Observations Along the Road

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

Sometimes You Have To Be A Little Bit Naughty

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Jul 05, 2015 @ 1:12 pm PST

Matilda the Musical (Ahmanson)userpic=ahmansonSupposed I told you that I had just seen a musical about a girl who had been bullied all her life, and who had decided to get revenge — in particular, psycho-kinetic revenge — upon those who had bullied her? You probably would have thought I had just been to see Carrie: The Musical. Well, I have seen Carrie, but  it currently isn’t open in LA, and won’t be returning until October 1st. Rather, I was talking about Matilda: The Musical (Tour) (FB), the musical we saw last evening at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). It was a wonderful performance and I recommend the show highly to everyone, not just because it is a fun and well-performed show, but because of the conversation that is changing because of shows like Matilda and Carrie.

There is one major message in Matilda, and it is a message that the musical (with a book by Dennis Kelly and Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin (FB) based on the novel by Roald Dahl (FB)) relentlessly beats into your head:

If you sit around and let them get on top, you
Won’t change a thing.
Just because you find that life’s not fair, it
Doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it.
If you always take it on the chin and wear it,
You might as well be saying you think that it’s OK.
And that’s not right.
And if it’s not right, you have to put it right.

But nobody else is gonna put it right for me.
Nobody but me is gonna change my story.
Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.

The message is a strong anti-bullying message: a message that you can’t let people bully you, and that it is up to you to change your story — that is it up to you to put it right. It is in this message that there is a parallel to the story of Carrie White; it is in this message that (I believe) is the reason that Matilda has stuck such a chord in the hearts of adults and children alike. The message is a simple but strong one: stand up to bullies — you have the strength and obligation to do so. It is a message that is very important these days, as we’re seeing those who have been bullied exact all sorts of revenge on those who bullied them (it seems a common theme in school shootings). If we can stop bullying as it begins, our children will be much better off.  Matilda puts it in a much more palatable fashion than Carrie. In Matilda, nobody dies and the bullies just give in and go away, vs Carrie where almost everyone dies. Matilda succeeds because it is the happy ending that we want; Carrie is the ending that we get far too often.

It is unclear how much of the audience consciously connected with this message and this parallel. To most of them, this was an entertaining story about a little girl with bad parents and a mean headmistress who beats the adults and ends up happy. Who doesn’t love happy endings? Who doesn’t enjoy being a little bit naughty? But children love Roald Dahl’s stories because of the deeper message — for example, what Charlie and the Chocolate Factory teaches about the various vices and virtues. This story, through humor, also teaches a valuable message about the value of self, and the value and importance of standing up for one’s self. It teaches that you need to write your own story, and not let others dictate it.

I just realized I’ve been blathering on about the story without providing you a short synopsis. After all, you might never have read the novel; you might not have seen the wonderful 1996 movie with Danny DeVito, Rhea Pearlman, and Mara Wilson. As opposed to trying to detail it all here, I’ll point you to the Wikipedia page. The “TL;DR” version is: Matilda is a precocious and intelligent little girl born to parents who didn’t want her, and who value stupidity and the messages that TV teaches over reason. Unable to control her (Matilda loves to play pranks on her parents), then enroll her in a school run by an evil headmistress who delights in torturing children. One teacher sees Matilda’s value, and working together they fight the headmistress, and return the school to a place of love and learning. Oh, and Matilda gets a happy ending as well.

In adapting this story to the stage, the authors imbued it with an additional message that was not the novel or the movie — a message that is a commentary on parents today. In the opening scenes, there is a birthday party where every parent is talking about how their child is a precious little miracle and something special. This, of course, creates a contrast with Matilda’s parents who see her not as a miracle and as something not special. The point that is being made is that if everyone is special, then no one is. Special becomes the norm, and the truly special become invisible. The reality must be that we, as parents, must not predefine our children with labels, but must encourage them to grow up and be whatever they are destined to be (and be the best at that).

As you have probably guessed by now, I liked the story of Matilda and its message. I think it is a strong one that needs to be learned. The related question is: how well did the playwright and composer adapt this message for the stage, and integrate it into the musical form. The answer is: reasonably well. I’ll go into performance, creatives, and technical in a minute, but story-wise I have a few quibbles. The first is the Act I ending, which I found too abrupt. You want Act I to end with a rousing number to get you talking during intermission and wanting to come back. Instead, you get Matilda alone on stage going “But That’s Not Right”. Other than that, I found the structuring of the story fun and well-paced, and I thought that the songs were more than just entertaining patter. In particular, the songs did a great job of illustrating the wants and motives of the characters; they illustrated and illuminated personalities and drives. This is what the songs in musicals should do.

Before I turn to the performers, I want to turn to the audience for a second. We saw the show on July 4th — an early evening show. There were lots of kids in the audience, as the show was heavily discounted (as it was on a holiday). There were kids that were enthralled by the show, and I can easily see how shows like this could turn kids into theatre lovers. My favorite point, however, was one point where two characters kissed somewhere near the end. At that precise moment, from the audience, comes a loud “Yuk!” from a little kid. Priceless.

The performances in Matilda were top rate. In a manner similar to Billy Elliott, the demands on the child in the lead role are so great that three are cast (in the case of Matilda, Gabby Gutierrez, Mia Sinclair Jenness (FB), and Mabel Tyler (FB)), and they alternate. At our performance, Mabel Tyler (FB) was Matilda, and she did a wonderful job with the role. For a child that small she had a great singing voice; she moved and danced well and brought a lot of energy to the stage. It was clear that she was just having the time of her life in the role, and that is something that always is telegraphed in a performance.

Her parents were performed by Quinn Mattfeld [Mr. Wormwood] and Cassie Silva (FB) [Mrs. Wormwood]. We’ve seen Ms. Silva before at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) [42nd Street and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers], and she was equally strong here. She was having fun with her role, and did a wonderful job on “Loud” and in her opening scene. Mattfeld was great as Mr. Wormwood, playing the role with loads of humor. This came across best in his second act opener, “Telly”.

Next there is the staff of Crunchem Hall, Matilda’s school: Miss Jenny Honey and Miss Abigail Trunchbull. Trunchbull was played to scenery-chewing perfection by Bryce Ryness (FB).  Ryness didn’t attempt to hide the fact he was a man playing a woman; he knows what and who is character is and how to work it. This is apparent from the first time you see him on stage with Miss Honey, and it continues in every appearance. He just delights in the character, and it comes across. Jennifer Blood (FB)’s Miss Honey, on the other hand, is meek sweetness and light, a gentle soul forced to find inner strength by a little girl who understands her story better than she does. She gives a great performance and has a wonderful singing voice that she uses on numbers such as “Pathetic”, “This Little Girl”, and “Quiet”.

In terms of the other named characters and the ensemble members, there are a few I would like to highlight. As Bruce Boxtrotter, Evan Gray seemed to be having great fun in both his signature cake-eating scene as well as his post Chokey scenes. Equally precocious was Kaci Walfall (FB) as Lavender in her opening bit after “Telly” at the top of Act II. Of the adults, I particularly enjoyed Ora Jones as Mrs. Phelps, the librarian. She brought a wonderful excitement to the role as Matilda was telling the story of the Acrobat and the Escape Artist. Lastly, I want to note Danny Tieger (FB) as Michael Wormwood:  his role was small, but I particularly enjoyed his well timed outbursts during “Telly”. Rounding out the cast in various smaller roles and as part of the ensemble (👦👧 indicates children) were: Jaquez Andre Sims (FB) [Party Entertainer, Rudolpho]; Ian Michael Stuart (FB) [Doctor, Sergei]; Justin Packard (FB) [The Escape Artist], Wesley Faucher (FB) [The Acrobat]; 👦 Cal Alexander [Nigel]; 👧 Kayla Amistad [Amanda]; 👦 Aristotle Rock [Eric]; 👧 Cassidy Hagel [Alice]; 👧 Megan McGuff [Hortensia]; 👦 Meliki Hurd (FB) [Tommy]; and the ensemble: Michael Fatica (FB), John Michael Fiumara (FB), Shonica Gooden (FB), Stephanie Martignetti (FB), and Darius Wright (FB). Swings were Cameron Burke (FB), 👧 Brittany ConigattiCamden Gonzalez (FB), Michael D. Jablonski (FB), 👦 Luke Kolbe Mannikus (FB), 👧 Serena Quadrata, and Natalie Wisdom (FB). One note on the ensemble: At times, the ensemble appears to play older kids. Given that the school only goes to 11 year olds, the apparent age of the old kids is a little off-putting. I can understand the demands of the characters, though, so I’ll suspend my disbelief.

Bringing this team together creatively was Matthew Warchus [Director], Thomas Caruso [Associate Director], Ryan Emmons [Resident Director], Peter Darling [Choreographer], Ellen Kane [Associate Choreographer – Worldwide], Kate Dunn [Associate Choreographer – U.S.], Andrew Wade [Voice Director], and Victoria Navarro [Production Stage Manager]. Michael D. Jablonski (FB) was the dance captain; Camden Gonzalez (FB) was the assistant dance captain and children’s dance captain; and Michael Fatica (FB) was the assistant dance/gym captain. I’ve noted before that I often have trouble telling where the director stops and the actor begins. That is certainly true here for the adults (and especially true for Ryness’ Trunchbull), but the director did a great job of bringing out the characters in each of the children. Dance and choreography was excellent, especially the movement up and down the set and the acrobatics.

Matilda was under the music direction of Matthew Smedal (FB), who also served as the conductor (and keyboard 2) of the Matilda orchestra. Chris Nightingale was the music supervisor and orchestrator; David Holcenberg was the associate music supervisor. Musicians included Bill Congdon (FB) [Keyboard 1, Children’s Music Director; Assistant Conductor], Joshua Priest [Percussion], Anna Stadlman (FB) [Bass], Sal Lozano [Woodwind 1], Jeff Driskill [Woodwind 2], Daniel Fornero (FB) [Trumpet 1], Rob Schaer [Trumpet 2], Robert Payne [Trombone / Contractor], Thom Rotella [Guitar], and David Mergen [Cello]. Other musical credits were: Phij Adams [Music Technology], Laurie Perkins [London Music Preparation], Emily Grishman [New York Music Copyist, Music Preparation], Katharine Edmonds [Music Preparation], Howard Joines [Music Coordinator]; and David Witham [Keyboard Sub]. In general, the music sounded good but didn’t have the oomph that a good show orchestra should have. There were also portions where it sounded like the children’s ensemble was pre-recorded, which was a bit off-putting.

Lastly, there is the technical side of things. Rob Howell‘s set and costume design imagined the stage as these colossal piles of blocks. I didn’t really like it when I saw it on the Tony Awards, but it worked really well on stage — especially during “School Song” where blocks were inserted into the walls providing the ability to climb. The costumes and wigs also worked well, particular those for Mrs. Wormwood, Mr. Wormwood, and Miss Trunchbull.  The illusions by Paul Kieve worked very well — particularly the chalk writing by itself on the blackboard. The sound design by Simon Baker worked reasonably well and wasn’t overpowering; the primary problem was distinguishing what the children were singing over the accents. This could be a problem with amplification on the kids, or it could be that the children’s ensemble was pre-recorded and muffled. There was also a point during “Quiet” where there was this odd echo from the orchestra area — I couldn’t tell whether it was intentional, or whether someone’s assisted listening device was malfunctioning and shouting to the world. The lighting design of Hugh Vanstone was particularly effective — there was one scene in the second act where the lighting suddenly changed to red and thunder was heard — sending a chill through me. Well played. The remaining production credits were:  Casting – Jim Carnahan C.S.A and Nora Brennan C.S.A (children); Production Management – Aurora Productions; Company Manager – R. Doug Rodgers; General Management – Dodger Management Group.

Matilda: The Musical (Tour) (FB) continues at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) until July 12. Tickets are available online through the Ahmanson; midweek discounts are available through Goldstar. The tour is next in San Francisco — so my Bay Area peeps should look into tickets there at the Orpheum (it looks like Goldstar tickets have expired). It is a fun show well worth seeing.

Los Angeles’ 4th of July Block Party. As we transited to and from the theatre (we used LA Metro), we had a chance to visit the big 4th of July Block Party at Grand Park (FB). Security was tight, including searches and pat downs, but I can understand the city wanting to make things safe. We had to argue with a security guard as he thought my wife’s walking staff was a weapon; luckily, we got that overridden. We didn’t get to the food trucks — they didn’t have the greatest of layouts. We did, however, get to demonstrate being friendly natives — we directed a number of people regarding visiting our city. In general, it seemed to be a reasonably well run and organized event.

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 am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres:  REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: July is a month of double-headers. Next weekend, our double-header July continues: On Friday night, July 10th, we’re seeing Colin Mitchell‘s show Madness, Murder Mayhem: Three Classic Grand Guignol Plays Reimagined at Zombie Joes Underground Theatre (FB); Saturday July 11th brings “Jesus Christ Superstar” at REP East (FB). The following weekend is another double header: “The History Boys” at the Stella Adler Theatre (FB) on Saturday (Goldstar), and “Green Grow The Lilacs” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) on Sunday.  The last weekend of July brings our last double: “Lombardi” at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB) on July 25th, with the annual Operaworks show the next day. August start calming down, with “As You Like It” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) the first weekend of August, our summer Mus-ique show the second weekend of August, and “The Fabulous Lipitones” at  The Colony Theatre (FB) the third weekend of August. After that we’ll need a vacation … but then again we might squeeze in Evita at the Maui Cultural Center (FB) the last weekend of August. September right now is mostly open, with the only ticketed show being “The Diviners” at REP East (FB) and a hold-the-date for “First Date” at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB). October will bring another Fringe Festival: the NoHo Fringe Festival (FB). October also has the following as ticketed or hold-the-dates: Kelrik Production (FB)’s Urinetown at the Monroe Forum Theatre (Hold for Sat 10/3);  “Mrs. A. Lincoln” at The Colony Theatre (FB) (Ticketed for Sat 10/10); and  “Damn Yankees” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) (Ticketed for Sat 10/17). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.


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Thoughts on a Theatre Season: Ahmanson Theatre 2015-2016

Written By: cahwyguy - Mon Mar 09, 2015 @ 4:00 pm PST

userpic=ahmansonThe Ahmanson Theatre has just announced its 2015-2016 season. As I did with the Pantages, Cabrillo, and the Colony, here are my thoughts on the season:

  • Thumbs Down The Sound of Music. September 20 through October 31, 2015. This is the start of a new American tour, but I have really no interest in seeing this again.
  • Thumbs Up The Bridges of Madison County. December 8, 2015, through January 17, 2016. This is a new musical by Jason Robert Brown, and guess what… he will be conducting the entire run!
  • Thumbs Up A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder. March 22 through May 1, 2016. This musical won the Tony for best musical (last year, IIRC), and is a must see.
  • Thumbs Up Titanic: The Musical. May 14 through June 26, 2016. Note that this is not the musical version of the Leonard DiCapro movie that won awards; this is a musical from about the same time (1997) with book by Peter Stone and score by Maury Yeston.  I’ve heard the music, but never seen it.

There is an unnamed fifth production to run at an unspecified date.

I Support 99 Seat Theatre in Los AngelesP.S.: Please remember, if you’re an AEA actor eligible to vote in the upcoming advisory vote on the 99 seat plan, please vote no. The 99 seat plan needs to be changed, but not in the way AEA is proposing. AEA’s proposal is bad for small theatre, bad for actors who are not exclusively live theatre (hint: it will likely lower your unemployment benefits), bad for the local economy, and bad for the audience. Voting YES means you want AEA’s plan as it is proposed; there is no guarantee they will fix it. Voting NO indicates you do not want their specific proposal, you want AEA to sit down with all stakeholders and craft a plan good for all. Visit ilove99.org for more information. Provide financial support to this effort through I Love 99’s Indiegogo page.

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How Quickly They Forget

Written By: cahwyguy - Fri Nov 14, 2014 @ 11:50 am PST

userpic=ahmansonThe LA Times today has a series of articles on the 50th anniversary of the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion. However, in their desire to glorify the past, they have made one glaring omission: They completely forgot about Edwin Lester and the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera.

Reading the articles gives the impression that the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion was the home of the Philharmonic, Opera, and Dance; all theatre was under the purview of the Center Theatre Group, and was at the Ahmanson and the Taper. That, of course, is completely false.

Wikipedia has a good page on the LACLO; so does Broadway LA at the Pantages and the Philharmonic Auditorium. LACLO, founded by Edwin Lester, started in 1938 and shared space with the Philharmonic at the Philharmonic Auditorium. When the Chander Pavillion was completed, the LACLO moved there with the Philharmonic. The LACLO pioneered the notion of a “tour” to the West Coast; often Broadway productions that did not tour to the West Coast would import the production for the LACLO with the original Broadway stars. LACLO also started a number of shows that either made it to Broadway, or attempted to make it to Broadway and failed. These included Song of Norway (1944), Magdalena (1948), Kismet (1953), Peter Pan (1954) and Gigi (1973). Among the aborted shows that I recall included a version of Gone with the Wind with Pernell Roberts, and “Sugar” with Robert Morse.

The LACLO is the reason I’m into theatre — my first live theatre was “The Rothschilds” at LACLO in 1972 with Hal Linden. My parents were LACLO subscribers, and they soon added me to their subscriptions. This is when I fell in love with the theatre.

LACLO operated in parallel with the Center Theatre Group; often CTG productions were bonus shows for LACLO. I recall this being the case for my favorite show, “Two Gentlemen of Verona”, which was my first show at the Ahmanson. In general, the LACLO did musicals; CTG did plays.

According to Wikipedia, during the 1950s and 1960s the LACLO was the most financially successful musical theatre subscription organization of its kind. However, in the 1970s the organization’s audience size began to decrease and by the 1980s the company was experiencing serious financial difficulties. The company’s last production was of John Kander’s Cabaret in 1987.  Wikipedia doesn’t note that what did the company in — beyond the quality of 1980s theatre — was the growth of alternate houses such as the Shubert (which opened in the mid 1970s) and the Pantages (which opened in the early 1980s).

The Broadway LA folks (who claim to be the successors to the LACLO) note that in 1981, the Nederlander Organization bailed out the financially-ailing Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. In their words: “While many of these productions continued to light up the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Ahmanson Theatre at the Los Angeles County Music Center, as available windows for booking shows at those venues became smaller and smaller, the Nederlanders eventually opted to utilize the Pantages to house the LACLO season of shows.” The translation: Once the Nederlanders got control, they slowly moved more and more productions to the houses they controlled (and of course, never to the Shubert theatre in Century City).  And thus, the LACLO faded from view at the Music Center, to be replaced by Nederlander tours at the Pantages. All that was left was the mailing list.

[Edited to Add: Over on Facebook, Ron Bruguiere provided some additional clarification to the above, noting: “In your blog, you neglect to mention Feuer and Martin. They took over CLO from Edwin Lester in 1976, lasting until 1980. The subscribers were extremely unhappy in 1977 with Liza Minnelli in “Shine It On” which when it opened in NYC, was known as “The Act.”  1981 is when the Nederlander organization begin producing the CLO productions, and the blue-haired ladies let it be known that there was too much blood in “Sweeney Todd,” the subscribers were very displeased, and subscriptions fell off. By 1987, when CLO closed, the subscriber base was greatly diminished.”]

Still, any look back at the contributions of the Music Center must acknowledge the LACLO. For many many years, the LACLO was the outlet for musical theatre in LA — even after CTG started. It wasn’t until the death of Lester and the Nederlanders taking over the remains of the LACLO that the Ahmanson became a musical house.

As we look back on 50 years of the Dorothy Chandler, let’s remember the days when musical theatre could fill a 3,150 seat house that actually had great accoustics as well as glamour. Let’s remember the contributions of Edwin Lester and the LA Civic Light Opera.


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Shop Locally

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Aug 10, 2014 @ 7:46 am PST

Buyer and Cellar (Mark Taper Forum)userpic=ahmansonOne of the most popular movements these days is the locavore movement. The notion is to promote sustainability by eating food that grown or raised locally. An offshoot program encourages people to shop from local merchants and support the local community, as opposed to buying products from no-name large corporations. This is a project that progressives love — in fact, one progressive went so far as to install a shopping mall in her basement, and she does all her shopping there. Well, that’s sort-of the premise of the comedy “Buyer and Cellar” by Jonathan Tolins, starring Michael Urie and directed by Stephen Brackett, now at the Mark Taper Forum.

Buyer and Cellar” is a comedy that takes a “What If?” to its absurdist conclusion. In a book she published about home design, Barbra Streisand indicated she had collected so many items over her years that she arranged them into a collection of shops in the basement of her Malibu barn. What if, Tolins hypothesized, she actually formed them into a mall, and actually hired someone to staff the mall. That’s the basis of B&C — Urie’s character is an out-of-work gay actor hired by Streisand to staff the mall. When the Barbra finally shows up to shop, Urie’s character (Alex) makes a connection with the woman which grows and grows… until he ultimately figures out her ultimate purpose.

The show itself was hilarious. The premise is wonderfully abusrdist, and the stories told truly hit home for Los Angeles natives (who actually understand the amount of time the Santa Monica City Council spends debating parking at a Panera). When combined with Urie’s willing and warm (and natural) performance, it is a delight. I’ve noted in the past how I rarely laugh at shows. This one was truly laugh-out-loud funny.

I’m not sure how much else I can say about this one. The scenic design by Andrew Boyce was overly simple: A white room, with a chair, table and bench, augmented by video projections by Alex Koch that really added very little. I’d go so far to say that there was no scenic design, as it was the actor that created the sense of place, not the scenery, projection, or props (other than Streisand’s book). The sound design by Stowe Nelson was only visible in the wireless microphone stuffed down the back of Urie’s pants.  The lighting by Eric Southern was similarly simple.

Drew Blau was the company manager, Michael T. Clarkson was the production stage manager, and Hannah Woodward was the stage manager.

Buyer and Cellar” continues until August 17 at the Mark Taper Forum. Tickets are available here.

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

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  This evening brings a Queen-emulation band at the Valley Cultural Center’s concert in the park. Next weekend brings “Broadway Bound” at the Odyssey on 8/16 (directed by Jason Alexander). I’m also thinking about a new musical, “It Happened in Roswell: An Intergalactic Musical” at the No Ho Arts Center on Sunday, 8/17. The following weekend we’ll be on vacation in Escondido, where there are a number of potential productions… out of the many available, we have picked Two Gentlemen of Verona” at the Old Globe on Sunday, 8/24, and Pageant” at the Cygnet in Old Town on Wednesday, 8/27.  I’ll note that what they have at the Welk (“Oklahoma“), Patio Theatre (“Fiddler on the Roof“), and Moonlight Stage (“My Fair Lady“) are all retreads and underwhelming. August will end with “An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein” at REP East (FB). September is filling out. So far, the plans include “Earth/Quaked starring Savion Glover” as part of Muse/ique in Pasadena on Sun 9/7,  “Moon Over Buffalo” (Goldstar) at the GTC in Burbank on Sat 9/13, Bat Boy: The Musical” at CSUN for the Friday night before Slichot (9/19), “The Great Gatsby” at Repertory East (FB) on Sun 9/21,  “What I Learned in Paris” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on Sat 9/27. October, so far, only has one show: “Pippin” at the Pantages (FB) on 10/25, although I’m looking at “Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married” at the Group Rep (FB) for either Sat 10/11 or Sat 10/18 (when Karen is at PIQF). November is back to busy, with dates held or ticketed for “Big Fish” at Musical Theatre West (FB) on Sat 11/1, “Handle with Care” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on Sat 11/8 (shifting to avoid ACSAC), a trip out to Orange Empire Railway Museum to see my buddy Thomas on 11/11,  “Sherlock Holmes and the Suicide Club” at REP East (FB) on Sat 11/15, the Nottingham Festival on Sun 11/16, and “Kinky Boots” at the Pantages (FB) on Sat 11/29. As for December, right now I’m just holding one date: “She Loves Me” at Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim on 12/20. 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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Revisiting a Community after almost 40 Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  This evening brings “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at REP East (FB). The next weekend brings the musical Lil Abner” at LA City College (directed by Bruce Kimmel, with choreography by Kay Cole). The last weekend of May is an offbeat parody musical: “Zombies from the Beyond” at the Lex Theatre. June is also busy. It starts with a CDF Conference for Karen while I see The Fantastiks at Good People Theatre (FB). We lose the following weekend to a Bat Mitzvah. The remainder of the month brings “Stoneface: The Rise and Fall of Buster Keaton” at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) on June 22, and “I’m Not Just a Comic Genius” at Secret Rose (FB) on June 27. July will be busy: “Ghost” at the Pantages (FB) on 7/5, “Return to the Forbidden Planet” at REP East (FB) the weekend of 7/12, “Once” at the Pantages (FB) on 7/19, “Bye Bye Birdie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on 7/26, and “Family Planning” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on 8/2. August then remains quiet as we work around vacations and such, but things start to get busy again in September and October. More on that later. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.

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Standing Tall for What You Believe

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

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 PST

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 PST

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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