Let Me Tell You A Story About Alvin…

This has been a very emotional week, as one of our best friends, Lauren Uroff, died Tuesday morning. Given this, I was unsure what emotional roller-coaster would result when we attended “The Story of My Life at the Havok Theatre Company last night (the non-refundable, non-exchangable tickets had been purchased long before Lauren went into the hospital). This is because “The Story of My Life” is a unique musical: a simple two-man musical about friendship and how it touches our lives. I’m pleased to say that the musical was beautiful, and provided (at least for me) a wonderfully cathartic moment.

“The Story of My Life” tells the story of the friendship of Thomas and Alvin, who met in first grade. It starts out right after Alvin had died by jumping off a bridge, and his friend Thomas, now a famous writer, has the obligation to write Alvin’s eulogy. Thomas is blocked and can’t come up with anything, and so Alvin appears in his head, urging him to write what he knows, and that a eulogy is simply a series of stories, with a tearjerker at the end. But Thomas is still blocked, trying to figure out where this childhood friendship went wrong. So Alvin starts pulling books off the bookshelves of Thomas’ mind, sharing the stories. We start with their meeting, where their teacher Mrs. Remington introduced them: Thomas dressed as Clarence the angel from “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and Alvin dressed as the ghost of his dead mother. We see them grow up: picking the magical book from Alvin’s father’s bookstore that turns Tom into a writer; the Christmas’ where they make snow angels and watch “It’s a Wonderful Life”; Tom’s application to college; Tom’s distancing himself from Alvin (and his subsequently becoming blocked). In the end, we see how this distancing affects Tom’s ability as a writer (for his stories turn out to be expressions of his adventures with Alvin), and the reconciliation of the friendship in Tom’s mind.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a recurrent theme in this musical, and perhaps is a bit heavy-handed. It shows up repeatedly: from Clarance the angel, to everyone saying “Everytime a bell rings…” whenever the door bells ring, to Alvin being compared to George Bailey (who sets aside his own life to attend to another’s responsibility, and thus never leaves town), and ultimately, to the parallel in Alvin’s death… and perhaps the reason behind the death. It didn’t bother me, but I can see where others might find it heavy… but then again, I’ve seen people who model their lives around movies. It simply shows the power of the media and metaphor in our life.

On a personal level, this musical was very touching, for it had its parallels in the story and the ultimate theme. The musical takes place surrounded by books and writing: either in a real bookstore, or in the bookstore of Tom’s mind. Lauren was a lover of books, and she had a collection of books at home that could rival a small book store. But more importantly, it touched upon the theme of the butterfly and how it can impact the world: the beating of its wings create currents that move the wind along… and people touch other people in ways that can change their lives in major ways… and perhaps that is our purpose in the world. It also emphasizes that we should remember the people we love not through the physical things that they leave us, but with the stories about them and how they touched our lives. The most fitting eulogy begins with “Let me tell you a story about my friend”. It teaches us to treasure the stories of our lives, and to treasure the people with whom we share them.

This production starred two actors we have seen before: Robert J. Townsend (who we saw as the lead in CMT’s “Jekyll and Hyde”, and who we’ve been seeing at CMT going as far back as “Anything Goes”) as Thomas Weaver, and Chad Borden (who we saw in Havok’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) as Alvin Kelby. Both were strong singers and actors, who made you believe in their friendship and love for each other. They were just fun to watch, inhabiting their characters (which is something I love to see in actors). This came from a mix of the skill of these actors, as well as the creative direction of Nick DeGruccio (whose work we have also seen many times).
[All actors are members of æ Actors Equity ]

The book behind “The Story of My Life” is by Brian Hill, who received a 2009 Drama Desk Award nomination for the book. The music and lyrics were by Neil Bartram, who also received 2009 Drama Desk Award nominations for Outstanding Music and Outstanding Lyrics. The show opened on Broadway in 2009 but closed in a week: this is not a show for a large Broadway house, but is perfect in the smaller venues (such as the 99-seat Lillian Theatre used by Havok for this production). As noted above, I found the book very touching, and the music and lyrics beautiful — especially those of “The Butterfly”, which will now always make me think of Lauren. Don’t believe me? Go on: read the lyrics for that song. I’ll wait for you to get back. Was I right? Just beautiful. There is just so much meaning in the lines:

“You’re a butterfly my friend,
Powerful and strong
And I’m grateful for the way
You’ve always hurried me along.
When you flap your wings to stretch yourself
It might seem small to you
But you change the world
With everything you do.”

Technically, the production was beautiful. The set (designed by Tom Buderwitz) consisted of rows upon rows of bookshelves and books, covered with books and papers in shades of grey and black (collected through the hard work of one of our favorite stage managers), with a bridge across the back. It was gently lit (in a lovely lighting design by Steve Young) through mood expressing colors via overhead leikos and lighting behind the bookshelves. The sound (design by Drew Dalzell, who teaches at CalArts) was clear and clean. The music was provided by a three-piece ensemble hidden behind the stage conducted by Michael Paternostro, consisting of a piano, reed, and cello. The show was produced by Havok Theatre Company, with Kathleen Parker and Jodi Carlisle as associate producers.

The production stage manager was the “ever capable”™ Lindsay “Leroy” Martens (youarebonfante), who we know from all her work at Cabrillo. I’m giving Lindsay special mention because we were finally able to talk to her this season (we really can’t see her after evening shows at Cabrillo), and because she took the time to talk to our daughter about her work in technical theatre (and we are sure they will be able to work together in the future). She is just a really good person. I did, however, forget to ask her about “Leroy” :-). I also note it was wonderful seeing shutterbug93 at the show, and to get to meet and talk to Chad and Robert (and their families) after the show.

“The Story of My Life” continues at The Havok Theatre through April 4, 2010. Tickets are available through Havok’s secure website, as well as through Goldstar Events and LAStageTix (but both of these are likely to sell out—the show is that good). This is a show well worth seeing.

Upcoming Theatre. As for us, what’s upcoming on the theatre calendar? Next Saturday night (March 13) brings “Celebrate Dance 2010” at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. The following weekend brings “On Golden Pond” at REP East on Saturday night @ 8pm (this was rescheduled from March 14 due to Lauren’s memorial service), with Sunday bringing another installment of “Meeting of Minds” — this will be the second episode with Karl Marx (Ed Asner), Sir Thomas More (Bruce Davison), Queen Marie Antoinette (Meeghan Holaway), and President US Grant (Dan Lauria). The last weekend of March has no theatre, but is still busy: there’s a Games Day on March 27, and Rick Recht is doing a free concert at TAS on March 28. April brings more of potential interest, including Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris” at the Colony Theatre (tickets pending, likely April 10 or April 16), “Damn Yankees” at Van Nuys HS (tickets pending, April 15-17), the April installment of “Meeting of Minds” at the Steve Allen Theatre on April 18, “12 Angry Men” at REP East (April 24 @ 8pm, although Erin may have to see the May 2 Sunday Matinee due to AP Stats Camp). May looks to be equally busy, with “Little Shop of Horrors at Cabrillo Music Theatre (May 1), See What I Wanna See” at the Blank (likely May 9), The 39 Steps” at the Ahmanson (likely May 15, evening), the May installment of “Meeting of Minds” at the Steve Allen Theatre (May 16), the Spring Dance Show at Van Nuys HS (May 20-22), and “The Wedding Singer” at Repertory East Playhouse in Newhall (May 30 @ 2pm). May will also bring the annual visit to the Southern California Ren Faire, although it looks like we’re going to have to divide and conquer: we’re like to go on Saturday May 8, and ellipticcurve, Erin, and one of Erin’s friends will go on Sunday, May 16 (we can’t do it that day due to “Meeting of Minds”, but it puts it after all of Erin’s AP exams).

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.


Plaids in Drag, Plus a Blond

Mention the Andrews Sisters to most of today’s youth, and you’re likely to get a blank stare. They’re of a generation that has never seen the singing sisters, and their parents have likely only seen the sisters on TV. Perhaps their grandparents might remember them. Today’s youths are more likely to have heard of the Williams Sisters or the Jonas Brothers. However, in their day (the 1940s) they were one of the best known singing groups — and more importantly for the purposes of this post, provided extensive entertainment for Allied forces overseas, touring regularly for the U.S.O. . I mention this because last night we saw the Andrews Sisters on stage. OK, we didn’t, we saw an incredibly accurate facsimile. OK, we didn’t, but we did see an incredible facsimile. Perhaps I should explain….

Last night, we saw the second show of the Cabrillo Music Theatre, “The Andrews Brothers”. “Andrews Brothers” is a jukebox musical written by Roger Bean, an expert in this particular genre of musical. Roger has also done the extremely popular musicals “The Marvelous Wonderettes” and “Life Could Be a Dream”, and so the audience going in knows (a) they will be entertained and (b) plot doesn’t matter. This is a good thing, trust me.

The plot of “Andrews Brothers” exists only to set up the music. Three brothers (Lawrence, Max, and Patrick) are in the South Pacific working as the stage crew for the U.S.O., preparing for the last show of the famous Andrews Sisters at a remote naval base, where the troops are shipping off to the war zone the next day. The stage manager, Max, receives a telegram that the backup singers for the sisters cannot make the show, and to arrange something. The show opens to find Max rehearsing with Peggy Jones, the pinup-girl talent for the show, having convinced Peggy that Max and his brothers are the backup singers. This goes on for most of the first act, until eventually (a) a telegram is revealed indicating the the Andrews Sisters cannot make it, and (b) the boys are figured out for who they are. The brothers and Peggy decide that the show must go on, and since the sister’s costumes are there and the brothers know the dance moves… it was time to do RuPaul proud. The second act is that U.S.O. show with the brothers playing the sisters. At the end of the act, it is reavealed to the troops that the real talent was the brothers, and they come out and do a medley of Andrews Sisters’ hits.

As the above summary makes clear, the story is scaffolding. There’s no depth there, but it provides just enough bones to string a collection of wonderful music. The audience knows this going in, luckily, so the story doesn’t make a difference. Additionally, the show includes a bit of audience participation, which is always good to energize an audience (and is quite funny to watch). What really makes this show succeed or fail, however, is the cast. Get a good cast, you get a good show. Luckily, Cabrillo has an outstanding cast. The reason for this is that the color of the Cabrillo cast is not Army green or Navy khaki, but plaid.

The heart of “The Andrews Brothers” at Cabrillo is Forever Plaid. Well, ¾s of Forever Plaid, for the brothers are played by 3 long-time Plaids: Stan Chandler (Lawrence Andrews), David Engel (Max Andrews), and Larry Raben (Patrick Andrews). This made the first act of the show a bit of “The Plaids Go To War”, but that’s a good thing, because these three actors are extremely talented and a joy to watch. We have seen them on before, not only at Cabrillo, but at venues such as late, lamented Pasadena Playhouse (where I remember Stan well for his performance in Once a Kingdom). The talented trio was rounded out with Darcie Roberts (Peggy Jones), another talented actor, singer, and dancer, who we have also seen before on the Southern California stage. The talents of this group ensure the music is great, the dancing is fun, and oh, who cares about the plot :-).

The production was pulled together by Nick Degruccio, an extremely talented musical director who knows how to get the best out of his cast. If it is an outstanding musical in Southern California, odds are that Nick was involved. Combine this with the choreography of Roger Castellano, and you can’t lose. The presentation was helped by the technical talents of Cabrillo regulars T. Theresa Scarano (Production Manager), Jonathan Burke (Sound Design), Paul Hadobas (Hair/Wig Design), and Cabrillo newcomer Christina L. Munich (Lighting Design). They created a set that evoked a WWII Navy island camp (think South Pacific) during the first act, and a makeshift stage in the second. The lighting deserves a few special comments. Although there was extensive use of follow spots (a Cabrillo trademark, and more of a problem due to spillover in the balcony), there was also some quite effective use of gobos—both to provide flooring effects in the first act and to provide curtain effects in the second act. Sets and costumes were from the Musical Theatre West production. Music was provided by the Cabrillo Music Theatre Orchestra, under the musical direction of Lloyd Cooper, contracted by Darryl W. Tanikawa. The production was staged managed by the “ever capable”TM Lindsay Martens, assisted by Allie Roy, who had the unenvious job of riding herd on the craziness onstage and making it come off perfect.

In a move a bit unusual for Cabrillo, there was pre-show entertainment and intermission entertainment in the form of period newsreels (created by Steve Glaudini, David Engel, and Nick DeGruccio). These also featured aged footage of Harry Selvin and his orchestra… and the opening featured aged footage of the usual opening speaker Carole W. Nussbaum (CEO of Cabrillo) discussing the remainder of the season. I’ll note this show was unusual for Cabrillo in another way: it had a 100% equity cast, with no local Cabrillo on-stage talent, and as such was more of a touring production than Cabrillo normally does. Is this a sign of the economy? I have no idea.

The Andrews Brothers” has its last performance on the Cabrillo stage tonight. Upcoming Cabrillo productions for this season are: “Little Shop of Horrors” (April 23 – May 2, 2010) and “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella” (July 23 – August 1, 2010).

Upcoming Theatre. As for us, what’s upcoming on the theatre calendar? Next weekend sees us running between three theatres: Saturday evening sees us in North Hollywood for Interact Theatre’s “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the NoHo Arts Center, with Sunday afternon bringing “Ray Bradbury’s Wisdom 2116” at the Fremont Theatre Center in South Pasadena, and Sunday evening bringing the February installment of “Meeting of Minds (Episode 23 with Jean Smart as Catherine the Great, Ian Buchanan as Oliver Cromwell, and James Handy as Daniel O’Connell) at the Steve Allen Theatre in Hollywood. The last week of February is open, and may remain that way as we’re seeing our congregation’s Purim Schpeil on Sunday evening. March starts with The Story of My Life” at the Havok Theatre on March 6 @ 8pm (where we’ll be joined by shutterbug93). March 14 brings “On Golden Pond” at REP East, and March 21 will be “Meeting of Minds”. April brings more of potential interest, mostly unscheduled, including Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris” at the Colony Theatre (likely April 10 or April 16), “Damn Yankees” at Van Nuys HS (April 15-17), the April installment of “Meeting of Minds” at the Steve Allen Theatre on April 18, “12 Angry Men” at REP East (likely April 24), and the So Cal Ren Faire (either April 25 or May 16). May looks to be equally busy, with “Little Shop of Horrors at Cabrillo Music Theatre (May 1), See What I Wanna See” at the Blank (likely May 9), The 39 Steps” at the Ahmanson (likely May 15), the May installment of “Meeting of Minds” at the Steve Allen Theatre (May 16), the Spring Dance Show at Van Nuys HS (May 20-22), and “The Wedding Singer” at Repertory East Playhouse in Newhall (likely May 30).

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.


A Winning Production

Last night, we went to Cabrillo Music Theatre in Thousand Oaks to see “Guys and Dolls”. Now, it hasn’t been all that long since we last saw Guys and Dolls, having seen the Hollywood Bowl production in early August. Given that, it’s interesting to compare and contrast the two performances… and, not surprisingly, there are places where the stellar Bowl cast did better, and places where the regional Cabrillo cast did better.

As I wrote back in August, it is quite likely you are familiar with Guys and Dolls, but just in case you are not, you can find a full synopsis on Wikipedia. In a nutshell, it tells the story of Nathan Detroit, an inveterate gambling arranger, and his fiancee of 14 years, Miss Adelaide. Nathan is trying to arrange a location for a floating crap game, but needs $1,000 to secure the place. To get the money, he bets another gambler, Sky Masterson, that he will not succeed in taking the lead missionary from the Save Your Soul Mission, Sister Sarah Brown, to Havana Cuba for dinner. In the process of wooing Miss Brown, Sky gives her his marker for at least 1 dozen certified sinners for a midnight prayer meeting. To cover the craps game planning. a date is finally set for Nathan and Miss Adelaide. Sky gets Sarah to Havana, and while he is there the craps game is held… at the mission, without Sky’s knowledge. When they return, Sarah believes Havana was just a subterfuge for the game, and dumps Sky. But Sky must redeem his marker for his dignaty, so he bets the other gamblers for their souls… he wins, and as a result, they must attend the prayer meeting. Doing so forces Nathan to miss his elopement, and Adelaide dumps him… but after a great duet with Sarah, they realize they have to marry their men in order to change them. All of this is told in the mileau of Daymon Runyon’s colorful world and style. “Guys and Dolls” features a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. I should note that Cabrillo did the stock stage version. The Hollywood Bowl version interpolated an additional song, “Adelaide, Adelaide”, which appears to have come from the movie.

Cabrillo’s production of G&D was excellent — they know how to put on a musical. I was particularly impressed with their Sarah Brown, Jessica Bernard, a local performer who gave a spot-on performance (and was significantly stronger than Jessica Biel). She had a strong singing voice, and acted the role spectacularly. Also strong was the other lead “doll”: Alet Tayloræ as Miss Adelaide. Taylor’s Adelaide wasn’t as nasal as the typical Adelaide (Vivian Blaine, Faith Prince, or Ellen Greene, who was very strong at the Bowl), but Taylor’s Adelaide was a comic gem. The combination of the strong singing and the incredible comedy made her perfect for the role. Also strong was Barry Pearlæ as Nathan Detroit. Pearl’s Nathan didn’t have lanky charm of Scott Bakula or the manic energy of Nathan Lane, but came across as the long-suffering arranger. He was a strong singer, a strong actor, and a strong dancer.

Alas, I regret to say that Jeff Griggsæ as Sky Masterson was weaker, mostly in comparison to Brian Stoakes Mitchell (but then again, anyone compared to BSM is weak). Griggs singing was good and charming. My real problem was with his spoken lines, as they had this odd southern drawl, making me think of Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside in Mame as opposed to the New York Sky of Guys and Dolls. This may have been a larger accent problem: their Harry the Horse had nary a Brooklyn accent; Lt. Branigan had an odd Irish accent that kept going in an out; and Arvide had some accent I couldn’t quite fit in. So although Griggs’ Sky was enjoyable to watch, he didn’t soar as the Bowl performance did.

Turning to the secondary characters, Nova Safo did a good job as Nicely Nicely Johnson. He wasn’t the rotund comic of Stubby Kaye or Ken Page, but he fit the role well and gave a great turn in “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat”. Paul Zegler was touching as Arvide. Farley Cadena was odd as Gen. Cartwright — she came across as sexier and more playful than one would expect of that role. As for the tertiary characters, they were mostly interchangable with no particular either standouts or problems (well, I should note that I did enjoy Jennifer Foster and Jantre Haskin Christian as they missionaries — they were cute and seemed to be really enjoying their roles): Mike McLean (Benny Southstreet), Danny Blaylock (Big Jule), Jay Weber (Harry the Horse), Ronald Rezac (Lt. Brannigan), David Scales (Rusty Charlie), Jebbel Arce (Rosie), Marc Bastos (Sleepout Sam Levinsky), Paul Berry (Brandy Bottle Bates), Cory Bretsch (The Greek), Johnny Cannizzaro (Joey Biltmore/Johnny One Eye), Heather Castillo (Lulu), Andreas De Rond (Scranton Slim), Jeff Ditto (Frankie Fingers/MC), Jennifer Foster (Agatha), Jantre Haskin Christian (Martha), Kat Liz Kramer (Laverne), Alida Michal (Mimi), Sabrina Miller (Trixie), Clay Stefanki (Society Max), Erica Strong (Betty), Bobby Traversa (Calvin/Willy the Worrier), and Estevan Valdes (Liver Lips Louie).

Turning to the technical side of things… the direction of this production was quite good, but I would expect nothing less from Nick Degruccio. Roger Castellano’s choreography was strong, but was at times done in by the lighting … so, as we’re on the subject … the lighting design by Jared A. Sayeg was mixed. There were scenes were it was quite strong, such as the red lighting during the Havana scene or the use of the gobos, but it was done in by the poor follow spots. These were especially distracting during numbers such as Guys and Dolls or the Gamblers Ballet. The orchestra, under the musical direction of Darryl Archibald, was excellent, and the sound design by Jonathan Burke was easily heard throughout the theatre. Although the sets by T. Theresa Scarano were excellent as always, I was less impressed with Christine Gibson’s costumes. The gamblers in Guys and Dolls need to be colorful, not dressed in browns, blacks, and greys… and the dolls need to be more dolled up than they were. Paul Hadobas, on the other hand, did a good job with the hair and makeup design. The production stage manager was the always exceptional Lindsay Martens, assisted by Allie Roy.

The last performance of “Guys and Dolls” is this evening.

Upcoming Theatre: This evening is the next episode of “Meeting of Minds” Episode #9 (Martin Luther, Plato, Voltaire, Florence Nightingale) at the Steve Allen Theatre. Halloween weekend is currently open, as is the first weekend of November. November 11th (Veterans Day) we’re at a Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum. The following weekend Erin is going to the TMBG concert at UCLA, while we will attending Havdalah with Peter Yarrow at the American Jewish University. On November 22 at 2pm we return to REP East Playhouse for “M*A*S*H”, followed by the next installment of Meeting of Minds (pending ticketing). Thanksgiving weekend is currently open; however, it might be taken by a shift of our production for the following weekend (“Baby Its You” at the Pasadena Playhouse, December 5 at 8pm… which, by the way, features the actress who played Marie Antoinette), due to the fact I head out the morning after we see it for ACSAC in Hawaii. That same weekend (December 3, 4, 5) also brings “The Taming of the Shrew” at Van Nuys HS — we’ll likely be going to the Friday, December 4 performance. I fly out to Hawaii for ACSAC on 12/5 (hint: registration is now open and we have a great technical program — so come to the conference). While there, I hope to get together one night with shutterbug93 and see some local theatre. I return 12/12 (and, alas, this is why we can’t see Equus at LA Valley College the weekends of 12/3-5 and 10-12). December 20 bring “Mary Poppins” at the Ahmanson. As always, I’m looking for suggestions for good shows to see, especially if they are on Goldstar or LA Stage Tix.

Disclaimer: In light of the upcoming rules, you should know that nobody paid me anything to write this review. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.


Do The Dance, But Beware Of Her Kiss

Today, we went to see a musical about political prisoners, and how the government tortures them to get the information they want. This government also believes that homosexuality is wrong, and has a vendetta to put gay men that look at min0rs in jail. No, we didn’t go to North Hollywood Arts Center to see the return engagement of “Bush Is Bad: Alaska Beauty Queen Edition”. Rather, we went to the Havok Theatre in the Westlake District of Los Angeles to see the Kander-Ebb musical “The Kiss of the Spider Woman”. It too was timely, but dark.

The Kiss of the Spider Woman” is a 1993 Tony-award winning musical (Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book) with book by Terrance McNally and music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, based on the Manuel Puig novel. The story (adapted from the Wikipedia entry) centers on Luis Alberto Molina, a gay window dresser, who is in a prison in a unnamed Latin American country, serving his third year of an eight-year-sentence for corrupting a minor. He lives in a fantasy world to flee the prison life, the torture, fear and humiliation. His fantasies turn mostly around movies, particularly around a vampy diva, Aurora. He loves her in all roles, but one scares him: This role is the spider woman, who kills with her kiss. One day, a new man is brought in his cell: Valentin Arregui Paz, a Marxist revolutionary, already in a bad state of health after torture. Molina cares for him and tells him of Aurora. But Valentin can’t stand Molina and his theatrical fantasies and draws a line on the floor to stop Molina from coming nearer to him. Molina, however, continues talking, mostly to block out the cries of the tortured prisoners, about Aurora and his mother. Valentin at last tells Molina that he is in love with a girl named Marta. After taking care of Valentin for a while, the prison director announces to Molina that his mother is very ill and that Molina will be allowed to see her. Condition: He must tell the name of Valentin’s girlfriend. Molina tells Valentin about his love: A waiter named Gabriel. Only a short while afterwards, Molina gets hallucinations and cramps after knowingly eating poisoned food intended for Valentin. He is brought to the hospital ward, talking to Aurora and his mother. As Molina is brought back, Valentin starts suffering from the same symptoms, also from poisoned food. Molina is afraid that Valentin will be given substances that might make him talk and so protects Valentin from being taken to the hospital. As Molina nurses him, Valentin asks him to tell him about his movies. Molina is happy to do so; Valentin also shares his fantasies and hopes with Molina. Molina is allowed a short while at the telephone with his mother, back he announces to Valentin that he’s going to be freed for his good behaviour the next day. Valentin begs him to do a few telephone calls for him, Molina at first refuses, but Valentin knows how to persuade his cell mate. Molina is brought back the next day, heavily injured. He has been caught in the telephone call, but refuses to tell whom he has phoned. The warden draws his pistol, threatening to shoot him, if he doesn’t tell. Molina confesses his love to Valentin and is shot. Aurora bends over him and gives her deadly kiss.

As you can see, this is a very dark plot. It is certainly unclear what the audiences of 1993 thought of it: we were in the Clinton administration, and the outlook was sunny. Today, the plot makes a little more sense in the context of Gitmo and the way some groups want to treat gays these days (oh, by the way, vote No on 8). There are even echoes of our current political battles in it. Still, it is difficult to ascertain the point that the authors wanted to make. Were they saying that to escape to a fantasy world can help one make it through the hard times (the John McCain point of view)? Were they saying that one can make it through by knowing the world will get better tomorrow, or the day after that (the Barack Obama point of view)? Were they just trying to make the point that love can make one strong, and that we can sometimes find our internal courage through love? It is hard to say, and that is what makes this a difficult musical.

However, there is one that that is not difficult to figure out, and that is that Nick DeGruccio is a great director. He took this complicated and difficult show, and made it a thing of beauty, especially in the converted braissere factory that is the Havok Theatre. Under his direction, the actors do remarkable things, and achieve a level of depth of characters one rarely sees. Of particular note in the cast were the three leads: Terra C. Macleodæ as Aurora/Spider Woman, Chad Bordenæ as Molina, and Daniel Tataræ as Valentin. All were strong and remarkable singers and dancers, in particular Borden as Molina. Others in the remarkable cast were Ed F. Martinæ (Warden), Eileen Barnettæ (Molina’s Mother), Zarah Mahler (Marta), Alex Alvarez (Marcos), Che Rodriguez (Esteban), Salvatore Vassalloæ (Gabriel/Prisoner), Shell Baumanæ (Fuentes/Prisoner), Hector Guerreroæ (Observer/Emilio/Prisoner), Jeffrey Parsons (Religous Fanatic/Prisoner), Mike A Motroni (Aurelio/Prisoner), and Oskar Rodriguez (Escapee/Prisoner).
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Also remarkable was the technical staff. The movement and dancing (under the choreography of Lee Martino) was spectacular. The scenic design (by Tom Buderwitz) consisted of a prison of metal tubing and bars, with two beds on a rolling platform front and center. I was also taken with the lighting design of Steven Young, who turned the former factory into a remarkable prison, combining well placed overhead and floor lights, moving mirror lights, projected shadow images (gobos, according to nsshere), and a series of lights around the bed. Truly fantastic. Sound design was by Drew Dalzell assisted by Rebecca Kessin. The production had a 5-piece orchestra that sounded much larger, with Musical Direction by Michael Paternostro, assisted by Steven Ladd Jones, who also served as conductor. The stage manager was Lara E. Nall.

The following is a YouTube video giving you a taste of the production:

Kiss of the Spider Woman” continues at the Havok Theatre until Sunday, October 26, 2008.

Dining Note: Dinner after the show was at one of our favorite coffee shops on that side of the hill: Fred 62 on Vermont near Los Feliz.

As for us, our next show is on Saturday October 25 @ 2pm when we see “The King and I at Cabrillo Music Theatre (alas, nsshere may be unable to make it due to a Speech and Debate competition, we’re looking still forward to seeing youarebonfante after the show, as she is managing the production). Saturday November 1 @ 8pm brings “Blood Brothers – The Musical” at the Whitefire Theatre. On 11/8, we’re seeing “Into The Woods” at the Lyric Theatre in Hollywood. The weekend after that (11/15 @ 8pm) is “The Lady With All The Answers” at the Pasadena Playhouse. 11/21 brings “Spring Awakening” at the Ahmanson. Friday 11/28 brings the last show of the RepEast season, “And Then There Were None”. December 4th and 5th brings “Scapino” at Van Nuys High School (with nsshere doing the lighting). Lastly, I need to remember to explore tickets for “I Love My Wife (Reprise), which only runs 12/2-12/14 — right around the dates of ACSAC.


Bloody Weekend, Part I: In Which Good and Evil is Divided

Today, I woke up with a bad headache. I mention this because (according to my family) I become different when I have a bad headache. I become cranky and grumpy — a totally different person than the normal me. It is as if I was divided into my good and evil sides.

I mention this because this afternoon (still with the headache) we went to to Cabrillo Music Theatre (cmt_news) in Thousand Oaks to see “Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical”, the musical retelling of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. This version used the Fullerton Civic Light Opera version of the script (which improved upon the original Broadway script), and featured book & lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and music by Frank Wildhorn. This was the first show of our “Bloody Weekend”: tomorrow we see the deconstructed “Sweeney Todd” at the Ahmanson.

Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical” tells the story of Dr. Henry Jekyll, a doctor in the Violent Ward at St. Judes Hospital in London. His goal is to find a medical answer to evil and violence in men. He has developed a formula that he believes will extract the evil, and wants to begin human experimentation. His fiancee’s father (Danvers Carew) helps him present his case to the members of the hospital board, but they deny his request. At the party celebrating his engagement to Emma Carew, the board members and society make it clear that they consider him mad. Jekyll decides the only way to prove his theory is to experiment on himself. Before he does, he celebrates his upcoming nuputals at a East-End Bar, the Red Rat, where he befriends one of the “ladies”, Lucy Harris. Of course, we all know what happens once Jekyll experiments on himself: he becomes the evil Edward Hyde. As Hyde, he has regular trysts with Lucy, and starts murdering the board members one by one. As Jekyll, he realizes he must take the antidote and destroy Hyde, but this isn’t so easy. He also trys to warn Lucy to leave London. Neither attempt is successful, and the show ends with even more death. This is a dark and bloody show–the body count may even be higher than Sweeney Todd.

Cabrillo, who produced this version, is know for their regular schedule of popular musicals. Most of the time they do good work; occasionally they are spectacular, and less occasionally, just average. This show was spectacular. I think a lot of the credit for this excellent goes to Nick DeGruccio, the Ovation Award winning director of the show. His approach to staging this musical brought out the best in the talented performers, and elevated the potentially ponderous music to a something enjoyable. He should win another Ovation Award for this work, but alas the Ovation voters tend not to trudge out to Thousand Oaks.

The cast was also spectacular. Leading the performance in the dual role of Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde was Robert Townsend (æ). This one actor gave two completely different characterizations: the good Dr. Henry Jekyll and the evil Mr. Hyde. These characterizations, combined with his wonderful strong singing voice, made him a delight to watch. Of particular note was his performance in “Confrontation”, where he sings against himself in both roles, at the same time. Spectacular staging, spectacular voice.

The two female leads were also quite strong. The “girl of the night”, Lucy Harris, was played by Lulu Lloyd (æ). Just as many years we were blown away by the performance of the (then unknown) Katherine McPhee in Annie Get Your Gun, Ms. Lloyd is another find. She pr0jected the right innocence and love, and had a super strong singing voice. The other female lead, playing Emma Carew, Jekyll’s fiancee, was Beth Obregon. She also gave an extremely strong performance, with delightful singing in the few numbers she had.

The remainder of the cast was also very strong, but as they tended not to have individual numbers they stood out less. The remainder of the cast consisted of Aaron Phillips (John Utterson, Jekyll’s lawyer); Douglas Crawford (æ) (Simon Stride, former beau of Emma); Jack E. Curenton (Danvers Carew, Emma’s father); Terry Fishman (Poole); Mona King (Lady Beaconsfield); John D. LeMay (Proops); Caitlin McGinty (Nellie); Ron Rezac (Lord Glossop); August Stoten (Lord Savage); Tony Teofilo [MyS] (Basil, Bishop of Basingstoke); Paul Bartlett (Ensemble); Brandee Berndt-Aguirre (Barmaid, Ensemble); Becca Cornelius (Minnie, Ensemble); Tess Ferrell (Tallulah, Ensemble); Cristie Grissmer (Barmaid, Ensemble); Kasi Jones (Lorraine, Ensemble); Jill Kocalis (Charlott, Ensemble); Chandler Krison (Ensemble); Daniel Ross Noble (Ensemble); Cory Pearce (Manservant, Ensemble); Nuno de Sousa (Ensemble); Alex Spencer (Cora, Ensemble); Greg Thompson (Orderly, Ensemble); Bobby Traversa (Newsboy, Ensemble); Philip Wieck (Priest, Ensemble); and Katie Young (Harriet, Ensemble).

Were there weaknesses in the show? Yes, but I think these are not the fault of Cabrillo. The music was typical Wildhorn, which can be overly romantic and ponderous at times, and the lyrics by Leslie Bricusse were at times weak. The music is very romantic and lush, but is not one of your killer scores. I much prefer Wildhorn’s score for The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Turning to the technical credits: The musical director was Steven Applegate, who also conducted the excellent 17-member orchestra. Roger Castellano provided the musical staging. Lighting design was by Steven Young, with sound design by Jonathan Burke. Hair and wigs were by Karen Zanki, wardrobe supervision by Christin Gibson, and prop design by T. Theresa Scarano. The sets and costumes were from the Fullerton CLO. Production stage manger was the ever capable Lindsay Martens assisted by Abby Martin Stein. Pyrotechnics were by J.S. Marsh Special Effects Inc.. CMT is under the artistic direction of Lewis Wilkenfeld.

At this production, Cabrillo announced their 2008-2009 season, and the first production of the 2009-2010 season. The 2008-2009 season will be “The King and I” (October 17-26, 2008); “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” [The Neal Sedaka Musical] (January 9-18, 2009); “42nd Street” (March 27-April 5 2009); and “Cats” (July 24-August 2 2009). The first production of the 2009-2010 season will be “Dreamgirls” in October 2009.

So what’s next on our theatre calendar? Tomorrow we have the 2nd half of our “Bloody Weekend”: “Sweeney Todd” at the Ahmanson @ 1pm. The following weekend (3/22) is “W;t” at REP East. On Sat 4/5 @ 8pm we have the premier of the new musical “Mask” at the Pasadena Playhouse. The following day we’re going to the Sunday matinee performance of “The Who’s Tommy” at Cal State Northridge. I still need to figure out productions for late April and early May — possibilities include “Pippin” at East West Players (5/8-6/8) and “The Immigrant” at Colony Theatre (4/2-5/4). On 5/31, we’re scheduled to see “A Chorus Line” @ 2pm at the Ahmanson, and “Of Mice and Men” @ 8pm at the Pasadena Playhouse. We’re likely to change those due to the performance of “Grease” at Nobel MS on 5/29, 5/30, and 5/31. That takes us to the end of 2Q08.


Their Love Was Forbidden… and it Changed The World

Last night, we went to see a musical fairy tale, a gay little romp that is my daughter’s favorite musical about high school life. Grease? Nah. Bye Bye Birdie? Nah. We saw Zanna Don’t at the West Coast Ensemble in Silverlake.

Zanna Don’t” (MySpace) is a musical about love, in all its variations. Set in Heartsville USA, it (like Hello Dolly before it), is the story of a matchmaker changing the world. In this case, our matchmater is Zanna, who lives only to help people fall in love with the right guy or girl. The show opens on a busy day, where Zanna (Danny Calvert), dressed in pink, is creating some new matches between the super-popular Chess team champion, Mike (Dan Pacheco), and the new Football player, Steve (Brent Schindele). He also is matching up Roberta (Natalie Monahan) with the head of the precision mechancial bull riding team, Kate (Rebecca Johnson). He does this all with the aid of his canary, Cindy, his wand, and love music selected by Tank, the DJ (Brian Weir). If you noticed something odd here, perhaps I should explain.

Zanna Don’t is set in a topsy-turvy world, where being gay is normal. Guys go with guys, girls go with girls. Boys have two dads, Girls have two moms. The world stops for the Chess Team champions and the precision dancing team, and football is this off sport that no one understands. The local bar (the “I’m OK, You’re OK Corral”) serves milk, or if you’re having man trouble, Ovaltine.

Back to the story. Life at high school is highlighted by the drama club musical, directed by Candi (Justine Valdez) and her assistant, Brad (Matthew Rocheleau). This year they have chosen to do something daring, something that upsets the locals and the school board. They are doing a musical about heterosexuals in the military. The musical stars Steve (the football player) and Kate (the bull rider). Although they each have their own partners (Steve has Mike, Kate has Roberta), the reluctantly agree to kiss (but who would want to kiss someone of the opposite sex?). As you might guess, they fall in love. But this is a forbidden love, which has its consequences… and it is discovered at the end of Act I.

Act II deals with the consequences of this love. Their partners are left in the dark, not understanding how someone could fall that way. Candi is disgusted, and is protesting to the school board, which promptly bans straight couples from the prom. The couple turns to Zanna, who unleashes a love spell that changes the world, a spell that makes the world safe for heteros. After the spell is cast, the scene changes to the prom… where in their black tuxes, Mike and Roberta and Candi and Brad all gather together to crown their new King and Queen: Mike and Kate. Into this sashays Zanna, in a grey and pink tux… and is immediately the outcast, for he is (gasp) gay. But the attitudes change, and soon everyone is singing about how all love must be accepted (and Zanna finds a guy for himself, Tank).

This is a high-energy, high-spirited musical, with peppy songs by Tim Acito (additional book and lyrics by Alexander Dinelaris), strong direction by Nick DeGruccio, delightful choreography by Christine Lakin (MySpace) and Paul Nygro.

The high energy and high spirits are infectuous, and have clearly infected the cast, who seem to be having the time of their lives in this Los Angeles premier. All are excellent singers and dancers, but a few need to be singled out in various ways. On the singing front, I just adored the powerhouse singing of of Rebecca Johnson (Kate), Brent Schindele (Steve), and Justine Valdez (Candi). All of the cast were strong singers, but these three just blew the house away (in particular Ms. Valdez… I haven’t heard pipes like that since I fell in love with Klea Blackhurst). On the acting and emoting side, all the cast was excellent and having fun with the show (something I love to see), but particular standouts included Danny Calvert (Zanna), Natalie Monahan (Roberta), and Rebecca Johnson (Kate). I particularly enjoyed watching Ms. Monahan, who was having a blast with her role.

The theatre itself is a very small venue, under 50 seats. This strong singing and dancing production fits in only through the clever scenic design of Tom Buderwitz, the direction of Nick Degruccio (assisted by Flip Laffoon), and the previously-mentioned choreographers. The theatre seats, however, are nothing to write home about… but you came for the show anyway! Lighting was by Lisa D. Katz. Sound design was by Cricket S. Myers assisted by Patricia Cardona. Musical direction was by Bill Brown, whose single keyboard made the orchestra come alive. Stage management was by Lara Nall, with production by Richard Israel and Dana Moore, assisted by Suzanne Doss.

Zanna Don’t” continues at the West Coast Ensemble through most of August. Tickets are available through the box office; they are also on Goldstar. I strongly recommend this show.

I should note that the staff of the theatre was also remarkable. My daughter was able to get a poster for her Bat Mitzvah (we would rather promote local theatres in her theatre theme than venues 3000 miles away). We also had the opportunity to meet Steven Glaudini, artistic director of MTW Long Beach, who told us about their 2007-08 season (which sounds excellent). He’s the husband of Bets Malone, whose website is done by our friend shutterbug93. With Steven at the show was Misty Cotton (another friend of shutterbug93, who we recognized from our previous meetings… and thus we took the opportunity to briefly say hello). All in all, a delightful evening. I’ll also note that WCE has an intern program we might explore for nsshere.

Dining Notes: The mood for this delightful evening was set when we had dinner at the Flying Leap Cafe a few blocks up Hyperion from the theatre. The meal was excellent (I had the chicken fried steak, my wife had a steak salad, and my daughter had the cobb salad). But what set the mood was the clientele, for the restaurant and its bar and a very happy crowd, one might even say gay. Didn’t bother us at all, but it did set the mood.

So, what’s coming up on our theatre calendar? Next Saturday night is our playhouse night; we’re seeing “Can-Can” at The Pasadena Playhouse on 7/28 at 8:00pm. This is followed by “Beauty and the Beast” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on 8/4 @ 2:00pm; the DCI 2007 World Championship Finals in Pasadena on 8/11 @ 5:00pm; and “Avenue Q” at the Ahmanson on 9/15 @ 2:00pm. We’re also debating the Hollywood Bowl… in particular, possibly Bernstein/Copland/Gershwin on 8/2, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy on 8/24-25, or American Originals on 9/11. We may also go see “Zanna Don’tagain… it is just that good.


Marriage, Take 2.

Tonight, we saw the second marriage musical, The Last 5 Years, at the Pasadena Playhouse. As you may recall from Take 1, the Pasadena Playhouse is doing two two-person musicals on the subject of marriage. The first was “I Do! I Do!, and “The Last 5 Years” is the second. Whereas I Do! I Do! told the story of a traditional marriage that works, The Last 5 Years tells the story of a marriage that didn’t work. This is done with an interesting plot device: she tells the story from the breakup to the first meeting, while he tells the story from the first meeting to the breakup. She and He alternate songs, meeting only in the middle (the marriage).

The casting for The Last 5 Years was perfect. She, Cathy, was played by Misty Cotton. He, Jamie, was played by Daniel Tatar. Both were powerhouse singers and actors, and brought the house down. [I should note that we had a Misty Cotton cheering section in the row behind us–I almost thought shutterbug93 was in the audience!] As with I Do! I Do!, the show was directed by Nick Degruccio, with scenic design by Tom Buderwitz, costume design by Jean-Pierre Dorleac, lighting design by Steven Young, sound design by Frederick W. Boot, musical direction by David O, and choreography by Lee Martino. You can find some production photos for the show on this page from the playhouse’s blog.

So, the question the Playhouse asks the audience to do is to compare and contrast the two musicals. Why does Michael and Agnes have a marriage that works, whereas Jamie and Cathy have a marriage that fails? I was talking to my wife about this on the way home. Michael and Agnes (I Do! I Do!) have a traditional marriage. He works; she raises the kids. They care about each other, forget when appropriate, and are there when the other needs them. My wife calls this inter-dependency; I think cross-dependency is a better term. Jamie and Cathy, on the other hand, are independent. They both have careers, both in fields where they demand the limelight. Each wants the other to pay attention to them, at the sacrifice of their own needs. Complicating this is the interfaith aspect: my wife noted that Jewish guys often are egocentric. I don’ t know that she right. Of course, I’m the one doing the blog, so you pay attention to me :-). Anyway, both Jamie and Cathy are so focused on having the attention on them they forget the other. Add to that Jamie’s dalliances, and you have a recipe for failure.

An added plus about tonight’s show: As we were leaving, we ran into Sheldon Epps, the artistic director. We let him know how much we enjoyed both musicals. We told him we weren’t that impressed with the first two shows, but have loved the rest (he responded something like “I may not like every shirt you have”). We let him know we have been subscribers since 1986, and although there have been a few poor shows, the quality of the Playhouse overall is extremely high. It was neat meeting him.

Next up on the theatre calendar: “The Music Man” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on August 5th; Black Comedy and The Real Inspector Hound at the Rep East Playhouse in Santa Clarita on August 6; Curtains at the Ahmanson on August 26th, and Fences (starting Laurence Fishburne and Angela Basset) at the Pasadena Playhouse on Sept. 23rd. I also am thinking about tickets to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in Orange County in early September, but that might not pan out either (it depends if Goldstar puts them up). We might see something on vacation, depending on what is in the Sacramento or S.F. Bay area on Goldstar.


Marriage, Take 1.

I have always believed that the musical I Do! I Do! would be a perfect Pasadena Playhouse musical*. There is a cast of two, and simple orchestration. The gods must have been listening. I just came back from seeing “I Do! I Do!” at the Pasadena Playhouse, part of their Marriage Musicals (the other is The Last 5 Years, which we’re seeing on July 29th). They did an absolutely perfect job.

For those unfamiliar with the story, I Do! I Do! tells the story of Michael and Agnes. It begins on their wedding day in the late 1890s, and traces their life together over a period of 50 years, until the day they leave their house to the next pair of newlyweds. In that time we watch them go through their wedding night jitters, raise a family, negotiate mid-life crises, quarrel, separate, reconcile and grow old together, all lovingly to the strains of a tuneful, charming score. It is based on the play The Four-Poster by Jan de Hartog, with Music by Harvey Schmidt, and Book and Lyrics by Tom Jones. I was pleased to see that the Playhouse used the 1996 Off-Broadway version of the show, which simplifies the orchestration to two pianos, and moves My Cup Runneth Over to the second act. [As a side note: the original Broadway version in the 1960s starred Mary Martin and Robert Preston, and had a full orchestra. The 1996 revival starred Karen Ziemba and David Garretson, and had two pianos. I much, much, much prefer the revival version–if you have to order one album, order that one.]

This production starred Julie Dixon Jackson (website by the lovely shutterbug93) as Agnes, and Tom Schmid (website by Tom Schmid) as Michael. I cannot say good enough things about these actors. It was clear they were enjoying themselves in their performances, and it came across in their acting and their singing. This is a fun show if the actors enjoy it (just like a real marriage!). Talking with Julie after the show confirmed it: they have fun with this show. Special kudos to Tom for nailing “It’s a Well Known Fact”, and for Julie for nailing “Flaming Agnes” and “What is a Women?” “Flaming Agnes” deserves additional kudos for the costume: Julie looked hot! The show was directed by Nick Degruccio, with scenic design by Tom Buderwitz, costume design by Jean-Pierre Dorleac, lighting design by Steven Young, sound design by Frederick W. Boot, musical direction by David O, and choreography by Lee Martino. You can find some production photos for the show on this page from the playhouse’s blog.

This was a delightful afternoon, made even better by being able to see shutterbug93. She arrived from tick… tick… Boom! two minutes before the show started. We spent time with her at intermission, and went with her backstage after the show to meet with Julie Dixon Jackson. This was our first time in 20 years of subscribing that we were backstage (although I seem to recall doing it once with NSS&F). This was an extra treat. After the show, we had dinner with shutterbug93 at a sushi joint around the corner, and we went home, while she went of to The Last 5 Years. The evening was also nice due to a find made at Cliff’s Books: a recording (on vinyl) of The Sap Of Life, the first off-broadway show by David Shire and Richard Maltby Jr.. The show is not well known, and has never been released on CD.

Next up on the theatre calendar: The Last 5 Years at the Pasadena Playhouse on July 29th; “The Music Man” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on August 5th; Curtains at the Ahmanson on August 26th, and Fences (starting Laurence Fishburne and Angela Basset) at the Pasadena Playhouse on Sept. 23rd. I thought about tickets for Lucky Stiff at the Fullerton Civic Light Opera, but we can only do a Sunday matinee on 7/23, and that’s not on Goldstar (only the 7pm performance). I also am thinking about tickets to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in Orange County in early September, but that might not pan out either (it depends if Goldstar puts them up). We might see something on vacation, depending on what is in the Sacramento or S.F. Bay area on Goldstar. Is anyone aware of half-price ticket outlets for Sacramento, as Goldstar doesn’t cover that area?

* What else would be good Playhouse musicals? Baby (Maltby/Shire), which they are considering for next season. Ain’t Misbehavin’, if they could find the right talent. I’d love to see them bring back Mail. Brownstone (a cast of 5). I think I Sing! could also be interesting, but I think the language and subject matter would be too racy for Pasadena.