Observations Along the Road

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

Who In The Hell Do You Think You Are

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Jul 12, 2015 @ 11:31 am PDT

Jesus Christ Superstar (Rep East)userpic=repeastWhen I went to Jewish Summer Camp in the early 1970s, there were two “Jesus”-based musicals going around. One, Godspell, gave us a song we actually sang at camp: “Day by Day”. Out of context, it worked just fine. The other was this brown album with a stylized angel on it, and it gave us a song we sang as “Jesus Christ / Superstar / Who In The Hell Do You Think You Are”. The words aren’t too surprising for a Jewish summer camp. I mention this because that was really my knowledge of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar up to last night. I had seen Godspell a number of times and tended to like it because it wasn’t so “in your face” for a non-Christian. From what little I had heard or seen, JCS was much more in your face, heavy rock, and screamy. In recent years I had finally heard the music — and there were a few songs I liked — but still hadn’t seen the show either on stage or on screen. So when REP East Playhouse (FB) in Newhall, where we subscribe, announced the show for this season, I was looking forward to finally seeing it. Last night I finally saw it. I came away disappointed, unsure of what all the fuss was about. REP gave it a good effort, but it just didn’t strike that chord for me. As always, your mileage may vary.

Jesus Christ Superstar (JCS for short) was the first musical from the team of Andrew Lloyd Webber (FB) and Tim Rice (FB) to hit America (Joseph was written earlier, but was imported to the US after JCS became a success). It was released first as a rock concept album — that aforementioned brown album — and became a hit. This led to the album being staged on Broadway by the same director that had done Hair. On Broadway — just as with Wicked — the critics almost universally panned the show, but the audiences loved it. JCS can be said to have started the era of sung-through musical — we can blame JCS for not only Evita, Sunset Boulevard, Starlight Express, Phantom of the Opera, and Cats, but for spawning shows like Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Tale of Two Cities, and the recent fringe show, The Count of Monte Cristo.

JCS essentially relates the well-known story of the last eight days of the man Jesus of Nazareth. Spoiler: He dies in the end (it does not show the resurrection). I’m not sure I need to relate the particulars of the story; if you need to see the plot synopsis, it is on the Wikipedia page.  The story really focuses on the relationship between Jesus, Judas, and Mary. Judas, who plays the central driving figure in the story, is disappointed that Jesus seems to have veered away from the focus of his ministry. Under what he sees as the influence of Mary, Judas believes that Jesus is spending funds on oils and ointments instead of using it to help the poor and needy. He becomes increasingly disillusioned with Jesus, moving to the point (as we all know) of betraying him to the authorities, which leads to his crucifixion. As Jesus gets pilloried by the authorities, we also see how many of his disciples appear to turn away from him as well, just as today popular media can turn people away from heroes of old. Only Mary stays steadfastly by Jesus’ side. At the end, they return remembering how he affected their lives.

The love triangle presented in story, as JCS presents it, is likely what drew youth into the story. The triangle: close friend disillusioned when the new woman in his bro’s life turns him away is classic — and it is an interesting take on Jesus’ life. I don’t know the extent to which this subtext, however, is actually in the gospels.

Unlike Godspell, which teaches Jesus’ lessons and focuses less on the actual life story, JCS really doesn’t teach what Jesus said about living. Through Judas, it seems to show how he turned away from what he was teaching. It shows Jesus as bargaining with God, trying to figure out his role in all of this. Ultimately, he is convinced he has to die in order to make his message. To me, a non-Christian, the portrayal of Jesus by Rice and Webber is a negative one. Here is a nice guy, trying to minister to the poor, but his followers inflate his ministry for their own purposes and for their own immortality (listen to the words in “The Last Supper”: “Always hoped that I’d be an apostle / Knew that I would make it if I tried / Then when we retire we can write the gospels / So they’ll all talk about us when we’ve died”). Rice and Webber portray Jesus as ultimately betraying his cause and his work to make that larger message, of being a reluctant messiah — in essence, of being a fraud. Look at the main lyric of the title song: “Jesus Christ, Superstar / Do you think you’re what they say you are”. Rice and Webber portray Judas as seeing through this, and trying to return Jesus to the right path. That’s certainly not the story of Jesus that I (a non-Christian) have gleaned over the years.  I think it is ultimately a negative portrayal of Jesus, with lyrics that are screaming and not always melodic.

Even worse, I think that JCS perpetuates the antisemitic nature of the Gospels. Look at “King Herod’s Song”, and particularly the “Trial Before Pilate”. What comes across is that the Jews are viewed in a negative sense, and that the Romans are really reluctant to kill Jesus — but (as the song says) it is the Jews that demand that the Romans find a reason to do so.

Suffice it to say that I’m not enthused about the presentation of the story, and I now understand why I preferred Godspell. There are some versions of Godspell that can get a bit preachy, but they do not get anti-anything. JCS does. It has a few songs that I like, particularly “I Don’t Know How To Love Him”, but the show just turns me off. My guess is that this would be the case irrespective of the venue producing the show (although I am now curious about the highly-touted DOMA version).

Let’s now turn to the REP interpretation of the show, understanding how that may have been colored based on the book itself. Alas, this too was disappointing due to a number of factors, but I’ll ultimately chock it up to directoral vision combined with technical issues. As directed by Rick Pratt (FB), the show had a minimalist set staging (there were no real set pieces at all), with loads of odd lighting and paint choices that served to distract from rather than support the story. The pre-recorded music tended to overpower the voices, which were not helped by microphones that kept cutting in and out and having a fair amount of hiss. This was not the usual REP set, sound, or lighting quality — every theater has an aberration occasionally. Due to all this, the focus ultimately was on the cast and their relationships and emotions; given the sung through nature of the show, that had to come across in the quality and clarity of the songs and how they were sung. The cast tried hard to overcome these problems, but it never quite meshed with the demands the overwrought Webber/Rice story required.

As a quick aside, I also believe this is a story that works much better with live music. Live, as opposed to pre-recorded music, gives that extra energy that a rock opera such as this requires. The director, Rick Pratt, had experience with live on-stage music before at the REP and that worked very very well, and I wish he had been able to figure out a way to make the music live.

[Edited to Add: Based on some discussions with the REP, it looks like this will be transitioning to live music by 7/24. This should improve the production and energy greatly.]

In JCS, the central character driving the story is Judas. It is he that frames the initial opening direction of the story in “Heaven on Their Minds”; it is he that is there criticizing Jesus’s relationship with Mary; it is he that interacts with the High Priests; and it is he that ultimately faces Jesus in the end. His role is quite similar to the one that Rice/Webber would use again for Che in Evita. You need a powerhouse rock singer here — one that can not only act, but sing loud and clear to get the message across. You also need an actor who can just have that unspeakable presence. Adam Duarte tries very hard, and occasionally got the tone right, but didn’t have the consistency needed. Further, his attempt to be rock-ish made it difficult to hear the words clearly — and hearing the words is vital when the songs are the only thing moving the story forward.

The second part of the main triangle in the story is Jesus, who was played by Benjamin Patrick Thomas (FB). Benjamin sang well when we saw him in Return to the Forbidden Planet (also directed by Pratt). For the most part, he did well here but had a lot of trouble with the upper end of the range on some of Jesus’ songs. He also had seemingly the wrong look, but I can’t put my finger on why — as a mid-thirties white bearded hippie, he certainly didn’t fit the conventional picture of Jesus; then again, we don’t know what Jesus looked like.

The third part of the triangle — and one of the standouts in the show — was Natasha J. Gaston (FB) as Mary Magdalene. Gaston’s Mary conveyed wonderful emotions, and had a wonderful singing voice that she put to great use in “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” and “Everything’s Alright”. The quality of this voice came through even as her microphone kept cutting in and out and over a large amount of amplification hiss. I hope that we see more of this lovely actress.

As the opposition leadership, Chris Loprete (FB) [Pontius Pilate], Paul Nieman (FB) [Caiphas], and Ally Loprete (FB) [Annas] did well. All three sang well and were able to convey their emotions through song. The costuming seemed a bit strange, especially the overly clingy and sexy number for Annas, who was supposedly a high priest, and the devilish dark red suit for Pilate.

In the ensemble and playing a number of smaller roles were: Alex Bowman (FB) [Peter / Ensemble], Tara Cox/FB [Simon Zealotes / Ensemble], Michael Davies [King Herod / Ensemble], Eriel Brown (FB) [Ensemble / Dance Captain], Laura Norkin/FB [Ensemble], Marie-Clarie Erdynast/FB [Ensemble], Danielle Honeyman (FB) [Ensemble], Sean Goodman/FB [Ensemble], Bruce Robinson/FB [Ensemble], and Micahel Gilbertson/FB [Ensemble]. In the ensemble positions, all blended well, sang reasonably well, and had obvious fun portraying their characters. There are a few worthy of special comment. Tara Cox/FB was another of those actors with a voice above the rest; it came across quite strongly in the few solo numbers and portions of numbers that she had. We’ve seen Michael Davies before in Forbidden Planet. He was good in King Herod’s number (one of my favorites on the album), but didn’t quite have the right sense of the cat playing with the mouse that was required, and that feeds the righteous indignation that feeds the end of the number. The focus was the cutesy, not the message. Eriel Brown (FB) moved and danced well, and seemed (if I was picking her out right) to have a very nice singing voice. Lastly, Danielle Honeyman (FB) was fun to watch in the ensemble. Again, if I was hearing correctly, I heard a slightly operatic voice and tone.

As noted before, JCS was directed by Rick Pratt (FB) and Kimbyrly M. Valis (FB). Carla Bellefeuille (FB) was the vocal director, assisted by Justin G. Horwitz/FB. Erin Cholakian (FB) was the choreographer.  I’ve commented before about the directoral vision. JCS is a hard show to get correct in a small venue, so I do applaud the directoral team for trying.  Their choices didn’t work for me; it might work for others. I feel their attempt was hurt by the inability to have live music. It was also hurt by the current battle between intimate theatres and AEA that has led REP to go non-union; JCS in particular is a show that would have been helped greatly to have the additional seasoning, talent, and stage presence in the lead positions. I think the team did the best with what they had to work with. The choreography, on the other hand, worked well given the limited REP space; it is always nice to see dance on the REP stage.

[ETA: There was also an odd projection sequence during the overture music going through all sorts of historical scenes. The purpose was unclear — was it meant to say that this was done in Jesus’ name? What was the point? Further, given the uneven surface at the back of the theatre, the projections were hard to see and read.]

I’ve also noted before the various technical problems. The set design was minimal: some ramps, some raised stages, a cross that could be lowered, and some inexplicable painted lines on the floor and on the wall. This is not the style of set design that REP normally does, and it didn’t work for me (but then again, I’ve never seen JCS before — perhaps this is the concept). There were also significant problems with the sound — I don’t know if it was the design of Steven “Nanook” Burkholder/FB or problems with the wireless mics on the performers and difficulties at the sound board. In any case, it served to distract more than amplify. Although TC was listed as the resident lighting designer, lighting credit for this show was given to Jeffrey Hampton/FB. The lighting was odd — there were odd flashes during songs that I’m guessing were meant to be rock opera-ish. There were also points where characters were singing or moving in the dark, which shouldn’t be the case. I don’t know what to say about the costume design by Chelsea Jones/FB: they attempted to update this to some unspecified era so that the costumes were some odd eclectic mix of robes, sexy shorts, spandex, hippie threads, jeans and T-shirts, and suits. My wife noted that there were numerous fitting problems. Calliope Weisman/FB was the stage manager.  REP is under the artistic direction of  Mikee Schwinn/FB.

Jesus Christ Superstar continues at REP East (FB) in Newhall (Santa Clarita) through August 15, 2015. Tickets are available through the REP online box office. Discount tickets are available through Goldstar. I’m not a fan of JCS, but you might be.

After JCS concludes its run, REP will be presenting a special two-weekend “81 series” production of A Company of Wayward Saints by George Herman, a commedia del arte type show. Tickets are available through the REP website.

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:  REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). 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: July is a month of double-headers. Next weekend is another double header: “The History Boys” at the Stella Adler Theatre (FB) on Saturday (Goldstar), and “Green Grow The Lilacs” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) on Sunday.  The last weekend of July brings our last double: “Lombardi” at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB) on July 25th, with the annual Operaworks show the next day. August start calming down, with “As You Like It” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) the first weekend of August, our summer Mus-ique show the second weekend of August, and “The Fabulous Lipitones” at  The Colony Theatre (FB) the third weekend of August. After that we’ll need a vacation … but then again we might squeeze in Evita at the Maui Cultural Center (FB) the last weekend of August. September right now is mostly open, with the only ticketed show being “The Diviners” at REP East (FB) and a hold-the-date for “First Date” at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB). October will bring another Fringe Festival: the NoHo Fringe Festival (FB). October also has the following as ticketed or hold-the-dates: Kelrik Production (FB)’s Urinetown at the Monroe Forum Theatre (Hold for Sat 10/3);  “Mrs. A. Lincoln” at The Colony Theatre (FB) (Ticketed for Sat 10/10); and  “Damn Yankees” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) (Ticketed for Sat 10/17). 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.

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Going Sideways

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Jul 11, 2015 @ 9:53 am PDT

Madness Murder Mayhem (ZJU)userpic=yorickFor better (or some might say, for worse), I’ve gotten to know Colin Mitchell (FB), one of the masterminds (perhaps the evil one?) behind the Los Angeles theater website Bitter Lemons (FB). Colin recently invited me to see his new show “Madness! Murder! Mayhem!” at Zombie Joes Underground (FB). Given that I’ve grown to like ZJU’s stuff, and I had a Friday free, I decided to give it a try — thus creating the second double-header weekend of July (tonight we see Jesus Christ Superstar at REP East (FB) in Newhall (Santa Clarita).

M!M!M! is advertised as “Three Classic Grand Guignol Plays Re-Imagined”. My only familiarity with the Grand Guignol style is Sondheim’s classic “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street“. I knew the style was somewhat dark, but there was also an element of humor behind it.  According to the website of Thrillpeddlers, a San Francisco based company specializing in the style, the term ‘Grand Guignol’ refers to any dramatic entertainment that deals with macabre subject matter and features “over-the-top” graphic violence. It is derived from Le Theatre du Grand Guignol, the name of the Parisian theatre that horrified audiences for over sixty years. The theatre was founded in 1897 as an extension of the naturalist movement. A typical evening at the Grand Guignol Theatre might consist of five or six short plays, ranging from suspenseful crime dramas to bawdy sex farces. But the staple of the Grand Guignol repertoire was the horror play, which inevitably featured eye-gouging, throat-slashing, acid-throwing, or some other equally grisly climax. In the case of M!M!M!, we had three short plays (running just over an hour) that fit the horror play style quite well, including  the grisly. These are not plays for people squicked out by intense personal descriptions or horror. Well, unless you’ve had a little to drink. All of the plays were written by Colin Mitchell (FB)💀.
[💀 Note: The sub-title claims these are three classic plays re-imagined, but there is no credit to the original plays. As I write this up, I’ll endeavor to uncover the originals.]

Madness! Murder! Manhem! (Production Photos)The first playlet, At The Break of Day, tells the story of Lacazze (Ken MacFarlane (FB)) and Henri (Roland De Leon (FB)).  To the best I can figure, it may be based (very loosely) on Chop-Chop! or The Guillotine (La Veuve), by Eugene Heros and Leon Abric. Lacazze has been imprisoned in a French Prison for a long time. One day, Henri, a new prisoner, joins him in the cell — scheduled for execution by the guillotine. Lacazze attempts to find out Henri’s story, discovering it was for a crime of passion when he thought his girlfriend was cheating on him. The twists of the crime are quite interesting, and I won’t spoil that part for you. Eventually, Lacazze starts taunting Henri about the guillotine and what execution by guillotine is … in gory detail. He discusses how it doesn’t work, and how sometimes the head seems to live on Eventually, Henri gets enraged and proceeds to kill Lacazze with his bare hands. He is left, at the end of the scene, with the steady chop chop chop sound of the guillotine.

This play touched a nerve with me, partially because the song “Madam Guillotine” from The Scarlett Pimpernel has always given me slight chills (“Now come let our lady possess you /In her breathtaking, hair-raising bed /She will tingle your spine /As she captures your heart and your head”). The description of the head living after the chop is just something I can’t imagine. Very good horror imagery there. My wife saw some parallels between the end and Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”, which is equally chilling.  I found the performances very good, particularly MacFarlen’s Lacazze, which captured just the right level of madness and reason… and revenge. In fact, if there was a notion behind this playlet, it was the destructive power of revenge — in particular, early on I wrote down the phrase “Live for Revenge”. I’ll note that this created an odd connection with our last play, Matilda, which also dealt with revenge — as did Carrie, for that matter. Perhaps revenge is one of those emotions at the heart of Grand Guignol.

The second playlet, Natasha, appears to be based on L’Horrible Passion, by André de Lorde, about a young nanny who strangled the children in her care. It tells the story of Miss Dorie Logan (Jonica Patella (FB)), a nanny in a house where three children were brutally murdered. Dr. Benjamin Wavers (Colin Mitchell (FB)), a friend of Judge Clarrow (Dale Sandlin (FB)), believes that although she didn’t see the murderer, her subconscious did. He convinces the judge to permit her to be hypnotized, and when she does — let’s just say she did more than see the murderer. The ending was particularly chilling.

In some ways here, the story here was a bit telegraphed (if you’re familiar with Sybil). However, the story was suitably gruesome, particular the description of the deaths of the children (the two boys in particular still sticks with me). The performances were also very strong: Dr. Wavers very controlled, and Clarrow portraying skepticism and then interest quite well. But the best performance here was Patella, with the contrast between the meek personality of Dorie and the aggressive personality of Natasha.

The third playlet, Orgy in the Lighthouse, appears to be adapted from Alfred Marchand’s play of the same name, which was about two brothers who entertain a pair of whores in a lighthouse on a holy day. It this version it was two cousins: the lighthouse operator Bernard (Vincent Cusimano (FB)) and his cousin Edmund (Alex Walters (FB)). Edmund surprises Bernard one stormy and foggy evening for his “birthday” by bringing over two whores — Claire (Shayne Eastin (FB)) and Penelope (Jessica Madelaine).  Bernard is disinterested, being more concerned that the lighthouse works. But Edmund insists — and sometimes forces the women violently. Eventually, he pushes Claire onto Bernard, and goes into the other room to have his way forcibly with Penelope. While doing so, he disconnects the gas line. This enrages Bernard, and Edmond keeps coming up with solutions — such as setting a whore on fire and hanging her outside the lighthouse. The ending is particuarly grisly, and shall we say explosive?

The story in this play bothered me the most, simply because of the changes in society that have made strong violence against women particularly unpalatable. It is no longer acceptable to forcibly assault women against their will (I’m not sure it was ever right, but in the past it was often a part of life); this makes its portrayal on stage something very hard to watch. But I guess that’s the role of theatre — to make you uncomfortable, to make you realize what you tolerate and what you don’t. I am willing to accept that the violence was part of the original story (which makes it more gruesome now). The gore in this particular was a little less verbal and a bit more implied and offstage via sound effects, except for a chilling last scene.

The performances, however, were good. Cusimano gave off the image of reticence well, and Walters captured the violence inherent in Edmund with chilling calm. Eastin and Madelaine were appropriately whorish, if not a little overly so and potentially exaggerated; near the end, they captured the fear of the characters quite well.

The production was directed by Jana Wimer (FB), and was (in general) good. My only quibble was at times the actors seemed to be directed to overact a little bit — just a little overemphasis, just a little over the top. What I don’t know is whether this overplaying was intentional. After all, Grand Guignol is not a simple naturalistic presentation, but a stylized presentation that emphasizes both the gore and the humor. It is also a style out of the 1800s. Given that this was Grand Guignol style, the particular overlay that I recognized could very well have been part of that style. For now, I’ll assume that it was; it wasn’t a strong distraction from the show overall.

Taken together, I think these three playlets captured the Grand Guignol style well. I now have a much better understanding of the style — it is more than just Sweeney Todd — it is a style plays up the gore and grossness for a particular audience emotional impact. Not fear exactly, but horror (and there is a subtle difference). In that, these playlets worked well — they all demonstrated the horrific side of human nature. Additionally (and thus the title of this writeup), they all had an interesting sideways movement at the end, going into a direction that you weren’t expecting.

In general, the production side at Zombie Joe’s is spare and sparse. The set consists of a few wooden boxes; the lighting consists of clip-on lamps with colored bulbs (there isn’t even professional level Lekos or a clear lighting board). But it works: the sparse setting permits one to create the horror in your own mind, and to focus on the performances. The sound effects during the show worked particularly well. Technical credits: Scenic Blocks by Xandra-Marie Gabucan (FB) and David Wyn Harris (FB). Music Consultant: Elif Savas (FB). Costume Assistance: Jeri Batzdorff (FB). Assistant Director, ZJU GM, and Tech Guru: Adam Neubauer (FB). Sound design, ZJU Webmaster, and Online PR Manager: Randy “Kernel” Long. ZJU Production Advisers: Josh T. Ryan (FB) and Zombie Joe. Poster Graphics by Jana Wimer (FB) and Adam Neubauer (FB). Produced by Zombie Joe.

One note, which I seem to make every time I visit Zombie Joe’s: their website. Sigh. Their website design, which looks like an old Homestead website because it is an old Homestead website, is truly stuck in the early 1990s era of web design, with a flashy and garish background, poor organization, and what looks to be a non-responsive design. Just as I need to update my highways site, they need to update theirs. Their productions are so good, that their website shouldn’t look so amateurish. So, now-that-I-know-your-name, Mr. Randy Long. You’re their webmaster. Please make their site better — ZJU deserves it.

Madness! Murder! Mayhem! has three more performances: July 17, July 24, and July 31. Tickets are available through the ticket link on the ZJU website. The show runs just over one hour. If you’re into horror or the Grand Guignol style, this is worth seeing. If you’re into family entertainment, I’d give it a pass and go see Murder for Two instead.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. 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:  REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). 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: July is a month of double-headers. Tonight is the second half of this weekend’s double header: “Jesus Christ Superstar” at REP East (FB). Next weekend is another double header: “The History Boys” at the Stella Adler Theatre (FB) on Saturday (Goldstar), and “Green Grow The Lilacs” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) on Sunday.  The last weekend of July brings our last double: “Lombardi” at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB) on July 25th, with the annual Operaworks show the next day. August start calming down, with “As You Like It” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) the first weekend of August, our summer Mus-ique show the second weekend of August, and “The Fabulous Lipitones” at  The Colony Theatre (FB) the third weekend of August. After that we’ll need a vacation … but then again we might squeeze in Evita at the Maui Cultural Center (FB) the last weekend of August. September right now is mostly open, with the only ticketed show being “The Diviners” at REP East (FB) and a hold-the-date for “First Date” at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB). October will bring another Fringe Festival: the NoHo Fringe Festival (FB). October also has the following as ticketed or hold-the-dates: Kelrik Production (FB)’s Urinetown at the Monroe Forum Theatre (Hold for Sat 10/3);  “Mrs. A. Lincoln” at The Colony Theatre (FB) (Ticketed for Sat 10/10); and  “Damn Yankees” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) (Ticketed for Sat 10/17). 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.

Retconning History

Written By: cahwyguy - Wed Jul 08, 2015 @ 12:08 pm PDT

userpic=old-shieldToday, while eating lunch, I came across an article titled: “California bill would ban naming state, local sites for Confederate leaders“. This bothers me greatly, not because I support the secessionist cause in any way, but because it is yet another example of the “TL;DR” view of society. We have two primary examples of that in the news right now: Robert E. Lee and Bill Cosby.

Let’s start with Robert E. Lee. Yes, he was the leading General of the Confederacy. But he was also (as Wikipedia notes): “The son of Revolutionary War officer Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee III and a top graduate of the United States Military Academy, Robert E. Lee was an exceptional officer and combat engineer in the United States Army for 32 years. During this time, he served throughout the United States, distinguished himself during the Mexican–American War, served as Superintendent of the United States Military Academy…”. Afterwards he was President of Washington and Lee University. The attempts to remove his name from everything essentially say that he is only defined by the three years he was in the C.S.A. army. I understand the victor gets to write the history books, and we should not be glorifying the losing cause in the Civil War battle. But how to we do this without forgetting all the good he did for the Union side before the split.

History is ugly, and doesn’t have clean lines. People we hold up as venerable have dark sides. Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson all owned slaves. Does that mean we no longer mention them? No. What we do is not hold them up as perfect icons — we present the history, both the good and the bad. Instead of a “zero tolerance” for any confederate involvement, we look at the person and ask: for what are they being honored? Were their accomplishments outside of the Civil War worth honoring, and can we present those aspects?

Bill Cosby is another example. I’m not attempting to defend the man at all. The recent court transcripts released paint a pretty conclusive picture. But that doesn’t make the stories he told in the 1960s less funny? That doesn’t make the series he developed less educational? How do we recognize the good done while acknowledging the bad man behind the good. Cosby isn’t unique in Hollywood. We all know there are other actors who, in their private lives, have committed all sorts of violence towards women. How do we learn to see the whole picture?

America these days has been trained on scandal; we’ve been taught to focus our attention on the bad most immediately done. We’ve also been taught to think to the sound bite — the snippet characterization. The problem is: life isn’t a sound bite; it isn’t the most recent story. In the many decades of life each of us have, we do both good and bad. We need to recognize no one is 100% good or 100% bad. We need to figure out how to recognize the good aspects, while acknowledging the bad aspects.

When I hear “Piiiiiipes”, see the name “Bob” on a coverall, or hear a “thump-thump thump-thump”, I’m going to think of Bill Cosby’s humor. I’ll remember there’s a bad and disturbed man behind that humor, but I’ll still smile at the story. When I think of Robert E. Lee, I’ll think of the Confederate General and the cause he fought for, why he fought for it, and why that side was wrong. But I’ll also think of the West Point officer who before the war was friends with other officers such as Grant, and who fought for the Union.

Life isn’t a sound bite; people can’t be characterized or pigeon-holed easily. We must take the time to see the whole person — the good and the bad. Perhaps these people don’t deserve a particular honor; perhaps they do. But we must always acknowledge the person — both the good and the flaws.

“That Kind” Takes the Cake

Written By: cahwyguy - Tue Jul 07, 2015 @ 5:47 pm PDT

userpic=sheriffjohnRecently, over on Facebook, I’ve gotten into a discussion with some of my more devout friends about the recent court case in Oregon. You may be familiar with it: This is the case where the former owners of an Oregon bakery have been ordered to pay $135,000 to a lesbian couple who were refused a wedding cake. The large amount was for pain and emotional distress. The bakers had cited their Christian beliefs against same-sex marriage in refusing to make the wedding cake for the lesbian couple. The court decision was based on the fact that Oregon law bars businesses from discriminating or refusing service based on sexual orientation, just as they cannot turn away customers because of race, sex, disability, age or religion.

The discussions on Facebook at times has been heated. To many of my devout friends (by that I mean folks who hold strong scriptural Christian views as well as Orthodox Jewish friends), this is a case of the courts impinging on the freedom to practice their religion, or upon their freedom of speech. To many of my more liberal friends, this is a case of Oregon simply enforcing their anti-discrimination laws. The whole recent issue of same-sex marriage has highlighted the tension that exists between these three legal concepts, and Facebook discussions do not easily permit a suitable exploration of the issues. As this issue is swirling in my head, I request your indulgence to do so here.

Lets start by looking at some constitutional amendments:

  • First Amendment. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
  • Fourteenth Amendment. Section 1. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Next, there’s the Oregon law:

  •  659A.403 Discrimination in place of public accommodation prohibited. (1) Except as provided in subsection (2) of this section, all persons within the jurisdiction of this state are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of any place of public accommodation, without any distinction, discrimination or restriction on account of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status or age if the individual is 18 years of age or older. [A public accommodation is defined to include “Any place or service offering to the public accommodations, advantages, facilities or privileges whether in the nature of goods, services, lodgings, amusements, transportation or otherwise.” but to exclude “An institution, bona fide club or place of accommodation that is in its nature distinctly private”]

Let’s start by exploring whether baking a cake is an exercise of religion. To my interpretation, free exercise of religion is a personal matter. What I wear. What I worship. How I worship. My ability to do that exercise stops at the point where it starts to infringe on someone else’s exercise or beliefs. Same sex marriage is actually a good example of this: Some believe it is not within their religion, others believe that it is. Within my church, I don’t have to do such marriages; I should not be able to prevent those that believe in it from doing it. To do so would be to impinge on their free exercise of religion. In the case of a public business refusing to bake a cake, even with a message on it, that’s impacting someone else. It is not preventing me from going to my church, worshiping my deity. It is trying to impose my view of what is proper, based on my religion, upon someone else. As I’ve said before: My freedom to exercise my religion stops when it impinges on someone else ability to follow their beliefs.

Here’s another way to look at it: In general, my religion should not care what the heathens do; my religion should only care about what I do and what I need to be a good and righteous person/get into [Heaven-concept]. Imposing my religious morality upon the heathen is imposing my religion upon the heathen, and preventing their ability to freely exercise their heathen religions (damned that they may be for doing it). [Unfortunately, the Christian majority in this country far too often wants to do just that to us “heathens” (non-Christians), and the first amendment exists to make it clear that they can’t]

What about freedom of speech? After all, what is on a cake is a message. Perhaps the producer of the cake didn’t want to deliver the message. This would be similar to a private publisher refusing to publish a letter to the editor because they did not want to appear to be condoning the form of speech in the letter. Such refusal is legally allowed — we don’t require all letters to the editor to be published, and permit hateful comments on news articles to be deleted. I think this might be a plausible argument … depending. Whether it really applies in this case depends on information we do not have, such as whether they attempted to order a plain wedding cake with no message, no topper, no decoration indicating it was a same-sex marriage after the original cake with a message was refused (the LA Times article did not say). If they did, then then only “speech” would be their delivering the cake, which could be accommodated by having the cake be picked up by the people that ordered it. The mere presence of a cake, with no attribution, provides no speech on behalf of the baker. Further, even if the cake was baked with a message, if there was no attribution to the bakery, there is no speech by the bakery. Lastly, there is nothing that could have prevented the bakery from requiring a disclaimer to be present on every cake they sell: “Any message on this cake does not represent the views of the owners and management of xxx bakery.” Put it on every cake, and everyone is equal.

Lastly, let’s consider “equal protection of the laws” and the Oregon discrimination law. When is a particular refusal discriminatory? I think a good test would be to substitute “that kind” or “them” — if that is your reason, you’re being discriminatory. For example, “I wouldn’t rent a room to “that kind”” or “I wouldn’t bake a wedding cake for “that kind””. If by “that kind” you are referring to a protected class under the laws of the nation or state, you’re being discriminatory. Just as “I won’t marry them because of their skin color” doesn’t work, “I won’t marry them because of their sexual orientation” doesn’t work. Going to the previous paragraph, if they had refused to allow the couple to pick up a plain cake, that would have been discriminatory. Refusing to pick up a cake with a message depends on attribution; without anything connecting the bakery to the cake, it is likely not freedom of speech and thus discriminatory.

What happened here? According to the LA Times:

When Aaron Klein was told there would be two brides, Rachel and Laurel, he responded that he was sorry, but the bakery did not do wedding cakes for same-sex couples because of his and his wife’s religious convictions, according to the report.

Based on the knowledge at hand, it appears the court made its decision based on the fact that the bakery was a public accommodation, and they did not provide equal privileges based on sexual orientation. We’ve shown that free exercise of religion doesn’t come into play here (as the baker’s decision impinged upon the couple’s exercise). Freedom of speech might have come into play — the article says nothing about the message requested for the cake or how the cake would be presented at the ceremony. For those who believe they should have just gone to another baker: if the issue was simply freedom of speech or freedom of religion, you would be right. If the issue was discrimination, you would be wrong. Consider the analogy of the south in the 1960’s, and a restaurant refusing to serve blacks in defiance of the civil rights laws. The black patron should not be told to just go to another establishment; under the law, they have the ability to use any public establishment of their choice. That is what seems to be the case in Oregon: The law says they can use any public accommodation. If the accommodation does not want to follow the Oregon law, they should either move to a different state or become a distinctly private organization (e.g., only members can order cakes).

Note: This simply goes to the question of whether the action appears to be legal or not. It doesn’t go to the amount of the damages for emotional suffering. Quite often, those amounts are set by the judge or jury to send a message to other groups: is this a slap on the hand (minimal damages) or something to be prevented in the future (major damages). It appears this judge and jury went for the latter. To my point of view it seems excessive, especially in light how how the public reacted to this before the decision:

The bakery’s car was vandalized and broken into twice, he said. Photographers and florists severed ties with the company, eventually forcing the Kleins to close their storefront shop in September 2013.

To me, the vandalism was uncalled for, and should have been taken into account in the damage calculation.

[Update: It appears the damages were the norm, and were partially because the bakery owners indicated they would continue to publicly discriminate against gays.]

[Update 2: It is clear after reading this the damages were justified. The bakers doxxed the couple, subjected them to harrassments and death threats, and almost lost them the foster children they were trying to adopt. They also made clear that the refusal was because they were gay, and they clearly knew they were in defiance of the law.]

Do I think this was the right legal decision? Yes. If you are a public business, you agree to serve the public even if you find it distasteful.† Just as it would be wrong for an innkeeper in Oregon in 2015 to refuse to rent a room to an unmarried couple or to a gay couple (right, they’re just roommates 😉 ), it is wrong for a business in Oregon to refuse to serve gays because they are gays and doing what gays do. A business cannot impose their morality upon their customers. Was it acceptable in the past? Yes, and many forms of discrimination from the past are not acceptable today (such as discriminatory housing practices). Did it force the bakery or the bakery owners to send a message that they approved of gay marriage? Only if any message on the cake was accompanied by information about who produced the cake — and even then the issue could have been sidestepped through a disclaimer. This was discriminatory because there were options and ways for the business to have served the customer without implying they personally approved of the ceremony, and their refusal to serve the public like that makes it clear that it was solely because of their sexual orientation (disclaimer: at least based on the facts as I know them). [† Similarly, it is wrong for a government employee to refuse to take a Federal action because it disagrees with their religious beliefs. When you become a Federal employee, you make an oath to follow Federal laws. If you can no longer abide by that oath, you must resign.]

This case illustrates well the impact on the devout, who are caught between a rock and a hard place. On one side they have an unchanging scripture, which they view as the word of God, unerring and eternal. It dictates particular societal norms, and prohibits what is perceived to be abnormal behavior. On the other side they have secular society which has an ever morphing definition of what is normal and acceptable — what was clearly unacceptable 50-60-100 years ago is now acceptable today (be that same-sex marriage, living together, children outside of marriage, interracial marriage, premarital sex, etc). The choices for the devout are not pleasant. They can attempt to find a loophole or interpretation that permits what they view as sinning. It has been done in some cases, but can’t be done in all. They can grouse about how the changes in society are preventing their exercise of their religion and their ability to impose what they view as normal morality on everyone. They would be right, but they would also be forgetting that freedom to exercise your religion has the implication that others have the freedom to exercise their religion and beliefs as well, even though you might not like it, and even though you believe your God will condemn them for their behavior. Lastly, they can isolate themselves into communities of the like minded, where the problematic issues just won’t raise their nasty head unless an interloper in the community forces it (and communities mores and pressure make that unlikely). This has been done before with numerous Orthodox, Amish, and Mennonite communities, and I’m sure there are many devout Christian communities that may do the same thing.

I also recognize that this has many faith communities up in arms. Evangelical Christians, Orthodox Jews, and devout Muslims all see this as a perversion of God’s word. But the key underlying fact is: this is not a Christian or Judeo-Christian nation. It was founded by Deists, and there was no intent that biblical laws would govern. There is no government approved religion; government is secular and reflects the overall morals of society — which change over time. Much as the devout may believe that same-sex marriage will lead to the destruction of the world per God’s word, secular government doesn’t give that word authority. In fact, if someone tried to hold a particular scripture as “the authority” for our laws and decisions, I’d point out that such an action is essentially establishing a religion — it establishes one religion’s scripture and interpretation over another’s. If one wants a particular casting of God’s word to have such authority, a religious state with a state religion must be created. Although some would like that, history has shown that it is not very good for those on the short end of the favored religions. The tension we have in America between the secular and the devout is not perfect, but it is head and shoulders better than other systems. The reality (which is often forgotten) is that the devout will not use same-sex marriage, and the urge to have “God’s word” be “America’s word” is really an agenda to have a state religion with everyone subservient to the same scriptures. The better attitude for the devout is to let same-sex marriage be for the heathens that want to use it; they will get their punishment in the end (per the devout’s beliefs). For the devout communities, there should be no temptation.

Lastly, I’m sure you’re wondering what I think about same-sex marriage. My answer is that I don’t. If they want to recognize a commitment and call it marriage, it has absolutely no impact on my marriage. As for the government dictating it: as long as the government makes a distinction between “married” and “single” in any law or regulation (tax filing, social security benefits, etc.), there needs to be a common definition of what constitutes a marriage across all the states, otherwise confusion reigns. The government’s dictate only applies to government organizations and government officials. No house of worship is required to conduct such ceremonies or recognize the status from non-religious ceremonies (which is what we have now: there are sects within Judaism that won’t recognize marriages performed secularly or by different movements, especially if there was a halachic Jewish marriage before and no halachic Get).

Independence Weekend News Chum Stew

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Jul 05, 2015 @ 6:51 pm PDT

Observation StewIt’s been stewing on the stove for two weeks because I’ve been so busy. Let’s hope it is still tasty and flavor-right. Here’s your news chum stew for the last two weeks:

 

Sometimes You Have To Be A Little Bit Naughty

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Jul 05, 2015 @ 1:12 pm PDT

Matilda the Musical (Ahmanson)userpic=ahmansonSupposed I told you that I had just seen a musical about a girl who had been bullied all her life, and who had decided to get revenge — in particular, psycho-kinetic revenge — upon those who had bullied her? You probably would have thought I had just been to see Carrie: The Musical. Well, I have seen Carrie, but  it currently isn’t open in LA, and won’t be returning until October 1st. Rather, I was talking about Matilda: The Musical (Tour) (FB), the musical we saw last evening at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). It was a wonderful performance and I recommend the show highly to everyone, not just because it is a fun and well-performed show, but because of the conversation that is changing because of shows like Matilda and Carrie.

There is one major message in Matilda, and it is a message that the musical (with a book by Dennis Kelly and Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin (FB) based on the novel by Roald Dahl (FB)) relentlessly beats into your head:

If you sit around and let them get on top, you
Won’t change a thing.
Just because you find that life’s not fair, it
Doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it.
If you always take it on the chin and wear it,
You might as well be saying you think that it’s OK.
And that’s not right.
And if it’s not right, you have to put it right.

But nobody else is gonna put it right for me.
Nobody but me is gonna change my story.
Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.

The message is a strong anti-bullying message: a message that you can’t let people bully you, and that it is up to you to change your story — that is it up to you to put it right. It is in this message that there is a parallel to the story of Carrie White; it is in this message that (I believe) is the reason that Matilda has stuck such a chord in the hearts of adults and children alike. The message is a simple but strong one: stand up to bullies — you have the strength and obligation to do so. It is a message that is very important these days, as we’re seeing those who have been bullied exact all sorts of revenge on those who bullied them (it seems a common theme in school shootings). If we can stop bullying as it begins, our children will be much better off.  Matilda puts it in a much more palatable fashion than Carrie. In Matilda, nobody dies and the bullies just give in and go away, vs Carrie where almost everyone dies. Matilda succeeds because it is the happy ending that we want; Carrie is the ending that we get far too often.

It is unclear how much of the audience consciously connected with this message and this parallel. To most of them, this was an entertaining story about a little girl with bad parents and a mean headmistress who beats the adults and ends up happy. Who doesn’t love happy endings? Who doesn’t enjoy being a little bit naughty? But children love Roald Dahl’s stories because of the deeper message — for example, what Charlie and the Chocolate Factory teaches about the various vices and virtues. This story, through humor, also teaches a valuable message about the value of self, and the value and importance of standing up for one’s self. It teaches that you need to write your own story, and not let others dictate it.

I just realized I’ve been blathering on about the story without providing you a short synopsis. After all, you might never have read the novel; you might not have seen the wonderful 1996 movie with Danny DeVito, Rhea Pearlman, and Mara Wilson. As opposed to trying to detail it all here, I’ll point you to the Wikipedia page. The “TL;DR” version is: Matilda is a precocious and intelligent little girl born to parents who didn’t want her, and who value stupidity and the messages that TV teaches over reason. Unable to control her (Matilda loves to play pranks on her parents), then enroll her in a school run by an evil headmistress who delights in torturing children. One teacher sees Matilda’s value, and working together they fight the headmistress, and return the school to a place of love and learning. Oh, and Matilda gets a happy ending as well.

In adapting this story to the stage, the authors imbued it with an additional message that was not the novel or the movie — a message that is a commentary on parents today. In the opening scenes, there is a birthday party where every parent is talking about how their child is a precious little miracle and something special. This, of course, creates a contrast with Matilda’s parents who see her not as a miracle and as something not special. The point that is being made is that if everyone is special, then no one is. Special becomes the norm, and the truly special become invisible. The reality must be that we, as parents, must not predefine our children with labels, but must encourage them to grow up and be whatever they are destined to be (and be the best at that).

As you have probably guessed by now, I liked the story of Matilda and its message. I think it is a strong one that needs to be learned. The related question is: how well did the playwright and composer adapt this message for the stage, and integrate it into the musical form. The answer is: reasonably well. I’ll go into performance, creatives, and technical in a minute, but story-wise I have a few quibbles. The first is the Act I ending, which I found too abrupt. You want Act I to end with a rousing number to get you talking during intermission and wanting to come back. Instead, you get Matilda alone on stage going “But That’s Not Right”. Other than that, I found the structuring of the story fun and well-paced, and I thought that the songs were more than just entertaining patter. In particular, the songs did a great job of illustrating the wants and motives of the characters; they illustrated and illuminated personalities and drives. This is what the songs in musicals should do.

Before I turn to the performers, I want to turn to the audience for a second. We saw the show on July 4th — an early evening show. There were lots of kids in the audience, as the show was heavily discounted (as it was on a holiday). There were kids that were enthralled by the show, and I can easily see how shows like this could turn kids into theatre lovers. My favorite point, however, was one point where two characters kissed somewhere near the end. At that precise moment, from the audience, comes a loud “Yuk!” from a little kid. Priceless.

The performances in Matilda were top rate. In a manner similar to Billy Elliott, the demands on the child in the lead role are so great that three are cast (in the case of Matilda, Gabby Gutierrez, Mia Sinclair Jenness (FB), and Mabel Tyler (FB)), and they alternate. At our performance, Mabel Tyler (FB) was Matilda, and she did a wonderful job with the role. For a child that small she had a great singing voice; she moved and danced well and brought a lot of energy to the stage. It was clear that she was just having the time of her life in the role, and that is something that always is telegraphed in a performance.

Her parents were performed by Quinn Mattfeld [Mr. Wormwood] and Cassie Silva (FB) [Mrs. Wormwood]. We’ve seen Ms. Silva before at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) [42nd Street and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers], and she was equally strong here. She was having fun with her role, and did a wonderful job on “Loud” and in her opening scene. Mattfeld was great as Mr. Wormwood, playing the role with loads of humor. This came across best in his second act opener, “Telly”.

Next there is the staff of Crunchem Hall, Matilda’s school: Miss Jenny Honey and Miss Abigail Trunchbull. Trunchbull was played to scenery-chewing perfection by Bryce Ryness (FB).  Ryness didn’t attempt to hide the fact he was a man playing a woman; he knows what and who is character is and how to work it. This is apparent from the first time you see him on stage with Miss Honey, and it continues in every appearance. He just delights in the character, and it comes across. Jennifer Blood (FB)’s Miss Honey, on the other hand, is meek sweetness and light, a gentle soul forced to find inner strength by a little girl who understands her story better than she does. She gives a great performance and has a wonderful singing voice that she uses on numbers such as “Pathetic”, “This Little Girl”, and “Quiet”.

In terms of the other named characters and the ensemble members, there are a few I would like to highlight. As Bruce Boxtrotter, Evan Gray seemed to be having great fun in both his signature cake-eating scene as well as his post Chokey scenes. Equally precocious was Kaci Walfall (FB) as Lavender in her opening bit after “Telly” at the top of Act II. Of the adults, I particularly enjoyed Ora Jones as Mrs. Phelps, the librarian. She brought a wonderful excitement to the role as Matilda was telling the story of the Acrobat and the Escape Artist. Lastly, I want to note Danny Tieger (FB) as Michael Wormwood:  his role was small, but I particularly enjoyed his well timed outbursts during “Telly”. Rounding out the cast in various smaller roles and as part of the ensemble (👦👧 indicates children) were: Jaquez Andre Sims (FB) [Party Entertainer, Rudolpho]; Ian Michael Stuart (FB) [Doctor, Sergei]; Justin Packard (FB) [The Escape Artist], Wesley Faucher (FB) [The Acrobat]; 👦 Cal Alexander [Nigel]; 👧 Kayla Amistad [Amanda]; 👦 Aristotle Rock [Eric]; 👧 Cassidy Hagel [Alice]; 👧 Megan McGuff [Hortensia]; 👦 Meliki Hurd (FB) [Tommy]; and the ensemble: Michael Fatica (FB), John Michael Fiumara (FB), Shonica Gooden (FB), Stephanie Martignetti (FB), and Darius Wright (FB). Swings were Cameron Burke (FB), 👧 Brittany ConigattiCamden Gonzalez (FB), Michael D. Jablonski (FB), 👦 Luke Kolbe Mannikus (FB), 👧 Serena Quadrata, and Natalie Wisdom (FB). One note on the ensemble: At times, the ensemble appears to play older kids. Given that the school only goes to 11 year olds, the apparent age of the old kids is a little off-putting. I can understand the demands of the characters, though, so I’ll suspend my disbelief.

Bringing this team together creatively was Matthew Warchus [Director], Thomas Caruso [Associate Director], Ryan Emmons [Resident Director], Peter Darling [Choreographer], Ellen Kane [Associate Choreographer – Worldwide], Kate Dunn [Associate Choreographer – U.S.], Andrew Wade [Voice Director], and Victoria Navarro [Production Stage Manager]. Michael D. Jablonski (FB) was the dance captain; Camden Gonzalez (FB) was the assistant dance captain and children’s dance captain; and Michael Fatica (FB) was the assistant dance/gym captain. I’ve noted before that I often have trouble telling where the director stops and the actor begins. That is certainly true here for the adults (and especially true for Ryness’ Trunchbull), but the director did a great job of bringing out the characters in each of the children. Dance and choreography was excellent, especially the movement up and down the set and the acrobatics.

Matilda was under the music direction of Matthew Smedal (FB), who also served as the conductor (and keyboard 2) of the Matilda orchestra. Chris Nightingale was the music supervisor and orchestrator; David Holcenberg was the associate music supervisor. Musicians included Bill Congdon (FB) [Keyboard 1, Children’s Music Director; Assistant Conductor], Joshua Priest [Percussion], Anna Stadlman (FB) [Bass], Sal Lozano [Woodwind 1], Jeff Driskill [Woodwind 2], Daniel Fornero (FB) [Trumpet 1], Rob Schaer [Trumpet 2], Robert Payne [Trombone / Contractor], Thom Rotella [Guitar], and David Mergen [Cello]. Other musical credits were: Phij Adams [Music Technology], Laurie Perkins [London Music Preparation], Emily Grishman [New York Music Copyist, Music Preparation], Katharine Edmonds [Music Preparation], Howard Joines [Music Coordinator]; and David Witham [Keyboard Sub]. In general, the music sounded good but didn’t have the oomph that a good show orchestra should have. There were also portions where it sounded like the children’s ensemble was pre-recorded, which was a bit off-putting.

Lastly, there is the technical side of things. Rob Howell‘s set and costume design imagined the stage as these colossal piles of blocks. I didn’t really like it when I saw it on the Tony Awards, but it worked really well on stage — especially during “School Song” where blocks were inserted into the walls providing the ability to climb. The costumes and wigs also worked well, particular those for Mrs. Wormwood, Mr. Wormwood, and Miss Trunchbull.  The illusions by Paul Kieve worked very well — particularly the chalk writing by itself on the blackboard. The sound design by Simon Baker worked reasonably well and wasn’t overpowering; the primary problem was distinguishing what the children were singing over the accents. This could be a problem with amplification on the kids, or it could be that the children’s ensemble was pre-recorded and muffled. There was also a point during “Quiet” where there was this odd echo from the orchestra area — I couldn’t tell whether it was intentional, or whether someone’s assisted listening device was malfunctioning and shouting to the world. The lighting design of Hugh Vanstone was particularly effective — there was one scene in the second act where the lighting suddenly changed to red and thunder was heard — sending a chill through me. Well played. The remaining production credits were:  Casting – Jim Carnahan C.S.A and Nora Brennan C.S.A (children); Production Management – Aurora Productions; Company Manager – R. Doug Rodgers; General Management – Dodger Management Group.

Matilda: The Musical (Tour) (FB) continues at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) until July 12. Tickets are available online through the Ahmanson; midweek discounts are available through Goldstar. The tour is next in San Francisco — so my Bay Area peeps should look into tickets there at the Orpheum (it looks like Goldstar tickets have expired). It is a fun show well worth seeing.

Los Angeles’ 4th of July Block Party. As we transited to and from the theatre (we used LA Metro), we had a chance to visit the big 4th of July Block Party at Grand Park (FB). Security was tight, including searches and pat downs, but I can understand the city wanting to make things safe. We had to argue with a security guard as he thought my wife’s walking staff was a weapon; luckily, we got that overridden. We didn’t get to the food trucks — they didn’t have the greatest of layouts. We did, however, get to demonstrate being friendly natives — we directed a number of people regarding visiting our city. In general, it seemed to be a reasonably well run and organized event.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. 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:  REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). 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: July is a month of double-headers. Next weekend, our double-header July continues: On Friday night, July 10th, we’re seeing Colin Mitchell‘s show Madness, Murder Mayhem: Three Classic Grand Guignol Plays Reimagined at Zombie Joes Underground Theatre (FB); Saturday July 11th brings “Jesus Christ Superstar” at REP East (FB). The following weekend is another double header: “The History Boys” at the Stella Adler Theatre (FB) on Saturday (Goldstar), and “Green Grow The Lilacs” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) on Sunday.  The last weekend of July brings our last double: “Lombardi” at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB) on July 25th, with the annual Operaworks show the next day. August start calming down, with “As You Like It” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) the first weekend of August, our summer Mus-ique show the second weekend of August, and “The Fabulous Lipitones” at  The Colony Theatre (FB) the third weekend of August. After that we’ll need a vacation … but then again we might squeeze in Evita at the Maui Cultural Center (FB) the last weekend of August. September right now is mostly open, with the only ticketed show being “The Diviners” at REP East (FB) and a hold-the-date for “First Date” at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB). October will bring another Fringe Festival: the NoHo Fringe Festival (FB). October also has the following as ticketed or hold-the-dates: Kelrik Production (FB)’s Urinetown at the Monroe Forum Theatre (Hold for Sat 10/3);  “Mrs. A. Lincoln” at The Colony Theatre (FB) (Ticketed for Sat 10/10); and  “Damn Yankees” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) (Ticketed for Sat 10/17). 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.

A Perfectly Lovely / Perfectly Awful / Awfully Perfect Surprise

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Jul 04, 2015 @ 9:54 am PDT

Murder for Two (Geffen)userpic=theatre_aclassactLast August, when we saw Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Old Globe, I picked up a copy of the cast album of the new musical Murder for Two. I had heard good things about the musical, although it had never been in Los Angeles (it had, however, been in San Diego). I took a listen, and it sounded like a hoot. Thus, when I learned that it was coming to the Geffen Playhouse (FB), I put a hold date on the calendar and started to watch for tickets. When they came out (this was before the show extended and everything went up on Goldstar), I got two tickets for the day with the best seats: Friday, July 3rd. Thus began the first double-header theatre weekend for July.

Last night saw us wandering Westwood Village, which was a pitiful sight (made the worse by an unexpected migraine (as if they are ever “expected”)). Westwood is a shadow of what it was when I went to UCLA: greed, rising rents, and the wrong mix of stores have left empty storefronts, empty streets, and a lack of character. But there is one thing that stays the same in Westwood — the Westwood Playhouse. Oh, right, it’s now the Geffen Playhouse (FB), and they added a second theatre, the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre. Well, at least the building and the quality are the same. We don’t go to the Geffen often — they don’t always discount shows until the last minute, and their standard prices are typically out of my comfort zone. A suitably unique show — such as Murder for Two — can overcome that threshhold.

Here’s why I’m mentioning all this: Last night I’m sitting in seats I paid much more than usual for, at a show I really wanted to see, dealing with a stubborn migraine headache that didn’t want to go away, … and … this show was funny enough to make me forget about my headache for 80-85 minutes (it was a 95 minute show, no intermission). That’s a compliment. Although it started a little show, it rapidly ramped up and kept going so fast that I was able to ignore the pain in my head.

The basic story for Murder for Two is nothing new or unusual — especially if you watch CBS crime procedurals. A murder occurs in the first few minutes. A green officer is sent to secure the scene for the detectives, and while waiting, he decides to investigate. After questioning everyone, he eventually figures out the murderer. The plot of how many murder mysteries? What’s special about Murder for Two is the execution. That didn’t come out right. Perhaps I should explain.

The cast of Murder for Two consists of… two. Brett Ryback (FB) plays Marcus, the police officer investigating the murder. Jeff Blumenkrantz (FB) plays every other role: including the dozens of suspects and other officers. He is constantly switching personas with nothing more than a simple prop, mannerism, or voice. While doing all of this, the two actors are also accompanying themselves on the piano. This results in a roller coaster ride where Blumenkratz keeps changing the direction of the coaster until you are never quite sure who he is, and the audience (and Rybeck) has to keep up. Now, add to this the fact that the two actors seem to be having fun with the roles, and seemingly delight in trying to crack each other up as well.

The story for Murder For Two (book by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair (FB); music by Joe Kinosian (FB); lyrics by Kellen Blair (FB)), as noted earlier, is an homage to so many locked-room murder mysteries. You have a bunch of suspects in the room. You know one of them did it. You start questioning them one by one. The good thing in Murder for Two is that they didn’t (at least to my discernment — but then again, my head hurt) didn’t telegraph the murderer. You do, of course, know the case will be solved by the good guy, but that’s a given in any story like this. The accompanying music was energetic and funny, and a number of songs were easily earworm material (particularly “A Perfectly Lovely Surprise” and “Protocol Says”); however, none of the songs reached standard level (meaning they can come out of the show and be standards on their own). The primary reason for this was that the music did exactly what it was supposed to do: be integral to the story and be closely tied to the characters.

Let’s look at the pieces we have so far: a very funny book, very entertaining music, and strong comic performances. However, we still can’t render a verdict yet. What are we missing? After all, my wife was much more lukewarm about the show than I — she thought the first fifteen minutes or so dragged; the humor wasn’t quite her thing.

Let’s look at the musical performance, which brings us back to Brett Ryback (FB) and Jeff Blumenkrantz (FB). Both are excellent piano players, and have a style reminiscent of Chico Marx in their ability to exploit the piano for comic effects. This is seen both in the opening of the show (where they fight over the piano) and in the closing bows, where they do a wonderfully comic piano encore.

But the last piece of the puzzle is a technical piece. This show depends on the very clever scenic design of Beowulf Boritt (FB), the sound design of Jill BC Du Boff (FB), the lighting design of Jason Lyons (FB), and the costume design of Andrea Lauer (FB). You get an idea of the cleverness of the scenic design in the opening scenes where the stage is set (so to speak) with the lighting projection from the junk of the stage, but the real cleverness of the scenic design reveals itself in the end. The cleverness of the sound design reveals itself throughout in the excellent and well timed sound effects (that they time so perfectly at all is a testament to the sound design and the board operators). Lighting is similar — it is used in clever ways to illuminate the mood and how it changes in a split second. The last clever design aspects were the costumes: the ability to use small costume aspects or props to change the nature of characters was astounding.

Bringing this all together was the talents of the director, Scott Schwartz (FB); the music director, David Caldwell; the choreographer, Wendy Seyb (FB); and the production stage manager, Cate Cundiff (FB). They got the thankless job of corralling all this craziness, of getting the split second timing required for this farce down, of ensuring that everything was precisely where and when it needed to be. Remaining show credits are: Casting – Calleri Casting (FB); Production Supervisor – Production Core (FB); Understudies – Matthew Wrather (FB) [for Marcus]; John Wascavage (FB) [for the Suspects]; Zach Spound (FB) [for the Suspects].

We’ve followed protocol: we’ve looked at the story, the music, the performances, the technical, and the direction. We’ve considered all the players. The verdict: if you like well-timed and well-performed farcical comedy with silly performances, you’ll like Murder for Two (FB) at the Geffen Playhouse (FB). Luckily, the show — which had been scheduled to close on July 12 — has been extended to August 2. The bad news is that Jeff Blumenkrantz (FB) will be on leave from the show from 7/10-23.   Tickets are available through the Geffen Box Office; discount tickets may be available on Goldstar.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. 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:  REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). 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: July is a month of double-headers. Today, our double-header continues with “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), where we get to brave the big 4th of July Block Party at Grand Park (FB). Next weekend is another double: On Friday night, July 10th, we’re seeing Colin Mitchell‘s show Madness, Murder Mayhem: Three Classic Grand Guignol Plays Reimagined at Zombie Joes Underground Theatre (FB); Saturday July 11th brings “Jesus Christ Superstar” at REP East (FB). The following weekend is another double header: “The History Boys” at the Stella Adler Theatre (FB) on Saturday (Goldstar), and “Green Grow The Lilacs” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) on Sunday.  The last weekend of July brings our last double: “Lombardi” at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB) on July 25th, with the annual Operaworks show the next day. August start calming down, with “As You Like It” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) the first weekend of August, our summer Mus-ique show the second weekend of August, and “The Fabulous Lipitones” at  The Colony Theatre (FB) the third weekend of August. After that we’ll need a vacation … but then again we might squeeze in Evita at the Maui Cultural Center (FB) the last weekend of August. September right now is mostly open, with the only ticketed show being “The Diviners” at REP East (FB) and a hold-the-date for “First Date” at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB). October will bring another Fringe Festival: the NoHo Fringe Festival (FB). October also has the following as ticketed or hold-the-dates: Kelrik Production (FB)’s Urinetown at the Monroe Forum Theatre (Hold for Sat 10/3);  “Mrs. A. Lincoln” at The Colony Theatre (FB) (Ticketed for Sat 10/10); and  “Damn Yankees” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) (Ticketed for Sat 10/17). 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.

Better Get Them To Sign It In The Next Coupla Days…

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Jul 04, 2015 @ 7:02 am PDT

Every year I post this on the 4th of July — this year is even more poignant because we’ve lost the author, historian, and humorist, Stan Freberg. For all that certain groups purport to know what this country’s founders wanted, I think it is best expressed in the sentiment “life, liberty, and the purſuit of happineſſ”. We still have that, for all the complaints. At times we may not like our leadership, and at times we may be frustrated at how our government is working (or not), but it is still the best system out there. Lastly, as much as I get annoyed at what those on the other side of the political spectrum say, I am still pleased to live somewhere where they have the right to say it. Happy Independence Day!

Narrator: The trouble continued to brew. It was a time for action, a time for words. On a hot July night in 1776, Benjamin Franklin was aroused from his work by the call of destiny.

(door knocks)
Jefferson (J) (faintly): Hey, you in there Ben?
Franklin (F) (grouchily) Who’s that, Sylvia?
Sylvia (S): It’s the call of destiny.
F: C’mon, take a look through the curtains.
S: It’s Tom Jefferson
F: What? Again?
J: Pounds on door harder
F: Well, it’s no good, I’ll have to let him in. (walking to door) I’m coming, I’m coming.

(door opens)
J: Hi, Ben.
F: Tom.
(door closes)
J: You got a minute?
F: To tell you the truth, we were just going out of town for the weekend.
J: But it’s only Wednesday.
F: (signs) Well, you know. A penny saved is a penny earned.
J: (pauses) What does that got to do with anything, Franklin?
F: I don’t know. (chuckles) It’s the first thing that came into my head. I was just making conversation. An idle brain is the devil’s playground, you know.
J: Say, you’re pretty good at that, aren’t you?
F: They’re some new “wise sayings” I just made up.
J: Wise sayings?
F: Yeah, I call ’em “Wise Sayings”.

F: What can I do for you?
J: I’ve got this petition I’ve been circulating around the neighborhood. I kinda’ thought you would like to sign it or something. It’s called a Declaration of Independence.
F: Yeah, I heard about that. Sounds a little suspect if you ask me.
J: What do you mean “suspect”?
F: You’re advocating overthrow of the British government by force and violence, aren’t you?
J: Well, yeah, yeah, but we’ve had it with that royal jazz.
F: Who’s “we”?
J: All the guys.
F: Who’s “all the guys”?
J: George, Jim Madison, Alex Hamilton, Johnny Adams… you know, “all the guys”.
F: Heh, the lunatic fringe.
J: Oh they are not.
F: Bunch of wild-eyed radicals. Professional liberals. Don’t you kid me?
J: You call George Washington a wild-eyed radical?
F: Washington? I don’t see his name on there?
J: Yeah, but he promised to sign it.
F: (laughs) That’s George for you. Talks up a storm with those wooden teeth of his. Can’t shut him off. But when it comes time to put the name on the parchment-o-roonie, try to find him.
J: What are you so surley about today?
F: Surly to bed and surly to rise makes a man…

J: Alright, Alright. Let’s knock off the one-line jokes and sign the petition. What do you say, huh, fellow?
F: Well, let me skim down it here. “When in the course of human events…” so-so-and-so. hmm-hmmm-and-hmmm. “… and that among these are life, liberty, and the purſuit of happineſſ?”
J: That’s “pursuit of happiness”
F: Well all your “S”s look like “F”s
J: It’s stylish. It’s in, it’s very in.
F: Well, if it’s in. (clears throat and continues) “…we therefore, representatives of the United States of America…” so-so-and-so. hmm-mmm-and-hmmm. “…solemnly publish and declare…” hmmm-hmmm-and-hmmm. “…and there absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown.” And so on.

F: A little overboard, isn’t it?
J: Well, uh?
F: You write this?
J: Yeah, I knocked it out. It’s just a first draft.
F: Why don’t you leave it with me, and I’ll mail it in?
J: C’mon.
F: I’ll tell you Tom, I’m with you in spirit. I’m sure you understand that, but I got to play it conservative. I’m a businessman. I got the printing business going pretty good. Almanac made book of the month. I’ve got the inventions. I’ve got pretty good distribution on the stove. And, of course, every Saturday evening, I bring out the “mag”.
J: The what?
F: “magazine”
J: Oh. That reminds me. That artist I sent by, did you look at his stuff?
F: The Rockwell boy? Skinny kid with the pipe?
J: Yeah, that’s the kid.
F: I glanced at it. Too far out for me.
J: Yeah, I know you gotta play it safe. But getting back to the signing of the petition, how about it, huh?
F: Well, uh.
J: It’s a harmless paper.
F: Oh sure, harmless. I know how these things happen. You go to a couple of harmless parties, sign a harmless petition, and forget all about it. Ten years later, you get hauled up before a committee. No, thank you, I’m not going to spend the rest of my life writing in Europe.
J: Ah, c’mon.
F: C’mon what?

(bell note)
J: C’mon and put your name on the dotted line.
F: I got to be particular what I sign.
J: It’s just a piece of paper.
F: Just a piece of paper, that’s what you say.

J: C’mon and put your signature on the list.
F: It looks to have a very subversive twist.
J: How silly to assume it
J: Won’t you nom de plume it,
J: today?

J: You’re so skittish? Who possibly could care if you do?
F: The Un-British Activities Committee, that’s who?

J: Let’s have a little drink-o and fill the quill.
F: It sounds a little pinko to me, but still…
J: Knock off the timid manner
J: If you want a banner, to raise.
F: (banner to raise)

J: You must take (F: I must take)
J: A stand (F: a stand)
J: For this brave (F: for this brave)
J: New land (F: new land)
J: For who wants (F: who wants)
J: To live (F: to live)
J: So conser- (F: so conser-)
J: vative? (F: vative)

F: I don’t dis- (J: he don’t dis)
F: agree, (J: agree)
J and F: but a man can’t be too careful what he signs these days.

(musical flourish, and the song ends)

F: Well, if I sign it, will you renew your subscription?
J: If you promise not to keep throwing it on the roof. If it isn’t on the roof, it’s in the rosebushes or in the mud.
F: My eyesight isn’t what it used to be, you know. Besides, it’s hard to hit the porch from a horse.
J: C’mon, all we want to do is hold a few truths to be self-evident.
F: You’re sure it’s not going to start a revolution or anything?
J: Trust me.
F: OK, give it to me. You got a quill on you?
J: Here you go.
F: Look at this showoff “Hancock”. Pretty flamboyant signature for an insurance man. (signs it)
J: You did a good thing, Ben. You won’t be sorry. Now if I can just get another three or four guys, we’ll be all set.
F: I’ll tell you one thing…
J: What’s that?
F: You better get them to sign it in the next couple of days, before they all take off for the Fourth of July weekend.