🎭 A Band of Veterans | “Bandstand” @ ATG/Broadway in Thousand Oaks

Bandstand (American Theatre Guild/Broadway in Thousand Oaks)When you think about Broadway Tours coming to Los Angeles, where do they go first? If you said the Hollywood Pantages (FB) or the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), you would probably be right … and if the tour was a non-Equity tour, the Pantages / Dolby complex would pretty much be the only choice. Depending on the tour, it might hit the Segerstrom in Orange County first, but a non-Equity tour would end up at the Pantages.

Unless, of course, the Pantages’ schedule was full. And the Pantages’ schedule was full in 2019-2020, especially with longer sit-down engagements for Frozen and Hamilton at the Pantages, and having to fit programs around the Dolby’s concert schedule. What’s a touring show to do?

Go to Thousand Oaks.

And so, rarity of rarities, the premiere of the tour of the Broadway musical Bandstand in Southern California found itself part of the Broadway in Thousand Oaks/American Theatre Guild 2019-2020 schedule, together with secondary market tour visits of shows that had been at the Pantages in previous seasons: Finding Neverland, BeautifulJersey BoysAn American in Paris, and Riverdance. An extremely rare sighting. The American Theatre Guild rarely gets the first edition of a tour in the area.

Now, you might not have heard of Bandstand. It didn’t last long on Broadway: 24 previews, 166 performances. The authors and composing team (Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor) were new on Broadway, although they did score with a hot choreographer — Andy Blankenbuehler, known for Hamilton among other shows. The title of the show was misleading, evoking images of Dick Clark and the 1950s, as opposed to WWII and the Big Band era. In its execution, it touched on subjects of current relevance — the treatment of veterans, survivors guilt, PTSD. In fact, the show is 6 Certified, approved by an effort to show veterans in entertainment accurately. Still, the Broadway run was a failure, then why tour? The answer is the show is very good, and the producers obviously felt it would touch a nerve in America’s heartland with its message. I could see that easily in Thousand Oaks, for Ventura County is a strong pro-military county with the Naval Base nearby. There are no fancy projections or stage tricks in this show: it will do much better touring and in regional productions than in the jaded environment that is Broadway and New York. And that’s OK.

Of course, I’m writing this up because I saw the show last night. I learned about the show shortly after the cast album came out in 2017, and I fell in love with the music and the story. So when I learned the tour was coming to Thousand Oaks … after getting over my shock of the first appearance of the tour being in T.O. … I put the date on my calendar and a reminder to get tickets as soon as they went on sale.

Here’s the summary of the show as written up on the ATG website:

1945: As America’s soldiers come home to ticker-tape parades and overjoyed families, Private First Class Donny Novitski, singer and songwriter, returns to rebuild his life with only the shirt on his back and a dream in his heart. When NBC announces a national competition to find the nation’s next great musical superstars, inspiration strikes! Donny joins forces with a motley group of fellow veterans, each an astonishing musician. Together, they form a band unlike any the nation has ever seen. Along the way, they discover the power of music to face the impossible, find their voice and finally feel like they have a place to call home.

Essentially, the through line is this: Donny Novitski comes back from WWII wanting to pick up the life he had — playing piano and accordion. But he can’t find any jobs, and he’s advised to do something before the nightmares from the war starts. Hearing about the NBC contest, he decides to build up a band of veterans. He does, going on recommendations from his buddies. But each, like Donny, are damaged goods in their own way: shell-shocked from the war, dealing with stress through the bottle or retreating from people or … . Part of Donny’s stress comes from an obligation to his war buddy, Michael, to take care of his widow, Julia. The problem: Michael was killed by friendly-fire, and Donny has survivors guilt. But he recruits Julia to be the band’s singer, and the competition starts. What happens then is somewhat predicable: they win contests, there’s a spark between Donny and Julia, they eventually get to New York after some trials and tribulations. But with their gimmick, they get on the show … but Donny inadvertently signs away the rights to their big song (if they perform it). So instead, they change the song they are performing to one that tells the truth of what happens to vets when they return — how the “Welcome Home” isn’t quite what is expected. They lose the battle, but win the war.

I knew the outlines of the story going in from the cast album. But I was touched by how much the story moved me — and clearly, from the reaction, how much it moved the veterans and active duty service in the audience. It is the first accurate portrayal on stage, in a musical, of how war impacts the veterans. This isn’t a South Pacific. This shows war as doing ugly things to good people, and how a handshake and $25 doesn’t make up for it.

But I can also see why the Pantages might have hesitated on the show. This wasn’t a mediocre show built around the jukebox of a name star (SummerBodyguard) that has a built in audience of the fans of that music. It wasn’t a blockbuster that won major awards and is well known, and wasn’t built around a known property. It was a hard show to sell to those unfamiliar with it. It is also unclear how well it might play in the larger LA market, where the playing to active duty might be a lot harder. This show needs to build its word of mouth from the cities near bases first. But for the American Theatre Guild, it was a chance to get the premiere of a show in Southern California.

If you know veterans or active duty folks, or care about our military (even if you don’t necessarily agree with their actions), see this. It presents a great portrayal of how calling these men and women’s “heroes” is a gloss over what they’ve been through. I think the show accurately addresses how those who haven’t been through military service don’t understand the adjustment back to civilian life, and how veterans cope. I think it can spark a wonderful discussion to that affect. I also think its important to encourage new authors and new music and original books for Broadway. One can get tired of “screen-to-stage” musicals or the minimal-book jukebox shows.

As I noted before, this is a non-Equity tour. This means the performers are often much younger. They haven’t been on Broadway yet — this is often getting them the experience they need to make that leap. They may be long established in regional markets, or in other union efforts (e.g., theatrical, variety, or music). We found the cast of this show to be extremely talented.

This show was “based on” the original direction and choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler. Tour direction was by Gina Rattan, with restaging and additional choreography by Marc Heitzman. The movement from the original direction and dance teams was likely due to the short Broadway run and the interval between closing and the set up of the tour. The team did a good job with their young actors, inspiring and leading a very professional production in its execution. The actors were clearly having fun with this show, were inhabiting and believing in their characters (even in the smallest ensemble roles), and did a great job in creating a believable story for the audience.

In the lead positions were Zack Zaromatidis (FBDonny Novitski and Jennifer Elizabeth Smith (⭐FB, FB) Julia Trojan. Zaromatidis did a great job capturing both the enthusiasm and sadness of Novitski, as well as playing mean piano. He had a strong chemistry with Smith’s Julia. Smith had a lovely singing voice and had such a glow about her showing a wonderful inner strength. The two were quite fun to watch. Smith also did a great job of capturing the damage on the other side of the war: how the loss of a loved one, and the lack of knowledge of how it happened, can create trauma as well.

Supporting Zaromatidis’s Novitski as the other members of the band were Rob Clove (⭐FB, FB) Jimmy Campbell – Saxophone; Benjamin Powell (FBDavy Zlatic – Upright Bass; Scott Bell (FBNick Radel – Trumpet; Louis Jannuzzi III (FB) Wayne Wright – Trombone; and Jonmichael Tarleton (FBJohnny Simpson – Drums. All were extremely strong musicians, and they made great music as a group. I particularly appreciated, on the music front, the creativity — such as Tarleton playing percussion off the bridge of Powell’s bass. But these young men were also strong actors, capturing well the nuances of the individual character’s isolations — be it Powell capturing Zlatic’s descent into the bottle; Tarleton capturing the damage from the Jeep rollover to Simpson; Bell capturing the pent up anger in Radel. All were just wonderful.

The last major supporting performer was Roxy York (FBMrs. June Adams. I found her character to be a bit much, but I think that’s how the character was written — and was yet another coping mechanism.

Rounding out the cast were the ensemble members and the swings (and as there was no board, we must assume there were no swings on-stage in our performance). It is important to note the extreme talent in this bunch of people, as all were understudying leads to some extent — meaning that all were capable of playing one or more musical instruments as well as their singing and dancing capabilities. The ensemble is also to be complemented for the characters they created. Particularly in the dance and band numbers, I was watching the ensemble in the background, and they were creating such wonderfully rounded characters and performances. You were seen! The ensemble and swings consisted of Shaunice Alexander (FB) Jean Ann Ryan, Ensemble; Beth Anderson (FBEnsemble; Milena J. Comeau (FBEnsemble; Ryan P. Cyr (FBEnsemble; Michael Hardenberg (FBEnsemble; Andre Malcolm (FBEnsemble; Kaitlyn Mayse (FBEnsemble; Matthew Mucha (⭐FB, FB) Andre, Ensemble; Mallory Nolting (FBEnsemble; Taylor Okey (FBOliver, Ensemble; and Cameron Turner (FBEnsemble. Swings were: Michael Bingham (FBSwing; Sarah Dearstyne (FBSwing; Katie Pohlman (⭐FB, FB) Swing, Dance Captain; and Oz Shoshan (FB) Swing, Dance Captain.

Supporting the on-stage actor/musicans in the pit, under the music direction of Miles Plant, were Miles Plant Keyboard; Brian Victor (FBAssistant Music Director / Keyboard 2 / Guitar / Ukulele; Michael Brinzer (⭐FB, FB) Reeds; Ross Kratter (⭐FB, FB) Bass; and Brian Ganch (FBDrums. Other music credits: Fred Lassen (FB) Music Supervisor; Christopher Gurr (FBAssoc Music Supervisor; Randy Cohen (FB) Keyboard Programmer; Emily Grishman Music Preparation/Alden Terry Music Copying; Greg Anthony Rassen (FB) Music Arranger. The Tony-Award winning orchestrations were by Bill Elliott (🎷FB) & Greg Anthony Rassen (FB) Co-Orchestrators.

Turning to the production and creative side of things: The scenic design for the show was surprisingly simple, especially when compared to the projection-laden and special-effect laden extravaganzas that have shown up at the Pantages and Ahmanson of late. Credit to David Korins (🖼FB) for a simple nightclub set that, when combined with effective props, provided the locations needed, and was easily adaptable to radio studios. It is nice to see a scenic design that will be within the means of a regional or amateur production in the future … this ensures the life of the show. Paloma Young (FB)’s costume design seemed appropriately period, with only a little more stocking instruction needed of the ensemble. Similarly, J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova (FB)’s makeup, hair, and wig design seemed appropriately period. Jeff Croiter (FB)’s lighting design established mood well. Nevin Steinberg (FB)’s original sound design appeared to hold up in the Kavli, but that Kavli (unlike the Pantages) has good sound bones to begin with. Rounding out the production credits: Kate Lumpkin (🎭FB) Casting; David Kreppel Vocal Music Arranger; Alice Renier (⭐FBActing Coach; Elizabeth Allen (FBProduction Stage Manager; Emily Pathman (FBAssistant Stage Manager; Michael Coglan (FB) Company Manager; Mark Stuart (FB) Original Assoc. Choreographer; Jaime Verazin Original Asst. Choreographer; Work Light Productions Producers; Port City Technical Production Management; Allied Touring Tour Marketing & Press; The Road Company Tour Booking.

Unfortunately, one of the bad aspects of Broadway in Thousand Oaks is that it is there for only one weekend, unlike the longer runs at the Pantages. That means that by the time you read this, the final productions of Bandstand at the American Theatre Guild will be over. All I can suggest is that you visit the Bandstand website, and catch the show at its next stops in Colorado Springs on Dec 3-4 (hmmm, I’ll have to tell my COS colleagues) or in Phoenix AZ Dec 6-8. For those California folks, it looks like it will hit Modesto Mar 30-31, 2020 and Sacramento April 7-12, 2020.

🎭

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 (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). 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 Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB),  the Soraya/VPAC (FB), and the Musical Theatre Guild (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:

December is getting busy, given that we lose two weekends to ACSAC, and the small theatres are often darker around the holidays. The weekend after ACSAC brings an outing of our new live theatre group at our synagogue to Eight Nights at the Anteaus Theatre Company (FB).  We will also be seeing Elf at Canyon Theatre Guild on December 21.

Looking to early 2020: most of the January is currently quiet, but the middle of the month is busy, with What The Constitution Means To Me at the Mark Taper Forum, and Frozen at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) the third weekend, and Cirque Éloize at  the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the last weekend. Things start heating up in February, with The Last Ship (with Sting) at the Ahmanson Theatre the first weekend; A Body of Water at Actors Co-op (FB) and It Shoulda Been You at Musical Theatre Guild (FB) the third weekend; and (whew!)  The Simon and Garfunkel Story at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Escape to Margaritaville at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB), and Step Afrika at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the fourth weekend. Yes, that is the Pantages and the Dolby the same day — that’s what I get for not entering season tickets on my calendar before ticketing a bonus show. March comes in like a lamb, with the first two weekends (2/29 and 3/7) being quiet… but goes out like a Lion. The 2nd weekend brings the MRJ Man of the Year dinner; the 3rd Morris’ Room at Actors Co-op (FB) ; and the last bringing Spongebob Squarepants at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB) and the MoTAS/TBH Seder. April is similarly busy: the 1st weekend is Mamma Mia at 5 Star Theatricals (FB); the 2nd is during Pesach and is open (but has Count Basie at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the Thursday before); the 3rd is Once on This Island at the Ahmanson Theatre; the last is Hamilton at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), and the first weekend of May is Mean Girls at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB)

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. 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. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!

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🎭 Crossed Actors in Love | “The Goodbye Girl” @ MTG

The Goodbye Girl (MTG)MTG UserpicWhen you look at Broadway today, it seems we are in an era of taking any movie and attempting to put it on the stage. Pretty WomenTootsie, and Beetlejuice are just recent examples of a trend that has been going on since at least the 1950s. One such attempt occurred in 1993, when there was an attempt to bring the 1977 Neil Simon comedy The Goodbye Girl to the stage. The resulting musical: The Goodbye GIrl, featured an updated book by Neil Simon, music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by David Zippel, and starred Bernadette Peters and Martin Short. You would think that with this pedigree the musical would easily succeed. It didn’t — it only ran for 23 previews and 188 performances — proving that even with pedigrees, it can still be a dog.

But is it really a dog. That’s the question that the Musical Theatre Guild (FB) asks. They present shows with only 25 hours of rehearsal, minimal staging and scenery, in a staged reading format that allows reexamination. The second outing of their season was The Goodbye Girl, which we saw last night.

In the program, the supposition is made that the reason for the failure was the theatre: The Marquis Theatre. At the time of the show, there had been a string of failures there, and Broadway is a superstitious bunch. But subsequent to the show, there have been a few hits at the theatre. So was that the reason.

Before I give you my thoughts on the show, perhaps I should tell you what it was about. After all, 1977 was a long time ago — I was just graduating high school. The musical retained much of the original movie’s plot, making only a few changes. It is difficult to find a synopsis online that isn’t a scene by scene breakdown (such as the one in the Guide to Musical Theatre), so I’ll give it a try:

Paula and her daughter Lucy are looking forward to moving to California to be with her actor-boyfriend Tony. But they discover Tony has left them for a movie role in Spain; further, he has sublet their apartment without their knowledge to an actor friend from Chicago. Paula doesn’t want to share the apartment, but Elliott (the Chicago actor) points out that he owns the lease, so they work out a tenuous arrangement. He has a role in a version of Richard III where the director wants him to play it as a man playing a women playing a man (this was originally a homosexual queen portrayal in the movie). Unsurprisingly, that approach fails. As Elliott recovers from the drunken opening night pain, he sees the tender side of Paula, and no surprisingly, a spark is ignited. Insert the predictable march to the happy ending.

My reaction to the show was hard to characterize. On story and music alone, it was a pleasant evening — but it also wasn’t a spectacular “wow” along the lines of Come From Away or Hamilton. It struck me much more as a Pretty Women or the current show at the Marquis, Tootsie. In other words: yes, it was a fun show to watch, but it also didn’t seem to have the staying power that the powerhouse shows have. This should not be construed as saying it was bad. It was a very very funny show, with some really good performances. It just didn’t have that staying power. Similar to the Donna Summer musical I saw Saturday night, it was a piece of fluff that was tasty while you were eating it, but it left you craving something much more substantial.

So why did The Goodbye Girl fail so spectacularly in its first outing. After all, movie to musical properties often have a reasonable life, even if they aren’t long running hits. I think there are a number of reasons:

  • I’m not sure this was a movie that cried out to be musicalized. Were there emotions or arcs of the characters that could only be told by song? I’m not sure. Without that crying need for music, you end up with something that might be entertaining, but isn’t spectacular. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be profitable, but that profit will not be achieved on Broadway, but in long term licensing and performance.
  • I think the original casting was off. Martin Short was fine, but I think this wasn’t the right role for Bernadette Peters. This show came between Into the Woods and the Annie Get Your Gun revival. Trying to have Peters be believable as an unemployed, out of shape dancer just didn’t work.
  • Although David Zippel’s lyrics were strong, I’m not sure this was Marvin Hamlisch’s best score. Hamlisch had a problem finding scores for the theatre that had long term lasting power after A Chorus Line. None of the songs here had a long term lasting power, although “Elliott Garfield Grant” was an earworm.
  • The transition from the movie to the stage didn’t use the opportunity to fix the problems in the original screenplay. When you read reviews of the movie, Paula was often viewed as unsympathetic in the first half of the movie — someone you don’t particularly like. Audiences didn’t warm up to her until the latter part of the movie. Read reviews of the stage musical, and guess what — same thing. If you can’t get invested in the characters early, it is hard to get the audiences to care about the show.

But this is MTG — and one of the goals of MTG is to give a chance to see properties such as The Goodbye Girl for just this reason. It allows one to see if the underlying good in the material, and to determine what possibly went wrong the first time out. Luckily, the execution of this production was significantly better than Barnum a few months ago.  About the only production problems were one or two instances of feedback, and a few cases where the sound team was behind the actors, and the microphones weren’t enabled when they should be. As directed by Linda Kerns (FB), and with choreography by Michelle Elkin (⭐FB, FB), the production moved briskly and without problems, and the actors did a great job of inhabiting the characters. This was particularly remarkable when you consider the short time they were living with these characters — remember, just 25 hours of rehearsal.

In the lead positions were Wendy Rosoff (⭐FB, FB) Paula and Will Collyer (⭐FB, FB) Elliot. Rosoff captured the neurotic nature of Paula well and had a great chemistry with Collyer’s Elliot. Her songs came off as a little more shrill than perhaps were intended, but I think that’s something that would have been adjusted in a longer run. Collyer was great as Elliot — he had a warmth and charm that made one see how Martin Short could have been so strong in the role.

Also in a lead position was Maya Somers Lucy. This young lady just blew me away with her talent and voice. As she grows as an actress, I look forward to seeing her on the stages of Los Angeles.

Supporting the leads in named roles were Jenelle Lynn Randall (⭐FBMrs. Crosby, and as Lucy’s friends, Bella Stine (⭐FB) Cynthia and Olivia Zenetzis Melanie.  All were very strong. Randall brought some wonderfully sardonic humor and moves to Mrs. Crosby, and nailed her “2 Good 2 Be Bad Number”, and Stine and Zenetzis made a delightful trio with Somers.

Rounding out the cast were: Jennifer Knox (FB) Donna / Ensemble; Chelsea Morgan Stock (FB) Jenna / Ensemble; Jeffrey Scott Parsons (FB) Billy / Ensemble; Anthony Gruppuso (⭐FB, FB) Mark / Ricky / Ensemble; Tal Fox (FB) Ensemble; Gabriel Navarro (FB) Ensemble; and Mark C. Reis (⭐FB) Ensemble.

Dennis Castellano (FB) served as Musical Director and Conductor of the onstage band, which consisted of Castellano (FB) Piano, John Reilly Woodwinds, and Alan Alesi Drums/Percussion.

As this was a minimally staged concert performance, there was no real scenic, lighting, or sound design.  A Jeffrey Schoenberg (FB) provided the costumes, and Todd Gajdusek was Production Coordinator. Stage managers were Leesa Freed (FB) Production Stage Manager / Production Coordinator, Stacey Cortez Asst Stage Manager; and Debra Miller Asst Stage Manager.

This was the only performance of The Goodbye Girl.

🎭

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 (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). 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 Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB),  the Soraya/VPAC (FB), and the Musical Theatre Guild (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 is open due to Stiches SoCal, although I might still book a show. November concludes with Bandstand at Broadway in Thousand Oaks

December is getting busy, given that we lose two weekends to ACSAC, and the small theatres are often darker around the holidays. The weekend after ACSAC brings an outing of our new live theatre group at our synagogue to Eight Nights at the Anteaus Theatre Company (FB).  I also have a hold for December 21 for Elf at Canyon Theatre Guild.

Looking to early 2020: most of the January is currently quiet, but the middle of the month is busy, with What The Constitution Means To Me at the Mark Taper Forum, and Frozen at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) the third weekend, and Cirque Éloize at  the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the last weekend. Things start heating up in February, with The Last Ship (with Sting) at the Ahmanson Theatre the first weekend; A Body of Water at Actors Co-op (FB) and It Shoulda Been You at Musical Theatre Guild (FB) the third weekend; and (whew!)  The Simon and Garfunkel Story at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Escape to Margaritaville at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB), and Step Afrika at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the fourth weekend. Yes, that is the Pantages and the Dolby the same day — that’s what I get for not entering season tickets on my calendar before ticketing a bonus show. March comes in like a lamb, with the first two weekends (2/29 and 3/7) being quiet… but goes out like a Lion. The 2nd weekend brings the MRJ Man of the Year dinner; the 3rd Morris’ Room at Actors Co-op (FB) ; and the last bringing Spongebob Squarepants at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB) and the MoTAS/TBH Seder. April is similarly busy: the 1st weekend is Mamma Mia at 5 Star Theatricals (FB); the 2nd is during Pesach and is open (but has Count Basie at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the Thursday before); the 3rd is Once on This Island at the Ahmanson Theatre; the last is Hamilton at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), and the first weekend of May is Mean Girls at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB)

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. 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. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!

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🎭 What Hath Maltby Wrought? | “Summer” @ Hollywood Pantages

Summer - The Donna Summer Musical (Hollywood Pantages)Back in 1978, Richard Maltby Jr. unleashed onto the world a little musical called Ain’t Misbehavin’. This was perhaps the first really successful biographical jukebox musical — a musical that used the catalog of a particular artist to tell the lifestory of that artist. Shortly after that musical hit there were similar shows, from Jelly’s Last Jam to Eubie to … you get the idea. In the modern era, the biographical jukebox has seen a resurgence with successful shows such as Jersey Boys. Almost every pop star out there is seeing their catalog mined for a potential show. Some end up as fictional stories with the pop catalog grafted on, such as the recent Head Over Heels which mined the catalog of the Go-Gos. But the biographical jukebox remains a steady contender. A number of been recently on Broadway, such as The Cher Show or the just opened Tina … and one of the more recent instances has ended up at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) (until November 24) — Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. Guess where we were last night?

If you are of my generation, you know Donna Summer well. Her music hit the airwaves in the US in 1975 — when I was in high school. I couldn’t go to a high school dance of that era (not that I went to many) where it didn’t close with “The Last Dance”. It was ubiquitous. So it was clear that mixing her music with a Broadway show would hit clearly at the heart of the current theatregoers: those adults aged 55 to 65. It was a no-brainer. Nostalgia is a strong pull at the box office, and judging by the audience we saw at the Pantages we saw last night it works. Older primarily white women in spandex glitter abounded.

And the mention of no-brainers brings us back to the biographic jukebox, and their greatest problem: the underlying book. For while the music may be popular and the show wonderful when viewed as a nostalgic dance concert, the real question is whether it stands up a musical theatre. That success depends on the book writers — in this case, Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and Des McAnuff. In this case: it really doesn’t stands up as theatre. It is a mile wide and an inch deep: it doesn’t really give you any deep insight into its main characters, and the other characters in the life of Donna Summer that shaped who she is are only superficially drawn and brought to life.

Part of the problem here is the conceit used to tell the story. As is often done, the main subject is divided into three individual: child, young adult, and adult — or as they are called here, Duckling Donna, DIsco Donna, and Diva Donna. A similar approach, from what I understand, was taken in The Cher Show. The problem is: the adjectives here capture the superficial nature of the division: instead of looking at the whole character, they have amplified aspects of her life for the sake of storytelling. In doing this, and in making the story centered in that way, any character growth that might fuel the story is either lost, or boiled to the top where it is just skimmed away.

“Story” is a key word here. Musicals succeed where there is a story that demands the music in its retelling. The music, which is a key factor in telling the story, bursts out with story. It isn’t incidental or superficially related. But, for the most part, the music used in Summer is only lightly connected with the story on the stage. It rarely comes from the time; it rarely moves the story forward by itself. If you could delete all the jukebox songs (leaving just the spoken book) and the show still makes sense, that music isn’t integral. In this case, the music is rarely integral. In fact, I think the only integral song in the show is “She Works Hard for the Money”.

Ultimately, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, while entertaining, is (in the parlance of [title of show]), very “donuts for dinner” — entertaining in the moment, but the fulfillment is not very long lasting. There’s lots of fluffy sweet carbohydrates, but very little meat.

That doesn’t mean the author’s don’t try to provide that meat. There is a strong emphasis, especially in the middle of the show, on the notion of empowerment of women — in particular the fact that women artists should be paid the same as male artists. There’s also a sharp commentary on the #metoo aspects of Donna Summer’s story: sexual abuse or harassment both at the hands of her childhood pastor and by executives at Casablanca records. But it, like the supporting characters, is superficial. It is mentioned once briefly, and how it shaped Donna Summer into the artist that she was is never explored.

Ruminating on the superficiality a bit more: The show presents Donna Summer’s life as being much like the music that made her famous: a catchy dance tune that was fun in the moment, but doesn’t have long lasting significance. It is popular and light and frothy, but is ultimately cotton candy.

The show is notable in one other aspect: it’s ensemble. More than any other show that I’ve seen, this show has made the effort to emphasize the women. Most of the tertiary male roles (there are no primary male roles) are played by ensemble members, and for the most part, those members are women. I’ve commented before on the problems I have with men dressing as women to play women’s roles for the broad laugh. Here, the women stepped into play the men’s roles, but not for laughs but in an androgynous sense. As a man watching this, this spoke to female empowerment and as the central notion of the story, as well as the fact that for much of her career, Summer’s music spoke to that audience (and the incident that broke that connection is specifically — and rightly — addressed). I’m curious how women watching the show perceived that ensemble emphasis. It was certainly different.

Two additional performance notes: (1) There are points at times where the ensemble is supposedly playing music, and even (at one point) Diva Donna is playing. For the most part, it is clear they are not: they are holding the violins wrong, there is no key movement on the piano although finger gestures appear right, there is no movement on the guitar necks and no connection of electric guitars to the speakers, there is no finger movement on the valves of the saxes. Prop instruments on stage are annoying. It did appear, however, that at point they did have the real keyboardist on stage, as well as the drummer and perhaps the guitar. That was good to see. (2) There is one point where Neil Bogart’s funeral occurs, supposedly at Hillside. They were carrying calla lilies, which is a flower that is not used at Jewish cemeteries due to its Christian symbolism; they also portrayed mourners in white with no cria ribbons. Again, not something one would see at a Jewish cemetery. Given that the writers weren’t Jewish, one can understand the mistake; surely someone on the production or design team would have caught that.

Des McAnuff‘s direction kept the show moving at a brisk pace — one might say with a disco beat. The show moved from incident to incident with little space to catch your breath in between. His direction of the scenic was similar, with view traditional set pieces or props, and heavy use of screens and projections (although in a very different sense than in Anastasia — here they were much more abstracted, as befits the 1970s). He worked with the acting team to bring out strong concert style performance; but with a superficial book, there was very little depth to bring out in the story. The movement, choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, was similarly brisk and had a strong disco feel. As to its accuracy as real disco moves I cannot say. There are some things about my youth that I either never learned or have blocked out. But it was entertaining.

In the lead performance positions were the Donnas: Dan’yelle Williamson (⭐FB, FB) Diva Donna / Mary Gaines, Alex Hairston (FB) Disco Donna; and Olivia Elease Hardy (FB) Duckling Donna / Mimi. All give strong performance and sing beautifully. Perhaps the most notable is Hardy, given her lack of experience. She’s a rising senior at U Michigan, and I couldn’t really find any local or other credits for her. For such a young and new performer to be giving such a strong performance is quite noteworthy.  As for the others, Hairston gets the bulk of the disco moves and handles those well, although her visual resemblance to the other Donnas is slight. Williamson is very strong of voice and dance.

The male roles in this cast are primarily secondary and tertiary. At the secondary level are: John Gardiner (FB) Neil Bogart / Sommelier / Gunther; Erick Pinnick (FB) Andrew Gaines / Doctor; and Steven Grant Douglas (⭐FB, FB) Bruce Sudano. The tertiary men (because they are also in the ensemble) are: Jay Garcia (FB) Brian / Helmuth Sommer / Ensemble and Sir Brock Warren (FB) Pastor / Ensemble. None of these characters are drawn that deeply; unsurprisingly, none of them also have featured vocal tracks.  Thinking back, the ones that left the greatest impressions were Warren due to his unique look and bearing, and Douglas for the way he was able to project some tenderness in what was a lightly written role.

This brings us to the remainder of the ensemble — or should I say female ensemble — as they were all women: Jennifer Byrne (FB) Pete Bellotte / Don Engel / Ensemble, Tamrin Goldberg (FB) Norman Brokaw / Ensemble, Cameron Anika Hill (FB) Young Dara / Amanda / Ensemble, Brooke Lacy (FB) Detective / David Geffen / Bob / Ensemble, Trish Lindström (FB) Joyce Bogart / Ensemble, Dequina Moore (⭐FB, FB) Adult Mary Ellen / Ensemble, Kyli Rae (FB) out at our performance – normally Giorgio Moroder / Ensemble, Crystal Sha’nae (FB) Adult Dara / Ensemble, De’ja Simone (FB) Young Mary Ellen / Brooklyn / Ensemble, Candace J. Washington (FB) Michael / Ensemble, Brittany Nicole Williams Maid / “To Turn the Stone” Soloist / Ensemble. In general, the ensemble provided strong dancing in the background. The actors portraying Donna’s sisters and children were fun to watch and clearly enjoying their roles. I particularly liked Moore and Simone (at least I think that’s who they were — the one in the yellow sweater).

Swings were Mara Lucas (FB), Jo’nathan Michael (FB), and Jennifer Wolfe (FB) Giorgio Moroder, at our performance / Dance Captain.

The large music for this show was provided by a small band — again, mostly female. Leading the band was Amanda Morton Music Director / Conductor / Keyboards. Assisting her were Lisa Le May (FB) Assoc. Conductor / Keyboard; Makeena Lee Brick (FB) Keyboard; Larry Esparza (FB) Guitar; and Jesse-Ray Leich (FB) Drums. Other music credits were: Randy Cohen (FB) Synthesizer Programmer; Anixter Rice Music Services (FB) Music Preparation; John Miller (FBMusic Coordinator; Bill Brendle and Ron Melrose Orchestrations; and Ron Melrose Music Supervision and Arrangements. Songs in the show were written by Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara, and the following folks detailed in the back of the program: Joseph Esposito, Edward Hokenson, Bruce Sudano, Pete Bellotte, Keith Diamond, Anthony Smith, Vanessa Robbie Smith, Greg Mathieson, Jim Webb, Bruce Roberts, Harold Faltermeyer, Gregory Allen Kurstin, Danielle A. Brisebois, Evan Kidd Bogart, Jonathan Rotem, Michael Omartian, and from the musical Hair, Galt MacDermot, James Rado, and Gerome Ragni. I am sure that some of the musicians were on stage in a few scenes — in particular, Morton and possibly LeMay or Brick, as well as Leich. I was pleased to see them show pictures of the musicians at the end.

Finally, we turn to the production and creative side. The scenic design of Robert Brill (FB) depended heavily on the Projection Design of Sean Nieuwenhuis, as there were lots of moving screens and projections, and very little in the way of traditional scenery. Perhaps greater scenic aspects were provided by Paul Tazewell (FB)’s costume design and Charles G. LaPointe (FB)’s hair and wig design. There was only real one costuming flaw, which only someone growing up in that era would catch: back in the 1970s, bra straps and undergarments were not intentionally visible — according to my wife, one would go without first. Howell Binkley (FB)’s lighting generally was good, but I felt there was an overuse of strobe lights — be forewarned if you are strobe sensitive. Gareth Owen (FB)’s sound wasn’t overpowering — a fear that I had; however, there were two or three songs where the bass beat shook the cough out of me. Other production credits: Steve Rankin Fight Director; Charley Layton Dialect Coach; David S. Cohen Stage Manager / Fight Captain; Jenifer A. Shenker Asst Stage Manager; Michael Bello Assoc Director; Jennifer Laroche Assoc. Choreographer; Bruce Sudano Story Consultant; NETworks Presentations Production Management; Michael Sanfilippo Company Manager; Ralph Stan Lee (FB) Production Stage Management; Dodger Management Group General Management; Tara Rubin CastingFelicia Rudolph CSA Casting.

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical continues at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) until November 24. If you are nostalgic for the disco era, and want a fun musical that will help you relive those times, this is the musical for you. If you can’t stand disco, or want a story with a stronger book, consider skipping this one. Go see Miracle on 34th Street up the street instead.

🎭

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 (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). 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 Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB),  the Soraya/VPAC (FB), and the Musical Theatre Guild (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:

Tonight brings The Goodbye Girl at Musical Theatre Guild (FB).  Next weekend is open due to Stiches SoCal, although I might still book a show. November concludes with Bandstand at Broadway in Thousand Oaks

December is getting busy, given that we lose two weekends to ACSAC, and the small theatres are often darker around the holidays. The weekend after ACSAC brings an outing of our new live theatre group at our synagogue to Eight Nights at the Anteaus Theatre Company (FB).  I also have a hold for December 21 for Elf at Canyon Theatre Guild.

Looking to early 2020: most of the January is currently quiet, but the middle of the month is busy, with What The Constitution Means To Me at the Mark Taper Forum, and Frozen at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) the third weekend, and Cirque Éloize at  the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the last weekend. Things start heating up in February, with The Last Ship (with Sting) at the Ahmanson Theatre the first weekend; A Body of Water at Actors Co-op (FB) and It Shoulda Been You at Musical Theatre Guild (FB) the third weekend; and (whew!)  The Simon and Garfunkel Story at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Escape to Margaritaville at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB), and Step Afrika at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the fourth weekend. Yes, that is the Pantages and the Dolby the same day — that’s what I get for not entering season tickets on my calendar before ticketing a bonus show. March comes in like a lamb, with the first two weekends (2/29 and 3/7) being quiet… but goes out like a Lion. The 2nd weekend brings the MRJ Man of the Year dinner; the 3rd Morris’ Room at Actors Co-op (FB) ; and the last bringing Spongebob Squarepants at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB) and the MoTAS/TBH Seder. April is similarly busy: the 1st weekend is Mamma Mia at 5 Star Theatricals (FB); the 2nd is during Pesach and is open (but has Count Basie at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the Thursday before); the 3rd is Once on This Island at the Ahmanson Theatre; the last is Hamilton at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), and the first weekend of May is Mean Girls at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB)

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. 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. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!

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🎭 A Matter of Faith | “Miracle on 34th Street” @ Actors Co-Op

Miracle on 34th Street - A Live Musical Radio Play (Actors Co-Op)Sigh. It’s that time of year again.

It is time for the Christmas-themed shows to be trotted out, so that there are times for decent production runs before the date is past and the material become stale. It is especially hard this time of year if you are not Christian, for the predominance of Christmas this and Christmas that just serves to remind you that you are a minority in a predominantly Christian culture, and a minority in a nation that while enshrining religious freedom and the non-establishment clause, comes as close as possible to crossing that line of establishing. It also doesn’t help when your favorite Christmas song (“Christmas Dinner” by Peter, Paul and Mary) (which really expresses the spirit of the day, as I understand it), rarely gets airplay; and your favorite Christmas musical A Mulholland Christmas Carol is rarely produced.

But I digress. But I note the digression comes from the fact that I saw my first Christmas theatre of the season last night, Miracle on 34th Street — A Live Musical Radio Play at Actors Co-op (FB) last night. Almost everyone should know the movie version of Miracle, which was released in 1947. That same year, Lux Radio Theatre broadcast an adaptation for radio; that version was then adapted by Lance Arthur Smith (FB) to provide an updated stage version for licensing. That version also interpolated some traditional Christmas songs, as well as original songs and arrangements by Jon Lorenz (FB).

If you’re not familiar with the story, have you been living under a rock? Uhh, strike that. The basic story concerns a skeptical single mother/divorcee (Doris Walker) who hires a man who calls himself Kris Kringle and insists he is the real Santa to be the Macys Santa, her single next door neighbor (Fred Gailey) who believes his story, and her daughter (Susan Walker) who must be taught to have faith. When Kringle brings together R.H. Macy and the owner of his bitter rival, Gimbels, others begin to believe as well. But when Kringle assaults the store doctor who doesn’t believe he is Santa, Kringle is put on trial prove his claim. You can guess who wins. If you want more details, you can read the movie’s plot synopsis. The radio play makes some minor changes: It is the single mom (Doris Walker) who calls out the drunk Santa who is fired, the gender of the doctor at the old-age home is changed; it is Kringle’s cane, not the doctor’s umbrella, that is used for the assault; and it is Doris that recognizes the solution for the trail, not a post office employee. But these are minor changes.

As I said, I normally do not like most Christmas shows, especially if they get too religious. But this one, well, was a lot of fun. The story is a clever one, with the right amounts of sentimentality and humor. It was well performed, with engaging performers who were clearly having fun with their roles. It makes a religious point, but one that isn’t too offensive if you aren’t Christian. As Christmas plays go, this was really quite enjoyable.

I’ve written before about this company, and their mission statement: Christian actors, being an outreach of Christ’s hope. They always have about one show each year that subtly, or not so subtly, emphasizes that message. This had the feeling of that show, and the message it sent — one of the importance of having faith in something, and how that can shape your life — is clearly within that mission. The show also is a commentary on the commercialism that Christmas has become, and is really a celebration of what is at the heart of Christmas: the start of a deeper faith in something that can’t be proven. We can’t prove that Santa — or at least the spirit of Santa — does not exist. It’s the same way that a Christmas Carol still resonates: ghost may not be real, but the power of the story to transform your life into something for good does exist.

Miracle on 34th Street, at its heart, is a story about faith and the power of believing. Even if you are not Christian and do not believe in Santa, there is still a lot that you take on faith — and you need to be reminded the importance of faith in your life.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have a few quibbles, and most of them are anachronistically related. The opening advertisement of the show sells Tupperware, and make a reference to Felix the Cat (the wonderful wonderful cat). This performance was taking place in 1947 according to the program. Tupperware wasn’t invented until 1946; it is unclear if there would be ads on a radio show in 1947 or 1948 (home parties didn’t start until the 1950s). Felix the Cat, while popular in the 1920s, had disappeared from the screens in the late 1940s — so it is unclear if the references would be there; more importantly, the “wonderful wonderful cat” theme wouldn’t be there as it started with the TV animation in the late 1950s. It is unclear whether RCA would be advertising their defense products on radio; they would be more likely to advertise their consumer radios. Lastly, much is made of the US Postal Service delivering the letters to Santa in the 2nd Act — there’s even a big song and dance number. But the USPS didn’t come into existence until 1971; before then, it was the US Post Office Department.  Then there’s the opening number in the 2nd act about hardware and software — nothing you would have even heard mentioned on radio then. The show also sent me down the Wikipediahole about Macys and Gimbels, and how the Gimbels chain disappeared. As I’ve been having fun exploring the department story history of the Northridge Fashion Center, this was a fun diversion.

Miracle on 34th Street (Production Photos)The larger quibble is one of broader story. As opposed to just presenting the story of Miracle, this is presented as a radio play. The actors are given distinct names. But aside from the roles they play in the radio production, we learn nothing about them. For that, you could have just had actors playing multiple roles, as they do in the sibling production of Irma Vep. What the book of this show needs to do is establish who these actors are in real life, and have the faith portrayal in the story have a broader impact in the actor’s lives. Without that, the “radio play” aspects of this show adds little, except for the ability to not need a lot of scenery.

But those are nits from someone obsessed with the minutiae of history. This is just a fun Christmas show. Under the direction of Joseph Leo Bwarie (⭐FB), and with choreography by Anna Aimee White, the production is well paced, with movement that works well (even if it is not believable for an actual radio production, which wouldn’t have had the actors doing the sound effects).

In center of things — not necessarily the lead position — is Sal Sabella (FBKristopher Van Lisberg as Kris Kringle and Judge Harper. When portraying Kringle, Sabella brought the right timber to the voice, and the proper level of warmth to the character. His voice as the judge was sufficiently different.

The main characters of interest are played by  Lauren Thompson (FB) Cordelia Ragsdale as Doris Walker and others; Matt Solomon (FB) Grady Williams as Fred Gailey, Alfred, Mr. Sawyer, and others; and Callie Chae Pyken Gracie De Marco as Susan Walker. We’ve seen Thompson many times on the Co-Op stage, and she is uniformly strong. She sings and moves well, and projected a great personality throughout the show as her primary character. Solomon had a good chemistry with her when playing Gailey, and provided sufficient vocal differentiation as Alfred and Mr. Sawyer. Pyken brought a great youthful cuteness and a wonderful voice to her character.

Rounding out the cast in smaller character and support roles were Kristen Cook (FB) Olivia Glatt as Dr. Pierce, Mrs. Mara, Miss Prong, and others; Phil Crowley Alex Mialdo as Mr. Macy, Charley, Pianist, and the Announcer; and Jack Tavcar (FB) Wallace Ainsley as Mr. Shellhammer, Mr. Mara, Tommy, and others. All were strong and brought great humor, characterization, and voices to their roles.

Also onstage (but uncredited as such), doing sound cues and such from behind the window on stage, was the stage manager, Joanna Reyes.

Turning to the production and creative side: The radio studio scenic design was created by Tanya Orellana (FB), with Lori Berg (FB) creating the additional properties used on stage. The set seemed close enough to realistic for those who only know images of radio studios; I can’t speak to its actual realism. The most important thing is that it conveyed the image and worked well. Martha Carter (FB)’s lighting design worked well to establish mood, although that was less critical in a radio production; more critically, it served to appropriately focus attention. My only quibble is that the back row of lights tended to shine into the eyes of Row A. Robert Arturo Ramirez‘s sound design provided appropriate sound effects. Jessica Champagne Hansen (FB)’s costumes and Jessica Mills (FB)’s hair design seemed appropriately late 1940s. Rounding out the production team were: Anthony Lucca (FBMusic Director; Heather Chesley (FB) Artistic Chairwoman;  Selah Victor (FB) Production Manager; Nora Feldman Publicity; and Kyle Montgomery Producer.

Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Musical Play continues at Actors Co-op (FB) through December 15, 2019. Tickets are available through the Actors Co-Op Web Site, discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. If you like Christmas stories, you’ll really enjoy this: it is well performed and a touching story. Even if you can only tolerate Christmas stories, I think you’ll find this enjoyable just for the good performances and the legal hijinks. If you can’t stand any mention of Christmas… this is going to be a hard two months, but it too shall pass.

I like to say that I’m a professional audience, and that’s why I like theatre. In my real life, I’m a cybersecurity subject matter expert — an engineer. I don’t have the creativity in me to inhabit other characters, and in general, the writing I do is limited to non-fiction — government documents and policies, highway pages, and reviews like these. I don’t have the ability to take an idea and turn it into characters and stories that might be compelling to an audience. But as I just noted, I’m also a long time cybersecurity professional, and attending years of the Hollywood Fringe Festival has convinced me that the medium of the stage could be used to teach about cybersecurity in a way that audiences could learn, without being overwhelmed with technology. The notion I have is to take some broad cybersecurity themes and concepts and translate them into stories that could teach in a compelling way. But I don’t have the expertise to build a story out of the idea. If this is something that might interest you, please let me know. I don’t have funds for a commission or anything like that, but it might be something we could turn into a property beneficial for all.

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 (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). 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 Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB),  the Soraya/VPAC (FB), and the Musical Theatre Guild (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:

Tonight brings our second show of the weekend: Big Daddy the Band of 1959 at McCabes (FB) in Santa Monica. Tickets were still available the last time I looked. The second weekend brings Summer at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and The Goodbye Girl at Musical Theatre Guild (FB).  November concludes with Bandstand at Broadway in Thousand Oaks

December is getting busy, given that we lose two weekends to ACSAC, and the small theatres are often darker around the holidays. The weekend after ACSAC brings an outing of our new live theatre group at our synagogue to Eight Nights at the Anteaus Theatre Company (FB).  I also have a hold for December 21 for Elf at Canyon Theatre Guild.

Looking to January: most of the month is currently quiet, but the middle of the month is busy, with What The Constitution Means To Me at the Mark Taper Forum, and Frozen at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) the third weekend, and Cirque Éloize at  the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the last weekend. Things start heating up in February, with The Last Ship (with Sting) at the Ahmanson Theatre the first weekend; A Body of Water at Actors Co-op (FB) and It Shoulda Been You at Musical Theatre Guild (FB) the third weekend; and (whew!)  The Simon and Garfunkel Story at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Escape to Margaritaville at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB), and Step Afrika at  the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the fourth weekend. Yes, that is the Pantages and the Dolby the same day — that’s what I get for not entering season tickets on my calendar before ticketing a bonus show. March is a bit more open, with only Morris’ Room at Actors Co-op (FB) and Spongebob Squarepants at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB) currently on the calendar. Currently.

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. 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. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!

 

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🎭 Confused Boys Become Confused Men | “In Trousers” @ Lounge Theatre

In Trousers (Knot Free @ Lounge)Back in 1979, the world met Marvin for the first time.

Who is Marvin, you might ask? Perhaps you’ve heard of the musical Falsettos, by William Finn. It was recently at the AhmansonFalsettos told the story of Marvin, a man whose marriage came apart when he told his wife, Trina, that he was homosexual. The two act musical chronicles the aftermath of the breakup, how they raise their child, and Marvin’s new relationship with Whizzer Brown. The musical was constructed out two one act musicals that Finn had written: Falsettoland and March of the Falsettos.

But those musicals were not where we first meet Marvin. Marvin first showed up in the 1979 musical In Trousers, which captured when Marvin realized he was gay. It was produced a few times in 1979, and reworked in the mid-1980s, which is when it was last done in Los Angeles. I got the cast album for In Trousers way back in 2011, and so it was on my list of “shows I had heard, but never seen”.

When I learned from the show’s publicist that it was being done this fall in Hollywood, I made the effort to get some tickets. So guess where we were Sunday afternoon? At the Lounge Theatre (FB) in Hollywood seeing In Trousers.

First and foremost: A tip for those going to the Lounge: Do not sit in the front row. The air conditioning will blow straight onto you, and you will freeze your tuchas off. We found out the hard way, and now I’m like the Old Lady in Candide, because one buttock was frozen off.

In Trousers tells the story of the women in Marvin’s life: his high school sweetheart, his teacher, and his wife. It is essentially him recalling how those relationships started and ended, and how he decided he prefers men. Allmusicals.com summarizes the plot as follows:

The plot is concentrated on Marvin’s thoughts. He keeps thinking about his true orientation. He cannot decide, whether he is a homo or a bi. To find this out, Marvin recollects all the past events starting from his childhood. He keeps immerge into his memories step by step. First of all, the main character remembers his previous relationships. They were various. Among them, there is one school love. He was also deeply attached to his English teacher, called Miss Goldberg. He recollects, how she once has proposed him to play Christopher Columbus in one of the plays staged at school. Then these memories go away. The main hero is upset. It is really hard for him to decide. On the one hand, he wants to be happy, but on the other hand, he does not want to disappoint and ruin his family and life. His feelings and worries are the key features of the plot. Finally, Marvin makes the most important choice in his life. He admits that he wants to be only with men. The main character leaves his wife and son in order to spend his life with the dear and delightful “Whizzer” Brown.

In many ways, however, that summary is simplistic. Watching the show, I didn’t get the impression that Marvin cared all that much about the feelings for his wife or the other women. He really only cared about himself (in fact, it isn’t until the Falsetto-era one acts that we see Marvin maturing out of the man-child he was). Marvin wants to rape his teacher (she rebuffs him), and I don’t think he knew what he wanted with his wife.

As such, the story in the play is a bit jumbled. You get the impression of who Marvin is, and why he is what he is by the later shows, but you can also clearly see why this particular show wasn’t incorporated into the larger story of Falsettos.

I’ve seen some writeups that talk about this show is about the journey of finding oneself. I didn’t see that. I saw it more about the collateral damage that happens as someone tries to face the truth about themselves. I’ve seen some summaries of the show that characterize the women as shrews. I didn’t see that either: I saw women standing up for what they wanted in a relationship. To some men, women standing up for what they want is perceived as shrew-ish, but is it in reality? This in someway is the central problem with the story: Marvin is a child who is fighting growing up into himself: children have trouble knowing what is right for them, and often don’t care about the damage that happens around them.

With respect to the title: My wife points out that children wear short pants; adults wear trousers. At the beginning of the play, Marvin wants to wear the trousers, but can only pretend. By the end, he has grown into the trousers.

When I saw Falsettos for the first time, my reaction was eh. When I saw it over the summer, my reaction was interesting period piece, but eh. As for In Trousers: it was consistent: this explains Marvin, but … eh.

I am pleased to say that, under the direction of Ryan O’Connor (FB), the performances were generally strong.

As the wife, Tal Fox (FB) was strong. We’ve seen Fox before at the dear departed Chromolume Theatre. She is a strong performer and a strong singer, and brought great characterization to “I’m Breaking Down” (which was originally part of In Trousers and later shifted to Falsettos). I enjoyed her performance, although my wife commented that at times she overpowered the music, and at time it overpowered her, but I didn’t hear that.

For the high school sweetheart, the normal actress (Lea Madda (FB)) was out, and we had the female cover, Brooke Van Grinsven (FB). We’ve seen Van Grinsven before as well, in both Drowsy Chaperone and That Lovin’ Feeling. She had a really strong voice, and captured all the confusion of the character well (and was fun to watch for her expressions).

Lastly, his teacher, Miss Goldberg was played by Michelle Lane (FB), who was new to us. She performed well, and did a great job on “Set Those Sails”.

Lastly, there was Braxton Molinaro (⭐FB) as Marvin.  I found Malinaro’s Marvin to be a bit detached: I got the confusion, but not the passion. He had a good singing voice, but didn’t leave the same impression on me as did Fax and Van Grinsven.

The on-stage musicians were under the direction of Jake Anthony (FBMusic Director, Conductor, Piano.  Accompanying him were Joe Martone (FB) Percussion and Ethan Chiampas (FB) Bass.

Turning to the production and creative side: The minimalist set was designed by Corey Lynn Howe (FB), with costumes by Michael Mullen (FB). Lighting was by Gregory Crafts (FB). My only quibble with the lighting is at times it was flashing between colors too much, which proved distracting. Calliope Weisman (FB), who we knew back in the days when she stage managed at REP East, was the stage manager. In Trousers was produced by Knot Free Productions.

In Trousers continues at the Lounge Theatre through November 3. Tickets are available through BrownPaperTickets; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. There are some strong performance, and the story provides the missing piece for the Falsettos trilogy, but it is also a bit confusing.

I like to say that I’m a professional audience, and that’s why I like theatre. In my real life, I’m a cybersecurity subject matter expert — an engineer. I don’t have the creativity in me to inhabit other characters, and in general, the writing I do is limited to non-fiction — government documents and policies, highway pages, and reviews like these. I don’t have the ability to take an idea and turn it into characters and stories that might be compelling to an audience. But as I just noted, I’m also a long time cybersecurity professional, and attending years of the Hollywood Fringe Festival has convinced me that the medium of the stage could be used to teach about cybersecurity in a way that audiences could learn, without being overwhelmed with technology. The notion I have is to take some broad cybersecurity themes and concepts and translate them into stories that could teach in a compelling way. But I don’t have the expertise to build a story out of the idea. If this is something that might interest you, please let me know. I don’t have funds for a commission or anything like that, but it might be something we could turn into a property beneficial for all.

🎭

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 (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). 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 Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB),  the Soraya/VPAC (FB), and the Musical Theatre Guild (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:

October concludes with Mandy Gonzalez at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) and the MoTAS Poker Tournament.

Looking to November, it starts with A Miracle on 34th Street – The Radio Play at  Actors Co-op (FB), followed by Big Daddy the Band of 1959 at McCabes (FB) in Santa Monica.. The second weekend brings Summer at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and The Goodbye Girl at Musical Theatre Guild (FB).  November concludes with Bandstand at Broadway in Thousand Oaks

December is relatively open right now, given that we lose two weekends to ACSAC, and the small theatres are often darker around the holidays. The first weekend (before ACSAC) may bring an outing of our new live theatre group at our synagogue to Eight Nights at the Anteaus Theatre Company (FB).  I do have a hold for December 17 for Elf at Canyon Theatre Guild. I also have a hold for mid-January for What The Constitution Means To Me at the Mark Taper Forum, but I’m waiting for the presale to start to confirm that date. January will also bring Frozen at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and Cirque Éloize at  the Soraya/VPAC (FB). I’m already booking well into 2020.

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. 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. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!

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🎭 That Takes a Lot of Brass | “The Music Man” @ 5-Star Theatricals

Music Man (5-Star Theatricals 2019)Have you heard the story about the con-man that comes into a mid-west community, convinces them to support him, convinces them to give him their hard-earned money, and promises to deliver something. He wins over the community with the charm, lusts after and chases the women in the town to keep them silent (not taking “no” for an answer), and plans to deliver nothing and abscond with the money? But the people, won over by his charm, refuses to see him for the con man and slime ball that he is, and he somehow gets away with it. Almost. He gets his foot caught in the door by wanting just a bit too much, and the community finds out.

No, I’m not talking about what has happened since 2016 in this country.

I’m instead referring to a classic story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey, adapted for the stage with books, music, and lyrics by Meredith Willson, that first hit the Broadway stage in 1957: The Music Man. It was the show that opened the Kavli Theatre at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza (now emphasizing its naming sponsor as the Bank of America Performing Arts Center), opened by the resident musical company, Cabrillo Music Theatre (which changed its name a few years ago to 5-Star Theatricals (FB)). The show was last done by Cabrillo in 2006, which is when we last saw it. In a similar fit on coincidence with the Pasadena Playhouse, which just presented Little Shop of Horrors as an independent production is returning to Off-Broadway, the Music Man is also returning to Broadway in a production with Hugh Jackman (in fact, it opened this week).

But I’m burying the lede. We saw The Music Man at 5-Star last night.

I’m sure you knew the story. Back in 2006, I summarized it as: “So, have you heard the one about the travelling salesman that didn’t know the territory. He sold bands, boy bands. No, not Menudo or the Backstreet Boys. Rather, he sold band instruments, uniforms, and instruction books in River City, Iowa in 1912. He was a lying, cheating, salesman, with a girl in every town. But he got his foot caught in the door, but in the end, everyone got what they wanted.”. You can find a more detailed synopsis on the Wikipedia page, but what I wrote is essentially correct. Salesman comes into town. He takes advantage of town dynamics to convince them to buy instruments and uniforms, woos the one person in town who could find him out so that she doesn’t, and evades the equivalent of the press with non-answers and fake answers that don’t stand up to scrutiny. But when he has the people eating out of his hands, a whistleblower comes out of the woodwork to expose his scam, and he gets caught, as he put it, with his foot in the door.

This is a classic of music theatre, well constructed. It is an old chestnut with, when you look at it, a surprising connection to modern times. Quite surprising. Perhaps that’s one reason why this might be the right time for a revival, just as the times of OJ Simpson made Broadway ready for the Chicago revival.

But this was written in 1957 by a midwesterner, and a few things caught my woke sensibilities. In the early song “Trouble”, there’s this exchange:

One fine night, they leave the pool hall
Headin’ for the dance at the Arm’ry!
Libertine men and Scarlet women!
And Rag-time, shameless music
That’ll grab your son, your daughter
With the arms of a jungle animal instinct!
Mass-staria!

In 2019, the combination of the phrases “Libertine men and Scarlet women”, “Rag-time” and “jungle animal instinct” is clearly a reference to how Negros were viewed at the time — and was an jarring reminder that — despite whatever the onstage casting might be — River City IA in 1912 was a white bread as they can be. This is also echoed in Mayor Shin’s comments about the man her daughter is interested in: that he’s the son of a laborer, and not good enough for his daughter. This is a reminder of the class divisions in small towns, especially for the poor laborers, who had a different status that the noble merchants and farmers. It is a status also reflected in Oklahoma in how Judd was treated. It is also central to the story: how the fear of the outsider — and what the outsider brings — can lead people to embrace the candy-coated magic of the con man, despite the facts and tells.

The Music Man is jarringly relevant for our times. An con-men on stage are so fun to watch. Think about how many musicals you know of that involve con-men.

Music Man at 5-Star - Cast PictureAnd I’m pleased to say that, under the direction of Larry Raben (FB) and with choreography by Peggy Hickey (FB) [who also choreographed the currently running Anastasia across town], and with the magic brought by the leads Adam Pascalæ (⭐FB) and Katharine McDonoughæ (FB), this show is a gem — one of the best 5-Star productions since Beauty and the Beast back in July 2018. Part of that was for much the same reason: this cast was having fun with this show and these characters, and that fun and joy was radiated out into the audience. This fun and joy was consistent from the leads to the youngest members of the children’s ensemble. It showed in the movement, it showed in the chemistry between the characters, it showed in how the cast came together to make the town (and make the town sing), it showed in the playfulness between the characters both at the front of the stage and in the background, and most importantly, it showed in their faces. If you’re in the Mezzanine (as we were) or the Balcony–bring your binoculars. You’ll want to watch those faces.

As I noted, i the lead positions were Adam Pascalæ (⭐FB) Professor Harold Hill and Katharine McDonoughæ (FB) Marion Paroo. For those used to Robert Preston, who originated the road on stage and screen, Pascal is very different. Taller, wiry, and extremely playful, he just brings a joy to the role. If you’ve read discussions with Pascal, you’ll see that part of the reason is that this role is where he wants to be: he’s moved past the rocker roles he did 15 years ago, and past the heavy drama, and is having fun with the humor inherent in this role. It is clear from every movement, and how he interacts with every character. I was initially less sure of McDonough. In her first scenes, she came across as very different than the typical young woman that plays the role. But as her character warmed up I grew to appreciate her characterization of the role. It didn’t hurt that she had a lovely soprano voice that handled the ballads with ease. She also had a chemistry that built with Pascal’s character well.

Providing support to these characters were Lisa Dyson (FB) Mrs. Paroo and Joshua Blond Winthrop ParooDyson handled the motherly role well, and had strong chemistry with McDonough’s Marion and Blond’s WInthrop. Blond was, well, so cute. He handled his main song, “Gary Indiana”, extremely well.

Playing the foil and accomplice of Prof. Hill was Trent Mills (FBMarcellus Washburn. Again, he brings a different look than the film, but he has a easy humor and charm that makes the role work for him. He was especially strong in the “Shipoopi” number, and wonderful in his interactions with Dani Gonzalez (FBEthel Toffelmier in that number. The two made it completely believable that they were boyfriend and girlfriend, with a wonderful chemistry and joy between them.

The secondary couple in the show were Adam Winer (FBTommy Djilas and Antonia Vivino (FB) Zaneeta Shinn. Winer was a strong dancer and singer, and worked well with Vivino’s Zaneeta. He was particularly strong when he stood up to Mayor Shinn, her father. Vivino is a 5-Star regular and a strong singer in her own right (who has a new album out with her sisters Natalia and Donna called DNA, available on CDBaby and Amazon). She was clearly having fun with Zaneeta, especially the “Yee Gods” line. Joy from stage is contagious, folks, and there’s no vaccine for it.

Leading the town was Joe Hartæ (FBMayor Shinn and Christie Lynn Lawrence (FBEulalie Mackecknie ShinnHart did a great job of capturing the bluster and pomposity of Mayor Shinn, but perhaps my greatest delight was his bio, and seeing that he was in the original cast of Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, a show that flopped on Broadway but had some wonderfully underrated songs. Lawrence captured the pomposity of his wife in the other direction: someone who thinks they have talent and wants to be the center of everything, but often doesn’t. She captured that well, and both had a great humor around themselves that projected out to the audience.

The members of the schoolboard that made up the great barbershop quartet were James Thomas Miller (⭐FB, FB) Olin Britt, Travelling Salesman, Chris Hunter (FB) Oliver Hix, Travelling Salesman, L. Michael Wells (FB) Jacey Squires, Travelling Salesman, and Jonathan Matthews (FB) Ewart Dunlop, Travelling Salesman. The four had wonderful harmonies together, and were having fun with their roles.

Rounding out the cast, as other characters in the town, traveling salesmen, River City residents, and so forth, were: Brittany Anderson (FB) Mrs Britt; Savannah Fischer Amaryllis; Dani Gonzalez (FB) Ethel Toffelmier; Rich Grosso (⭐FB, FB) Charlie Cowell; Samantha Wynn Greenstone (FB) Alma Hix; Anne Montavon (FB) Maud Dunlop; Richard Storrs (FB) Constable Locke; Dekontee Tucrkile (⭐FB, FB) Mrs. Squires; Laura Aronoff (FB) Ensemble; Nichole Beeks (FB) Dance Captain, Ensemble; Lucas Blankenhorn (FB) Travelling Salesman, Ensemble; Lucy Bollier Youth Ensemble; Calvin Brady (FB) Conductor, Dance Captain, Ensemble; Samara Gottlieb Gracie Shinn / Youth Ensemble; Tina Hidai (FB) Ensemble; Scotty Jacobson (⭐FB, FB) Ensemble; Rachel Josefina (FB) Ensemble; Cleo Magill (⭐FB, FB) Ensemble; Chet Norment (FB) Travelling Salesman, Ensemble; Camal Pugh (FB) Travelling Salesman, Ensemble; Luke Pryor Youth Ensemble; Aria Surrec Youth Ensemble; Bayley Tanenbaum Youth Ensemble; Joshua Tanenbaum Youth Ensemble; Abigail Thompson Ensemble; Zachary Thompson Youth Ensemble; Spencer Ty (FB) Travelling Salesman, Ensemble; and Weston Walker-Pardee Youth Ensemble. Especially notable were: Dani Gonzalez (as noted earlier) for her joy in the “Shipoopi” number, Tina Hidai for her wonderful facial expressions in the backgrounds during numbers, and Aria Surrec, again, for wonderful facial expressions and performance in the background.

Music was provided by the 5-Star Theatricals Orchestra, under the leadership of Brad Ellis Music Director, Conductor.  The orchestra consisted of: Rhondda Dayton (FB) Flute I, Piccolo; Darryl Tanikawa (FB) Clarinet I, E-flat Clarinet, Soprano Sax, Orchestra Contractor; Ian Dahlberg (FB) Oboe, English Horn, Clarinet II; Gary Rautenberg (FBBass Clarinet, Clarinet III, Flute II, Piccolo II; John Stehney  Bassoon, Bass Sax, Clarinet IV; Bill Barrett (FB) Trumpet I; Chris Maurer (FB) Trumpet II; Michael Fortunato (FB) Trumpet III; June Satton (FB) Trombone I; Nathan Stearns (FB) Trombone II; Robert Coomber (FBBass Trombone; Sharon Cooper Violin I, Concertmaster; Sally Berman Violin II; Judy Garf (FB) Violin III; Rachel Coosaia (FBCellos; Chris Kimbler (FB) Piano, Keyboard Synthesizer; Shane Harry (FB) Upright Double Bass; and Alan Peck Set Drums, Percussion. Darryl Tanikawa (FB) was the Orchestra Contractor. The orchestra was produced by Tanikawa Artists Management LLC.

Finally, turning to the production and creative side. The set and scenery from Brian Wells and The Music and Theatre Company consisted of a number of large locales and flats; about the only problem was the basketball court was missing a basketball hoop. Costumes were a combination of the costume design of Tanya Apuya (FB) and previously developed pieces from Maine State Music Theatre. Whatever the source, they worked well to establish the characters and locales, and were suitably colorful. These designs were supported by the hair and wigs of Jessica Mills (FB) and prop design by Alex Choate (FB). Jonathan Burke (FB)’s sound design was good, as always. Jared A. Sayeg (FB)’s lighting conveyed place and mood well. Rounding out the production credits: Talia Krispelæ (FBProduction Stage Manager; Julian Olive (FB) Stage Manager; Pedro Armendariz (FB) and Rebecca Wade (FB) Asst. Stage Managers; Jack Allaway (FBTechnical DirectorDavid Elzer/Demand PR PublicityFresh Interactive (FBMarketingPatrick Cassidy (FBArtistic Director.

The Music Man continues at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) at the Bank of American Performing Arts Center in Thousand Oaks (the Kavli Theatre) for one more weekend, until October 27, 2019. This is a wonderful production of a theatre classic, and well worth seeing. Tickets are available through the 5-Star Theatricals website; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar.

P.S.: At the end of the show, Adam Pascal stopped the curtain call for an announcement… that actors would be in the hallways after the show with red buckets. I was so expecting him to be collecting for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, but no, it was for 5-Stars Community Outreach efforts. I’m so trained when I hear that announcement. Yes, a donation went in the buckets.

I like to say that I’m a professional audience, and that’s why I like theatre. In my real life, I’m a cybersecurity subject matter expert — an engineer. I don’t have the creativity in me to inhabit other characters, and in general, the writing I do is limited to non-fiction — government documents and policies, highway pages, and reviews like these. I don’t have the ability to take an idea and turn it into characters and stories that might be compelling to an audience. But as I just noted, I’m also a long time cybersecurity professional, and attending years of the Hollywood Fringe Festival has convinced me that the medium of the stage could be used to teach about cybersecurity in a way that audiences could learn, without being overwhelmed with technology. The notion I have is to take some broad cybersecurity themes and concepts and translate them into stories that could teach in a compelling way. But I don’t have the expertise to build a story out of the idea. If this is something that might interest you, please let me know. I don’t have funds for a commission or anything like that, but it might be something we could turn into a property beneficial for all.

🎭

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 (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). 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 Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB),  the Soraya/VPAC (FB), and the Musical Theatre Guild (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 sees us at In Trousers at the Lounge Theatre from Knot Free Productions. October concludes with Mandy Gonzalez at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) and the MoTAS Poker Tournament.

Looking to November, it starts with A Miracle on 34th Street – The Radio Play at  Actors Co-op (FB), followed by Big Daddy the Band of 1959 at McCabes (FB) in Santa Monica.. The second weekend brings Summer at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and The Goodbye Girl at Musical Theatre Guild (FB).  November concludes with Bandstand at Broadway in Thousand Oaks

December is relatively open right now, given that we lose two weekends to ACSAC, and the small theatres are often darker around the holidays. The first weekend (before ACSAC) may bring an outing of our new live theatre group at our synagogue to Eight Nights at the Anteaus Theatre Company (FB).  I do have a hold for December 17 for Elf at Canyon Theatre Guild. I also have a hold for mid-January for What The Constitution Means To Me at the Mark Taper Forum, but I’m waiting for the presale to start to confirm that date. January will also bring Frozen at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and Cirque Éloize at  the Soraya/VPAC (FB). I’m already booking well into 2020.

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. 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. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!

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🎭👗 Cross-Dressing and the Theatre / Perhaps I’m Too Woke

Today, I started playing in the new musical Tootsie from my unplayed list on the iPod. This got me thinking about men dressing up as women in the theatre, and how it is increasingly problematic for woke audiences. Yes, it was traditional in Shakespeare’s day for men to dress as women, because women weren’t allowed on the stage. But I think about the two shows I recently have seen, Irma Vep and Baskerville, and how they had men dressing up as women. I think about shows like Sugar or Hairspray. I think about new musicals like Mrs. Doubtfire, and I have to ask myself: why are still still using this trope.

Think about it: Why do we dress up men as women. There seem to be many messages being sent.

First, that it is funny for a man to dress as a woman, likely because it is viewed as demeaning to do so. Today, that’s just wrong. People can wear whatever they want to wear. We shouldn’t find humor in that. I can see absolutely no reason, other than “traditional”, why Edna Turnblad couldn’t be played by a large woman. The humor in that character is in her size, not her genitals. This, I think, is also the reason for the cross dressing in shows like Vep or Baskerville.

Next, it is because with the man dressed as a woman, they are able to get jobs they were not able to get on their merits as men, and so they take a job away from a woman. TootsieDoubtfire, and Sugar are examples of that. Is it right for men to steal jobs from women by pretending to be women?

There’s also the trope that, as a woman, they are able to say things they weren’t able to say as men. In other words, they dress as women to avoid mansplaining.

Lastly, there’s the bit about dressing as a woman so as to deceive someone to have a relationship with them.

All of these are wrong. Now let’s look at the fewer times that a woman dresses as a man. I can think of three: Victor VictoriaTwo Gentlemen of Verona, and anything based on Twelfth Night. In all these cases, the women is dressing as the man to get some rights or privilege they couldn’t get a woman.

Think about what this says about our society.

I know of only one musical where the show gets cross-dressing right: Kinky Boots. But that’s because it is intentional drag. Priscilla: Queen of the Desert might also get it right for the same reason.

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🎭 Rumors are like Feather Pillowcases | “Anastasia” @ Hollywood Pantages

Anastasia (Hollywood Pantages)The music from Anastasia (and by this, I mean the 1997 animated movie musical) has a special place in my heart, for it was the first movie to which we took our daughter. I remember when we saw it: I liked the music, but the villain in the story was far too comical, and I always felt guilty watching it because it made you cheer for the Czar and his family, when … well, remember those Jews being kicked out of their home in Fiddler on the Roof? That was happening at the request of the Czar. Anastasia was also the musical that introduced me to the music of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (FB). From there, I found Once on this Island, and Ragtime and Suessical and Lucky Stiff and …

So when I learned they were adapting Anastasia into a musical for the stage, I was intrigued. It opened to mixed reviews, but I was sure it was going to tour. I got the album, and found the songs a bit slower than the animated feature. But still, I wanted to see it. Luckily, it was the first show of the 2019-2020 Hollywood Pantages (FB) Season… and so you know where we were last night.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it is based on the true story of Czar Nicholas II, who was executed in the Russian Revolution of 1918. After the execution, rumors persisted that his daughter, the Grand Duchess Anastasia survived. The entire musical is based on that rumor: after establishing the basis of the story and the Czar (and the execution), the action moves to St. Petersburg (Leningrad), where the rumor is circulating. Two schemes plot to find an Anastasia impersonator and sell her to her grandmother living in Paris. They find this young women, Anya, who has no memory of her past but conveniently seems to have snippets that suggest she might be the real thing. Enough practice, and …. off to Paris they go.

But every scheme needs a foil to create drama, and to put difficulties in the way of our protagonists.

In the animated movie, which featured a screenplay by Susan Gauthier, Bruce Graham, Bob Tzudiker, and Noni White, with story by Eric Tuchman (animation adaptation), based on Anastasia by Arthur Laurents and Anastasia by Marcelle Maurette, that foil was Grigori Rasputin, recreated as comically magic and evil, and his anthropomorphic bat assistant, Bartok. But this isn’t Disney, and silly foils like that don’t work. So when the story was reworked by Terrence McNally, he changed the antagonist to a Bolshevik officer, General Gleb Vaganov: a man who both has a crush on Anya, as well as being the son of the guards that shot the Romanov family. His superiors want all traces of the Russian family gone (yet, for some reason, they don’t go after the Dowager Empress in Paris), and order him after them. So he’s torn between carrying out his father’s destiny, and his affection for the girl.

This being a musical, and being a fairy tale, you can guess what happens. Is Anastasia dead? Not so long as she lives in our hearts, right?

The stage musical also keeps some of the elements related to the two men who help Anya become Anastasia: Dmitry still has a connection as a boy to the younger Anastasia; “Count” Vlad Popov still has a connection and past relationship to Countess Lily (Sophie in the movie), the lady-in-waiting of the Dowager Empress in Paris. In fact, Vlad provides some of the best comic relief in the story, both in his interactions with the main trio of Dmitry and Anya, and especially in his interactions with Lily.

The movie was also very fast paced, with a total of 8 songs. They kept 4-5 of those, and added loads of new songs, although many of them use the same underscoring as the original 4-5. This, along with the pace, makes the show feel a bit slower paced.

This is an expansive story, going back and forth in time constantly, and moving from Russia to Paris. It took a creative director to address that, and director Darko Tresnjak (FB) it in a creative way: he eschewed loads of traditional sets, and working closely with scenic designer Alexander Dodge and Projection Designer Aaron Rhyne, leaned heavily into the projection approach to scenic design. The main background and side pillars were HD projection systems, and these were constantly changing, creating beautiful 3-D scenic locals, moving landscapes, even background expositions. Sometimes they were a bit too cartoonish, and at times were a bit too much in motion. A larger concern I have with the projection approach is the limitations this creates for the long life of the show. Regional theatres might have the needed projection technology, but this limits their creativity in the realization of the show. Smaller theatres and high schools? They won’t have it, and will they be able to create the backdrops for the story? I’m unsure, and this could be a problem for the life of this property. Perhaps one day the musical Anastasia will also be  rumor.

The performances were mostly good. In the lead positions were Lila Coogan (FBAnya / Anastasia and Jake Levy (FB) Dmitry. Both are newish actors, and did wonderfully bringing that youthful joy to the roles. We’ve seen Levy before back in the UCLA production of Steel Pier, and enjoyed him then. Coogan brought loads of spunk and fun to the role; in her pixie haircut at the top of Act II, I could just see her doing a great Kathy Seldon in Singing in the Rain. These two were loads of fun.

Also strong was the comic second bananas: Edward Staudenmayer (FB) Vlad and Tari Kelly (FBCountess Lily. Staudenmayer was strong in all his numbers: funny, and with a great voice, great moves, and wonderful comic timing. Kelly also had that comic touch, especially in “Land of Yesterday” and her duet with Staudenmayer, “The Countess and the Comic Man”. The show is almost worth their performances along.

If there was a weak point in the casting, it was Jason Michael Evans (FB) Gleb. He just didn’t have the strength of voice or project the right gravitas to be villainous. He did OK in his main number, “The Neva Flows” and “Still”, but it wasn’t the powerhouse it needs to be.

Rounding out the major roles was Joy Franz (FBDowager Empress. She had a lovely voice, and captured the conflicting emotions of the Dowager Empress wonderfully.

Rounding out the background in various roles was the extremely talented ensemble and swings: Ronnie S. Bowman, Jr (FB) Ensemble; Ashlee Dupré (FB) Ensemble, Olga Romanov, Odette in Swan Lake; Kylie Victoria Edwards (FB) Ensemble, Maria Romanov, Marfa; Alison Ewing (FB) Ensemble, Countess Gregory; Hannah Florence (FB) Swing; Peter Garza (FB) Ensemble, Russian Doorman; Fred Inkley (FB) / Jeremiah Ginn (FB)¤ Ensemble, Gorlinsky, Count Leopold; Brett-Marco Glauser (FB) Ensemble; Brad Greer (FB) Ensemble, Tzar Nicholas II, Count Ipolitov, Count Gregory; Tamra Hayden (⭐FB, FB) Ensemble; Lucy Horton (FB) Ensemble, Tzarina Alexandra; Kourtney Keitt (FB) / Sareen Tchekmedyian (FB)¤ Ensemble, Tatiana Romanov, Dunya; Mark MacKillop (⭐FB, FB) / Kenneth Michael Murray (⭐FB, FB)¤ Ensemble, Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake; Ryan Mac (⭐FB, FB) EnsembleDelilah Rose Pillow / Eloise Vaynshtokº Little Anastasia, Alexei Romanov; Taylor Quick (FB) Ensemble, Young Anastasia, Paulina; Matt Rosell (FB) Ensemble;  and Lyrica Woodruff (FB) Ensemble, Olga Romanov, Odette in Swan Lake. All were strong dancers, and had great facial expressions and movement for their characters.
¤ indicates swing who swung into this role at our performance; ° indicates performs Saturday matinee and Sunday evening.

Dance and movement in the show, which was choreographed by Peggy Hickey (FB), was in general strong, especially in the palace dance numbers and the ballet numbers. Other dance related credits: David Chase Dance Arrangements; Bill Burns (FB) Assoc Choreographer; Jeff Barry Fight DirectorKenneth Michael Murray (⭐FB, FBDance Captainand Rachel E. Winfield (FB) Fight Captain.

As noted earlier, the show featured music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, with orchestrations by Doug Besterman and vocal arrangements by Stephen Flaherty. Tom Murray was the Music Supervisor. Lawrence Goldberg served as music director and conductor of the orchestra, which consisted of (🌴 indicates LA local): Valerie Gebert Asst Conductor, Keyboard 2; Ryan Sigurdson (FB) Keyboard I; 🌴 Jen Choi Fischer (FB) Violin / Concertmistress; 🌴 Grace Oh (FB) Violin/Viola; 🌴 Ira Glansbeek Cello; 🌴 Ian Walker (FB) Bass; 🌴 Jeff Driskill (FB) Flute / Piccolo / Clarinet / Alto Sax; 🌴 Richard Mitchell Clarinet / Flute / Tenor Sax / Oboe / English Horn; 🌴 Aaron Smith (FB) Trumpet / Flugelhorn; 🌴 Laura Brenes (FB) French Horn; 🌴 Charlie Morillas (FB) Tenor Trombone; and 🌴 Bruce Carver PercussionOther music credits: Mary Ekler (🎼FB, FB) Keyboard Sub; 🌴 Eric Heinly (FB) Orchestra Contractor; Michael Aarons (FB) Music Coordinator; Randy Cohen (FB) Keyboard Programmer.  Overall, the orchestra had a very lush sound and sounded great.

Finally, turning to production and creative side. I’ve already talked about the scenic and projection design of scenic designer Alexander Dodge and Projection Designer Aaron Rhyne, and how it was both creative, and may prove to be a hindrance when this gets to the regional and local production level. Peter Hylenski (FB)’s sound design was reasonably clear for the Pantages, although some words in the songs were lost in the cavernous space. Donald Holder‘s lighting design established mood and such well, but at times was in competition with the projections. Linda Cho‘s costume design, Charles G. LaPointe‘s Wig/Hair Designs, and Joe Dulude II‘s makeup designs combined to make the actors into the characters they needed to be. Other production credits: Telsey + Company (FB) Casting; Richard A. Leigh (FBProduction Stage Manager; Rachel E. Winfield (FB) Stage Manager; Ellen Goldberg (FB) Asst Stage Manager; Denny Daniello Company Manager; Aurora Productions Production Management; RCI Theatricals General Manager; Bond Theatrical Group Tour Marketing and Publicity Direction; The Booking Group Tour Booking Agency; and Dmitry Bogachev Commissioned By. That last credit is perhaps the most interesting: Bogachev is CEO of the theatre company “Moscow Broadway LLC”, founder of the Russian division of the international live entertainment company Stage Entertainment, member of The Broadway League, initiator of the Broadway business model in Russian theatre. Could Anastasia be big in the post-Bolshevik Russian market?

Anastasia: The New Broadway Musical continues at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) through October 27.  Tickets are available through the Pantages website. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar and TodayTix. The musical is entertaining, although with the young touring cast a few performances can be a bit stronger. Overall the show was entertaining, although not that intellectually deep or historically accurate. Don’t think about it too much, and you’ll be OK.

I like to say that I’m a professional audience, and that’s why I like theatre. In my real life, I’m a cybersecurity subject matter expert — an engineer. I don’t have the creativity in me to inhabit other characters, and in general, the writing I do is limited to non-fiction — government documents and policies, highway pages, and reviews like these. I don’t have the ability to take an idea and turn it into characters and stories that might be compelling to an audience. But as I just noted, I’m also a long time cybersecurity professional, and attending years of the Hollywood Fringe Festival has convinced me that the medium of the stage could be used to teach about cybersecurity in a way that audiences could learn, without being overwhelmed with technology. The notion I have is to take some broad cybersecurity themes and concepts and translate them into stories that could teach in a compelling way. But I don’t have the expertise to build a story out of the idea. If this is something that might interest you, please let me know. I don’t have funds for a commission or anything like that, but it might be something we could turn into a property beneficial for all.

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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 (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). 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 Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB),  the Soraya/VPAC (FB), and the Musical Theatre Guild (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 third weekend of October brings us back to the Kavli for The Music Man at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), followed by In Trousers at the Lounge Theatre from Knot Free Productions. October concludes with Mandy Gonzalez at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) and the MoTAS Poker Tournament.

Looking to November, it starts with A Miracle on 34th Street – The Radio Play at  Actors Co-op (FB), followed by Big Daddy the Band of 1959 at McCabes (FB) in Santa Monica.. The second weekend brings Summer at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and The Goodbye Girl at Musical Theatre Guild (FB).  November concludes with Bandstand at Broadway in Thousand Oaks

December is relatively open right now, given that we lose two weekends to ACSAC, and the small theatres are often darker around the holidays. The first weekend (before ACSAC) may bring an outing of our new live theatre group at our synagogue to Eight Nights at the Anteaus Theatre Company (FB).  I do have a hold for December 17 for Elf at Canyon Theatre Guild. I also have a hold for mid-January for What The Constitution Means To Me at the Mark Taper Forum, but I’m waiting for the presale to start to confirm that date. January will also bring Frozen at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and Cirque Éloize at  the Soraya/VPAC (FB). I’m already booking well into 2020.

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. 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. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!

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