Too Many Words 🎭 “Bach at Leipzig” at Group Rep

Bach at Leipzig (Group Rep)userpic=theatre_ticketsYes, I know the quote really is “Too many notes”, and it applies to Mozart, but go with me here….

Yesterday afternoon, we trundled over to The Group Rep (FB) to see our second show of the weekend: Bach at Leipzig. It was advertised as a farcical comedy: Amadeus meets the Three Stooges. The description of the show on the website was as follows:

Leipzig, Germany – 1722. Johann Kuhnau, revered organist of the Thomaskirche, suddenly dies, leaving his post vacant. The town council invites musicians to audition for the coveted position, among them young Johann Sebastian Bach. In an age where musicians depend on patronage from the nobility or the church to pursue their craft, the post at a prominent church in a cultured city is a near guarantee of fame and fortune -which is why some of the candidates are willing to resort to any lengths to secure it. The play is a fugue-like farcical web of bribery, blackmail, and betrayal set against the backdrop of Enlightenment questions about humanity, God, and art.

Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

Alas, as a famous actor once said,  “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”. And if comedy is hard, pulling off a farce successfully is even harder. Although the author, Itamar Moses, and the director, Calvin Remsberg (FB), try to pull it off — alas, they don’t. Let me describe the story, and then we can try to figure out where the problem lies.

As noted before, it is 1722, and the greatest organist in the world, Johann Kuhnau, has died. A number of musicians are vying for the post, all of whom either have the first name of Johann or Georg. They are also all trying to eliminate the others so they can get the position. That, actually, is really the plot.

The show starts with a lot of exposition. A lot. This exposition continues throughout the show by the characters all writing letters to their wives, who all seemed to be named Anna, and giving them to carrier pigeons to send. There’s a lot of intrigue back and forth, and a bunch of running jokes on the first name of the characters. There is an attempt to draw the structure as a parallel to a fugue with multiple voices all coming together to echo the same point. If you didn’t realize it, it is hammered home with some more exposition at the top of Act II.

bach-publicity-photosIt should work. In fact, reading some reviews of other productions, I think it has worked elsewhere. But for me, aside from a few good lines, it was a little flat. I think the problem was two-fold. First, the long portions of exposition doesn’t serve the show well. The author needs a better way to get the audience into the context of the story than the artifice of all the letters, and they just serve to slow things down. Talk. Talk. Talk. This is theatre. There should be acting, not loads of monologues. Secondly, for farce to work it needs to be fast-paced and extremely well timed. It should hit you like a one-two punch, surprising you with one silliness before you’ve had time to process the last. This version was much too slow-paced, especially in the humor. The confusion at the various points needs to be amplified. The tempo needs to be upped, and that might even overcome the problem with the words.

Other than the tempo problems, I think the performances themselves were pretty good. I particularly enjoyed the lead, Chris Winfield (FB), as Fasch: he opened the show, and he pretty much moved the action along. He just needed to move it a little bit faster 😁. I also enjoyed Troy Whitaker (FB)’s Lenck. He had the right touch of youthful overconfidence in his abilities to make him fun to watch. I’ve seen him a few times in other productions and found him strong there (and his voice reminds me, strangely, of John Delancie).

Lloyd Pedersen gave Kaufmann a wonderful clueless dandy nature that was fun to watch. Larry Eisenberg (FB)’s Schott had a wonderful air of treachery around him.

The remaining two characters, Mikel Parraga-Wills (FB)’s Steindorff and Todd Andrew Ball (FB)’s Graupner, left less of an impression. I’m not sure what to make of Parraga-Wills’ Steindorff — Haughty, Handsome, but otherwise not leaving much of an impression. Similarly, Ball’s Graupner left a minor impression. I’m not sure whether that was the author’s intent — that they be minor strands in the overall fugue — or it was how it was played.

Lastly, there was Steve Terrell/FB‘s “Greatest Organist in Germany”. I hear he has a wonderful speaking voice.

Turning to the production team:  The scenic and lighting design of J. Kent Inasy (FB), was a reasonably adaptable series of faux-marble arches that were suitable for the various court discussions (this wasn’t a prop-heavy play, other than the various hiding places for music — another running gag).  Steve Shaw (FB)’s sound design worked well, particularly the directionality of the organ music. A Jeffrey Schoenberg (FB)’s costumes were excellent, which isn’t a surprise when you realize he’s been working in the Renaissance costuming field for ages. Adam Conn (FB) seemed suitably realistic to this non-fencing expert. Michele Bernath (FB) was the assistant to the director, and the producer was Suzy London (FB).

[ETA: One additional note on the show I just remembered: This is an era where there is loads and loads of talk of diversity in the theatre: both onstage and offstage. I found myself thinking about this as I noticed there was not one female part in this production. If we want audience diversity, we must demonstrate diversity in what is presented.]

Bach at Leipzig continues through May 1, 2016 at The Group Rep (FB). Tickets are available through the Group Rep website. Discount tickets may be available on Goldstar or on LA Stage Tix.

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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 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. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I had been subscribing at three theatres:  The Colony Theatre (FB), Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), and REP East (FB): but all have gone or are going dark., I just added a subscription to the  Hollywood Pantages (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: The third weekend of March takes us back to the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) on March 19 to see Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina, followed by Bach at Leipzig at The Group Rep (FB) on March 20.  The last weekend of March brings “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on Saturday, followed by A Shred of Evidence at Theatre 40 (FB) on Sunday.  April will start with Lea Salonga at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) on April 1 and an Elaine Boosler concert at Temple Ahavat Shalom on April 2 (this concert is open to the community; get your tickets here). We have a mid-week concert of the Turtle Quintet at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) on April 7, followed by “Children of Eden” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on April 10. The next weekend’s theatre is on Thursday, because the weekend brings our annual visit to the Renaissance Faire (Southern). The Thursday show is Stella’s Last J-Date at the Whitefire Theatre (FB). The fourth weekend in April is is Pesach, but the Indie Chi Productions dark comedy Dinner at Home Between Deaths at the Odyssey Theatre (FB) sounded so interesting I’ve booked Sunday tickets. The last weekend of April has a hold date for The Boy from Oz at the Celebration Theatre (FB). May starts with a hold date for Endgame at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (FB). We then run off to the Bay Area for our daughter’s graduation from Berkeley. While there, we may squeeze in a show: the Landmark Musical Theatre (FB) is doing The Boy from Oz (if we miss it at the Celebration), but otherwise the pickings and concerts are bare. May 21 has a hold for Los Angeles: Then and Now, a new musical at LA City College (FB) from Bruce Kimmel. The last weekend of May has holds for the MoTAS Outing to the Jethawks, and Armadillo Necktie at The Group Rep (FB). As for June? It’s the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), and I’ve started to hold dates for the following shows: All Aboard the Marriage HearseAll The Best Killers are LibrariansQaddafi’s Cook — Living in Hell, Cooking for the DevilSqueeze My CansTell Me On A Sunday   Toxic Avenger: The Musical  ✨. 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.

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That Orange County Sound 🎭 “That Lovin’ Feelin'” @ Group Rep

That Lovin' Feein' (Group Rep Theatre @ Lonnie Chapman)userpic=theatre_ticketsWhen you think about great rock groups that emerged from that teen-age rock incubator that was Orange County in the early 1960s, what comes to mind? That surfin’ sound? Sorry, the Beach Boys were actually out of Hawthorne.  Rock and roll? Nope, the Turtles were out of Westchester HS. Pop? Nope, the Carpenters were actually out of Downey, at the edge of LA County. The answer — which I didn’t know going into That Lovin’ Feelin’ at The Group Rep (FB)  last night — was the R&B sound of The Righteous Brothers (FB). The Righteous Brothers was formed when bands of two Orange County youth, Bill Medley out of Santa Ana and Bobby Hatfield out of Anaheim, came together; after some whittling down, the result was an R&B duo that made history by being a group that sounded too black for the white stations of the time, and that were too white for the black stations of the time.

That Lovin’ Feelin’ , which is running at The Group Rep (FB) through January 24, 2016 (actually, February 21, 2016, after two extensions), tells the story of the formation of the band, its struggles through the years, its successes, its splits, its reunions, and the final reconciliation. At its heart, though, That Lovin’ Feelin’ is a jukebox musical, an excuse to revisit the music of The Righteous Brothers.

Playwright James A. Zimmerman developed the story out of a personal relationship with Bill Medley (FB) (Personal Site) of the Righteous Brothers, combined with information from an autobiography that Medley wrote. Zimmerman told this story by framing the jukebox musical with a scaffolding of a reporter from Western Michigan at a 2003 conference conducting an interview with Bill Medley for the school paper. During this interview, he gives her the press release version of the story. As she pushes him harder and harder, eventually the real story of the reasons for the breakups and the reunions come out. This scaffolding provides the bones to expose the story of the group, and the excuse to go through some of their better known hits and songs in chronological order.

When viewed as a book musical, the story is weak. This isn’t to say that the conflicts inherent in the Righteous Brothers history aren’t theatrical. The problem is that the manner of the story telling doesn’t really place the burden of telling the actual story on Bill and Bobby. The burden of the exposition is placed on the 2003 version of Bill Medley and the reporter, Ali. In between the expositions we get flashbacks of history with the younger versions of Bill and Bobby, and characters in their life. While we’re in the flashbacks, the older Bill and Ali just freeze on stage. This structure reduces the product to “and then I performed this… and here is what was happening in my life then…. and then I performed that… and here’s what was happening in my life then. This is just a dry exposition that is saved only by the charisma and talent of the performers.

That Lovin' Feelin' (Publicity Photos)I think what is disappointing is the missed potential in the story — in letting Bill and Bobby, and the people in their lives, re-enact and tell throughout instead of in snippets, of letting us see the growth of the characters in the characters themselves, and not by having a third character tell us. That is not to say that the scaffold is bad — for it certainly wasn’t. Rather, it could just have been so much more: a true dramatic story. On the other hand, a similar scaffolding of having a character tell the story worked for Jersey Boys, so one can see why they thought it would work here.

What truly elevates That Lovin’ Feelin’ over the exposition are the performances — in particular the performances of the younger versions of the Righteous Brothers. We’ll get to them in a minute; first, let’s talk about our expository duo: Paul Cady (FB) as the older Bill Medley, and Sarah Karpeles (FB) as Ali (who has a last name given in the show but now the program). Cady, who also served as the Music Director, conveys the elder Medley with comfortable realism. He has a lovely singing voice which, alas, you only hear in three songs. However, I found myself watching Karpeles more — even when I probably wasn’t supposed to be watching her. She had a relaxed and humorous nature about her that just was projected by her character. I particularly enjoyed her smiling through the music at a number of points — this was likely the only concession she could show to liking the music, given the nature of the “freezes” that she and Cady had to endure.

What was blowing Karpeles away blew the audience away as well: the performances of Morgan Lauff (FB) as the younger Bill Medley and Brenden MacDonald (FB) as Bobby Hatfield. These two recent college graduations gave spectacular performances, capturing not only the drama of the persona they were inhabiting, but singing with style and strong telant. Not being an expert on the Righteous Brothers, I can’t speak to whether they sounded like the originals. But Lauff seemed to be able to do a great job with Medley’s low notes, and MacDonald seemed to easily reach Hatfield’s high notes. All I know is that I enjoyed their singing, and isn’t that enough.

Sometimes, things off to the side or behind catch my eye or ear. For example, in the Beatles “When I’m Sixty-Four”, I find myself listening to the back clarinet or bass sometimes. That happened here at one point, where the actresses who were playing backup singers just caught my eye: Nicole Renee Chapman (FB) [Actress 1, Joy Hatfield, Donna Thomas]; Amanda Dawn Harrison (FB) [Actress 2, Julie Stedham, Cher, Lucinda Chatfield]; and Brooke Van Grinsven (FB) [Actress 3, Karen Medley]. The first one to draw my attention was Chapman, who just seemed to be radiating “fun” out of her backup singer character, and then again when we saw her as Joy Hatfield. She was having the time of her life dancing and singing, and that joy was just beaming out to the audience. Also being was Van Grinsven, who we have seen before in Bard Fiction and The Drowsy Chaperone. She continued her winning streak here, also radiating the fact that she was having a great time with this character. Again, very strong singing, dancing, and performance. In fact, during some of the later numbers, if you listened closely, you could hear that both Chapman and Van Grinsven had powerhouse voices (which, now realizing that we saw Van Grinsven in Drowsey, should have been no surprise). Harrison rounded out the trio. She didn’t impact me as much, but I think that’s because of her positioning on the stage, which was usually in the middle, putting her being other characters when viewed from a seat near the aisle. I enjoyed her portrayal as Karen, and I also enjoyed her dancing, and I thought I could pick out both her voice and the fun she was having the few times I could see her behind the Lauff and MacDonald.

Rounding out the cast were some non-singing male roles: Robert Axelrod (FB) [who in addition to playing Bass in the band, as Actor 3, Dusty Hanvey, and John Wimber]; Patrick Burke/FB [Actor 1, Phil Spector, David Cohen]; Timm Damiano/FB [Tim]; and J. Christopher Sloan (FB) [Actor 2, Ray Maxwell, Jerry Perenchio, Doctor]. All seemed to inhabit the characters who they were playing well. I’dll single out Axelrod here, primarily because he had a look that reminded me of my maternal grandfather, which brought back some very nice memories. He also played a mean bass :-).

That Lovin’ Feelin’ was directed by Jules Aaron, assisted by Michele Bernath (FB) (who also served as Choreographer).  This was one of those shows where I couldn’t really sense the director’s presence, which is a good thing. The actors seemed to be having fun inhabiting their roles, and they seemed to be naturally in their personas. I do find interesting the fact that the director is working on a Sammy Davis Jr. musical (I Will, I Can!) — now there is a story worth musicalizing and something I would definately go see. The choreography by Michele Bernath was good — alas, I don’t remember if the dance moves from the 1960s were accurate, as I wasn’t watching dance that closely then. They seemed right; my only question is whether the same moves and clothes would be used by backup singers for 60s acts in the 1970s and 1980s.

Rounding out the onstage performers was the onstage band, which was sponsored by F. Murray Abraham and Kate Abraham. The band was led by Richard Levinson (FB), who also did a wonderful job on the keyboard. The aforementioned Robert Axelrod (FB) was rocking away on the bass, with Bill Scott (FB) next to him on the guitar. Rounding out the on-stage band was Lance Crow/FB on drums. Overall, the band had a great rockin’ sound; it was especially fun to hear them solo on the playout after the bows.

Moving on to the production and creative credits. The set design by Chris Winfield (FB) was simple: a performance stage with a pull-out substage, a dressing room off to the side,  and some decorative effects. It wasn’t as realistic as some, but served its purpose to support the action. What created sense of place were the projections, which were either uncredited, done by the set designer, done by Doug Haverty (FB) the graphic designer, or done by J. Kent Inasy (FB), the lighting designer. Whoever did them, they worked well given the large variety of locations in this show and the budget size of intimate theatre. Other lighting worked well to establish mood in a way that wasn’t obtrusive. The costume design by Angela M. Eads (FB) worked well for the most part, although my wife had two minor quibbles from what she remembers from the era. The make-up, hair, and wigs of Judi Lewin (FB) also seemed appropriately period, and the transition between the large number of wigs worked well. The sound design of Steve Shaw (FB) was what a sound design should be: realistic and unobtrusive, although there was a little microphone noise. Nora Feldman did the public relations. The stage manager was not credited, but Timm Damiano/FB  was the assistant stage manager. That Lovin’ Feelin’ was presented by The Group Rep (FB), and produced by Doug Haverty (FB) and Larry Eisenberg (FB).

That Lovin’ Feelin’ was originally scheduled to close January 24, 2016, but has been extended until February 21, 2016. Tickets are available through The Group Rep (FB) box office (which is by phone or email, sigh). Discount tickets may be available on Goldstar (they are almost sold out as of now); they may also be available through LA Stage Tix. Into early February, That Lovin’ Feelin’ is running in repertory with A. R. Gurney’s Another Antigone, which is running in GRT’s new 2nd stage upstairs.

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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 two theatres:  The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). In 2015, my intimate theatre subscription was at REP East (FB), although they haven’t indicated a 2016 season yet, and I may move the subscription to The Group Rep (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  Zombie Joes Underground (FB)’s 50 Hour Drive-By Theatre Festival on Saturday, January 23, and “Stomp” at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB)  on Sunday, January 24. The next weekend brings “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on January 30. February starts on Saturday, February 6 with Empire: The Musical at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) — this gives us not only the chance to see a dear friend (Sheri F.) who doesn’t attend as much LA theatre as she used to, but a favorite performer (Kevin Earley). The next day brings “An Act of God” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). There’s a rare mid-week performance on February 9 of The Jason Moran Fats Waller Dance Party at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). The following weekend brings the Southern California premiere of the musical Dogfight at the Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim Hills.  The third weekend in February is currently open, but that is likely to change. February closes with 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).  There is also the open question of whether there will be Repertory East Playhouse (“the REP”) (FB) 2016 season, and when it will start.  If we have no REP season, I’ll likely subscribe at Group Rep — call it the Law of Conservation of REP).  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.

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Winning is an Attitude

Lombardi (Group Rep)userpic=99loveIn the fall of 2009 into the late summer of 2010, one of my favorite TV programs, Steve Allen’s Meeting of Minds, had come back to the stage. thanks to the hard working efforts of the people at Working Stage, especially Dan Lauria. Unfortunately, the run was ending: Working Stage had lost the use of the Steve Allen Theatre, and Dan Lauria was heading off to Broadway to star alongside Judith Light in some new play about a football coach.  I was always curious about the play that brought an end of Meeting of Minds in Los Angeles, and last night I finally got the chance to see it at the Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (FB): the West Coast Premiere of Lombardi by Eric Simonson.

I have to admit, going in, that I really know nothing about football. That’s the game they play on the court where they kick an orange ball and make baskets, right? Seriously, I think I’ve been to one football game in my life (in the 80s, at UCLA). But I have heard of Vince Lombardi, although I knew little about him. In other words, I was probably your typical theatre audience member seeing this play :-). That’s because sports, as a subject, is not common theatrical fodder: you can probably count on all your fingers the numbers of shows about any major league sports: football, baseball, basketball, soccer, etc. combined. This is odd because sports and theatre are oddly similar: both are intensely dramatic, both follow a back and forth story to get to the ultimate goal, and both have coaches that can have intense winning and losing streaks. Both also have their ardent fans, and both often require sacrifices on the parts of the players (even if they are well compensated).

I’m pleased to say that — as a distinct non-football fan — I enjoyed the story. The pacing was reasonably fast (the show runs a bit over 90 minutes without an intermission). It gave a great sense of the man and his approach to coaching and life (which I’m not sure could be separated). It did not require understanding the specifics of the game of football and its terminology (one could treat that like technobabble on Star Trek). Yet, I think, it remains accessible to the football lover — the man or woman who lives for Monday Night Football and the NFL, the one ardently concerned about whether LA will get a football team. I do encourage those with a sports fanatic in their life — someone who might never normally go to the theater — to bring that person to this show. It might get them hooked.

Lombardi depends on a simple storytelling hook to tell the lifestory of Vince Lombardi: A reporter from Look Magazine who has come to Green Bay to do a piece on Lombardi. This reporter, Michael McCormick, was created by the author (according to the play’s study guide), who also created a fictitious connection between the reporter’s father and Lombardi. This hook permits the reporter to interview players, family, and the coach himself to bring out the story; it also permits the use of flashbacks to illustrate points as well as the use of direct exposition to the audience by the reporter. I read some reviews where this approach was viewed as problematic; I didn’t find it a problem. I do agree with the articles that this approach tended to keep the larger swirl of the world outside away from the story of the play. Was that a problem? I tend to think that it wasn’t, because America has shown time and time again that professional football is a world unto itself; fans tend to like football precisely because it tends to keep the harsh realities of the world away.

In preparing for this writeup after the show, I read a number of online articles about Vince Lombardi, including his wikipedia page and a very interesting interview about the man held with Dan Lauria when the show was on Broadway. Based on these, I think that Simonson captured about 80% of the legendary man’s character. In particular, it provided glimpses of the man’s values with respect to civil rights — he was famously quoted that he viewed his players as neither black nor white, but Packer green. It did not show his equivalent values regarding homosexuality, which are even more notable given the time and context of the play and the fact that Lombardi came from a strong Roman Catholic background. I think the most important thing that the play captured was Lombardi’s ethic: his notion that winners thought of themselves as winners, that winning was an attitude, and that it was always possible to win with appropriate effort, perseverance, and hard hard work. More importantly, it captured the complement to the attitude: that losing was an unacceptable attitude, that even permitting the notion of losing might make one a loser. It showed, reasonably well, how this attitude not only permeated both his team life and his home life — in fact, how it lead to his death. The man was so focused on winning, he couldn’t even admit when his body was losing a battle. (I’ll note, however, that the stomach problems shown in the play would have put the production near the end of Lombardi’s Green Bay run, in 1967-1968 — not the 1965 time shown in the play).

If there was any weaknesses in the story, it was the few ancillary threads that got brought up and discarded. The whole bit with the players union seemed to be overemphasized solely to explain why one player didn’t talk to the reporter; Lombardi’s children were brought up and promptly never mentioned again. Those are more writing flaws than production flaws.

The director, Gregg T. Daniel (FB), did a good job of bringing out the realism and inner characters of the people portrayed in the story. I often write that I have difficultly separating what the actor brings from what the director adds. I’m crediting the director here more for the overall feel created — the little touches of having the football players practicing onstage during  the pre-show period, of having the actors provide the football noise background during the scenery change blackouts, and such. This is something an actor would not bring, but is an attention to detail that a director would bring to the story.

Lombardi Cast Photos (provided by Nora FeldmanLet’s talk a little about the actors and what they brought, and how their characters worked in the story. In the lead position was Bert Emmett (FB) as Vince Lombardi. Emmett assumed the role well; I could see nothing of the Bert Emmett I had gotten to know in other roles at GRT over the years. In fact, I could also feel Dan Lauria superimposed over Emmett in the production, for Emmett brought a Broadway-quality immersion to Lombardi. The character, as written, captured the discipline, internal strength, and anger of the man; it also captured how his wife could humanize him. Emmett brought those aspects out in his performance. In short, to this audience member who knew nothing about the real Vince Lombardi, Emmett seemed very Lombardi-like.

As the reporter/foil, Troy Whitaker (FB) — another GRT regular —  gave off a youthful naivete that worked well. He seemed to have an uncanny recall of football statistics — as if there was a script in the background — but this was believable simply because there are football geeks who know statistics that well. Whether a cub writer in the early 1960s would have access to such statistics is a different question, and is a minor flaw in the writing of the story. Independent of that, Whitaker was a believable reporter and propelled the story along well. In his few scenes where he stood up to Lombardi, he had sufficient backbone to be believable.

Julia Silverman (FB) portrayed Lombardi’s wife, Marie. The characteristics I’ve read about Marie in the various sources came across well in the portrayal — the sacrifice, the heavy heavy drinking, the ability to be the only person that could get Lombardi to back down. Her overall role in the play was small, but critical in the overall arc of Lombardi’s wife.

The cast was rounded out by the three football players: Steven West (FB) as Dave Robinson, Ian Stanley as Paul Hornung, and Christopher Hawthorn as Jim Taylor. I think the most important fact is that these three were believably football players, and they were believably distinct characters. This is a good thing. Each provided useful insights into Lombardi’s character. About my only quibble was the Hawthorn seemed a bit slight to be a football player, but then what do I know about football players :-).

The production itself was relatively simple set-wise. There were a large number of chalkboards with football plays on them (don’t ask me if they were correct plays), with a projection screen on the back, and two side projection screens. There was a small office for Lombardi off to the side that was used for one scene. In general, location was established through a projection on the back screen, with either or both of the side screens used for ancillary location establishment. There were a number of set pieces (couches, benches) that were constantly being moved on and off the stage by the football players. This design (by Chris Winfield (FB)) worked given the limitations of the GRT space. THe sound design by Steve Shaw (FB) provided suitable sound effects. The lighting design by J. Kent Inasy mostly worked; there were a few moments in the beginning where there was a disconnect between blocking and lighting (i.e., people were in the dark) — presumably, that will be adjusted as the show goes on. The costumes by Angela M. Eads seemed appropriately period; I cannot speak to whether the numbers for the players reflected their actual numbers, or whether the costumes were historically correct for the Packers of that period. Trust me, there are people that will comment on that. Remaining technical and production credits: Christian Ackerman/FB [Videographer], Glenda Morgan Brown (FB) [Dialect Coach], Nora Feldman (FB) [Public Relations], Doug Haverty (FB) and Arts & Sound Design [Graphic Design], Drina Durazo (FB) [Program, Producer for GRT], Haley Miller [Director’s Assistant], Mikel Parraga/FB [Assistant Director]. The program does not contain a credit for stage manager.

Lombardi continues at the Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (FB) until September 6th. Tickets are available through OvationTix (GRT’s online box office). Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar and LA Stage Tix. The show is well worth seeing even if you don’t like football; it is especially well worth seeing if you like football.

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: Our triple header weekend continues today with the annual Operaworks show  in the afternoon, followed by seeing Astro Boy again in the evening at  Sacred Fools Theatre Company (FB). August continues the craziness, with a double header at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) the first weekend: “As You Like It” on Saturday, and the rescheduled “Green Grow The Lilacs” on Sunday.  The second weekend of August is equally busy, with “The Fabulous Lipitones” at  The Colony Theatre (FB) on Friday, our summer Mus-ique show on Saturday, and Concerts on the Green in Warner Park (with a Neil Diamond cover band) on Sunday. The third weekend of August is calmer, but only because we moved theatre off the weekend because my wife is driving my daughter’s car back to the bay area. As for me, I might very well go back to see the revised “Jesus Christ Superstar” at REP East (FB) — they are returning to have live music and I expect that will make a significant difference. The third week of August may see us back at REP East (FB) for their “secret seventh show”, which has been revealed to be “A Company of Wayward Saints“. 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: CSUN’s Urinetown (end of October – 10/30 or 11/1);  “The Best of Enemies” 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.

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The Art of Love

Love Again (Group Rep)userpic=theatre_ticketsBack in February, we saw the Southern California return of a Doug Haverty (FB) and Adryan Russ (FB) musical that started at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB): Inside Out.  At that time, I noted that the same team had a new musical premiering at the Group Rep in late May/June: Love Again. I made a note to get tickets when they came across one of the discount sites (I did win a gift certificate to Group Rep in a silent auction; I’m using that for their next show, Lombardi). Well, it is now the end of May, so guess where I was this afternoon :-).

I titled this writeup “The Art of Love“, which is the name of a new song that Neil Diamond sang last night. It is also a good summation of this show, which consists of three one-act stories about love. They all make a point about love and the decisions we make, and that we might come back to revisit. I think the stories will resonate with different people differently, but they were all reasonably enjoyable.

As usual, let’s look at this production through the three different lenses: story, performance, and technical.  Love Again features a book by Doug Haverty (FB), Music by Adryan Russ (FB), and lyrics by both Doug Haverty (FB) and Adryan Russ (FB). The three stories are connected solely by a theme of love — there are no common characters or other story elements. Connection was provided solely by elements of the opening song that resurfaced at the act interstitials.

The first story, “In a Different Light” (which, admittedly, was harder for me to follow as I was drowsy from migraine meds) dealt with two couples in Paris: Maxwell and Jane, out to have a second honeymoon, and Craig and Bonnie, out there for a business presentation with Craig’s boss, Fiona. When Craig bumps into Jane and rekindles a college relationship, the question arises of what will happen. I found the story itself reasonably interesting and particularly enjoyed one of the actresses; however, I found the ending a bit abrupt. I was in the last song, got a pinch drowsy, and — boom — it was over. I initially thought I actually drowsed out, but I didn’t. It actually had an abrupt ending that didn’t resolve the story. I think if anything in the writing needs improvement, it is the ending of this first act; hopefully, this can be resolved and clarified a little in the next production.

The second story, “Two Lives”, dealt with two best friends (Fanny and Loretta) who have an auto accident. The scene takes place in their hospital room, where both are brain dead and on live support. Doctors are encouraging the relatives to “pull the plug”, but they are reluctant. They each bring scents that their loved one would remember: Hal brings a sachet for his mom, Fanny; Gary brings roses for his wife, Loretta. This awakens the women, but not in a way that registers on the brain wave monitor — for they can only smell and hear. Fanny is able to encourage her son to start a relationship with the nurse, LeWanda. The question raised here is what one does for a loved one in this situation.

The last story, “Forget Me Not”, is perhaps the most fleshed out; it is certainly the best story. A family (Steward and Penny, and son Derrick) is dealing with two aging parents (Harold and Kathryn) with significant memory loss. The situation is getting more than the family can handle, until the son comes up with a novel solution: Perhaps if they have forgotten the present, they can forget the fact that they divorced and live together again. As someone who is dealing with an elder in a similar situation, this vingnette touched a nerve. The portrayal of the elders was realistic, and the use of mirror younger versions of the characters was very touching and moving. Kudos to the director, Kay Cole, for the emotion brought out here.

Through all three stories, there were a number of songs by Haverty and Russ. These expressed the emotions of the characters well and were lovely and melodic. Unfortunately, they all came across (at least in my memory) as somewhat similar. A bit more variety and energy are needed to make the music more memorable and distinct. Music direction was provided by Richard Berent (FB), assisted by Paul Cady/FB. The show featured an onstage piano (behind scenery) combined with recorded tracks.

Turning to the performances: the group of eleven actors swapped in and out between the acts and interstitials. Let’s start with the women.  Amy Gillette (FB) (Bonnie, Katie) not only gave very touching performances in the first and third stories, she had an absolutely wonderful and spot-on voice. Also notable was Kathleen Chen (FB) as LeWanda in the second story — again, a very nice performance and a lovely voice. Also particularly strong was Debi Tinsley (FB) as Loretta — again, a touching performance and great vocals. Michele Bernath (FB) was great as Fanny in the second story and Kathryn in the third story; I saw her in Awake and Sing, she was great there as well. Lastly, I particularly liked Janet Wood as Jane in the first story and Penny in the last story. In smaller roles were Renee Gorsey (FB) as Fiona, a suitably annoying boss in the first story; and Lauren Peterson as Dr. Hiller in the second story.

On the male side, I was particularly impressed by Paul Cady/FB as Craig in the first story and Steward in the third story — nice performance and nice vocals. Lloyd Pedersen, as Maxwell in the first story, Gary in the second story, and Harold in the third story, gave a gentle and touching performance. As Hal in the second story and the young Harry in the third story, Andrew Curtis Stark/FB had a nice voice with a moving performance. Lastly, as Derrick in the third story, Elijah Tomlinson (FB) added something extra to his role through very expressive facial expressions.

It is perhaps in the technical that this production fell down. Chris Winfield‘s Set Design (under the inspiration of the director) was a sponge-painted amalgam that covered every wall, floor, and 98% of the other surfaces of the tables and chairs and blocks. From the talk-back, we learned the intent was to focus on the actors, but it just didn’t work. The bright colors just served to distract, and the set would have been much better as a simpler black and white box, if there was no desire for realism. The lighting by J. Kent Inasy worked well to establish mood. While we’re on Mr. Inasy, I must note that his IMDB bio shows he worked on Herman’s Head; I’m sorry, Pixar’s Inside Out, but you’re just a pretender to the original version of the story, Herman’s Head.  The sound design by Steve Shaw worked well — particularly the sound effects in the second story. Lastly, the costumes by Angela M. Eads worked well to establish the characters. No credit was provided for stage manager.

Love Again continues at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB) through June 28, 2015. Tickets are available by calling 818-763-5990 or visiting the online ticket site. Discount tickets are available through Goldstar and LA Stage Tix. This is a pleasant and enjoyable show; it is particularly worth seeing if the stories appeal to you or you are a fan of the Russ/Haverty team.

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: 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 brings “Green Grow The Lilacs” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB).  July 25th brings “Lombardi” at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB), with the annual Operaworks show the next day. August starts with “As You Like It” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB), and is followed by 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.

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Marital Discord in the Back Woods

Don't Hug Me, We're Married (The Group Rep)userpic=theatre_ticketsBack in August, when I was planning my theatre for October (you can stop laughing now), I noticed a period where my wife would be out of town and I had no theatre booked. “Aha!,” said I, “This is a perfect time to book something my wife might not like.” It turns out I was wrong. Yes, I booked a silly show in a series I had long heard about but never attended. However, it turns out that my wife would completely enjoy it. Luckily, it runs until mid-November, so perhaps she can squeeze it in. By now, you’re probably curious about the show’s identity. Last night I went to the Group Rep (FB) in North Hollywood to see the fifth show in Phil and Paul Olson’s long running “Don’t Hug Me” (FB) series: “Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married“, featuring Book and Lyrics by Phil Olson (FB), and Music and Orchestrations by Paul Olson (FB).

Ads for the show describe it as follows:

“Set in a north woods bar in Bunyan Bay MN, plans are on tap for a double wedding. But before the nuptuals transpire, we’ll have to deal with a surprise visitor, two un-Hallmark proposals, an over-zealous wedding planner, a stag and stagette party, uber-mosquitoes, a quirky male stripper, an unhappy bridesmaid, a gigantic hangover, a sexy cheerleader, a rapping minister, and the dreaded wedding dress. One small hitch before the hitchings, they can’t find anyone who will pay for the wedding. What could possibly go wrong?”

What this doesn’t say is that all of the above takes place with a cast of 5.

When the show ended, I kept hearing the same word from others in the audience: “cute”. Indeed, about 10 minutes into the show, that was my one word summary: “cute”. This show is not high art — I don’t think it was intended to be high art (in fact, Phil seems to imply that was the intent in this interview). The songs and dances related to the plot, but they weren’t memorable and at times seemed to stick out (although they were well performed). The plot itself was very humorous, although it wasn’t a joke-a-minute-fest, and some of the recurring gags recurred a little too much. But that’s what this show was: cute humor for small casts; not high art but definitely entertaining. Art snobs wouldn’t like it, but audiences would enjoy it. It wasn’t “donuts for dinner” (as defined in “[title of show]“), but it wasn’t a gourmet meal either. It was Applebees, ummm no, it was Cracker Barrel. A filling meal, a tasty meal, a meal you enjoy when you eat it even if the surrounding are a bit corny…. but a meal that you didn’t choose because of the nutrition.

But on the way home a realization hit me: Although the presentation was a little corny, the underlying subject wasn’t — in fact, the underlying subject was something I had just been thinking about. Let me explain. My favorite little theatre, Repertory East (FB), loves to do a lot of fundraisers where you dress up: tux, tails — in fact, next week they are doing a full costume event (FB). I never go to these. I rarely get dressed up (the last time I wore a tux was my wedding); I never go out dancing. I don’t bring my wife flowers or do the spontaneous romance. In other words: I’m just like Gunner in this show. I’m not a romantic. On the other hand, my wife is like Clara. She’d love the romantic gesture (once she picked herself off the floor). She’s probably silently disappointed in my lack of romance. Yet we both love each other dearly — just like Gunner and Clara do in this show. On the other hand, there are couples just like Bernice and Aarvid in this show: couples deeply in love, who will make any gesture to show it. They wear their love on the outside; they have the courage to express it and it just shines away.

Although this show has a cotton-candy exterior, at its heart it is appealing simply because people see themselves in it. They see themselves so much they just start cheering for the characters. You want these characters to end up happy. It is this tender and sentimental heart that makes this show work. So what if an intuitive karaoke machine provides silly music with a look and a nod. So what if you suspend your disbelief when the dances come out and the singing starts. That’s the nature of this beast, don’tcha know.

The basic plot of the show is this: On the one side, you have Clara and Gunner: married for 20 years with the typical long-married blues. They are having a contest on who can be the better spouse. On the other side is Bernice, who has just decided to marry Aarvid. This upsets Kanute, who wants to marry Bernice. Thrown into the mix is Trigger (who is played by the same actor who plays Gunner, but in female clothing, explaining why the two are never seen in the same place at the same time and a number of other wink wink nudge nudge jokes — a running joke), who wants to marry Kanute. A double wedding is arranged, with predictible sitcom results and outcomes. This basic story, as I’ve noted before, is cute and sitcomish, but it is fun to watch.

The songs and accompanying dances range from silly to, ummm, sillier. None of the songs stick with you afterwards, although a number are very cute (there’s that word again): in particular “The Day That Bob Dylan Was Here”, “It’s All Comin’ Together” (notable for the clever passage of time), and the “Bunyan Bay High School Fight Song”. There was one number that truly made me suspend disbelief titled “We Are Gathered Here Today”, but I won’t spoil the twist.

One last note on the show itself: I fear that this series may depend too much on people knowing the recurring jokes and motifs from the previous episodes. In fact, if you read the synopsis of the past shows on the series website, you’ll see that all of the plays involve the same five characters in different situtations. That’s great if you’re a fan of the series; it makes it harder to get into if you’re thrown  into the latest incarnation without knowing the backstories and relationships that underlie some of the humor. Essentially, this is a musical sitcom on stage: the first show or two introduced you to the characters in depth, but the rest build upon your prior knowledge of these characters and their quirks. If you come into the show in the middle, it takes a while to warm up, and sometimes you wonder why people are laughing. Multi-part stories rarely work in the theatre; when they do, they are designed to also work as standalone pieces (Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach trilogy is an example of that, as are August Wilson’s works). Pure sequels (cough, Annie 2, cough, Bring Back Birdie) often don’t work as well, but usually that is because they try to repeat the same jokes and structure as the original. Having not seen the earlier incarnations, I can’t assess how much of that is the case for this play (but it surely seems to be based on the other play’s synopses).

The performances were very good. I was particularly smitten by both female leads: Truett Jean Butler (FB) as Bernice and Rebekah Dunn† (FB) as Clara. Butler just had some quality that drew me to her — I don’t know if it was her face, her expressions, her emotions — but my eye was just drawn to her character. Similarly, Dunn had that weary long married look of exasperation I know so well :-); and she had a completely different look in the second act when she let her hair down that gave the real demonstration of how love endures in a long term marriage. As my wife says, “Divorce never, murder frequently”. Both had good singing voices but came across a tad week — I think that was more the nature of the songs and the orchestrations than anything else. It would be interesting to see them in a caberet performance.
(†: In previous shows, this actor appears to have been credited as Rebekah Brown Czarnecki)

The male performers were equally strong — in particular Don Schlossman (FB) in his dual roles as Gunner and Trigger (which must be exhausting). Bert Emmett (FB) was good in his comic relief role as Kanute. Lastly, Troy Whitaker (FB) gave off a lovely boyish naive charm as Aarvid. Again all sang well but not strong due to the nature of the songs.

The direction, by Doug Engalla (FB) assisted by Natalia Santamaria (FB), worked reasonably well to make the characters as believable as possible given the story and the setup. The dance, under the choreography of Stan Mazin (FB), seemed simple. On the one hand, these are supposed to be patrons and owners of a backwoods bar in Minnesota — you’re not going to be seeing anything fancy there (unless it is with a moose). On the other hand, however, the simplicity of the dance and the nature of the movement made the songs stand out that much more: they became more like novelty numbers than seemlessly integrated. I can’t help but wonder if a different approach to the movement might have made the songs fit in a little better. Perhaps not. It could just be that is the nature of this particular beast. They do grow them strange in the back woods.

Turning to the technical side: The set design by Chris Winfield (FB) evoked the backwoods bar well; evidently, there were hidden homages to the past instances of the series. In any case, it was a well done set. This combined with costumes by Jocelyn Finn that again evoked backwoods Minnesota well, including some cute costumes for Trigger and Bernice. Steve Shaw (FB)’s sound design provided appropriate sound effects, although the music itself was a bit electronic. The lighting design by J. Kent Inasy was simple and mostly, umm, white; no particular instance of using light to create or enhance mood stands out to me.  The show was produced by Laura Coker (FB).

There’s one other technical credit I want to call out: Nora Feldman, who did public relations. Nora didn’t get me to this show; in fact, by the time she sent me the press release I already had tickets for the show (for some reason, I’m on a number of lists for theatre press release). Nora did, however, respond to me when I asked if she could coordinate a ticket donation for the upcoming MoTAS Charity Golf Tournament, and that enabled me to meet Bert Emmett, the President of the Group Rep Board of Directors. I had a delightful conversation with Bert after the show about theatre and such. So I thank Nora and Bert: both for making the donation (for which MoTAS thanks you), and for taking the time to talk to me (which I appreciate).

Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married” continues at  the Group Rep (FB) until November 15. Tickets are available through  the Group Rep (FB) box office, and discount tickets may be available on Goldstar or LA Stage Tix. The remainder of  the Group Rep (FB) season looks interesting: the farce “Don’t Dress for Dinner” (December 12, 2014-January 25, 2015); “Tiger by the Tail” (March 6-April 9, 2015), “Love Again” (a set of three mini-musicals) (May 15-June 28, 2014), and “Lombardi” (July 24-September 6, 2015). I particularly want to see that last show, “Lombardi“.

[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 Theatre and Concerts:  October currently has two shows remaining: “Pippin” at the Pantages (FB) on 10/25, and the Los Angeles Symphonic Winds (FB) at Calabasas High School on 10/26 (follows by the MoTAS Golf Tournament the next day at the Calabasas Country Club). November is back to busy, with “Big Fish” at Musical Theatre West (FB) on Sat 11/1, “Handle with Care” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on Sun 11/9 (shifting to avoid ACSAC and opening night), a trip out to Orange Empire Railway Museum to see my buddy Thomas on 11/11,  “Sherlock Holmes and the Suicide Club” at REP East (FB) on Sat 11/15, the Nottingham Festival on Sun 11/16, and “Kinky Boots” at the Pantages (FB) on Sat 11/29. I may also see some theatre when I visit my daughter Erin in Berkeley between 11/20 and 11/26. Right now, I’m looking at The Immigrant at Tabard Theatre (FB) in San Jose, “Harvey” at Palo Alto Players (FB) in Palo Alto, or “Rhinocerous” at the UC Berkeley Theatre Department (FB). As for December, right now I’m just holding one date: “She Loves Me” at Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim on 12/20. Right now, there is only one show booked for January 2015 – “An Evening with Groucho” at AJU with Frank Ferrente. 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.

 

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A Mother’s Influence

Mom's Gift (Group Rep Theatre)userpic=theatre2Dealing with family isn’t easy in the best of circumstances. It is even harder in trying circumstances — such as when you have issues with family members and are forced to be with them. But, boy, does it make for a good play. That’s the underlying notion behind “Mom’s Gift“, the touching family comedy that we saw last night at the The Group Rep (FB) at the Lonny Chapman Theatre.

Mom’s Gift“, written by Phil Olson (FB) of the “Don’t Hug Me…” musicals fame, tells the story of the Swensen family about 7 months after the death of the mother of the family, Peg. Peg died of head injuries sustained in an auto accident due to a drunk driver: she recovered for a while and had home health care, but then had a subdural hematoma, when into a coma, became brain dead, and the father turned off the machine. The story centers on Kat Swensen, the 30-ish older daughter, who comes back home for her father’s birthday party as part of court-ordered anger management therapy. Kat is angry at her father for never being there for her, and her anger increases when she sees her father has removed all pictures of her mother from the house. Kat arrives home, and in short order is greeted by… her dead mother’s ghost. Her mother has to complete some sort of mission — which she doesn’t know — in order to get into heaven (or whatever Lutherans believe — this is Minnesota, after all). None of this makes sense to Kat, who is a civil engineer who designs water treatment plants for people in impoverished countries.

In short order, we meet the other members of the family — Kat’s 15-year younger sister, Brittney, who is a Hooters Girl (for good reason) and still living at home, and Kat’s father, a retired physician, who is ready to move on with his life. We also meet Trish, the women who took care of Kat’s mom at the end of her life, and who recently reconnected with Kat’s father (and who Kat’s father has been seeing on a regular basis). We also meet Kevin, the “boy next door”, who is seeming interested in Kat. Kat’s mom decides throughout all this that she has multiple possible missions, and that Kat needs to help her with all of them: reconciling Kat with her father, getting Kat together with Kevin, breaking up Kat’s dad and Trish, and breaking up Brittney with her ex-con janitor boyfriend, Manson. The problem? Kat seemingly has no interest in forming any relationships; she’s pissed at her dad for seemingly abandoning her mother, and abandoning her quickly for her caregiver; and she just doesn’t understand or relate to her younger sister, who she views as stupid. Kat has no interest in furthering any of her mother’s missions. The first act of the play basically sets up all these situations in a very funny fashion; the second act brings them to a head and then resolves them, but with numerous plot twists that I shan’t divulge.

I found this play to be wonderful. There were numerous laugh-out-loud moments, and I related to both the issues of the engineer and the relationship problems with mothers. It didn’t seem to fall into stereotypical Lutheran mother situations, or become sitcom-ish. Even better, however, were the twists in the second act. I was set up by the writer to see different twists, so the twists that arrived were a true surprise and worked quite well. The ultimate resolution of the story was quite touching, and even brought a little dampness to the eyes. In short, I was very impressed by the writing that brought this together — it demonstrated (yet again) that a well-written story is the heart of great theatre.

Supporting this story was the excellent acting team, under the direction of Sherry Netherland (FB). As usual, I have difficulty seeing the invisible hand of the director (e.g., separating where the actor starts and the direction begins). Still, I believe the directoral hand here is what made this family come across as a real family — you could see these people growing up and working together — there was a genuine affection that just came across through little movements and such. This family and their interactions were well a well-oiled (and well-performed) machine.

The acting team was also great — I particularly noted the little things across all the actors. Facial gestures. Little movements. Actions and reactions. These players seemed to enjoy and inhabit these characters, and really brought them to life. This ensemble behavior deserves acknowledgement above and beyond my comments about the individual members of the team.

As for the actors themselves: In the lead positions were Gina Yates (FB) as Kat and Julia Silverman (FB) as Mom. Yates’ Kat struck the right nerve between emotional angry wreck and the calculating engineer who doesn’t want to deal with these messy personal problems and would rather run away to work. Both she and Silverman’s Mom were just delights to watch — playing off of each other, having wonderful facial reactions, communicating through movement and attitude as well as the written script. Most importantly, they were believable as a mother-daughter pair through their interplay.

In the primary supporting roles were Trisha Hershberger (FB) as Brittney and Patrick Skelton as Dad. Hershberger’s Brittney did a wonderful job of portraying a young woman whose talents were not in her head but in other parts; this made the act two revelations even better. Excellent, excellent performance. Skelton’s father had a wonderful warmth to him that was immediately likable — so much so that you believed you had seen him before even though you probably hadn’t. But Skelton also had the ability to give hints of the underlying pain beneath that façade. Well-played.

In the secondary supporting roles were Lisa McGee-Mann (FB) as Trish and Cyrus Alexander as Kevin. McGee-Mann’s Trish was purely likable, yet gave the impression she was hiding something through the little things she did and her little evasions. The actress was great at perpetuating the misdirections. Alexander’s Kevin was also wonderfully likable with great reactions — you could see the chemistry between Alexander and the other cast mates. Again, wonderful to watch. Rounding out the cast in a vocal-only performance was Laura Coker (FB) as Mrs. Norquist. Other cast members, who were not on stage at this performance, were Saratoga Ballantine (FB) (Understudy-Mom); Paul Cady (FB) (Understudy-Kevin); Joy Darash (FB) (Understudy-Brittney); Pascale Gigon (FB) (Understudy-Trish); Jennifer Ross (FB) (Understudy-Kat); and Chris Winfield (FB) (Alternate-Dad).

Turning to the technical side: The set for the production, designed by Chris Winfield (FB), was a simple but effective house setting (in fact, it was reworked from the previous production, Awake and Sing, through reconstruction of the side-rooms into a porch). The sound design by Steve Shaw/FB, who was also the assistant director, was effective and unnoticable. The lighting design by Sabrina Beattie was effective and natural, directing attention where it was needed and establishing the mood well. The costumes were by Lynda Pyka (FB), and appeared to fit the characters well (although Kat’s dress appeared to be an uncomfortable look for her, but I think that was the intention). Brit Chichester (FB) was the stage manager and technical director. “Mom’s Gift” was produced by Laura Coker (FB).

Mom’s Gift” was supposed to close with this afternoon’s performance, but it has been extended until February 2. If you can get tickets, it is well worth seeing.  Tickets are available through The Group Rep, and discount tickets may be available through Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, or Plays411. Following “Mom’s Gift” at The Group Rep (FB) will be “Boeing Boeing” (February 28-April 12), which is a very funny French sex farce (we saw it at REP East (FB)); that will be followed by “The Ghost of Gershwin” (April 25-June 8). “Mom’s Gift” was the second show we’ve seen at The Group Rep (FB), and we’re very impressed with the company. They remind us a lot of our favorite small theatre, REP East (FB) in Newhall; if we weren’t already at our subscription max we would consider subscribing based on what we’ve seen. As it is, we’ll keep an eye on this company and come back whenever we can.

[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 Theatre and Concerts:  Next weekend, January 25, brings the first show of the REP East (FB) 10th season: “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change“ (which we last saw at REP in 2006). February 1 brings  “Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike” at the Mark Taper Forum. February 8 will bring “Forever Plaid” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). The following weekend brings Lysistrata Jones at The Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim on February 16. The next weekend, February 22, is currently open — I’m trying to decide between “Discord: The Gospel According to Jefferson, Dickens, and Tolstoy” (LA Stage Tix) at the No Ho Arts Center; “On The Money” at the Victory Theatre Center (FB); “Above the Fold” at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB); “My Name is Asher Lev” at the Fountain Theatre (FB) (as this runs through April 19, this might be good for mid-March or April), “Inherit the Wind” at the Grove Theatre Center (FB) in Burbank (this might be good for March 16); or something else that hasn’t caught my attention yet. I may wait to see what else shows up on Goldstar. The last day of February sees us in Studio City at Two Roads Theatre for Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing“, followed the next evening by the MRJ Regional Man of the Year dinner at Temple Beth Hillel. March theatre starts with “Sex and Education” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on March 8. The weekend of March 15 is open, but will likely be taken up with Purim Schpiels (although I might do theatre on Sunday, March 16). March 22 is being held for “Harmony” at The Ahmanson Theatre (FB). March concludes with “Biloxi Blues” at REP East (FB) on March 29. April will start with “In The Heights” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on April 5, and should also bring “Tallest Tree” at the Mark Taper Forum, as well as the Southern California Renaissance Faire. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.

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Finding Hope in the Depression

Awake and Sing (Group Rep)userpic=dramamasksI had set aside this weekend for Carrie – The Musical. Alas, Transfer Theatre Group, the folks putting on the revival, moved it to 2014. Further, my wife was out of town at a quilt show. This left me alone on a weekend with no scheduled theatre — a situation that could not remain. I looked on Goldstar to see what looked interesting, and found four shows: an all-female version of “Hamlet” at the Odyssey, the classic “Waiting for Godot” at the Stella Adler, the depression-era drama Awake and Sing” at the Group Rep, and a new drama Strange Disappearance of Bees” at the Raven Playhouse. I asked on Facebook, and received recommendations only for Godot and Awake and Sing. As Godot is around regularly, I decided on Awake and Sing at The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (FB) in North Hollywood.

Awake and Sing” was written by Clifford Odets in 1932, and first produced professionally in 1935. It is generally regarded as his masterpiece, although he had his hand in a number of other stories for the screen and stage. It tells the story of the multigenerational Berger family in the Bronx during the depression: grandfather Jacob, mother and father Bessie and Myron, and children Ralph and Hennie. The times are hard, and the family is scraping by on the combined incomes of Bessie, Myron, and Ralph. The play primarily tells the story of Ralph and Hennie (at least these are the characters that achieve transformations over the course of the story), although the central character and driving force is Bessie, the mother.

Bessie is the embodiment of a child of immigrants and a child of the American dream: she demands that her children marry well and better than her, and by well, she means “to someone with means”. Love has no place in the equation. When Hennie discovers she is pregnant from a one-night stand with an unknown man, Bessie “arranges” a marriage with a recent immigrant who has a steady job and prospects, Sam Feinschreiber. Never mind that Hennie doesn’t love him or want him. This marriage particularly annoys the family friend, Moe Axelrod. Axelrod has prospects, drive, and style, but was injured in WWI (losing his leg) and his money comes from his veteran’s pension. He loves Hennie, but she wants nothing to do with him due to his injury. Ralph is also being directed in life by Bessie — he works part-time for his uncle, Morty, in the rag trade. He has a girl, Blanche, who is an orphan and has no income, and the family (read Bessie) wants him to have nothing to do with her — he should find someone who has income and a family that can support them. Observing all of these proceedings is Jacob, the grandfather. Jacob, like Odets at the time, is very left leaning and is constantly citing pro-union and Marxist philosphy. His passion is Caruso. He is constantly pushing Ralph to be a success and make something of his life while he’s young  — something he was never able to to do; he interacts less with Hennie. In fact, he has taken out  a life insurance policy naming Ralph as his beneficiary — $3,000 — that Bessie does not know about.

The play takes place in three acts. In the first act, we meet the family and the main characters, and learn of both Hennie and Ralph’s situations. We can see how they are chafing under Bessie’s role in the family, but they are powerless to override her. In the second act the problems of their situations become more acute. We see how Hennie is stuck in a marriage she doesn’t want — she’s married to a man who loves her, but whom she detests. As for Ralph, he’s in love with a girl that Bessie is pushing away, and stuck in a life that is focused on scraping the family by, not improving his lot. As the second act ends, Jacob rails against this situation and its futility, and Bessie reacts by yelling at him, belittling him, and destroying his beloved records. Jacob takes the family dog for a walk on the roof, and a little while later, is reported to have slipped and fallen off the roof and died. The final act deals with the aftermath of this death. Morty and Bessie have “arranged” for the insurance man to come over to pay them the money, but Ralph believes it was a suicide. Moe informs Ralph that the policy was in Ralph’s name, and claims to have a note showing it was suicide (which stops Morty and Bessie from going after the insurance man). Moe — and the memory of Jacob’s ranting — convince both Ralph and Hennie to “awake and sing”. Hennie decides to leave her husband and run off with Moe (the man she really loved), and Ralph decides that he is going to make of his life what he wants it to be, and that he will find success on his own terms.

The performances in this production were very strong — owing both to the skills of the actors and the strength of the directoral hand of Larry Eisenberg (FB) [assisted by Lloyd Pedersen]. As I’ve written before, I have a hard time telling where the actor stops and the director begins (or is it vice-verse?). That was certainly true here — the little nuances of the performances and way the characters behave make this family come alive and you really can’t see the directoral effect. This a good thing and makes the performances appear realistic [the same thing is true for film, by the way… if you find yourself watching the direction and cinematography, someone did something wrong].

Speaking of the performances… and the performers themselves. As Bessie Berger, Michele Bernath (FB) is a little dynamo driving the show. I’ve known women like the character she portrayed (my mother was one), pulling the strings for her family so they succeed, and attacking those who get in her way. Bernath portrayed this well, and exuded power and control. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t like her character (hitting too close to home), and that shows the excellence of her performance. Her husband, Myron Berger, was played by Patrick Burke/FB. Burke captured the milquetoast nature of Myron well — someone who has been bullied by his spouse but still strives to see the good in everything and everyone.

I was more taken by the actors playing the children: Christine Joëlle (FB) as Hennie Berger and Troy Whitaker (FB) as Ralph Berger. Joëlle’s take on Hennie was great: reserved, strong, and portraying an attitude that she just didn’t want to be in that house, but also didn’t want to be stuck in a marriage on anyone’s terms other than her own. Alas, the unexpected pregnancy allowed Bessie to bully her into marriage, and she just wanted out. She conveyed this in a wonderful and compelling way and was just fund to watch. Whitaker’s Ralph was also very strong — especially when you consider that he’s just a senior at CSUN — capturing the anger and potential of youth very well. You believed that he was in love; you believed that he wanted more from life; you believed that he cared about these people.

Also in strong main positions were Stan Mazin (FB) as Jacob Berger and Daniel Kaemon as Moe Axelrod. Mazin’s Berger could have used perhaps a little more accent to show his background, but portrayed the passion of his character for his ideals well (and also the defeat of the character for his failures in life). Mazin portrayed Jacob in a way that you could see he desperately wanted his grandchildren to have the success that he never had — but on their terms — and that he wasn’t too happy with how his children Bessie and Morty turned out. Kaemon’s Axelrod was perfect — he had a strong façade of confidence and bravado, but you could see that underneath he was just smitten with Hennie. He captured the pain of the bad leg well and grabbed your focus through his performance.

Rounding out the cast were Robert Gallo (FB) as Uncle Morty, Marcos Cohen (FB) as Sam Feinschreiber, Edgar Mastin as Schlosser, and Amanda as Tootsie.  Gallo’s Morty was strong and captured the man focused on his business and money well, although there were a few line problems. Cohen captured the immigrant well, and did a great job of portraying the pain of his relationship with Hennie. Mastin’s character, Schlosser, was the building concierge and only had a small role. Even smaller was the role of Amanda as Tootsie, the dog, although she had the best biography of all in the program. I’m glad she got past her problems with alcohol dependence and Kibbles ‘n’ Bits abuse.

Turning to the technical. Chris Winfield (FB)’s set design captured the depression era well — the single main room, the few rooms on the side, with enough attention to detail that what one saw through the doors was part of the set as well. This was supported by the excellent props of Kellie B. Malone/FB, assisted by Xander Bennett. I particularly noted the attention to detail on the props, making sure that the papers and other artifacts appeared to be from the correct era. The sound design was by Steve Shaw/FB, and was very effective. I particularly noted the quality of the sound effects as well as their directionality — they sounded like where they should be spatially. That’s a nice attention to detail. The lighting was designed by Kim Smith (FB) and did a great job of establishing mood without being noticeable. Jazmin Lopez/FB was the stage manager and light board operator, and Zachary Norman McKnight/FB operated the sound board. Brian Danner (FB) was listed as the fight choreographer, although I didn’t particularly notice any swords on stage :-). Awake and Sing was produced by Drina Durazo (FB) for The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (FB).

Awake and Sing” continues at The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (FB) through November 3, 2013, and is well worth watching. Tickets are available through OvationTix, and discount tickets may be available on Goldstar. It is currently in repertory with “Stories About Old Days” by Bill Harris, which runs through October 27, 2013. The next production at The Group Rep is the world premier of “Mom’s Gift“, running December 6, 2013 through January 19, 2014.

One other word on The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (FB). Looking at their season brochure and looking at the quality of the set and production, this seems to be another theatre like REP East (FB). This means that this is a theatre we’ll definately watch — although our subscription book is currently full, it looks like a theatre that could be fun to subscribe to. Those in the NoHo area should definitely look into this company — they are priced well and appear to do a great job.

[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 Theatre and Concerts:  October ends with the Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) production of “Kiss Me Kate” (October 26). November starts with “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” at Actors Rep of Simi (FB). That will be followed by a visit with Thomas the Tank Engine when we volunteer at OERM over Veterans Day.  The third week will be theatre-ish, as we attend ARTS’s Nottingham Village (FB) (a one-weekend ren-faire-ish market — tickets are now on sale), as well as seeing the Trollplayers (FB) production of Steven Schwartz’s Children of Eden” (which runs November 8-17) [Trollplayers is the community theatre group at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Northridge]. That weekend will also bring a release party for a Kickstarted-CD by Big Daddy. The weekend before Thanksgiving is also very busy with three shows: Tom Paxton (FB) in concert at McCabes Santa Monica (FB) on Friday; “Play It Again Sam” at REP East (FB) on Saturday, and the rescheduled “Miracle on S. Division Street” at the Colony Theatre (FB) on Sunday. Thanksgiving weekend is currently open, as is much of December (December is due to the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC) in New Orleans, which has me out of two the first two weekends in December… but has me wondering about New Orleans theatre), but should bring “The Little Mermaid” at Nobel Middle School, and “Peter and the Starcatcher” at The Ahmanson Theatre. Looking into January…. nothing is currently scheduled, but it will likely bring “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change“, which is the first show of the REP East (FB) season, running 1/17 through 2/15/2014. Of course, we look forward to seeing you at ACSAC for the wonderful training opportunities there. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.

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