Thursday, March 31, 2016


Kristen Beth Williams as Sibella Hallward, Kevin Massey as Monty Navarro 
and Adrienne Elleras Phoebe D'Ysquith in a scene from 
"A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder." Photo by Joan Marcus

Music may be the food of love per the Bard, who urges us to play on. However, it’s devilishly difficult when everyone is laughing and having a great time to think about squaring the circle concerning the murderous aspects in the title of the brilliant and entertaining musical comedy/farce "A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder" now on stage at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.

It must be the perverse nature of human beings that we claim to revile the darker aspects of our nature, yet revel in its powerful and seductive attractions. Many of us are drawn to chocolate in all its addictive forms, and how can one explain the hypnotic fascination of watching the aftermath of a train wreck or a roadside traffic accident? We are a strange species indeed.

Regardless of your quirk, one can’t help but enjoy the sparkling and inventive onstage musical comedy machinations of "A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder" in one of the Ahmanson’s slickest and audience-pleasing productions this season.

The multiple Tony-winning production, written by librettist and lyricist Robert L. Freedman with music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak, is based on the 1907 Roy Horniman novel "Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal", which in turn became the inspiration for the 1949 British Ealing Studios movie "Kind Hearts and Coronets", making Alec Guinness an international movie star in the process.

John Rapson (c) and the Ensemble of
"A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder"
Photo by Joan Marcus
The Ahmanson stage audience buzzed with anticipation and excitement prior to curtain up on opening night as many celeb’s and stars could be seen chatting in the audience. I was seated next to an original Broadway cast member and star performer Jane Carr. Seated next her was the legendary Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director Emeritus of Center Theatre Group. Davidson’s thirty-eight year stewardship and personal vision helped make The Mark Taper Forum, The Ahmanson, and the Kirk Douglas Theatres become ‘must attend’ venues over the years, thus cementing Los Angeles’ reputation as a theatre town as well as a movie and TV-oriented city.

The story of our anti-hero Monty Navarro (after all, the character becomes a serial killer), sensationally played by Kevin Massey, takes place in 1907 Edwardian London. The plot is driven partly by revenge for past family slights, partly by the ambition of young Navarro - a man with no prospects of bettering his life - who learns that he is a disinherited member of one of England’s leading aristocratic families – the D’Ysquith’s. It’s a family of eight relatives, all of whom are in the line of succession to become the Earl of Highurst, and all are played by the incredibly talented John Rapson, in a tour-de-force turn.

Kristen Beth Williams and Kevin Massey
in "A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder"
Photo by Joan Marcus
Complicating Navarro’s life is his hormone-driven infatuation with the sexy Sibella Hallward, seductively played and sung by Kristen Beth Williams. Sibella has plans other than to be involved in an affair with a penniless store clerk; that is until Monty informs her of his recent news. Suddenly his prospects and appeal have greatly improved in her eyes.

Monty is now faced with the reality of coming up with a plan to remove all eight impediments standing in his way in order to become the Ninth Earl of Highurst without drawing suspicion to himself. How he goes about the competition removal process is the hilarious stuff of invention and execution (no pun intended) performed by an inspired cast of actor/singers who act and perform in true ensemble fashion.

Adrienne Eller and Kevin Massey in
"A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder"
Photo by Joan Marcus
Halfway through his quest, Monty meets his cousin Phoebe D’Ysquith, (a lovely Adriennne Eller who boasts a set of soaring soprano pipes) a sweet young lady who becomes smitten with him. Fortunately for her, Phoebe is not on Monty’s removal list. But she has him on her husband-to-be list. And the plot get thicker… but no spoiler alerts here.

The musical features nineteen songs and musical numbers that crackle with energy and precision. Under the baton of musical director Lawrence Goldberg, the show has the look and feel of a precision synchronized swim team that at times is breathtaking in its execution. Visually it’s a lush and stunning-looking production that has the audience applauding after every scene break, which by the way, is richly deserved.

John Rapson as Lady Hyacinth D'Ysquith in
"A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder"
Photo by Joan Marcus
All of the above mentioned comedy/farce story components and stage business is the province of the production’s gifted and inventive director Darko Tresnjak. His creative fingerprints are all over this splendid production. This is the second production of the show directed by Tresnjak that I’ve seen and each time he imbues the production with a fresh and inventive quality that has become his hallmark.

When he was the artistic director at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre (2004 -2009), audiences eagerly looked forward to plays that were directed by him knowing full well that theatrical surprises were just a scene ahead.

The technical arsenal available to directors at the Ahmanson is limitless. The creative technical team led by Tresnjak has scenic design wizard Alexander Dodge deliver a magnificent set along with design projections and special effects galore that are sprinkled throughout the production. Keep your eyes on the doorway connecting two rooms in Act 2…priceless!

The costumes designed by Linda Cho are stunning, colorful, and functional, as they must be for this physically and athletically performed production. Making sure we get to see every nuanced moment on stage falls to Lighting Designer Philip S. Rosenberg who doesn’t disappoint. Choreography is by Peggy Hickey.

“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” performs at the Ahmanson Theatre, and runs through May 1, 2016.

Friday, March 25, 2016


Larry Raben, David Engel and Chuck Yates in ART
Photo by David A. Lee 
Who would have thought that a ‘white canvas painting’ three feet by four feet without a frame, could wreak such comedy havoc between three old friends?  That in a nutshell is the gist of the story of the blisteringly funny comedy ART, written by Iranian-born, but French-raised, Tony Award-winning playwright Yasmina Reza.

English playwright Christopher Hampton (who works on all of Reza’s plays) provides ART with not only a witty and insightful translation, he delivers a script chock full of biting dialogue for the sensational trio of gifted actors: Chuck Yates (Marc), Larry Raben (Serge), and David Engle (Ivan) who spin his words into theatrical gold under the deft direction of Don Amendolia.

Chuck Yates, David Engle, Larry Raben
in ART. Photo by David A. Lee
ART is a story that crosses generational lines, international borders, and multi-cultures that resonates with people everywhere because we have all seen our friends and relatives in situations the three characters find themselves in, despite the fact that it's set in Paris. The play is not just about a painting; it’s about how we react when our friends’ secret agendas bubble up from their subconscious when they’re innocently asked for an opinion. The meat of the play unfolds in the interaction of these three friends and is a favorite device in many of Reza’s plays like ‘God of Carnage’, another of her Tony-winning plays.

Larry Raben as Serge
in ART. Photo by
David A. Lee
In ART, Serge, a divorced, successful dermatologist and a culture-driven art collector, has purchased a painting for $50,000 dollars and can’t wait to share his purchase with Marc his best friend of fifteen years. Marc has always fancied himself as Serge’s mentor in all things cultural. In the past, Serge usually consulted with Marc before making a purchase; this time, he didn’t. He made a spur-of-the-moment- decision and now is eager to get Marc’s approval.

Chuck Yates as
Marc in ART
Photo by David A. Lee
Marc can best be described as an anal-retentive, irritating nitpicker who has a gift for always being right and enjoys the rough and tumble of these spirited exchanges with Serge and Ivan, or anyone else who will listen to him spout-off. When he and Serge discuss the painting, Marc is appalled, not only at the priced Serge paid for it, but he disses the painting as utter crap, forcing Serge to defend his purchase. The result is both men agree, after verbally fencing and insulting one another, to see what Ivan thinks of it.

David Engle as Ivan
in ART. Photo by
David A. Lee
Ivan is not the cultural or monetary equal of Serge or Marc. He is a middle-class working type who has just begun a job in a stationery store owned by his future father-in-law.  The three despite their backgrounds, however, are compatible best friends.

The beauty of this stellar production lies in the performances of its three extremely talented actors and the deliciously incendiary dialogue of playwright Reza.  Just when one thinks that all the one-upmanship lines each actor hurls to the other, that the final salvo has been fired, another round of sparkling, zinger-laden put-downs begins all over again. I’ve seen four professional productions of ART over the years and I wouldn’t exchange this trio for any who have performed Reza’s lacerating comedy of male friendship and honesty.

Director Amendolia keeps the pace crackling and wisely allows his three stars to flesh out and mine every comedy nugget to the fullest. It’s a terrifically entertaining comedy production that also affords the audience time to absorb what is taking place on stage, and to reflect upon its deeper and more sobering meanings.

ART’s creative team led by director Amendolia delivers solid technical support from set designer Josh Clabaugh, and a tricky lighting design by Moira Wilkie (who just created the lighting design for CV REP’s ‘I Am My Own Wife’ which I saw last week), required to see the costumes designed by Bonnie Nipar. This splendid production should not be missed by Coachella Valley audiences.

The production performs at the Annenberg Theatre, Palm Springs, and runs through April 3, 2016.  For reservations and ticket information call the box office at 760-318-0024.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


Steven Louis Grush and Rebecca Pidgeon star in
"Sex with Strangers" - Photo credit: Michael Lamont
In the past, one could usually rely upon the Geffen Playhouse to present new and/or edgy plays that captured the attention of audiences. This was a recipe that resonated with their wide age demographic.Toss into the season a couple quality plays, and the Geffen had another successful season.

I’m not quite sure what’s going on with their play selections of late. But the current offering at the intimate (114 seats) Audrey Skirball Kenis stage of the two theatre complex in Westwood, comes off as flaccid as the on-stage story it’s trying hype with the provocative and sexy title of “Sex with Strangers”.

Known for her acclaimed direction of multiple productions of playwright Ayad Akhar's “Disgraced”, a searing satire of New York City mores, director Kimberly Senior this time stages a talky two-hander of screenwriter-playwright Laura Eason's script.

In “Sex with Strangers", the plot revolves around Olivia (Rebecca Pidgeon), an intelligent, mid-career, one-book novelist who is having second thoughts about her ability is a writer, and Ethan (Stephen Louis Grush), a wildly successful, young, hyper-energetic stud/blogger with an ego to match, who meet in a mutual friend’s borrowed cabin on a snowy winter night in Michigan.

Rebecca Pidgeon as Olivia in
"Sex with Strangers" - Photo credit:
Michael Lamont
Apparently, the friend has neglected to inform Olivia of the cabin arrangements. The wary Olivia is not too thrilled with the coarse and boorish behavior of the younger Ethan who is oblivious to his manner.

Stephen Louis Grush as Ethan in
"Sex with Strangers" - Photo credit:
Michael Lamont
As the ice begins to thaw between them over glasses of wine, conversation and ‘writer talk’ about the state of a changing literary world, young hormones win the day over the resistance of older hormones being awakened in Olivia. Echoes of ‘summer romance’ novels begin to appear in the plot.

It’s natural to expect, in literature at least, for opposites to attract. It’s a staple plot device that has served authors, readers, and audiences alike for centuries. However, in "Sex with Strangers" it’s hard to become engaged in a banal two character play that is nowhere even near the zip code of reality and believability. Yes, sex is how we all got here; it’s an intoxicating experience, an addicted activity (thank God) that keeps us all on the treadmill of life. But sex is not a spectator sport, “Oh, Calcutta!” notwithstanding. And, we’re still capable of following plot points without actually seeing them. To her credit, director Senior does a tasteful orchestration of the sex scenes.

If we are to become engaged in Olivia and Ethan’s story, in order to root for either, somethings would have to change. He’s tattooed all over his upper body, and looks as if he’s just one speeding ticket away from landing a month’s stay in the city lock-up. Olivia, as played by Pidgeon, is just too low key and one dimensional, with a very expressionless face. I kept wondering what the females in the audience were thinking about her choices in men. I expect the males in the audience were thinking ‘what’s the matter with her?  He’s a loser, dump him and go back to reading a good book instead!’.  Of course, if that were to happen then we wouldn’t be spending an evening in the theatre, eh?

Stephen Louis Grush, Rebecca Pidgeon in
"Sex with Strangers" - Photo credit:
Michael Lamont
Yes Ethan, as played by Grush, does comes across as a con man at first, and later not so much but as just another of society’s flawed, youthful young man of promise who never reached his full potential despite his early success in a blogging career. Even in my rant…no spoiler alerts here.

Senior's creative team has scenic designer Sibyl Wickersheimer providing a cozy cabin set which then doubles for a Chicago apartment in the second act. Lighting designer Joshua Epstein’s warm and mood inducing low key lighting provides just the right amount of light to see and appreciate the costumes of Olivia as designed by Elisa Benzoni. Sound design is provided by Cricket S. Myers.

“Sex with Strangers” performs on the Geffen Playhouse's Kenis Stage, and runs through April 10, 2016.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016


Vince Gatton stars as Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf (among
others) in "I Am My Own Wife" - All photos by Ron Celona
Personal stories are always powerful, inspirational and complex, as are we the humans upon which they’re based. We are not perfect, but we all strive, or should, to reach our full potential as humans and all that this implies.

Movies and television have the director as auteur along with an army of technicians. The live stage, however, is the medium and province of the actor. Grand and significant ideas come alive when performed by live actors. The connection between actor and audience is instantaneous. It can be both breathtaking and mesmerizing; it is often transformative on the part of the audience. Those are powerful components that make an evening spent in the theatre well worth the effort.

 CV REP Artistic Director and founder Ron Celona once again brings a potent and compelling production to Rancho Mirage audiences. This time it’s a production of playwright Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning drama “I Am My Own Wife”, performed by gifted New York City-based actor Vince Gatton.

Gatton portrays a mind-blowing 35 characters in a brilliant tour de force performance, speaking and translating as he goes in English, German, and French. It’s an astonishing accomplishment by an actor.

Wright, when asked why he chose to craft his play about Germany’s famous transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (along with her memories, diaries and comments from others during the German Weimar days), says that his ‘raison d’etre’ answer is "Charlotte had to adopt a variety of guises in order to survive, after all; so why not let one actor adopt a variety of guises to tell her story?” And what a story it is.

I had the opportunity last November to meet Doug Wright and briefly discuss his 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning play at the American Theatre Critic Association meeting in New York City. It was an illuminating experience. He’s tall, incredibly intelligent, extremely articulate, and easily accessible to interviewers. As the current President of the Dramatist’s Guild of America, Wright is a the ‘go-to playwright’ for theatre critics to interview.

Celona’s seamless staging and direction of “I Am My Own Wife” is a mesmerizing theatrical experience which is underscored by the amazing performance of his star Vince Gatton. There are so many finely nuanced character moments in this powerful and haunting re-creation of long ago events now brought so vividly to life by Gatton as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and others in her complicated and complex life. It’s an exceptional performance that should not be missed by audiences of the Coachella Valley.

In the technical department, Germany of the 1930s and 40s springs to life on a stunningly beautiful set created by Resident Production Design wizard Jimmy Cuomo that is creatively lit by Lighting Designer Moira Wilkie, who bathes the stage in mood-inducing shafts of light. Also spot-on is Gatton’s costume, designed by Aalsa Lee, which gives him a character as well as a functional costume required for various pieces of stage business.

“I Am My Own Wife” performs at CV REP Theatre, in Rancho Mirage, CA and runs through March 27, 2016.  Call the Box Office at 760-296-2966 for tickets.

Monday, March 7, 2016


Love is what all humans need whether they know it or not.

Love is a powerful, addictive emotion that manifests itself in various forms: Love of life, love of family, love of work; it’s what makes us human beings. The trick is to recognize it when it comes along.

The Groves Cabin Theatre is currently presenting a drama that coalesces around that most elusive of all human experiences – love.  “The Sea Horse” written by Edward J. Moore, is solidly directed by Abe Daniels and stars Rebecca Havely and Scott Cutler as two damaged and scarred people trying to come to grips with their pasts in order to make a future together.

The tale of “The Sea Horse” - also the name of the waterfront bar where the play takes place - delves into a complex love story which is both tender and ribald at the same time. It might even be characterized as a romance play between two people on the lower end of the economic scale. A life at sea or in a waterfront bar is no Park Avenue experience. It’s a peek into a world of characters normally not on mainstream America’s radar screens. But everyone has a story to tell and itinerant seaman Harry Bales, winningly played by Scott Cutler, and Sea Horse bar owner Gertrude Blum, in an astonishingly portrayal by Rebecca Havely, are no exceptions. Havely normally tackles light comedy roles, but is a revelation as the crusty, rough-edged, baggage-laden bar owner "Two-Ton Gerty", as Harry s seafaring mates refer to her.

The play, as written by Moore, is a somewhat loose and messy affair when it comes to crafting their story into a stage play. Amid the grit and grime of the setting, Harry reveals a sort of a poetic and poignant side when it comes to wooing Gert in his quest to marry her. He fancies himself as quite a stud. However Gert is wary and gun-shy when it comes to men and marriage, having been physically and verbally abused by her ex-husband as a teenage bride. Once bitten, twice shy, is her motto. This is a play where the performances and on-stage chemistry of the two leads exceed the substance of the narrative by playwright Moore.

A great deal of why this production works so well is due to director Daniels. As a actor himself, he is on the wavelength of his two stars. Together they breathe life into a somewhat pedestrian yarn. The Groves Cabin Theatre performance space is the size of a postage stamp. The front row seats are a mere three feet from the actors at times. Clever ‘traffic management’ by director Daniels, however, draws one into this quirky love story which ultimately fully engages its audience thanks to its two fine actors.

The set design and decorations by Dave Jessup, Doug Thompson, and the crew is one of the best-looking set designs at the Groves I’ve seen in many productions. Sharon Noble’s costume designs provide the right look, but I would have thought a gray, grungy-looking and rumpled undershirt would better suit Harry than a crisp, new looking white T-shirt. Military guys in the audience also will like that spot-on, travel-worn seaman’s duffle bag. Perhaps, Gert needs to ‘dirty up” those trousers as well. Harry references her waterfront bar look a couple of times during the play. After all these two characters are not fashion plates… just sayin’.

“The Sea Horse” at the Groves Cabin Theatre performs on Saturdays at 7:00 pm and on Sundays at 2:30 PM through March 20th.

With just 22 seats, reservations are a must, so call the box office at 760-365-4523.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016


The Cast of "Now You See It"
All photos courtesy of North Coast Rep
Farce, in general, as a theatrical genre has always been a tough sell to American audiences. Lately, we’ve seen a noticeable upswing in the plays of the masters of the genre - playwrights like the great Moliere, and the “Belle Epoque” favorite Georges Feydeau - being staged again, albeit, via translations mainly by British playwrights, and the American playwright David Ives.

Some plays are being updated to resonate with 21st century society, others are receiving tweaks here and there, new characters with new names, some evolving some not. But the bottom-line is they’re being produced and being embraced by Millennial audiences, and that is good news for the art form and theatre in general.

Farces are fun and don’t necessarily require over-analysis on the part of the audience. The laughter stems from the characters themselves and how they get into and out of situations they find themselves in – usually of their own making.The piquant sauciness of French farce-romps is seductive as well as little naughty, but it’s all done in good fun.

David McBean, Kern McFadden
and John Greenleaf 
North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT) has a successful track record of producing winning farce and sophisticated productions and their current offering of “Now You See It” by Georges Feydeau, with a translation by English playwright Kenneth McLeish, is no exception.

Artistic Director David Ellenstein, who has a keen eye and ear for plays that he knows will entertain his sophisticated and theatre-savvy audiences, brings back to NCRT actor-director Bruce Turk to stage this comedy gem. Turk, not only brings a wealth of experience and talent to the table, but he is blessed with cast of polished farceurs that bring the British Edwardian time frame and setting right up to the front door of the theatre.

The story, set in Edwardian England, revolves around Summersby (Kern McFadden) a Member of Parliament and his beautiful, but jealous, young wife Marie-Louise (Alison Minick). Summersby has learned the skill of how to hypnotize Marie-Louise in order to carry on nightly assignations with other women while she sleeps blissfully unaware until he awakens her from her trance. This way he is able to stay one step ahead of the jealous Marie-Louise and happily lead a double life as prominent member of society and a serial philanderer.

David McBean and Allison Minick
Naturally in comedy-farce old suitors always seem to drop in unannounced. Enter Mr. Shaftsbury-Phipps (David McBean) a former admirer of Marie-Louise who has recently returned from ‘Inja’ seeking to reignite the flame of his long standing crush. His ardor, however, is not immediately reciprocated. But he soldiers on, hoping for a change of heart even though the lady’s already married (hope truly does spring eternal in the world of the theatre).

Ruff Yeager and Allison Minick
Meanwhile, Summersby’s latest dalliance is with the wife of Vole, the local wine merchant (Ruff Yeager, in all his imposing 6’6” frame), who is becoming suspicious and confronts Summersby. Experienced seducers are always ready for these situations. Before the two men part, they’ve become business partners! No harm, no foul, but no more spoiler alerts either.

The crisp pacing and impeccable timing executed by the cast under the steady and inventive hand of director Turk makes for a delightful evening at the theatre. “Now You See It” is also spiced throughout with little bits of onstage magic performed by the actors which adds another dimension to this clever production. I asked one of the actors later how that stage business use of magic was performed.True to the code of all magicians, I received a wide smile and twinkling eyes by way of an explanation.

Alison Minick, Kern McFadden, David McBean, John Greenleaf and Ruff Yeager are a winning ensemble cast who know their way around a classic farce when they are in one. It’s a delightful production that will tickle everyone’s funny bone.

The technical credits at North Coast Rep are always first rate.The audience, upon entering the theatre, is met by a visually stunning and inviting set design by resident design wizard Marty Burnett. Lighting designer Matt Novotny bathes the stage in warm and mood inducing shafts of light in all the right places. One is never disappointed by a Burnett and Novotny collaboration; in fact, it’s a hallmark of NCRT productions.

The costumes by Anastasia Pautova (new to me, but definitely a keeper) are spot-on for the period and look great on stage. The great Laurence Olivier, it’s been said, always began creating his character/persona from the outside – meaning prosthetics and costumes – to the inside where the text became the catalyst for the performance to come. If one doesn’t believe that costumes aren’t really important to a production, just ask any actor - but, be prepared for a passionate discussion on the subject. Sound Designer Melanie Chen, Hair and Wig design by Peter Herman, and Prop design by Andrea Gutierrez, and Magic Consultant George Tovar complete the creative team led by director Turk.

Make sure you stay seated for the curtain call. It’s one of the cleverest and creative curtain calls I’ve seen years., and that piece of inspired business is the province of the director, Mr. Bruce Turk.

“Now You See It” performs at North Coast Repertory Theatre, Solana Beach, through March 27, 2016.