Observations Along the Road

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

Finding Out Where The Real Power Lies

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Mar 29, 2015 @ 12:20 pm PST

Newsies (Pantages)userpic=broadwaylaYesterday, Playbill published an interesting article on 8 theatre podcasts you should be listening to. Through this article I discovered a new favorite podcast, The Ensemblist (FB), which explores the life and importance of the ensemble. This is one thing I was thinking about last night when I saw the touring production of “Disney’s Newies (FB), now at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre (FB). This was because the real star of Newsies was not the lead performers (although they were great) — it was the Newsies themselves and their supporting ensemble. More on that in a moment.

Before I get into the story of Newsies, I must tell you that I suffer from this weird conceit: I believe every story starts on the stage and then moves to the screen. Thus, I believe William Shakespeare wrote Pulp Fiction, and the lost play was discovered and made into the movie. I similarly believe that Newsies started as a successful musical, and then someone time-travelled back and made the poorly received movie musical version. This makes a lot of sense, given that many successful musicals do not translate well to the screen.

Newsies tells the story of the historical newsboys strike of 1899. One might think that a strike over a hundred years ago has no relevance today, but I saw direct parallels between the strike story in Newsies and the current battle between LA actors and Actors Equity. The notion of a mass of people standing up for their rights against an authority who is imposing work rule changes that could destroy what gives them life — that’s a common epic story that resonates with many. The trick is to tell that story in a way that conveys the power of the masses, without becoming sappy or syrupy.

The stage version of Newsies (book by Harvey Fierstein (FB), based on the Disney film written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White (FB); music by Alan Menken (FB); lyrics by Jack Feldman [utilizing many of the movies’ songs, but surprisingly not crediting J.A.C. Redford, who was credited with the movie’s music]) does that reasonably well. You can find the full synopsis on Wikipedia, but in short:  Jack Kelly is a “newsie” — a boy who earns a living selling papers in the street for a major New York newspaper at the turn of the 20th century. He longs to escape New York where he is a cog that is ground down, and move to Santa Fe NM where he can be a big man in a small town. But before he can do so, he must sell papes (newspapers) to earn money. We learn how he does so in the opening; we also meet two new “newsies”: Davey and his younger brother Les. They became newsies to support their family, after their father’s leg was mangled in an industrial accident and he was fired. These boys are newsies for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, which is seeing a drop in circulation. Pulitzer summarily decides to raise the price of the papers he sells to the newsies from 50¢/100 to 60¢/100; he figures the boys will sell more papers to make the same amount of money, thus increasing his circulation.  In response to this, however, the Newsies decide to form a union and go on strike. Their effort is publicized by Katherine Plumber, a reporter Jack meets while hiding out at a theatre owned by his friend, Mella Larkin. When the boys attempt to blockade the newspaper distribution carts and prevent scabs from delivering the papers, a melee ensues between the scabs, the boys, Pulitzer’s goons (Morris and Oscar Delancy), and the police. Many boys are injured, and Jack’s friend, Crutchy, is taken to “The Refugees”, a boys prison from which Jack escaped, run by the evil Snyder. Jack just wants to give up and run away to Santa Fe, but Davey and Les convince him to go back an organize a rally to organize the Newsies in all the boroughs. When Jack goes to invite Pulitzer to present his side at the rally, he discovers (a) that Katherine is Pulitzer’s daughter, and (b) Pulitzer wants to neutralize Jack, either by paying his way to Santa Fe, or putting him in jail in the Refuge. Katherine convinces Jack that the way to win is to get all the children in New York to go on strike. They sneak into the World, print a screen written by Katherine, and do so. This works, Pulizter partially caves (they compromise on the price, and Pulitzer agrees to buy back unsold papers), and Jack ends up winning the girl. Close curtain.

I’ll note that when they traveled back in time to make this into a movie, they made some changes that impacted the story. The reporter was male and unrelated to the publisher, and Kelly’s love interest was Davey’s sister. They changed the race of Medda Larkin, and reworked the timing of the story. It didn’t work. They should have stuck with the original musical 😉 .

This is clearly a story designed to tug at the heart: you’ve got a ragtag team of good children fighting the big bad boss. The music is energetic and uplifting — on the verge of marches — that just pulls at you. There is the occasional ballad and “I want” song, but nothing overly sappy. About the biggest problem the story has is its predictability. The biggest problem the music has is that it is stretched — we keep hearing the same themes and melodies over and over. Having heard the movie soundtrack, this was a problem there as well. Reading the history, it is worth noting that this was intended as a limited run and not a Broadway hit (clearly designed as a musical for the school market), and its audience success propelled it to a two-year run on Broadway.  My wife’s comment about the music was that she kept hearing melodies and underscores that were reminiscent of Aladdin, another Disney musical that was written by the same composer and released the same year as Newsies. I didn’t notice those undertones, but they didn’t surprise me as that is common with composers.

What makes Newsies overcome any weaknesses in the book or the score are the Newsies and the rest of the dancing ensemble. As directed by Jeff Calhoun and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli (FB), many of the major rousing numbers are full-on energetic dance numbers, and they just “wow” you out of your seats. This is why I truly believe that the Newsies and ensemble are the true stars of this show — when you walk out of this show, it is their performances you principally remember. This team, some of whom I’ll individually highlight later, consisted of: Dan DeLuca (FB) (Jack Kelly), Stephanie Styles (FB) (Katherine), Jacob Kemp (FB) (Davey), Zachary Sayle (FB) (Crutchie), Anthony Rosenthal (Les at our performance), Evan Autio (FB) (Scab, Ensemble), Josh Assor (FB) (Ensemble), Joshua Burrage (FB) (Darcy, Ensemble), Benjamin Cook (FB) (Race, Ensemble), DeMarius R. Copes (FB) (Henry, Ensemble), Julian DeGuzman (FB) (Finch, Ensemble), Nico DeJesus (FB) (Romeo, Ensemble), Sky Flaherty (FB) (Albert, Scab, Ensemble), Jeff Heimbrock (FB) (Elmer, Spot Conlon, Ensemble), Jordan Samuels (FB) (Specs, Ensemble), Jack Sippel (FB) (Mush, Ensemble), and Chaz Wolcott (FB) (Scab, Ensemble).  Their dancing was just truly spectacular. However, that wasn’t everything. These young performers were just radiating a joy at performing that was contagious — they were having so much fun doing this show that the audience picked it up and a feedback loop occurred, amplifying the effect for all. This is truly a show where the ensemble is the real star.

In the lead individual performance positions are Dan DeLuca (FB) (Jack Kelly) and Stephanie Styles (FB) (Katherine). DeLuca is a wonderful dancer and an engaging performer; he broadcasted a believability that was just great. In addition to the ensemble numbers, he was wonderful in his solo numbers, such as “Santa Fe”. As for Styles, ahhhh … I was smitten. Styles had a beautiful and expressive face, danced wonderfully, and was spectacular in both her solo and duet numbers. This is an actor who I hope I see more of — there’s something about her personality and joy of performing that just comes through. I’ve seen a few actresses like that, and they rapidly become favorites.

In supporting performances on the Newsies side were Jacob Kemp (FB) (Davey), Anthony Rosenthal (Les at our performance; he alternates with Vincent Crocilla (FB)), and Zachary Sayle (FB) (Crutchie). Kemp and Rosenthal gave believable performances, and Rosenthal wowed the crowed with his cuteness. As with the rest of the ensemble, all sang and danced well. Sayles was particularly touching in his solo number.

This show wasn’t all kids. In the lead supporting “adult” performer positions were Kevin Carolan (FB) (Joseph Pulitzer) [at this performance; the role is normally played by Steve Blanchard (FB)] and Angela Grovey (FB) (Medda Larkin). Carolan is in just a few scenes, but he does a great job in all of them conveying the appropriate bluff, bluster, and position of the great Joseph Pulitzer. He does well in his one song, “The Bottom Line”, and its reprise. Grovey really only has one spotlight performance — her song “That’s Rich” is an eleven o’clock number done at nine o’clock — a true showstopper, great performance. She reappears briefly for some scenes in act II, but you remember her for “That’s Rich”. Luckily, she nails it :-).

Rounding out the named performers were the assistants to Joseph Pulitzer [Mark Aldrich (FB) (Seitz, Ensemble), Bill Bateman (Bunsen, Stage Manager, Ensemble), and Melissa Steadman Hart (FB) (Nun, Hannah) [at our performance, normally Meredith Inglesby (FB)†]], Pulitzer’s goons and employees [Michael Ryan (FB) (Morris Delancey), Jon Hacker (FB) (Oscar Delancey), Michael Gorman (FB) (Wiesel, Mr. Jacobi, Mayor)], the bad guy Snyder [James Judy (FB)], and the others [Eric Jon Mahlum (FB) (Governor Roosevelt) [normally Kevin Carolan (FB)], Molly Jobe (FB) (Nun, Citizen of New York)]. Swings not previously mentioned were Stephen Hernandez (FB) and Andrew Wilson (FB). All seemed to be enjoying what they were doing and had great performances.
[†: Inglesby’s Facebook page explains why both she and Steve Blanchard were out and we had the swing shuffle — she’s married to Blanchard, and for some reason were away for that performance]

Rounding out the music and dance credits. Of the aforementioned actors, Andrew Wilson (FB) was the dance captain; Josh Assor (FB) was his assistant, and Kevin Carolan (FB) was the fight captain. Lou Castro was the associate choreographer. On the music side, Michael Kosarin (FB) was the music supervisor and arranger, Danny Troob (FB) did orchestrations, Mark Hummel did the dance music, John Miller was the music coordinator, and James Dodgson was the music director and conductor. The orchestra, as just noted, was conducted by James Dodgson. Faith Seetoo (FB) was the associate conductor, and Chip Prince (FB) was the assistant conductor. Orchestra members consisted of [T = Touring; L = Local]: Paul Baron (FB) [T] (Trumpet/Flugel); Joe Wallace (FB) [T] (Bass); Heinrich Kruse  (FB) [T] (Drums); Faith Seetoo (FB), Chip Prince (FB) [T] (Keyboards); Jeff Marder (FB) [T] (Electronic Music); Kathleen Robertson [L] (Violin); Paula Fehrenbach [L] (Cello); Dick Mitchell [L] (Flute, Piccolo, Clarinet, Soprano Sax, Alto Sax, Tenor Sax); Wayne Bergeron [L] (Trumpet); Andy Martin [L] (Trombone, Bass Trombone); Paul Viapiano [L] (Guitar); Wade Culbreath [L] (Percussion); David Witham [L] (Keyboard Sub). The orchestra had a truly full sound; something that I miss in these days of small bands masquerading as orchestras.

Turning to the technical side of the story: The scenic design was by Tobin Ost (FB), and was relatively simple in its complexity. There were a large number of projection screens to provide the location (original Broadway projection design by Sven Ortel, adapted by Daniel Brodie); there were a few actual sets for places like Pulitzer’s office. The rest consisted of large metal multilevel structures sized to fit into a touring semi that were turned and rotated to provide all the other locations. Very, very clever. The sound design by Ken Travis and the lighting by Jeff Croiter worked reasonably well. For the most part, the sound was some of the best I’ve heard in the Pantages, and the lighting created the mood. There were a few local problems — the occasional sound drop, the occasional spot operator who couldn’t find the actor. Costume Design was by Jess Goldstein, with hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. All were affective and appeared reasonably period. Fight direction was by J. Allen Suddeth. Remaining company credits: Telsey+Company (Casting); Ann Quart (Associate Producer); Geoffrey Quart (Technical Supervisor); Christopher A. Recker (General Manager); Jeff Norman (Production Stage Manager); Richard J. Hinds (Associate Director).

Disney’s Newsies continues at the Hollywood Pantages until April 19. Tickets are available through the Pantages Box Office and Ticketmaster. There is a day of show lottery for $20 tickets. There are some tickets available on Goldstar. The show is quite enjoyable and well worth seeing. It’s not a deep thought show, but it is a very fun show.

The Pantages Theatre has announced their next season. In a previous post I discussed my thoughts on the upcoming Pantages season.

Pro99 - Vote No NowI Love 99. Walking out of Newsies, I received an email from the Pantages asking what I thought of the show. I thought of replying that I was impressed that the Pantages put on a show than encapsulated the AEA/pro99 fight so well, and seemed to support the pro99 side. I mean, look at what the Pantages put on: Joseph Pulitzer, in order to bring in more money, arbitrarily attempted to impose a price hike of what he charged the newsies. This is just like AEA attempting to impose minimum wage on the 99 seat theatres in Los Angeles. In both cases, the imposed prices was unsustainable and threatened the livelihood of the Newsies/99 seat theatres. So what did the Newsies/99 Seat Theatre supporters do? They banded together to protest the hike. They demonstrated to the city the value of their work and their product. The Newsies did this by getting the children to strike; pro99 has done that by getting elements of all stakeholders — actors, designers, producers, audiences, stage managers, critics — to band together to let the world know about the vital role of intimate theatre to the overall theatrical ecosystem. Reporters — such as Katherine Plumber/Pulitzer — or our own Colin Mitchell of Bitter Lemons — have done a yeomans job of spreading the word. In the musical Newsies, Pulitzer didn’t win, but the status quo wasn’t retained either — a compromise was reached that benefited all stakeholders. The price went up slightly, but unsold papers could be sold back. In the real world, that’s all we’re asking for. Vote down this arbitrary AEA proposal, and let the stakeholders on all sides work up a compromise that serves all interests — a compromise that lets intimate theatres that can grow; that lets intimate theaters that are lucky enough to have sufficient grants, donations, and ticket income to pay the actors something closer to what they are worth (and they are worth much more than minimum wage); that lets those actors that want to provide pro-bono or below market professional services; that ensures safe working conditions for both union and non-union actors.

So, what should you do. If you are an AEA actor, vote no. If you are a stakeholder in Los Angeles theatre, visit www.ilove99.org to learn more about what is happening. Then go see Newsies at the Pantages — and watch the story and see the parallels to the 99 Seat Theatre fight (and know you are watching a very talented troup of AEA actors, for this is an Equity tour). If you can’t afford that, go to any of the excellent 99 seat theatres throughout Los Angeles and support your local actors. By the way, if you are an audience member, keep an eye on this blog for a special announcement in just a couple of days.

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: April starts with a highly recommended show at a local 99 seat theatre: Trevor at the Atwater Village Theatre (FB), starring Laurie Metcalf, on the 2nd night of Passover. The following weekend has a different form of theatre: the Renaissance Faire on April 11 (just wait until AEA tries to unionize that — the Queen will be livid!). The following weekend will see us back at a music store listening to a performance: this time, it is Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes Guitar Shop (FB). After that we’re in Vegas for a week — I haven’t yet determined the shows yet, but Menopause the Musical looks quite likely, possibly Don Rickles at the Orleans, and Penn & Teller are on Goldstar. May begins with “Loopholes: The Musical” at the Hudson Main Stage (FB) on May 2. This is followed by “Words By Ira Gershwin – A Musical Play” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on May 9 (and quite likely a visit to Alice – The Musical at Nobel Middle School).  The weekend of May 16 brings “Dinner with Friends” at REP East (FB). The weekend of May 23 brings Confirmation services at TAS, a visit to the Hollywood Bowl, and also has a hold for “Love Again“, a new musical by Doug Haverty and Adryan Russ, at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB).  The last weekend of May currently has a hold for “Fancy Nancy” at the Chance Theatre (FB), “Waterfall“, the new Maltby/Shire musical at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB), and “Murder for Two” at the Geffen Playhouse (FB).  June is equally crazy, as we’ve got the Hollywood Fringe Festival (which should include a production of “Marry Me a Little” by Good People Theatre (FB)), a matinee of the movie Grease at The Colony Theatre (FB), a trip out to see the Lancaster Jethawksour annual drum corps show, and hopefully “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). 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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Thoughts on a Theatre Season: Colony and Pantages

Written By: cahwyguy - Tue Jan 27, 2015 @ 11:32 am PST

userpic=colonyIn the last two weeks, announcements have come out regarding the upcoming seasons at two theatres I frequent. I thought I would share them with you:

** The Colony Theatre, Burbank **

The Colony Theatre (FB) (where we subscribe) is a mid-size house that prides itself on using only Equity actors and paying Equity wages. Colony just sent me their season announcement for 2015-2016:

  • The Fabulous Lipitones by John Markus and Mark St. Germain. Thumbs Up Germain is a favorite playwright at the Colony; I’ve seen a number of his shows there. This one sounds interesting: A barbershop quartet who’s been belting out close harmonies for twenty years suddenly loses its lead singer. The three surviving members must cease their bickering and race to find a replacement. They hear a tenor with a gorgeous voice, but when he shows up he’s a dark-skinned Indian in a turban who is also an illegal immigrant… and one of the quartet is Archie Bunker. West Coast Premiere. July 25 – August 23, 2015.
  • Mrs. A. Lincoln by John Dayton. Thumbs Up Toward the end of her life, Mary Todd Lincoln (Patty Duke) shares her stories and memories with (unseen) reporters. World Premiere. September 19 – October 18, 2015.
  • Humble Boy by Charlotte Jones. Thumbs Up 35-year-old Felix Humble is a bumbling Cambridge astrophysicist who cannot stumble across a garden hose without using it to illustrate the finer points of string theory before twisting it into a noose. He returns home to his bee keeping father’s funeral, only to discover his difficult and domineering mother in the arms of another man. West Coast Premiere. November 7 – December 13, 2015.
  • The Best of Enemies by Mark St. Germain. Thumbs Up Ann, an African-American civil rights activist, and C.P., the Exalted Cyclops of the KKK are forced to work together by the federal government to achieve integration in their small North Carolina town fifteen years after Brown v. Board of Education. West Coast Premiere. February 13 – March 13, 2016.
  • Another Roll of the Dice. Book by Mark Saltzman, Music by Frank Loesser. Thumbs Up Based on the stories by Damon Runyon. A new musical, seemingly in the world of Guys and Dolls. World Premiere. April 16 – May 15, 2016.

All in all, a pretty exciting season. I’m looking forward to it.

** The Pantages Theatre, Hollywood **

userpic=broadwaylaOn Monday, the Pantages Theatre also announced its upcoming 2015-2016 season. I don’t subscribe to the Pantages (FB), but go when there are particular shows of interest. There wasn’t much in the 2014-2015 season. This one is better:

  • Annie. Thumbs Down This is the new US National Tour of the show. There was some controversy about this production — note that this is not the slightly revised version that was recently on Broadway, but a remounting of the original version with a non-Equity tour cast directed by Charnin. Although I enjoy the show I’ve seen it a number of times, and unless there’s something new and novel, there are better choices for my ticket dollar.  October 13 – November 1, 2015.
  • If/Then. Thumbs Up This is the new Idena Menzel musical that just closed on Broadway. I doubt we’ll get Idina, but I go to a show for the story, not the performer. The music is good and the story is an interesting one about the paths one choses in life (it is not, as its title might imply, a musical about a programmer who falls in love). This is one that I want to see. Written by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt. December 8, 2015 – January 3, 2016.
  • Bullets Over Broadway. Thumbs Up This is the musicalization of the Woody Allen film, written by Allen. The score consists of jazz and popular standards of the years between World War I and about 1930 by various songwriters. I’ve heard the music, and I really like it. It didn’t do well on Broadway, possibly because of the association with Allen. January 5 – January 24, 2016.
  • Dirty Dancing — The Classic Story on StageThumbs Down This is the North American Tour of this never-on-Broadway show. It appears to use movie songs and movie choreography. It may be classic, but I have no desire to see it. Footloose: The Musical would have been better. February 2 – February 21, 2016.
  • The Illusionists – Witness the Impossible. Thumbs Down This is billed as  “a mind-blowing spectacular that showcases seven of the most incredible illusionists on earth”. It had a short Broadway run. Doesn’t really excite me. Now, if they were to bring back Stephen Schwartz’ The Magic Show, that would be something different. But then again, who is today’s equivalent of Doug Henning? .  February 23 – March 13, 2016.
  • 42nd Street. Thumbs Down The old chestnut. Saw a great production of this at Cabrillo; no need to see again. This is obviously (because the Pantages only books Tours and Special Events) a non-equity tour. Leave it for the tourists. May 31 – June 19, 2016.
  • Beautiful – The Carole King MusicalThumbs Up This was a big Tony winner. I’ve heard the music on this one and I really like it. It also got great reviews and a thumbs up from Carole King. I’ll see this. June 22 – July 17, 2016.
  • CabaretThumbs Down The Pantages is the wrong venue if they are trying the new revival; most likely, this is a non-equity tour [Correction: This is the new Roundabout Theatre version. Given that version was designed for a much smaller and intimate venue, it is just going to have difficulty connecting in the cavernous Pantages.] What’s the point. Want to see Cabaret? Go to Crown City and see the endless run there. July 19-Aug. 7, 2016.

Note: The Center Theatre Group has not announced its season, but the rumors look promising. I’ve already heard that Little Dancer (Ahrens, Flaherty) is coming to LA. Other rumored shows might be A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Bridges of Madison County, or Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

** Other Upcoming Shows of Interest **

userpic=theatre_ticketsEllen Dostal’s Musicals in LA highlighted one additional upcoming musical of interest:

The critically acclaimed Off-Broadway musical Inside Out will celebrate its 20-year anniversary at the Grove Theatre Center (FB) in Burbank, Feb. 12 – March 22 (opening night Feb. 14). Bruce Kimmel will direct the musical written by Doug Haverty (book & lyrics) and Adryan Russ (lyrics & music). A women’s therapy group, headed by group leader, Grace (Cynthia Ferrer), is transformed forever when former singing star Dena (Leslie Stevens) joins the group and winds up being a catalyst for change in the lives of Sage (Adrienne Visnic), a flower child; Liz (Sandy Bainum), a powerful businesswoman who has problems balancing work and home; Chlo (Stephanie Fredricks), a gay bank employee and single mom; and Molly (Dana Mellor), a mother of two young children who is dealing with weight and work issues. A portion of proceeds from the production will go to the 1983-founded Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation; an “army of women” dedicated to finding a cure for breast cancer and how to stop it before it starts. www.dslrf.org. Tickets: (323) 960-1055 or www.plays411.com/insideout. This was partially funded by an Indiegogo campaign.

This one I may look into, especially as  Chavez Ravine at the Kirk Douglas seems to be sold out on Goldstar and Hottix, and I’m looking for something for Saturday, February 21. Additionally, this page makes it appear as if discount tickets will be available from the usual sources.

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It’s All About Sex

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Nov 30, 2014 @ 9:29 am PST

Kinky Boots (Pantages)userpic=broadwaylaThere’s something I’ve never understood about women — namely, their attraction to shoes. To most men, shoes are utilitarian things, bought not for style but for comfort. We have perhaps three or four pair, categories not by style but by function: work, gym, hiking, beach. But women have a very different relationship. Here’s an example: Yesterday afternoon I saw a show at the Pantages. They post tweets about the show on their front page, and here’s one that caught my eye: “What could be better but to see a musical about SHOES?” As a guy, I could think of many things better. So what explains my interest in the musical “Kinky Boots“, which I just saw at the Pantages (FB)? Two things: Cyndi Lauper and the message.

Let’s start with Cyndi Lauper (FB). If you look at the theatre in the 1940s and 1950s and I ask you to name the composers, who likely rolls off the tongue? Rodgers and Hammerstein. Rodgers and Hart. Irving Berlin. Cole Porter. Comden and Green. Go to the 1960s through 1990s and you get new teams: Bock and Harnick. Kander and Ebb. Sondheim. This was an era when Broadway music became the popular music. Nowadays the composers are different: Jeannie Tesori, Andrew Lippa, Michael DeLaChusa, Jason Robert Brown, Ahrens and Flaherty. But what we’re also seeing is movement of major pop musicians into the theatre field. We’ve had major shows with music and lyrics by folks such as Elton John, Sting, U2, Green Day, and others. Kinky Boots represents the first forey by Cyndi Lauper on the stage, and for her effort she added a Tony award to her previous Grammy and Emmy awards. For us to have the next generation — and to have a theatre that speaks to the younger audience — this is a must. Of course, I had previously heard the music to Kinky Boots; however, I just had to see how it worked into the story.

Next, let’s look at the message of Kinky Boots. It is a simple and clear one: accept people for who they are. This is a message increasingly important these days, and it transcends the surface subject matter of drag queens and transvestites. To elaborate: when I came home from Kinky Boots, I was watching the 50th Anniversary special on Peter Paul and Mary. It pointed out their emphasis on human rights, and how our society has moved on from civil rights. It concluded with talking about Peter’s work with Operation Respect — an effort to get rid of bullying. When Kinky Boots hit Broadway, we were in the midst of the gay marriage debate. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was on tour, as was Billy Elliott, and La Cage had recently returned. Drag was in, and we were focusing on acceptance of gays. Look at today, and our focus is back on race — but the issue is again acceptance for who people are, and removing the notion of privilege based on stereotypes. Kinky Boots sends a strong message — do not bully and stereotype people based on their appearance, but see them for who they really are. It is a message that will continue to resonate — and one that must be repeated and heard — until it becomes part of our being.

Kinky Boots, which has a book by Harvey Fierstein (FB) and is based on the motion picture of the same name written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth, tells the true story of the WJ Brooks shoe factory (Price and Sons in the movie and on stage) and how the factory was rescued by a forey into drag queen footwear. The true story was abstracted someone (in what some claim is formulaic sitcom fashion) into the movie, and then slightly rearranged and reworked for the stage. The basic story, as presented, is one about two boys. One, Charlie, is on track to inherit his father’s shoe factory in Northhampton UK, even though he doesn’t like shoes and wants to move to London to be with his fiancee. The other, Simon, is a flamboyant boy who loves wearing high heels (note that he is neither gay nor transvestite, as the story makes clear). The two boys grow up as expected, with Simon adopting the stage name of Lola and becoming a drag queen, and Charlie inheriting the shoe factory (after he had moved to London with his finacee, Nicola). Charlie discovers the factory is failing, and through a chance encounter with Lola, identifies that ladies heels and pumps are not suited to the male frame. A co-worker, Lauren, convinces Charlie that a niche market is needed for the factory to survive, and sexy shoes for men becomes that market.  The story, from this point, becomes somewhat predictable and along the lines of Billy Elliot: Lola comes into the factory to design the shoes. Lola is not accepted by the small town. Lola convinces the most bigoted man (Don) the value of acceptance. Don becomes the key factor in saving the factory. Charlie dumps Nikola for Lauren. The shoe factory is saved.

Many reviews I have read have complained about the sitcom and predictable nature of this story. But that didn’t bother me. Many Broadway shows have predictable storylines, going back to Oklahoma (was there any doubt Laurey would end up with Curly) and Sound of Music. That doesn’t make them bad, as long as the journey along the way is entertaining, doesn’t require too much suspension of disbelief, and has music that works. Further, one can’t blame Fierstein for the nature of the story; reading the Wiki summary of the movie, he only did some slight rearrangement. As for the music, Cyndi Lauper did a pretty good job for a first time outing. It wasn’t perfect — there were a few numbers that didn’t quite serve to advance the story or illuminate the characters, or that went on too long. But for the most part, the music was exciting and energetic, advanced the story, and worked well. What is interesting is how the combination ended up stronger than the pieces: this was a musical that was a shot of energy to Broadway and has continued to perform strong. [What is unclear is the long term life of the piece — will this musical pop-up everywhere once it is released for regional productions? That’s happened to Mary Poppins, In The Heights, Avenue Q, Addams Family and Memphis. I haven’t seen it happen to Billy Elliot or Priscilla.]

One other common complaint I have seen in the reviews relates to the heavy accents in the story. This was a major problem in the tour of Billy Elliot, where the accents made the story hard to hear and follow. I don’t think the problem was as bad here, although you did need to take a little effort to listen carefully, and there were a few points where I could not make out the words.

As usual, for the touring production, we didn’t get the names that were on Broadway. Gone are the days of the LA Civic Light Opera, already forgotten by the LA Times, where LA got the Broadway starts. Luckily, the touring cast (under the direction of Jerry Mitchell (FB), with D. B. Bonds as the Associate Director and Tour Direction by The Road Company) does an excellent job. In the lead positions are Steven Booth (FB, TW) as Charlie Price and Kyle Taylor Parker (FB, TW) as Lola. Booth has a nice boyish charm about him, and handles the acting, singing and dancing quite well. Parker is a powerhouse knockout as Lola, taking over the stage with his personality. Both are quite fun to watch.

In the secondary positions (at least in terms of stage time and the story) are Lindsay Nicole Chambers (FB, TW) as Lauren and Joe Coots (FB) as Don. Chambers was a delight as Lauren. I was sitting near the back, and kept bringing out my binoculars to watch her. She had an extremely expressive face, and just seemed to be having a lot of fun with the role and the character — which to me, adds and extra something to the performance. She also sang and danced quite well. Coots was convincing as Don, which made his conversion to a new attitude in the story work well. It was also nice to see a different side of Coots at the end — we always seem to catch the Equity Fights AIDS performances, and Coots did the appeal from the stage. He gave off the vibe that this was a company that had fun working together — and perhaps this is why this production gives off the energy that it does.

Much of the rest of the cast consisted of ensemble, dance, and smaller named roles. This makes it hard for characters to stand out and be noticed, but there are a few I’d like to highlight. First and foremost is Bonnie Milligan (FB). The underlying message in this story — acceptance for who you are and what you are — goes beyond skin color, gender, or how you like to dress. It also goes to size acceptance, one of the few areas where our society today still openly judges. This is where Milligan comes it. It was an absolute delight to see an actress of size (i.e., not the normal twig-sized actress) having fun on stage, moving, playing, singing well, emoting well, and just exuding joy. She was a true, true delight to watch, especially in the “What a Woman Wants” number. Also notable were the kids in the cast — Anthony Picarello as Young Charlie and (at our performance) Troi Gaines as Young Lola. They were cute during their two scenes, but their real personality came out during the closing number, when they were onstage dancing and having fun to “Raise You Up/Just Be”. Just fun to watch. Completing the cast were Grace Stockdale (FB) (Nicola), Craig Waletzko (FB) (George), Damien Brett/FB (Ensemble), Stephen Carrasco (FB) (Dance Captain/Swing), Lauren Nicole Chapman (FB) (Ensemble), Amelia Cormack (FB) (Trish / Ensemble), J. Harrison Ghee (FB) (Swing), Blair Goldberg (FB) (Ensemble), Andrew Theo Johnson (Young Theo Primary) Darius Harper/FB (TW) (Angel / Ensemble), Crystal Kellogg (FB, TW) (Swing), Jeffrey Kishinevskiy (Young Charlie Standby), Jeff Kuhr (FB) (Swing), Ross Lekites (FB) (Richard Bailey / Ensemble), Patty Lohr (FB) (Swing), Mike Longo (FB) (Harry / Ensemble), Tommy Martinez (FB, TW) (Angel / Ensemble), David McDonald (FB) (Mr. Price / Ensemble), Nick McGough (FB) (Angel / Ensemble), Horace V. Rogers (Simon Sr. / Ensemble), Ricky Schroeder (FB, TW) (Angel / Ensemble), Anne Tolpegin (FB) (Milan Stage Manager / Ensemble), Juan Torres-Falcon (FB, TW) (Angel / Ensemble), Hernando Umana (FB, TW) (Angel/ Ensemble), and Sam Zeller (FB) (Ensemble).

Turning to music and movement. The production was choreographed by Jerry Mitchell (FB), assisted by Associate Choreographer Rusty Mowery (FB) and Dance Captain Stephen Carrasco (FB). Overall, the movement worked well — it was energetic and fun to watch. In terms of music, Stephen Oremus (FB) was the Music Supervisor and Arranger and Michael Keller was the Music Coordinator. Adam Souza was Music Direcotr and Conductor, as well as playing Keyboard in the touring orchestra. Additional members of the touring orchestra were Ryan Fielding Garrett (Associate Conductor / Keyboard 2), Josh Weinstein and Oscar Bautista (Guitars), Sherisse Rogers (Bass), Adam Fischel (Drums). They were supplemented locally by Kathleen Robertson (Violin), Paula Fehrenbach (Cello), Dick Mitchell (Flute / Clarinet / Alto Saz / Tenor Sax), John Fumo (Trumpet), Alan Kaplan (Trombone), Paul Viapiano (Guitar 2), David Witham (Keyboard Sub). The sound produced by these musicians was good, clean, and at time, loud.

Lastly, there’s the technical side of things. The scenic design of David Rockwell worked quite well; I particularly liked the roller tables of the “Everybody Say Yeah” number (which was seen on the Tonys). The sound design of John Shivers was reasonably good, although any sound design requires tuning to be heard in the massive and auditorily-bouncy monstrosity that is the Pantages. The lighting design of Kenneth Posner was dark at points, but otherwise worked well. The costumes (Gregg Barnes), hair (Josh Marquette), and make-up (Randy Houston Mercer) were spectacular. Rounding out the technical and other credits: Kathy Fabian (Props), Amy Jo Jackson (Dialect Coach), Telsey + Company (Casting), Smitty/Theatersmith Associates (Technical Supervision), Peter Van Dyke (Production Stage Manager), Jack McLeod (Stage Manager), Kate McDoniel (Assistant Stage Manager), Foresight Theatrical (General Manager), and loads and loads and loads of producers.

Today is the last performance of “Kinky Boots” at the Pantages. I’m sure you can catch it at future tour stops; next up is San Francisco.

[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.]

Theatre continues Tuesday with the Alumni Performance of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at Nobel Middle School (normal performances are Thursday through Saturday). Following that is the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC) in New Orleans. When I return, it will be “She Loves Me” at Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim in the afternoon, followed by an Austin Lounge Lizards concert at Boulevard Music in Culver City on 12/20. Right now, there is only one show booked for January 2015 – “An Evening with Groucho” at AJU with Frank Ferrente; additionally we’ll likely have the first show of the REP East (FB) season: “Avenue Q“.  Ticketed productions pick up in February, with “The Threepenny Opera” at A Noise Within (FB) on February 15, “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 the weekend of March 21, “Newsies” at the Pantages (FB) on March 28, followed by Pesach. 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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Circuses and Magic

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Oct 25, 2014 @ 9:42 pm PST

Pippin (Pantages)userpic=broadwaylaPippin” has one of my favorite scores — I love all the music on the original 1972 cast album, and I’ve seen the show twice in Los Angeles: once in the Reprise 2005 production (with Sam Harris as the Leading Player, Michael Arden as Pippin, Jean Louisa Kelly as Catherine, Mimi Hines as Berthe, and Conrad John Schuck as Charlemange), and once in the East West production (with Marcus Choi as the Leading Player, Ethan Le Phong as Pippin, Meagan McConnell as Catherine, Gedde Watanabbe as Berthe, and Mike Hagiwara as Charlemange). The two were as different as night and day, but served the story well. When I heard that Diane Paulus had reimagined in a Cirque-de-Solais (Circus) style, and after I saw the performance at the 2013 Tony Awards, I knew I had to see it when it came to LA. This, of course, meant toddling down to the Pantage, which we did this afternoon, to see the revival of Pippin.

So what did I think of this retelling of Pippin’s journey. Much of it worked, and much of it worked well. Some things didn’t. Let me give you the basic story, and then we’ll explore the good and the bad.

For those not familiar, Pippin is the story of the son of Charlemagne, King of France. It is the story of Pippin’s search to find meaning in life, egged on by the leading player (and hence, note that the Leading Player is “leading” in the sense of “leading the witness”, not “in the lead”). Pippin wants something extraordinary out of life, not an ordinary existence. He tries to be a soldier, but it is not for him. He visits his grandmother, but her lessons are not for him. He tries the life of physical pleasure. Not for him. He kills his father, but being King is not for him, so his father comes back to life (don’t ask). He tries many different things, including the simple life on a farm. Nothing is extraordinary. Finally, the lead player attempts to egg him on to a glorious finale in flame. But he comes to realize that it is alright to be ordinary, with the love of a good woman and son.

Let’s start with what I didn’t like. First: the hands. Mind you, I’m not complaining about the dancing in general, which was great, nor am I complaining about the use of hands in the dance, which is a Fosse trademark. Rather, they overused hand motions to ill-effect making them seem exaggerated and off. I’ll fault the director on this one. Second: the Leading Player. I liked the sense of the reimagining of the leading player with a bit more of a jazzy take on the songs — that was fine. The problem was: Sasha Allen (FB) just wasn’t up to it. She was good — I’ll give you that — and she had the acting and dance side of the role down pat. The problem is that I grew up with Ben Vereen‘s performance, and I’ve seen Sam Harris in the role. Her voice just doesn’t currently have the sustained power that the role requires: this was clearly evident in “On The Right Track” or in “Glory”, where she kept taking breaths at odd places. Patina Miller, who led the revival, had the requisite power and presence. Ah, the perils of a tour cast. Lastly, they (in my opinion) butchered “War Is A Science” when they reworked it for the revival. The original version, perhaps, had too many echoes of Vietnam that don’t fit as well today, but I just didn’t like the rewording and it made the song off for me.

Let’s go from there to what I did like. First and foremost, the circus addition was spectacular. Pippin has always had the elements and feeling of a circus, and this just brought it, and the magic, to life. As with Bring It On – The Musical, the producers brought in real circus performers as part of the cast, and it worked well. Now they just need to do this to Barnum! Seriously, the additional balance and risk of the performances added a lot to Pippin’s journey. Next, Andrea Martin as Berthe. In the original cast, Berthe was played by Irene Ryan, who everyone knew as Granny on the Beverly Hillbillies. She was on stage for the one scene. Subsequent performances have played similarly: older actors on for just that role. As promised in her LA Times article, Martin brought something new and special to Berthe — something I won’t spoil — but it changed her character completely. She was reworked to be part of the characters on stage in a number of group scenes, and it was just great. Third, the other original revival stars: Matthew James Thomas (FB) as Pippin, and John Rubinstein (FB) as Charlemange. Thomas brought a wonderful boyish energy and playfulness to Pippin. His voice wasn’t as strong as some as the other’s I’ve seen, but it worked well for his performance in the role. Rubinstein was the original Pippin in the 1972 production, and he seemed to just be having fun with with this production and the role. Modulo the problems with “War is a Science” (which I blame more on the director and Stephen Schwartz tinkering with the music), he was just fun to watch.

What else worked… and didn’t. I liked the revised ending, with the hint of Theo (Lucas Schultz (FB) at our performance, alternating with Zachary Mackiewicz (FB)) continuing the quest. Schultz, in general, gave off a great “kid” vibe in his few scenes. Lewis (Callan Bergmann (FB)), on the other hand, came off as more playful than menacing — I think my favorite portrayal of Lewis was the one in the East West version, where there was real menace.  I really liked Kristine Reese (FB)’s portrayal of Catherine, but then I seem to love Catherine’s in general (I really liked Jean Louisa Kelly), perhaps because the role is so, ordinary. On the other hand, although Sabrina Harper‘s performance of Fastrada was very strong (and her costume changes and vocal performance during “Spread a Little Sunshine” were amazing), she came off as a little young for a stepmother of Lewis — and not quite as menacing as a Fastrada should be (again, here the East West production excelled).

Hmm, that seems to have covered all the primary players. Rounding out the cast as the players, with additional specialty roles as noted, were: Skyler Adams (FB) (Swing), Sascha Bachmann (FB) (“With You” Hand Balancing), Bradley Benjamin (FB), Dmitrious Bistrevsky (FB), Mark Burrell (FB) (Dance Captain, Swing), Mathew deGuzman (Peasant, Manson Trio), Fernando Dudka (FB) (“With You” Hand Balancing), Mirela Golinska Roche (FB) (Bolero), Kelsey Jamieson (FB), Preston Jamieson (FB) (Bolero), Lisa Karlin (FB) (Noble), Alan Kelly (FB) (Head), Mélodie Lamoureux (FB), Tory Trowbridge (FB), Mackenzie Warren (FB) (Swing), Borris York (FB) (Manson Trio).

Turning to the music side. If you’re not dead, you likely know that Pippin has music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (and a book by Roger O. Hirson, although no one ever remembers the book writer of Pippin). If you know Pippin, you likely know that there was lots of uncredited tinkering by Bob Fosse, and a well publicized feud between Fosse and Schwartz. With the revival, Schwartz had the last laugh, and it is unclear if some of the changes to the music were the result of restoring cuts that Fosse made that Schwartz liked. As I noted before, I wasn’t that crazy about some of the changes. Modulo that, it was performed and orchestrated well — kudo’s to Larry Hochman. Music supervision and arrangements were by Nadia DiGiallonardo,  with Music Coordination by John Miller and Music Direction by Ryan Cantwell. Cantwell also led the combination touring and local orchestra, which consisted of, well, a whole lotta people who you probably don’t want me to list and link — I count 14 people!

The choreography by Chet Walker (“in the style of Bob Fosse”), assisted by Associate Choreographers Mark Burrell (FB) and Brad Musgrove, in general, worked very well — with the exception noted above of too many “wow” hands or hands to express emotion. Now Fosse was well known for his use of hands and body parts, but I think this was not only in the style of Fosse, but above and beyond. Other than that, the dance integrated well with the circus performances. Speaking of the circus side of things, that was spectacular — and credit goes to Gypsy Snider of Les 7 doigts de la main. In general, the movement — be it circus performance or dance — was just great to watch. Illusions were by Paul Kieve.

Turning to the technical side: the scenic design of Scott Pask was very clever and evoked the circus feel well; this was aided by the costume design of Dominque Lemieux. The sound design of Jonathan Deans and Garth Helm was clear and crisp — a pleasant surprise at the Pantages! The lighting design of Kenneth Posner worked well in creating mood and illuminating the festivities. Jake Bell was the technical supervisor, Mahlon Kruse was the production supervisor, and Bill Schaeffer was the company manager. Tour casting was by Telsey * Company, with original casting by Duncan Stewart and Benton Whitley.

“Pippin” continues at the Pantages through November 9, 2014.

[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:  October currently has one show remaining: Los Angeles Symphonic Winds (FB) at Calabasas High School on 10/26 (followed by the MoTAS Golf Tournament the next day at the Calabasas Country Club). November is back to busy, with “Big Fish” at Musical Theatre West (FB) on Sat 11/1, “Handle with Care” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on Sun 11/9 (shifting to avoid ACSAC and opening night), a trip out to Orange Empire Railway Museum to see my buddy Thomas on 11/11,  “Sherlock Holmes and the Suicide Club” at REP East (FB) on Sat 11/15, the Nottingham Festival on Sun 11/16, and “Kinky Boots” at the Pantages (FB) on Sat 11/29. I may also see some theatre when I visit my daughter Erin in Berkeley between 11/20 and 11/26. Right now, I’ve scheduled “Harvey” at Palo Alto Players (FB) in Palo Alto for Friday 11/21, and I’m looking at The Immigrant at Tabard Theatre (FB) in San Jose, , “Rhinocerous” at the UC Berkeley Theatre Department (FB), or possibly a show at UC Santa Cruz featuring a family friend in the cast or crew. [As a PS on the above: I’m trying to figure out a way to balance “The Immigrant”, the show at Santa Cruz, and Dickens Fair on one weekend. Am I crazy?] As for December, right now I’m just holding one date: “She Loves Me” at Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim on 12/20, and we’ll probably go see Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at Nobel Middle School just before ACSAC. Right now, there is only one show booked for January 2015 – “An Evening with Groucho” at AJU with Frank Ferrente. 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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Getting It Right, For Once

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Jul 20, 2014 @ 11:40 am PST

Once - A Musical (Pantages)userpic=broadwayla“It’s everything that “Ghost” wasn’t”. This is what I turned and whispered to my wife about 15 minutes into “Once“, the musical we saw yesterday afternoon at the Pantages theatre in Hollywood. Perhaps I should elaborate:

  • Ghost” attempted to put a movie on stage; “Once” treated the stage with respect, allowing the audience to create with their imagination, and recognizing it was on stage.
  • Ghost” was electric rock, electric images; “Once” was acoustic simplicity.
  • Ghost” was theatrical complexity; “Once” could be staged in any theatre, including those without fancy electronics or fly space.
  • Ghost” was fancy dancing and ensembles without meaning; “Once” was deep meaning and emotion, without fancy dancing.
  • Ghost” was an example of how not to transfer a movie to the stage–it was forced. “Once“, for lack of a better term, was organic. There was no need for the movie (indeed, one review I saw noted that the stage version was better than the movie).
  • Ghost” was based on fantasy; “Once” was grounded in reality.
  • Ghost” left me blah; I fell in love with “Once“.

One digression before I go on — please note the graphic I used for “Once” (if you are reading this someplace where you don’t see the links and graphics, go to blog.cahighways.org and read the original). I had to create this one — every graphic you typically see shows the New York original cast with Cristin Milioti and Steve Kazee (FB). The touring cast was so good I wanted you to see their faces, so I had to hunt down an image showing Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal. End digression.

I’ll also note going in that I haven’t seen the movie upon which this production was based. I believe that if you have to see the original movie, there’s something wrong with the stage production. Luckily, “Once” stands well on its own (although I”ll note it is about double the length of the movie). The movie was written (and directed) by John Carney; the “stage play” adaptation (e.g., the book for the stage version) was by Enda Walsh. As for the music and lyrics — they are mostly from the movie, and were written by the two leads of the movie: Glen Hansard (FB) and Markéta Irglová (FB).  Both Hansard and Irglová are accomplished musicians and have written for the screen; neither has written for the stage. This, actually, works to their advantage: the music in “Once” doesn’t sound like your typical musical music. If anything, it reminded me a bit of “Robber Bridgegroom” for its feel and integration. It worked well.

Once” signals that it is different from the moment you walk into the theatre. Most shows — you go in, you sit down, the lights dim, the overture starts (if you’re lucky enough to be at a show with an overture), and the story begins. With “Once“, when you walk in the theatre, the first thing you see is people on stage. “Once” takes place in a bar in Dublin, and the stage has been turned into a working bar. If you’re over 21, you can go on stage (bring cash), buy a drink (must be consumed on stage), and experience the bar. Slowly the majority of the cast comes out with their instruments (most cast members play multiple instruments) and an Irish folk music jam session begins. The house lights are up, audience is on stage, and here is the cast just having fun with Irish songs like “On Raglan Road.” It would be lovely to have had an album of that jam session; the music was as good as any concert I’ve heard at McCabes. Slowly the audience filters off stage, and the musicians entice one of the guitar players to play his song. He does — a touching song called “Love”. By this point, the house lights are down, except for one illuminating a girl walking down the aisle onto the stage, listening to the music. She’s onstage by the time she finishes… and the story begins.

Once” tells the story of an unnamed man (“Guy”) and an unnamed women (“Girl”). The story begins as the guy finishes his song, intending to leave his guitar and his music behind in the bar. The girl, an Czech immigrant, was touched by the song. She asks a number of questions, learning he wrote the song for a girl who recently left him to move to New York. The music and the memories are too painful, so he is giving them up and going back to work in his father’s vacuum shop. Suddenly, the girl has a vacuum to be repaired, and offers to pay him with music. Thus begins a quest from the girl to get the guy back with the ex-girlfriend (while the guy is slowly falling in love with the girl). This includes her introducing the guy to her “family”: her mother, her daughter, and some other Czech immigrant musicians sharing a Dublin apartment. She also arranges a 24 hour recording session so the guy can record his music, travel to New York, get a music contract, and win back his ex-girlfriend. This includes arranging a bank loan (with a banker who is also a musician), and getting the guy comfortable on-stage by having him sing at an “open mic” night. This is when you see that guy is falling for girl. Subsequent scenes deepen that realization — that guy is falling for girl, and that slowly, girl is falling for guy. The guy asks the girl to go to New York with him when he goes. She demurs, as her husband is attempting to reconcile. As the story ends, the guy is heading off to New York to see his ex-, who is willing to give it another try; the girl remains in Dublin, but has the gift of a piano from the guy, who bought it with the money his father gave him to get settled in New York. (Note: You can read a longer synopsis on the wikipedia page)

What’s interesting here is the staging: although there are a number of different locations, almost everything takes place in the bar. Tables are moved together, chairs come in an out, but everything else is … imagination. Even most of the other cast members remain on stage when not their characters; they are on the side as the musicians. This is theatre as it should be (and what the recent monologue night at REP reminded us); actors creating the magic with their performance, not electronics or stagecraft. Some interstitial music starts to be played by the actors, people are moving around, and boom — suddenly — you’re somewhere else. The transformation is amazing to watch. Kudos to the director, John Tiffany (FB), for staying true to the simplicity of the story; and to the  “movement” director, Steven Hoggett (FB), for not bringing in traditional dance and choreography. What movement there is seems appropriate — no dance numbers, but rhythmic movements of a folk nature that go with the music. The movement and staging are such that they just seem part of the story, as opposed to stopping the action for a superfluous dance number. As I said, the opposite of “Ghost“.

If I had any criticism of the show, it is that it really doesn’t belong where it is. It works OK in large theatre, but this musical is perfectly suited to the mid-size and small theatres. This would be spectacular at the Colony or Rep East.

The performers are spectacular, which is why I endeavored to find an image showing them. In the lead positions, of course, are “guy” and “girl”. The guy is played by Stuart Ward  (FBTW) (guitar), who plays beautifully, sings beautifully, and conveys a great depth of emotion in his performance. The girl is played by Dani de Waal (FBTW) (piano). A wonderful musician with a lovely voice, she gives a delightfully quirky performance with her accent and playfulness. The two are believable together, harmonize well together, and just mesh. I’ll note that Ward has an EP out with about 2/3rds of the touring production; it’s quite good.

The remainder of the cast, although they have characters, are more in the background and notable for their wonderful instruments and musicality. The more memorable characters include Billy, the owner of the music store where the girl occasionally plays piano (and who has a crush on the girl); the Bank Manager who doubles as a guitar/cello player; Réza, another Czech immigrant who attempts to seduce Billy, and Ivanka, the girl’s daughter. Before I list the players, I just want to highlight Kolette Tetlow (FB) who played Ivanka: her scenes were few and she played no instrument, but her girlish playfulness still shone through. The cast/musicians were: Raymond Bokhour (FB) (Da, mandolin); Matt DeAngelis (FB) (Švec, guitar, mandolin, banjo, drums, percussion); John Steven Gardner (FB, TW) (Eamon, piano, guitar, percussion, melodica, harmonica, music captain); Donna Garner (FB) (Baruška, accordion, concertina);  Evan Harrington (FB) (Billy, guitar, percussion, ukulele); Matt Wolpe (FB) (Emcee, guitar, banjo); Benjamin Magnuson (bank manager, cello, guitar); Alex Nee (FB, TW) (Andrej, electric bass, ukulele, guitar, percussion); Erica Swindell (FB, TW) (Ex-Girlfriend, violin, percussion, dance captain); and Claire Wellin (FB, TW) (Réza, violin). I’d love to see these folks put out an album of Irish music — they were that good.

Also part of the cast, but not on stage at our performance, were Ryan Link (TW) (Emcee, guitar, banjo — except Jul 18-24); Zander Meisner (FB) (Andrej, electric bass, ukulele, guitar, percussion – August 5-10); Estelle Bajou (FB) (u/s Réza, u/s Ex-girlfriend, violin); Stephen McIntyre (FB) (u/s Da, u/s bank manager, u/s Billy, mandolin, cello, guitar, ukulele, percussion); Tiffany Topol (FB, TW) (u/s Girl, piano); Tina Stafford (FB) (u/s Baruška, accordion, concertina).

As I noted, the technical side was brilliant. The scenic and costume design of Bob Crowley worked well — the bar looked like (and apparently was) a working Dublin bar, and the costumes were appropriately folkish. In many cases, they didn’t appear to be costumes at all — these folks looked like musicians. Lighting was by Natasha Katz (FB) and was suitably non-obtrusive. The sound was by Clive Goodwin (FB) and was generally clear, although the generally horrible acoustics of the Pantages tended to muffle the lyrics. Stephen Gabis was the dialect coach, and Liz Caplan Vocal Studios (FB) provided vocal supervision. Rounding out the technical side: Jim Carnahan (Casting), Shaun Peknic (FB) (Associate Director), Yasmine Lee/FB (Associate Movement Director), Jason DeBord (FB) (Resident Music Supervisor), Frank McCullough (Associate Scenic Designer), Peter Hoerburger (Associate Lighting Designer), Alex Hawthorn (Associate Sound Designer), Aurora Productions (Production Management), Daniel S. Rosokoff (Production Stage Manager), E. Cameron Holsinger (FB) (Stage Manager), Aaron Elgart (FB, TW) (Assistant Stage Manager), Chris Danner (Company Manager), and Candace Hemphill (FB) (Assistant Company Manager).

Once” continues at the Pantages Theatre through August 10. Tickets are available through the Pantages Box Office online, although you can avoid service fees and go to the box office directly. Some dates are 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 two shows: “Bye Bye Birdie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on 7/26, followed by the annual Operaworks improv show on 7/27. August starts with “Family Planning” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on 8/2. This is followed by “Buyer and Cellar” at the Mark Taper Forum on 8/9, and “Broadway Bound” at the Odyssey on 8/16 (directed by Jason Alexander). The following weekend we’ll be in Escondido, where there are a number of potential productions… including Two Gentlemen of Verona” at the Old Globe, and Pageant” at the Cygnet in Old Town. What they have at the Welk (“Oklahoma“), Patio Theatre (“Fiddler on the Roof“), and Moonlight Stage (“My Fair Lady“) are all retreads. August will end with the aforementioned “An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein” at REP East (FB). I’m just starting to fill out September and October — so far, the plans include “The Great Gatsby” at Repertory East (FB), “What I Learned in Paris” at The Colony Theatre (FB), and “Pippin” at the Pantages (FB). November is also shaping up, with dates held for “Big Fish” at Musical Theatre West (FB), “Handle with Care” at The Colony Theatre (FB), the Nottingham Festival, “Sherlock Holmes and the Suicide Club” at REP East (FB), “Kinky Boots” at the Pantages (FB), and “She Loves Me” at Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim. 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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Seeming Substance

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Jul 05, 2014 @ 11:00 pm PST

Ghost the Musicaluserpic=broadwaylaIn 1995, a little company called Binary Research introduced a little software program called “Ghost“, which allowed cloning of a disk. This technology, which was based on an earlier movie, was later acquired by Symantec, who turned in into one of the most successful disk cloning programs.  It was so successful, in fact, that some theatrical producers in London came along and decided to turn this story about disk cloning into a musical. And thus, “Ghost the Musical” was born. And so, when I heard that a musical about backup software was coming to Los Angeles on tour, the computer security specialist in me just had to see it. As a result, this afternoon saw me at the Pantages seeing “Ghost: The Musical“. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it wasn’t about backup software, but rather a technology-heavy cloning of the 1990 movie starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, and Whoopi Goldberg. However, it was about cybersecurity — if there is a lesson to be learned from “Ghost: The Musical“, it is to protect your access codes and never to share them.

To be serious for a minute, I actually knew that “Ghost: The Musical” was a stage version of the 1990 movie, which I had never seen. I had heard the cast album from the show and it seemed somewhat reasonable, and it conveyed the story well. So even though it might be a a chick-musical, I decided I should see the story to go with the music. It had only lasted on Broadway for 136 performances, but there are other shows that I like that had flopped on Broadway, so what could go wrong?

As I talked about the show with my wife afterwards, I shared with her a number of conclusions about the show — which I’ll share in a minute. While writing this entry up, I read the Broadway reactions to the show. Turns out my comments (which you’ll see in a few paragraphs) agreed pretty spot-on with the New York critics. Would I recommend this show to others? If you are a fan of the movie, you’ll enjoy it. If you are a fan of quality musicals, you’ll find it average but not a stinker (I’ve seen “Caligula: The Musical“, so I know stinkers). Will it have an amateur afterlife? Alas, it may, but only after a lot of reworking — and like Sam Wheat, it may have more substance in the afterlife than it had when it walked this earth as the real thing.

The story of “Ghost: The Musical” appears to follow the movie plotline pretty closely. Some characters appear to have been eliminated, some scenes reordered, but the basic story is there. Sam, a banker, is in love with Molly, a potter. Sam can’t quite tell Molly he loves her, though. Sam discovers some discrepancies in the accounts he manages. His friend, Carl, offers to investigate, but Sam changes the account codes and tells  Carl he’ll investigate himself. That evening, a thug attacks Sam and Molly for Sam’s wallet, and Sam is killed in the struggle. He returns as a ghost, and the rest of the movie, oops, musical is about Sam trying to get in contact with Molly to inform her about his killer and bring him to justice. He does this through a psychic named Oda Mae Brown. Twists and adventures about, and key movie scenes are recreated including the infamous parodied pottery scene, which is very short, seems to add nothing to the story other than the novelty of an actual potters wheel on the Pantages stage. I think you can seen the predictable ending: Sam works with Oda Mae to uncover the real killer (Carl, if you hadn’t guessed), convince Molly that he was really there only in time to complete his task and disappear. Que sloppy and sappy ending.

The story itself wasn’t as bad as I made it out to be. There were some comic moments in the second act that I hadn’t seen coming and were well played. The problem is that it wasn’t musicalized very well. My understanding of musicals is that (a) the music should serve to advance the plot (except for retrospective jukebox musicals), (b) you should walk out with music that you remember, and (c) there should be some form of character growth. This show was the product of Dave Stewart, Glen Ballard (both Music and Lyrics), and Bruce Joel Rubin (Book and Lyrics) (who had done the original screenplay). Translation: You had a story being musicalized by two who were familiar with rock music and not theatrical music, and a theatrical book being done by someone who had only written screenplays. Again I ask, what could go wrong? I mean, there are rock musicians who can write great theatre scores — witness Sir Elton and Cyndi Lauper — and there are screenwriters who can do stories for the stage (look at Aaron Sorkin).

So what could go wrong? The resulting musical had a heavy rock score, which just didn’t fit the story and lent itself to heavily choreographed dance sequences that had nothing to do with the story (making them worse was the fact that the choreography of Ashley Wallen (FB) came across as mechanical and disconnected, instead of integrated and fun). There were internal points that could have been musicalized well — and one or two were — but the songs just never hit home and stuck like a good theatrical song does.  My best example of this was song “I’m Outta Here”, which was just pointless.

What about how the story was translated to the stage? A good playwright understands how stage is different — how you have to suggest things and bring the audience into the imagination of the story. The Fantastiks is a great example of that. Here, sad to say, technology was used to create a movie on stage. There was heavy use of projections — both in the background and as a front scrim. These backgrounds had heavy movements and LED acrobatics that essentially put the movie on stage projected, as least in scenic areas. This created a very heavy dependence on technology that I feel hurt the play — it moved the production away from the imagination that the stage requires into the realism of the silver screen. If I want realize, I’ll go to the movies. I go to the theatre because I want actors to create the story out of nothingness. Where should be blame be placed here? Some goes on the screenwriter, oops, playwright. More, I feel goes on the director, Matthew Warchus, who had the charge of taking the vision from paper and putting it on stage (and this gets me worried about Matilda: The Musical, which he also directed). In a good play or musical, the director disappears into the acting — what is on stage seems a natural way to tell the story and the actors tell it. Here the choice to depend so heavily on technology overpowered (just like the musicians overpowered the vocals), making the directorial choices stand out. It will be interesting to see how this musical improves when it moves to the amateur and regional arena, where the technology just won’t be there. Perhaps it will work better then.

That doesn’t mean the musical was horrible, however. The basic illusions, designed by Paul Kieve, were excellent. Even though you knew the actor playing Sam had physical substance, the illusions and choreography of his movements made you believe he couldn’t interact with normal matter. There were little tricks and sequences that just brought that illusion to, so to speak, life. There was also some wonderful interaction with the technical displays that worked extremely well.

Also strong were the lead actors. The two primary leads — Steven Grant Douglas (FB) as Sam Wheat and Katie Postotnik (FB) as Molly Jenson — sang well and had a delightful believable chemistry between them. They were, to put it succinctly, cute together. Douglas created the illusion of being a ghost extremely well, and Postontnik handled the grieving girlfriend well. She even knew how to work the potters wheel (I wonder if that was in the casting requirements, just like Douglas being able to play the guitar). In the third lead position was Carla R. Stewart (FB) as Oda Mae Brown. She handled the comic aspects of the role well, but was overpowered in her main numbers by the orchestra. I fault the sound guy for that (either the orchestra was over-amplified or she was under-mic-ed), and she should as well. When we could hear her voice, it was good.

As for the rest of the cast, well, you really didn’t get to know them well. The few named other characters — Robby Haltiwanger (FB) as Carl Bruner, Fernando Contreras (FB) as Willie Lopez, Brandon Curry (FB) as the Subway Ghost, Evette Marie White (FB) as Clara, Lydia Warr (FB) as Louise, Hana Freeman (FB) as Mrs. Santiago, and Shannan E. Johnson (FB) as Ortisha — have their moments but never become real characters. The closest you come are Carl Bruner and Willie Lopez, but the latter is a stereotypical hispanic thug, and the former is a stereotypical slime banker. As for the ensemble, they basically serve as a glorified dance troupe during scene transitions while the main cast members change or the set changes. I’m not saying that one expects individualization from the ensemble, but you do expect the ensemble to support the story, to play out characters you might never meet, to give some acting behind the dance. I’ve seen this in other large musicals I’ve seen. Here — and again I blame the director and choreographer more than the performers who were just following instructions — we had dance sequences of ghosts, or business people in suits, or people on the street with umbrellas — that were amplified by LED dancers in the background and choreographed with technically precise rock-ish dance moves. It just didn’t work. The ensemble consisted of: Fernando Contreras (FB), Brandon Curry (FB), Hana Freeman (FB), Shannan E. Johnson (FB), Susan Leilani Gearou (FB), Tony Johnson/FB, Beth Stafford Laird (FB), Andrea Laxton (FB), Ben Laxton (FB), Jake Vander Linden (FB), Michael McClure/FB, David Melendez/FB, Jack O’Brien/FB, Maria Cristina Slye (FB), Lydia Warr (FB), Evette Marie White (FB). I’ll also note that this, alas, was a non-equity tour. This is poor form, as tours are hard work, and equity tours provide important protections to actors.

I’ve commented before on the quality of the score. The score was executed by a 14 member orchestra under the direction of Matthew Smedal. Music supervision was by David Holcenberg, and Talitha Fehr was music coordinator.  Christopher Nightingale was the musical supervisor, arranger, and orchestrator. The major complaint with the music was that it was overamplified — this is a musical, dammit, not a rock concert!

Turning to the technical and the remainder of the creatives. The set was designed by … hmmm, there’s no credit for a set designer, only an associate scenic designer (Paul Weimer).There is, however, a credit for video and projection design (John Driscoll), as well as an associate (Michael Clark). This says quite a bit — there really was no set design. There were hints of sets — a couch here, a sign there, a refrigerator, a pottery wheel, a desk. The rest was all projections. Although use of projections is understandable in a tour, the sets in this show were so dependent on the projections that the magic of stagecraft was lost. The lighting was designed by Hugh Vanstone, and recreated by Joel Shier. The lighting made heavy use of moving lights and LED lights, constantly rotating into the audience. Remember what I said about this being theatre, not a rock show? This was rock show lighting, and I think it hurt the production. Sound was by Bobby Aitken, and Garth Helm, with assist from the UK’s Simon King. Looking at Aitken’s resume, you can see the problem by now — he is a rock show sound designer, and the musician’s sound overpowered the actors voices. Again, there is no credit for costumes, but there is an associate costume designer (Daryl Stone); hair, wigs, and makeup were by Campbell Young Associates. Both were satisfactory. Rounding out the creative team were Thomas Caruso (Associate Director), Paul Warwick Griffin (Associate Director), Sunny Walters (Associate Choreographer), Ryan P. Murphy (Production Manager), Townsend Teague (General Manager), and Donavan Dolan (Production Stage Manager).

Ghost: The Musical” continues at the Pantages through July 13. Tickets are available through the Pantages Box Office, as well as 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 sees us back in Santa Clarita for “Return to the Forbidden Planet” at REP East (FB) the weekend of 7/12 — the artistic team must have had a ghost advising them, for it was just announced that the Oliver-award-wining Forbidden Planet will be starting a 25th Anniversary Tour.  See it now, upclose and personal! That will be followed by “Once” at the Pantages (FB) on 7/19, “Bye Bye Birdie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on 7/26, “Family Planning” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on 8/2, and “Buyer and Cellar” at the Mark Taper Forum on 8/9. I’m hoping to follow that with “Broadway Bound” at the Odyssey for 8/16. We then deal with vacations, but I’m eyeing a number of productions in Escondido, including Two Gentlemen of Verona” at the Old Globe, and Pageant” at the Cygnet in Old Town. What they have at the Welk (“Oklahoma“), Patio Theatre (“Fiddler on the Roof“), and Moonlight Stage (“My Fair Lady“) are all retreads. Things start to get busy again in September and October, with “The Great Gatsby” at REP, “What I Learned in Paris” at the Colony, and “Pippin” at the Pantages. 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.

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Thoughts on a Theatre Season – Pantages 2014-2015

Written By: cahwyguy - Mon Jan 13, 2014 @ 7:52 pm PST

userpic=broadwaylaThe Pantages (Broadway LA) has announced their 2014-2015 season, and so I thought I would share my thoughts on it:

  • Jersey Boys (October 1-19, 2014). I saw it at the Ahmanson. I have no strong desire to see it again. Why do they keep cycling through this stuff that has been through so recently. Pass.
  • Pippin (October 21-November 9, 2014). I’ve seen this twice – once at East West, and once (if I recall correctly) at Reprise. I’ve heard the music from this version, and I’m not happy how they changed things. Still, I’m curious how the circus theme has been worked in, so I want to see this. Will Ticket.
  • Kinky Boots (November 11-30, 2014). Heard the music. Liked it. This is one I want to see. Will Ticket.
  • Wicked (December 10, 2014-February 1, 2015). I’ve seen this, and I have no strong desire to see it again. Pass.
  • Disney’s Newsies The Musical (March 24-April 19, 2015). I like the music to this. Will Ticket.
  • Motown The Musical (April 28-June 7, 2015). A jukebox tuner, with good music. This is a maybe. May Ticket.
  • Phantom of the Opera (June 10-26, 2015). Saw this ages ago, and I have no desire to see it again. Ponderous in my book. Hell no.

As for what is left in the current season:

  • The Book of Mormon (January 21-May 11, 2014). Saw it. No strong desire to see it again. Pass.
  • American Idiot (May 13-May 18, 2014). Saw it at the Ahmanson. No strong desire to see it again. Pass.
  • Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (June 2-22, 2014). It was the first show I ever saw at the Pantages in the 1980s, and I’ve seen it a few times since. Pass.
  • Ghost The Musical (June 27-July 13, 2014). Heard the music. Sound interesting. Will Ticket.
  • Once The Musical (July 15-August 10, 2014). This sounds interesting, although I’m afraid that it will get lost in the Pantages. This needs to be in a much smaller theatre. Still… Will Ticket.


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The Million Dollar Bus

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Jun 09, 2013 @ 12:56 pm PST

Priscilla - Queen of the Desert (Pantages)userpic=broadwaylaIf you were to ask me a week ago, I probably would have thought this review would be comparing the flash and glam story of Priscilla – Queen of the Desert (which we saw last night at the Pantages) with the deep and serious story at the heart of Scottsboro Boys. Although that comparison is still apt, the real parallel for Priscilla is  Elton John’s Million Dollar Piano which we saw in early May. The stars in Elton’s show were the music and the million dollar piano; in Priscilla, it is the music and the million dollar bus.

If you are not familiar with the story, Priscilla – Queen of the Desert is a musical version of the 1994 movie. The surface story is a slight one: three Australian drag queens leave Sidney to travel across the Australian desert in an old bus to Alice Springs, where they have been hired to work in a casino. Along the way, they hit a number of small Australian towns, which don’t know what to make of the three drag queens — and so they get to win them over with the dual powers of drag and disco music. The slightly deeper story concerns the road trip of each of the three main queens: Tick/Mitzi (the leader) instigates the trip at the behest of his wife (Marion), who wants him to go to Alice Springs to meet his son, Benji. Bernadette just lost the man of her dreams in Sidney, and is questing to find the right person. Adam/Bernadette is questing to, as he put it, to climb a rock in a frock with a cock. Along the way they pick up a mechanic, Bob; wear fabulous outfits; travel in a beat of RV that they transform into Priscilla; and dance numerous popular numbers.

As I indicated earlier, I initially thought I would be contrasting the serious story at the heart of Scottsboro Boys to the fluff that is Priscilla. But that’s not the best comparison. Priscilla is really a musical version of The Million Dollar Piano. First and foremost, the star is Priscilla, a bus that is covered with an LED lighting system that, once it is activated, provides visual imagery just like the piano did in Elton’s show. It is also a show that doesn’t focus on new music, but delights in bringing back the favorites that please the audience. Lastly, and most importantly I believe, is that Tick’s journey mirrors that of Elton John. He starts out a performer who is best known for his flash and outrageous costumes, and goes on a journey that bring him to fatherhood and family. It is a similar journey that is the real heart of Priscilla: Tick’s journey from being a drag performer in Sidney to being (albeit still a drag performer) a father with a son in Alice Springs. This transformation — this heart — is what turns this from a campy jukebox musical into a touching theatre piece.

Just like drag queens… and much of Elton’s act… the focus is on flash. The show opens with three diva being lowered from the ceiling belting out disco tunes. These diva return throughout the evening to set the stage with appropriate disco music. There are costumes and sequins and dresses and heels galore (and not just on the ladies, but the men as well, and even on Priscilla (the bus)). There is even audience participation (as some audience members go on stage for a hoedown) and a dancer who pops corks into the audience (seemingly) from her vagina (something I never thought would be on the stage of the Pantages). This is all played with a sense of fun and joy; the goal is to make the evening a party — a faaaaaabulous celebration. This is not an issue of getting the drag queens to accept who they are; the acceptance here is that of the world, who is going to accept the drag queens for what they are. This played well with the Los Angeles audience, and especially with a group of gays who were sitting near us and having the time of their life with this show.  It also plays well with the end of the show, and the question of whether Tick’s son will address Tick as who he is — a very non-traditional father. Perhaps this is the ultimate theme of Priscilla — have fun with life, embrace who you are, find and embrace your family (however it is constituted), and look fabulous along the way.

The story of Priscilla was adapted for the stage by Stephan Elliott, the author of the original screenplay, and Allan Scott. The transformation was relatively faithful to the film, from what I hear. It was brought to life under the directorial hand of Simon Philips (assisted by Associate Director David Hyslop) with choreography by Ross Coleman (assisted by Joshua Buscher, Associate Choreographer, and Andrew Hallsworth, the original Assistant Choreographer). This transformation worked relatively well — you believed that these were real people as much as you could (c’mon, an LED encrusted bus in the middle of the Australian desert requires a large amount of suspension of belief). I think the real effect of the direction was to bring out the inner queen in all of the performers; to encourage them to go up a notch or two (or three or four) in bringing out their inner fabulousity and beauty. The dancing and movement was then added to amp things up even more to bring unbridled joy to the show. Priscilla is a show you walk out of feeling good. It makes you happy; it lifts your mood on 8″ pumps.

The performances in Priscilla were spectacular. The leads in particular turn the performance from what could have been a stereotypical drag queen performance into something much deeper (similar to the way we see the depths of the characters in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything…). As Tick, Wade McCollum moves along a path from Diva to Father. At the beginning, Tick is a man unsure about embracing the fact he is a father (from a marriage dating to before his transformation) to a man who accepts it as part of who he is. McCollum portrays this wonderfully, along the way singing and dancing up a storm. Scott Willis, as Bernadette, undergoes a similar transformation. Starting out as an old-style lip-synching drag queen who has just buried her boyfriend, Bernadette goes on this journey to find something new… and along the way, finds something she didn’t expect in a place she didn’t expect. Willis’s Bernadette was a remarkable performance, reminding me a lot of Lauren Bacall in Woman of the Year — tall, statuesque, and strong, with surprising singing and dancing chops. Lastly, Bryan West‘s Adam/Felicia is the most impulsive of the three, living the drag life for all the fun she can squeeze out of it. The real motivation of her character never comes out (a story flaw), and at the end you are left wondering if she is the same girl that started on the trip. Still, West’s performance was spectacular and a joy to watch.

In the second tier, we have performers who were less out there singing and dancing as their characters, and more for the non-singing characters they portray. This includes Joe Hart as Bob, the mechanic who joins  Priscilla midway and discovers a new life (but not in drag). Hart’s performance is realistic and fun to watch. I’m also impressed that Hart admits, in his bio, that he was in the original casts of both Bonnie & Clyde and The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public. It also includes the characters that bookend the story: Christy Faber as Marion and Will B. / Shane Davis as Benji (not sure which performer we had). These are the wife and son that instigate and ground Tick’s journey. These three characters together provide the normalcy of the piece — they are realistic people that you would like to meet (and note that these really aren’t singing roles). This “grounding” is what makes the entire drag side acceptable; these three show that the drag queens are real people under the glam. In particular, the portrayal by these three actors just makes this all real.

Rounding out the cast is a large ensemble of singers and dancers, including the aforementioned three divas. They do not particularly establish characters that stick with you, although they are remarkable dancers, singers, and are a hoot to watch. These performers are Emily Afton (Diva, Ensemble), Bre Jackson (Diva, Ensemble), Brit West (Diva, Ensemble), Taurean Everett (Jimmy, Ensemble), Nik Alexzander (Miss Understanding, Ensemble), Chelsea Zeno (Cynthia, Ensemble), David Koch (Frank, Ensemble), Travis Taber (Farrah / Young Bernadette, Ensemble), Babs Rubenstein (Shirley, Ensemble), John Capes (Ensemble), Andrew Chappelle (Ensemble), Alex Deleo (Ensemble), Amy Hillner Larsen (Swing), Chris Klink (Ensemble), Ralph Meitzler (Swing), and Alex Ringler (Ensemble). Of these, the most memorable were the divas, singing wonderfully and moving the best they could on their hanging platforms, and Babs Rubenstein, who for some reason kept drawing my eye with her comic performances.

Musically, the show is a delight. This is a jukebox show, with songs primarily drawn from the disco era: “It’s Raining Men”, “What’s Love Got to Do With It”, “Go West”, “I Love the Nightlife”, “Colour My World”, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”, “Boogie Wonderland”… you get the idea. The actors and dancers had fun with the music, and so did the audience. Orchestrations were by Stephen “Spud” Murphy and Charlie Hull. Murphy was also the overall music supervisor, with Jeff Marder having that responsibility in North America.  Brent Frederick was music director, and Talitha Fehr of TL Music International serving as music coordinator. Frederick also conducted the 11 person orchestra.

Technically, a lot of credit goes to Brian Thompson, the scenic designer. He created the bus that is Priscilla; he created the remarkable sets and transformations that are on stage (and that make this a production that may never be done on a high-school stage). A few words about Priscilla: this is a bus that can rotate to show all sides, with turning wheels, covered in LEDs. It is quite amazing. Also setting the scene was the wonderful lighting of Nick Schlieper and Jonathan Spencer — the lighting designed by these two not only establishes the mood, but becomes part of the music through the movement and the images on Priscilla. The third part of the scene setting was done by the wonderful costumes of Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner. These were spectacular and creative, especially in the “Shake Your Groove Thing” number, and the imaginative approach to costumes in Alice Springs. I also loved the interaction between the costumes, the lighting, and Priscilla in “MacArthur Park”. Technical supervision was by MB Productions. You may have noticed I’ve saved sound design for last — that’s because the sound design (by Jonathan Deans and Peter Fitzgerald) was the most problematic. On one hand, the show had great sound effects and there were no micing problems. On the other hand… this is the Pantages. Sound — especially accents — is very muddied when you are sitting in the back of the theatre. Either the lead sound designers — or more likely, the Pantages master sound engineer Shane Cook, did not retune to the sound design for the Pantages’ peculiar acoustic signature. We had to strain to hear and understand that actors. That shouldn’t happen.

Lastly, Tom Bartlett was the production stage manager, Chad Lewis was the stage manager, Ryan J. Bell was the assistant stage manager, and Roberta Roberts was the general stage manager.

Priscilla – Queen of the Desert continues through June 16 at the Pantages. Tickets are available from the Pantages online, although they are cheaper in person at the box office. You can also get them through Goldstar. If you want to have a fun couple of hours, Priscilla is worth seeing.

The Pantages has announced their 2013-2014 season (which starts after Sister Act (7/09 – 7/28/13)), and (for me) it is mostly “ehhh”. It consists of the following shows (shows I’m planning to see are in bold): Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of The Wizard of Oz (9/17-10/06/13); War Horse (10/08-10/13/13);  Evita (10/23-11/10/13); Disney’s The Lion King (11/20/13-1/12/14); The Book of Mormon (1/21/14-2/09/14); Green Day’s American Idiot (5/13-5/18/13); The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber (6/03-6/22/2014); Ghost – The Musical (6/27-7/13/14); Once – A New Musical (7/15-8/10/14).

Dining Notes: Once again we opted to take the Red Line from North Hollywood to the Pantages at Hollywood/Vine. I recommend this as it saves on parking hassles and $$. It also allowed us to discover a great Puerto Rican restaurant in North Hollywood: Mofongos Comida Caribeña. This is on Lankershim between Oxnard and Burbank (a few blocks from the No. Hollywood Red Line station) and was just wonderful. We’ll be back.

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:   Next weekend, so far, has no theatre: Saturday will be So Cal Games Day 54, and Sunday (Fathers Day) will likely be a trip to the ScienceCenter and the newly renovated Museum of Natural History. The third weekend of June brings Next to Normal” at La Mirada, with Nick DeGruccio directing and starring Bets Malone and Tessa Grady. The last weekend of June brings a Maria Muldaur concert at McCabes, as well as Man of No Importance (Hollywood Fringe) at the Lillian.   July starts with a musical we had originally planned for Fathers Day weekend: Ionescapade” at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. That will be followed by “9 to 5 – The Musical” at REP East in the middle of the month, and “Legally Blonde – The Musical” at Cabrillo at the end of the month. July will also (hopefully) see us as OperaWorks at CSUN. August is currently completely open due to vacation planning, although we may see a show at the Lawrence Welk Resort in Escondido at the end of the month (depending on price), or at another venue in San Diego.

Continuing the look ahead: September may bring Sarah Ruhl’s In The Next Room or The Vibrator Play at the Production Company/Secret Rose and “Blue Man Group” at the Hollywood Bowl, as well as “God of Carnage” at REP East. October is open, but should the Cabrillo production of “Kiss Me Kate” somewhere, as well as “Dirty Rotten Soundrels” at Actors Rep of Simi. November will bring “Play It Again Sam” at REP East as well as ARTS’s Nottingham Village (a one-weekend ren-faire-ish market). The fall should also bring a production of “Carrie – The Musical” by Transfer Theatre. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open as the various theatres start making their 2013/2014 season announcements. Lastly, what few dates we do have open may be filled by productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411, or discussed in the various LA Stage Blogs I read (I particularly recommend Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times).

Music: I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (Sinéad O’Connor): “The Last Day Of Our Acquaintance”

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