Wednesday, September 28, 2016


Hal Linden
From the Broadway stage, where he won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical in “The Rothschilds”, to his Emmy-nominated performance as the laid back police captain in “Barney Miller”, Hal Linden has been one of the most watchable men working in entertainment for over 65 years. At age 85, the still debonair Linden is still treading the boards, most recently in a well-received version of “The Fantasticks” at the Pasadena Playhouse in which he plays an aging thespian trouper named Henry.

His first Broadway appearance was in “Bells Are Ringing” in 1956, and in between then and now a lot has changed on the theatre scene. Echoing the words of Sondheim’s “Follies”, “Good times and bum times, I've seen 'em all and, my dear, I'm still here!”, Linden has many thoughts on the nature of theatre and the place it holds in popular culture and our history.

I was able to chat with the affable actor recently where we looked back at his storied career.

After a 70-plus year career in music and theatre, what do you think of the new directions that Broadway is taking these days, with different themes and language in shows like "Hamilton" and "Fun Home"?

There are changes in the genre but the rules of theatre haven't changed. Maybe the language has changed, but the rules haven't. The same things touch people, make them laugh, make them enjoy. We haven't changed as human beings that much. So I don't know that it has really changed; the shows are different but the process is the same.

Have you seen "Hamilton"?

Yes, but I must admit I had some difficulty with the show because the language used is not the language I was brought up with in theatre. The legendary director George Abbott believed you must tell the story as simply and clearly as possible so people can get it the first time through. I definitely recommend anyone going to "Hamilton" to listen to the cast album a few times before seeing the show. It's difficult to appreciate the language when you're not used to it.

Sondheim said "lyrics are not poems" - poems you read over and over, discern the meaning. But lyrics have to be immediately understandable at the moment you are hearing it. It has to be perfectly clear or you lose your audience. We may be experimenting in different areas, playing with casting, but it's still theatre, you still have to play the action and objective and the audience has to understand or you're not communicating with them.

L-R Jack Soo, Gregory Sierra, Abe
Vigoda, Maxwell Gail, Ron Glass
and Hal Linden in "Barney Miller"
"Barney Miller" which aired from 1975 to 1982, really pioneered diversity casting featuring Black, Hispanic, Jewish, Asian, and female characters. Other than Norman Lear and Danny Simon shows, most sitcoms were pretty homogeneous. Why do you think it worked so well?

I think because the writing was solid, not “trendy”, and always very relatable. I recently put together a clip reel for a concert appearance I was doing, and I had to sit down and watch over 100 hours of "Barney Miller" episodes. I was amazed at how substantial they were, and that they still hold up almost forty years later.

Veteran actor Hal Linden as Henry
(with Amir Talai) in "The Fantasticks"
at Pasadena Playhouse. Photo by Jim Cox
But casting diversity is nothing new. The show I’m in now, “The Fantasticks”, was always very Pirandello-esque, with heightened emotions, never your kitchen sink reality, and that was back in the early 1960s. This production is probably the most diverse cast in its 50-year history. Yet, the key points are not's visually shocking for the first minute or two, when you see a Black father with an Asian daughter, but the instant you become involved in their stories, that disappears. It only increases the point of the play which shows that all these things are universal and touch everybody whether they look like you or not.

Hal Linden in his Tony Award-winning role as
Meyer Rothschild in "The Rothschilds"
Are there still parts being written out there that you can play?
There are plays about older people but they are few and far between, most of the things happen to people in their prime and that's where the adventure occurs. But unless you write a play specifically about old people, there are going to be very few parts left and that's the truth of it.

Is there any role you wish you’d been able to do?

As far as musicals, what parts could I play now, seriously? I'm too old for all of them - but there are classic roles I never played, like Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, the King in The King & I, or Harold Hill in "The Music Man. These are roles I could have done, but at the time I either wasn't available or something else, and I didn't get the chance. I never played El Gallo, that's a role I should have played 50 years ago. I would have loved to play that part. But I'm beyond those roles now, so there's no point in thinking about them.

Any director you would have loved to work with?

In films, there were many directors I would love to have worked with - Scorsese, Lumet, Kazan. I made films that were nicely directed, but never one with a "great director".  I really wanted to work with really terrific film directors, that's one part of my career I missed. But hey, it's not over yet, right?

However, on stage I was blessed to work with many legendary directors such as Harold Clurman, Bob Fosse, Jules Dassin and George Abbott, which was a phenomenal opportunity.

Abbott was one of the great stage directors. He lived to be 107 years old.

Yes! I learned so much working with Mr. Abbott. I started working with him when he was 85 and he was still directing in his 90s. I became one of the George Abbott players, although I had to turn down some of his shows as I was doing something else; Then I got cast as Barney and I was not available. But I could have made a career working for Abbott, he was a big fan of mine, loved my work. Just look at the parts I
played for him. I did one show "Three Men on a Horse" with Sam Levene. Mr. Abbott told me to pick the part I wanted to play. I picked a character who should have been played by an older character like Maxie Rosenbloom, yet I was only 38 at the time. After that, the next part I did for him was the John Raitt role in Pajama Game. Mr. Abbott would have let me play anything I wanted! He was a joy to work with.

A young Hal Linden during his band singer
days touring with Sammy Kaye, Bobby
Sherwood, and other big bands of the era. 
With all your experience, first in music then in theatre, do you see yourself as a mentor?

Not really, because I was never classically trained in this business, I got into it by accident. I was a brash personality as a young man, I was a band singer, then had my own band for a while, and that's how I slid into the business. I didn't start studying any kind of formal technique until I was on Broadway. So a lot of what I do I learned over the years and that's hard to codify. I don't have discipline to sit down and write a syllabus on how to act. I help my fellow actors whenever I see something, maybe I'll ask a question that might stir them in the proper direction of thought, but it's not my function to do that, so I don't do it unless they are really friends.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?

The truth of the matter is, at this point I don't recall! I'll tell you the advice I give to those who ask: take everything in life seriously except yourself. When you start taking yourself seriously, then you're in trouble. Learn to laugh at yourself, because we are flawed human beings who do and say stupid things. Just say hey, that's me and go with it.

Did you follow it?

Yes! I have a great story about my late wife Frances to illustrate that point. Back in the late 1970s, I was named one of the Ten Most Watchable Men in America by a group called Manwatchers Inc. They presented me with the award that looks like a bowling trophy which greatly amused my wife. After it sat around ignored for a few weeks, Frances announced she had found the perfect permanent spot to display it - in the bathroom! From then on, we took that trophy everyplace, putting it on the commode to remind me "Don't take yourself so seriously!"

Frances and Hal Linden. She was a dancer on
Broadway when they met.The two were
married 52 years until her passing in 2010.
So what’s next for you? Can we look forward to more local stage appearances?

Yes! I am in talks to do a show at the Old Globe in San Diego, a wonderful theatre. As soon as I am able to discuss it, I'll have more details to share.

Linden continues to do various concert appearances across the country; you can also hear his still-silky voice on his CD It’s Never Too Late, a diverse collection of Broadway and film tunes, classic pop songs, as well as jazz standards and favorites from the American Songbook.

You still have time to catch him in "The Fantasticks" at the Pasadena Playhouse until Sunday, October 2nd.  For ticket information, visit

-- Lisa Lyons

Friday, September 23, 2016


L-R: Alex Esola, Catherine Combs, Frederick Weller, Danny Binstock, Andrus Nichols, Howard W. Overshown, Thomas Jay Ryan and Dave Register in the Young Vic production of “A View From the Bridge.” Directed by Ivo van Hove, the production plays through October 16, 2016, at the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit or call (213) 972-4400. Contact: (213) 972-7376. Photo by Jan Versweyveld.
The cast of "A View from the Bridge" at the
Ahmanson Theater. All photos by Jan Versweyveld

Arthur Miller is one of America’s greatest playwrights. Ivo Van Hove is a fine Dutch-born, Belgium-based, talented, Tony Award-winning European stage director.

This being an election year, and politics continually being compared to theatre, I guess it’s okay for me to compare and hearken back to the 1988 vice-presidential debate where vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle was comparing his years in Congress to President Kennedy’s years in the Congress. During their debate Senator Benson uttered his scathing remark heard round the world, where at one point in their debate Benson paused and then leaned in. “Senator”, Benson glared at a nervous Quayle, saying “I served (in the military) with Jack Kennedy. You are no Jack Kennedy.”

Hove is an auteur director with formidable stage credentials, fresh from his 2015 Olivier Awards London success which transferred to New York in 2016, winning Tony Awards for Best Revival and Best Director. The production of Miller’s “A View from the Bridge” has transferred once again, this time to Los Angeles and has landed on the stage of the Ahmanson's 2000-seat house.

Miller’s 1957 version (he wrote two versions) is a small, intimate but powerful story of Eddie Carbone, a New York dock worker-longshoreman-stevedore, who scratches out a hard scrabble existence in Red Hook, a working class neighborhood in Brooklyn.

The challenge of Von Hove’s re-imagined, sparse, character-challenged story is what informs the production, forcing textural changes to be visually updated in its execution to 21st century sensibilities and society. Gone is the naturalistic original set design, which probably needed updating to complement the tone of a slightly altered story from the one Miller wrote back in the 50s.

The new design is awash in glass and floor lighting instruments. No onstage seats, props or furniture. The actors either stand or sit on the floor and one gets a feel and look of a sterile ER hospital waiting room without seats.

L-R Dave Register, Alex Esolo, Frederick Weller,
Thomas Jay Ryan and Andrus Nichols
The actors are working within a box-like rectangular performing area with some audience members seated on stage on opposite sides as if watching a football game with the focus forced into a brightly glowing boxing ring like set. The rest of the audience is seated all over the 2000-seat theatre. Any nuanced gestures or facial expressions taking place on stage by the first rate cast is an act of faith on the part of the audience.

As it’s staged in the round we’re always going to have actors, at times, speaking with their backs to the audience. The Mark Taper Forum, perhaps, would have been a better choice for a play that takes place in one room. But scheduling plays is not one of my strong suits or my job.

L-R: Catherine Combs, Frederick Weller and Andrus Nichols in the Young Vic production of “A View From the Bridge.” Directed by Ivo van Hove, the production plays through October 16, 2016, at the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit or call (213) 972-4400. Contact: (213) 972-7376. Photo by Jan Versweyveld.
Catherine Combs, Frederick Weller and Andrus Nichols
The production as envisioned by auteur Van Hove is an actor’s wish come true. It’s all about them (as it should be). Eddie Carbone, according to Miller’s stage notes, is a husky, slightly overweight, working class longshoreman. Van Hove’s Eddie is a trim, slightly built Frederick Weller, an award-winning stage actor who on opening night didn’t look husky or slightly overweight to me. It’s tough to intimidate as a character when called for by the text when the actor doesn’t have the ‘right look’. The fallback position usually devolves into a lot of shouting to validate the alpha male status.

The story in short,tells the almost Greek-like tragic story of Eddie Carbone, his wife Beatrice (Andrus Nichols), and her seventeen year-old niece Catherine, the orphaned child of her sister who has been raised from a child in the Carbone household.

Catherine Combs, Dave Register, Alex Esolo, Frederick Weller
Their lives are turned topsy-turvy by the arrival of two male relatives of Beatrice from Sicily - Marco, a taciturn, quiet, illegal immigrant strongly played by Alex Esola and Rodolpho, also an illegal, a young, handsome, blonde Italian nicely portrayed by Dave Register. Rodolpho is naturally drawn to the young and vivacious Catherine, wholesomely and innocently played by Catherine Combs, and that sets Eddie on edge, arousing his jealousy and setting in motion the events that lead to a dark and tragic end. If only Beatrice could make Eddie understand his misguided and dangerous emotions concerning Catherine… but she keeps these thoughts to herself.

Frederick Weller and Thomas Jay Ryan
Helping the audience understand the story threads and how they intersect and a weave a tapestry that contains, jealousy, lust, misguided affection, rage and manslaughter is the Narrator/Greek chorus-like character of Alfieri, a world-weary neighborhood lawyer who has seen it all before and knows the ending of the Carbone family story. It’s a key character part and is capably handled by Thomas Jay Ryan. 

One aspect of Mr. Van Hove’s direction that puzzles me, however, is why all of the characters perform their roles barefoot. Even lawyer Alfieri picks up his shoes and takes them with him when he moves to a different part of the stage, setting them down next to him. What part do bare feet play in a longshoreman’s home, including the newly arrived illegal immigrants? All I can think of is that someone must have a foot fetish in this production.

Mr. Van Hove’s creative team have been with him since London and New York. The Scenic and Lighting design is by Van Hove longtime collaborator Jan Versweyveld, as is Costume designer An D’Huys. Sound design is by Tom Gibbons, and the Associate Director is Jeff James.

“A View from the Bridge” performs at the Ahmanson Theatre through October 16, 2016.

-- Jack Lyons

Monday, September 19, 2016


Alyse Rockett, Regi Davis, Philip Anthony Rodriguez,
Gedde Watanabe, Ashley Park and Conor Guzman in
"The Fantasticks" at Pasadena Playhouse. Photos by Jim Cox
I have been a musical theatre fan all my life yet I must be the only person in the country who has never seen a production of "The Fantasticks". I knew some of the songs (I can't hear "Try to Remember" without reaching for the tissues), but I had no idea of the plot or previous stagings.

This turned out to be a good thing for the current Pasadena Playhouse production, because I had nothing to compare to their lovely, lyrical version of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's modern day fairy-tale of love, loss and redemption. I knew the late great Jerry Orbach played the narrator and "bandit" El Gallo, but not much more than that.

For those who don't know, "The Fantasticks" original off-Broadway production ran a total of 42 years and 17,162 performances, making it the world's longest-running musical. Wisely, veteran director Seema Sueko doesn't let that history hold her back from creating a revisionist version that works perfectly in 2016.

Loosely based on the play "Les Romanesques" by Edmond Rostand, the story is simple: It's about a Boy, a Girl, two Fathers and a Wall, as troubadour El Gallo states in his introduction.

Conor Guzman, Ashley Park, Regi Davis and
Gedde Watanabe in "The Fantasticks"
It tells the story of two neighboring fathers Bellomy (an endearing, blustery Regi Davis) and Hucklebee (the delightfully pixie-ish Gedde Watanabe) who trick their children, Luisa (played with bravado and beautifully sung by Ashley Park) and Matt (a sweetly winning Conor Guzman), into falling in love by pretending to feud and building a high wall between their houses.

Philip Anthony Rodriguez
The plan goes swimmingly, with the young couple virtually swooning into each other's arms, until the fathers overplay their hand by deciding to seal the deal by hiring a slightly shady bandit-for-hire, El Gallo (solid, sensual Philip Anthony Rodriguez), to stage a mock "abduction" of Luisa so Matt can become her knight in shining armor and save the day. However, no good deed goes unpunished as they say, and the outcome is a botched affair that ends with both young lovers disillusioned and angry.

Hal Linden and Amir Talai as the Players
in "The Fantasticks"

Assisting El Gallo in his masquerade are two veteran theatrical actors who have seen better days. As played by Broadway and TV veteran actor Hal Linden (The Rothschilds, Barney Miller), Henry is an Actor with a capital A who mixes up his Shakesperean roles, but still steals scenes like a pro. It's wonderful to see Linden back on the stage, his charm and wonderful voice still intact. His hapless sidekick Mortimer, played with gusto and great physical humor, by Amir Talai, enacts his "death scenes" which will have you laughing out loud.

Ashley Park, Alyse Rockett and
Conor Guzman in "The Fantasticks"
One very important character in the show never speaks, but makes her presence felt - Alyse Rockett as The Mute. She is Ariel to El Gallo's Prospero, conjuring the magic required to turn simple pieces of fabric and metal into a wall and acting as a silent Greek chorus of one.

Act 1 is full of energetic set ups and memorable songs, including the poignant "Try to Remember" and the lovely ballad "Soon It's Gonna Rain." However, in Act 2 things take a darker turn as the two now-separated lovers eagerly set out to explore life outside their own backyards and come face to face with the treachery, evil and duplicity of the world at large. When they reunite, as you know they will, it is with a renewed depth of love and appreciation for their lives and each other. "Without a hurt, the heart is hollow," sings El Gallo.

There are so many lovely moments in this production, which is staged much differently than previous versions. Instead of a small stage with a ladder, a blanket and few props, Scenic Designer David F. Weiner creates an abandoned theater complete with cobwebs, dripping water pipes and trunks full of old props that the actors use to create their illusions. The simple accompaniment, led by Music Director/Conductor David O, consists of piano and harpist Liesl Erman, enhances the fairy tale quality of the score and choreography by Kitty MacNamee is clever yet simple as befits the story. Costume Designer Shirley Pierson, Lighting Designer Josh Epstein, Sound Designer Joe Huppert and Fight Choreographer Tim Weske complete the outstanding technical team.

This is the first show of the 2016/2017 season, which will be the last for outgoing Artistic Director Sheldon Epps, who is moving on to work his magic in Houston theatre; however, he is passing the torch into the excellent hands of Executive Artistic Director Danny Feldman, who will join the Playhouse family in the next few months.

If you haven't seen "The Fantasticks", I highly recommend taking someone you love - a spouse, child or parent - to introduce them to the magic of theatre. If you have seen it, come prepared to re-discover its charm once again. It will call to you, and you must "Follow, follow, follow..."

The Pasadena Playhouse is located at 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101. The performance schedule is Tuesday through Friday at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.

"The Fantasticks" plays through October 2.

-- Lisa Lyons

Friday, September 16, 2016


Chris Petschler, Shana Wride, J. Michael Flynn
and Cristina Soria star in "The Cocktail Hour"
All photos courtesy of NCRT

I can’t think of a better way to launch North Coast Repertory Theatre’s 35th season of live theatre than to present a sophisticated comedy of manners written by A. R. Gurney, one of America’s finest playwrights; it's a play that is stylishly and deliciously staged by Rosina Reynolds, one of Southern California’s finest directors.

Gurney is definitely a product of what one would call ‘old school’. He was born into a wealthy up-state New York family, who knows whereof he speaks when it comes to telling the story of an upper class, stuffed-shirt New England family of privilege; a family that overreacts to the newest play that their middle aged writer-publisher-playwright son has written using the family as somewhat unflattering characters. Gurney is probably best known for this and earlier plays "The Dining Room" and the huge mega-hit play still being produced that is a favorite of America’s over-60 set, "Love Letters".

With "The Cocktail Hour", he hits the vanishing cultural nail of privilege right on the proverbial head. In America of the 50s, 60s, and early 70s, however, the evening ritual of having a cocktail at the end of the work day (if one worked that is) with one’s spouse was the proper way to relax before the cook and maid announced that dinner was served - shades of "Downton Abbey". In families of privilege where television was considered uncivilized and therefore beneath discussion, this nightly ritual would be where the news of the day and family gossip would be discussed and digested in a civilized manner, usually presided over by the father as titular head of the family.

Chris Petschler, Cristina Soria, Shana Wride and
J. Michael Flynn in "The Cocktail Hour"
In "The Cocktail Hour", Bradley (a terrific J. Michael Flynn) blusters and pontificates over a new play their son John (a solid Chris Petschler) has written. John drops by to get permission from his father before he publishes it, and his mother Ann (winningly played by Cristina Soria), and his sister Nina (nicely played by Shana Wride) who, when she discovers she’s also a character in her brother’s play, takes the sting out of her usual put-down retorts, asking John how many lines she has while thumbing through the script trying to count her scenes and words.

J. Michael Flynn, Chris Petschler in
"The Cocktail Hour"
'Does it have a plot?' Bradley keeps asking John, only when John finally says ‘Yes’, then Bradley loses interest in the play and begins to chide his son by saying he makes a perfectly good living as an editor-publisher so why write plays? Ann, on the other hand, keeps asking John to write a book instead of a play. “One gets more lasting pleasure out a book, dear” she purrs. During these family dialogue exchanges, the cocktails have been flowing freely, the inevitable recriminations begin to bubble up to the surface and we’re off to the races. Filled with crackling dialogue and witty counter-ripostes, the audience is in for a delightful evening of watching characters one will swear you know and see every day. Remember, we never see ourselves as others see us.

The beauty and enjoyment of this smart comedy ensemble lies in the situations the characters find themselves in along with witty, sharp, and clever dialogue provided by Gurney. Also, plays of this type, flavor, and tone are right in the wheelhouse of Ms. Reynolds. I still remember her gifted direction a couple seasons back of the outstanding production of Sir Noel Coward’s “Fallen Angels”.

Cristina Soria and Shana Wride in
"The Cocktail Hour"
Once again, North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT) has the dynamic duo of Set Designer Marty Burnett and Lighting Designer Matt Novotny delivering what they do best – quality work. Elisa Benzoni’s costumes give J. Michael Flynn a Charles Osgood look with a snappy bow tie (one doesn’t see bow ties anymore). Sound by Melanie Chen, Hair and Wig design by Peter Herman, and Props by Andrea Gutierrez, complete the creative team.

Once again Artistic Director David Ellenstein scores with another stellar production. It’s a great way to raise the curtain on NCRT’s 35th

“The Cocktail Hour” performs through October 8, 2016. Don’t miss it.

-- Jack Lyons