🎭 Summer Theatre Shorts: Pretty Women, Moulin Rouge, DEH, Newsies, and Freestyle Love

This has been a busy but strange summer. The combination of my Cholesteatoma, getting the podcast off the ground, working on the highway pages, and taking care of my wife has left my weekends pretty full. I’ve seen a bunch of shows over the end of June and into July, but haven’t had the time to do the full write ups of the show (in case you didn’t know, each writeup — including all the linking to the people involved — takes 3-4 hours). So I decided, while I was on vacation this week, to do some shorter write ups of the shows. These will get across my general impressions of the shows and perhaps highlight a performer or three, but they won’t list all of the folks involved. I’ll try to include a link to the programs for the shows, which these days are often online.

So, with that said, let’s begin:

Pretty Woman (Broadway in Hollywood)In mid-June, just before the official start of Summer, we saw Pretty Woman: The Musical at the Dolby Theatre, part of the Broadway in Hollywood subscription. This is one of many “movie to stage” adaptations, most of which were not really necessary other than to satisfy my conceit that the stage production always came first (Pulp Shakespeare — I’m looking at you). But as these things go, this was one of the better adaptions. It certainly doesn’t have the problems that Tootsie or Mrs. Doubtfire have. Pretty Woman does at least show a woman with her own agency, making decisions for her life. Yeah, she does end up with the man at the end, so it not a perfect empowerment piece. But on the plus side, there are no men dressing up as women for the humor that it brings.

The book, by Garry Marshall and J. F. Lawton based on the screenplay written by Lawton, hews pretty closely to the movie. I’d guess it is around 95% faithful. The music, by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance, was pretty forgettable. I’ve got the cast album CD (which has been listened to quite a few times), and looking at the list of musical numbers a month and a half afterwards, and there’s only one tune for which the music comes into my head: “Welcome to Hollywood”.

Quite a few of the reviews that I read focused on the problematic chemistry between the leads: Adam Pascal and Olivia Valli. We didn’t see that, because we had an understudy, Carissa Gaughran, filling in. She did have strong chemistry with Pascal and sang well. She didn’t have the charm of Julia Roberts, but who does.

Also worthy of note was Kyle Taylor Parker as Happy Man. This role was one of the changes from the movie: they combined a number of characters into one, so Happy Man was not only the exposition at the beginning, but the hotel manager and a few others. Parker sticks in my mind because the humor he brought to the role. Also notable was Trent Soyster as Giulio.

Overall, a pleasant couple of hours. This won’t go into the hall of fame, but will probably play well in mid-America. Will it have a lifetime in regional and school productions? Possibly. I can see regional theatres doing it. Schools are less likely, because of the sex nature of the subject matter.

Unlike Tootsie, this was an Equity Tour. The production has also closed in Los Angeles, but you should be able to see it at other tour stops (it is currently in San Diego). Here’s the information on the tour.

Here’s the link to the Playbill.

Moulin Rough! (Broadway in Hollywood)

This brings us to our second production of the summer: Moulin Rouge! at the Hollywood Pantages, again part of the Broadway in Hollywood season. We saw this show on July 2nd. We had wheelchair seating, which for us was row L — much closer than we normally sit. Next season, we’ve moved our seats of up to Q1 and Q3 on the aisle; we had been V5 and V7, two rows in. Should be much nicer.

Moulin Rouge! transforms the Pantages into a sea of red. There’s a gigantic windmill to the audience left, and a gigantic elephant to audience right. Neither have anything to do with the actual plot. It’s all for show. Quite a metaphor for the production one is about to see.

If I was to characterize Moulin Rouge!  (and I’ll note this is one of the shows where I didn’t know the story beforehand), it is Cats in France. By that I mean is that is a show about style and flare and music and dance, but the actual story is a well-worn melodrama that is quite forgettable. I don’t know if that’s the case for the movie, but I have read some reviews that indicate there were some story changes.

Moulin Rouge! (and that exclamation point is important) crams something like 12 million songs into its running time, often by just taking 8-10 bars and building gigantic mashups and megamixes. This makes the music familiar and fun, but you won’t remember the specific songs and combinations afterwards. But the dancing, staging, costumes, and the shear technological brilliance that goes into the show is spectacular. You can see why they won those Tony awards. Well, and of course the fact that their male supporting actor was the only nominee in 2020. An asterisk for the record books, sigh.

What makes a story like this work — or not — are the leads. Austin Durant was strong as Harold Zidler, the operator of the Moulin Rouge and the Master of Ceremonies.  Durant had a strong chemistry with Courtney Reed, who was playing Satine. Unfortunately, I don’t think the same chemistry was there between Reed (Satine) and Conor Ryan (Christian). There was passion, yes. But chemistry — as in “could I see these folks as a realistic couple — not really. I also wasn’t that taken with David Harris as the Duke.

But those were story elements, and I’ve already said the story was weak. You go to Moulin Rouge! for the dancers. There I can say that the large ensemble was strong. Great dancing, great costumes.

The production made heavy use of technology, projections, and large set pieces. Combine that with the elaborate costumes and … let’s just say that I doubt we’ll be seeing this at the high school level any time soon. Regionals might do it, but someone is going to make a killing renting the scenic pieces and technology package, and this likely won’t be done much 20 years down the road.

What that translates to is: Go see this production. It’s not perfect and the story is a bit hackneyed, but the spectacle is not to be missed. Bring your earplugs, if you are sensitive to noise. The production runs through September 4 at the Hollywood Pantages. Tickets are available through the Broadway in Hollywood box office. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar.

Here is the link to the program.

Dear Evan Hansen (CTG Ahmanson)Our third production of the summer was Dear Evan Hansen (DEH) at the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre. I went to this one with a friend, as my wife had absolutely no interest in seeing it again. She strongly dislikes the conceit and lie that is the basis of the story, and I don’t disagree with her on that. This isn’t one of my favorites either, but it was on the season after the COVID rework. Translation: This was my second time seeing the show.

Dear Evan Hansen is a musical that speaks to a younger generation that isn’t being heard. It sends messages about mental health that kids hear. These range from Colin’s suicidal thoughts (and eventual success) and disaffection, parent’s that have lost touch with their kids problems, and even Evan’s isolation and clear non-neurotypical issues. But what turns many off about the show is that it is built around a lie: Connor takes Evan’s letter to himself (which was (essentially) Evan’s cry for help), and it is found on Connor after his suicide. Grasping for straws, Connor’s parents assume it was written by Connor to Evan; and Evan (caught in the moment) goes along with that lie. His friends, wanting the attention, go along with it as well. As with any snowball rolling down the hill, it grows and grows. Eventually, as with all lies, the inconsistencies start to make themselves known, and it all comes crashing down. The seed of a lie is what my wife didn’t like about the show.

Now since we saw the show for the first time, a movie version of the musical was released, starring some of the original Broadway cast. This movie had a number of problems: the cast was clearly too old for the characters, some inner dialogue songs were removed, and the realistic setting of the movie made the lie seem even worse.

Luckily, I haven’t seen the movie (and still haven’t, as of this writing).

Seeing DEH this time, I noticed a few things I didn’t see the first time: Most notably, that the letter was Evan’s cry for help. The first time I saw the show, my mental energy was focused on Connor’s family, its dysfunctional dynamic, and how they grasped at Evan’s lie. But this time, my focus was more on (a) the content of the letter and what that said about Evan, and (b) why Evan went along with the lie, and the dysfunction that was at the heart of Evan’s family. This redeemed the show somewhat.

That said, this music really only succeeds because of one message: You Will Be Found. It’s a message that emphasizes that we all need to be seen, to be acknowledged. That’s a reasonable message.

The touring company, led by Sam Primack as Evan, did a good job with the show.

I’m undecided at how well this will do in the regional market. They won’t have the technological setup with all the tweets and everything else. But I’m not sure that’s required either. I’m also not sure how well this story will age with the rapid changes in social media.

The tour stop for Dear Evan Hansen at the Ahmanson ends this weekend (July 31). If you haven’t seen it on stage, it is worth seeing (the stage production is better than the movie). Tickets are available through the Ahmanson Box Office; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar.

Here is a link to the program.

Newsies (5-Star Theatricals)

Our fourth show of the summer was the only show that wasn’t a touring production. 5-Star Theatricals, formerly Cabrillo Music Theatre, is a regional production company that produces Broadway-caliber shows with a mix of Equity and local talent. That local talent is a mix of very well-known regional folks that have been working with them for years (translation: “local favorites”), as well as talented newcomers out of local (AMDA, local university) and other equivalent talent pools. In short, 5-Star productions have always been strong on talent and performance.

Each season, 5-Star chooses a mix of somewhat new to regional productions combined with titles that are designed to appeal to the family audience. The summer show always has that family appeal. Hence, Newsies.

Newsies is your typical underdog story: Scrappy newsboys get screwed by the big mean Joseph Pulitzer, form a union, and thanks to the union come out on top. The lead guy gets the scrappy girl reporter. Teddy Roosevelt gets to say “Bully”. There’s rousing song and tap dance. It was based on the movie musical, reworked for the stage by Harvey Fierstein. But there are elements of the plot that make no sense — for example, why does Santa Fe figure so prominently? But don’t think too hard. This is just a show where you sit back and watch a bunch of real talented kids sing and dance their hearts out.

This is also a show where the few songs that were crafted for a movie musical are stretched out. That means you have lots of songs and melodies repeated, and they all start to blur together. The music by Alan Menken, with lyrics by Jack Feldman, is good. It just is a bit repetitious.

The talent that 5-Star assembled was top-rate. Wes Williams did a great job as Jack Kelly — he had a strong voice and paired well with Jonalyn Saxer‘s Katherine Plumber. Also notable was Frankie Zabilka‘s Davey and newcomer Zachary Michael Thompson’s Les. Thompson, in particular, knew how to mug and play to the audience. But the cast member that really caught my eye was Callula Sawyer (Sling), who was the only female member of the male ensemble. She had some really strong dancing talent, and I enjoyed just watching her during the performance.

Newsies only ran for two weekends, so you missed your chance to see it. 5-Star Theatricals will be doing The Addams Family for two weekends in October: October 14-23. Tickets for that show are available through the 5-Star Theatrical web site.

There was no digital program.

Freestyle Love Supreme (Pasadena Playhouse)Our most recent summer show was last Saturday at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB). Yes, it was a tour. Yes, tours don’t normally go to the Pasadena Playhouse. But this one required the smaller venue. I guess it could have gone to the Taper, but the theatre in the round setup probably wouldn’t work as well. Oh, I forgot to mention the show: Freestyle Love Supreme.

Freestyle Love Supreme is the brainchild of Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Anthony Veneziale. If some of those names sound familiar, that’s because they are the folks behind a little musical called HamiltonFLS was their fun project: a group of talented folks improvising hip-hop based on audience suggestions. Every performance is different, because every performance is driven 100% by audience suggestions. The only structure the show has is the types of improve questions asked (i.e., what might you change if you could go back in time, what was your worst day, what did you do that was interesting today). Each weekend has different guest stars working with a base performance cast. You could go to every performance, and nothing would repeat. It is that unique.

The show is driven — as in “he’s the facilitator” — by one of the original founders, Anthony Veneziale. At our performance, he was assisted by Aneesa Folds, Kaila Mullady, and Jay C. Ellis. The guest performer was Utkarsh Ambudkar, whom you may know as Jay from Ghosts. Alaska 5000, who I saw in the Playhouse’s earlier production Head Over Heels, was a special guest star. Providing the music was Victoria Theodore and Morgan Reilly. Others in the rotating cast are Andrew Bancroft, Richard Baskin Jr., Mark Martin, and James Rushin. The entire cast was just remarkable.

To give you an idea of how wild a show is: We had routines about breastfeeding, a routine about an accident in a Volvo where teens were fighting over the radio station, a routine about a young lady who did Princess parties, routines about things that people hate (I recall American Airlines, people who don’t tip servers, and there was one more). But these are all audience suggestions.

In short: This was a remarkable performance. See it. See it again. And again.  The show runs through August 7. Tickets are available through the Pasadena Playhouse box office. Tickets may also be available through Goldstar.

Here’s the link to the interactive program.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member (modulo the COVID break). I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Actors Co-op (FB), 5 Star Theatricals (FB), Broadway in Hollywood (FB), the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), and we have a membership at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB). We were subscribing at the Musical Theatre Guild (FB) prior to COVID; they have not yet resumed productions. We have also been subscribers at the Soraya/VPAC (FB), although we are waiting a year before we pick that up again. 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. Note to publicists or producers reading this: here’s my policy on taking comp tickets. Bottom-Line: Only for things of nominal value, like Fringe.

Upcoming Shows:

For right now, we’re pretty much sticking with shows that come as part of our subscriptions or are of interest through our memberships. August is quieter for theatre, with just The Prom at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and If I Forget at the Fountain Theatre. Lastly (for this look ahead), September brings Oklahoma the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and Jagged Little Pill at Broadway in Hollywood (FB). September may also bring Andrew Lippa’s version of The Wild Party at the Morgan Wixson Theatre. This was a show I had been planning to see before the COVID shutdown, so I’m putting it in the “part of our subscriptions” list. October will bring Sanctuary City at the The Pasadena Playhouse (FB), The Addams Family at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), and To Kill a Mockingbird at Broadway in Hollywood (FB). November, right now, shows no theatre, but that may change as the Ahmanson ramps up. Lastly, December will bring Annie at Broadway in Hollywood (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarOn Stage 411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget (although I know it is outdated and need to update it). Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country (again, I need to review this for the post-COVID theatre landscape)!


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