Tuesday, August 15, 2017

"HAMLET" ARRIVES AT SAN DIEGO'S OLD GLOBE WITH ENERGY AND FLAIR

Grantham Coleman in the title role of Hamlet. All photos by Jim Cox
Hamlet has to be the most ‘traveled’ character in all of theatrical performed history. The play has been around for over 400 hundred years and still has the power to draw actors and audiences together in celebration of Shakespeare’s, arguably, most fascinating and enigmatic character.

The richness and poetry of Shakespeare’s text in spinning a multifaceted tale of tragedy, revenge, duplicity, and death are the elements that have seduced actors as well as audiences around the world, and its been performed in all languages.

“Hamlet” once again graces the Lowell Davies Outdoor Festival stage as part of the Old Globe’s Summer Shakespeare Festival. The ‘melancholy Dane’ and his travails is crisply directed by the Old Globe’s Erna Finci Viterbi artistic director Barry Edelstein, who caps off another winning season of plays and musicals selected and produced under his stewardship.

The cast of Hamlet at The Old Globe
This “Hamlet” production boasts a cast of twenty talented, dedicated and committed performers, who despite a slight technical glitch as the play began on opening night, then settled in, found its light-comedy as well as its drama footings and delivered solid and nuanced performances by all.

Edelstein’s personal vision for this production sees the characters not as British or American accented performers, but as ‘people’ speaking as characters caught up in the time period of the play. His decision to eschew accents is a bit of a boon for American audience ears, in that most are not finely tuned to the sounds of Shakespearean iambic pentameter dialogue. However, the cast of Old Globe-trained classic actors nicely bridge the accent gaps that other theatre productions employed, and this standard American/English speaking version of “Hamlet” is all the better for it.

Twenty performers on stage can be a challenge for directors, scenic, and lighting designers. However, the creative talent of Scenic Designer Tim Mackabee (who brilliantly designed the world premiere production of “Robin Hood” currently playing in the Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White venue), gives the actors a generous space staging area for the castle battlements, for banquets, for the-play-within-the play requirements, for duels, all accomplished with clever platforms and different levels. Lighting director Stephen Strawbridge insures that we will able to see the gorgeous costumes designed by Cait O’Connor with his mood-inducing lighting plot.

Talley Beth Gale as Ophelia, Grantham 
Coleman as Hamlet, Michael Genet as 
Player King, and Christina A. Okolo as 
Player Queen in Hamlet
The story of “Hamlet” deals with a young Danish prince who is summoned home to Denmark from school in Germany to attend his father’s funeral. He is shocked to learn that his mother Queen Gertrude has already remarried. The Queen is now wed to Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, the dead King’s brother. Hamlet is disgusted by the marriage calling it ‘foul incest’.

When a ghost-like apparition of Hamlet’s father appears to Hamlet and his friend Horatio, Hamlet is told by the spirit that Claudius, his brother, murdered him by pouring poison into his ear; stealing his life, his kingdom, and his wife. The ghost tells Hamlet that he must avenge his murder.

The revenge plan that Hamlet hatches will impact all those around him. His mother, his step-father Claudius, Ophelia his love interest, his friends, and his sanity. There is always a price to pay, however, when the revenge is fueled by hate, which in turn, drives hasty and ill thought-out decisions. Shakespeare did not call his play the “Tragedy of Hamlet” for nothing. As we watch in awe the machinations of the characters, one gets to step back for a moment to appreciate how sublime is the playwright’s construction and how meaty the roles that are available in Shakespeare’s masterpiece. It’s also a treasure trove of quotable sayings that are still in use in everyday 21st century life.

Grantham Coleman as Hamlet Patrick Kerr as
Polonius, Kevin Hafso-Koppman as Rosencrantz
and Nora Carroll as Guildenstern in Hamlet
The upside to some of the downside text, however, lies in the performances of the players. Some purists may be disappointed with director Edelstein’s decision to embrace diversity in the casting of actors of color. But stories of yesteryear, even when it comes to the Bard, have been known to break with tradition. Hamlet, for example, has been played by many women over the years; Diane Venora, in 1983 performed as Hamlet in New York’s famous “Public Theatre” venue run by Joe Papp.


Last year the great British actress Dame Glenda Jackson, at 80 years of age, took on the herculean role of King Lear, and received stellar reviews in the process. But then, Dame Glenda is a wonder. In Shakespeare’s day all the women’s parts were played by men. It was English theatre law. We’re now in the 21st century. Just as the English language is constantly evolving, so too is the manner and fashion of how we stage and mount our productions. “Hamilton”, the 2017 Tony Winning musical is a case in point as to diversity casting and its acceptance by audiences who have seen and raved about the show.

Opal Alladin as Queen Gertrude and
Grantham Coleman as Hamlet
The company of players assembled by director Edelstein is first rate, and the performance of Hamlet played by rising star Grantham Coleman is an actor to watch. He is handsome, has charisma, on stage presence and power and is blessed with an abundance of talent that Noel Coward called ‘star quality’. His range runs the gamut from the giddy to a controlled, almost reckless madness in his scenes with Claudius, Gertrude, and Ophelia. It’s riveting stuff to watch.

Complementing Coleman’s performance in this “Hamlet” production, is the potent performance of Cornell Womack as King Claudius. It’s a tough, under-appreciated, role by the audience, and he does it without going over the top. Womack neatly threads that tiny needle opening with style and assurance. Opal Alladin as Queen Gertrude, a mother who serves two masters: her son Hamlet, and her own earthly ambitions makes the most of her family situation until fate steps in.

Grantham Coleman as Hamlet and Michael
Genet as The Ghost of Hamlet's Father
Solid support comes from Michael Genet as The Ghost of Hamlet’s father, the role of the Player King and as the gravedigger. All three portrayals are stellar winning performances. Talley Beth Gale’s Ophelia, is properly youthful in act one and her meltdown into madness in act two is strangely compelling to watch. Patrick Kerr’s Polonius is weasel-like and whinny, but he gets to utter some of Shakespeare’s best quoted lines, like the advice “… Neither a borrower nor a lender be…” that he gives to his son Laertes who is planning a trip to Paris. Laertes, in act two is fiercely played by Jonny Orsini, as a man on a revenge mission. Horatio, Hamlet’s loyal friend, also is nicely played by Lorenzo Landini.

Grantham Coleman as Hamlet and
Talley Beth Gale as Ophelia
The ensemble actors who portray multiple characters also are always in their on stage moments. Kudos to stage manager Pamela Salling and her crew who keep the on stage and back stage personnel on their cues and on their toes. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes, in order to make everything seamlessly flow for the audience.


“Hamlet” is a potently acted production that will win over audiences if embraced by Old Globe audiences who may still be yearning for the good old days of the twentieth century. But, times and theatre productions and their styles; they are a ‘changin’. We all need to get on board.

“Hamlet” now performing in the Lowell Davies Outdoor Festival Theatre is an impressive and entertaining evening of theatre that runs through September 10, 2017.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME UNCOVERS THE MYSTERIES OF THE MIND AND HEART

Adam Langdon and the Ensemble of THE CURIOUS
INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME. All photos by Joan Marcus.


The Tony Award-winning play THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME has landed at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles in all it's digitized, breathtaking splendor and it's quite an illuminating trip. Director Marianne Elliot, award-winning director of WAR HORSE, and the original London and Broadway productions, propels the audience into the mind of Christopher, an autistic teenager (Adam Langdon) who is definitely on the autism spectrum, although his diagnosis is never directly identified in the play. It was based on the book by Mark Haddon and was adapted for the stage by Simon Stephens.

In the opening scene we are greeted with the moonlit figure of a large dog impaled with a pitchfork and a shaken Christopher standing over the animal, overcome with emotion. It is soon revealed that someone killed Wellington the dog who belongs to a neighbor and by virtue of proximity Christopher is the prime suspect. But as the arriving police officer discovers, things are not always what they seem; an attempt to handle Christopher results in a terrifying outburst of pain and fear that he experiences by being touched by another person. 


We get to see the narrow emotional world that Christopher inhabits, one that he has adjusted to and thrived within. He is a mathematical savant, an admirer of Sherlock Holmes who uses his prodigious mental gifts to solve the mysteries of life in a most precise and often endearing manner. But it is his emotional gifts that need tending.

Christopher is enrolled at a special needs school where his counselor Siobhan (Maria Elena Ramirez) encourages him to channel his energy and creativity into writing a journal of his efforts to solve the murder of the dog Wellington. Christopher is being raised by his hardworking handyman father Ed (Gene Gillette) with enormous patience and protectiveness. 

Adam Langdon and Maria Elena
Ramirez in THE CURIOUS INCIDENT
OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME.
Ed fights for his son to have as normal a life as possible, battling with school administrators who want to deny Christopher an opportunity to sit for his A Level maths exams (the UK equivalent of advanced AP courses/PSAT exams) at the age of only 15 years. With a visible mixture of guilt and melancholy, Ed does the best he can for the son who he cannot hold.
Gene Gillette and Adam Langdon in
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG
IN THE NIGHTTIME.
As with most young geniuses, Christopher is single-minded in his belief that his superior logic skills will help him uncover Wellington's murderer, despite his father's warnings to leave things alone and not go poking his nose into other people's business. But do kids ever listen? No. That's lucky for the audience who follow down the rabbit hole of Christopher's racing mind.

The show hurtles along at breakneck speed, beautifully creating the sights and sounds of London as perceived by Christopher - flashing lights, ambient sounds, a parkour-like movement scheme that had the audience cheering (wonderfully choreographed by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett), executed by a hardworking ensemble who play multiple roles throughout the play.


Adam Langdon as Christopher in THE
CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME.
Along the way to solving Wellington's murder, Christopher makes a startling personal discovery that leads him to run away from home and venture alone on the London Underground to seek out his missing mother whom he thought dead. His bravery is tested by difficult, unknown circumstances; things that would be commonplace to most of us, like finding a railway station, buying a ticket and learning how to jump onto a train and read a subway map are daunting. But he is truly on a quest and, like most questers, his determination will carry the day.

The Ensemble in THE CURIOUS INCIDENT
OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME. 
Fully bringing the world view of autism to life is not easy, but this talented, versatile cast handles it masterfully. Playing a Rain Man-type character can be tricky, so it is to the credit of actor Langdon that we are not put off by his quirks and intense, gangly physicality that is a grueling nightly ordeal (another talented actor Benjamin Wheelwright performs the Saturday and Sunday matinees). Actors Gillette, Ramirez and particularly Felicity Jones Latta as Christopher's errant mother are able to create and sustain an empathetic, emotional climate throughout.

The ensemble gets a nod here: Amelia White as a compassionate neighbor; Kathy McCafferty as the school principal and Brian Robert Burns, John Hemphill, Geoffrey Wade, Francesca Choy-Kee, Robyn Kerr and J. Paul Nicholas all contribute multiple portrayals to support the action.

Amelia White and Adam Langdon in
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG
IN THE NIGHTTIME. 
Most of the technical team are from the original British production and their work adds to the emotional weight of the piece. They include Bunny Christie (Scenic & Costume Design), Paule Constable (Lighting Design), Finn Ross (Video Design), Adrian Sutton (Music), and Ian Dickinson (Sound Design).

The production has some slight problems mostly due to the flashy visuals and thundering sound (off-putting to many elderly patrons), and quite honestly the Ahmanson seems a bit too large of a house for this tale. Maybe the venerable Mark Taper Forum would have been a better fit? 

I found the themes that underlie the play to have great resonance - perhaps many in the audience felt the same. The desperate need to make sense of a universe that often seems unknowable and a society that at times is insane, is something we all share in the current state of the world. To the authors of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME, it seems logic - and love - might just be the answer to our eternal quest for the meaning of life on Earth.

Adam Langdon stars as Christopher in THE CURIOUS INCIDENT
OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME. 
Note: Be sure to stay for the post-curtain call scene with Christopher which brought the opening night audience to its collective feet.

The production runs through September 10th at the Ahmanson and tickets can be purchased through the Center Theatre Group box office or online.

-- Lisa Lyons

Monday, August 7, 2017

KEN LUDWIG’S WORLD PREMIERE COMEDY “ROBIN HOOD!” SCORES A BULLSEYE AT OLD GLOBE


Meredith Garretson as Maid Marian, Daniel Reece as Robin Hood, Andy Grotelueschen as Friar Tuck, and Paul Whitty as Little John in the Globe-commissioned world premiere of Ken Ludwig's Robin Hood! All photos by Jim Cox.
The great Neil Simon deservedly earned his sobriquet as the ‘king of comedy’ with sheer brilliance and longevity, two components that assure one a place in the pantheon of American comedy playwrights. Britain’s Alan Ayckbourn, earns his pantheon honor for his prodigious comedy output and brilliance in England.

American playwright Ken Ludwig is currently the America’s reigning genius of comedy/farce, a specific form of comedy that requires practitioners that are equal to its source material. Theatre audiences are most familiar with Ludwig’s two hilarious Tony Award-winning farce productions: “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Crazy for You”, the latter running for five years on Broadway.

Meredith Garretson appears as Maid Marian
in Ken Ludwig's Robin Hood!
His canon of comedies and plays include: “Moon Over Buffalo”, “Falsettos”, “The Game's Afoot”, “The Hound of the Baskervilles”,  and “Twentieth Century”, among some twenty other plays. There is usually a Ken Ludwig play being performed every night of the year throughout the world, according to Samuel French, Inc. who represents him in the world of theatre. San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre has the honor of mounting the World Premiere of Ludwig’s newest comedy/farce “Robin Hood”, deftly directed by longtime stage and TV veteran Jessica Stone.

The character of Robin Hood embodies all that appeals to the romantic notion that the world loves a hero and his struggle to win his young maiden. It also celebrates those waging the good fight in the battle to right the wrongs that take place in all societies. In Robin Hood, the stories of heroic figures emerged from the troubadours and story tellers of 600 years ago. The quixotic knight errant Don Quixote, created by Miguel de Cervantes in 1605, is cut from the same cloth as Robin Hood. Both characters, one young and one old, are righting the wrongs as they find them.

Ludwig gathers all the Robin Hood stories, myths, and legends, and lovingly and absurdly fashions them into a production that honors the original intention of those unknown writers and their quests for better life for all by delivering a hilarious and entertaining evening in the theatre via the vehicle of comedy/farce. If you don’t know the story and legend of Robin Hood then you must have grown up living in a cave. Google it!

When I read that the production would be mounted in the Sheryl and Harvey White venue, my first reaction was how will that iconic adventure story fit into the ‘round confines’ of the White Theatre? Puck was right when he stated ‘what fools these mortals be’ (Me). Director Stone leads the skillful creative team of: Scenic Designer Tim Mackabee, who brilliantly solves the space staging issues of recreating Sherwood Forest with its trees and streams, the castle of Prince John, and all the other locations so well remembered by the 1938 movie starring Errol Flynn. I didn’t need to worry; Mackabee’s creative and terrific design works.

Andy Grotelueschen, Michael Boatman, Suzelle Palacios, and
Kevin Cahoon in Ken Ludwig's "Robin Hood!"
And so do the costumes created by Gregg Barnes. His Medieval period designs are colorful on the nobles and appropriate for the archer/soldiers, and rough-looking for Robin’s cohorts. The lighting design by Jason Lyons (no relation) enhances the moods and the action (yes, there are action scenes, but it helps to have a vivid imagination – remember, it’s a comedy/farce performed by a cast of eight talented actors). Fitz Patton is responsible for the original music and sound design, and Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum nicely stages the sword-fighting sequences.

And, now for the actors who bring Ludwig’s ‘Robin Hood’ yarn to life. This audience-pleasing production is a true ensemble effort by a cast of professional comedy/farceurs who know their way around funny material and how to perform it to the hilt. Everyone is always in the moment, strutting their stuff with flair and a sense of sincerity, It’s a pleasure to watch them create their magic under the direction and vision of the innovative Ms. Stone.

The cast of stars includes Andy Groteleuschen as Friar Tuck, who also is the play’s narrator of the story for those that didn’t google the Robin Hood legend. In the title role, Daniel Reece makes Robin Hood a somewhat less roguish, but nonetheless dashing and earnest Robin who always rises to the occasion. Meredith Garretson as Maid Marian is more like a take charge, refreshing Joan of Arc Marion, as opposed to Olivia de Havilland’s shy and compliant Lady Marian. A cautionary tip: never underestimate the power of a redheaded Maid Marian. Reece and Garretson make a wonderful on-stage pair.

Paul Whitty as Little John, the steadfast and loyal follower of Robin, is a guy I would want on my side when it comes down to the hand to hand combat stuff, and Suzelle Palacio as Doerwynn, the love interest of Little John, adds comedy insight to the proceedings.

The cast of Ken Ludwig's "Robin Hood!"
at the Old Globe Theatre.
The two baddies of the evening’s comedy hi-jinks are Sir Guy of Gisbourne and The Sheriff of Nottingham, deliciously played by Manoel Felciano and Kevin Cahoon, respectively. These two gentlemen are certified scene-stealers with impeccable comedy timing. Veteran actor Michael Boatman plays the duplicitous Prince John. All of these skillful actors play multiple roles in this fast paced and energetic ensemble production.


Ken Ludwig’s “Robin Hood” performs in the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White theatre through September 10, 2017.

-- Jack Lyons

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

“DUNKIRK" A POWERFUL AND VISCERAL MOTION PICTURE EXPERIENCE



Movies being shown today are surgically produced for specific audiences. Whether its millennials, baby-boomers, or seniors, producers have resorted to targeting audiences by their age demographic as a way of capturing more box office dollars.

Millennials are apparently are drawn to stories set in the dystopian future, loaded with visual pyrotechnics of super-human heroes, aliens, and end-of-world scenarios (matching the images they see 24/7 on their iPhones and home videos). Perhaps escapism is their way of expressing their displeasure with their lives in the 21st century.

The Baby-Boomers have territorial and film interests that live in two age demographics. Heavily influenced by the 60’s and 70’s that include the unpopular Viet Nam war and its aftermath, and the guilt over the success of consumerism at the expense of the American dream and its growing social and economic disparity, are just two issues that shaped the boomers’ stories, novels, and screenplays.

In the senior category age demographic, there is a bygone element when it comes to describing the interests of seniors  The popularity of “Turner Classic Movies” on television underscores their penchant for looking backward to a time when the world was less chaotic  A time when life moved at a pace that allowed society to adjust and better prepare for the inevitable Alpha and Omega ‘bell jar curve’ for the journey we all call life.

The epic British film “Dunkirk”, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, boldly incorporates its powerful text, photography, sound effects, and editing in its effort to cross age demographic lines to tell a human story of heroism that helped change the face of Europe and the world during those early and very dark days of World War II.

“Dunkirk”, opened nationwide on July 21, 2017. Obviously it’s too early to say how box office receipts will reflect the movie-going public’s interest concerning the plight of some 400,000 British, French, and allied soldiers trapped and facing annihilation by German troops on a slender stretch of a French beach in the city of Dunkirk during 1940. Only time, will tell us that.

America was not officially involved in “Europe’s War” with Hitler. Not until December 7, 1941 following the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by the Empire of Japan, did America declare war on Germany and the Axis powers.

Photo by Anders Rosqvist, Rosqvist Photography
I apologize for the didactic mini history lesson, but faced with the fact that very few American public schools no longer teach history, civics, geography, or even cursive writing, I feel a factual, historical backstory might prove helpful in putting the film in its proper perspective and provide better understanding of the events that took place 77 years ago.

Relatively speaking, there are no ‘star turns’ from “Dunkirk’s” actors that propel the movie forward. Nolan has decided that a non-linear ensemble approach works best for his film.  There are no “The Longest Day” sequences with stars recreating the effects that combat does to human beings.

In Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”, the audience was given glimpses, both physically and emotionally, of war’s capriciousness when it comes to who lives and who dies. One of the most powerful and devastating scenes in that movie, for me, was the scene where an American military vehicle is seen approaching a rural Midwest home as seen from the inside looking out the front door. As the American officer gets out with an envelope in hand and approaches the front porch, a middle age woman watching him approach slowly begins to slump, to melt, as it were. As each footstep gets closer and closer to the front door, she quietly begins to sob, while crawling toward the front door. The scene has no dialogue. It is one of the ‘purest’ cinematic moments in film history. No dialogue was necessary to convey the obvious message that war is the scourge of civilization.

Director Nolan films the events of the evacuation operation from Dunkirk back to England and temporary safety, by dividing those events into three segments. The ‘the land’ or beach sequences, the at sea sequences, and the aerial combat sequences. All three components were filmed in the actual locations, wherever possible. Everyone seen by the camera is fully engaged and in their on-screen moments reminding me of the verisimilitude of the great French film classic “The Battle for Algiers” that was shot documentary style, blurring the lines for the audience between scripted scenes and actual combat footage. It was all scripted.

“Dunkirk” also is a taut, riveting and immersive film experience, thanks to the herculean effort on the part of Nolan’s immensely talented technical team. Led by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, the cameras capture the smallest of details in the tiniest of spaces, as well as the sweeping shots of the action and mayhem taking place in all sequences. These scenes are not only intense but Hitchcock-ian in their use of the suspense aspect, especially while filming both above and below the water. The combat aerial photography also is spot-on and nail-biting. “Dunkirk”, like “The Battle for Algiers”, was totally scripted.

Nolan has assembled a wonderful ensemble cast of principal actors to tell the “Dunkirk” story led by Kenneth Branagh, as Naval Commander Bolton, who must make the critical decisions involved in the evacuation. The cast also includes: Academy Award winner Mark Rylance, as civilian flotilla boat owner Mr. Dawson, Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden as RAF pilots, James D’Arcy as Colonel Winnant, Harry Styles as soldier Alex, Fionn Whitehead as soldier Tommy, Aneurin Barnard as Gibson, and Cillian Murphy as a battle-fatigued soldier.

Director Christopher Nolan, production designer Nathan Crowley, film editor Lee Smith, and an army of sound editors and technicians should all be on the 90th Oscar’s nominations list come March 4, 2018.  These people created the designs for all the grittiness, grime, and realism seen and heard on the screen. A clever directorial touch by Nolan is the continuous sound track of either airplane engines, music or sound effects of bullets or bombs thudding into bodies on the ground or piercing the fuselages of the airplanes. That creative input originally came from “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo” with the continuous sound of airplane engines droning throughout all the air sequences to heighten the tension and keep the viewers focused on the visuals and the bombing mission at hand.

If I had any misgivings or disappointment with the production, it would come in the form of the music and sound effects, great as they are, being played too loud; drowning out some of the dialogue. Dialogue is usually the best way to communicate and thanks to NPR, the BBC, and Masterpiece Theatre, we Yanks are getting better at understanding those unfamiliar and challenging, accents of Northern England, London, the southern coast and the west-country.

The thrust and premise of Nolan’s movie, none the less, is magnificently produced and stirringly summed up at the conclusion by English Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s famous and inspiring words of his “we will never surrender” speech to his countrymen and the free world, which still resonate today.

“Dunkirk” is now in general release in a theatre or a multiplex near you.  Don’t Miss It.

IN '"KING OF THE YEES" A FATHER & DAUGHTER RE-DISCOVER THEMSELVES AND EACH OTHER IN CHINATOWN


Stephenie Soohyun Park stars as Lauren
in "King of the Yees". All photos by Craig Schwartz.
California native Lauren Yee is an award-winning playwright with an impressive resume; the 30-something's work has been rewarded with prestigious awards (including the American Theatre Critics Association's Francesca Primus Prize), commissions from such esteemed theatre companies as Geffen Playhouse, La Jolla Playhouse, Lincoln Center Theater/LCT3, South Coast Repertory, Portland Center Stage and Trinity Repertory Company and has formed a successful partnership with Chicago's Goodman Theatre.

Her most recent Goodman production, "King of the Yees" is making its West Coast debut at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre with the original Chicago cast and director.


It's a funny, satirical, emotional roller-coaster of a play, part journey of self discovery, part fantasy exploration of a culture at risk of falling into obsolescence.

Stephenie Soohyun Park and Larry Jue are father
and daughter in "King of the Yees"
Playwright Yee places herself and her father, Lawrence "Larry" Yee as the central characters in the show, and utilizes a variety of theatrical styles from audience participation to slo-mo "Matrix" inspired fight sequences (wonderfully choreographed by Chuck Coyle) and a multi-media depiction of real-life characters like disgraced California State Senator Leland Yee and fictional Chinese Tong mobster "Shrimp Boy."

It all sounds a bit chaotic and unfocused initially. But during the two hour playing time, the story coalesces into a heartfelt journey of father and daughter who are more alike than either suspects. The scene where they reach across the span of the generation gap, attempting to fill the hole left by Lauren's lack of connection to her Chinese heritage, had more than a few audiences members genuinely tearing up.

Stephenie Soohyun
Park as Lauren in
"King of the Yees"
Francis Jue as Larry
in "King of the Yees"
The performances are uniformly strong; Stephenie Soohyun Park captures Lauren's nervous intelligence and vulnerability beneath the bravado her Yale MFA affords her. Francis Jue charms as father Larry, a former AT&T phone installer turned community activist. His pain at the potential loss of his daughter to her husband and writing career in Berlin is barely concealed behind his glad-handed persona. 

As the self-appointed godfather of Chinatown's Yee dynasty and president of the Yee Fung Toy cultural association, Larry singularly carries the hopes of a waning community on his slender shoulders.

Daniel Smith, Rammel Chan and
Stephenie Soohyun Park in "King of the Yees"
A series of colorful supporting characters are given life by three actors: Actor One Daniel Smith, Actor Two Angela Lin and Actor Three Rammel Chan.They each make the most of their memorable onstage moments showing great range and comic timing.

Director Joshua Kahan Brody, also a Yale MFA grad, has a finely tuned relationship with Yee's sensibility and brings a delicate touch to what could be merely amusing in another director's hands. 

Angela Lin and Stephenie Soohyun
Park in "King of the Yees"
His excellent technical team includes scenic designer William Boles, costume designer Izumi Inaba, lighting designer Heather Gilbert, sound designer Mikhail Fiksel, and projection design by Mike Tutaj.

Kudos also to the Center Theatre Group for their continued dedication to discovering and nurturing new voices in American theater.

For anyone who longs to reconnect with their family roots and traditions, "King of the Yees" is a satisfying trip of discovery.

The show plays now through August 6 at the Kirk Douglas Theater, 9820 Washington Blvd, Culver City. Tickets can be purchased through the website www.centerthestregroup.org.

-- Lisa Lyons

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

NORTH COAST REP THEATRE SERVES UP A DELICIOUS COMEDY/FARCE IN SOLANA BEACH WITH “AT THIS EVENING’S PERFORMANCE



The cast of "At Tonight's Performance" Front: Bruce Turk, Sierra Jolene, Paul Turbiak; Back: John Nutten, Kyle Colerider-Krugh, Katie MacNichol. All photos by Aaron Rumley, North Coast Repertory.

Comedy/Farce is a tricky genre to do well. Many theatre companies in America have tried to mount successful productions over the years but, somehow, they always come up short. To do the genre well, theatrical companies need trained, gifted actors and directors to fill the roles of crazy, deluded, egomaniacal, hyper-active, and child-like characters, and do it with style, elan, and relish the experience above all. That’s a large wish-list of requirements that have to be fulfilled.

I’m happy to report that such a needs list is no problem for the cast of talented theatre professionals currently treading the boards of the North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT) production of playwright Nagle Jackson’s comedy/farce “At This Evening’s Performance”.

Wonderfully directed by Andrew Barnicle, the production boasts some of Southern California’s finest comedy actors, some of whom are familiar to audiences of NCRT. Director Barnicle, also a fine actor who was last seen by NCRT audiences in “Faded Glory” and the popular “Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Great Nome Gold Rush”, gathers a cast of solid farceurs who know what to do on stage when they find themselves in a farce.

Playwright Jackson sets his play-with-a play format in the fictional country of Dunsk, a totalitarian regime somewhere in the Balkans under the autocratic rule of Minister of Cultural Affairs Pankoff (John Nutten). The story revolves around a second-rate acting company owned by harried husband and actor Gunther Posnik (Bruce Turk) and his bored actress wife Hippolyta Posnik (Katie MacNichol). Turk and MacNichol are a Balkan version of the ‘Battling Bickersons’. Their first goal, however, is to avoid offending the state cultural affairs minister Pankoff. If they do, they risk being placed on his ‘list’, a list no one wants to be on. Their second goal is to keep the company together and performing until their talents will be recognized resulting in the company being named the State Theatre of Dunsk. The theatre has been waiting for years to be discovered. But hope springs eternal in Dunsk.

Katie MacNichol, Sierra Jolene, Paul Turbiak, 
Bruce Turk, Kyle Colerider-Krugh in 
"At Tonight's Performance"
In farce, there are always romantic and passionate liaisons where loyalties change at the drop of a hat. Then there are the hush, hush meetings, slamming of doors, and secrets to be revealed. The play is a goofy, but affectionate, send-up of actors and acting where the on-stage characters deliver their lines in stentorian, over-the-top-declamatory and hammy performances, but back in their ‘dressing room’ the dialogue is fast, furious and hilarious. Timing, it’s been said cannot be taught. Either, one has it or not. In this production everyone has it.In addition to Turk, MacNichol, and Nutten, the production is also blessed with actors Paul Turbiak as Piers, who plays the romantic leading man roles, Richard Baird as Valdez, the menacing, intense, and crazed stage manager who constantly intimidates the actors, Kyle Colerider-Krugh as Oskar, plays the old man parts with terrific comedy timing, and the lovely Sierra Jolene as the ingénue Saskia, who has romantic liaisons with anyone who can be of help to her in her career. Ahh, for the life of the itinerant actor back in the 1970’s…but just not in the country of Dunsk.

There are plot echoes of the old Jack Benny 1942 movie “To Be or Not To Be” with Carole Lombard as the theatre company owners, and the 1983 Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft movie remake that will jog your memories, if you’re old enough. Director Barnicle cleverly co-opts the basic premise and then adds his inspired directorial touches allowing his talented ensemble cast to strut their stuff.

It’s a thing of beauty to behold when a cast of professionals are really ‘cooking’ up on the stage. Sorry, but no spoiler alerts here where character antics are rampant and sometimes just plain silly. You must come and see for yourself. My advice is to just let the silliness and fun of the production wash over you. You’re not watching a play about discovering radium or a mystery that needs constant engagement and focus. It’s a farce production and a damn funny one. Enjoy. You’ll leave the theatre refreshed and entertained.

Katie MacNichol, Bruce Turk, Paul Turbiak, 
Sierra Jolene in "At Tonight's Performance"
The costume designs of Elisa Benzoni are spot on; colorful and functional, except for Turk’s prop mustache that keeps (intentionally) falling off, and Oskar’s fake ears that keep turning up in the oddest places. It’s a farce remember. The sound design is by Aaron Rumley, with props design by Andrea Gutierrez, and Hair and Wig design by Peter Herman complete the technical team.

In the technical department the creative team led by director Barnicle features the technical wizardry of set designer Marty Burnett, and lighting designer Matt Novotny, who deliver a “green room” backstage area where the actors let their hair down and needle one another with sparkling dialogue. When the characters have to perform “on stage”, the magic happens and the audience becomes part of the production, so to speak.

“At This Performance”, now on stage at North Coast Repertory Theatre is an excellent example of what a farce production can be in the hands of professional, talented actors and a creative director. The play runs through August 6, 2017.

-- Jack Lyons

Friday, July 14, 2017

PALM CANYON THEATRE SOARS TO THE MUSIC OF “IN THE HEIGHTS”

Matt Zambrano and the ensemble of "In the Heights" - Photos by Paul Hayashi

When the Palm Canyon Theatre (PCT) of Palm Springs, CA opened its doors twenty years ago it made a promise to the community to bring professional-quality, theatrical entertainment to the Coachella Valley. Thanks to the efforts, dedication and vision of the Layne family of theatre professionals – a family rich in producers, actors, directors, designers, and choreographers – PCT has not broken that promise.

I’ve been reviewing their productions for the same twenty years beginning with the opening musical production “The Desert Song”, to their current musical “In the Heights” that opened to standing ovations last Friday, July 7th.

Mind you, there have bumps along the rocky road of producing top theatre entertainment over the years, however, their quality track record is long in Desert Theatre League (DTL) award-winning and praise-worthy productions. Who can forget such wonderful past musicals as: “Man of La Mancha”, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, “Cats”, “My Fair Lady”, “Jesus Christ Superstar”, “Les Miserable” “A Chorus Line” and many, more.  My apologies if I left off one of your favorites. But these come quickly to mind, and I didn’t even mention the dramas and comedies.

Meagan Van Dyke, Adina Lawson
and Benjamin Perez. 
PCT can now add “In the Heights” to its roll call of fabulous musical productions.  With music and lyrics, by double Tony-award winning playwright, actor and director Lin Manuel Miranda (he of “Hamilton” fame) along with a poignant libretto by Quiara Alegria Hudes, this high energy musical, terrifically and seamlessly directed by Shafik Wahhab, is a true ensemble effort both on stage (there are twenty performers) and backstage, with another three-stage crew and production ‘techies’ that help make the onstage magic happen. One can only imagine the traffic-management issues taking place backstage that make the onstage action look so smooth and effortless. It’s one of PCT’s best, dynamic and germane technical efforts and it’s a crowd-pleaser.

The scenic design by Shafik Wahhab and Ross Hawkins and the lighting design by resident theatre design wizard J.W. Layne, and sound design by Lyla Cordova, make sure their talented singers and dancers have the space and lights to perform the high-octane dance routines created by Jacqueline Le Blanc. The musical score that features 23 musical numbers in the capable hands of musical director Scott Smith is both infectious and compelling with sizzling Latin rhythms like Salsa and Merengue performed in costumes either selected by or created by designer Derik Shopinski and his assistants Virginia Sulick and Delinda Angelo.

Haley Izurieta, Allegra Angelo,
Meagan Van Dyke and Megan Ramirez. 
There will no doubt be audience members who feel they have seen this story before; echoes of “West Side Story” and “Romeo and Juliet” story points do jump out. But hey, that’s pretty heady company to be in. If you’re a fan of classic plays or modern America musicals about immigrant population issues and the role they play in our 21st century society and audiences, then you will love what the creative team does with “In the Heights”.

The story, in short, explores three blistering hot summer days in a neighborhood in NYC known as Washington Heights on the upper west side, overlooking the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge. It’s a neighborhood that has been going through changes and is now a neighborhood of mostly Latino residents.

Allegra Angelo, Matt Zambrano
Heading a cast of twenty characters is first generation Dominican-American entrepreneur Usnavi, the owner of the local bodega. He is thinking about returning to the Dominican Republic to reconnect with his family and friends following the death of his parents.  Usnavi, is winningly played and sung by Matt Zambrano. Support of ‘family’ and family related emotional issues have always been extremely important to the Latino community.

“In the Heights”, also chronicles the daily struggles of the neighborhood in its day to day existence of raising families, paying the rent and trying keep one’s business from going bankrupt, along with the age-old frustration of the younger residents in not being able to make their own choices in their searches for love, romance, and marriage.

Ian Tang
With a cast as large as this one, it’s always a challenge to list everyone due to space limitations; however there are always standout performances. Heading a cast of twenty performers, including Zambrano’s lead character of Usnavi, is lovely Meagan Van Dyke as Nina, a university student in love with Benny (Joey Wahhab) an employee in her father’s business. Van Dyke, the possessor of a sweet soprano voice is very compelling as a conflicted young woman in love and at odds with her parent’s decisions when it comes to her future.

Nina’s father and mother are solidly played and sung by Benjamin Perez and Adina Lawson. Allegra Angelo, as Vanessa, the love interest of Usnavi, once again turns in another stellar dance and acting turn. Her Mimi performance in the College of the Desert production of “Rent” two seasons ago still resonates. Suzie Wourms, multiple Desert Theatre League award winner, also scores, in a little gem of a performance as Abuela Claudia, in her numbers with Zambrano and the company.

Matt Zambrano and Suzie Wourms.
The principal dancers in this outstanding production are technically and visually stunning in their execution and deserve a mention of their own despite space restrictions. The men are Vertarias Black, who floats in the air in his numbers, Ian Tang, Mat Tucker, Adrian Fernando Vera, Daniel Zepeda, Scott Clinkscales, and Jacob Samples as Piragua Guy deliver the testosterone at all the right moments.The ladies are Marella Sabio as Graffiti Street, who is mesmerizing in her explosive and high energy routines, Haley Izurieta, Megan Ramirez, Ileana Mendoza, Kate Antonov, and Maglia Sabio all provide the sizzling sensuality required in their performances.

The beauty of “In the Heights” lies in the ensemble performances of the entire company where everyone is unselfish, fully engaged, in the moment, committed and dedicated. When performing companies get into this ‘zone’, as they say, it’s a joy to behold and the audience knows it and feels it as well.

This splendid production performs at the Palm Canyon Theatre, in Palm Springs through July 16, 2017.  For reservations and ticket information call the box office at 760-323-5123.  Don’t Miss It!

-- Jack Lyons

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

THE POWER OF QUANTUM PHYSICS AND LOVE ON STAGE AT LA’S GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE

Allen Leech and Ginnifer Goodwin star in the Los Angeles premiere of “Constellations” at the Geffen Playhouse. Photo by Chris Whitaker

What are the odds of a play, whose premise is underpinned with quantum physics, bees, and the seductive power of love that brings two disparate souls together,turning into a riveting evening of intellectual theatre?  Pretty slim, I’d say. And then I saw the play.

“Constellations”, a poignant drama written by British playwright Nick Payne, now on stage at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, is deftly staged by award-winning director Giovanna Sardelli and validates the acting gifts of its two stars: pixie-like Ginnifer Goodwin and handsome leading man Allen Leech (best known for his six-year run in the TV blockbuster series “Downton Abbey” as the family chauffeur).

Two-handers – plays that have just two characters – are becoming more popular these days in the age of budget restrictions, except for musicals. These production caveats now place the burden of entertaining the audience squarely on the talent of playwrights, performers and directors, without the benefits of all the bells and whistles of money infused and promotion-driven productions. Most of the time bold, creative, artists pull off the delicate balance of engaging and entertaining the audience at the same time (last year I reviewed the winning two-hander “Heisenberg”, in New York, which opened today with the original NY cast at the Mark Taper Forum).

“Constellations” is another good example of insightful writing in the hands of a stellar director and her two star performers. The compelling story of Marianne (Ginnifer Goodwin), a quirky, Cambridge University academic who specializes in in Quantum Physics, and Roland (Allen Leech), a non-college educated bee keeper, who meet at a BBQ party at the home of friends would seem implausible in a traditional play. In this dramedy of sorts, both are shy guests and tend to stay in the background to observe the other guests.

From the moment the stage lights come up, the opening dialogue is repeated several times.The same words, only with different emphasis and timing, leading one to think that a stage glitch had just occurred. No; the repetitive dialogue is intentional. Marianne, we discover, lives in several alternate parallel universes. If the play was meant to be read not performed, the dialogue would come across as a classic quantum physics theoretical essay, except that it’s being performed by live actors on a stage. The obscure world of quantum physics is the world that Marianne inhabits. Roland is a creature of the outdoors and nature, and he is clueless as to quantum physics, but nevertheless he is strangely drawn into this odd coupling and relationship. As Marianne and Roland are two lonely people, could love be in the air? You bet it is. Remember, it’s the most powerful force on our planet.

Allen Leech and Ginnifer Goodwin in
“Constellations”. Photo by Chris Whitaker.
The set design by Takeshi Kata envelops the actors in a way that lends credence to the parallel universe concept. Goodwin and Leech perform in front of a huge ‘cyc’ that displays the cosmos with twinkling stars and planets, and their parallel universe moments are cued by the dialogue. With so many stars and planets, each possibly with a story of their own to tell, there are as many choices in life as there stars is in our universe is the message that playwright Payne is selling. Who knows? Our life journeys are all about making multiple choices. The “what if” factor is a real constant that has to be considered. Director Sardelli skillfully and seamlessly navigates some tricky waters in doing justice to playwright Payne’s murky but compelling tale of love of among the mismatched quirky set as viewed through the lens of quantum physics.

The real beauty to this intriguing and poignant production lies in the hands of its two stars, their onstage chemistry and in their stunning ‘in-the-moment’ performances. There are some spoiler alert moments, but you will not get them from me. You will just have to come to the Geffen Playhouse and see for yourself. Enough cannot be said about Goodwin and her tic-filled, intense portrayal of Marianne. Leech is her equal when it comes to the heart-rending twists that fate has handed these two lovers. Three hankies for the women, one for the gentlemen – yes if you have hearts, that is.

Director Sardelli leads the technical team of scenic designer Takeshi Kata, lighting designer Lap Chi Chu, costume designer Denitsa Bliznakova, and original music & sound designer Lindsay Jones.

“Constellations”, performs at the Geffen Playhouse and runs through to July 23, 2017. Don’t Miss It!
-- Jack Lyons

Monday, July 10, 2017

LA JOLLA PLAYHOUSE STAGES FUZZY-HEADED DRAMADY “AT THE OLD PLACE”

Marcel Spears as “Will” and Brenna Coates as “Jolene” in La Jolla Playhouse’s AT THE OLD PLACE, by Rachel Bonds, directed by Jaime Castañeda. All photos by Jim Carmody
It appears that the famous North Carolina novelist and writer Thomas Wolfe, was correct in his observation about ‘one not being able to go home again’.

I’ve often mused over the verity of that phrase. However, after seeing a production of “At the Old Place” at the prestigious La Jolla Playhouse, by playwright Rachel Bonds, I’m of the mind that perhaps, there are reasons why even biblical prophets were not honored in their hometowns. It’s possible that the people didn’t understand what the storytellers were saying.

In “At the Old Place”, the story, set in rural Richmond, Virginia, centers around Angie (Heidi Armbruster) who is trying to come to grips with any guilt and closure that occurs following the death of her mother and the unrequited issues that linger and eventually fall to her for resolution. One unfinished piece of business that takes her back is the sale of her mother’s house.Ms. Bonds’ dramedy/nostalgia piece, directed by Jaime Castenada, leaves one perplexed even to the point of what is this playwright trying to tell us about the four characters she has created for this play? What are we supposed know about them in order to engage with them and their reasons for being onstage? After all, the idea behind writing a play, movie, or book is to communicate the author’s the ideas and feeling with one’s readers, viewers, or live audiences. N’est-ce pas?
Heidi Armbruster as “Angie” in La Jolla 
Playhouse’s AT THE OLD PLACE
Children usually see life and family events through a different lens than adults. When adults finally do ‘go home again’ either to grieve, or handle the estate as in Angie’s case, we often bring our old family memories and our old baggage with us.
It’s not very clear where this very thin storyline – where nothing happens or anything of substance takes place – is going and the banal dialogue that is spoken doesn’t provide any indication either. To make matters worse the set design by Lauren Helpern doesn’t do the cast any favors by placing the house way up stage center, to the effect that a great deal of the dialogue is lost to the audience.Angie returns to the home to check on final details on the selling of the house, only to find two young people drinking and snacking in her front yard. They apparently know that no one lives there because the For Sale sign has no Sold banner across its front. Twenty three-year-old Will (Marcel Spears) and potty-mouth eighteen-year-old Jolene (Brenna Coates) are non-threatening, but resent having been asked to leave what they have come accept as their hangout. A fourth character Harrison (Benim Foster) turns up later in the play, to become the only ‘adult sounding’ person in room.
Heidi Armbruster as “Angie” and Benim Foster as 
“Harrison” in La Jolla Playhouse’s AT THE OLD PLACE
Director Castenada is complicit here. Why didn’t he and his designer merely move the house closer to the audience? The blocking would remain the same, but at least the audience would able to hear the dialogue, which at times is swallowed or mumbled so low by Angie and Will in their exchanges that it becomes a chore just trying to remain focused on the action taking place on stage.

I mentioned earlier that Harrison (Benim Foster) appears to be the only adult in the play, however, even he cannot (in only a few on stage moments) bring any clarity to this 89 minute, no intermission, theatrical adventure. My disappointment is with the playwright and the director both of whom have credits galore. The actors and the technical team very rarely disappoint, despite the narrative text. This time I’m afraid the dark and murky side carries the day. 
One might ask out loud What were they thinking? Jolene, on the other hand, has the vocal power to drown out everyone on stage. Her excitable, potty-mouthed dialogue that the teenagers of today love to deliver at warp speed is full of expletives – I stopped counting the F-Bombs that Jolene hurls from the stage at fifty plus, in the first 15 minutes of the play – robs the audience from staying engaged. I don’t care that this is how some teenagers speak these days. It’s off-putting; making the audience tune out when expletive-driven dialogue and story points made, go on ad nauseam. Have today’s playwrights given up the trusty old Thesaurus as a means for coming up with synonyms? It makes one wonder. Back in the Roman days some playwrights wrote for their own pleasure, not to be performed by actors, it was called ‘closet drama’. It was a format that never caught on…

The La Jolla Playhouse is one of the country’s leading Regional theatres. Congratulations go to Artistic Director Chris Ashley and the Playhouse on winning a 2017 Tony Award for his splendid direction of the musical “Come From Away”.The creative team led by Castenada has a set design by the above-mentioned designer Lauren Helpern, with lights by Lap Chi Chu, and sound by Melanie Chen.

“At the Old Place”, performs in the Mandell Weiss Forum and runs through July 30, 2017.

--Jack Lyons

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

A SOARING MUSICAL DRAMEDY REVIVAL OF “THE SPITFIRE GRILL” AT NCRT

The cast of "The Spitfire Grill" at North Coast Repertory
Theater. Photo by Aaron Rumley.
The world of today appears to be in constant turmoil. Culture wars and shooting wars abound here in America as well as on every continent on our fragile planet. Everyone stares too long and makes judgments far too quickly when it comes to the strangers we find in our midst.

We rely on our tribal or family loyalties, the cornerstones and touchstones of a civilized society that at times is necessary but in so doing robs us of enlightenment and the pleasures that comes when societies reach out culturally to one another. Take the metaphor of food, as one example of how we have expanded our gustatory experiences and horizons over the years. Our American melting pot society is filled with success stories where one can see the advantages and possibilities that a diverse society provides.

The current North Coast Repertory Theatre revival production of “The Spitfire Grill”, a musical dramedy written by James Valq and Fred Alley, with music by Valcq and lyrics by Alley, is a shining example of the power some ‘outsiders’ can bring to the table or to a community if just given a chance.

Intelligently, sensitively and seamlessly directed by Jeffrey B. Moss, with an inspired ensemble cast of actors who can sing (and boy, do they sing) this uplifting and warmhearted musical is just what American theatre audiences need right about now.

Aurora Florence is Percy in "The Spitfire
Grill". Photo by Aaron Rumley.
The story in short, centers around fiercely independent Percy Talbott (a terrific Aurora Florence), a young, Applachian-accented woman who has just been released from prison. Percy is looking to find a place for a fresh start in life. While in prison she read a travel magazine about the idyllic, small, rural town of Gilead, Wisconsin which sounded like a good place to begin her new life journey.

The local Sheriff, young Joe Sutter (Kevin Earley) who is also Percy’s parole officer, finds her a job at Hannah Ferguson’s Spitfire Grill, owned by and operated by a force-of-nature earth mother solidly played by actress Devlin. It’s the only eatery in the town and is frequented daily by loyal residents. The Spitfire Grill has been up for sale for ten years, but has never had any interested buyers. Times have been tough for America’s Midwest economy and Gilead is barely hanging on.

Kevin Bailey and Meghan Andrews in
"The Spitfire Grill." Photo by Aaron Rumley.
Shelby Thorpe, the wife of the out-of-work local stone quarry foreman Caleb (Kevin Bailey) is a caring, young woman played by soprano Meghan Andrews, who gently tries to make a home life while at the same time occasionally helping Hannah at the diner. She endures the frustration of her proud husband who resents her time spent at the Grill and her association with Percy. To further complicate matters, Shelby and Percy have become friends.

Post Mistress Effy Krayneck, who never misses a chance to open the mail before the addressees, is nicely played and sung by Maggie Carney who makes the most of her comic relief role as Gilead’s leading gossip and busybody.

Devlin and Matt Thompson in "The Spitfire
Grill." Photo by Aaron Rumley.
Also, there is a character called The Visitor who never speaks, but whose haunted eyes speak volumes, well-played by Matt Thompson. And, that’s about as far as I’ll go with spoiler alerts. You will just have to see this splendid musical for yourself.

The real beauty of this production lies in the multi-talented ensemble cast with a director who understands how to craft and shape compelling, poignant, comedic, and dramatic moments and performances from pros who are a joy to watch. Everyone is constantly in the moment. On-stage chemistry electrifies the entire cast from the minute that Percy comes on stage and sets the tone for all the magic that follows with her song “A Ring Around the Moon”.

The story of “The Spitfire Grill” unfolds over fifteen haunting and poetic songs that conjure up echoes and aural memories of John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Road” along with Valcq and Alley’s original country/folk musical score that features such numbers as: ‘The Colors of Paradise’ sung by Percy and Shelby, ‘Forgotten Lullaby’ lovingly rendered by Hannah, and the rousing “Shoot the Moon” by the company that ends act one.

In act two, the numbers ‘Wild Bird’ by Shelby, ‘Shine’ by Percy, and a poignant ‘Way Back Home’ by Hannah, bring the entire company back on-stage for another rousing Finale. The nicest part, at least for me, is that this highly entertaining musical is performed without one f-bomb being hurled from the stage. The musical’s creators substituted soaring music, soulful country lyrics, and sheer talent instead of relying on attention-grabbing street language pyrotechnics to win over its audience. However, in the name of transparency, this musical was written seventeen years ago in 2000. My, how we’ve changed.

The production is designed by Marty Burnett, lighted by Matt Novotny, with costumes by Elisa Benzoni, and sound design, by Chad Lee Thymes. The excellent musical accompaniment is headed by musical director Alby Potts on keyboard, guitar/mandolin by Nikko Nobleza, violin by Catherine Gray, and cello by George Spelvin (that great old theatrical name). In the new and emerging discipline of projection design, Aaron Rumley is right on the money; not too many just the right amount to set the tone and enhance the moods. If I were to mention that some of the song lyrics were a wee bit too repetitious and went on too long, it would probably give my age away. So I won’t. But the soaring voices of the company made me forget all that repetition.

“The Spitfire Grill” performs at North Coast Repertory Theatre, Solana Beach, through June 25. Don't miss it!

--Jack Lyons



























"HOLD THESE TRUTHS" AT PASADENA PLAYHOUSE RECALLS JAPANESE INTERNMENT THROUGH ONE MAN'S EYES



“The nail that sticks out is the one that gets hit…”

Ryun Yu stars as civil rights activist
Gordon 
Hirabayashi in the solo show
"Hold These 
Truths". All photos by Jim Cox.
So says young Gordon Hirabayashi’s father to his eldest son, whose outgoing and curious disposition is being tested by the increased discrimination in Washington state against Asian Americans; with the escalation of the war and the subsequent bombing of Pearl Harbor, the discrimination increased until it culminated in executive orders to intern all persons of Asian descent in prison camps with no regard to their constitutional rights.

Jeanne Sakata’s “Hold These Truths” is inspired by the true story of civil rights pioneer Hirabayashi. The 90-minute solo show presents Hirabayashi’s fight to reconcile his country’s betrayal while maintaining his passionate belief in the U.S. Constitution. Despite President Obama posthumously awarding a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor in 2012 to him, his story is mostly unfamiliar to many Americans.

In 1942, the University of Washington student defied the U.S. government, and his worried parents, by refusing to register and be interned in the desert with tens of thousands of fellow Japanese American citizens who were viewed as a potential threat to national security after the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor.

Hirabayashi, a Quaker pacifist, also rejected signing a loyalty oath and doing military service. For his acts of resistance, he served time in prison. His unrelenting efforts to reverse the unconstitutional internment of any persons of Japanese ancestry ended up with a case at the Supreme Court - where he lost in a unanimous decision upholding the government’s actions based on “military necessity.”

Paving the way to Hirabayashi's ultimate victory, legal historian Peter Irons discovered lost military documents, letters and memos admitting that confining Japanese Americans to camps had not been a necessary security measure: The camps, they implied, were created out of hysteria and racism. This new evidence led to the case being reheard by the Supreme Court in 1987 and this time, justice prevailed.

The timeliness and irony of the situation is not lost on the audience who chuckled and sighed at various incidents portrayed on stage that sadly echo what is happening now due to the current administration’s policies and fears of terrorist threats in the US and the world.

Actor Ryan Yu portrays Hirabayashi from his teens to middle age also playing all other parts of the protagonists and heroes of his life - including his mother and father, fraternity brothers at UW, law enforcement officials, his Quaker girlfriend and even Supreme Court Justice Patrick Murphy - and does it all seamlessly. His energy is heavily taxed during his 90-minute tour de force, but despite a slight cold, he kept the audience in thrall until the final moments.

Kudos to director Jessica Kubzansky (the original director at East/West Players) as well as the excellent technical team of scenic and lighting designing Ben Zamora who does a lot with simplicity, and sound designer John Zalewski whose subtle use of themes and natural sounds adds depth to the production.

Playwright Sakata, a successful actor herself, premiered the play in 2007 at East West Players in Los Angeles. It made its off-Broadway debut in 2012 with the Epic Theatre Ensemble, and has since been performed at numerous regional theatres including Portland Center Stage, the Guthrie Theater, Seattle’s ACT Theatre, and locally by Coachella Valley Rep in Palm Springs.

Says Sakata, “When I discovered Gordon’s story in the late 1990s, so full of heartbreak but also his irrepressible humor and zest for life...I knew I had to bring his story to the American stage.” She’s done a masterful job in showing the intimate view of one of our country’s shameful periods through the eyes of one eloquent and unrelenting man.

In a coda to his father’s early admonition, Hirabayashi shares that what he didn’t say back then was the full Japanese proverb: “The nail that sticks out is the one that gets hit…Unless the nail is bigger than the hammer!” That earned well-deserved kudos from the opening night audience followed by a spontaneous standing ovation. Let’s hear it for more ‘bigly’ nails and less hammers!

“Hold These Truths” is at the Pasadena Playhouse until June 25th. Tickets can be obtained through the Box Office or online at www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.

-- Lisa Lyons