Observations Along the Road

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

The Times, They Were A Changin’

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Dec 29, 2013 @ 9:22 pm PDT

Inside Llewyn Davisuserpic=moviesThose who know me know that I love folk music of the 1960s. I started out as a Peter, Paul, and Mary afficianado, and then moved to the Kingston Trio, the Limeliters, the Weavers, Joan Baez, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and of course Tom Paxton. So when Tom, at his last concert, mentioned that one of his songs was being used in an upcoming movie… and recommended that movie.. suddenly “Inside Llewyn Davis” was on my radar.  So today saw me at my second movie in a week, together with my uncle Tom (who knows folk music well), learning about Llewyn Davis.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is the Coen Brother’s touching tribute to the pre-Dylan scene in Greenwich Village in New York, when venues such as the Gaslight introduced (or reintroduced) new and upcoming folk music acts such as those I named above, along with folk like Pete Seeger, the Clancy Brothers, Jean Ritchie, Mississippi John Hurt. It was a time of artistic creation, a time when folk music — and places like the Gaslight and the Hungry i in San Francisco, were shaping music. The story of Llewyn Davis is based roughly on the story of Dave Van Ronk, a folk musician of that time, although many things were changed. There are hints in the various acts of other folk groups, but none are explicitly names.

So let’s talk about the movie and what works… and what doesn’t. What works is the music… mostly. The selection of folk music on the soundtrack is great to listen to. Nice performances, nice voices, and some good selections. There are a few problems. The one I noticed was anachronistic — they included songs such as Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing On My Mind” that were written in 1962-1963… on performances that were supposedly in 1961 by someone other than the author. My uncle noted that it gave a very somber and downbeat image of folk music — much of the music was much more energetic and bluegrassy than what was portrayed. Again, look at the initial albums of Peter Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, the Weavers, or Tom Paxton for an idea of that energy. That energy wasn’t in the soundtrack song selection.

Another thing that works well are the performances. Oscar Davis is very strong as Llewyn — both performance-wise and singing-wise. The supporting actors are all very strong, in particular Max Casella, Ethan Phillips, and surprisingly, Justin Timberlake. John Goodman has an interesting role, although I think he is both literally and figuratively wasted in the movie. Yes, his performance is great… but if he wasn’t there, how would it change Llewyn’s trajectory through the story?

What doesn’t work is the story. To be blunt: it is boring and there is no character growth. We start with a scene where Llewyn is beat up for criticizing another performer at the Gaslight. We then move back in time to the week before, and observe a week in the life of Llewyn. We see him trying to get work in the folk music field… and failing. We see him homeless and sponging off of peoples couches. We see him interacting unsuccessfully with people. We see him carrying a cat around. What we never see is Llewyn learning anything about himself, or how to be successful in his field. We see others passing him by, moving onward and upward while he sabotages himself. At the end, we even see Dylan at the Gaslight, again upstaging Llewyn (as Dylan did to Van Ronk in real life). Llewyn never wins, and this makes the audience walk out wondering why they sat through this story. As someone somewhere else said about this movie: The journey of the cat is more interesting than Llewyn’s journey.

I’ve read other reviews praising this film and its artistry. That artistry is there: it is shot beautifully, it evokes great images, it establishes a mood. But… but… it’s ultimately all shadows and mood. You get to watch someone fail. You get to see someone ping-pong through life, never quite making the hole. Playwrights have long learned that the story is critical, and they have dramaturgs there to hone the story and make sure it tells what it is supposed to tell. What we were supposed to see from this story — well, I couldn’t figure it out. It was a beautiful movie, but it also didn’t touch my soul or affect me as it could have done had it been honed a little better. I wanted so much more here — to see why folk music succeeded, to see perhaps how Llewyn might not have been successful, but he might have been that catalyst for others. But it wasn’t there. Llewyn was a true anti-hero, and he just couldn’t succeed.

The artists behind this movie did a wonderful job of getting the atmosphere of the Gaslight and Greenwich Village correct; of establishing the feel of New York; of establishing what the early folk scene was like. What they didn’t capture was the energy. Tom Paxton talks in his concerts about playing the Gaslight, and then keeping the music going with folks like the Clancy Brothers at the local bars until the wee hours of the ‘morn. That energy is missing here.

If you like folk music, and have an interest in how the 1960s folk revival began, “Inside Llewyn Davis” may be worth seeing. If you are looking for an engaging story line that has characters you care about, then think twice. If you like the music, I suggest just getting the sound track… or even better, getting the excellent Smithsonian Archive’s album of Dave Van Ronk.

Previews: Of course, what is a movie without previews. Here’s what was previewed and my thoughts:

  • Cesar Chavez: An American Hero. A bio-pic on Cesar Chavez and his movement. Could be interesting, but I’m more likely to watch it on Shotime than in the theatres.
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel. The comic adventures of a hotel concierge in a famous European hotel. Didn’t draw me in, but looks cute.
  • American HustleThe story of a 1970s con-man. Not interested in this at all.

[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained critic; I am, however, a regular 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.]

And with that, the 2013 year of entertainment comes to a close. We probably saw one live theatre performance a week, on average, plus two to three movies. There were also some concerts along the way. It was a fun year, and you can read about it all by just following the review-2013 tag. Hopefully, 2014 will be just as fun. Entertainment — preferably live, but even filmed — enriches the soul and doesn’t clutter the house. Go to the theatre, or the theater, if you must, today.

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  Our first ticketed performance in January 2014 is a concert performance of MooNie and Broon (FB) at The Colony Theatre (FB) on January 11. The first scheduled theatre is on January 18: “Mom’s Gift” at The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (FB) in North Hollywood. The following weekend, January 25, brings the first show of the REP East (FB) 10th season: “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change“ (which we last saw at REP in 2006). February 1 may also bring “Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike” at the Mark Taper Forum, depending on Hottix availability (alternate dates are 2/2 and 2/9). February 8 will bring “Forever Plaid” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). The following weekend, February 15, is being held for Lysistrata Jones at The Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim. The last weekend of February, February 22, is currently being held for Sutton Foster at the Broad Stage (FB) in Santa Monica (if I can find discount tickets). March brings “Sex and Education” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on March 8, and “Biloxi Blues” at REP East (FB) on March 29. It may also bring “Harmony” at The Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on March 22. The end of the month (actually April 5) bring “In The Heights” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.

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Battling for a Vision

Written By: cahwyguy - Thu Dec 26, 2013 @ 9:58 am PDT

Saving Mr. Banksuserpic=moviesMarket research firms for movies hate me. They call regularly, and ask what movies I’ve seen. I tell them I don’t go to the movies; I go to live theatre. They usually hang up at that point. But I do go to the movies — I always go on Christmas Day, and perhaps one or two other times  during the year. Yesterday was Christmas. Guess where I was, and what I had for dinner :-).

The movie we chose for yesterday was “Saving Mr. Banks“, from Walt Disney Pictures, directed by . I chose this movie for a number of reasons: first, it was getting good buzz from people I respect on that side of the story, such as Floyd Norman, who worked with Walt himself (his blog, if you’re into animation, is a must read). It was also getting excellent reviews. Most importantly: it was an interesting story: How did Walk Disney get the reclusive P. L. Travers to give permission to make the musical “Mary Poppins” (which in many ways was a groundbreaking film achievement, especially in the mixing of live action and animation). I have read some of the original Mary Poppins books, and have (of course) seen both the movie and the musical (which was impacted by the movie — and this story — in many ways).

Saving Mr. Banks” stars  as Walt Disney and as P. L. Travers.  It tells the story of the negotiation between Disney and Travers for the rights to make the movie “Mary Poppins“, as well as the story of how Travers was involved with the shaping of the final product. It also tells, through flashbacks, Travers’ childhood story and how that influenced the Mary Poppins story. Ferrett Steinmetz over on Livejournal had an insightful observation on this conflict: What made it interesting was that it wasn’t the expected conflict between corporate behemoth and artist fighting for the rights. Instead, it was a conflict between two artists who wanted to tell and protect the story that they loved, but each was seeing the story differently. They could move ahead only once they agreed on what the story was.

Discovering this agreement is where the flashbacks came in. These demonstrated how the characters in the story mapped to people in P.L. Travers (Helen Goff)’s life — in particular, how Mr. Banks was a mirror for Travers Goff, her father. Understanding that relationship — and the similar relationship between Disney and his father — was the key to the story.

Is the story presented true? From my understanding, it mostly is. I have no idea the truth of the flashback sequences and the extent to which Goff’s childhood influenced her writing as P. L. Travers. Given how she reacted to children (she never had any of her own, although she adopted), she may have been aiming the story more as an allegory for adults than amusement for children. I do know that certain elements of the portrayal of Disney were whitewashed a little — in particular, the Disney organization specifically requested that Walt never be shown inhaling cigarettes.

More importantly, the movie whitewashed Travers reaction at the end. One walked out feeling that she accepted Walt’s final product. In the end, she really didn’t — she tolerated what was done to the story, but completely rejected the combination of animation and live action. She wanted no cutesy animation in the story. As a result of this, she refused additional rights to Disney for movie adaption; further, when she permitted Cameron Mackintosh to make the stage version, she stipulated that no Americans were to be involved with the creative side (and this is why the Sherman Brothers, who were both still alive at the time, had no involvement with the development of the new songs in the stage “Mary Poppins”).

The movie didn’t touch on one thing I have always heard about the movie “Mary Poppins” and its music: that Walt Disney considered the song “Feed the Birds” to be the heart and soul of the movie. “Saving Mr. Banks” makes it appear as if that soul was found in “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”, a redemption song for Mr. Banks. It’s an interesting question about which is more the heart of the movie.

When I go see movies, I note the things that make the movie special. I think this was a story that wouldn’t work as well on stage (but I could be wrong). This was something that benefited from its period. It also had some excellent cinematography and special effects — I particularly noticed this in the transactions between “present day” and the flashbacks. I also noted the attention to detail in the historical Southern California sequences: the sequences on Laurel Canyon, the sequences at Disneyland, the sequences at the Chinese. I understand they did redressing of the current sites, which makes this even more remarkable. I also appreciated the historical LAX, which was in the period when the “new” LAX had just opened.

I’m not going to list all the credits for the movie — you can find them on IMDB. I will say that both Tom Hanks and Emma Thompsen gave excellent and believable performances, as did all the other leads. With film, you find that the actors focus on the performance; the joy of performing that one sees in a stage performer just does not come across.

Previews: Of course, what is a movie without previews. Here’s what was previewed and my thoughts:

  • Muppets Most Wanted. Another in the new Muppet series of movies, this time pitting a bad Kermit vs. a good Kermit. A possibility because my wife loves the Muppets, but I want to see the reviews first.
  • Million Dollar Arm. Another Disney movie — this time about recruiting Indian baseball players. Innocuous, but not something that would draw me to the theatre.
  • Divergent. A science fiction movie based on a young adult novel. It didn’t particularly grab me.
  • Son of God. A movie version of the life of Jesus. I don’t think I’m the audience they are going for, but I’m sure it will play well in the heartland.

[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained critic; I am, however, a regular 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:  All that remains in 2014 is one more movie: I’m seeing “Inside Llewyn Davis”  on Sunday, December 29. Looking into January: Our first ticketed performance is a concert performance of MooNie and Broon (FB) at The Colony Theatre (FB) on January 11. The first scheduled theatre is on January 18: “Mom’s Gift” at The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (FB) in North Hollywood. The following weekend, January 25, brings the first show of the REP East (FB) 10th season: “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change“ (which we last saw at REP in 2006). February 1 may also bring “Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike” at the Mark Taper Forum, depending on Hottix availability (alternate dates are 2/2 and 2/9). February 8 will bring “Forever Plaid” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). The following weekend, February 15, is being held for Lysistrata Jones at The Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim. The last weekend of February, February 22, is currently being held for Sutton Foster at the Broad Stage (FB) in Santa Monica (if I can find discount tickets). March brings “Sex and Education” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on March 8, and “Biloxi Blues” at REP East (FB) on March 29. It may also bring “Harmony” at The Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on March 22. The end of the month (actually April 5) bring “In The Heights” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.

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All We Are Waiting For is A Hero

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Dec 22, 2013 @ 9:49 am PDT

Peter and the Starcatcher (Ahmanson)userpic=ahmansonEach year when I watch the Tony Awards, I make mental notes of which shows to see and which to avoid. A few years ago, “Peter and the Starcatcher” was on the show, and Christian Borle’s performance convinced me this was a show I had to see. So when it was announced that the tour would hit the Ahmanson in Los Angeles, plans were made to acquire Hottix. Last night was the culmination, when we went to the Ahmanson to see Peter.

How should I describe this story (which was adapted from the original Dave Berry and Ridley Pearson book by Rick Elice (FB))? I could just point you to the Wikipedia page, which has a full description of the plot.   I could just say this Peter and the Starcatcher is to Peter Pan as Wicked is to The Wizard of Oz: A prequel that explains the origins of the base story’s characters in a clever and interesting way. But this is a story, and all stories must begin with “Once upon a Time.”

Once upon a time there were three orphans in London – Boy, Prentiss, and Ted. They were sold to Fighting Prawn, an island chief on Mollusk Island, and were to be transported to their doom aboard the Never Land. There was also once a British Lord, Lord Aster, and his daughter Molly. They were also on their way to Mollusk Island to transport a trunk from Queen Victoria to the chief of the Island, abort the fastest frigate in the land, the Wasp, captained by Captain Robert Scott. But the Lord secretly wanted to destroy the trunk. There was also the captain of the Never Land, Slank, who wanted the valuable contents of the trunk and so arranged for the trunk to be swapped with an identical trunk filled with sand before they left port. Slank was also transporting Molly and her caretaker, Mrs. Bumbrake, as his was the slower and safe ship. While on the way to the island, a pirate crew, led by the cruel and anachronistic and crazy Black Stache, assisted by his right hand man Smee, take over the Wasp. They discover the sand filled trunk, and turn around to capture the slower Never Land. Meanwhile, Molly has befriended the orphan boys and rescued them.  When Stache arrives, a battle ensuses. Boy is charged to protect the trunk, and floats with it to the island, while the others follow. While floating, some of the contents of the real trunk (star stuff) leaks out.

The second act presents the effect of that star stuff, and we learn how each of their characters became who they were intended to be. Boy becomes Peter Pan, Molly the woman who would be Wendy’s mother, and Stache becomes Hook. Along the way, there are singing mermaids, fights, crocodiles, and all sorts of sillyness. There is also heroism — it is this heroism that transforms both Peter and Stasche into the eternal opponents they are.

This is a silly story, presented with loads of imagination. In some ways similar to staging of the earlier Scottsboro Boys (there’s a comparison I bet you never thought you would see): the sets are not realistic, and through simple props, some ropes, and lots of excellent sound effects, you are transformed in your imagination. For whatever reason, the sillyness of this story combined with the staging approach offended quite a few people: we had two couples sitting near us leave by the second scene, and a number of the older crowd in the Orchestra left at intermission. Their loss.

As for me, I loved it. First, I love backstories (which is why I’ve read all of Gregory Maguire‘s books), and Peter/Starcatcher is an imaginative and clever way of explaining how Pan and the other characters came to be. More importantly, I loved the message and lines such as this nugget: “Things are only worth what you’re willing to give up for them.” Profound insight. The play demonstrated the meaning of heroism through that message: what transforms Peter into a leader is what he gives up; what transforms Molly is what she gives up; and in a sense, what transforms Stache is what he gives up (and let’s all give him a hand). I loved the clever staging; I loved the anachronisms and word play; I loved when the fourth wall was occasionally broken; I loved the fun the actors were clearly having with this piece; and I loved the inventive, clever, and even more amazingly live sound effects. This was, simply, a fun play that carried one message that spoke to children, and a different but equally important message that spoke to the adults — and so was doubly impactful for childish adults like me.

I’ll also note that it was quite interesting seeing this play the same year that I saw Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers” at the Blank. That was a version of Pan that wasn’t the cuteified Disney version nor the musical Broadway version. That was a gritty version. It noted the importance of the mother figure to Peter, and in that play, Hook notes that the mother is Peter’s weakness. Starcatcher shows the relationship between Peter and Molly (Wendy’s mother), and how the transformation of the star stuff led Peter to give up Molly.  Now think again about the line: “Things are only worth what you’re willing to give up for them.” Peter gives up Molly because he is forced to; he’s not willing to give her up, but gives her up to find home. The two productions do interconnect nicely. So in the end, does Peter hate mothers? Peter is a boy — he doesn’t know what true love or hate is — he only knows childish love and hate. Peter hates grownups, doesn’t understand their motivations, and doesn’t think what his actions do. Peter loves his mother / Molly, and doesn’t even realize the hurt he creates — and how his mothers actually love the hurt because they love Peter.

This is one production where one must acknowledge the director’s vision. Roger Rees (FB) and Alex Timbers (FB), the directors, brought a unique creative vision to this production. It is not the typical realistic set that one sees; it is not the typical realistic characters. It is imagination on stage in a way that forces the audience to join in the imagination and the fun. They create, with an obvious wink, a clear impression that these are actors telling a story, but a story that they love. Is it true? Does it matter?

The performances are also top notch, led by John Sanders (FB) as Black Stache. Although I would loved to have seen Borle play this, Sanders was comic perfection. I will never think about the words “Oh My God” the same after the scene where Stache loses his hand. The man was manic, and I couldn’t tell where the script stopped and direction began, where direction ended and improvisation began, and where improvisation ended. He was just fun to watch whenever he was onstage chewing the scenery (such as it was), interacting with his Smee, Pan, and the others. The production is worth seeing for him alone.

Equally strong were Megan Stern (FB) as Molly and Joey DeBettencourt (FB) as Boy/Peter. Stern’s Molly projects spunk and self-confidence — this is one girl who knows who she is, what she is, and what she wants to be — and won’t let any boy stand in the way of that goal. She had strong comic timing, and projected a joy and power that shone through the theatre. DeBettencourt’s Boy transforms during the show. At the beginning he is timid and beaten down, lagging behind his friends Prentiss and Ted. By the end he can stand up and crow about the things that he has done. Theatre is at its best when characters transform and change as a result of what happens on stage, and this is something that clearly happens to DeBettencourt’s Boy/Pan, and this growth (in turn) leads other characters to grow. DeBettencourt portrays this growth well, and clearly projects the fun he is having with the role.

The supporting characters are also quite strong. As Smee, Luke Smith (FB) is the man behind the hook, the almost brains-of-the-bunch. He is delightful to watch as he corrects Black Stache, and his performance as a mermaid is an image you’ll never get out of your brain. Again, this young man seems to just be having fun with this character. Also having fun is Benjamin Schrader (FB) as Mrs. Bumbrake. Following in the English Music Hall tradition of a man playing a woman for comic effect, Schrader’s Bumbrake is hilarious, both as she attempts to protect Molly, as well as when she is being wooed by Alf (Harter Clingman (FB)), one of Slank’s crew.

Rounding out the cast (and clearly having a lot of fun) were the aformentioned Harter Clingman (FB) (Alf), Jimonn Cole (FB) (Capt. Slank), Nathan Hosner (FB) (Lord Aster), Carl Howell (FB) (Prentiss), Ian Michael Stuart (FB) (Capt. Scott), Edward Tournier (FB) (Ted), and Lee Zarrett (FB) (Fighting Prawn). The understudies, who we did not see, were Ben Beckley (FB) (u/s Smee / Slank / Alf / Fighting Prawn / Mrs. Bumbrake), Robert Franklin Neill (FB) (u/s Lord Aster / Slank / Alf / Black Stache / Capt. Scott), Rachel Prather (FB) (u/s Molly / Ted / Prentiss / Mrs. Bumbrake), and Nick Vidal (FB) (u/s Boy / Prentiss / Ted / Fighting Prawn / Capt Scott).

This is an intensely choreographed production, without ever calling it choreography because there is no formal dance. Similarly, although there is music this is not a musical, because the music does not propel the story. Credit for this aspect of the creativity goes to Steven Hoggett (FB) (Movement) and Wayne Barker (FB) (Composer). Supporting these two were Rachel Prather (FB) as the movement captain, and Benjamin Schrader (FB) as the fight captain. Andy Grobengieser (FB) was the musical director, and coordinated the three musicians, who were suspended on boxes on the side of the stage. Additional related credits are: Marco Paguia (FB) (Musical Supervisor), Lillian King (FB) (Associate Director), Patrick McCollum (FB) (Movement Associate), and Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum (FB) (Fight Director).

The creative team for this show won a number of Tony awards, and deservedly so. I’ve already mentioned the creative set design of Donyale Werle (FB). Also notable was the sound design of Darron L. West (FB), who created numerous amazing sound effects, seemingly live. The costumes of Paloma Young (FB) were creative and adaptable, as could be seen in the inventive costumes for Stache, Bumbrake, and the crocodile. Jeff Croiter‘s (FB) lighting design was effective in creating and establishing moods, and was particularly notable during the fight scenes where the lights were rising and falling in the background.  Additional related credits are: Michael Carnahan (Associate Scenic Designer), Katherine Wallace (Production Supervisor), Shawn Pennington (FB) Production Stage Manager), McKenzie Murphy (FB) (Assistant Stage Manager), and Phoenix Entertainment (Production and Technical Supervision).

Peter and the Starcatcher” continues at the Ahmanson Theatre until January 12. Tickets are available through the Ahmanson Box Office, and perhaps through Goldstar.  It is well worth seeing.

I’ll note this is my last theatre writeup of 2013. It’s been an interesting theatre year, with loads of great shows. Los Angeles is a great theatre town, and I’m sure (if you’re not in Los Angeles) you can find great theatre in your city. You can see a movie anytime. Treat yourself to the gift of theatre for 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:  Remaining in 2014 is the traditional movie and Asian Food on Christmas Day — right now, the two movie possibilities are “Saving Mr. Banks” opening December 13 (meaning we can use group discount tickets), or “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” opening December 25. I’m also interested in “Inside Llewyn Davisfor both its soundtrack and its story (based off the live of Dave Van Ronk). None of the other December releases look worth the money (I’d rather see “August: Osage County” on the stage, thankyouverymuch). Looking into January: Our first ticketed performance is a concert performance of MooNie and Broon (FB) at The Colony Theatre (FB) on January 11. The first scheduled theatre is on January 18: “Mom’s Gift” at The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (FB) in North Hollywood. The following weekend, January 25, brings the first show of the REP East (FB) 10th season: “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change“ (which we last saw at REP in 2006). February 1 may also bring “Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike” at the Mark Taper Forum, depending on Hottix availability (alternate dates are 2/2 and 2/9). February 8 will bring “Forever Plaid” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). The following weekend, February 15, is being held for Lysistrata Jones at The Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim. The last weekend of February, February 22, is currently being held for Sutton Foster at the Broad Stage (FB) in Santa Monica (if I can find discount tickets). March brings “Sex and Education” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on March 8, and “Biloxi Blues” at REP East (FB) on March 29. It may also bring “Harmony” at The Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on March 22. The end of the month (actually April 5) bring “In The Heights” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.

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Elementary, My Dear Alice

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Dec 15, 2013 @ 7:07 pm PDT

Sherlock Through The Looking Glass (Porters of Hellgate)userpic=yorickA few weeks ago, I was looking at listings of upcoming theatre in Los Angeles when I saw a mention of a show with an interesting premise: What if you took Sherlock Holmes, whose world is based in logic, and place him in a world where logic doesn’t work? This premise sounded so interesting that I went and book tickets for the show, the Porters of Hellgate (FB) presentation of “Sherlock Through the Looking Glass” by Gus Krieger (FB). The show wasn’t quite what I expected, but it was very good in its own way.

First, let me get my expectations out of the way. What I expected was a mystery that took place in an Alice-In-Wonderland world, where Sherlock Holmes would have to figure out how to use non-logic to solve the crime. Although that was present a little in this story, it wasn’t the whole story… and in that I was disappointed. A full story like that could be quite interesting.

So what was the story we got? Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are bored — their last case was a while ago, and there hasn’t been anything interesting happening. In comes Lillian Childress, who paints a story about an incident that took place at a London marketplace. She was there with her sister, Josephine, looking at the wares. She was looking at books, while her sister was looking at fruit and other wares. After purchasing a copy of the Alice books and showing them to her sister, her sister exhibits signs of madness… and the police take her away to Bedlam. This is the third such case of madness in the last month, and the police suspect Lillian to be culprit. She goes to Holmes to prove her innocence. Tracking down the case leads to the prime suspect, Charles Dogson (better known as  Lewis Carroll, the author of the Alice books). While he goes off to jail, Holmes continues to investigate beliving Dogson to be innocent as well. The continued investigation result in Holmes falling into the madness as well. Can Holmes work his way out of the Alice-In-Wonderland based delusions and find the real culprit? This is the heart of the play.

This play, essentially, mashes the world of Holmes with the world of Alice, with a little of the historical world of Charles Dogson thrown in. I’m not an expert on Holmes, but the characterizations here seemed to fit with the characterizations I’ve seen in other stage and screen portrayal of both Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson. There wasn’t an overindulgence on stereotypes, but sufficient logic and deduction to establish the characters quite well. In the second act, there was descent into the madness of Alice’s world, with Holmes roughly in the position of Alice. Again, this worked reasonably well — quoting some of the best known portions of the Carroll books and presenting the best known characters, but not falling into the Disney stereotypes of the characters. Lastly, the other characters surrounding Holmes in London worked reasonably well to establish their characters and purposes.

In short, the story was a fun one, if not a bit wordy at times (making it initially a bit hard to follow). Of course, one expects a little wordiness with Holmes. I liked the story and its resolution, and the way the story work seemed consistent overall with Sherlock Holmes. In truth, given Holmes’ addictions and OCD, he wasn’t that far from madness to begin with.

The performances were very strong. In the lead position was Kevin Stidham (FB) as Sherlock Holmes. Stidham was able to draw from his UK background to get the accent right, and looked a bit like you expect Holmes to look (or perhaps a little young). He did well with the voluminous dialog, only having one or two line hesitations. He worked well with his Dr. Watson, Timothy Portnoy (FB). Portnoy’s Watson handled the supporting role well, and was surprisingly physical in the fight scenes (although the pulling of punches was a bit obvious). The two together were fun to watch. Lastly, as the lead protagonist Lillian Childress (as well as the Red Queen), Jennifer Bronstein (FB) worked well to move the story along, and was believable as the concerned sister.

Most of the other roles were supporting and blended more in. A few specific performances deserve some highlighting. Ulka Mohanty (FB) (Street Singer/Cheshire Cat) had a lovely singing voice in addition to her nice performance skills. Also strong was Hap Lawrence (FB) (Charles Dogson/Humpty Dumpty), who we’ve seen before at the Pasadena Playhouse. Lawrence’s Dogson just seemed right for the character, which is a nice thing to see. Rounding out the ensemble were: Dana DeRuyck (FB) (Josephine Childress / White Queen), Andrew Graves (FB) (Bookseller Bart / Mad Hatter), Amelia Gotham (FB) (Thimblerigger / Dormouse), Sean Faye (FB) (Lestrade / Tweedledee), Michael Hoag (FB) (Gregson / Tweedledum), Michael Bigley (FB) (Wal / Constable Altamont / Red Knight), Dylan Vigus (FB) (Carp / Constable Foley / White Knight), Robert Beddall (FB) (Fruiterer / March Hare), and Kate O’Toole (FB) (Mrs. Morris / Knave of Hearts). All of the actors seemed to be having fun and enjoying their roles.

The play was directed by Gus Krieger (FB), who used a very simple set design for the production (no set designer is credited). The sound design, which disappeared as a good sound design should do, was by Nick Neidorf (FB). The lighting design was by Sterling Hall (FB), and worked reasonably well (although more modern LED lights or movers would have made the color changes during the madness sequences stronger, but budgets are budgets). More impressive was the costume design by Jessica Pasternak (FB), who created effective costumes that evoked the era. Even more impressive were the Alice-themed masks created by Amelia Gotham (FB) that were used during the madness scenes. Choreography was by Louise Gassman (FB), and the fighting sequences were choreographed by Charles Pasternak (FB). Stage management was by Sarah Buto (FB), and Jessica Pasternak (FB) was the house manager. The production was produced by the Porters of Hellgate (FB) and the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB).

This was our first Porters of Hellgate (FB) production. They look to be a company that focuses on the classics, and have as a company goal the production of every one of Shakespeare’s plays. They’ve done 17; they have 18 to go (counting all the parts of the Henry n as a single play). It will be interesting to watch them for the future.

Sherlock Through The Looking Glass” continues at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB) through December 22. Tickets are available through the Porters of Hellgate website and Vendini,  and may be available through Goldstar and LA Stage Tix. If you like Sherlock Holmes or Alice in Wonderland, it is worth seeing.

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  December, as currently scheduled for theatre, concludes with “Peter and the Starcatcher” at The Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Of course, there will be the traditional movie and Chinese Food on Christmas Day — right now, the two movie possibilities are “Saving Mr. Banks” opening December 13 (meaning we can use group discount tickets), or “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” opening December 25. I’m also interested in “Inside Llewyn Davisfor both its soundtrack and its story (based off the live of Dave Van Ronk). None of the other December releases look worth the money (I’d rather see “August: Osage County” on the stage, thankyouverymuch). Looking into January: The first scheduled show is on January 18: “Mom’s Gift” at The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (FB) in North Hollywood. The following weekend, January 25, brings the first show of the REP East (FB) 10th season: “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change“ (which we last saw at REP in 2006). February 8 will bring “Forever Plaid” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). The following weekend, February 15, is being held for Lysistrata Jones at The Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim. The last weekend of February, February 22, is currently being held for Sutton Foster at the Broad Stage (FB) in Santa Monica (if I can find discount tickets). March brings “Sex and Education” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on March 8, and “Biloxi Blues” at REP East (FB) on March 29. It may also bring “Harmony” at The Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on March 22. The end of the month (actually April 5) bring “In The Heights” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.

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Nothing Fishy Going On Here

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Dec 07, 2013 @ 8:04 am PDT

Little Mermaid (Nobel MS)userpic=theatre_musicalsBy now, you’ve figured out we go to a lot of theatre, of all shapes and sizes. Our range runs from intimate shows to Broadway houses, and from middle-school to professional productions. We’ve seen professional groups do amateur jobs, and we’ve seen amateurs do top-notch works. One of the groups we’ve seen grow over time is the Theatre Arts Department at Nobel Charter Middle School (FB) here in Northridge. We were there when they started back up — our daughter was in their inaugural production back in 2006. Back then, they were a group with lots of energy but little resources — sound was three stand up microphones; lights were on a tree on the side with a shared extension cord, and costumes were rummaged from here and there. Eight years later, they have full professional lighting and a lighting board, a full sound board and wireless mics, professional quality sets and costumes (made by parents, not rented), and still lots and lots of energy. This is all paid for by voluntary contributions, not LAUSD. At its heart are the two same great teachers:  Fanny Araña and Jean Martellaro.

All this means is that when Nobel announces a production, we do our best to stop on by and see it. So last night, we were in a standing-room-only middle school auditorium (700+ people were in attendance) watching a large group of kids perform their hearts out doing “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” musical (technically, the Jr. version, best as I can figure out). You know what? They did pretty good.

I could attempt to summarize the story of “The Little Mermaid” to you, but it’s long and complex, and I’m dealing with the TL;DR generation. Suffice it to say that the musical version is slightly different from the animated cartoon, and you can find a good summary of the musical version on Wikipedia. Differences include changes in sequences, addition of a number of new songs by Alan Menkin and Glenn Slater (in addition to the original songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menkin), and some simplification for the stage. Most of the book by Doug Wright remains. The Jr. version shortens the production a bit more, and cuts a number of songs (both from the original movie, such as “I Want The Good Times Back”, as well as new songs such as “Positoovity”); the song cuts are how I identified this as the Jr. version. I’ll note that I’ve never actually seen the animated movie in its entirety, although I’ve heard the score.  By the time my daughter was the age she was watching Disney animated movies, this had just gone back into the vault. So I’m really only familiar with the property from the stage musical.

With a production this large, it is hard to single out everyone from the cast. Further, understanding this is middle-school production, there are the expected flaws — these are neither trained singers nor actors, just kids putting on a show.  The occasional flats, changing voices, and inaudible lines are more than made up by the enthusiasm and joy on the faces of these children as they learn skills and confidence that will serve them well all their life. But there are a few performances I want to single out in various ways, before I list everyone. Note that I’m not going to try to link to all the kids.

As I just said, there were a few performances deserving special note: Leanne Langston (Ariel) had a remarkably strong voice, and was a spectacular dancer (demonstrated in the “One Step Closer” number, with her equally strong partner, Ryan Wynott, as Prince Eric). Another strong singer and performer was Alishia Maghreiva as Ursula, who did a great job of projecting malevolence. On the comic side, Harry Harutyunyun was strong as Sebastian — although he kept having microphone problems, you could tell this young man could sing and move well. Also strong comically were Jasmine Moore as Scuttle and Andrzej Krassner-Cybulski as Flounder. Also extremely strong as a choral group in the “Daughters of Triton” number were the mersisters: Alana Gardette-Dupre (Aquata), Rebecca Radvinsky (Andrina), Claire Frankland (Arista), Emily Alexander (Atina), Morgan Knight (Adella), and Allana (Lexi Gardner). I was also impressed with Janelle Miller as Chef Louis in the “Les Poissons” number, and the comic antics of Frency Wane as Dim-Sum. Lastly, I want to highlight Rachel Khoury as the seagull Gullible — not as much for her performance on stage, but watching her entertain pre-show and during intermission, staying in character and just having fun with the audience.

Rounding out the large cast were: Grimsby – Brett Jariabek; Ship’s Pilots – Matthew Bacon, Jason Foster; Sailors – Janelle Miller, Nancy Turmell, Rose Meyers, Charlotte Doolittle, Marie Verdin, Leila Musleh, Jacob Lipman, Jennifer Sarkisian, Gigi Mkchyan, Fernanda Lopez; King Triton – Braden Harness; Seahorses – Eli Leyberman (Seabiscuit), Emily Borses (Flicka); Seagulls – Jake Dalton (Awkward), David Gomez (Gulliver), Max Chester (Awkdorable), Rachel Khoury (Gullible), Sammy Wane (Awksome); Eels – Justin Tuell (Flotsam), Aaminah Babatunde-Bey (Jetsam), Anthony Sottile (Gruesome), Michelle Villalobos (Ransom), Frenchy Wane (Dim-Sum); Carlotta – Gigi Mkchyan, Babette – Jennifer Sarkisian; Yvette – Fernanda Lopez; Chefs – Nancy Turmell, Rose Meyers, Charlotte Doolittle, Leila Musleh, Jacob Lipman, Taylor Carlson; Princesses – Claire Frankland, Emily Alexander, Rebecca Radvinsky, Alana Gardette DuPre, Lexi Gardner, Morgan Knight; Lagoon Leads – Matthew Bacon, Jason Foster; Water Wizards – Emilio “Bongo” Godinez, Shawn Wadhwani; Water Faries – Fernanda Lopez, Taylor “Cookie” Carlson, Kennaya Ndu, Talia Ballew; Water Reeds – Willow Islas, Kamryn Siler, Hannah Protiva; Sea Creatures/Lagoon Animals – Jesse Pacheco, Devina Moore, Brendon Harrington, Spencer Goldman, Brandon Moser, Robert Cerda, Emma Casella, Troy Richman, Juliana Barba, Marena Wisa-Wasef, Kennaya Ndu, Marie Verdin, Leila Musleh, Jennifer Sarkisian, Janelle Miller, Nancy Turmell, Gigi Mkchyan, Talia Ballew, and Renee Rubanowitz. Whew! Large cast!

Technically, every NCMS production is a step beyond the last. We’ve seen this program go from few resources to lots, and along the way, these younguns’ are gaining technical training — and they come back and help the program. In particular, the lighting for this program (designed by Noelle Sammour, assisted by Artur Cybulski as lighting consultant) was very good (and the technical team had no missed lighting cues that I saw). The sound, designed by sound consultant Isaijah Johnson (9th grade) had a good design and cues were executed well, but it was sabotaged by the sound-swallowing characteristics of the Nobel Auditorium (alas, not much can be done about that), and the fact that the actors were not used to microphones (causing them to sometimes work, and sometimes have static) (and that takes time and experience to address). The set was remarkable, especially when you consider it was built by students. The set design was by Benjamin Tiber (9th grade), and was constructed under Huan “Papa” Chu and Barry Borses. The costumes, designed by Larissa Kazantsev, were clever and worked well.

Rounding out this team was the tech crew: Stage Manager – Gio Roberto, Set Manager – Dana Rubanowitz, Set Crew – Ranveer Dhillon, Luca Goldenberg, Brandon Huetter, Eunice Kim, Alexandra Kopatsis, Tam Le, Aaron Nguyen, Estrella Palacios, Isabelle Saligumba, Andrienne Santiago, Tal Sisso, and Karla Vasquez; Prop Crew – Justin Borses, Casey Donchez, Kara Glaser, Jacqueline Harris; Costume Crew – Adi Ankori, Tal Ankori, Sarah Khorsandi, Hailey Matthew, David Manolo, Lilly Eaves, Christopher Sarkissian; Sound Crew – Jacob Zonis, Alyssa Crocker, Michael McNabb, Stephen Rabin; Light Crew – Aaron Nguyen, Andrew Petrak, Zarah Shahinian, Skyler Won, Nicolaus Carlson (9th grade); Spot Operator – Neema Zahedi.

Direction was provided by Jean Martellaro, assisted by Harry Harutyunyun (8th grade). Choreography (which was very good for a middle-school production) was developed by Jenna Beth Stockman and Madison Tilner (9th grade). Daniel Bellusci (12th grade) and Iona Della Torre were the music directors, and Dennis Kull was the technical director.

There are two more performances of “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” (Jr.), both today: 2pm and 630pm. If you live in the area, go on out and support these kids and this great program. Noble Charter Middle School is at 9950 Tampa Avenue in Northridge, at the intersection of Tampa and Lassen. The auditorium is 1 block N, off Merridy Street.

[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:  Tomorrow I leave for New Orleans and the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC). When I return we have an interesting play, “Sherlock Through the Looking Glass“, at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB). December, as currently scheduled for theatre, concludes with “Peter and the Starcatcher” at The Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Of course, there will be the traditional movie and Chinese Food on Christmas Day — right now, the two movie possibilities are “Saving Mr. Banks” opening December 13 (meaning we can use group discount tickets), or “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” opening December 25. I’m also interested in “Inside Llewyn Davisfor both its soundtrack and its story (based off the live of Dave Van Ronk). None of the other December releases look worth the money (I’d rather see “August: Osage County” on the stage, thankyouverymuch). Looking into January: The first scheduled show is on January 18: “Mom’s Gift” at The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (FB) in North Hollywood. The following weekend, January 25, brings the first show of the REP East (FB) 10th season: “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change“ (which we last saw at REP in 2006). February 8 will bring “Forever Plaid” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). The following weekend, February 15, is being held for Lysistrata Jones at The Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim. The last weekend of February, February 22, is currently being held for Sutton Foster at the Broad Stage (FB) in Santa Monica (if I can find discount tickets). March brings “Sex and Education” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on March 8, and “Biloxi Blues” at REP East (FB) on March 29. It may also bring “Harmony” at The Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on March 22. The end of the month (actually April 5) bring “In The Heights” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.

 

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The Golden Age Wasn’t So Golden

Written By: cahwyguy - Fri Dec 06, 2013 @ 7:32 am PDT

Sound Of Music Live!userpic=televisionWe tend to look back on the past through rose colored glasses. We think travelling by plane in the 1950s and 1960s was so much more elegant and refined than today’s cattle cars, but it really wasn’t. Similarly, we look back on the “Golden Age” of Television — live TV from the 1950s and 1960s — as something special, but it really wasn’t. Sets weren’t fancy, performances were hit or miss, and there were numerous imperfections (anyone who has watched rebroadcasts of the live Peter Pan will remember it). But through the rose-colored glasses of time it seems better, and so NBC tried to capture that magic last night with a live production of “The Sound of Music, starring Carrie Underwood, Stephen Moyer, Audra McDonald, Christian Borle, and Laura Benanti. Although I only meant to watch 20 minutes, I ended up watching the whole thing. In short, I thought it was a reasonable effort — it was imperfect, but it wasn’t unwatchable. Here are some short comments regarding the production — certainly not a full review as I don’t have the time (further, I don’t think you need the full review treatment).

First and foremost, this was a remake of the stage production, so all you Julie Andrews-loving, Carrie Underwood-hating people out there… shut up. It is wrong to compare this to the movie, which used a rejiggered script with songs in different places, and had the money and time to get perfect scenery and to retake and retake until it was just right. This production, although rehearsed, was a single live take that could not be redone. Comparing it to a full movie is apples and oranges. Compare it to other stage productions or equivalent live stage musicals on TV. [I’ll note that most of the “hating” reviews I’m seeing are upset that this wasn’t their benighted movie, believing that the movie is the musical. The stage production existed for years before the movie.]

That said, the production had a very 1950-ish feel to it. Although this was a remake of the stage production, it didn’t feel like a stage production — it felt like an odd hybrid with much more elaborate sets that were obviously on sound stages, but that lacked the framing limitations of the proscenium arch. Stage productions often use simple sets that permit you to use your imagination. Here, the realism of the sets made you wish for the movie and its larger scenery, but the limitations of the sound stage and the live nature of the performance (which limited camera angles and cutting) amplified the artificial nature. This was common for 1950s and early 1960s TV, but is completely uncommon to today’s audience.

The larger problem with this production was the casting and direction. Each of the lead’s casting was wrong in various ways…

Audra McDonald had the perfect voice for the Mother Superior, and she played the role with class and style. Of course, historically, the casting was incorrect and thus felt off, but her performance more than made up for it.

Carrie Underwood wasn’t the train wreck many made her out to be. Her singing was strong, and I had no problem with her voice or accent. I certainly (and perhaps this is heresy) preferred her to the lilt Mary Martin always had. People forget that Julie Andrews did Maria with an English accent (as did Sally Ann Howes), Mary Martin had some Texas twang in her voice, and other brought vaguely American accents. There’s no correct accent for Maria (unless someone does Austrian). However, she wasn’t the best Maria that I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a few — most recently Shannon Warne in the 2011 Cabrillo Music Theatre production (who was excellent), but also the earlier Cabrillo production with Christina Saffran Ashford, the 1978 Los Angeles Civic Light Opera (LACLO) production with Sally Ann Howes, and the 1972 LACLO production with Florence Henderson), but she certainly wasn’t bad in the role. She had a youthful enthusiasm that was fun to see, and I’m sure she would have improved in the role if she was performing it 8-shows a day for a few months. But this was her first major acting performance after just a little rehearsal, and so there were a more than a few wooden moments. But she remembered all of her lines, and never expressed contrary emotions. How much the wooden-ness was due to the director, as opposed to the actress or a lack of chemistry with her other main lead, I’m unsure. Certainly the director could have helped her more during rehearsals. But still, not that bad. My major complaint was more that she was the same size as some of the children, which was jarring.

As an aside: Could the director have chosen someone better for the role? Most assuredly. Would that choice have been the same draw, and pulled in the same audience to see if she could pull it off? Quite likely not. From the point of view of the network, which was more important: Having quality actors that those “in the know” would tune in to watch, or having actors with a greater risk of failure and thus getting a larger audience to see them fail? Do I really need to answer that question? This is television, where ratings trump quality every day. If you want quality entertainment, television is not your first choice. It exists, yes, but it rare and doesn’t get the ratings, and is more likely found on specialty channels than legacy broadcast networks. This production did exactly what the network wanted: it drew ratings, and probably sufficient ratings for them to attempt a stunt like this again. Given the dearth of theatrical musicals and variety on the major networks, this is not a bad thing. At least NBC is demonstrating itself as a network that at least thinks about theatre.

Stephen Moyer was more of a problem. The Captain required more seasoning given the character’s history, and Moyer did not convey that seasoning, nor did he have the strength of voice of a Theodore Bikel or others I have seen in the role, such as Edward Mulhare. Another problem was that he had little chemistry with Underwood’s Maria. Underwood-haters are quick to blame this on Carrie Underwood and her acting. However, I’m more inclined to blame in on Moyer — Underwood had spunk and was appealing, if not perhaps too upbeat. Moyer just didn’t seem to click with her.

Christian Borle, although a great actor, was just off (to me) as Max. He played it much more comically, and came off much more gay than I’ve seen in other portrayals (especially when compared to someone like Werner Klemperer). He seemed unrealistic. This, I believe was a directoral problem, as his singing was great. I’ll note that most reviews I’ve read praised Borle in the role. He performed well, but had notes in his performance that seemed untrue to that character at that time. As an aside, I saw a recent article on Kveller about things you never think about during this musical, and one was Max. He was obviously both gay and Jewish, and just let a war hero escape the country. He didn’t have a happy future in the 3rd Reich.

Laura Benanti was perhaps the best casting in a role that always comes off as wooden and stiff. She did attempt to bring life to the role and interacted well with the rest of the cast. She had more chemistry with Moyer, and perhaps might have been better as Maria (after all, IIRC, she has done Cinderella on Broadway… and has done Maria in one of her first Broadway shows). But she wouldn’t have drawn the eyeballs — outside of the theatre community, few have heard of her. Remember: Her presence didn’t save the one series she was in.

Most of the children worked reasonably well — I still remember the lovely interplay of Maria and Leisl in the final reprise of “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” — but poor little Gretl was just miscast. She was cute, but she really couldn’t sing.

One last problem: Live performances… and even more so live stage performers… feed off the response of the audience and their reactions. The audience and the performers are a symbiotic whole, and this is what makes live theatre unique. This performance moved from soundstage to soundstage with no audience. This contributed to the stiffness of the production. It is also one reason why movies are different beasts, and 100% faithful adaptations rarely work: the stage production is paced for the stage, with scenes and timings designed for audience reaction and scene changes. Without the live stage and those constraints, the artifice becomes visible and hinders the production. If you want to film a stage production, treat it as a stage production and film a real live performance (even if you invite an audience).

In any case, those are my quick thoughts on the production. I went in planning to only watch 20 minutes, and then catch up on Big Bang Theory, but I ended up watching the entire production. It wasn’t unwatchable, but it wasn’t perfect. In short, it was a great example of what the “Golden Age of Television” was really like, and if NBC tried this again with a different musical, I’d likely watch.

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Family Strength in the Face of Autism

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Dec 01, 2013 @ 9:59 am PDT

Falling (Rogue Machine)userpic=theatre2Raising a family is hard, even under the best of circumstances. There’s dealing with the teen years, there’s the interplay between siblings, and there’s the effect that the children have on the relationship between the parents. Now imagine one of the children is severely autistic, and you have the premise of the play we saw last night at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB) in the Mid-City area of Los Angeles: “Falling“, by Deanna Jent (FB, Interview).

Falling” tells the story of the Martin family: parents Tami and Bill, their older son Josh, their teen daughter Lisa, and Bill’s mother, Sue. The complication in this family is that 18 year-old Josh has autism, and he is on the more severe side of the spectrum. He is able to go to school, but does not interact with people well and is increasingly prone to violence. This violence is such that finding aides to work with him in the home is nearly impossible — if Josh doesn’t scare him off, then he won’t interact with them because he doesn’t know them. Thus, it increasingly falls on his parents to manage him every day. This takes a continual toll on the family — both in the dynamics between the parents, the interaction with Josh, and the effect on Josh’s sister, Lisa, who seems to be forgotten in the struggle.

Everything comes to a head when Bill’s mother, Sue, comes for a visit and stays with the family. Sue is someone who believes in the power of prayer, and believes that God will give the family the answer to the pain of autism, if they just pray hard enough. Her visit upsets Josh’s routines, and Josh acts out.

This play explores how having an autistic son affects the family and its dynamics (although the mirror it holds up isn’t limited to autism — it applies to any family dealing with a member with a developmental disability). In particular, it shows how much this situation affects the mother, who has to put on a smile and be “up” to keep Josh calm… but the situation is increasingly stressing her to the point where she is falling apart. She’s torn between seeing what she wanted her son to be, and what she realizes he will really be. She’s torn between trying to manage her son in the arms of the family and the family home, or sending him to a group home (if she can find one) where his care might be uncertain, but will be there. She’s torn by how her focus on Josh has destroyed her relationship with her daughter, and the impact it is having on her marriage.

This show also explores, to a lesser extent, how having an autistic member of the family affects the rest of the family as well. We see how it makes parenting a tag-team exercise to trade off managing the increasing risk of Josh. We see how this pushes the parents apart; how the focus on the son risks destroying the intimacy between the adults. We see how it affects the daughter, who is secondary in the minds of her parents and whose life is forced to revolve around her brother and his outbursts. We also see how this looks to someone from the outside — in this case, Bill’s mother — who had no idea the extent of danger the family faces everyday. We see how living with the unpredictability of autism ratchets up the stress on the family.

I came into this play knowing only that it was a comedy/drama about a family living with autism. I came out seeing people I love in these actors. The family on stage mirrored, to varying extents, relatives of mine. They mirrored children my wife works with in her reading group at Van Nuys High. I gained understanding about what their parents are dealing with — understanding of the strength, determination, and love that such families have, and the day to day struggles they face. This play did just want good theatre is supposed to do — it made me think and reflect, to contemplate about my life and the life of those around me. This wasn’t a brainless tap-dancing extravaganza; it wasn’t an escapist musical or comedy that takes me away from my troubles. This was a mirror of real life, expertly performed, that exposes the drama that goes on around us without us seeing it. Everyone should see this play.

One of the things that makes this play work is the performing ensemble — the five actors that made up this family. Under the directoral hand of Elina de Santos (FB)  (assisted by Julia Doolittle (FB, TW)), this family seemed… real.   I can’t seem to think of a higher complement. As the mother, Tami Martin, Anna Khaja (FB) projected the inner strength required to continually deal with her son — you could see this strength in the humor she projected to keep him up, and you could see it in her fear when he became violent. Khaja also, however, portrayed the vulnerability behind that strength — demonstrated when she broke down after her son acted out, or when she considered what life would be without her son. As the father, Bill Martin, Matthew Elkins portrayed a different sort of inner strength and vulnerability. You could see his strength when dealing with his son and taking over for his wife, but you could also see in his performance how dealing with his son was destroying the relationship with his wife and daughter (in fact, rather telling, there was little father-daughter interaction in the show). These actors just seemed to inhabit their characters — you could see the love they had for each other, you could see the love they had for their children … you could see them as a family.

The children were also realistic. As you left the show, you really believed that Josh was autistic — showing the believability and attention to detail that Matt Little put into his performance. He had the looks, inattention, mannerisms, inappropriate focus, and behavior that just convinced you he was truly dealing with austism. In real life, he was also dealing with pain — according to the director, he had sprained his ankle a few days before and was performing in a boot, without crutches. This makes his performance and his focus even more remarkable (I’m continually amazed by the strength of actors to perform through the pain — something we saw also saw in DOMA’s production of Nine and the Patio Playhouse production of “Young Frankenstein). Also believable was Tara Windley (FB) as the teen daughter, Lisa.  As the father of a teen daughter, I can confirm that she portrayed a realistic teen — focused on herself and the wrongs done to her by her parents. But she also portrayed those moments of maturity that one increasingly sees as their daughter matures into a young woman. Again, believable and realistic.

Rounding out the cast/family was Karen Landry (FB) as Sue Martin, Josh’s grandmother and Bill’s father. She provided the outsider’s point of view — the point of view of someone who hadn’t been living with the autism perturbations on a daily basis. Again, her character seemed real — the concerned outsider who meant well, but in disturbing the routine and missing the signs, actually exacerbated the situation.

As I said — all in all, these were great performances that made you believe this was a real family. You saw the love and concern between the characters, but also saw the stress that having an autistic family member brings. Well, well played.

Supporting these performances was an excellent technical and artistic team. When I walked into the performance space (this was our first time at Rogue Machine), I was impressed by how realistic the set looked, with an intense attention to detail that made the set look like a real home. Credit for this goes to the team of Stephanie Kerley Schwartz (FB), who did the scenic design, and Sharron Shayne (FB), who did the property design.  Also contributing to the realism were the background sounds — the music, the dogs, the ambient noise provided by the sound design of Christopher Moscatiello (FB). The lighting design of Leigh Allen (FB) was subtle but effective in both setting the mood and conveying the passage of time (particularly the background lighting). The costumes by Elizabeth A. Cox again seemed realistic, but also seemed to take a lot of abuse (especially Tami’s costume). Joe Sofranko (FB) was the fight director, and made the acting-out interactions of Josh and Tami so believable that you really thought she was in danger. Rounding out the artistic team was Ramon Valdez (FB) (Stage Manager), Stephanie Kerley Schwartz (FB) (Resident Designer), John Perrin Flynn (FB) (Artistic Director), Elina de Santos (FB) (Co-Artistic Director), Amanda Mauer (FB) (Production Manager), David Mauer (FB) (Technical Director), Laura Hill (Managing Director), and Matthew Elkins (Producing Director).

Falling” continues at the Rogue Machine Theatre (FB) through December 22. Tickets are available through Rogue Machine Theatre; they may also be available through Goldstar Events. Sunday matinees have special wrap-around programs before and after the show dealing with Autism, presented in conjunction with the show’s community partner, The Miracle Project. This was our first time at Rogue Machine Theatre, and we were impressed with the quality of their project and their mission to produce new works. We plan to watch what they do, and we hope to be back.

Dining Notes: Originally, we thought about getting dinner at Versailles Cuban down the street, but we changed our mind and opted to eat instead at The Brownstone Bistro next door to the theatre. We were glad we did: we split a delightful salad and an expertly prepared salmon filet, with loads of fresh veggies. Much healthier than Versailles would have been (or some of the other choices in the area, such as Lucy’s Drive In or Roscoe’s Chicken and Wings). Although we didn’t know it when we ate there, if you stop at the theatre first and pick up your program, you can enjoy a 3-course pre-show prix fixe dinner for $20/person, or get a complementary glass of house wine or dessert with purchase of a full priced entree.

[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 a quick local show before ACSAC:  The Little Mermaid” at Nobel Middle School on Friday, December 6. We then leave for New Orleans and the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC). When we return we have an interesting play, “Sherlock Through the Looking Glass“, at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB). December, as currently scheduled for theatre, concludes with “Peter and the Starcatcher” at The Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Of course, there will be the traditional movie and Chinese Food on Christmas Day — right now, the two movie possibilities are “Saving Mr. Banks” opening December 13 (meaning we can use group discount tickets), or “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” opening December 25. None of the other December releases look worth the money (I’d rather see “August: Osage County” on the stage, thankyouverymuch). Looking into January: The first scheduled show is on January 18: “Mom’s Gift” at The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (FB) in North Hollywood. The following weekend, January 25, brings the first show of the REP East (FB) 10th season: “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change“ (which we last saw at REP in 2006). February 8 will bring “Forever Plaid” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). The following weekend, February 15, is being held for Lysistrata Jones at The Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim. The last weekend of February, February 22, is currently being held for Sutton Foster at the Broad Stage (FB) in Santa Monica (if I can find discount tickets). March brings “Sex and Education” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on March 8, and “Biloxi Blues” at REP East (FB) on March 29. It may also bring “Harmony” at The Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on March 22. The end of the month (actually April 5) bring “In The Heights” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.

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The Impact of a Shrine

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Nov 24, 2013 @ 7:43 pm PDT

Miracle on S Division Street (Colony)userpic=colonyCatholic shrines and iconography. This is something I’ve never understood, being Jewish. The reference given to statues and miracles is just something beyond my ken. Yet such a shrine is at the heart of the last play of this weekend, “Miracle on South Division Street” by Tom Dudzick (FB), which we saw this afternoon at The Colony Theatre (FB) in Burbank.

Tom Dudzick describes his play as follows: “Miracle on South Division Street” is the story of the Nowak family, living amidst the urban rubble of Buffalo, NY’s East Side. Maybe the neighborhood is depressed, but not Clara, the family matriarch. She happily runs her soup kitchen and tends to the family heirloom – a twenty-foot shrine to the Blessed Mother which adjoins the house. This neighborhood beacon of faith commemorates the day in 1942 when the Blessed Virgin Mary materialized in her father’s barber shop! When the play opens, a family meeting is in progress. Daughter Ruth divulges her plan to finally “go public” with the family miracle by creating a one-woman play about the sacred event. But during the course of the meeting, the entire family’s faith is shaken to the very core when a deathbed confession causes the family legend to unravel. The results are heartfelt and hilarious.

Based on a true “shrine” in Buffalo on Senaca Street, the summary above is essentially correct. The main characters are Clara (Ellen Crawford (FB)), the family matriarch, and her three children: Ruth (Karianne Flaathen (FB)), an actress who has written a one-woman play based on the true story of the shrine; Jimmy (Brian Ibsen (FB)), who is about to propose to his girlfriend (whom the family has never met); and Beverly (Meghan Andrews (FB)), who is involved with a near-priest and whose sense of self comes from the shrine. I won’t spoil the secret of the shrine; let’s just say that it was quite unexpected and leads to quite hilarious results.

As always at the Colony, the play was very well performed. All of the cast was exceptionally talented and believable — I especially appreciated the little facial gestures and movements that made it look as if they were inhabiting their characters. Credit, as always, goes to a mix of the acting team and the director, Brian Shnipper (FB).

Technically, the set by Jeff McLaughlin (FB) did a wonderful job of creating a 1940s-era bungalow in Buffalo, down to the linoleum on the floor. This was supported by the appropriate props (including a load of food) from MacAndMe (FB). The costumes by Dianne K. Graebner (FB) worked well to convey the sense of place.  The sound effects by Drew Dalzell (FB) blended in well, and the lighting by Jared A. Sayeg (FB) was simple but effective. Leesa Freed (FB) was the production stage manager.

Miracle on South Division Street” continues at the Colony Theatre through December 15. It is well worth seeing. Tickets are available through the Colony Theatre, as well as through outlets such as Goldstar.

Dining Notes: Well, this really isn’t a dining note — more of a gaming note. Game Haus Cafe (FB), a project we helped Kickstart, has opened its doors in Glendale. Game Haus is a board game cafe — there are hundreds of board games as well as a small menu. For $5 you can game all day. An interesting concept, marred only by slightly difficult parking (which is beyond their control). Still, I intend to go back there, because I can play without having to wait for a scheduled game day. I’m thinking of going the day after Thanksgiving, assuming my head cooperates. Anyone want to join me? There is a summary of the games they have on Boardgamegeek.

[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.]

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  This afternoon brings the rescheduled “Miracle on S. Division Street” at the Colony Theatre (FB). Thanksgiving weekend brings Falling at Rogue Machine on Sat November 30, and may also bring the concert “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” at REP East (FB) on Sunday December 1 [I’m unsure about this — on the one hand, it supports REP East… but on the other hand, it’s Christmas music]. December will start with The Little Mermaid” at Nobel Middle School on Friday, December 6. We then leave for New Orleans and the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC). When we return we have an interesting play, “Sherlock Through the Looking Glass“, at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB). December, as currently scheduled for theatre, concludes with “Peter and the Starcatcher” at The Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Of course, there will be the traditional movie and Chinese Food on Christmas Day — right now, the two movie possibilities are “Saving Mr. Banks” opening December 13 (meaning we can use group discount tickets), or “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” opening December 25. None of the other December releases look worth the money (I’d rather see “August: Osage County” on the stage, thankyouverymuch). Looking into January: The first scheduled show is on January 18: “Mom’s Gift” at The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (FB) in North Hollywood. The following weekend, January 25, is on hold for “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change“, which is the first show of the REP East (FB) season. February 8 will bring “Forever Plaid” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). The following weekend, February 15, is being held for Lysistrata Jones at The Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim. The last weekend of February, February 22, is currently being held for Sutton Foster at the Broad Stage (FB) in Santa Monica (if I can find discount tickets). March brings “Sex and Education” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on March 8, and March 22 is being held for “Biloxi Blues” at REP East (FB). Lastly, we may go see “Harmony” at The Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on March 29. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.

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