Observations Along the Road

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

Standing Tall for What You Believe

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Apr 13, 2014 @ 8:26 am PDT

Tallest Tree in the Forest (Mark Taper Forum)userpic=ahmansonPaul Robeson. When most younger people hear that name today, they probably won’t recognize it. Older folks (like me) will probably think of the same thing: the musical Showboat and Paul Robeson’s powerful performance as Joe… and his singing of that show’s signature song, “Ol’ Man River”. But the story of Paul Robeson is much more than that… and telling that complex story is the goal of Daniel Beaty (FB)’s “The Tallest Tree in the Forest“, which just opened at the Mark Taper Forum (FB) last night. We were at that performance, and were moved not only by Beaty’s performance, but the whole Robeson story.

The play opens with an older Robeson telling his story, and looking at a subpoena from the House Un-American Activity Committee to testify about his activities. This prompts Robeson to look back over his life…

Paul Robeson was the son of a former slave, who (at least according to the play) learned at an early age to stand up for what you believe in — and to stand up particularly for the rights and dignity of Negros (I keep wanting to type the words “African Americans”, but in Robeson’s time the term used was Negro — and be forewarned, the “N-word” is used quite heavily in this play). Robeson attended Rutgers University (one of a handful of black students who did), and later went on to Columbia Law School. He paid his way through school by giving concerts of Negro spirituals; at one concert, he met Eslanda “Essie” Goode who encouraged him to use his singing gift and give up law for the stage. [I'll note that while reading the Wikipedia entry while writing this, it becomes clear that the play, written by Beaty, cuts out quite a lot of Robeson's youthful backstory and accomplishments, and introduces a triggering incident that may be dramatic license.]

Robeson’s success on the stage brings him international acclaim, and international tours expose him to countries where blacks are treated very different than they are in the US. The first is England, where Robeson becomes enamored of the struggles of the miners to organize (and, at least according to the play, he is taken by the fact that the fight is white and black working together for better economic standing — and not white vs. black). He also is exposed to Facism in the early days of Nazi Germany, and of the original Soviet experiment in the pre-WWII days of the Soviet Union. In particular, Robeson sees in the Soviet Union and Russia a nation where all races are equal by law — and all races are equal in their treatment by society and the government. In those early days, it also appears that the equality applies to religion as well, and Robeson befriends a number of powerful and successful Jews.

Let me digress for a moment in this story to share how the director, Moises Kaufman (FB) works with Daniel Beaty (FB) to tell this story. Throughout this play, Beaty does not just play Robeson, but he plays every other character in the story as well. Through changes and voices and mannerisms, he becomes them all — from his wife Essie to white punks taunting Robeson and his brother, to the 10-year old Robeson, to German border guards, Russian officials, and J. Edgar Hoover. Beaty does a wonderful job portraying them all. End digression.

As time goes on, Robeson moves away from the theatrical career and move onto the activism stage. This occurs mostly in Act II, which opens with a scene where a professor (again, played by Beaty) is talking in the present day about why Robeson is rarely remembered these days.  This scene takes the position that those who argued for racial equality are remembered well (Dr. King, Harriet Tubman), but those who argued for class equality are less fondly remembered (union organizers, labor organizers), and those who pushed for class equality of the lower classes were often reviled. Act II focuses on the downfall of Robeson in the public eye. Although Robeson campaigned strongly against Facism and for the war bond effort, he also grew in activism. Many of his speeches talked about how Negros should support the war to fight Facism, and how it was their responsibility to fight for equality in America. He strongly supported America’s ally in the war, the Soviet Union, because of the equality he had seen there. After the war, Negro soldiers returned to segregation and lynching. Robeson continued to speak about for equality, and continued to hold up the Soviet Union as an example. This was not accepted in Cold War, Post-WWII American, and he got on the radar of J. Edgar Hoover. Returning to the Soviet Union in the late 1940s, he saw how things had changed and the situation was no longer good for his Jewish friends. However, he continued to support the Soviet Union publically, because of their commitment to racial equality over what he was seeing in America. This position resulted in the US Government lifting his passport, his concert work drying up in the US, and his being brought up before the HUAC. A quick coda at the end notes that his passport was eventually returned, but by then Robeson’s career had been destroyed.

In typing this summary, a few parallels come to mind. The first is Jane Fonda, who also took political stances and activist positions in her younger days that led many to peg her as a Communist and revile her — and many of those still revile her to this day, even though she is strongly pro-America. The same is true with Robeson, except he never had that career resurgence. The second is with another character Beaty recently portrayed on a different stage: Roland Hayes. In “Breath and Imagination“, which we saw recently at the Colony Theatre, Beaty told a story of another singular black performer fighting the racism of his day.

In my summary above, I’ve probably given the impression that this play is all spoken word. It is far from that. Most scenes are punctuated with songs sung by Robeson. These include numerous renditions of “Ol’ Man River”, songs by Fats Waller, Negro spirituals, and popular songs that Robeson sung, such as “Ballad for Americans”. It even includes a Yiddish song, “Zog Nit Keynmol” — the song of the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance that Robeson sung in the post-WWII Soviet Union. Beaty does a reasonable job with the music, although he does not have the deepness of Robeson’s voice (but who does). More problematic — at least to me — was that he seemed to be slurring words together in the songs. My wife says that’s how Robeson sang, but on the sole Robeson song I have (a version of “Ol’ Man River” from the 1932 Showboat Revival), Robeson sings much clearer. I don’t think this is a significant detraction from the story being told.

Looking at the play as a whole, I think Beaty’s does a good job of telling a version of Robeson’s story. My concern — and my worry — is that it isn’t the whole story. Reading the Wikipedia entry on Robeson makes clear the story was greatly simplified for the stage. Robeson was a very complex man with many incidents shaping his journey, and Beaty’s hits selected highlights. It is a good start, however, and I hope it encourages audience members to research Robeson and his story — and learn about the time when people felt they could make a difference. This is a concern that is important to me — many of the folk music icons that I treasure are also social activists, and I believe social activism is important (especially in these days of closed minds and closed thinking).

Returning to the theatre itself: Beaty is supported on-stage by three musicians: Kenny J. Seymour (FB) on keyboard, Glen Berger on woodwinds, and Ginger Murphy on cello. Kenny J. Seymour (FB) also served as the musical director of the production.

The scenic design by Derek McLane was relatively simple: a few chairs and tables, a few props, microphones. This kept the focus on Robeson and his story, and emphasized that this wasn’t a realistic portrayal but a memory story. The scenic design was supported by projections designed by John Narun that established place and time and surroundings quite well. The lighting design of David Lander was novel,  using large old-ish Leikos on stage as well as numerous conventional lights throughout; it worked well to establish mood and memory. The sound design of Lindsay Jones was notable in its invisibility, but more so for the excellent sound effects that supported the story. Rounding out the technical and artistic team were Carlyn Aquiline (Dramaturg), Craig Campbell (Production Stage Manager), David S. Franklin (Stage Manager), Zach Kennedy (Stage Manager), and Don Gilmore (Technical Supervisor).

Tallest Tree in the Forest” continues at the Mark Taper Forum through May 25. Tickets are available online through the Center Theatre Group box office, and until word of mouth spreads, discount Hottix are likely available. Half-price tickets are also available on Goldstar, they don’t appear to be on LA Stage Tix.

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

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  Next weekend is brings a benefit at REP East (FB): “A Night at the Rock Opera“. The last weekend of April will bring Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes, as well as the Southern California Renaissance Faire. May brings “The Lion in Winter” at The Colony Theatre (FB), and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at REP East (FB), as well as “Hairspray” at Nobel Middle School. I may also be scheduling “Porgy and Bess” at the Ahmanson. June is mostly open pending scheduling of an MRJ meeting, but I will try to fit in as much of the Hollywood Fringe Festival as I can. July will be busy: “Ghost” at the Pantages (FB) on 7/5, “Return to the Forbidden Planet” at REP East (FB) the weekend of 7/12, “Once” at the Pantages (FB) on 7/19, “Bye Bye Birdie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on 7/26, and “Family Planning” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on 8/2. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.

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Willkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome!

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Mar 23, 2014 @ 8:23 am PDT

Harmony (Ahmanson)userpic=ahmansonOh, sorry, wrong Nazi musical. Perhaps I should start over…

When I first learned that the Ahamanson theatre was presenting a Barry Manilow musical, I thought to myself, “Gee, cheesy 70′s musical… I grew up with the stuff… count me in!”. I thought it would be similar to Manilow’s other musical, “Copacabana“. I got Hottix for just me, and thought that was that. Then I learned what Harmony was all about — that it was a well-done story about some important history in the Jewish community. This convinced my wife that she wanted to attend (and we were lucky enough to be able to get a second Hottix, 3 weeks later, right next to me). So last night we took Metro down to DTLA, and saw the new Barry Manilow (music) / Bruce Sussman (book and lyrics) musical “Harmony“.

First and foremost, set aside any preconceived notion that you may have regarding Barry Manilow’s music. This show does not sound like anything you have heard come out of Manilow’s popular music catalog. Have you done that? Good.

You saw my opening reference to the musical Cabaret. That was intentional, for the musical Harmony covers roughly the same period. Harmony is a musical about the rise and times of the Comedian Harmonists, a six-member close-harmony comedy group that rose to international stardom in the early 1930s, and lasted until disbanded by Adolph Hiter and a delayed application of the Nuremberg Laws that forbade Jews from having any involvement in the arts. In short, it is the story of a popular German musical group, told against the rise of Nazi Germany. As such, it has echoes of other famous Nazi-era musicals such as Cabaret (Kander-Ebb), The Sound of Music (Rodgers-Hammerstein), and The Grand Tour (Herman)… and even The Producers (Brooks). So why this story? What makes this an important musical?

The Comedian Harmonists are probably the most popular group that you never heard of. They were formed in the late 1920s by an unlikely combination: three Jews, a gentile (non-Jew) married to a Jew, and two other gentiles. The combination included a former rabbi, a former singing waiter, a former surgeon, a former opera singer, an unemployed actor, and a skilled pianist. It was a German group that included a Bulgarian, a Pole, and the son of an Italian immigrant. It reached stardom at the level of the Beatles — 13 albums, 12 movies — as Nazi Germany was coming into power, and saw that legacy destroyed by the Nazis and the group disbanded. Today, almost no one has heard of the Comedian Harmonists.

Harmony is Manilow/Sussman’s attempt at telling their story. It is moving and touching, and has some extremely beautiful music. It is well acted and sung to perfection. It is a story that must be seen by any student of Jewish history, and is another warning against the totalitarian fascism that is far to ready to rise up in poor economic times. It will also fail miserably on Broadway, but is a musical that must be produced and live on. In short, it is like the Comedian Harmonists — talented and something special, with an important story to be told.

Let me tackle that last point first. Musicals that deal with the Nazis (or dark themes) are difficult to turn into box office hits. Cabaret and The Sound of Music were able to do it because they only hinted at the horror that was coming. Each put the protagonists in peril, but ended the story with their escaping before the horrors happened. The Grand Tour, again, happened just as the Nazis were coming into power and left its protagonist safe. Harmony is much more on the line of musicals such as Parade or The Scottsboro Boys. These musicals end with unspeakable actions that dampen the mood, but are powerful — with that power amplified by the music — and should be seen and produced. However, they are rarely commercial successes; the audience does not walk out “happy” with their toes-tapping in a great mood. They walk out moved by the story and the underlying injustices caused by an unjust society that was overtaken and overpowered by hate and prejudice. From what I have already told you about the group, you can predict that the story does not end happy (and there is little the producers can do to make the ending a happy one, save changing history). You don’t walk out in a good mood — you walk out moved.

The music in Harmony is beautiful, but in some ways lacking. Many of the songs are performance pieces in the style of the Comedian Harmonists. These propel the story less and teach about the group more. Among these is the main song, “Harmony”, that is repeated in various forms throughout the show and becomes an earworm by the end. Some are wonderful comedy pieces that truly illustrate what the Harmonists must have been like, such as “How Can I Serve You, Madame?” But none of these pieces are doing what the songs in a musical should do — moving the story along and illustrating the inner thoughts and turmoils of the characters. There are only a few songs that do that. Those songs work well, and looking over those songs, they all have one thing in common: they are not telling the story of the Harmonists as much as they are telling the story of the women in their life (I’m thinking of songs such as “This is Our Time”). One song in particular, I believe, could become a standard that would outshine this show: “Where You Go” — a loving take on the book of Ruth about women and what they give up for their men. It was a spectacular song, performed spectacularly.

Harmony is directed by Tony Speciale (FB), with Christopher Bowser as associate director. Speciale and Bowser do a good job of bringing out this difficult story in a clever way, although they fail on establishing distinct characterizations for many of the members of the Harmonists. Most of them blend together, distinguished only by their voices and a few mannerisms. Still, they bring out extremely moving performances from the group, and they keep the stage busy and moving in a way that keeps the audience interest up, and belies the bad news that you know is coming.

As I indicated, the performance are top notch. At the pinnacle is Shayne Kennon (FB) as “Rabbi” Josef Roman Cykowski. “Rabbi” serves as the narrator for the story (you learn why at the end) — he takes us through his memory from the founding of the group to its ultimate end, and the main relationship focus within the story is his relationship with his wife, Mary Hegal (beautifully performed by Leigh Ann Larkin (FB)) — a non-Jew who converted to Judaism to marry “Rabbi”. Kennon’s performance was just great, and his singing voice will just blow you away. He truly melted into this role and became one with it; this show is worth seeing for his performance alone. Larkin, supporting him as his wife, also gives a strong performance and just astounds in her primary numbers “This is Our Time” and, even more spectacularly, in “Where You Go”. These are two performances that will stick with you.

The remainder of the Harmonists are less distinguishable. They stand out more for particular vocal characteristics (such as really deep voices) or particular comedic styles. This is more a flaw in the written characterizations than the performances, which were great. The other Harmonists were Matt Bailey (FB) (Harry Frommerman), Will Blum (FB) (Ari “Lesh” Leshnikoff), Chris Dwan (FB) (Erich Collin), Will Taylor (FB) (Erwin “Chopin” Bootz), and Douglas Williams (FB) (Bobby Biberti).

Of the remaining actors, the main standout was Hannah Corneau (FB) as Roth Stern, the Bolshevik Jewess who marries a non-Jewish member of the Harmonists. Her character is a composite of a number of historical women; she stands out for the same reason Mary stands out — she’s the other half of the couple-duets in “This is Our Time” and “Where You Go”.

Rounding out the performance side were Liberty Cogen (FB) (Ensemble), Greg Kamp (FB) (Ensemble, Sturmann), Chad Lindsey (FB) (Ensemble, Standartenfuhrer, Nazi Leader #1), Lindsay Moore (FB) (Ensemble), Brandon O’Dell (FB) (Ensemble, Richard Strauss, Albert Einstein, Synagogue Rabbi), Patrick O’Neill (FB) (Ensemble, Border Guard, Nazi Leader #3), Charles Osborne (FB) (Ensemble, Obsersturmfuhrer, Fritz, Nazi Leader #2), Kim Sava (FB) (Ensemble, Young Woman #1), Dave Schoonover (FB) (Ensemble, Ezra Kaplan, Cantor, Radio Announcer), Lauren Elaine Taylor (FB) (Ensemble, Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid), Kevin Brown (Swing), and Kara Haller/FB (Swing).

The performance was choreographed by JoAnn M. Hunter (FB), assisted by Mary Ann Lamb (FB) (Associate Choreographer). These two did a great job of capturing the comedic movement of the Harmonists, especially in numbers such as “Your Son is Becoming a Singer”, “How Can I Serve You, Madame”, “Hungarian Rhapsody #2″, and “Come To The Fatherland”. Outside of these numbers, there is less of the traditional “dance” on sees in a musical — there are no big production numbers, no 11pm tap-marathons to blow you away. There is movement that amplifies the music. The music, I should note, was under the music direction of John O’Neill, with orchestrations by Doug Walter. O’Neill also conducted a wonderful 9-member orchestra; gone are the days of large musical orchestras.

Turning to the technical side: Tobin Ost (FB)’s set for Harmony was well designed, consisting of trestles and bridges that raised an lowered, and a large digital background that served to provide context and locale. This background was aided by the projection design of Darrel Maloney (FB) — my only negative is that I don’t believe the electronic flip signs (think was used to be at Washington Dulles) were in use in the 1930s — they scream more 1960s to me. The sound design of John Shivers (FB) and David Patridge (FB) was clear and not overpowering, and made the sound seem to be coming from the performers. The lighting design of Jeff Croiter (FB) and Seth Jackson (FB) illuminated well and set the mood adequately, and provided some clever highlights at points. The costume design by Tobin Ost (FB), assisted by Leslie Malitz (FB) (Associate Costume Designer) seemed period-enough. Lora K. Powell (FB) was the Production Stage Manager, and RL Campbell/FB and Elle Aghabala (FB) were the stage managers.

Harmony” continues at the Ahmanson Theatre through April 13, 2014. It is well-worth seeing — especially if you are Jewish or have interest in the history of the 1930s. Be prepared to be moved, but don’t expect to walk out happy. Discount “Hottix” may still be available for select performance (as well as performance rush tickets); I’m also seeing select performances with discount tickets on Goldstar (and the discounts may be elsewhere as well). You can also experience Harmony for only $39-$49 using code MAESTRO, according to an email I received from the Ahmanson. That offer is valid in Orchestra Rows R-W (Reg $60-$70) for performances through April 11.

[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:  Today brings our second show of the weekend: “Author, Author: An Evening with Sholom Aleichem” at the Santa Monica Playhouse (FB). The last weekend of March is open, and will likely stay that way as we’ll be exhausted. April starts with “In The Heights” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on April 5, and should also bring “Tallest Tree” at the Mark Taper Forum on April 12. The following weekend brings a benefit at REP East (FB): “A Night at the Rock Opera“. The last weekend of April will bring Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes, as well as the Southern California Renaissance Faire. Current planning for May shows “The Lion in Winter” at The Colony Theatre (FB), and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at REP East (FB), as well as “Hairspray” at Nobel Middle School. June is mostly open pending scheduling of an MRJ meeting, but I will try to fit in as much of the Hollywood Fringe Festival as I can. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.

 

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Evolution in Action

Written By: cahwyguy - Fri Mar 07, 2014 @ 8:23 pm PDT

userpic=caduceusToday’s lunchtime (well, I meant to post this at lunch, but the day got away from me) news chum post deals with evolution, in various forms and shapes:

  • Evolution of… a Musical. In a couple of weeks, I’m going to be seeing “Harmony“, the new Barry Manilow musical at the Ahmanson. The story of how this musical came about is quite interesting. You see, although Barry Manilow is involved with this musical (writing the music), it isn’t a pastiche of existing Manilow music. This musical goes back to when Manilow met Bruce Sussman at the 1972 BMI Musicals Workshop (before Manilow was a pop star), and it tells the the little-known true story of the Comedian Harmonists, a vaudevillian German sextet that rose to wild superstardom in the 1930s. But three of the group’s six members were Jewish, and by 1935 they had been forced to flee to the United States after the Nazis dissolved the sextet, destroyed all their albums and burned their 12 movies. It will be interesting to see how it turns out.
  • Evolution of… a Meme. Slashdot is reporting on a study about the way that memes evolve on Facebook, and it turns out they evolve in a manner similar to the ways genes evolve. Specifically, memes spread, mutate and evolve in ways that are mathematically identical to genes. However, there are important differences too. The authors of the study say that understanding this process can give deep insights into the way information spreads through cultures and the way individuals change it as it spreads. BTW, in other Facebook stuff, Wired looks at our obsession with online quizzes, and even includes their popularity back in the days of Livejournal.
  • Evolution of… the Vegas Marquee. When the Las Vegas strip started in the late 1940s, marquees were nothing. There might be a signboard announcing artists and a pool along US 91. Then the Flamingo added the champagne tower, and everything took off. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was neon everywhere. But go to the strip these days, and you’ll find very little neon. What’s replaced it? Gigantic LED high-def displays. The Las Vegas Weekly has a nice article looking at this evolution.
  • Evolution of… the Coffeemaker. First, you should know that I don’t like coffee. Coffee, to me, only belongs in ice cream or covered in dark chocolate. But there are those that like it. Growing up, my mother did… and she always had a percolator. You never see those any more. They were replaced by drip coffeemakers (“Mr. Coffee”), and then French Presses (or cold brew setups like my wife uses). Nowadays, we’re all into the waste of the K-Cup and the Keurig. Keurig wants to be the HP or Canon of coffeemakers… and by that I mean they want to make you captive to their cups (think cheap printers and expensive consumables). How are they going to do this? DRM in the K-Cup, meaning the coffeemaker will only work with Keurig-produced K-cups. I think I’ll stick with loose-leaf tea, thankyouverymuch.

 

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Thoughts on a Theatre Season – Ahmanson 2014-2015

Written By: cahwyguy - Thu Feb 13, 2014 @ 7:29 pm PDT

userpic=ahmansonThe Ahmanson Theatre has announced their 2014-2015 season, and except for one bright spot and one maybe, it’s a big “meh”:

What is it with musicals this year. The Pantages is mostly “meh”, the Ahmanson is “meh”, and Cabrillo doesn’t have anything I’ve already seen. C’mon folks. Let’s see some exciting stuff that hasn’t been in LA in a while. Hell, I”d settle for a good production of “Hello Dolly” or “Sweet Charity”. That reminds me… I wonder what Doma is doing? [Answer: Nothing of interest, as least according to their webpage]

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Life as a Checkov Play

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Feb 02, 2014 @ 10:20 am PDT

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Taper)userpic=ahmansonWhen your parents name you and your siblings after characters in Chekov‘s plays, that’s never a good sign. When your life starts to take on elements of those plays, things get a little absurd. At least that’s the notion at the heart of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike“, which we saw last night at the Mark Taper Forum in DTLA (Downtown LA, for those not up on the latest acronyms). Short summary: I went in with no expectations, and left thinking this was one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long while.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike“, written by Christopher Durang, tells the story of three siblings: Vanya, Sonia, and Masha. There parents, who were professors, named them after characters in Chekov plays. Vanya (who is gay) and Sonia (who is adopted) are in their mid-50s, living together in their parent’s house (having taken care of their parents through their dotage). That’s all they’ve done with their life. They sit in the house, complain about their lives, and are taken care of by their housekeeper, Cassandra. Cassandra is like the Cassandra of Greek Mythology — she have visions that everyone ignores. Their sister, Masha, is a famous actress who actually owns the house they live in and pays all their bills. In this midst of one of Sonia’s bipolar meltdowns, she mentions that Masha is coming to visit that weekend. Masha arrives with her much younger boyfriend, Spike, and (a) informs them that they are going to a costume party that evening, and (b) she is planning on selling the house on the advise of her personal assistant. Spike decides to absent himself from the family reunion, and meets up with Nina, a young woman visiting her aunt and uncle nearby. He brings Nina back to meet Masha, and Nina ends up being invited to the costume party, as well as being invited to read a play that Vanya has written. For further details on the plot twists, I’ll let you go over to Wikipedia to read the synopsis of both acts.

Durang describes this play as being “Chekov in a blender.” That’s great if you’re familiar with Chekov. I’m not, so I did the next best thing: I looked them up on Wikipedia. As Durang noted, there appear to be elements drawn from many different Chekov plays. Vanya is like Boris Trigorin, the middle-aged writer of The Seagull, and Nina is again an ingenue who is the “soul of the world”. Trigorin is writing a modern and existentialist play, just like Vanya. There is also an aging actress, Irina Arkadina, who is like Masha. But there are differences as well: in The Seagull, Tirgorin is Arkadina’s young and foolish son. There are also parallels to Chekov’s Three Sisters with the siblings Vasha, Sonia, and Masha — but Masha is not like Masha in the play. There are numerous references to the dialogue from Three Sisters, and Nina is celebrating her “Name Day” (being a fan of Chekov).  VSM&S also contains elements of The Cherry Orchard, with numerous references to the family’s cherry orchard (of 10 trees), and the notion of the family estate being sold for financial reasons. There’s also an adopted daughter, Varya, who has some parallels to Sonia. There are also some elements of Dunyasha in Cassandra in the tendency to make big scenes. Lastly, there are also parallels with Uncle Vanya, not only with the name of main character, but with the nature of Sonia (both are of a marriageable age but considered plain). There is also the overall melancholy over a wasted life that carries over from Uncle Vanya. Lastly, there’s also the notion of subtext that comes over from all four plays. My guess is: if you’re familiar with Chekov, this adds to the “in jokes” of the play. For someone not familiar with Chekov, this all goes right over your head (although it is fun to look up afterwards).

So, for those unfamiliar with Chekov, why see this? The short and simple answer is that it is well-performed and very funny. I’ll get to the performances in a little bit, but lets focus on the non-Chekovian humor. The play, in many ways, has its absurd elements. Cassandra and her visions. Spike and his young sensibilities, throwing off his clothes for almost no reason. Sonia and her dispair. Masha and her self-importance. There are the costumes of the costume party; the floating molecules of Vanya’s play; the names and types of projects with with Masha and Spike have been associated. There’s Cassandra’s behavior at the start of the Act II, which I’m not going to spoil but is absolutely hilarious. The absurdity of the situations just make you laugh.

However, the real parallel between this play and Chekov — and what I believe was the real intent of Durang — is the commentary on modern life. In Three Sisters, Chekov was commenting on the decay of privileged life; in Cherry Orchard it was cultural futility; and Uncle Vanya was on wasted lives. This play, in many ways, is a commentary on the vapidness of many youth these days. This is embodied in the character of Spike — who just lives in the moment, not caring about his impact on others, thinking only of himself. Spike is also used to comment on the boorishness of theatre-goers these days, with Spike’s behavior in the second act of unwrapping food and texting during Vanya’s play being the thing that sets Vanya off of what is the best rant I’ve ever seen. In this rant, Vanya goes off on the youth of today, as well as the vapid nature of television and society. Essentially, the youth of today has no substance. In contrast, Vanya and Sonia are living in the past — they want things to remain as they have always have been. They prefer the steady state, not taking risks, and the potential sale of the family estate scares them. They miss the values of the past.

In all of this, what are roles of Masha and Nina? Nina represents the other side of youth and innocence. Her desire to be an actress makes Masha think of herself when she was young — and she perceives this as a threat. Masha also sees Nina as a threat to her relationship with Spike (there is a threat, but it is not Nina). Masha herself is partially a commentary on actors today, who often give up the possibility of success on the legitimate stage with deep works (such as Chekov) for the quick money of TV movies and their empty storylines — and then get trapped into that cycle. Ultimately, Masha’s battle is with herself and her aging: whereas the stage accepts the fact that actors age and writes roles for older actors, TV and movies subsist on the young and move the middle-aged to the beautiful grandmother roles (which Masha cannot accept). Her ultimate movement to acceptance of her age is perhaps the most touching character arc of the show.

As noted before, the performances of this show were excellent. Having not seen the show in New York, I cannot tell which directorial aspects came from the New York director, Nicholas Martin, and what came from the Los Angeles director, David Hyde Pierce (FB). All I know is that the performances just worked — there were the right emotions where they needed to be, movements worked well, and the actors seemed to be having fun. I’ll just have to credit the invisible directoral hand and the talent of the actors, for I can’t separate the two.

In looking at the performances, let’s start with Vanya (Mark Blum) and Sonia (Kristine Nielsen (FB). Blum’s Vanya is gentle but crazy; a soft warm slipper who provides comfort. He is delighted to watch Spike, but will never admit it. Blum absolutely shines during the second act with his tirade against modern times — I think everyone in the audience over 45 will identify with this completely (and given most theatre audiences these days, that’s probably a large majority of the folks there). Nielsen’s Sonia is a different sort of crazy, often going off in unexpected directions and with unexpected emotions. Her shining moment was also in the second act: her performance with the post-party phone call was both hilarious and touching, and highlighted the nuances of her character in many ways. I’ll note that Nielsen was in the original Broadway cast in this role.

Next there was Masha (Christine Ebersole (FB)). My biggest problem with Ebersole’s performance had nothing to do with Ebersole and everything to do with my head — I kept hearing Edie Beale from Grey Gardens. Setting that aside, Ebersole was a delight throughout, capturing the self-absorbed actress Masha well. Yet as strong and comic as the self-absorbed performances were, the most touching performances where Ebersole’s performances near the end when she dropped the actress facade and became the real person. Her interactions with Cassandra at this point were just delightful.

Rounding out the cast were Spike (David Hull), Cassandra (Shalita Grant (FB)), and Nina (Liesel Allen Yeager (FB)). Hull’s Spike was youthful, muscular, and projected the requisite vapid eye candy aspects required for the role. His expressions during Vanya’s tirade were priceless. Grant’s Cassandra was a delight (not surprising as she was in the original cast), with the right touch of overacting required for a “seer” role. I particularly enjoyed Grant during the Act II opening scene with the doll, but her interactions with Masha at the end, as well as her first entrance, were just great. Lastly, Yeager’s Nina projected just the right amount of youthful innocence and deep soul required for the character.

A strong cast, all.

Turning to the technical side: as always, the Taper excels with putting houses on stage. We saw this with Other Desert Cities; and we see it again here with the lovely house set and scenic design by David Korins (FB). The simplicity and power of this set makes me think this is a perfect show for Rep East or The Colony. The set was lit effectively by David Weiner. Similarly, the sound design (and opening/closing music) by Mark Bennett was unobtrusive and clear.  The costumes by Gabriel Berry worked well — especially the humorous costume party costumes. Wig, Hair, and Makeup Design were by Cookie Jordan. Additional credits: Bryan Hunt (Associate Director), David S. Franklin (Production Stage Manager), Michelle Blair (Stage Manager), Denise Yaney (Stage Manager). Staff for the Mark Taper Forum/CTG are listed here.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” continues at the Mark Taper Forum/Center Theatre Group through March 9. Tickets are available through their website; Hottix may also be available by calling customer service at 213.628.2772.

[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 takes us to North Hollywood, where we are seeing “Discord: The Gospel According to Jefferson, Dickens, and Tolstoy” (LA Stage Tix) at the No Ho Arts Center. I never found discount tickets, but there was a discount code on the Independent Shakespeare Company’s FB page. Next weekend (February 8) brings “Forever Plaid” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). The following weekend (February 16) brings Lysistrata Jones at The Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim. The next weekend, February 22, is currently open. I may be needing to do a site visit to Portland OR for ACSAC; if not, I’m keeping my eyes open for “On The Money” at the Victory Theatre Center (FB) or “My Name is Asher Lev” at the Fountain Theatre (FB) (as this runs through April 19, this might be good for mid-March or April), or something else that hasn’t caught my attention yet. The last day of February sees us in Studio City at Two Roads Theatre for Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing“, followed the next evening by the MRJ Regional Man of the Year dinner at Temple Beth Hillel. March theatre starts with “Sex and Education” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on March 8.  (this might be good for March 16); The weekend of March 16 brings Purim Schpiels, with Sunday afternoon bringing “Inherit the Wind” at the Grove Theatre Center (FB) in Burbank. March 22 is being held for “Harmony” at The Ahmanson Theatre (FB). March concludes with “Biloxi Blues” at REP East (FB) on March 29. April will start with “In The Heights” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on April 5, and should also bring “Tallest Tree” at the Mark Taper Forum, as well as the Southern California Renaissance Faire. 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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Clowning Around on a Furlough Day

Written By: cahwyguy - Fri Oct 04, 2013 @ 6:17 pm PDT

humor_abuseuserpic=ahmansonYesterday, when I got to work, I was confronted with the news that my employer was on shutdown status due to the government shutdown, and as of today, I was furloughed, charging either vacation or no-pay (luckily, I have lots of saved vacation). When I got home — pretty bummed — and told my wife, she said, “Great! Now you can help me chaperone a class from Van Nuys HS to the Mark Taper Forum tomorrow”. Thus, today saw me riding a big yellow schoolbus to the Music Center to see the current Taper production, Humor Abuse. Modulo my headache due to the Santa Ana winds, it was just what I needed.

Humor Abuse” tells the true story of Lorenzo Pisoni (FB)… and it is told by Lorenzo Pisoni (FB). Lorenzo Pisoni’s father was Larry Pisoni, and Lorenzo Pisoni’s family growing up was the Pickle Family Circus. “Humor Abuse” tells the story of the life of a clown. It tells the story of growing up with a father who was a clown, and who wanted his son to be a clown. In fact, it explores the question of which role was more important to Larry Pisoni — father, or clown. It also explores the clown routines of the Pickle Family Circus — both Larry and Lorenzo. It is funny, it is entertaining, and it is sad. The sadness comes from how the clown life affected Lorenzo — both for good and for bad. It raises the question of whether one can act like a child if one never had a childhood… or perhaps that is why clowns are childish… they never grow up.

After the show, I was thinking more about the distinction between a clown and a comedian. Comedians depend on verbal humor and jokes — puns, stories, misunderstanding, situational humor. You want comedians, go to the production at the Ahmanson — Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys“. This show is about a clown — physical humor, slapsticks, visual puns. This clowning begins with the stage announcements, when Pisoni comes up to make an announcement, and the follow spot keeps avoiding him. He eventually needs to staple it to the floor to keep it in place. Visual puns. Physical humor. This humor continues throughout the show, from clowns in a trunk, to pratfalls, to juggling, to falling down stairs, to falling through the floor. Clowns can create their humor without words, independent of language. We have lots of comedians these days, but few true clowns. If anything, this show is worth seeing just to be reminded about what true clowns are. Lorenzo Pisoni, although he claims to be a straight-man, is a clown. He will make you laugh, and you won’t be scared at all. The humor in this show will help your soul.

That said, this seemed an odd show for the Taper — I can’t imagine it is drawing in the crowds. In some ways, it seems a great show for a shorter run venue — a VPAC, a Broad. This doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing — for it is — but the Taper needs to do more to make people aware of what a gem this is. I would never have thought about attending this show — I wasn’t even aware it was in Los Angeles — until my wife made the chaperone offer. I had never seen the LA Times review. I had never heard of Jon Hamm’s Kickstarter effort to make a movie of Lorenzo’s story. It was a last minute replacement for “What the Butler Saw“. So I’m thankful for the furlough — well, at least for taking today as a vacation day — in that it was the kick from the universe to go see this show.

As I mentioned at the start of this write-up, this was a special performance for high school students. At the opening of the show, the representative from CTG talked about what makes theatre so special. One thing was the interaction between the performers and the audience — something that does not exist with a film. The performers feed off the energy of the audience, and every performance was different. This was made clear this afternoon with two different routines. In one, Lorenzo was clowning with giving a balloon to an audience member. In this case, the balloon floated up into the fly space… and popped. That won’t happen everytime, and Lorenzo’s reaction was priceless. In another routine — one where sandbags kept dropping on the stage narrowly missing Lorenzo — we learned in the talk-back afterwards that a number of the drops weren’t when they were supposed to be. That doesn’t happen in the movies, and resulted in additional improvisation. This is why I’m unsure about Hamm’s Kickstarter effort. Clowing on the screen — be it the small screen antics of a Lucille Ball or Jonathan Winters — or the big screen antics of a Jerry Lewis or Roberto Bignigni — just doesn’t have the same humor as a live performer. Live performance brings the timing risk that doesn’t exist elsewhere. You want to see a clown. Go to this show (or go to your local renfaire and seen Moonie).

As you might have surmised by now, this was a one man show; the only performer was Lorenzo Pisoni (FB). The show was created by Lorenzo Pisoni (FB) and Erica Schmidt. It was directed by Erica Schmidt.

Turning to the technical… the set construction credit is buried in the credits, but goes to Seattle Repertory Theatre. It should be larger — Seattle Rep did a truly creative job in the props used, both the original drops and the creative trunks, ladders, stairs, and ballons. The lighting design credit goes to Ben Stanton and was seemingly unnoticeable… except for the beginning and the end of the show. The beginning of the show was noticeable for the clever use of the follow spot; the end was exceptional for the use of the blue light in relationship to the balloon. Sound design and original music was by Bart Fasbender. The sound was clear and crisp, but I noticed the effectiveness of the music even more. Prerecorded, it worked well to support both the mood and the performance. David S. Franklin was the production stage manager, and T.J. Kearney (FB) was the stage manager.

Complements should also go to the students (and their teachers) who attended today. This was a very well behaved and attentive audience — one that was thoroughly entranced with the show. I didn’t see a single text or hear a single phone go off during the show — trying doing that with today’s adults! I was surprised by the large portion that had seen live theatre before, and was also pleased at the number for whom this was their first introduction to theatre. Kudos to CTG for supporting a program such as this.

Humor Abuse” continues at the Mark Taper Forum through November 3, 2013. Tickets are available online; hottix should also be available. A show guide is available. Go see this show, especially if you need a pick-me-up.

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  Theatre in October continues tomorrow night with “Breath and Imagination” at the Colony Theatre (FB).  The second week of October sees me at the West Coast Premier of “Burnt Street Boys at the Third Street Theatre (FB).  The third week of October is being held for the production of “Carrie – The Musical (FB) by Transfer Theatre, but tickets are not yet on sale (and it is increasingly looking like this production will now be in 2014). October ends with the Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) production of “Kiss Me Kate” (October 26). November starts with “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” at Actors Rep of Simi (FB). That will be followed by a visit with Thomas the Tank Engine when we volunteer at OERM over Veterans Day.  The third week will be theatre-ish, as we attend ARTS’s Nottingham Village (FB) (a one-weekend ren-faire-ish market — tickets are now on sale). One of those weekends we’re also likely to see a Trollplayers (FB) production of Steven Schwartz’s Children of Eden” (which runs November 8-17) [Trollplayers is the community theatre group at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Northridge]. The weekend before Thanksgiving will bring Tom Paxton (FB) in concert at McCabes Santa Monica (FB) as well as “Play It Again Sam” at REP East (FB). The last weekend of November brings a rescheduled “Miracle on S. Division Street” at the Colony Theatre (FB).  December is mostly open, but should bring “The Little Mermaid” at Nobel Middle School, and “Peter and the Starcatcher” at The Ahmanson Theatre. 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 Truth May Not Set You Free, But It Can Inspire

Written By: cahwyguy - Mon May 27, 2013 @ 9:25 am PDT

Scottsboro Boys (Ahmanson)userpic=ahmansonThis weekend has been an interesting juxtaposition of theatre with two productions that echo the same theme, but tell the story in different ways and make different points. Saturday night we were in Newhall seeing REP’s production of “To Kill a Mockingbird; last night we were in DTLA seeing CTG’s production of the Kander-Ebb musical, “The Scottsboro Boys. Both tell the story of black men accused of raping white women in the south in the early 1930s. Both involve trials where the innocence of the black men becomes clear. Both involve a jury going with its prejudices instead of with the truth. Both end up with tragic ends for the defendants, with ultimately important larger realizations. If you can afford to do so, I strongly recommend you see both in close proximity — you’ll find it very moving.  Further, if you can find a production of Jason Robert Brown’s Parade to add to the mix, I strongly suggest you do so. The melding of the three themes will be mind-altering.

Yesterday, I related the story of To Kill a Mockingbird. That story deals with the loss of innocence and the perversion of justice, but does so in a comfortable manner. It uses a traditional courtroom setting and the curiousity of children to bring home its point. Although the point is strong, it is accessible. Scottsboro Boys, on the other hand, is “in your face” uncomfortable from the opening, primarily due to how the authors and composers chose to present the story. More on that in a minute.

Scottsboro Boys tells the story of the Scottsboro 9. The Scottsboro Boys were nine black teenage boys accused of rape in Alabama in 1931. The case included a frameup, an all-white jury, rushed trials, an attempted lynching, an angry mob, and is an example of an overall miscarriage of justice. The short version is this: On March 25, 1931, several people were hoboing on a freight train traveling between Chattanooga and Memphis, Tennessee. Several white boys jumped off the train and reported to the sheriff they had been attacked by a group of black boys. The sheriff deputized a posse, stopped and searched the train. He arrested the black boys, and found two white girls who accused the boys of rape. The case was first heard in Scottsboro, Alabama in three rushed trials, where the defendants received poor legal representation. All but the thirteen-year-old Roy Wright were convicted of rape and sentenced to death, the common sentence in Alabama at the time for black men convicted of raping white women. But with help from the American Communist Party, the case was appealed. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed seven of the eight convictions, and granted thirteen-year-old Eugene Williams a new trial because he was a juvenile. Chief Justice John C. Anderson dissented however, ruling that the defendants had been denied an impartial jury, fair trial, fair sentencing, and effective counsel. The case was returned to the lower court and the judge allowed a change of venue, moving the retrials to Decatur, Alabama. During the retrials, one of the alleged victims admitted fabricating the rape story and asserted that none of the Scottsboro Boys touched either of the white women. The jury found the defendants guilty, but the judge set aside the verdict and granted a new trial. After a new series of trials, the verdict was the same: guilty. The cases were ultimately tried three times. For the third time a jury—now with one black member—returned a third guilty verdict. Charges were finally dropped for four of the nine defendants. Sentences for the rest ranged from 75 years to death. All but two served prison sentences. One was shot in prison by a guard. Two escaped, were charged with crimes, and were sent back to prison.

John Kander and Fred Ebb (composer and lyricist), together with David Thompson (book), chose to tell this story in a novel fashion. Eschewing the traditional musical style, they chose to tell the story as a minstrel show. This was a style of variety show that has disappeared, and was known for lampooning black people and accentuating stereotypes. As such, the style of the show makes the audience intentionally uncomfortable. It has been said by some that this style is one reason this show died on Broadway; I would tend to agree, and I think this show is (like Chicago before it) intentionally ahead of its time. Despite all of our professed acceptance of racial tolerance, our society is not yet tolerant (as illustrated by the reception of our first black president). Until there is true and deep racial acceptance in society, I don’t think audiences will be comfortable with this show.

In any case, this story is told in the style of a minstrel show. This means that there is a elderly interlocutor who runs the show, two fools (Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo) who buffoonishly provide comic relief, and the rest of the performers (in this case, the nine Scottsboro boys). Through a series of acts, these actors tell the story of the Scottsboro Boys from their initial arrest through the various trials. Repeatedly, the boys emphasize that they want to tell the truth this time — to have the true story come out — and that telling the truth is unlike what had happened before. Lastly, observing this all is an unnamed middle-aged black woman … more on this later.

When the show starts, the boys obligingly do what the interlocutor wants, without question — even if it foolish. As time goes on the insistence to stick with the truth grows and grows. By the time the musical ends, the boys are defiant. No longer subservient to the white interlocutor, they insist on doing things on their terms and sticking with the truth. This mirrors how blacks have grown in society, insisting on their civil rights … insisting on the truth. It is in understanding this that the role of the unnamed women becomes significant.(slight spoiler here) … for the last scene reveals that the women is Rosa Parks, and the courage of the boys insistence to do what is right is one of the inspirations for her not to go to the back of the bus.

As I indicated, this is a musical that makes one uncomfortable. It holds up — to a bright light — the racial stereotypes that were common in the south in the 1930s. It not only makes fun of those stereotypes, it also highlights the antisemitism that was common as well in the South. This is why earlier I mentioned that seeing this musical in the context of JRB’s Parade is so important — Parade tells the story of the Leo Frank trial and subsequent lynching — another travesty of justice where a man was killed because he was Jewish.

Scottsboro Boys is an important musical, but it is not easy to watch. In this, it is much like Caberet or Kiss of the Spider Woman — it attempts to present an uncomfortable subject in a way that calls for discussion afterwards. In doing so, this is theatre at its best — something that challenges and exposes. This isn’t the feel-good musical that leaves you humming (think Oklahoma, Hello Dolly, Hairspray, or Wicked). This is a musical — like South Pacific, Carousel, or Parade — that leaves you thinking about the uncomfortable side of human nature. The truth is sometimes uncomfortable. To put it another way… as we walked out of this show, we found ourselves quoting Urinetown: “But the music, its so pretty.This line referred to the fact that Urinetown had pretty music, but an uncomfortable subject matter and title. Similarly, Scottsboro Boys has pretty music… but the subject and the point it makes is pretty uncomfortable.

Turning from the subject to the performance, which were spectacular. Framing the Scottsboro Boys minstrel show were Hal Linden as the Interlocutor, Trent Armand Kendall as Mr. Bones, and JC Montgomery as Mr. Tambo. I’ve been a fan of Mr. Linden’s since 1972, when I saw him at the LA Civic Light Opera in The Rothschilds (my first musical). He was a bit weaker as the Interlocutor, but you could still see the old rascal within… and the power and strength. Kendall and Montgomery were both very strong — not only in their comic buffoonery, but in their singing and dancing and acrobatics. Montgomery was particularly good as the S. Leibowitz, the last lawyer for the boys.

The Scottsboro Boys were played by 9 remarkable actors: Gilbert L Bailey II (Ozie Powell), David Bazemore (Olen Montgomery), Christopher James Culberson (Andy Wright), Joshua Henry (Haywood Patterson), Justin Prescott (Willie Roberson), Clinton Roane (Roy Wright), Cedric Sanders (Clarence Norris), Deandre Sevon (Eugene Williams), and Christian Dante White (Charles Weems). All were strong; a few deserve some special discussion. Joshua Henry was just a force of nature as Haywood Patterson. Powerful, emotional, and strong, he provided the center and the heart of the nine boys. His performance was just riveting. Bailey and White doubled as the two female accusers, and carried off that transformation quite well. As for the rest — well, this was such an ensemble it is hard to separate.

Lastly, in what might be the smallest role — but the most emotional — was C. Kelly Wright as the Lady. Standing in as both the mother of the boys — but more importantly as Rosa Parks — she provided the perspective of the silent observer, gaining strength from the boys devotion to holding on to what is right.

The choreography and direction of Susan Stroman (assisted by Associate Director/Choreographer Jeff Whiting) was just remarkable. Energetic dances and creative staging is what makes this musical pop. The direction brought out the raw emotion and nerves this story requires. The show also featured an innovate scenic design by Beowulf Boritt that consisted primarily of steel chairs, planks, and tamborines. These simple items were rearranged and locked together to provide every scene in the musical. The only flying scenic piece was a sign at the end of the show. Given this simple staging, I can easily see this show being done in a small to mid-size theatre with no fly space. It would have an even strong “in your face” nature in a small venue. The sparse scenic elements were enhanced by the lighting design of Ken Billington, which truly emphasized the mood within the piece. The sound design by Jon Weston was also strong, especially sitting near the front where the percussion truly resonated. The costume design by Toni-Leslie James was effective, establishing the tone very well. Fight direction was by Mark B. Simon. Eric Santagata was Assistant Choreographer.  Evangeline Rose Whitlock was the Production Stage Manager, assisted by Ryan C. Durham and Lora K. Powell.

The Scottsboro Boys” continues at the Ahmanson Theatre through June 30. Tickets are available through the Ahmanson Box Office; discount tickets are available usually through Hottix or sometimes via Goldstar. I strongly recommend you see this in tandem with To Kill a Mockingbird at REP East; the two productions serve to amplify each other (although I doubt the juxtaposition was intentional as it would have been marketed). Alas, JRB’s Parade isn’t in town to compete the trifecta.

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:   June brings “Priscilla – Queen of the Desert” at the Pantages. June will also bring a Maria Muldaur concert at McCabes.  I’m also considering Rent at the Hudson Theatres or A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts in Thousand Oaks. 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. 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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