Observations Along the Road

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

Breaking Open the Dysfunctional Family: Valium is my Favorite Color

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Dec 19, 2010 @ 8:28 am PDT

Did you ever go to a show, and see your life on the stage? That happened to me last night, in a sense, when we went to the Ahmanson Theatre to see Next to Normal, the 2009 Tony/2010 Pulitzer award winning musical.

Next to Normal” tells the story of a dysfunctional family: the mother (Diana) who is falling deeper and deeper into the depths of her mental illness (bipolar); the father (Dan) who is attempting to hold it all together; the daughter Natalie who has been lost in the shuffle, and the son, Gabriel, who is the lynchpin for Diana’s illness. It is the story about how holding on to something too tightly can be just as damaging as not holding it enough… or at all. It is the story of how treating mental illness is not an exact science; although doctors offer a range of treatments from pharmacology to talk therapy to hypnosis to even stronger therapies, it is just throwing spaghetti on the wall. It is the story of Natalie and Henry, and how being in the middle of dysfunction and mental illness can affect a teen relationship… and how one can use substances to attempt to run away from problems, but it doesn’t help. Ultimately, it is the story of family, and that things don’t always work out how you expect them, but hopefully they work out for the best.

Note: This more detailed summary and analysis may give away some plot details

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Concerts and Theatres

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Dec 12, 2010 @ 9:37 am PDT

Last night, we went to what might be our last subscription performance at The Pasadena Playhouse. I’m very careful to use the word “performance” here, for I’m not sure how to categorize what we saw last night, except, perhaps, as a “concert”. Much as I love the Pasadena Playhouse, I don’t think of it as a concert venue.

The range of what can be presented on a stage is extremely varied. Your “normal” play, be it a comedy or a drama, typically features fictional characters (or dramatized portrayals of real people) experiencing something and usually growing or changing in some way. Musicals add a musical element to this, using the music as a way of expressing the inner thoughts and emotions of characters in a way that words cannot. On the other end of the spectrum we have simple performances, such as musical concerts where songs are performed without any storyline, or improvisational comedy, where the target is humor, not growth. Again: Performances with no through storyline. Somewhere along this we have the increasingly popular hybrid: the jukebox musical. An example of this is the last show we saw, “Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels” at the Mark Taper Forum. These typically feature groups of actors dramatizing each song individually (“Jacques Brel” is another example of this), or the connecting of a series of songs written by or strongly associated with the same artist with an improvised storyline (“All Shook Up or “Jersey Boys” are examples of this).

This brings us to last night show at the Pasadena Playhouse: “Uptown, Downtown”. This show, which credits no writer, features Leslie Uggams telling her life story tied together with the metaphor of the connections between “Uptown” and “Downtown”. These terms refer to New York, and in this case, refer more specifically to the venues surrounding Harlem (“Uptown”), and the venues surrounding TV and Broadway (“Downtown”). The snippets of Ms. Uggams stories are punctuated by songs associated with the individuals in her life, with a heavy emphasis on Gershwin, Ellington, and other theatrical and jazz artists. Is this performance a show? a musical? a jukebox musical? I don’t think so. Ms. Uggams is a wonderful performer, but she just doesn’t have the body of work associated specifically with her that would permit her to pull off a theatrical jukebox musical. Perhaps the closest comparison of this show is “Liza’s At The Palace”, but even that show featured backup singers and dancers.

So we’re left to the conclusion that what we saw was a concert. When viewed from that perspective, it was a wonderful concert. Ms. Uggams has a wonderful voice (and get this, kids, there’s no autotune either!). She brings a strong jazz and emotional element to her songs, and can elevate a theatrical song into joyous music. But the focus is the music, not the theatricality (contrasted with Liza, who knows how to bring theatricality to joyous music). This doesn’t make it bad—it just makes it a concert.

The conceit of this concert is Ms. Uggams life story. The first half focuses on Uptown and her days at the Apollo. It features tunes made famous by individuals such as Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, Mitch Miller, Ella Fitzgerald, the Platters, and others. The second half focuses on Downtown, and features more theatre songs: Gershwin, Herman, Ellington, as well as songs from her 1968 musical, “Hallilujah Baby”. The music is wonderful to listen to—slow ballads at points and upbeat jazz at other points.

This discussion isn’t meant to imply that Ms. Uggams was alone on the stage, for her entire orchestra was on stage as well… and they were a kick to watch. In some ways, they were obviously having more fun than the audience. The Musical Director (and the apparant conductor at the piano) was Don Rebic. Sal Lozano assembled the orchestra and played sax and flute. John Fumo was on trumpet. Charlie Morillas was on trombone. Gordon Peeke was behind the drums. David Witham was in the back on the synthesizer. Joel Hamilton was having the time of his life rocking away on the bass, and it was obviously that Andrew Synowiec was having fun on guitar. Orchestrations were by Gordon Goodwin and Don Rebic.

The concert was supported by a good technical team. The costumes (a simple purple dress in the first act, a slinkier black dress in the second) were by Tosca New York. Lighting was by Steven Young and was relatively simple. Sound was by Eric Thompson. There were no credits for the simple stage design or the writing of the inter-song dialogue. the production was conceived and directed by Michael Bush. Ronn Goswick was the production stage manager.

The last performance of “Uptown, Downtown” is tonight at 8am.

Turning back to the question of the venue itself, for the Pasadena Playhouse is not a concert venue. The Pasadena Playhouse is first and foremost a playhouse: a home for drama and comedy, perhaps amplified with music. The last two shows presented to subscribers have been individual tour-de-forces (and “FDR” was arguably a drama), but they also possessed simple sets and directions, essentially touring productions sharing the stage and presented to subscribers. They are certainly not what patrons have come to expect from a Pasadena Playhouse production. They were low-cost import productions of high-quality, capable of keeping the Playhouse open and presenting something to subscribers. The Pasadena Playhouse’s next non-rental production, “Dangerous Beauty” appears to be a full show: a full-on period-costume musical with book and verse by Jeannine Dominy, lyrics by Amanda McBroom, music by Michele Brourman, and directed by Sheryl Keller, and with a relatively large cast. They haven’t provided tickets to this to those who donated their subscription. They have also not yet announced any productions beyond this show; certainly, there have been no hints yet of a full season.

Personally, we’re at a crossroads with this theatre (as are the other subscribers to whom I spoke). We were treated poorly during the bankruptcy, and harbor no love for the current management (they haven’t created that sense of family). We don’t have a strong desire to see the upcoming musical based on description and casting alone; we’ll likely wait for the reviews and perhaps get discount tickets. We’ve replaced our Playhouse subscription with one to the Colony Theatre in Burbank—they give that sense of family the Playhouse once had, whlie presenting great theatre at an affordable price. So will we be back at the Playhouse? I think we’ll wait and see.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. Our next theatre in December (and currently my last theatre for December) is next weekend, when we see Next to Normal” at the Ahmanson. Our December theatre closes for Karen and Erin on Christmas Eve with West Side Story” at the Pantages Theatre (I’m not interested in that particular production, especially at Pantages prices, and haven’t yet decided if I’m going to go to an alternate show… if there even is one that afternoon).

The new year, 2011, starts slow. January is mostly open with only Tom Paxton at McCabes ticketed for my birthday, January 21. I’m exploring getting tickets for “Loving Repeating: A Musical of Gertrude Stein on January 29 at ICT Long Beach (I’m just waiting for tickets to show up on Goldstar or LA Stage Tix). February will bring the first show of the REP 2011 season, “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” (pending ticketing for February 5), followed by The Marvellous Wonderettes” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on February 12; Rock of Ages” at the Pantages on February 19. February closes with Moonlight and Magnolias at the Colony Theatre on February 26. March is also mostly open right now, although March 26 is being held for The Diary of Anne Frank” at REP East. Of course, I learn of interesting shows all the time, so expect additions to this schedule.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.

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Songs from an Exceptional Artist

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Nov 28, 2010 @ 8:21 am PDT

Song cycles and Jukebox musicals. They’ve been around in musicals forever, going back to shows such as “Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris” in 1968, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” in 1978, and “Sophisticated Ladies” in 1981. They all aim to do the same thing: showcase the songs of a particular performer with a talented cast of between four and eight, creating either a biography or turning each song into a vingette. Some attempt to rummage through an artist’s catalog and form a collection of songs into a through storyline to varying levels of success. Jukebox musicals run hot and cold: when they soar, they are spectacular—I still have strong memories of the performances of the original Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Sophisticated Ladies casts. When they fail, they are quickly forgettable. I’ve seen some in the latter category recently, but I can’t seem to recall them, proving my point. 🙂

Part of the trick of a successful jukebox musical is picking the right artist. The musical of some artists is more melodic and less theatrical. Some artists have songs that are stories in themselves. Randy Newman is one of those latter artists. He has brought a theatrical style to his music going back to his 1968 debut album, “Randy Newman”. When I learned that the Mark Taper Forum was doing a Randy Newman jukebox show. We went to see the show, called “Harps and Angels”, last night, and were not disappointed.

Harps and Angels” is not one of those musicals that attempts to create a story where one isn’t there. There’s no plotline. It also doesn’t attempt to tell the story of Randy Newman’s life or the chronology of his music, although a few songs are clearly autobiographical. Instead, it presents 35 of Randy Newman’s songs, drawn from most of his albums (although they discussed “12 Songs” in the program, I don’t see any songs from it in the song list). A few songs are linked together thematically, such as “Dixie Flyer” and “Down in New Orleans”, but many are not. Except for the occasional torch song, all are treated as little thematic pieces. As such, it is a great evening of Randy Newman music, which is great if you love Randy’s music. Luckily, I do.

Beyond the artist selected, the success of a show such as this depends heavily on two things: the ability of the director to find the story in each song and theatricalize it, and the abilities of the cast to not only sing the music but make it come to life. Here the Taper succeeds quite well. Jerry Zaks, the director, has worked with Randy Newman (the composer) and Jack Viertel (the conciever) to find the story behind each song, and create nameless characters to tell it. An example of this is the song “Old Man”, sung to an obviously dying father in a hospital bed. Placing the song in this setting imbues it with much more meaning that it had standalone on the album. Of course, some songs are there simply because they are crowd pleasers. In this show, that song is “I Love LA”, which closes each act and has the audience clapping and singing along. Somehow, I don’t think that particular song would get the same reaction were this show to be performed in New York City or San Francisco.

The casting of this show was very strong, and included some performers who you either don’t think of a singers or who you don’t think of in a theatrical context. There were three men and three women. The three men were Michael McKean, Matthew Saldivar, and Ryder Bach. Michael McKean, who perhaps represented Newman himself, we’ve seen before many times in TV (he and David Lander created “Lenny and Squiggy” for Laverne and Shirley) and film (notably, for many, in This is Spinal Tap or A Mighty Wind). McKean is also an accomplished stage actor: we’ve seen him in numerous Pasadena Playhouse productions. Matthew Saldivar we’ve also seen before: he was in the Ahmanson production of “South Pacific”. The third man, Ryder Bach, was new to us. He’s done a few theatrical things, but is best known for his band, The Body Parts. The three women were Katey Sagal, Storm Large, and Adriane Lenox. Katey Sagal is perhaps best known for Married with Children, 8 Simple Rules, or Futurama, but she is also an accomplished singer with a number of CDs, as well as being an original Harlette. Storm Large is not your typical theatrical performer, having only done the occasional musical, but being better known for her tours with her band, “The Balls”. Adriane Lenox is a well known stage, film, and television actress who has done numerous musicals, including being in the original cast of “Beehive”. These six brought not only strong and clear voices to the chosen Newman songs, they brought their wonderful acting abilities to make the songs come to life. It was a delight to watch them.
[All actors are members of æ Actors Equity ]

The musical staging was by Warren Carlyle, who used the space provided by the Taper quite well. It wasn’t formally choreography, for this wasn’t a heavily dance oriented musical. Musical direction and arrangements were by Michael Roth, who also did the arhcestrations with David O. Roth is a long time orchestrator for Randy Newman. Roth also conducted the 8-piece onstage orchestra (piano, woodwinds, trombone, violin, guitar/keyboard, bass, drums/percussion, and synthesizer).

Technically, the staging was simple. The scenic design by Stephan Olson was basically an empty stage, with just a few props to suggest things within songs. The major scenery was provided either by a c0llection of five moving projection screens (projections by Marc I. Rosenthal) that provided wonderful song-appropriate projections, or by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s costumes (such as the wonderful country western costume for “Big Hat, No Castle”). The projections included a few short video pieces with Randy Newman himself (produced by Cinevative). The sound design by Philip G. Allen was clear and crisp, and the lighting design by Brian Gale was beautiful and moving. David S. Franklin was the production stage manager, and Nate Genung was the stage manager.

Harps and Angels continues at the Mark Taper Forum until December 22, 2010. You can get tickets through the CTG Online Box office or by calling (213) 628-2772. Note that Hottix should be available as the show isn’t selling out. These are $20 tickets, no service fee, two per telephone call, that may be limited view (but usually aren’t in the Taper). Just call (213) 628-2772, press “3” for the Taper, and ask for Hottix.

Dining Notes: We were coming up from the Winter Sawdust festival in Laguna, and so opted to eat in Little Tokyo. We ended up at T.O.T Restaurant (Teishokuya of Tokyo), which was delightful. It was more traditional style Japanese than sushi bar, including a large variety of bowls and curry rice. Yummy. It was a delightful dinner, topped off by a bit of Pinkberry from across the street.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. December starts out quietly, due to the upcoming ACSAC conference. Nothing is planned for next weekend; Erin is seeing “Next to Normal” on December 10 with some friends. Our theatre starts up the following evening with Uptown, Downtown” starring Leslie Uggams at the Pasadena Playhouse on December 11, which is presumably our last subscription show at the Playhouse (we haven’t decided on “Dangerous Beauty” yet, but if we go, it will likely be the Goldstar route). The following weekend bring Next to Normal” for the whole family at the Ahmanson on December 18. Our December theatre closes for Karen and Erin on Christmas Eve with West Side Story” at the Pantages Theatre (I’m not interested in that particular production, especially at Pantages prices, and haven’t yet decided if I’m going to go to an alternate show… if there even is one that afternoon).

The new year, 2011, starts slow. January is mostly open with only Tom Paxton at McCabes ticketed for my birthday, January 21. February will bring the first show of the REP 2011 season, “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” (pending ticketing for February 5), followed by The Marvellous Wonderettes” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on February 12; Rock of Ages” at the Pantages on February 19. February closes with Moonlight and Magnoliasat the Colony Theatre on February 26. March is also mostly open right now, although March 26 is being held for The Diary of Anne Frank” at REP East. Of course, I learn of interesting shows all the time, so expect additions to this schedule.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.

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Wasn’t That a Party?

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Nov 27, 2010 @ 8:07 am PDT

Epic poems. They have a long and stored place as inspiration for theatre, probably going back to Homer, which was the inspiration for Broadway’s The Golden Apple, among other things. Be it Beowolf (which not only inspired a musical, but a horrible piece of rotoscoping) or Goethe’s Faust (the inspiration for Randy Newman’s Faust), long poems are inspiration for theatre. I mention this because in 1999, an epic poem served as inspiration for not one but two musicals. The poem was “The Wild Party”, written by Joseph Moncure March in 1928, and rediscovered by Art Spiegelman in 1994. The musicals were both titled “The Wild Party”: one was written by Andrew Lippa and premiered in 2000 Off-Broadway; the other was written by Michael John LaChiusa and premiered in 2000 on Broadway. I’ve long had the CDs for both versions. Last night we saw the latter version in a production by the Malibu Stage Company.

This poem tells the story of the vaudeville performer Queenie, her lover Burrs, and the wild party she threw one night in the late 1920s. It begins with the classic lines:

Queenie was a blonde and her age stood still,
And she danced twice a day in vaudeville

From there we learn about Queenie, a fading vaudeville chorine, and her misogynist and borderline racist lover Burrs, a vaudeville comic who performs in blackface. They decide to throw a wild party, complete with bathtub gin, debauchery, and everything that makes life worth living. During this party, we meet Queenie and Burrs’ collection of friends: Kate, Queenie’s conniving rival—a dagger-tongued, former chorine and would-be star; Jackie, a cocaine-sniffing bisexual playboy; Eddie, a washed-up boxer; Eddie’s wife, Mae, a ditzy former chorine; Nadine, Mae’s excitable 14 year old niece (who claims to be 16) who wants to break into vaudeville; Phil and Oscar D’Armano, a black brother act; Dolores Montoya, a diva of indeterminate age and infinite life experience; Miss Madeline True, a lesbian actress and nearly famous stripper; Sally, Madeline’s comatose girlfriend; Gold and Goldberg, two vaudeville producers with Broadway ambitions; and Black, Kate’s date and a bargain basement moocher. As the party escalates, we learn the story of each of these characters, and see the debauchery that was the 1920s. We’re treated to adultery, bisexuality, cocaine, drinking, incest, rape. It is a circus on stage, with action taking place on every corner. As the jazz and the gin flow, the orgy starts, and by the end of the evening, the midnight debauchery leads to destroyed lives. Ultimately, in the light of morning, comes the reminder that those who fly high land with a thud, especially when the mask and artificial face we put out to the world is removed.

The Malibu Stage Company did a reasonably good job with this production. As it started, I was unsure: some of the performers seemed a little amateurish or too old for the role, but as they warmed up and I got into the story, that made sense. These weren’t young vaudevillians in their prime; these were aging performers who had been worn down by the vaudeville life, trying to preserve their youth in any way they could. As such, the actors and the characters grew on me and I became fascinated with trying to watch these people and learn about them. Credit goes to the director, Julia Holland, assisted by Marti Maniates, who kept the action going everywhere on the set: it was literally a circus on the stage with numerous things and actions to watch and story unfolding everywhere. This was a wild party on stage.

The actors were not slouches either (and looking back at who I particularly liked, you could really tell the Equity folks). In the leading character positions were Krista Suttonæ as Queenie and Casey Zemanæ at Burrs. Krista was just spectacular: she embodied Queenie in movement, in style, and most importantly for me, in facial expression. She gave off the impression as somone who simulatanously loved to party, but was also tired of the party life and the work it took. She was older but beautiful; someone who loved hard and had the experience to love spectacularly. This all came across in Krista’s performance. Casey’s Burrs was powerful in a different way: he was a fierce man with strong passions. This was a man that was capable of violence. He wanted to party, but he wanted Queenie for himself. In Casey’s performance you could see the artiface come down as the liquor came out. Both were spectacular.

The party guests were also fascinating to watch. There were a number who just drew my eye whenever they were the focus of attention. The first was Danni Katzæ as Nadine, the naive 14 16 year old. Katz was a spectacular tap dancer, and did a great job of portraying someone who started out innocent, got drawn into the debauchery, and ended up with more than she could handle. As her Aunt Mae, Leslie Beauvaisæ gave a great performance as the former chorine who gave up her life to marry a famous boxer. As that boxer, Eddie, Oscar Best exuded power both in performance and voice. Zack DiLiberto was strong as Black, a pretty young man using his looks and his talents with women to get ahead in the world. I also enjoyed the acting of the two producer, Gold and Goldberg, portrayed by Lenny Goldsmith and Richard Johnsonæ, respectively. These two did an excellent job of providing the view of the non-partying crowd; their reactions to the party as it drew them in mirrored the reactions of the audience.

The remainder of the party guests were all well performed, but stuck out less individually in my mind. As Kate, Charleene Clossheyæ portrayed the rival to Queenie and date of Black, who seemed to have been the embodiment of the current term frenemy. As Queenie says, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer”. Brent Moon portrayed Jackie, the bisexual debonair playboy addicted to cocaine. Pam Duke-Van Ierland was Miss Madeline True, the fading stripper, with Bonnie Frank as Sally, her comatose lesbian date. Danny DeLloyd and Wallace DeMarria portrayed Phil and Oscar D’Armano, a vaudeville brother performing team. Lastly, Susan Kohleræ portrayed Delores, another aging vaudeville performer who wanted to be back on the stage, and seduced Gold and Goldberg to get her way.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Rick Friend served as musical director, and led the 5-piece onstage band, which provided great music. Natalie Rubenstein choreographed the piece, providing period-appropriate dances and continuous movement.

Turning to the technical side: The set (designed by Diane Hertz and Kim Brown) captured the period well, including the decadance of using jars for the gin and the glasses. The costumes by Shon LeBlanc of Valentino’s Costumes were appropriately period (although I expected them to be a bit more revealing), but they didn’t seem to cooperate as the actors expected. Beverly Heusser did the makeup and hair: I liked the hairstyles (especially Queenie’s, which was done by Julia Blanchette) and Natalie’s), but there was a little too much glitter for my taste.

More problematic were the sound and lights. Although they had a new sound system (donated by Dick Van Dyke), the sound was off: at times (especially in the beginning) the sound was muffled and sounded distant. Perhaps the sound engineer, Murray Shaw, is still tuning the system. The static lighting, designed by Ryan Wandler, was pretty good, but there were numerous problems with the follow spot: it kept missing the actors it was intended to light, and kept moving in odd distracting ways.

The production was produced by Diane Peterson and Julia Holland, assisted by Jeremy Johnson. David Yardley was stage manager, assisted by Caitland Smuin. The artistic director of Malbu Stage Company is Richard Johnson.

Michael John LaChiusa’s “The Wild Party continues at Malibu Stage Company until December 5, 2010. Tickets are available through Brown Paper Tix or by calling the box office at (310) 589-1998. Tickets are also available via Goldstar Events. Malibu Stage Company is located 700 yards west of the intersection of Kanan Dume Road and PCH, just off of PCH.

Dining Notes: We had dinner at Coral Beach Cantina, which was near the theatre. Simple but good Mexican food, without the Malibu foodie prices.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. This evening brings our last November show: Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels” at the Mark Taper Forum (ticketed for Saturday November 27). December will bring Uptown, Downtown” starring Leslie Uggams at the Pasadena Playhouse on December 11, Next to Normal” at the Ahmanson on December 18, and for Karen and Ern, West Side Story” at the Pantages Theatre on December 24 (I’m not interested in that particular production, especially at Pantages prices).

Looking briefly into 2011: January is mostly open with only Tom Paxton at McCabes ticketed for my birthday, January 21. February will bring the first show of the REP 2011 season, “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” (pending ticketing for February 5), followed by The Marvellous Wonderettes” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on February 12; Rock of Ages” at the Pantages on February 19. February closes with Moonlight and Magnoliasat the Colony Theatre on February 26. March is also mostly open right now, although March 26 is being held for The Diary of Anne Frank” at REP East. Of course, I learn of interesting shows all the time, so expect additions to this schedule.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.

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Rivalry, Revenge, and Retribution

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Nov 21, 2010 @ 8:10 pm PDT

A basic human drive is rivalry, and it is the center of many a dramatic or comedic play. We saw it last week in “Bell, Book, and Candle” in the rivalry between Gillian and the unseen Merle Kittridge. We saw it again in this week’s play, “Amadeus” (written by Peter Shaffer), currently running at the Repertory East Playhouse in Newhall CA until December 11, 2010.

Amadeus” (you may have seen the motion picture) tells the story of the rivalry between Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart… or should I say imagined rivalry, for Mozart didn’t see Salieri as a rival, whereas Salieri saw Mozart as a rival in God’s eyes. The story is told in flashback, from Salieri’s point of view, as Salieri is dying. He is attempting to confess to killing Mozart by relating the story of how he did the deed. He begins by telling how he dedicated his life to praising God through music, but when he saw Mozart’s music, realized that God had forsaken him and chosen Mozart to be his voice. Further, Salieri saw that Mozart was a base and callow fellow, a pottymouthed, childish prodigy, further cementing the notion that the gift must be from God. At the moment of that realization, Salieri vows to make God abandon his chosen voice. Much of the play is Salieri relating how he believes his actions created the situations that drove Mozart deeper into poverty, dispair, and eventual destitution. At the end, Mozart is dead in his 30s, but Salieri lives on another 25 years being elevated in fame, only to know that everlasting fame and retribution will be Mozart’s, for it will be Mozart’s music that survives. Salieri eventually commits suicide so that his name will at least live in infamy, but fails in that as well.

The REP performance of “Amadeus” was outstanding, thanks to the firm directoral hand of O. Michael Owston (artistic director of REP East) and the talents of the actors. It is hard to separate the two of them, as I learned during the talkback, for the director would make a suggestion as to how to do a scene, and the actors would bring their talent to the realization of the scene.

At the lead of the talented acting ensemble was Daniel Lenchæ as Antonio Salieri. This is an exhausting role, for Salieri is the driving force behind the story, on stage 100% of the time. Lench pulled it off with perfection, capturing the intensity and passion behind the role. The performance was riveting to watch, and well deserving of the standing ovation it received. Also in this performance tier were Daniel Sykes as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Amber Van Schwinn as Constanze Weber Mozart. Sykes captured well the playful child that this play purports Mozart to be, while still providing glimmers of the talented prodigy. He also captured well the descent and how the child-man was unable to reconcile that with his youth. Van Schwinn was a delight to watch as Constanze, for her playfulness came through in her performance in her face, in her movement, and in a general glow. All three were just amazing and are not to be missed.

The second group of actors that were fun to watch were Bess Fanningæ and Kyle Johnson as the Venticellis. These were the spies (for lack of a better term) for Salieri, bringing him information and rumors about Mozart. Again, their playfullness and their facial expressions and movements just made the characters come alive. Rounding out the cast, in supporting roles, were Harry Bennettæ (Emperor Joseph II), Mikee Van Schwinn (Baron Gottried Van Swieten), Michael Levine (Court Orsini-Rosenberg), John Morris (Johann Kilian Von Strack), and Carole Catanzaro (Katherina Cavalieri).
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

The technical side of the production was handled by a mix of REP regulars and some new folk. On the regular side, we were treated to the always excellent set design by Jeff Hyde, the sound design by Steven “Nanook” Burkholder, and the lighting design by Tim Christianson. The set was augmented by the scenic design by Katie Mitchell, and the two combined created a warm 18th century facility with a beautiful wooden pseudo-harpsichord (which alas, was non-functional, leading to recorded music which perhaps was the one weakness of the show… but then again, teaching actors to play Mozart flawlessly in limited time is difficult). The costumes were by Tonya Nelson of No Strings Attached Costumes and were wonderful to watch (although I imagine not wonderful to be in). Erik Klein served as Stage Manager.

Amadeus” continues at REP East until December 11, 2010. Go see it, for it is excellent. Tickets are available through the REP Online Box Office or by calling (661) 288-0000. The REP has announced the 2011/7th season: Moonlight and MagnoliasFrankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” (January 21-February 19); “The Diary of Anne Frank (Mary 11-April 16); “Cabaret” (May 13-June 18); “Jewtopia” (July 15-July 30); “Doubt” (August 12-August 27); “Laughter on the 23rd Floor (Sept. 16-October 22); and “The Graduate” (November 18-December 17). Member Circle season tickets (2 tickets to each show) are $230 adult/$200 student & senior; Patron Circle (1 ticket to each show) is $120 Adult/$110 student & senior. Call the REP for information on subscribing or information on additional packages.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. November closes with two shows: The Wild Party” at Malibu Stage Company on Friday November 26, and Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels” at the Mark Taper Forum (ticketed for Saturday November 27). December will bring Uptown, Downtown” starring Leslie Uggams at the Pasadena Playhouse on December 11, Next to Normal” at the Ahmanson on December 18, and for Karen and Ern, West Side Story” at the Pantages Theatre on December 24 (I’m not interested in that particular production, especially at Pantages prices).

Looking briefly into 2011: January is mostly open with only Tom Paxton at McCabes ticketed for my birthday, January 21. February will bring the first show of the REP 2011 season, “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” (pending ticketing for February 5), followed by The Marvellous Wonderettes” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on February 12; Rock of Ages” at the Pantages on February 19. February closes with Moonlight and Magnoliasat the Colony Theatre on February 26. March is also mostly open right now, although March 26 is being held for The Diary of Anne Frank” at REP East. Of course, I learn of interesting shows all the time, so expect additions to this schedule.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.

--- *** ---

A Bewitching Production

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Nov 14, 2010 @ 9:54 am PDT

The supernatural seems to hold great fascination with the creative. Be it vampires, werecreatures, witches, goblins, zombies, or ghouls, you can be sure that there are stories about them, and these stories will show up on the stage, the movie screen, and various personal entertainment venues. That said, these stories come in waves. The current “in thing” is vampires, but at one time, witches were everywhere (you can see some here, and there’s a real good discussion of the subject here). From the witches of Shakespeare to Sabrina the Teenaged Witch, from Samantha to the Charmed-trio, from the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz to Elphaba in Wicked, they keep reappearing. Their portrayal ranges from the scary hag to the frothy CYT (cute young thing), with some being both (cough, Shannon Dougherty, cough). With this wide variety, did they have anything in common? I think so. First, the witch was the embodiement of the powerful woman, with how the witch was ultimately treated in the story reflective of the pervailing attitude towards powerful women. Second, these were women you did not want to cross: for with all witches, revenge is a dish to be served with embellishment and encrustations.

I mention all of this a prelude, for last night went to the Colony Theatre in Burbank to see a play about a witch: “Bell, Book, and Candle” (BB&C), witten by John Van Druten in 1948. There are some who say this was one of the insprations for the 1960s TV series “Bewitched”; it was made into a movie starting James Stewart, Kim Novak, and Jack Lemmon in 1958. BB&C is the story about a young beautiful witch who casts a spell on a young man to make him love her…. and what happens afterwards. I should note that in Van Druten’s witch-mythology, there are a few rules: witches cannot love, cannot blush, and cannot cry, and if they fall in love, they lose their powers.

Oh, you want a more detailed synopsis to see if this really inspired Bewitched. In the mid-1950s, Gillian Holroyd, a beautiful young witch, returns to her brownstone in NYC and falls in lust with her upstairs tenant, Shepherd Henderson. After meeting him, she indicates to her brother, Nicky and her aunt, Queenie, that she is going to try to make him fall in love with her without using magic. But when she learns that he is engaged to her college rival, Merle Kittridge, she casts a spell on him and he falls in love with her. She also uses a spell to bring Sidney Redlitch, an author of a book on witchcraft that Shepherd wants to publish, to her apartment. The relationship between Gillian and Shepherd is going well and lustily… until he proposes to her. She accepts and decides to give up witchcraft. When Nicky reveals that he is working with Redlitch on a book about New York witches, she is forced to use witchcraft to prevent publication, and outs herself as a witch to Shepherd. He’s OK with that, until he learns from Aunt Queenie that the spell was primarily because of the rivalry with Merle. He pays $5,000 to have the spell broken and leaves, and Gillian then learns that she is without powers, for she has fallen in love. Will they get back together? C’mon, what do you think?

As usual, we need to look at this in two ways: how well does the story hold together, and how well was it executed on the stage. The story was a 1950s romantic comedy. Cute, frothy, and reflective of the time. If we look at it from today’s point of view, we see a powerful independent woman who has to have her man to be happy, and once she gets him, she loses her power and independence. That’s very 1950s: if the story was sent today, either the lusty relationship would be sufficient, or when the eventual marriage happens, Gillian would regain her powers. But for what the story was, it was fun to watch. It was two hours of escapism where you didn’t have the urge to look at your watch.

Of course, this was helped by the excellent actors. In the lead positions were Willow Geer as Gillian Holroyd and Michael A. Newcomer as Shepherd Henderson. These two had a youthful loving chemistry together and were a delight to watch. Geer, a young beautiful redhead, did a wonderful job of projecting a 1950s urbane image; you could easily see her out at nightclubs, mixing martinis, and making men bow to her will with just her smile. Newcomer was a great foil: a handsome sharp young fellow who knew what he wanted and thought he was in control of his life… until he suddenly fell in love. In the supporting positions were Will Bradley as Gillian’s brother, Nicky, and Mary Jo Catlett as Aunt Queenie. Bradley captured the young bachelor with the playful, troublemaking side quite well; we’ve seen him before as Mordred in the Pasadena Playhouse “Camelot” where he was a similar young troublemaker. Catlett plays the doddering aunt with great comic timing—we’ve seen her in similar roles on Diff’rent Strokes and numerous other productions. Rounding out the cast was Benton Jennings as the author Sidney Redlitch.

All of the actors were members of æ Actors Equity. This is a footnote you often see me write, but I want to highlight it this time because all the actors did in their bios. Bradley wrote “He’d like to thank … everyone at the Colony for … allowing him to live an uncompromised life.” Catlett noted that the Colony was “Equity Actor Friendly”. Geer commended the Colony for “sticking to the union” (a phrase that reflects her family upbringing as the daughter of Ellen Geer and the granddaughter of Will Geer). Jennings noted his AEA membership prominently, and Newcomer explicitly thanked the Colony “for operating with an Equity contract that provides for pension and health.” The last indicates why this is important: AEA, an actors union, helps to ensure the things in life that an actor needs: income, health benefits, and decent working conditions. Not all of the theatres in LA can accord Equity actors: for example, both REP and Cabrillo tend to use a mix of Equity and non-Equity—the REP due to its size (81 seats), and Cabrillo due to its nature as a regional talent house. Larger theatres such as the Ahmanson and the Pantages are 100% equity. But mid-sized theatres are often in a bind, and thus it is nice to see a smaller >99 seat theatre have the strong commitment to providing actors with a decent working environment. But I digress…

The production was directed by Richard Israel, with whom we are familiar from shows such as “Big”, “Assassins”, and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”). Israel helped the talented cast to excel in their portrayals of these characters. Leesa Freed (also an AEA member) was the Production Stage Manager. Barbara Beckley is the artistic director, and I commend her for doing something I love: introducing every show with humor and warmth that makes you feel a part of the Colony family. To me, this turns a theatre from a cold presenting property to a warm place where you feel like you are a team member with the actors and the producing team.

Turning to the technical, where the Colony is blessed with a pool of regular excellent talent. Stephen Gifford did the scenic design, creating a 1950s apartment with wonderful danish-modern touches, and the requisite minibar. Set dressing and props were by MacAndME. Costume Designer Sharon McGunigle captured the 1950s well with Gillian’s dresses and Shepherd’s stylish suits with narrow ties. Cricket S. Myers did her usual excellent job with the sound and sound effects (I particularly liked the tinkling in the background for magic), and Luke Moyer did an effective job with the lighting, including well timed snap cues. Robert T. Kyle was the technical director.

Bell, Book, and Candle” continues at the Colony Theatre for one more week, ending on November 21. Ticketing information is here. The Colony Theatre is located in Burbank, next to the Burbank Mall, in the parking structure near Ikea. Two productions remain in the Colony season: “Moonlight and Magnolias” (running February 2–March 6, 2011) and “The All-Night Strut (March 30–May 1, 2011). I’ll note that Moonlight and Magnolias” will be at REP East approximately the same time (January 21–February 19), allowing one to compare and contrast an 81-seat theatre production with a mix of Equity and non-Equity actors with a 276-seat 100% Equity production. Knowing both producing teams well, I’m sure both will be excellent and it will be interesting to see the nuanced differences. I must note, however, that the Colony had it scheduled first :-).

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. Next week brings Amadeus” at REP East (ticketed for November 21). November closes with two shows: The Wild Party” at Malibu Stage Company on Friday November 26, and Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels” at the Mark Taper Forum (ticketed for Saturday November 27). December will bring Uptown, Downtown” starring Leslie Uggams at the Pasadena Playhouse on December 11, Next to Normal” at the Ahmanson on December 18, and for Karen and Ern, West Side Story” at the Pantages Theatre on December 24 (I’m not interested in that particular production, especially at Pantages prices).

Looking briefly into 2011: January is mostly open with only Tom Paxton at McCabes ticketed for my birthday, January 21. February will bring the first show of the REP 2011 season, “Moonlight and Magnolia” (pending ticketing for February 5), followed by The Marvellous Wonderettes” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on February 12; Rock of Ages” at the Pantages on February 19. February closes with the 2nd production of Moonlight and Magnolias, this time at the Colony Theatre on February 26. March is also mostly open right now, although March 26 is being held for The Diary of Anne Frank” at REP East. Of course, I learn of interesting shows all the time, so expect additions to this schedule.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.

--- *** ---

Sitcoms on the Stage Part II: The Essence of the Vampire

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Nov 07, 2010 @ 10:22 am PDT

Vampires. They seem to be omnipresent in popular culture. Growing up, media has surrounded me with them, from the Barnabas Collins fandom that existed when I was young to the Twlight-mania of today. So it is any surprise that when Van Nuys High School went to choose a fall production, they turned to vampires. Their selection was Varney the Vampire, or “The Feast of Blood”.

You’ve heard of it, no?

First, to assuage any fears, this is not a production about a giant purple dinosaur with the speech impediment that lures children to him under the guise of education but turns around and sucks the life force from them. That would be truly horrific and scary and any resemblence to the rehearsals for this production are truly a coincidence.

Varney the Vampire (full plot summary; another summary) was originally published between 1845 and 1847 in 109 (some say over 200) weekly installments as a penny dreadful (a serial story marketed to the working class). It was written by James Malcolm Rymer (although it has long been attributed to Thomas Preskett Prest instead). If you want to read the actual story, someone is posting it chapter by chapter on their blog. The story was actually quite influential, having contributed quite a few of the vampire lore notions to popular culture (but not the notion that they sparkle). Somewhere along the way, a fellow by the name of Tim Kelley adapted and condensed these stories into a play version, which has been performed in various venues to mixed levels of success (one review I found while researching this background begins: “Not since Sebastian Sly butchered “Madness at Midnight” has there been another stage play that bites as badly as “Varney the Vampire.” This play sucks. Literally.”)

This version of Varney concerns the events that occurred at the Inn of the Grouchy Wolf near Mt. Vesuvius in Italy. The Inn is owned and operated by Signora Bell. One evening, the kitchen man Gino and his sister Carla hear a noise. While investigating the noise, Gino is murdered by what Carla reports is a giant bat. Inspector Balsadella arrives to investigate, at which point we meet the current occupants of the Inn: Flora Bannerworth, her chaperone Miss Anderbury, the young artist Richard Dearborn, and his ditzy cousin Jennifer. We learn that Flora has fallen in love with Richard (to the disapproval of her chaperone), and that Jenny likes to wander the woods in search of birds nests. We also get to meet Sir Francis Varney, who has returned to the inn after 200 years to kill himself, having never gotten over the death of the love of his life, Amelia Quasimodo (who is haunting the inn as a ghost, unable to rest while Varney lives). However, when Varney arrives he meets Flora and falls in love, finding a purpose to live (if you can call it a life). Adding complication to the mix is the return of Gino as some form of hunchback zombie minyon, and Lady Cynthia Holland, a wannabe vampiress who wants Varney to seal the marriage deal and turn her into a real vampire.

As you can see the story is your usual series of silly complications, which isn’t surprising given it was based on the sitcom of the day. In that sense, this show is similar to last week’s show, Happy Days: The Musical, in that it was a sitcom put on stage. The plot improbabilities and sillyness was about equal. There were a few good lines, but quite a few of scenes did make me want to add commentary (I remember, for example, when the cross was put on the vampire’s head, and he complained about it burning, that I said to myself: “Head on. Apply directly for forehead”). There were a few very funny scenes, in particular the death of Lady Cynthia and the reaction of Flora to the garlic necklace (which I attribute to the actresses in the role having fun with the part).

This leads to the key factor that overcame the weak story and made this reasonably fun to watch: the cast had fun with it. Once you got past the poor writing, the student actors did quite a good job with the acting side, speaking clearly and with good characterization. A few segments were a bit overplayed, but that seems to be something the faculty director likes to do. It would be intereting to see how this production might work with student direction (in fact, it would be good if Van Nuys took up took up Ken Davenport’s suggestion and had full student control, including student directors, student producers (including fundraising and control over budget), student marketing directors, student casting agents, etc.).

In any case the cast was excellent (I should report here that I am biased in this, for my daughter had a role and many of her friends were in the cast). Leading the cast was Quest Sky Zeidler as Sir Francis Varney. We’ve seen Quest grow over the years, and he has quite a bit of fun with villinous roles. Here he built upon his Mr. Applegate of the Spring to create an evil, but not fearful, vampire. As Flora Bannerworth, Glory Smith was fun to watch, especially (as noted above) in her garlic reaction scene and the scene where she is on top of her intended, Richard Dearborn. As Dearborn, Matthew James Golden portrays the artist well, moving from a seeming milquetoast to a strong young man. Ariel Kostrzewski is fun to watch as Jenny: she captures the ditzy aspects quite well. Sameer Nayak played Inspector Balsadella quite comically, with some sort of odd Italian accent that made me wonder where the director learned about Italy (it wasn’t just this show, for the director has had bad Italian accents before). Lady Cynthia Holland, of the aforementioned excellent death scene (which prompted the line from Varney: “Can’t anyone learn to die properly”), was played by Taylor Morris. Amelia Quasimodo was played by Erin Faigin (my daughter), who brought a lot of emotion to her love for Varney, which came across quite well in here graveyard scenes. Gino, played by Cesar Alas, was fun to watch as the huntchback where he seemed to enjoy hamming in up. Rounding out the cast were Kiran Sanghera as Inez-the-Gypsy-Girl (yes, that’s how she was introduced every time), Jade Field as Miss Anderbury, and Priscilla Legaspi as Carla.

The production was under the stage management of Ericka Lopez, Alicia Ryan Lee, and Manmit Sigh, aided by the members of Actors in Action. Randy Olea was the faculty director.

Technically, there were hits and misses. The tech crew was lead by Marque Coy, and featured Nicolai Reeve, Sierra McDuffee, and Kenji Kang as sound engineers, Cody Banks as lighting designer (Jonathan Waters on moving lights), and Patricia Ponce and Ricksang Jachung as asst. lighting technicians. The sound was markedly better than in previous productions, although someone kept forgetting to turn off the backstage microphones. The lighting was reasonably good, although there were some miscues on Saturday night. The set was built by Mr. Tom Kirkpatrick and his stage class and looked a lot nicer than some of the sets we’ve seen in the past. In particular, the haunted grotto was particularly spooky, and there was a nice touch of having a picture of Amelia Quasimodo (with the real actress) in the inn.

Varney the Vampire has completed its production run. The Spring production of Van Nuys will be Evita. That should be interesting.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. Next week brings “Bell, Book, and Candle” at The Colony Theatre on November 13; Amadeus” at REP East (ticketed for November 21), The Wild Party” at Malibu Stage Company on Friday November 26, and Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels” at the Mark Taper Forum (ticketed for Saturday November 27). December will bring Uptown, Downtown” starring Leslie Uggams at the Pasadena Playhouse on December 11, Next to Normal” at the Ahmanson on December 18, and for Karen and Ern, West Side Story” at the Pantages Theatre on December 24 (I’m not interested in that particular production, especially at Pantages prices).

Looking briefly into 2011: January will bring Tom Paxton at McCabes on my birthday, January 21 (pending ticketing), and perhaps the first REP show of the season. February will bring The Marvellous Wonderettes” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on February 12; Rock of Ages” at the Pantages on February 19, and Moonlight and Magnolias at the Colony Theatre on February 26. Of course, I learn of interesting shows all the time, so expect additions to this schedule.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows (although my daughter was in this production). In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.

--- *** ---

Jumping the Shark

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Oct 31, 2010 @ 9:23 am PDT

Most people know that the phrase “Jumping the Shark” refers the point in a television program’s history where the plot spins off into absurd storylines or unlikely characterizations, and usually signals the start of a show’s decline. Some of those folks may even know that the term arose due to an episode of “Happy Days”, although the episode’s author disputes that’s where it happened. I mention this all because last night we went out to Thousand Oaks to see Happy Days: The Musical” at Cabrillo Music Theatre. Although Cabrillo made a valient attempt to do the best they could with the material they had, they were hampered by book problems, music problems, and technical problems (but, I should say, no acting problems, for the cast itself was pretty good).

Happy Days: The Musical” tells an episode in the list of one of America’s favorite TV families: The Cunninghams of the sitcom “Happy Days”. The plot, in TV Guide style:

The local hangout, Arnold’s, is threatened with closure and demolition unless the gang helps Arnold raise enough money to buy the land from the developer.

Oh, you want more details. Arnold’s is threatened with destruction when the land under Arnold’s is sold to a developer to build a mall. So that entire gang from the TV show (more on that later) comes up with ways to make money to save the drive-in: a dance contest, a pie contest, and a televised wrestling match. Pinky Tuscadero comes into town to judge the dance contest, dredging up the past relationship with Fonzie, and the Howard Cunningham comes up with idea for a TV wrestling match where the Malachi Brothers challenge Fonzie. But Fonzie runs away, thus providing us with an act break, as well as the opportunity for Fonzie to admit you have to face your weaknesses. Arnold’s is saved, although (at least in how Cabrillo presented it) not by raising the money, but by being declared a historic landmark by the Leopard Lodge members, who just happened to be the city council.

Yeah, it does read better as the TV Guide plot summary.

Let’s start with the show’s problems, and then go on to what worked. Foremost among this show’s problem is the book by Garry Marshall, author of the original series. Books have done in many a show, so this isn’t a surprise. What’s wrong with the book? Too much and too little. Let’s take these in reverse order.

The “too little” was that there was too little in terms of context. The musical takes place in 1959, perhaps the fourth year of the TV series, although some of the characters make that wrong. It opens with the assumption that you know all the characters (well, to be truthful, it doesn’t, but the opening song doesn’t provide enough characterization or information, despite all its exposition, to provide an adquate introduction). And by “all the characters”, I mean all, for the author brings in almost every named character over the life of the series including Roger Phillips: the entire Cunningham family, Potsie, Ralph, Arnold (who wasn’t Japanese), Fonzie, Pinky, Chachi, the Malachi brothers, Lori-Beth, among others. With all these characters, none receives adequate characterization in the storyline to become more than stereotypes of their TV characters. This means that the main characters are stereotypes of 30-year old TV characters who many people do not remember well, and this means you never grow to care about these characters. Compare this with a well-crafted musical such as “South Pacific”, where the opening numbers truely educate you about the loves, characteristics, and wants of the much smaller set of major characters.

This brings us to the “too much”. There is just too much in the story. There are too many different ways to save Arnolds: a dance contest, a pie contest, the wrestling match. There are too many characters. There’s also too much of a requirement that the audience remember the minutae of the TV series, such as Fonzie injuring his knee in a demolition derby, or that he jumped a shark (yes, it is referenced, as is Chuck, the missing brother). There are also numerous additional plots added: will Joanie fall for Chachi, will Howard get a plaque, will Marion ever be fulfilled as a 1950s housewife, will Pinky and Fonzie get together, and will the Dial-Tones ever perform? This is just too, too much. Further, the main plot line is simply discarded at the end: after raising money, it is discovered that it isn’t enough. But (he said, pulling the rabbit out of the hat), Ritchie discovered that a historic property designation will save the drive-in (yeah, like in 1959 a drive-in was historic)… and that can be done by a majority of the council… and all the Leopards are all the council and constitute a majority. And so they vote, and the plot becomes unnecessary and the story, so to speak, jumps the shark.

The best musicals have simple plots, usually whether the boy will get the girl, and have all the extraneous crap tossed out on the road. That never happened here: this show only got to off-Broadway, and was hampered by the book author being the concept creator. The book needs characters pruned and characterizations improved, and to treat the audience like the TV series never happened. It needs to pick a single plot that exhibits character growth—and that character shouldn’t be Fonzie, whose growth wasn’t the point of the series. If this show had taken the same basic plot description but simplified, and instead of Fonzie saving the day had Ritchie finding his inner strength and saving the day, it would have been much better. That’s the character that needs to grow, for the sitcom “Happy Days” was ultimately the story of Ritchie Cunningham becoming an adult.

But the book isn’t all the problem with this show. Let’s turn to the music next. Here the problems were a mix of the musical team and Cabrillo. The show features music and lyrics by Paul Williams, whose music, historically, has been relatively bland. The most energetic song was the original show’s theme song by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox. The music for this show needs a much stronger 1950s flavor; perhaps Gimbel and Fox should have been consulted. Cabrillo’s execution also hurt the music, for they used a very small orchestra (under the musical direction of Cabrillo regular Lloyd Cooper, with Darryl Tanikawa as Orchestra Contractor): two electric guitars, a keyboard, perhaps two horns, and drums. This left the music with a small feel for a big show, and subtracted significantly from the energy. Although I understand the economics of the decision, two more horns and perhaps an additional keyboard would have been much better and the cost could be covered by cutting some extraneous plot.

There were also technical problems. Although the choreography by John Charron was mostly adequate, some things were inexplicable, such as why the dance contest used swing moves from the 1940s. Microphones kept cutting in and out, which distracted from the otherwise adequate sound design by Cabrillo regular Jonathan Burke. Lastly, the lighting was weird. Here I’m not referring to Cabrillo’s known problem of overuse of the follow-spot. Rather, there were on-stage moving lights that seemed to serve no purpose other than to blink on and off. Christina L. Munch, the Lighting Designer, needs to rethink that aspect of the lighting design.

So with all of the above, you might think this was a bad show. It wasn’t. As I said before, Cabrillo did a reasonable job with the material they were given, and what saved the show was the excellent cast. So let’s turn to talking about the good stuff.

In the lead positions were Derek Keelingæ as Fonzie (who we last saw in “Life Could Be A Dream”) and Misty Cottonæ as Pinky (who we last saw in “The Marvelous Wonderettes” and “The Last 5 Years”). Both were wonderful in their roles and brought the weak written characterizations of their characters to life. Misty in particular was excellent: when she was on-stage, she grabbed your attention and just shone. Also strong was Tracy Loreæ as Marion Cunningham. In her main numbers, “What I Dreamed Last Night” and its reprise, you could see through her characterization that there was much more than Marion Cunningham than a 1950s housewife. I was also impressed with Derek Klena as Ritchie Cunningham. Although his hair was the wrong color (hint: there’s a reason his nickname was “Red”), he combined youthful enthusiasm with a good singing voice, albeit one that was overshadowed at times. I was also very impressed with Tessa Grady, a senior at Santa Susana High School, as Joanie Cunningham. Again: youthful enthusiasm, great singing and dancing, combined with strong acting and characterization made her a standout, and I look forward to seeing her as she grows in a professional career.

The remainder of the cast was good, but without particular standouts. In the first tier were John Richard Petersen (Howard Cunningham), Benjamin Goldsmith (Potsie Weber), Dane Biren (Ralph Malph), and Estevan Valdes (Charles “Chachi” Arcola). These folks were strong, but needed a stronger resemblance (either physically, or even more so, in characterization) to the original characters. The remainder of the cast consisted of: Nicholas Leinbach (Myron “Count” Malachi), Will Harris (Jumpy Malachi), Jay Weber (Arnold), Holly Long (Lori Beth), Valentine Bezar (Marsha Simms), Simone Denise Burch (Cindy Moon), Callie Carson (Pinkette Tina), Ryyn Chua (Johnny Oliver), Jessie Lee Coffman (Joyce James), Aubrey Elson (Paula Petralunga), Sarah Girard (Pinkette Lola), Keenon Hooks (Gil Crawford), Natasha Hugger (Susan Prescott), Tyler Muhlenkamp (Freddy Bascomb), Joe Roth (Roger Phillips), and Zane Gerson (Elvis).
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Although I picked apart the writing in the large earlier, there were a number of good lines in the show, often as throwaway laughs (such as the reference about college dorm rooms in the 1960s being safe places, or the question about whatever happened to the older brother Chuck). The show was directed by Susan Morgenstern, who gave a valient try to overcome the material, and did a pretty good job of making the sitcom characters somewhat three-dimensional. The choreography by John Charron (assisted by Kai Chubb), except as noted above, was reasonably good, enhanced by a strong dancing ensemble. The Production Stage Manager was William Coiner assisted by Anne Mureau; this is a new stage management team.

Turning to the technical: I’ve already discussed the problems with the sound and the lighting. Other technical aspects were good: I liked the set design (scenery designed by Walt Spanger, and provided by McCoy Rigby Entertainment) and the costumes (designed by David C. Wallard, and again provided by McCoy Rigby Entertainment). Hair and makeup was designed by Mark Travis Hoyer. Gina Farina was Technical Director.

Tonight is the last performance of Happy Days: The Musical” at Cabrillo. Tickets are available through the online box office or by calling the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza box office at (805) 449-2787, and two-for-one Mezzanine tickets are available (just mention the code “Sunday”). The remainder of the Cabrillo season is: “The Marvelous Wondettes (February 4 – 13, 2011); “The Producers” (April 8 – 17, 2011); “The Sound of Music (July 22 – 31, 2011), and “The Cabrillo 2010 Holiday Spectacular starring Shirley Jones and Patrick Cassidy” (December 21-24, 2010). Cabrillo has dedicated all their performances of “Happy Days” to the memory of Tom Bosley.

Dining Notes: One success of last night was that we found a new restaurant: Los Agaves Mexican Grill on T.O. Blvd just E of the theatre. I had an excellent grilled salmon with steamed veggies and rice, and the rest of the party enjoyed the various stuff they ordered. I think we’ll try this one again.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. Next week brings “Varney the Vampire” at Van Nuys High School on November 4, 5, and 6 (contact us for tickets; Erin has a leading role). The following week will see “Bell, Book, and Candle” at The Colony Theatre on November 13; Amadeus” at REP East (ticketed for November 21), and Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels” at the Mark Taper Forum (ticketed for November 27). December will bring Uptown, Downtown” starring Leslie Uggams at the Pasadena Playhouse on December 11, and Next to Normal” at the Ahmanson (November 23–January 2; Hottix on November 2; planned date December 18 or 19). It should also take Erin to West Side Story” at the Pantages Theatre, which is pending ticketing (sigh).

Looking briefly into 2011: January will bring Tom Paxton at McCabes on my birthday, January 21 (pending ticketing), and perhaps the first REP show of the season. February will bring The Marvellous Wonderettes” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on February 12; Rock of Ages” at the Pantages on February 19 or 20 (pending ticketing), and Moonlight and Magnolias at the Colony Theatre on February 26. Of course, I learn of interesting shows all the time, so expect additions to this schedule.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.

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