Observations Along the Road

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

Hello, I Must Be Going…

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Jan 11, 2015 @ 7:39 pm PST

An Evening With Groucho (AJU)userpic=theatre_ticketsBack when I was in High School, the Marx Brothers were hot. No, I didn’t go to high school when their films were first released (I only look that old). I’m referring instead to the mid-to-late 1970s, when some contractual dispute was resolved and one of the early Marx Brothers movies, “Animal Crackers“, could be shown again (the situation just before that release was recently described by Mark Evanier on his blog, to give you an idea). This resulted in a resergence of the popularity of the brothers in high schools and college campuses: their posters were everywhere, the Richard J. Anobile book “Why a Duck?” came out, and everyone was rewatching their movies. Me included. I’m still a big Marx Brothers fan (I like “Duck Soup” quite a bit). Alas, I think today’s kids don’t know the classic ’30s comedians — the Marxes, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields. It’s a loss.

Why am I mentioning all of this? As you know, I regularly read Mark Evanier’s blog. For years, Mark has been touting the praises of Frank Ferrante (FB) performance as Groucho Marx in “An Evening with Groucho”.  So, when I received the Fall Amercian Jewish University catalog and discovered that they were offering a performance of “An Evening With Groucho”, I was there. Full price even. So guess where I was this afternoon? That’s right, say the secret word and win $200.

Normally, this is where I would give you a synopsis of the story. I can’t. For one thing, there is no book writer credited. Perhaps there was one at one point; I don’t know. Although during the show, Ferrante summarizes Groucho’s life, I get the feeling that because he has been doing this show and inhabiting this character for so long, the stories and incidents have become a part of his life as well. In other words, there is no book writer needed because essentially Ferrante becomes Groucho. As Ferrante relates, he has known Groucho and the Marx family since his late teens; he originated the title role in the off-broadway “Groucho: A Life in Revue” that was written by Groucho’s son, Arthur; and he has been doing this solo show for 25 years. In short, there is a reason the New York Times referred to him as “the greatest living interpreter of Groucho Marx’s material.”

However, it is not the story of Groucho that makes this show. You want the story of Groucho, you can read Wikipedia or find numerous versions out there. It is the fact that this show is perhaps only 40-45% the story of Groucho. The remainder of the show is the embodiment of Groucho. Through his interaction with his painist, Eric Ebbenga, and continuous interaction with the audience, you learn what the character of Groucho was like. Ferrante does a masterful job of channeling Groucho’s quick wit and repartee to make a thoroughly entertaining show that just flies by.  He was constantly interacting with the front row, with kids in the audience, and even came across our row (yes, he worked his way all across row “G”). Another “In Short”: You truly feel that Ferrante becomes Groucho, and it is Groucho, not Ferrante, on stage. That’s a high compliment.

[Edited to Add: A good example of this was how he reacted to unexpected things from the audience. At one point, he was interacting with a fellow in the front row who was drowsing out. He asked an usher to get him some coffee. When she came back a few minutes later, he was surprised but recovered well and made an even bigger joke of it. Similarly, he had a wonderful interaction with a 9 year old boy who insisted his favorite Marx brother was Harpo — even after going up on stage. The ability to recover from the unexpected in audience interaction while staying perfectly in character is a hallmark of someone who has melded with the character — and it is also what I surmise makes this show different in every performance.]

Thus, yet again I find myself agreeing with Mark: If you can catch Ferrante as Groucho, do so. You can find his touring schedule here.

One disappointment, however: The show was supposedly sold out. Yet there were four seats in front of us open. Folks: if you buy tickets for a show, please go. The actors on stage aren’t performing for the money the show brings in; they are performing for the audience in the seats. Additionally, I also noted that seats emptied out after the intermission. I could understand that for a stinker of a show (cough, “I Caligula, An Insanity Musical”, cough), but this was good. Tacky, tacky, tacky.

Turning to the technical, well, AJU provided no technical credits in the program. So thank you to the unnamed set designer, sound engineer, and lighting designer (especially the poor spot operator who had to keep up with Ferrante’s continual movement into the audience).

By the way, you’re probably asking yourself why AJU — American Jewish University (the merger of the University of Judaism and Brandais Barden) presented this. The answer is that their community adult education program wants to highlight those significant places where Judaism influenced cultural change. The Marx Brothers, who were Jewish, clearly did that.

An additional “only in Los Angeles” moment: This was the second show in an row where there has been someone famous in the audience sitting not that far from me. Friday night, at “Serial Killer Barbie”, we had Mary Jo Catlett (of “Different Strokes” and Spongebob Squarepants fame) sitting two seats away from us.  At today’s show, we had someone even more famous — someone who Ferrante singled out as one of his inspirations for doing this show: Hal Holbrook, who has been doing a one-man Mark Twain show since 1954. As I said, “only in Los Angeles”. Here’s a hint folks: Famous actors, out of context, look just like you and me and everyone else.

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 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: Next weekend starts the Rep season with their production of “Avenue Q” at REP East (FB) on Sat January 17. The fourth weekend of January brings an interesting mashup: Pulp Shakespeare (or Bard Fiction) at Theatre Asylum (FB) — this show is described as  “Ever wonder what Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece PULP FICTION would be like reimagined by the immortal William Shakespeare?”. The last weekend of January concludes with the Cantors Concert on Sat January 31 at Temple Ahavat Shalom, and I’m potentially looking for another show for Sunday. February and March pick up even more, with “The Threepenny Opera” at A Noise Within (FB) on February 15, a hold for “Loch Ness” at the Chance Theatre (FB)  on February 21, “The Road to Appomattox” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on February 28, the MRJ Man of the Year dinner on March 7, “Carrie: The Musical” at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) on March 14, a hold for “Drowsy Chaperone” at CSUN on Friday March 20, “Doubt” at REP East (FB) on Saturday March 21, “Newsies” at the Pantages (FB) on March 28, followed by Pesach and the Renaissance Faire on April 11. Additionally, there’s a Marcy and Zina concert at Pepperdine on Tuesday, February 3; alas, as it is a weeknight, I may not make it. 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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Saturday News Chum Stew, with Exotic Meat and Useful Chunks

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Jan 10, 2015 @ 3:00 pm PST

userpic=boredIt’s a rainy Saturday, and…. wait…. it’s Saturday. No need to be bored anymore! I can clean out my collection of links and let you know about some interesting things. That should kill, of, half an hour or so….

  • Bess Meyerson. Earlier this week, it was reported that Bess Meyerson passed away. Bess Meyerson, for those unaware, was the first (and only) Jewish Miss America. Here’s an interesting article discussing the significance of that fact; in particular, how she refused to change to meet the demands of the Miss America organization.
  • Privacy Policies. This is an interesting article written by my niece, who is a staff attorney with New Media Rights. It explores mistakes that startups — really, any company — can make with their privacy policies. I found this interesting enough that I forwarded it to the executive director of our synagogue — as I’m not sure if we have a privacy policy.
  • New Antibiotics. A growing concern in the medical world is antibiotic resistance. This week brought some good news: There may be a new antibiotic on the horizon. Using soil from a grassy field in Maine and a miniaturized diffusion chamber, scientists have cultivated a microbe that could help tame the spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. When tricked into growing in a lab, the microbe makes a compound that kills strains of tuberculosis, MRSA and other deadly pathogens that are immune to even the most powerful drugs. Tests in mice showed that the newfound molecule is exquisitely active against some very hard-to-deal-with bugs. Specifically, a previously uncultured bacterium, Eleftheria terrae, is able to make teixobactin, a new antibiotic for which there is no detectable resistance. Experts said the discovery could lead to a new class of antibiotics for the first time in decades.
  • “Into the Woods” and AIDS. Here’s a take on “Into the Woods” I’ve never seen before: “Into the Woods” as an AIDS parable. I’m not 100% sure I buy it.
  • Exotic Animal Meat. Here’s an article about a Southern California man who raises and sells exotic animal meat. Nothing illegal or endangered; it’s all legal. But if you want some zebra, lion, alligator, alpaca, antelope, armadillo, bear, beaver, bison, bobcat, coyote, camel, suck, emu, elk, reindeer, rattlesnake, or raccoon meat, he’s your man.
  • Blacks and Jews. Blacks and Jews have long worked together for civil rights. However, recent movies have airbrushed out the Jewish contributions. Here’s an article on how that distortion affects the new movie “Selma”.
  • Depression and Inflammation. Love and Marriage. They go together, according to Sinatra. Something else that goes together is inflammation (especially in those dealing with RA). Here’s an interesting article that explores the connection between the two. What’s most interesting is the conclusion: treat the inflammation to help the depression.
  • Web Site Popularity. If I mentioned Lycos or Alta-Vista, would you know what I’m talking about. Possibly not. Here’s an article that looks at the changes in the most popular websites year by year since 1996.

There. That should keep you busy.

Changes in the Valley

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Jan 10, 2015 @ 1:54 pm PST

userpic=van-nuysOriginally, I thought that this three-some of items related to things disappearing in the valley wouldn’t warrant their own post. Turns out I had a bit more to say about them…

  • Macy’s Closings. Macy’s is closing down their two stores in the Topanga Prominade in Woodland Hills, leaving only the store two blocks away at Westfield Topanga. Oh, the horrors. Actually, it should be an interesting situation, as this leaves the Promenade with no anchor stores. Originally the upscale mall, the Promenade was anchored by Robinsons, Bullocks Wilshire, and Saks Fifth Avenue. Bullocks Wilshire became I Magnin and then Macys; The Robinsons store closed, became a Bullocks… and then Macys.  Saks closed after the 1994 earthquake and became the AMC. Westfield already has a Macys and loads of anchors at the Topanga Mall two blocks up, and they are connecting Topanga with the Promenade. It will be interesting to see what they do with the space — there aren’t many suitable things that could — or would — want to fill it in and that fit with Westfield’s vision (Target is already in Topanga, and Walmart is a few blocks away).
  • Norms. Norms Restaurant has been sold to an outside investor. I fondly remember the long-gone Norms in Westwood; there are still Norms in Van Nuys, Culver City, and near the Fairfax area. The new owner says they will keep them open, and he even plans to expand the chain. It will be interesting to see what happens. It could be a success, or it could be like Dupars.
  • Abes Deli. We have three Jewish delis near us. Brents, which is one of the best in the country.  Weilers, which I happen to like because it is the underdog. Abe’s Deli, which was pretty crappy. Although Abe’s has a web page, the actual establishment has been closed for a few months undergoing construction. Today, I uncovered an article that indicated what is happening there. It is becoming a Tilted Kilt. I’m not sure it will succeed. Yes, it is near some other restaurants, but it is far enough away from the mall that I’m unsure it will be a destination in and of itself. I don’t think it will survive from the business from the Toyota dealership next door, the Lowes across the street, or the senior center a block away. Then again, it might be cheaper than a pacemaker.

Fitting In in High School

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Jan 10, 2015 @ 12:23 pm PST

Serial Killer Barbie (NoHo Arts/Theatre 68)userpic=yorickA word of advice before I start this writeup: Do not do a Google image search on the phrase “Serial Killer Barbie”. The results are simultaneously hilarious and disturbing, and likely not related to the show in question. Some people out there have sick and twisted, but amusing, minds. But you must admit that the name draws you in.

Ah, right, where was I. High School. High School is popular fodder for musicals: from the intensely popular Grease to the much less popular Carrie, to musicals such as Zanna Don’t and Lysistrata Jones, high school — in fact, school in general — serves as a microcosm of society in general. Capturing this microcosm is the goal of the hilarious new musical, Serial Killer Barbie: The Musical (FB), currently in extension at the NoHo Arts Center (FB), produced by Theatre 68 (FB) and Take a Hike Productions. The teaser description of this musical is as follows: “Quirky Barbara spends her life desperate to get in with the popular “Debbies.” From first grade through high school, she obsessively attempts to join the coveted social circle of Debbie, Debby and the queen of the WASPY clique, Debbi. After several failed attempts to fit in, she realizes, if you can’t join them, kill them.”

I learned about this musical in a mailing from their PR person (or perhaps Bitter Lemons — it’s a bit hazy now). The title drew me in, but when I read the description of the show I was more intrigued. Alas, the craziness that is December did not permit me to schedule it in. So, when it extended I started to explore ways to go (e.g., looking for discount tickets — yes, I could ask their publicist, but I prefer to buy my tickets if I can). Plays411 provided the discount tickets (they just went up on Goldstar), and so the first live theatre of the year became Barbie.

Serial Killer Barbie: The Musical (FB) (SKB) revisits a familiar theme that is common to most people: the quest to fit in and be popular. I noted before this is common in school-based musicals — it resonates in Carrie, it resonates in Zanna, and it even resonates (in the sub-plot) in Grease. It’s also a theme in some of our most popular musicals, including the current resident at the Pantages: Wicked. What will we give up to be popular, and how will that sacrifice affect our life? Usually, because the show is written by theatre geeks who never fit in to begin with (that’s a joke, son), the upshot is that the outcast becomes the hero or heroine, and learns to rejoice in their uniqueness. [I certainly resemble that story; us computer science geeks rarely fit in]

So if this is such a common theme, what makes SKB successful and not derivative. I think the answer is in the clever presentation of the story — credit here goes to the book writer, Collete Freedman (FB). Freedman posits the school experience as an endurance battle, which she portrays as a boxing match. Just like a boxing match has 12 rounds, school has 12 years (well, it could have 15 years if you count pre-school and kindergarten… and boxing used to have 15 rounds). For the outcast, attending school is like Ali’s rope-a-dope — putting yourself in a losing position to become the eventual winner. Freedman makes this analogy literal in the musical: each scene (except for the framing scenes) is construed as a round, and that round roughly corresponds to a grade. Through the 12 rounds (grades) we see our heroine (Barbara Laura) meet and interact with the Debbies during her school years. This is framed with the story of a mom (Barbara) telling the story to her daughter (Parker), and her daughter not believing the story is true. Is it? The question is left open.

The story that is told is a simple one: Barbara Laura Dunbar starts first grade. All the other kids are crying through separation anxiety, but she’s not afraid. She quickly befriends another individualist, Bruce, who has a penchant for adopting the personal of a difference fictional Bruce every year (he starts as Bruce Wayne). They become best friends; they are, however, never popular. Who is? The three Debbies: Debbie (with an “ie”) who wants to be first at everything (and we do mean everything); Debbi (with an “i”), who is always air-quoting things and is a true consumer whore — setting the fashion and consumer trends for everyone else; and the airhead blonde Debby (with a “y”), who is addicted to her cellphone.  Rounding out the class are Sebastian, the jock; Beatrice, the ADD-affected nerd-ish girl; Quinn, the clown; Sharon, the militant foul-mouthed angry child; and Ronald, the Boy Scout.

As the years go by, Barbara keeps trying to fit in with the Debbies and failing. Finally, they need  fourth for their singing group and accept her in … but she never quite fits in. After the lead Debbie takes advantage of Barbara’s frendship with Bruce to trash and embarass Bruce, Barbara has enough and leaves the group, and goes back to being an individualist. She also is desirous of revenge for what they did to her best friend Bruce. Serial Killer Barbie is born, and the Debbies drop one by one. Of course, there’s always the question of whether she did it, or whether the Debbies did it to themselves through their overfocus on themselves. This is the question you are left with as the production ends: Barbie’s daughter doesn’t appear to believe her mom did this, but did she?

I’ve written the above as if this were a play, but this is really a musical. The music was written by Nickella Moschetti (FB), with lyrics written by the book author Collete Freedman (FB) and Moschetti. Each round (scene) includes an appropriate song. The songs themselves are very entertaining — I particularly enjoyed “Consumer Whores”. Other entertaining songs included a well-choreographed number involving popularity and representation of character through the lunch boxes one brings to school (Barbara is the only one with a bag lunch); a hilarious and potentially scary Jesus Christ sexy dance routine; and the dark “21 Ways To Kill A Debbie”. Alas, there is no song list in the program, and although I searched and searched, I could not find one online. Songs mentioned by other reviewers included “Middle School Sucks”,  “I Don’t Want To Be Different”, “What Do I Wear?”, and “Price of Popularity”. But are entertaining songs enough today? If one was to drop the songs out of this show, would the story still flow and hold together? That last question is the difference between a true musical and a play with songs interpolated (and was the genius of Rodgers and Hammerstein). Here the question is harder. A number of the songs, while not integral, do a good job of illustrating the internal character and conflicts of the characters. Others are more disposable. The music has the potential here to elevate the show to something that could work in larger venues, but it needs a little more tweaking to become memorable and integral (and a song list will help).

Before we go into the specific performances, let’s round out the broad artistic aspects: namely, the choreography. Anne-Marie Osgood/FB served as choreography, and she did a great job of designing movement for the limited space in Theatre 2 at NoHo Arts. The movement in the opening number (“What Do I Wear?”) was inspired and fun to watch, and I particularly enjoyed the aforementioned lunch box ballet :-). The dance moves in the Jesus number were also fun.

Let’s turn now to the performances. In the lead position was Kelly Dorney (FB) as Barbie. Dorney was just a hoot to watch: quirky, enthusiastic, ernest, and just having a lot of fun with the role. If you’ve read past writeups, you know that this is something I love to see: actors who just meld with their roles, actors where the love of the character and the characters quirks, flaws, and oddities just oozes from their pores. Now, add to this the fact that Ms. Dorney could really sing, and did a great job with all of her musical numbers, and I was just blown away. This is someone I look forward to seeing again.

Supporting Barbie was her best friend, Bruce. Here’s my second quibble of the night — not with the actor, but with the program. Our program had a slip of paper indicating that our Bruce was the swing, Bradley Estrin (FB), and that playing Bradley’s normal role of Ronald would be Devon Hadsell (FB) as Rhonda. This actually excited us, as we had seen Hadsell in Lysistrata Jones and we were looking forward to her performance. We looked and looked, but couldn’t find her. It was only when writing this review that I realized what happened: the slip was in error. We had the original Bruce, Alex Robert Holmes (FB); Estrin was playing Ronald; and Hadsell wasn’t there that night. Leaving the slip in the program was poor form: it was a disservice to Holmes, it was a disservice to Hadsell, and it was a disservice to Estrin. If you are going to recycle programs, please remember to remove substitution strips.

That quibble aside, Holmes gave a very touching performance and Bruce. His portrayal of the character provided the needed sensitivity to the black comedic nature of the story, and played well with Dorney’s Barbie. He also sang quite well.

The remaining major characters were the Debbies: Katy Jacoby (FB)  as Debbi (with an “i”), Kacey Coppola (FB) as Debby (with a “y”), and Marti Maley (FB)  as Debbie (with an “ie”). All three were great singers, and their performances could best be described as intense. This was best illustrated with the Jesus dance routine, where they were making the concrete floor shake. They made these three come across as women you would not mess with — which is exactly what their characters were supposed to be. Again, these were actresses who were just having fun portraying these characters — they enjoyed playing with the them and letting that side of their personas come out. Great work.

Rounding out the cast were Cy Creamer (FB) as Sebastian, Nicole Fabbri as Beatrice, Jillian Fonacier/FB as Sharon, Christopher Kelly (FB) as Quinn, Bradley Estrin (FB) as Ronald, and Grace Nakane as Parker (Debbie’s 6-year old daughter). Each of these actors did a great job of making their characters their own. Especially notable were Creamer’s interactions as Sebastian with Holmes’ Bruce (in particular, the love sequence), Fabbri’s wonderful awkwardness and how she moved in the background during scenes, Fonacier’s radiated anger as Sharon (apparent from her first appearance on stage when she wrote “I will not use my middle finger to express myself” on the blackboard), and Kelly’s wonderful mime routine as Quinn. Nakane worked well as Parker, handling her adult astute observations with that childish nature of superiority. Some reviewers didn’t like the framing device that her performance provided; I felt it provided some necessary grounding and reality to the story. Lastly, Estrin’s Ronald mostly blended in as that character was wont to do; I can see how a different sensibility for the show would come from Estrin providing a less quirky Bruce and Hadsell’s Rhonda being involved with Sharon. As implied, Estrin served as understudy for Sebastian and as male swing, Devon Hadsell (FB) was the female swing, and Audrey Bluestone was the understudy for Parker.

Music was provided by the composer, Nickella Moschetti (FB), who served as musical director, played keyboards, and as the “Round 4″ teacher who wrote the problems on the board. Rounding out the school “band” were Ed Cosico (FB) on guitar and Hilletje Bashew (FB) on violin. The three provided a very good sound; one wonders how this show would sound with a larger orchestration.

Turning to the technical, and the third qubble for the show — with had nothing to do with the artistic and more to do with the facility. For some reason, at our performance, there was no air conditioning, and with the lights, it was hot hot hot. Hopefully, that problem will be fixed soon.

As I said, turning to the technical: the set design by Adam Gascoine (FB) was both simple and perfect. A large number of movable wooden boxes, some lockers, and painted blackboards and schoolroom accessories on the wall established the scene sufficiently, and the few props worked to do the rest. The costumes, by Susi Campos, worked quite well and were revealing and sexy without being too revealing. This was a challenge as the actors come out in underwear and get dressed on stage in the opening number. The costuming demonstrated quite a bit of creativity and character building, and were a significant part of the overall scenic design. Adam Gascoine (FB) did the sound design as well (according to some additional credits I found), and Christina Robinson (FB) and Brad Bentz (FB) did the lighting desgn. Additional credits in the program are Christian Kennedy (Stills Photographer) and Eddie Roderick (Postcard Designer). One additional credit I found while researching this: the design for the poster was crowdsourced through 99designs.com.

The production was directed by Ronnie Marmo (FB), who did what a director should do: make the direction appear invisible. Marmo did a great job of getting the actors excited about their roles and embodying their roles, and effectively used the space he had available to tell the story. What more could you want?

Serial Killer Barbie: The Musical (FB) has been extended to run through January 31, 2015. Performances are Friday, and Saturday – 8:00PM and Sunday – 7:00PM. Tickets are $30 and are available through Theatre68 by calling (323) 960-5068. They are also available through Plays411.net, Goldstar (until they sell out), and possibly LA Stage Tix.

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 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: Sunday brings the second show of this weekend: “An Evening with Groucho” at AJU with Frank Ferrente at American Jewish University on Sun January 11. The third weekend of January starts the Rep season with “Avenue Q” at REP East (FB) on Sat January 17. The fourth weekend of January brings an interesting mashup: Pulp Shakespeare (or Bard Fiction) at Theatre Asylum (FB) — this show is described as  “Ever wonder what Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece PULP FICTION would be like reimagined by the immortal William Shakespeare?”. The last weekend of January concludes with the Cantors Concert on Sat January 31 at Temple Ahavat Shalom, and I’m potentially looking for another show for Sunday. February and March pick up even more, with “The Threepenny Opera” at A Noise Within (FB) on February 15, a hold for “Loch Ness” at the Chance Theatre (FB)  on February 21, “The Road to Appomattox” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on February 28, the MRJ Man of the Year dinner on March 7, “Carrie: The Musical” at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) on March 14, a hold for “Drowsy Chaperone” at CSUN on Friday March 20, “Doubt” at REP East (FB) on Saturday March 21, “Newsies” at the Pantages (FB) on March 28, followed by Pesach and the Renaissance Faire on April 11. Additionally, there’s a Marcy and Zina concert at Pepperdine on Tuesday, February 3; alas, as it is a weeknight, I may not make it. 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.

 

Replacing the Old With, Well, Something Else

Written By: cahwyguy - Thu Jan 08, 2015 @ 11:56 am PST

userpic=old-shieldWhile eating my lunch today, I was looking at my collecting links when a theme popped out at me (with at least 3 items): Replacement. All of these items have to do with some entity passing away, and pondering the effect of its replacement. Let’s jump in….

  • Streit’s Matzah. When I was growing up and Pesach came around, we would buy these 5 lb bundles of matzah, usually Manaschevitz or Streits. Today, it is mostly Israeli matzah (at least in the markets I frequent). Our global economy has made it cheaper to make Matzah elsewhere and ship, I suppose. This week’s news brought the issue upfront, when the Forward reported on the closing of the last major matzah factory on the Lower East Side. Streit’s was faced with increased foreign competition, and the increased value of real estate in NYC. They’ve sold the land to a developer, and hope to reopen somewhere else. The Forward also has an analysis of why this closure is so significant: it reflects yet another nail in the coffin of the lower east side’s Jewish nature. Just as in Los Angeles, NYC is facing the movement of the Jews out of traditionally Jewish areas.
  • Los Angeles Times. It is not only New York that is seeing iconic structures facing redevelopment. Tribune Media just announced they will be redeveloping the historic Los Angeles Times building in downtown LA. They don’t give many details, other than “The Times Mirror Square master plan promises to deliver a compelling urban project that includes the restoration of important buildings and the construction of complementary new buildings around a new Metro rail station directly connected to four of the region’s major rail lines”. This seems to imply they will keep the historic buildings, but the form is unclear. One wonders if the Herald Examiner will outlive the LA Times, at least in terms of buildings. LA Observed has some interesting observations on the redevelopment.
  • Supermarket Transformations. A little article in the Simi Valley Acorn caught my eye: Supermarket Chain to acquire Vons, Albertsons. Investigating the article further, I discovered that Albertsons (which, if you follow these things, was the parent to Lucky (in Southern California)) and Safeway (parent to Vons) are merging. As part of the conditions of merger, they were required to divest a large number of stores; 146 of which are going to the Pacific Northwest chain Haggen. As a result, stores will be changing all over, with quite a few in Ventura County and Santa Clarita. Here’s a complete list of Vons/Safeway and Albertsons stores that are changing. Haggen will be a culture shock for Vons/Albertsons shoppers.  Vons, Safeway, and Albertsons are traditional supermarkets. Here are some descriptions of Haggens that I found: Haggen stores are similar to Whole Foods when it comes to products and are “small enough to be very nimble and responsive to each store’s customers”. Offering local products is at the heart of the company. The chain has been committed to local sourcing, investing in the communities we serve, and providing genuine service and homemade quality. Contrast this with the beheamoth that is Safeway, and you can see the culture shock. Regulatory approvals are pending, but things could change in the next 6 months. The only valley store that is changing looks to be the Vons in Woodland Hills and Albertsons in Tujunga and Burbank.
  • Dead Malls. Some things just die and linger on. A great example are dead malls. Retailing is changing, and the large indoor shopping space anchored by department stores is fading away, primarily because department stores are fading away. There are loads of these beached whales out there, and the NY Times did an article looking at the economics of dead malls. If you have one near you, given current trends, it will either become a big box destination, mixed use (residential/shops), an office building, or a parking lot.

 

Music Management Alternatives: Characterized by a Lack of Information

Written By: cahwyguy - Wed Jan 07, 2015 @ 11:48 am PST

userpic=white-ipodYesterday, one of the big pieces of news out of the CES show was Sony’s announcement of a $1,200 MP3 player. In addition to all of the sonic high-quality stuff that really boost the price, what caught my eye was this: “The NW-ZX2 features 128GB of memory — and can be expanded to 256GB — and a battery that’s expected to last up to 60 hours.”. Details are scanty, but I’ll note that you can currently get a digital Walkman that has 64GB onboard and the capability to support a 128GB Micro-SD card (for a total of 192GB) for $299. I’m not sure who is going to pay an extra $900 for the additional 64GB.

However, this got me thinking about my previous post on large-storage iPod Classic replacements. I’ve noted before one of the key drawbacks about moving away from the iTunes/iPod universe is… well… iTunes itself. Just like your electronic relationship with your bank makes it harder to change banks, so too does long-term use of iTunes make it harder to move off of iTunes. Just consider the potential loss of play counts, ratings, smart playlists, and potentially carefully crafted album art. What you would want is a solution that allows you to preserve that additional information. I did some musing and research over lunch yesterday and today. There appear to be two potential winning approaches:

  1. Figure out a way to make iTunes work with a non-iPod device, such that it can not only copy music to the device, but bring play counts and ratings from the device back into iTunes.
  2. Figure out a way to move iTunes data into a non-iTunes music manager — one that can handle all the iTunes capabilities and synch information bidirectionally from the non-iPod device.

Looking into the first option, I’ve found mention of two different solutions: Notpod and iTunesFusion. It is hard to find detailed information on either, although C|Net has a good writeup on using Notpod. It appears that both of these make your non-Ipod device appear as a playlist (not as an iPod). In particular, from the Notpod description, it looks like it just copies over the music files that are on a particular playlist. There’s no interaction with the player’s OS to retrieve play counts and changes to ratings. Further, Notpod does not seem to support syncing multiple playists or smart playlists — in particular, making it so that you have smart playlists on your non-iPod device. iTunesFusion seems similar — its description talks about syncing playlists to the iPod. Neither of these products have extensive screenshots or manuals online that permit further investigation.

Looking into the second option, there are tons of non-iTunes music managers out there. Most of the pages discussing them, however, focus on using a non-iTunes manager with an Apple iDevice — I don’t care about that. I’m curious about products that permit importation of an existing iTunes database (songs, play counts, ratings, playlists) into their own format, and that then provide the syncing ability with non-Apple players. I found one called MediaMonkey that looks interesting, but I need to investigate this further.

So, I’m curious…. has anyone out there in Internet-Land experimented with non-iTunes managers, or syncing between iTunes and non-Apple players?

[ETA: Here’s an interesting analysis of the need for dedicated Media players. I generally agree, but he missed one additional niche: players with sufficient storage to hold an entire music collection. Such storage is found on the high end audio players, but those looking for storage don’t require the high end audio — they are just stuck with it (just as those, to use his analogy, who require film and not digital are either stuck with cheap disposables or high-end SLRs — the mid-market affordable film cameras are gone.)]

Bringing the Masses Into the Woods

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Jan 04, 2015 @ 6:14 pm PST

Into The Woods (Movie)userpic=moviesLast year, my reviewing didn’t start with a traditional theatre show;  it started with a Moonie and Broon concert at The Colony Theatre (FB). This year, again, the reviewing for the year doesn’t start with theatre; it starts with a Broadway musical now on the big screen: the new Disney production of Stephen Sondheim‘s Into the Woods (FB).  Remember: This will be where most people learn about this show, and what they believe this show to be; consider this sobering statistic: more people have seen Into the Woods in the movie theatre than have seen either Broadway production combined. Further, I’m willing to bet that by the time the film finishes its run, more people will have seen it on the screen than have seen any theatrical production: Broadway, regional, or amateur. Remember when people believed the theatrical The Sound of Music was the authentic version over the stage version. We’re gonna see the same thing here folks.

We’re in luck, however. I’m relatively familiar with the stage version of Into the Woods. In addition to wearing out the original (Bernadette Peters) and revival (Vanessa Williams) cast albums, I saw the original when it was on tour at the Center Theatre Group in 1989 (with Cleo Lane and Charlotte Rae), and I’ve seen at least one intimate theatre revival of the show. I’m pleased to say that the movie was reasonably faithful to the original. There were no songs added, no major changes to the story, and there were no major rearrangements. There were, to my ears, at least three songs cut out or changed in some way: the Finale to Act I/Act II opener was combined and reworked (“Ever After”/”So Happy” — “Ever After” became and instrumental and the two were reworked into “Back Into The Woods”), “No More” was transitioned into an instrumental score, and the reprise of “Agony” was cut.  Some characters were toned down — in particular, the pedopheliac nature of the Wolf; some deaths were softened or elided (Jack’s mother’s death was less violent; and Rapunzel’s unmentioned); some characters eliminated (the Narrator, Cinderella’s father). But the basic story and the message didn’t change. Further, a lot of the changes that had been discussed — in particular, eliminating the affair between the Baker’s Wife and the Prince, remained. Sondheim reportedly wrote two new songs for the movie… both of which were cut. In fact, other than the cut of the reprise of Agony, most of the changes were more on the level of cinematic adaptation and keeping the flow going (for example, you don’t need the act break when there isn’t an intermission). Wikipedia has a good summary of the changes. Alas, the changes do cut my favorite advice from the movie: “The closer to the family, the closer to the wine” (as well as all the advice in the closing song of Act I).

Cinematically, the movie was beautiful. This is where the real difference from the stage is apparent. On the stage you have to imagine much of the woods, much of the place, much of the magic. The scope is also further away: you can have multiple characters in multiple places all singing the same song at the same time. Cinema is much more “in the face”: you are seeing the actors through a close, not broad view. You don’t see multiple things happening at once (at least with this director); you have rapid cuts back and forth. It gives a different effect. Cinema can also amp the special effects — no where is this better seen than in the Witch’s transformation or the behavior of the magic beans. In general, the movie works.

I say “in general”, however, because one scene stuck out like a sore thumb: “On the Steps of the Palace”. The song is geared to Cinderella actually being stuck on the steps. When she steps out of the shoes and dances around, the context is lost. I can understand the cinematic effect desired, but she should have been stuck until she realized she could leave the shoes.

As from that, the movie was beautiful and engrossing. However, parents, just because this is about fairy tales does not mean it is appropriate for the little ones. Sondheim’s music is much too complex, and the movie much too long, for them to sit and be quiet. Further, the second half is quite dark. I say this especially to the folks at our screening who decided to bring a gaggle of 10 year olds who couldn’t behave to the show.

For the most part, the performances were excellent. You can find the full cast list on the IMDB page. Meryl Streep proved she is a triple threat: her singing performance was excellent and equaled her acting. The other principals were also strong: Emily Blunt as the Bakers Wife, James Corden as the Baker, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, etc. My only real casting complaint was with Daniel Huttlestone as Jack. His accent was so heavy and so out of place I kept expecting him to sing “Consider Yourself” from Oliver!. The soundtrack overall was great, and complements the stage soundtracks (especially with great orchestrations and clear enunciations of Sondheim’s complex lyrics).

This is, to my knowledge, the sixth Sondheim musical to be filmed (including two where he only did the lyrics): West Side Story, Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, and this film. I think this film does Sondheim well.

[ETA: Whoops. I forgot to write up the previews. Now to correct that error]

Previews:

  • Jupiter Ascending. A science-fiction adventure about the people who seeded the Earth trying to take it back. Didn’t grab me.
  • The Longest Ride.  The lives of two couples intertwine after a car crash. Although it has Alan Alda in it, I don’t think it is worth the big screen surcharge.
  • Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2. On the one hand, this looks like an Oceans 11 type caper to rob Vegas casinos. Unfortunately, it is Mall Cop, meaning sophomoric humor. This will be great on HBO.
  • Cinderella. A live-action version of the classic story; unknown if they will do it as the Disney version with songs (as it is from Disney), but I doubt it. More the Cruella or Maleficent treatment, I suspect. Potentially interesting.
  • Tomorrowland. Let’s see if we can find more in Disneyland to turn into a movie — after all, it worked for Pirates, but didn’t for Haunted Mansion. This time, let’s do an entire land. What’s next? Jungle Cruise? Not interested.

[/ETA]

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre movie 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 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: Next weekend brings two shows: “Serial Killer Barbie: The Musical” (FB) at the No Ho Arts Center on Friday January 9 and “An Evening with Groucho” at AJU with Frank Ferrente at American Jewish University on Sun January 11. The third weekend of January starts the Rep season with “Avenue Q” at REP East (FB) on Sat January 17. The fourth weekend of January brings an interesting mashup: Pulp Shakespeare (or Bard Fiction) at Theatre Asylum (FB) — this show is described as  “Ever wonder what Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece PULP FICTION would be like reimagined by the immortal William Shakespeare?”. The last weekend of January concludes with the Cantors Concert on Sat January 31 at Temple Ahavat Shalom, and I’m potentially looking for another show for Sunday. February and March pick up even more, with “The Threepenny Opera” at A Noise Within (FB) on February 15, a hold for “Loch Ness” at the Chance Theatre (FB)  on February 21, “The Road to Appomattox” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on February 28, the MRJ Man of the Year dinner on March 7, “Carrie: The Musical” at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) on March 14, a hold for “Drowsy Chaperone” at CSUN on Friday March 20, “Doubt” at REP East (FB) on Saturday March 21, “Newsies” at the Pantages (FB) on March 28, followed by Pesach and the Renaissance Faire on April 11. Additionally, there’s a Marcy and Zina concert at Pepperdine on Tuesday, February 3; alas, as it is a weeknight, I may not make it. 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 Museum Day in the Valley

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Jan 03, 2015 @ 6:01 pm PST

userpic=san-fernando-valleyYesterday, my daughter (who is home for break from UC Berkeley) ask to spend a father-daughter day. Knowing she’s a history major, I suggested visiting our two newest museums in the San Fernando Valley, which we did today. So as I record an album appropriate to the day (see Music: below), I though I would tell you about them.

The first museum we visited was the Valley Relics museum in Chatsworth, at 21630 Marilla St. (where Marilla and Owensmouth meet). Although some view Valley Relics as a museum, it is really much more of an organized collection. This isn’t a bad thing; rather, it reflects the fact that museums provide more interpretation and context for the items displayed. Valley Relics is much more about the relics, and they have a remarkable collection. They are a wonderful place to wander and go: “I remember that!”. You’ll find memories big and small: from all sorts of Van Nuys High yearbooks and Busch Garden’s memorabilia to loads of Nudie stuff (including two cars) to restaurant menus from valley restaurants to large signs galore (including the signs from Henry’s Tacos, the White Horse Inn, and the Tiffany Theatre). There are bus and train artifacts, including time tables, and loads of stuff from all sorts of valley businesses. There were quite a few items that I personally have copies of, including the 1971 magazine on the Sylmar Earthquake and the San Fernando Valley book. They would be particularly interested in the albums I’m recording right now, as they came out of CSUN in the 1970s. I’ll note that the curator and collector, Tommy Gelinas, was at the museum and was very friendly; he’s been collecting this stuff for 20 years and finally opened the exhibit space in 2014 (after gaining loads of publicity when he rescued the sign from the Tiffany Theatre and from Henry’s Tacos). Valley Relics is open Saturdays from 10am to 3pm. I plan to be back, and might even have some relics to donate.

The second museum we visited is much more of a traditional museum: The Museum of the San Fernando Valley. This is a much smaller facility, located on the second floor of an office complex in Northridge, at 18860 Nordhoff St., Suite 204, 91324 (about a mile or so from our house, at Nordhoff and Wilbur). They, too, have been a wandering museum for a long time, finally finding a home in 2014. They fit the museum title better, having interpretive exhibits that explain the portion of the collection on display and put it in some semblance of context. To me, I wish the context had a bit more valley content; for example, there was a wall of pictures of motion picture stars — I would have liked to have seen more explanation of each star’s connection to the valley. There were a number of exhibits up when we were there, including an exhibit on the Westmoreland family of Hollywood makeup artists, an exhibit on the valley’s contribution to defense efforts, an exhibit about public art in the valley, and a photography exhibit. Between all these exhibits, however, there was much less of the valley’s history shown. There were also knowledgable docents, who were also board members. The museum also had a library: I was able to look at valley plat maps from 1966, which showed conclusively that Rinaldi Place was previously Rinaldi St., and (after a discontinuity over Aliso Creek), continued on through to Reseda and points west (before it was wiped out by the 118 freeway). Again, this is a place I want to visit again. The Museum of the San Fernando Valley is open Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 1 to 6 pm (8pm on Tuesdays).

Contrasting the two facilities is interesting. Valley Relics provides many of the cultural touchpieces that those who grew up in the valley will remember; in doing so, it provides much of the valley’s history. The Museum of the SFV provides much more interpretation and context (which is needed), but over a much more limited window into their collection (due to space limitations). It is definitely worth visiting both facilities, and one wishes there was a true facility that covered the complete history of the region, the forces that shaped its development (water, the movie industry, farming, defense, planned communities, and much more). Although the Autry is peripherally in the valley (being at the edge of Los Angeles and Glendale in Griffith Park), and would have the facilities to tie all the pieces together, it doesn’t have that focus in what it shows (or at least, in what I’ve seen).

Music: Let’s Eat Cactus (CSUN ’78 Jazz Band; Joel Leach, director; Gordon Goodwin, tenor sax):  “Four Pictures for Jazz Orchestra”

Music: Studio CityMusic Minus One (Piano) (CSUN ’76 Jazz Band; Joel Leach, director; Gordon Goodwin): “Puesta Del Sol”