A New Years Stew: Buildings, Books, and Booms; Music, Medicine, and Mattel

Observation StewIt’s the first weekend of the new year, and as is traditional, it’s time to clear out the accumulated news chum from the week — the chum that couldn’t be used to create a coherent themed chum post of 3 or more articles. So let’s see what is in this week’s stew:

  • Saved! The first news chum item was to be about where I live now, but that became its own article. So let’s talk about where I used to live: North Hills.  At the corner of Devonshire and Sepulveda is a shopping center we used to frequent (especially when Hughes was still there). Today, the Hughes Ralphs has closed, and so has Mission Hills Bowl, and rumors are circulating about redevelopment of the center. This week, some good news came out of this: the bulk of the center appears to be saved, and the Mission Hills Bowl building will remain.  The Googie designed Bowling Alley by LA architect Martin Stern Jr. will be saved as part of a new commercial development that will include a mix of retail, restaurants, medical office, gym, warehouse, and bank uses spread over one and two story buildings.
  • Booking It. When Borders and Barnes and Noble took off, the prediction was that they would kill the small bookstore. They almost did, but the bookstores hung on. Now Borders is gone, and B&N is on the ropes, being killed by Amazon. What is still surviving? The small independent used bookstore. In fact, used bookstores are making a comeback. The reason isn’t surprising, when you think about it. It costs more to ship used books than to just sell them locally. Here’s the quote that BoingBoing used from the original article: “Used bookstores, with their quintessential quirkiness, eclectic inventory and cheap prices, find themselves in the catbird seat as the pendulum eases back toward print. In many cities, that’s a de facto position: They’re the only book outlets left… And it’s a business with good economics. Used bookstores can beat Amazon and other online booksellers on price, offering shoppers both a browsing experience and a money-saving one. Also, profit margins on used books are better than new ones — so good that many indies are adding used sections.”
  • Travelling? Good News and Bad News. Traveling in the new year? You need to watch out if you live in Alaska, California, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Carolina, Washington, Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, Minnesota or American Samoa. Your state is bumping into (or has gone past) the RealID deadline, and your state IDs may not be acceptable to TSA or the DOD. About the only good news here is that California got granted an exemption. I have no idea what this means: in particular, it could mean that everyone in the state needs to be issued a new ID. Ouch!
  • New Album from Paul Stookey. As you have likely figured out, I love folk music… and my first love was Peter, Paul, and Mary. Thank’s to Noel Paul’s Facebook account, I just learned that Noel Paul Stookey issued a new album in September 2015. I’ve already grabbed my copy, it is it like one of his recent concerts (i.e., very good).
  • Going Boom. Here’s a fun article: The history of the Toy Chemistry Set. What started out as a kit for the academic world became something to encourage men to become scientists (why would women care about chemistry), and then got neutered as society became worried about safety and homemade bombs.
  • More Problems from Inflammation. The inflamatory response is turning out to be the culprit is more and more problems. We’ve seen articles in the past linking it to arthritis and migraines. Here’s an article showing the link between depression and inflammation. Quite an interesting read, and it shows why we might not need to monkey with brain chemicals to address depression.
  • Deaths of Note. We’ve had a number of notable deaths at the end of the year, such as Wayne Rodgers and Natalie Cole. Here’s one you may have missed: Ruby Cavanaugh, namesake of Ruby’s Diners.
  • Sign of the Times? Mattel, owners of the American Girl line of dolls, has introduced a diabetic kit for their dolls, allowing girls with diabetes to have a doll that is just like them. While I applaud the production of the kit, what does it say about the prevalence of diabetes in our society that this needs to be a thing?



Up in the Air

userpic=psa-smileOne last themed news chum as appetizer before we serve the stew. I’ll let you decide if this is suitable to spread on crackers.

  • Another Nail in the Coffin of Third-Party Travel Agents. As I wrote in my aphorism post, travel websites make their money by steering you to hotels. Just as with travel agents of yore, they earn commissions and referral fees. The hotels, naturally, hate this — not because they want to save you money, but they want that commission profit for themselves. Just as we have seen elsewhere in other industries, they will be doing whatever they can do to up their profits. Here’s another example of that trend, this time in Las Vegas: As part of MGM’s profit growth plan, the company intends to realize further income by asking customers to help them put a boot on the neck of 3rd party travel retailers. The target? The 15% cut MGM pays to Expedia Inc. (Expedia, Hotels.com, Hotwire, Trivago, Travelocity, Orbitz etc), Priceline Group (Priceline.com, Kayak, Booking.com, Agoda, OpenTable) and even family-owned shops like Jadd Fong Travel in north east Albquerque, New Mexico. How are they going to do this? MGM Resorts International is going to begin penalizing guests who book via third parties, not by direct confrontation but by withholding services and adding fees. Forewarned is…
  • Flying the 727. Those of us who are old enough will remember the Boeing 727. Here’s an interesting report on the refurbishment of an early 727, and what it was like to fly it.
  • Speeding Up Boarding. Here’s an interesting report on a patent by Airbus: The plane, instead of being a single, contiguous hull, would have a huge hole in the middle where the passengers and luggage would normally be. Instead of boarding the plane directly, passengers and luggage would be loaded into a separate “cabin module.” Then, when the module is ready to go, it’s simply dropped into the airplane. You would take your seat in the module, from the comfort of the departure lounge… and then descend into the airplane when it’s ready to go. Interesting idea? Will it ever happen?



Looking everywhere, going nowhere

userpic=travelToday’s news chum post continues the trend of using a song lyric in the title. Does anyone recognize the song? If you figure it out (or cheat), I’ll note that even thought the line fits the post, the overall song doesn’t really. In any case, today’s post — focused on going nowhere — is about transportation in the news. Transportation, in fact, that may get us nowhere fast. Here are a few transportation articles I’ve corrected, while I eat my lunch…



It Won’t Be 30 More…

userpic=pineappleBack sometime in the late 1970s, my parents purchased a timeshare in Maui. This was one of the early timeshare developments, where one had a fixed interval; it was at The Whaler on Kaanapali Beach. Throughout my teen years, I regularly accompanied them to it (we had the last two weeks of August into early September) — I have distinct memories of coding for the UCLA Computer Club, listening to the Jerry Lewis Telethon, while sitting at the game table in the unit. All together now: Yes, I was a nerdy teen with no life.

As I got older, my parents continued to use the unit until sometime after my dad remarried (i.e., late 90s). The last time I was at the unit was in 1985, when we had a week at the unit as part of our honeymoon. After my dad stopped using the unit, he rented it out to friends and relatives. After my dad passed away and I inherited the unit, we did the same — my father-in-law regularly used the unit.

After he died, we started doing interval exchanges through Interval International. Partially, this was due to the fact that we had no knowledge of how to rent the unit easily. Partially, it was due to the fact that airfare to the Islands is expensive. Mostly, it was due to the fact that LA Unified shifted their schedule to start in mid-August, making going to our interval impossible.Through II, We regularly went to Las Vegas and Escondido, as well as Palm Springs. My wife did solo vacations to Sedona and Tucson.

This year was our 30th wedding anniversary. Our daughter had a car, and was back up in Berkeley. We had nothing holding us back — we bit the bullet on the airfare. If you haven’t figured it out by now, this is where we’ve been for the last two weeks. You can learn about it here (although we’re not going through Aston), and (here and here) (these are folks that sell and rent units).

Hawaii 2015After two weeks here, a few observations:

  • Coming back here as an adult (I wasn’t an adult at 25 when I first came; most people don’t see themselves as adults until 29), I can now see why my parents loved this place. It is extremely relaxing and laid back, and has a vibe totally unlike any other timeshare we’ve been at.
  • Elaborating on that last point: At the timeshares in Vegas and Escondido, they were pushing pushing pushing to sell units. Hell, you walk along the beach here and the Westins and other companies are pushing timeshares in your face. This timeshare is different. You have a closet, where you can leave stuff in a box for when you come back. Owners leave stuff for other owners. It is truly like you’re sharing a home, not renting a room for two weeks. In talking with the managing agent for the TIOA (Time Interval Owners Assn), this is because most interval owners come back each year and use their units — they become a family. This makes it feel like home.
  • Other vacations, I’m out and running from place to place to place. This vacation? I’ve done just a little work (checking email, a few hours of meetings on a project I’m running). Mostly, I’ve futzed on the computer reading news (perhaps you’ve noticed). I’ve read books (I’ve finished 3 so far, and am working on the 4th). I’ve gone in the ocean. I’ve sunned by the pool. The latter two are much more entertaining in Hawai’i. I’ve worked out, either by walking or in the exercise room (did an hour on the bike today). I’ve eaten healthy, having fish almost every day. I only saw one show :-). We’ve done a little shopping (I like Hawaiian shirts).
  • I’ve sunned, but this time I learned my lesson and used sunblock.
  • We found some wonderful hidden restaurants, particularly Joey’s Kitchen in Whaler’s Village; and Fish Market in Honokawai. My wife fell in love with Sugar Shop in Lahaina, a wonderful gluten-free shop. Our one dislike: Sangrita, in the Fairway Shops, whose “Grilled Ono in Anchiote” was really in a spicy mole, which created problems (as well as their continually having trouble with the order).
  • I’ve come to the conclusion that it won’t be 30 years before we are back. My plan, at this point, is every other year. This will still give us some weeks we can use towards going to Las Vegas in the spring (which we enjoy), while still coming back here.

Pictures, you ask? Didn’t take any. However, other’s did, and if you look at this week’s AOAO Weekly Picture Mail (PDF), you’ll see both my smiling face, and my wife’s even prettier smiling face (AOAO is the apartment owners association — the folks that either own their apartments, or the TIOA  — independent of the units in the Aston rental program).


Things That Are Going Away… But Maybe Not

userpic=zombieAnd the process of cleaning out the links continues…. this collection brings together a number of stories about things that are going away… but then again:

  • Maui Potato Chips. As I’m on the island of Maui right now, let’s start with something that I’m craving, that used to be easy to find, but now is very difficult to find: The Original Maui Kettle Cook’d Potato Chips. When I was out here 30 years ago, they were everywhere (and you used to ship them back to the mainland). Today? You’re lucky to find a small bag for $7.99 in a few stores. They’ve been replaced by a knockoff chip from the state of Washington. Washington?!?!? But if you know where to look, they are still available. (but of course, I can’t eat them — I’m watching my weight and blood pressure 🙁 )
  • Renaissance Costumes. I’ve written before about how  the theatrical landscape in Southern California is changing due to the machinations of AEA. Many theatres have retrenched in various ways, and this is now starting to have ripple effects. AJS Costumes, a large theatrical and renaissance costumer, has started a GoFundMe to help them survive the ripple. As they write: “As you may or may not be aware, the live theater scene in Los Angeles has been going through an upheaval for the past several months.  Changes in the local 99-seat theater community are causing many theater companies to be very conservative in selecting their projects.  To avoid collapse, many theater companies are doing smaller productions, with less costume design needed, and fewer period plays. The rental business and costume design services of AJS Costumes has slowed to a trickle. This downturn has been sudden.  It has been unforeseen.  It has been devastating.   Despite this crisis, we are continuing to serve our clientele and assure you that all outstanding orders are being fulfilled.   But in order to survive, we must explore and secure new income options for our shop.”
  • Verizon Contract Plans. You may have heard that Verizon was getting rid of subsidized phone plans. That’s actually not true — it is only true for new customers. Old customers — as long as you keep renewing or have phones on the old plan — you can keep it.
  • iPod Classics. Well, they aren’t going away. You can even do as I’m thinking of doing and put in a SSD. But, alas, Apple is declaring them obsolete as of Labor Day. I’m sure you can still get them repaired, although some parts may be harder to get.



The Art of the Possible

Evita (Maui Arts and Cultural Center)userpic=theatre_ticketsJust because we are on vacation doesn’t mean the theatre stops. When I’m on vacation, I typically try to see at least one local show. When I confirmed we were going to Maui, I started looking for what live shows would be here while we were here. The only one in our window was Evita (FB), a Maui Academy of the Performing Arts (MAPA) (FB) production at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center (MACC) (FB), which we saw last night. The BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front) assessment is that it was a very good production for community theatre, and quite enjoyable with only a few quibbles. As an aside, I’ll note that there appears to be a fair amount of theatre on Maui, including a regular fringe festival. Who knew?

We last saw Evita in a high-school performance at Van Nuys HS back in 2011. That was my wife’s first exposure to the show; I had seen the original when it was at the Shubert Theatre in Century City back when both existed back in 1980. For those not familiar with Evita, it is the second rock opera written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. It concentrates on the life of Argentine political leader Eva Perón, the second wife of Argentinian president Juan Perón. The story follows Evita’s early life, rise to power, charity work, and eventual death. It is a sung-through opera, with very little non-musical spoken dialogue. You can find a detailed synopsis of the story on the wikipedia page or on the Rice/Webber page for the show.

This production of Evita was put on by the Maui Academy of the Performing Arts (MAPA) (FB) , the third annual Broadway-style production from the 35 year old arts organization (they did Miss Saigon in 2014 and Les Miserables in 2013). As you can tell from the choice of shows, they like shows with large casts (presumably, to get large community involvement). This show was no exception, with 49 people in the ensemble, 10 additional tango dancers, 13 children in the children’s chorus.

The show was directed by David C. Johnston (FB), MAPA’s artistic director, with Choreography by André Morissette (FB) and staging by David C. Johnston (FB) and André Morissette (FB).  They made some interesting choices in the casting, movement, and staging departments — not necessarily bad choices, but ones that drew my attention. The first was in the casting. If you think about Evita and the typical casting, what comes to mind? A pencil-thin Eva Perón, a relatively thin army-officer type for Juan Perón, and a tall and thin Tango dancer for Agustin Magaldi. Their choices — talented all — were a bit more on the mid-size scale. This didn’t hurt the performances one bit (and I’m sure most of the audience didn’t notice), but it did give a different look to the show. You can see what I mean in the photos accompanying the cast credits below.  I actually enjoyed the casting, and it may have been more reflective of the Argentinian society of the time (size norms have changed over time, and what might be the image in my mind might reflect more the norms of the 1980s when this show came out, vs. the Latin American norms of 1930-1940 Argentina).

The second and third issues were more movement based. The director tended to have his actors use their arms quite a bit during songs (you likely know what a mean — the tendancy to sweep one’s arms in front of oneself as one sings to punctuate everything). This got to the point where it was a little visually distracting — again, it didn’t detract from the overall performance but was a directorial choice that was bothersome. The third issue was the overall movement of the ensemble, which was a bit more simplistic than I’m used to seeing on shows such as this in Los Angeles. My guess is that this was a combination of the extremely large ensemble and the fact that the ensemble was not built from professional dancers and gypsies, but from community members. Given that, the choreography was very good; it was just not all it could have been given what I’m used to seeing. It was great for the community theatre level, and — again — I’m sure most of the audience did not notice. I’m just used to community theatre at the level that challenges the professionals (look at the work of Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)).

In the overall scheme of things, however, those are minor quibbles. The basic performance and staging went well, with a set that consisted primarily of moving stairways and balconies, a few drop columns, and some basic props. With this simplicity, there was a strong need for the acting to establish not only story but place and time — and it did that well. The show was overall enjoyable with some very good performances. Let’s now look at those performances.

Evita (Publicity Photos by Jack Grace)In the lead position as Eva Perón was Hawai’i’s top selling vocalist of all times (and a product of the early days of MAPA), Amy Hānaili’i Gilliom (FB). She had the perfect vocals for the role and captured the emotional performance quite well. The staging had a few odd costume changes on stage for Ms. Gilliom that were much more noticeable from the balcony (where we were sitting), but she looked beautiful in the costumes and gave a great performance. I’ll note that MAPA chose the staging that incorporated the song “You Must Love Me” from the movie, and Gilliom handled that song beautifully.

Eva’s antagonist, Che, is never mentioned by name during the show, but serves as a sardonic off-side commentator on the proceedings to provide the necessary cynical look on the situation. If you’re familiar with the concept album, you always see him as pushing his insecticide (a plot element that disappeared in the stage transition, leaving a number of musical moments where the words have been removed from the remaining music. Che was performed by Kepa Cabanilla-Aricayos/FB. He brought a much higher voice to the character (as if Patinkin wasn’t high), but worked well. The only oddity was that in a number of scenes he was part of the crowd seemingly supporting Perón; I would have expected him to be more off on the side observing instead. I’m guessing this was a directorial choice, and not a major problem. In general, I expected a strong sardonic and angry nature from the performance — this was particularly noticeable in “Goodnight and Thank You”.

Juan Perón was portrayed by Francis Tau’a/FB. Tau’a had a lovely voice for Perón and brought an appropriate stage presence, including a very touching performance in the second act.

The remaining two named characters were Danielle Dalaunay (FB) as Perón’s mistress, and Joey Schumacher/FB as Agustin Magaldi. Dalaunay (hint: don’t do a Google search on the name; unfortunately an adult industry actress also chose that name) really only has one scene and one song, but she nailed it and gave a lovely and touching rendition of “Where Am I Going To?”. Schumacher’s gave a wonderful vocal performance as Magaldi, but didn’t have the look of a tango singer that would have the teenage girls swooning.

Rounding out the performances were the large ensemble components. The ensemble consisted of (takes deep breath): Jay Agasid/FB, Ashlyn-Jade Aniban (FB), Heather Bartlemus/FB, Craig Bode/FB, Shane Borge/FB, Alfred Cantorna/FB, Emily Cantorna/FB, Dr. Virgie Cantorna/FB, Alice Carter/FB, Maile Castro/FB, Jordyn Clarke/FB, Haylie Daunhauer/FB, Haley DeForest/FB, Gina Duncan/FB, Christie Ellison/FB, Molli Fleming/FB, Marion Haller/FB, Halia Haynes/FB, Casey Hearl/FB, Tasiana Igondjo/FB, Aeris Joseph/FB, Brock Kahoohanohano-Abrose/FB, Julie Kawamura/FB, Kevin Lawrence/FB, Carlyn Leal/FB, Nomi Macadangdang/FB, Betty Miller/FB, Orion Milligan/FB, Danann Mitchell/FB, Kaimana Neil/FB, Tully O’Reilly/FB, Jim Oxborrow/FB, Sara Patton/FB, David Pisoni/FB, Isaac Rauch/FB, David Rooks/FB, Karli Rose/FB, Kela Rothstein/FB, Molly Schad, Cole Shafer/FB, Emma Smith/FB, Scott Smith/FB, Theresa Supera/FB, Joylene Nina Tabon/FB, Marc Toliver/FB, Preston Watanabe/FB, Eliza Wright/FB, and Nolan Yee. The Tango Dancers were Vicky Ayers/FB, Rose Baiot/FB, Marcia Barnett-Lopez, Peter Black/FB, Sugandha Ferro Black/FB, Hawkeye Lannis, Doug Miller/FB, Nadama/FB, Rita Okeane/FB, and Tom Weierhauser/FB. The Children’s Chorus was Avery Ardoin, Madeline Austin, Ashton Chargualaf, Nealon Guzman, Kaylee Herman, Sofia Kafami/FB, Randi Lonzaga, Haley Mahoe, Luna Graham Milligan, Jena Mukai, Elly Smith/FB, Erin Smith/FB, Dutch Tanaka Akana, and Jillian Vince-Cruz.

Music was under the direction of Gary Shin-Leavitt (FB), who conducted the 19 piece on-stage band (something you don’t often see). The band consisted of: Kim Vitterli (FB) (Keyb0ard), Beth Fobbe-Wills/FB (Keyboard), Reid Ishikawa/FB (Keyboard), Judy Waters (1st Violin), Sue Westcott/FB (1st Violin), Ana Kalina (2nd Violin), Darius Soo Hoo (FB) (2nd Violin), Teresa Skinner (FB) (Viola), Patrice Weed-Shearer (FB) (Viola), Cheryl Lindley/FB (Cello), Michelle Ancheta (Cello), Lauralei Singsank (FB) (Flute), Beth Sederstrom (Clarinet/Sax), Cody Sarmiento (FB) (Trumpet), Henry Arroyo (Trombone), Stephen Rodrigues (Electric Bass), Wenlu Duffy (FB) (Guitar), Perry Gragas/FB (Percussion), and Richard Vetterli/FB (Drums).

Turning to the technical side. The set design by Dan Hays/FB was relative simple: two movable staircases, a movable balcony, and a static balcony. Simple, but effective, as they were constantly being reconfigured. These were supported by the props by Jeff Robidoux and Barbara Sedano (FB), which worked reasonably well. My only quibble was with the Argentinian flag, which was often portrayed without the sunburst. Now, it turns out that the sunburst-less version of the flag is the ornamental flag and thus a valid version. Still, I’m not sure if that was the right flag to use. The sound design by Joseph “Joe” Arias  was reasonable, but could stand for a little adjusting (some mics were problematic, and some needed their volume increased). The lighting design by Mark Astrella served to create the mood appropriately. The costumes by Vanessa Cerrito (FB) (Kenneth Peter Lee for Eva Peron) seemed appropriately period, as did the hair, wig, and make-up design by Marc Tolliver/FB and Karli Rose/FBAndré Morissette (FB)  was the costume consultant. Lina Krueger/FB was the stage manager, assisted by Tina Kailiponi/FB. Evita was produced by the Maui Academy of the Performing Arts (MAPA) (FB).

The last performance of Evita at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center (MACC) (FB) is a few hours away, at 2:00 PM HST. Tickets are available through the MACC website, but at this point I’d call the box office. We forewarned: Hurricane Ignacio, as the time I’m writing this, is a Category 4 Hurricane about 400 mi E of the island of Hawaii, with a storm track that has it running to the north and west of the islands. We’re getting wind and some rain here on the north western side of Maui; MACC is in Kahului, on the eastern side of the island (which will have more storms and winds). The show is worth seeing, but stay safe.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres:  REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: September starts with Tom Paxton’s last concert at McCabes (FB) on September 12, followed by “The Diviners” at REP East (FB) and “First Date” at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB). October will bring another Fringe Festival: the NoHo Fringe Festival (FB). They haven’t put up the Fringe shows yet, so I may start booking weekends. October also has the following as ticketed or hold-the-dates: CSUN’s Urinetown (end of October – 10/30 or 11/1);  “The Best of Enemies” at The Colony Theatre (FB) (Ticketed for Sat 10/10); and  “Damn Yankees” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) (Ticketed for Sat 10/17). November will bring the Nottingham Festival (FB) on November 7; “A Day Out with Thomas” at Orange Empire Railway Museum (FB) on November 11; and Deathtrap at REP East (FB) on November 14. The rest of the month is currently open. 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.


Who In The Hell Do You Think You Are

Jesus Christ Superstar (Rep East)userpic=repeastWhen I went to Jewish Summer Camp in the early 1970s, there were two “Jesus”-based musicals going around. One, Godspell, gave us a song we actually sang at camp: “Day by Day”. Out of context, it worked just fine. The other was this brown album with a stylized angel on it, and it gave us a song we sang as “Jesus Christ / Superstar / Who In The Hell Do You Think You Are”. The words aren’t too surprising for a Jewish summer camp. I mention this because that was really my knowledge of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar up to last night. I had seen Godspell a number of times and tended to like it because it wasn’t so “in your face” for a non-Christian. From what little I had heard or seen, JCS was much more in your face, heavy rock, and screamy. In recent years I had finally heard the music — and there were a few songs I liked — but still hadn’t seen the show either on stage or on screen. So when REP East Playhouse (FB) in Newhall, where we subscribe, announced the show for this season, I was looking forward to finally seeing it. Last night I finally saw it. I came away disappointed, unsure of what all the fuss was about. REP gave it a good effort, but it just didn’t strike that chord for me. As always, your mileage may vary.

Jesus Christ Superstar (JCS for short) was the first musical from the team of Andrew Lloyd Webber (FB) and Tim Rice (FB) to hit America (Joseph was written earlier, but was imported to the US after JCS became a success). It was released first as a rock concept album — that aforementioned brown album — and became a hit. This led to the album being staged on Broadway by the same director that had done Hair. On Broadway — just as with Wicked — the critics almost universally panned the show, but the audiences loved it. JCS can be said to have started the era of sung-through musical — we can blame JCS for not only Evita, Sunset Boulevard, Starlight Express, Phantom of the Opera, and Cats, but for spawning shows like Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Tale of Two Cities, and the recent fringe show, The Count of Monte Cristo.

JCS essentially relates the well-known story of the last eight days of the man Jesus of Nazareth. Spoiler: He dies in the end (it does not show the resurrection). I’m not sure I need to relate the particulars of the story; if you need to see the plot synopsis, it is on the Wikipedia page.  The story really focuses on the relationship between Jesus, Judas, and Mary. Judas, who plays the central driving figure in the story, is disappointed that Jesus seems to have veered away from the focus of his ministry. Under what he sees as the influence of Mary, Judas believes that Jesus is spending funds on oils and ointments instead of using it to help the poor and needy. He becomes increasingly disillusioned with Jesus, moving to the point (as we all know) of betraying him to the authorities, which leads to his crucifixion. As Jesus gets pilloried by the authorities, we also see how many of his disciples appear to turn away from him as well, just as today popular media can turn people away from heroes of old. Only Mary stays steadfastly by Jesus’ side. At the end, they return remembering how he affected their lives.

The love triangle presented in story, as JCS presents it, is likely what drew youth into the story. The triangle: close friend disillusioned when the new woman in his bro’s life turns him away is classic — and it is an interesting take on Jesus’ life. I don’t know the extent to which this subtext, however, is actually in the gospels.

Unlike Godspell, which teaches Jesus’ lessons and focuses less on the actual life story, JCS really doesn’t teach what Jesus said about living. Through Judas, it seems to show how he turned away from what he was teaching. It shows Jesus as bargaining with God, trying to figure out his role in all of this. Ultimately, he is convinced he has to die in order to make his message. To me, a non-Christian, the portrayal of Jesus by Rice and Webber is a negative one. Here is a nice guy, trying to minister to the poor, but his followers inflate his ministry for their own purposes and for their own immortality (listen to the words in “The Last Supper”: “Always hoped that I’d be an apostle / Knew that I would make it if I tried / Then when we retire we can write the gospels / So they’ll all talk about us when we’ve died”). Rice and Webber portray Jesus as ultimately betraying his cause and his work to make that larger message, of being a reluctant messiah — in essence, of being a fraud. Look at the main lyric of the title song: “Jesus Christ, Superstar / Do you think you’re what they say you are”. Rice and Webber portray Judas as seeing through this, and trying to return Jesus to the right path. That’s certainly not the story of Jesus that I (a non-Christian) have gleaned over the years.  I think it is ultimately a negative portrayal of Jesus, with lyrics that are screaming and not always melodic.

Even worse, I think that JCS perpetuates the antisemitic nature of the Gospels. Look at “King Herod’s Song”, and particularly the “Trial Before Pilate”. What comes across is that the Jews are viewed in a negative sense, and that the Romans are really reluctant to kill Jesus — but (as the song says) it is the Jews that demand that the Romans find a reason to do so.

Suffice it to say that I’m not enthused about the presentation of the story, and I now understand why I preferred Godspell. There are some versions of Godspell that can get a bit preachy, but they do not get anti-anything. JCS does. It has a few songs that I like, particularly “I Don’t Know How To Love Him”, but the show just turns me off. My guess is that this would be the case irrespective of the venue producing the show (although I am now curious about the highly-touted DOMA version).

Let’s now turn to the REP interpretation of the show, understanding how that may have been colored based on the book itself. Alas, this too was disappointing due to a number of factors, but I’ll ultimately chock it up to directoral vision combined with technical issues. As directed by Rick Pratt (FB), the show had a minimalist set staging (there were no real set pieces at all), with loads of odd lighting and paint choices that served to distract from rather than support the story. The pre-recorded music tended to overpower the voices, which were not helped by microphones that kept cutting in and out and having a fair amount of hiss. This was not the usual REP set, sound, or lighting quality — every theater has an aberration occasionally. Due to all this, the focus ultimately was on the cast and their relationships and emotions; given the sung through nature of the show, that had to come across in the quality and clarity of the songs and how they were sung. The cast tried hard to overcome these problems, but it never quite meshed with the demands the overwrought Webber/Rice story required.

As a quick aside, I also believe this is a story that works much better with live music. Live, as opposed to pre-recorded music, gives that extra energy that a rock opera such as this requires. The director, Rick Pratt, had experience with live on-stage music before at the REP and that worked very very well, and I wish he had been able to figure out a way to make the music live.

[Edited to Add: Based on some discussions with the REP, it looks like this will be transitioning to live music by 7/24. This should improve the production and energy greatly.]

In JCS, the central character driving the story is Judas. It is he that frames the initial opening direction of the story in “Heaven on Their Minds”; it is he that is there criticizing Jesus’s relationship with Mary; it is he that interacts with the High Priests; and it is he that ultimately faces Jesus in the end. His role is quite similar to the one that Rice/Webber would use again for Che in Evita. You need a powerhouse rock singer here — one that can not only act, but sing loud and clear to get the message across. You also need an actor who can just have that unspeakable presence. Adam Duarte tries very hard, and occasionally got the tone right, but didn’t have the consistency needed. Further, his attempt to be rock-ish made it difficult to hear the words clearly — and hearing the words is vital when the songs are the only thing moving the story forward.

The second part of the main triangle in the story is Jesus, who was played by Benjamin Patrick Thomas (FB). Benjamin sang well when we saw him in Return to the Forbidden Planet (also directed by Pratt). For the most part, he did well here but had a lot of trouble with the upper end of the range on some of Jesus’ songs. He also had seemingly the wrong look, but I can’t put my finger on why — as a mid-thirties white bearded hippie, he certainly didn’t fit the conventional picture of Jesus; then again, we don’t know what Jesus looked like.

The third part of the triangle — and one of the standouts in the show — was Natasha J. Gaston (FB) as Mary Magdalene. Gaston’s Mary conveyed wonderful emotions, and had a wonderful singing voice that she put to great use in “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” and “Everything’s Alright”. The quality of this voice came through even as her microphone kept cutting in and out and over a large amount of amplification hiss. I hope that we see more of this lovely actress.

As the opposition leadership, Chris Loprete (FB) [Pontius Pilate], Paul Nieman (FB) [Caiphas], and Ally Loprete (FB) [Annas] did well. All three sang well and were able to convey their emotions through song. The costuming seemed a bit strange, especially the overly clingy and sexy number for Annas, who was supposedly a high priest, and the devilish dark red suit for Caiphas. [ETA: When I read this paragraph after seeing the show a second time, I realized that I was confusing Pilate with Sean Goodman/FB [Ensemble], who placed the third part of the Sanhedrin. Loprete’s Pilate was goot, but wasn’t part of the main opposition leadership.]

In the ensemble and playing a number of smaller roles were: Alex Bowman (FB) [Peter / Ensemble], Tara Cox/FB [Simon Zealotes / Ensemble], Michael Davies [King Herod / Ensemble], Eriel Brown (FB) [Ensemble / Dance Captain], Laura Norkin/FB [Ensemble], Marie-Clarie Erdynast/FB [Ensemble], Danielle Honeyman (FB) [Ensemble], Sean Goodman/FB [Ensemble], Bruce Robinson/FB [Ensemble], and Micahel Gilbertson/FB [Ensemble]. In the ensemble positions, all blended well, sang reasonably well, and had obvious fun portraying their characters. There are a few worthy of special comment. Tara Cox/FB was another of those actors with a voice above the rest; it came across quite strongly in the few solo numbers and portions of numbers that she had. We’ve seen Michael Davies before in Forbidden Planet. He was good in King Herod’s number (one of my favorites on the album), but didn’t quite have the right sense of the cat playing with the mouse that was required, and that feeds the righteous indignation that feeds the end of the number. The focus was the cutesy, not the message. Eriel Brown (FB) moved and danced well, and seemed (if I was picking her out right) to have a very nice singing voice. Lastly, Danielle Honeyman (FB) was fun to watch in the ensemble. Again, if I was hearing correctly, I heard a slightly operatic voice and tone.

As noted before, JCS was directed by Rick Pratt (FB) and Kimbyrly M. Valis (FB). Carla Bellefeuille (FB) was the vocal director, assisted by Justin G. Horwitz/FB. Erin Cholakian (FB) was the choreographer.  I’ve commented before about the directoral vision. JCS is a hard show to get correct in a small venue, so I do applaud the directoral team for trying.  Their choices didn’t work for me; it might work for others. I feel their attempt was hurt by the inability to have live music. It was also hurt by the current battle between intimate theatres and AEA that has led REP to go non-union; JCS in particular is a show that would have been helped greatly to have the additional seasoning, talent, and stage presence in the lead positions. I think the team did the best with what they had to work with. The choreography, on the other hand, worked well given the limited REP space; it is always nice to see dance on the REP stage.

[ETA: There was also an odd projection sequence during the overture music going through all sorts of historical scenes. The purpose was unclear — was it meant to say that this was done in Jesus’ name? What was the point? Further, given the uneven surface at the back of the theatre, the projections were hard to see and read.]

I’ve also noted before the various technical problems. The set design was minimal: some ramps, some raised stages, a cross that could be lowered, and some inexplicable painted lines on the floor and on the wall. This is not the style of set design that REP normally does, and it didn’t work for me (but then again, I’ve never seen JCS before — perhaps this is the concept). There were also significant problems with the sound — I don’t know if it was the design of Steven “Nanook” Burkholder/FB or problems with the wireless mics on the performers and difficulties at the sound board. In any case, it served to distract more than amplify. Although TC was listed as the resident lighting designer, lighting credit for this show was given to Jeffrey Hampton. The lighting was odd — there were odd flashes during songs that I’m guessing were meant to be rock opera-ish. There were also points where characters were singing or moving in the dark, which shouldn’t be the case. I don’t know what to say about the costume design by Chelsea Jones/FB: they attempted to update this to some unspecified era so that the costumes were some odd eclectic mix of robes, sexy shorts, spandex, hippie threads, jeans and T-shirts, and suits. My wife noted that there were numerous fitting problems. Calliope Weisman/FB was the stage manager.  REP is under the artistic direction of  Mikee Schwinn/FB.

Jesus Christ Superstar continues at REP East (FB) in Newhall (Santa Clarita) through August 15, 2015. Tickets are available through the REP online box office. Discount tickets are available through Goldstar. I’m not a fan of JCS, but you might be.

After JCS concludes its run, REP will be presenting a special two-weekend “81 series” production of A Company of Wayward Saints by George Herman, a commedia del arte type show. Tickets are available through the REP website.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres:  REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

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


Saturday News Chum

userpic=observationsIt’s Saturday, and that means it’s time to clean out the accumulated links.  As I’ve got about an hour before I jump into the Fringe, let’s get going: