Everything has a beginning. In the case of musicals, long gestation periods often begat workshops, which begat more workshops as a musical is honed into the eventual stage production that one sees. One of the companies to which we subscribe, Actors Co-op (FB), does this through their summer series Actors Co-Op Too!: a series of short runs to explore new plays, grow new directors and new actors, and season the acting muscles of existing company members.
Yesterday, we saw the second production of this year’s Too! series: Ruthie and Me. Ruthie and Me was written 20 years ago by book writer and lyricist Karen Wescott (FB), with music by Marylou Dunn (FB), but it had never seen a full production (although it appears there was a staged reading at some point at the Pasadena Playhouse, and possibly a church variant of the show). Director Natalie Hope MacMillan (FB★, FB) worked with the authors to develop a streamlined revision, with the result being this first staged workshop production. (Note: This doesn’t appear to be the first time the author and director have worked together; I found this while attempting to find the author’s bio online)
Ruthie and Me tells the story of the biblical character Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth. Coming from the Jewish tradition, I was aware of the importance of the story: Ruth is the first recorded instance of a convert to Judaism and provides the model for Jewish conversion; she is also traditionally in the lineage of King David. However, I recalled from my Jewish Studies courses at UCLA that Ruth had some additional implications within Christianity (see here and here or here, for example). Essentially, the Jewish interpretation focuses on the conversion and lineage, and the Christian interpretation focuses on redemption and the parallels between Ruth’s son and Jesus. My fear was that, given the mission of the company, the Christalogical aspects would be too heavy-handed (i.e., sufficient to make this non-Christian audience member uncomfortable). I’m pleased to say that nothing along this aspect struck me during the show, although there was a little bit more emphasis on the redemption aspect than the conversion aspect.
As this was, essentially, a workshop production, there is the written understanding that this is a work in progress — not a finished “Broadway ready” piece. I would essentially agree with that: I think the piece is a good beginning, but needs some work along the path. In the spirit of that, I hope that the following comments will help it along the way. In terms of the story itself, limiting to the specific Biblical concept and age is understandable given the nature of the author, but rarely have such stories succeeded. If a way could be found to transport the bones of the story to a different setting (as is often done with Shakespeare), it could provide some additional insights on the acceptance of a convert in a closed and insular society, and the redemptive power of an open heart. Conversion is a powerful metaphor these days: whether it is conversion and suspicion of the foreigner in a larger society (witness what we have seen with refugees and foreign immigrants), or conversion and acceptance in terms of gender. There could be some very interesting parallels to explore there.
In terms of the writing itself: there were some language concerns. Specifically, there was use of both Yiddish and Hebrew and moving back and forth between the two (with the typical differences in pronunciation). But a larger concern was why the Yiddish was used. It wasn’t used as part of the context of the time, or to create the feeling of Yiddishkeit community, but rather for the humor of the words in the Jewish context of the play (perhaps we only know a character is Jewish if they spout Yiddish?). If that is the intent, there needs to be a deeper way of conveying that message without dropping to the stereotypical. As the musical is shaped further, ask yourself: Why are they speaking Yiddish. As I write that, the phrase and role that comes to mind is dramaturg. Enlisting such a person to help in the shaping might resolve those issues.
Musically, the show comes off as … a church play or cantata. It is predominately sung through, and a chorus is often used to provide exposition along the way as opposed to the dramatic scenes illustrating the story. The music from song to song tends to have a similar tonality and feel; the only song that truly stands out is “Life After a Certain Age”. So unless the intent is to take this along the lines of Andrew Lloyd Webber or a Lin Manuel Miranda, an effort needs to be made to craft this more along traditional musical lines. The music can use a bit more variety in tempo and style as well. There were also points where I got the feeling that the rhyming dictionary was handy during the process. In other words, the rhymes felt like they were there because the lyricist though this rhyme is good — let’s add a few more, as opposed to letting the lyrics serve the story and advancing it forward.
If you are interpreting the comments above as my thinking this was a bad show, think again. I thought it was a good show and a great musical telling of the Story of Ruth. But as it currently stands, it might only have a life on the liturgical stage. If it wants something more than that, then further seasoning and adjustment is required.
The performances (under the direction of Natalie Hope MacMillan (FB★, FB)), for the most part, were reasonably good. In the lead positions were Lori Berg (FB) as Naomi and Christina Gardner (FB) as Ruth. Berg gave a strong performance as Naomi — conveying humor, singing well, capturing the Jewish nature of the character, and in general, being very enjoyable to watch. Gardner needs some more seasoning (as is understandable for a Too! performance): I liked her acting and dancing quite a bit, but she does need to work a bit more on the singing. Specifically, she needs a bit more power behind the voice to be able to compete and compare with other actors on stage, and there were a number of notes where I got the impression she was reaching a bit out of her range or was slightly off. These are all correctable with a little training, and I think the underlying basics and talent are there — so I view this like the larger show: this is a strong start, and I hope to see her again, improved, in a future production.
In what I would characterize as the second tier of importance were Darrell Philip (FB)’s Boaz and Tracey Bunka‘s Sapphira. I really liked Philip’s Boaz: he exuded a strong warm personality, and one could easily see why Ruth was attracted to him even given the difference is ages. He also sang very nicely. Bunka’s strength was in singing in movement — she had a very strong voice that stood out and defined the songs she was in, and was a joy to listen to.
Rounding out the cast in other smaller named roles and ensemble positions were: Tamarah Ashton (FB) [Ensemble]; David Buckland (FB) [Ensemble, Baruch]; Hannah Dimas (FB) [Ensemble, Orpah]; Wayne Keller III (FB) [Ensemble]; Perry Hart [Ensemble, Nathan]; Carly Lopez (FB) [Woman 2]; Lisa Rodriguez (TW) [Woman 1]; Karlee Squires (FB) [Ensemble]; and Priscilla Taylor (FB) [Ensemble]. All were strong and performed and sang well. About the only weakness was one of the male ensemble members — there were two times where he had line trouble. I’m writing that off to this being a workshop and having only three performances (and thus, likely an equivalently light rehearsal period).
Music was provided by side-stage accompanist Jeff Gibson (who it turns out is connected to a family we’re good friends with). We hadn’t seen Jeff in ages, so it was a treat to see him (plus his dinner recommendation worked out great).
Actors Co-Op Too! productions have minimal budgets and sets. There was no credit for scenic design or anything like that. Lighting design was by Dan Corrigan (FB). Choreography was by Jorie Janeway (FB). Derek Copenhaver (FB) was the stage manager. Ruthie and Me was produced by Carly Lopez (FB).
Alas, Ruthie and Me had only three performances: one on Friday, July 14, and two on Saturday, July 15, so you missed your chance to see it. However, there is one more Actors Co-Op Too! production, The Last 5 Years, in two weeks, and Actors Co-Op (FB) has a great 2017-2018 season. Visit their website for more information.
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 Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
After this show, we ran to Thousand Oaks for Peter Pan at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). The fourth weekend of July brings Motown/Miracle | Harlem/Renaissance from Muse/ique (FB). The last weekend of July brings The Last 5 Years at Actors Co-op (FB). August starts with Brian Setzer at the Hollywood Bowl (FB) on August 2, followed by The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on the weekend. We are also squeezing in On The Twentieth Century at the Pan-Andreas Theatre in Hollywood from Proof Doubt Closer (FB), as a friend is in the cast (you can contribute to the production here). The second weekend of August? What made sitting through The Bodyguard worth it: Hamilton at the Hollywood Pantages (FB).
I’m still scheduling September, but so far we have The 39 Steps° at Actors Co-op (FB) and Pacific Overtures at Chromolume Theatre (FB). There’s also the Men of TAS Golf Tournament, if any theatre company reading this wants to donate tickets to our silent auction (hint, hint). October is also filling up quickly, with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) at the Valley Performing Arts Center (FB), a tribute to Ray Charles — To Ray With Love — also at the Valley Performing Arts Center (FB), and a hold for Bright Star at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Lastly, looking into November, we have The Man Who Came to Dinner at Actors Co-op (FB), the Nottingham (FB) and Tumbleweed (FB) Festivals, a Day Out with Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (FB), and HOLDs for Spamilton at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (FB) and Something Rotten at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). More as the schedule fleshes out, of course, but we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018 already!
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 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.