The Inner Thoughts of a Girl Group

Inside Out (Grove Theatre Center)userpic=dramamasksI discover the shows I go to in many ways. For the theatres to which I subscribe, they pick the shows for me; in fact, that’s one reason I subscribe — to discover shows I might not otherwise pick. But the vast majority of shows I see I pick. I learn about them through promotion by Goldstar and LA Stage Tix; I learn about them from emails from publicists (they seem to think I’m a critic — I may write up the shows I see, but I’m computer security guy and professional audience). I learn about them from ads in programs (such as Footlights). I often learn about new musicals from Ellen Dostal’s excellent blog Musicals in LA. [and I should plug that I monitor this stuff with an excellent RSS reader, Newsblur, which is a great way to keep on top of websites]. Ellen’s blog alerted me to the show we saw last night — the 20th Anniversary production of Inside Out (FB) at the Grove Theatre Center (FB).  I had been looking for a show for this weekend, and just didn’t find one that screamed “come and see me”. Chavez Ravine at the Kirk Douglas came closest, but I couldn’t find tickets. This show called to me for a number of reasons: (1) it was a musical; (2) I had heard good things about Adryan Russ (FB) and her music before; (3) Bruce Kimmel (FB) was involved,  and we’ve liked the shows he’s done in the past (one, two, three); and (4) the subject matter sounded interesting. The net result: the first of two weekends seeing shows in Burbank. The verdict: This one is worth going to see — great performance, great musical, and a grand time.

Inside Out (with book by Doug Haverty (FB), music by Adryan Russ (FB), and lyrics by Doug Haverty (FB) and Adryan Russ (FB)) tells the story of a girl group. But not that kind of girl group — this isn’t Baby It’s You or some other jukebox musical. Rather, this is the story of a woman’s therapy group in the 1980s. This provides the opportunities for the women to talk and work out their problems, which provides the authors the opportunity to comment on the issues women faced with careers, the balance of work and family, and relationships. It also provided the opportunity to comment on failure and the path of recovery from failure.  This could have been a sit-and-talkfest; the fact that the participants sing through their problems is just an unsaid given. It’s the norm of the universe established in the first song.

Given the nature of this musical and this universe, the plot isn’t your traditional “tell a story” plot that one might see in Oklahoma. Instead, the plot is more on the order of A Chorus Line — learning the back story of a bunch of characters and watching them grow and change as they tell their stories and interact. For this to succeed, the mix of characters has to be right. Luckily, the authors chose a good mix: a mom who is dealing with changing body image issues after having children; a successful business woman with a stay-at-home husband and teenagers; a flighty CYT (cute young thing) into numerology and such; and a lesbian banker with a rapping teen son. The impetus for the show is the addition of a new group member: a well-known pop musician who hasn’t published anything or performed in years. The group discussions (and the songs presenting those discussions) touch upon a number of “touchpoint” subjects: the desire to be thin, the desire for a good relationship, what women want from men, the growth and depth of relationships, facing one’s fears, and taking chances. That the show successfully does that was reflected in the reactions of the women audience members — and I’m not talking just about those that know the cast members, but those that paid to be there (such as my wife, who thoroughly enjoyed the show).

Inside Out PhotosI’d venture to say that another reason for success was a directoral light touch. But in reality, I have no idea what the “touch” of the director, Bruce Kimmel (FB), was — and this is a good thing. I tend to believe that the sign of a good director — just like good sound and lights — is that they are transparent. You think everything is coming naturally from the actors. In this show, I couldn’t see obvious signs of overt direction — it all seemed that these were natural characters who loved being themselves. I guess that means there was good direction.

It didn’t hurt that the performances were top notch either. You can see most of the cast in two publicity photos I lifted from the Goldstar site, but note that we had the understudy in the role of Dena. All of the cast was excellent, so let’s talk about them (not behind their backs):

My favorite was Adrienne Visnic (FB) as Sage, the “freethinker”. She just radiated in the role — happiness, bemusement, joy, rapture. It was just a delight to watch her face — not only when she was upfront singing a song, but when she was in the background reacting to the other performers. She was very strong in her numbers, particularly “I Don’t Say Anything” and “Let It Go”. “I Don’t Say Anything” was a number that particularly hit home, as I could sense my wife thinking many of those thoughts about me :-).

Coming in a very very very close second was Stephanie Fredricks (FB) as Chlo, the lesbian banker. We’ve seen her before at REP in I Love You, You’re Perfectand I loved her performance then. She was great here, in much the same way as Ms. Visnic — her background and interaction with the other characters was great. You just got the sense that these women actually liked each other and were friends from this interplay. I don’t believe that level of nuance can come from direction — this comes from the actresses. She was wonderful in her lead numbers such as “never Enough”, but I also enjoyed watching her in the background in numbers such as “Thin.”

“Thin” brings us to the next actress I really liked (OK, I’ll admit it, I liked them all): Dana Meller (FB) as Molly. Meller’s first number, “Thin”, did a perfect job of establishing her character and echoing with the audience (as it touched on body image issues); her major number in the second act, “The Passing of a Friend” was also a hit. Again: great singing, great reaction, great interplay with the other characters and a delight to watch. I’ll note we’ve seen Meller before in both Insanity and Pest Control at the No Ho Arts Center. I still fondly remember Pest Control, and wish it would be revived and have a cast album.

Sandy Bainum (FB) was  strong as Liz, the high powered corporate executive. I initially didn’t warm to her character — I’m not sure if it was her look or the attitude she gave off. However, by the second act when the character loosened up, I was sold. She was great in her “Do It At Home” number, and just watching the transformation of the character was great.

For Dena — the character who seemingly was the focus of the group — we didn’t have the main player, Leslie Stevens (FB). Rather, we had the understudy, Jill Marie Burke (FB). Burke had a very different look than the other characters, and as with Bainum’s character, I was initially cold. Yet again, however, the performance won me over — by the second act as the character warmed up to the environment and the group, she shone. Burke nailed it on the songs and did great on the lines (one or two hesitations, but hey, this was an understudy situation, so they were truly minor). All of her numbers were great, but I’ll particularly highlight her second act numbers, “All I Do Is Sing” and “Reaching Up”. Of course, if her character really wants to find a venue where she can sing again, she should look no further than LA’s vibrant 99 seat theatre scene. More on that in a minute.

Lastly, bringing all these women together was the group therapist, Grace (Cynthia Ferrer (FB)). I could have sworn we had seen Ferrer before, but her name doesn’t appear in any of my writeups. I’m guessing this is because her character exuded that comfort and familiarity. She shone in her Act Two opener, “Grace’s Nightmare”.

The musical numbers were staged by Bruce Kimmel (FB) and Leslie Stevens (FB). Music supervision was by Alby Potts (FB), who provided the offstage music with someone else whose name I didn’t write down and who doesn’t appear to be obvious in the program. The movement and dance worked well, particularly in Dana Meller’s numbers. Music was strong throughout. Music arrangements were by Ned Ginsberg (FB), with vocal arrangements by E. Suzan Ott.

This brings us to the technical side — and the only quibbles with the show. The set design was by Rei Yamamoto/FB, and was very simple — some colored panels, and some office chairs. As they say, no expense was spared :-), but then again, this show has no real locations that had to be created, and the lack of a fancier set allowed the focus to be on the women themselves. Costumes were by Natalya Shaninyan (FB) and provided the quibble from my wife. I’m a guy — I wouldn’t know 80s fashion from a hole in the ground. My wife noted that some of the costume decisions were clearly of the wrong era — in the 80s, there wouldn’t be bare legs, there would be hose and shapers. Similarly, there were some comments from her on blouses tucked vs. untucked. I enjoyed the costumes, but wives often see things that we don’t :-). The sound by Josh Benton was clear and worked well. The lighting by Maarten Cornelis (FB) mostly worked — there were points, in my opinion, where the stage was a little too dark and the actors couldn’t be seen (and they weren’t intentionally in shadow).  Remaining credits: Victoria Chediak (Stage Manager); Maggie Marks (Props / Production Stage Manager), Art + Soul Design (Graphic Design), Michael Sterling (Publicity), Joanna Erdos (FB) (Associate Producer), Kritzerland Entertainment and Play Works Music (Producers).

The 20th Anniversary production of Inside Out (FB) continues at the Grove Theatre Center (FB) in Burbank through March 22, 2015. Tickets are available through Plays411.  Discount tickets may be available through LA Stage Tix and Goldstar. It is well worth seeing.

I Support 99 Seat Theatre in Los AngelesDuring the production, one of the character longs for a place where she can revive her career — a place where she can get back on stage and sing, and get back to being comfortable with performing again. If she was in Los Angeles, she’d have such a place — the wide variety of 99 seat theatres. Alas, on the horizon is a proposal from AEA that might drastically change this scene. The proposal would force 99 seat and under theatres to either give up their non-profit status and only produce actor-mounted productions (unless they were a preexisting membership company), or pay their performers minimum wage for both rehearsals and performances (with a 3 hour minimum per performance). In fact, this very production of Inside Out might not exist under the new rules — it is not an actor produced show, and employs at least 5 AEA actors — meaning that ticket sales and discount sales would not provide enough to pay them. 99 seat theatres would be forced to eschew use of AEA (and possibly SAG/AFTRA actors), and this will hurt the LA scene. If you, like me, are an audience member, you need to get up in arms about this.  Producers have their venues to speak up — through groups like TPPLA. Actors have the standing to protest with Equity. Us audience members? We need to let people know what we think. Are we willing to pay much more for 99 and under seat theatre? Are we willing to see shows with non-equity actors? Learn about the situation, and express your opinion. #Pro99

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: February concludes with a lot of theatre in Burbank. Next weekend bring two more Burbank performances: the Good People Theatre Co (FB)’s production of Maltby/Shire’s Closer Than Ever at Hollywood Piano in the afternoon, and “The Road to Appomattox” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on February 28. March is equally busy, with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner on March 7 (and a Purim Carnival at TAS the next day), “Carrie: The Musical” at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) on March 14, a “Drowsy Chaperone” at CSUN on Friday March 20, “Doubt” at REP East (FB) on Saturday March 21, “Newsies” at the Pantages (FB) on March 28, followed by Pesach and the Renaissance Faire on April 11. Other than the Faire, April is pretty much open (as is May), but I expect that to start changing soon (for example, I just booked “Loopholes” for the first weekend in May). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.