Powerful Women | “Dessa Rosa” @ Chromolume

Dessa Rose (Chromolume)This is the year of the women. Women are speaking up (almost like never before) for themselves. They are speaking up against abuse, harassment, and the traditional patriarchal notions. Unlike some past feminist efforts, the current effort is going beyond equality of pay and equality of work to demanding equality of treatment, privilege, and respect.

So, perhaps, it is with a unique sense of timing that the first show of the  Chromolume Theatre (FB) 2018 season is Dessa RoseDessa Rose, with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty,  based on a novel by Sherley Anne Williams, was first produced Off-Broadway in 2005, and is making its Los Angeles premier. The original novel fictionalizes and combines two historical incidents:  In 1829 a pregnant slave woman led a revolt against slave traders, and in 1830 a white woman had a habit of taking in runaway slaves. The book combines the two stories, with the two women meeting and participating in a plan to free the runaways. It also times well for Black History Month, as it is based on the work of an African-American writer, and tells a story about powerful and proud black survival in the pre-Civil War South, and is being presented in a minority owned and operated theatre.

(As an aside, a recently saw a wonderful explanation of why Black History Month is appropriate, but White History Month would not be. Whites typically have the luxury of knowing their past and ethnicity, and knowing where their families came from and when they came to the US. Blacks had that all taken away from them. For many, the best they know is “Africa”, which is a continent, not a nation. They’ve had their past ripped from them, without consent, and Black History Month is a way to reclaim that past, celebrating all achieves of the Black community as their own.)

Dessa Rose also falls into category of music I had heard, but never seen. I’m quite a fan of the works of Ahrens and Flaherty, and how they have a musical style that isn’t repetitive with a particular sound (some other composing teams make it clear when you hear their work who they are). I’ve had the CD of Dessa Rose for quite a few years, but could never wrap my head around the story. Now I can, and hearing those songs in the context of the story makes them so much more meaningful. That’s one reason why I like Chromolume’s season so much: all of their mainstage shows are Los Angeles premieres, shows that I have only heard but never seen.

Dessa Rose tells the story of two women: Dessa Rose and Ruth. You can find a detailed synopsis on the Wikipedia page. The story is presented as the two women telling the story to their grandchildren so that it isn’t loss (a similar motif to Once on this Island, demonstrating the importance of shared storytelling). Dessa’s story concerns how she was born a slave, fell in love at 16, get pregnant, watch the man she loved get killed, and killing the overseer herself in response. She then leads a slave revolt, gets arrested and sentenced to hang. She eventually escapes jail and with the help of other slaves from the revolt, makes her way to Ruth’s plantation. Ruth, who is the black sheep of a different plantation family, marries young to a gambler who abandons her in an unfinished plantation with a new infant. She is accepting of the blacks, and that plantation soon becomes a haven for escaped slaves where no questions are asked. At the plantation, Ruth and Dessa’s stories combine, and the remainder of the musical is how they learn to accept each other, and standup for dignity and freedom.

This is a powerful story, and in some sense, a dark story. Although there are some energetic songs, one can see why it isn’t a typical Broadway story or musical, and thus, never moved from the Off-Broadway Mitzi Newhouse to a larger venue. In the tiny space that is the Attic Theatre (typically configured for 49 seats), it works and the closeness gives it extra power and meaning. It is a clear example of a show that is meant for an intimate theatre space.

What was my reaction? Going in, I really knew only the music, and that it was about the relationship of an escaped slave and a white woman. I’ll note also that I was having a bad afternoon, for reasons I shan’t go into other than to say: Always double check the time for an afternoon matinee, and sometimes it can be equally bad to arrive too early.

So, my reaction: I found this to be an incredibly moving musical, with very strong performances. There were just a few points where I felt a little bit of a drag in the story, and the close of Act I was more of a dark close than one is accustomed to see. But overall, I found the story timely — especially in this era of women speaking up for themselves and not putting up with being mistreated anymore. This was a strong show about women taking back their power and putting their destiny in their own hands — not the hands of their masters or their husbands. It was women finding their own way in society. It is a message that resonates with today.

Dessa Rose (Chromolume) - Cast Image StripDirector , James Esposito (FB) had a challenge in staging this production. Not only did he have to draw powerful performances out of his cast, but he had to figure out how to make the production work in a very tiny space, with very limited sets, options, and budgets. But the true measure of live theatre is creativity, and productions can thrive on imagination and performance, whereas film demands realism. The set here was simple: no real set pieces, just some ramps and spaces. Looking back, there also wasn’t a large number of specific props. Yet none of this was necessary, as the actors through performance alone created all the different places and made them real, so that you saw where you were in your imagination and in the movement. As a small example of that, watch the background performers and their motions. They are doing their house and field work without props, but establishing where and when they are. That’s the type of notion that I believe comes from the director working with the acting team.

In the lead performance positions were Shaunté Tabb (FB, FB) as Dessa Rose and Abby Carlson (FB) as Ruth. Tabb was a knockout. An incredibly strong singing voice (no amplification needed) combined with a powerhouse performance just blew me away. You believed she was who she was portraying. Similarly, Carlson was strong as Ruth. In that role, she had a bit more leeway to let go and relax, and when she did, there was just this natural luster that shone through. Again, there was a strong singing voice and equally strong performance that blended exceptionally well with Tabb’s Dessa Rose.

In more of a supporting role were Mykell Barlow (FB)’s Nathan and Ken Maurice Purnell (FB)’s Harker. Barlow was outstanding. A wonderful voice and a engaging stage presence created an instantly likable and strong character. Purnell’s Harker had a smaller presence, but the two worked well together.

The mothers in this story were repres ented in a different way: Kymberly Stewart (FB) played multiple mothers: Dessa Rose’s mother Rose, Ruth’s Mammy Dorcas, and an additional character, Aunt Chloe. Ruth’s actual mother was portrayed by Claire Buchignani (FB). Stewart’s portrayal of the different Mammy’s was interesting. Traditionally, the “Mammy” is a problematic character and oft stereotypical, but Stewart gave both an interesting rebellious and subversive nature, encouraging both Ruth and Rose, as different mothers, to be their own person and do what is right for them. Buchignani caught my eye from the opening number: there was just something in her face and movement that drew my eyes to her. Both were strong in their shared numbers such as “Ladies” and “Ten Petticoats”, and Stewart was outstanding in “White Milk and Red Blood”, emphasizing how we are all the same.

Matt Mancuso (FB), as Adam Nehemiah, was perhaps the villain of the piece, if there was one. Initially a friend to Dessa Rose, after her escape he vowed to capture her, and thus was the hunter to be avoided.  Mancuso captured the two different sides of his character exceptionally well: contrast his performances in both “Ink” and “Capture the Girl”.

The remaining actors tended to play multiple characters, both in the ensemble as well as some named characters: Mikhail Roberts (FB) [Bertie, Sheriff Hughes, Auctioneer #2]; Bradley Alan Turner (FB) [Kaine, Phillip]; Zach Campa (FB) [Mr. Steel, Mr. Oscar, Sheriff Pine]; Ambrey Benson (FB) [Annabel, various slaves]; and Margaret Berkowitz (FB) [Susannah]. All were strong singers and ensemble performers; there were a few that shone exceptionally in my mind. Berkowitz’s Susannah brought an interesting sunshine to the piece — not because she was the only blonde, but there was just something about how she portrayed Susannah that had a lightness about her. Roberts captured the cad nature of Bertie, who abandons Ruth, well in the little characterization we had, but a bit more interesting was Campa’s Sheriff Pines in his interaction with Adam Nehemiah when Dessa is almost uncovered. Strong performance. Campo was also great as Mr. Oscar interacting with Ruth. Turner had a strong portrayal of Kaine in his early interactions with Dessa Rose.

The understudies, whom we did not see, were Maya (Sh’von) Thomas (FB) [u/s Dessa Rose]; Jessica Jacobs (FB) [u/s Ruth]; Christopher T. Wood (FB) [u/s Nathan]; and Allen Barstow (FB) [u/s Nehemiah].

Music was provided by an offstage band led by music director Daniel Yokomizo (FB) on Piano, John A. Graves on Bass, and Jeff Fish (FB) on Percussion.  For a small group, they had a very nice sound that worked well with the small show.
: Simon Landau on 2/3, 2/24, and 2/25
: Anthony Jones (FB) on 2/2, 2/3, 2/10, 2/16, 2/17, and 2/23; Jon Lundgren on 2/9, 2/24, and 2/25.

The remainder of the creative and production team were: Michael Marchak (FB) [Choreography];  Kara McLeod (FB) [Costume Design]; Jesse Baldridge (FB) [Lighting Design]; Jasmine Moreno (FB) [Stage Manager]Ken Werther (FB) [Publicity]. There was no sound design credit. A few notes: the speakers had an annoying buzz that can hopefully be corrected in the future. Marchak’s choreography was simply and appropriate for the show McLeod’s costume seemed to establish period well. Lastly, Baldridge’s lighting established time and mood well.

Dessa Rose has one more weekend in its run at Chromolume Theatre (FB). You should get tickets now if you can; they are selling out fast and you don’t want to miss this show. There were tickets on Goldstar, but they are sold out.

Chromolume just announced their Hollywood Fringe Festival production, and I’m excited. Here’s what they wrote:

We are happy to announce that our 2018 Hollywood Fringe Festival production will be the one-act musical, The Story of My Life! We are also excited to announce we will be performing at the The Hobgoblin Playhouse. We are excited to bring this story to you…coming in June! Click on the link below to find out more!

http://crtheatre.com/story.html

And for those of you who don’t know, if you purchase your season subscription before our current production ends, you will get free tickets to see this production!

We last saw Story of My Life back in 2009, right after the death of our dear friend Lauren. The story touched me in special ways; it is just a beautiful and meaningful show. I’m looking forward to it. Subscribe before Dessa Rose closes, and I believe it will be included in your subscription.

***

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts 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 currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (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:

February concludes with  James and the Giant Peach at the Chance Theatre (FB) in the Anaheim Hills, and tickets for Dublin Irish Dance Stepping Out at  the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB).

March was supposed to start with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner, but that shifted back a week. This enables us to see a remounting of Leslie Jones starring in Prez – The Lester Young Story that weekend. This is followed on the second weekend with the LA Premiere of the musical Allegiance at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (FB) and the MRJ Man of the Year Dinner. The next weekend brings Steel Pier at the UCLA School of Television, Film, and Theatre (FB). The penultimate Friday of March was to bring Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), but that has shifted to June and that weekend is currently open. The last weekend of March is open for theatre, but there will be the Men of TAS Seder.

April looks to be a busy month. It starts with Love Never Dies at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) [as an aside, there was just a great interview with Glen Slater, the lyricist of that show, on Broadway Bullet that is well worth listening to]. The second weekend brings A Man for All Seasons” at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend brings The Hunchback of Notre Dame at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) (nee Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)), as well as our annual visit to the Original Renaissance Faire. The last weekend of April sees us travelling for a show, as we drive up to San Jose to see friends as well as Adrift in Macao at The Tabard Theatre Company (FB).

Continuing into May and June: The first weekend in May will bring School of Rock at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), with the following weekend bringing Soft Power  at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). The middle of May brings Violet  at Actors Co-op (FB).  The last weekend will hopefully bring a Nefesh Mountain concert at Temple Ramat Zion; the weekend itself is currently open. June — ah, June. That, my friends, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), including The Story of My Life from Chromolume Theatre (FB). Additionally in June we’re seeing the postponed Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), The Color Purple at  the Hollywood Pantages (FB), and possibly Do Re Mi at MTW. The latter, however, is on a Sunday night in Long Beach, and so Fringing may win out. Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018! We may also be adding an  Ahmanson Theatre (FB) subscription, given their recent announcements regarding the next season.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

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How Can We Be Optimistic? | “Candide” @ LA Opera

Candide (LA Opera)We’re in a society that is filled with school shootings and violence. We have leaders that disrespect their offices, and that never demonstrate leadership or high morals. We’re constantly at the throats of others due to partisan policies. The oceans are rising, weather is getting more extreme, and we’re mortgaging our future to pay for today. Can it be said that we live in the best of all possible worlds? Is there reason to maintain an optimistic outlook, or must we just concede the world has gone to hell in a handbasket, and we must just give up and accept our fate?

That’s the question at the heart of Candide, a philosophical treatise written by the philospher Voltaire in 1789. Per Wikipedia: It begins with a young man, Candide, who is living a sheltered life in an Edenic paradise and being indoctrinated with Leibnizian optimism (or simply “optimism”) by his mentor, Professor Pangloss. The work describes the abrupt cessation of this lifestyle, followed by Candide’s slow, painful disillusionment as he witnesses and experiences great hardships in the world. Voltaire concludes with Candide, if not rejecting optimism outright, advocating a deeply practical precept, “we must cultivate our garden”, in lieu of the Leibnizian mantra of Pangloss, “all is for the best” in the “best of all possible worlds“.

Candide has long been popular to adapt for the stage, and in 1956, it was musicalized by Leonard Bernstein. This original verson, with a book by Lillian Hellman, and lyrics by Richard Wilbur, Bernstein, Hellman, John La Touche, and Dorothy Parker, was a flop on Broadway, closing after 73 performances. But in 1973, it was revisited. Hellman refused to allow her work to be used, and a new book was developed by Hugh Wheeler, with some additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.  This version was more successful, running nearly two years and producing a well-received cast album (which I have). This was reworked again by John Caird for the Royal National Theatre. You can see the gory details of all the different versions here. This being part of the “Bernstein at 100” celebration, LA Opera (FB) opted to present this rework of a rework version to join in on the fun.

When I learned that LA Opera (FB) was presenting the show. One of my various quests is to actually see the shows that I’ve only heard. I’d long listened (and enjoyed) the music of Candide, and this provided the opportunity to put that music in context. Unfortunately, LA Opera tickets are expensive, and they weren’t yet on Goldstar. I found a Metro discount, and got some seats for a Thursday night in Balcony B. We grabbed our binoculars, and off we went. [I must remember, however, not to do these things on a school night — I was dragging the next day.]

For those unfamiliar with the story of Candide, it is basically the story of an illegitimate son (Candide) of a Westphalian (German) prince, said Prince’s real son (Maximilian), said Prince’s real daughter (Cunegonde), and their private tutor, Dr. Pangloss. Pangloss’s philosophy is that this it the best of all possible worlds, otherwise known as optimism, which focuses only on the good of the moment. When that world goes south after Candide and Cunegonde fall in love, there is a series of adventures as Candide goes around the globe: conscripted into the Bavarian army, saved by an Anabaptist, escaping to Lisbon and then to Spain … and the inquisition (which is something he didn’t expect, because no one expects…). Escaping the inquisition and ending up in the new world in Montevideo, only to have to escape again to El Dorado, and then escaping again to Venice. All the while, Candide keeps running into Cunegonde and Pangloss, and he keeps debating Pangloss’ philosophy.  Eventually, Candide abandons the philosophy, moving instead to one where work is its own reward — in the simple life of a farm, growing things, using one’s skills.  You can find the synopsis of the full original story here; a closer synopsis of the final operetta here.

Having now seen the show, just a few observations. First, the show was surprisingly engaging. Despite the more operatic style, and despite the length and how much story was crammed into the book, time just seemed to fly. There was no time that I felt the urge to look at the program to see when the act might end. There were no points where I felt the story was unnecessary. In fact, there were a few places where the story could have been lengthened to provide more information on what was happening to the characters.

Secondly, I was surprised at how witty the lyrics were. Unlike traditional musical theatre, opera often has “supertitles” — projected lyrics above the stage for the audience to read. This is vital when operas are in a foreign language, but it is also useful for operas in English. For Candide, both the Sondheim and Bernstein influences were clear by the internal and clever rhymes, and the messages and words conveyed. I was familiar with Bernstein’s music, but seeing it in use conveyed better the different styles of the music and how they related to the story.

Under the direction of Francesca Zambello (FB), the show was conceived as Voltaire narrating his story, and periodically dropping into character as Dr. Pangloss. The rest of the action was seemingly put on by an acting troupe or in Voltaire’s imagination (as they came out of a trunk), although that wasn’t made very clear. The story moves from location to location very fast, and the physical set to create those locations was more imagination than realism (i.e., scaffolds, planks, benches, trunks). Location cues were provided more by costumes, flags, and props. But it all ended up working.

In the name actor positions — I hesitate to say leads because it was not around them who the story focused — were Kelsey Grammer as Voltaire/Pangloss and Christine Ebersole (FB) as The Old Lady. Grammer had a large amount of stage time as the narrator, and provided the main philosophical push as Pangloss. It was no surprise that he handled the acting and the comedy well, although at times he seemed to be playing it up a bit much. I was less enamored of his singing — he has an odd style that didn’t work for me on the recording of La Cage, and didn’t work for me here. Luckily, Pangloss doesn’t have a large number of songs where he is the primary voice. I enjoyed Ebersole much more, and actually wished her role was larger. Good comedy, good presentation, and excellent singing — in particular, she handled “I Am Easily Assimilated” quite well.

In what I truly think are the lead positions were folks more familiar to the opera side of the equation: Jack Swanson (FB) as Candide and Erin Morley (FB) as Cunegonde. Both of these performers were excellent, with the right amount of playfulness and earnestness. Morley did a great job with her signature number in the show, “Glitter and Be Gay”, both in the vocal performance as well as the acting that goes along with it. Swanson’s Candide had a lovely voice and was enjoyable to watch.

The other more-major named positions were performed well and were fun to watch, although discerning the nuances of the performances were difficult from Balcony B. This group included Theo Hoffman (FB[Maximilian]; Peabody Southwell [Paquette]; Matthew Scollin [James the Anabaptist / Martin]; Brian Michael Moore (FB[Grand Inquisitor / Governor of Montevideo]; Joshua Wheeker (FB[Cacambo]; and Taylor Raven [Venderdendur, Baroness, Lisbonite]. The ones that stick out in my mind were Southwell’s Paquette and Wheeker’s Cacambo.

Lastly, there where the members of the ensemble, who also had some minor named positions as noted: Eboni Adams (FB) [Dance Captain], Andrea Beasom, Tom Berklund (FB[Lisbonite], Tucker Reed Breder, Abdiel Gonzalez (FB[Bavarian Captain, 2nd Inquisition Agent, Señor, Surinam Slave], Katherine Henly (FB[Bavarian Corporal, Sheep], Amber Liekhus (FB[Lisbonite, Queen of Eldorado], Danny Lindgren (FB), Amanda Compton LoPresti (FB), Robert Norman (FB[Holland Minister, Don Issachar, Señor, King of Eldorado], Steve Pence (FB[Baron, 1st Inquisition Agent, Galley Captain], and Michelle Siemens (FB[Minister’s Wife]. Of this group, the ones that stick in my head were the performances of the sheep (including Katherine Henly), and Amber Liekhus’s Queen of Eldorado.

Rounding out the LA Opera Chorus (who I believe were offstage) were: Nicole Fernandes, Ayana Haviv, Rebecca Tomlinson, Omar Crook, Francis Lucaric, Todd Strange, Aleta Braxton, Sara Campbell, Jennifer Wallace, Mark Beasom, and James Martin Schaefer. Abdiel Gonzalez (FB), who filled in for Tim Campbell, is normally part of the chorus as well.

The LA Opera Orchestra was excellent, but was way too large for me to list them all here. 49 pieces. You don’t see that in normal music theatre, where you’re lucky sometimes to have a working piano. You can find a summary of LA Opera’s Orchesta’s artists here.

Lastly, turning to the creative and production team. The aforementioned orchestra was conducted by James Conlon (FB), who also gave a talk before the show. Movement and dance was under the choreographic eye of Eric Sean Fogel. Candide has a wide variety of dance styles, and all were handled quite well. The simple scenic design described above was developed by James Noone (FB); Jennifer Moeller did the costumes.  I mentioned my appreciation of the scenic design and supporting props earlier; Moeller’s costumes also provided great support to defining the time and especially place. The basic ensemble costumes were perhaps what I would call worn sexy chic, and survived under whatever outer garmets (red wool, Montevidean coats, uniform coats, etc.) were put on top of them. More elaborate costumes were provided to the major named characters, and Candide and Pangloss remained in essentially the same costumes throughout. You can see Moeller’s costumes and Noone’s scenic design in the show’s photo gallery.  Kai Harada (FB)’s sound design was reasonable clear even up in Balcony B, although perhaps a little more volume would have been good. Mark McCullough‘s lighting design worked well to establish time and mood (especially the use of red in places). The aforementioned chorus had good sound in the few choral numbers, under the direction of Grant Gershon. Rounding out the creative and production team were: E. Loren Meeker (FB[Assoc. Director]; Chelsea Antrim [Stage Manager]; Christopher Allen [Assoc. Conductor]; Trevore Ross (FB[Asst. Director]; Aurelia Andrews (FB), Jeremy Frank ⟦Assoc. Chorus Master⟧, Bryndon Hassman (FB), and Miah Im (FB[Musical Preparation]; Barbara Donner (FB), Whitney McAnally (FB), and Melissa Tosto [Asst. State Managers].

The final performance of Candide was Sunday, February 18, 2017.

***

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts 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 currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (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:

Upcoming as of when I saw this (but which we saw yesterday) was the first production of the Chromolume Theatre (FB) 2018 season, Dessa Rose. The month concludes with  James and the Giant Peach at the Chance Theatre (FB) in the Anaheim Hills, and tickets for Dublin Irish Dance Stepping Out at  the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB).

March was supposed to start with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner, but that shifted back a week. This enables us to see a remounting of Leslie Jones starring in Prez – The Lester Young Story that weekend. This is followed on the second weekend with the LA Premiere of the musical Allegiance at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (FB) and the MRJ Man of the Year Dinner. The next weekend brings Steel Pier at the UCLA School of Television, Film, and Theatre (FB). The penultimate Friday of March was to bring Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), but that has shifted to June and that weekend is currently open. The last weekend of March is open for theatre, but there will be the Men of TAS Seder.

April looks to be a busy month. It starts with Love Never Dies at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) [as an aside, there was just a great interview with Glen Slater, the lyricist of that show, on Broadway Bullet that is well worth listening to]. The second weekend brings A Man for All Seasons” at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend brings The Hunchback of Notre Dame at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) (nee Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)), as well as our annual visit to the Original Renaissance Faire. The last weekend of April sees us travelling for a show, as we drive up to San Jose to see friends as well as Adrift in Macao at The Tabard Theatre Company (FB). Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018! We may also be adding an  Ahmanson Theatre (FB) subscription, given their recent announcements regarding the next season.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

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Thoughts on a Theatre Season – 5-Star Theatricals, Theatreworks, and a little bit more

It’s season announcement time, and I’ve gotten a few more in the mail. What am I interested in and what will I attend? What should you consider? Read on, McDuff!

🎭 5 Star Theatricals (FB) 🎭

This is the company that was formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre. They operate out of a large regional theatre in Thousand Oaks, doing locally-cast musicals with a mix of Equity performers, non-Equity professionals, and up and coming artists. They have announced three shows for the 2018-2019 season (currently remaining in the 2017-0218 season are The Hunchback of Notre Dame (April 20-29) and Beauty and the Beast (July 20-29)):

  • Shrek. 👍 Oct. 19-28, 2018. This is the first time 5-Star/Cabrillo is doing Shrek (Music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire), although it has been done regionally before (notably at Simi ARTS back in 2014). We last saw this back in 2009 at the Pantages; it should be nice to see a good regional production of the show.
  • Matilda the Musical 👍 March 22-31, 2019. Book by Dennis Kelly and Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin (FB) based on the novel by Roald Dahl (FB). This is the regional theatre premier for the region. We last saw this back in 2015 at the Ahmanson.  5-Star should do a good job with this.
  • West Side Story. 👍 July 26-Aug. 4, 2018. A classic show, with score by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Very appropriate in this year celebrating Leonard Bernstein. We last saw it at Cabrillo back in 2004.

We should be renewing our subscription when the packet arrives.

 🎭 Silicon Valley Theatreworks (FB) 🎭

I recently received the announcement of Theatreworks next season. Theatreworks is in the San Jose/Palo Alto area, about 300 miles away, but for the right show I might drive up, plus I have friends who live in that area. Here is their next season:

  • HOLD THESE TRUTHS. By Jeanne Sakata. REGIONAL PREMIERE. Palo Alto: July 11–Aug 5, 2018. An unsung American hero, Gordon Hirabayashi, fought passionately for the Constitution against an unexpected adversary: his own country. During World War II, he refused to report to a relocation camp with thousands of families of Japanese descent, launching a 50-year journey from college to courtroom, and eventually to a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
  • NATIVE GARDENS. By Karen Zacarias. REGIONAL PREMIERE.  Mountain View: Aug 22–Sept 16, 2018. In this cutting edge suburban comedy from America’s hottest new playwright, gardens and cultures clash, turning well-intentioned neighbors into ecological adversaries. When an up-and-coming Latino couple purchases a home beside the prize-winning garden of a prominent Washington D.C. family, conflicts over fences and flora spiral into an uproarious clash of cultures, exposing both couples’ notions of race, taste, class, and privilege.
  • FUN HOME. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Book & Lyrics by Lisa Kron.  Mountain View: Oct 3–28, 2018. [They don’t say it, but I think this is a premiere at the regional level.]  Welcome to Fun Home, the blazingly honest memoir of Alison, a graphic novelist exploring her youth in a loving, dysfunctional family whose secrets of sexual identity echo her own. Winner of every Best Musical award of 2015, this tragicomic tale is told with enormous emotion and sensitivity, its haunting yet amusing score illuminating one of the most extraordinary and original musicals of our times.
  • TUCK EVERLASTING. Book by Claudia Shear & Tim Federle. Music by Chris Miller. Lyrics by Nathan Tysen. REGIONAL PREMIERE. Palo Alto: Nov 28–Dec 23, 2018. An enchanting bestseller springs to life in this 1890s tale of Winnie Foster, a free-spirited girl whose search for adventure leads to the Tucks, a close-knit family that has discovered the secret to everlasting life. With a rousing score and a wealth of warm-hearted humor, this whimsical Broadway musical offers Winnie the choice of a lifetime: return to everyday life, or join the Tucks on their infinite, irreversible voyage through time.
  • FROST/NIXON. By Peter Morgan. Mountain View: Jan 16–Feb 10, 2019. Richard Nixon has resigned. David Frost has been canceled. With America caught in the riptides of Watergate and Vietnam, the former leader of the free world and the lightweight British talk-show host clash in a legendary series of TV interviews that will determine the President’s legacy forever. In a riveting political prizefight unseen again until today, the cameras roll, the truth spins, and it becomes clear that he who controls the medium controls the message.
  • MARIE AND ROSETTA. By George Brant. WEST COAST PREMIERE. Palo Alto: March 6–31, 2019. Stirring churches in the morning and the Cotton Club at night, Sister Rosetta Tharpe became a musical legend. With competition growing on the 1940s Gospel Circuit, she auditions a new partner, a beauty with a voice made in heaven. Will they blend, break, or find harmony at last? Don’t miss this roof-raising musical hit from our New Works Festival, the saga of the woman who inspired Elvis, Ray Charles, and more on her way to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
  • Hershey Felder: A PARIS LOVE STORY. Featuring the music of Claude Debussy. Written and Performed by Hershey Felder. WORLD PREMIERE. Mountain View: April 3–28, 2019. Virtuoso Hershey Felder takes us on his own personal journey as he explores the life and music of Impressionist composer Claude Debussy. For decades Felder’s “Great Composer Series” has celebrated the brilliance of Beethoven, Berlin, Tchaikovsky, and more. In this glorious series finale, he brings to life a visionary who proclaimed nature his religion and romance his milieu, creating music of ravishing beauty, color, and compassion. From the sweeping La mer and evocative L’après-midi d’un faune to the mystical Clair de lune, this soaring tribute will never be forgotten.
  • ARCHDUKE. By Rajiv Joseph. NORTHERN CALIFORNIA PREMIERE. Mountain View: June 5–30, 2019. Can one man, one moment, derail a century? Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph explores the present by focusing on the past: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, 1914—the flash that ignited World War I. On a darkly comic quest for immortality, three hapless insurgents prove that little has changed from then to now. This New Works Festival sensation is from the author of Broadway’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.

An excellent season. If I lived in Northern California, I’d subscribe both to TheatreWorks and to Tabard, whose season I already mentioned in my review of A Walk in the Woods:

  • The Tabard Theatre Company (FB) in San Jose has an interesting season coming up: Another Roll of the Dice / Sep 14 – Oct 7, 2018; The Explorer’s Club / Oct 26 – Nov 18, 2018; Uptown Holiday Swing / Nov 30 – Dec 16, 2018; Snapshots: A Musical Scrapbook (featuring songs from the Stephen Schwartz catalog)/ Jan 11 – Feb 3, 2019; Beau Jest / Feb 15 – Mar 10, 2019; and Queen of the Mist / Apr 5-28, 2019.  If they weren’t 300 miles away, we’d consider subscribing; still, we may drive up for Queen of the Mist. If you’re in the southern Bay Area, you should consider subscribing in our stead.

Looking at the TheatreWorks season, I’m really interested in Tuck Everlasting. This failed on Broadway, so it is unlikely that Los Angeles will see a tour. This means I’m dependent on a theatre company down here to do it, which isn’t that likely given our companies (I could see Chance giving it a try, or MTW. But anyone else? It might be a while). Yet I loved the music and the premise of the show. That might make it worth the drive for either Thanksgiving weekend or after the ACSAC conference.

 🎭  Chromolume Theatre (FB) 🎭

Chromolume just announced their Hollywood Fringe Festival production, and I’m excited. Here’s what they wrote:

We are happy to announce that our 2018 Hollywood Fringe Festival production will be the one-act musical, The Story of My Life! We are also excited to announce we will be performing at the The Hobgoblin Playhouse. We are excited to bring this story to you…coming in June! Click on the link below to find out more!

http://crtheatre.com/story.html

And for those of you who don’t know, if you purchase your season subscription before our current production ends, you will get free tickets to see this production!

We last saw Story of My Life back in 2009, right after the death of our dear friend Lauren. The story touched me in special ways; it is just a beautiful and meaningful show. Here’s one verse from a song in the show:

“You’re a butterfly my friend,
Powerful and strong
And I’m grateful for the way
You’ve always hurried me along.
When you flap your wings to stretch yourself
It might seem small to you
But you change the world
With everything you do.”

I’m really, really, excited for this show. We’re season subscribers. You should subscribe as well: $60 for Dessa RoseJane Eyre The Musical, and Sondheim’s Passion, as well as the Fringe show. Support a wonderful small theatre.

 🎭  Ahmanson Theatre (FB 🎭

Lastly, an update on the Ahmanson. They’ve been announcing their season in pieces, with the first chunk here, with an additional show I discussed with the Pantages season. There are two shows left to announce, and when I asked, CTG replied:

So, in two weeks, I hopefully should be able to make the final subscription (and see if I got my predictions right).

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Appearances are Everything | “A Walk in the Woods” @ Actors Co-Op

A Walk in the Woods (Actors Co-Op)How do we achieve actual progress towards solving problems that, if left unsolved, have the potential to destroy the world? That’s the question that is at the heart of Lee Blessing‘s A Walk in the Woods, which just opened at Actors Co-op (FB) in Hollywood. The story, on the surface, revolves around two arms negotiators, Andrey Botvinnik and Joan Honeyman, meeting over perhaps two years (the time period isn’t 100% clear) in Switzerland. Their job: find an agreement whereby the two countries can make the world safer by reducing the number of arms each other has. But is this ever possible? Will either country let the other gain an advantage, or will they just agree to reduce one obsolete set of arms, while building new equally lethal technology not covered by agreements? Will the reductions be significant enough to ever reduce the situation to a non-lethal state? Or … perhaps .. is what is more important the appearance of negotiating on the issue, never actually accepting something?

This play was written during the Obama administration, and discusses a time period seemingly during the Reagan administration, when the nuclear arsenals of the US and the Soviet Union were of concern, and when our leaders knew how to be diplomats. One question I had was the relevance of this play today, when our nation’s leadership doesn’t seemingly care about the world stage. We have an isolationist, jingoist, and militarianist “America First” (yet another problematic slogan) we haven’t seen since the days before WWI. Does our country even care about reducing armaments today? Are there negotiations going on to do so? There are recent proposals by the President to increase and modernize our nuclear forces, to increase and continue the “mine is bigger and better than yours” mentality that makes the world less safe. So in the era of Trump, is this play just saying the negotiations are pointless anyway?

Yet there are other issues — domestic and international — where we keep talking, but not making progress. Immigration. Climate Change. We talk and talk, propose agreements, only to see them scuttled by one side or the other for seemingly meaningless reasons. Could it be that the talks are just a delay and distraction tactic, creating the appearance of progress when there was never an intent of actually finding a solution — for in finding a solution, one side must be the victor and the other the loser.

So perhaps there is a point to this play — in the Trump era — after all. It is to show us that the talking may be a form of progress. The talking may delay something worse. The talking may be keeping hope alive — hope that future administrations may finally move beyond the talk to an actual solution, and the perception and appearance of progress might be replaced by actual progress.

Under the direction of Ken Sawyer (FB), the production is kept simple. Two actors, talking, with a roughly representative set that is sufficiently evocative but not realistic, drawing the focus to the words and the action. The performances themselves were good, but still in evolution (this was the second performance of the show, and there were points where the actors had micro-momental line recall issues that were quickly recovered). Phil Crowley‘s Andrey was the friendly Russian uncle; Nan McNamara (FB)’s Joan was the no-nonsense negotiator trying to prove herself. Both performers seemed reasonably realistic, and there was a good unspoken chemistry between the two. Combined with the story, the two kept and held your attention, and the two hours (including short intermission) passed without seeming to drag.

Also seen on stage were the two assistant stage managers, Katie Chen and Carla Vigueras both dressed identically in all white. They gave the opening welcome to the show (in unison!), and also operated in unison to change the set between scenes. Although not part of the formal play, they provided a little extra levity in what was a very serious production.

In keeping with the focus on the words and the story, the other production elements were kept simple. I’ve already mentioned Ellen Lenbergs‘s simple set design of abstract winter trees, projected headlines, a dock, and a bench. This was augmented by Adam R. Macias (FB)’s sound design, which created the soundscape of the woods, and was eerily stereophonic during the rabbit discussion. Mood and season was established well by Nicholas Acciani (FB) and Matt Ritcher (FB)’s lighting design. Wendell C. Carmichael‘s costumes were sufficient — there’s not much one can say about business attire, other than the Russian’s seemed vaguely Russian. E. K. Dagenfield (FB) was the coach for the Russian dialogue. Other creative and production credits: Christian Eckels (FB) [Stage Manager];  Lauren Thompson (FB), [Producer]; Selah Victor (FB) [Production Manger].

A Walk in the Woods continues at Actors Co-op (FB) through March 18th. I found it an enjoyable drama. Tickets are available at the Actors Co-Op Website, Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar.

Season Announcements: I’ve received some season announcements in the mail recently:

  • 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)] has announced their 2018-2019 season (renewals are going out to subscribers, like us, shortly). The season consists of Shrek – The MusicalMatilda, and West Side Story. We’ll probably renew. Although there have been a number of local productions of Shrek, we haven’t seen it since 2011 when it was at the Pantages. Someone should let George Chavez know :-). This should be the first regional production of Matilda (wouldn’t it be interesting if they got Cabrillo Alum Lesli Margherita to return for the show). West Side Story is a classic; always fun to see.
  • The Tabard Theatre Company (FB) in San Jose has an interesting season coming up: Another Roll of the Dice / Sep 14 – Oct 7, 2018; The Explorer’s Club / Oct 26 – Nov 18, 2018; Uptown Holiday Swing / Nov 30 – Dec 16, 2018; Snapshots: A Musical Scrapbook (featuring songs from the Stephen Schwartz catalog)/ Jan 11 – Feb 3, 2019; Beau Jest / Feb 15 – Mar 10, 2019; and Queen of the Mist / Apr 5-28, 2019.  If they weren’t 300 miles away, we’d consider subscribing; still, we may drive up for Queen of the Mist. If you’re in the southern Bay Area, you should consider subscribing in our stead.
  • Hollywood Pantages (FB). The Hollywood Pantage just made their season announcement; I addressed it in detail in this post. In short, it looks good, and we’ve already renewed.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts 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 currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (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:

The middle of this week brings opera: specifically,  Candide at LA Opera (FB). That is followed the next weekend by the first production of the Chromolume Theatre (FB) 2018 season, Dessa Rose. The month concludes with  James and the Giant Peach at the Chance Theatre (FB) in the Anaheim Hills, and tickets for Dublin Irish Dance Stepping Out at  the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB).

March was supposed to start with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner, but that shifted back a week, so we’ll go to it after our first show in March, the LA Premiere of the musical Allegiance at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (FB). This is followed by a HOLD for Steel Pier at the UCLA School of Television, Film, and Theatre (FB). The penultimate Friday of March was to bring Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), but that has shifted to June and that weekend is currently open. The last weekend of March is open for theatre, but there will be the Men of TAS Seder.

April looks to be a busy month. It starts with Love Never Dies at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) [as an aside, there was just a great interview with Glen Slater, the lyricist of that show, on Broadway Bullet that is well worth listening to]. The second weekend brings A Man for All Seasons” at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend brings The Hunchback of Notre Dame at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) (nee Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)), as well as our annual visit to the Original Renaissance Faire. The last weekend of April sees us travelling for a show, as we drive up to San Jose to see friends as well as Adrift in Macao at The Tabard Theatre Company (FB). Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018! We may also be adding an  Ahmanson Theatre (FB) subscription, given their recent announcements regarding the next season.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

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Thoughts on a Theatre Season: Pantages 2018-2019

This morning, the  Hollywood Pantages (FB) announced their 2018/2019 season. My predictions were pretty damn close. Here’s what I was predicting, from my last review post:

Speaking of show mixes: The Ahmanson has added Ain’t Too Proud, a musical on the Temptations, to their 2018/2019 season, and they still have two shows to announce (see the end of the paragraph). It is looking even more likely that we’ll add that subscription, if we can get the cheap seats. As for the Pantages, they announce on Tuesday. As I wrote in my Aladdin writeup: We already know that Dear Even HansenCome From AwayFalsettos, and The Play That Goes Wrong will be going to the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). What does that leave for the Pantages, as they don’t produce their own. Here are my guesses: BandstandAnastasia, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are highly likely; so is the Miss Saigon revival. So would Groundhog Day, except they just cancelled their tour. If A Bronx Tale had announced a tour, it would also be likely. Ditto for Hello Dolly. Lesser possibilities are Amazing Grace, or A Night with Janis Joplin. In terms of potential retreads, I could see them bringing in the current Les Miz tour, and possibly the Fiddler on the Roof,  Lion King or Wicked tours, if they are still on the road. Also known to be going on tour/on tour, and thus possibilities for retreads, are Cats and Phantom, as they will draw in crowds and haven’t been in LA recently. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 has announced a tour, but I think the Pantages is too large for them. I could see them doing the Ahmanson. As for the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), which has two slots to announce, I predict that one will be a show in development, and the other will either be Natasha, Pierre, … , or some form of dance or ballet, like the Matthew Bourne stuff that they’ve done recently.

2018-2019 Pantages Season AnnouncementSo, what did the Pantages announce? You can see their graphic to the right. Here are my thoughts on the shows:

  • 👍 Hello Dolly. I hadn’t heard this was going on tour, but I thought that if it did, it would end up here. I haven’t seen this on the big stage; I think I saw a regional production in Atascadero once. So I’m looking forward to this. It will be interesting to see who they get to headline the tour, as this tends to be a star vehicle.
  • 👍 A Bronx Tale. Again, I hadn’t seen a tour announcement, but if it did, the Pantages was a likely home. I’ve heard the music from this and it is quite good.
  • 👍 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I predicted this one. Looking forward to seeing it, even though it got weak reviews in New York.
  • 👍 Miss Saigon. Again, I predicted this one. Surprisingly, I haven’t seen this on the stage, so I’m looking forward to this.
  • 👍 Fiddler on the Roof. I predicted this was a possibility, so again, I got it right. On the original Broadway production, my daughter actually toured Eastern Europe on Yiddishkeyt with the actor performing Mottel. I haven’t seen Fiddler on the stage in ages, so I’m looking forward to this.
  • 😐 Cats. Again, I indicated this was on tour and a possibility for a retread. I saw it when it was at the Shubert in Century City ages ago, as well as a good regional mounting at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) (nee Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) quite a few years ago. I don’t mind seeing this again — it’s a great dance show.
  • 😐 Les Miserables. Another show that I indicated was a possibility. I saw this quite a few years ago when a tour hit the Ahmanson Theatre (FB); I wouldn’t mind seeing it again, but I’m somewhat lukewarm.

What I found interesting was that neither Anastasia or Bandstand ended up at the Pantages; I really thought Anastasia would be a Pantages show. Either of these could end up in one of the unannounced slots at the Ahmanson; it is less likely that both would (but one never knows). Additionally, reflecting on things, I think that if Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 does go on tour, it would end up either at the Mark Taper Forum or another theatre that would be willing to adapt to their immersive staging (perhaps the Pasadena Playhouse, or a theatre on Broadway). For the following season, there are a number of shows from the current Broadway season that are likely to show up: Escape to MargaritavilleThe Band’s VisitSpongebob Squarepants, and many others.

 

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Organized Confusion | “Pirates of Penzance” @ Pasadena Playhouse

Pirates of Penzance (Pasadena Playhouse)I’ve enjoyed the music and the story of Gilbert and Sullivan‘s The Pirates of Penzance ever since I saw the Los Angeles production of the New York Shakespeare Festival version in 1981, with Pam Dawber, Andy Gibb, Barry Bostwick, and Jo Anne Worley in the roles made famous in New York by Linda Ronstadt, Rex Smith, Kevin Kline, and Estelle Parsons. I’ve listened to the New York cast album of that show until it was etched in my brain. So when I learned that the The Pasadena Playhouse (FB) was presenting Pirates, my interest was peaked — peaked enough to overcome a slight bias I’ve had against going to the Playhouse since the bankruptcy in 2010 and the style of the Sheldon Epps era (note: this wasn’t against the few shows I’ve seen; more against just getting tickets and potentially subscribing). So I started exploring tickets…

… and I quickly discovered that, just as the NYSF version of Pirates was very much unlike your father’s D’Oyly Carte operetta ; this version of Pirates was going to be very much unlike my generation’s NYSF version. Oh, the basic story was the same, but the staging — it was staging for a non-traditional generation. This was made clear when booking tickets, and I learned that this wasn’t a proscenium show (and the Playhouse is a proscenium theatre). This show was being advertised as a beach party; all of the traditional seats in the theatre were not being used. The action would take place in the audience, and there would be seating in and around the stage, with bleachers around the action. What?!?!?!?‽‽‽ Totally unsure of where I might be sitting, we booked tickets in what was being called the Promenade. We even got tickets with a seat number and everything. You can see the warped seating chart a little lower down in this writeup. The top is the back of the actual stage; the bottom is the entrance to the auditorium.

We saw the show yesterday afternoon, and discovered what they had done to the theatre. They had erected a platform over most of the normal seating and the stage. There were bleachers on the side and on the stage, with a dock structure and a raised platform with a kiddie pool over what would be approximately rows L-N of the audience. There was a tiki bar serving drinks throughout the show, and a few benches surrounding ball pits filled with beach balls. The atmosphere was fun and frivolity, and … yes … this was a beach party. That “Promenade” seat? Those seats were around and on the stage — yes, you could sit anywhere that wasn’t a formal seat with a back.  On a bench. On the dock. On the floor. In a kiddie pool. You just had to be prepared for an actor to point and you and move you out of the way, and you could just go and sit anywhere else. It was organized mayhem, unlike anything I’ve ever seen at the Pasadena Playhouse (which is normally quite staid) — and almost unlike anything I’ve seen in any other theatre (we’ll we did sit on the stage in La Mirada’s Carrie, but that was very different). During the show, the actors were in and around you, standing directly in front of you, interacting with the audience, playing with the kids, making audience part of the actors at times. Before the show, they were wandering around, playing all sorts of songs (including TMBG), and throwing balls at the audience, and generally having a fun time.

Pirates Seating ChartSo as the show started we had no idea what to expect. We were sitting on a bench next to a ball pit near the dock (essentially, just to the right of the words “The Dock” on the image to your right, near the L of the dock). There are times we moved. There are times the performers were right next to us. It was non-traditional, and it was a hoot.

The performance itself stuck to the traditional Pirates narrative; which is summarized in a shorter form here; and which R&H licensing summarizes as “When the hero of THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE was but a boy, his father instructed his nurse to have him apprenticed as a pilot. She thought he said ‘pirate’ and thus the zany troubles began.” Some songs were converted to recitative; and of course the songs added from other shows for the NYSF version weren’t there. The performance ran just about 80 minutes, with one one-minute (yes, one-minute) intermission. There were a few interpolations of modern songs that worked really, really well.

This truly was organized, improvised, mayhem. But the best mayhem is well-planned, and so credit here goes to Sean Graney (FB), the director (and artistic director of The Hypocrites (FB), who developed this show); Andra Velis Simon (FB), the musical director; Katie Spelman (FB), the choreographer; Miranda Anderson (FB); the production stage manager; and Nikki Hyde (FB), the assistant stage manager. I include the latter two because they were on stage, dressed as life-guards, making sure the action went where it was supposed to go. This team kept the show on focus and moving forward, in and around the great distraction that an unpredictable audience could be.

As for the actors, they had an even harder job, for they were also the orchestra — using almost any instrument you can think of. Guitars, banjos, ukuleles (I don’t think a ukulele has been on stage at the Playhouse since Radio Gals in 1992), spoons, clarinets, flutes, mandolins, fiddles, saws, accordions …. you get the idea. There was also sharing of roles: the actress playing Mabel also played Ruth, and both the daughters and the pirates, at times, became the police officers. The cast consisted of Doug Pawlik (FB) [Freddy]; Shawn Pfatsch [Pirate King, Major GeneralUS]; Matt Kahler (FB) [Major General]; Dana Omar (FB) [Ruth / Mabel]; Leslie Ann Sheppard (★FBFB); [Daughter, Ruth/MabelUS]; Amanda Raquel Martinez [Daughter]; Tina Muñoz-Pandya (FB[Daughter]; Lauren Vogel (FB) [Pirate]; Mario Aivazian (FB) [Pirate, Pirate KingUS, FreddyUS]; and Eduardo Xavier Curley-Carrillo (FB) [Pirate]. All of them were great and clearly having the time of their life (and loving the interaction with the audience). A few notes and thoughts: Pawlik gave Freddy just the right amount of youthful naivete and bravado to make things work; Pfatsch kept evoking Bostwick/Kline in my head, but he played with the role in a very different way that was a joy to see. Kahler handled Modern Major General well, and I loved the interstitial from the daughter. I liked Omar’s dual characterization and her switching back and forth; she had a lovely voice — plus, she played the banjo and the accordion — a skill that will earn her tens and tens of dollars (and she better keep her car locked). The daughters were cute (especially with the moustaches), and I wish I had known that Sheppard was a knitter (my wife had her knitting there). Of the pirates, my eye was drawn to Vogel both for her voice and musical skills, as well as how she was having fun playing with her role. But all of these actors were just great and a joy to watch.

I’ll also note that this is one of the few productions I’ve seen at the Playhouse that didn’t have a 100% Equity cast; I don’t know if they are getting Equity cards from this show. AEA is a bit controversial here in Los Angeles with what they did to the intimate theatre scene, and I’m hearing rumblings they are going after membership companies next (with plans to have local minimum wage laws take precedence over AEA agreements/codes). I’m glad I’m not an actor trying to decide what to do about my union.

Finally, turning to the technical and production side: Tom Burch‘s scenic design transformed the Playhouse, and was remarkably inventive with the docks, benches, pools, and everything else. I can’t think of a similar transformation of the venue in all the years we were there (going back to 1989). Incredible. This worked well with Maria DeFabo Akin (FB)’s properties design — not only all the beach balls and other set accouterments, but clever little tricks to signal characters, the cigarette holders, the rubber ducks, and such. Also supporting this was Alison Siple (FB)’s costume design; no credits were provided for the wig design that transformed Mabel. From down where we sat, Kevin O’Donnell (FB)’s sound design worked well; the LA Times indicated there might be a sound problem in the rafters of the bleachers. We didn’t see that. Heather Gilbert (FB)’s lighting design established the mood well. This version of Pirates was adapted by Sean Graney (FB), and co-adapted by Kevin O’Donnell (FB). Other credits: Joe Will [General Manager]; Chris Cook [Production Manager]; Brad Enlow (FB) [Technical Director]; and Davidson & Choy Publicity (FB) [Press Representative]Pirates of Penzance was presented/produced by The Pasadena Playhouse (FB) , Danny Feldman (Producing Artistic Director) in association with The Hypocrites (FB).

Pirates of Penzance has been extended at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB), now closing on February 25. Tickets are available through the Playhouse box office. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar, TodayTix, or LA Stage Tix. This show is a lot of fun and you’ll have a wonderful time — just don’t expect your father’s stuffy old theatre. Bring the kids and they’ll have a lot of fun as well — it is a great introduction to theatre in an environment where they don’t have to sit absolutely still.

This show has certainly made me rethink what I think about the Playhouse; I think we’ll be back more often. Certainly, with the dormancy of the Colony Theatre, we’ve been trying to find an affordable mid-size theatre. When we left the Playhouse, tickets were over $1000 per season, which was ridiculous. Their new options for membership certainly look more affordable; now they just need a reliable show mix.

Speaking of show mixes: The Ahmanson has added Ain’t Too Proud, a musical on the Temptations, to their 2018/2019 season, and they still have two shows to announce (see the end of the paragraph). It is looking even more likely that we’ll add that subscription, if we can get the cheap seats. As for the Pantages, they announce on Tuesday. As I wrote in my Aladdin writeup: We already know that Dear Even HansenCome From AwayFalsettos, and The Play That Goes Wrong will be going to the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). What does that leave for the Pantages, as they don’t produce their own. Here are my guesses: BandstandAnastasia, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are highly likely; so is the Miss Saigon revival. So would Groundhog Day, except they just cancelled their tour. If A Bronx Tale had announced a tour, it would also be likely. Ditto for Hello Dolly. Lesser possibilities are Amazing Grace, or A Night with Janis Joplin. In terms of potential retreads, I could see them bringing in the current Les Miz tour, and possibly the Fiddler on the Roof,  Lion King or Wicked tours, if they are still on the road. Also known to be going on tour/on tour, and thus possibilities for retreads, are Cats and Phantom, as they will draw in crowds and haven’t been in LA recently. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 has announced a tour, but I think the Pantages is too large for them. I could see them doing the Ahmanson. As for the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), which has two slots to announce, I predict that one will be a show in development, and the other will either be Natasha, Pierre, … , or some form of dance or ballet, like the Matthew Bourne stuff that they’ve done recently.

***

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts 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 currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (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:

February starts with the Cantor’s Concert at Temple Ahavat Shalom (FB). The following weekend brings our first Actors Co-op (FB) production of 2018: A Walk in the Woods. Mid-week brings opera: specifically,  Candide at LA Opera (FB). That is followed the next weekend by the first production of the Chromolume Theatre (FB) 2018 season, Dessa Rose. The month concludes with  James and the Giant Peach at the Chance Theatre (FB) in the Anaheim Hills, and tickets for Dublin Irish Dance Stepping Out at  the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB).

March was supposed to start with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner, but that shifted back a week, so we’ll go to it after our first show in March, the LA Premiere of the musical Allegiance at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (FB). This is followed by a HOLD for Steel Pier at the UCLA School of Television, Film, and Theatre (FB). The penultimate Friday of March was to bring Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), but that has shifted to June and that weekend is currently open. The last weekend of March is open for theatre, but there will be the Men of TAS Seder.

April looks to be a busy month. It starts with Love Never Dies at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) [as an aside, there was just a great interview with Glen Slater, the lyricist of that show, on Broadway Bullet that is well worth listening to]. The second weekend brings A Man for All Seasons” at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend brings The Hunchback of Notre Dame at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) (nee Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)), as well as our annual visit to the Original Renaissance Faire. The last weekend of April sees us travelling for a show, as we drive up to San Jose to see friends as well as Adrift in Macao at The Tabard Theatre Company (FB). Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018! We may also be adding an  Ahmanson Theatre (FB) subscription, given their recent announcements regarding the next season.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

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What’s Your Damage? | “Heathers – The Musical” @ YA4Ever/Hillcrest

Heathers - The Musical (YA4Ever)When I say the words “High School Musical” to you, what comes to mind?

OK, now what comes to mind after you dismiss an insipid musical on the Disney Channel that had far too many sequels, was far too successful for its own good, and went on to inspire an similarly vapid stage musical done far too many times on actual high school and middle school campuses?

The answer, I hope, is the genre of high school musicals. There are loads and loads of musicals set in high schools, going beyond the Disney titular one (to which the high schoolers among us go “Heh, heh, he said t….”). High school, it seems, is a microcosm for society at large, and the variants of that society boil down to just a few:

  • The Love StoryHigh School Musical fits in this vein, but so do musicals like West Side StoryGrease and Bye Bye Birdie. Possibly Fame: The Musical as well, but more in a “What I DId for Love” sense.
  • The Coming Out Story. A same-sex variant of the love story, providing “a very special episode” along the way. Musicals in this vein include Fame (the movie), Bare: A Rock Opera, and Zanna Don’t.
  • Veiled Political Commentary. Take your political commentary, and move it to a high school setting. Zanna Don’t also fits here, as does Lysistrata Jones.
  • The Bullies. This looks at the impact of being bullied, and being the kid on the outs. Occasionally these are played for humor, but often these go into dark, dark places. Examples in this vein would include Be More ChillSpring AwakeningCarrie, Dear Evan Hansen, and Serial Killer Barbie.

Heathers The Musical, which I saw yesterday at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts (FB) in Thousand Oaks (produced by YA4Ever (FB)), clearly fits in that last vein. I was familiar with the show having heard the cast album (book, music, and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, based on the film by Daniel Waters); however, I had never seen the original movie. When I found out through the Thousand Oaks Acorn that it was being produced, I wanted to squeeze it into my schedule so I could put the story with the music. Sitting through it, I couldn’t help think about the parallels with Carrie and Serial Killer Barbie; however, Heathers left me with the feeling that it was even darker in its resonance, even though it ended up with a somewhat positive message (just like Serial Killer Barbie). Perhaps that’s because, unlike with Barbara and the Debbies, Veronica did not kill all the Heathers. But perhaps I’m ahead of myself.

Wikipedia has a detailed synopsis of the musical, which after reading the synopsis of the movie has some distinct changes therefrom. The elevator synopsis is that there’s this girl, Veronica Sawyer, who is feeling the pressures of high school and wanting to fit in. She’s someone who cares a lot about others (not good in high school), especially her friend Martha who is fubsy. She’s at the lower end of the high school pecking order, being picked on by the jocks (Kurt Kelly and Ram Sweeney), and especially by the trio of girls that run the school, Debbie, Debby, and Debbi, uh, make that Heather Chandler, Heather McNamera, and Heather Duke. When the Heathers discover Veronica can create realistic forgeries, they adopt her to use her against others for pain and profit. Into the picture comes Jason Dean (JD), a new kid to whom Heather is attracted. Suffice it to say that JD is damaged goods, and starts getting Veronica into situations where those who have worked against are offed, starting with Heather Chandler (which they make look like suicide), and the jocks (who they make look like a gay suicide pact). This starts up a conversation about suicide, leading to a point where they are about to bomb the high school, killing the students therein. [Cue up “Going to War” by Joe Iconis]  But Veronica comes to her senses, saves the day, and changes the conversation.

Did I mention this was a dark and disturbed musical? So Joe Iconis.

You can easily understand why this has a caution warning. Here we have numerous killings, discussions of suicide, and ending with the bombing of a high school. What’s not to love? Umm, let’s try again: This doesn’t take you to a happy place, although the ending is more uplifting that Carrie.

So this is an interesting musical. I’m certainly glad that I saw it. I wonder, though, what this genre and the direction it has been moving says about society and our youth. We’ve gone from the optimism of the 50s and 60s — the Bye Bye Birdie and Grease era, to the disaffection and apathy and damage of Heathers and Serial Killer Barbie. This isn’t anything new — Spring Awakening is a story from the 1800s. But perhaps — just perhaps — there’s hope for optimism in the ending message of HeathersBarbie, and Evan Hansen: That we are individuals, and as individuals we have value, and that we must stand up to the bullies and be proud of who we are — and get help for when circumstances are too much. We can rejoice in someone like Veronica finding her inner strength, while recognizing the situations that created Kurt and Ram, the Heathers, and particularly JD — and wish that we could have found a way to get them help while we still could.

So let’s move to the stories and the performances. I was unfamiliar with YA4Ever before the show; evidently, they are an organization sponsored by a number of Conejo Valley (read: Thousand Oaks) organizations to provide theatre opportunies to teens, under the guidance of more seasoned professionals from the local theatre community. Translation: Theatre for teens, with talent of varying skills. Overall, I was impressed by the talent of this crew, under the direction of Timothy Reese. No, they weren’t perfect. But they were damn good in their performance, and most were strong in their singing, and they put on a very enjoyable show. They are a talented group, and I hope they continue their training and performance and grow, and that we see them move to larger regional and national stages.

One who I feel could certainly do that is their lead, Carly Jean Paul as Veronica Sawyer. She captured the character perfectly, had a wonderfully sardonic attitude and look, and just came across as, well, Veronica. And boy, could she sing. I truly enjoyed listening to her. I hope that she goes far in her career.

Alas, I can’t be quite as superlative about her compatriot, Jared Price as Jason Dean. Price had the performance part down pat. He nailed the character, the disaffection, and the anger perfectly. However, he was only about 90% there on the singing. That’s not a major fault — remember, this is a teen production and these folks are still early in their careers. I think he can get where he needs to be with some work — and with that work, I think he can do well. So I enjoyed watching his performance; there were just a few moments that needed some improvement. [ETA: I forgot to note that we also saw Price in the recent production Edges at CSUN, and he was strong there, so it might just have been an anomalous performance.]

This brings us to the Heathers: Karlee Squires as Heather Chandler (Red), Kate Freuhling as Heather McNamera (Yellow), and Shayde Bridges as Heather Duke (Green). Squires was spectacular as Heather Chandler. Strong singing, strong characterization, and fun to watch. I also enjoyed watching the characterizations of Bridges and Freuhling — especially in period after they were no longer just appendages to Heather Chandler, but I don’t recall their individual singing voices as strongly.

Martha Dunnstock was played by Francesca Barletta (FB), who we’ve seen many times on the stages at Cabrillo / 5-Star. She’s very talented, has a remarkable singing voice (shown here in “Kindergarten Boyfriend”), and does comedy well. We always enjoy seeing her.

The jocks — Jack Powell as Kurt Kelley and Tal Toker as Ram Sweeney — captured their roles perfectly. They were like every jock that I hated in high school. What a perfect characterization :-). They also sang well, especially in their big number “Blue” (a topic I’d never thought I would see on stage — evidently, there’s a “high school” version of this where they cut that song out — can’t imagine why).

Turning to the adults: Hannah Rachel Tamkin  as Mrs. Fleming / Veronica’s Mom, Ryan DeRemer as Ram’s Dad / Veronica’s Dad / Coach Ripper, and William Carmichael as Kurt’s Dad / Big Bud Dean / Principal Gowan. Tamkin was a hoot as Mrs. Fleming — we’ve all seen that type of teacher — capturing her character well. She did reasonably well with “Lifeboat”, but there were a few off points. Otherwise, her singing was strong — and I love her character and performance. The two guys were great, and were standout in their main joint song, “My Dead Gay Son” (which is a real fun song). But their various characters were all different and good.

Rounding out the cast were the rest of the students, name more for their character traits than anything else: Stephanie Rojo [Stoner Chick]; Wyatt Eaton  [Hipster Dork]; Michelle Johnson [Young Republicanette]; Jack Cleary [Beleaguered Geek]; Meagan Chew  [New Wave Girl]; and Noah Canada  [Preppy Jock]. These characters don’t get significant characterizations in the script, but the ensemble member did well with them. More importantly, they danced and sang well as a group, and were enjoyable to watch.

Speaking of movement: Sarah Fanella‘s choreography worked well and was enjoyable to watch.

Tyler Stouffer (FB), who we’ve seen before on the stages of Cabrillo, was behind the baton this time as Music Director and Conductor of an orchestra consisting of David Galvan [Keyboard 1], Zach Ragan [Keyboard 2], Gohan Ruiz [Guitar],  Marco Bohler [Bass], Matthew Case [Drums], Allegra Edelnant [Violin], and Andrew Shousha [Reeds]. The orchestra provided a good sound for the space.

Turning to the production team: Director Timothy Reese‘s scenic design was simple: a gymnasium floor, some lockers hiding other props, and some sliding walls in back. It worked well for the constraints of the Hillcrest stage. It was assisted by the clever props of Lauren Alexander. Jenna Friedman’s costumes worked well to establish their characters and provide the visual distinctions, together with Victoria Reese’s hair and Alexis Abrams ‘s makeup. I think this was most notable in the transformations of the adults. Tamarra Sylber’s sound design mostly worked — the balance was good, although some individual microphones were cutting in and out. Interesting fact from the search — Sylber had a project at the 2014 California State Science Fair (where I’m a judge, although she wasn’t in my category). Nick Sheppard’s lighting design worked well to establish the mood. Rounding out the production credits: Paul Cranmer [Production Photographer]; Scott Chew [Technical Director]; Mariah Tobin [Asst. Director]; Peyton Pugh [Stage Manager]; and Natalie DeSavia [Producer]. YA4Ever was founded by Nick Berke (FB) and Ruthy Froch (FB).

Unfortunately, I caught the last performance of Heathers – The Musical. However, this show has brought YA4Ever (FB) onto my RADAR, and I hope to catch more of their productions — especially if they continue to do edgy and less produced work like this.

[ETA: This post originally had my usual links to the FB pages of the artists. They were removed at the specific request of the director, who believed he was protecting his team’s privacy. As someone who professionally works in cybersecurity, my professional ethics require me to point out that “security through obscurity” provides no security. I find FB links to people — as well as professional pages — in two ways: Searching the name on Google, or checking the friends lists of the people I have found. If this brings up an artist FB page, I use that and mark it with ★.  If you want to protect your FB, that is your responsibility.  What I can do, others can do as well. Here are some useful links to help: Cnet, BT, Trusted Reviews, Facebook. Make your friends list visible only to friends, make your posts friends only, make it so people cannot tag you. You have no privacy when you make things public; potential employers will do the exact same thing that I do. Think about the image you project with what is publicly available. When I suggested to the director that he tell his team this, he blamed me for not getting permission to link beforehand (something that is not required when citing public information). Also, for future reference, I do have a priority order when linking to non-FB pages: 1st, the artists web site (if not marked as infected); 2nd, a posted resume; 3rd, a credit list on abouttheartists.com, 4th a credit list on ibdb.com or playbill.com or imdb.com; 5th, an article about the person and their skills; 6th, a linked-in or youtube page showcasing their skills; 7th, Instagram or Twitter. The reason for these links is to show credits and make it so potential employers can contact them about opportunities (I like what you do, I promote you). This is similar to the bio in the program. In short, the Internet is a tool: you control what you project and put up. If you don’t want people to see things, don’t post them. Lastly, I will always remove links on a specific request, or replace them if I have found the wrong link.]

***

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts 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 currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (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:

Next weekend currently has no theatre; instead, there is a So Cal Games Day and a Walking Tour of Jewish Boyle Heights. The last weekend of January brings The Pirates of Penzance at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB).

February is busier. It starts with the Cantor’s Concert at Temple Ahavat Shalom (FB). The following weekend brings our first Actors Co-op (FB) production of 2018: A Walk in the Woods. Mid-week brings opera: specifically,  Candide at LA Opera (FB). That is followed the next weekend by the first production of the Chromolume Theatre (FB) 2018 season, Dessa Rose. The month concludes with  James and the Giant Peach at the Chance Theatre (FB) in the Anaheim Hills, and tickets for Dublin Irish Dance Stepping Out at  the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB).

March was supposed to start with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner, but that shifted back a week, so we’ll go to it after our first show in March, the LA Premiere of the musical Allegiance at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (FB). This is followed by a HOLD for Steel Pier at the UCLA School of Television, Film, and Theatre (FB). The penultimate Friday of March was to bring Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), but that has shifted to June and that weekend is currently open. The last weekend of March is open for theatre, but there will be the Men of TAS Seder.

April looks to be a busy month. It starts with Love Never Dies at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) [as an aside, there was just a great interview with Glen Slater, the lyricist of that show, on Broadway Bullet that is well worth listening to]. The second weekend brings A Man for All Seasons” at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend brings The Hunchback of Notre Dame at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) (nee Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)), as well as our annual visit to the Original Renaissance Faire. The last weekend of April sees us travelling for a show, as we drive up to San Jose to see friends as well as Adrift in Macao at The Tabard Theatre Company (FB). Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018! We may also be adding an  Ahmanson Theatre (FB) subscription, given their recent announcements regarding the next season.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

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Wishing for More | “Aladdin” @ Hollywood Pantages

Aladdin - A New Musical (Pantages)Ah, the new  Hollywood Pantages (FB) season. We are finally past the juggernaut that is and was Hamilton, and we’re back into a more conventional subscription season. First up: Aladdin v4.0, otherwise known as Aladdin: The Hit Broadway Musical. This is to distinguish it from Aladdin: The Animated Movie Musical, and from the Aladdin stage show that was once down the street at Disneyland, and from the licensed version of Aladdin that you’ll find on the small stages of regional intimate theatres and school stages.* In fact, it was just a year ago that we saw one of these other Aladdins: a great bi-lingual production at Casa 0101 in East LA. All these pre-4.0 (Broadway) versions hewed relatively close to the original animated version (1.0); the great bi-lingual production added the conceit that the folks in the village spoke English while the people in the palace spoke only Spanish, and only the animals (Raja, Iago) could translate between the two. You can read my writeup of that show here; it truly added something, but can’t fit well in what we saw last night.
(*: Although this does note that it is based on the Disney film written by Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and directed and produced by John Musker and Ron Clements.)

Last night, we saw the “Broadway” version of Aladdin. This version expands Aladdin from the original 90 minute animated story to a 2½ hour version. It does this by bringing back original ideas of the development team that were dropped as the animated feature was developed: Aladdin’s backstory, Aladdin’s friend. It eliminates the cartoonish aspects of the story: gone are any talking animals (or any animals at all). In fact, the only thing cartoonish that remains is the characterization of the Evil Vazir, and his comic-relief assistant, Iago. The Genie? He’s no longer a cartoon, and he’s no longer Robin Williams. Instead, he’s a manic Cab Calloway, a manic Queer Eye host — he’s still down to earth, but with more sequels and less shape-shifting.

There’s also a change in attitude. First, there’s tons of self-referential stuff and commentary that gives a wink and an eye to the fact that these people on stage are in on the joke that this is a Broadway musical. But more significantly, the Disney Princess problem is addressed. As Disney moved from its original suite of animated classic into the era of The Little Mermaid, the heroines became longing for more independence. They were less the passive princess. In the Broadway version (I forget how much this was in the animated version), Jasmine is feisty. The audience cheers with a wink and a nod when the Sultan proclaims that perhaps now is the time that we had a women leader; there’s a point being made at the end when it is made clear that Aladdin and Jasmine will be ruling as partners, not the traditional woman subservient approach.

These are all great changes, and they make the expanded show flow well and the timing not seem to drag. But still, you wish for more. In particular, you wish that Howard Ashman had not passed during the development of this show. The strongest songs in this show — the songs with the most clever lyrics — are Ashman’s. “Friend Like Me” is clearly designed to be an earworm, and is the song that comes into my head when I think of this show. Together with his writing partner Alan Menken, the songs they developed are the heart and soul of this show. The lungs of the show — what lifts it up — are the additional songs that Menken went on to write with Tim Rice. This particularly includes the ballad “A Whole New World”, which is executed in an amazing fashion in the stage version. The remaining songs, which are less memorable, are from book writer Chad Beguelin. It is not that they are bad — Beguelin is a strong writer and I love his work on Wedding Singer and Elf; however, compared to Menkin and Rice there is a level of difference and experience.

And thus, the wish: that Howard Ashman hadn’t past, and that we continued to have his genius enriching stage and screen. But alas, the Genie can’t bring back the dead (it’s in the rulebook), and in any case, he’s far too busy helping Ken Davenport with his podcast.

By this point, you’re probably saying: But he hasn’t told us the story of what Aladdin is about. That’s true, but you’ve probably seen the animated movie and thus know the basics. Your principles are Aladdin, a street rat in a mythical Arabian city, together with his three friends Babkak, Omar, and Kassim. Meanwhile, in the palace is the Sultan, Princess Jasmine, the Grand Vazir Jafar, and Jafar’s assistant/toady, Iago. Jafar wants to be Sultan, but Princess Jasmine is standing in his way. If she finds a Prince she likes and marries, that prince becomes Sultan. Luckily, she’s not the prince type; she prefers honest street rats. So Jafar cooks up a plan to win, by getting a magic lamp from a cave. However, a spooky voice tells us that this lamp can only be gotten by a “Diamond in the Rough”, who is, you guessed it, Aladdin (who incidentally, is the street rat that Jasmine prefers). From that setup, much of the rest is predictable, and one is ingenious is the execution, not the story. By the end of the story — what else? — Aladdin and Jasmine are together, Jafar is banished to a prison, and Aladdin’s friends are elevated to positions they deserve. The Genie? He’s packing his bags, presumably to find a job on the stage somewhere.

As one might imagine, there is a lot of frenetic activity on the stage, which is all coordinated through the direction and choreography of Casey Nicholaw. Nicholaw had the same role on the last Ahmanson musical we saw, Something Rotten, and he has a talent for bringing out humor through movement, and having organization on stage that seems chaotic. He did a good job here with loads of enjoyable dancing and dance numbers, quick changes, and fun. He worked with his acting ensemble to bring out characters well, although I do think that Jafar and Iago were a bit overplayed, but that may be more of the fault of the writing and their basis in the animated movie (although Iago was changed into a stooge-like sidekick ala Lafou in Beauty and the Beast, he kept much of the bird-like writing and characterization). Nicholaw was assisted by Associate Director Scotty Taylor (FB), Associate Resident Director Casey Hushion, and Dance Supervisor Michael Mindlin (FB).

Turning to the actors who are implementing Nicholaw’s direction: In the lead position — at least in the eyes of the audience — is Michael James Scott (★FB, FB) as the Genie. For those who remember the performance of the originator of the role at the Tony Awards — this guy is as good. He is having loads and loads of fun with this role, and that playfulness comes out in the performance — which is vital to this track. He’s a hoot to watch in his main number, “Friend Like Me” (which is one of my favorite numbers in the show), but he’s equally strong in the opening number as well as in “Prince Ali”. He fits in well with the glitz, glitter, and sequins. Oh, so many sequins.

The titular leads of the show are the happy couple, ostensibly Adam Jacobs (★FB), FB) as Aladdin and Courtney Reed (★FB, FB) as Jasmine. I say ostensibly because at our performance, Jacobs was out and replaced by his understudy, Clinton Greenspan (FB). Greenspan did admirably in the role with no obvious gaffes (although his voice could be a little stronger in “A Whole New World”. He executed the dances well, sang the songs reasonably well, handled the humor well, and had great chemistry with both the actress playing Jasmine, the Genie, and his trio of friends. Likely, this is because he has been the understudy since the start of the tour, and has presumably played the role before. Speaking of Jasmine, I enjoyed her performance. I saw a few writeups that commented on her voice, but I had no such problem with it (other than the two folks behind us who insisted in talking loudly in Russian during her main duet, “A Whole New World”). Reed danced well, sang well, and had a lovely charm and feisty-ness about her. Reed was new to the tour, having moved from the Broadway production to the tour for Los Angeles (I don’t know about beyond LA; Isabelle McCalla (FB) was Jasmine before Los Angeles) [ETA: Reed is Jasmine for 6 weeks — Per Broadway World: ” Courtney Reed will play the role of Jasmine from Saturday, January 13, through Sunday, February 18, 2018. Isabelle McCalla, original Jasmine in the ALADDIN North American tour company, will play performances in Los Angeles from Wednesday, January 10, through Friday, January 12, and then will return Tuesday, February 20, to Saturday, March 31, 2018.”]

In comic opposition to Aladdin and Jasmine were Jonathan Weir (FB) as Jafar and Reggie de Leon (FB) as Iago. Both were very comically drawn in their performances — and by that I mean that they took on the behavior of animated film villains as opposed to just realistic evil. Luckily, they were a bit self-aware of that (shall we do the evil laugh now?), which helped to offset the overdrawn. Still, they were clearly  having loads of fun with their roles, and they executed them well. I wasn’t that enamored of their makeup, however; Jafar’s tended to look like it was a mask, although the binoculars made clear that it was not.

Aladdin’s friends were Babkak (Zach Bencal (FB)), Omar (Philippe Arroyo (FB)), and Kassim (Mike Longo (FB)). Less than 24 hours later, it is hard to remember which character was which characterization — so guys, you get lumped together. All were strong and comic in their characterizations, and I particularly enjoyed their choreography in the “High Adventure” number with the well-timed sword-clashes and clinks and the comic moments. They were also strong in their titular number “Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim”, as well as in “Prince Ali”. They all exhibited great comic timing and movement, and were fun to watch.

The last major named role was JC Montgomery (FB)’s Sultan. His role gets the least character development (not a surprise for Disney and their attitude towards fathers — it is about the same level of characterization as Ariel’s father or Belle’s father): a father who comically cares about his daughter, blind to what is around him, growing a form of a spine at the end to proclaim true love. Still, Montgomery carries the role well.

Rounding out the production was the ensemble and the swings. We had two swings onstage during our show (indicated with §), but I do not know which ensemble members they subbed for, other than the aforementioned Clinton Greenspan (FB). The ensemble and supporting players consisted of (u/s and featured positions noted): Mary Antonini (FB) [Attendant]; Michael Bullard§ (FB) [Swing, Omaru/s, Iagou/s]; Michael Callahan (FB) [Swing, Dance Captain, Iagou/s]; Cornelius Davis (FB); Bobby Daye (FB) [Razoul, Jafaru/s, Sultanu/s]; Lissa DeGuzman (FB) [Swing, Jasmineu/s]; Mathew DeGuzman§ (FB) [Swing]; Olivia Donalson (FB) [Attendant, Fortune Teller]; Michael Everett (FB); Karlee Ferreira (FB) [Swing]; Michael Graceffa (FB) [Shop Owner]; Adrienne Howard (FB); Albert Jennings (FB) [Henchman, Kassimu/s, Omaru/s]; Kenway Hon Wai K. Kua (FB); Jason Scott MacDonald (FB); Angelina Mullins (FB); Celina Nightengale (FB); Jaz Sealey (FB) [Prince Abdullah, Fight Captain, Kassimu/s]; Charles South (FB) [Henchman, Kassimu/s, Babkaku/s]; Manny Stark (FB) [Aladdinu/s]; Annie Wallace (FB) [Attendant, Jasmineu/s]; and Michelle West (FB). Standbys were Korie Lee Blossey (FB) [Genie/Sultan]; Ellis C. Dawson III (FB) [Genie/Babkak]; and Adam Stevenson (FB) [Jafar/Sultan]. In general, the ensemble showed strong dance skills, the ability to change costumes quickly, and seemed to be having a great deal of fun with their roles. I particularly remember Michelle West and Olivia Donalson as having looks that I could match up later. I’ll note that the ensemble has an extremely athletic dance job, so they well deserved the applause.

Brandon O’Neill (FB) was the generic spooky voice. Interestingly, he was the original Kassim on Broadway. Yes, it gets a credit.

Moving from voices to music. Music Supervision was by  Michael Kosarin (FB), who also did the incidental music and vocal arrangements.  Danny Troob (FB) did the Orchestrations. Glen Kelly did the Dance Music Arrangements. Music was provided by the Aladdin Touring Orchestra combined with local contractors. This orchestra consisted of (T indicates touring): Brent-Alan HuffmanT (FB) [Music Director / Conductor]; Faith SeetooT  (FB[Keyboard2, Asst. Conductor]; Danny TaylorT (FB) [Drums / 2nd Asst. Conductor]; Kathleen Robertson (FB) [Violin]; Larry Greenfield [Concertmaster]; Paula Fehrenbach (FB) [Cello]Trey Henry (FB[Bass, Electric Bass]; Dick Mitchell[Flute, Piccolo, Clarinet, Alto Sax];  John Yoakum (FB) [Oboe, English Horn]Greg Huckins (FB) [Flute, Clarinet, Soprano Sax, Bari Sax]; Wayne Bergeron (FB), Paul Baron (FB), and Rob Schaer (FB) [Trumpet, Flugelhorn]; Andy Martin (FB[Trombone, Bass Trombone]; Bruce Carver  [Percussion]David Witham (FB[Keyboard1]; and William Malpede (FB) [Keyboard2 Sub]. Music support was provided by: Howard Joines (FB) [Music Coordinator]; Anixter Rice Music Services (FB) [Music Preparation]Jeff Marder (FB) [Electronic Music Programming]. Brian Miller was the Orchestra Contractor. The music had a great brassy sound to it and was quite enjoyable. People should read the music credits — these are some top notch studio musicians; we saw many of them playing with Doc Severensen at VPAC.

Finally, we come to the production credits. The scenic design was by Bob Crowley, and was over the top — especially the scenic design during “Friends Like Me”, but the other designs were no slouch either. This was assisted by Jim Steinmeyer (FB)’s Illusion Design and Jeremy Chernick‘s Special Effects Design. This was the first time I’ve seen magnesium based fireworks used IN a theatre — spectacular (and dangerous). Gregg Barnes (FB) did the Costume Design, which was also sequined and spectacular, and at quite a few points, daring in a family way. Milagros Medina-Cerdeira (FB) did the Makeup Design, which was also very strong, although both Jafar and the Sultan looked like they were wearing masks. The sound design by Ken Travis was as clear as it could be for the Pantages; Natasha Katz (FB)’s lighting design established the mood well. Rounding out the production credits were: J. Allen Suddeth (FB) [Original Fight Direction]; Tara Rubin Casting [Casting]; Neuro Tour Physical Therapy Inc [PT]; Geoffrey Quart (FB) / Hudson Theatrical Associates [Technical Supervision / Production Management]; Clifford Schwartz (FB) [Senior Production Supervisor]; Jason Trubitt (FB) [Production Supervisor]; Kate McDoniel [Stage Manager]; Trisha Henson (FB) [Asst. Stage Manager]; and Vanessa Coakley (FB) [Asst. Stage Manager].

Disney’s Aladdin: The Broadway Musical continues at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) through March 31. Tickets are available through the Pantages website. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar or TodayTix. This is a fun diversion of time with great singing and dancing; the story is Aladdin, so no big surprises there, but it is well fleshed out for a full-length musical.

Pantages 2018-2019 Season. The Pantages will be announcing their 2018-2019 season on January 30th, so what might it be. We already know that Dear Even HansenCome From AwayFalsettos, and The Play That Goes Wrong will be going to the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). What does that leave for the Pantages, as they don’t produce their own. Here are my guesses: BandstandAnastasia, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are highly likely; so is the Miss Saigon revival. So would Groundhog Day, except they just cancelled their tour. If A Bronx Tale had announced a tour, it would also be likely. Ditto for Hello Dolly or . Lesser possibilities are Amazing Grace, or A Night with Janis Joplin. In terms of potential retreads, I could see them bringing in the current Les Miz tour, and possibly the Fiddler on the Roof,  Lion King or Wicked tours, if they are still on the road. Also known to be going on tour/on tour, and thus possibilities for retreads, are Cats and Phantom, as they will draw in crowds and haven’t been in LA recently. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 has announced a tour, but I think the Pantages is too large for them. I could see them doing the Ahmanson. As for the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), which has two slots to announce, I predict that one will be a show in development, and the other will either be Natasha, Pierre, … , or some form of dance or ballet, like the Matthew Bourne stuff that they’ve done recently.

***

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts 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 currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (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:

This afternoon brought an interesting production of Heathers The Musical at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts, produced by YA4Ever  (FB). It closed today; expect that writeup tomorrow. Next weekend currently has no theatre; instead, there is a So Cal Games Day and a Walking Tour of Jewish Boyle Heights. The last weekend of January brings The Pirates of Penzance at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB).

February is busier. It starts with the Cantor’s Concert at Temple Ahavat Shalom (FB). The following weekend brings our first Actors Co-op (FB) production of 2018: A Walk in the Woods. Mid-week brings opera: specifically,  Candide at LA Opera (FB). That is followed the next weekend by the first production of the Chromolume Theatre (FB) 2018 season, Dessa Rose. The month concludes with  James and the Giant Peach at the Chance Theatre (FB) in the Anaheim Hills, and tickets for Dublin Irish Dance Stepping Out at  the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB).

March was supposed to start with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner, but that shifted back a week, so we’ll go to it after our first show in March, the LA Premiere of the musical Allegiance at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (FB). This is followed by a HOLD for Steel Pier at the UCLA School of Television, Film, and Theatre (FB). The penultimate Friday of March was to bring Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), but that has shifted to June and that weekend is currently open. The last weekend of March is open for theatre, but there will be the Men of TAS Seder.

April looks to be a busy month. It starts with Love Never Dies at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) [as an aside, there was just a great interview with Glen Slater, the lyricist of that show, on Broadway Bullet that is well worth listening to). The second weekend brings A Man for All Seasons” at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend brings The Hunchback of Notre Dame at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) (nee Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)), as well as our annual visit to the Original Renaissance Faire. The last weekend of April sees us travelling for a show, as we drive up to San Jose to see friends as well as Adrift in Macao at The Tabard Theatre Company (FB). Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018! We may also be adding an  Ahmanson Theatre (FB) subscription, given their recent announcements regarding the next season.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

 

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