Observations Along the Road

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

Shop Locally

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

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 PDT

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 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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