A Leader for Troubled Times

I’m about to say something I didn’t think I would say back in February: This afternoon we went to the second show of the Pasadena Playhouse 2010 season: “FDR” starring Ed Asner. Before I start the actual review, a few words about the Playhouse itself.

Those who have been following my journal know about the travails with the Pasadena Playhouse. The organization went backrupt after their first 2010 production, “Camelot”. Although I knew they would be back, I didn’t expect it to be quickly, and we opted to donate the remainder of our subscription. Surprisingly, the Playhouse did come back after six months, and even more surprisingly, they provided tickets to the first two productions even to those that had donated their subscriptions. I think this is a strong good will gesture, and one that is appreciated. Will we renew when the next season is announced? I still don’t know: it depends on (a) what is in the season; (b) the pricing for the season; and (c) the payment options and timing. One problem that the Playhouse had was that their season was getting pricey: on the order of $400 for 6 shows per ticket. The Colony is on the order of $150 for 5 shows per ticket; REP East is $120 for 7 shows. So the jury is still out regarding subscription renewal, although we may opt to do Goldstar/LA Stage Tix instead.

That said, it was weird walking into the Playhouse after so long. The place felt different: we didn’t have our usual greeters, and the auditorium seemed different. My wife and daughter said that some of the extra speakers and lighting that were there had been removed. Perhaps. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it felt different. It wasn’t the P Playhouse of old—there was a perceptable change of vibe. Perhaps this was due to the nature of the product, so let’s turn to the review…

Unlike other productions that have graced the Pasadena Playhouse stage (for the most part), this wasn’t a Pasadena Playhouse production in the sense that it was cast and staged by the Playhouse. “FDR” is a one-man vehicle that Ed Asner is touring around the country at various venues; in fact, “FDR” was originally scheduled for earlier October to play at CSUN, but that production was postponed. This doesn’t make it a bad production, but could contribute to the odd Playhouse vibe.

FDR” is based on the play “Sunrise at Campobello” by Dore Schary. But whereas Campobello had multiple characters and focused on Roosevelt’s battle with polio, FDR uses the polio as a starting point for a one-man show about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s political career. It begins with FDR talking about how he triumphed over the polio and learned to stand, and continues throughout his presidency up until he leaves for his final visit to Warm Springs.

As a one-man show, the play consists solely of dialogue (Roosevelt was not known as a song and dance man, although he does sing one song about Alf Landon in the show). However, there are other characters, all unseen: either addressed offstage, supposedly in the office with FDR, or on the phone. Through this technique, there is dropping of all the famous names of the adminstration, from all the cabinet members, his opponents, military leaders, personalities of the day, etc. You might think this would be boring, but this is where the actor comes in.

Ed Asner is one of the most talented actors around. Best known for his numerous TV portrayals (the best known being the character Lou Grant) and his voiceover of Carl in “Up”. He is also committed to stage work—I saw him most recently as Karl Marx in the “Meeting of Minds” revival. In FDR, Asner becomes FDR. He mesmorizes you with his stage presence and style, just as the original FDR mesmerized the electorate. Watching Asner, you could see why FDR got to be who he was. It was just a great and a timeless performance. Asner’s performance just left you rivited in your seat for the almost two hour (no intermission) show.

Technically, there’s not much to credit. No technical credits were given in the program other than Kyle Ross as Sound Engineer. No director is listed, so presumably Asner self-directed. Ron Nash served as Production Supervisor/Production Stage Manager. “FDR” was producted by the Pasadena Playhouse in association with Campobello Theatre Productions and Gero Productions LLC.

“FDR” continues at the Pasadena Playhouse through November 7th. Tickets are available online or through the Pasadena Playhouse boxoffice. There do appear to be some discount offers: I’ve seen both 20% and the occasional 50%. The next production at the Pasadena Playhouse is “Uptown Downtown”, a one-woman life-story starring Leslie Uggams. February 2011 bring “Dangerous Beauty”, a new musical with book and verse by Jeannine Dominy, lyrics by Amanda McBroom, and music by Michele Brourman.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. Next week brings Happy Days: The Musical” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 30; I’ll note that Cabrillo has dedicated their performances to the recently departed Tom Bosley. November starts with “Varney the Vampire” at Van Nuys High School on November 4, 5, and 6 (contact us for tickets; Erin has a leading role). The following week will see “Bell, Book, and Candle” at The Colony Theatre on November 13; Amadeus” at REP East (ticketed for November 21), and Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels” at the Mark Taper Forum (ticketed for November 27). December will bring Uptown, Downtown” starring Leslie Uggams at the Pasadena Playhouse on December 11, and Next to Normal” at the Ahmanson (November 23–January 2; Hottix on November 2; planned date December 18 or 19). It should also take Erin to West Side Story” at the Pantages Theatre, which is pending ticketing (sigh).

Looking briefly into 2011: January will bring Tom Paxton at McCabes on my birthday, January 21 (pending ticketing), and perhaps the first REP show of the season. February will bring The Marvellous Wonderettes” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on February 12; Rock of Ages” at the Pantages on February 19 or 20 (pending ticketing), and Moonlight and Magnolias at the Colony Theatre on February 26. Of course, I learn of interesting shows all the time, so expect additions to this schedule.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.