian RAF Wing Commander and Intelligence Officer Max Vatan who has been sent to Casablanca, French Morocco on a deadly mission behind enemy lines. Once there he meets up with French resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour played by Marion Cotillard, and the two spies plan their mission to assassinate the German Ambassador. Max and Marianne grow closer to one another as they plot the details of their mission and end up falling for each other.

Successfully accomplishing their mission and their escape, Max asks Marianne to come back to London with him so they can marry and have a life after the war living in England. After a year they have a daughter Anna, and then, one morning Max is ordered to report to his superiors where he is confronted with the knowledge that Marianne may be a German double agent. If true, he must execute her himself or face the gallows as a traitor.Talk about being on the horns of a dilemma.

“Allied”, written by Steven Knight and directed by Robert Zemeckis has two huge stars in Pitt and Cotillard who heat up the screen in their love scenes, but director Zemeckis, despite some wonderful camera magic by cinematographer Don Burgess, fails to breathe any life into his film. It lacks energy and pacing, which is not only glacial, at times, it also fails to engage from the get-go. However, the special effects are first rate. This is definitely not a remake of the 1943 Bogart/Bergman classic romantic drama “Casablanca”. That story written by the Epstein brothers and Howard Koch in 1943, hit the Oscar jackpot when it came to WW II romantic movie dramas, and it is still considered the gold standard of WW II romantic dramas. “Allied”, as a wartime espionage story however, is a different kettle of fish.
Rating:  Two and a half stars out of five.

“Arrival”, the 2016 Sci-Fi film starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, is an intelligent, sophisticated, film and story premise about aliens visiting planet Earth. Instead of a film about alien abduction, “Arrival” is a film about alien visitation and the attempt to communicate with one another that is front and center in Canadian director Denis Villenueve’s intriguing film. Some viewers probably will compare it as a sort of a modern take on “Close Encounters of a Third Kind”, without the music and harmonic clues being offered by the extraterrestrials in an effort to communicate with humans. But “Arrival” is more than just that. It’s a thinking person’s sci-fi movie that leaves its viewers musing about the ‘what if’ factors.

When a movie’s premise is strong and plausible, no matter the time period or setting in which it’s placed, the more universally accepted it becomes by the viewers. The story of “Arrival” revolves around linguistics professor Louise Banks, wonderfully and sensitively played by Amy Adams who is called upon by the U.S. Government to assist in translating alien communications from 12 spaceships that have simultaneously landed in 12 countries around the globe. (Adams is being touted as a short-list candidate for 2016’s Best Lead Female nomination and a possible win at the upcoming 89th Oscar ceremony to be held on February 26, 2017).

Adams is believable and tender in the home and family sequences, yet firm, level-headed, and strong in the sequences when dealing with the military and the politicians who are very quick to jump to conclusions about the 12 alien space ships that have simultaneously landed in their various countries.

Jeremy Renner plays Ian Donnelly, a military theoretical physicist whom the government has assigned to assist Louise in her urgent pursuit to communicate with the aliens before the other 12 nations decide to attack their space ships. It’s a bit of a thankless role because of Adams’ potent performance, but Renner solidly soldiers on and, in the end, marries the beautiful redheaded Adams to then raise their own family.

Forest Whitaker as Colonel G.T. Weber, the senior military officer in charge of the assignment, delivers a nice performance as the harried, sympathetic, but dedicated military officer who must carry out his orders.

My suggestion to potential viewers is to pay attention to the story for the answers to the questions you are thinking about while viewing it. The movie is non-linear. It goes back and forth, but the underlying message of hope and shared understanding that one gleans from the movie are well worth the effort.

“Arrival”, written by Eric Heissere, is auteur director Villeneuve’s baby, and like any father, he makes sure that you like his family. The technical credits shine, especially the camera work of cinematographer Bradford Young. This film will definitely be part of the Oscar mix come February 2017.
Rating: Four stars out of five.

“The Accountant”  a 2016 action thriller directed by Gavin O’Connor and written by Bill Debuque, stars Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K.Simons, John Bernthal, John Lithgow, Jeffery Tambor and Cynthia Addai-Robinson. The film is a typical martial arts, high body-count popcorn flick that has more than enough blood and collateral damage to satisfy even the most jaded of millennials who attend movies today.

The story is not only simplistic, but really strains one’s credulity. We’re expected to buy into a film about one Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), a high-functioning autistic mathematics savant, and an accountant to shady corporate clients who need Christian to ‘uncook’ their books to fend off the U.S. Treasury Department from performing those pesky tax audits. In between clients, Christian gets to reduce the bad guy population via AK-14 weapons that appear to shoot thousands of rounds of ammo in a few seconds. It’s like thumbing through a comic book in order to follow the story line with such obvious cardboard characters.

Like most of these action films, the story gets overly complicated in making sure the viewers get lots of narrative threads and action scenes in the hope that we don’t realize how weak and thin the story really is.“The Accountant” is a formulaic plot film with few surprises that waste the talents of Affleck, who is a fine actor that deserves better material. Simmons, an Oscar winner for his riveting performance in 2015's “Whiplash”, also deserves better. Kendrick plays a character who wouldn’t be missed if she wasn’t in the script. The film also gives the appearance of solid actors, like Lithgow and Tambor, performing as a favor to the producers. However, the villain (as usual) gets the-over-the-top plum role; in this case, that plum falls to John Bernthal as Brax, Christian’s young brother who gets to chew the scenery.

All action movies need the services of many creative people. One creative professional that all action films definitely require, beside the director, is a cinematographer who knows how to deliver the magic to the screen. Seamus Mc Garvey is that man for “The Accountant”. Rating: Two stars out of five.

All three films can be seen in a movie Cineplex near you. Happy Holidays!
-- Jack Lyons

Saturday, November 26, 2016


Nate Corddry, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe and Keith Powell
in "Icebergs" at the Geffen Playhouse. Photos by Jeff Lorsch.

Hollywood is a magical word in the world of show business. It conjures up feelings of glamour, celebrity, and money…tons of it. And of course, when money enters the picture (pun definitely intended), powerful men and women cannot be far behind; and the gold mine at the end of the rainbow is Television.

Ask any budding writer in Los Angeles what his or her choice of a dream job in the industry would be, and nine times out of ten, the savvy ones will say ‘show runner’. If you’re the show runner, you’re the creative executive writer and the producer with immense influence and power that controls the syndicated/re-run market where the really big money gathers in piles in every room in your home or bank. Yes, the stage is the touchstone of the performing arts, and movies once were kings of the box office, but the mother lode now is television and everyone wants a piece of the action.

“Icebergs” is a Geffen Playhouse world premiere production written by Alena Smith, herself a TV writer, and smartly directed by Geffen Artistic Director Randall Arney. The Geffen has been the venue of choice for many of Los Angeles’ emerging playwrights due to the proximity to Hollywood and a steady stream of available quality actors thanks to nearby TV and movie production companies. LA is an ‘industry town’ and many Geffen productions are sprinkled with familiar faces from TV, stage and movies.

Nate Corddry and Jennifer Mudge in "Icebergs"
“Icebergs”, in short, tells the story of a millennial married couple who both work in the industry. Calder is an up and coming movie writer/director nicely played by Nate Corddry, and Jennifer Mudge is Abigail, his beautiful but neurotic actor wife.

Abigail is an established leading lady who is beginning to be aware that her biological clock is ticking away and that she and Calder must make some life altering choices. A career or children? They have been trying to get pregnant but without luck. Besides, they reason, with all the talk these days about “climate change”, maybe kids should be not on their radar screens just now.

Keith Powell in "Icebergs"
Into this flux-filled weekend comes Calder’s old college roommate Reed (Keith Powell), a paleontologist and science professor who is attending a conference this weekend on the subject of - you guessed it - climate change.

Rebecca Henderson in "Icebergs"
In addition to Reed, Abigail’s unpredictable, wisecracking tarot card-reading friend Molly (hilariously played by Rebecca Henderson) unexpectedly drops in. Abigail and Calder’s agent Nicky, played by Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, is spot-on as a schmoozing Hollywood agent looking out for his clients.

Jennifer Mudge, Nate Corddry and
Lucas-Near Verbrugghe in "Icebergs"
In one scene, the issue of whether Abigail should be given the lead role in Calder’s screenplay, which has not yet been cast, comes up. Nicky diplomatically says he thinks the studio may not green light it with Abigail in the part. Calder loyally tells Nicky it’s his movie and either Abby plays the lead or it’s no deal. That scene becomes a bit of a stretch in order to believe that this type of dialogue rings true in an industry where hard-nose executives wear flak-jackets under their business suits for safety and eat noble and loyal writers for breakfast.

“Icebergs” is a light, nice, TV sitcom-like play with plenty of laughs. The actors are solid, in their verisimilitude performances, but it’s not like they’re splitting the atom or solving world hunger during this weekend in LA’s Silver Lake district setting. It’s just a-slice-of-life peek into the up and down machinations of the television/movie industry, along with the decision of whether two millennial Hollywood professionals should plan to have children or not.

Anthony T. Fanning’s functional set design gives the actors plenty of space to roam, and David Kay Mickelsen’s costumes have the proper Southern California industry look. Lighting designer Daniel Ionazzi, and composer and sound designer Richard Woodbury, complete the creative team led by director Arney. The play is performed without an intermission and runs approximately 95 minutes.

“Icebergs” performs at the Geffen Playhouse on the Gil Cates stage and runs through December 18, 2016.
                                         -- Jack Lyons

Friday, November 25, 2016


Aisling O'Sullivan and Marie Mullen star as mother and
daughter in the Mark Taper Forum's "The Beauty
Queen of Leenane". All photos by Craig Schwartz

The Irish have the gift of the gab to be sure. In America, up until the 21st Century, the general image of Ireland and its people was mainlyshaped by Hollywood. Actors like John Wayne, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, Barry Fitzgerald, Maureen O’Hara, and director John Ford, plus many more over the years, were responsible for setting the tone and image of the Emerald Isle.

As a result, we tend to view the Irish as charmin’, whimsical folk with a twinkle in their eyes and a ready smile and a quick wit with which to enliven social gatherings. Well, there’s more to the Irish than George Bernard Shaw, Irish whisky, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and a somewhat publicly held image concerning their rowdy, pugnacious nature along with the lilt of Irish laughter.

British-born Irish playwright Martin McDonagh has a much darker view of his heritage and their behavior (the IRA notwithstanding). McDonagh has said, “Theatre is never going to be edgy in the way I want it to be”. Which, for those who have not viewed his plays before, is a clue as to what one can expect to see in his dramady of rural, bleak, West Ireland existence.

“The Beauty Queen of Leenane”, a black comedy written by McDonagh in 1996 and staged on Broadway in 1998, returns in a riveting revival production at the Mark Taper Forum, solidly directed by longtime McDonagh associate Garry Hynes; both are veterans of the Druid Theatre in Galway, Ireland, as is the entire cast.

Marie Mullen in
"The Beauty Queen of
Leenane" at the Mark
Taper Forum
The story revolves around Mag Folan, an elderly mother brilliantly played by Marie Mullen, who is one of those maddeningly dependent and demanding women of a certain age who love to manipulate those about them under the guise of helplessness. Mother-daughter love/hate relationships are timeless and are always relevant for audiences.

Aisling O'Sullivan in
"The Beauty Queen of
Leenane" at the Mark
Taper Forum
Mag’s actions guarantee a miserable existence for her never-married 40 year-old daughter Maureen, sensationally performed by Aisling O’Sullivan, who grudgingly responds to her mother’s constant demand for attention. “Where’s me porridge bowl Maureen?” “Could I have another cuppa of tea dear?” In addition, Mag is nosy, a gossip, and self-centered. Maureen is Cinderella without any wicked step-sisters. She cleans, cooks, does the bills, and is expected to be on call 24/7. Not a recipe for a happy home life; however, Maureen is quite capable of living on her own if she has to and she’s a ‘looker’ too.

Marie Mullen and Aisling O'Sullivan in
"The Beauty Queen of Leenane" at the
Mark Taper Forum
A respite from her hell arrives in the form of her 40-something unemployed neighbor Pato Dooley, terrifically played by Marty Rea. Pato has had a yen for Maureen for some time but doesn’t quite know to how to broach the subject of dating. He is shy and careful not to offend or appear overeager, being almost obsequious in his moments with her. Pato’s letter in Act Two to Maureen from London where he is temporarily working, is a comedy monologue masterpiece. His plea for commitment to continue the relationship is a sublime comedy moment that is met with rousing audience applause at its conclusion.

Aisling O'Sullivan and
Marty Ray in "The Beauty
Queen of Leenane" at
the Mark Taper Forum
When the moment of their dating/mating dance finally does begin, along with too many drinks, Pato becomes Maureen’s sleepover bedmate as Mag discovers in the morning while getting her own breakfast for a change. No Maureen to wait on her and then Pato comes down stairs zipping up his trousers. The comedy exchanges and sly dialogue throughout the two act play speaks comedy, but those who are familiar with McDonagh's plays know he trends toward grisly denouements. He’s a fan of movie director Quentin Tarantino. Need I say more? However, no spoiler alerts here.

Aaron Monaghan and Marie
Mullen in "The Beauty
Queen of Leenane" at
the Mark Taper Forum
The brilliance of “Beauty Queen” lies in the performances of its actors: Ms Mullen, Ms. O’Sullivan, Mr. Rea, and Mr. Aaron Monaghan, who plays Ray Dooley, Pato’s young brother. Monaghan is the comic relief in the play, but I had a devil of a time understanding his heavy brogue, spoken at warp speed.

“The Beauty Queen of Leenane” is definitely a Druid company family affair. Set Designer/Costume designer Francis O’Connor renders a home that is bleak and dingy, with costumes to match the mood lighting of Designer James F. Ingalls. Sound Designer Greg Clarke and Composer Paddy Cunneen are also Druid associates of long standing.

The riveting comedy/drama revival performs at the Mark Taper Forum through December 18, 2016.
-- Jack Lyons

Wednesday, November 23, 2016


Krystina Alabado and Daphne Rubin-Vega star as an
estranged mother and daughter in "Miss You Like Hell"
at La Jolla Playhouse. All photos by Jim Carmody.
The La Jolla Playhouse has a successful track record of sending its musical productions to Broadway and has a penchant for winning Tony Awards in the process. “Memphis” (2010), for one, springs to mind; the Best Musical Tony-winner was brilliantly performed and brilliantly directed by Playhouse Artistic Director Chris Ashley.

However, I’m not quite sure that the current World Premiere production “Miss You Like Hell” will find Broadway producers bold enough to challenge the bias against Southern California-set musicals, especially one revolving around Latinos. It would be a pity for our East Coast theatrical cousins and their patrons to miss it, as well as those audiences in regional theatres across the country.

The world has been devolving into dangerous and uncertain times since the turn of the 21st Century. Instead of becoming more inclusive as a society, the world appears to be increasingly more interested in becoming rabidly isolationist, even nationalistic.

Playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes, a 2008 Tony Winner for the musical “In the Heights” and a 2010 Pulitzer Prize Winner for her potent and powerful drama “Water by the Spoonful”. She has once again hit the nail on the proverbial head with her musical “Miss You Like Hell”, creatively and deftly directed by talented Lear deBessonet.

The leit-motif running through many of Ms. Hudes’ plays deal with loss and forgiveness. In the case of “Miss You like Hell”, it’s a poignant story of mother abandonment and daughter estrangement and the coming to grips with forgiveness, and how hard it is to resolve it.

Krystina Alabado, Daphne Rubin-Vega

Ms. deBessonet is fortunate to have the services of casting directors Kaitlin Shaw and Tara Rubin, who have assembled a terrific ensemble cast of solid actors/singer/dancers to bring this timeless story to life. This time, the story of troubled mother Beatriz, sensationally played by Daphne Rubin-Vega, and her daughter Olivia, wonderfully sung and portrayed by Krystina Alabado, is set against the backdrop of Latino culture which is rich in mysticism and the myths of earlier native ancestors and story tellers.

Additionally, the libretto has elements that are reminiscent of the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his style of ‘magical realism’ and shards of the poems of famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. In the hands of these two talented actors, it is very easy to become enchanted by the entire production, regardless of whether one has ever heard of Garcia Marquez or Neruda.

The cast of "Miss You Like Hell"
The musical informs the story that illuminates the culture wars now taking place, not only in America, but also in Europe and across the globe. Ensemble casts are the epitome of what musical productions are all about. These actors are there to enhance the performances of the principals, namely Ms. Rubin-Vega and Ms. Alabado. But these dedicated, talented performers also shine in individual performances and should be acknowledged.

Krystina Alabado (center) and the
cast of "Miss You Like Hell"
In alphabetical order the ensemble cast includes: Cliff Bemis as Mo; Victor Chan as Castaway; Vanessa A. Jones as Lawyer/Waitress; David Patrick Kelly as Higgins; Julio Monge as Manuel; Cashae Monya as Pearl; Kurt Norby as Officer/Legal Clerk/A Guy at the Motel Desk; and Olivia Oguma as Mindy.

The creative team led by Ms. DeBessonet greatly benefits from the inventive set designs of Donyale Werle and the sparkling creative costume designs of Emilio Sosa that help sweep the audience along to the beats of ‘south of the border’ music and lyrics.

In addition to Ms. Hudes’ libretto and lyrics, and Erin McKeown’s music and lyrics, the choreography of Danny Mefford enlivens the stage action under the baton of music director Julie McBride, with sound design by Dan Moses Schreier.

This splendid production performs at the La Jolla Playhouse in the Mandell Weiss Theatre, through December 4, 2016. Don’t miss It!

-- Jack Lyons

Monday, November 14, 2016


Denis Arndt as Alex & Mary-Louise Parker
as Georgie in "Heisenberg". All photos by Joan Marcus
May-December romance stories are few and far between. For starters, storylines are usually predictable or implausible for most of the audience, to say nothing of the seat-squirming anticipation while waiting for that first onstage geriatric kiss - unless we’re watching Cary Grant plant one on Eva Marie Saint in the film “North by Northwest” which, when he does it, raises the act of kissing to the level of an art form. Ditto, with Audrey Hepburn in the movie “Charade”.

Which brings us to the play “Heisenberg”, written by English playwright Simon Stephens, produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC) at the Samuel J. Friedman theatre in NYC, and smartly directed by Mark Brokaw.

In his seventieth decade, Irish actor Denis Arndt, trim, fit, and much younger looking than his character, stars as Alex Priest, a 75-year old retired English butcher. Arndt is making his Broadway stage debut with this production, and it's hard to believe this fabulous actor hasn’t starred on a Broadway stage before this; and, in the bargain, he gets to woo Mary-Louise Parker, who plays Georgie Burns. Parker is one of the sexiest, intelligent, fearless and exciting actors working in theatre, movies and television today. Lucky devil.

Mary-Louise Parker in "Heisenberg"
Georgie is an aggressive, loud, conflicted American soul with the vocabulary of a grumpy stevedore. She is the type of person who needs to talk…to anyone. As the play opens, Georgie spots Alex sitting alone on a seat in a London train station and slowly walks up to him and plants a gentle kiss on his neck then quickly walks away, but she decides to come back and explain herself.

Alex, is a retired, reserved widower on his way home. He’s mildly surprised by Georgie’s action but doesn’t freak-out.  He has no agenda other to be left alone. No latent hormone rush is present. And they begin to talk. He sizes her up as one of those ‘force of nature’ American women who are so confident that they will approach anyone for the opportunity to engage in conversation, even with strangers. She finds him intriguing and worth more than just a brief encounter (with apologies to Noel Coward).

It’s a very talky play. The onstage scenes becomes a series of actions (her) and reactions (him) as to whether they should begin a relationship. Then the physical attraction for their budding May-December romance, which now spans a couple of months interspersed with separations and the need for one another, kicks in making the premise become more plausible. Besides, Georgie has a sweet tooth for older men. After all, Sinatra was thirty years older than Mia Farrow, and Ari Onassis was twenty-three years older than Jackie Kennedy, so it’s not that unusual. The only component missing in this relationship is the lack of really big money or family fortunes.

Denis Arndt as Alex & Mary-Louise Parker
as Georgie in "Heisenberg"
Playwright Stephens and director Brokaw weave an engaging obbligato of nicely nuanced performances by two terrifically talented stars who know how to draw the audience into their small, compelling story and make it sing. The onstage chemistry between Parker and Arndt is palpable. There is an old show biz axiom that says if you buy the premise, you’ll buy the bit. I bought all of it. The opening is a tad slow and the ending is ambiguous by design, but in between - ah, that’s where the magic happens.

“Heisenberg” is a light rom-com. The only big issue, other than their age disparity, is how strongly people have a need for companionship and closeness to prove their humanity and the raison d’etre for being on the planet in the first place. Georgie and Alex have past lives that are not similar. How they resolve their differences lies in the nuanced performances of Parker and Arndt, which are compelling and poignant at times. There is a lot of introspection, time to ponder the ‘what if' choices for each and for the audience as well.

One thing the audience needn't ponder is the meaning of the title, which seems disconnected from the play's theme. According to the program notes, German scientist Werner Heisenberg, the founder of quantum mechanics, posited a theory of the “uncertainty principle”. Playwright Stephens may have been drawing a comparison to the uncertainty of human relationships - or not.

Mark Wendland’s scenic design renders an almost bare stage, with two tables and two chairs, which are moved about by the actors. Costume design by Michael Krass is present day garb, and the lighting design is by Austin R. Smith with Sound design by David Van Tieghem.

“Heisenberg” is performed without an intermission (approximately 84 minutes) on the Samuel J. Friedman stage and runs through December 11, 2016.
-- Jack Lyons

Sunday, November 13, 2016


Samantha Sloyan, Harry Groener, Raimiz Monset and
Brian Georgestar in "Vicuna" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
All photos by Craig Schwartz
Some plays and movies get a little too “on the nose” and fall short of their intended target and audience. Not so with the current World Premiere satiric political poke in the eye from the pen of Jon Robin Baitz and his newest play “Vicuna”, now gracing the stage at the Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.

There’s very little doubt that Baitz has been influenced by the antics and the three ring circus atmosphere of the 2016 Presidential Election campaign, led by ringleader Donald Trump. But then who hasn’t? As a result, Trump was the hands-down choice of the media, the pundits and campaign surrogates to be parodied. He’s his own worst enemy and he doesn’t even recognize it.  But he was great fodder and source material for playwrights and screenwriters to hoist him on his own petard.

“Vicuna” unfolds in the stunning and luxurious atelier of Anselm de Paris’s Manhattan location designed by Kevin Depinet, one of the outstanding scenic designers working today. When the audience enters the theatre, the set screams high style and higher prices. His creative set design for the 2015 Old Globe production of “Sense and Sensibility” is still fresh in my memory. 

Baitz’s wickedly hilarious satire is deftly directed by Robert Egan, formerly the Producing Artistic Director of the Mark Taper Forum. Egan is fortunate to have casting director Meg Fister on his creative team for this production. She has assembled a stellar cast of solid actors who know how to perform in a comedy/satire production when they find themselves in one.
Brian George, Harry Groener, Raimiz Monset in "Vicuna"
The story revolves around Presidential Candidate Kurt Seaman, an ego-centric, multi-millionaire real estate tycoon and businessman played by Harry Groener. Seaman wants a suit from the hands of master tailor Anselm Kassar for the final presidential debate in two weeks and he’s willing to pay extra to have it delivered in time. Groener delivers Baitz’s outlandish lines with impeccable timing and silky smugness. In short, he’s fabulous in a part he was born to play.

Brian George as Anselm Kassar the proprietor is a man who knows how to make extremely expensive suits - Kassar charges Seaman $110 thousand dollars for a vicuna material creation -while his clients enjoy the art of the deal in the haggling over the cost, without either going beyond the point of losing the sale.
Harry Groener, Brian George, Raimiz Monset
It’s a verbal tug of war between Kassar, his young progressive-thinking intern Amir, passionately played by Raimiz Monset who believes Seaman’s millions should be spent elsewhere where it could do some good and not be wasted on the body of a megalomaniac. The exchanges between Seaman, Kassar, and Amir, plus Seaman's daughter Srilanka (yes, that’s her character’s name) played by Samantha Sloyan, are right out of the current Trump campaign playbook. It’s impossible to miss the obvious parallels.

There is another character called Kitty Finch-Gibbon wonderfully played by glamorous veteran actor Linda Gehringer.  Kitty is the ‘agent’ representing a mysterious cabal who are intent on getting Seaman to withdraw as a candidate by dangling a two billion dollar carrot as the inducement. Oh, how candidate Seaman loves to be a player in the art of the deal.

Harry Groener, Linda Gehringer in "Vicuna"
“Vicuna” is a comedy rich in innuendo and roman a clef portrayals. I’ve seen several of Jon Robin Baitz’s plays in the past, but this one is a little different from his usually serious efforts as a dramatist. This play combines sharply written dialogue and terrific performances from a solid cast, all under the watchful and experienced eye of director Robert Egan.

The creative team led by director Egan includes the aforementioned Scenic Designer Kevin Depinet, Costume Designer Laura Bauer and that ‘$110 Thousand dollar suit’ that fits Mr. Groener like a fine silk glove. Lighting Designer Tom Ontiveros made the entire set sparkle, displaying the richness and warmth of the wood trimming and the various suit displays. Original Music and Sound Design by Karl Fredrik Lundeberg completes the technical credits.
“Vicuna” is a biting commentary on America’s Presidential Election process in democracy every four years. The 2016 Election results will already be known by the time you read this review, but you have to see the play yourself in order to determine if the 2016 Election was indeed ‘rigged’.
“Vicuna” performs at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, CA through November 20, 2016.
-- Jack Lyons

Monday, November 7, 2016


Eric Charles Jorgenson and Anna Nicholas
star as Ulysses and Emma in "Annapurna"
All photos by Jim Cox
Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre (CVREP) kicks off their 8th season with the production “Annapurna”, written by Sharr White and nicely directed by founding Artistic Director Ron Celona.

In keeping with Celona’s promise to bring plays that address the 2016/17 season theme of Love, Marriage, and Life Changing Events, “Annapurna” is a bittersweet story of former married partners meeting after twenty years.

Emma (Anna Nicholas) tracks down her former alcoholic, poet/writer husband Ulysses (Eric Charles Jorgenson), to a trailer park in the middle of rural mountain high Colorado for a final reckoning. There are questions, deep hurts, and unresolved issues that force Emma to confront Ulysses after all these years.

Eric Charles Jorgenson, Anna Nicholas
The play begins with the disheveled, mountain man-like, bearded Ulysses getting ready to prepare breakfast in his man-cave digs when Emma, his long divorced ex, walks in the front door of his small, grungy trailer with two suitcases. He is not happy to see her despite a twenty-year absence. And she’s wondering if she made the right decision to confront him now that she sees him and his condition.

For starters, he’s dying of emphysema and has an oxygen tube in his nose and is in a weakened, listless condition. But, he hasn’t lost his ability to yell and shout at her like in the old days. Emma doesn’t push back against Ulysses’ boorish and bullying behavior. She appears calm and under control, going so far as to say this place needs a good scrub, and begins to clean up.

Eric Charles Jorgenson, Anna Nicholas
Then she opens up and tells Ulysses that she has permanently left her home and their twenty year-old son Sam (never seen, only referred to) in order to alert Ulysses that Sam is on his way here to see his father after discovering a cache of letters that Ulysses had been sending to him via Emma’s mother over the last 10 years.

The ‘backstory’ is a bit fuzzy and melodramatic as to what really happened to Sam when Ulysses, in one of his alcoholic blackouts, may have caused the deafness in one of Sam’s ears. This is one of the reasons why Emma wants to confront her ex. Does he remember striking his five year-old son? What happened? Ulysses says he has no recollection of anything that far back. He honestly can’t remember.

Eric Charles Jorgenson, Anna Nicholas
The narrative of White’s play is not its strongest asset. It’s the performances of the actors that win the day. There is good onstage chemistry between Jorgenson and Nicholas, and both are always in the moment. I won’t go so far as saying that some in the audience will find relevancy in the play’s subject matter, but parents in the audience might smile a bit as to the tug of war that goes on in all marriages, and especially where children are concerned when one parent is absent from the home.

Eric Charles Jorgenson, Anna Nicholas
There is light banter, however, between Ulysses and Emma once the thaw begins. Perhaps, some vocal modulation between Jorgenson and Nicholas might better blunt the effect of their yelling at each other all the time which becomes a bit off-putting. At times, less is better.

The technical credits at CV REP are always top tier. Resident Scenic Design wizard and multiple Desert Theatre League award winner Jimmy Cuomo never disappoints. His grungy trailer home is terrific, as is the lighting design by Moira Wilkie Whitaker (also a recent DTL award winner), costumes by Aalsa Lee, and sound design by Cricket S. Myers, Production Manager and Associate Set designer Doug Morris and Sound Tech Karen Goodwin complete the creative team. The 90-minute play is performed without an intermission.

The bumpy road of love, marriage, and everything in between, is often filled with potholes we call life passages. There are precious few rose gardens out there, promised or not, and some aren’t even worth taking care of. But hope springs eternal.

“Annapurna” performs at CV Repertory Theatre in Rancho Mirage through November 20, 2016. Call the box office for reservations and ticket information at 760-296-2966.
--Jack Lyons

Monday, October 24, 2016


David Ellenstein, Amanda Sitton, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper
and Louis Latorto in "Laughter on the 23rd Floor"
Photos courtesy of North Coast Repertory Theatre
If one does indeed follow the laughter emanating from the North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT), in Solana Beach, one will easily understand why “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”, written by the King of Comedy Neil Simon, has been extended before it opened on Saturday, October 22nd. It now is scheduled to close on November 20, 2016. He’s still got game!

No one writes non-stop one-liners, zingers, and comedy situations like Simon. Now, if only our millennials would turn off their ubiquitous iPhones for two hours and observe the characters and the relatable hilarious situations unfolding on the stage at NCRT, perhaps we can win back theatre audiences for a civilized, critical-thinking, informed, theatre community in the good old USA.  Remember, comedy is the mother’s milk of a well-adjusted society (especially now, in this divided, melancholic 21st century).There weren’t however any divided or unhappy people exiting the theatre last weekend, just smiling, happy faces.

The cast of "Laughter on the 23rd Floor"
Director Tom Markus lovingly recreates Simon’s memory-filled bio-play about his early days as a comedy writer during the ‘golden age of TV’ on Sid Caesar’s blockbuster smash hit “Your Show of Shows”. Under Markus’ watchful eyes (eyes that have actually watched the original NBC shows) he turns the proceedings into a wild and wacky comedy feast. The pacing is manic, the on-stage action is frenetic, and office banter dialogue in the Writers Room is hilarious.  His fluid and seamless direction has nine high-energy, gifted actors moving and speaking at warp speed without even getting close to an on-stage collision or missing a beat in the process. How do they do it, you ask? It’s called Rehearsal. Rehearsal. Rehearsal!

Theatre actors are like a family; comedy actors are an even more generous, giving, and close knit group of actors. This superb cast of talented comedians and farceurs is filled with first rate actors – all at the top of their game – resulting in a brilliant ensemble effort. Think of the show as something like ‘The Marx Brothers meet Abbott and Costello’ in the fictional Writers Room in the NBC-TV office building in Manhattan on the 23rd floor.

David Ellenstein as "Max Prince"
The play, set in 1953 Manhattan, focuses on paranoid Sid Caesar-like Max Prince (a larger than life portrayal by David Ellenstein), the star of a weekly comedy-variety show, and his staff of writers, including Simon’s alter-ego Lucas Brickman played by Brett Alters who maintains a running commentary on the writing, fighting, and zany antics which take place in the Writers Room, especially Max’s on-going battle with NBC executives, who fear his humor is too sophisticated for Middle America. And then the gags, the zingers, and the one-upmanship ploys begin to fly.

Louis Latorto, Brett Alters and Phil Johnson
Louis Latorto as Milt, a scene stealer if there ever was one, sets the tone for the craziness that follows, and his comedy timing is flawless. Val the harried Russian émigré, is wonderfully played by Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper an Opera singer/actor and a deft comedian, who nicely balances his role of head staff writer along with a pitch-perfect Russian accent. Brian, the Irishman, and the only gentile on the staff, is pugnaciously played by Christopher M. Williams, who enjoys needling Ira Stone, the staff hypochondriac winningly portrayed by Omri Schein, another bona fide scene stealer. Kenny (played by Phil Johnson), the only writer who seems to be able to reach and deal with the volatile Max, exudes a calmness and common sense that pleases Max, much to the relief of the other writers. Carol, the only female writer on the staff, is solidly portrayed by Amanda Sitton, whose only wish is to be considered as one the ‘guys'.  Helen, the staff secretary, ably played by Caroline Drage, completes the ensemble.

Phil Johnson, David Ellenstein, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper
As outstanding as this ensemble is, it is the sensational towering comedy performance of David Ellenstein as Max Prince who sets everything in motion with his entrance, and from then on everything that follows becomes a three-ring comedy circus that leaves the audience drained and exhausted from laughing.

Heading the creative team led by director Markus is NCRT’s two go-to guys: resident scenic design wizard Marty Burnett and master lighting designer Matt Novotny, who deliver the writer’s room with enough space to accommodate nine performers who sport the period-perfect costumes of designer Elisa Benzoni. Melanie Chen designs the sound, and Andrea Gutierrez handles the Props.The Assistant Director is Jacquelyn Ritz.

“Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is a stellar production that makes for a most entertaining and enjoyable evening in the theatre, and performs at North Coast Repertory Theatre, in Solana Beach, CA through November 20, 2016.

-- Jack Lyons

Sunday, October 23, 2016


Giovanni Adams, Marilyn Fox, Annika Marks and
Michael Mantell, the cast of "A Model Apartment"
All photos by Jeff Lorch Photography

Donald Margulies is a multiple award-winning playwright and a Pulitzer Prize winner in 2000 for his play “Dinner with Friends”. Not only is he a very prolific journeyman playwright with fourteen plays in his canon, he is also a screenwriter and television series developer and writer.

A recurring theme that runs throughout his work is his interest in plays involving the motif of ‘identities’ and its interactions with his characters. I’ve seen six of his plays over the years. But nothing prepared me for this stunningly deep, and at times, dark and powerful narrative present in his current play “The Model Apartment”, now performing at the Geffen Playhouse on the intimate (approximately 110 seats) Audrey Skirball Kenis stage.

Cleverly directed by Marya Mazor, “The Model Apartment”, abounds in metaphors and symbolism. We are not quite sure what course Margulies and director Ms. Mazor has set for the audience in the first five minutes. Is it a comedy (the audience laughed a lot at some of the action and stage business right from curtain up) or is it a serious piece?

Lola (Marilyn Fox) and
Max (Michael Mantell)
Max and Lola are senior 60-something Holocaust survivors, nicely played by Michael Mantell and Marilyn Fox, who have sold their Brooklyn home and have moved to Florida to spend their golden years. “I just want to sit in the sun and read my Wall Street Journal with a drink by my side”, says Max. Lola agrees. She is a loving, compliant, naive wife; however they have a fey quality about them indicating that there’s more to them than meets the eye.

Debby (Annika Marks) and
Lola (Marilyn Fox)
For those who say, oh this is going to be another holocaust play, not so fast. Yes, it is a holocaust play, but with a different POV. The play’s action is set in motion with the unexpected arrival of their 30 year-old mentally-challenged daughter Debby (Annika Marks) in the middle of the night, along with her boyfriend Neil, a teenage African-American homeless boyfriend from Brooklyn played by Giovanni Adams.

Max and Lola are stunned to see Debby suddenly appear on the doorstep of the model apartment they’re renting while their condo is being completed. They have been unable to handle her even after years of institutional treatment and visits to the finest of doctors, as Max later explains.

'Guilt' comes in many forms. There will always be parents unable to care for or deal with their mentally challenged adult-children. They have demons of their own that match their offspring’s issues that also require understanding. Post Traumatic Syndrome Disease (PTSD) is a term we understand today but not in the 1980s when the play is set.

Debby (Annika Marks)
As holocaust survivors, Max and Lola are not in denial over Debby; they have just decided they need to get away from her for their sanity and leave her to fend for herself back in Brooklyn. Harsh as it may sound, survival is the key element of their DNA. How Margulies’ characters come to grips with the psychological dilemma that impacts so many survivors and their children, and even their grandchildren, is at the heart of this powerful drama.

Max (Michael Mantell) and
Deborah (Annika Marks)
There are scenes where each character relates his or her dream sequences to the audience. The most poignant of these is when Deborah (also played by Annika Marks), Max and Lola’s oldest daughter who died in the holocaust, appears to reassure Max that she now has plenty of food to eat and is happy to be sharing a perpetual Pesach with her relatives from the camps. It’s a powerful moment that is deeply affecting. One could hear a pin drop in the audience the night I attended.

One may take issue with the crafting of the play and the choices Margulies makes, but no one can deny the absolutely astonishing Geffen debut performance of Ms. Marks. It is a tour de force effort born of two talented creative individuals – Ms. Marks and director Mazor. It may be visually off-putting as depicted on stage, but it is intellectually stimulating when reflecting on this particular production over a cup of coffee in the comfort of one’s home or at a late night restaurant.

In the technical department, the creative team led by director Mazor, along with Scenic Designer Tom Buderwitz, nicely provides the one room set of a 1980s Florida condominium complex. Lighting Designer Brian Gale provides the right amount of light to see and appreciate the costume designs of Sara Ryung Clement, whose costuming of the characters of Debby/Deborah allows the backstage dressers to perform costume changes with lightning speed. Composer and Sound Designer Lindsay Jones completes the creative team. The play is performed without an intermission and runs approximately 90 minutes.

“The Model Apartment” performs at The Geffen Playhouse, Audrey Skirball Kenis stage and runs through November 20, 2016.

-- Jack Lyons

Saturday, October 22, 2016


Jason Dirden, Glynn Turman, Damon Gupton, Keith David
and Lillias White in August Wilson’s "Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom"
All photos by Craig Schwartz
The great playwright August Wilson has been the voice and mirror for many African-Americans over the years. Where fiery writer James Baldwin, who was extremely articulate but angry and rightly so, railed at the injustices experienced by many African-Americans, Wilson just quietly and brilliantly opened a window to the everyday existence of black life and its community for all to see and appreciate. In the long run, it was the smarter approach toward solving a 400-year old shameful period in America’s history. And there’s plenty of work still to be done.

"Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom" now on the boards of the Mark Taper Forum is fabulously acted and brilliantly staged by Tony winner Phylicia Rashad. It was first of Wilson’s plays to be produced on Broadway (in 1984) and was most responsible for making Wilson’s ‘10-play Pittsburgh Cycle’ of African-American life become a reality. Ms. Rashad has also acted in Wilson’s play "Gem of the Ocean" back in 2003, playing the 287-year old old family matriarch Aunt Ester (Wilson’s favorite character) on the stage of the Mark Taper Forum.
Lillias White is the title character in August Wilson's
"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"
Now as the director of ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’, Ms. Rashad has corralled a cast of actors who graced her last production at the Taper, "Joe Turner’s Come and Gone".  Back for acting encores is the wonderful Tony Award-winning singer/actor Lillias White, as Gertrude "Ma" Rainey. It’s a bawdy but telling performance of what it meant to be a black recording artist in 1927 Chicago. Her entrance alone is worth the price of admission. As showy as the role of Ma is, it’s the musicians that back her performance that get to play the meaty parts and shine in the process.
Glynn Turman, Damon Gupton, Keith David
and Jason Dirden in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom"
Keith David, playing Slow Drag, the band’s string bass, pot-smoking musician gets some the best comedy lines and Glynn Turman portraying Toledo, the piano-playing band philosopher-musician, the only one in the band who can both play and write, gets his share of laughs as well. The night I attended, understudy Ernest Harden Jr. went on in place of Turman and did the part proud.
The performance of Jason Dirden as the swaggering, cocky, trumpet player Levee, comes dangerously close to stealing the show from what the audience sees as a superb ensemble cast. His flash and moves are so in the moment, it’s a joy to watch this pro work his magic.
Damon Gupton and Lillias White in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"
Damon Gupton as Cutler, the trombone playing band leader that Levee takes pleasure in needling, is a steadying influence on the group, who also deals with Ma’s agent Irvin portrayed by a harried and nervous Ed Swidey. Also in the ensemble is a sexy, stunning looking ‘girl toy’  of Ma’s, played by Nija Okoro, who immediately catches the eye of smooth-talking, confident Levee who has plans of a quick conquest.
Nija Okoro, Lillias White and Lamar Richardson
in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Rounding out this stellar ensemble is Matthew Henerson as Sturdyvant, the cost-conscious record and studio producer, Lamar Richardson as Sylvester, Ma’s speech-challenged stuttering nephew whom she promised could introduce her on the recording, and Greg Bryan as the Policeman.

Director Rashad leads a creative team headed by Scenic Designer John Iacovelli, who created that wonderful set in Rashad’s production of "Joe Turner’s Come and Gone", at the Taper in 2013.  Lighting Designer Elizabeth provides a balanced design that serves the two-level acting area, and delivers just the right amount of light to see the costumes designed by Emilio Sosa. The sound Design is by Dan Moses Schreier, with Hair and Wig Designs by Carol F. Doran. The Fight Director is Steve Rankin, the Music Direction, Arrangements and additional music is under the baton of Steven Bargonetti.

"Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom" is a must see, splendid production, that performs at the Mark Taper Forum and runs through October 16, 2016.

-- Jack Lyons