What Price, Silence? | “A Man for All Seasons” at Actors Co-Op

A Man for All Seasons (Actors Co-Op)What is your responsibility to your internal moral compass, and how does that responsibility change when your compass points a different direction than your national leadership? This is a question that many of us face today: We have compass that teach us compassion for others, to be reasonable stewards of the world, to strive for equity and equality and even tempers. We have respect for the rule of law, and withhold judgement until we have the facts. We respect others, be they different sexes, genders, colors, abilities. But we are faced with an administration that seems to abandon those values — in fact, it thumbs its nose at what many of us respect, taking actions that appear to serve only the self interest of the ruling family and the oligarchs. Our elected officials? They seem to have no moral compass, worrying only about their own political lives and careers, and seeming to do or say only that which keeps them in office and in favor of the current administration.

But this is nothing new. Back in the era of the Showtime show The Tudors, there was a similar situation with King Henry VIII. He had tired of his wife, and wanted another woman. The only thing standing in his way was the Catholic Church, church canon, and church law. So he pressured his Bishops to find a way for him to divorce his wife, and when he couldn’t, he fired them and brought in new leadership. He bullied his administration to create a new church where he would be the supreme leader, and demanded an oath of sovereignty from all accepting that his way was the right and divine way. If you wouldn’t agree, it was the towers, torture, and beheading in your future.

But one man thought he had figured out a way to beat the system. He disagreed with the King — his moral and religious principals told him that the King did not have this authority. But he was a lawyer, and so he didn’t speak his beliefs. He stayed silent and attempted to work tightly within the law. Even when the Oath was being enforced, he stayed silent on what he thought was wrong — because silence signaled neither assent or dissent. But when the King wants an answer, silence is taken as resistance. As he would not speak up for the King, he must be against the King. And so, in the end, his head rolled like many others. He was a martyr for his silence.

He was Sir Thomas More, and he was the subject of the play just finishing its run at the  Actors Co-op (FB) in Hollywood, A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt (which we saw last night). It was a story with which I had been familiar, being addicted to The Tudors when it was on (plus going to Ren Faire). More was a man with strong and unwavering moral conditions, but who did not speak up or act (other than to resign) . The situation of More had lots of parallels with the situation this nation is facing with Donald Trump.

The production was also an interesting juxtaposition of play and the mission of Actors Co-Op. Being Jewish, I’m always a bit troubled by the religious aspect of this theatre group, whose mission states they are a company of Christian actors driven by passion for the Lord Jesus Christ. I’m always worried a bit about proselytizing or particular themes in productions. However, the quality of the productions wins me over. I felt their mission a bit more with this show — in particular, I felt them not being silent through it. For as much as the evangelicals back Trump, the President’s actions and behavior are decidedly non-Christian. They show none of the compassion shown by Jesus towards the poor and the stranger; they have none of the social justice component of Christ’s ministry (and none of the social justice of the Old Testament and Jewish beliefs). This belief is social justice is shown in the ministry of Actor’s Co-Op sponsoring organization, the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. I believe that, through this show, Actors Co-Op wasn’t being silent: they were saying that Trump’s values are not Christian values, and that people attempting to claim they are do so to preserve their power and position, not to make the world a better place.

I applaud Actors Co-Op for this reminder. Sir Thomas More went to the gallows for being silent and not speaking up. Had a person of More’s moral conviction and standing spoken up sooner, might things have changed. Challenging authority with the truth is dangerous, but vital if change is to occur and the world is to become a better place. This production made you think about the need to speak up and the need to stand for what is right, even in the face of personal danger. If you can, speak; if you can’t, let your silence be a thorn in the side of authority. Don’t let misguided authorities go easy into the good night.

Director Thom Babbes brought out strong performances from his acting ensemble, drawing you in and keeping your focus on the story. This is a dark story with an ending that isn’t happy, but he found a way to bring in just enough humor and bathos to not let the darkness overwhelm. The actors were believable when necessary, but there was enough in the staging to remind you that this was a play, and that what you were seeing wasn’t real life. This, in turn, made our real life situation even scarier, as the parallels became clearer.

In the lead position was Bruce Ladd as Sir Thomas More. Ladd gave an outstanding performance: strong and yet personable, forceful and believable, yet with warmth underneath. It was just riveting. Also strong was Co-Op regular Deborah Marlowe, who portrayed “The Common Man”. This was a role the brought together all the minor characters from stewards to boatmen to innkeepers to jurors to jailors, and also served as the narrator and framing device for the story. As such, Marlowe got to portray numerous different characters and personalities, and she did so with aplomb and skill, and was just a joy to watch.

More’s family was portrayed by Treva Tegtmeier as his wife, Lady Alice More; Elsa Gay as his daughter, Lady Margaret More, and Issac Jay as his eventual son-in-law, William Roper. All gave great performances, I particularly liked the flashes of character from Gay.

In the circle of acquaintances and friends of More — at least initially — were Sean McHugh as The Duke of Norfolk and Michell Lam Hau as Master Richard Rich. McHugh’s Duke came off as a gregarious sort who was truly friends with More, and did what he could to save him from his fate — but ultimately, failed. Hau’s Rich was more of an opportunist: he was there to get the better job and the better pay, and didn’t let philosophies trouble him. This explains why this character came off as the Toady he was, especially with respect to Cromwell.

The mention of Cromwell brings us to what I would call the King’s circle: John Allee as Thomas Cromwell; Greg Martin as Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer; Vito Viscuso as Signor Chapuys, the Spanish Ambassador; and Ian Michaels as King Henry VIII.  Allee gave a chilling portrayal of a determined Cromwell, and Viscuso was a warm and welcoming Chapuys. Viscuso and Michaels really only had a few scenes, but were good in them.

Turning to the production side of things: Rich Rose‘s Scenic Design was simple but effective: a space with a generic square background; some boxes on stage from which props could be extracted, some stairs, and tables. But with the imagination, it worked well. This was augmented by Shon Leblanc‘s costumes, which seemed appropriately period for the caste and time. Lisa D. Katz‘s lights served to augment the mood, and Juan Sanson‘s sound design provided the appropriate sound effects. Other production credits: Eric White – Stage Manager; Thomas Zabilski – Asst Stage Manager; Selah Victor – Production Manager; and Carly Lopez – Producer.

Due to a change in the schedule, our “early bird” tickets for A Man for All Seasons turned into tickets for the penultimate performance; the final performance is occurring as I write this. The next production at  Actors Co-op (FB) is Violet, running May 11-June 17, 2018.

***

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

The third weekend of April brings Bad Jews at The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB) on Friday, followed by The Hunchback of Notre Dame at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) (nee Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)) on Saturday. The last weekend of April sees us travelling for a show, as we drive up to San Jose to see friends as well as Adrift in Macao at The Tabard Theatre Company (FB).

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

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

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Definitely, This is #2 – “Love Never Dies” @ Pantages

Love Never Dies (Pantages)When you go to theatre as much as I, you learn there are a number of adages. The first is that the perfect subscription season is rare. There is typically one clunker that you need to endure because you’re that interested in the rest of the season (and, admit it, watching a well-orchestrated train wreck can be quite entertaining). Another is that, with musicals, sequels never work. From Annie 2/Annie Warbucks to Bring Back Birdie to The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public to even A Doll’s Life — they seem to be doomed to failure (there’s only one successful musical trilogy, of which the latter two-thirds became one musical, Falsettos, also this is a little less true for actual plays, where sequels (Clybourne Park), trilogies (the Eugene Trilogy), and even longer sequences are successful). These two adages came together Saturday night at the  Hollywood Pantages (FB), when we had our series subscription tickets to Love Never Dies, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber (FB), lyrics by Glenn Slater (FB) (and additional lyrics by Charles Hart), based on a book by Ben Elton, which in turn was based on the book The Phantom of Manhattan by Frederick ForsythLove Never Dies is the sequel to the blockbuster Phantom of the Opera, taking place in 1908, ten years after the events in Phantom (which occurred in 1881). Don’t sweat the math. They didn’t.

As usual, this writeup will go in my usual order: my thoughts on the plot and the book (including a synopsis), then we’ll look at the acting and the production/creative teams and aspects. Hint: Those latter two aspects were good. As for the first, let’s just say you can use the number two in a different context.

Love Never Dies moves the action to America and the carnival that was Coney Island at the turn of the 20th Century. The Phantom, having escaped/faked his death in Paris, has been smuggled to the US by Madame Giry (the balletmistress in Phantom), and set up in a Phantasm carnival together with Mme. Giry’s daughter, Meg. Meg is hoping to get the Phantom’s attention and affection, but he is still pining for Christine Daaé (his object d’obsession in Paris). But — surprise of surprise — he learns Christine and her husband, Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny are coming to the US to sing at the request of Oscar Hammerstein. So guess what happens? Yup, he arrives first, squirrels them off to Phantasma at Coney Island, and then begins to haunt and pine. Christine and Raoul have brought along their son, Gustave, who is just about 10 years old (you do the math — see the first paragraph), who wants to see Coney Island. I think you can see the various triangles that have been set up. I will note that at the end, I turned to my wife and said: Part III – My Two Dads, as the Phantom and Raoul raise Gustave. It’s just so — today.

If you want a more detailed synopsis, read the Wikipedia synopsis of the 2010 Australian version, as that’s the version on tour. This production has not been on Broadway. It was about to go when it first left London, but critical reaction there led to a retooling. This led to the Australian version, which as marginally more successful. That’s what’s on tour, and rumor has it that it won’t be going to New York. As for cast albums, what is on Amazon is the Original CONCEPT Album, and many songs there have been tossed or rearranged (per a great interview with Glenn Slater on Broadway Bullet). The tour is selling the Australian Cast album for $35 (ouch), and it isn’t available elsewhere.

So what did we think of the show?

First, if you are a Phantom lover, what we think doesn’t matter. Phantom lovers will ignore the story, love the performances, love the romance (and no, you can’ use that as your pull quote) and be completely teary eyed at the end.  They will be happy, as will much of the blithely unaware Pantages audience that only knows the spectacle and doesn’t think much further.

As for the rest of us….

I tried to look at this show from a number of levels: First, how well did it stand-alone (i.e., how much context was required)? Second, did I enjoy the show? I’ll note that I’m not an ALW fan, but I’m not an ALW hater either. I quite like Evita, and I’m looking forward to School of Rock, which is from the same team. I think Cats is a spectacular dance show. I don’t like Jesus Christ Superstar, but that’s because I’m Jewish and it just gives of an antisemitic vibe. But I could never get into Phantom. I saw it ages ago. I never saw the romance in the show; the memory it left was something deep and ponderous, with a few songs that become earworms and a few good novelty songs. I truthfully didn’t remember the characters.

So as to the first question: Not remembering the characters, I found that I was lacking the backstory that would make Love Never Dies instantly accessible. There were relationships and clues and passions that I just couldn’t glom onto because I didn’t know them. The opening exposition was inadequate to draw the audience into that context; there wasn’t anything in the program to provide that context. For a sequel to work, this is a problem. The show must not require seeing something else first in order to understand what is on stage.

As to the story: The first thought I had watching it was: This seems entirely inappropriate for the #MeToo world of today. Here you have someone who has mentally and physically abused and tormented a woman, where the central point of the show is his getting back with that woman for a second chance. Come again? How does that play in today’s world, unless the show is just her standing up to him and making him wear a mask somewhat lower on his physique as rips something off his body. But that’s not the show — instead we have intimated abuse and gaslighting. It just comes off wrong and dark and ponderous. I’m pleased to see I’m not the only one with that view, as the LA Times wrote:

The storytelling twists itself into knots trying to make the Phantom less icky, most notably by attempting to convince us that Christine was more enamored of him in the first musical than we might have suspected. Still, with the tale barely underway, the Phantom not only abducts Christine once again, but her family as well. He later flies into a rage with Christine, then begs forgiveness. And once he meets the musically precocious Gustave, he develops a worrisome fixation on the boy as well.

The Phantom’s behavior is exactly what #MeToo is calling out right now.

Moving past the wrong direction of the storyline, there is the basic Phantom style itself, which comes across as melodrama: overplayed for the sympathy, perhaps to hide that there’s really nothing there. If you think in terms of character changes from the events in the story, who has changed? The Phantom? Hardly. His behavior hasn’t indicated he learned anything at all from his behavior during the show. Christine? Nope. Raoul? Again, he’s not a better dad, and there’s no evidence he gambles less. Meg? Unclear. No one really changes. They are the same wretches we saw at the beginning. I’m not sure there was a particular point being made through this story.

Further, after rereading the synopsis of the original show, the central catalyst incident for this entire show might not even have happened at all. You need to suspend your disbelief in that one incident. If you’re a romantic Phantom fan, you can. The rest of us?

So the book, in general, just does not work, and probably cannot be made to work…. unless they decide to focus on the portion of the story that is of interest: a story that takes place in a circus in Coney Island in 1908, and just jettison the characters from Phantom. Create new characters that we care about, and let the story change them from living in this environment. Perhaps that was done already with Side Show?

As with Phantom, the music consists of a number of melodies, repeated and repeated (and repeated and repeated (and repeated and repeated (and repeated and …)))). There are a few good novelty musical numbers, but it is telling when the circus sideshow numbers and circus leaders are much more interesting than the primary leads. I know that ALW and Slater can do better — I’ve heard the cast album of “School of Rock”, and it is great — and from ALW and Slater. This was written in the ponderous and dark style of the original Phantom. Luckily, we were at an open-captioned performance, so I could actually read what that characters were saying.

So, besides the book and the music, did I enjoy the show?

I’m pleased to say that, aside from the story, the performances themselves were great. I’d like to start not with the leads but the first three performers we see on the stage: Fleck, Gangle, and Squelch, portrayed by Katrina Kemp (FB), Stephen Petrovich (FB), and Richard Koons (FB), respectively. These were extremely unique performers (particularly Kemp, who is a little person), unlike what you see on the stage today — more appropriate to Cirque de Soleil. As such, your eyes were drawn to them whenever they were on stage. They sang strong from the opening “Coney Island Waltz”, and moved strong, but most importantly, they created the sideshow environment that characterized this show. As the rest of the ensemble joined them, you were drawn to the wide variety of shapes and portrayals and talents. It was this troupe that actually made the show as spectacular as it was.

Of course, that’s not what the Phantom Romantics will say. For them, it was Gardar Thor Cortes (FB)’s Phantom, and Meghan Picerno (FB)’s Christine that were the stars. It is true they had spectacular, operatic voices that were a joy to close your eyes and listen to. Their execution on their numbers such as “‘Til I Hear You Sing” or “Love Never Dies” — the first time you hear them — is lovely. They showed romance and passion. But to me, the Phantom was cape and flash, a two-dimensional and wooden portrayal. I don’t think that is the actor — I think that’s the writing and the idea, and yes, an extension of how the Phantom was in the original. Picerno’s Christine had more flashes of spirit and light, but was ultimately too operatic in her performance to capture the character as fluid.

The next tier of characters, Sean Thompson (FB)’s Raoul, Mary Michael Patterson‘s Meg, and Karen Mason (FB)’s Mme Giry, were much more spirited. Thompson captured Raoul’s cad aspects quite well, and Patterson’s Meg was just a delight to watch (especially in the Bathing Beauty scene).  Mason captured the evil expression of Mme Giry, while not turning her into quite a caricature villain. All sang strongly. I particularly enjoyed Thompson in “Devil Take The Hindmost” and Patterson in “Bathing Beauty”.

A big surprise was Jake Heston Miller (FB)’s  Gustave (he alternates with Casey Lyons (FB)).  Miller was a very strong performer, with a lovely voice and great expression.

Rounding out the cast were the members of the ensemble: Chelsey Arce [Asst. Dance Captain], Diana DiMarzio (FB[u/s Mme Giry], Tyler Donahue (FB[u/s Gangle], Yesy Garcia (FB[u/s Fleck], Tamar Greene (FB), Natalia LePore Hagan (FB), Lauren Lukacek (FB[u/s Mme Giry], Alyssa McAnany (FB[u/s Meg Giry], Rachel Anne Moore (FB[Christine-Alternate], Bronson Norris Murphy (FB[Phantom-Alternate], Dave Schoonover (FB[u/s Phantom, u/s Raoul, u/s Gangle], John Swapshire IV (FB), Kelly Swint (FB[u/s Meg Giry, u/s Fleck], Lucas Thompson (FB[u/s Squelch], and Arthur Wise (FB[u/s Squelch]. Swings were Erin Chupinsky (FB[Dance Captain], Alyssa Giannetti (FB[u/s Christine], Adam Soniak (FB), and Correy West (FB). Additional understudies were: Michael Gillis (FB[u/s Phantom, u/s Raoul]. As I noted earlier, the ensemble was strong and a joy to watch. If you are close enough (or brought your binoculars), watch their wonderfully expressive faces.

The production was directed by Simon Philips, and choreographed by Graeme Murphy AO. Together, these two are responsible for the second great part of this show: the staging and movement. Irrespective of the weak book, the movement and spectacle on the stage was a joy to watch. From magical movement and circuses to mermaids in a box, from the large and the small, the visual aspects were quite strong and distracting from the weak book. But not quite enough.

Thirdly, the music of the show, as one would expect, was quite lush. Credit here goes to the music director, Dale Rieling (FB), and his orchestra: Eric Kang (FB[Asst. Conductor, Keys 3]; Dominic Raffa (FB[Keys 1]; David Robinson (FB[Keys 2]; Dmitriy Milkumov (FB[Concertmaster]; Hector J. Rodriguez (FB[French Horn]Gary Cordell (FB[Trumpet]; Ric Becker (FB[Bass Trombone, Tuba]; Aaron Nix (FB[Percussion];  Grace Oh (FB), Jen Choi Fisher (FB), Lesa Terry (FB), Ina Veli [Local-Violins]; Karen Elaine, Jody Rubin [Local-Violas]; Ira Glansbeek [Local-Cello]; Sara Andon [Local-Reed 1]; Richard Mitchell [Local-Reed 2]; Jeff Driskill [Local-Reed 3]; Judith Farmer [Local-Bassoon]; Michael Valerio [Local-Contra Bass]; and Steve Becknell [Local-French Horn]. Other music credits: Stuart Andrews [Keyboard Programmer]; Eric Heinly [Local Music Contractor]; Kristen Blodgette [Music Supervisor]; David Lai and Talitha Fehr [Music Coordinator]; David Cullen and Andrew Lloyd Webber (FB) [Orchestrations].

Lastly, there is the creative and production team, and the miraculous sets by Gabriela Tylesova (who also designed the costumes). Again, here the circus aspects win out. The leads costumes were what you would expect, suits ties and fancy dresses. The circus performers, and the world they lived in, was just magical. This was assisted by the wig and hair design of Backstage Artistry. Nick Schlieper‘s lighting design established the mood well, and Mick Potter‘s sound design was adequate in the cavernous space that is the Pantages (although the open captions helped quite a bit). Other production credits: Edward Pierce [Design Supervisor]; Randy Moreland (FB[Technical Direction]; Tara Rubin Casting and Lindsay Levine CSA [Casting]; Anna E. Bate [Production Manager]; Karen Berry [General Manager]; Aaron Quintana [Company Manager]; Daniel S. Rosokoff [Production Stage Manager]; Gavin Mitford [Associate Director]; Simon Sault [Associate Choreographer]; Eric H. Mayer [Stage Manager]; and Lauren Cavanaugh [Assistant Stage Manager].

Love Never Dies continues at the Hollywood Pantages through April 22. Discount tickets may be available on Goldstar and other outlets. If you love Phantom or are an ALW completeist, this is worth seeing. As for the rest of you, save your funds for School of Rock.

Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra (VPAC/Soraya)Note: Two days before this, we saw the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra at  the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). This was a concert of big band jazz, and I didn’t write down a set list. So there’s isn’t a formal review, other than to note that this is another great big band jazz group with CSUN alumni (others include Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Big Phat Band). We enjoyed the show quite a lot.

***

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

Next weekend brings A Man for All Seasons” at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend of April brings Bad Jews at The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB) on Friday, followed by The Hunchback of Notre Dame at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) (nee Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)) on Saturday. The last weekend of April sees us travelling for a show, as we drive up to San Jose to see friends as well as Adrift in Macao at The Tabard Theatre Company (FB).

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

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

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A Second Chance | “Steel Pier” @ UCLA TFT

Steel Pier (UCLA TFT)Back in 1997, I remember watching the Tony Awards and seeing the scene from the nominated musical Steel Pier, with music by Fred Kander and John Ebb, and book by David Thompson.* I loved the dance, and I loved the music. The Tony Award voters didn’t, and the show lost all 11 nominations (including Best Musical, to Titantic, The Musical. However, I quickly went out and got the CD. I still enjoy the score to this day. However, the show faded quickly on Broadway, and never went on tour. In particular, it surprisingly never made it out to Los Angeles.
(*: It is interesting to note that much of this team is returning in 2018 with a new show.)

Luckily, the UCLA School of Television, Film, and Theatre (FB) remedied that failure, including the show as part of its 2017-2018 Main Stage Season. It entered my theatre RADAR when I learned of their season (and I should note, given this show, I plan to go back to more of their productions). I started scanning Goldstar for discount tickets; when they came online just before we were about to sit down at Candide a few weeks ago, I grabbed them on the Goldstar app.

Seeing Steel Pier allowed me to continue my quest: to see musicals I have only heard. I find this helps me understand the story better. That was certainly true for Steel Pier.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it is the story of a dance marathon on the famed Steel Pier at Atlantic City. Dance marathons were the Survivor of the 1930s: couples would sign up and dance, continuously, for 45 minutes every hour, until only one couple was left. These marathons could go on for weeks and weeks. All this for a cash prize.

Kander, Ebb, and Thomson, working with Scott Ellis and Susan Stroman, used this setting of a story of a C-level celebrity, Rita Racine, the first woman to kiss Charles Lindburgh when he returned from France.  Rita and her secret husband, Mick Hamilton, had kept themselves afloat through the dance marathon business, with Mick MCing the marathon, and engineering things so Rita would win. But this marathon was to be Rita’s last … so she thought. Her partner having not shown up, she teams up with a hot-dog aviator for the marathon. From thereon, the show is a marathon of dancing, specialty numbers, and romance, as we learn about all of the couples. We learn of Mick’s plot for Rita, her goals and desires, and who the aviator really is. We also see Rita finally decide to take charge of her life, seizing upon the second chance this marathon granted her.

The plot is much more complicated than that; you can read a detailed synopsis on Wikipedia. When the show was first performed on Broadway, critics were expecting another Caberet or Chicago (whose revival had just recently reopened). They instead found a different story — something more spiritual, something less cynical. Their conclusion: They wrote it off as bland, but with strong dancing. It didn’t help that the Rita’s husband and marathon MC, Mick Hamilton, was exposed as a swarmy huckster who used and abused women and people. He was the person that drove the story forward, but was intensely unlikable. Even Kristen Chenowith, for whom this show was her Broadway debut, thought the show might have been something Broadway wasn’t yet ready for.

I would tend to agree. In 1997, the NY Times would write: “Mick is set up in tidy opposition to the show’s other male lead, Bill Kelly, a handsome, enigmatic exhibition pilot who falls hard for Rita, his partner in the marathon. You’re right in thinking there’s something otherworldly about this fellow, whose presence tends to set off angel chimes and campy, harmonic celestial voices. Borrowed from vintage movie fantasies like ”Stairway to Heaven,” he represents, as one of the show’s songs baldly puts it, Rita’s ”second chance” at the life she wants.” Back then, 20 years ago, they were seizing on the spiritual aspect of the show. But 2018 is the era of #MeToo, of woman standing up to harassment. It is an era where, on the UCLA campus, they just canned a history professor for such behavior. Today, the show comes across as Rita finally standing up to the manipulator in her life, and kicking him to the curb rather than continuing to put up with his abuse. The aviator’s mystical return is less for him to fulfill his romantic fantasy, but more as the universe providing that second chance, that angel on her shoulder showing Rita that she deserved better, and she can have better than the marathon life.

Seeing UCLA’s exhilarating production of Steel Pier makes me think that this is yet another show that is ripe for a Broadway revival. Instead of trotting back the old-chestnuts (I’m looking at you, Hello Dolly and the forthcoming My Fair Lady), explore some shows that may have been ahead of their times, that provide interesting and entertaining new commentary of today’s situations — such as Steel Pier or Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle. The world wasn’t ready for Chicago when it premiered in 1985; by the 1990s, the OJ trial had made it relevant. #MeToo makes this show relevant and something to be seen.

Under the direction of Adjunct Professor Jeremy Mann, Director of Singing for the UCLA Ray Bolger Musical Program, this production scintillates. There are little things that I presume are directorial touches: a sardonic look here, a playful pause there, aspects of timing and movement, or even background character pairing (I distinctly think that I saw hints of gay characters and a lesbian relationship, which I’m sure weren’t there in ’97), that elevated this production. This production was at the level of a musical I’d see on any mid-size or large stage in Los Angeles — and considering this was student talent — that’s quite a statement. This director deserves credit for molding this student team into a remarkable ensemble. He was aided in this endeavor by Christine Kellogg, who had to work with the student talent to master the art of 1930s dance and the wide variety of styles — and like any marathon, this show had the dancers dancing on-stage for much of the show. A lot of work, and a delight to watch. I contrast this with the recent Dublin Irish Dance I saw. At that show, there was precision, but not fun or joy. Here was dance precision and joy and fun.

The talented actors in this show I expect to see again and again in productions in Los Angeles, and am sure they will have further success on Broadway and other stages. At the top of that list was the lead for this show, Shelby Talley (FB), who played Rita Racine, Lindy’s Lovebird. This young woman could sing and dance spectacularly, and she truly captured the dramatic aspects of Rita. This was best seen by watching her face during songs like “Wet” or “Running in Place”, or in the opening number “Willing to Ride”. She was just a delight to watch.

Her romantic interest, Bill Kelly, was portrayed by James Olivas (FB). We’ve seen Olivas before in 5-Star Theatrical’s Joseph, and were impressed with him then.  He had a lovely warm singing voice, great dancing, and a wonderful acting style that brought both humor and emotion to the role. Again, watch him closely during the “Wet” number, or his playfulness during “Second Chance”. A delight to watch.

The other male lead was Jake Levy (FB) as Rita’s secret husband and marathon MC, Mick Hamilton. Levy had the thankless job of being an unlikable character. He did this very well, capturing the smarminess of Mick, the anger, the hatred, and the drive, without the problems that seemingly plagued Gregory Harrison on Broadway. He had a good singing voice, as well as good comic timing, as demonstrated in his number “A Powerful Thing”.

In the second tier of characters we have a number of specialty characters. As Mr. Walker, Mick’s assistant and henchman, Nick McKenna (FB) showed a remarkable comic flair, especially during the aformentioned “A Powerful Thing” number — his humorous looks and reactions and singing during that number were just a delight. Another notable performer was Claudia Baffo (FB) as Shelby Stevens. Stevens is the “seen-it-all” oversexed professional marathoner. She captured this well in her specialty number “Everybody’s Girl”, as well as showing the character’s tender side during “Somebody Older”. She was also a strong dancer. A third notable second tier character was Molly Livingston (FB)’s Precious McGuire. This was Kristen Chenowith’s Broadway debut role, and Livingston would have done her proud. She captured both the voice and the humor behind “Two Little Words”, and was a remarkable dancer as well.

The remaining second tier characters don’t get singing highlights (technically, the character of Luke Adams (Shelby’s partner) (Ty Koeller (FB)) gets a harmonica solo, but that was covered by the orchestra — in particular, based on his FB, by Scott Senior (FB), who did an excellent job). They do, however, dance and perform like gangbusters. Notable amongst this  tier were the “brother and sister team” of Bette Becker and Buddy Becker, portrayed by Katie Emery (FB) and Calvin Brady (FB). Both could dance up a storm, and I was particularly taken by Emery’s dancing. Brady’s Buddy was more of an enigma. For a minute, just given the look, I wasn’t sure if they were playing on the sexuality of the character; later, I thought they were making it out to be a more gay character. Nothing was said; this was performance and look along. I think it worked well, especially for that time. Also notable, in a similar vein, was Marlena Becker (FB)’s Dora Foster, whose dance partner was Olympic Champion Johnny Adel (Justin Baker (FB)). There appeared to be points where Dora was being comforted, in a “very close” fashion, by another female actor (I’m guessing Shelby Barry (FB)’s Hannah Misiano). Again, I’m not sure this was in the original, but I thought it was a nice, in the background, updating touch. Barry’s Hannah was partnered with Grant Hodges (FB)’s Dom Misiano. Rounding out the named dance couples was Precious McGuire’s partner, Happy McGuire, played by Michael Wells (FB). He had a very touching scene in “Somebody Older”.

Providing a singing backup to Mick Hamilton were “Mick’s Picks”, a singing trio consisting of Nicolette Norgaard (FB), Naama Shaham (FB), and Aliyah Imani Turner (FB). For most of the show, they don’t get to do more than sing and hold signs, however there were interesting flashes of character during some of the scenes in Act II that I really liked.

Rounding out the dancers were the members of the ensemble, who created rotating dance teams throughout the show. The ensemble consisted of Toni France (FB), Sara Gilbert (FB), Haleyann Hart (FB), Kelsey Kato (FB), Charles Platt (FB), Max Risch (FB), Brandon Root (FB), Olly Sholotan (FB), and Kelsey Smith (FB). Of these folks, the one that sticks in my mind is Olly Sholotan, who did some remarkable acrobatic moves in his dancing.  [: Dance Captain; : Fight Captain]

Unseen, but not unheard, were the pit singers: Michael Fajardo (FB), Molly Grant (FB), Ariana Perlson (FB), and Scott Senior (FB).

Music was provided by an onstage orchestra — quite apropos for a marathon in the Big Band era. The orchestra, under the music direction of Dan Belzer (FB), consisted of Sean Bart (FB) and Eric Kong (FB[Keyboards]; Barry Saperstein (FB[Drums]; Dorothy Micklea (FB[Percussion]; Richard Adkins (FB[Violin]; Beverly Shih [Viola]; Chris Ahn (FB[Cello]; Jeff Takiguchi [Bass]; Rob Crosby (FB), Ian Dahlberg (FB), Phil Moore (FB), and Scott Senior (FB) [Reeds]; Dustin McKinney (FB) and Tim Rubottom (FB[Trumpets]; Lori Stuntz (FB) and May Zeng [Trombones], and Julian Sazo [Horn]. The orchestra had a great big band sound.

Finally turning to the production and design credits. It should be noted that all production aspects have been executed by students enrolled in UCLA Department of Theatre Courses in scenery, costuming, lighting, sound, and advanced theatre laboratories.  That said: The scenic design was by Tatiana Kuilanoff, and worked quite well: consisting of an area in front of the orchestra with a movable bandstand for Mick, and an upper level used for various purposes. Costume design was by Caitlin Kagawa and seemed appropriately period — in particular, the dresses for the ladies and the suspenders for the men. The sound design by Ryan Marsh was appropriately directional and there were some great sound effects; further, the amplification for the performers worked well. Zach Titterington‘s lighting design established mood well. Brynna Mason (FB) was the Stage Manager. There were loads of production staff credits, production crew credits, advisors, and such — all worked well together to do a great job.

Alas, I attended the last performance of Steel Pier at UCLA. Those of you who love Kander-Ebb should have been there; it was spectacular. This did put UCLA TFT on my RADAR, however, and I hope to be able to attend more of their shows. As a UCLA alumni (BS, ’82; MS, ’85), I wish I had known about this program during my years on campus — my theatregoing would have been much more than just going to Ackerman Union and buying tickets through the Mutual Agency for the Ahmanson.

***

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB), and as of Friday, Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

The last weekend of March is currently open.

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

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

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

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A Lesson Still Relevant Today | “Allegiance” @ JACCC/East-West

Allegiance (Artani/JACCC/East-West)Last February (February 2017, that is), I wrote about the recent Broadway musical Allegiance: “As you may recall, I’ve been trying to predict shows that will be going on tour. One show I’ve really been interested in is Allegiance (FB), the Broadway musical that George Takei (FB) has been involved with about the Japanese Internment during WWII. The trade papers said a tour would materialize; but the show’s website doesn’t indicate one. I’ve always expected that a tour, if it materialized, would show up at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) — or that the Ahmanson, recognizing the Japanese community in Los Angeles, might mount a local production. But the Ahmanson hasn’t announced their season yet…” In the time since, two Ahmanson seasons have been announced, without Allegiance. The filmed Broadway production has been shown a few times; indeed, it was that filmed production that led to those February comments.

The truth is that the rumored Allegiance tour has not yet materialized. However, the folks behind East-West Players (FB) and the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC) (FB) felt that this show was of such importance to the Los Angeles and Southern California community that they didn’t wait for a tour — they opted to mount a local production of the show. Why Southern California? Perhaps because Los Angeles had a large Japanese-American community before World War II. Perhaps because that was one community severely impacted by the forced relocations. Perhaps because Southern California was home to two of the relocation camps, at Manzinar and Santa Anita Racetrack. Perhaps because Southern California remains home to a large Japanese-American community. Perhaps, just perhaps, because the fear that led to the relocations is far too prevalent today, and we, as a community, must say what the Jewish community has been saying for years: “Never Again!”. Perhaps because the best way to ensure this doesn’t happen again is to teach how we can so easily let fear lead us to treat fellow humans as “less than”, and how that no one is “less than”.

In any case, we saw the February 2017 rebroadcast, and shortly learned that East West Players would be mounting a production. When tickets went on sale with a small discount while we were on vacation last August, we snapped up a pair, not even waiting for Goldstar. We wanted to see this show that much. And last night, even though we had to rush to Orange County afterwards for a Man of the Year dinner, we saw the show again. And, as it did the first time I saw it — even through a headache — the show moved me to tears, and left me choked up with emotion. This is that powerful of a show. This is a show that is a “must see”. That you must see for the moving performances, the moving story, and the message that we must never fear our fellow countrymen and women.  As I wrote last February, this is “a time where there is an intense fear that a segment of our current population is dangerous just because of their religion, even when that segment are longtime American citizens. That makes the message of this show even more timely. Franklin Roosevelt, who was the President who signed the order, said the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. Then he gave into the fear, put US citizens into internment camps, tore away their livelihoods and homes, and regarded them as suspicious just because of their looks or their origins. It was wrong. It was unconstitutional. It was unthinkable. It must never never never happen again. And yet…. we have a large segment of our population living in fear of people because of their looks, their religion or their origin.”

Seeing the show just last February also allows me not to have to rewrite the synopsis; here’s what I wrote then, which hasn’t changed:

I guess I should tell you the story of Allegiance, which has a book by Marc Acito (FB),  Jay Kuo (FB), and Lorenzo Thione (FB), and music and lyrics by Jay Kuo (FB). According to Wikipedia, the genesis of the show was a chance meeting in the fall of 2008 of George Takei and his husband, Brad, who were seated next to Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione. They met again at another show, had some conversations, and this led to the notion of a musical based roughly on George’s experiences as a child in the internment camps.  I’ll also note you can find a more detailed version on the show webpage or wikipedia. In short, the show tells the story of the Kimura family from Salinas: the grandfather (Ojii-chan), the father (Tatsuo Kimura), and the two children: Sam and Kei. It starts with Sam, who is a WWII veteran, learning that his sister Kei has died. This opens us into the story and how the rift between them was created. We see the family running a farm and having an American life, and then the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor. In short order, based on an agreement between the government and the Japanese American Citizens League, led by Mike Masaoka, internment orders go out, and Japanese on the Pacific coast are ordered to camps. The Kimura family has to sell all but what they can carry, and they are taken by force to a camp, Heart Mountain, in the wilds of Wyoming. We learn of life in the camp through a series of scenes, and get to meet two characters in particular: Lt. Hannah Campbell, a nurse at the camp, and Frankie Suzuki, another internee at the camp. Campbell is drawn to Sammy; Frankie to Kei. As time passes, the JACL convinces the government to let Japanese Americans serve in the armed force, in a segregated unit, for suicide missions. A questionnaire goes out that includes loyalty questions so that only loyal Japanese Americans can serve. Tatsuo refuses to answer yes to those questions, and gets hauled away to Tule Lake. Sammy volunteers to serve (against his father’s wishes), and goes on to be one of the few survivors from that batallion. Frankie, on the other hand, resists; when drafted, he organizes resistance in the camp and is arrested. The creates the wedge that drives the story to its conclusion. I’ll let you read the synopsis for more, but you get the drift.

Given we’re in the era of identifying “fake news”, I’ll note that Wikipedia relates that the show does conflate experiences across different camps for dramatic effect, and adds a bit more military oversight than existed at Heart Mountain.

The production at the JACC drew people from all over, including Japan and Australia. It drew elderly Nisei who were at the camps, and it drew their children and grandchildren to learn their parents experiences. We had the opportunity to talk to some as we were exiting the show; they found this production as moving as I — someone who had family experiences of different camps and different segregation — did.

Having seen both the filmed version of the Broadway production and a live production allows that unique comparison: Was this equal to or better than the Broadway version? My wife felt that it was. In general, I did to. Having live performance is always better than filmed-live, there is an immediacy — a feedback loop with the audience — that you just don’t get with film. I have a recollection that the Broadway staging was less dependent upon projection; this production used a lot of rear and surrounding projection to establish the sense of place (as opposed to more traditional set pieces). Was that better? I’ll need to think on that. Certainly the performances were equal to or stronger.

Allegiance Cast MontageUnder the direction of Snehal Desai (FB), the cast formed a believable cohesive whole. Desai had a hard task: there were few hard staging set pieces; rather, there were abstract boxes and such, combined with projections. Desai was able to make his actors help the audience believe that what wasn’t there was there. This is something unique to live theatre: realism can be eschewed for the imagery of the mind. The mind can create the dust-filled interment camp much better than any collection of flats and props can. Desai made the abstract become real.

The acting ensemble was a mix of actors who had been in the Broadway production combined with other actors and local talent. Circles numbers (e.g., ①) refer to the numbers on the image to the right.

In the most prominent position — I hesitate to say lead because he wasn’t the lead actor in the performance of the story, although his character was a leading character — as ① George Takei (★FB) as Sam Kimura/Ojii-chan. As noted earlier, this story was driven by Takei’s personal story. He has shepherded and shaped this production from Day 0, and is almost synonymous with the story (and it will be interesting how this story continues beyond him). But here we are focused on his performance, and for those who are familiar with his work in his younger days (e.g., (cough) Star Trek (cough)), you see a different side of the man — a maturity of performance that is touching. He captures so many different sides of a person, from the embittered Sam at the beginning, the joyful and playful Ojii-chan, to the changed Sam at the end of the story. It is his journal that the audience takes in this story, and it will deeply move you. And that, I feel, is in large part to Takei’s performance, especially in the final scenes.

[As an aside, given that if you search Takei, this comes up: What about the sexual assault claim? He has denied it, and the story seems not to have continued since it first came out in November 2017. More importantly, more claims since the first have not come out, indicating there was not a continuing pattern even if a single incident occurred. I wouldn’t let those claims color the story being told, for this is too important of a story to let such claims derail it. They will resolve in time as they are meant to resolve. Separate the art from the artist, and judge this show for the overall strength of its ensemble and story.]

In what I would call the lead performance positions — capturing the younger characters during the war — are ③ Ethan Le Phong (★FB, FB) as Sammy Kimura and ② Elana Wang (★FB, FB) as Kei Kimura. Both were extremely strong and believable performers, with remarkable singing voices. Wang in particular must be singled out: she had to compete with the memory of Lea Salonga on Broadway, and I’m pleased to say that she met and exceeded the expectations there. Both were just delightful to watch and to listen to.

As the father of the Kimura clan, ⑦ Scott Watanabe (FB) had the correct measure of old-school Japan to his performance, He also had a wonderfully rich voice that he demonstrated in songs such as “Gaiman”. He has been involved with this production since its inception, and it shows.

As the love interests of the main characters, ⑥ Natalie Holt MacDonald (FB) as Hannah Campbell and ⑤ Eymard Cabling (FB) as Frankie Suzuki get a little more fleshing out than characters in the emsemble, but not much. We learn a little of what drives them from the story, but the real embodiment must come from the internal backstory the actor creates. I’m pleased to say the actors do this well; they also have strong singing voices and give a great performance. MacDonald captures well the youth and naivete that Campbell must have had, being thrust into a situation unlike what she expected. Similarly, Suzuki was pushed into a different situation and had to adapt: from pre-law student to resistor. Both actors captured this essence well.

The last major named character is the head of the JACL, Mike Masoaka, played by ④ Greg Watanabe (FB). Watanabe captured the officiousness of Masoaka well. The character (in the story) was placed in an untenable position, and a continuing question is whether he should have protested more, of whether he could have achieved something more equitable in that particular society and that particular time. Watanabe’s character also raises — to the contemporary audience — the question of whether we can do more to fight this from happening again. I think that Watanabe captures this well in his performance.

The remaining actors form an ensemble that is at times unnamed, and at times becomes various characters in the camps and the story. This group consisted of: ⑩ Cesar Cipriano (FB) [Ben Masaoka (Issei) / Johnny Goto]; ⑬ Sharline Liu (FB) [Mrs. Natsumi Tanaka (Issei)]; ⑪ Glenn Shiroma (FB) [Mr. Masato Maruyama (Issei)]; ⑮ Janelle Dote (FB) [Mrs. Kaori Maruyama (Issei), Dance Captain]; ⑭ Chad Takeda (FB) [Tom Maruyama (Nisei)]; ⑧ Miyuki Miyagi (FB) [Peggy Maruyama (Nisei)]; ⑨ Grace Yoo [Nan Goto (Issei)]; and ⑫ Jordan Goodsell (FB) [Hakujin]. All are strong, but Goodsell stands out in my memory because he gets the thankless job of representing all the military soldiers at Heart Mountain (in other words, the personification of “the bad guy/the government”). I also recall Dote’s performance (at least I think the character was Dote) during the baseball scenes. In general, the ensemble provided great background personifications, great singing, and great movement.

Speaking of movement, the choreography was by Rumi Oyama (FB) (who was in the ensemble on Broadway) and was much less the modern dance one sees on stage these days, and more what I presume to be stylized Japanese movement. Whatever it was, it was beautiful to watch and conveyed the story well.

The music, under the direction of Music Director Marc Macalintal (FB), with orchestrations by Lynne Shankel, was good and didn’t overpower. It was provided by Macalintal as conductor and primary keyboard and the following musicians: Jenny Chaney (FB) [Asst Music Director, Rehearsal Pianist, Keys 2]; Khris Kempis (FB) [Bass Guitar]; Rebecca Yeh (FB) [Cello]; Michael “Weeble” Boerum (FB) [Drums]; Richie Gonzaga (FB) [B♭ Trumpet, Flugelhorn]; John Jenkins [Trombone, Bass Trombone]; Yu-Ting Wu (FB) [Violin]; Phil Moore [Reed 1]; Hannah Leah Marcus [Reed 2]; and Anthony Villa [Reed 3].

Lastly, we turn to the production team. First, I’ll note this was not a Broadway tour or transfer. Most of the production design team were new to the how, so this really was a remounting and reimagining. Se Hyun Oh (FB)’s scenic design was sparse: a few colored lights onto which images could be projected, a similarly projection structure surrounding the stage; a vague building-drop, with the rest mostly brought to life through Adam Flemming (FB)’s projection design and Glenn Michael Baker (FB)’s property design. Although being sparse, it worked — providing the ability of theatre to bring many locales and places to life through the imagination and through performance, not through realistic image. The sense of time, place, and at points, horror, was amplified through Karyn Lawrence (FB)’s lighting design. Time, in terms of era, was conveyed through Halei Parker (FB)’s costume design, which seemed appropriately period, although I can’t speak to the more Japanese aspects of the costumes. As usual, Cricket S. Myers (FB)’s sound design was clear and crisp, and provided appropriate sound effects, reasonably on time. Rounding out the production team were: Cesar Cipriano (FB) [Fight Choreography]; Andy Lowe (FB[Allegiance Production Manager]; Bobby DeLuca [Aratani Production Manager]; Morgan Zupanski (FB[Production Stage Manager]; Jade Cagalawan (FB[Company Manager]; Nora DeVeau-Rosen (FB[General Manager]; Shen Heckel (FB[Assistant Director]; Lydia Runge (FB) [Asst. Stage Manager],

Allegiance continues at the Aratani Theatre at the JACCC until April 1, 2018. Go see it. This is a show you must not miss; it will move you, educate you, and enlighten you, all at the same time. Tickets are available through the East West Players online box office. $20 RUSH TICKETS to Allegiance – A New Musical are available via TodayTix app! Download the app & at 9AM every performance day, a limited number of $20 tickets will be available (first come, first served)!  Discount tickets may also be available on Goldstar.

***

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB), and as of Friday, Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

Next weekend brings Steel Pier at the UCLA School of Television, Film, and Theatre (FB). The penultimate Friday of March was to bring Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), but that has shifted to June and that weekend brings only the joint TBH Brotherhood/MoTAS Mens Seder. The last weekend of March is currently open.

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

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

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

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A Jazz Great, Brought to Life | “Prez” @ Write Act/Brickhouse

Prez (Write Act Rep)Two years ago, during Black History Month, Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district presented a one-man show about Lester Young, the great Jazz musician. The wonderful performance here introduced us not only to Young and to Chromolume (where we have since subscribed), but to Leslie Jones, a very talented young man and musician. Unfortunately, the demands of facility scheduling meant that the production at the Chromolume had to close far too fast, and not everyone was able to see his great performance.

Recently, we learned that Jones was reprising his performance in a remounted production much closer to home, at the Write Act Repertory location in North Hollywood (one block up from where Vineland, Lankershim, and Camarillo meet). My wife enjoyed the first production so much she wanted to see it again, and so this afternoon we went to see it again. Unfortunately, my chronic migraines decided to make themselves known, but I was able to just listen to the story and the wonderful music.

What follows is an update of my writeup from the original production. Alas, the production pictures I have are from the Chromolume production, but the setup at WriteAct was essentially the same staging. This is a really great production, especially if you love Jazz of the Big Band Era (as we do), and love history, and love great one-man shows. This show is running open-ended on Sundays at 2pm, in repertory with two other plays by WIllard Manus, The Wicked, Wicked Mae West on Saturdays at 8pm, and Their FInest Hour: Churchill and Murrow on Fridays at 8pm.

Here’s the updated writeup on the show:

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I love music. My taste is broad and varied, covering numerous genres and styles. One of the many styles I like is jazz; my tastes run from New Orleans to Swing, Fats Waller to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. My wife is also a jazz lover; her tastes are even broader, expanding to Marsalis and Coltrane, and a lot of the modern artists. We know the Dukes. We know the Kings. When I learned about Prez, I was intrigued. Prez was a World Premiere solo show written by playwright Willard Manus, author of “Mott the Hoople” and “Bird Lives“. The play chronicled the unique life of jazzman Lester Young, whom I had never heard of. The press release noted that Young was a unique jazzman whose deceptively simple style–laid back, low key, relaxed yet earthy and swinging–-brought him fame, first with the Count Basie Orchestra, then with the likes of Nat ‘King’ Cole, Oscar Peterson, Teddy Wilson, and his best friend and alter ego, Billie Holiday. Born in the Jim Crow south to a showbiz family, Young was a non-conformist who fought against racism and intolerance all his life, climaxed by his battle against the segregated army in WW II, an experience that affected his attitude toward life but not his playing, which never lost its creative spirit–-the very spirit of jazz. This sounded fascinating for both my wife and I.

Coming into the show, I knew nothing about Young other than what you read above — the information that was in the press release. Coming out of the show, I wanted to learn even more about the man and his music; I certainly plan to identify at least one of Young’s albums to add to my collection. Without saying anything else, I think that’s an indicator of good theatre: it makes want want to learn more about a subject or era; it uses its story to pique curiosity and interest. The show made me realize why Lester Young is probably the most important Jazz musician you’ve never heard of.

[I’ll note that while researching this write-up, I learned there was even more about Young than was in the play. For example, it was Young who originated musical hipster jargon, such as the terms “cool” for something that was interesting, and “bread” as a reference to money. His style of jazz influenced numerous modern jazz artists and styles, including Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, and Charlie Mingus. One website noted, “Whenever you hear a sax behind a pop singer you are hearing echoes of Young’s seminal body of work accompanying Billie Holiday.”]

Manus structured the story to be a one-man show. The conceit is that Lester Young, who was nicknamed “Pres” or “Prez” (as there was already a King, a Duke, and a Lady, and Young was a favorite of the people) was being interviewed by a off-stage French journalist (whom you never hear) while in Paris in 1959 for his last concerts at “The Blue Note”. Through her questions, he tells much of his life story — his ups, his downs, his successes, and his failures. The research I did when I got home from the show demonstrated that Manus captured much of Young’s life story in the presentation, although I did find a few places where the facts on the net disagreed or omitted some of the facts in the show (for example, Manus reported that Young served his Army sentence in Georgia; most articles have him at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas). None of these changes seemed substantial.

[ETA 3/5/18: The author commented with a correction: Luc Delannoy’s book on Young:”Pending approval, Lester was sent to the stockade at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. But a few days later the military authorities decided to send him to the stockade at Fort Gordon, Georgia. What happened during the ten months of incarceration he spent in Georgia will never rally be known. Lester always refused to talk about it.”  So my comment above is more an error in the Internet (no big surprise there) than an error in the actual script.]

Prez (Publicity Photos)The success (or failure) of a biographical play with the solo structure selected here — assuming the subject of the biography is interesting — depends significantly on the quality of the book, the quality of the performance, and the quality of the direction. After all, dramatized vignettes of a real story can draw upon character interplay and dialogue and can spread the weight across multiple actors. Look at the success of a Jersey Boys, or the failure of a Chaplin, as an example. In a single-person show, the words must keep and draw the attention. The actor must not only inhabit the character, but become one with the character. He (or she) must be able to make you believe you are seeing the subject of the story come to life.

So did that happen here?

Storywise, I think it did. It certainly captured and help my interest. To my eyes, there was sufficient movement, music, and characterizations of others in Young’s life to keep things interest. The story moved at a reasonable pace from Young’s days with the family band through his time with Count Basie, the Army, and the Norman Grantz JATP era to his declining days in the 1950s.

It was helped tremendously by a strong performance by Leslie A. Jones (FB) (CDBaby) as “Prez”. Jones believably portrayed the man, capturing the internal pain as well as the external character of the man. He was also strong on the musical side, handling the drums, and Tenor and Alto Saxes well during the show. He never did a complete song, but essentially did samples of styles throughout. This actually fit well with the energy that Young had at this period in his life, where disease and drinking had just sapped his youthful energy.

In addition to capturing what seemed to be realistic mannerisms of the man (having never seen Young on film, I can only go with their believability in the context created for the show), he captured the look well. As I indicated earlier, when I got home I did some web searching to read up on Young. Both Young and Jones had similar facial structures, and in his pork-pie hat (another stylistic aspect that Young originated) and long black coat, he looked remarkably like the pictures of the real Young.

It really was a strong performance.

The last aspect making the show work was the direction of Daniel Edward Keough (FB), who also did the scenic design. The direction was spot on. I’ve noted before that in a good production, it is difficult to separate the actor from the director — to know what aspects come from each. That was true here. The two together created believable movement and reactions, from putting on records to the addiction to absinthe, from the mannerisms of clipping on the Sax to how Jones/Young moved through the room.

[Note: I had some scenic quibbles on the original production. Rereading this, I note they were all addressed.]

Turning to the technical and creative: I’ve already noted the set, which was designed by the director. This was a simple hotel room: chair, coats hanging on hooks, a dresser with a collection of liquor, and the horns and drums. This setup was sufficiently timeless to work. Similarly, the lighting design and production support by Alonzo Tavares (FB) was simple but effective. Where were no credits for sound design.  There was no credit for costumes, so I’ll just note that they effectively appeared to capture Young’s unique style. Jonathan Harrison  was the stage manager. Other credits:  Tamra Pica (FB) – Producer; Jonathan Harrison  – Associate Producer; and John Lant  – Producing Artistic Director.

Prez continues in an open-ended run at Write Act Rep on Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are available through Brown Paper TIckets.

 

***

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB), and as of Friday, Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

Next weekend sees us at the LA Premiere of the musical Allegiance at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (FB) and the MRJ Man of the Year Dinner. The next weekend brings Steel Pier at the UCLA School of Television, Film, and Theatre (FB). The penultimate Friday of March was to bring Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), but that has shifted to June and that weekend brings only the joint TBH Brotherhood/MoTAS Mens Seder. The last weekend of March is currently open.

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

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

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

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Imagination on Stage | “James and the Giant Peach” at Chance Theatre

James and the Giant Peach (Chance Theatre)Imagination is a wonderful thing. It is imagination that allows us to anthropomorphize animals — that is, it is imagination that allows us to believe animals can talk to us in English.  It is imagination that allows us to believe that nannies can fly on umbrellas, that fairies protect lost boys, and that genies live in lamps. It is imagination that gives us green ogres with talking donkeys, fairy princesses that swim moats, and kings and queens fighting battles. And it is imagination that gives us little girls using their mind to defeat mean schoolteachers, chocolate bars with magic tickets, and giant peaches.

Movies can capture imagination, but in a realistic way. Through movie magic, we’ve seen all sorts of things, but through special effects or animation, it is presented as if it was real. But on stage — ah, on the stage — it is there that real imaginative creativity happens. It is on the stage that movement and expression can create a world, either alone or through the addition of a few simple props: boxes, umbrellas, goggles, and cloaks. On the stage, performance makes miracles happen — miracles that you didn’t believe were possible because you were looking at live people. Yet they are created nevertheless. This is the magic of the stage, the magic of imagination, the magic that is created through a unique human endeavor: live performance in front of an audience. Further, that magic is amplified when you add music, song, and dance to the creative mix.

All of the examples I’ve given above have taken life — and been successful — on the stage. The last three examples — involving school girls, chocolate bars, and peaches — all come from the fertile and slightly subversive mind of Roald Dahl.  They have all been musicalized for the stage. The first two will soon be seen on the stages of Southern California: Matilda is part of the 2018-2019 season at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is part of the 2018-2019 season at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). As for the last, James and the Giant Peach? That’s the subject of this writeup.

For Matilda and Charlie, over the next season, the magic happens on a large stage in a very large building (in a dark room, in an central part of town, filled with people that have paid a lot of money, but that’s a different musical, a class act, so to speak). But it is on the small stage — the intimate stage — that real theatrical magic happens. Large theatres have large budgets and can create large effects. Small theatres are up-and-close, with small budgets, dependent more on the performance and the magic that said performance gives. James and the Giant Peach is the subject of intimate theatrical magic, multiple times a week, on the Fyda-Mar Stage of the Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim, at least until March 11. Even though ostensibly this is a “kids” show, you need to go see it and be swept away by its magic.

I first learned about James and the Giant Peach after seeing a production at last week’s venue, the Chromolume Theatre (FB). They had played a song from the song cycle Edges during a pre-show, which set me off in search of a song. There I discovered a number of additional works by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul beyond the shows I knew: Dogfight (which I’d seen first at the Chance) and last year’s Tony winner, Dear Evan Hansen (coming to the 2018-2019 season of  the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). There I discovered that, in addition to Edges and some Emmy-winning and nominated movies, they had also done a musicalization of James and the Giant Peach, (with a book by Timothy Allen McDonald (FB)), and that a cast album was available for download, free even (although that website seems to be down as I write this). I listened to the music, and grew to love the energetic and entertaining combination of styles (proving yet again how this composing team are part of the top tier of new composers). Later, while perusing the Chance season announcement last year, I discovered that Chance was starting their 2018 season with a production of James. HOLD dates were created on the calendar, ticklers were set at my various ticketing sites, and I waited for tickets. Once available, I visited the appropriate website, and made plans for the 2 hour drive to Orange County.

So guess where we were yesterday. Guess where you’ll be in the future, if you’re in the area and can get tickets? I’m sure you guessed it.

I’ll note that Chance is doing this as part of their “Theatre for Young Audiences” series, which means the audience is full of kids. Don’t let that deter you. The magic is amplified when you watch the faces of these children enthralled by the stage magic and performance, some I’m sure for the first time. This is what creates life-long lovers of live performances: seeing magic such as this.

Going in, I was actually unfamiliar with the story of James. I had heard the music, but I’ve never read the book nor seen it on the screen. Here’s how Wikipedia summarizes the story: “The plot centres on a young English orphan boy who enters a gigantic, magical peach, and has a wild and surreal cross-world adventure with seven magically-altered garden bugs he meets. They set off on a journey to escape from James’ two mean and cruel aunts.”. In the case of the stage show, make that five garden bugs (well, six, if you count Glowworm), but that’s the gist of the story. The story in a, well, peach, so to speak.

James and the Giant Peach (Photo Strip)Under the direction of Darryl B. Hovis (FB),  a team of nine performers make magic happen. With limited resources and facilities — the Fyda-Mar stage is perhaps 12 feet deep, with no fly space for scenery, no real off-stage space, right up against the audience of at most 98 — this team enthralls you the entrance of the first character and a magical face. Hovis clearly worked with the actors to bring out these magical performances, and it works well. Often, the merit of shows shines in a different way on the small stage — one only see the reaction to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert currently on stage at the tiny Celebration Theatre, and contrast it to the production at the Pantages to understand what I mean (I recall a similar effect seeing Gypsy at an intimate theatre). Hovis makes this work … spectacularly … on the small stage. Through the performances he drew out of the team, and the imagination of the scenic design and properties, he executed a vision that had both the adults and the kids watching in rapture. (at least, that’s what I saw on the faces at my performance).

The first performer we see — he of the magical face — is Tyler Marshall (FB) as Ladahlord. This character is not in the book. Ladahlord serves as a master of ceremonies or narrator,  moving the story along, and portraying various minor characters throughout the story. He also has the responsibility of handling the main song of the show, which keeps reappearing: “Right Before Your Eyes”. Marshall has a wonderful singing voice, a remarkably expressive face, and just draws your eye to him whenever he was on stage.

We next meet our main character, James, portrayed by Christopher Diem (FB). DIem captures James’ boyish spirit, energy, and fear quite well. He has a good singing voice, and is believable as James in his interactions.

The villains of the piece are Spiker and Sponge, James’ aunts and only living relatives after his parents are killed. They are portrayed by Shannon Page (FB) and Holly Jeanne (FB), respectively. These are roles that require a level of overplaying — they can’t be played realistically, but too over the top and they become caricatures. Page and Jeanne capture the overplay well, and for the most part, restrain it as appropriate while keeping the fun. The roles are intentionally overdone in the songs, which the performers do spot on (but which also disguises their real voices). As could be seen when the autograph session started at the end of the show, these two are just having fun with the roles.

The remainder of the cast play various small roles — James’ parents, other adults, and handling puppets of various insects, until they transform into the main magically-transformed insects when the Giant Peach is realized. As the larger insects, this team — Erica Schaeffer (FB) [Spider]; Richard Comeau (FB) [Green Grasshopper]; Miguel Cardenas (FB) [Centipede]; Rachael Oliveros Catalano (FB) [Ladybug]; and Alex Allen (FB) [Earthworm] — is mesmerizing. In this group, my eyes were first drawn to Schaeffer and Catalano. Schaeffer reminds me quite a bit of another excellent chance performer,  Kim Dalton (FB). She had an incredibly expressive face and movement style (especially as Spider), and I noticed her even in the background of scenes as she continued in character. Truly fun to watch, with a very nice singing voice. Catalano had a different, darker look, but she was a delight as Ladybug in her interactions with both James, Centipede, and Grasshopper. Strong singing, strong performance. On the male side, Comeau was outstanding as Grasshopper, exuding a warm personality and having a really really warm and nice singing voice. The remaining two folks were Cardenas’ Centipede and Allen’s Earthworm. Cardenas plays Centipede as what the other insects describe as a pest; however, his performance shines later during the rescue scenes. Similarly, Allen gets to portray Earthworm as someone living in fear; he comes into his own in the seagull scene (where he as a great performance).

It is at this point where I would normally introduce the band, under the music direction of James Liebson. But there is no band credited, and the music is seemingly pre-recorded. If there was a flaw in this production, this is it. Theatre needs live music; the audience needs to see that music comes from something other than a computer. They need to see people playing instruments, with the real-life variations that creep into such performances. However, I do understand the restrictions of a young artist program (as well as the space limitations) that force compromises such as this. At least the credit of a music director means that this is a Chance pre-recording of local artists (uncredited), which is better that a generic recording provided by the musical’s license holder.

With performance and movement, when stirred with music, comes dance. Working with the director, as Choreographer and Assistant Director, was Christine Hinchee (FB). Hinchee worked with Hovis to bring some remarkable dance and movement to the confined space of the Fyda-Mar Stage, and it worked very well. It certainly had the audience mesmerized.

This brings us to the remaining creative and production credits. I think one of the true stars of this show is Megan Hill (FB), the scenic and properties designer. Looking at her resume, Hill has been responsible for some of the most creative shows we’ve seen at the Chance — Loch Ness and Claudio Quest.  Her design is no less imaginative here, with simple props used to create the peach, simple screens for projections, and cute properties to suggest and create seagulls, sharks, and the Empire State Building. Her designs and properties interact with Aaron McGee (FB)’s puppets, McLeod Benson (FB)’s projections, and Alex McClain (FB)’s costumes to create James’ world. The team creates theatrical magic.  Supporting this team was Darryl B. Hovis (FB)’s sound design and McLeod Benson (FB)’s lighting designs. Other key production credits include: Courtny Greenough (FB) [Stage Manager]; Oanh Nguyen (FB) [Artistic Director]; and the large list of Chance staff and production team members.

James and the Giant Peach continues at the Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim, at least until March 11. This is an incredibly imaginative and fun production. well worth seeing. Even though it is part of the Theatre for Young Audiences, it will delight young and old, and veteran audiences will appreciate the rapture and delight on the faces of the young audience members as they watch theatre that will instill a lifelong love. Tickets are available through the Chance Website. Discount tickets may be available on Goldstar (although they are currently sold out); I don’t see them at either TodayTix or LA Stage Alliance.

***

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB), and as of Friday, Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

February concludes with this afternoon’s show: Dublin Irish Dance Stepping Out at  the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB).

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

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

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

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

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Thoughts on a Theatre Season – Ahmanson 2018-2019

As I noted a few days ago, the Ahmanson Theatre (FB was on the verge of announcing the rest of their season. Today they did it, and my guess was mostly correct. If you recall, I said: “As for the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), which has two slots to announce, I predict that one will be a show in development, and the other will either be Natasha, Pierre, … , or some form of dance or ballet, like the Matthew Bourne stuff that they’ve done recently.”. Well, I got the Matthew Bourne right, but their other show came out of left field — and I couldn’t be happier, given my daughter is a Yiddish scholar.

So what is the final Ahmanson season, and my thoughts on it? Here goes:

  • “Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations”. August 21 through September 30, 2018. This is the usual musical-in-development that the Ahmanson does (and that the Pantages will never do, unless it is already on tour. Should be good.
  • “Dear Evan Hansen” . October 17 – November 25, 2018. The big Tony winner last year. Pasek and Paul. ’nuff said.
  • “Come From Away” . November 28, 2018 – January 6, 2019. I’ve heard the music from this, and it should be spectacular.
  • Matthew Bourne’s “Cinderella”. February 5 – March 10, 2019. The Ahmanson likes the dance stuff from Bourne. I haven’t seen it; it will be an interesting change of pace.
  • “Falsettos”. April 16 – May 19, 2019. The only show I’ve seen before, but that production was in an intimate theatre. Should be good.
  • “Indecent”. June 4 – July 7, 2019. The story of a Yiddish play that had the first lesbian relationship. Wow. I’m surprised by this, and looking forward to it. You normally don’t get two plays out of the Ahmanson.
  • “The Play That Goes Wrong”. July 9 – August 11, 2019. Great comedy. Should be a lot of fun. 

This is one of the best seasons the Ahmanson has had in a while. Suffice it to say that I’m calling tomorrow (so I can split things over 4 payments) to subscribe. Now to figure out how to work things into my calendar….

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Powerful Women | “Dessa Rosa” @ Chromolume

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://crtheatre.com/story.html

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

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

***

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

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

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

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

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

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

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