An Interesting Beast | “Shrek: The Musical” @ 5-Star Theatricals

Shrek - The Musical (5-Star)Musicals take interesting paths. Some are clear hits, running forever on Broadway, and taking their own sweet time on hitting the regional market (ex: Wicked). Some are perennials: classics on Broadway and on the regional market (ex: Fiddler). Some are Broadway hits, but never quite get the knack of the touring production, and never quite make it in the regional market (ex: Natasha, Pierre, …). Some are so-so on Broadway, and perhaps they do a tour, but then they fade away (ex: Catch Me If You Can). Some fade away as soon as they open on Broadway (ex: Tuck Everlasting).

But then there are shows that embrace the tour. They get reworked for the road, and that rework makes them much stronger than the original Broadway production. The reworked version works well, and quickly goes into the regional market and becomes a staple production, from the school level to the community theatre to the larger regional theatre.  These are shows like Legally BlondeThe Addams Family, and Shrek.

Here in Southern California, it seems to have been a season of Shrek. I recall quite a few productions: Simi Valley, one in Santa Clarita, loads of school  productions. But they weren’t there when 5 Star Theatricals (FB) announced their production at the beginning of the year. The season they announced was intriguing: Shrek (perhaps overdone at the school level), Matilda (first large regional production), and West Side Story (appropriate, for Lenny’s 100th). Two were new for 5-Star. This was also coming after some turmoil at the company: Will North, who had picked the prior season (JosephHunchback, and Beauty and the Beast) and had starred in Hunchback, quickly disappeared and Patrick Cassidy (FB) was there as Artistic Director. Quite likely, it was North that picked the current season, which Cassidy got to execute. We renewed — not only because the shows are interesting, but because 5-Star has a great mission in serving the Ventura County community that is deserving of support.

Back to Shrek (which we saw Saturday night at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) in Thousand Oaks): The stage production lasted a year on Broadway, and was mostly true to the movie. You could see the story points from the Dreamworks Movie and the original book by William Steig that the book author (and lyricist), David Lindsay-Abaire (FB), and the composer, Jeanine Tesori, wanted to preserve. But some elements kept changing and adapting on tour and in the West End, and these made it back into the show that was eventually licensed. [This highlights yet another difference between stage and screen. The screen stays the same, forever: story and performance. Stage adapts: what was on Broadway is different from the tour and regional, and performers constantly change, and every performance is unique.]

As with The Addams Family, the eventual licensed version became stronger than the original. There also seemed to be a bit more freedom — I noticed some very topical additional to the show, and references to shows that were produced after Shrek was on the Great White Way. This is good, and it reminded me that we shouldn’t assume we know a property from the Broadway production and the cast album, and that there is value in seeing a show you already know again.

The story of Shrek is essentially the movie on stage, with some slight modifications for the limitations of live action over animation. The Wikipedia page has a good summary of the original Broadway production. The licensing page from MTI (click on synopsis) provides a summary of the licensed version. I’ll wait while you read (plays with phone and taps feet).

Watching the show, a number of thoughts came to my mind. The first was something that happens more and more of late: there were resonances with current events. In this case, Farquaad’s notion of petty dictatorship, the hatred of the other Fairy Tale creatures and the desire to keep them out and walled away, and the subsequent reveal that he, too, was one of them, had far too many echoes of the current occupant of the White House, a leader for whom the size of his ego makes up for his other shortcomings. There were other echoes of politics as well, including songs about building a wall. At least I don’t recall any consent issues in the show (that has made a number of other shows much more creepy), although there was a great Cosby reference.

Second: This show was a love-letter to Broadway. Just as the original movie had loads of references to Disney and other children’s movies, this show had loads of references to other Broadway productions. There were lines from Gypsy, Fosse style dancing, references to Dreamgirls and Les Miserables and Wicked and Beauty and the Beast. There were puppets from the Lion King. There was even a reference to Kinky Boots. If you are Broadway-aware, see if you can catch all of them.

The message of the story — thanks to the current situation — transcended the original as well. Coming out of the original production, one would have been imbued with the message of the importance of being who you are, and that there is someone out there who will love you for who you are. But today, the message of “letting your freak flag fly” has a difference resonance — especially as we are in an election season where those whose voices have been trampled by the pandering to the Trump base can finally speak back up and assert our power. The ending of the show is a clear reminder of the importance of “letting your freak flag fly” at the polling place the first Tuesday in November.

In summary, this was a show that entertained the kiddies at one level, with the storytale antics and fart jokes of the original. But for the adults, it was something that transcended the original Broadway production. It brought a level of self-awareness of what it was, with an undercurrent of political meaning, that adults would pick up on. As such, it was very very enjoyable.

It didn’t hurt that, under the direction of Kirsten Chandler (FB), the performances were very strong. This was supplemented by the great choreography of Karl Warden (FB). Of course, this wasn’t quite at the pinnacle of the previous Beauty and the Beast with the original Broadway Belle, but it was very very good. I’ll note here the one big drawback with this show: For most of the characters, the heavy costumes and heavy makeup often obscure the actor as the physical presence. These costumes also tend to limit what is possible in terms of the choreography — it’s hard to dance in oversize shoes and donkey hoofs. That’s a problem not of this production, but endemic to this show and other similar animation adaptations.

In the lead position was Trent Mills (FB) as Shrek. Mills, who looks to be a newer performer in the area, did a spectacular job and held his own against his Equity colleagues. He had a very strong singing voice, and generally brought the right presence to Shrek, capturing the humor well.

Rounding out the lead triumvirate were Lawrence Cummingsæ (FB) as Donkey, and Alison Woodsæ (FB) as Princess Fiona. We have seen both recently on the 5-Star/Cabrillo stage in The Little Mermaid. Cummings projects a great attitude and is seemingly game for anything. He has a strong singing voice, and handles the comedy and movement of the character well. Woods, also, is strong and possessed of a lovely singing voice. For this character, she captures the feistyness of the Fiona quite well, and seems to be having quite a bit of fun in “I Think I Have You Beat”. Both are very fun to watch. The only weakness with Fiona was the transformational makeup, and I don’t believe that was an actor issue.

This brings us to  Marc Baron Ginsburgæ (FB) as Lord Farquaad. We’ve seen a lot of Marc of late, from his Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast and his remarkable Levi Strauss in Levi! (not to mention other Cabrillo/5-Star roles). He’s a remarkable character actor and singer, and the Southern California area is lucky to have him in so many shows, for the always guarantees a good show. That’s no different here: he brought a level of fun to Farquaad, capturing the innate absurdity and projecting it out well. [Odd thought: Ginsberg as Pseudolus in Funny Thing. Just saying. Or as Meyer Rothschild in The Rothschilds. Yes, he has that range.]

The remaining performers had multiple tracks and roles for the most part, also serving as part of the ensemble (the exception were the younger performers). This group consisted of the following folks — and there are a few whom I single out at the end: Kyle Frattini (FB) [Pinocchio, Dragon Puppeteer, Ensemble]; Deanna Anthony (★FB, FB) [Mama Ogre, Mama Bear, Dragon, Ensemble]; Zachary Thomson [Young Shrek, Dwarf]; Bayley Tanenbaum [Young Fiona]; Kate Godfrey (★FB) [Teen Fiona]; Gabrielle Farrow (FB) [Queen Lillian, Wicked Witch, Ensemble]; Dominic Franco (FB) [Peter Pan, Dragon Puppeteer, Ensemble];  Sara Gilbert (IG, FB) [Ugly Duckling, Ensemble, Fionau/s]; Kevin Gilmond (FB) [King Harold, Captain of the Guard, Pied Piper, Bishop, Dragon Puppeteer, Ensemble]; Isaiah Griffith (FB) [Bricks – Pig, Knight, Ensemble]; Augusto Guardado (FB) [Sticks – Pig, Knight, Ensemble]Mitchell Johnson (FB) [Big Bad Wolf, Dragon Puppeteer, Ensemble]; Drew Lake (FB) [Fairy Godmother, Dance Captain, Ensemble]; Colden Lamb (FB) [Straw – Pig, Ensemble, Dragon Puppeteer]; Julia Lester (FB[Sugar Plum Fairy, Gingy, Ensemble]; Natalie Miller (FB) [Shoemaker’s Elf, Blind Mouse, Ensemble]Kat Monzon (FB) [Little Bo Peep, Blind Mouse, Ensemble]; Matthew Christopher Thompson (★FB, FB) [Papa Ogre, Papa Bear, Thelonius, Knight, Ensemble, Shreku/s]; and Alexa Vellanoweth (FB) [Baby Bear, Blind Mouse, Ensemble]. Of this group, there are a few worth special notice. First, there is Deanna Anthony — who has a truly remarkable gospel and theatre voice, which she uses to great effect on “Forever”. Also notable was Julia Lester’s double duty, and her ability to switch quickly from Gingi to the Sugar Plum Fairy voice, all while belting out the lead in Freak Flag. The actors that did the puppetry of the dragon (Frattini, Franco, Gilmond, Johnson, and Lamb) did remarkable work on bringing the dragon to life. On the kid side, both Tanenbaum and Godfrey had very strong voices and captured their characters well (although it is interesting to see how Fiona got smaller moving from teen to adult — usually, its the other way around). The three blind mice — Miller, Monzon, and Vellanoweth — were hilarious during their number, making stumbling around into an art.

Music was provided by the 5-Star Theatricals Orchestra, under the direction (and conduction) of  Dan Redfeld (★FBFB), and contracted by Darryl Tanikawa (FB). The musicians were: Gary Rautenberg (FB) [Flute, Piccolo, Clarinet, Alto Sax]; Matt Germaine (FB) [Flute, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Soprano Sax, Tenor Sax, Baritone Sax]Melissa Hendrickson (FB[Horn]Bill Barrett (FB) [Trumpet, Piccolo Trumpet, Flugelhorn]; June Satton (FB) [Trombone, Bass Trombone]; Ruth Bruegger (FB) [ViolinI, Concertmaster];  Sally Berman [ViolinII];  Rachel Coosaia (FB) [Cello]; Steve Bethers [Electric & Acoustic Guitar, Ukelele]; Gary Solt  [Electric & Acoustic Guitar, Mandolin];  Chris Kimbler (FB) [KeyboardI]Lloyd Cooper (FB) [Keyboard SynthesizerII]Shane Harry (FB) [Electric Bass, Acoustic Double String Bass]; Alan Peck [Set Drums]; and Tyler Smith (FB[Percussion].

Finally, we turn to the production and creative side. The sets, scenery, and props were provided wholly or in part by 3D Theatricals (FB). This included the first time I can recall seeing a turntable on the Kavli stage. Some elements were quite clever, some looked a bit shopworn (perhaps rented out a bit too much without refurbishment), and some seemed a bit more amateur (a scrim or two). I miss the days Cabrillo built their own, but these were serviceable and gave the “Broadway” level to which 5-Star strives, but couldn’t afford if it had to amortize the sets over two weekends of performance. Additional props were by Alex Choate (FB). The costumes (supplied by 3D) were coordinated by Kathryn Poppen (FB), with hair and wig design by Jim Belcher (FB), and makeup by Denice Paxton (FB). For the most part, these worked — although the heavy costumes in this show often hide the beautiful and expressive faces and movement of the performers (which isn’t a fault of the team, but inherent in the show). A few costumes could use a little work: Young Shrek needs to grow into his head, and the transformed Fiona (likely due to time) needed a bit more ogre and a bit more green to fully pull off the transformation. Jonathan Burke (FB)’s sound design mostly worked: the sound effects were spot on, including the synchronization for the dwarf at the end, but there were points where the performers voices were lost in the hall (especially up in the Mezzanine). Hopefully, that can be adjusted before the final weekend.  Jose Santiago (FB)’s lighting design worked well, and there wasn’t overuse of the spotlight as we used to see in Cabrillo productions. Rounding out the production team:  Jack Allaway [Technical Director]; Talia Krispel (FB) [Production Stage Manager]; Tawni Eccles (FB) and Julian Olive (FB) [Asst. Stage Managers]David Elzer/Demand PR [Press]Richard Storrs (FB) [Marketing Director]; Fresh Interactive (FB) [Marketing Team]; Jason Moore [Original Direction]; Rob Ashford [Original Direction]; and Patrick Cassidy (FB) [Artistic Director].

Shrek: The Musical continues at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) for one more performance today, and for next weekend. It’s a fun show and a great diversion, with some very strong performances. Tickets are available through the 5-Star box office; discount tickets may be available through 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 Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (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:

October will close with the Contemporary Crafts Show in Pasadena.

Continuing the lookahead: November starts with She Loves Me at Actors Co-op (FB), Stitches So Cal. and if we can shift our She Loves Me tickets to Sunday, the Austin Lounge Lizards at Boulevard Music.  The second weekend of November is very busy: Dear Even Hansen at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and A Bronx Tale at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), as well as A Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (OERM) (FB). The third weekend of November brings Beyond Jacobs Ladder from Jewish Woman’s Theatre (FB) at our synagogue on Saturday, and Finks at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB) on Sunday. Thanksgiving weekend has Remembering Boyle Heights at Casa 0101 (FB) in Boyle Heights on Friday, and Steambath at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB) on Sunday. December starts with the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC), followed by a hold for the Canadian Brass at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Then we may travel up to the Bay Area for Tuck Everlasting at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (FB).

January will start with Bat Out of Hell at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), and ends with a Nefesh Mountain concert at Temple Judea and a hold for the Colburn Orchestra at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) but the rest of the month is currently open (as few shows run in January due to complicated rehearsals over the holidays). We’ll keep our eyes open. February starts with the Cantor’s Concert at Temple Ahavat Shalom (FB), Hello Dolly at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), and Anna Karenena at Actors Co-op (FB).  There’s also a HOLD for 1776 at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB), but much of February is also open.

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.

Share

🎭 Controlled Explosions, Under Pressure | “Oppenheimer” @ Rogue Machine

Oppenheimer (Rogue Machine)Most people who read these particular posts may think I’m a theatre reviewer. While it is true that I go to lots and lots of theatre, and I write up every show that I go to, that’s not my full time profession. Similarly, although I do the California Highways Web Page, I neither work for the Transportation Department, nor am I a historian. Rather, in my full-time life, I’m an Engineer, doing cybersecurity, working (shall we say) for the public good. This means that my heart is with science and mathematics (which is where my degrees are); my wife is similar attached to Chemistry, Physics and Engineering. This is all a long-winded way of saying that when I learn about a good hard science play, we want to go.

When I first heard about the play Oppenheimer at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB), I mistook it for a play produced many years ago by LA Theatre Works (FB) as part of The Relativity Series, a collection of science themed plays. I was confusing it in my head with Copenhagen, a play about Warner Heisenberg,  Moving Bodies, a play about Richard Feynmen, and The Real Dr. Strangelove, a play about Edward Teller. All dealt with the same events as Oppenheimer, all involved J. Robert Oppenheimer as a character, and all involved the development of the atomic bomb. But none of them were Oppenheimer. In any case, I coordinated some tickets for the show remembering that I liked it — then I realized it was a different show. But never mind — it was about science, and I was looking forward to going to it.

At this point, I’d like to emphasize how vitally important it is to have and to get people to see plays about science. Theatre excites, theatre raises questions, theatre starts discussions. Theatre gets people thinking. Further, theatre doesn’t have the distance of movies; you see these are people just like you. It can excite and encourage people to go into the sciences, to see the value of science, to not fear science, and to see the value of critical reasoning and thinking, and the pure joy that can come from it.

Last night was the opening night of Oppenheimer, as well as being the opening night for Rogue Machine Theatre (FB) at their new digs at the Electric Lodge (FB) in Venice, and it was that — electric. Although the show was long — 2 hours, 45 minutes with intermission — the time just flew by. The story and the presentation were so engrossing it drew us in; we left thinking this was the best drama we have seen to date in 2018*. Just like our favorite show of 2017 (This Land at Company of Angels), it touched upon an area we love; it also got the facts right and made us think. It left us talking about the show and its ideas, and wanting to strongly encourage others to go see the show. It took a complex issue and made it understandable and entertaining. It showed the power of theatre.
——————
* The best comedy was Paradise, which we saw a few weeks ago at Ruskin Theatre Group.

Oppenheimer, written by Tom Morton-Smith in its American Premiere, tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who is generally known as the father of the Atomic Bomb. It starts in his early days when he was splitting time between Caltech and UC Berkeley, and dabbling in leftist ideas and leftist politics — as were many scientists and philosophers in the days after the Great Depression, when socialist ideas were in vogue and helping the nation recover under FDR. The scenes alternate between establishing Oppenheimer’s social character and social circle, and establishing his scientific credentials and his scientific circle, which often overlapped. We get to meet some of the key scientists in Oppenheimer’s circles — his brother, Frank; Bob Serber, Joe Weinberg, Hans Bethel, and later, Edward Teller. We get to see the extent to which they were involved in leftist and Communist causes, we get to see Oppenheimer’s lover Jean Tatlock, his colleague’s wives Charlotte (Serber) and Jackie (Oppenheimer), his future wife Kitty, who he stole from another professor, Richard Harrison. We see the fervor and the passion — both for their causes, and even more so, for the atomic science that is developing as they hear and read reports from folks like Heisenberg and Bohr in Germany.

Oppenheimer - Cast Photo StripWe also get to see this academic exercise make the transition to a military exercise, and how the families and relationships deal with the strain of that transition — and the moral impact of what they are actually developing. As this is occurring, we also see the impact of the past coming back to haunt them (just like so many Livejournal, My Space, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts of today). We get to see the strengths and the weaknesses of Oppenheimer’s character — his devotion to the science, but the weakness with the women. We see how politics and ambition created difference between Oppenheimer and his brother Frank, how it may have led his lover to suicide, and how his handling of incidents came back to haunt his life.

From what I know of Oppenheimer and the other characters at the time, they got the story right — although a bit simplified for a theatre audience. This comes not only from the plays I’ve seen, but the research I’ve done and reading of Feynman’s books. They got the science right. They got the way the military behaved right. In fact, it brought to mind the notion of Program Protection — the concept of protecting CPI (Critical Program Information) to prevent your adversary from being able to duplicate your technology and field it before you. Those are terms from today’s DOD (DODI 5200.39, 5200.44), but those notions are clear in this play with Oppenheimer’s strong desire to protect the information they are developing. According to my wife, they even got the projected equations correct.

In other words, in the story aspect of this show — they got it right. They made it exciting. They got the right balance of technical, people, and story to make it interesting, but not insulting to those who understand the technology and the history. You’ll walk out of this show both enlightened, informed, and entertained. A great combination.

A few additional notes:

  • I appreciated the opening number of Act II, “We’ll Meet Again”. I have no idea whether the younglings attending the theatre will recognize that as the closing song in Dr. Strangelove. I did.
  • The “Little Boy” monologue reminded me of the similar scene in the musical Allegiance about the dropping of the bomb, and the reaction from the other side. It is interesting to think about the two productions in juxtaposition, and the overall message of what it says about the war effort, and what Americans are willing to do when they believe they are at war with an intractable enemy.
  • There were some interesting comments in the story about the importance of science and scientific thinking, and how it can combat the ability to believe anything you hear. There were specific references in there to vaccinations, and it was eerily foreshadowing the current administration (this was written in 2014) with its anti-science attitudes towards climate change, research, and so forth.

Under the direction of John Perrin Flynn (FB), the actors were believably their characters, and clearly seemed to be enjoying their parts. Flynn had to corral a very large cast (much larger than you usually see in LA’s intimate theatre), and he pulled it off with a precision and storytelling flair that made me think this should be on the larger stage — the Mark Taper, the Ahmanson, or dare I say it (dare, dare): New York. The story, direction, and performance is of that caliber.

In the lead position was James Liebman (FB) as J. Robert Oppenheimer. Liebman captured the look and personality well, tall and gangly, quick to respond, projecting the right aura of confidence in his knowledge and rightness, but a bit less sure in the social situations. He clearly seemed to enjoy this role, and that joy was projected to the audience.

Moving to the next tier, let’s turn to the scientists whose characters stuck in my mind: Ryan Brophy (FB) [Frank Oppenheimer], Mark Jacobson (FB) [Bob Serber]; Michael Redfield (FB) [Hans Bethel, Piano Player, Musical Director]; Dan Via (FB) [Edward Teller]. This was primarily because their characters appeared throughout the entire storyline or were particularly memorable. Brophy captured the younger brother well, both with the competition aspect with his older brother, as well as the stronger fervor for the leftist causes. Jacobson was very strong as Serber, one of the key secondary scientists and the only one — other than the Oppenheimers — who was presented as having a family. He radiated the scientific excitement well, and served as a great sounding board for the lead. He was fun to watch. Redfield’s Bethel was a European representative, again capturing the science well. Lastly, Via’s Teller was more the elder scientist, presenting a man much more interested in the science than the weapon.

As a digression, regarding the “stuck in my mind”: This was a large cast show, and it was difficult at times to tell characters apart and remember their names. The program would be helped with a few pages of Dramatis Personæ, identifying the major characters and their roles, and perhaps a little historic background.

Continuing the second tier, let’s look at the lead women: Rachel Avery (FB) [Kitty Harrison]; Kirsten Kollender (FB) [Jean Tatlock]; Jennifer Pollono (FB) [Charlotte Serber]; and Miranda Wynne (★FB, FB) [Jackie Oppenheimer]. Let’s start with Kollender — she’s one of the first we see, as Jean, Oppenheimer’s lover. Her performance exudes vivaciousness and sex, but even more so, her suicide scene in the second act is extremely touching and emotional, and was just a great performance. Turning to Robert Oppenheimer’s other woman — Kitty. She gives off a different vibe — one more of lush aloofness, with an emphasis on the lush. She makes you wonder what her relationship was with the man — was he a way to get away from one husband, or was there true depth of feelings here. The actress captured that aloofness well. Pollono and Wynne had more supporting roles to their husbands, although Wynne captures the energy of her character well, and Pollono gets a wonderful moment during the second act when she stands up as a department head. All were really fun to watch.

In the third tier were the scientists who either had smaller roles (such as those brought into Los Alamos for the bomb work), or those who disappeared before Los Alamos primarily due to their leftist affiliations: Rick Garrison [Klaus Fuchs]; Zachary Grant (FB) [Robert Wilson]; Daniel Shawn Miller (FB) [Luis Alvarez, Doctor]; Brewster Parsons (FB) [Joe Weinberg]; Brady Richards (FB) [Richard Feynman]; and Kenney Selvey (FB) [Giovanni Rossi Lomanitz]. All captured the scientific curiosity and energy well, and came across believably as scientists who knew what they were doing and the gravity of it.

Also in this tier was Ron Bottitta (FB) [General Leslie Groves, Albert Einstein]. In my professional life I have worked with numerous colonels, lt. colonels, and even the occasional general in Space Division. Bottitta captured the senior officer quite well — the authority, the intelligence, and the calibrated bullshit tolerance level. He was fun to watch.

In the last tier are the smaller roles and the ensemble members: Marwa Bernstein (★FB, FB) [Ruth Tolman, Choreographer], Daniel Jordan Booth (FB) [Soldier, Ensemble]; Jason Chiumento [Soldier, Policeman]; Brendan Farrell (FB) [Kenneth Nichols, Richard Harrison]; Rori Flynn (FB) [Waitress, Ensemble]; Scott Victor Nelson (★FB. FB) [Haakon Chevalier, Colonel Paul Tibetts]; Delilah Bank [Little Boy]; Landon Tavernier (FB) [Peer de Silva]; and Rachel Sorsa (★FB) [Singer]. A few performances are worth highlighting here. Bank was spectacular in the Little Boy monologue that I mentioned earlier. Nelson was strong as Tibetts in his one scene, capturing the Army Air Corps pilot quite well (remember, the USAF was not created as a service until 1947, after the war).

Understudies were: Daniel Jordan Booth (FB), Jason Chiumento, Rori Flynn (FB), Daniel Shawn Miller (FB), and Jennifer Sorenson (FB). Sophie Pollono was listed in the program as “Little Boy”; it is unknown whether she alternates in the role with Bank, or Bank was a replacement.

Finally, turning to the production and creative side of the team. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz (FB)’s set was both sparse and spectactular, showing the power of theatre to not need the realism of film. Simple walls with hooks and squares, a few benches, some chalk, and a few wood hanging pieces, and your mind created the necessary barracks and parties and rooms and such. Realism is highly overrated. This design combined with the projection design of Nicholas E. Santiago to create a holistic fusion providing not only the place but the setting. Projections provided the titles for each scene, and they provided selected additional scenic elements. These aspects were supported by Matt Richter’s (FB)’s lighting design and Christopher Moscatiello‘s sound design. Richter’s lighting utilizing moving LEDs and moving mirror lights, in addition to both LED and lekos to highlight portions of the stage and particular characters, they also provided an effective flash during the bomb sequences. The sound design also worked well during the bomb sequences, providing the deep notes of the explosion quite well. The final key piece of the design picture was Dianne K. Graebner‘s costume design. Although we had a few minor quibbles with the military costumes (unsurprising, as we both work with, and have worked with, the military extensively) that we let her know about during the opening reception (and which will likely be corrected), the costumes overall fit the period well and provided the final piece in establishing the time, place, and setting. Rounding out the production team were: Barbara Kallir (FB) [Asst. Director]; Sam Kofford (FB) [Asst. Director]; Steve Vance [Scientific Advisor]; Susan Wilder [Research]Marwa Bernstein (★FB, FB) [Choreography]Michael Redfield (FB[Music Director]; David A. Mauer [Technical Director, Bomb Design]; Amanda Bierbauer [Production Manager, Prop. Design]; Victoria Hoffman [Casting]; Tor Brown [Lighting Co-Designer]; Michelle Hanzelova [Projection Co-Designer, Key Art Design]; Jacquelyn Gutierrez [Asst. Scenic Design]; Judith Borne [Publicity]; and Corryn Cummins [Social Media]. There was no explicit credit for stage manager (tsk, tsk); presumably, that was Amanda Bierbauer.

Oppenheimer continues at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB) until December 30th. Go see it, it is one (if not the) best dramas we have seen in 2018. Tickets are available through the Rogue Machine box office. They do not appear to have a listing 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 Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (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:

October continues next weekend with Moon River -The Music of Henry Mancini at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). The third weekend of October brings Shrek at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). October will close with the Contemporary Crafts Show in Pasadena.

Continuing the lookahead: November starts with She Loves Me at Actors Co-op (FB) and Stitches So Cal. The second weekend of November is very busy: Dear Even Hansen at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and A Bronx Tale at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), as well as A Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (OERM) (FB). The third weekend of November brings Finks at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB). Thanksgiving weekend has Steambath at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB). December starts with the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC), followed by a hold for the Canadian Brass at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Then we may travel up to the Bay Area for Tuck Everlasting at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (FB). Lastly, January will start with Bat Out of Hell at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. 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.

Share

🎭 Not Quite T. S. Eliot | “Bark” @ Theatre Palisades

Bark (Theatre Palisades)I want you to think about musicals and plays about animals — particularly ones told from the animal’s point of view. What comes to mind? For cats, there is (of course) The Lion King and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats.  Both are soaring epics — one based on Hamlet, the other on the poems of T. S. Eliot. Both have remarkable music from remarkable composers, and both have spectacular dance.  Both use the art of costuming to transform their performers into the animals they are portraying. All this for felines that are indifferent to us, at best (unless you have an Aby, as one of my friends will point out).

What about man’s best friend, the dog? Well, there’s Snoopy, the sequel (in some sense) to You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Never a big hit. There’s the play Sylvia, about a dog and her owner. Both are funny, and either that particularly memorable.

In 2004, the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood introduced yet another musical about dogs: Bark! The Musical.  Bark! featured music by David Troy Francis (FB), with lyrics by Gavin Geoffrey Dillard (FB), Robert Schrock (FB), and Mark Winkler (FB), with additional music by Jonathan Heath and Danny Lukie. The book was by Mark Winkler (FB) and Gavin Geoffrey Dillard (FB). Bark! told the story of six dogs through song, and was the longest running musical in the Coast’s history. They produced a cast album in 2005, which I picked up in 2008 and enjoyed.

Fast forward to this year. I’m scheduling October, and I get an email from Goldstar about Bark! being performed at Theatre Palisades (FB). I was unfamiliar with the theatre, despite the fact that it was across the street from my high school (it opened 11 years after I graduated), but Bark! was on my list of shows that I had only heard but not seen. I knew they had good talent, because they had cast a friend of mine in a recent show there.. So I got tickets for last night. The theatre is quite impressive for a community theatre, with a stage that could house 2 99-seat theatre, including substantial space in the wings. The show also gave us the opportunity to see the new Caruso Palisades Village while we hunted down dinner.*
——————
*: So what did we think of it? A nice walking space with a good village feel. The stores that were opened were nice. It didn’t, however, have quite the old “downtown Palisades” feel of the days of the House of Lee and Morts. It was a Caruso-sanitized shopping experience, which didn’t make it bad, just … overpriced. Given the growth of housing prices and the wealth in that community, perhaps that’s more appropriate now than it was in the 1960s and 1970s.

As for Bark! The Musical. This ain’t Cats folks. Cats are complex creatures, with quirks and oddities that inspire, well, poets. Dogs are simpler: give them love, attention, play with them, and for the most part, they’ll love you back unconditionally. The musical is equally simple: a series of songs sung from the dog’s point of view about their lives. The characters in the show represent a mix of dog types: King, an older dog whose boy has gone off to college; Boo, a scruffy dog owned by a family; Chanel, a poodle owned by a gay couple; Golde, a pampered dog owned by a Jewish couple, Sam, a mutt, and Rocks, a puppy. The songs aren’t particularly deep (c’mon, they sing about wizzing on cats!), but they are entertaining and enjoyable. A few of them are particularly moving. All in all, it makes for an enjoyable night out that doesn’t require a lot of thinking. In particular, given the events of the recent weeks, it gives a night out where you don’t need to think about politics (although there are a few folks I’d love to take a wiz on).

Under the direction of Susan Stangl (FB) with choreography by Heidi Dotson (FB), the actors do a reasonable job of capturing dog mannerisms — the excitement, the scratching, the nervousness, and so forth. But unlike the productions for their larger feline siblings, the mannerisms only went so far. You knew these actors as their characters, but they didn’t become dogs. I think a bit more imagination and creativity might have been required to create that illusion, including a stronger use of perspective in the set design, more ecovative costume direction, and such. But then again, this is community theatre with community theatre resources — so for what they had, they did well. The director did build a good chemistry within the team, and the dance worked will with the skill of the performers.

Of the six “dogs”, I really liked three of them. Two others were a close second, and the last was promising but needed to grow into his feet. In the favorite’s positions were Julie Hinton (FB) [Chanel]; Greg Abbott (FB) [King]; and Elena Coleman (FB) [Boo]. Hinton was extremely strong, with a truly remarkable singing voice, and a playfulness and personality that shined through her performance. She was really strong in her solo number, “‘Il Cane Dell’ Opera”, but was equally fun in numbers like “Siren Symphony” and “Three Bitches”. Abbott also brought a remarkable personality and a strong voice to his numbers, really capturing his character well. This was most noticeable in “A Grassy Field”, but also in his number about “Lassie”. I just really enjoyed watching him (and I kept wondering if he was the same Greg Abbott that went to Pali in the 1976-1977 time period). Lastly, there was Coleman’s Boo, who was not only really cute, but brought that cuteness to her personality and character. She also had a strong voice and strong acting skills, which she demonstrated  in numbers such as “Guarding Janie” and “Life Should Be Simple”.

In the second tier, down just a notch, were Marina Tidwell (FB) [Goldie] and Peter Miller (FB) [Sam]. Both were just a bit weaker on the singing side, but really strong on the acting side. Tidwell was a hoot in “Hey, You” and the “Howling numbers, and hilarious in “Cones” about the cone of shame. Miller’s Sam was fun in the background scene, and really really funny in the “M-U-T-T Rap” and “Seniorita La Pepita” numbers. The comic performances from both were just great.

In the third tier was the puppy of the group, Ben Fuligni (FB) [Rocks]. His performance was not bad, but truly a case of “growing into his feet”. This young man clearly has talent, and embodied the puppy personality and enthusiasm well. He simply needs a bit more experience and training and time, so when contrasted with the others in the cast — it showed. I look forward to seeing him in more local production as his experience grows.

Music was provided by an on-stage band: Gary Nesteruk (FB) [Music Director, Keyboards]; Dan Radlauer and Dave Kief (FB) [Bass]; and Tom Zygmont (FB) [Drums].

Turning to the production side of the show: The set and lighting design was by Sherman Wayne, and it worked reasonably well. There could have been a bit more forced perspective in the set to give the realization that we were seeing this through a dog’s eyes; instead, it was a if the dogs were the size of humans. But again, this is community theatre, so there’s a bit more leeway. It was supported by sound and projection design by the director,  Susan Stangl (FB). These worked very well, especially during the “M-U-T-T” number with the large variety of dogs. Also doing double duty was the choreographer, Heidi Dotson (FB), who did the costumes. Here was perhaps my largest quibble: other than being in a dog-appropriate color palette (browns, whites, greys), the costumes did not evoke “dog”. I think a tad more costume creativity was needed to provide that evocation, which would have helped the suspension of disbelief aspects a bit more. Other production creidts: Josh Harper (FB[Stage Manager]; Joanne Reich [Poster Design, Scenic Design]; Ria Parody Erlich (FB) and Sylvia Grieb [Producers]; Gavin MacLeod and Arnie Wishnick (FB[Executive Producers].

Bark! The Musical continues at Theatre Palisades (FB) through October 7, 2018. It is a cute show, and an enjoyable way to pass the evening. Tickets are available through the Theatre’s website; discount tickets may be available through 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 Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (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:

October starts with Oppenheimer at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB). The following weekend brings Moon River -The Music of Henry Mancini at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). The third weekend of October brings Shrek at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). October will close with the Contemporary Crafts Show in Pasadena.

Continuing the lookahead: November starts with She Loves Me at Actors Co-op (FB) and Stitches So Cal. The second weekend of November is very busy: Dear Even Hansen at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and A Bronx Tale at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), as well as A Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (OERM) (FB). The third weekend of November brings Finks at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB). Thanksgiving weekend has Steambath at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB). December starts with the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC), followed by a hold for the Canadian Brass at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Then we may travel up to the Bay Area for Tuck Everlasting at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (FB). Lastly, January will start with Bat Out of Hell at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. 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.

Share

🎭 Pride Cometh Before the Fall | “Rope” @ Actors Co-Op

Rope (Actors Co-Op)Why do we see the shows that we see? After all, given my druthers, I tend to pick musicals over plays, comedies over dramas. But this is where the importance of a season subscription at a theatre that does good work comes in. In additional to getting the biggies that bring in the Broadway stuff or do only musicals (Pantages, Ahmanson, 5-Star Theatricals), we always include in our subscription mix small to mid-size theatres that do a mix of dramas and musicals, new and old. This brings in the work I might not normally pick, and broadens our horizons.

That is one of the many reasons we subscribe to Actors Co-op (FB). I don’t necessarily align with their mission (ministry), but their shows are top notch, their selections always interesting, and the acting excellent. The dramas that they pick challenge our thinking, and that is a good thing. That is work worth supporting.

Last night’s show was no exception. I’m not one for dark shows, and I’m not into thrillers or murder mysteries (other than TV procedurals). I’ve never seen the 1948 Alfred Hitchcock movie Rope. The closest I’ve come to seeing live theatre revolving around the perfect crime is listening to the cast album of the musical Thrill Me, which is the story of Leopold and Loeb who also thought they had committed the perfect crime, and who thought they were intellectually superior (hmmm, some interesting parallels there). This was not a show I would have picked to go see. But it was part of the season, and so we went.

I’m glad we did. It was a very interesting show, from the suddenness of the opening, to the arrogance of the crime and the dinner party, to the method of resolution. It kept me on the edge of my seat, and my mind was involved with the story. Would they get away with it? You know the answer going in: murderers never get away with it because our story conventions dictate that is not an acceptable resolution. So the real question was: How would they be discovered? For that, Patrick Hamilton‘s story worked quite well. It kept the discovery right on the edge until the eventual climax of the story.

The rough outline of the story is this: Wyndham Brandon and Charles Granillo devise a scheme to murder a classmate of theirs, the sun of Sir Johnstone Kentley. They do this, and put his body in a locked chest in their house. They then host a dinner party where they invite the young man’s father (the aforementioned Sir Johnstone Kentley), the father’s sister Mrs. Debenham, and three of their friends: Kenneth Raglan, Leila Arden, and Rupert Cadell. They latter they thought might have been smart enough to join them in the murder, but decided not to invite him because he wouldn’t have the gumption to go through with it. They felt they would get pleasure during the party because the guest would be unaware there was a body in the chest. But then one of the guest jokes that there could be a locked body in there, and …. well, I’ll spare you the details but there is the steady march to discovery.

One of the relevant notions of this play is the idea that arrogance is a personal characteristic that often leads to a downfall. We see that in the murder here, where the perpetrators are so confident that they have pulled it off that their behavior gives them away. It is something that is seen in Leopold and Loeb. It is something we’re seeing in politics today, where arrogance of the party in charge that thinks it is smarter than everyone else, and therefore can do anything they want — moral or immoral — may be coming back to bite them. One wonders if this is subtle ministry from the company, for it is the Bible that notes “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Clearly, it is the pride of Brandon and Granillo that lead to their fall.

Under the direction of Ken Sawyer (FB), the performances are tight. There is an enthusiasm and a belief and personification of their characters that the actors capture spot-on, from bubbly to panicked, from nervous to intrigued. Leading the charge are our two murders: Burt Grinstead (★FB, FB) as Wyndham Brandon and David Huynh (FB) as Charles Granillo. Both capture the arrogance and fear of the characters well, especially Grinstead for the former, and Huynh for the latter. They were fun to watch.

In the next group, I put the three younger characters invited to the dinner party: Kyle Anderson (★FB, FB) [Kenneth Raglan]; Heidi Palomino (FB) [Leila Arden]; and Donnie Smith (FB) [Rupert Cadell]. Of these, my favorite was Smith. He kept reminding me of someone, and I figured it out after the show — he was a mix of Tim Curry and Christian Borle, which a wry smile and a playfulness that was delightful to watch. He truly gave the impression of a cat that was just wondering when he was going to pounce and get it over with, with never a doubt. Anderson and Smith were more supporting: Anderson as the good natured chum who was up for anything, and Palomino as the over-eager young thing, easily excitable. The script set the two up as an eventual couple, and there was clear chemistry between the two. This was not a surprise — writing this up I discovered that they are married in real life. There affection and like for each other came across well in these roles.

In the older category were Carl Johnson (FB) as Sir Johnstone Kently and Elizabeth Herron (FB) as Mrs. Debenham. Johnson’s role called for him being the upstanding father, which he handled well. Herron’s role was more interesting, as her character spoke very little. She seemed to handle it very well, especially the bit with the rope.

Rounding out the cast was Actors Co-op regular Deborah Marlowe (FB) as the maid, Sabot. She brought her usual humor to the role, and was fun to watch as always.

Understudies were Julia Aks (★FB, FB) and Isaac W. Jay.

Hellen Harwell (FB)’s scenic design used lots of red and black to establish the mood — from the floors to the furnishing. I’m always amazed by the skills of the scenic designer to create flooring effects and how they finish furniture to create a mood, and this show was no exception. It all worked quite well. Also strong was Adam R. Macias‘s sound design, which used sound to great effect to startle and distract. Supporting all of this was Matthew Richter (FB)’s lighting design, especially the very dark blackouts. Paula Higgins (FB)’s costumes worked well, although my wife noted that the seam on Palomino’s stockings should have been a little straighter. Other production credits: David Scales [Production Manager]; Lydia Soto [Stage Manager];  Nora Feldman (FB) [Publicist];  Kevin Shewey(FB[Producer]; and  Heather Chesley (FB[Artistic Chairwoman].

Rope continues at Actors Co-op (FB) through October 28, 2018. Tickets are available through the Actors Co-Op Website. Discount tickets may be available through 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 Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (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 last weekend brings Bark: The Musical at Theatre Palisades (FB). October is also getting quite full. It starts with Oppenheimer at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB). The following weekend brings Moon River -The Music of Henry Mancini at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). The third weekend of October brings Shrek at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). October will close with the Contemporary Crafts Show in Pasadena.

Continuing the lookahead: November starts with She Loves Me at Actors Co-op (FB) and Stitches So Cal. The second weekend of November is very busy: Dear Even Hansen at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and A Bronx Tale at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), as well as A Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (OERM) (FB). The third weekend of November brings Finks at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB). Thanksgiving weekend has Steambath at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB). December starts with the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC), followed by a hold for the Canadian Brass at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Then we may travel up to the Bay Area for Tuck Everlasting at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (FB). Lastly, January will start with Bat Out of Hell at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. 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.

Share

🎭 How To Save Paradise | “Paradise” @ Ruskin Theatre Group

Paradise (Ruskin Theatre Group)I find the shows that we see in many different ways. Sometimes they are part of a subscription. Sometimes we’re in an area and we look for a show. Sometimes I learn about a show and find discount tickets. And sometimes a publicist mails me about a show (viewing me as a critic because I write so much about theatre), and the show sounds so interesting I just need to arrange for tickets*. This was the case with Paradise – A Divine Bluegrass Musical Comedywhich we saw last night at the Ruskin Theatre Group (FB) in Santa Monica. I heard the words “bluegrass” (a musical genre that I love), and “musical theatre”, and I had to see it.
————
(*: Note: Publicists often arrange free tickets for critics, but I insist on paying what I would on Goldstar, because of the ethics rules I follow at work that prohibit accepting gifts above a nominal value from a supplier.)

Going in, I didn’t know much about the show other than the synopsis about a preacher coming to a small depressed town with a miracle solution to save it. As we waited for the show to start, there was music in the lobby by one of the composers of the show, Cliff Wagner (FB). I immediately made a note to get more of this guy’s music. His bluegrass was that good. After we were seated and I waited for the show to start, we were toe-tapping to the bluegrass band that was providing music for the show. They were one of the best bluegrass bands I’ve heard in a long time. I turned to my wife, and noted that I’d be happy just hearing a concert of them playing — they were that good.

Then the show started, and … and … I sat there, alternating between laughing my head off (which I rarely do during a show, even when the rest of the audience goes crazy) and being completely shocked at what was happening on the stage. Trying to characterize the show afterwards, the answer hit me with the phrase “Avenue Q meets Book of Mormon meets Trial & Error meets Elmer Gantry“. Paradise was a surreal story in a surreal setting that made specific relevant comments on the dangers of relying upon reality TV and its hucksters to bring us solutions to real life. It did so through a story that had toe-tapping bluegrass music, and songs that were incredibly outrageous.

I so want a cast album of this show. Oh, so much.

Paradise: A Divine Bluegrass Musical Comedy (music and book by Bill Robertson (FB), Tom Sage (FB), and Cliff Wagner (★FB, FB)) is the story of depressed small small town — under 50 people — presumably somewhere in Coal Country (likely West Virginia). The town needs a miracle to survive. The “heart” of the town is Louanne Knight, who runs the corner store and post office that was started by her mama, recently deceased. She just wants to leave the town, but can’t. The mayor, a man named Gayheart, is upset that his son, “Tater”, will not take up musical comedy and that the town preacher has just up and left. Another resident, Cinderella Tiara Applebaum (called “Cyndi”, pronounced “Cindai”), has just blown up the church. There’s also Ezra, a blind man who sits on the porch and makes sardonic comments. But there is nothing to worry about. A preacher, the Reverend John Cyris Mountain, and his assistant, a former Las Vegas stripper Chastity Jones, is coming to town to save it. The preacher’s solution: Have the town star in a reality TV show produced by Peter Martinez about the most desperate downtrodden town in the nation, and use the funds to build a mega-church at the mouth of the old coal mine.

Right there, we’re in Trial and Error territory — and by this I mean the completely surreal NBC comedy about a small town in the south where everything is totally warped and weird. That’s certainly the case here, with a gay mayor who is a germaphobe who has a black son, a woman in the town that is certifiably insane, with another woman subject to virgin rage. Literally, But the songs started, and I was like … WTF? When Chasity starts singing “Jesus is deep inside me (and he won’t pull out)”, your mind just starts reeling. There are songs about hillbillies, reality TV, the importance of profit in the ministry, and more. Then it gets even stranger in the second act, with songs about flaming bags of shit, and “Tater”‘s real father, “Big Rod Brown”. Yes, they go there. This is where the Avenue Q meets Book of Mormon comes in.  But, like those shows, the offense has a point to make about society and the evangelical movements, and fits in the surrealism of the show.

That brings us to the Elmer Gantry aspect of it all: the selling of religion to small town America as salvation, with a preacher who is more than he seems, whose intentions might not be so altruistic. That’s certainly the case here — it is not a spoiler to reveal that the preacher is not doing this to save the town. He is doing it to enrich himself. This attitude of slime permits there to be many jokes that reference America’s current political leadership without being explicit, because there is similar slime using evangelical trappings to save America while leading it to its destruction. There is similar doom in place for the fictional town of Paradise, although I won’t spoil the denouement.

But of course, this is a musical, and so the town is saved … unsurprisingly, by its music. The couple find each other and the virgin is no more, and everyone gets what they wanted. Musicals, of course, must end on a happy, well, note.

This is a musical that has long been in development. It was first presented back in 2013, and was based on a reality TV experience of the authors, combined with the wonderful song about Jesus not pulling out. Times have changed, and with Trump in the White House, it was even more appropriate to revive and revisit the piece. As I noted before, I found the show hilarious and wonderful, and would love to see it again (if I could get a seat). But what is it’s future. With its’ scale, this isn’t a Broadway show. It is just too small and doesn’t have the elements that would make it work on the grand stage. But this is a wonderful musical comedy at the off-Broadway level: satirical and toe-tapping, along the lines of a Toxic Avenger or Bat Boy musical. It shocks while it comments, and the bluegrass music and genre is infectious (and rare in musical comedy — I can think of only a few musicals that use the genre, including Robber Bridegroom and Bright Star, and perhaps Big River). I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I think it helped that the performances, under the direction of Michael Myers (FB), were so over the top. These actors were having fun with their roles, occasionally going above and beyond to top each other, and this was transmitted to the audience (who were transmitting the fun back). This doesn’t happen with movies, folks — it is unique to the stage and what makes live performance so magical. An amplification loop was formed, and the results were just so spectacular.  The actors also played to the audience, which meant that there were — at times — overly exaggerated dance movement and synchronization and seemingly playful amplification through positioning and movement. With this show, that worked quite well.

As the heart of the town, Kelsey Joyce (FB)’s Louanne Knight is spectacular. She’s making her debut (which I why I couldn’t find anything about her online — girl, make a website!). She has a lovely singing voice for bluegrass, and is able to maintain her small town innocence despite all the crazy around her. She’s just wonderful to watch, and I hope to see her in other shows in the future.

Dave Florek (FB)’s Blind Ezra Johnson is the first character we meet — he’s on the porch listening to the band as the audience is seated, and eggs on the band to do more. He has a wonderfully sardonic way about him and is a hoot to watch.

Chip Bolcik (FB)’s Mayor Gayheart is hilarious. His performance captures the character to a “T”, and his feedback loop with the audience is remarkable. He is over-the-top wonderful, completely surreal. At our performance, Jeff Rolle Jr. (FB) was playing the role of his son, “Tater” (normally played by Randy Taylor (FB), according to the program). Rolle was very strong in the role, with a great presence and interaction with Bolcik as his father. His reactions in “BIg Rod Brown” and his performance in “I Don’t Wanna Sing on Broadway” were just great.

This brings us to Paige Segal (FB)’s Cinderella Tiara Applebaum (Cyndi / Cindai). Again, a hoot who creates a feedback loop with the audience for her craziness. Her performance in the song “The Missing Link” — about leaving a flaming bag of shit on a porch for revenge — is hilarious.

Driving the story around these characters are the preacher and his assistant: Jon Root (FB) as Reverend John Cyrus Mountain and Nina Brissey (FB, resume) as Chastity Jones. Root is wonderful as the preacher — slimey and talented, manipulative and handsome, just a devil of man. Brissey is the only performer who was in the 2013 version of the show, and her familiarity with the material shows in her comfort with her role as a former stripper. She brings the sex to the role, together with wonderful singing and dancing. Both are a remarkable team.

Lastly, there is Jamie Daniels (FB)’s Peter Martinez. His character, like Joyce’s Louanne, is anchored in reality. He’s the trust fund kid who is producing the show. He captures the sane-in-a-world-of-crazy well, and has a nice chemistry’s with Joyce’s Louanne.

The listed understudies are: Jamie Daniels (FB) [Reverend Mountainu/s], Donovan Farwell (FB) [Ezra Johnsonu/s], Emily Anna Bell (FB) [Louanne Knightu/s], Charlene Rose (★FB, FB) [Chastity Jonesu/s, Dance Captain], Michael Berckart (FB) [Mayor Gayheartu/s]Jeff Rolle Jr. (FB) [Tater Gayheartu/s] (who went on at our performance), Hamilton Matthews (FB) [Cyndiu/s], and Ryan Stiffelman (FB) [Peter Martinezu/s]. I’m intrigued by Matthews casting as Cyndi. ’nuff said.

Music was provided by a wonderful bluegrass band consisting of: Jim Doyle (FB[Musical Director, Drums]; John Groover McDuffie (FB[Guitar, Banjo]; Gregory Boaz (FB) [Bass]; and Devitt Feeley (FB) [Guitar, Mandolin]. These guys need to put out a bluegrass album, and then play at McCabes — they are that good. It does appear that one of them is in a local bluegrass band.

I’ve already mentioned the movement when discussing the director, but some of that credit goes to Tor Campbell (★FB, FB)’s choreography. In general, the dance was strong, especially the group numbers. I should note that this is the only show I’ve seen with a credit for Pole Dance Choreography (Jess Hopper)

Finally, turning to the production side. Stephanie K. Schwartz‘s scenic design captures Appalachia well, with a number of nice little touches. It works well with Edward Salas‘s lighting design to establish mood and time. Chip Bolcik (FB)’s sound design was unobtrusive. Dianne K. Graebner‘s suited the characters and established them well. Other production credits: Amelia Mulkey [Graphic Design]; Paul Ruddy [Casting]; Judith Borne [Publicity]; Meagan Truxal [Stage Manager (at our performance)]; Nicole Millar [Stage Manager (in program)]; John Ruskin [Artistic Director]Michael Myers (FB) [Managing Director].

Paradise: A Divine Bluegrass Musical Comedy continues at the Ruskin Theatre Group (FB). No end date is listed, but the ticketing website shows only one more weekend, September 21-23, which is sold out. Hopefully, they will extend — this is a great show. Update: Per a comment received, they have been extended, so please check their ticketing website.

***

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 Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (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 fourth weekend of September has the first show of the Actors Co-op (FB) 2018-2019 season: Rope, and the fifth weekend brings Bark: The Musical at Theatre Palisades (FB). October is also getting quite full. It starts with Oppenheimer at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB). The following weekend brings Moon River -The Music of Henry Mancini at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). The third weekend of October brings Shrek at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). October will close with the Contemporary Crafts Show in Pasadena.

Continuing the lookahead: November starts with She Loves Me at Actors Co-op (FB) and Stitches So Cal. The second weekend of November is very busy: Dear Even Hansen at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and A Bronx Tale at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), as well as A Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (OERM) (FB). The third weekend of November brings Finks at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB). Thanksgiving weekend has Steambath at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB). December starts with the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC), followed by a hold for the Canadian Brass at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Then we may travel up to the Bay Area for Tuck Everlasting at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (FB). Lastly, January will start with Bat Out of Hell at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. 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.

Share

🎭 The Power of the Group | “Ain’t Too Proud” @ Ahmanson

Ain't Too Proud (Ahmanson)With the passing of Labor Day, we’re out of the summer show season and into the fall theatre season. This brings the season openers for many companies, including the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). The Ahmanson’s first show is an odd beast: it was essentially a replacement for Crazy for You, announced for February 2018 but later postponed. This meant that it was an addition to the previous season as well as being (due to timing) the first show in the 2018-2019 season. This made me glad I hadn’t gotten tickets to Crazy for You, because we ended up subscribing. This also meant that there was essentially double the audience fighting for seats, so that when we changed our seats due to our vacation, we ended up in the far back row (row Z; our subscription is Row S).

This is also a biographic jukebox musical, along the lines of Jersey Boys. However, the songs generally don’t serve to tell the story, but to tell the time — presented chronologically where they are in the storyline, as opposed to being used to provide the story line.

Lastly, this is also a pre-Broadway musical. It has been announced for the Imperial Theatre, although the cast or opening date is still pending. The Los Angeles production is the 3rd developmental production; there is still one to go in Toronto.

Hence, when looking at this musical, we’re not just judging it as a replacement show for a revision of an (essentially) George Gershwin jukebox (for that, really, is what Crazy for You is). It is a new musical, and it needs to meet the standards of Broadway.

Does this production, which features a book by Dominique Morisseau (FB), based on the book The Temptations by Otis Williams (FB) with Patricia Romanowski, music and lyrics from “The Legendary Motown Catalog”, and direction by Des McAnuff, meet those standards? No. In many ways, it reminds me of Baby, It’s You that we saw at the Pasadena Playhouse many many years ago … and which went to Broadway and quickly disappeared. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed, but in its present form, it will have problems. Luckily, these problems are primarily book-based (a major problems for shows). The Motown music catalog is always a delight, although with the recent Motown and shows like Dreamgirls, it may be a well that has been drawn from too frequently.

As just noted, the story is based on the book written by the one constant member of the Temptations, Otis Williams. As such, it does tend to present his view of the story; given the various infighting over the years, one would expect some differing views might have emerged — but they are never presented. Reading through the Wikipedia history, the version on stage seems to capture the highlights, although it glosses over many of the numerous changes and problems over the years.  All for entertainment sake, I guess. In terms of all the personnel changes and the fighting over the group’s name, it reminds me of all the changes in groups like The Kingston Trio or the Limeliters over the years. I guess folk and R&B are connected. In terms of how accurate the music was, I must confess to not having even a shallow Temptations catalog — out of the 45,000+ songs on my iPod, only 5 are from the Temptations — and 3 of those are from the Motown musical.

The main book problem with the show is that it is very narrative driven. The scenes in the show often don’t tell the story — they are performances. What tells the story is the narrator. That’s wrong for a musical. In a musical, either the scenes or (ideally) the music should tell the story. That it doesn’t here is a problem that book writers need to address before this arrives on the Great White Way.

But that’s structural, and structure is often different than entertainment. This show is entertaining, no question. The music is a collection of Motown hits — and not just from the Temptations, but from other Motown groups such as the Supremes. There is the remarkable dance and choreography of the Temptations, recreated by the choreographer Sergio Trujillo.  There is the remarkable on-stage but hidden band  under the direction of Kenny Seymour. When they rock out at the end of the show, you are just blown away. As a concert and dance performance with a Cliff Notes story, this is just great.

The performances — especially the singing and dancing performances — are exceptional. The main problem is that with so many changes in the composition of The Temptations, many of the later members become indistinguishable, especially if you are seated at a distance. This is complicated by the reuse of the ensemble in multiple roles — making it difficult to tell who is who.

Luckily, that’s less of an issue for the top tier — the main Temptations: Derrick Baskin (FB) [Otis Williams], James Harkness (★FB, FB) [Paul Williams]; Jawan M. Jackson (★FBFB) [Melvin Franklin]; Jeremy Pope (★FB, FB) [Eddie Kendricks]; and Ephraim Sykes (★FB, FB) [David Ruffin]. They are unmistakable, especially Jackson’s deep voice.

A few others have primary named roles and a few background unnamed ensemble tracks: Saint Aubyn (FB) [Dennis Edwards, Fight Captain, Ensemble]Shawn Bowers (FB[Lamont, Asst. Dance Captain, Ensemble]; E. Clayton Cornelious (★FB) [Richard Street, Ensemble]; Jahi Kearse (FB[Barry Gordy, Ensemble]; Joshua Morgan (★FBFB[Shelly Berger, Ensemble]; Rashidra Scott (★FB, FB[Josephine, Ensemble]; Christian Thompson (★FB[Smokey Robinson, Ensemble]; and Candice Marie Woods (FB[Diana Ross, Ensemble]; Note that Morgan is the easiest ensemble member to identify; he’s the only white guy in the cast.

As for the rest, the multiple casting makes them hard to tell apart: Taylor Symone Jackson (FB[Johnnie Mae, Mary Wilson, Ensemble]; Jarvins B. Manning Jr. (★FB, FB[Al Bryant, Norman Whitfield, Ensemble]; and Nasia Thomas (FB[Mama Rose, Florence Ballard, Tammi Terrell, Ensemble].

Swings were Esther Antoine [Dance Captain]; Rodney Earl Jackson Jr. (FB); and Curtis Wiley (★FB).

As I said before, the orchestra was strong, under the direction of Kenny Seymour [Keyboard1]. The other members were: Sean Kana (FB[Assoc Conductor, Keyboard2]Sal Lozano [Reed]Dan Fornero (FB) [Trumpet, Flugelhorn]Robert Payne [Trombone, Contractor]; Keith Robinson [Guitar]; George Farmer (FB[Bass]; Clayton Craddock [Drums]; Mark Cargill and Lesa Terry [Violins]; and Lance Lee (FB) and Joey de Leon [Percussion]. Other music positions were: John Miller [Music Coordinator]; Steven M. Alper [Music Preparation]; Randy Cohen (FB[Keyboard Programmer]; Tim Crook [Assoc Keyboard Programmer]. Orchestrations were by Harold Wheeler. Music was by arrangement with Sony/ATV Music Publishing.

Finally, turning to the production and creative side. The scenic design by Robert Brill was tightly integrated with the lighting design of Howell Binkley and the projection design of Peter Nigrini. It made heavy use of projections and LEDs, and was at times very busy without the traditional scenic elements. It was, perhaps, a little too busy for my tastes, but generally worked. The sound design of Steve Canyon Kennedy was clear in the back of the theatre. The costumes of Paul Tazewell worked well, as did the hair and wig designs of Charles G. LaPointe. Rounding out the production team: Steve Rankin [Fight Director]; Edgar Godineaux [Assoc Choreographer]; Molly Meg Legal [Production Stage Manager]; Tara Rubin Casting [Casting]. Most of the other credits are management, but two are of note: Shelly Berger, who was the original Temptations manager, was the creative consultant, and Otis Williams, the last remaining original Temptation, was an Executive Producer. 

AIn’t Too Proud continues at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) through September 30. It was quite entertaining, even if it needs some work. Tickets are available through the Ahmanson Box Office.  Discount tickets may be available through 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 Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (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:

Today will bring  Paradise – A Divine Bluegrass Musical Comedy at the Ruskin Theatre (FB) on Saturday. The fourth weekend of September has Rope at Actors Co-op (FB), and the fifth brings Bark: The Musical at Theatre Palisades (FB). October is also getting quite full. It starts with Oppenheimer at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB). The following weekend brings Moon River -The Music of Henry Mancini at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). The third weekend of October brings Shrek at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). October will close with the Contemporary Crafts Show in Pasadena.

Continuing the lookahead: November starts with She Loves Me at Actors Co-op (FB) and Stitches So Cal. The second weekend of November is very busy: Dear Even Hansen at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and A Bronx Tale at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), as well as A Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (OERM) (FB). The third weekend of November brings Finks at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB). Thanksgiving weekend has Steambath at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB). December starts with the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC), followed by a hold for the Canadian Brass at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Then we may travel up to the Bay Area for Tuck Everlasting at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (FB). Lastly, January will start with Bat Out of Hell at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. 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.

 

 

Share

🎭 A Cursed, But Great, Show | “Macbeth” at Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival

Macbeth (Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival)A few weeks ago, we were on vacation up in Lake Tahoe. We never let a vacation stop us from our interests, and one of those interests is good theatre. So I always check the listings and see what is in the area. In this case, we were able to catch the last performance of Macbeth at the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival (FB). Summer is the time for outdoor Shakespeare, and we do enjoy hitting at least one show during the summer, so this fit well. The venue itself was beautiful; I snapped the picture to the right from our original seats at the show. There are two seeing areas: formal seating on dirt rows, and less expensive seating at the top and the sides with chairs set in sand. We were in the latter.

Our location is significant because this, after all, is the Scottish Play. The curse of the play hit us before the show, while we were sitting in our seats eating the dinner we had brought. My wife took a bit of her sandwich … and got a hornet, which stung her tongue and cheek. She was worried about an allergic reaction (as was I), and I had visions of trying to get her out through the sand … whereas she was worried about a helicopter evacuation. Luckily, one of the volunteers was an RN and had Benedryl with her. This was able to damp down the reaction; they also moved us much closer to the front to the handicapped seats so they could observe her and make it easier to get out in the dark. In any case, the incident unnerved us — and let me to put off doing this writeup until I bumped into having to write up another show.

We had another show last night.

One other note on the venue. In the tickets, they advise you that it gets cold in the evening. Believe them. Even though it was hot when we arrived, as the sun went down the altitude and thinner air led it to cool off very quickly. We were glad we had brought jackets and a blanket.

So, Macbeth, by William Shakespeare. Quite likely, you are familiar with the story of The Scottish King, who uses murder to achieve his position. A King who goes mad and kills his rivals. A king that sees conspiracies everywhere. A play with that famous line: “That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”. I shant summarize the story as you can find it on Wikipedia.

What struck me, watching the play, was an echoing similarity to the Presidency of Donald Trump. A man who wants power. A man who wants adoration. A man who will seemingly do anything to keep that power. A man who tells a tale of sound and fury, but ultimately signifies nothing. I encourage those  familiar with the story to review it and see if they agree.

This production, which was directed by Charles Fee, was magnificent. With Shakespeare, I find that the dated language and style make it harder to get into the story at the start, but once I got into it, this presentation gripped me. There was no attempt to modernize or change the setting of the story: this was traditional Shakespeare, told in a traditional fashion. I’ll note there were a few understudy substitutions that — due to my wife’s hornet sting — I didn’t note down. There was also one player performing with what appeared to be a strained or broken ankle in a cast or boot. Live theatre, folks. The show must go on, even a cursed one.

As I’m writing this three+ weeks post show, it is a bit harder to remember the tiers of performances. But some stand out even through the mists of times.

As the Scottish Prince, the thane of Glamis, Lynn Robert Berg (FB) was spectacular. I still remember the anger and evil that radiated from him, and the power of personality that held people in his thrall. Very, well, Trump-ish. Erin Partin (FB), was not like Melanie. She portrayed the Scottish lady as the Prince’s equal in evil, someone equal in plotting, but who was literally driven mad by it.

Also strong were the three weird sisters, Sara J. Griffin (FB), Meredith Lark (FB), and Jessie Cope Miller (FB). They had a movement and style that made their performance just great .. and somewhat unworldly. Just a joy to watch.

Also sticking out in my mind for their performances (but the specifics are lost) were David Anthony Smith (FB)’s King Duncan; Jonathan Dryud (FB)’s Banquo, and Christopher Tocco (FB)’s Macduff.

Rounding out the cast (and other roles) were: Lavour Addison (FB[Ross]; Joe Atack (FB[Lennox]; Peder Benson Bate (FB[Sergeant, Murderer, Ensemble]; Remell Bowens Jr. (FB[Nobleman, Ensemble]; Aled Davies [Seyton]; Sara J. Griffin (FB[Weird Sister, Lady Macduff]; Jeffrey C. Hawkins (FB[Malcolm]Meredith Lark (FB[Weird Sister, Gentlewoman/Lady Macbeth’s Attendant]Jessie Cope Miller (FB[Weird Sister]; Andrew Pope (FB[Nobleman, Ensemble]; Peter Ribar (FB[Donalbain, Ensemble]David Anthony Smith (FB) [Duncan, Siward]; Mark Anthony (M.A.) Taylor (FB[Murderer, Ensemble]; Daniel Telford (FB[Young Siward, Ensemble]; and Colin Unruh [Maduff’s son, Fieance]. Understudies included the ensemble members and non-lead players, as well as Brittni Shambaugh Addison (FB), Briana Biller (FB), Adriano Cabral (FB), and Gregory J. Klino (FB) (whom I’m guessing also served as swings).

Turning to the production side: The scenic design by Russell Metheny was simple and Shakespearean, and appeared to make great use of the LTSF facility. Costumes by Kim Krumm Sorenson seemed appropriately period. The lighting design by Rick Martin I recall as being sufficient, but I think there was the occasional actor in the dark. The sound design by Matthew Webb was good during the show, but the sound used for the pre-show announcements was much weaker. Rounding out the credits were: Ken Merckx [Fight Choreography]David Anthony Smith (FB) [Text and Speech Coach]; Casey Hagwood (FB[Stage Manager]; Sarah Kelso (FB[Asst. Stage Manager]Jonathan Dryud (FB) [Fight Captain]Macbeth was a co-production of the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival (FB), the Idaho Shakespeare Festival (FB), and the Great Lakes Theatre (FB).

We caught the last summer performance of the LTSF and Macbeth at Sand Harbor. Were we back in the area, we’d look at future productions.

***

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 Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (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:

This weekend brings Ain’t Too Proud at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on Friday, followed by Paradise – A Divine Bluegrass Musical Comedy at the Ruskin Theatre (FB) on Saturday. The fourth weekend has Rope at Actors Co-op (FB), and the fifth brings Bark: The Musical at Theatre Palisades (FB). October is also getting quite full. It starts with Oppenheimer at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB). The following weekend brings Moon River -The Music of Henry Mancini at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). The third weekend of October brings Shrek at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). October will close with the Contemporary Crafts Show in Pasadena.

Continuing the lookahead: November starts with She Loves Me at Actors Co-op (FB) and Stitches So Cal. The second weekend of November is very busy: Dear Even Hansen at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and A Bronx Tale at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), as well as A Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (OERM) (FB). The third weekend of November brings Finks at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB). Thanksgiving weekend has Steambath at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB). December starts with the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC), followed by a hold for the Canadian Brass at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Then we may travel up to the Bay Area for Tuck Everlasting at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (FB). Lastly, January will start with Bat Out of Hell at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. 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.

Share

🎭 Watching a Friendship Ravel | “Merrily We Roll Along” @ 4Leaf • GPAC • Colony

Merrily We Roll Along (4Leaf/Golden Performing)When one thinks about the Second Broadway Golden Era — roughly the post-Fiddler era to the British Invasion of the 1990s, there are a few major composing teams that come to mind — teams that characterize that era. Once of these folks was Stephen Sondheim. His successes from those days are well known — shows like Sweeny Todd or Into the Woods. Other shows were only moderate successes when first performed, but have grown into legends subsequently, such as Company or Follies. Still other shows have remained problematic and are rarely produced, such as PassionsAnyone Can Whistle, or Merrily We Roll Along. I’ve had concert or revival versions of the latter two on my iPod of late, and I’ve been growing to appreciate the music, recognizing how many of the songs from these shows have gone on to a longer life, even if the show was recognized as problematic.

Enter the Colony Theatre (FB). We are former Colony subscribers. After they had a second run of financial trouble, the producing side of the company went dormant, and they focused on leasing out the space and offering classes to make the rent and to presumably keep the City of Burbank happy. The shows they have brought in have been hit or miss over the years, and we’ve skipped most of the offerings (although their guest production of Funny Girl a couple of years ago was good). But one of their guest productions this summer piqued my interest: 4Leaf Music (FB), a new producing company, together with Golden Performing Arts Center (FB), a Canoga Park-based non-profit that trains young actors, had teamed up to present Merrily We Roll Along at the Colony. As this was a Sondheim show — in particular, a Sondheim show I had only heard but never seen — plus it was one of those legendary Sondheim flops (it ran for only 52 previews and 16 performances) — I had to figure out a way to see it. Luckily, the timing worked out, and so we were back at the Colony last night for Merrily.

I must note that every time we visit the Colony venue these days I’m filled with a sense of melancholy. What was once a great company is gone. The walls once filled to the brim with years of photos of productions are now empty. The furniture pieces in the lobby, which were leftover props from past productions, are gone. A few towers with set designs from productions are all that remains. Even the artistic director, Barbara Beckley, has gone Emerita and her spirit doesn’t permeate the halls or the stage. What went wrong? Where did this company veer off course and flounder?  When was the seed of destruction sown; when did the artistic notion that propelled them go by the wayside? As I said melancholy — and looking back now, an interesting echo of the story to be told on stage. It was like, say, presenting a production of Follies in a theatre that had been long closed and was reopening just for that show before being torn down.

Which brings us to the story of Merrily We Roll Along, which featured a book by George Furth, based on the original play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.  Merrily tells the story of Franklin Shepard, a producer of Hollywood movies, chasing after fame and money. As with the original play, it starts with him at the top of his fame, after multiple divorces, with his current wife learning of his affair with the leading lady in his movie, which was to have starred her, with an estrangement from his best friends, Charlie Kringas (his lyricist) and Mary Flynn (a writer and theatre critic) who helped him get started. This is in 1976. As with the original play, it then moves backward in times, showing key moments about of where it went wrong, of where he snatched seeming victory (but really defeat) from the arms of time. 1973. 1968. 1966. 1964. 1962. 1960. Finally, 1957, where we see him move in with Charlie and meet Mary for the first time. You can find a more detailed synopsis on the Wikipedia page; the 1994 synopsis presented there reflects the show at the Colony.

Whereas the original play was a somewhat success for its time (151 performances in 1934); the first version of the musical was a failure. The staging had lots of problems. The themes — about abandoning ones dreams for commercial success — were not well received at the time, and the reverse chronological approach made the show difficult to understand. There were also some problems with the structure of the score, which were remedied to an extent in subsequent revisions and revisals, leading to the 1994 version that was performed at the Colony.

Did they succeed in fixing the problems of the show? My wife found the show ponderous. I thought it was interesting, but that the backward time structure hindered the storytelling. It forces you to start out with people who you don’t like, and over emit (time, backwards), learn what they did to make themselves unlikable, instead of learning why you like them. The backwards structure provides the 20/20 hindsight that allows the audience to think they know better by providing “aha, that’s why” moments and “oh, no, don’t do that moment”. Using conventional time would have worked better: you would see the character arcs of how the person changed with the foreshadowing. Further, the reverse nature of the story necessitated musical transitions to take the back in time with the people on stage — and these transitions slowed the narrative without adding to the story.

In short, the book remains problematic — and problematic in a way that may never be easily resolvable. This show may be the Mack and Mabel of Sondheim’s catalog: the show that got away. The show with great music that had an incurable book. As such, it will remain a piece of fascination — a piece that will be reexamined to see what went wrong, and where were the signals that were ignored.

That brings us to the 4 Leaf/GPAC production. An LA Times piece on this production makes clear why the producers chose this show, and chose to do it now:

The impetus to stage this production started about 12 years ago, when Trevor Berger [the actor playing Franklin Shepard] was in a “Merrily” production with L.A.-based Musical Theatre Guild, playing Frank’s son, Frank Jr. “I fell in love with the show,” Trevor Berger said. His father decided to mount a production, which will have a full orchestra, as the younger Berger gets ready to move to New York City. “It’s a big send-off party for him,” Rick Berger said.

Nice father.

While the performances in this show were mostly very strong, the first production nature of the show did show through at points on the production side. More on those production problems in a bit. Under the direction of Sonny James Lira (FB), who also did the choreography, the cast brought a lot of energy onto the stage. Theatrically, they did a great job of inhabiting their characters and bringing them to life. The movement was satisfactory, but at times the dance side was a bit baffling, as I couldn’t see what story or message the movement was bringing. Movement shouldn’t just be there for movement sake, it should enhance the story.

However, the performances were, for the most part, quite strong. In the lead position, as Franklin Shepard, was Trevor James Berger (★FB, FB). I was unsure about Berger at first — he didn’t have the right look of the character for me. But his performance grew on me, and by the end I quite enjoyed his performance, He had a very pleasant singing voice, and he embodied the character quite well.

I had no such questions about the other leads: Jeremy Ethan Harris (FB) as Charlie Kringas and Tori Gresham (FB) as Mary Flynn. Harris had a lovely and strong singing voice, and a strong personality that he brought to the character making him warm and likable. Later in the show, a comparison struck me between Harris and a young Richard Kind, who worked with Sondheim on Bounce, later retitled Side Show. Greshman’s Flynn was a delight. She had a wonderfully unique and strong singing voice, and her performance had elements of both Stritch and Merman. She’s an actress I hope to see on the stage again. Her performance was that strong.

In the second tier of characters, a particularly notable performance was Sarah Ryan (FB) as Beth Spencer, Frankin’s first wife. Strong performance, strong singing, good movement, good personality — and did I mention that she had a great voice. I was less taken with Renee Cohen (FB)’s Gussie Carnegie (Franklin’s second wife). There was just something off in her characterization and performance that I couldn’t put my finger upon. Technically adept, but there was a sense of “trying too hard” in either the look or the acting that missed the mark slightly. I don’t mean to imply the performance was bad — it wasn’t. But it needed something different in the characterization that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

Rounding out the second tier of characters was Brian Felker (FB) as Joe Josephson, as Franklin’s producers and Gussie’s Ex, and Vince Venia as Franklin Shepard Jr. Felker gave a strong performance within the confines of his character; I particularly liked him in “Opening Doors”. Venia did what any child actor must do: look cute while believably being a character’s kid. Both worked.

This brings us to the ensemble. There are a few performances of members of the ensemble worth particularly noting:  Taylor Bass (FB) [Meg, Ensemble] was a particular standout: there was something about her look, her voice, and her performance that just drew my eye to her. Also strong was Shaunte Nickels (FB) [Scotty, Evelyn, Ensemble] — she had a very strong voice and brought a nice character to her track. I also liked the look of Ashley Knaak (FB) [TV Newswoman, Mrs. Spencer, Ensemble] and her voice, although the wardrobe her track had problems. Rounding out the ensemble (named roles indicated) was: Logan Allison (FB) [Terry, TV Newsman, Mr. Spencer], Riley Boronkey (FB) [Dory, Jerome], Aaron Camitses (FB) [Make Up Artist, Photographer], Donna Kim (FB) [KT], Josiah Lucas (FB) [Tyler, Judge], and Christopher J. Thume (FB) [Ru, Minister].

[A side note to the young actors in this production: If you notice, I attempt to link to your actor page — this is to help people find you if they like your performance. Most of you didn’t have such pages. Get them. Create yourself a web page, and remember to keep your domain registration paid. Create a resume on Backstage or an equivalent site. Enter your credits at abouttheartists.com. Link your page to your Facebook. Make sure the pages you want come up if someone searches your name + “actor”. This is to help people who like your performance find you for future performances.]

Music was provided by a live orchestra, under the musical direction of Jan Roper (FB) [Conductor, Keyboards]. In addition to Roper, the orchestra consisted of Ann Kerr [Woodwinds], Peter Miller [Woodwinds], Anne King (FB[Trumpet], Andrew Lippman (FB[Trombone], Christian Klikovits (FB[Synthesizer], Steve Billman (FB[Bass], and Alan Peck [Drums / Percussion].

This brings us to the remaining production aspects of the show, which is where most of the problems revealed themselves. Effy Yang (FB)’s set design was simple — perhaps too simple — consisting of a number of movable platformy-stagey things and simple projections that were drowned out by the lighting. Two problems here. First, the stage pieces didn’t convey that much of a sense of place, so it was difficult to distinguish where something was happening. The projections didn’t help all that much in that regard; they also had some jerky motions that served to distract. The sense of place — and more importantly, time — can also be conveyed through the costume design, and the hair and makeup design. This was the second place that was problematic. Michael Mullen (FB)’s Costume Design was sometimes period-right and sometimes period-wrong, and it was often paired with the wrong hairstyle for the period, providing chronic-dissonance. There were also distracting costume failures (my wife noted a seam on a suit), odd gaps, and outfits that appeared to be too tight or misfitted. Some of this might come with the financial constraints of a production such as this for a new company, but they remained distractions from the show. Even if you must compromise, you must do so in a way that doesn’t unduly distract the audience. Slightly less problematic was the Zachary Titterington (FB)’s lighting design. Here, the problem was that the occasional actor on the side of the stage was not lit, so they were performing in darkness. Not in darkness, however, were the upper wings. The orchestra, of course, can’t be dark, but the curtain can be adjusted to minimize their operating lights. On the stage left upper wing, there was no reason for the work light to be on when the actors weren’t up there. Again — distractions. Rounding out the production team was Riley Boronkey (FB) [Asst. Choreographer]Manichanh Kham (FB[Stage Manager]. Rounding out the creative credits: Jonathan Tunick [Original Orchestrations]; Harold Prince [Original Direction].

There is one more weekend of performance of 4 Leaf/GPAC’s Merrily We Roll Along. Tickets are available through Brown Paper TIckets. Although there are some flaws on the production side, and the book of the show remains problematic, the energy and enthusiasm of these performers does elevate the production and makes this rarer show worth seeing.

***

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 Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (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 last weekend of August will bring more Shakespeare — this time Macbeth at the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival (FB).

Looking forward to September: The first weekend of September is currently open, but I’m looking for shows in the Sacramento area. The second has a hold date for I Dig Rock and Roll Music at the Rubicon in Ventura — whether we go depends on ticket prices. The third weekend has Ain’t Too Proud at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on Friday, followed by Paradise – A Divine Bluegrass Musical Comedy at the Ruskin Theatre (FB) on Saturday. The fourth weekend has Rope at Actors Co-op (FB), and the fifth brings Bark: The Musical at Theatre Palisades (FB). October is also getting quite full. It starts with Oppenheimer at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB). The following weekend has a HOLD for Moon River -The Music of Henry Mancini at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) — I’m just waiting for tickets to come up on Goldstar. The third weekend of October brings Shrek at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). October will close with the Contemporary Crafts Show in Pasadena.

Continuing the lookahead: November starts with She Loves Me at Actors Co-op (FB) and Stitches So Cal. The second weekend of November is very busy: Dear Even Hansen at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and A Bronx Tail at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), as well as A Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (OERM) (FB). The third weekend of November brings Finks at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB). Thanksgiving weekend has a hold for Steambath at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB). December starts with the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC), followed by a hold for the Canadian Brass at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Then we may travel up to the Bay Area for Tuck Everlasting at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (FB). Lastly, January will start with Bat Out of Hell at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. 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.

Share