🎭 Perfect Union, Imperfect Men | “1776” @ The Saroya

1776 (The Saroya/VPAC)There are those that would have you believe that the founders of our nation were perfect and infallible, working with a God-given drive to create America. Those folks would make you believe that their decisions were right then, and are right for now.  Those folks … would be wrong.

We have (well, most of us have) celebrated the rise of a new musical over the last few years that tells the story of the founding of America. A musical that has been playing to sold out houses, returning to cities over the country again and again (it will be returning to Los Angeles in March 2020). This musical, while framing the story in the modern immigrant narrative, shows the ugly personal and political battles that the founders engaged in. There was petty jealousy, there were strong disputes about how the county should move forward and establish itself. It wasn’t pretty, and the founders were far from perfect men. Even those protesting the history contain in the show aren’t trying to show the perfect of the men in the story, but to show them as even less perfect than the musical holds them out to be.

But this show wasn’t the first to put the creation of the nation on the musical stage. Fifty years ago — back in 1969 — another musical premiered that told the story of the creation of America — a musical that shared Broadway with the rock musical of its day, Hair — and bested it at the Tony Awards. That musical was 1776, with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, and book by Peter Stone, based on an original concept by Sherman Edwards.

1776 shares a moment in time with that other musical, Hamilton. focusing on a two to three month period in 1776. It shares only two characters with Hamilton: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. But it makes the same point: this is a nation that is built on compromise with those you disagree with. It makes the same point: our nation was founded by imperfect, but passionate men. 1776 portrays our founders not as paragons of virtue, but as flawed men: gluttons, drunkards, womanizers, and much more. It shows how they were flying by the seats of their pants, and taking immense risks to create this nation.  It shows that many of the political battles of today existed at this nation’s founding: battles over taxes, battles over the treatment of minorities, the battles of Conservatives vs LIberals. When John Dickenson sings that people will follow the Conservatives because most people would rather protect the possibility of being rich than face the reality of being poor, that is something that one could sell in the poorest “red” precincts of this country. When Jefferson and Adams stand up for the rights of the Negro, this is a battle that is still being fought. And when Jefferson is forced to admit that he is a practitioner of that filthy practice of slavery, he is admitting complicity in the immoral practices of his time, just as the leadership of Virginia has been caught up today. It demonstrates that America was, and still is, a nation that is built upon imperfection and compromise.

So I think we have established that 1776 is an important musical to be seen — in the abstract. So why this production, and why now? First, because to see live theatre at the Saroya (nee VPAC) (FB) demonstrates that the San Fernando Valley wants first class musical theatre in the heart of the valley. Second, because in the political times we are facing today, it is important to remind ourselves of the need to compromise with those with whom we disagree, in furtherance of a larger and more important goal. Third, because the production team behind this production, McCoy – Rigby (FB), has a proven track record of doing strong theatre both at the southern edge of Los Angeles County, and now here in the valley. Lastly, because this production itself is very strong (I had only a few minor quibbles). Alas, however, the Saroya only bring in these shows for one weekend. We need to encourage them to do more theatre — both bringing in productions, as well as presenting on the Saroya stage, for the Saroya audience, more of the excellent work done by the Theatre department on campus.

This is not to say that 1776 doesn’t have its flaws. The roles for women in the production are both few and miniscule. They interact with the men more as wives; one is on for essentially two scenes and one song, and then disappears. Even some of the men have tiny roles: one song and gone. The production — mirroring those times — is excessively single hued, and does not hold up to broader casting well. There are extremely long stretches of dialogue with no music; at times this is more of a play with music than a musical. There is no latitude for creative staging: the show builds up to a single tableau at the end, and must do so for the story to work.  Lastly, as Wikipedia summarizes, there are numerous historical flaws and inaccuracies in the story. In the last case, yet again, this is just like that modern musical, Hamilton, which also adapts history for dramatic purpose.

But even in acknowledging the flaws in the work, the show is an important one to be seen for its message. Although this production has come to a close, if 1776 shows up again near you, go see it.

Luckily, the production team of Glenn Casale (FB) [Direction and Staging] and Jeff Rizzo (FB) [Musical Direction], were up to the task. They essentially used two scenic areas: the meeting room of the Continental Congress, and a space in front of a shuttered wall for all the other scenes. Within these limitations, they helped the story to unfold, with the help of the acting team.

In the lead performance position was Andy Umberger as John Adams (Mass.). Umberger captured the fire and the passion of the character well, and had a strong singing voice demonstrated in so many numbers. Working with Umberger was Peter Van Norden (FB) as Benjamin Franklin (Penn.). Van Norden’s was the one performance that didn’t set me on fire. It wasn’t bad, but he just didn’t seem to fit the character for some reason, which made the performance a little bit off. But that’s just my opinion. Rounding out the main trio was Caleb Shaw (FB)’s Thomas Jefferson (Virginia). He gave a strong and spirited performance, although his wig needed a touch more red in it to fit with the comment made by Adams about his being red-headed.

This brings us to the rest of the Continental Congress — or at least the subset thereof who are portrayed on stage. All get their moments; some even get songs :-).  The rest of the Congress consisted of:  Nick Santa Maria (FB) [John Hancock (Mass.)]; Jason Chacon (FB) [Dr. Josiah Bartlett (NH)]; Gordon Goodman (FB) [Stephen Hopkins (RI)]; Michael Dotson (FB) [Roger Sherman (Conn.)]; Jotapé Lockwood (FB) [Lewis Morris (NY)]; Victor E. Chan (FB) [Robert Livingston (NY)]; Mitchell McCollum (FB) [Rev. John Witherspoon (NJ)]; Michael Stone Forrest [John Dickinson (Penn.)]; Ted Barton (FB) [James Wilson (Penn.)]; Gary Lee Reed (FB) [Caesar Rodney (Del.)]; Matthew Kimbrough (FB) [Col. Thomas McKean (Del.)]; Brad Rupp (FB) [George Read (Del.)]; Peter Allen Vogt (FB) [Samuel Chase (Maryland)]; Michael Starr (FB) [Richard Henry Lee (Virginia)]; Joey Ruggiero (FB) [Joseph Hewes (N. Carolina)]; James Barbour (FB) [Edward Rutledge (S. Carolina)]; and Jordan Schneider (FB) [Dr. Lyman Hall (Georgia)]. Of these folks, most notable were Starr’s performance as Lee in “The Lees of Old Virginia”; Forrest’s strong performance as Dickinson in “Cool, Cool Considerate Men”, and Barbour’s Rutledge in “Molasses to Rum”. Non-musically, I liked Kimbrough’s McKean and Chan’s Livingston.

Supporting the Congress were Jordan Goodsell (FB) [Congressional Secretary, Charles Thomson]; Michael Rothhaar (FB) [Congressional Custodian, Andrew McNair]; Rodrigo Varandas (FB) [A Leather Apron /A Painter]; and Nick McKenna (FB) [A Courier]. Rothhaar was fund to watch throughout, but the standout performance was McKenna in “Mamma, Look Sharp”.

This brings us to the two women in the cast, who are relegated to ancillary characters: Teri Bibb (FB) as Abigail Adams and Ellie Wyman (FB) as Martha Jefferson. Wyman gave a standout performance both in voice and dance and playfulness during her one scene and one song (“He Played the Violin”). We see more of Bibb, but her character is more restrained. She does have a lovely singing voice.

Music was provided by 9-piece orchestra, conducted by Music Director Jeff Rizzo (FB). The Orchestra consisted of: Kathleen Robertson (FB[Concertmaster / Violin, and who coincidentally also played Violin for Hamilton when it was at the Pantages ];  Rachel Coosaia (FB) [Cello]; John Sawoski (FB) [Keyboard]; Jay Mason (FB) [Woodwinds]Adam Bhatia (FB) [Trumpet]; Dave Ryan [Trombone / Bass Trombone]; Mark Converse (FB) [Percussion]; and Tim Christensen [Bass / Contractor].

Turning to the production and creative team: I’ve already mentioned Stephen Gifford (FB)’s Scenic Design and how that worked well. It was supported by the Properties Design of Kevin Williams (FB). I should note that I missed the nice “rip” of the dates; but I understand the need for removable dates. The Costume Design of Shon Leblanc (FB) mostly worked well; however, the red heels on the black shoes of John Dickinson were a distraction. Other than that, both the costumes and the hair / wig / makeup design of Eb Bohks (FB) seemed reasonable period and were effective in conveying the characters. Again, this is an area where there is limited creativity, as the end result has to fit Trumbull’s tableau painting of the signing. The sound design of Philip G. Allen (FB) and Leon Rothenberg (FB) mostly worked well, although there were a few annoying sound drops that I’ll attribute to mistuning on the move from La Mirada to VPAC / Saroya. Jared A. Sayeg (FB)’s lighting conveyed place and mood well. Rounding out the production credits: Julia Flores (FB) [Casting Director]; Justen Asher (FB) [Technical Director]; Patti McCoy Jacob (FB) [General Manager]; Ana Lara (FB) , Lindsay Brooks (FB), and David Nestor (FB) [Production Management]John W. Calder III (FB) [Production Stage Manager]; Heidi Westrom (FB) [Asst. Stage Manager]; and David Elzer (FB) / Demand PR (FB) [Publicity]1776 was produced by McCoy Rigby Entertainment (FB), originally for The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) .

1776 has closed at The Saroya, but a subsequent production from the same production team, Singing in the Rain, will be at The Saroya over the weekend of April 12. Tickets for Singing in the Rain are available through The Saroya online, and may be available on Goldstar.


Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music 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 (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 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and the Ahmanson 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:

The day we saw 1776 was theatrical whiplash, as we ran out of the production to head over to Hollywood for Anna Karenina at Actors Co-op (FB).  Presidents Day weekend brings  The Joy Wheel at Ruskin Group Theatre (FB) in Santa Monica.  The last weekend of February is our annual trek to the Anaheim Hills for Lizzie at the Chance Theatre (FB).

March starts with Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), followed by the annual MRJ Regional Man of the Year dinner at Temple Beth Hillel. The next weekend brings “Disney’s Silly Symphony” at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). The third weekend of March brings Cats at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The following weekend is Matilda at  5 Star Theatricals (FB). March concludes with us back at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Lastly, looking into April: The month starts with Steel Magnolias at Actors Co-op (FB) and the MoTAS Men’s Seder. The next weekend has a hold for OERM.  April will also bring Fiddler on the Roof at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and the annual visit to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, 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.



Helllllo Nurse! | “Animaniacs Live” @ La Mirada

Animaniacs Life (La Mirada)One of my fondest memories of my college days was an event the UCLA Computer Club organized (I have no idea how) when we brought Bill Scott and June Foray in to speak about Bullwinkle. So almost a year ago, when we saw that the La Mirada Performing Arts Center (FB) was bringing in Animaniacs Live, we were sold (and a good thing, because the show did sell out). Last night was the show, and we had a blast.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Animaniacs was part of the resurgence of Warner Brothers animation on TV in the early 1990s, much of it the brainchild of Tom Ruegger (FB). This resurgence started with Tiny Toon Adventures, and continued with the spinoff Pinky and the Brain (a personal favorite) and Freakazoid!.

The new stage show, Animaniacs Live, consists primarily of Randy Rogel (FB) and Rob Paulson (FB) telling stories about the making of the show, and singing songs from the show, backed by a large orchestra (in the show we saw, the La Mirada Symphony Orchestra (FB)).  Rogel was one of the main composers (music, lyrics) of songs on the show; Paulson voice Yakko, Dr. ScratchandSniff, and numerous other characters. Depending on availability, they bring in other principals and voice talent from the show. In the La Mirada shows, this included Jess Harnell (FB) who voiced Wakko, and Tress MacNeille who voiced Dot¹. Also featured were Steve Bernstein (FB) and Julie Bernstein, who were involved in the original scoring of the show and some of the music numbers (Steve conducted the orchestra for a few songs, and Julie provided some background vocals), as well as someone whose name I don’t remember in the orchestra. Additionally, it turned out the both creator Tom Ruegger (FB) and director Andrea Romano were in the audience for our performance.

[¹: When Rogel introduced MacNeille, he said she was the most prolific female voice actor and was behind the most characters. I do beg to differ on that one: I think June Foray was, but I’ll give MacNeille second 🙂 ]

The show consisted of two acts, followed by a question and answer session. During the two acts, Rogel and Paulson sang songs from the show (occasionally along to animated clips), with Harnell and MacNeille occasionally joining them. These four exhibited very different personalities. Rogel and Paulson were as reasonable and normal as anyone associated with animation would be 🙂 — in other words, normal suits, normal personalities, great stories, wonderful rapport with both the audience and each other. This likely befits their nature as actors first. Harnell had an outsized adult personality like a rock musican, coming out in a different glitter suit each time. MacNeille seemed a lot more shy on stage — seeming to prefer her characters more than letting the real Tress out.

I did not keep a full set list, but here’s what I recall. This is certainly not in order:

  • Yakko’s World
  • Yakko’s Universe
  • Wakko’s America
  • I’m Mad
  • The Planets
  • I’m Cute
  • La Dot
  • L.A. Dot
  • History of War
  • A Quake! A Quake!
  • There’s Only One Of You
  • Hello Nurse!
  • Variety Speak
  • Noel
  • Pepper in the Pot (History of the Spice Trade)
  • All the Plays of Shakespeare
  • Animaniacs

One last thing that cracked me up: During the Q&A, Paulson was asked about his favorite thing from the show, and he related Pinky’s non-sequitur reponses. He then asked the questioner to ask him what his was pondering. His response: “If Susan B. Anthony and Ann B. Davis, then who Bea Arthur?”

Still cracks me up.

All in all, a wonderful show. If you get a chance to catch it in your city, do so.

 🎩 🎩 🎩

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music 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 currently subscribe at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), the  Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (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: Next weekend brings Sister Act at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). The last weekend of April brings the Renaissance Pleasure Faire on Saturday, and the new musical The Theory of Relativity at Harter Hall/Charles Stuart Howard Playhouse (FB) on Sunday. Lastly, looking to May, the schedule shows that it starts with My Bodyguard at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) the first weekend. It continues with Martha Graham Dance and American Music at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). The third weekend brings the last show of the Actors Co-op (FB) season, Lucky Stiff, at Actors Co-op (FB). May concludes with Hello Again at the Chromolume Theatre (FB), and hopefully Five Guys Named Moe at Ebony Repertory Theatre (FB).  As for June? Three words: Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB). That, barring something spectacular cropping up, should be the first half of 2017.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, 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.


God Bless the Outcast | Hunchback of Notre Dame @ La Mirada

Hunchback of Notre Dame (La Mirada)userpic=theatre_ticketsWhen you attend theatre, there are shows that transcend the good or the great to become exceptional — shows that have elements that leave you astonished at the quality of the theatre arts — that are the perfect melding of acting and creativity and words and music and that special sauce that become indelible in your memory. Last night’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame at the The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB), based on the Victor Hugo novel and the songs from the Disney Film, was one of those shows. This is a show you must see in this incarnation, for I have no idea if it will be done in this particular way again.

Coming into the show, the first thing I would say is: drop your expectations. This is not exactly the Victor Hugo novel. It is definitely not the Disney film, although it retains the songs by Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken. It retains some notions of the Disney adapation, although all cutesy humor has been dropped, along with the happy ending (it roughly retains the ending of the original). It is not the 1999 German musical version with a book by James Lapine — there are significant changes in the story there. It is based on the 2014 production at the La Jolla playhouse and the 2015 Paper Mill Playhouse version of the show (with a revised book by Peter Parnell) but even then there are some changes from that version. The seeds of this particular production were sown at the Sacramento Music Circus earlier in August 2016, and many of the cast members from that production are in this production.

Given the complexity of the story, I’m going to refer you to the Wikipedia entry on the Paper Mill Production for the detailed synopsis. The story focuses on the Frollo brothers, Claude and Jehan, and their legacy. Given salvation in the Cathedral of Notre Dame as infants, they are raised in the church. Jehen  rebels and marries a Gypsy woman; Claude continues in the church and rises to Archdeacon, ever resenting the Gypsys for stealing his brother from him. On his deathbed, Jehan summons Claude and presents him with Jehan’s son, a deformed infant. Claude raises the boy, whom he has named Quasimodo, in the church, keeping him away from everyone in the bell tower (where he goes deaf from ringing bells). Quasimodo’s only friends are the stone gargoyles, who come to life and speak to him in his imagination. Once a year, the Gypsies are allowed to dance in the street; Quasimodo goes out that day and is crowned King of the Gypsies, and then taunted for his looks. The palace guards stop the taunting, and a gypsy woman, Esmerelda, comforts Quasimodo. She visits the church to see him, where Claude develops a lustful attraction for her. So does the captain of the guards. You can see the tragedy set in motion from that point, so I’ll leave it there. Suffice it to say that this doesn’t end well for everyone in the end (do Hugo’s novels ever do?).

What makes this production extra special is a conceit from director Glenn Casale (FB). Noting that the description of the story indicates that Quasimodo has gone deaf from ringing the bellw, he cast a deaf actor (John McGinty (FB)) as Quasimodo. Taking a que from the Deaf West Theatre Company (FB), he cast a different actor, Dino Nicandros (FB), as Quasimodo’s singing voice. He then incorporated ASL (American Sign Language) into the production: the gargoyles sign to Quasimodo as they sing with him; and McGinty signs as Nicandros sings. Note that I said that Nicandros is Quasimodo’s singing voice. When Quasimodo speaks to anyone else, it is McGinty (who is clearly deaf from his voice) speaking. This includes dialogue with both Frodo and Esmerelda. Essentially, the songs are a manifestation of Quasimodo’s thoughts, where in his head he can speak and be normal. The addition of the ASL brings that extra oomph, that extra poetry to the production, that extra magic. I truly hope that the Ovation voters see this show — McGinty is clearly deserving for this remarkable performance (and the emotion that Nicandros brings to the singing is truly special).

Also notable is McGinty’s transition. When the adult Quasimodo is introduced in the story, McGinty walks onstage as the handsome, non-deformed young man that he is. His singing voice hands him his outfit, and has he puts it on he transforms his hair, face, and posture to become the deformed Quasimodo. At the end of the show, the opposite transition occurs: McGinty removes his coat, straightens up, and becomes the handsome young man again. This reinforces the central question of this show: What makes a man a monster? Is it their looks, or their behavior? Who is the monster in the Hunchback of Notre Dame? [I’ll note that this is a very similar question to the one raised in Schwartz’s hit musical Wicked — are people born wicked, or do they become that way? Apply that same question here: Whoever you conclude was the monster — were they born that way, or did they become that way?]

But there are other performances that are spot on as well; this is not just a one-hunchback show. Particularly notable is the performance of Mark Jacoby as Dom Claude Frollo. The intensity that this man brings to this role is remarkable, especially in songs such as “Hellfire”. The character itself brought to me echos of Donald Trump in his reactions to immigrants, his anger, and his desire to keep the world safe and simple as he knows it. That echo is not intentional in the story, of course, but does make this story truly relevant to this year when we consider what makes a candidate human or a monster — the question of compassion vs. anger. But I disgress into the political; however, that’s what a great performance and great theatre can do. It can start you thinking, and finding the relevance of the classic stories to life today. By creating that echo in his performance, Jacoby adds to the exceptionalism of this production. He does what great acting does: transforms the act of an actor playing a character to an actor inhabiting and channeling the character, bringing a creation on the page to life on the stage. The leads here do that: McGinty/Nicandros and Jacoby certainly do.

The catalyst in this story, Esmerelda, is portrayed by Cassie Simone (FB). Unlike the other gypsies in the show who tend to be painted with a broad brush, Simone’s Esmerelda is deeper. Of course, she exhibits sexuality but not by the mere exposure of skin (in fact, the costuming of this production tends to keep the female gypsies relatively covered up). Her sexuality comes across in style, in movement, in dance, in attitude and in looks. In particular, what I think makes Simone’s Esmerelda particular attractive is she is not like the other gypsy woman: she has a mind of her own and an attitude of her own and she won’t let anyone tell her or force her to do something that she doesn’t want to do. That’s particularly sexy in a woman, although many woman fail to realize that. Simone has figured a way to bring that to her part through performance, again transcending the words on the page to inhabit a character on the stage. Remarkable singing, remarkable dancing, remarkable performance.

One other named performance is particularly worthy of note: Eric Kunze (FB) as Capt. Phoebus De Martin — the other man who is interested in Esmerelda, the man who is more interested in pleasure than policing, the man who gives up position to protect Esmerelda. Kunze gave a very handsome performance — by that I mean he upheld the tradition of some of his past roles, being the man who does the right thing and wins the girl (although that doesn’t quite happen here — remember, I said this was darker than the Disney musical). Kunze had a great singing voice and brought a good presence to the role.

The remaining named non-ensemble role was Keith A. Bearden (FB) as Clopin Trouillefou, the leader of the gypsies. He brought an interesting evil intensity to the role; there was something deeper in that role that was hinted at but not explored in the story. The other performance roles involved the ensemble, either in smaller named roles or as members of the congregation, as various gypsies, as the gargoyles and statues that talk to Quasimodo, and as townspeople, guards, and such. The talented ensemblists [named roles and positions noted] were Darian Archie (FB); Brandon Burks (FB); Doug Carfrae (FB) [Father Dupin (he is also Western Regional VP of Actors Equity], Cherrie Badajos Cruz (FB); Emily Dauwalder (FB); Rachel Farr (FB); Lance Galgon (FB) [King Louis XI]; Hannah Madeline Goodman (FB); Devon Hadsell (FB) [Florika, Dance Captain]; William Martinez (FB) [Lieutenant Frederic Charlus, ASL Captain]; Kevin McMahon (FB) [Saint Aphrodisus]; Shanon Mari Mills (FB) [Madame]; Dino Nicandros (FB) [Voice of Quasimodo]; Shannon Stoeke (FB) [Jehan Frollo, Fight Captain]; Stephanie Thiessen (FB); and Paul Zelhart/FB.  I was particularly happy to see Devon Hadsell (FB) again — we still remember her performance in Lysistrata Jones; Shanon Mari Mills (FB), who we saw at Cabrillo; Rachel Farr (FB), who we saw in Carrie; and Shannon Stoeke (FB), who we saw at the Pasadena Playhouse.

This production was unusual in that it featured an on-stage non-acting choir — almost a church choir — that amplified the songs both in intensity and sound. The choir was under the management of Sean Gabel (FB), and consisted of Christopher M. Allport (FB), Stephen Amundson/FB, Brandon Banda/FB, Amy Lynne Bandy/FB, Emma Bradley/FB, Jennifer Cannon/FB, Emily Columbier/FB, Eric M. Davis/FB, Kimberly Fedderoff/FB, Nicolette Gamboa (FB), Kevin Gasio (FB), Kelsey Hamann/FB, Wendy Hinkle/FB, Grant Hodges/FB, Claire Marshall, Joey Nestra (FB), Madison Osment, Jessica Ordaz/FB, Laura Peake/FB, Stephanie Phillips/FB, Levi Ray Roldan/FB, Nathan Shube, Mikayla Thrasher, Elder Timbol/FB, Katie Toussaint/FB, Mitchell Turner/FB, Alejandro Andes Very, Ruthanne Walker/FB, Jennifer Wilcove (FB), Brandon Wilks/FB, and Rebecca Wilks/FB.

The 14 piece orchestra, under the direction of Dennis Castellano (FB) [Music Director and Conductor], contracted by Tim Christensen, provided a great sound with a depth that could literally be felt in the mid-balcony. The orchestra consisted of Robert Peterson [Violin 1, Concertmaster], Gerry Hilera (FB) [Violin 2], Sorah Myang [Viola], Mia Barcia-Colombo (FB) [Cello], Jeff Dirskill (FB) [Flute / Piccolo / Clarinet / Baritone Sax], Phil Feather (FB) [Oboe / English Horn / Clarinet / Alto Sax], Bob Carr [Bassoon / Clarinet / Bass Clarinet / Baritone Sax], Michael Stever (FB) [Trumpet / Piccolo Trumpet], Adam Bhatia (FB) [Trumpet / Flugelhorn], Charlie Morillas (FB) [Trombone / Bass Trombone / Euphonium], Stephanie O’Keefe (FB) [French Horn], Brian P. Kennedy [Keyboard 1 / Rehearsal Pianist], Peter Herz [Keyboard 2], and Mark Converse [Percussion].

The movement and choreography was under the control of Dana Solimando (FB) [whose domain listed in the program is empty]. Movement consisted of a vast variety, from gypsy dance to what is best referred to as liturgical movement. All was enjoyable to watch.

Turning to the remaining technical and creative credits. The scenic design by Stephen Gifford (FB) was…. towering. The stage consisted of a two level structure. The lower level served a number of purposes, both low (town square, church floor) and high (bell tower). The upper level housed the choir on each side, and provided an upper portion to the bell tower and an observation point for various characters. There were large bells that were lowered, and a grate that was likely wooden, but lowered with wonderful sound effects to create the illusion of metal (credit to Josh Bessom (FB)’s sound design in this area). There was also creative use of illusion, such as fabric to simulate molten lead, or non-fire fire effects such as torches, a pyre, and candles. The scenic design was supported by the lighting design of Jared A. Sayeg (FB), whose work we have seen before. I particularly noted the use of red mood establishing lighting not only during the fire scenes, but in songs such as “Hellfire”. The sound design of Bessom has been mentioned before; it is worth adding that the sound was relatively clear up in the balcony, although there were a few microphone crackles that could be addressed. The costumes by Marcy Froehlich (FB) were effective in creating the character; particularly good was the simply costume used to transform Quasimode from man to monster. Wigs and Hair and Makeup were by Katie McCoy/FB, and effectively created the characters from the distance of the balcony. Rounding out the credits: Julia Flores (FB) – Casting Director; John W. Calder III (FB) – Production Stage Manager; Jess Manning/FB – Assistant Stage Manager; David Elzer (FB) – Publicity. BT McNicholl (FB) – Producing Artistic Director; McCoy Rigby Entertainment (FB) – Executive Producers.

Before I close this off, I’d like to note that we met a delightful group of students from nearby Biola University, who were there as part of a theatre appreciation assignment. I applaud them for attending live performance — regular attendance at live performance is enhancing and uplifting for the soul in a way a movie just isn’t.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame continues at the The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) through October 9th, and you should make every attempt you can to see it. This show will move you. Tickets are available through the La Mirada online box office, or by calling the La Mirada Box Office at 562-944-9801 or 714-994-6310, between 11am – 5:30pm Mon-Fri  and  12 noon – 4pm on Sat. Discount tickets may be available through the LA Stage Alliance or Goldstar (although right now, Goldstar looks sold out).

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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 currently subscribe at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), the  Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and a mini-subscription at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). We’re thinking of adding yet one more subscription: the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district. Their 2017 season looks great: Zanna Don’t (Tim Acito, January 13 – February 5), Hello Again (Michael John LaChiusa, May 5- May 28), and Pacific Overtures (Stephen Sondheim, September 15 – October 8) — all for only $60). Past subscriptions have included  The Colony Theatre (FB) (which went dormant in 2016), and Repertory East Playhouse (“REP”) (FB) in Newhall (which entered radio silence in 2016). 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 first weekend of October (actually Sept. 30) brings Dear World at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) and Our Town at Actors Co-op (FB), as well as the start of the High Holy Days. The second weekend has another Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) event: this time for Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. The third weekend has yet another VPAC event: An Evening with Kelli O’Hara on Friday, as well as tickets for Evita at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on Saturday. The following weekend brings Turn of the Screw at Actors Co-op (FB) on October 22 and the new Tumbleweed Festival (FB) on October 23. The last weekend of October brings Linden Waddell’s Hello Again, The Songs of Allen Sherman at Temple Ahavat Shalom (a joint fundraiser for MoTAS and Sisterhood).

Allan Sherman Tribute Show at TASInterrupting this recap for a word from a sponsor: Linden Waddell’s Hello Again, The Songs of Allen Sherman at Temple Ahavat Shalom is open to the community, and is a joint fundraiser for MoTAS and Sisterhood. Please tell your friends about it. I’m Past President of MoTAS, and I really want this to be a success. Click on the flyer to the right for more information. It should be a really funny night.

Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, October is also the North Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), although I doubt if we’ll have time for any shows. November will bring Hedwig and the Angry Inch at  the Hollywood Pantages (FB); a Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (FB) [excuse me, “Southern California Railway Museum”]; the Nottingham Festival (FB); and possibly Little Women at the Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim. We still have some open weekends in there I may book. We close out the year, in December, with the CSUN Jazz Band at the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC), Amalie at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), The King and I at the Hollywood Pantages (FB); an unspecified movie on Christmas day; and a return to our New Years Eve Gaming Party.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Although we can’t make it, I also recommend the 10th Anniversary Production of The Brain from Planet X at LACC. See here for the Indiegogo. Lastly, 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.


Gonna Build a Building 🎭 “Empire” @ LaMirada

Empire the Musical (LaMirada)userpic=theatre_musicalsThere’s a problem with certain titles and shows. For example, consider Titanic — either the movie or the musical. You know what is going to happen: the ship is going to sink. You center the show around the subject of the title, and there won’t be any story of interest. Fate is preordained. But find an interesting story related to that subject, and things might survive. Titanic the movie wasn’t the story of the ship — it was the story of Jack and Rose. Titanic the Musical wasn’t the story of the ship — it was the story of the class system, the people on board, and the battles over the construction of the ship.

Last night, we saw Empire – The Musical at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB). Guess what. They build the building and it is taller than the Chrysler Building (which, in actuality, was only the world’s tallest building for 11 months)

Given that we know that the building will be built, where’s the story in Empire? It’s a good question … and it must be answered quickly, because the audience will be wondering. After all, there hasn’t been a successful musical about a skyscraper in New York before. If you think about it, there are only two possibilities: the battle over the construction of the building, and stories about people related to the building. The former has the problem of foreknowledge: you know that whatever the story is, the building will be built.

This is the problem that Caroline Sherman and Robert Hull faced. They had to find a story that worked, and build a musical around that. Before I go into what they did and how it worked (or didn’t), here’s the BLUF: the execution was spectacular and the resultant building was beautiful, but the internal structure is not as strong as it could be, and it is unclearer whether the building, as currently constructed, will survive the journey to the other coast.

The story that Sherman and Hull opted to tell is primarily about the clash and romance between the lead architect, and the “Can Do” gal of Al Smith, ex-Governor of New York, who he has on the project to ensure it gets done right. There are secondary stories about the construction workers on the building, who are putting their lives on the line to build the building. I’m hesitant to go into too many details on the latter, as I don’t want to spoil the few reveals in the story.

Either of the two could work for the story — the audience just needs to have their expectations managed. This is where the problems of this show lie. The first act of the show focuses too much on the known result: Will the building get built? Who will build it? It doesn’t rapidly set up and get us into the story it wants to tell: the love story of the architect and the “Can Do” gal, or the story of the workers and their sacrifices. The focus is on the building of the building, not getting to know these characters and their inner desires. Musicals excel when they tell the story of people, and use their music to highlight the inner story and conflict within — the songs in our hearts, so to speak. Musicals fail when they focus on the scaffolding — the songs of the place and the surroundings.

The first act exemplifies these failures: we never get to know our lead characters as people. Who is Michael Shaw, the architect, other than some young kid who wants to build the building? Who is Frankie Peterson, other than a “Can Do” gal who can pull a solution out of anything? Who is Ethan O’Dowd, other than a possible new father, working on the building? We never find these things out (or, to the extent we do, they are told to us very briefly). Instead, we learn about the desire and conflicts to build the building, the stereotypical cat-calls of the crew, and the importance of “moxie”. My belief — and I’m clearly an observer in the cheap seats — is that for this musical to succeed, the first act needs to be trimmed and focused more on the inner desires of the people, and less on the place.  The musical may be called Empire , but it’s focus cannot be on the physical structure being built — it needs to be on what else is being built and destroyed around that building.

In other words, at least with respect to the first act, this show doesn’t clearly set out the vision of what it wants to be, and what story it clearly wants to tell. The audience, by intermission, is wondering why they are seeing this. They aren’t fully invested in the people they need to care about — they are distracted by the building.

Luckily, the second act of the story redeems the effort, primarily because it focuses on precisely that which the first act forgot: the people. We get to know the leads beyond their stereotypes, and appreciate their connection. We get to know more stories about the workers. The ultimate end of the story is good, but the path there was problematic.

The other problem on the path — and one that might doom this show — is reflected in real life. The Empire State Building was once the tallest building in NYC. It isn’t now; it has been eclipsed by newer and flasher buildings the reflect modern sensibilities. The older buildings can be retrofit to add some modernity, but they are still old buildings. Some old buildings are so well constructed that the lack of modernity is not a problem. Others can’t overcome that flaw.

That applies to Empire The Musical as well. In its style, it is clearly a 1960s era musical. Lots of big dance numbers. A love story. But it is also conventional: the musical tends to be the standard musical-theatre style music, often with songs of place, not people. The story is filled with musical theatre conventions, stylistic characters, and tropes. Going in, you know where the story is likely to go. You get there, with perhaps one or two minor surprises on the end. But even those surprises aren’t surprises when you think about normal tricks in musicals. To put this another way: what has turned Broadway around have been the musicals that have challenged the conventional: skewering the style, bringing a new voice, bringing a new musical attitude, bringing voices to the previously voiceless. This musical does none of that. It is squarely conventional — and many squarely conventional musicals, while good, just haven’t become the long-lasting successes on Broadway. Where they have found their redemption — and perhaps their financial success — has been in the subsequent productions. For Empire, the latter would be problematic given the nature of the set and the technical demands.

In short: the structure of the story needs work — especially in Act I; even after those corrections, the style and feeling of the musical may make it only a moderate success. It doesn’t challenge the medium in the way that it should.

Although the story was flawed, I am happy to say that the execution was flawless. The performances were awesome. The technology and stage craft has to be seen to be believed. The costumes were spectacular. The music sounded great. The directorial vision brought this to where it was is remarkable.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the two leads: Kevin Earley (fan site, FB) as Michael Shaw, the architect, and Stephanie Gibson (FB) as the “Can Do” gal, Frankie Peterson. Earley (who must have a hidden picture on his website, because he doesn’t seem to age at all) has a wonderful voice and brings the right level of earnestness and youthful hope and hubris to the character. He also brings something that Kevin (the real person) has in real life: a remarkable charm and style. We’ve gotten to know Kevin through the shows he’s done in LA, and it is always a joy to see him on stage. Gibson is no slouch either: she also brings a wonderful style and attitude to her character, with strong dancing moves and a great voice. She’s just a delight watch on stage, especially in her Act II scenes. Together, the two have a nice chemistry and interaction.

(One additional note of interest regarding Frankie: If you watch closely, her “hideway” is down in the basement of the Waldorf Astoria. The original Waldorf Astoria was the building that was razed to build the ESB.)

Supporting the leads — and being saddled with the problem of having to tell the real story of the building with the grafted-on fictional story — are Tony Sheldon (FB) as John J. Raskob (the financier of the project), and Michael McCormick as Al Smith, the ex-Governor of New York. Although the performances are good, the characters themselves are stereotypes: the finance man, the heavy drinking politicians, the upper-crust.

There are a few other characters that fit somewhere between the main supporting characters and the variety of characters captured by the ensemble members:  Betty Raskob, the daughter of the financier [Charlotte Maltby (FB)]; Ethan O’Dowd, a construction worker, head of the riviting gang, and father to be [Caleb Shaw (FB)]; Abe Klayman, the foreman of construction workers [Joe Hart (FB)]; and Bucky Brandt, another construction worker [Tommy Bracco (FB)]. All of these are characters we get to know — but not too deeply. The only exceptions are Betty Raskob and Ethan O’Dowd. Both end up having some significant plot twists that are integral to the story. Both also carry out those plot twists well, and combine those performances with some wonderful smaller singing spotlights.

Rounding out the cast is the large ensemble (some also listed above), each of whom play multiple roles as dancers, workers, people in New York, reporters, etc. I’m not going to list all of the character names and positions, but let me list the people and the significant characters: Michael Baxter (FB) [Wolodsky, Ensemble, Dance Captain]; Tommy Bracco (FB) [Bucky, Ensemble]; Richard Bulda (FB) [Pomahac – Mohawk, Ensemble); Juan Caballer (FB) [Nikos, Ensemble]; Caitlyn Calfas (FB) [Hattie, Ensemble] ; Fatima El-Bashir (FB) [Florence, Ensemble]; Tory Freeth (FB) [Hazel, Ensemble]; Joe Hart (FB) [Abe Klayman, Ensemble]; Rachel King (FB) [Agnes, Ensemble]; Katharine McDonough (FB) [Emily O’Dowd; Ensemble]; Gabriel Navarro (FB) [Rudy – Mohawk; Ensemble]; Rachel Osting (FB) [Vera, Ensemble]; Jordan Richardson [Bill Johnson]; Caleb Shaw (FB) [Ethan O’Dowd, Ensemble]; Cooper Stanton (FB) [Menzo, Ensemble]; Michael Starr (FB) [Duryeavich, Ensemble]; Christine Tucker (FB) [Lois, Ensemble]; Rodrigo Varandas (FB) [Jesse – Mohawk, Ensemble]; Josh Walden (FB) [Pakulski, Ensemble]; and Justin Michael Wilcox (FB) [De Caprio, Ensemble].  All of the ensemble was a delight to watch during the large dance numbers, exhibiting strong movement. Most importantly, they seemed to be having fun with the show and with their characters. This is important, because the joy of performance becomes energy that is beamed out to the audience and fed back with enthusiasm.

This large cast was under the direction of Marcia Milgrom Dodge (FB), who also served as choreographer. The directorial vision was strong here, especially in how the characters interacted with the set. The choreography was also fun to watch; Dodge was assisted on the choreography side by Michael Baxter (FB). Flying sequence choreography was by Paul Rubin (FB).

Sariva Goetz (FB) served as music director, and conducted the large and talented orchestra. Other orchestra members were: Brent Crayon  (FB) [Associate Conductor, Keyboard I]; Alby Potts (FB) [Keyboard II]; Jeff Driskill (FB) [Flute, Piccolo, Clarinet, Alto Sax]; Dave Hill/FB [Clarinet, Flute, Alto Sax, Soprano Sax]; Phil Feather (FB) [Oboe, English Horn, Clarinet, Tenor Sax]; Bob Carr [Bassoon, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Baritone Sax]; Michael Stever (FB) [Lead Trumpet, Piccolo Trumpet]; Don Clarke/FB [Trumpet, Flugel Horn]; Adam Bhatia (FB) [Trumpet, Flugel Horn]; Charlie Morillas (FB) [Trombone]; Toby Holmes [Bass Trombone, Tuba]; Mark Converse (FB) [Drums, Percussion]; and Tim Christensen [Acoustic / Electric Bass, Contractor]. Score Supervision was by Deborah Hurwitz (FB).  Orchestrations were by Michael Starobin (FB).

On the production and creative side: Much has been written about the scenic design of this show. More than any other show I have seen, this show was dependent on projections. The basic scenic design was a large silver flat with multiple levels and doors that could open, portions of which could slide forward to varying degrees. Projected onto this, from multiple directions so as not to create shadows, were the scenic backdrops and some props. Characters interacted with the scenery as if it was really there. This was a remarkable illusion — I’ve never seen projections used so effectively before. Credit on this goes to David Gallo (FB) [Scenic Designer, Co-Projection Designer] and Brad Peterson (FB) [Co-Projection Designer]. These were supported by the property design of Terry Hanrahan and the technical direction of David Cruise/FB.  I’m not sure this design could have been done even a few years ago — the creative use of computers and projects and graphic design makes this show possible, just as the elevator is what made the Empire State Building possible. The costume design of Leon Wiebers (FB) was also spectacular — especially the costumes for the ladies. Particular striking was the red outfit that Frankie wore in Act II. The costumes worked well with the Hair, Wig, and Makeup design of Rick Geyer. The lighting was by Jared A. Sayeg (FB) and was up to his usual excellent standards — which were made particularly complicated by having to work around the heavy use of projections, which can play havoc on lighting. Philip G. Allen (FB)’s sound design was strong and clear, although there were a few minor mic glitches. Remaining production credits:  David Elzer/Demand PR (FB) [Publicity]; Jill Gold (FB) (FB) [Production Stage Manager]; Nicole Wessel/FB [Assistant Stage Manager]; Lily Twining (FB) [Production Manager]; Buck Mason (FB) [General Manager]; Julia Flores (FB) [Casting Director]. Empire – The Musical was produced by The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) and McCoy Rigby Entertainment (FB), Sue Vaccaro (FB), Ricky Stevens (FB), and The Rivet Gang.

Empire – The Musical continues at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) until February 14, 2016. Tickets are available through the online box office; discount tickets are available on Goldstar.

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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:  The Colony Theatre (FB), Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), and I just added the  Hollywood Pantages (FB). In 2015, my intimate theatre subscription was at REP East (FB), although they are reorganizing and (per the birides) will not start 2016 shows until August. Additionally, the Colony just announced that the remainder of their season has been cancelled, so the status of that subscription is up in the air. 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: February theatre continues this evening with “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 starts with “Man Covets Bird” at the 24th Street Theatre (FB) on March 6 (the day after the MRJ Man of the Year dinner) The second weekend of March is open, thanks to the cancellation of “Another Roll of the Dice” at The Colony Theatre (FB). The third weekend of March takes us back to the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) to see Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina.  The last weekend of March is being held for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) (pending Hottix).  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. It will also bring the Turtle Quintet at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB), “Children of Eden” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) , and our annual visit to the Renaissance Faire (Southern). 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.


It’s All In Your Head

First Date (La Mirada)userpic=theatre_ticketsRecently, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts on theatre. One of these, the excellent Producers Perspective podcast, has been focusing on the musical Spring Awakening, and its transfer back to Broadway. The composer and lyricist both said the same thing about the music and lyrics: their goal was not to move the story forward through the music and lyrics, but to use the music and lyrics to illuminate the inner thoughts and turmoil of the characters — to get inside the head. Such a use of music requires much less suspension of disbelief. This approach to music and lyrics was evident last night in the musical we saw last night at  The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) — “First Date”, with book by Austin Winsberg (FB) and music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner (FB).

I first became aware of the musical First Date when Amazon recommended the cast album. I picked it up shortly after it came out (in February 2014), and found that I liked the music. The story sounded interesting, and so when I learned that La Mirada was doing the first Southern California production of the show, I set the tickler on Goldstar to let me know when tickets were available. We blocked off a date, picked up tickets, and braved the traffic (is the traffic between the San Fernando Valley and La Mirada ever clear on a Saturday afternoon?) . I’m glad we did.

First Date ostensibly tells the story of Aaron and Casey. It is Aaron’s first blind date, and one of far too many for Casey. They meet at some fancy New York bar and restaurant, because (of course) New York has the only interesting dating scene. The one-act, no-intermission show is the story of that date, and most of the songs are visualizations of inner dialogues occurring in the head of either Aaron or Casey. In fact, only about three songs are performed by actual characters in the real world. You can find a fuller synopsis on the Wikipedia page.

The songs themselves are reasonably cute and funny. From listening to the CD, I was aware ahead of time of “The Girl for You”, and I found it equally funny on the stage — although the Jewish stereotypes were a bit too heavy-handed for me (but then again, this is on the border of Orange County, so they might not recognize Jews without the stereotypes, but then again, Temple Beth Ohr is just up the street). All three “Bailout” songs were cute and well executed. I was particularly taken with the song “Forever Online” (which, alas, is not on the original cast album and does not appear to have been recorded separately). This song tells the perils of dating in a world of Google, where everything you’ve ever said or posted online lives forever to embarrass you — it makes a great (and humorous) warning songs. Also cute was the song “In Love With You”, where Aaron confronts some issues from his past (I’d say more, but it would destroy the surprise of that song).

Although the music and story is good, there are a few weaker points. The interlude of the Waiter’s song was (to me) a bit pointless and left you wondering why it was there: it wasn’t from a principal character, and it wasn’t illuminating the background of why the characters were what they were. I would have preferred another song of illumination instead.

But on the whole, the show was funny and well executed. The direction of Nick Degruccio (FB) worked well, making the characters reasonably believable, and handling the various costume and character changes of the ensemble well. The shouldn’t come as a surprise: the presence of Mr. Degruccio as the director of a musical pretty much guarantees you’re going to be seeing something of high quality.

In the lead positions as the couple on the date were Marc Ginsburg (FB) as Aaron, and Erica Lustig (FB)  as Casey. Both were new to us; we haven’t had the opportunity to see them before on Southern California stages (although they’ve done some shows). They both came across as cute, and they had believable chemistry together — a good thing for a first date :-). Both had strong voices and used them well — particularlyMarc in “In Love with You” and Erica in “Safer”.

The remainder of the cast played multiple characters as well as background restaurant patrons. Alas, the song credits only provide the character at the time, whereas the cast credits are the generic ensemble names, so it is difficult to map performers to songs.  Combining information from the Broadway World Photo Coverage and cast allocations from Broadway gives: Justin Michael Wilcox (FB) [Man #1: Gabe/Edgy British Guy/Gilberto]; Leigh Wakeford (FB) [Man #2: Reggie/Aaron’s Future Son/Edgy Rocker Guy]; Scott Dreier (FB) [Man #3: Waiter/Casey’s Father/Blaze/Friendly Therapist]; Stacey Oristano (FB) [Woman #1: Grandma Ida/Lauren/Aaron’s Mother]; Kelley Dorney (FB) [Woman #2: Allison/Google Girl/Reggie’s Mom]. Now that we have the mapping, I can note some particular highlights: Dorney was particularly strong as Allison (especially on the performance and reaction side) and as the Google Girl in “Forever Online”. Wilcox was fun in his characterization of Gabe, the friend of Aaron, particularly in Allison’s Theme and his reactions in “In Love With You”. Wakeford was funny as Reggie in the various Bailout songs and in the final scenes — it was a character my wife particularly enjoyed. Dreier was funny performance-wise as the waiter; although I wasn’t particularly crazy about “I’d Order Love”, he performed it well. Lastly, Oristano had a great characterization as Casey’s sister Lauren.

The choreography by Lee Martino (FB) worked well given the stage and the set; Leigh Wakeford (FB) served as dance captain. The show was under the musical direction of Brent Crayon (FB), and featured orchestrations by August Eriksmoen (FB) and vocal and incidental music arrangements by Dominick Amendum (FB). Brent Crayon (FB) also served as conductor and keyboard 1 for the First Date Band; additional members of the band were: Mike Abraham (FB) [Guitar 1]; John Ballinger (FB) [Guitar 2 / Keyboard 2]; Sean Franz (FB) [Reeds / Keyboard 3]; Jonathan Ahrens [Bass]; and Eric Heinly (FB) [Drums]. In general, the music was played well and sounded great. However, for the first few scenes, the music sounded a bit muffled and overpowered the lyrics. This was corrected as time went on, so it was more of a sound issue.

On the technical side, the scenic design by Stephen Gifford (FB) was a modernist restaurant that was reasonably realistic; a greater sense of the scenes and place came from the properties design of Terry Hanrahan (FB). The costume design of Thomas G. Marquez (FB) worked very well, especially considering the last minute changes that had to occur onstage. The lighting by Steven Young (FB) worked well; in particular I noted the use of the lighting during the “Bad Boys” song. The sound design by Josh Bessom (FB) was initially a little off — the vocals were a bit muffled and the orchestra overpowering, but that was adjusted 2-3 songs in  and was great for the rest of the show. Remaining technical credits: Katie McCoy (FB) [Hair Design]; Julia Flores (FB) [Casting]; Buck Mason (FB) [General Manager]; David Cruise (FB) [Technical Director]; David Elzer/Demand PR (FB) [Publicity]; Amy Ramsdell (FB) [Assistant Stage Manager]; Jill Gold (FB) [Production Stage Manager]. “First Date” was produced by The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) and McCoy Rigby Entertainment (FB).

First Date continues at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) through October 11. Tickets are available through La Mirada; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. It’s a fun show and worth seeing.

P.S. to the person sitting two seats to the left of me: When they say turn off your cell phones, that means “turn it off and put it away”. The light from your phone is not only distracting to the actors, it is distracting to the audience — especially when you periodically hold it up to (I guess) take a picture or record (which I’m sure you’re not doing, as it usually isn’t permitted). I didn’t like having to remind you to put it away.

Dining Notes: Before shows at La Mirada, we like to go to Mario’s Peruvian for dinner. They aren’t that far away (Imperial Highway and Santa Gertrude), their food is great, and they aren’t that expensive. Finish up, a right onto Santa Gertrude, and a right onto Rosecrans, and a left onto La Mirada and you’re done.

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: October was being held for the NoHo Fringe Festival (FB), but they haven’t announced the Fringe shows yet, so I’ve started booking weekends. The first weekend of October brings “The Baker’s Wife” at Actors Co-op (FB) in Hollywood. The second weekend of October brings “The Best of Enemies” at The Colony Theatre (FB). The third weekend of October takes us to Thousand Oaks for “Damn Yankees” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). The fourth weekend of October brings “Uncle Vanya” at Antaeus Theatre Company (FB) in North Hollywood. Halloween weekend sees me at CSUN for Urinetown, and then both of us out in Simi Valley for “The Addams Family” at the Simi Cultural Arts Center (Simi Actors Rep Theatre (FB)). The following weekend sees us back in Simi for the Nottingham Festival (FB) on November 7. We then go out to Perris for “A Day Out with Thomas” at Orange Empire Railway Museum (FB) on November 11 (I can’t skip seeing my buddy Thomas and his friend Percy). The bookings for November conclude with Deathtrap at REP East (FB) on November 14; the rest of the month is currently open. December brings “Humble Boy” at The Colony Theatre (FB) the first weekend, followed by a mid-week stint as a producer, when we present The Nigerian Spam Scam Scam as the dinner entertainment at the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC). December also has dates held for “The Bridges of Madison County” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and “If/Then” at the Pantages (FB). There are also a few other interesting productions I’m keeping my eyes open for. The first is the Fall show at The Blank Theatre (FB), “Something Truly Monstrous”, sounds wonderful — however, it runs through November 8, so squeezing it in would mean a double weekend. The show at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (FB) also sounds like an interesting exploration of clutter —  but “The Object Lesson” only runs through October 4, and I’m not sure we can squeeze it in. 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.


Thoughts on a Theatre Season: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

userpic=theatre_ticketsAnother entry in a continuing series of reviews of season announcements. This time it is the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB), where we recently saw the wonderful remounting of Carrie. It’s a bit of a drive, so a show needs to be special (in some way) for us to slog on down. Here are my thoughts on their upcoming season:

  • Thumbs Up First Date. September 18 – October 11, 2015 (Press Opening September 19). Book by Austin Winsberg. Music and Lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner. Directed by Nick DeGruccio. I picked up the CD for this because it had Krysta Rodriguez and have really enjoyed the music. Plus Nick is directing — always a great sign. I’m going to try to fit this one into the schedule.
  • Thumbs Down Rent. October 23 – November 15, 2015 (Press Opening October 24). Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Directed by Brian Kite. For Rent, there would need to be something truly different about the production — an intimate setting, some special quirk of casting, some new twist. We essentially have the Broadway version captured in the movie.
  • thumbs-side Empire: The Musical. January 22 – Feb 14, 2016 (Press Opening January 23). Book, Music and Lyrics by Caroline Sherman and Robert Hull. Directed and Choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge. Empire is an original musical about those who bravely embodied the American spirit during the dark days of the Great Depression by building what was then the tallest structure in the world, the Empire State Building. The subject doesn’t entice me, and I haven’t heard for the composer/lyricist. That sets up some red flags. I might withhold judgement on this until I learn some more.
  • Thumbs Down Dreamgirls. March 25 – April 17, 2016 (Press Opening March 26). Book and Lyrics by Tom Eyen. Music by Henry Krieger. Directed and Choreographed by Bobby Longbottom. I saw this musical when it was originally out here (and I do mean the original), and the movie is still fresh in my memory. It’s not enough of a unique draw to bring me to La Mirada.
  • Thumbs Down The Little Mermaid. June 3- June 26, 2016 (Press Opening June 4). Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater. Book by Doug Wright. Directed by Glenn Casale. This is about two weeks before it will be at Cabrillo Music Theatre’s (FB) (2015-2016 season), and we’re going to be subscribing to Cabrillo. Pass on another version.
  • Thumbs Down Green Day’s American Idiot. April 29 – May 15, 2016 (Bonus Option).  Music by Green Day. Lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong. Book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer.  Directed by Brian Kite. If I wanted to see this, I’d go to the upcoming DOMA (FB) version, as they do good work and create a great experience without the schlep. [ETA: LaMirada is doing an immersive staging — as they did with Carrie. Should be good, but the show just didn’t grab me the first time I saw it at the Ahmanson. Add to that a drive from Northridge to LaMirada (46 miles, about an hour), and if I wanted to see it again, I’d go to the much closer DOMA production.*]
  • Thumbs Down Leann Rimes. May 21, 2016 – 2pm & 8pm. A country music entertainer. Not the type of show that’s strong enough to attract me to a concert.

About 1 show. That’s usually the correct number with La Mirada — they have one unique show I try to go to each year (alas, I missed their production of Floyd Collins). [ETA: This is not to say La Mirada is bad — they just happened to pick shows that aren’t strong enough to offset a 1hr+ drive.]

[ETA: *: This highlights a problem in Southern California. Due to lack of coordination, we often have multiple theatres doing the same show at nearly the same time, and this just splits the audience. Funny Thing/Forum seems to be hot right now, as is Avenue Q. If you look at LaMirada, Little Mermaid is almost on top of Cabrillo — yes, they are 100 miles apart, but this is SoCal and we have cars. Similarly with AI, you’ve got it right after the DOMA production. It’s not just LaMirada: DOMA just did Jesus Christ Superstar, and REP in Santa Clarita is doing it this summer. We need a SoCal clearinghouse of shows, so everyone can do something unique and draw the audience.]


What Does It Cost To Be Kind?

Carrie The Musical (La Mirada)userpic=theatre_ticketsI was going to title this post “Oh, The Horror”, but the title I chose (from a line in the closing song, “Epilogue”) really fits the point of this show, and its evolution, much much better. Oh, right. Start at the beginning. What do I know about that night at the gymnasium…

Mention the name “Carrie” to a Cybersecurity Specialist, and they probably think of Carrie Gates, a past-conference chair at ACSAC. But mention “Carrie” to most people, and they think of the 1976 Brian DePalma film version of 1974 Stephen King novel, starring Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. Mention “Carrie” to a theatre person, however, and they think of one of the most notorious flops in history: the 1988 Broadway production of “Carrie: The Musical”. There were many reasons it flopped: primarily, the cost; secondarily, the execution was overblown and over-stylized; thirdly, the audience came expecting to be scared, but the horror they got was something else entirely. But the show did receive standing ovations, and certainly stuck in the memory. I think there was an additional reason for the failure: society wasn’t ready for it, just as they weren’t ready for the cynicism of Chicago: The Musical in the mid-1970s, or they wouldn’t have been receptive to many gay-themed musicals in the 1950s.

But it is the 21st century. A major notion in the news is the outsider on campus, the ostracized person for whom a history of bullying and exclusion has led to a horrific revenge. School shootings are in the news. Cyberbullying. We’ve learned to clamp down hard on bullying and bullys and harassment. Look no further than a recent post I shared on Facebook about a boy who snapped a girl’s bra strap, and got called on his sexual harassment. Over 350 shares. This has impacted the story of Carrie White — it is no longer a horror story. Other than the telekenesis, it is far too common of a story. We’ve become inured to the horror of the aftereffects of bullying — and Carrie is viewed in a new light. It is a story about the impact of bullying, and the closing question “I could say, “Thank God that’s not me” / But what does it cost to be kind? obtains a new meaning. What does it cost to be kind? What is the real cost of bullying?

This change of view led to a revival of Carrie. In 2010, the original composers of Carrie Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford (FB) (the folks behind Fame) — and the book author — Lawrence D. Cohen — reworked the story and the songs, and in 2012, a reworked version of Carrie ran for one month off Broadway to much better reviews. This led to the version of Carrie I saw on stage last night (which, I must make clear, was the 2nd preview — official opening is next week). Director Brady Schwind, who had done excellent work at the Neighborhood Playhouse (where we saw great productions of both Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Parade) envisioned an “immersive” production of Carrie. He worked with Transfer and with the La Mirada Theatre. What does “immersive” mean? None of the regular La Mirada seating was used. None. The audience was sat on stage in high school ish bleachers, and those in the lower bleachers had them moved to follow the cast. All action was on stage, which was decked out as the high school gym, with additional space obtained by extending the stage over the first few rows of the normal audience seating. This cut the seating to 230 people, broken down (yes) into Senior, Junior, Sophmore, and Freshman classes (based on seating).

There may be those of you out there unfamiliar with the story of Carrie. Carrie White is a 17 year old high school senior in Maine who has never fit in. Her mom is a fundamentalist Christian, and Carrie and her mother live alone. When Carrie has her first period during the showers in gym, the rest of the girls tease and taunt her. In her angry response, Carrie discovers burgeoning telekenetic powers. As the teasing continues, the powers develop. One girl, Sue, starts to tire of the taunting and starts to make overtures of friendship… but it rebuffed. The gym coach also tries to make up for the incident, and asks all the girls to apologize. The leader of the bullies, Chris, refuses … and is denied the ability to go to prom. She vows revenge. Meanwhile, to make things up to Carrie, Sue asks her boyfriend Tommy to ask Carrie to the prom. He does, and Carrie starts to see herself as normal. She surprises everyone with her beauty at the prom, but Chris gets her revenge by having Carrie and Tommy elected prom queen and king. During the ceremony, she dumps pig blood on Carrie… and the carnage begins. Carrie traps the students, kills them in gory ways, sets the school on fire. She returns home to the comfort of her mother…. who stabs her. In return, Carrie kills her mother. Only Sue is left.

Doesn’t this sound like a Shakespearean tragedy. Is Titus Andronicus any worse? The Shakespearean approach was the approach taken for the original production — and it failed. Turned into a realistic approach (as was done in 2012 and this production) the focus was clearly bullying. You could see the audience during the show seeing themselves in Carrie White, and understanding her desire for revenge on the bullies. We have all felt it. We have all been there. [and we all need to remember that and stop it — Operation Respect is a great place to start]

The changes in society and our willingness to see bullying — and, as the show sings, “And now I know, that once you see you can’t unsee” — combined with the rework on the show have turned Carrie: The Musical around. The story now resonates, and the music that wasn’t accepted in the 1990s works now. You walk out touched by the story and humming the melodies. The story and the music are Broadway-quality; but story requires intimacy to make its impact. A flop no more.

Let’s turn to the immersive staging. Does it work? Again I’ll note that I was at the 2nd preview — there are still kinks that need to be worked out, and they may be corrected before opening. Luckily, I think the kinks are all technical. First and foremost is the sound. The stage is not tuned to provide audience sound; smaller speakers are used that reduce sound quality. Although the leads sounded good (I think this is because their voices overpowered the speakers), the ensemble sounded tinny and limited — I don’t know how to describe it, but it wasn’t full and frequencies were cut off. This could be microphones; it could be speakers; it could be acoustics. It was strongly noticeable for us sophomores in Seating C; it was probably less of a problem for the Seniors and Juniors. I will say that the subwoofers under the seats helped you really feel the music.

A second problem was the seating. The nature of it made loading the stage slow, with lots of narrow pathways and stairs to climb. It was also uncomfortable, with narrow benches and seat cushions. It was worse than the Rose Bowl’s old seats. I’m not sure that they can do much about this. I’ll also note that you don’t receive your program until after the show (so people don’t drop them leading to slips onstage), so you don’t even know running time or songs or actors.

A last problem was with the music — not with the notes themselves or the musicians, but with the quality of the music. The nature of the stage and where the musicians were positioned meant that the speaker problem affected the music as well and gave it (at times) a pre-recorded quality. Adjustment of the speakers and acoustics, if possible, would help. Again — these didn’t make the show bad, but distracted this audience member’s attention from the show itself.

Those are the problems, which are tolerable and correctable. The good was really good — and by this I mean the performances that director Brady Schwind (FB) worked with the actors to create, and the realistic and clever movement driven by choreographer Lee Martino (FB). The creative use of the space, the interaction with the audiences, the complete rethinking of the performance and song and dance and staging was mesmerizing. It didn’t bring the horror to you as the promotions have been claiming, but it did make you part of the story and created the “I was there” feeling.

In the lead positions for this show were Southern California favorite Misty Cotton (FB) as Margaret White and Emily Lopez (FB) as Carrie White. Cotton’s role was smaller, but her intensity made up for it in every scene she was in. Lopez captured the ostracized outsider well, while still capturing that innocence that Carrie requires. She made you feel for her. Both had voices that were capable of making up for the speaker problems — you didn’t realize those problems when these two were singing. And oh, could they sing. They were just beautiful in their songs.  Notable performances were Lopez’s titlular number “Carrie” and her “Why Not Me?”, and her performance with Cotton in “I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance”. Cotton was a powerhouse in “When There’s No One” in the second act. Great, great performances.

Next we turn to Kayla Parker (FB) as Sue and Jon Robert Hall (FB) as Tommy. These were the two characters who tried, perhaps too late, to see the good in Carrie. Both gave touching and believable performances and sang beautifully — again, they had the voices to overcome the problems with the speakers. Especially touching was Parker’s “Once You See” and Halls’ “Dreamer in Disguise”. I’d also include Jenelle Lynn Randall (FB)’s Miss Gardner in this tier — she was great as the gym teaching and very touching in her interactions with Lopez’s Carrie — especially her duet “Unsuspecting Hearts”

Also in this tier was our primary antagonist and her boy-toy: Valerie Rose Curiel (FB) as Chris and Garrett Marshall/FB as Billy.  Curiel was powerful, especially in her number “The World According to Chris” (although she had some microphone problems that will hopefully be corrected). Marshall worked well as Billy, and gave off the correct aura of unthinking bully.

Rounding out the cast in the smaller named roles/ensemble-ish (in that you never really got to know the characters) were Bryan Dobson (FB) (Mr. Stephens/Reverend Bliss), Michael Starr (FB) (George, u/s Tommy), Adante Carter (FB) (Dale), Ian Littleworth (FB) (Freddy), Kimberly Ann Steele (FB) (Helen), Rachel Farr (FB) (Norma), Teya Patt (FB) (Frieda), Carly Bracco (FB) (Tina, u/s Sue and Chris), Lyle Colby Mackston (FB) (Jackie, u/s Billy), Kevin Patrick Doherty (FB) (Brent), Chris Meissner (FB) (Vic), and Amy Segal/FB (Ruth, u/s Carrie). I particularly remember the performance of Patt as she caught my eye with her movement and energy. Farr was also notable as Norma.

Music was under the supervision of Adam Wachter (FB). Brian P. Kennedy (FB) was the music director and conductor, and led the off-stage 7 piece band consisting of Kennedy and Mike Greenwood on Keyboard, Justin Smith and Mike Abraham on various guitars, John Krovoza on cello, Nate Light on various bass, and Eric Heinly on drums and percussion. The music was very good, although the fullness of the orchestra’s sound was hindered by their positioning and the speakers. This may just be an uncorrectable artifact of the staging. As noted earlier, the creative choreography was by Lee Martino (FB), with flying choreographed by Paul Rubin (FB). I’ve previously noted how the movement used the space well and was clever and creative; the flying augmented this well in a number of places, especially the final flying sequences. Carly Bracco (FB) was the dance captain.

Turning to the technical. I’ve previously noted the problems with the sound, which was designed by the omnipresent Cricket S. Myers (FB). Some elements worked well — the subwoofers under the seats, the background sound effects, the surround nature of the sound. Others didn’t, and I couldn’t tell if the problems were something correctable in the transition from preview to opening, or were endemic to the staging. Talking to the sound board operator at intermission, some of the problems may have been microphone related or due to the aiming of the speakers; I’d also believe that other problems are due to speaker size/quality and the poor acoustics onstage (as the space wasn’t designed for audiences). Luckily, the distracting nature of the sound starts to fade into the background as the show goes on.

The lighting and projection design of Brian Gale was very strong, especially considering the nature of the space and some of the uncorrectable distractions (backstage lighting for actor movement; catwalk lights). There was extensive use of movers and what I’m guessing were LED lekos (as they changed colors but looked like lekos). Stephen Gifford (FB) did the scenic design, and it was a very creative use of the space — ranging from the movable bleachers to the extension into the La Mirada audience area for the prom to the use of scaffolding — all worked well Jim Steinmeyer provided the illusion design, which effectively created the belief that Carrie had telekenesis. The costume design of Adriana Lambarri and the hair/wig design of Katie McCoy worked well together to create believable high school students. I should note that this production appeared to update the year to the present; the costumes certainly weren’t 1970s. Property design was by Terry Hanrahan. A few additional technical notes before I move into the remaining credits: The shower scenes were effectively created through the use of what appeared to be misters; note there there is brief nudity on the part of Ms. Lopez that is mostly not visible to much of the audience. Also effective was the blood drop — I was expecting them to do this with lights, so when the theatrical blood came down it was very effective. Note that this is not Evil Dead: The Musical — you don’t need to worry about a spash zone.

Remaining credits: Michael Donovan (Casting Director); Christopher Adams-Cohen (FB) (Assistant Director); O&M Co. and David Elzer/Demand PR (Press); Buck Mason (FB) (General Manager); David Cruise (Technical Director); Jess Manning (Assistant Stage Manager); Heidi Westrom (Production Stage Manager). Most interesting credit: Blood products sponsored and supplied by Alcone CompanyCarrie The Musical was produced by La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB), Bruce Robert Harris and Jack W. Batman, and The Transfer Group, with a whole list of associate producers.

Carrie: The Musical (FB) continues at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) through April 5, 2015. Tickets are available through the Carrie website or by calling the La Mirada box office at (562) 944-9801. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar and LA Stage Tix. Don’t be scared off by the original “horror” nature of the story or the original “flop”. This is well worth seeing.

Pro99 - Vote No NowThe director of this show, Brady Schwind (FB), got his start at the Neighborhood Playhouse in Palos Verdes. The Neighborhood Playhouse was a 99 seat and under venue, and put on remarkably creative stagings — stagings that would not exist without the financial freedom that the 99 seat plan created. This experience permitted Schwind to move up to this larger staging of Carrie using the same team — a larger staging that employed a number of Equity actors and other union actors on full contracts. This is common for 99 seat productions — numerous productions have moved from the intimate to larger theatres and union contracts. 99 seat theatre is vital to the creative community of Los Angeles, and Los Angeles is a unique creative market. Unlike other cities, Los Angeles actors can make their living wage in TV and film, and exercise their creative muscle for spiritual health on the intimate stage. AEA plans to implement a proposal that will eliminate the availability of the 99 seat plan. Details on the proposal, and the almost unified opposition to the proposal from the LA acting community, as well as those who support that community, may be found at ilove99.org (FB). As a regular theatregoer in Los Angeles, I urge AEA actors who can to vote down this proposal. Voting “yes” communicates the message that you like this proposal. Voting “No” indicates that this proposal is not acceptable, and permits AEA to work with The Producers League of Los Angeles – Intimate (FB), the LA Stage Alliance , and other creatives to develop a tiered system acceptable to all stakeholders. Again, I urge AEA actors to vote no.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: Next weekend brings two shows:  “Drowsy Chaperone” at CSUN on Friday March 20, “Doubt” at REP East (FB) on Saturday March 21. March concludes with “Newsies” at the Pantages (FB) on March 28, followed by Pesach and the Renaissance Faire on April 11. The following weekend will see us back at a music store listening to a performance: this time, it is Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes Guitar Shop (FB). After that we’re in Vegas for a week — I haven’t yet determined the shows yet, but Menopause the Musical looks quite likely. We may also work in “After the Revolution” at the Chance Theatre (FB). May begins with “Loopholes: The Musical” at the Hudson Main Stage (FB) on May 2. This is followed by “Words By Ira Gershwin – A Musical Play” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on May 9 (and quite likely a visit to Alice – The Musical at Nobel Middle School).  The weekend of May 16 brings “Beer for Breakfast” at REP East (FB). The weekend of May 23 brings Confirmation services at TAS, a visit to the Hollywood Bowl, and also has a hold for “Love Again“, a new musical by Doug Haverty and Adryan Russ, at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB).  The last weekend of May currently has a hold for “Fancy Nancy” at the Chance Theatre (FB) and “Waterfall“, the new Maltby/Shire musical at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB).  June is equally crazy, as we’ve got the Hollywood Fringe Festival amongst other things (including our annual drum corps show). 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.


The Definition of Insanity

Next to Normal (La Mirada)Some say that the definition of “insanity” is doing the same thing and expecting different results (others say that that the DSM is wrong and we’re only diagnosing based on symptoms, but that’s later in this post). So, then, are theatre goers insane — we often go and see the same show over and over. Are we expecting different results, or are we just expecting to see the same show?  What do we expect to see in the different versions?

I can’t answer for everyone, but for me, I see different productions of the same show to find nuances, to see particular actors, and to see how different venues approach the material (especially different sized venues). I’m bringing this all up because last night I went to see a musical about mental illness; a musical that I last saw only a few years ago at the end of 2010. The musical is “Next to Normal” (music by Tom Kitt; book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey), and I decided to see it again because (a) I like the show, but more importantly (b) our experiences with the director and a number of cast members led me to conclude that this would be an excellent production. I wasn’t wrong — it wasn’t insanity to see “Next to Normal” again; rather, it was an experience that was well worth the drive (it was out in La Mirada, where we last saw Johnny Guitar in 2006) and provided additional insights.

As I’ve seen the show (and written up the show before), I’ll just repeat the synopsis I wrote up the last time. The story didn’t change from then:

Next to Normal” tells the story of a dysfunctional family: the mother (Diana) who is falling deeper and deeper into the depths of her mental illness (bipolar); the father (Dan) who is attempting to hold it all together; the daughter Natalie who has been lost in the shuffle, and the son, Gabriel, who is the lynchpin for Diana’s illness. It is the story about how holding on to something too tightly can be just as damaging as not holding it enough… or at all. It is the story of how treating mental illness is not an exact science; although doctors offer a range of treatments from pharmacology to talk therapy to hypnosis to even stronger therapies, it is just throwing spaghetti on the wall. It is the story of Natalie and Henry, and how being in the middle of dysfunction and mental illness can affect a teen relationship… and how one can use substances to attempt to run away from problems, but it doesn’t help. Ultimately, it is the story of family, and that things don’t always work out how you expect them, but hopefully they work out for the best.

Next to Normal” is such a great musical due to its honest treatment of mental illness. We see there is no cut-and-dried treatment. In “Next to Normal”, the triggering event for Diana is the death of her son at 8 months. She never lets go of the grief; rather, she embraces it and truly keeps her son alive in her mind, to the detriment of everything else. Although initially she could apparently cope (and even had another child shortly after), she began to lose it as her daughter got older. This impacted her daughter, for her mother never drew close to her. Diana’s husband, Dan, reacted in the other direction: he detached from his son, wanting to hide the memories away in a box, and live focused on the present. The latter (as the musical implies) is equally unhealthy, but is more acceptable to society. It also showed the differences in thinking for many men, who make a commitment to be there for the ones we love; good or bad, we hold things together.

(returning to the present) Every time I see this show, I see echoes of my life. I had a brother who died when I was ten; my mother went into a deep depression shortly thereafter that (I believed) colored her life thereafter and ultimately led to behaviors that killed her. Valium was indeed her favorite color. My wife has dealt with depression (successfully), and I’ve seen her mother deal with the inability to let go of grief. As I said the last time I saw this show: “The musical hits home for those that live with depression: the inability to get anything done and how that affects the family. It hits home with those who live with the manic side as well: the up-at-all-hours unpredictability that is equally taxing. This hits home—it is a deeply personal, touching musical.”

I also said last time — and I still agree — that Next to Normal is one of the best examples of a musical that needs the stage. Movies tend to be focused in the real (even if that is an alternative reality). What we see on the screen is realistic. Musicals allow the emotions to come out and be expressed, and Next to Normal is all about emotions. If you can find a production of this near you, it is well worth seeing.

As I wrote in the beginning, the primary reason I wanted to see this particular production was the director and the cast. I wasn’t disappointed. The director for this show was Nick Degruccio (FB), who has done numerous musicals in the Southern California area … all of which have been great. This show was no exception. Nick brought out the raw emotion from the actors, and connected with the audience (I know it brought out the emotion and me, and I heard others audience members saying something similar). If you have the opportunity to see something Nick directs, do it. The odds are good it will be excellent.

The casting for this production was spot on. Back in 2010, I saw the tour with the original Diana, Alice Ripley, in the lead. This production cast Bets Malone (FB) in the lead.  We’ve seen Bets in numerous productions at Cabrillo and throughout Los Angeles, and she is consistently one of the best musical performers in Southern California. She didn’t disappoint here — in fact, I think her performance was stronger than Ripley’s because she somehow made the performance and the character seem real and down-to-earth.

Also attracting us to the production was Tessa Grady as Natalie, Diana’s daughter. Tessa is another actor we see regularly in roles — we’ve seen her at the Colony and Cabrillo, and have always been impressed with her. She was very strong here, and gave a wonderful performance (I’m running out of superlatives) as the daughter.

Diana’s husband, Dan, was also played by Southern California regular, Robert J. Townsend (FB). We saw Townsend in the great production of The Story of My Life at Havok, and in numerous Cabrillo productions. Yet again — wonderful voice, wonderful performances.

Rounding out that cast — again, all with spectacular performances — were Alex Mendoza/FB as Henry, Eddie Egan (FB) as Gabe, and Keith A. Bearden (FB) as Dr. Madden. We’ve seen Mendoza before (Justin Love, Cabrillo) and Bearden (Johnny Guitar), but Egan was new to us. All were strong and a delight to watch.

Musically, the production was very strong, with musical direction by Darryl Archibald (FB) (another Cabrillo alumni). Archibald also conducted the 6 piece band, which included Archibald on piano, Dave Lofti on Percussion, Joe Jewell (FB) on Guitars, Shane Harry on Electric Bass and Acoustic Bass, Claudia Vanderschraaf/FB on Cello, and Tyler Emerson/FB on the odd combination of Violin and Keyboard.

The technical production was also excellent. The scenic design by John Ezell was reminiscent of the set at the Ahmanson, although lacking the eyes. I particularly noted how at points the background was cracked and imperfect. The lighting by Steven Young was also strong and effective, doing a wonderful job of creating the mood. The sound design by Josh Bessom provided clear and crisp sound (better than the production at the Ahmanson, where the orchestra overpowered at times), although there were a few static problems with the mics. The costumes by Kish Finnegan worked well with the characters, and the properties by Terry Hanrahan were effective. The prop/costume package were from the Arizona Theatre Company. David Cruise was the Technical Director. Jill Gold was the production stage manager, assisted by Phil Gold. The executive producers were McCoy Rigby Entertainment.

The last performance of Next to Normal is today, June 23. 2013. You can buy tickets online here.

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:   Today brings more theatre: “The Taming of the Shrew” at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum. The last weekend of June brings a Maria Muldaur concert at McCabes, as well as Man of No Importance (Hollywood Fringe) at the Lillian.   July starts with a musical we had originally planned for Fathers Day weekend: Ionescapade” at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. That will be followed by “9 to 5 – The Musical” at REP East in the middle of the month, and “Legally Blonde – The Musical” at Cabrillo at the end of the month. July will also (hopefully) see us as OperaWorks at CSUN. August is currently completely open due to vacation planning, although we may see a show at the Lawrence Welk Resort in Escondido at the end of the month (depending on price), or at another venue in San Diego.

Continuing the look ahead: September may bring Sarah Ruhl’s In The Next Room or The Vibrator Play at the Production Company/Secret Rose and “Blue Man Group” at the Hollywood Bowl, as well as “God of Carnage” at REP East. October is open, but should the Cabrillo production of “Kiss Me Kate” somewhere, as well as “Dirty Rotten Soundrels” at Actors Rep of Simi. November will bring “Play It Again Sam” at REP East as well as ARTS’s Nottingham Village (a one-weekend ren-faire-ish market). The fall should also bring a production of “Carrie – The Musical” by Transfer Theatre. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open as the various theatres start making their 2013/2014 season announcements. Lastly, what few dates we do have open may be filled by productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411, or discussed in the various LA Stage Blogs I read (I particularly recommend Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times).