Where Beauty Is To Be Found

Violet (Kelrik Productions)userpic=theatre_musicalsWhen I find a composer I like, I tend to explore other shows they have done. This is especially true with some of the newer composers, such as Jeanine Tesori, composer of Thoroughly Modern Millie and Shrek: The Musical (and of the current hit, Fun Home, on Broadway). Back in 2008, one of the shows of Tesori’s I explored was her 1998 Off-Broadway show, Violet. I found that I really liked the music as well as the message. It was revived last year via Encores, but failed to find footing on Broadway (although it was notable for Sutton Foster doing the role without makeup). However, there really hadn’t been any productions that were in reasonable driving distance. That is… until last week. Kelrik Productions, a production company out of San Luis Obispo that has recently started doing shows at the Monroe Forum Theatre at the El Portal (they got rave reviews for their recent Sweeny Todd), has just opened a three-week run of a production of Violet. We saw it last night, and it was just spectacular. It you want a really moving musical, with a great message and wonderful performances, get down to the El Portal before this closes. Violet is well worth it.

Violet (Music by the aforementioned Jeanine Tesori, lyrics and book by Brian Crawley, based on “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts) tells the story of Violet Karl of Spruce Pine, NC in 1964. When Violet was 12, an accident with her father and an axe left her with a large facial scar, from cheek to nose. Ever since, she has been teased and grown to accept her ugliness. Keeping her going was a faith healer in Tulsa OK. Now 25, Violet has raised enough money to take Greyhound to Tulsa to be healed. Going through Tennessee, she meets two Army soliders: a black sergeant named Grady “Flick” Fliggins, and a young white corporal named Monty. Both take an interest in Violet. While overnighting in Memphis in a hotel that accommodates blacks, they go out to party and Monty ends up sleeping with Violet (although Violet told Flick she had left the door unlatched).  When they arrive at Fort Smith AR, the Monty indicates he will come back Saturday to meet her bus after she’s done in Tulsa. She continues on to Tulsa where she meets the healer… and you can likely predict what happens there. I won’t spoil the details of the end of the story, but you can read them on the Wiki page for the musical. Throughout the show, there are regular flashbacks to young Violet and her father showing their relationship and how she reacted to the scar and the absence of her mother. PS: I also found a wonderful scene breakdown.

As I said, this is a show with a strong message — and it isn’t about the charade of faith healers (although there is a strong message of the power of belief). At one point, the phrase Act ugly, do ugly, be ugly.” is used. In many ways, this is the underlying metaphor for the show. What you believe about yourself, how you behave, is what makes you ugly or beautiful. At the beginning of the show, Violet sees herself, due to the scar, as ugly. Later on in the show, after she believes she has been healed, you can see the change in her — she now believes she is beautiful and through the stint of that belief, transforms. But it isn’t just Violet. We see the soldiers transform from acting ugly to becoming caring people. We see, in the reactions of others, ugliness reflects. What becomes important is not “Act ugly, do ugly, be ugly” but its counterpoint: “Act beautiful, do beautiful, be beautiful.” It is our beliefs and behaviors that dictate how society sees us. Further, given this is the south in 1964, it is how society behaves — beautiful or ugly — that determines what society is.

As with the Encores revival, this show is best when it is kept simple. Joshua Finkel (FB), the director, kept is simple. There was no complex set; locations were hinted at through a few props and a digital screen implying the location. There was no elaborate makeup — in particular, neither young nor adult Violet had a visible scar. This emphasized that the real scar was inside, and that sometimes a scar inside is both harder and easier to heal. He used the reactions of the other players to create the impression of the scar. This worked very well.

The talent was also top top notch. In the lead female positions were Kristin Towers-Rowles (FB, FB) as adult Violet, and Jaidyn Young (FB) as young Violet. We’ve seen Towers-Rowles before (in Victor/Victoria); she was even better here. Strong singing, strong movement, and strong performance. She made you believe she was a southern girl with a scar solely through behavior alone; it made the transformation remarkable. She was particularly moving in numbers such as “Lay Down Your Head”. Equally strong was Miss Young — whose face kept reminding me of our dear friend Val M. For a 14 year old, she had a remarkable voice and presence, and was just delightful to watch in her various numbers (I particularly enjoyed “Luck of the Draw”, but then again, “Luck of the Draw” is one of my favorite songs).

In the leading male positions were Jahmaul Bakare (FB) as Flick and Michael Spaziani (FB) as Monty. Again, two more spectacular performances — both in acting, singing, and movement. Bakare had a voice that would just make you melt; it was particularly notable in numbers such as “Let It Sing” and “Hard To Say Goodbye”. Spaziani also had a great voice that he showed off in numbers such as “You’re Different”

The remaining named positions and actors were all equally strong. Particularly notable were Jason Chacon (FB) with a touching performance as Violet’s father, and Erika Bowman (FB) was a knockout as the Gospel Singer and Landlady. You’ll fall in love with her performance in “Raise Me Up”. Rounding out the excellent cast were Richard Lewis Warren (FB) (Preacher / Bus Driver), Gail Matthius (FB) (Old Lady / Hotel Singer), Benai Alicia Boyd (FB) (Music Hall Singer / Mabel), Jeremy Saje (FB) (Waiter / Mechanic), and Justin Anthony Long (FB) (Billy Dean / Virgil). With the ensemble, notable numbers include the opening (“On My Way”) and the touching “Who’ll Be the One (If Not Me)”.

The choreography by Stage Manager Samantha Marie/FB made effective use of the limited space in the Forum theatre, particularly in the opening number and in the gospel numbers. Music was under the direction of Joe Lawrence (FB), who also played keyboard on-stage. Joining him were Barrett Wilson/FB on guitar, and in the back, Jason Chacon (FB) providing percussion.

The set design by Erik Austin (FB) [the “rik” in the producing team] was simple but effective, and served to focus attention on the actors. Props were provided by Lester Wilson/FB; I particularly liked the attention to detail in the Greyhound tickets. The lighting design, also by the choreographer Samantha Marie/FB served well to focus attention and create the mood. There was no credit for sound design; I seem to recall some effective sound effects (but perhaps my mind is playing tricks on me). The costumes by Kathleen Forster/FB, for the most part, were good. I only had one quibble (probably because I work with the Air Force, who use the same insignia as the Army): although Grady’s insignia were correct for a Staff Sergent (three chevrons, one rocker), Monty’s were wrong for a Corporal (a CPL is two chevrons; Monty only had one making him a Private E-2). The wigs by Debi Hernandez worked well. Samantha Marie/FB  was the stage manager, assisted by Lainie Pahos/FB. Violet was produced by Kelrik Productions (FB).

The Los Angeles premiere of Violet continues at the Monroe Forum Theatre at the El Portal (FB) through Sunday, May 31. It is well worth seeing for the great music and the great story. Tickets are available through OvationTix; discount Goldstar tickets are sold out (you snooze, you lose). Go see it.

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: Next weekend brings Confirmation services at TAS, a visit to the Hollywood Bowl, and “Love Again“, a new musical by Doug Haverty and Adryan Russ, at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB).  The last weekend of May brings “Entropy” at Theatre of Note (FB) on Saturday, and “Waterfall“, the new Maltby/Shire musical at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) on Sunday. June looks to be exhausting with the bounty that the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB) brings (ticketing is now open). June starts with a matinee of the movie Grease at The Colony Theatre (FB), followed by Clybourne Park (HFF) at the Lounge Theatre (FB) on Saturday, and a trip out to see the Lancaster Jethawks on Sunday. The second weekend of June brings Max and Elsa. No Music. No Children. (HFF) at Theatre Asylum (FB) and  Wombat Man (HFF) at Underground Theatre (FB) on Saturday, and Marry Me a Little (HFF) by Good People Theatre (FB) at the Lillian Theatre (FB) on Sunday. The craziness continues into the third weekend of June, with Nigerian Spam Scam Scam (HFF) at Theatre Asylum (FB) and Merely Players (HFF) at the Lounge Theatre (FB) on Saturday, and Uncle Impossible’s Funtime Variety & Ice Cream Social, (HFF) at the Complex Theatres (FB) on Sunday (and possibly “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) in the afternoon, depending on Hottix availability, although July 4th weekend is more likely). The Fringe craziness ends with Medium Size Me, (HFF) at the Complex Theatres (FB) on Thursday 6/25 and Might As Well Live: Stories By Dorothy Parker (HFF) at the Complex Theatres (FB) on Saturday. June ends with our annual drum corps show in Riverside on Sunday. July begins with “Murder for Two” at the Geffen Playhouse (FB) on July 3rd, and possibly Matilda. July 11th brings “Jesus Christ Superstar” at REP East (FB). The following weekend is open, although it might bring “Green Grow The Lilacs” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) (depending on their schedule and Goldstar).  July 25th brings “Lombardi” at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB), with the annual Operaworks show the next day. August may bring “As You Like It” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB), the summer Mus-ique show, and “The Fabulous Lipitones” at  The Colony Theatre (FB). After that we’ll need a vacation! 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.


Of Music and Lyrics Are Relationships Made…

Many years ago… back in 1978, to be precise… I saw the world premier of “They’re Playing Our Song” at the Ahmanson Theatre, with Robert Klein and Lucie Arnaz as the leads. It is a show I’ve always enjoyed; the cast albums is always a joy to listen to. Today, I saw it again in the Valley Musical Theatre production at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood.

For those unfamiliar with They’re Playing Our Song, it is a musical with book by Neil “Doc” Simon, music by Marvin Hamlisch, and lyrics by Carol Bayer Sager. The story based on the real-life relationship of Hamlisch and Sager, through the characters Vernon Gersch (a composer, in need of a new lyricist) and Sonia Walsk (a lyricist, coming off a bad breakup). They are attracted to each other, but are clearly opposites in character and temprament. Of course, given the nature of musicals, they come together and fall apart and come together again in humorous Neil Simon ways. Each of the two characters has a group of backup singers that represent the internal voices (although all they do is sing). That’s basically it: the humorous love story of Vernon and Sonia.

VMT (myspace) did an excellent job with this piece. Vernon Gersch was played by Scott Waara*, who was great… and far superior to the original Vernon (for one thing… he could sing!). I found him to be very warm and compelling as an actor, and he hit the comedy notes quite well. Sonia Walsk was played by Vicki Lewis*. Vicki did quite well on playing the quirky Sonia, although I slightly preferred the original, Lucie Arnaz, for the songs–Vicki had a few points where her phrasing or breaths were off. She did have a strong singing voice, though, and other than the occasional off-breath, was a pleasure to listen to. Vernon’s chorus consisted of Chris Ciccarelli, Jay A. Donnell, and Geoffrey Kidwell. Sonia’s chorus consisted of Seana Harris, Shanon Mari Mills, and Anna Perilo. Both choruses did what they were supposed to do–sing, provide the occasional funny look, and move scenery when appropriate–but they did not have distinct character.
[* indicates Actors Equity Members]

The show had a scenic design by Brett J. Banakis and Lighting by John E.D. Bass, and both were effective for the small stage at the El Portal. Costumes were by Thomas G. Marquez, sound by Philip G. Allen, and casing by Michael Donovan Casting. The music was directed and conducted by John Randall, and the production was directed and choreographed by Dan Mojica. Stage management was by Lindsay Martens with assistance from Brianne Levine. All did a great job.

This was the first production of the first formal season of the Valley Musical Theatre under the Executive Direction of Ronn Goswick. We had fun talking with Ronn after the show, and congratulating him on how great the show was. This is a new musical theatre group in Los Angeles; they deserve your support. Of course, I must also acknowledge their wonderful webmistress, our own shutterbug93.

There was one interesting aspect to this production. Ronn had arranged for a group from the DCA High School Show Choir to attend the show. He indicated that he likes to introduce youth to the arts, and has a regular program of having local schools attend Wednesday morning performances. Anyway, the DCA group seemed like a reasonable bunch of kids, and were enjoying the show… but at intermission, they all got up and left. I’m guessing the issue was the content, for there was (heaven forfend) an unmarried couple sleeping together. I feel sad for these kids having such a sheltered life–even Jesus was out in the real world, even if he didn’t approve of it all.

They’re Playing Our Song continues at Valley Musical Theatre until next Sunday, March 11th. The rest of their season looks good: the return of Beehive (April 20-May 6); Baby (Sep 21-Oct 7); and Little Shop of Horrors (Nov 30-Dec 16). I’d explore season tickets, but the narrow window of shows makes Goldstar more practical for scheduling purposes.

As for us, were in the March Madness that is our theatre calendar. Next up is a concert: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy at CSUN on Sat, Mar 10th @ 8pm. Following that, we’re back to theatre: “Songs for a New World” at the ELATE Lincoln Stegman Theatre on Sat Mar 17th @ 8pm; “The Beatles Slept Here” (a Moorpark Melodrama from the High Street Theatre Foundation) at the Secret Garden Restaurant (tickets) on Sun Mar 18th at 1:30pm; “The Last 5 Years” at REP East on Sun Mar 25th at 2pm; “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on Sat Mar 31st at 2pm; and “Cuttin Up’” at the Pasadena Playhouse on Sat Apr 7th at 8pm. I’ll be looking on Goldstar for tickets for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” through Broadway/LA (tickets go on sale 3/18)… and through HotTix, tickets for “Jersey Boys” at the TaperAhmanson (tickets on sale 3/12). As I said… a busy, busy, theatre spring.


Mahvalous Mahvalous, Wunnerful Wunnerful

This afternoon, we went out to the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood to see The Marvelous Wonderettes. Going in, I was a bit out of it, as I had been fighting a bad headache all morning. We had wonderful seats, partially due to our being in shutterbug93‘s group, which was up in the front row.

The Marvelous Wonderettes is initially set in 1958, and bears many similiarites to Forever Plaid. Both musicals tell the stories of harmonizing groups: girl groups in Wonderettes, boy groups in Plaid. Both groups have distinct characters, and do popular songs from the era. Plaid, however, is clear fantasy: it focuses on a group that was permitted to come back after death for one last show. The plot in Wonderettes is much stronger. The show focues on the lives and loves of the Wonderettes: Cindy Lou (Kristen Chandler*), Missy (Kim Huber*), Betty Jean (Julie Dixon Jackson*), and Suzy (Bets Malone*). Act I opens on the Wonderettes as they are the featured entertainment at the 1958 Springfield Prom. You learn about their lives, loves, and distinct personalities during the act. Act II is 10 years later, at the high school reunion. Here you learn how the story turned out, together with the power of friendship. You can get a good idea of the characters in the show by visiting the show’s MySpace account.

What did I think of the show? First, for a show using so much popular music, the plot was extremely well integrated. The actors were excellent, for they became their characters and the personalites. Part of this is because many of the actors originated the roles they were playing. I was particularly enamored with the performances of Kim Huber, Julie Dixon Jackson, and Bets Malone. I should also note that all of the actors are powerhouse singers. It was a very very good show (and had the side effect of making me forget about the headache, always a good thing). I should note that the show has been receiving great reviews.

After the show, we had the opportunity to meet lindasings, as well as all of the actors. This is always nice when it happens.

Production Credits: Roger Bean (Author/Director); David Elzer, Marvelous Dreams LLC, and Peter Schneider (Producers); Janet Miller (Choreographer); Kurt Boetcher (Scenic Design); Brian Baker (Orchestrator); Jeremy Pivnick (Lighting Designer); Sharell Martin (Costume Designer); Cricket S. Myers (Sound Designer); Pat Loeb (Production Stage Manager); Machael Sanfillippo (General Manager); Brian Svoboda (Sound Engineer); and Michael Spellman and Joseph Wisniewski (Production Assistants). I should note that both Mr. Elzer and Mr. Schneider are also involved with the upcoming Sister Act at the Pasadena Playhouse.

As always, the upcoming theatre calendar: The Musical Of Musicals, Sat 10/28 @ 3pm; A Chorus Line, Sat 11/4 @ 2pm; The Beastly Bombing, Fri, 11/10 @ 8pm; Sister Act, The Musical, 11/18 @ 9pm; and Dirk, 11/19 @ 2pm …plus I’m still working on tickets for A Light in the Piazza (11/25, 11/26, 12/2, or 12/3), and 13 (12/30). A busy theatre season coming up. Note: Those of you on my friends list that might be interested in joining us to see Dirk, which is based on Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, for information, see this journal entry (which is friends-only).

*: Member of Actors Equity Association


On The Highway… Route 57 to be Precise

This afternoon, after a morning dim sum run to Empress Pavillion in Chinatown with ixixlix, the Karate Kid, and ellipticcurve, we made our way to the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood to see the San Fernando Valley Playhouse production of Pump Boys and Dinettes. For those unfamiliar with the show, PB&D is a review-style musical written by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel, and Jim Wann. You might recognize these folks from shows such as Oil City Symphony, Radio Gals, The People Vs. Mona, and Jim’s Garage. The play is about the Highway 57 Service Station, staffed by L.M. (Martin Alexander Fox), Jackson (Casey Gensler), Jim (Jimmy Bishop), and Eddie (Joe Link), and the Double Cupp Diner, staffed by Rhetta (Catherine Battocletti) and Prudie Cupp (Tara Tucker). The story (such as it is) is about…. OK, there really is no story; the play is an opportunity for the actors to perform and interact with the audience. That they do: there is a raffle for a car deodorizer (you get your choice of the christmas tree, the tweety bird, or the pinup girl), the cast is out in audience, and the front row gets to dance. I’m surprised (and thankful) they didn’t do the hokey-pokey during intermission.

The music has a country-western feel, as one would expect from a gas station near Smyrna, GA. All of the actors were talented musicians, although some of the instruments (in particular, the piano) could have been mic-ed a bit better. They were mostly good singers; I don’t know if the weaknesses were due to poor mic-ing or weak voices. Some of the songs needed to be belted, and they weren’t. I also found the tempo on some of the faster songs to be slower than I expected, but that could have been due to being used to a recording.

As for the music: this show has some of my favorite music to listen to for toe-tapping, so it was nice to hear the songs in context (such as it is). I noticed some changes in songs; in particular, “Woolworth” was changed to “Walmart”. Times change, I guess. Most of the actors were imports (i.e., without long local resumes) from outside California; many are associated with Mainstage Artists Management out of St. Louis, and there seemed to be a lot of association with Minneapolis MN.

This evidently is the first formal year (2004 was their opening season) for the San Fernando Valley Playhouse (although I seem to recall a series last year). They must do a bunch of group sales; there was a large number of seniors in the audience. At the beginning of the show the executive director (James Blackman III) welcomed folks, asked for their input, noted he didn’t like their last show, and made it clear he was “out”. As he pointed out, you don’t see Gordon Davidson doing that. Will we be back to the SFVP? Depends on the production. The seating and view lines were great, so it is likely.

[Crossposted to cahwyguy and socal_theatre]