Observations Along the Road

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

Update to California Highways for Jan-May 2014

Written By: cahwyguy - Mon May 26, 2014 @ 3:51 pm PDT

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It’s been far too long since the last update. There’s really no excuse, other than the lack of time and lack of urgency. Weekends have been filled with other interests and chores, making it difficult to find a day or two to sit down in front of a screen all day to do the updates. These updates were started while on vacation — what else should I do while I sit in the hotel room while the wife sleeps in the morning? In some ways, it’s a throwback to college days, where I would always do programming projects while sitting in the hotel room at the beach in Maui. But then work interfered… and so I’m finishing them over Memorial Day weekend. So let’s get to it.

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California Highway Headlines for May 2014

Written By: cahwyguy - Mon May 26, 2014 @ 3:49 pm PDT

userpic=roadgeekingMay has been a busy month, and I’ve spent a lot of it planning to work on the highway pages… but not succeeding due to other tasks to address. So here are some highway headlines for May, hopefully followed immediately by a highway update:

  • Caltrans: Alternative B still best Centennial path. Alternative B through the Westpark neighborhood remains Caltrans’ preferred and least expensive route for Centennial Corridor, the controversial freeway link between Highway 58 and the Westside Parkway — but would require the demolition of far more homes and businesses than previously thought. With its release Friday of the project’s draft Environmental Impact Report, the state transportation agency found Alternative B would improve traffic throughout metropolitan Bakersfield — but as currently planned would require the demolition of 200 single-family homes, 110 multiple-family structures and 121 commercial buildings.
  • New Bay Bridge defect could be trouble in earthquake. Steel rods that anchor the Bay Bridge eastern span’s massive main cable have shifted since they were installed and are now perilously close to sharp-edged plates inside the belly of the new bridge, a problem Caltrans acknowledges could take months and millions of dollars to fix.Caltrans engineers say more than 200 high-strength rods could be jerked in a major earthquake into those sharp edges, risking damage to the main cable and possibly threatening the bridge’s stability.
  • 405-Sepulveda Pass Improvements Project: it’s more than adding the HOV lane.  As most of your know, the new northbound HOV lane on the 405 freeway between the 10 and 101 is opening Friday. There will finally be an HOV on the north side of the freeway to match the one on the southbound side that was completed in 2002.
  • Half-Mile Segment of San Fernando Blvd. in Burbank to Close Permanently. A half-mile segment of San Fernando Boulevard in Burbank will close permanently tomorrow, May 20, 2014. It will be closed before the morning commute. The closed portion is the segment that crosses under I-5 between the Lincoln Street off-ramp on the east side of the freeway and the Lincoln Street/Victory Place intersection on the west.
  • New Route 210 freeway interchange planned. Plans have been announced for a new interchange on the 210 freeway. Spokesman Tim Watkins at the San Bernardino Associated Governments (SANBAG) says the interchange at Pepper Avenue will help meet future growth in that part of Rialto.
  • $541 Million for CA Highways. The California Transportation Commission has allocated $1.3 billion in transportation funding, including $541 million to implement California’s “fix it first” strategy for preserving and maintaining California’s 50,000 lane miles of highways.

June 2014 California Primary Analysis — Part II (Non-Partisan Offices)

Written By: cahwyguy - Mon May 26, 2014 @ 1:15 pm PDT

userpic=voteAs I noted in my previous post, there’s a California election in 1.5 weeks. This is Part II of my election analysis, looking at the non-partisan races and propositions. This is where I go through the sample ballot and figure out my preferences… and it is your opportunity to convince me that I’m totally wrong and should vote for that other bum. There are some significant issues in this part of the ballot, particularly for those living in Los Angeles County. As such, I’m moving the LA County stuff up in front of the judgeships and such. Let’s jump in…

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June 2014 California Primary Analysis — Part I (Partisan Offices)

Written By: cahwyguy - Mon May 26, 2014 @ 8:08 am PDT

userpic=voteFor those of you living in California, there’s an election in 1.5 weeks. You can probably guess what that means. Yup, it’s time for me to go through the sample ballot and figure out my preferences… and your opportunity to convince me that I’m totally wrong and should vote for that other bum. This is a large ballot with very little press and advertising, so let’s get started. I’ll break this into multiple parts.

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Capping It Off

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun May 25, 2014 @ 2:01 pm PDT

Li'l Abner (Caminito Theatre - LACC)userpic=theatre_ticketsI’ve written in the past about how much I enjoy finally putting a story to music — that is, finally seeing the book on stage for a musical that I’ve only know through the cast album. This is a special treat when that music is one that is held in high esteem, but is very very rarely done. So when I received an announcement that the Theatre Academy at Los Angeles City College was doing a production of the rarely performed “Li’l Abner” — and that even better, it was being directed by well-known director and producer Bruce Kimmel (FB) [the man behind numerous albums and "The Brain from Planet X"] and choreographed by Kay Cole [a well-known LA choreographer] — I knew I just had to get tickets. Further, as my ticket date grew closer, others I respect with knowledge of the property were effusively praising it. So guess where we were last night? That’s right: the Caminito Theatre on the ground of LACC, seeing the final (sold-out) performance of “Li’l Abner“.

So what — or more precisely, who — is Li’l Abner? Most yunguns today will have no clue. As Wikipedia describes it, “Li’l Abner is a satirical American comic strip that appeared in many newspapers in the United States, Canada and Europe, featuring a fictional clan of hillbillies in the impoverished mountain village of Dogpatch, Arkansas. Written and drawn by Al Capp (1909–1979), the strip ran for 43 years, from August 13, 1934 through November 13, 1977.” In its day, it was one of the most popular strips around — many expressions entered the vernacular from the strip (such as “Schmoo” and the notion of “Sadie Hawkins Day”). The musical was an attempt to put the comic strip on the stage — with a comic strip sensibility — preserving all of the major and popular characters including Abner, Mammy and Pappy Yokum, Daisy Mae, Marryin’ Sam, Earthquake McGoon, and Moonbeam McSwine.

So what is the story in Li’l Abner? Does it matter? Seriously, the main line of the story (book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank) concerned the eternal storyline of Li’l Abner: Daisy Mae wanting to catch Li’l Abner during the Sadie Hawkins Day race so that she could marry him. But to paraphrase Teenagers from Outer Space, marriage isn’t funny — frustration is. In this case, the frustration comes from the impediments put in the ways of the nuptuals. The first is Abner’s total lack of interest in sex. The second was created by Senator Jack S. Phogbound, who has Dogpatch declared the most unnecessary place in America — meaning that the testing of the Atomic Bomb can move from the desert near Las Vegas to Dogpatch — and that all the inhabitants of Dogpatch must move away… two days before the Sadie Hawkins run. This leads to the third complication, Earthquake McGoon, who declares that since there won’t be any more Sadie Hawkins’ runs, the “law of the hills” applies — and he has obtained approval from Daisy’s kin to marry Daisy (which suddenly arouses Abner’s interest). The final complication occurs when the town finds something necessary to save it — Yokumberry Juice, which turns hillbillies into muscular hunks instantly — and thus become a secret weapon for the US, who experiment with it on all the husbands in Dogpatch. Abner owns the formula for the Juice, and decides to give it to the US Government for free (because he is a true-blooded American); this pisses off General Bullmoose, who wants the formula for himself so he can sell it to the government and make all the money in the world. He concocts a plan, with the aid of Evil Eye Fleagle, to permit Bullmoose’s mistress, Appassionata Von Climax, to capture Abner during the Sadie Hawkins race before Daisy Mae; Von Climax will then marry Abner, get the formula through community property, and then Abner will meet a tragic death. Throw into this mix Available Jones and his secret weapon — Stupefyin’ Jone — who stops any man in his tracks; a bevy of beautiful mountain galls (who want to catch the men); a passle of hillbilly men (who don’t want to be caught)… and a preacher (Marryin’ Sam) who wants to marry them all. Overall, it is an entertaining silly mess, filled with mangled language, political satire that is as valid today as it was in 1956 when the show was written, and wonderful, wonderful music (music by Gene De Paul and lyrics by Johnny Mercer).

So if this show is so good, why is it so rarely done? The musical itself, when originally staged, had an extremely large cast (54 people, with an orchestra of 25, running 2½ hours); this has tended to hinder regional productions. I’ve heard tell of rights problems as well, especially with the film musical version. The complexity and nature of the story make it difficult to pull off just right, and casting can be a bear. The main reason is likely that few people today are as familiar with the property as they were in the 1950s, and it just wouldn’t draw the audience.   So if you get a chance to see a good production, go see it (alas, this production closed last night, although hopefully it might reappear somewhere else).

So what made this production so good. An excellent cast (more on that in a paragraph or so) was aided and abetted with great direction and story editing by Bruce Kimmel (FB) — this cut out some of the problematic parts of the story (including the song “O Happy Day”) — and amplified with a simplified country band (under the direction of Wayne Moore (FB)) and new orchestrations (by David Siegel). Add in new choreography by Kay Cole to fit the simple LACC stage, and you had a wonder of a show.

The cast, which was a mixture of professionals and college students, was excellent. In the lead positions were Evan Harris (FB) as Li’l Abner and Maddison Claire Parks (FB) as Daisy Mae. Harris’ Abner captured both the hunkiness and clueless naivete of the character, while having a lovely singing voice that shone during both his solo numbers (“If I Had My Druthers”) as well as his duets with Daisy Mae. Parks had the looks down pat for Daisy Mae and acted the character wonderfully. Her voice was delightful, but it wasn’t the typical musical-theatre actress voice — it kept making me think more of musical theatre actresses of the 1950s (in particular, there was a Helen Trauble-ness in voice that made it seem little operatic). This was a nice change of pace, but the voice could use just a smidge more power (which was only an issue because there was no amplification here). Basically, the two were great in their roles, and brought a lot of enthusiasm and talent to the positions. I’ll note that Harris’ webpage indicates he will be starting as Ash in the Reno production of “Evil Dead — The Musical“; his hunky good looks and wonderful voice should make that a very good production.

In the secondary lead positions were John Massey (FB-Fan, FB-Person) as Marryin’ Sam and Barry Pearl as General Bullmoose. Massey’s Sam was spectacular — a lot of energy, humor, and channeling of Stubby Kaye made Massey a delight to watch. He was just having a lot of fun with the character. To top it off, he had a very strong singing voice and handled Sam’s numbers (of which there were a lot — the music was seemingly written to emphasize the talents of Stubby Kaye — the original Sam) very well. This was particularly seen in numbers such as “Jubilation T. Cornpone”, “The Country’s In The Very Best of Hands”, and “The Matrimonial Stomp” (but he handled the tender numbers, such as “I’m Past My Prime”, equally well). Pearl’s Bullmoose was appropriately bombastic and handled his singing well (particularly in his spotlight number, “Progress is the Root of All Evil”). If I had one quibble, it would be that I had no idea he was a general except for the name — costuming him early on in a general’s uniform would have helped quite a bit. [ETA: The director clarified in a note to me that my comment on the uniform was misunderstanding the character. He noted that "General Bullmoose is a General in name only, hence the line that precedes his first scene "Private industry is up in arms." He is not a member of the services or the government, which is the point of his character -- it's all about him -- he has more money than the government but wants even more from the Yokumberry tonic. Putting him in a General's outfit would, in fact, be completely wrong for the character - and the character has never been in such an outfit in any version of the show - always in suits." As such, I guess, he joins the ranks of General Electric and General Mills (and perhaps even Captain Crunch :-))]

In terms of the supporting players, all were excellent. I’d like to highlight a few performances before going on to list everyone. As Mammy Yokum, Maureen McFadden (FB) played old and crotchety well. The role was originally played by Charlotte Rae, followed by Billie Hayes, so you can get an idea of the shoes she had to fill. She filled them will, embodying the role with wonderful humor and performance. As Zsa Zsa/Wife, Sami Staitman (FB) was surprising, especially when you consider that, according to her bio, she’s only 14. She’s the first character you see during the overture and entre’acte, and she plays one of the mountain gals in the show — she sings strong in the ensemble and just radiated a wonderful humor about her. As Earthquake McGoon, Kristian Rasmussen/FB had the voice and appropriate mannerisms for a McGoon, but didn’t quite have the size to convey the Earthquake aspect. Luckily, his performance made up for that! Riley Dandy/FB‘s Appassionata Von Climax (a role originally performed by Tina Louise of Gilligan’s Island fame) came across as appropriately sexy and calculating. Emily Barnett/FB‘s Moonbeam McSwine was fun to watch; I especially enjoyed her interactions with her porcine puppet (and if this is the same Emily Barnett who was mentioned in this article, a double cheer for coming back so strong). Lastly, I want to mention Moira McFadden (FB)’s Evil Eye Fleagle. When she came on stage, I realized that this was a woman playing what seemed to be a male role — and playing it with quite good humorous program. What I didn’t realize until looking at the program afterwards was that she is the twin of the actor playing Mammy Yokem.  Totally different characters, well portrayed by two sisters who have gone into the same field. P.S.: The musical director, Wayne Moore (FB), was a hoot when he got out from behind the piano as a government man.

Rounding out the name characters were: Sean Howard (Mayor Dan’l Dawgmeat), Alvaro Ramirez/FB (Senator Jack S. Phogbound), Stayton Danylowich/FB (Available Jones), Anna Gion/FB (an appropriately statuesque and stunning Stupefyin’ Jones/Secretary), Ryan Connolly/FB (an appropriately scratchin’ Romeo Scraggs), Anthony Taylor/FB (Dr. Rasmussen T. Finsdale), and Daniel Cruz Palma/FB (Hairless Joe). The ensemble consisted of Ali Ahmad/FB, Jessica Atkinson/FB, Christelle Baguidy (FB), Alaric Cantarero/FB, Iesha Coston (G+), Daniel Cruz Palma/FB, Adriana Diaz/FB, Gabrielle Duguay/FB, Stephanie Hernandez/FB, Martel Huggins, Unique Jenkins (FB),  Emma Klages/FB, Moira McFadden (FB), Caroline Muniak (FB), Georgina Navarro/FB, Laura Sammons/FB,  and Diego Sotelo/FB. I should note that  all the gals in the ensemble were clearly beautiful beneath their hillybilly makeup; as for the guys, well, that yokumberry juice cleaned them up nicely (based on the reactions of the ladies in the audience).

As noted earlier, Wayne Moore (FB) led “The Kickapoo Five”, a jug-ish band consisting of Moore (FB) on piano, Steve Bringelson on Bass, Ron Hershewe on Guitar and Banjo, Dan Weinstein on Fiddle, and Edward Smith/FB on Drums, Pail, and Washboard. The band was a hoot, especially Moore at the end of each “What’s Good for General Bullmoose”.

Turning to the technical… The set design by Tesshi Nakagawa was appropriately cartoonish — primarily flats accented with Al Capp-ish drawings. It worked well and demonstrated that you don’t need fancy sets with you have great performances. The sound design by Vern Yonemura was appropriately transparent (and was presumably mostly sound effects). The lighting design by James Moody worked well, and was even more astounding when you realized the lighting booth was on the side and all spotlights were thus done with moving mirrors. The costumes design by Roxanne De Ment/FB and Natalya Shahinyan/FB was appropriately cartoonish and hillbilly; my only quibble (as noted above) was the lack of a uniform for General Bullmoose. Victoria Elizabeth Chediak/FB was the Production Stage Manager, assisted by Carla Ornelas/FB.  Other students served as crew members, ushers, etc.

Unfortunately, the last performance of “Li’l Abner” at LA City College was the one we saw (and it was sold out). Hopefully they will remount it somewhere else — keep your eyes open.

[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 Theatre and Concerts:  The last weekend of May brings an offbeat parody musical: “Zombies from the Beyond” at the Lex Theatre. June is also busy. It starts with a CDF Conference for Karen while I see The Fantastiks at Good People Theatre (FB). We lose the following weekend to a Bat Mitzvah. The remainder of the month brings “Stoneface: The Rise and Fall of Buster Keaton” at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) on June 22, and “I’m Not Just a Comic Genius” at Secret Rose (FB) on June 27. July will be busy: “Ghost” at the Pantages (FB) on 7/5, “Return to the Forbidden Planet” at REP East (FB) the weekend of 7/12, “Once” at the Pantages (FB) on 7/19, “Bye Bye Birdie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on 7/26, and “Family Planning” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on 8/2. August then remains quiet as we work around vacations and such, but things start to get busy again in September and October. More on that later. 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.

Sunday Stew: A Day Late, and Appropriately Short

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun May 18, 2014 @ 2:54 pm PDT

Observation StewIt’s Sunday again, and … what’s this? No stew on Saturday? We must remedy this, with this hastily thrown together pot of material collected during what was, again, a very busy week and an even busier weekend:

  • It’s Too Big. Here’s a call from a congressional candidate in Los Angeles to break up LA Unified. What’s interesting here is how he wants to do it: His bill would make school districts with more than 100,000 students ineligible for federal aid.  This would affect almost every major city school district, and result in lots of wasted money as many of the supporting school services — payroll, human resources, legal, and such… as well as school boards — get duplicated. The larger question, perhaps, is how much of LA Unified’s problem is LA Unified. After all, there are schools within the district that are excellent (many of them charters, such as Granada Hills or Pacific Palisades). There are lower performing schools, but these tend to be in lower performing neighborhoods. Often, the district’s hands are tied by state and federal requirements, as well as their own procedures. Breaking up the district doesn’t solve those problems. Decentralization (where appropriate) and local empowerment (when appropriate) does.
  • It’s Everywhere. One little snippet in the latest from Donald Sterling was not emphasized in the news — where he repeated Jewish stereotypes. You might have thought or hoped antisemitism would be dead … but you would be wrong. A new ADL survey shows that pnly 54 percent of people polled globally are aware of the Holocaust — and an alarming 32 percent of them believe the mass genocide of Jews was a myth or has been greatly exaggerated.  The survey found that 26 percent — more than one in four — of the 53,100 adults surveyed are “deeply infected” with anti-Semitic attitudes. Nine percent of Americans surveyed harbor at least six of the 11 anti-Semitic views. About 31 percent of respondents believe Jews “are more loyal to Israel” than the U.S.
  • It’s Scary. Antisemitism is really scary. The Disney comedy Frozen, edited into a horror movie trailer, is less so. Still, it is a great example of how the Frozen mania is continuing unabated. I think the last Disney film that got this deep into the social context was The Lion King.
  • It’s Dying. When they came out, CDs were touted as the perfect music medium. Crystal clear digital reproduction (as opposed to those scratchy vinyl records or tapes that wore out and broke), and they would last forever. Guess what? That was all a lie — CDs are degrading at an alarming rate. I have a large CD collection (and a large LP collection, and a large digital only collection … my iPod just crossed the 34,000 song mark). Of these, only the LPs have a long life — they degrade by scratches and stuff. All the tapes I made of records are long gone, and I rarely pull out the physical CDs anymore. Will they be there as backups, or will only the professionally made ones be readable. This, friends, is why people stick with analog data in the form of vinyl and paper.
  • It’s Dead. The death of the Fountainbleu in Las Vegas is closer: the construction crane has been removed. It is now less likely that this 80% finished mega-hotel will ever be completed. More than likely, it will be an expensive scrap recovery project, with loads of material destined for landfills. What a waste. How much dead landfill space in Las Vegas is taken up by the remains of hotels?
  • It’s, uhh, I forget. There might be some good news for those of you taking antidepressants. It turns out that certain antidepressants — particularly Celexa — is good a combatting memory loss. This may help combat Altzheimers Disease.
  • It’s Back. Lastly, those in the Bay Area can rest assured in the safety of the Bay Bridge. Sure, the bridge might fall down in an earthquake due to newly discovered flaws. But the protective troll is back, protecting drivers from his barely visible perch.

 

Dysfunctional Families of Cats

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun May 18, 2014 @ 2:25 pm PDT

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Rep East)userpic=repeastDysfunctional families are everywhere you look. They were in the early days of England last week, and they are in the deep south this weekend. This is because functional families are, less face it, boring. Certain they are boring if you are looking to mine some comedy or drama for the stage — this is why some of the best known plays are about dysfunction. As I noted before, this weeks dysfunction was in the deep south, in the classic Tennessee Williams‘ play “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at REP East (FB) Playhouse in Newhall, California.

We last saw the Cat in a production at the Neighborhood Playhouse in Palos Verdes in 2009. Back then, I described the play as follows:

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is a Pulitzer-Prize winning play written by Tennessee Williams. It tells the story of a decaying southern family, the Pollitts. The family patriarch (“Big Daddy”) is dying, and his two children are scrambling to get their piece of the substantial wealth, including 28,000 acres of prime land. Well, his children (his two sons Brick and Gooper) aren’t scrambling, but their wives certainly are. They are going at it like, well, cats. In one corner we have Gooper and Mae, and their four (soon to be five) children, including Dixie, Trixie, and Polly. The children are misbehaved, Mae is scheming and gossiping, and Gooper is exploiting legal angles. However, Gooper and Mae have one significant problem: Big Daddy dislikes them intensely (and Big Daddy is a nasty man). In the other corner we have Brick and Maggie. Brick is, to be blunt, a drunk. He drinks and drinks until he feels the click, which takes him away from the world. He does this to escape the loss of his only true friend, Skipper, who drank himself to death after an affair with Maggie (the depth of the relationship is left unsaid, but there are clear implications of something that was unacceptable in 1955). He also drinks to escape Maggie — it is unclear whether he hates her, but he is clearly indifferent to her. Needless to say, they haven’t been having sex or even been civil to each other. Brick has been been rapidly sinking — as the story starts, he had just broken his ankle jumping hurdles while drunk. But Maggie, eager for the inheritance, has been putting on “the face”: there is nothing wrong, there is no drinking problem, and that there might even be a child on the way.

The central theme of this play is a family destroyed by, as Brick puts it, “mendacity”: in other words, this is a family is given to or characterized by deception or falsehood or divergence from absolute truth. In other words: they lie like dogs. Or is that cats? Anyway: Brink lies to Maggie. Maggie lies to Brick. Maggie lies to Big Daddy. Big Mama lies to Big Daddy. Everyone hides everything, unless, of course, it can be used to hurt. This, of course, means they are a typical American family :-), and perhaps this is why this play has resonated so well over the years to become a classic.

Last night, certain undertone struck me differently. First, I got much more of a homosexual vibe from the play. Without changing the word, the nature of Skipper’s repressed homosexuality was clearer, and (in turn) the nature of Bricks reaction to it was stronger. This adds another potential layer to the lies: was Brick lying to himself about his desires. After all, Maggie (who was clearly a sexy young woman) seemed to have to effect on him at all; in the REP production, he even turns away from her in the final scenes. Was Brick moving from his lies to acceptance? That’s unclear.

Last week, when writing about “The Lion in Winter“, I commented that we had a playful of characters sniping at each other, with no growth in the lot of them. This made the play entertaining but unsatisfying. As a result, it is reasonable to ask: was there growth in the characters in Cat? There certainly wasn’t in the secondary characters: Goober, Mae, and Big Mama are unchanged. I do think there was some element of growth in Big Daddy — certainly there was a realization that he was facing death, and that none of his sons was suitable to replace him (hmmm, that sounds just like the conclusion in Lion). Was there growth in Brick? Harder to say, as heavy use of alcohol tends to limit ones ability to grow. I do think that, perhaps, near the end there was a glimmer of realization of his attractions; however, I don’t think it was growth that would stick. The ultimate question is: Did Maggie grow? Certainly the lie about being pregnant was uncharacteristic of her; it is unclear if that lie came from character growth and understanding of her situation, or the needs of the situation.

One thing that hit me during this play was the patriarchal nature of it, which is unsaid. This came from the realization that with all the discussion of passing Big Daddy’s wealth to his sons, there was no mention of passing it to Big Momma and her managing it afterwards. Was this reflective of the attitudes of the 1950s that tended not to view woman as capable of taking over a man’s work? One could imagine very different discussions in such a family today.

In the Rep East production, director Brad Sergi (FB) (assisted by Bill Quinn/FB) did a great job of bringing out touching performances in his actors. Chief among his finds was his cat, Maggie. Maggie was played by Emily Low (FB) in her stage debut (she does have TV experience and it a classic burlesque artist and traditional pin-up model). Low came across as a southern Marilyn Monroe-type: sexy (and knowing it), but equally scheming as well. She was always trying to be one step ahead of everyone else. This is a role that has loads and loads of dialogue (especially in the first act), and Low handled it like a trouper. She was really fun to watch.

As Brick, Anton Troy (FB) had the appropriate glistening sexy hunk vibe. He was constantly drinking during the show, and you could tell from his portrayal that the character was slowly becoming more inebriated. I’m guessing this was performance, as opposed to having actual liquor in the props (but if it was the latter, I feel sorry for his liver at the end of the run). His performance was good, and had some nuances that led to that indeterminate conclusion I mentioned above.

The last of the major characters was John Lacy (FB) as Big Daddy. Lacy provided a great performance, playing it large as is appropriate for Big Daddy. His character perhaps exhibited the largest growth as he learned about and accepted his fate. Lacy provided the appropriate pomposity and captured the largeness of spirit of the man.

Rounding out the cast were Missy Doty (FB) (Big Mama),  Barry Agin (FB) (Reverend Tooker), Gabrielle Eubank (FB) (Mae), Anthony Dietel (FB) (Gooper), and Neil Fleischer (Doctor Baugh). All gave good performances and seemed to fit their characters well. Vocal-only performers were Ellie Pearlman, Varuara Ru, Maddex Jehle, and Ivan Ru. I’ll note that REP did a minimal casting; rereading the Neighborhood Playhouse write-up, they actually had house servants and showed Mae’s children.

Turning to the technical creatives. This go around, Mikee Schwinn/FB did the set. It reminded me a bit of the Neighborhood Playhouse set. I particularly liked the large tree painted on the wall — I want one of those somewhere in the house, it was that neat. The remainder of the set was dark red lounges and chairs, and doors and walls and diaphonous curtains. These worked well; I’m less sure if it gave off the deep south vibe that it needed. Cat is one of those plays that deals with the decay of the family; this decay needs to carry to the furnishings. They need to be elegant things that have seen better days. Sound and lighting were by REP regulars Steven “Nanook” Burkholder/FB (sound) and Tim Christianson/FB (lighting), and both were effective. Costuming was by Flo Loring (FB) and Lynn McQuown (FB) and worked well. In particular, Emily Low’s sexy gown showed her, character, off very well; Anton Troy’s towel in the opening scenes did much of the same. Foley Recording was by Dennis Poore. Vicky Lightner/FB was the stage manager. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was produced by Mikee Schwinn/FB and Ovington Michael Owston (FB).

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” continues at Rep East until June 14. Tickets are available through the REP Online Box office. Discount tickets may be available through 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 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 Theatre and Concerts:  Next weekend brings the musical Lil Abner” at LA City College (directed by Bruce Kimmel, with choreography by Kay Cole). The last weekend of May is an offbeat parody musical: “Zombies from the Beyond” at the Lex Theatre. June is also busy. It starts with a CDF Conference for Karen while I see The Fantastiks at Good People Theatre (FB). We lose the following weekend to a Bat Mitzvah. The remainder of the month brings “Stoneface: The Rise and Fall of Buster Keaton” at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) on June 22, and “I’m Not Just a Comic Genius” at Secret Rose (FB) on June 27. July will be busy: “Ghost” at the Pantages (FB) on 7/5, “Return to the Forbidden Planet” at REP East (FB) the weekend of 7/12, “Once” at the Pantages (FB) on 7/19, “Bye Bye Birdie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on 7/26, and “Family Planning” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on 8/2. August then remains quiet as we work around vacations and such, but things start to get busy again in September and October. More on that later. 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.

Revisiting a Community after almost 40 Years

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat May 17, 2014 @ 2:04 pm PDT

Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (Ahmanson)userpic=ahmansonIn the 1930s and 1940s, Americans loved opera. There were regular opera broadcasts on the radio, and it wasn’t a foreign and unsupported art form. Today, most opera companies are having financial troubles, but Broadway musicals — they’re big business. Enter the Gershwin organization. They have what might be the classic American folk opera — George and Ira Gershwin‘s Porgy and Bess (with a book by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward). But revivals by opera companies are rare (the last big successful one was the 1976 Houston Grand Opera revivial, which I had the fortune of seeing). The question was how to reintroduce this masterpiece to modern American artists, who are schooled on the Broadway musical form, not operatic forms. Their answer: they brought in Diane Paulus, who had successfully revitalized and reimagined “Hair” (and would go on to do the same for “Pippin“). She, in turn, brought in Suzan-Lori Parks to adapt the book, and Diedre L. Murray to adapt the score, and in 2011, the updated “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess” opened.  This trimmed the show a little, and reworked the score to punch it up to (what I would characterize) as a brighter organization and interpretation. The director also played with the direction, moving the action from the more operatic to the realism of Broadway. The reaction to these adjustments were decidedly mixed: Some Broadway notables and purists (such as Stephen Sondheim) raked this over the coals for the changes; others appreciated how this made it more acceptable for the masses.  When the Ahmanson Theatre announced they were bringing the show in for the 2013-2014 season, my desire to attend was decidedly mixed. After all, I had seen the 1976 Houston Grand Opera production (which was relatively definitive). But then I heard on a Broadway sampler the updated version of “I’ve Got Plenty of Nothin’” and was very impressed; additionally, I learned my wife had never seen the show. Thus Hottix were in order, and we squeezed it into the schedule for May. Last night saw us at the Ahmanson; here are my thoughts on the update.

First and foremost, I’m hoping everyone is familiar with the story of Porgy and Bess. It basically is the story of the inhabitants of Catfish Row near Charleston SC in the 1930s. The main characters are Porgy, a disabled beggar; Crown, a powerful man with a powerful temper; Bess, a perceived loose-woman who is Crown’s girl; and Sportin’ Life, the community drug dealer. The rest of the characters are the inhabitants of Catfish Row; notable inhabitants are Jake and Clara and their newborn baby; Serena and Robbins; and Mariah, an elder woman in the community. When Crown kills Robbins after a gambling fight, he runs away and hides. This leaves Bess to take up with Porgy, who falls in love with her. Over time, Bess is accepted by the community. After the church picnic on Kittiwah Island, Crown reappears and tries to draw Bess back into his sphere of control. She resists, and he (in modern terms) assaults her. She eventually returns to Catfish Row, and Porgy vows that he will defend her. Life returns to normal, but when Jake is lost in a hurricane, Clara goes out after him, and Crown (who has returned) goes out after the two of them. Only Crown returns, and fights Porgy for Bess. Porgy kills Crown during the fight. The police come and take Porgy away; while Porgy is away, Sportin’ Life convinces Bess he will never return. She goes off to New York with Sportin’ Life. When the police return Porgy, he is eager for Bess; when he discovers Bess is gone, he starts on his way to New York to find her.

Having see the early traditional production, I could sense some of the changes that were made. The primary one was in Porgy. Traditionally, he was portrayed as having no use of his legs, and got around on a cart. This production gave him a club-foot and a brace. This made Porgy stronger and more attractive, and perhaps hurt the narrative. To me, it was a small hurt and didn’t affect the story. Other songs were clearly brightened in subject and tone; this is certainly apparent in “I’ve Got Plenty of Nuthin’”, where “Nuthin’” was changed from the prima facie meaning of possessions to a more sexual tone. I also noticed some changing of language in some songs, particularly in “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. But these are things that a purist would note. For the audience member unfamiliar with the story (as are most folks these days), this is a grand introduction to the story and the music. Those who fall in love with the piece can then discover the traditional operatic form. I’ll note that there were similar objections to the 1959 movie, which drastically cut music and changed orchestrations (as well as dubbing voices). Still, that movie served as an entry point for audiences to the piece, drawing them in to later stage productions through their familiarity. In short, overall, I think this is fine introduction, and would serve very well to familiarize a modern audience with this classic piece.

The performances in this touring company were spectacular. Alas, we weren’t blessed with the original Broadway leads (gone are the days when Broadway folk would play the LA Civic Light Opera productions).  If what we got was the second tier, then the first tier was “blow the roof off”, for the leads we had were great. As Porgy, Nathaniel Stampley had a stunning voice and captured the club-foot well. He also gave off a charisma that was palpable — you could see why he was treasured by the community and was attractive to Bess — despite his disability. Alicia Hall Moran‘s Bess was also great, with a lovely voice and wonderful performance. With Bess, I particularly noted her behavior during Robbins’ funeral. She was separate from the community and clearly going through drug withdrawal. You could see, with Moran’s portrayal of Bess, how the love and compassion of Porgy and the community changed her and facilitated her recovery. It also showed how fragile her recovery was; given a major bump in the road she easily fell back into the habit. Here the community was perhaps too judgmental in response (perhaps demonstrating the effect of the lack of Porgy’s presence): Moran clearly portrayed how that judgement (evidenced by Mariah drawing away Clara’s infant) affected Bess’ future. You could clearly see that her performance convinced the audience of the reality of her character. Great performances from both Stampley and Moran.

The other main characters were Crown and Sporting Life. Crown, as portrayed by Alvin Crawford, had both the physical presence and voice to covey the powerful and strong nature of the character. What he couldn’t bring across at the 100% level was the menace and unpredictability (his smile and friendliness during the curtain calls made clear that joy was an aspect of his personality he couldn’t completely submerge). Kingsley Leggs‘ Sporting Life was suitably dapper and was a strong singer. I enjoyed his “Ain’t Necessarily So”, but he didn’t quite come off as the enticing snake in the grass at the heart of his character. But these were minor off notes; the overall essence of these characters shone and the voices were wonderful.

The other inhabitants of Catfish Row both the named characters in the program as well as the unnamed ensemble members sang strongly, and (more importantly) seemed to become their characters. This was visible in their small actions in the background during songs. They were purposeful in their portray, not just supporting dancers. It is hard to find ways to single them out that don’t sound repetitive. Still, I must note how well Sumayya Ali as Clara and David Hughey as Jake worked well together during the opening number — you could easily believe that they were a loving and playful couple. Danielle Lee Greaves‘ Mariah and Denisha Ballew‘s Serena also had their moments — Greaves was just spectacular and humorous in “I Hates Your Strutting Style” and Ballew gave moving performances in “My Man’s Gone Now” and the “Dr. Jesus” numbers. The remaining named and ensemble inhabitants of Catfish Road were James Earl Jones II (Robbins), Kent Overshown (Mingo, the undertaker), Sarita Rachelle Lilly (Strawberry Woman), Chauncey Packer (Peter, the Honey Man), Dwelvan David (The Crab Man), Roosevelt Andre Credit (Fisherman), Nkrumah Gatling (Fisherman), Tamar Greene (Fisherman), Adrianna M. Cleveland (Woman), Cicily Daniels (Woman), Nicole Adell Johnson (Woman), and Soara-Jye Ross (Woman). The two white, non-singing roles were Dan Barnhill as the Detective, and Fred Rose as the Policeman. Vanjah Boikai, Quentin Oliver Lee, Cheryse McLeod Lewis, and Lindsay Roberts were the swings. Note that if you compare this to the Wikipedia cast, you’ll see a number of characters lost their names and distinction to become anonymous, and a few were elided out of the story completely. This may have been due to cost; it may also have been a side effect of moving away from the operatic form that has many small roles. I don’t think the loss is noticeable, but purists will likely object.

Turning to the movement and the music. The choreography was by Ronald K. Brown. There are a few dance numbers in the show (such as the opening dance number at the top of Act II), but most of the movement was integral and fluid. All of the movement was well executed and delightful to watch; none of it seemed to be dancing-for-dancing sake.  Music supervision was by Constantine Kitsopoulos, and John Miller was the Music Coordinator.  Dale Rieling was the musical director, and conducted the large 24-piece orchestra. One rarely sees orchestras that large in modern musicals — usually you’re lucky to get 5-pieces, given the economics of musicians these days. The size of the orchestra gave a wonderfully lush quality to the music — this was a show where you could listen and enjoy, and not be blown away by over-amplified instruments assaulting your eardrums.  I’m sure the folks at Center Theatre Group are saving that for the next musical with includes the Queen portfolio. Orchestrations were by WIlliam David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke.

Lastly, let’s look at the technical artists. The scenic design was by Riccardo Hernandez, and was barely there. There was a backdrop. There were a few props. That was it. Now I remember the Houston Grand Opera’s production — Porgy’s cubbyhole on the side, a well-worn house for Serena that housed the community during the hurricane, a center plaza with hovels all around. None of this was onstage at the Ahmanson and … I didn’t miss it at all. The actors were so convincing in their characters that my mind created the necessary scenery. That, my friends, is acting at its best. The lighting more than made up for the lack of scenery as well. Loads of yellows and warm colors, and flashes during the hurricanes. But what I noticed more was the shadows. From where we were sitting, in a number of scenes, the shadows became an additional character, amplifying the portrayals and the mood. Kudos to Christopher Akerlind for the excellent lighting job. The sound by Acme Sound Partners mostly blended in and wasn’t over powering, but there were a few static bursts (probably due to audience members who did not turn off their cell phones, grrrr). The costumes by ESosa fit the characters well and had no problems that stood out; they worked well to portray both the poverty of the community and the esteem with which the held their church clothes. Wigs, hair, and makeup were by J. Jared Janas and Rob Greene and seemed appropriately period; in particular, I didn’t observe any obvious modern black hairstyles or straightening. As noted earlier, Diane Paulus was the director; Nancy Harrington was the associate director.  John M. Atherlay was the Production Stage Manager, and technical supervision was by Hudson Theatrical Associates.

The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess” continues at the Ahmanson Theatre through June 1. Tickets are available through the Ahmanson online box office. Hottix may be available; call Ahmanson customer service and ask.  Tickets may also be available on Goldstar and LA Stage Tix. The production is worth seeing, unless you’re a Porgy and Bess purist.

[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 Theatre and Concerts:  This evening brings “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at REP East (FB). The next weekend brings the musical Lil Abner” at LA City College (directed by Bruce Kimmel, with choreography by Kay Cole). The last weekend of May is an offbeat parody musical: “Zombies from the Beyond” at the Lex Theatre. June is also busy. It starts with a CDF Conference for Karen while I see The Fantastiks at Good People Theatre (FB). We lose the following weekend to a Bat Mitzvah. The remainder of the month brings “Stoneface: The Rise and Fall of Buster Keaton” at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) on June 22, and “I’m Not Just a Comic Genius” at Secret Rose (FB) on June 27. July will be busy: “Ghost” at the Pantages (FB) on 7/5, “Return to the Forbidden Planet” at REP East (FB) the weekend of 7/12, “Once” at the Pantages (FB) on 7/19, “Bye Bye Birdie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on 7/26, and “Family Planning” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on 8/2. August then remains quiet as we work around vacations and such, but things start to get busy again in September and October. More on that later. 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.