Observations Along the Road

Theatre Writeups, Musings on the News, Rants and Roadkill Along the Information Superhighway

Gonna Build a Building 🎭 “Empire” @ LaMirada

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Feb 07, 2016 @ 1:45 pm PST

Empire the Musical (LaMirada)userpic=theatre_musicalsThere’s a problem with certain titles and shows. For example, consider Titanic — either the movie or the musical. You know what is going to happen: the ship is going to sink. You center the show around the subject of the title, and there won’t be any story of interest. Fate is preordained. But find an interesting story related to that subject, and things might survive. Titanic the movie wasn’t the story of the ship — it was the story of Jack and Rose. Titanic the Musical wasn’t the story of the ship — it was the story of the class system, the people on board, and the battles over the construction of the ship.

Last night, we saw Empire – The Musical at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB). Guess what. They build the building and it is taller than the Chrysler Building (which, in actuality, was only the world’s tallest building for 11 months)

Given that we know that the building will be built, where’s the story in Empire? It’s a good question … and it must be answered quickly, because the audience will be wondering. After all, there hasn’t been a successful musical about a skyscraper in New York before. If you think about it, there are only two possibilities: the battle over the construction of the building, and stories about people related to the building. The former has the problem of foreknowledge: you know that whatever the story is, the building will be built.

This is the problem that Caroline Sherman and Robert Hull faced. They had to find a story that worked, and build a musical around that. Before I go into what they did and how it worked (or didn’t), here’s the BLUF: the execution was spectacular and the resultant building was beautiful, but the internal structure is not as strong as it could be, and it is unclearer whether the building, as currently constructed, will survive the journey to the other coast.

The story that Sherman and Hull opted to tell is primarily about the clash and romance between the lead architect, and the “Can Do” gal of Al Smith, ex-Governor of New York, who he has on the project to ensure it gets done right. There are secondary stories about the construction workers on the building, who are putting their lives on the line to build the building. I’m hesitant to go into too many details on the latter, as I don’t want to spoil the few reveals in the story.

Either of the two could work for the story — the audience just needs to have their expectations managed. This is where the problems of this show lie. The first act of the show focuses too much on the known result: Will the building get built? Who will build it? It doesn’t rapidly set up and get us into the story it wants to tell: the love story of the architect and the “Can Do” gal, or the story of the workers and their sacrifices. The focus is on the building of the building, not getting to know these characters and their inner desires. Musicals excel when they tell the story of people, and use their music to highlight the inner story and conflict within — the songs in our hearts, so to speak. Musicals fail when they focus on the scaffolding — the songs of the place and the surroundings.

The first act exemplifies these failures: we never get to know our lead characters as people. Who is Michael Shaw, the architect, other than some young kid who wants to build the building? Who is Frankie Peterson, other than a “Can Do” gal who can pull a solution out of anything? Who is Ethan O’Dowd, other than a possible new father, working on the building? We never find these things out (or, to the extent we do, they are told to us very briefly). Instead, we learn about the desire and conflicts to build the building, the stereotypical cat-calls of the crew, and the importance of “moxie”. My belief — and I’m clearly an observer in the cheap seats — is that for this musical to succeed, the first act needs to be trimmed and focused more on the inner desires of the people, and less on the place.  The musical may be called Empire , but it’s focus cannot be on the physical structure being built — it needs to be on what else is being built and destroyed around that building.

In other words, at least with respect to the first act, this show doesn’t clearly set out the vision of what it wants to be, and what story it clearly wants to tell. The audience, by intermission, is wondering why they are seeing this. They aren’t fully invested in the people they need to care about — they are distracted by the building.

Luckily, the second act of the story redeems the effort, primarily because it focuses on precisely that which the first act forgot: the people. We get to know the leads beyond their stereotypes, and appreciate their connection. We get to know more stories about the workers. The ultimate end of the story is good, but the path there was problematic.

The other problem on the path — and one that might doom this show — is reflected in real life. The Empire State Building was once the tallest building in NYC. It isn’t now; it has been eclipsed by newer and flasher buildings the reflect modern sensibilities. The older buildings can be retrofit to add some modernity, but they are still old buildings. Some old buildings are so well constructed that the lack of modernity is not a problem. Others can’t overcome that flaw.

That applies to Empire The Musical as well. In its style, it is clearly a 1960s era musical. Lots of big dance numbers. A love story. But it is also conventional: the musical tends to be the standard musical-theatre style music, often with songs of place, not people. The story is filled with musical theatre conventions, stylistic characters, and tropes. Going in, you know where the story is likely to go. You get there, with perhaps one or two minor surprises on the end. But even those surprises aren’t surprises when you think about normal tricks in musicals. To put this another way: what has turned Broadway around have been the musicals that have challenged the conventional: skewering the style, bringing a new voice, bringing a new musical attitude, bringing voices to the previously voiceless. This musical does none of that. It is squarely conventional — and many squarely conventional musicals, while good, just haven’t become the long-lasting successes on Broadway. Where they have found their redemption — and perhaps their financial success — has been in the subsequent productions. For Empire, the latter would be problematic given the nature of the set and the technical demands.

In short: the structure of the story needs work — especially in Act I; even after those corrections, the style and feeling of the musical may make it only a moderate success. It doesn’t challenge the medium in the way that it should.

Although the story was flawed, I am happy to say that the execution was flawless. The performances were awesome. The technology and stage craft has to be seen to be believed. The costumes were spectacular. The music sounded great. The directorial vision brought this to where it was is remarkable.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the two leads: Kevin Earley (fan site, FB) as Michael Shaw, the architect, and Stephanie Gibson (FB) as the “Can Do” gal, Frankie Peterson. Earley (who must have a hidden picture on his website, because he doesn’t seem to age at all) has a wonderful voice and brings the right level of earnestness and youthful hope and hubris to the character. He also brings something that Kevin (the real person) has in real life: a remarkable charm and style. We’ve gotten to know Kevin through the shows he’s done in LA, and it is always a joy to see him on stage. Gibson is no slouch either: she also brings a wonderful style and attitude to her character, with strong dancing moves and a great voice. She’s just a delight watch on stage, especially in her Act II scenes. Together, the two have a nice chemistry and interaction.

(One additional note of interest regarding Frankie: If you watch closely, her “hideway” is down in the basement of the Waldorf Astoria. The original Waldorf Astoria was the building that was razed to build the ESB.)

Supporting the leads — and being saddled with the problem of having to tell the real story of the building with the grafted-on fictional story — are Tony Sheldon (FB) as John J. Raskob (the financier of the project), and Michael McCormick as Al Smith, the ex-Governor of New York. Although the performances are good, the characters themselves are stereotypes: the finance man, the heavy drinking politicians, the upper-crust.

There are a few other characters that fit somewhere between the main supporting characters and the variety of characters captured by the ensemble members:  Betty Raskob, the daughter of the financier [Charlotte Maltby (FB)]; Ethan O’Dowd, a construction worker, head of the riviting gang, and father to be [Caleb Shaw (FB)]; Abe Klayman, the foreman of construction workers [Joe Hart (FB)]; and Bucky Brandt, another construction worker [Tommy Bracco (FB)]. All of these are characters we get to know — but not too deeply. The only exceptions are Betty Raskob and Ethan O’Dowd. Both end up having some significant plot twists that are integral to the story. Both also carry out those plot twists well, and combine those performances with some wonderful smaller singing spotlights.

Rounding out the cast is the large ensemble (some also listed above), each of whom play multiple roles as dancers, workers, people in New York, reporters, etc. I’m not going to list all of the character names and positions, but let me list the people and the significant characters: Michael Baxter (FB) [Wolodsky, Ensemble, Dance Captain]; Tommy Bracco (FB) [Bucky, Ensemble]; Richard Bulda (FB) [Pomahac – Mohawk, Ensemble); Juan Caballer (FB) [Nikos, Ensemble]; Caitlyn Calfas (FB) [Hattie, Ensemble] ; Fatima El-Bashir (FB) [Florence, Ensemble]; Tory Freeth (FB) [Hazel, Ensemble]; Joe Hart (FB) [Abe Klayman, Ensemble]; Rachel King (FB) [Agnes, Ensemble]; Katharine McDonough (FB) [Emily O’Dowd; Ensemble]; Gabriel Navarro (FB) [Rudy – Mohawk; Ensemble]; Rachel Osting (FB) [Vera, Ensemble]; Jordan Richardson [Bill Johnson]; Caleb Shaw (FB) [Ethan O’Dowd, Ensemble]; Cooper Stanton (FB) [Menzo, Ensemble]; Michael Starr (FB) [Duryeavich, Ensemble]; Christine Tucker (FB) [Lois, Ensemble]; Rodrigo Varandas (FB) [Jesse – Mohawk, Ensemble]; Josh Walden (FB) [Pakulski, Ensemble]; and Justin Michael Wilcox (FB) [De Caprio, Ensemble].  All of the ensemble was a delight to watch during the large dance numbers, exhibiting strong movement. Most importantly, they seemed to be having fun with the show and with their characters. This is important, because the joy of performance becomes energy that is beamed out to the audience and fed back with enthusiasm.

This large cast was under the direction of Marcia Milgrom Dodge (FB), who also served as choreographer. The directorial vision was strong here, especially in how the characters interacted with the set. The choreography was also fun to watch; Dodge was assisted on the choreography side by Michael Baxter (FB). Flying sequence choreography was by Paul Rubin (FB).

Sariva Goetz (FB) served as music director, and conducted the large and talented orchestra. Other orchestra members were: Brent Crayon  (FB) [Associate Conductor, Keyboard I]; Alby Potts (FB) [Keyboard II]; Jeff Driskill (FB) [Flute, Piccolo, Clarinet, Alto Sax]; Dave Hill/FB [Clarinet, Flute, Alto Sax, Soprano Sax]; Phil Feather (FB) [Oboe, English Horn, Clarinet, Tenor Sax]; Bob Carr [Bassoon, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Baritone Sax]; Michael Stever (FB) [Lead Trumpet, Piccolo Trumpet]; Don Clarke/FB [Trumpet, Flugel Horn]; Adam Bhatia (FB) [Trumpet, Flugel Horn]; Charlie Morillas (FB) [Trombone]; Toby Holmes [Bass Trombone, Tuba]; Mark Converse (FB) [Drums, Percussion]; and Tim Christensen [Acoustic / Electric Bass, Contractor]. Score Supervision was by Deborah Hurwitz (FB).  Orchestrations were by Michael Starobin (FB).

On the production and creative side: Much has been written about the scenic design of this show. More than any other show I have seen, this show was dependent on projections. The basic scenic design was a large silver flat with multiple levels and doors that could open, portions of which could slide forward to varying degrees. Projected onto this, from multiple directions so as not to create shadows, were the scenic backdrops and some props. Characters interacted with the scenery as if it was really there. This was a remarkable illusion — I’ve never seen projections used so effectively before. Credit on this goes to David Gallo (FB) [Scenic Designer, Co-Projection Designer] and Brad Peterson (FB) [Co-Projection Designer]. These were supported by the property design of Terry Hanrahan and the technical direction of David Cruise/FB.  I’m not sure this design could have been done even a few years ago — the creative use of computers and projects and graphic design makes this show possible, just as the elevator is what made the Empire State Building possible. The costume design of Leon Wiebers (FB) was also spectacular — especially the costumes for the ladies. Particular striking was the red outfit that Frankie wore in Act II. The costumes worked well with the Hair, Wig, and Makeup design of Rick Geyer. The lighting was by Jared A. Sayeg (FB) and was up to his usual excellent standards — which were made particularly complicated by having to work around the heavy use of projections, which can play havoc on lighting. Philip G. Allen (FB)’s sound design was strong and clear, although there were a few minor mic glitches. Remaining production credits:  David Elzer/Demand PR (FB) [Publicity]; Jill Gold (FB) (FB) [Production Stage Manager]; Nicole Wessel/FB [Assistant Stage Manager]; Lily Twining (FB) [Production Manager]; Buck Mason (FB) [General Manager]; Julia Flores (FB) [Casting Director]. Empire – The Musical was produced by The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) and McCoy Rigby Entertainment (FB), Sue Vaccaro (FB), Ricky Stevens (FB), and The Rivet Gang.

Empire – The Musical continues at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) until February 14, 2016. Tickets are available through the online box office; discount tickets are available on Goldstar.

* 🎭 🎭 🎭 *

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres:  The Colony Theatre (FB), Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), and I just added the  Hollywood Pantages (FB). In 2015, my intimate theatre subscription was at REP East (FB), although they are reorganizing and (per the birides) will not start 2016 shows until August. Additionally, the Colony just announced that the remainder of their season has been cancelled, so the status of that subscription is up in the air. Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: February theatre continues this evening with “An Act of God” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). There’s a rare mid-week performance on February 9 of The Jason Moran Fats Waller Dance Party at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). The following weekend brings the Southern California premiere of the musical Dogfight at the Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim Hills.  The third weekend in February is currently open, but that is likely to change. February closes with The Band of the Royal Marines and the Pipes, Drums, and Highland Dancers of the Scots Guards at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). March starts with “Man Covets Bird” at the 24th Street Theatre (FB) on March 6 (the day after the MRJ Man of the Year dinner) The second weekend of March is open, thanks to the cancellation of “Another Roll of the Dice” at The Colony Theatre (FB). The third weekend of March takes us back to the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) to see Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina.  The last weekend of March is being held for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) (pending Hottix).  April will start with Lea Salonga at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) on April 1 and an Elaine Boosler concert at Temple Ahavat Shalom on April 2. It will also bring the Turtle Quintet at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB), “Children of Eden” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) , and our annual visit to the Renaissance Faire (Southern). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.

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Passing … of … Interest

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Feb 07, 2016 @ 5:21 am PST

userpic=tombstonesBefore I post the writeup from yesterday’s show, I’d like to observe a moment of silence for a few passings that were announced last week:

  • Scion. Toyota has announced that as of 2017, Scion is no more. Current models (except for the discontinued tC) will be rebadged as Toyota. I remember looking at the Scions when I replaced my old Honda in 2006. Never got their separation from the parent, but then again, I don’t get the luxury brands either.
  • Bob Elliott. Part of the wonderful comedy duo Bob and Ray. Listen to the recording that is linked into that page. It is one of my favorite routines: the National (pause) Slow (pause) Talkers (pause) of (pause) America.
  • Colony Theatre. On Friday, we received a letter that the Colony was having financial difficulties, and was cancelling the remainder of their current season (I posted it on Facebook, and it was picked up by BL). I hope this isn’t a permanent closure, but even the move to hosting visiting shows would be sad to see, as the Colony had a good strong voice. I haven’t yet figured out what will replace the mid-size theatre subscription slot.
  • Joe Alaskey. Alaskey did a wide variety of cartoon character voices. As with the rock icons we are losing, we’re losing a lot of other artists that defined our worlds when we were growing up. Youngsters would recognize Alaskey as Granda Lou on Rugrats.
  • 6th Street Viaduct. The classic Sixth Street Viaduct is no more. Seen in many many movies, the viaduct has been demolished (we know, we went through the closure traffic yesterday… twice). Beautiful, but no longer structurally safe. We will remember you.
  • And others… a few other notable names this week: John Tishman, of Tishman construction; Maurice White, of Earth Wind and Fire; Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane; Marge Hearn, widow of Chick Hearn; Dan Hicks, folk musican; Singe Anderson, the first female singer of Jefferson Airplane; Edgar Michell, an Apollo 14 Astronaut; Raphael Schumacher, an actor who succumbed to an on-stage hanging.

Note: Everyone will eventually pass away. Please make sure you are prepared to join the Internet of the Dead.

OCC4CCC.HACKLIB Memories

Written By: cahwyguy - Fri Feb 05, 2016 @ 8:05 pm PST

userpic=compusaurWorking more on the document I worked on yesterday brought up even more memories than the SYSABEND Dump. So, I went out to the garage and found my copy of OCC4CCC.HACKLIB. I’m betting most folks won’t even get these references. This is what passed for computer humor in the 1970s:

***

Hail 360 Child of Evil
Mary Shaw, Datamation, 4-1-1971
Hail 360, Child of Evil, for Thy misdeeds we curse Thee. Verily, do we curse and condemn Thee; We call down the Wrath of the Heavens upon Thee.

Know, Three Sickly, that we hate Thee with a Pure and White-Hot passion. May all the Microseconds of Thine Existance be eons in Misery. As Thou pushest about the Bits of Thy Programs, may the 1-bits cause chills and may the 0-bits itch, and may Thou be in continual Torment. As Thou miscomputest the problems of Thy Users may every Man’s hand be turned against Thee. May children cast Card Chad at Thee and call Thee cursed.

May Thy insulation all evaporate and Thy ROS become writeable; and may a User write his FORTRAN program all over it.

May Thy printers Rewind; and Thy tapes Unwind; and Thy memory banks grow Senile; and Thy drums be Out of Round; and Thy high-speed channel be Multiplexed with Thy reader/punch; and may Thy Channel Programs loop.

May Thy bits all have three states. May OS have 100 Releases, and may each release have 5000 APARS. May each APAR have 100 PTFs, and may each PTF be punched Off-Register on Warped Cards. May each PTF have 100 Hex patches, and may each patch grow scar tissue.

May each Release require ten SYSGENs, and cost a Shift, and may each Shift be Billed at Prime Rates.

May Thy Wait State ABEND; may Thy SVC’s get protection violations; may Thy SPOOL overflow, may Thy DATA UNIT cut in and out. May Thy Adder drop its seventh Bit, and may Thy Multiplier compute Cube Roots. May Thy Move-Characters instruction complement every Third Bit. May Thy Floating-Point registers be where Thy Fixed-Point registers should be.

A Pox upon Thee and upon Thy kin: upon Thy mod 44’s and upon Thy mod 91’s and upon Thy mod 67’s. Yea, upon Thy children and Thy children’s children, even unto the seventh Generation of Hardware.

Yea, 360, know that Thou shall be sorely afflicted. From this time forth shall Thy Peripherals become independent Processors and shall Thou be synchronized with the low-speed printer. And Thy Cores shall be as dust within Thee and in Sorrow shall Thou lament Thy lot.

***

PSALM X’17’

IBM is my Shepherd; I shall not interact.
He giveth me dumps of the System Nucleus,
He maketh me Subtract in HEXADECIMAL.
He restoreth my Registers.
He leadeth me in the paths of Ambiguity for His Manual’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of the Program Check, I will fear no ABEND; for OS/MVT is with me.
Thy MESSAGES and thy CODES they comfort me.
Thou preparest a Table before me in the Presence of mine Consultants.
Thou allowest me to Chain my CCW’s;
The Line Printer runneth over.
Surely the Operators will chase me all the days of my life,
and I shall Execute in KEY Zero forever.

***

BATTLE HYMN OF THE PUBLIC

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the NIC,
They were done upon the NETWORK, would be quicker with a BIC.
The mumblejumble and jargon are enough to make you sick.
And time goes marching on…

Glory, Glory, I’m a User
Glory, Glory, I’m a User
Glory, Glory, I’m a User
upon the ARPANET.

I started with a TTY and a manual on my knee.
They preached the TELNET gospel in a numbered RFC.
What with IMPs and TIPs and HOSTS and Hacks I learned the litany,
That Bits go marching on.

Glory, Glory, I’m a User
Glory, Glory, I’m a User
Glory, Glory, I’m a User
upon the ARPANET.

I was told it was so easy, I could hack it in a day,
But a User is a Loser if She’s 15 hops away.
The Bits clogged up the buffers; caused a terrible delay,
And time goes marching on…

Glory, Glory, I’m a User
Glory, Glory, I’m a User
Glory, Glory, I’m a User
upon the ARPANET.

Now I’ve come to face my sponsor and this stuff is hardly hacked,
If it isn’t done by Friday I’ll be tortured, whipped, and racked.
The brave new world surrounds me, but I think the deck is stacked
But I’ll keep typing on…

Glory, Glory, I’m a User
Glory, Glory, I’m a User
Glory, Glory, I’m a User
upon the ARPANET.

Ah, Memories (Sysabend Dump)

Written By: cahwyguy - Thu Feb 04, 2016 @ 8:34 am PST

userpic=compusaurThe documents I’m currently reviewing brought this poem to mind, which was published in Datamation in their 1975 April Fools issue:

On either side the printer lie
Fat stacks of paper six feet high
That stun the mind and blur the eye.
And lo! Still more comes streaming by.
A fresh SYSABEND dump.

Ye printer clacketh merrily.
COMPLETION CODE IS 043
Alack! What can the matter be
That made SYSABEND dump.

My TCAM hath no MCP?
My data cannot OPENed be?
Consult my neighborhood SE?
The devil take thy dam and thee,
Thou vile SYSABEND dump.

Assemble modules on the fly
And link for yet another try.
With SUPERZAP a patch apply
This time: THOU SHALT NOT DUMP!

⋅⋅⋅

On either side the printer lie
Fat stacks of paper twelve feet high
That blow the mind and blast the eye.
Gadzooks! How shrill yon varlet’s cry
As sixteen megabytes go by
In yet another dump.

The Word Is… 📺 “Grease Live!” on Fox

Written By: cahwyguy - Mon Feb 01, 2016 @ 6:31 pm PST

Grease Liveuserpic=televisionLast night, I watched Fox’s attempt at doing a live musical, Grease Live!. I’m not going to attempt a full review with synopsis and notes on all the cast and crew. Rather, here are some jumbled observations on the show. I thought about dividing them into the good, bad, and ugly, but I couldn’t separate the bad from the ugly.

  • I don’t think the director knew what this show wanted to be when it grew up. At times, it seemed like a stage show and the theatrical production. At times, it seemed slavishly devoted to the movie version. At other times, it veered off into its own direction without explanation. In doing so, it didn’t quite satisfy the fans of the stage version, but also didn’t satisfy fans of the movie version. The failure, I believe, is one of managing of expectations. Promotion of the show before airing should have made clear the goal: a live version of the classic movie; a live version of the original stage show; a refreshed version of the movie; or something else. This would have greatly helped the audience who were either expecting a live version of the stage show (based on what NBC had done), or were expecting the movie.
  • I thought the performances were universally strong: the actors could sing and dance, and there were no significant gaffes. I think, for the leads, it showed off their talents well and may lead to more consideration for stage roles. The only exception was when the leads attempted to ape the performances of their movie equivalents too closely.
  • The interpretation of some of the songs made me wonder if the director understood the show at all. In particular, “Freddie My Love”, while performed flawlessly, made no sense as done. This was a song about a teen girl leading servicemen on, getting them to send her presents with no intent of having a real relationship. So incorporating it into a USO show was just … wrong, so wrong. Similarly, “These Magic Changes” … which a really a song about a fellow learning guitar, became this weird relationship song in the show. They completely cut the words to the “Mooning” number.
  • I can understand the desire to give Frenchie a song in the show, especially when you have cast a good singer. But the song you gave her was from the wrong period and didn’t fit the style of a show. Much better might have been an “I want” song earlier on, because this is a character who really doesn’t know what she wants.
  • I wasn’t sure about the opening. I did appreciate the singer and showing the extensiveness of the sets. But I think the show could have equally gone with the traditional stage opening (at a reunion of the class) and have had equal impact.
  • I found the interstitials with Mario Lopez interesting, and a great way to emphasize the live nature of the show.
  • I did, however, appreciate the closing. NBC has done away with the curtain calls, but I think for a live show you need them there. I would have superimposed the names of the actors and characters, however, as there wasn’t a program.
  • As you know, Saturday we saw A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. One person commented over on Facebook that they didn’t like the show because of its dated attitudes towards women. Although the script to this show attempted to do a little updating in that regard, the basic show Grease does demonstrate — and almost promote — a number of bad traits: expecting women to put out, belittling nerds, cultures of violence and hazing, and such. Some (such as I) can just put them into the historical context; however, it is something to think about when making the choice about what to highlight. I’m not sure whether Grease is even correctable, but it is a reflection of its times.
  • One area they did attempt to update the show is by making the school integrated. Given that this is a show in a particular historical context, I found it jarring — especially in that the integration they were showing for the time wouldn’t have happened back then. If you’re going to update race integration, you need to update the rest of the attitudes. I’ll note that other shows can bring in diversity without problem, because they are of an unspecified time and place, or are clearly imaginary. [Further, if you are going to integrate the cast, what does it say when all your leads are white. Look at the poster, folks.]
  • Despite the story problems, the technical craft was excellent, especially the quick changes such as between the slumber party and the USO show. This clearly demonstrated that complex productions can be done live; further, if you do them live, you’ll draw in the audience (especially when you do it against other new run shows). NBC, the gauntlet has been thrown.
  • For the most part, I appreciated the cameos, especially Didi Cohn and Eve Plumb. However, using Boyz II Men for Teen Angel was just wrong: they didn’t get the style right, and they made many of the words hard to hear.
  • They cleaned up quite a bit of language: not only did the pull the “pussy wagon” line from “Greased Lightening”, but the line about being an athletic supporter was gone, the Sal Mineo line was gone from Sandra Dee, and they pulled the Fangool!. This is Fox, folks. One expects a bit of raunch. You hear worse on the Simpsons.
  • Another odd change, seemingly for no reason: They moved where Sandy and Danny met to Salt Lake City, and changed Sandy’s name to Young from Dubrowski. Why? It destroyed the double entendre in “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee”, and had no fathomable reason other than to imply she was Mormon, and thus couldn’t drink, smoke, etc. It was unnecessary. Note that the movie did the name change as well, changing the name to Olsson. I also noticed they changed the year to 1959, for no reason other than to include the rocket jokes.
  • Kudos to Vanessa Hudgens for her great performance, especially considering that her dad passed away that morning.
  • They coped quite well with the unexpected SoCal rainstorm. Good thing they had those umbrellas handy.
  • While watching the show, I’ll admit I was mostly hate watching. C’mon, it was on Fox. But looking back, I don’t think it was as bad as all that: the performances were good, and the technical craft was excellent. For someone who knows Grease, the story changes were jarring; for much of the audience, they probably enjoyed it.
  • I haven’t decided yet on whether to get the cast album: I liked the new orchestrations and the vocal performances, although I didn’t like the new song for Frenchie or Boyz to Men. I also have at least 4 versions of Grease in my music library: the original Broadway cast, the revival with Rosie O’Donnell, the revival with Laura Osnes, and the movie soundtrack. Do I need a fifth? Then again, I have at least 6 versions of Gypsy: Merman, Lansbury, Midler, Daly, Peters, and LuPone.

California Highway Headlines for January 2016

Written By: cahwyguy - Mon Feb 01, 2016 @ 6:13 pm PST

userpic=roadgeekingAh, a new year. Let’s see what it has to bring in terms of highway news:

  • Transforming the end of the 2 Freeway could be the beginning of a new L.A.. Around the country, cities are demolishing stretches of highway, turning them into parks or boulevards. Los Angeles has an opportunity to do something even more dramatic: to close a piece of elevated freeway to traffic but keep it intact as a huge platform for new open space and housing. In a single gesture, the city could produce significant parkland and a monument to the ambition that produced the Southern California highway network in the first place. The stretch I have in mind is the stub end of the 2 Freeway as it bends south and west from Interstate 5 and dips into Silver Lake and Echo Park, two miles or so from downtown Los Angeles.
  • A List of Things That Spilled on SoCal Freeways in 2015. February 2: Frozen chicken, 10 Freeway. February 20: diesel fuel, 710 Freeway. …
  • Reconnected Route 66 in Cajon Pass may open soon. A part of the Interstate 15/215 interchange project that would reconnect a portion of old Route 66 in San Bernardino County, California, was slated to be finished by May. But a new report in the Victorville Daily Press indicates it will reopen early this year.

(more…)

Weekend Chum Stew: Food, Fiddler, Fonts, &c

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Jan 31, 2016 @ 2:39 pm PST

Observation StewYesterday was a crazy day, and I didn’t get the news chum stew on the stove. Today is chilly and rainy, so I’ve made an extra big pot:

Tonight, A Comedy 🎭 “A Funny Thing … Forum” @ Cabrillo

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Jan 31, 2016 @ 12:27 pm PST

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Cabrillo)Cabrillo UserpicMuch humor falls flat with me. Last week, during the 50hr Drive By, other audience members were falling over in the aisles, while I was sitting on my hands. But give me a good farce, and I’m laughing with the best of them. I find farces hilarious, but farces have to be done with skill and perfection to be done right. I’m pleased to say that we saw a great farce last night: Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB).

Now, I’m not unfamiliar with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (henceforth, just A Funny Thing…). I’ve got both the original and the revival cast albums, and I’ve seen the movie a few times — and it never left me laughing. Movie farces are like that: what works on stage falls flat on screen. If an on-screen farce does work, it is typically only “laugh out loud funny” the first viewing. There’s a reason for that. The best farces depend on split second timing, the unexpected performance, the unexpected juxtaposition. There’s that element of danger that things won’t work. With movies, you know they have worked hard to get the best take (after reshoot after reshoot), and you know it will be the same every time. That takes a lot of the fun out of it. Just contrast Noises Off on the screen with it on the stage, and you’ll know which works. Stage productions also have the feedback loop of the actors drawing energy from the audiences, amplifying and sending it back to the audience, who send it back to the actors. That doesn’t happen in front of a screen.

The previous paragraph is a long way of saying the following: First, if you get the chance to see a farce on stage, take it. Second, if you think you know A Funny Thing… because you’ve seen the movie or heard the music, think again. That’s what I thought, and after seeing it, I’ve fallen in love with this show. It is one of those shows that I think will be different in every performance, even with the same actors. In the right hands, it is up there with the best farces.

A good reason for that is it’s pedigree. This was the first show where Stephen Sondheim did both the music and the lyrics, coming off his success as the lyricist for Gypsy. The basic idea for the show — a low-brow comedy for Broadway — was from Burt Shevelove, who had worked on both Broadway and in television. He brought in Larry Gelbart to round out the book; Gelbart was a comedy writer who had written for folks like Jack Paar, Bob Hope, and Danny Thomas. He went on to create the TV show M*A*S*H, and to write movies such as Tootsie and Oh, God. The original production was directed by George Abbott and directed by Harold Prince, and had some doctoring by Jerome Robbins. Robbins famously replaced the problematic opening numbers (there were numerous trials) with Comedy Tonight, a masterpiece of introduction and exposition. The behavior of the leads were established by the astounding original cast, including Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, and David Burns.

The story of A Funny Thing… has a classic farce setup for mistaken identity and chances. It also recognizes out front that it is a play and a comedy, which makes breaking the fourth wall for comedic effect possible. In ancient Rome there are three houses. There is the house of Erronius, a befuddled old man abroad on a quest to find his children, who had been stolen in infancy by pirates. He knows them only by their rings depicting a gaggle of geese.  There is the house of Marcus Lycus, a procurer of courtesans. He has a number of ladies in his stable: VIrbrata, Tintinabula, the Geminae twins, Pancea, Gymasia, and Philia, who has been sold to Captain Miles Gloriosus of the Roman Guard. Lastly, there is the house of Senex, an older Roman citizen married to the dominating Domina, and father to the late-teen-aged Hero. Also in the house of Senex are two slaves: Pseudolus (slave to Hero) and Hysterium (slave to Domina). Hero has fallen in love with Philia.  Seeing this as an opportunity, Pseudolus gets Hero to agree that he will free Pseudolus if he can get Hero and Philia together. This sets the wheels in motion as Pseudolus schemes to get Philia into the house of Senex, drug her, and get her to the port with Hero while at the same time avoiding the Captain, Lycus, and his master, who has unexpectedly arrived home early. Things go awry, and … therein lies the humor. Let’s just say the the remainder of the story revolved around mistaken identity, chases, female impersonation, split-second timing, and classic vaudeville low-brow humor.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Press Photos)This is a show that requires directorial permission to have fun. If one attempts to get the cast to stick hard and fast to the script, the spontaneity that makes the humor goes out the window. This production was directed by Lewis Wilkenfeld (FB), who seemed to embrace the fun aspect. He assembled a great bunch of comic talent, wound them up, and let them go — while keeping them to the story. He also took great advantage of the change of venue. Unlike most Cabrillo shows, this show was done in the significantly smaller Scheer Forum. This permitted the actors to go through the audience and interact with the audience. This worked extremely well, and I’d almost be leery of Forum in a gigantic venue. Wilkenfeld also permitted a small amount of rejiggering to bring in local references and local humor, which worked quite well.

What truly made this show was the lead, Nick Santa Maria (FB), as Pseudolus. Productions of Forum are often characterized by their leads — and there have been some great ones: the aforementioned Mostel, Phil Silvers, and Nathan Lane.  Santa Maria brought in some elements of their performances, but also his own unique humor. I overheard some audience members mentioning that he had done some stand-up, and it was clear in how he played off the audience, played off the other actors both as actors and as his character, and was sharp-witted enough to ad-lib local humor into the situations. Through Santa Maria, you could easily imagine how Mostel stole this show in the original production with the audience interaction. His was just a fun, funny performance, executed well. There were so many favorite scenes, but the one that sticks in my mind is when Miles Gloriosus kept hitting his hat on the arch, and the two riffed back and forth.

Providing principal support to Santa Maria’s Pseudolus were Larry Raben (FB)’s Hysterium and David Ruprecht (FB)’s Senex.  Raben brought the right elements of panic and comedy to Hysterium, which were most apparent in the second act scenes, or in his solo number, “I’m Calm”.  In some ways, Hysterium is the uptight straight man to Pseudolus, providing the panic reaction to the manic unpredictability. Raben captured that quite well. As Senex, captured the old lecherous man quite well, although there were one or two odd-timings. For the most part, he was quite fun to watch…. especially in “Impossible”.

As the young lovers, Tyler Miclean (FB) [Hero] and Claire Adams (FB) [Philia] have simply drawn characters. Hero is the love-struck naive boy, and Philia is the dumb courtesan (the embodiment of “blond”). They pull these off well; in particular, I enjoyed Adams “dumb” portrayal for its cluelessness (which take work to pull off). They do great on their songs; I particularly enjoyed Miclean in “Impossible” and Adams in “That’ll Show Him”.

In smaller supporting roles were Andrew Metzger (FB) as Marcus Lycus and Matt Merchant (FB) as Miles Gloriosus. We’ve seen Metzger before; he was in the recent ARTS production of Addams Family. He brought the same craziness and humor to his performance here, and was quite fun to watch. Merchant had the right physical shape and presence for his role, and wonderful comic timing that was displayed quite well in his interactions with Santa Maria’s Pseudolus. If there was one weak note, it might be the amplification of Merchant. Especially in “Bring Me My Bride”, Gloriosus’s voice needs to boom. Merchant had the right vocal quality in the number; I think he just needed either a bit more amplification, or a bit stronger projection. But that, overall, is a minor quibble.

Rounding out the supporting characters were Elise Dewsberry (FB)’s Domina and Tom Hall (FB)’s Erronius.  Hall’s role is relatively simple: wander around looking befuddled — which he did very well… including during the intermission. Dewsberry’s Domina gets more to do: after a brief introduction in the first act, she gets her own song (“That Dirty Old Man”) and some wonder comic opportunities during the chase. Dewsberry does well with all.

Unlike most Cabrillo musicals, this show does not have the gigantic ensemble and children’s chorus. There are two ensemble-ish aspects. First, there are the courtesans of the House of Marcus Lycus: Beth Alison (FB) [Vibrata], Julie Alice Auxier (FB) [Tintinabula], Kai Chubb (FB) and Janelle Loren [the Geminae twins], Amy Lenhardt/FB [Panacea], and Anne Montavon (FB) [Gymnasia]. These are primarily dancing and movement roles; they have no lines and sing as part of full cast numbers. However, they play the comedy and dance well (and look beautiful as well). Also ensemble-ish are the three proteans (Marcus S. Daniel (FB), Jake Novak (FB), and Pablo Rossil (FB)), who play numerous roles throughout the show — eunuchs, soldiers, citizens, and many more. They do this, and they do it with a wonderful comic flair.

This is not the type of show that has big splashy dance numbers (Sondehim’s shows rarely are), but there is still a fair amount of individual dance (especially during “The House of Marcus Lycus”, where each courtesan gets their own unique dance), and lots of choreographed movement in various sequences such as the opening, Marcus Gloriosus’s entrance, and the funeral, chase, and finale sequences. This choreography was well designed by John Charron (FB), assisted by Kai Chubb (FB). The music was under the direction of Lloyd Cooper (FB), the musical director and conductor of the on-stage behind-house band, which consisted of Lloyd Cooper (FB) [Piano, Keyboard],  Gary Rautenberg (FB) [Flute, Piccolo, Clarinet, Alto Sax], Darryl Tanikawa (FB) [Clarinet, Alto Sax], Ian Dahlberg (FB) [Tenor Sax, Clarinet]; Matt Germaine (FB) [Baritone Sax, Bass Clarinet, Clarinet], Bill Barrett (FB) [Trumpet, Flugelhorn], Shane Harry (FB) [Double Bass], and Alan Peck [Set Drums, Percussion].  Darryl Tanikawa (FB) was the orchestra contractor, and Darryl Archibald (FB)  was the music supervisor. The orchestra was produced by Tanikawa Artists Management LLC.

The set was provided by Off Broadway West, and consisted mostly of flats and buildings. It worked reasonably well for the Scheer Forum space. Supporting props were designed by Alex Choate (FB).  Sound was by regular Cabrillo sound designer Jonathan Burke (FB) and was mostly excellent as usual; I would have amplified Matt Merchant just a tad more in order to give him more boom and power. The lighting by James Smith III (FB) worked well in establishing place and time. The wardrobe from The Theatre Company (FB) in Upland was supervised by Christine Gibson; hair and makeup design was by Cassie Russek (FB). Both worked well, and was suitably creative (although I did have some concern about cultural appropriation — I think I’ve become sensitized to it, just as I’ve become sensitized to a need for diversity on the stage, and was wondering here why the courtesans, at least, couldn’t have been more diverse).  Remaining significant production credits: Jack Allaway [Technical Director]; Vernon Willet (FB) [Production Stage Manager]; Tawni Eccles (FB) and Samantha Whidby [Assistant Stage Managers]. Cabrillo Music Theatre is under the artistic direction of Lewis Wilkenfeld (FB).

The Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum continues at the Scheer Forum in Thousand Oaks until February 14, 2016. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster. Discount tickets are available through Goldstar. Go. It is one of the funniest shows I’ve seen in a long time.

Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) just announced their 2015-2016 season. You can find my thoughts on it here. We plan to resubscribe. Cabrillo is a special theatre in Southern California: it doesn’t do tours of these shows. Rather, these are professional regional productions with regional performers and regional directors. Often, the actors trained at Cabrillo go on to bigger things (I was going to say better, but that’s more of an “in the eyes of the beholder” issue). The regional aspect is important. On the Pantages season this year is The Book of Mormon. I have no desire to see it there — I saw the tour when it first came through.  Why see that interpretation again? But if Cabrillo did it, I’d be right there. It is special to see these shows reinterpreted creatively with local production teams and local talents. If you live in Southern California, they are really worth exploring.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres:  The Colony Theatre (FB), Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), and I just added the  Hollywood Pantages (FB). In 2015, my intimate theatre subscription was at REP East (FB), although they are reorganizing and (per the birides) will not start 2016 shows until August. I may move the subscription to The Group Rep (FB), or I may just get individual tickets there through Goldstar. Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: February theatre starts on Saturday, February 6 with Empire: The Musical at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) — this gives us not only the chance to see a dear friend (Sheri F.) who doesn’t attend as much LA theatre as she used to, but a favorite performer (Kevin Earley). The next day brings “An Act of God” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). There’s a rare mid-week performance on February 9 of The Jason Moran Fats Waller Dance Party at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). The following weekend brings the Southern California premiere of the musical Dogfight at the Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim Hills.  The third weekend in February is currently open, but that is likely to change. February closes with The Band of the Royal Marines and the Pipes, Drums, and Highland Dancers of the Scots Guards at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). March starts with “Man Covets Bird” at the 24th Street Theatre (FB) on March 6 (the day after the MRJ Man of the Year dinner) The second weekend of March brings “Another Roll of the Dice” at The Colony Theatre (FB). The third weekend of March takes us back to the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) to see Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina.  The last weekend of March is being held for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) (pending Hottix).  April will start with Lea Salonga at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) on April 1 and an Elaine Boosler concert at Temple Ahavat Shalom on April 2. It will also bring the Turtle Quintet at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB), “Children of Eden” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) , and our annual visit to the Renaissance Faire (Southern). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.