Concerts and Theatres

Last night, we went to what might be our last subscription performance at The Pasadena Playhouse. I’m very careful to use the word “performance” here, for I’m not sure how to categorize what we saw last night, except, perhaps, as a “concert”. Much as I love the Pasadena Playhouse, I don’t think of it as a concert venue.

The range of what can be presented on a stage is extremely varied. Your “normal” play, be it a comedy or a drama, typically features fictional characters (or dramatized portrayals of real people) experiencing something and usually growing or changing in some way. Musicals add a musical element to this, using the music as a way of expressing the inner thoughts and emotions of characters in a way that words cannot. On the other end of the spectrum we have simple performances, such as musical concerts where songs are performed without any storyline, or improvisational comedy, where the target is humor, not growth. Again: Performances with no through storyline. Somewhere along this we have the increasingly popular hybrid: the jukebox musical. An example of this is the last show we saw, “Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels” at the Mark Taper Forum. These typically feature groups of actors dramatizing each song individually (“Jacques Brel” is another example of this), or the connecting of a series of songs written by or strongly associated with the same artist with an improvised storyline (“All Shook Up or “Jersey Boys” are examples of this).

This brings us to last night show at the Pasadena Playhouse: “Uptown, Downtown”. This show, which credits no writer, features Leslie Uggams telling her life story tied together with the metaphor of the connections between “Uptown” and “Downtown”. These terms refer to New York, and in this case, refer more specifically to the venues surrounding Harlem (“Uptown”), and the venues surrounding TV and Broadway (“Downtown”). The snippets of Ms. Uggams stories are punctuated by songs associated with the individuals in her life, with a heavy emphasis on Gershwin, Ellington, and other theatrical and jazz artists. Is this performance a show? a musical? a jukebox musical? I don’t think so. Ms. Uggams is a wonderful performer, but she just doesn’t have the body of work associated specifically with her that would permit her to pull off a theatrical jukebox musical. Perhaps the closest comparison of this show is “Liza’s At The Palace”, but even that show featured backup singers and dancers.

So we’re left to the conclusion that what we saw was a concert. When viewed from that perspective, it was a wonderful concert. Ms. Uggams has a wonderful voice (and get this, kids, there’s no autotune either!). She brings a strong jazz and emotional element to her songs, and can elevate a theatrical song into joyous music. But the focus is the music, not the theatricality (contrasted with Liza, who knows how to bring theatricality to joyous music). This doesn’t make it bad—it just makes it a concert.

The conceit of this concert is Ms. Uggams life story. The first half focuses on Uptown and her days at the Apollo. It features tunes made famous by individuals such as Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, Mitch Miller, Ella Fitzgerald, the Platters, and others. The second half focuses on Downtown, and features more theatre songs: Gershwin, Herman, Ellington, as well as songs from her 1968 musical, “Hallilujah Baby”. The music is wonderful to listen to—slow ballads at points and upbeat jazz at other points.

This discussion isn’t meant to imply that Ms. Uggams was alone on the stage, for her entire orchestra was on stage as well… and they were a kick to watch. In some ways, they were obviously having more fun than the audience. The Musical Director (and the apparant conductor at the piano) was Don Rebic. Sal Lozano assembled the orchestra and played sax and flute. John Fumo was on trumpet. Charlie Morillas was on trombone. Gordon Peeke was behind the drums. David Witham was in the back on the synthesizer. Joel Hamilton was having the time of his life rocking away on the bass, and it was obviously that Andrew Synowiec was having fun on guitar. Orchestrations were by Gordon Goodwin and Don Rebic.

The concert was supported by a good technical team. The costumes (a simple purple dress in the first act, a slinkier black dress in the second) were by Tosca New York. Lighting was by Steven Young and was relatively simple. Sound was by Eric Thompson. There were no credits for the simple stage design or the writing of the inter-song dialogue. the production was conceived and directed by Michael Bush. Ronn Goswick was the production stage manager.

The last performance of “Uptown, Downtown” is tonight at 8am.

Turning back to the question of the venue itself, for the Pasadena Playhouse is not a concert venue. The Pasadena Playhouse is first and foremost a playhouse: a home for drama and comedy, perhaps amplified with music. The last two shows presented to subscribers have been individual tour-de-forces (and “FDR” was arguably a drama), but they also possessed simple sets and directions, essentially touring productions sharing the stage and presented to subscribers. They are certainly not what patrons have come to expect from a Pasadena Playhouse production. They were low-cost import productions of high-quality, capable of keeping the Playhouse open and presenting something to subscribers. The Pasadena Playhouse’s next non-rental production, “Dangerous Beauty” appears to be a full show: a full-on period-costume musical with book and verse by Jeannine Dominy, lyrics by Amanda McBroom, music by Michele Brourman, and directed by Sheryl Keller, and with a relatively large cast. They haven’t provided tickets to this to those who donated their subscription. They have also not yet announced any productions beyond this show; certainly, there have been no hints yet of a full season.

Personally, we’re at a crossroads with this theatre (as are the other subscribers to whom I spoke). We were treated poorly during the bankruptcy, and harbor no love for the current management (they haven’t created that sense of family). We don’t have a strong desire to see the upcoming musical based on description and casting alone; we’ll likely wait for the reviews and perhaps get discount tickets. We’ve replaced our Playhouse subscription with one to the Colony Theatre in Burbank—they give that sense of family the Playhouse once had, whlie presenting great theatre at an affordable price. So will we be back at the Playhouse? I think we’ll wait and see.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. Our next theatre in December (and currently my last theatre for December) is next weekend, when we see Next to Normal” at the Ahmanson. Our December theatre closes for Karen and Erin on Christmas Eve with West Side Story” at the Pantages Theatre (I’m not interested in that particular production, especially at Pantages prices, and haven’t yet decided if I’m going to go to an alternate show… if there even is one that afternoon).

The new year, 2011, starts slow. January is mostly open with only Tom Paxton at McCabes ticketed for my birthday, January 21. I’m exploring getting tickets for “Loving Repeating: A Musical of Gertrude Stein on January 29 at ICT Long Beach (I’m just waiting for tickets to show up on Goldstar or LA Stage Tix). February will bring the first show of the REP 2011 season, “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” (pending ticketing for February 5), followed by The Marvellous Wonderettes” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on February 12; Rock of Ages” at the Pantages on February 19. February closes with Moonlight and Magnolias at the Colony Theatre on February 26. March is also mostly open right now, although March 26 is being held for The Diary of Anne Frank” at REP East. 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.