🎭 The White House is a Farce | “POTUS” @ Geffen Playhouse

POTUS (Geffen Playhouse)The West Wing was never like this. Or, perhaps given some recent presidents, it was — and it was covered up well. After all, I’m sure the White House staff is great at covering up from the gaffes of the President. One thing is definitely for certain—this wasn’t like last week’s train wreck.  For unlike last week where it was clearly a you either loved it or didn’t get it affair (and we weren’t alone on that — Stage and Cinema talked about how the show “devolves into a self-indulgent tangent that meanders without direction”; whereas McNulty at the Times talks about how “irony and egotism are blended like a fine Bordeaux”), POTUS, or more properly POTUS, or Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive, currently at the Geffen Playhouse through February 25, was uproariously funny. This is a show well worth seeing.

POTUS tells the story of seven women in the White House, all of whom are working or in the orbit of the President of the United States (POTUS). This POTUS doesn’t correspond to any particular POTUS, although he clearly is an amalgam of quite a few of the recent inhabitants of that position. I can think of certain recent POTUS (POTUSes? POTII?) that were clearly the model for the playwright, Selina Fillinger, although they are never named. But the focus of this story is not the specifics of the man (who is never really seen), but the women behind him and how they deal with the consequences of his actions. These women are: Harriet, his Chief of Staff, Jean, his Press Secretary; Stephanie, his Secretary; Margaret, his wife; Chris, a reporter; and Dusty and Bernadette, two women more in the personal orbit of the man.

The show opens with a SNAFU where the President refers to his wife with a slang term sure to upset … and the situation devolves from there into a broad farce. That this show is a farce means a number of things theatrically. First, it means that the show is not intended to have meaningful character arcs or show character growth (do the characters grow or learn anything in Noises Off or The Play That Goes Wrong?). Second, the character archetypes are painted with a broad, almost caricatureish brush, somewhat stereotypical even. This means that they are clearly not intended to be fully realistic portrayals of real competent women. They are women designed for the comedy  potential of the positions, with certain characteristics overdrawn for the humor. For a farce, one needs to suspend that belief. Farces are rarely realistic.

After all, a President would never fuck up. A President would never call people names. A President would never do things that would insult and offend our allies. A President would never fool around with other women while in office. A President would never have siblings whose behavior would embarrass the office. That would never happen, right? The President’s office would never be a farce, right?

I won’t spoil the plot of this show, as that could rob the show of a lot of the humor (which is in the discovery of just how fucked up this POTUS is). I will say that the cast of the show is remarkable, and are spot-on in terms of both timing and comic characterization. I’m not sure I can single out one performance over any of the others; they were all great. Jennifer Chamber’s direction was impeccably timed (again, something that is key for any farce to succeed), and worked well to bring out humor.

This show is well worth seeing.

A few last notes, before the credits: First, if you choose to park next door in the parking lot  under the Chick-Fil-A, be forewarned. It is a horrid lot, with really tight turns. Do remember to pay at the pay machines before  you go to your car to leave. Make life better for others. It took me a half-hour to clear that lot because of the clueless folks who waited to pay until they were at the gate, and then couldn’t figure out that the credit card goes in a different slot from the ticket. Second, it was really sad to drive up Westwood Blvd to the theatre and see all the empty storefronts. When I went to UCLA in the late 1970s, Westwood was this vibrant student town with quirky shops and great restaurants. It then got mall-ified, and then greedy landlords jacked up rents and priced distinctive shops out. Now it is empty, and doesn’t serve anyone. It’s sad, and the landlords need to realize that it is better to have someone in your storefront paying a moderate something, than an empty storefront with an unrealized potential that may never happen.

POTUS, or Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive. Written by Selina Fillinger. Directed by Jennifer Chambers. Cast: Ito Aghayere Chris; Alexandra Billings Margaret; Lauren Blumenfeld Stephanie; Shannon Cochran Harriet; Celeste Den Jean; Jane Levy Dusty; Deirdre Lovejoy Bernadette. Understudies: Lorene Chesley Margaret / Chris; Joy Donze Stephanie / Dusty / Bernadette; Desirée Mee Jung Jean; Elaine Rivkin Harriet. Production and Creative Team: Brett J. Banakis Set & Video Design; Samantha C. Jones Costume Design; Elizabeth Harper Lighting Design; Lindsay Jones Original Music & Sound Design; Emily Moler Assoc. Director; Julie Ouellette Fight Director; Amanda Rose Villarreal Intimacy Director; Olivia O’Connor Dramaturg; Darlene Miyakawa Production Stage Manager; Colleen Danaher Asst. Stage Manager; Phyllis Schuringa, CSA Casting Director. This is not a tour of the recent Broadway production; it is a local Geffen remounting of the show.

POTUS continues at the Geffen Playhouse through February 25. Tickets are available through the Geffen Playhouse Website; discount tickets are likely available through the usual places. Note that the show has very strong language and themes, and is not for children.

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Administrivia: I am not a professional critic. I’m a cybersecurity professional, a roadgeek who does a highway site and a podcast about California Highways, and someone who loves live performance. I buy all my own tickets, unless explicitly noted otherwise. I do these writeups to share my thoughts on shows with my friends and the community. I encourage you to go to your local theatres and support them (ideally, by purchasing full price tickets, if you can afford to do so). We currently subscribe or have memberships at: Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre; Broadway in Hollywood/Pantages Theatre; Pasadena Playhouse; Geffen Playhouse (Mini-Subscription); 5-Star Theatricals. We’re looking for the right intimate theatre to subscribe at — it hasn’t been the same since Rep East died (it’s now The Main, and although it does a lot of theatre, it doesn’t have seasons or a resident company), and post-COVID, most 99-seaters aren’t back to doing seasons (or seasons we like). I used to do more detailed writeups; here’s my current approach.

Upcoming Theatre – Next 90ish Days:

On the Theatrical Horizon:

There are a few shows for which announcements have crossed my transom that may be of interest: The CSUN Theatre Department in Northridge will be doing the Spongebob Musical in April 2024. We really wanted to see this when it was on tour in 2020, but the tour was killed by COVID; we did drive up to Woodland CA to see a friend in a community theatre production of it. It is a great show about science and climate denial. Charles Stewart Howard Playhouse in Woodland Hills will be doing Hands on a Hardbody in May 2024. CSH announced this back in 2020, but it was killed by COVID; I’m glad to see it will be back (and with a friend in the cast, even). Morgan-Wixson Theatre in Santa Monica has announced their Mainstage 2024 Season, and it includes Bat Boy the Musical running Sept 28 through October 18. We saw Bat Boy back when CSUN did it in 2014; it is a wonderful musical about how a society treats outsiders. Conundrum Theatre Company will be doing Urinetown The Musical in mid to late March 2024 at the Broadwater; this is a great musical, but we can’t fit it into the schedule (nor does my wife care to see it again). However, if you haven’t seen it, it is worth seeing.

Second: Broadway Dallas just announced their season. I like to look at the announcements of other “presenting houses” (i.e., regional theatres that specialize in touring productions) to get an idea of what will be coming to Broadway in Hollywood or the Ahmanson. Broadway Dallas’ season included the following shows that haven’t yet been in Los Angeles: ShuckedBack to the Future – The Musical& Juliet; and Life of Pi. Other shows that I know will be touring are a new remounting of Beauty and the Beast (lukewarm on this, but I’m sure it will be at least an option at Broadway in Hollywood) and the recent production of Parade. According to Playbill and some other sources, other upcoming tour productions (that haven’t been announced for the LA area) are Kimberly Akimbo; the new revival of Sweeny ToddA Beautiful NoiseSome Like It Hot; and New York, New York. I hope How to Dance in Ohio tours, but perhaps there will be a regional mounting; Harmony should be seen and I also hope it tours, but we saw it in a pre-Broadway version almost 10 years ago.


🎭 What You Find in Community | “Trayf” @ Geffen Playhouse

Trayf (Geffen Theatre)As you may have figured out by now, I wear many hats. Some look like train engineer hats. Some are whatever a roadgeek wears. Some protect your information technology investments. And others, well, clip on with a hair clip and cover your head in shul. In other words, a kippah. Now, mine isn’t always black, nor do I wear a fedora on top of that, or any other additional hat. Still, I know those communities well, being a co-maintainer of a set of Frequently Asked Questions on Judaism, as well as founder and moderator of the Liberal Judaism Mailing List.  More on that in a minute.

With my kippah on, I serve as facilitate for a group out of our Reform synagogue in Northridge that regularly attends Jewish-themed live theatre. We’ve attended a wide variety of shows over the years: Eight Nights at Antaeus; It Shoulda’ Been You at MTG; Shared Legacies at JWT;  Stars of David at the Y! I Love Yiddish Fest; Fabulous Fanny Brice; Allan Sherman Unmasked!; and Jews, God, and History (Not Necessarily In That Order). So I’m always on the lookout for Jewish themed theatre for our group; and as COVID restrictions were lifting, something we could do in person again. So I was very pleased to get an email from the Geffen Playhouse announcing a production that sounded interesting. Here was the description:

Zalmy lives a double life. By day, he drives a Chabad “Mitzvah Tank” through 1990s New York City, performing good deeds with his best friend Shmuel. By night, he sneaks out of his orthodox community to roller-skate and listen to rock and roll. But when a curious outsider offers him unfettered access to the secular world, is it worth jeopardizing everything he’s ever known? This road-trip bromance is a funny and heartwarming ode to the turbulence of youth, the universal suspicion that we don’t quite fit in, and the faith and friends that see us through.

The production was Trayf , written by Lindsay Joell and directed by Maggie Burrows, which would be running at the Geffen from March 1 through April 10, 2022. So I put out a call to see if there was interest, and coordinated group tickets. We ended up with a group of 18 temple members, who came out to Westwood Saturday afternoon to see the show. It was a very successful outing.

Trayf tells the story of Zalmy (Ilan Eskenazi) and Shmuel (Ben Hirschhorn), two Chassids out Crown Heights, best friends since grade school, who are going around encouraging people to do mitzvahs. For shoe unfamiliar with Chassidic Judaism, you should consult my FAQ let me explain (from my FAQ): Chassidic Judaism is a group within the broader rubric of Orthodox Judaism. It started in the 1700’s (Common Era) in Eastern Europe in response to a void felt by many average observant Jews of the day. The founder of Chassidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (referred to as the “Besht,” an acronym of his name) was a great scholar and mystic, devoted to both the revealed, outer aspect, and hidden, inner aspect of Torah. He and his followers, without veering from a commitment to Torah, created a way of Jewish life that emphasized the ability of all Jews to grow closer to G-d via everything that we do, say, and think. In contrast to the somewhat intellectual style of the mainstream Jewish leaders of his day and their emphasis on the primacy of Torah study, the Besht emphasized a constant focus on attachment to G-d and Torah no matter what one is involved with. The group continued, as modern Lubavitch Chassidism,  commonly known as Chabad, follows Rabbi Schneerson and his teaching. They are still very active today with Chabad Houses in almost every community. They are well known for inviting more secular Jewish in to do commandments laid out in the Torah, such as joining them for Shabbat, laying Tefillin. Back in the 1990s, when this story took place, they were active going out on the streets to pull folks in to do Mitzvahs. I remember them regularly on the streets of Westwood when I was at UCLA.

So, back to the story. Zalmy and Shmuel are in Chabad, best friends in the insular community that is Crown Heights, following all strictures of Orthodox — including separation from the secular world. Their own outreach is the Mitzvah Tank — a van they take to neighborhoods to “spread the word” (but only to other Jews, as Judaism does not encourage conversion). Shmuel has a secret, thought … he loves secular music and is drawn to it. One day, in comes Jonathan (Garrett Young), a young man whose father just died, and who discovered information that his father’s family were survivors of the holocaust, rescued by a non-Jewish family. He wants to get in touch with his Jewish soul. One of the through lines of this play is Jonathan’s movement into the insular community. As he learns about Chabad’s enthusiastic brand of Judaism, he is drawn in deeper.

But we do learn in Judaism that no one’s path is travelled in isolation. Jonathan’s journey impacts others. One person impacted is Leah (Louisa Jacobson), Jonathan’s girlfriend. Suddenly — although she is Jewish by birth — she is no longer Jewish enough for Jonathan. You see, she was raised Reform. Her kitchen isn’t kosher; she doesn’t observe the strictures, and Jonathan pulls away. Also impacted is the tight friendship of Zalmy and Shmuel. Shmuel is drawn to Jonathan for the secular music, and keeps encouraging Jonathan to come into the Chabad community more. But as he comes in, the secular is pushed out. This drives wedges between Jonathan and Shmuel, and Shmuel’s embracing of the secular draws a wedge between him and Zalmy.

On one hand, this story is a deep examination of the power of friendship, and whether that friendship can survive someone moving out of an insular community. Is the strictures of one’s faith more powerful than friendship. But this is also an examination of what an insular community can do to someone: how it can draw them in and get them to reject their former live and friends. But for me, what was most telling was the one scene with Leah, where a Reform Jewish woman was considered “less than” by these two young Chabbadniks. That’s not really what Judaism teaches, yet it is an attitude that is far too common.

This got me thinking back to my days at UCLA, across the street from the Geffen. I was effectively a Jewish Studies minor, and I knew a few Chabbadniks. Yet I never gave in to going to the Chabad House (or Hillel). I know folks who did. But one of my best friend was from the Orthodox Yeshiva community, and we had wide ranging intellectual discussions I treasure to this day. There is beauty in what Chabad does; but I don’t always agree with their isolating approaches. But it did trigger those memories.

In general, I think this was a great show for our little group (I’ve also recommended The Lehman Trilogy, which we saw last week). I’m on the lookout for our next show.

Rounding out the cast as the necessary understudies one needs in this COVID world: Katie Croyle U/S Leah; Josh Green U/S Zalmy / Shmuel; and John Garet Stoker U/S Jonathan.

The scenic design by Tim Mackabee was simple: chairs, a streetlight, some signs, a center auto console with a tape deck. This conveyed enough to establish the needed sense of place. It was supported by Lap Chi Chu‘s lighting design that established the mood, and Everett Elton Bradman‘s sound design, which provided the soundscape for the lives and communities. Denitsa Bliznakova‘s costumes captured the Chabad esthetic well. Rounding out the production team were: KC Monnie Choreographer; Rachel Wiegardt-Egel Dramaturg; Leia S. Crawford Production Stage Manager; Matt Shakman Artistic Director; Gill Cates Jr. Executive Director; and Behnaz Ataee CFO.  I always make a point to credit the COVID-19 Compliance Manager, Phil Gold, without whose work the theatre would not happen.

Trayf continues at the Geffen Playhouse through April 10. Tickets are available through the Geffen; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar.

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. That may change later in 2022. As for the remainder of the first half of 2022: We have no more theatre in March. April brings Ann at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB), the Southern California Renaissance Faire; and Tootsie at Broadway in Hollywood (FB). May brings Hadestown at at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). June will see Come From Away at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and Pretty Woman at Broadway in Hollywood (FB), as well as Tom Paxon at McCabes plus as much of the Hollywood Fringe Festival as we have the energy for.

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)!


Thoughts on a Theatre Season: Ahmanson 🎭 Geffen

userpic=theatre2Well, the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and The Geffen Playhouse (FB) just announced their upcoming seasons, so it is time for another “Thoughts on a Theatre Season“…

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The Ahmanson Theatre

Back in January, when Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) and the Pantages (FB) announced their seasons (and after a moment of silence for Cabrillo), I wrote:

Other Tour Musings: Aladdin: The Musical just announced their national tour, starting in Chicago April-July 2017. Those dates mean it can’t go into the Pantages until at least 2018, and this is show that I’d expect to go into the Pantages. So it may show up at the Ahmanson in the Fall of 2017 (they haven’t announced their season yet), or (more likely) it will be in the Winter or Spring of 2018 at the Pantages. It also sounds like there is a tour of Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.  It is part of the 2016-2017 SHN San Francisco season, so my guess is that it will be a fall show at the Ahmanson, because (a) it is unlikely they would delay it until 2018, and (b) they rarely, if ever, book plays into the Pantages. Fun Home and Something Rotten have also announced tours; Fun Home starts in late 2016; Rotten in 2017. Given the Pantages schedule, I’m expecting both to show up at the Ahmanson. School of Rock: The Musical has also announced a tour; although that’s a show that would fit the Pantages audience better, the long sitdown at the Pantages means it will likely be an Ahmanson show. Gee. I’ve just figured out the Ahmanson season :-).

The Ahmanson just announced their season, and I ended up being 2 out of 6. Here are my thoughts:

  • Thumbs Down Arthur Miller’s A View from a Bridge. Sep 7 – Oct 16, 2016. This is the Young Vic production, but it doesn’t really excite me.
  • Thumbs Up Amalie: A New Musical. Dec 6, 2016 – Jan 15, 2017. This premiered last fall under the direction of Pam McKinnon at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. I liked the movie, so this intrigues me.
  • Thumbs Up Fun HomeFeb 21 – Apr 1, 2017.Tony-winning. Need I say more?
  • Thumbs Down Into the Woods. Apr 4 – May 14, 2017. This is the Fiasco 10-actor version, but I’ve seen the original and I’ve seen it in 99 seat. Why see it again?
  • Thumbs Down Jersey Boys. May 16 – Jun 24, 2017. Been there. Saw it.
  • Thumbs Up Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.  Aug 2 – Sep 10, 2017. Oh yes.

This still leaves the question of where Aladdin and School of Rock will end up: I’m guessing the Pantages after Hamilton; similarly, Something Rotten may also end up at the Pantages depending on timing, or the next season at the Ahmanson.

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The Geffen

The Geffen in Westwood has also announced their season. My thoughts:

  • Thumbs Down Barbecue. Sept. 6 to Oct. 16, 2016. Seen last year at the Public Theater in New York. O’Hara’s comedy follows two families — one white, one black — as they bicker and brawl amongst themselves at separate gatherings in a public park.
  • Thumbs Down Margulies’ The Model Apartment. Oct. 11 to Nov. 20, 2016. This debuted in 1995 and tells the story of a retired couple living in a condo.
  • Thumbs Down Icebergs. Nov. 8 to Dec. 18, 2016. This takes place in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, following four friends negotiating professional and personal challenges. World premier of a Alena Smith play.
  • Thumbs Down Benjamin Scheuer’s solo show The Lion. Jan. 4 to Feb. 19.
  • Thumbs Down Matthew Lopez’s The Legend of Georgia McBride. April 4, 2017, to May 14, 2017.
  • thumbs-side Payne’s Constellations. June 6, 2017 to July 16, 2017. The elusive story involves a man and a woman, bound together by advanced physics.

Plus two productions to be announced later. Only one show piques my interest, which is about par for the course at the Geffen.


A Lounge Is Born

Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara (Geffen Playhouse)userpic=las-vegasThey say that the classic Las Vegas lounge act was created to enter wives and girlfriends while their husbands and boyfriends gambled next to them on the casino floor. This could be true; after all, the Vegas lounge had its heyday in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when there were more distinct boundaries between the sexes. In any case, it is part of classic Vegas that is no more. Gone are the lounges and the dinner shows, the showgirls, the glitz, the Rat Pack (accept no imitations). But that era still lives on in shows like “Louis & Keely ‘Live’ at the Sahara“, which we saw last night at The Geffen Playhouse (FB).

I first learned about this show many years ago when it started out at the Sacred Fools Theatre (FB). I thought about getting tickets then as it was getting rave reviews, but I (a) was unfamiliar with Prima (FB) and Smith (FB); (b) thought it was a jukebox musical; and (c) couldn’t work it into my schedule. I kept hearing good buzz about the show when it moved to the Geffen in 2009, but (a) I couldn’t work it in, and (b) couldn’t find a good discount on the Geffen prices. So I missed it again. It then went off to Chicago in early 2015 (during the opening salvos in the “I Love 99” war) and got strong reviews. It came back to the Geffen for a return engagement as a retooled, strengthened, and lengthened show. When I heard that it was coming back, I set my “star” for the Geffen on Goldstar, and waited. It popped, I bought, and we were back at the Westwood Playhouse (oops) Geffen Playhouse for one of the opening preview performances of this go-around of Louis and Keely.

I’m glad I waited until the show was strengthened even further, and I’m glad I made sure to get tickets for the show. Rarely does a show have me smiling from pure enjoyment and entertainment the entire night through.

Louis and Keely ‘Live’ at the Sahara (FB) essentially tells the story of the formation and rise of Prima and Smith as an act and as a couple, and a taste of the subsequent fall. There is a bit of opening exposition of how Prima got where he was; there is a bit of closing exposition of what happened after the breakup. But the real focus of the show is Prima telling his story: how he found Smith, how he shaped the act, how the act took over Vegas, and how it all fell apart. Given that both Prima and Smith are real people, the story underlying it all is well known and need not be repeated here.

The book, which was written initially by Vanessa Claire Stewart (FB) and Jake Broder (FB), and then reworked for the first Geffen presentation by Taylor Hackford (FB), and then [] and then picked up by Hershey Felder (FB) and reworked for Chicago… you get the idea… uses Prima as the framing device. It starts out with Prima giving a bit of his history in New Orleans, touches on his Big Band era, and rapidly moves to New Jersey where the now out-of-style Prima is reduced to playing Tiki Lounges. There he meets Dorothy Jacqueline Keely who auditions as a singer… and an act is born. The story tells — through Prima’s narration, when necessary — about the start of the lounge act in Vegas, its rise, the entanglement of his personal life with that of Keely and the act, and the involvement with Frank Sinatra. It also shows how the act imploded — and implies or states a number of reasons for that implosion: underlying insecurity from Prima, underlying womanizing tendancies from Prima, interactions with Frank Sinatra, actions and reactions. Ultimately, it showed how Prima and Smith had different goals: for Prima, it was always giving the audience the show, that was his first and always love; for Smith, it was love for Prima that made the act, and when that was gone, so was she.  All of the was punctuated by Prima and Smith (well, the actors portraying them) performing the numbers that made them famous.

In terms of the story, I enjoyed it quite a bit. Perhaps my only quibble was that it left me wanting… more. There is a brief closing scene where we see Prima collapsing. We then see Smith announcing his passing, and seemingly performing with his memory. But there also needs to be more of an epilogue — if not on stage, then certainly in the program. They divorced in 1961, and Smith continued to have influence in the Jazz world after that … including a comback in the 1990s. Prima continued a solo career strongly independent of Smith until his death in 1978. Reviewing the material I could find to write up this, umm, writeup, I come away with the impression that the book of the show muddies the water a bit from the truth — probably for dramatic affect. It certainly plays with the timeline between the discovery of Keely and their popularity in the lounge, the timeline of the relationship with Sinatra (it appears to have been after the divorce), the nature of her solo recordings.

As presented, the story has a very heavy A Star is Born vibe. Star whose career is in decline gets involved with newcomer. Newcomer lifts both of their careers for a while, but soon the newcomer’s star eclipses that of the older star. He can’t handle the role swap, sabotages things, and it all ends badly. That makes for great drama, but isn’t the truth. As the truth is fascinating, and they are still reworking this as time goes on, the authors might explore bringing back some of the accuracy.

Or they might not. After all, this is theatre — and on the stage or the screen, the real story is subservient to the story that works. The story here does work: it catches your attention, entertains you, and leaves you caring about the characters at the end. After all, if I didn’t care about the characters, would I have researched what really happened to them? I think that’s a testament to not only the story, but the director (Taylor Hackford (FB)) working with the leads to bring the characters to life, and the leads believing in these characters and being so comfortable with these characters and their personas that they can inhabit them.

In the lead performance positions were Anthony Crivello (FB) as Louis Prima, and Vanessa Claire Stewart (FB) as Keely Smith. Stewart is a co-author, and has been performing this character since it was created — she has learned how to personify Smith so well that even the real-life Smith was impressed. Crivello came into the production after the rework for Chicago. Given how the story is written, he has loads to do, and does them well. Having not seen the real Prima, I cannot speak to his mannerisms (although I’ve read elsewhere that he does capture them right). He doesn’t duplicate Prima’s voice, but comes off as a convincing Prima. More importantly, there is chemistry between Stewart and Crivello that is transmitted from the stage to the audience. These two are having fun with these roles, and that fun is broadcast. Both sing great, and capture the vibe well. I look forward to the day that there is an available cast album from this show (there evidently was a cast album from the 2009 version of the show)‡.
[‡ Note: DO NOT go to the original “Lewis and Keely” show website — it appears to have been hacked. I have informed the show via their Facebook page, and I’ll update this if I receive confirmation it has been cleared.]

Supporting the leads are Erin Matthews (FB) (as the “Duchess” and all the other female roles) and Paul Perroni (FB) (as Frank Sinatra and all the other male roles).  Matthews is never in a single character for long enough for the characterization to stick with the audience, although I could swear at one point there were two additional actresses on stage with both Stewart and Perroni (I’m recalling the scene where Smith is recording her album at Reprise, and there are two female backup singers), so there must be one additional acress who is not credited — either that, or Matthews is talented enough to be two places at once (a handy skill). Perroni does a good job of capturing Sinatra’s swagger and tone.

Another major group of actors is the on-stage band. As with Pump Boys and Dinettes, I Love My Wife, and a few other shows, the band does more than just play instruments. They inhabit characters to some extent, and certainly sing in addition to playing. Luckily, these are all top notch musicians. They consisted of: Paul Litteral (FB) [Musical Director / Trumpet], Jeremy Kahn (FB) [Performance Conductor / Piano], Nick Klingenberg (FB) [Bass], Colin Kupka (FB) [Tenor Sax / “Sam Butera“], George McMullen (FB) [Trombone / “Jimmy”], Dan Sawyer (FB) [Guitar / Sax / Clarinet / Flute / Piccolo / “Doc”], and Michael Solomon/FB [Drums]. I’ll particularly highlight Kupka’s sax work, which was great, as well as Litteral’s trumpet, Kahn’s bass… oh hell, they were all spectacular and made the show what it is! I’ll note that Kupka, Solomon, and Litteral have been with the show since Sacred Fools days.  Richard Levinson (FB) was the music consultant.

With respect to movement: I cannot speak to whether Crivello accurately captured Prima’s moves, and Stewart captured Smith’s. I do know that choreographer Vernal Bagneris is a legend (I remember him from One Mo’ Time), so I’m sure he captured the moves right. They were certainly entertaining. Erin Matthews (FB) was the dance captain.

Turning to the remaining production and creative credits: The scenic design by Hershey Felder (FB) and Trevor Hay (FB) was simple: the band on stage, and a number of large circles upon which projections by Christopher Ash were used to establish place. Combine that with a few set pieces, and voila. About the only quibble is one scene where Prima received a call on a phone, and the phone was some beige thing that obviously had a DMTF dial (when, given the era, it should have been some form of pulse rotary telephone). The sound design by Erik Carstensen (FB) was clear and crisp, which is amazing given how often the performers were touching mic cables and such. The lighting design by Christopher Ash worked well to establish mood. The costumes (by Melissa Bruning (FB) assisted by Christianna Rogers (FB)) seemed appropriately period, but my wife noted one nit: Keely’s costumes needed to be hemmed such that their hemline was level with the floor — they were obviously hemmed on a hanger, and not the body. My wife noted that, in that era, hemlines were something that people payed close attention to.  Remaining production credits: Meghan Maiya – Production Research; Rebecca Peters/FB – Production Stage Manager.

I Support 99 Seat Theatre in Los AngelesLouis and Keely – ‘Live’ at the Sahara originated at the Sacred Fools Theatre (FB) — one of Los Angeles’ intimate (i.e., 99 seat or under) theatres. It exists because this unique theatrical ecosystem exists in LA. These theatres are typically not commercial — they exists for the artists, by the artists, and generally have the mission to express and exercise the theatrical arts. This ecosystem has been under seige from Actors Equity, who wants to treat it as a commercial ecosystems that needs to provide actors a living in isolation from other venues. This notion — of each “profit center” standing alone — is what killed the Las Vegas of Louis and Keely’s days. Los Angeles is a unique market where actors can make their living in numerous non-theatrical venues — movies, TV, commercials, modeling, voiceovers, etc. — and can used the theatrical stage as a way to hone their craft, to get exposure, to network with other actors, professionals, and creatives. This is the same way the shows and lounges brought people into the casinos and were loss leaders — the money was made elsewhere. I say this as a long-time audience member: Los Angeles treasures this ecosystem. Right now, closed door negotiations are taking place between the sides involved. Let’s hope that the leadership comes up with the answer that Los Angeles’ talent and creatives need and want.

Louis and Keely ‘Live’ at the Sahara (FB) continues at the The Geffen Playhouse (FB) through January 17, 2016. Tickets are available through the Geffen online ticket office. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. I smiled all through this show and left the show happy. What more could you want from a show?

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P.S.: Click here to see my summary of the Theatre I attended in 2015.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. 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 am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres:  REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (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.

Upcoming Shows: Theatre continues next week with “Bullets Over Broadway” at the Pantages (FB) on January 9; “That Lovin’ Feelin’” at The Group Rep (FB) on January 16; “Stomp” at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB)  on January 24; and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on January 30. There is also the open question of whether there will be Repertory East Playhouse (“the REP”) (FB) 2016 season, and when it will start.  However, given there has been no announcement, I feel safe booking all weekends in January  (I’ll note that if there is no REP season, I’ll likely subscribe at Group Rep — call it the Law of Conservation of REP). February starts with a hold date for “An Act of God” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). The rest of the February schedule is empty except for February 28, when we are seeing The Band of the Royal Marines and the Pipes, Drums, and Highland Dancers of the Scots Guards at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). March brings “Another Roll of the Dice” at The Colony Theatre (FB), and has two potential dates on hold for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) (pending Hottix). I expect to be filling out February as December goes on.  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 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.


A Perfectly Lovely / Perfectly Awful / Awfully Perfect Surprise

Murder for Two (Geffen)userpic=theatre_aclassactLast August, when we saw Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Old Globe, I picked up a copy of the cast album of the new musical Murder for Two. I had heard good things about the musical, although it had never been in Los Angeles (it had, however, been in San Diego). I took a listen, and it sounded like a hoot. Thus, when I learned that it was coming to the Geffen Playhouse (FB), I put a hold date on the calendar and started to watch for tickets. When they came out (this was before the show extended and everything went up on Goldstar), I got two tickets for the day with the best seats: Friday, July 3rd. Thus began the first double-header theatre weekend for July.

Last night saw us wandering Westwood Village, which was a pitiful sight (made the worse by an unexpected migraine (as if they are ever “expected”)). Westwood is a shadow of what it was when I went to UCLA: greed, rising rents, and the wrong mix of stores have left empty storefronts, empty streets, and a lack of character. But there is one thing that stays the same in Westwood — the Westwood Playhouse. Oh, right, it’s now the Geffen Playhouse (FB), and they added a second theatre, the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre. Well, at least the building and the quality are the same. We don’t go to the Geffen often — they don’t always discount shows until the last minute, and their standard prices are typically out of my comfort zone. A suitably unique show — such as Murder for Two — can overcome that threshhold.

Here’s why I’m mentioning all this: Last night I’m sitting in seats I paid much more than usual for, at a show I really wanted to see, dealing with a stubborn migraine headache that didn’t want to go away, … and … this show was funny enough to make me forget about my headache for 80-85 minutes (it was a 95 minute show, no intermission). That’s a compliment. Although it started a little show, it rapidly ramped up and kept going so fast that I was able to ignore the pain in my head.

The basic story for Murder for Two is nothing new or unusual — especially if you watch CBS crime procedurals. A murder occurs in the first few minutes. A green officer is sent to secure the scene for the detectives, and while waiting, he decides to investigate. After questioning everyone, he eventually figures out the murderer. The plot of how many murder mysteries? What’s special about Murder for Two is the execution. That didn’t come out right. Perhaps I should explain.

The cast of Murder for Two consists of… two. Brett Ryback (FB) plays Marcus, the police officer investigating the murder. Jeff Blumenkrantz (FB) plays every other role: including the dozens of suspects and other officers. He is constantly switching personas with nothing more than a simple prop, mannerism, or voice. While doing all of this, the two actors are also accompanying themselves on the piano. This results in a roller coaster ride where Blumenkratz keeps changing the direction of the coaster until you are never quite sure who he is, and the audience (and Rybeck) has to keep up. Now, add to this the fact that the two actors seem to be having fun with the roles, and seemingly delight in trying to crack each other up as well.

The story for Murder For Two (book by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair (FB); music by Joe Kinosian (FB); lyrics by Kellen Blair (FB)), as noted earlier, is an homage to so many locked-room murder mysteries. You have a bunch of suspects in the room. You know one of them did it. You start questioning them one by one. The good thing in Murder for Two is that they didn’t (at least to my discernment — but then again, my head hurt) didn’t telegraph the murderer. You do, of course, know the case will be solved by the good guy, but that’s a given in any story like this. The accompanying music was energetic and funny, and a number of songs were easily earworm material (particularly “A Perfectly Lovely Surprise” and “Protocol Says”); however, none of the songs reached standard level (meaning they can come out of the show and be standards on their own). The primary reason for this was that the music did exactly what it was supposed to do: be integral to the story and be closely tied to the characters.

Let’s look at the pieces we have so far: a very funny book, very entertaining music, and strong comic performances. However, we still can’t render a verdict yet. What are we missing? After all, my wife was much more lukewarm about the show than I — she thought the first fifteen minutes or so dragged; the humor wasn’t quite her thing.

Let’s look at the musical performance, which brings us back to Brett Ryback (FB) and Jeff Blumenkrantz (FB). Both are excellent piano players, and have a style reminiscent of Chico Marx in their ability to exploit the piano for comic effects. This is seen both in the opening of the show (where they fight over the piano) and in the closing bows, where they do a wonderfully comic piano encore.

But the last piece of the puzzle is a technical piece. This show depends on the very clever scenic design of Beowulf Boritt (FB), the sound design of Jill BC Du Boff (FB), the lighting design of Jason Lyons (FB), and the costume design of Andrea Lauer (FB). You get an idea of the cleverness of the scenic design in the opening scenes where the stage is set (so to speak) with the lighting projection from the junk of the stage, but the real cleverness of the scenic design reveals itself in the end. The cleverness of the sound design reveals itself throughout in the excellent and well timed sound effects (that they time so perfectly at all is a testament to the sound design and the board operators). Lighting is similar — it is used in clever ways to illuminate the mood and how it changes in a split second. The last clever design aspects were the costumes: the ability to use small costume aspects or props to change the nature of characters was astounding.

Bringing this all together was the talents of the director, Scott Schwartz (FB); the music director, David Caldwell; the choreographer, Wendy Seyb (FB); and the production stage manager, Cate Cundiff (FB). They got the thankless job of corralling all this craziness, of getting the split second timing required for this farce down, of ensuring that everything was precisely where and when it needed to be. Remaining show credits are: Casting – Calleri Casting (FB); Production Supervisor – Production Core (FB); Understudies – Matthew Wrather (FB) [for Marcus]; John Wascavage (FB) [for the Suspects]; Zach Spound (FB) [for the Suspects].

We’ve followed protocol: we’ve looked at the story, the music, the performances, the technical, and the direction. We’ve considered all the players. The verdict: if you like well-timed and well-performed farcical comedy with silly performances, you’ll like Murder for Two (FB) at the Geffen Playhouse (FB). Luckily, the show — which had been scheduled to close on July 12 — has been extended to August 2. The bad news is that Jeff Blumenkrantz (FB) will be on leave from the show from 7/10-23.   Tickets are available through the Geffen Box Office; discount tickets may be available on Goldstar.

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 am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres:  REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (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.

Upcoming Shows: July is a month of double-headers. Today, our double-header continues with “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), where we get to brave the big 4th of July Block Party at Grand Park (FB). Next weekend is another double: On Friday night, July 10th, we’re seeing Colin Mitchell‘s show Madness, Murder Mayhem: Three Classic Grand Guignol Plays Reimagined at Zombie Joes Underground Theatre (FB); Saturday July 11th brings “Jesus Christ Superstar” at REP East (FB). The following weekend is another double header: “The History Boys” at the Stella Adler Theatre (FB) on Saturday (Goldstar), and “Green Grow The Lilacs” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) on Sunday.  The last weekend of July brings our last double: “Lombardi” at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB) on July 25th, with the annual Operaworks show the next day. August start calming down, with “As You Like It” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) the first weekend of August, our summer Mus-ique show the second weekend of August, and “The Fabulous Lipitones” at  The Colony Theatre (FB) the third weekend of August. After that we’ll need a vacation … but then again we might squeeze in Evita at the Maui Cultural Center (FB) the last weekend of August. September right now is mostly open, with the only ticketed show being “The Diviners” at REP East (FB) and a hold-the-date for “First Date” at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB). October will bring another Fringe Festival: the NoHo Fringe Festival (FB). October also has the following as ticketed or hold-the-dates: Kelrik Production (FB)’s Urinetown at the Monroe Forum Theatre (Hold for Sat 10/3);  “Mrs. A. Lincoln” at The Colony Theatre (FB) (Ticketed for Sat 10/10); and  “Damn Yankees” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) (Ticketed for Sat 10/17). 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.


We Had Been Warned … and We Didn’t Listen

Red Hot Patriot: The Kick Ass Wisdom of Molly IvensBack in 2003, Molly Ivens wrote “Okay, we cut taxes for the rich and so we have to cut services for the poor. Presumably there is some right-wing justification along the lines that helping poor people just makes them more dependent or something. If there were a rationale Bush could express, it would be one thing, but to watch him not see, not make the connection, is another thing entirely. Welfare, Medicare, Social Security, food stamps–horrors, they breed dependency. Whereas inheriting millions of dollars and having your whole life handed to you on a platter is good for the grit in your immortal soul? What we’re dealing with here is a man in such serious denial it would be pathetic if it weren’t damaging so many lives.”

This is someone whose wit and insight we need today. Someone who has the ability to cut through the bullshit of political rhetoric, who is proudly liberal (just like Jesus would be, as she noted in another essay), and is willing to call people on their idiocy. One could just imagine what she would make of the current Tea Party efforts and the crop of Republican candidates. One could imagine what she would say about the Occupy movement and the importance of their message about inequality of wealth (as she has written about it before). Alas, we don’t have this wit and insight, as she died in 2007. However, “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivens“, which we saw this afternoon at the Geffen Playhouse, provides a great reminder and a great facsimile.

Red Hot Patriot” is basically a one-woman show of Molly Ivens (portrayed by Kathleen Turner). It starts out with Ivens attempting to write a column about her father, “General Jim” and getting stuck. This turns her into reminiscing about her life and the political characters therein, moving through all the newspapers she worked at. This provides the opportunity to work in a lot of the classic Ivens lines, such as Jim Hightower’s line when he was informed that Governor Bill Clements was studying Spanish: “Oh, good. Now he’s be bi-ignorant.” Special attention is paid, however, to Shrub (her name for George W. Bush) and the Texas State House, which gave her ample ammunition. The telling closes with some stories about her battle with breast cancer, which ultimately took her life.

Turner’s portrayal of Ivens is pretty spot-on. At our performance, Turner’s already husky voice sounded hoarse–I don’t know if this is part of the character, but Ivens evidently did have a husky voice. Turner is relaxed on stage, costumed in red boots, jeans, an a jeans-shirt, with red hair. You can see an image of her in character here. It was a very good and entertaining performance. Turner is supported by Matthew Van Oss as the silent copyboy.
[All actors are members of æ Actors Equity ]

Turning to the technical side. The set (designed by John Arnone) was simple: a desk for Ivens, a teletype machine, and a collection of old metal desks and chairs stacked in the back. This design was augmented by projections by Maya Ciarrocchi; the two combined very effectively. Lighting was by Daniel Ionazzi and was simple but good. Costumes (already described) were by Elizabeth Hope Clancy, with wig design by Paul Huntley. Original music and sound design was by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. The music was good, but the sound could have been more effective–but this may be a problem with the facility.

Red Hot Patriot” was written by Allison Engel and Margaret Engel, and directed by David Esbjornson. Mary Michele Miner was the Production Stage Manager, and Susie Walsh was the Assistant Stage Manager.

A note about the theatre. The Geffen Playhouse is what used to be the Westwood Playhouse. It’s pretty, but I wasn’t that impressed with the facility. The hard brick walls inside lead to a lot of sound bouncing. We also had an older crowd at this show (common for matinees), meaning that (a) they couldn’t figure out how to turn off their cellphones; (b) couldn’t figure out how to turn them off once they started ringing during the show (sigh), and (c) had their amplification headsets turned up on high so that everyone could hear the feedback and an echo of the performance.

Red Hot Patriot” continues at the Geffen until February 12, 2012. Tickets are available through the Geffen Box Office; you may be able to get a discount code through Theatremania.

As we’re speaking of theatre… today I got our renewal notice for the upcoming 2012-2013 Colony Theatre season, so let me share it with you: (1) “The Savannah Disputation” by Evan Smith, West Coast Premiere, June 13-July 8, 2012; (2) “Blame It on Beckett” by John Morogiello, West Coast Premiere, August 8-September 2, 2012; (3) “American Fiesta” by Stephen Tomlinson, Los Angeles Premiere, September 26-October 21, 2012; (4) “The Morini Strad” by WIlly Holtzman, West Coast Premiere, November 14-December 16, 2012; (5) “I’ll Be Back Before Midnight” by Peter Colley, Los Angeles Premiere, February 6-March 3, 2013; and “Falling for Make Believe“, World Premiere, Book by Mark Saltzman, Lyrics by Lorenz Hart and Music by Richard Rodgers (a new musical developed by the Colony that looks to be a jukebox musical). Subscription rates are reasonable–between $222 and $132 for Saturday evenings (non-opening night).  They don’t yet have up the subscription page.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: January theatre continues in two weeks with “Art” at the Pasadena Playhouse on January 28. February is busier. It begins at Van Nuys High School, with the Senior and Alumni Dance performances on February 2-3. “God of Carnage” at ICT Long Beach follows on February 5. The next weekend sees us in Thousand Oaks for “Ring of Fire” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on February 11. The third weekend takes us to Saugus for “Jewtopia” at REP East. February concludes with “Old Wicked Songs” at the Colony Theatre. March is equally busy, beginning with “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying” at Van Nuys High School (March 2-3 and 8-10; we’re likely going on 3/2), and Bernadette Peters in concert at the Valley Performing Arts Center on March 3. March should also bring “American Idiot” at the Ahmanson, and “Journey’s End” at REP East. March will conclude with Tom Paxton in concert at McCabe on 3/31. Continuing the look ahead, April will bring “Billy Elliot” at the Pantages, the Southern California Renaissance Faire, “Once Upon a Mattress” at Cabrillo, and “Dames at Sea” at the Colony. As always, open dates are subject to be filled in with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.

Music: McKinney’s Cotton Pickers (1928-1930): The Band Don Redman Built (McKinney’s Cotton Pickers): It’s Tight Like That