Thursday, January 28, 2016


Jeffrey Landman, Craig Cady and Craig McEldowney - All photos courtesy of CV Rep
I doubt very few people under the age of fifty even know who Edward Kleban was let alone what he did for a living. Fame, in any profession these days, is fleeting. Probably the one category exception is ‘show business’. Such is the power of celebrity.

Ed Kleban was a composer and a lyricist who will always be remembered as the man who wrote the brilliant words to the music of composer Marvin Hamlisch; together creating one of Broadway’s longest and most iconic running musicals back in the 70’s: A Chorus Line”.  “A Chorus Line” went on to become the sixth longest-running Broadway show ever, chalking up 6,137 performances.  There are productions still running somewhere in countries around the globe.

Who were the creators of this Broadway phenomenon?  Hamlisch was already an Oscar winning movie composer when he and Kleban were hired by theatre director and choreographer Michael Bennett to write the music and lyrics for the future blockbuster.

Their collaboration was a prickly one right from moment they met.  Each man was a top-tier composer and a lyricist in his own right. They were not used sharing credits with others.  Kleban made his mark as record producer for thirteen years writing lyrics and composing for others but always wrote and composed for himself as well, ending up with trunk full of musical material that could fuel several musical productions.

Which brings us to the CV Repertory Theatre production of “A Class Act” that is creatively and wonderfully staged by CV REP founding artistic director Ron Celona. Librettists Linda Kline and Lonnie Price curated the songs and music of Kleban’s canon, but unlike the alchemists of old who failed to produce gold from lead, Kline and Price do indeed deliver a treasure trove of golden music and lyrics honoring the brilliance of Kleban’s musical compositions, thanks to a sensational ensemble cast.

Jeffrey Landman plays Kleban with charm, style, and terrific timing. He sings, he dances and he emotionally draws the audience into his nuanced performing orbit by the sheer force of his talent. As good as Landman is, however, he doesn’t do it alone. He has seven gifted cast mates who perfectly blend together as they tell the story of Edward Kleban, who left this planet far too early, a victim of mouth cancer. He was just 48 years old.

Craig McEldowney, Jeffrey Landman,
and Sal Mistretta
The musical is set in 1988 at a memorial service to Kleban being held at the Shubert Theatre in New York City. Ed appears at his own memorial; his friends and colleagues remember him and think back over the past. As the time shifts backward, the friends reminisce about the famous BMI songwriting workshop conducted by music Impresario Lehman Engle (an imposing Sal Mistretta) that all attended.

Jeffrey Landman, Julie Garnye
As Ed interacts with the people in his life, he reveals his coming to grips with his ambition, successes, failures, and his relationship with his first love Sophie, winningly played by Julie Garnye. The on-stage chemistry and the scenes between Landman and Garnye are both vivid, compelling and poignant.

Alas, their relationship, like so many in life, is destined to slowly drift apart.

Offering solid support in this outstanding ensemble cast is Rachel M. Johnson as Lucy, Ed’s last significant other. Craig Mc Eldowney plays Charley, a friend from BMI days and also as Marvin Hamlisch. Christina Morrell, portrays Felicia, Ed’s boss at Columbia Records where he toiled for 13 years as a record producer/composer/lyricist.

Rachael Johnson, Christina Morell, Kristin Towers-Rowles, 
Craig Cady, Craig McEldowney, Jeffrey Landman
Kristin Towers-Rowles plays Mona, one of Ed’s many love affair partners. Craig Cady portrays Bobby, a friend from the BMI days, and plays Michael Bennett, the creative force behind the success that became the blockbuster musical “A Chorus Line".

This company of players sing and dance in an exhilarating display of individual excellence within a team format.They don’t get much better than this group.

The creative team, led by Celona and his assistant director and choreographer Mark Esposito, features the expertise of Jimmy Cuomo’s set and projection designs, along with the costumes of Aslsa Lee, the lighting and technical expertise of Eddie Cancel and his team including sound designer Randy Hansen and technician Karen Goodwin. Louise Ross keeps this splendid production on it toes as Stage Manager.

“A Class Act” performs at CV Repertory Theatre through February 14, 2016.  For ticket information and reservations call the box office at 760-296-2966.

Thursday, January 21, 2016


Loyal fans of the brilliant and idiosyncratic fictional English sleuth Sherlock Holmes know from memory that he never visited Alaska to solve a case.

That being said, the challenge of correcting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s oversight became a bit of a mission for acclaimed playwright Joseph Vass; he's written a hoot of a comedy that celebrates not only the insertion of Sherlock Holmes as a character into his play, but sets his ‘who-dunnit’ plot based on factual events during Nome Alaska’s Gold Rush period of 1899 to 1909.

The world premiere production of Vass’ comedy/mystery “Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Great Nome Gold Rush”, may be a mouthful to say but it’s easy to enjoy; so are the songs and music written and composed by Vass for the production, who is also a musician and is one of the driving forces behind the Klezmer music movement in the country.

North Coast Repertory Theatre Artistic Director David Ellenstein deftly stages his production with elan and assurance, lending an authenticity to the wild happenings on the stage. It is performed by a sensational Equity cast of North Coast favorites including Jason Maddy, who stars as Sherlock Holmes the master of disguise, along with cohort Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper as the redoubtable Dr. John Watson.

The cast of "Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the
Great Nome Gold Rush" - All photos by Aaron Rumley

A case the two are working on back in England to free an innocent man for a murder he did not commit, brings them to Alaska in search of additional clues, proof, and to collect a missing quit-claim deed to a highly successful gold mine. ‘Claim-jumping’ was a cottage industry - usually with the cooperation of the local politicians and law enforcement officials -  in most of the gold mines during the late 1880s and the turn of the 20th century.

Former US Marshall Wyatt Earp, engagingly played by Richard Baird, is now the owner, bartender, and security department of the Dexter Hotel, Saloon and “chicken ranch”  With Earp around, most of the denizens observe the house rules…or else! Baird’s rich baritone also voices his English solicitor role as Mr. Pike (M’lud) in a spot-on British accent worthy of an Earl.

Earp’s main squeeze Josephine is the fetching Jacquelyn Ritz, who lights up the stage with her entrance, and plays Mrs. Hudson, Holmes and Watson’s housekeeper back at 221-B Baker Street, London. A terrific Louis Lotorto performs double duty as Ace Dolan and Charles Valliere the piano player.

A lovely Katie Karel plays Charlotte Valcour Amason, the lady with a vested interest in finding the elusive quit-claim deed to her husband’s gold mine; also Karel sports a full-throated mezzo soprano in the bargain.

Andrew Barnicle, as Alexander McKenzie, is picture perfect as real life Alexander McKenzie (a former Republican national committeeman and political figure from North Dakota) whose cowboy hat looked as if it could hold 20 gallons instead of the traditional 10 gallon head cover. McKenzie is a formidable opponent for Holmes and Watson but we all know who wins in the end. “It’s elementary, my dear Watson” as the great man usually says at one point in all his adventures.

John Tessmer as Judge Alfred Noyes and Julian Diaz in multiple roles lend able support to this entertaining production. If I had to find fault, I would suggest that a couple of judicious cuts here and there might mitigate the feeling, on the part of some in the audience, that the play had a false ending (or two) and that it ran a tad long.

The creative team, led by director Ellenstein, includes one of the best scenic and lighting design teams in North County in Marty Burnett (designer) and Mathew Novotny (lighting). The costumes by Elisa Benzoni ring true with period authenticity, and Hair and Wig designs by Peter Herman, along with a sound design by Matt Lescault-Wood, complete the technical team.

“Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Great Nome Gold Rush” performs at North Coast Repertory Theatre though February 4, 2016.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


With the 2016 Oscar nominations now announced we are in the dark, same as the general public as to which Foreign films will take home that coveted gold covered Oscar’s statuette for Best Foreign Language Film.

One thing we do know for sure is the 27th Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) screened nine foreign language films and held panel discussions with all nine directors over the eleven days that saw over 135,000 film fanatics and film junkies from all across the country – and even a few from foreign countries – descend on Palm Springs. Such is the power of film and a quality, well-run, film festival.

This year the festival screened 175 films from 50 plus countries. The Best Foreign Language Film of the Year was seen right here in Palm Springs. The eventual Oscar Winner will accept the award at the 88th Oscar ceremonies that will be televised on February 28th on ABC-TV.

The Oscar competition is always full of surprises in all categories. Just when one thinks they have handicapped the nominees correctly, along comes the winner from out of the blue. With that said, this film critic is sticking his neck out once more.

The PSIFF festival screened five films at their festival which have now become the just- announced final Oscar nominees: “Embrace of the Serpent” (Colombia), “Mustang” (France), “Son of Saul” (Hungary), “Theeb” (Jordan) and “A War” (Denmark).

“Embrace of the Serpent” directed by four-time Oscar nominee Ciro Guerra, is a visual odyssey into the charting of deep incursions by Western explorers in the Amazon jungle over the years. The film shot in black and white is striking in its clarity of what can happen to indigenous people when confronted with western society and its values. It is Colombia’s Official 2016 Oscar Submission.

“Mustang”, written and directed by Turkish-born Deniz Gamez Erguven, who was raised and resides in France, is set in a Black Sea village where female sexuality is repressed and where five spirited Turkish sisters are imprisoned in their own home until suitable marriages can be arranged. The sisters range in age from 13 to 20 years. Boldly and slyly the girls rebel in this somewhat distressing but comedic take on how old and traditional ways continue to bump heads with the 21st century secular world.

Director Erguven has made a ‘dilemma film’ that cleverly and honestly challenges the social and religious tenets that confront more than 1.5 billion people around the world. In many comedy film stories, once the laughter fades and the sensitive subject matter bubbles to the surface, one may see things in a different light.

“Labyrinth of Lies”, is Germany’s official entry to the 2016 Oscars. It’s a powerful film set in Frankfurt in the late 1950’s and is based on true events. The story follows an ambitious, young prosecutor’s obsession to bring former Nazis to justice, and open his country’s eyes to the atrocities they want to forget. This is the kind of film that Germany does so well. Expiating a country’s sins is not accomplished overnight. It takes years.

The German film industry has a winning track record of producing solidly written and introspective films over the last decade, and this film is no exception.   It won the PSIFF Audience Favorite Award.

“A War” is Denmark’s Official entry. Intelligently written and directed by Tobias Lindholm, this modern day military saga is an intense, ripped from today’s headlines, of how people – both civilian and military – react under extreme pressure. In war conditions, choices made are often a matter of life and death for all participants; especially in what the world now refers to as “collateral damage” – meaning innocent civilians.

Writer/Director Lindholm delivers a compelling film for audiences to mull over when it comes to addressing one of the oldest of the planet’s scourges – war waged by humans on one another.

“Theeb”, is Jordan’s Official Oscar Entry. This beautiful photographed adventure film set in the Arabian Desert during WW I echoes some story elements from the 1962 Academy Award-winning film “Laurence of Arabia", directed by the great British filmmaker David Lean.

Co-written and directed by first-time Jordanian filmmaker Naji Abu Nowar, “Theeb” is an action and rite of passage film involving Theeb, a young Bedouin boy, a secret British Army assignment, Ottoman mercenaries, and the creation of the country that will later become Saudi Arabia.

It’s an ambitious film set in 1916 that hit’s the mark on the elements and customs of Bedouin tribal life. Director Abu Nowar spent months living with Bedouin tribes in order to better understand the culture and the people.

“Son of Saul” is Hungary’s Official Oscar Submission and the buzz on the street says it’s a strong candidate to take home the Oscar.

“Son of Saul” co-written and directed by Laszlo Nemes is a very powerful and disturbing story of the Holocaust. It also is another first feature film by a festival filmmaker. According to Nemes, this story has been incubating for almost eight years in his mind. The story focuses on Saul, a ‘Sonderkommando’ who is himself an inmate of the infamous Nazi Auschwitz death camp.

Saul is forced to work emptying the transport trains, herding new arrivals into the ‘showers’, dragging dead bodies into the crematorium afterwards and cleaning up the mess. When he sees the body of a boy that he thinks might be his son, he becomes obsessed with obtaining a Jewish burial for the child. The story is so potent and filled with so much emotion, audience members failed to vote for the film as the Best Film and Audience Favorite of this years’ festival, despite all the Oscar talk about its being the favorite to win the coveted statuette.

Remember what I said earlier about trying to predict the winner? That’s a fool’s game and is fraught with disappointment. Oh, what the heck. I’m voting for “Labyrinth of Lies” as Best Foreign Film with “Son of Saul” as the alternate.

But, you can select your winner and see how you fared on February 28th by watching the telecast on ABC-TV.

Saturday, January 2, 2016


As a theatre and film critic, I have the good fortune of being able to attend various festivals around the country. I get to see and review films from many counties and expand my cultural horizons, so to speak.

One of the largest film festivals in North America is the annual Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF), now in its 27th year. This year my focus is "Award Buzz" film entries. These films have an opportunity to be considered as candidates for Oscar nominations in the category of "Best Foreign Film for 2015.

"Moor", is a Pakistani drama that gives a much needed lift to its moribund film industry (Pakistan has been on a war zone footing for some ten years). I had the opportunity, via telephone, to interview Shaz Khan, one of Pakistan's up and coming talented actor/writer/directors.

Khan is an America-born (Oxnard, CA) actor who as a child returned with his parents to their former country, only later to return to the USA. Shaz attended Penn State University, earning a Business degree. He worked on Wall St. and had a successful career in finance before being bitten by the 'acting bug'. He went on to get a Masters degree in Acting from the Actor's Studio in New York City.

A year or so ago he returned to Karachi to visit relatives, where he saw an announcement in the local paper of auditions being held for a new Pakistani movie. On a whim, he auditioned and was chosen to star in the film "Moor", now an entry at PSIFF screening January 4,6,7 at the Camelot Theatres.

Jack Lyons: The Palm Springs International Film Festival is a very prestigious festival. Can you share the feeling of being a star in this new movie and tell us a little about its story?

Shaz Khan: First let me say its exciting just being in this movie. I auditioned for it as a lark while visiting relatives in Karachi. At their urging I went to the audition never thinking I would be cast. But the movie business is a business where strange and wonderful things can happen.

As to the storyline, it's about the bonding between a father and son amid the problems of graft and corruption in their rural village in the remote province of Balochistan. On a larger scale, it deals with the deliberately engineered decline of a once famous railway system at the hands of a network of people with other plans. The conflicts drive the father and son closer together when it comes time to make life altering decisions. No spoiler alerts from me beyond this.

JL: What are the plans for "Moor"? Will there be festivals to attend to
promote the movie with your Writer/Director Jami Mahmood?

SK: That's up to Jami. He makes all those decisions.

JL: This film signals a sort of return to the world cinema scene. With all
the turmoil and unrest in the region what is the future of Pakistan's
movie-making industry?

SK: Pakistan's movie industry has more or less been out of existence for
over 30 years. Our movies and our stories couldn't get back to pre civil
and religious conflicts that have, for obvious reasons, plagued the area for the last ten years
but that is changing.

Now is an exciting time to be involved in and on the ground floor as the Pakistani film industry is beginning to gear up for its return. We are seeing new writers and new screenwriters emerging from the creative pipeline. Look for more social issues and stories that are 'juiced up' on the possibilities that lie ahead for Pakistan's film industry. As an actor and a film director, it feel great to be able to express ourselves with newer ideas and stories again.

JL: Is this the first time you have been in a potential Oscar nominated film?

SK: Yes. It's unbelievable. It's been a wonderful adventure, one that so far has ended up in Palm Springs this week.

JL: I understand you and your wife are part-time residents of Palm Desert.

SK: Yes, we love the desert. It's quiet and we love the solitude. Our
LA home is full of hustle and bustle. As a creative person and an actor
it's restful and has been good for both of us.

JL: Do your Palm Desert neighbors know you're a professional international actor?

SK: I don't advertise it. Lately we've been off elsewhere doing what actors do. So, I don't know what they think about their new neighbors.

JL: Thanks Shaz for taking the time to share your experiences and future plans with us. Now, let's give a plug to your new film project "The Servant", an inspiring tale of a humble servant in Pakistan
who ends up becoming the biggest star in the country. I believe it's scheduled for a December 2016 release, correct?

SK: Thank you Jack. That was a great plug!