Observations Along the Road

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

Thoughts on a Theatre Season – Pantages 2014-2015

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

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 PDT

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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All Is Not What It Appears To Be

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Mar 17, 2013 @ 9:04 am PDT

Catch Me If You Can (Pantages)userpic=broadwaylaLast weekend, I wrote a rant about an editorial in Footlights denigrating the “blog critic” while promoting the professional critic. No where is that dichotomy more jarring than in the reaction to the show we saw yesterday afternoon, Catch Me If You Can” at the Pantages.

Catch Me If You Can” tells the story of Frank Abagnale, Jr., a notorious con-man, later turned FBI-consultant. It is based on the film of the same name. The musical simplifies the story somewhat (especially in the latter parts of the story). It also presents it in an odd fashion — as if it was a 1960s variety show (think Dean Martin) with loads of leggy dance girls, combined with a film-noir detective story.

The basic story itself concerns Frank Abagnale, Jr., the son of a con-man married to a French beauty he met during World War II. The families motto is, essentially, survive however you can, and that people look at the package and the impression, not the truth. As his father’s life crumbles around him, Frank learns to use this to his advantage, impersonating teachers and other leaders. When his parents divorce, he runs off to New York City and starts a life forging checks. He morphs from this life to a forged identity as a Pan Am pilot. This brings him to the attention of the FBI, particularly Agent Carl Hanratty, who start to chase him. They come close a few times, but Frank impersonates his way out of the encounters. Frank continues to morph, impersonating a doctor in Atlanta. Here he falls in love with a nurse, and to her family, pretends to be a lawyer. It is here that the FBI catches up to him… but his skills are such that the FBI ends up hiring him to advise on the very crimes he committed.

The reaction of critics to this piece has been mostly negative. The LA Times critic felt that the story was really asking the question, “How awesome would it be if the Rockettes dressed up in stewardess outfits? And, less fetishistically, perhaps, how cool would it be if Don Draper sang and danced?”. They essentially trash the show: “The show is structured so awkwardly — within a wincingly gag-filled book credited, incredibly, to Terrence McNally — that the songwriters can’t catch too much blame: There’s not a tune in the show that advances the story rather than just reiterating what we’ve heard in dialogue moments before.” They deplore its sexism: “We could reasonably say there is real sexism— not just a spoof of period sexism — in the way stewardesses are portrayed as pilot-hungry nymphs, and nurses as doctor devourers. Yet you hesitate to look a gift chorus line in the mouth, when these are the production numbers that jolt the enterprise to the life to which it constantly and frenetically aspires.” It’s not just the Times that is raking the show over the coals. Neon Tommy states: “The show itself is pretty mediocre. The score, by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (“Hairspray,” “Smash”) is mostly uninspired and bland, though there are a fems gems, such as “Live In Living Color,” “Jet Set,” and “Goodbye.” Terrence McNally’s book is full of cringe-inducing bad jokes, and barely propels the story along. Further hampering the show are the distractingly garish projections and the show’s objectionable treatment of every single one of its female characters.” Examiner.com states: “Narratively and construction-wise, “Catch Me” is enough of a wet noodle that a powder keg of a central performance – any powder keg would do – might help distract viewers from realizing that this is 2.5 hours of not much there there. Besides the dancing and the leggy girls, that is.” The Hollywood Reporter states: “This impersonation of a Broadway musical initially convinces but eventually, inevitably, is revealed as ersatz. ”

In the article I mentioned last week, Peter Finlayson stated “But a true critic offers us insights that prompt us to come to a personal reflective choice, which is the fundamental core of theatre.” He stated that a good critic “will create a conversation about the play”, noting that they will “give us insight into whether the creative energies of a show were effective in presenting the final product.”. In many ways, this is like a judge at a Drum Corps competition. They focus on the technical aspects of a show: the construction, the nuances of performance. But this isn’t what the audience cares about: the audience cares about the General Effect caption, with performance and selection of material often taking a second position. They go to the theatre to escape, not to think. This is why many vapid movies succeed at the box office.

Your “peer reviewers” — the blog critics called “hacks” by Mr. Finlayson — provide an assessment of that General Effect caption first and foremost. In terms of General Effect, “Catch Me If You Can” succeeds. It has a strong brassy score that is fun, lots of dancing by performers who are enjoying what they are doing, with an orchestra that it top-notch. The performances of the actors are making the best of the material they are given. You walk out of this show humming the music, having enjoyed the past couple of hours. General Effective-wise, this is a win.

Yet the comments of the critics hold as well. There is a lot of sexism on the stage, but that’s viewing a presentation of an historical period through modern sensibilities. I was born in the 1960s, and the 1960s were sexist. If you watched Dean Martin or similar variety shows, you had equally leggy sexism, although not quite as integrated in the casting. I had no problems with the presentation through the eyes of a variety show. It reflected how the lead character, Frank Abagnale Jr, saw his life: a series of skits, where he assumed a variety of characters while doing a glamorous song and dance. Where the story-telling broke down was in the second half, where there tone abruptly changed to noir, and the focus of the story-telling voice switched from Frank to Agent Hanratty. We went from strong and brassy to ballads. Perhaps this paralleled the breakdown of Frank’s life, but it was jarring. These, in my opinion, are valid criticisms of Terrence McNally‘s book. As for the music (by Marc Shaiman) and lyrics (by Shaiman and Scott Wittman), I found it very enjoyable with a nice variety of styles. But then again, I’m enjoying the music they are writing for Smash as well.

What contributes to the winning general effect — and what elevates this show beyond the simple book — is the cast. Gone are the days when tours contained the same performers as the original production. That happened in the 1960s and 1970s when LA was more of a draw, and theatre performers wanted to come her. Today, it would be a surprise to get Norbert Leo Butz, Aaron Tevit, or Tom Wopat on a tour. We’ve got a lot of younger actors in training; actors who are willing not only to do the show in Los Angeles, but in Peoria and other small cities. Luckily, the folks at Joy Dewing Casting and Troika Entertainment assembled a strong ensemble for “Catch Me If You Can“.

In the lead positions were Stephen Anthony as Frank Abagnale, Jr. and Merritt David Janes as Agent Carl Hanratty. Both initially struck me as the wrong age — they seemed to be too young for the roles they were portraying. However, their performance won me over: they were having fun with their roles, and it showed. They made their roles work and work convincingly — which is the mark of a good actor. Although I would have truly enjoyed the originals, it is performances that make the show, not the original actor. They were also very strong singers and did great with the songs that they had. Most importantly, they played off of each other well. Anthony was particularly surprising — for someone so young, he was just wonderful.

In the second tier positions were Dominic Fortuna as Frank Abagnale, Sr., Caitlin Maloney as Paula (Abagnale), and Aubrey Mae Davis as Brenda. Fortuna did a great job of channeling Tom Wopat — with a similar voice and style, and played off well against Anthony’s Jr. Even more impressive was Aubrey Davis’s performance. She was just having so much fun with the role it was infectuous and made her stand out and catch your eye. Combine that fun with a remarkable singing voice… and you ended up with an actor that I look forward to seeing more of in the future. Maloney’s role was much smaller, but she handled her numbers well.

Rounding out the ensemble and other positions were (additional roles noted in (); understudy positions and swings not noted): Esther M. Antoine, Amanda Braun, Amy Burgmaier (Carol Strong, Principal Owings, Bank Teller, Skyway Man Stewardess), Taylor Collins, Vanessa Dunleavy, Michael Graceffa, Colleen Hayes, Mary Claire King, Ben Laxton (Agent Dollar), Trevor Leaderbrand, Travis Mitchell (Agent Branton), Derrick Parks (Agent Cod), Casey Renee Rogers (Cheryl Ann), Daniel J. SelfAllyson Tolbert (Doctor’s Orders), Nadia Vynnytsky, and D. Scott Withers (Roger Strong, Pan Am Executive, Dr. Wanamaker). Swings were Ashley Chasteen (Dance Captain) and Bradley Allan Zarr. All actors are members of Actors Equity.

Also onstage with the actors was the Catch Me If You Can orchestra, under the musical direction of Matthew Smedal assisted by Elaine Davidson. In addition to these two, the orchestra consisted of Stephen Boudreau (Keyboard), Dick Mitchell (Reeds), John Yoakum (Reeds), Adam Schroeder (Reeds), John Fumo (Trumpets), Larry Hall (Trumpet), Andy Martin (Trombone), Paul Viapiano (Guitar), Clifton Kellem (Bass), Christian Dionne (Drums), Dave Witham (Keys Sub), Christian Dionne (Band Tech). Talitha Fehr of TL Music International was the Music Coordinator.  Music supervision was by Larry Blank.

Catch Me If You Can” was originally directed by Jack O’Brien; Matt Lenz was the associate director. Choreography was by Jerry Mitchell; Nick Kenkel was the associate choreographer. Not being a skilled critic, I found it hard to identify what the directors uniquely brought to this, but the overall production seemed to work well – so whatever they did, they must have done right. I did enjoy the choreography — the choreographers and the dance captains did a great job of making the best of the shortened space they had of the tour stage (the orchestra took up much of the depth, standardizing the stage depth and movement for the tour).

The production was very simple — or complex — from the scenic side. Dominating the scenery was a gigantic LCD project wall designed by Bob Bonniol.  This wall offered an ever-changing background that established location and mood. Some reviewers found it distracting — I found it clean and crisp and much better than common projection systems. The physical scenic design was by David Rockwell, which included the orchestra setting, the various flys, and the few set pieces and props. The costumes, by William Ivey Long, were very effective at not only establishing the time and place, but for showing off the physical talents of the dancers (i.e., they highlighted the legs very well). The sound, by Peter McBoyle, was unobtrusive and blended in quite well. The lighting, by Kenneth Posner, consisted primarily of moving lights and worked well to illustrate the movements and set the mood. Geoffrey Quart was the technical supervisor.    Donavan Dolan was the production stage manager.

Catch Me If You Can” continues at the Pantages through March 24, 2013. Tickets are available through the Pantages website.

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:   Next weekend takes us back to Newhall and the REP for “Boeing Boeing” at REP East on March 23. March ends with “End of the Rainbow” at the Ahmanson on March 30. April has less theatre — so far, only one show is scheduled. The first weekend of April is open. The next weekend brings with the Southern California Renaissance Faire.  Following that is “Grease” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, and April concludes with a winetasting at Temple Ahavat Shalom. May is busy in a different sense, with two concerts — Elton John in Las Vegas on May 4, and (tentative) Michael Feinstein at VPAC on May 11. May also brings “Falling for Make Believe” at The Colony Theatre and “To Kill a Mockingbird” at REP East. Lastly, continuing the look ahead, June will bring (tenative) “The Scottsboro Boys” at the Ahmanson Theatre, “Priscilla – Queen of the Desert” at the Pantages, and (tentative) Sweet Charity at DOMA. July is currently more open, with “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. August is currently completely open due to vacation planning and the potential Nottingham Faire. I’m also keeping my eyes open as the various theatres start making their 2013 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: Fairport Chronicles (Fairport Convention): “Tam Lin”

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Thoughts on the Pantages 2013-2014 Season

Written By: cahwyguy - Fri Feb 22, 2013 @ 11:13 am PDT

While reading the news over lunch, I noticed that the Pantages Theatre (Broadway LA) has just announced their 2013-2014 season, so I thought I would post my assessment of it, and which shows I plan to see:

  • The Wizard of Oz (Sep 17 – Oct 6, 2013). This is the Andrew Lloyd Weber reworking, with a number of additional songs. I have the album of the new version, and the lead (at least in the London cast) has a number of weird and interesting vocal inflections. I know this story by heart… and have seen it many many many times (as well as many many many ancillary productions) … but also have a soft spot for it. Maybe.
    [As a P.S. on Oz, there was a interesting article earlier this week in the LVRJ about L. Frank Baum's great-grandson, who is still writing Oz books.]
  • War Horse (Oct 8 – 13, 2013). The show whose main draw on stage is a gigantic horse puppet. That wasn’t enough to draw me in when it was at the Ahmanson for $20 tickets. It certainly is not enough of a draw to get me to the Pantages with worse sight lines and higher ticket prices. Uninterested.
  • Evita (Oct 23 – Nov 10, 2013). I saw Evita when it was out in its original incarnation at the Shubert Theatre in Century City in the 1980s. I saw it again recently at a surprisingly good production at Van Nuys High School. I have no urge to see it again. Uninterested.
  • The Lion King (Nov 20, 2013 – Jan 12, 2014). I saw The Lion King during its first run at the Pantages many many years ago. It’s been back numerous times since then. I’m not aware of anything in this production that makes me want to see this retread. Uninterested.
  • The Book of Mormon (Jan 21 – Feb 9, 2014). Hello. My name is Elder I-Just-Saw-This-A-Year-Ago. Why would I want to go and see this show again? Uninterested.
  • Green Day’s American Idiot (May 13 – 18, 2014). This is another show that was just recently in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson. As with Lion King, I’m not sure that there was enough different in this run to make it worth a second visit. Uninterested.
  • The Music of Andrew Lloyd Weber (Jun 3 – 22, 2014). A jukebox show of Sir Andrew’s music, including some from Love Never Dies. Weber is like Wildhorn — you either love or hate his work. Although I like some of his early shows, his later stuff has been mostly ponderous, and I have no strong urge to see a jukebox show of his stuff. Uninterested.
  • Ghost: The Musical (Jun 27 – Jul 13, 2014). This is a new musical that did so-so on Broadway. I’ve got the album, and actually find it enjoyable, but have never seen the original movie. Probably.
  • Once: The Musical (Jul 15 – Aug 10, 2014). This is the musical that has surprised everyone. An intimate musical with a folk-ish score, it has been winning Tony awards and Grammy awards left and right. But it is also being done at the Pantages, which doesn’t quite fit with the notion of intimate musical. I’ll likely go see this, and then hope for an intimate, more regional production. Probably.

That’s it. The Broadway LA 2013-2014 season. Mostly, ehhh, with a few possibilities.

P.S.: And an ancillary note regarding the Oscars, which are relevant because the Pantages hosted the Oscars in the 1950s, including the first televised ceremony. It appears that this year, the leggy busty models will be not used to present the statuettes. Rather, that honor is going to six aspiring filmmakers who won a contest. What happened is this. One of the co-producers of the Oscars, Neil Meron, believed “This tradition of the buxom babe that comes out and brings the trophy to the presenter to give to the winner seemed to be very antiquated and kind of sexist, too. They’re just there to be objectified. Why can’t we have people who actually care about film and are the future of film be the trophy presenters?” So he and co-producer Craig Zadan developed a contest directed at college students that asked: How will you contribute to the future of film? More than 1,100 students submitted essays and videos, and six were chosen to appear on the Oscar telecast. All six winning students will walk on the Oscar stage during Sunday’s ceremony. They’re each getting a makeover and formal tuxedo or gown for the event as well.

P.P.S.: As it is still lunch hour, a few thoughts on tours and revivals. There’s a meme going around on Facebook about supporting local and independent artists, and that’s one thing I like to do with live theatre. For the small and mid-size venues, it is all about the local institutions and local performers and local technicians. But what about the big institutions and tours. Many of these (such as the recent Backbeat at the Ahmanson) had no local performers or staff; this is also often the case at the Pantages/BroadwayLA productions. These productions, while supporting a small number of local artists, primarily line the pockets of the commercial producing organization, with a small about to the local producing organization. That’s OK, as it encourages said producers to keep producing work, but it’s not the reason I choose to go. My primary reason for going is whether I’m interested in the particular show. For such productions, my priorities are (a) new shows that I think may move to Broadway or other significance (e.g., Backbeat, Les Jazz) ; (b) revivals that aren’t simply retreads, but are reimagine-ings of existing properties (e.g., Sweeny Todd); and (c) shows that I haven’t seen before but want to see. So when the Pantages presents a season of shows I’ve seen, with the only difference being a new tour cast, I have no urge to see them again.

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Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Oct 28, 2012 @ 9:05 am PDT

Hello. My name is Elder Guy, and I would like to share with you this most amazing show… (ding-dong)

Hello. My name is Elder Smith, and it’s a show that’s very different from any show you know. (ding-dong)

Hello. My name is Elder Brown. It’s a show that on the top of things will patently offend. (ding-dong)

Hello. My name is Elder Green. It makes fun of AIDS and Africans and fucking in the end. (ding-dong)

Hello. My name is Elder Jones. It’s a show about belief and faith and one amazing book. (ding-dong)

Hello. My name is Elder White. It’s a show that makes a point, if you simply give a look. (ding-dong)

Hello. My name is Elder Card. It’s touching, sweet, and anymore and I will barf my toast. (ding-dong)

Hello. It’s Elder Guy again. Let’s stop this stupid sing-song verse and finish the damn post.

OK. If you haven’t figured it out by now, last night we went to the Pantages to see “The Book of Mormon“. This is a show that, quite unexpectedly, took Broadway by storm. Its touring company is filling the Pantages, and seats for the show are hard to get and expensive (at least on weekends). What is it about this show that draws the audience in? What makes it a success?

Let’s start with the book. “The Book of Mormon” features book, music, and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone. Parker and Stone are the demented geniuses behind South Park. Lopez is one of the folks behind Avenue Q. Is it any surprise that the show ended up with a story and a libretto that could be viewed as extremely offensive. The show makes fun of the rigidity of the Mormon religion; it makes fun a Africans dying of AIDS; it makes Africans fucking babies to get rid of their AIDS; it makes fun of female circumcision; it makes fun of African warlords who shoot and ask questions later; and it makes fun Jesus and God and Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. The show, on the surface, is as offensive as “Springtime for Hitler”. Oh, right, it also makes fun of Hitler.

But the music, Officer Lockstock, is so nice. Yes it is, Little Sally. Yes it is.

The Book of Mormon” is squarely in the genre of shows such as The Producers, Urinetown, and Avenue Q. It wears its offense on its sleeve, but makes a point that is much more. BofM tells the story of two missionaries: Elder Kevin Price and Elder Arnold Cunningham who are sent to Africa on their Mormon Mission to covert the natives. Price is a top Elder, looked up to by everyone. Cunningham is a screwup who makes up stories, and has never actually read the Book of Mormon. Once in Africa, they discover that the Mormons haven’t converted anyone. The village is ravaged by AIDS, and everyone believes that the only way to cure it is to fuck virgins… and as there are no virgins, babies will do. The village is ruled by a warlord who believes all females should be circumcised (have their clits removed). There is no hope, and life has no value. Price is destroyed by this; he becomes unhinged and attempts to run off. Cunningham, on the other hand, discovers how to manipulate the stories he tells to restore the faith of these people. He discovers how to present the Book of Mormon in such a way that it gets the village positive, hopeful, and moving in the right direction. He converts the whole village to the church, including the daughter of the leader, Nabulungi. Of course, he does this by lying and conflating Mormon theology with all the canon of science-fiction stories, and adapting things to address the specifics of the village. His answer is not “the book doesn’t address this”, but rather “of course the book addresses this, just look (uh) here where it says that…”. In doing this, he demonstrates what faith is, gives the village back its power, and teaches Elder Price what a real mission and faith is.

It is ultimately this positive message that comes through offense. It is this reason why this show has been compared to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s portfolio. It is this reason that the show has been the success it has been.  The offense gets them in the door; the heart and soul of the piece keep them coming back for more.

But this is not a show for everyone, and I think everyone will react to it differently. Last night, we saw parents bringing little kids to the show. Wrong. They will pick up on the offense, and not understand what is said. I also wouldn’t take my mother-in-law. People without a sense of humor just won’t get it — the offense will shut them down and close their minds. Some people will find this laugh out loud funny. Others will appreciate the various homages and pastiches, the subversive humor, and how that humor is used to an end. In short: this is just like South Park. It’s not for everyone, and everyone will not get it. Leave the innocent and clueless at home.

Now that we’ve talked about the story, let’s look at the performance. Although this is mostly an ensemble piece, there are some notable standouts. In the lead positions we have Gavin Creel at Elder Price and Jared Gertner as Elder Cunningham. Creel does get a few chances to show off his amazing voice (particularly in “I Believe”), but his Price is mostly the optimistic faithful missionary. Creel does a great job of conveying a remarkable belief in himself. Gertner’s Cunningham is quite the opposite.Intentionally, the character’s singing voice is not smooth and suave. Cunningham lacks faith in himself, and will do or say whatever is necessary to get people to hear him and to like him. Gertner has great comic timing and is able to pull off schlemiel role quite well. Together, the two of them make a great comic team.

Also in a lead position is Samantha Marie Ware as Nabulungi (who Elder Cunningham continually mispronounces as any multisyllabic N-word you can think of). This woman is not only beautiful, but boy can she sing. She’s just a delight to hear… add to this great acting skills, and I hope she goes far. That said, one thing I noticed reading the Playbill bio of Ware, as well as the other black actors in the cast, is the dearth of good musical theatre roles for black actors. Reading the bios, you see the same shows, over and over. Lion King. Scottsboro Boys. Fela! It appears that musicals with large numbers of black roles are few and far between, and this is a bad thing.

Turning to the rest of the cast, there were a few folks that stood out. As Mrs. Brown and in other ensemble roles, Phyre Hawkins demonstrated an amazing blues voice that was a delight to hear. Another person with a great ensemble voice was Marisha Wallace. Lastly, as Joseph Smith and the Mission President, Mike McGowan had some wonderfully sardonic looks and expressions. We got to see a different side of McGowan at the end of the show, when he stepped out of character to extort the audience to support Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids. The remainder of the cast consisted of Gary Henson (Elder McKinley, Moroni), Kevin Mambo (Mafala Hatimbi), Derrick Williams (General),  Jacob ben Widmar (Ensemble), Josh Breckenridge (Doctor, Ensemble), JR Bruno (Ensemble), Michael Buchanan (Ensemble),  Phyre Hawkins (Mrs. Brown, Ensemble), Michael D. Jablonski (Cunningham’s Dad, Ensemble), Mykal Kilgore (Ensemble), Daniel LeClaire (Ensemble), Antyon Le Monte (Ensemble/Swing), Douglas Lyons (Ensemble, Asst. Dance Captain), Kimberly Marable (Ensemble), Michael McGowan (Mission Training Center Voice, Price’s Dad, Joseph Smith), Laiona Michelle (Ensemble), Kevin Michael Murphy (Ensemble), Jeffrey David Sears (Mormon, Ensemble), Marisha Wallace (Ensemble), and Christian Dante White (Ensemble). Standbys and swings were Jon Bass (Standby Elder Cunningham), Colin Bradbury (Swing, dance captain), Jonathan Cullen (Standby Elder Price), Talitha Farrow (Swing), Carole Denise Jones (Swing), Mike Schwitter (Swing), and Jamaal Wilson (Swing). All actors are members of Actors Equity.

The production was directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker. These two did a great job of bringing the fun out of the actors, and getting them to exaggerate their behavior where appropriate (especially for all the Mormon missionaries). Marc Bruni and Jennifer Werner (Broadway) were the associate directors. It was choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, with dance arrangements by Glen Kelly. John MacInnis was the associate choreographer. The movement for the show was quite creative; no where was this better seen than in the “Joseph Smith American Moses” internal production. Orchestrations were by Stephen Oremus (Music Supervisor) and Larry Hochman, and were very good. Brian Usifer was the associate music supervisor. Cian McCarthy was the music director and conducted the nine person orchestra (Cian McCarthy – conductor; Remy Kurs – associate conductor; McCarthy and Kurs – keyboard; Trey Henry – bass; Giancarlo de Trizio – drums; Paul Viapiano – guitar; Kathleen Robertson – violin/viola; Dick Mitchell – woodwinds; Wayne Bergeron – trumpets; and Andry Martin – trombones).

Turning to the technical: the scenic design was by Scott Pask and did a great job of conveying the location. I was particularly impressed by the utility of the African set, and the whole set for the Spooky Mormon Hell Dream. Costumes by Ann Roth were very good, and were particularly clever in the “Turn it Off” number. The lighting by Brian MacDevitt did a great job of conveying the mood; I particularly noticed the extensive use of movers and LED lights and the lighter use of conventional leikos. The sound design by Brian Ronan worked well in the Pantages, which is something that cannot always be said. Kimberly Fisk was the Production Stage Manager, with Michael Pule as Stage Manager and Steve Henry as the assistant stage manager.

The Book of Mormon” continues at the Pantages through November 25. Tickets are available through the Pantages Box Office.

Observational Note: It is really odd being in Hollywood just before Halloween. The costumes you see!

Dining Note: Before the show, we hit The Kansas City BBQ Company in North Hollywood. OK, but nothing to write home about. We’re still sticking with Moms or Rogers Rib Shack.

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  This afternoon brings another show:  1776” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on 10/28. November is much lighter in terms of theatre. At the beginning of the month, my wife will be going to VPAC to see Ballet Folklorico (but you probably won’t see a review here). That weekend may also bring Seminar” at The Ahmanson Theatre (still undecided on ticketing; another possibility is “Ruddigore” at the Sierra Madre Playhouse), although that is increasingly unlikely. The following weekend won’t be available for theatre, as we’ll be out working at “Day Out with Thomas” at OERM. The next weekend sees us at VPAC for a concert performance of Raul Esparza. November will close with “Moonlight and Magnolias” at REP East. December sees us at the Colony for “The Morini Strand” on 12/15 (if it happens; the Colony is having major financial trouble). December will also likely bring Anything Goes” at the Ahmanson. It will also bring another concert: “Judy Collins” at VPAC. Starting the look into 2013. Currently nothing is scheduled for January, but that’s sure to change as REP announces its dates for the 2013 season. February brings “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” at Cabrillo Music Theatre and “I’ll Be Back Before Midnight” at the Colony. It may also bring “Backbeat” at the Ahmanson. March will likely bring “Catch Me If You Can” at Broadway LA/Pantages. I’m also keeping my eyes open as the various theatres start making their 2013 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).

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Rock and Roll is Simply Rhythm and Blues, Speeded Up

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Aug 04, 2012 @ 9:13 am PDT

Race Relations and Rock ‘N Roll. This has been a popular subject for musicals. Examples abound: One of the underlying themes in the musical Hairspray (which we saw in 2004) is the integration of TV dance shows in Baltimore in the 1960s. It is also explicit in Baby It’s You (which we saw in 2009), which explores the relationship between the white producer of the Shirelles and a black songwriter. A third example is Dreamgirls (which I saw back in 1983), which also highlights the contrast between “black” and “white” music. All three of these shows popped into my mind at various points last night while we were at the Pantages Theatre to see the Broadway LA (touring) production of Memphis, the 2010 Tony Award Winner for Best Musical.

Memphis is a musical with two major themes. The first theme is a story of a white aficionado of “black music” — that is, rhythm and blues, which later became rock ‘n roll –  who wanted to promote that music to a larger audience. The second them is the story of a white producer falling in love with his black leading artist in Memphis in the 1950s. Some of it is even based on true events.

The basic story of Memphis is as follows (you can find a more detailed synopsis in the Wiki page). A white lover of “black” music, Huey Calhoun, starts frequenting Delrays, a club in the black section of Beale Street in Memphis TN, simply because he loves the music. He becomes enraptured with the singing of the sister of the owner, Felicia Farrell, and promises that he will get on the radio and will get her music heard. He starts by attempting to promote the “black” music at the local department store… and gets fired. He then talks his way onto a local AM station, where his show featuring black artists and a very improvised style becomes #1. His show encourages kids to go and listen to rhythm and blues and gospel, going so far as to encourage them to visit black churches. His relationship with Felicia continues, and he eventually gets her to perform on his show, where she becomes a hit. He is also falling in love with her, and on the way to a party at Delrays, proposes to her. As they kiss, they are seen by whites passing by… and (predictably) get beat up.  End Act I. In Act II, the relationship continues. Time has passed, and Huey has a TV dance show in Memphis featuring rock and roll and black dancers. Felicia’s career is also progressing, and a producer from RCA wants her to go to New York. She wants Huey to go, but he wants to stay in Memphis. She gets the producer to go see his show, but Huey rebels when the producers indicates he likes Huey as host, but the black dancers will have to be replaced by white dancers. His form of rebellion: kissing Felicia on-air. This is the end of Huey:  Felicia and Delray go to New York, and Huey ends up at a small radio station with no audience.

In developing this story, book author Joe DiPeitro (who also did “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” and “All Shook Up“) drew upon incidents in many stories. The character of Huey Calhoun was based primarily on a real Memphis DJ, Dewey Phillips. Dewey was the inspiration for the radio station (WHBQ), the persona of the hillbilly, the promotion of “black” music, the style of the TV show, and even the hinting of the color of someone by mentioning the high school they attended. However, there were also aspects of Alan Freed, another DJ of the era. From Freed, DiPietro also drew the notion of promoting black artists using the black artists themselves, the incident of playing black music at the department store, and the promotion of local concerts with black artists.  DiPeitro also drew upon the stories about Dick Clark, whose American Bandstand was supposedly successful in Philly because Clark knew how to present black music to a white audience with white dancers in an acceptable manner.

The arc of Huey Calhoun is an interesting one, filled with challenges and conflict that work well with musicalization. Alas, the supporting music (by David Bryan (of Bon Jovi)), while tuneful, often hits you over the head with the lyrics (by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan).  It does this primarily in the songs that attempt to mimic the music of the era and emphasize the race differences (as the LA Times critic noted, the worst offenders were in the opening, where the song “Whiter than White” by “Whitey White and the Whitetones” is introduced, and the song “Everybody Wants To Be Black On Saturday Night”. Many of the songs also don’t advance plot too well (contrast the substance of the songs with the songs in a Rodgers/Hammerstein or Sondheim piece). However, there are points where the songs do a wonderful job of illustrating the tensions in the characters. A particularly good example of this is the title song “Memphis Lives In Me”, which is great at illustrating why Huey cannot go to New York. It is in these moments that Memphis overcomes its material and soars. Thinking about it, what was missing were numbers for Felicia that exposed her soul and her desires (every other character had such numbers, looking back at things).

While the character of Huey had precedents in real life, the love story did not. I have been unable to find if there was any historical basis in the character of Felicia. My conclusion is that the love story was crafted into the piece to provide dramatic tension… and perhaps it here that is the story is the weakest. Whereas Huey Calhoun’s arc is believable, the supposed spark between Huey and Felicia never ignites on stage. Whether this is the fault of the writing, the directing, or the acting I’m not sure. My guess is that it is a plotting problem that could have been corrected, but that the other successes of the show overtook the need to get this right.

Independent of these problematic book aspects, however, the performances soar. This is particularly true in the performances of the leading players: Bryan Fenkart as Huey and Felicia Boswell as Felicia. Fenkart’s “hick” accent was perhaps a bit overplayed (I kept thinking of Scott Holmes‘ voice in Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public), his performance and characterization was spot on, and his singing — particularly in “Memphis Lives in Me” — was great. Boswell was also strong on stage and in her performance numbers (particularly “Someday”).

The supporting cast was also quite strong: Quentin Earl Darrington as Delray, Will Mann as Bobby, Rhett George¹ as Gator, and Julie Johnson as Gladys. Each gave strong acting performances, and surprising musical performances. Darrington excelled in “She’s My Sister”, George brought down the house in “Say a Prayer”, Mann was spectacular in “Big Love”, and Johnson had her moment in “Change Don’t Come Easy”. Although the material they had for developing their characters was slight, they did the most with what they had and were very successful with it.
(¹: Side note to Mr. George: If you are going to list your website in the program, please make sure you have paid it up and it hasn’t been hijacked by an adult sex website)

Rounding out the cast were: William Parry (Mr. Simmons), Alexander Aguilar (Ensemble), Chelsey Arce (Swing), Whitney Leigh Brown (Ensemble), Whitney Cooper (Ensemble), Tami Dahbura (Ensemble), Scott Difford (Ensemble), Lynorris Evans (Ensemble), Christopher Gurr (Ensemble), Daisy Hobbs (Ensemble), Adrienne Howard (Ensemble), Crystal Joy (Ensemble), Kyle Leland (Ensemble (our show), Swing, Dance Captain), Jarvis D. McKinley (Ensemble), Kenna Michelle Morris (Swing, Assistant Dance Captain), Jill Morrison (Ensemble), Kent Overshown (Ensemble), Justin Prescott (Ensemble), Jody Reynard (Ensemble), Peter Matthew Smith (Ensemble), and Derek St. Pierre (Ensemble).

The production was directed by Christopher Ashley (assisted by Associate Director Adam Arian), who did a reasonable job of bringing the characters to life. As previously noted, I thought he could have done more to bring out the spark in the romantic story. However, sparks were certainly flying in Sergio Trujillo‘s choreography, which did a great job of exciting and firing up the audience (with additional credit to August Eriksmoen as dance arranger and Edgar Godineaux as Associate Choreographer). It was spectacular. The musical performances was also quite strong. Thanks here go to Christopher Jahnke, the music producer and supervisor, Daryl Waters, the co-orchestrator, Alvin Hough Jr. as Music Director/Conductor, and Michael Keller as Music Coordinator. Credit also goes to the great onstage Memphis band, which included Alvin Hough Jr and Darryl Archibald (of Cabrillo fame) on keyboards, Trevor Holder on drums, Dave Matos on guitar, Enzo Penizzotto on bass, Dan Fornero on trumpet and flugelhorn, Alex Iles on trombone and bass trombone, and Dick Mitchell and John Yoakum on reeds.

The technical side had its ups and downs. David Gallo‘s sets mostly worked, although it seemed a bit cramped at points with a frame that reduced the Pantages stage. There were also some problems with Ken Travis‘s sound design that left the sound muddied on the sides of the Pantages. The lighting by Howell Binkley was quite good and emphasized the mood quite well. The projections by David Gallo and Shawn Sagady worked well, especially of the news stories. Paul Tazewell‘s costumes and Charles G. LaPointe‘s hair and wig designs were excellent. Tripp Phillips was the production stage manager; Anna R. Kaltenbach was the stage manager, and Tiffany N. Robinson was the assistant stage manager.

Memphis” continues at the Pantages through August 12. Tickets are available through the Pantages Website, but you can avoid the service charges by going in person to the Pantages Box Office. That’s what I do.

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts: Next week takes us to North Hollywood for  “I Caligula, An Insanity Musical” at Secret Rose Theatre in NoHo on August 11. The rest of the month is quite until Play Dates” at REP East at the end of the month. As an aside: we will be vacationing in Palm Springs, so if anyone knows of live theatre going on there in August, let me know (we might go to Idyllwild Jazz in the Pines). In September theatre activity resumes, beginning with “Blame It On Beckett” at the Colony Theatre on September 1 and “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure” at REP East on September 29. I”m also looking into “Silence: The Musical” at the Hayworth Theatre, which starts September 8 and runs through December, and Xanadu” at DOMA, which starts September 7 and runs for about 3 weeks. October brings some traveling for family with the bat-mitzvah of a cousin in Fresno. It will also bring “American Fiesta” at the Colony Theatre, “The Book of Mormon” at Broadway LA/The Pantages, and 1776” at Cabrillo Music Theatre. Continuing the look ahead: November will bring “Moonlight and Magnolias” at REP East, which is booked for the end of the month. It may also bring Seminar” at The Ahmanson Theatre (still undecided on ticketing) and a concert performance of Raul Esparza at VPAC, especially if Erin flies in for it (he’s singing on her birthday). Non-theatrically, it will also bring “Day Out with Thomas” at OERM (certainly on some or all of Veterans Day weekend – November 10-11-12). Lastly, to close out the year, December has nothing formally scheduled (other than ACSAC), but will likely bring Anything Goes” at the Ahmanson, and may bring “Judy Collins” at VPAC. 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).

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A Rockin’ Jam Session

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Jun 23, 2012 @ 10:18 am PDT

Last night, I went to a rockin’ jam session at one of the oddest of places: The Pantages Theatre. Perhaps I should explain. On Tuesday December 4, 1956 in the Sun Record Studios in Memphis, Tennessee there was an impromptu jam session between Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. This meeting was preserved only by a photograph and a session tape made by the owner of Sun Records, Sam Phillips. A few years ago, this session was turned into a Broadway musical, called “Million Dollar Quartet“, built around a fictional account of that session. Really, the show was just an excuse to bring together classics from the four artists in a jukebox musical, with the conceit that the actors were actually playing the instruments as well as singing. So this was the “jam session” I was at last night: Million Dollar Quartet” at the Pantages–a rockin’ session with Elvis, Cash, Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. It was great.

At this point, I would normally synopsize the plot. But let’s start instead with the real history, summarized by Sun Records: According to Sun, the jam session seems to have happened by pure chance. Perkins, who by this time had already met success with “Blue Suede Shoes,” had come into the studios that day, accompanied by his brothers Clayton and Jay and by drummer W.S. Holland, their aim being to cut some new material, including a revamped version of an old blues song, “Matchbox.” Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records, had brought in his latest acquisition, singer and piano man extraordinaire, Jerry Lee Lewis, still unknown outside Memphis, to play the piano on the Perkins session.Sometime in the early afternoon, Elvis Presley, a former Sun artist himself, but now at RCA, dropped in to pay a casual visit accompanied by a girlfriend, Marilyn Evans. He was, at the time, the biggest name in show business. After chatting with Philips in the control room, Presley listened to the playback of the Perkins’ session, which he pronounced to be good. Then he went into the studio and some time later the jam session began. Phillips left the tapes running in order to “capture the moment” as a souvenir and for posterity. At some point during the session, Sun artist Johnny Cash, who had also enjoyed a few hits on the country charts, popped in (Cash claimed he was the first to arrive at Sun Studio that day). The event was captured by well known photograph of Elvis Presley seated at the piano surrounded by Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. The session tapes have been released on CD.

That’s what we know happened. Around this story a musical was constructed. The basic plot elements added by book writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux revolved around the following: (1) At the end of 1955, Phillips sold Presley’s contract to RCA to prevent Sun Records from going bankrupt; now RCA wanted to buy Phillips and the studio to get someone who knew how to work with Elvis; (2) Cash had been increasingly absent from the studio, and Phillips wanted to lure him back by presenting him with a 3-year contract; (3) the tension between Perkins, who had written “Blue Suede Shoes”, and Elvis, who made it a hit on the Ed Sullivan Show, and (4) Perkins, who was trying to find his next hit, and the just-hired Jerry Lee Lewis, a brash young upstart trying to prove himself. The songs chosen were some (but not all) of the ones from the original session, plus a number of well-known hits that may have come a little later. This isn’t a true story.

This also isn’t an impersonator show. You want that, go to Vegas. The actors in this show have hints of the mannerisms of the original artists, but are not going for exact impersonations or impressions. They have hits of the vocal quality. What they do have is the musical skills, which combined with the hints makes you see them as the artists.  This is the contribution of the original concept and direction by Floyd Mutrix (who also did the recent “Baby It’s You” that we saw when it was at the Pasadena Playhouse), and the show direction by Eric Schaeffer (assisted by David Ruttura; tour direction was by The Booking Group).

That said, what makes this show are the artists. I was most impressed with Martin Kaye as Jerry Lee Lewis: Kaye was just great on the piano and in his performance, and he just won me over. Kaye is from the UK, and I look forward to learning more about this artist. As Perkins,  Lee Ferris played a mean electric guitar. It was also fun to watch his interactions with Kaye’s Lewis. Ferris left Freddy and Francine to join on this tour. There was a nice interview with him recently in the LA Stage Times. As Johnny Cash, Derek Keeling didn’t particularly look like Cash (he looked more like Elvis), but had the guitar, and more importantly, the voice, deep down pat. We have seen Keeling before, most recently in Happy Days: The Musical” at Cabrillo. Lastly, as Elvis, Cody Slaughter had the voice, personality, and swagger down pat. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as he was named the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist of 2011.

Supporting these four artists were Christopher Ryan Grant as Sam Phillips. Grant’s Phillips provided the narrative glue for the story (such as it was), and did a good job of being his character. Kelly Lamont‘s Dyanne was the book writer’s attempt to capture the unknown girlfriend of the picture. We don’t learn anything about her character–she is mostly eye-candy… but this story does allow her to sing and participate in a song or two, and she’s having great fun doing that. Rounding out the musicians were Billy Shaffer as Fluke the drummer (the character corresponding to W.S. Holland) and Chuck Zayas as Jay Perkins, on bass.

One note about the cast: They were having fun. I think that’s what turned this from a “show” into a “jam sessions”. These musicians were just having fun playing with each other, and this infectious joy of playing and having fun with the music came across from the stage, and had the audience standing and dancing and just rocking out. This was something you didn’t see in shows like “Rock of Ages”: they were shows. This was a fun jam session, and it had the magic to make you feel like you were there. This is something you’ll never get from a projection onto a screen.

Rounding out the technical and creative team:  Music arrangements and supervision were by Chuck Mead, with additional arrangements by the original Broadway “Jerry Lee Lewis”, Levi Kreis (who it appears will be at the NoHo Arts Center in mid-July). August Eriksmoen was the associate music supervisor. Sound design was by Kai Harada and was great (and remember, this was the Pantages, so Harada is one of those folks who knows how to get it right). You really believed that the 1950s-era mics were live. Lighting was by Howell Binkley and was effective at creating the mood. The scenic design was by Derek McLane and consisted primarily of the Sun Studio, which looked appropriately period. The costumes by Jane Greenwood were appropriately period; they were supported by the hair and wig design by Tom Watson. These provided the additional hints that created the characters. David Lober was the production stage manager, and Michael Krug was the stage manager.

A Pantages/Broadway LA note: This was the second production we’ve seen at the Pantages that falls into the “perfect” category. They are starting to get things right there, and that is a good thing. I also must thank the audience services team, who were able to rearrange our seats to get Karen a seat where her shoulder wouldn’t be jostled. Guessing at who to tank, I’ll thank Steve Cisneros, the House Manager, as the leader of the team. That’s going above and beyond, and that’s a good thing. You still can’t get discount tickets over the phone (Ticketmaster and their $9/ticket surcharge), but going to the box office works well to get $25-$35 seats that are reasonably good, even if they are on the sides.

Million Dollar Quartet” continues at the Pantages through July 1. The show was relatively empty: You should be able to go to the box office and get reasonably-priced tickets in seating area “E” ($25-$30). You could also buy online if you don’t mind the surcharge. The show is worth seeing.

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts: I should probably redo this, as I’ve just been cutting and pasting. Normally, next weekend (June 30) we would be going to the Western Corps Connection in Riverside, but is too much for Karen. Instead, we’re going to “Geeks, The Musical” in Hollywood (Goldstar). July formally starts with “The Savannah Disputation” at The Colony Theatre on July 7. July 14 brings “The Laramie Project” at REP East. The third weekend in July is open–that’s my wife’s birthday weekend, so it’s up to her where we are going. The last weekend in July brings “Meet Me In St. Louis” at Cabrillo Music Theatre. August has a bit less, as we’re going to have some vacation days and will be taking Erin to start UC Berkeley. We’ve only got one show scheduled: Play Dates” at REP East. As an aside: we will be vacationing in Palm Springs, so if anyone knows of live theatre going on there in August, let me know. September activity resumes, beginning with “Blame It On Beckett” at the Colony Theatre on September 1 and “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure” at REP East on September 29. I”m also looking into “Silence: The Musical” at the Hayworth Theatre, which starts September 8 and runs through December, and Xanadu” at DOMA, which starts September 7 and runs for about 3 weeks. October brings some travelling for family: the Cal Parents Weekend at UCB, and the bat-mitzvah of a cousin in Fresno. It will also bring “American Fiesta” at the Colony Theatre, and “The Book of Mormon” at Broadway LA/The Pantages. Continuing the look ahead: November may bring Seminar” at The Ahmanson Theatre (still undecided on ticketing), and will bring “Moonlight and Magnolias” at REP East. It will also bring “Day Out with Thomas” at OERM (certainly on some or all of Veterans Day weekend – November 10-11-12). November  may also see us at VPAC for Raul Esparza, especially if Erin flies in for it (he’s singing on her birthday). Lastly, to close out the year, December has nothing formally scheduled (other than ACSAC), but will likely bring Anything Goes” at the Ahmanson, and may bring “Judy Collins” at VPAC.Lastly, what few dates we do have open may be filled by productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, or discussed in the various LA Stage Blogs I read.

Music: A Little Princess (Studio Cast) (Sierra Bogess): Another World



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Normal is Overrated

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Jun 16, 2012 @ 9:35 am PDT

Da-Da-Da-Dump (snap) (snap)

Da-Da-Da-Dump (snap) (snap)

Da-Da-Da-Dump Da-Da-Da-Dump Da-Da-Da-Dump (snap) (snap)

Sing those bars of music to most adults, and they will instantly recognize the source: the gloriously wonderful television series from 1963 starring John Astin and Carolyn Jones called “The Addams Family”:

This was the first excursion for the family of characters created by cartoonist Charles Addams for the New Yorker Magazine. They have since gone through numerous movie adaptations, but have always kept their spirit of being the non-normal family that you love. I mention all of this because I fell in love with them again last night at the Pantages, with an almost perfect production of the musical version of “The Addams Family“.

The musical version of The Addams Family was not based on the television or the movies, although given that they drew upon the same characters, there are some commonalities. The musical, with book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice and music/lyrics by Andrew Lippa, was based on characters from the original Charles Addams cartoons: Gomez, Morticia, Fester, Wednesday, Pugsley, Lurch, and Grandma (these characters were named for the TV show; they were unnamed in the cartoons). Now Addams stories usually take one of two forms: normal family visits the Addams and is shocked by the family, or the Addams have to appear normal to another family. In the original Broadway production, this was roughly the form of the story: Normal family of Wednesday’s boyfriend comes to visit, so the family needs to behave normally. Meanwhile, Morticia thinks she is getting old, family is shocked by the Addams, and Wednesday is pulled in different directions by love. You can read the original synopsis on Wikipedia.

On Broadway, this didn’t work. The show was popular, but eviscerated by critics. Before the current Broadway tour, the creative team decided to rework and tweak the story (ok, they decided to fix the show). They did, and I’m pleased to say is it much stronger. This entailed cutting some songs, a squid, and adding some new ones, so if you saw the show on Broadway, you should see it again.

When the show opens, the ghoulish Addams family is visiting the graveyard for an annual gathering of all family members (living, dead, and undecided) to celebrate what it is to be an Addams. Uncle Fester stops the Ancestors’ return to their graves to enlist their help: he knows that Wednesday is in love, and he wants love to conquer all. She has invited the boy’s family for dinner, and Fester wants it to be a success. We then learn that Gomez has built his relationship with Morticia on a foundation of never keeping secrets… after which Wednesday comes  and asks Gomez to keep a secret: she is engaged to this boy (Lucas Beineke). She doesn’t want her mother to know, so he must not tell her. This sets up the rest of the show: what is the effect of keeping this secret. While torturing Pugsley on a rack, Wednesday admits that love is pulling her in a new direction. As the Beinekes arrive, Wednesday and Lucas instruct their families to act normal so they can all enjoy a simple dinner. But the moment Lurch ushers the Beinekes into the mansion, tensions begin to mount. Mal wants to tear down the old house, Alice begins to spout happy poems at random, Pugsley, Fester, and Grandma fail at acting normal, and Wednesday, after wearing black for eighteen years, appears in a bright yellow dress. Morticia, realizing something is happening, believes Gomez is hiding a secret from him. Meanwhile, Pugsley is worried that Wednesday’s lovelife means she won’t torture him anymore. He steals a potion from Grandma after she reveals it will bring out someone’s dark nature. Pugsley plans to slip it to Wednesday at dinner. At dinner, “The Game” is played, where each person at the table confesses something. Gomez tells a story about not opening secrets in a box, while Uncle Fester admits he’s in love with the moon. In a mix-up, Alice drinks Pugsley’s potion and in front of everyone declares her marriage to Mal a loveless mess as she reveals her misery and woe. As Mal, humiliated, attempts to leave with his family, Wednesday announces that she and Lucas are engaged. Chaos engulfs both families, and Uncle Fester, trying to be helpful, instructs the Ancestors to create a sudden, terrible storm, trapping everyone in the mansion for the night. This is where the first act ends; I’ll leave the second act to you (noting that, after all, this is a musical).

I think the reworking of the story made a big difference. The original had Mal Beineke falling in love with a squid, and Morticia being worried about being old. That just didn’t work. The new story creates tension that works. It also places the focus of the story where it needs to be: on the love story of Gomez and Morticia, and the ancellary stories of Wednesday and Lucas. It gives characters growth: the characters at the end of the show — all of them — are not the same characters at the beginning. Each learns and grows. I should also note that this show was one of the funniest shows I’ve seen — the only shows I’ve seen that are equally funny are Neil Simon comedies and true farces. The writing on this show was just hilarious, as was the execution. From the opening notes of the traditional theme, to the use of Thing to open the curtain, to the little references to Cousin Itt — just well executed and well thought out. The show also made very effective use of the stage curtains to portion off the stage and allow scenes to progress without the distraction of changing scenery in the background. So kudos to the writers, directors, and creative team for pulling this show together. Credit here should go to Jerry Zaks as the production supervisor, the original direction by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, and Steve Bebout as the Associate Director.

[ETA: As a father seeing the show the weekend before Fathers Day, I wanted to add that I found the show resonating very well with my experience as a father to a young woman. You're happy to see your child growing up, but sad to see the little girl going away. You're torn between trying to make your spouse happy and your child happy, when doing both isn't always possible. And, as the show notes, we all seem to turn into our parents in some way -- hopefully good ones -- and we need to learn to realize that and work to combat the bad parts... or do as the Addams do, and embrace being different and being bad.]

The musical numbers were, for the most part, quite entertaining (the music is still stuck in my head this morning–a good sign). A few numbers were a little bit slow, but most did a great job of moving along the plot, illustrating characters, and explaining motivations. Again, this was improved by the rework.

The tour company does not have the marquee names of the Broadway company, but I think they did an excellent job. Lots of strengths, with only a few minor weaknesses. In the lead positions, we had Douglas Sills as Gomez and Sara Gettelfinger as Morticia. Sills’ Gomez was perfect: playful, crazy, latin, unpredictable, madly in love with his wife, a loving father to his daughter… just a perfect portrayal. Gettelfinger was good as Morticia, but no warmth came through — but I think that was the character as written. I’m not sure if it was the writing or Gettelfinger, but the character had a vocal quirk with “sh”s that was annoying. Other than that, her singing was strong, and she was fun to watch on stage. Also noticable was her stage presence, and her dress… which was (as Gomez said) cut down to Venezuela. We were all hoping for the wardrobe malfunction that didn’t happen.

In the secondary positions, we had the rest of the Addams clan and the Beinekes. Topping this group was Blake Hammond as Uncle Fester (who I think was at the table across from us when we had dinner before those show). Hammond was the only actor able to break the fourth wall and recognize that this was a show–he was a wonderful comic actor with great timing, singing and dancing well and doing a wonderful interaction with everyone. Hammond also got a wonderful second act number, “The Moon and Me”, where he got to sing a love song and dance with the moon. So playful; so wonderful. As Wednesday Addams, Courtney Wolfson was spectacular — a wonderful singing voice that I would love to hear again, great acting, great movement. Her performance was so great it made you forget that she looked a little too old for her character. That’s what good acting can do.

Rounding out the named family members: As Lucas, Brian Justin Crum brought strong singing and acting chops to his smaller role. He worked well with Wolfson as Wednesday, and had just the right off-ball nature that you could see them as equal partners. As his parents, Martin Vidnovic (Mal) and Gaelen Gilliland (Alice) were good. I liked Gilliland a little better, but I think that’s because she had a slightly more meatier, non-reactive part. However, Vidnovic was great just for the final scene. The remainder of the named Addams clan had smaller roles: as Lurch, Tom Corbeil had that zombie-shuffled down pat, and truly suprised the audience in the “Move Toward The Darkness” number. Patrick D. Kennedy did good with the smaller role of Pugsley (a character who always seems to get short shrift). Lastly, as Grandma, Pippa Pearthree had a small part (again, this seems to be the case with Grandma), but she did good with what she had.

The ensemble consisted of the unnamed Addams ancestors, who were integrated well into the revised storyline. The ancestors/ensemble were: Ted Ely, Karla Puno Garcia, Steve GearyPatrick Oliver Jones, Lizzie Klemperer, Pilar Millhollen, Christy Morton, Roland Rusinek, Geo Seery (Fight Captain), Samantha Shafer. Swings/supports were: Victoria Huston-Elem (Swing), Alexandra Matteo (Swing/Asst. Dance Captain), Brad Nacht (Swing), Jonathan Ritter (Swing, Dance Captain, Puppet Performance Captain), and Ethan Wexler (u/s Pugsley).

As I noted before, the music and the movement was great. The choreography was by Sergio Trujillo, assisted by Dontee Kiehn as Associate Choreographer and August Eriksmoen as Dance Arranger. As I noted before, the music and lyrics were by Andrew Lippa, with orchestrations by Larry Hochman. Musical direction was by Valerie Gebert. Mary-Mitchell Campbell was the music supervisor, and Michael Keller was the music coordinator. The orchestra was conducted by Valerie Gebert, assisted by Christopher D. Littlefield on keyboard. Also on keyboard was Anthony DeAngelis. Paul Hannah was on drums. Supporting them was the local orchestra who consisted of Kathleen Robertson on violin, Paula Fehrenbach on cello, Trey Henry on bass/5-string electric/fretless electric, Dick Mitchell on flute/piccolo/clarinet/alto sax; John Yoakum on flute/clarinet/bass clarinet/tenor sax/soprano sax; Wayne Bergeron on trumpet/flugelhorn; Andrew Martin on trombone/bass trombone; Justin Less Smith on guitar/ukulele/banjo; Judith Chilnick on percussion, and David Witham as the keyboard swing.

Technically, the show was magical. Part of this was due to the set and costume design of Julian Crouch, who used the stage curtains to great effect to partition the action and focus attention. It was enhanced by the lighting of Natasha Katz, who used lots of reds and purples to create the mood. Also deserving compliment is Acme Sound Partners, who finally figured out how to get the sound in the Pantages right. Also amazing was the puppet magic of Basil Twist, which could be seen in the Itt family, as well as Fester’s Moon number. Special effects, which were great, were by Gregory Meeh. Hair and wig design was by Tom Watson, with make-up by Angelina Avallone. Daniel S. Rosokoff was the production stage manager; E. Cameron Holsinger was the State Manager, Raynelle Wright was the Assistant Stage Manager.

The Addams Familycontinues at the Pantages through Sunday. Best way to get cheap tickets is to go to the box office. The tour continues to Denver CO, Kansas City MO, Washington DC, and many other places before ending up in Costa Mesa CA in December. We enjoyed the show, so if it hits your city, go see it.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Next week brings “Million Dollar Quartet” at the Pantages on June 22. July features “The Savannah Disputation” at the Colony, “The Laramie Project” at REP East, and “Meet Me In St. Louis” at Cabrillo. August is more open, but will bring “Memphis” at the Pantages and “Playdates” at REP East.  As always, open dates are subject to be filled in with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.


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