🎭 What Hath Maltby Wrought? | “Summer” @ Hollywood Pantages

Summer - The Donna Summer Musical (Hollywood Pantages)Back in 1978, Richard Maltby Jr. unleashed onto the world a little musical called Ain’t Misbehavin’. This was perhaps the first really successful biographical jukebox musical — a musical that used the catalog of a particular artist to tell the lifestory of that artist. Shortly after that musical hit there were similar shows, from Jelly’s Last Jam to Eubie to … you get the idea. In the modern era, the biographical jukebox has seen a resurgence with successful shows such as Jersey Boys. Almost every pop star out there is seeing their catalog mined for a potential show. Some end up as fictional stories with the pop catalog grafted on, such as the recent Head Over Heels which mined the catalog of the Go-Gos. But the biographical jukebox remains a steady contender. A number of been recently on Broadway, such as The Cher Show or the just opened Tina … and one of the more recent instances has ended up at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) (until November 24) — Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. Guess where we were last night?

If you are of my generation, you know Donna Summer well. Her music hit the airwaves in the US in 1975 — when I was in high school. I couldn’t go to a high school dance of that era (not that I went to many) where it didn’t close with “The Last Dance”. It was ubiquitous. So it was clear that mixing her music with a Broadway show would hit clearly at the heart of the current theatregoers: those adults aged 55 to 65. It was a no-brainer. Nostalgia is a strong pull at the box office, and judging by the audience we saw at the Pantages we saw last night it works. Older primarily white women in spandex glitter abounded.

And the mention of no-brainers brings us back to the biographic jukebox, and their greatest problem: the underlying book. For while the music may be popular and the show wonderful when viewed as a nostalgic dance concert, the real question is whether it stands up a musical theatre. That success depends on the book writers — in this case, Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and Des McAnuff. In this case: it really doesn’t stands up as theatre. It is a mile wide and an inch deep: it doesn’t really give you any deep insight into its main characters, and the other characters in the life of Donna Summer that shaped who she is are only superficially drawn and brought to life.

Part of the problem here is the conceit used to tell the story. As is often done, the main subject is divided into three individual: child, young adult, and adult — or as they are called here, Duckling Donna, DIsco Donna, and Diva Donna. A similar approach, from what I understand, was taken in The Cher Show. The problem is: the adjectives here capture the superficial nature of the division: instead of looking at the whole character, they have amplified aspects of her life for the sake of storytelling. In doing this, and in making the story centered in that way, any character growth that might fuel the story is either lost, or boiled to the top where it is just skimmed away.

“Story” is a key word here. Musicals succeed where there is a story that demands the music in its retelling. The music, which is a key factor in telling the story, bursts out with story. It isn’t incidental or superficially related. But, for the most part, the music used in Summer is only lightly connected with the story on the stage. It rarely comes from the time; it rarely moves the story forward by itself. If you could delete all the jukebox songs (leaving just the spoken book) and the show still makes sense, that music isn’t integral. In this case, the music is rarely integral. In fact, I think the only integral song in the show is “She Works Hard for the Money”.

Ultimately, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, while entertaining, is (in the parlance of [title of show]), very “donuts for dinner” — entertaining in the moment, but the fulfillment is not very long lasting. There’s lots of fluffy sweet carbohydrates, but very little meat.

That doesn’t mean the author’s don’t try to provide that meat. There is a strong emphasis, especially in the middle of the show, on the notion of empowerment of women — in particular the fact that women artists should be paid the same as male artists. There’s also a sharp commentary on the #metoo aspects of Donna Summer’s story: sexual abuse or harassment both at the hands of her childhood pastor and by executives at Casablanca records. But it, like the supporting characters, is superficial. It is mentioned once briefly, and how it shaped Donna Summer into the artist that she was is never explored.

Ruminating on the superficiality a bit more: The show presents Donna Summer’s life as being much like the music that made her famous: a catchy dance tune that was fun in the moment, but doesn’t have long lasting significance. It is popular and light and frothy, but is ultimately cotton candy.

The show is notable in one other aspect: it’s ensemble. More than any other show that I’ve seen, this show has made the effort to emphasize the women. Most of the tertiary male roles (there are no primary male roles) are played by ensemble members, and for the most part, those members are women. I’ve commented before on the problems I have with men dressing as women to play women’s roles for the broad laugh. Here, the women stepped into play the men’s roles, but not for laughs but in an androgynous sense. As a man watching this, this spoke to female empowerment and as the central notion of the story, as well as the fact that for much of her career, Summer’s music spoke to that audience (and the incident that broke that connection is specifically — and rightly — addressed). I’m curious how women watching the show perceived that ensemble emphasis. It was certainly different.

Two additional performance notes: (1) There are points at times where the ensemble is supposedly playing music, and even (at one point) Diva Donna is playing. For the most part, it is clear they are not: they are holding the violins wrong, there is no key movement on the piano although finger gestures appear right, there is no movement on the guitar necks and no connection of electric guitars to the speakers, there is no finger movement on the valves of the saxes. Prop instruments on stage are annoying. It did appear, however, that at point they did have the real keyboardist on stage, as well as the drummer and perhaps the guitar. That was good to see. (2) There is one point where Neil Bogart’s funeral occurs, supposedly at Hillside. They were carrying calla lilies, which is a flower that is not used at Jewish cemeteries due to its Christian symbolism; they also portrayed mourners in white with no cria ribbons. Again, not something one would see at a Jewish cemetery. Given that the writers weren’t Jewish, one can understand the mistake; surely someone on the production or design team would have caught that.

Des McAnuff‘s direction kept the show moving at a brisk pace — one might say with a disco beat. The show moved from incident to incident with little space to catch your breath in between. His direction of the scenic was similar, with view traditional set pieces or props, and heavy use of screens and projections (although in a very different sense than in Anastasia — here they were much more abstracted, as befits the 1970s). He worked with the acting team to bring out strong concert style performance; but with a superficial book, there was very little depth to bring out in the story. The movement, choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, was similarly brisk and had a strong disco feel. As to its accuracy as real disco moves I cannot say. There are some things about my youth that I either never learned or have blocked out. But it was entertaining.

In the lead performance positions were the Donnas: Dan’yelle Williamson (⭐FB, FB) Diva Donna / Mary Gaines, Alex Hairston (FB) Disco Donna; and Olivia Elease Hardy (FB) Duckling Donna / Mimi. All give strong performance and sing beautifully. Perhaps the most notable is Hardy, given her lack of experience. She’s a rising senior at U Michigan, and I couldn’t really find any local or other credits for her. For such a young and new performer to be giving such a strong performance is quite noteworthy.  As for the others, Hairston gets the bulk of the disco moves and handles those well, although her visual resemblance to the other Donnas is slight. Williamson is very strong of voice and dance.

The male roles in this cast are primarily secondary and tertiary. At the secondary level are: John Gardiner (FB) Neil Bogart / Sommelier / Gunther; Erick Pinnick (FB) Andrew Gaines / Doctor; and Steven Grant Douglas (⭐FB, FB) Bruce Sudano. The tertiary men (because they are also in the ensemble) are: Jay Garcia (FB) Brian / Helmuth Sommer / Ensemble and Sir Brock Warren (FB) Pastor / Ensemble. None of these characters are drawn that deeply; unsurprisingly, none of them also have featured vocal tracks.  Thinking back, the ones that left the greatest impressions were Warren due to his unique look and bearing, and Douglas for the way he was able to project some tenderness in what was a lightly written role.

This brings us to the remainder of the ensemble — or should I say female ensemble — as they were all women: Jennifer Byrne (FB) Pete Bellotte / Don Engel / Ensemble, Tamrin Goldberg (FB) Norman Brokaw / Ensemble, Cameron Anika Hill (FB) Young Dara / Amanda / Ensemble, Brooke Lacy (FB) Detective / David Geffen / Bob / Ensemble, Trish Lindström (FB) Joyce Bogart / Ensemble, Dequina Moore (⭐FB, FB) Adult Mary Ellen / Ensemble, Kyli Rae (FB) out at our performance – normally Giorgio Moroder / Ensemble, Crystal Sha’nae (FB) Adult Dara / Ensemble, De’ja Simone (FB) Young Mary Ellen / Brooklyn / Ensemble, Candace J. Washington (FB) Michael / Ensemble, Brittany Nicole Williams Maid / “To Turn the Stone” Soloist / Ensemble. In general, the ensemble provided strong dancing in the background. The actors portraying Donna’s sisters and children were fun to watch and clearly enjoying their roles. I particularly liked Moore and Simone (at least I think that’s who they were — the one in the yellow sweater).

Swings were Mara Lucas (FB), Jo’nathan Michael (FB), and Jennifer Wolfe (FB) Giorgio Moroder, at our performance / Dance Captain.

The large music for this show was provided by a small band — again, mostly female. Leading the band was Amanda Morton Music Director / Conductor / Keyboards. Assisting her were Lisa Le May (FB) Assoc. Conductor / Keyboard; Makeena Lee Brick (FB) Keyboard; Larry Esparza (FB) Guitar; and Jesse-Ray Leich (FB) Drums. Other music credits were: Randy Cohen (FB) Synthesizer Programmer; Anixter Rice Music Services (FB) Music Preparation; John Miller (FBMusic Coordinator; Bill Brendle and Ron Melrose Orchestrations; and Ron Melrose Music Supervision and Arrangements. Songs in the show were written by Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara, and the following folks detailed in the back of the program: Joseph Esposito, Edward Hokenson, Bruce Sudano, Pete Bellotte, Keith Diamond, Anthony Smith, Vanessa Robbie Smith, Greg Mathieson, Jim Webb, Bruce Roberts, Harold Faltermeyer, Gregory Allen Kurstin, Danielle A. Brisebois, Evan Kidd Bogart, Jonathan Rotem, Michael Omartian, and from the musical Hair, Galt MacDermot, James Rado, and Gerome Ragni. I am sure that some of the musicians were on stage in a few scenes — in particular, Morton and possibly LeMay or Brick, as well as Leich. I was pleased to see them show pictures of the musicians at the end.

Finally, we turn to the production and creative side. The scenic design of Robert Brill (FB) depended heavily on the Projection Design of Sean Nieuwenhuis, as there were lots of moving screens and projections, and very little in the way of traditional scenery. Perhaps greater scenic aspects were provided by Paul Tazewell (FB)’s costume design and Charles G. LaPointe (FB)’s hair and wig design. There was only real one costuming flaw, which only someone growing up in that era would catch: back in the 1970s, bra straps and undergarments were not intentionally visible — according to my wife, one would go without first. Howell Binkley (FB)’s lighting generally was good, but I felt there was an overuse of strobe lights — be forewarned if you are strobe sensitive. Gareth Owen (FB)’s sound wasn’t overpowering — a fear that I had; however, there were two or three songs where the bass beat shook the cough out of me. Other production credits: Steve Rankin Fight Director; Charley Layton Dialect Coach; David S. Cohen Stage Manager / Fight Captain; Jenifer A. Shenker Asst Stage Manager; Michael Bello Assoc Director; Jennifer Laroche Assoc. Choreographer; Bruce Sudano Story Consultant; NETworks Presentations Production Management; Michael Sanfilippo Company Manager; Ralph Stan Lee (FB) Production Stage Management; Dodger Management Group General Management; Tara Rubin CastingFelicia Rudolph CSA Casting.

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical continues at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) until November 24. If you are nostalgic for the disco era, and want a fun musical that will help you relive those times, this is the musical for you. If you can’t stand disco, or want a story with a stronger book, consider skipping this one. Go see Miracle on 34th Street up the street instead.

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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),  the Soraya/VPAC (FB), and the Musical Theatre Guild (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:

Tonight brings The Goodbye Girl at Musical Theatre Guild (FB).  Next weekend is open due to Stiches SoCal, although I might still book a show. November concludes with Bandstand at Broadway in Thousand Oaks

December is getting busy, given that we lose two weekends to ACSAC, and the small theatres are often darker around the holidays. The weekend after ACSAC brings an outing of our new live theatre group at our synagogue to Eight Nights at the Anteaus Theatre Company (FB).  I also have a hold for December 21 for Elf at Canyon Theatre Guild.

Looking to early 2020: most of the January is currently quiet, but the middle of the month is busy, with What The Constitution Means To Me at the Mark Taper Forum, and Frozen at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) the third weekend, and Cirque Éloize at  the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the last weekend. Things start heating up in February, with The Last Ship (with Sting) at the Ahmanson Theatre the first weekend; A Body of Water at Actors Co-op (FB) and It Shoulda Been You at Musical Theatre Guild (FB) the third weekend; and (whew!)  The Simon and Garfunkel Story at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Escape to Margaritaville at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB), and Step Afrika at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the fourth weekend. Yes, that is the Pantages and the Dolby the same day — that’s what I get for not entering season tickets on my calendar before ticketing a bonus show. March comes in like a lamb, with the first two weekends (2/29 and 3/7) being quiet… but goes out like a Lion. The 2nd weekend brings the MRJ Man of the Year dinner; the 3rd Morris’ Room at Actors Co-op (FB) ; and the last bringing Spongebob Squarepants at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB) and the MoTAS/TBH Seder. April is similarly busy: the 1st weekend is Mamma Mia at 5 Star Theatricals (FB); the 2nd is during Pesach and is open (but has Count Basie at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the Thursday before); the 3rd is Once on This Island at the Ahmanson Theatre; the last is Hamilton at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), and the first weekend of May is Mean Girls at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB)

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. 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. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!

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🎭 Rumors are like Feather Pillowcases | “Anastasia” @ Hollywood Pantages

Anastasia (Hollywood Pantages)The music from Anastasia (and by this, I mean the 1997 animated movie musical) has a special place in my heart, for it was the first movie to which we took our daughter. I remember when we saw it: I liked the music, but the villain in the story was far too comical, and I always felt guilty watching it because it made you cheer for the Czar and his family, when … well, remember those Jews being kicked out of their home in Fiddler on the Roof? That was happening at the request of the Czar. Anastasia was also the musical that introduced me to the music of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (FB). From there, I found Once on this Island, and Ragtime and Suessical and Lucky Stiff and …

So when I learned they were adapting Anastasia into a musical for the stage, I was intrigued. It opened to mixed reviews, but I was sure it was going to tour. I got the album, and found the songs a bit slower than the animated feature. But still, I wanted to see it. Luckily, it was the first show of the 2019-2020 Hollywood Pantages (FB) Season… and so you know where we were last night.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it is based on the true story of Czar Nicholas II, who was executed in the Russian Revolution of 1918. After the execution, rumors persisted that his daughter, the Grand Duchess Anastasia survived. The entire musical is based on that rumor: after establishing the basis of the story and the Czar (and the execution), the action moves to St. Petersburg (Leningrad), where the rumor is circulating. Two schemes plot to find an Anastasia impersonator and sell her to her grandmother living in Paris. They find this young women, Anya, who has no memory of her past but conveniently seems to have snippets that suggest she might be the real thing. Enough practice, and …. off to Paris they go.

But every scheme needs a foil to create drama, and to put difficulties in the way of our protagonists.

In the animated movie, which featured a screenplay by Susan Gauthier, Bruce Graham, Bob Tzudiker, and Noni White, with story by Eric Tuchman (animation adaptation), based on Anastasia by Arthur Laurents and Anastasia by Marcelle Maurette, that foil was Grigori Rasputin, recreated as comically magic and evil, and his anthropomorphic bat assistant, Bartok. But this isn’t Disney, and silly foils like that don’t work. So when the story was reworked by Terrence McNally, he changed the antagonist to a Bolshevik officer, General Gleb Vaganov: a man who both has a crush on Anya, as well as being the son of the guards that shot the Romanov family. His superiors want all traces of the Russian family gone (yet, for some reason, they don’t go after the Dowager Empress in Paris), and order him after them. So he’s torn between carrying out his father’s destiny, and his affection for the girl.

This being a musical, and being a fairy tale, you can guess what happens. Is Anastasia dead? Not so long as she lives in our hearts, right?

The stage musical also keeps some of the elements related to the two men who help Anya become Anastasia: Dmitry still has a connection as a boy to the younger Anastasia; “Count” Vlad Popov still has a connection and past relationship to Countess Lily (Sophie in the movie), the lady-in-waiting of the Dowager Empress in Paris. In fact, Vlad provides some of the best comic relief in the story, both in his interactions with the main trio of Dmitry and Anya, and especially in his interactions with Lily.

The movie was also very fast paced, with a total of 8 songs. They kept 4-5 of those, and added loads of new songs, although many of them use the same underscoring as the original 4-5. This, along with the pace, makes the show feel a bit slower paced.

This is an expansive story, going back and forth in time constantly, and moving from Russia to Paris. It took a creative director to address that, and director Darko Tresnjak (FB) it in a creative way: he eschewed loads of traditional sets, and working closely with scenic designer Alexander Dodge and Projection Designer Aaron Rhyne, leaned heavily into the projection approach to scenic design. The main background and side pillars were HD projection systems, and these were constantly changing, creating beautiful 3-D scenic locals, moving landscapes, even background expositions. Sometimes they were a bit too cartoonish, and at times were a bit too much in motion. A larger concern I have with the projection approach is the limitations this creates for the long life of the show. Regional theatres might have the needed projection technology, but this limits their creativity in the realization of the show. Smaller theatres and high schools? They won’t have it, and will they be able to create the backdrops for the story? I’m unsure, and this could be a problem for the life of this property. Perhaps one day the musical Anastasia will also be  rumor.

The performances were mostly good. In the lead positions were Lila Coogan (FBAnya / Anastasia and Jake Levy (FB) Dmitry. Both are newish actors, and did wonderfully bringing that youthful joy to the roles. We’ve seen Levy before back in the UCLA production of Steel Pier, and enjoyed him then. Coogan brought loads of spunk and fun to the role; in her pixie haircut at the top of Act II, I could just see her doing a great Kathy Seldon in Singing in the Rain. These two were loads of fun.

Also strong was the comic second bananas: Edward Staudenmayer (FB) Vlad and Tari Kelly (FBCountess Lily. Staudenmayer was strong in all his numbers: funny, and with a great voice, great moves, and wonderful comic timing. Kelly also had that comic touch, especially in “Land of Yesterday” and her duet with Staudenmayer, “The Countess and the Comic Man”. The show is almost worth their performances along.

If there was a weak point in the casting, it was Jason Michael Evans (FB) Gleb. He just didn’t have the strength of voice or project the right gravitas to be villainous. He did OK in his main number, “The Neva Flows” and “Still”, but it wasn’t the powerhouse it needs to be.

Rounding out the major roles was Joy Franz (FBDowager Empress. She had a lovely voice, and captured the conflicting emotions of the Dowager Empress wonderfully.

Rounding out the background in various roles was the extremely talented ensemble and swings: Ronnie S. Bowman, Jr (FB) Ensemble; Ashlee Dupré (FB) Ensemble, Olga Romanov, Odette in Swan Lake; Kylie Victoria Edwards (FB) Ensemble, Maria Romanov, Marfa; Alison Ewing (FB) Ensemble, Countess Gregory; Hannah Florence (FB) Swing; Peter Garza (FB) Ensemble, Russian Doorman; Fred Inkley (FB) / Jeremiah Ginn (FB)¤ Ensemble, Gorlinsky, Count Leopold; Brett-Marco Glauser (FB) Ensemble; Brad Greer (FB) Ensemble, Tzar Nicholas II, Count Ipolitov, Count Gregory; Tamra Hayden (⭐FB, FB) Ensemble; Lucy Horton (FB) Ensemble, Tzarina Alexandra; Kourtney Keitt (FB) / Sareen Tchekmedyian (FB)¤ Ensemble, Tatiana Romanov, Dunya; Mark MacKillop (⭐FB, FB) / Kenneth Michael Murray (⭐FB, FB)¤ Ensemble, Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake; Ryan Mac (⭐FB, FB) EnsembleDelilah Rose Pillow / Eloise Vaynshtokº Little Anastasia, Alexei Romanov; Taylor Quick (FB) Ensemble, Young Anastasia, Paulina; Matt Rosell (FB) Ensemble;  and Lyrica Woodruff (FB) Ensemble, Olga Romanov, Odette in Swan Lake. All were strong dancers, and had great facial expressions and movement for their characters.
¤ indicates swing who swung into this role at our performance; ° indicates performs Saturday matinee and Sunday evening.

Dance and movement in the show, which was choreographed by Peggy Hickey (FB), was in general strong, especially in the palace dance numbers and the ballet numbers. Other dance related credits: David Chase Dance Arrangements; Bill Burns (FB) Assoc Choreographer; Jeff Barry Fight DirectorKenneth Michael Murray (⭐FB, FBDance Captainand Rachel E. Winfield (FB) Fight Captain.

As noted earlier, the show featured music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, with orchestrations by Doug Besterman and vocal arrangements by Stephen Flaherty. Tom Murray was the Music Supervisor. Lawrence Goldberg served as music director and conductor of the orchestra, which consisted of (🌴 indicates LA local): Valerie Gebert Asst Conductor, Keyboard 2; Ryan Sigurdson (FB) Keyboard I; 🌴 Jen Choi Fischer (FB) Violin / Concertmistress; 🌴 Grace Oh (FB) Violin/Viola; 🌴 Ira Glansbeek Cello; 🌴 Ian Walker (FB) Bass; 🌴 Jeff Driskill (FB) Flute / Piccolo / Clarinet / Alto Sax; 🌴 Richard Mitchell Clarinet / Flute / Tenor Sax / Oboe / English Horn; 🌴 Aaron Smith (FB) Trumpet / Flugelhorn; 🌴 Laura Brenes (FB) French Horn; 🌴 Charlie Morillas (FB) Tenor Trombone; and 🌴 Bruce Carver PercussionOther music credits: Mary Ekler (🎼FB, FB) Keyboard Sub; 🌴 Eric Heinly (FB) Orchestra Contractor; Michael Aarons (FB) Music Coordinator; Randy Cohen (FB) Keyboard Programmer.  Overall, the orchestra had a very lush sound and sounded great.

Finally, turning to production and creative side. I’ve already talked about the scenic and projection design of scenic designer Alexander Dodge and Projection Designer Aaron Rhyne, and how it was both creative, and may prove to be a hindrance when this gets to the regional and local production level. Peter Hylenski (FB)’s sound design was reasonably clear for the Pantages, although some words in the songs were lost in the cavernous space. Donald Holder‘s lighting design established mood and such well, but at times was in competition with the projections. Linda Cho‘s costume design, Charles G. LaPointe‘s Wig/Hair Designs, and Joe Dulude II‘s makeup designs combined to make the actors into the characters they needed to be. Other production credits: Telsey + Company (FB) Casting; Richard A. Leigh (FBProduction Stage Manager; Rachel E. Winfield (FB) Stage Manager; Ellen Goldberg (FB) Asst Stage Manager; Denny Daniello Company Manager; Aurora Productions Production Management; RCI Theatricals General Manager; Bond Theatrical Group Tour Marketing and Publicity Direction; The Booking Group Tour Booking Agency; and Dmitry Bogachev Commissioned By. That last credit is perhaps the most interesting: Bogachev is CEO of the theatre company “Moscow Broadway LLC”, founder of the Russian division of the international live entertainment company Stage Entertainment, member of The Broadway League, initiator of the Broadway business model in Russian theatre. Could Anastasia be big in the post-Bolshevik Russian market?

Anastasia: The New Broadway Musical continues at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) through October 27.  Tickets are available through the Pantages website. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar and TodayTix. The musical is entertaining, although with the young touring cast a few performances can be a bit stronger. Overall the show was entertaining, although not that intellectually deep or historically accurate. Don’t think about it too much, and you’ll be OK.

I like to say that I’m a professional audience, and that’s why I like theatre. In my real life, I’m a cybersecurity subject matter expert — an engineer. I don’t have the creativity in me to inhabit other characters, and in general, the writing I do is limited to non-fiction — government documents and policies, highway pages, and reviews like these. I don’t have the ability to take an idea and turn it into characters and stories that might be compelling to an audience. But as I just noted, I’m also a long time cybersecurity professional, and attending years of the Hollywood Fringe Festival has convinced me that the medium of the stage could be used to teach about cybersecurity in a way that audiences could learn, without being overwhelmed with technology. The notion I have is to take some broad cybersecurity themes and concepts and translate them into stories that could teach in a compelling way. But I don’t have the expertise to build a story out of the idea. If this is something that might interest you, please let me know. I don’t have funds for a commission or anything like that, but it might be something we could turn into a property beneficial for all.

🎭

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),  the Soraya/VPAC (FB), and the Musical Theatre Guild (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

The third weekend of October brings us back to the Kavli for The Music Man at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), followed by In Trousers at the Lounge Theatre from Knot Free Productions. October concludes with Mandy Gonzalez at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) and the MoTAS Poker Tournament.

Looking to November, it starts with A Miracle on 34th Street – The Radio Play at  Actors Co-op (FB), followed by Big Daddy the Band of 1959 at McCabes (FB) in Santa Monica.. The second weekend brings Summer at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and The Goodbye Girl at Musical Theatre Guild (FB).  November concludes with Bandstand at Broadway in Thousand Oaks

December is relatively open right now, given that we lose two weekends to ACSAC, and the small theatres are often darker around the holidays. The first weekend (before ACSAC) may bring an outing of our new live theatre group at our synagogue to Eight Nights at the Anteaus Theatre Company (FB).  I do have a hold for December 17 for Elf at Canyon Theatre Guild. I also have a hold for mid-January for What The Constitution Means To Me at the Mark Taper Forum, but I’m waiting for the presale to start to confirm that date. January will also bring Frozen at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and Cirque Éloize at  the Soraya/VPAC (FB). I’m already booking well into 2020.

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. 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. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!

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🎭 Speechless | “Blue Man Group” @ Hollywood Pantages

Blue Man Group (Pantages)Last night, we the Blue Man Group at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). We last saw the Blue Man Group in 2014 at the Monte Carlo is Las Vegas, before the Monte Carlo became Park MGM, and before BMG was purchased by Cirque Du Soleil.

I’m not sure either change was for the better, but we’ll talk about the Monte Carlo later 🙂

In general, the Blue Man Group was, well, the Blue Man Group. Strange. Silly. Wordless. Playful and curious. Childlike and childish. There were sequences that were great (such as the paint marshmallows). Audience participation was fun. But there was something off. The energy and madness was toned down a notch. It wasn’t the craziness I remembered from Vegas.

I can’t quite pinpoint the problem. Was it the significantly larger house? Was it a seeming over reliance on technology, including a massive technological set? Was it the safety for the audience a tour provides? I’m not sure. I just know the show didn’t “wow” me as it did the first time I saw them on stage.

I do not mean to imply they were bad. I thoroughly enjoyed the show. But Blue Man Group brings a certain imprimatur, a certain cachet, a certain expectation. They didn’t quite live up to that expectation; they hit the 85-90% mark.

The cast consisted of Blue Man, Blue Man, and Blue Man, with a Blue Man in reserve. They were played by Meridian, Mike Brown, Steven Wendt, and Adam Zuick. Pick any three of four, because we have no idea who was whom. The show was written by Jonathan Knight, Michael Dahlen, and the Blue Man Group.

They are supported on stage by musicians Corky Gainsford (FB) Drums, Robert Gomez Resident Music Director, Band Captain; and Jerry Kops Musician/Strings, playing music composed by Andrew Schneider and Jeff Turlik.

Turning to the production and creatives: Jason Ardizzone-West Set Designer; Jen Schriever Lighting Designer; Emilio Sosa Costume Designer; Patricia Murphy Blue Man Character Costumes; Crest Factor Sound Design; Lucy Mackinnon Video Designer; Bill Swartz SFX Designer; Johnathan Knight Creative Director; Richard Herrick Production Stage Manager; Byron Estep Music Director; Stacy Myers Company Manager; Anna K. Rains Production Stage Manager; Zachary Feivou Head Carpenter; Gentry & Associates General Management; Bond Theatrical Group Tour booking, Marketing, and Publicity Direction; and Networks Presentations Production Management. The production was directed by Jenny Koons. The original creators of Blue Man Group were Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton, and Chris Wink.

The Blue Man Group Speechless Tour continues at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) through October 6. Tickets are available through the Pantages web page, as well as numerous other places.

I like to say that I’m a professional audience, and that’s why I like theatre. I don’t have the creativity in me to inhabit other characters, and in general, the writing I do is limited to non-fiction — government documents and policies, highway pages, and reviews like these. I don’t have the ability to take an idea and turn it into characters and stories that might be compelling to an audience. I’m also a long time cybersecurity professional, and attending years of the Hollywood Fringe Festival has convinced me that the medium of the stage could be used to teach about cybersecurity in a way that audiences could learn, without being overwhelmed with technology. The notion I have is to take some broad cybersecurity themes and concepts and translate them into stories that could teach in a compelling way. But I don’t have the expertise to build a story out of the idea. If this is something that might interest you, please let me know. I don’t have funds for a commission or anything like that, but it might be something we could turn into a property beneficial for all.

🎭

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),  the Soraya/VPAC (FB), and the Musical Theatre Guild (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:

Saturday night brings Blue Man Group at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). We start getting really busy in October, starting with The Mystery of Irma Vep at Actors Co-op (FB) and Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville at Canyon Theatre Guild. The next weekend brings Anastasia – The Musical at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The third weekend brings us back to the Kavli for The Music Man at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), followed by In Trousers at the Lounge Theatre from Knot Free Productions. October concludes with Mandy Gonzalez at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) and the MoTAS Poker Tournament.

Looking to November, it starts with A Miracle on 34th Street – The Radio Play at  Actors Co-op (FB), followed by Big Daddy the Band of 1959 at McCabes (FB) in Santa Monica.. The second weekend brings Summer at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and The Goodbye Girl at Musical Theatre Guild (FB).  The third weekend is open, but may bring an outing of our new live theatre group at our synagogue to Eight Nights at the Anteaus Theatre Company (FB). November concludes with Bandstand at Broadway in Thousand Oaks

December is relatively open right now, given that we lose two weekends to ACSAC, and the small theatres are often darker around the holidays. I do have a hold for December 17 for Elf at Canyon Theatre Guild. I also have a hold for January 4 for What The Constitution Means To Me at the Mark Taper Forum, but I’m waiting for the presale to start to confirm that date.

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. 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. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!

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🎭 A Problematic Reinterpretation | “Miss Saigon” @ Pantages

Miss Saigon (Pantages)Our post-Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB) theatrical break has ended (last weekend, which I didn’t write about, was the quasi-theatrical concert of An Intimate Evening with Kristen Chenowith at,The Hollywood Bowl (FB)). Saturday night we were at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for Miss Saigon (FB). It is a show for which I’ve known the music for years and years, but had never seen.

Now that I’ve seen it — so many mixed emotions. I’m glad to have seen it, and to finally have an understanding of the story behind the music. But I have no strong desire to see it again; in fact, this is a show that requires a lot of context setting and discussion to make it fit well in the modern world. This tour is not doing it; IIRC, it has chosen not to do it. Most audiences will see this show, take it on surface values for the beautiful music and performances, and not understand the real story and problems behind it. There are some attempts to bring important issues to the fore, but they seem tacked on afterthoughts for the story.

Let’s start where all performances must start: the story. In this case, an uncredited adaptation of the themes of Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini made by Alain Boublil French Lyrics and Claude-Michel Schönberg Music, with further adaptation by Richard Maltby Jr, and Alain Boublil English Lyrics, Michael Mahler Additional Lyrics, and the production expertise of Cameron Mackintosh. Madame Butterfly, if you are unfamiliar, tells the story of an American Naval Officer in 1904 who goes to Japan, falls in love with a Geisha (“Butterfly”), and then leaves. Butterfly finds herself pregnant. Three years later he returns, married. The wife has agreed to raise the child, but when she sees how devoted Butterfly is to the child, she decides she can’t take the child away. Butterfly insists that the officer come tell her himself. When he does, she prepares her child to live with his father, and commits suicide behind a screen.

One important to note at this point: We’re talking a story about Japanese culture, written by a white Italian, based on a semi-autobiographical novel by a white French man, that has traditionally been performed by non-Asian opera singers. What could possibly go wrong as it is adapted for modern times?

Boublil and Schönberg updated the setting of the story, transforming it to the time of the fall of Saigon. This time, an American GI, Chris, falls in love with a girl from a local village, Kim, who just started to work at a girl-bar for “The Engineer”. The two get married per Buddhist custom. During the marriage ceremony, the cousin to whom she was promised, Thuy, shows up — a North Vietnamese officer — and curses her.  Saigon falls, and Chris is on the last chopper out of the embassy, unable to get Kim out. Cut to three years later. Thuy has found The Engineer in a reeducation camp up North, and persuades him to find Kim for him. He does, but Kim does not want to marry the officer. When pressed, she reveals she has a son who is half-American. Thuy threatens to kill the boy, but Kim shoots and kills Thuy to save her son. The Engineer, on the other hand, sees the boy as the ticket out of Vietnam, and pretends to be Kim’s brother and they escape to Bangkok. Back in the states, after a year or so, Chris remarries to Ellen, who knows nothing of Chris’ past. John, Chris’s buddy from Vietnam, contacts him to let him know Kim has been found, and there is a child. All three go to Bangkok to meet Kim. But before the planned meeting, the Engineer lets Kim know where Chris is. She goes there, only to meet Ellen. Ellen had been willing to bring the boy back, but seeing Kim’s attachment decides they instead will support Kim and the boy, Tam. Kim insists that Chris tell that to him face-to-face. Chris, John, and Ellen head down to Kim’s room to do so. As they do, Kim tells Tam that he’ll be going with his father to a better life. She goes behind a curtain and shoots herself. Tearful last scene with Chris.

Of course, this is a linear presentation of the story; the stage version keeps going back and forth in time.

When this first opened, there was controversy aplenty when Mackintosh cast a white actor, Johnathan Pryce, as the Engineer, and another white actor as Thuy. He also cast Lea Salonga as Kim. He petitioned Equity to bring these three to America (and won), but not after lots of protests. Times have changed, and at least we have Asian actors in those roles. These are usually Filipino, not Vietnamese, however.

So where to start, story-wise. The basic story, stripped of all the cultural trappings, is both classic opera and classic colonialism, taking advantage of those in a culture felt to be inferior. If it was to be set entirely in a European culture, would it be an acceptable story? Probably not, other than as melodrama. But both the original and the Miss Saigon version use the story to present a colonial view of Asian culture, and that’s wrong. White guys writing about Asian culture. What could go wrong?

When you look at the Asians in the story, only one comes off as noble and good: Kim. The rest are either pimps (The Engineer), whores (the bar girls), or Communist Baddies (North Vietnamese soldiers). Further, their portrayal is excessively offensive — especially in the bar scenes. Women are treated as property, sexual toys, vessels for men to take advantage of and use. Setting aside ethnicity for a moment, this is an extremely offensive portray of the treatment of women. This is not to say that it didn’t happen in the mid-1970s in Saigon and Bangkok, but it is so different from modern sensibilities that context is required. None was provided. So we have an offensive stereotypical portrayal of Asians, and Asian “sex dens”, and of violence towards women in that culture and time. What more could go wrong?

This brings us to “The Engineer”: A character designed to be a pimp and a conniver and a schemer, a man who will do anything and everything he can to survive and make money for himself, and achieve the stereotypical American dream. He made me think quite a bit of Donald Trump, except the Engineer is a rung above Trump, as the Engineer is at least aware of what and who he is, and what he does to get there. Trump is. But the Engineer is one of those offensive anti-heroes (and it is no surprise that Pryce went on to play Fagin in a revival of Oliver! a few years later — the two are very similar stereotypical characters).

As for the Americans, they are portrayed as honorable types who could do no wrong. They are only virtuous, wanting to do what is best. This, again, is a stereotypical portrayal hyping the image of the great white God.

If there is anything redeeming in the story, it is perhaps bringing attention to the children left behind after war. But even then the show does not make an effort to inform the audience of how to help these children. The stories are real, as described by the New York Times and Chicago Tribune. And there are real foundations helping these children, including the Pearl Buck Foundation. But are they mentioned in the show or in the Playbill? No.

So the story itself not only presents a tragedy on-stage, but contains a multitude of additional tragedies. It could be a beneficial starting point to oh so many discussions. But that opportunity is not taken, and so we are left with a white-man’s view of a tragic love story, designed to pull emotion out of audiences.

If the story is problematic, why does Miss Saigon keep succeeding for over 25 years. The answer is threefold: music, performance, and stagecraft.

  • In terms of Music: Boublil and Schönberg (and Maltby)’s music and lyrics are beautiful. Some of the songs, such as “The Last Night of the World”, “Bui Doi”, or the Act I closer, “I’d Give My Life For You”, have become ballad standards. Other songs, such as “The Heat Is On”, “If You Want to Die in Bed”, or “The American Dream” are just energetic earworms. This is a score that is just nice to listen to, crafted well.
  • The performances tend to be strong. The Engineer, while sleaze on stage, is fun to watch. Kim has soaring vocals. John gets a lovely turn in Bui Doi. And Chris’ duets with Kims are lovely.
  • The stagecraft seals the deal. From the Vietnamese soldiers dancing acrobatically during the “Morning of the Dragon”, to the sex shops of Saigon and Bangkok, to the spectacular landing of a helicopter on stage in Act II: the audience applauds the art.

So let’s explore those performances, which were under the direction of Laurence Conner,  with musical staging and choreography by Bob Avian, and additional choreography by Geoffrey Garratt (FB), helped by Seth Sklar-Heyn (FB) Assoc. Director, Jesse Robb (FB) Assoc. Choreographer, Ryan Emmons (FB) Resident Director, Brandon Block (FB) Dance Captain, and Anna-Lee Wright (⭐FB, FB) Asst. Dance Captain.

In the “lead” position was Red Concepción (⭐FB, FB) as The Engineer (👨‍🎤) (Eymard Cabling (FB) at select performances). Concepción’s Engineer was very different than what I surmise Pryce’s must have been. Concepción played the character with an incredibly slimy and disgusting vibe, which was perfect for the character. He did a great job on songs such as “The Heat is On” “If You Want to Die in Bed”, “What a Waste”, and especially “The American Dream”. He was only hindered by the horrible acoustics of the Pantages, which delight in muffling sound — and which require actors to sing very clearly and with the right sound balance. But his characterization was spot on.

As Kim (👩), Emily Bautista (FB) (Myra Molloy (⭐FB, FB) at select performances) was stunning. She had a beautiful voice, and captured the initial shyness — and later the determination — of the character quite well. A joy to watch.

Her love interest, Chris (👨), was played by Anthony Festa (FB). Festa had a nice “everyman GI” look to him. He wasn’t overly hunky or buff, but a believable everyguy who was drafted into a war he didn’t want to be in. He sang well, and had a nice chemistry with Baustista’s Kim. As his buddy John (👦🏿), J. Daughtry (FB) did an outstanding job, especially with his Act II opening number, “Bui Doi”.

Turning to the remaining second tier roles: Jinwoo Jung (FBThuy (👧), Barman and Stacie Bono (FBEllen (👱‍♀️). Jung brought a strong presence and a strong voice to Thuy, the spurned suitor/cousin, and a great ghost in the second act. Bono’s Ellen exists more in the background, although she does get a nice number in the second act with Kim.

Of the last somewhat main characters, there is Kim’s son, Tam (Adalynn Ng at our performance, alternating with Tyler Dunn, Haven Je, and Fin Moulding). This character is … a human prop. “He” (because some actors are female) gets to be on stage, hug his mother, be carried by other characters, and occasionally, be thrown around and manhandled by other characters. He has no lines. At the curtain call, he comes out and looks cute, and gets applause for surviving. The actors do the best they can for the limited role, and for their age, but I feel sorry them in that they don’t really have more of an opportunity to show their skills off.

This brings us to the rest of the company, who play many different roles over the show. Of these, most notable are Dragon Acrobats (Noah Gouldsmith (FB), McKinley Knuckle (FB), and Kevin Murakami (FB)) who were outstanding. The company consisted of (additional named roles as shown; named understudy positions indicated with superscripts): Christine Bunuan (⭐FB, FB) Gigi (👩‍🦱), Patpong Street Worker; Eymard Cabling (FBThe Engineer (👨‍🎤)-Alt, Vietnamese Army Soldier, 👧u/s; Myra Molloy (⭐FB, FB) Kim (👩)-Alt; Devin Archer Marine, 👨u/s; Alexander Aguilar Marine; Eric Badiqué (FB) Vietnamese Army Soldier, Moulin Rouge Club Owner, 👨‍🎤u/s; Kai An Chee (FB) Bar Girl, 👩u/s, 👩‍🦱u/s; Julie Eicher (FB) Bar Girl, 👱‍♀️u/s; Matthew Dailey (FB) Marine, Shultz; Noah Gouldsmith (FB) Marine, Acrobat; Adam Kaokept (FB) Vietnamese Army Soldier; David Kaverman (FB) Marine, 👦🏿u/s; McKinley Knuckle (FB) Marine, Acrobat; Madoka Koguchi (FB) Dominique, Moulin Rouge Club Dancer; Garrick Macatangay (FB) Vietnamese Army Soldier, Patpong Street Worker; Jonelle Margallo (FB) Mimi, Patpong Street Worker, 👱‍♀️u/s,  👩‍🦱u/sKevin Murakami (FB) Acrobat; Jackie Nguyen (FB) Yvette, Moulin Rouge Club Dancer; Matthew Overberg (FB) Vietnamese Army Soldier; Emilio Ramos (FB) Marine, Vietnamese Army Soldier; Adam Roberts (FB) Marine, 👨u/s; Michael Russell (FB) Marine; Julius Sermonia (⭐FB, FB) Asst. Commissar, 👧u/s; Emily Stillings (FB) Bar Girl, Patpong Street Worker; Tiffany Toh (FB) Fifi, Patpong Street Worker; Nicholas Walters (FB) 👦🏿u/s; and Anna-Lee Wright (⭐FB, FB) Yvonne, Patpong Street Worker. U/S Key: 👨‍🎤 Engineer; 👩 Kim; 👨 Chris; 👦🏿 John; 👱‍♀️ Ellen; 👧 Thuy; 👩‍🦱 Gigi.

Swings were: Brandon Block (FB), Joven Calloway (FB), Rae Leigh Case, Nancy Lam (FB), Brian Shimasaki Liebson (FB).

This brings us to the music side of the art: the orchestra, conducted by Will Curry (FB) Music Director, assisted by Adam Rothenberg (FB) Assoc. Conductor. The orchestra had a very nice sound, and consisted of the following artists (🌴 indicates local): Zoe Miller (FB) Concertmaster; Erik Rynearson 🌴 Viola;  David Mergen (FB) 🌴 Cello; Mike Epperhart (FB) Bass; Mira Magrill (FB) Flute / Piccolo / Asian Flutes; Michele Forrest 🌴 Oboe / English Horn; Richard Mitchell 🌴 Clarinet / Alto Sax / Flute; John Fumo (FB) 🌴 Trumpet;  Charlie Morillas (FB) 🌴 Trombone / Bass Trombone; Jenny Kim 🌴, Katie Farudo French Horns; Russ Nyberg (FB) Drums / Percussion; Adam Rothenberg (FB), Jordan Jones-Reese Keyboards; Mary Ekler (⭐FB) 🌴 Keyboard Sub. Other music credits: Stephen Brooker Music Supervision; James Moore (FB) Tour Musical Supervisor; Eric Heinly (FB) 🌴 Orchestra Contractor; John Miller (FB) Music Coordinator; William David Brohn Original Orchestrations; Stephen Metcalfe (FB) & Seann Alderkng Original Orchestration Adaptations.

This brings us to the stagecraft and creative side of the story. Based on a design concept by Adrian Vaux, Totie Driver and Matt Kinley‘s Set Design is remarkable, especially for a touring production. They have done a very effective job of creating the hustle and seedy underbelly of Saigon and Bangkok, and the gigantic Ho head is quite menacing. They also create a great helicopter illusion. My only complaints are more Bruno Poet‘s lighting design (which continues the Cameron Mackintosh tradition of being far too dark and dim) and Mick Potter‘s sound design, which is far too muffled for the Pantages. It take work to get clear and crisp sound in the Pantages, and there are some that get it right when they load in. These folks didn’t, and on the sides, you couldn’t always clearly hear or make out the words. Andreane Neofitou‘s costumes seemed appropriate, although I cant’ speak to their authenticity. Luke Halls‘s projections were effective. Remaining production credits: Tara Rubin Casting Casting; Jack Stephens Company Manager; Justin T. Scholl Assoc. Company Manager; Jovon E. Shuck Production Stage Manager; Michelle Dunn Stage Manager; Stephanie Halbedel Asst. Stage Manager; Rachael Wilkin Asst Stage Manager; Broadway Booking Office NYC Tour Booking.

Miss Saigon continues at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) through August 11. If you like the Les Miz style of Boublil and Schonberg, you’ll enjoy this. The performances and stagecraft are great. But don’t think too much about cultural problems behind the story, because that might make you think twice about attending. Me? I’m glad to have seen it this once, but I don’t have the desire to see it again.

🎭

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), the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) [2018-2019 season], the Soraya/VPAC (FB), and the Musical Theatre Guild (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:

Sunday brought us A Comedy of Errors from Shakespeare by the Sea (FB)/Little Fish Theatre(FB), which is next on the list to writeup. The last weekend of July brings West Side Story at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). August starts with an alumni Shabbat at camp, and The Play That Goes Wrong at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). August ends with Mother Road and As You Like It at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (FB). In between those points, August is mostly open.

Early September is also mostly open. Then things heat up, with the third weekend bringing Barnum at Musical Theatre Guild (FB), and the fourth weekend bringing Blue Man Group at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). October starts with The Mystery of Irma Vep at Actors Co-op (FB), and concludes with Mandy Gonzalez at the Soraya/VPAC (FB).  Yes, there are a lot of open dates in there, but I expect that they will fill in as time goes on.

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. 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. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!

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🎭 Death on Stage, Done Right | “Les Misérables” @ Pantages

Les Misérables (Pantages)Yesterday, I wrote about Falsettos at the Ahmanson Theatre, and how the death at the end of that show closed the show on a down note, leaving with the audience impressed with the performances, but an ultimate “eh” for the overall feeling. Contrast that with the death that occurs at the end of Les Misérables at the Hollywood Pantages (FB): almost the entire company on stage, marching and singing and celebrating the life and glory. You walk out humming an uplifting anthem, with a completely different feeling. Now that’s how you do death!

Also as with Falsettos, this is the second time we’ve seen the show. The first was also in 2011 when it was at the Ahmanson. This was also the year we first saw Falsettos. Back then I wrote about the show:

Back in 1985, a musical juggernaut was created: Les Misérables, the musical version of the Victor Hugo novel. It hit Los Angeles in 1988, opening at a rejuivenated Shubert Theatre in Century City, where it ran for fourteen months. It returned to Los Angeles numerous times since then under Broadway/LA’s banner (2004, 2006). However, it wasn’t until the current 25th anniversary production at the Ahmanson Theatre that I finally saw the show. As my wife said as it ended last night, “Wow!”.

Les Misérables” (the musical) tells the story of Jean Valjean, also known as prisoner 24601, and his adopted daughter, Cosette. It is based on the Victor Hugo of the same name, but does cut a few elements of the story. The story, which covers 17 years, is so complicated that a synopsis needed to be published in the program (seemingly, a bad sign). Given that, I’m not going to attempt to repeat it here. You can read it yourself in the Wikipedia Page on the show. Suffice it to say that the show condenses the 1,200 page, five volume novel into two acts of 90 minutes and 65 minutes respectively. The first act covers Jean Valjean’s release from prison and the interaction with the Bishop at Digne, the mayoral years at Montreiil-Sur-Mer where Valjean meets Fantine and takes responsibility for Cosette, the visit to Montfermeil where Valjean obtains Cosette from the Thénardiers, and the years in Paris where the student revolt begins and Marius and Cosette fall in love… all of this while the police officer Javert is chasing Valjean. The second act is solely in Paris and covers the student revolt, its failure, the subsequent growth of the relationship between Marius and Cosette, the final confrontations of Valjean and Javert, and the final redemption of Valjean. That’s a lot of material to cover—trying to cover so much material and so much time is the reason many great novels, such as Gone With The Wind, never make it to the Broadway stage. It is a testament to the original authors Claude-Michel Schönberg (music) and Alain Boublil (a French-language libretto) that they were able to take the beast of a novel and turn it into something understandable (although, arguably, this is really a full opera presented in the guise of a “musical”—at times, the lines between the two blurs). It is also a testament to the English language adapters, Herbert Kretzmer who developed the English language libretto, and Cameron Mackintosh, the original producer, who discovered the French production in 1982 and has sheparded it ever since (I’ll note Mackintosh’s full bio in the program was: “Produces musicals.”). The production was adapted by Sir Trevor Nunn and John Caird.

The translation does have its weak parts, however, primarily in how manipulative it is for the audience. By this, I mean the show in engineered to be a pleaser, with music that builds and leaves the toes tapping; with moments designed to permit the actors to shine; and with act-ending finales designed to stir the soul. In that sense, it is truly operatic as opposed to dramatic. It it also, at times, emotionally overwrought—again, a hallmark of the more operatic side. To some that is a fatal flaw that reduces the worth of the show, but I do enjoy the general effect.

[Some story credits I missed including the first time: Claude-Michel Schönberg Music; Herbert Kretzmer English Lyrics; James Fenton Additional material]

It is now 8 years since I saw that production. What has changed, other than Cameron Mackintosh now having a full bio? Does the new touring production reach the same heights? After all, the story hasn’t changed at all.

Sad to say, the answer is decidedly mixed. The performances are soaring, and the direction and choreography makes the best use of what they have to work with. Voices are remarkable, and the audience is excited. But production decisions make the ultimate effort hard to embrace. At the Ahmanson, the tour was designed to use the entire stage, which is needed for the company to express the broadness and scope of the production. At the Pantages, the set artificially constrained the stage space, cutting the width of the Pantages stage by an estimated one-sixth on each side (that’s a one-third cut overall, for those math challenged). This limited movement, and obscured sight lines from the side. Further, the lighting was dark dark dark, and then smoke and fog effects were added. This made it hard to see. I recall that the Ahmanson staging was better lit and you could see the actors from a distance. The constrained stage and the lighting served to tone down the show. At least the sound was, for the most part, good (which can be a problem in the Pantages).

This is not to say that the production was bad or poorly executed: only that it could have been better. The performances themselves were stunning. The comic bits with the Thénardiers were hilarious (in particular, Mme. Thénardiers reprise to “Master of the House” with the bread), and there were some remarkable sustained high notes. The voices were phenominal, and the music for this show is just a delight. You can just float away on that alone. It just didn’t have the impact of the first time we saw the show.

Some of the problems with this production — at least design wise — may be the results of decisions by the directoral team of Laurence Connor and James Powell. But they did do a great job with their performers about bringing out effective and strong performances that conveyed both the story and the emotions of the characters. They helped their acting team inhabit their characters and tracks, and generally made the performances the strongest part of this show.

In the lead position of this story was Nick Cartell (⭐FB, FB) at Jan Valjean. Cartell had soaring vocals in songs such as “Bring Him Home”, and captured the angst and torment of the character well, Opposing him throughout much of the story was Josh Davis (⭐FB, FB) as Javert. Davis also had soaring vocals in songs like “Stars” and his Soliloquy — a common trait in this cast — and provided solid opposition.

This brings us to the adult women in the cast: Mary Kate Moore (FB) as Fantine; Jillian Butler (FB) as the adult Cosette; and Paige Smallwood (FB) as the adult Éponine. All were beautiful and spectacular and sang like angels — Moore in “I Dreamed a Dream”, Butler in “A Hear Full of Love”, and Smallwood in “On My Own”. They made the same casting decision that was done in the 2011 production that required a bit of suspension of disbelief (little white girl turns into stunning black singer), but this is a stage fantasy, so who really cares.

Then there are the kids: Cate Elefante (FB) as Little Cosette (alternating with Aubin Bradley), Aubin Bradley as Young Éponine (alternating with Cate Elefante (FB)), and Parker Weathersbee as Petit Gervais / Gavroche (alternating with Parker Dzuba, who came in for Jonah Mussolino (⭐FB) in August 2018, when Jonah moved to Falsettos). Elefante was spectacular in her opening scene singing “Castle on a Cloud”, and Weathersbee was strong as Gavroche in the second act in all of his numbers. All were astonishingly cute.

Joshua Grosso (⭐FB) made a strong Marius, whom we see as Cosette’s love interesting and a leader of the students in the second act.  He has a touching rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”, and a lovely duet with Éponine in “A Little Fall of Rain”.

Lastly, in terms of the major characters in the story, there is the comic relief duo of J. Anthony Crane (⭐FB, FB) as Thénardier and Allison Guinn (⭐FB, FB) as Mme. Thénadier. We don’t meet the characters until the wonderful “Master of the House”, and then they keep reappearing in funny situations throughout the story. The actors play off each other well and are having fun with their roles, and that comes across to the audience well.

All of the other characters are in smaller roles, often not well named on stage, or in ensemble positions: John Ambrosino (FB) – Bamatabois, Claquesous; Felipe Barbosa Bombonato (FB) – Grantaire (at our performance), Farmer, Babet (normally); Olivia Dei Cicchi (FB) – Innkeeper’s Wife; Kelsey Denae (FB) – Wigmaker; Caitlin Finnie (FB) – Ensemble; Monté J. Howell (FB) – Innkeeper, Combeferre; Stavros Koumbaros (FB) – Joly; Andrew Love (FB) – Champmathieu, Brujon; Andrew Maughan (FB) – Bishop of Digne, Lesgles, Loud Hailer; Maggie Elizabeth May (FB) – Old Woman; Darrell Morris, Jr. (FB) – Constable, Montparnasse; Ashley Dawn Mortensen (FB) – Factory Girl; Bree Murphy (FB) – Ensemble; Domonique Paton (FB) – Ensemble; Talia Simone Robinson (FB) – Ensemble; Patrick Rooney (FB) – Constable, Fauchelevent, Jean Prouvaire; Mike Schwitter (FB) – Laborer, Feuilly; Matt Shingledecker (FB) – Enjolras; Brett Stoelker (FB) – Swinging in to Babet, Major Domo (at our performance); Addison Takefman  – Ensemble; and Christopher Viljoen (FB) – Factory Foreman, Courfeyrac. Matt HillNormally, Grantaire, Major Domo was out at our performance.

Swings were Julia Ellen Carter (FB); Jillian Gray; Tim Quartier (FB); Brett Stoelker (FB); and Kyle Timson (FB).  Understudy allocations are not shown.

This show isn’t a dance show per se, but there is lots of movement. The musical staging was by Michael Ashcroft and Geoffrey Garratt (FB). Kyle Timson (FB) was both the Dance Captain and the Fight Captain. Given the small stage space, the movement was very effective in utilizing that space and doing its best to create the illusion of a larger space. Still, this resulted in a lot of people going in a lot of circles.

The orchestra (under the Musical Direction of Brian Eads (FB)) was larger than the typical touring orchestra, and had that wonderful large orchestral sound that this show needs. No indication was provided as to who was local and who was not, but I recognize a number of names, so my educated guess as to locals is indicated with 🌴. The orchestra consisted of: Brian Eads (FB) – Conductor; Eric Ebbenga (FB) – Assoc. Conductor, Keyboards; Tim Lenihan (FB) – Asst. Conductor, Keyboards; Danielle Giulini (FB) – Violin, Concertmaster; Karen Elaine (FB) – Viola; 🌴 Ira GlansbeekCello; 🌴 Michael Valerio (FB) – Double Bass; 🌴 Amy Tatum (FB) – Flute, Piccolo, Alto Flute, Recorder; 🌴 Richard MitchellB Flat Clarinet, E Flat Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Tenor Recorder; 🌴 Laura Brenes (FB) – French Horn 1; 🌴 Allen Fogle (FB) – French Horn 2; 🌴 John Fumo (FB) – Trumpet, Flugelhorn, Piccolo Trumpet; Phil Keen (FB) – Bass Trombone, Tuba; Jared Soldivero (FB) – Drums, Percussion, Mallets, Timpani; Mary Ekler (⭐FB) – Keyboard Sub; Stuart AndrewsKeyboard Programming; Jean BellefeuilleAsst. keyboard Programming. Other Orchestral credits: 🌴 Eric Heinly (FB) – Orchestra Contractor; John CameronOriginal Orchestrations; Christopher Jahnke, Stephen Metcalfe, and Stephen Brooker [UK] – New Orchestrations; Stephen Brooker [UK] and James Moore (FB)  [US] – Musical Supervision; and John MillerMusical Coordinator.

Lastly, turning to the production and creative aspects: I’ve already mentioned the constrained stage space and the problems with the darkness of Paule Constable (FB)’s lighting design. Setting that aside, the rest of the production worked well. Matt Kinley‘s set and image design used a balcony on one side and archways on the other to create a wide variety of spaces, using a combination of rolled on, flown in, and projected set pieces. Some were extraordinarily effective, such as the catacomb effect in the sewers in the second act. Credit also goes to 59 Productions for the projection design, which also used images inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo. This was also augmented by the Costume Design of Andreane Neofitou and Christine Rowland, which seemed both appropriately poor and rich depending on the scene, and seemed to fit the characters and their stations well. The wig and hair design of Campbell Young Associates also worked well. Mick Potter‘s sound design generally worked well, although there were points that it was muddled in the cavernous space that is the Pantages. Other production credits: Laura HuntAssociate Costume Designer; Nic Gray – Associate Sound Designer; Richard Pacholski – Associate Lighting Designer; David Harris and Christine Peters – Associate Set Design; Corey Agnew – Assoc. Director; Richard Barth (FB) – Resident Director; Tara Rubin CSA (FB), Kaitlin Shaw, CSA – Casting; Ryan Parliment – Company Manager; Jack McLeod (FB) – Production Stage Manager; Jess Gouker (FB) – Stage Manager; Joseph Heaton (FB) – Asst. Stage Manager; Broadway Booking Office NYC – Tour Booking &c; NETworks Presentations – Production Management; Gentry & Associates – General Management. A Cameron Mackintosh and NETworks Presentation.

Les Misérables continues at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) through June 2, 2019. If you haven’t seen the show before, it is worth seeing. If you have seen the show before and love the show, you’ll certainly enjoy this outing. If you have seen the show and are looking for a new take, this might be hit or miss with the darker lit staging. Tickets are available through the Pantages box office.  Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar or through TodayTix.

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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:

Tonight brings another tour: Les Miserables at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The third weekend of May brings The Universe (101) at The Main (FB) in Santa Clarita (we loved it at HFF18), as well as The Christians at Actors Co-op (FB).  May closes with two concerts: Lea Salonga at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) and Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes (FB) … and that’s not even the weekend. The last weekend of May will see me at Bronco Billy – The Musical at Skylight Theatre (FB).

June, as always, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB). If you are unfamilar with Fringe, there are around 380 shows taking place over the month of June, mostly in the stretch of Santa Monica Blvd between 1 bl W of La Brea to 1 bl E of Vine, but all generally in Hollywood. On a first pass, there were lots I was interested in, 30 I could fit on a calendar, but even less that I could afford. Here is my current Fringe schedule as of the date of this writeup. [Here’s my post with all shows of interest — which also shows my most current HFF19 schedule. Note: unlike my normal policy, offers of comps or discounts are entertained, but I have to be able to work them into the schedule with the limitations noted in my HFF19 post]:

In terms of non-Fringe theatre (which, yes, does exist): Currently, the first weekend of June is open, although I’m thinking about Ready Set Yeti Go at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB) [if the publicist contacts me or I see it on Goldstar for Saturday]. Fringe previews start the next week. The end of June also brings Indecent at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on June 28, just before the busy last weekend of Fringe.

As for July, it is already filling up. Although the front of the month is currently open, July 20 brings Miss Saigon at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), followed by A Comedy of Errors from Shakespeare by the Sea (FB)/Little Fish Theatre(FB). The last weekend of July brings West Side Story at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). August starts with an alumni Shabbat at camp, and The Play That Goes Wrong at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB).

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.

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🎭 Will We Ever Learn | “Fiddler on the Roof” @ Hollywood Pantages

Fiddler on the Roof (Hollywood Pantages)Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway in 1964. As it was being developed, and even after it opened, the production team wondered whether this show about Jews in a shetl in 1901 would be received by broader audiences. It had an incredibly long run time (just under 3 hours), and unlike most shows, had a decidedly unhappy ending. Yet the show went on to have a long run on Broadway, long runs on tour, and world-wide acceptance. The story of an oppressed people, being forced out of a country for political reasons, resonated with many for some reason. The difficulty of adapting to changing traditions was also a touchsone.

In the 55 years since, one might have hoped that the xenophobia and antisemitism seen in the show might have abated somewhat. But it hasn’t. We’ve seen antisemitism on the rise here in the US; we’ve certainly seen fear of the immigrant and their practices. In Russia, antisemitism is still rampant, and it is increasing throughout the world. More and more countries hate the immigrant, and that seems to be especially true of the Muslim. Fear of people based on their religion seems quite common (and yet, perhaps the religion we should fear due to the intolerance from its purported practitioners, is universally present in American culture … but I digress). So the story of Fiddler on the Roof is still relevant today; still that cautionary tale.

I have been familiar with Fiddler on the Roof all my life, but I can’t recall having seen it on stage before. I know I saw the 1971 movie when it came out; I might have seen it in 1974 at the LA Civic Light Opera (but I’m not sure). I know it was my wife’s first live theatre — she saw it in 1969 when it made its second visit to the LA CLO. But Fiddler has, in many ways, been part of my DNA. My grandfather came from Vitebsk in the Pale of Settlement; this is the same area about which Sholom Aleichem wrote. He came over as a poor tailor. His wife’s father was the one son in a family of 12. There are similarities in the story. So this could easily have been my family’s story.

I’ll note that we saw Fiddler on the 2nd night of Passover. This made for some cognitive dissonance,  especially as they broke and shared Challah for Shabbat. There was something odd about Jews sharing chometz on stage during Passover. I’m glad we didn’t go Friday night; just imagine how much the cast had to swing in for the first night of Passover (although perhaps they did an early Seder for the cast backstage). There should be something in the contract for Fiddler about performing on Jewish holy days.

Speaking about contracts, I should note one thing before I go into the story and my assessment of the production: There’s an interesting omission in the Playbill for the show. I suspected it when I saw the tiny merch cart; I became more suspicious when I saw no photo backdrop for the show. I was also suspicious reading the cast bios in the program: there were no callouts to AEA and precious little Broadway experience. The program confirmed: this is a non-Equity tour. I don’t personally have a problem with that: I see non-Equity talent all the time in Los Angeles and it is often superb. Talent has to get a start somewhere, and a non-Equity tour provides great experience and a stepping stone to the Equity world. But I do think audiences should go in aware. I am pleased to say that I saw no evidence of weak or poor talent in this production, although some performers were a little young for their roles. But that happens these days in Equity tours as well.

For those unfamiliar with Fiddler on the RoofHave you been living under a rock? But seriously: Fiddler is based on the “Tevye and his Daughters” stories by the Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem; they were adapted for the stage by Joseph Stein, and supplemented the classic words of Sheldon Harnick and music by Jerry Bock. They tell the story of a small village in Russia in 1901 called Anatevka (probably in the Pale of Settlement, as that was the only portion of Russia where Jews were permitted to live). This was the typical town of the time with a very poor and traditional Jewish population; administered by a Russian Christian population. The town life was infused with Jewish tradition and practice. The story concerns Tevye, a milkman; Golde, his wife; and his five daughters: Tzeitel, Hodel, Chava, Shprintze, and Bielke. As the story goes on, each of the older three daughters finds a future husband — each going further and further outside of the traditional ways. Tzeitel chooses her husband without her father’s help, after a marriage was arranged for her. Hodel falls in love with a poor student who is sent to Siberia, and doesn’t ask her father’s permission at all. Chava falls in love with a Russian Christian soldier, and is married in a Church. In parallel to this, the outside world intrudes through pogrums, and the eventual edict that ejects the Jews from their homes and sends them on the path to new homes in places like Poland, Eretz Yisroel, and America. One wonders if they will find acceptance in America? Good thing this was the early 1900s and not today.

The music in Fiddler is iconic, and resulted in many tunes that entered the popular songbook: Sabbath Prayer, If I Were a Rich Man, and Sunrise Sunset, to name a few. This production added back a song that was cut during the original run: “The Rumor”.

This production was based on the 2015 Broadway Revival that starred Danny Burstein. I’ll note that production also featured Adam Kantor, who originated the role of Motel in the revival. Adam studied for his role by going on the Yiddishkayt tour of Belarus, Latvia, and Lithuania in the summer before the production. Also on that tour: my daughter, who is a Yiddish scholar working on her PhD at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I wonder how much of the lessons learned from Yiddishkayt made it to what we saw on the Pantages stage?

So let’s start with what I didn’t like about this production, which was remarkably little (I’ll touch on the individual actors later) :

  • This production used an odd framing device: The actor playing Teyve walks onstage in a modern red puffy jacket, starts reading a book at what is ostensibly a train station in Russia. He then takes off the jacket and then become Tevye. At the end of the show, he puts back on the jacket and is modern again, and is finishing the book. That’s all the explanation there is. I didn’t see the point of it. If you are going to frame the story, do it for a purpose. Show explicitly that this is someone studying his past, and show what he learned from it. As it is now, this is meaningless and adds nothing. In fact, it takes away something, for now there is no overture.
  • The show was plagued with sound problems, in the form of crackling microphones and occasional drops of character amplification. Sound engineers: You’re supposed to test this stuff before the first run. Even with a non-Equity cast, there have been enough earlier tour stops to work out performance interactions with the microphones. This isn’t rocket science, folks.
  • I was not enamored of their conception of the dream sequence: it came across as too Kabuki for me, and the droopy breasts of the costume for Grandmother Tzeitel were comical to the point of distraction. Bad design choice.
  • In general the costumes were good, but there were a few men who were missing their tzitzit. Yes, there are those of us who notice those details. I did notice that the production did use books with Hebrew or Yiddish on their covers, and for the wedding sequence, an actual tallit (I could read the wimple).

As I said, surprisingly little on the poor side. On the other hand, there was lots to like about this production. I was particularly enamored of the female ensemble: watching their reactions during scenes such as the bottle dance was priceless. Tevye’s daughters were also very strong, and Tevye himself (modulo the Israeli accent) gave a great performance.  They seemed to get the customs right, and were believable in their practice and emotions. Kudos to the Associate Director, Sari Ketter, who implemented the vision on tour of the revival director, Bartlett Sher (FB). I’m calling her out for extra kudos because she did a wonderful job with the non-Equity cast, bringing out a spectacular performance from the entire team; Sher had the luxury of working with Equity folk. The choreography for this version of the show was by Hofesh Shechter of the Batsheva Dance Company (note that the fellow playing Tevye was also a member of that company); it was recreated by Associate Choreographer Christopher Evans. I found the dances in this show to be strong: especially those in the opening number, the “L’Chaim” sequence, and in the Wedding Sequence. Other sequences were more movement than full-on dance. It is unknown the extent to which Jerome Robbins‘ original direction and choreography remained in the show. Overall, it was a very enjoyable show.

Turning to the performances themselves: in the lead position was Yehezkel Lazarov (FB) as Tevye. In the history of Tevye’s there have been those who overshadowed the role and made their personality the focus — both Zero Mostel and Topol were guilty of this on the stage. Others made the character the center, such as Herschel Bernardi. Recent revivals have featured Alfred Molina (no, just no) and Danny Burstein. Lazarov was strong as Tevye, but at times his Israeli accent took center, which impacted the belief that we were in Russia. Other than that, his singing was strong and he had a great playfulness with the role without being overpowering. He portrayed a strong relationship with his daughters and wife, and came across believable on stage. I thought he was good in the role, but perhaps a bit young.

Maite Uzal (⭐FB, FB)’s Golde definitely came across as too young for the role, although again it would be believable for married at age 16. Still, she gave a strong performance and handled her numbers well. Watch her face, particularly during the dream sequence and the “Do You Love Me?” number. She is quite fun to watch.

Where this production shined was in the casting for the three oldest daughter of Tevye: Mel Weyn (FB) as Tzeitel, Ruthy Froch (FB) as Hodel, and Natalie Powers (FB) as Chava. They were all super strong singers with lovely voices, in particular Weyn and Froch. But their faces, oy their faces. Just watch them as they listen and react to the other actors; watch them during the wedding sequence. Their joy and delight and performances made this production really special. Tevye’s two youngest daughters: Danielle Allen (FB) as Shrprintze and Emerson “Emmy” Glick (FB) as Bielke had much smaller roles and didn’t get the chance to individually show their vocal talents, but they were equally fun to watch in the facial expression and movement department.

Jesse Weil (FB) as Motel has the advantage of playing the best characterized of the daughter’s suitors. He captures the timidness of the character well, and does a great job of portraying the character growth into a man. He does a strong job on “Miracle of Miracles”. The other suitor we get to know well is Ryne Nardecchia (FB)’s Perchik, Hodel’s suitor. He has a lovely number in “Now I Have Everything”, and he has a great interaction with Froch’s Hodel. Chava’s suitor, Joshua Logan Alexander (FB) as Fyedka, is not given the chance in the script to develop a personality other than “Russian Soldier”, nor does he get a song of his own. He does seem to interact well with Powers’ Chava.

This brings us to the two remaining characters who have someone significant personalities of their own: Carol Beaugard (FB)’s Yente, and Jonathan Von Mering (FB)’s Lazer Wolf.  Beaugard (who I hadn’t know was big in the Bluegrass community) is a bit too young for Yente, but she covers it up well and captures the character adequately. She starts one major number, but is strong in her early scene with Golde and her later scene at the end. Von Mering’s Lazer Wolf is stronger in a sense: he gets some good stage time in L’Chaim; he also has some good scenes during the wedding and at the end. He was fun to watch.

This brings us to the ensemble, which covers the dancers, background performers, and those whose ensemble tracks also cover smaller character roles. I’d like to start with the female ensemble first (character tracks as noted): Eloise Deluca (FBVillager, Co-Dance Captain; Olivia Gjurich (FBVillager, Fruma-Sarah; Carolyn Keller (FBVillager, Grandma Tzeitel, Shaindel; Kelly Gabrielle Murphy (FBVillager, Rivka; Lynda Senisi (FBVillager; Britte Steele (FBVillager, Mirala. Let’s start out by saying I love this ensemble. I don’t normally highlight the ensemble, because often their personality does not shine through. But watch these young women in the background during the wedding sequence: their joy and fun is infectious, and you don’t know whether to watch the dancers or the ensemble. They were spectacular. In terms of character highlights: I wasn’t that enamored of the dream sequence in terms of its design and the kabuki-style masks, although Keller’s Tzeitel had a wonderfully strong voice.

The male ensemble got the stronger side of the dance equation, both in the L’Chaim sequence and in the Wedding sequence. The male ensemble consisted of: Danny Arnold (⭐FB, FB) Villager, Mordcha; Eric Mitchell Berey (FBVillager, Nachum, Yussel; Derek Ege (FBVillager; Michael Hegarty (FBVillager, Rabbi; Paul Morland (FBVillager, Fiddler; Jacob Nahor (FB) Villager; Jack O’Brien (FBVillager, Sasha; Honza Pelichovsky (FBVillager; Nick Siccone (FB) Villager, Mendel; and Brian Silver (FB) Villager, AvrumThe male ensemble is less focused on the acting side of the equation, and much more so on the dance side. Their acting is stereotypical Jewish prayer behavior, shuking and such. They don’t have as much to react to, given the nature of the story. But where they excel is in dance. The bottle dancers were particularly spectacular, but the Russian dancers in the L’Chaim sequence were also quite strong. In terms of character roles, there are a few worth noting: Morland’s Fiddler was strong musically, and fun to watch in the background. I also liked Hegarty’s Rabbi, particularly in the Wedding Dance and closing sequences.

Swings were: Allegra Herman (FB);  Leah Platt (FB); Nicholas Berke (FB); and David Ferguson (FB) Co-Dance Captain, Fight Captain.

Before I turn to the members of the orchestra, I must highlight the excellent orchestrations, incidental music, and dance arrangements. These are things you don’t notice in the movie version, and they were really really good. Kudos to Ted Sperling (FBMusic Supervisor and New Orchestrations; and Oran Eldor (FBDance Arrangements. Michael Uselmann (FB) served as Music Director and Conductor of the orchestra, assisted by Jonathan Marro (FB). The orchestra consisted of (there was no indication of whom in the orchestra was local or not, but some folks are local regulars indicated by 🌴): 🌴 Paul Cartwright (FB) Violin, Concertmaster; 🌴 Richard Mitchell Flute, Piccolo, Alto Flute, Clarinet; 🌴 Jeff Driskill (FBClarinet, Bass Clarinet, E-Flat Clarinet; 🌴 Michael Stever (FB) Trumpet; 🌴 Charlie Morillas (FBTrombone, Euphonium; 🌴 Mike Bolger (FBAccordion, Synth; 🌴 Brian LaFontaine (FB) Guitars (Acoustin, Mandolin, Hollow Body Archtop Electric); 🌴 Nate Light (FB) String Bass; 🌴 Bruce Carver Drums, Percussion; 🌴 Alby Potts (FBKeyboard. Other music related positions: 🌴 Eric Heinly (FBOrchestra ContractorJohn Mezzio (FB) Music Coordinator.; Balint Varga (FBMusic Copying. Note that this is the first time, at the Pantages, that I’ve seen the entire orchestra be local talent. They were great, but we have great local talent in Los Angeles. That means I cannot vouch for the quality of the music in other cities.

Finally, the production and other creative aspects of the show. This, in some ways, is where is non-Equity tour is likely to show its bones. Although elements from the Broadway production can be obtained, the desire to cut costs cuts the number of trucks that can carry scenery. Michael Yeargan (FB)’s scenic design was good for the scenes at Tevye’s home and barn, and for Motel’s shop. The opening scene was a bit more devoid of scenery than I might like, and it lacked the most important thing: there was no roof for the Fiddler! Overall, although the scenery worked, it could use a tad more oomph. I particularly did not like the scenic design for the dream sequence. Catherine Zuber‘s costumes worked for the most part, modulo the dream sequence masks, except some tzitzit were missing from the undergarments. Kathy Fabian‘s props were good, and I particularly liked the realistic touches of using Yiddish books, real tallit with wimpels, and a seemingly real Torah at the end (although I’m sure there were no actual scrolls — if there are, their insurance and practices better be good). Tom Watson‘s hair and wig design worked well and was believable; Tommy Kurzman‘s makeup was not overdone (except for the noted dream sequence problems). Scott Lehrer‘s sound design was mostly great in the design, but there was some execution crackling. Donald Holder‘s lighting worked well to establish mood and place. Lastly, Kristin Flanders‘s dialect coaching mostly worked, but she needs to work with the lead a bit more to transform the Israeli accent into a more Russian or Yiddish accent. Rounding out the production team: Jason Styres, CSA (FB) Casting; BH Barry (FBFight Director; Shelby Stark (FBProduction Stage Manager; Kelsey Clark (FBAsst. Stage Manager; Christopher T.P. Holman (FBCompany Manager; Mackenzie Douglas (FBAsst. Company Manager; Networks Presentations (FB) General Manager.

Fiddler on the Roof continues at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) through May 5, 2019. Even though this was a non-Equity tour, the performances were strong and we enjoyed the production quite a bit. It is well worth seeing. Tickets are available through the Pantages box office. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar (it visits San Jose next) or TodayTix.

***

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:

Next weekend is interesting, as my wife is having a small procedure during the week. Saturday will bring In The Heights at the LA Pierce College Theater (FB) (featuring a performer we saw at REP), but for me alone. Looking to May, the month starts out with Sister Act at Casa 0101 (FB) in Boyle Heights, simply because we love the work of this theatre, and we want to see how a small theatre tackles this big show. The second weekend of May brings  Falsettos at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and Les Miserables at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The third weekend of May brings The Universe (101) at The Main (FB) in Santa Clarita (we loved it at HFF18), as well as The Christians at Actors Co-op (FB).  May closes with two concerts: Lea Salonga at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) and Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes (FB) … and that’s not even the weekend. Who know what the weekend will bring!

June, as always, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB). I’m just starting to wade through the list of 343 shows, but I already see some I want to see, including The Seven Year Itch[title of show], and the return of Tabletop: The Musical. Right now, I’ve got about 30 shows in the schedule, so I expect to pair things down as I see ticket prices and the schedule shapes up. If you are producing or in a show and you want me to see it, now is the time to get me your information — especially any discount codes. I hope to post a preliminary schedule in the next week or so.

As for July, it is already starting to fill, with Miss Saigon at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and West Side Story at 5 Star Theatricals (FB).

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.

 

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🎭 Pure and Sweet Imagination | “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” @ Hollywood Pantages

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Hollywood Pantages)What distinguishes live theatre from the movies, when all is said and done? Think about the question closely. Go beyond the fact that movies are projected images, the same every time you view them. Both tell stories. Both have characters that grow. But movies — even animated movies — are realistic. They show you everything; they leave nothing to the imagination. Close up or far, what they present — if not real — is realistic.

But the stage. The stage. The stage is a home of real imagination. Shall we say, pure imagination. Go to any intimate theatre, and look at the worlds they create with just a few boxes and props. Even in the larger theatres, the sets are mere suggestions of realism. The world that is created is one that is in your imagination. Even  when you take a property that was once on the screen and move it to the stage, you need to adapt it for that change from a world of realism to a world of imagination. Cinema magic isn’t the same as stage magic. They are different beasts, and the story must often adapt for that change in worlds.

Keep that in mind when you read reviews, for some reviewers don’t get that fundamental aspects of the stage. Even theatre reviewers forget it.

The children’s author Roald Dahl understood imagination well. His books centered on imagination, and understood that kids don’t fear the scary or gross — they embrace it. Three of his stories have been adapted into musicals (to my knowledge), and as of last Thursday, we’ve seen all three.  The first of his stories we saw on stage was Matilda, which we saw back in 2015, and again a few weeks ago. Many compared Matilda to the movie: there were changes from the movie to the stage, and the movie was not a musical. The approach to the story was a bit different, and the stage depended much more on imagination. Then there was James and the Giant Peach, which we saw a little over a year ago. There is an animated version of the story, which I’ve never seen. I throughly enjoyed the stage version, which was much more oriented towards children, but still harnessed significant imagination in making the characters come to life with human actors. The music of Pasek and Paul didn’t hurt.

Then there’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which we saw Thursday night. The problem here is that the original 1971 movie is both iconic and a musical. Gene Wilder stamped himself on that role, and most people can’t separate his portrayal from how they imagine the story. There’s also a 2003 version with Johnny Depp, but it never achieved quite the same iconic nature, is downright creepy, and is best forgotten.  But the Wilder version: that’s so iconic that when the stage musical (with songs by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman; and book by David Grieg) was transferred from London’s West End to Broadway, they had to interpolate songs from the movie, written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, into the stage musical in order for it to be accepted. In many ways that’s too bad: I have only heard the London Cast Album, and enjoy it quite a lot.

So many people come into the stage musical expecting to see the equivalent of the Wilder movie on stage, and they don’t get it. I believe this is why many reviewers have walked out of this show disappointed: they don’t see the magic of the movie on stage. Well, GET OVER IT. This is a stage musical, and must be viewed on its own. Changes are made as the story is adapted to the stage; characters are updated so that children of today can related to them. The story must be designed to talk to adults (who can afford to pay for the tickets) as well as the children. Most of all, the imagination that is on stage must be uniquely theatrical.

If you can set aside your preconceived notions from the 1971 movie and watch this version of Charlie on its own terms, I think you’ll enjoy it as much as we did. There is loads of creativity in the show. There’s lots of song and dance, and both the children in the audience and the children in the adults will entertained. There are sufficient references back to the 1971 movie to provide that modicum of comfort and familiarity, and there isn’t a single trace of Johnny Depp.

I probably don’t need to go in detail into the story. You’ve quite likely seen either or both of the movies. Basically, reclusive chocolate manufacturer and creator Willy Wonka decides to reopen his factory to five children who have found golden tickets hidden in Wonka bars. Four of them meet horrible death or injury due to repulsive habits, but the one who is pure of heart wins the grand prize: the factory. It’s just like a horror movie, but with kids.

So what has changed in this version. Let’s start with the kids: none appear to be British. Augustus is the least changed from what he was in the movie. Veruca is Russian, and the same spoiled brat she always was — except she does ballet. Violet Beauregarde still chews gum, but is now black and hip-hop-ish and from Los Angeles. Mike Tevee is more spoiled teen videogamer who hacks computer systems, vs. the TV watching kid he was. Charlie is essentially the same, except he went from having two parents in the movie, to having just a father in the London version, to having just a mother in the Broadway version. Oh, and the character of Slugworth and the whole notion of kid’s spying is gone.

Instead, there’s a new framing device added that changes the tone of the piece — a framing necessary by the theatrical demands of having your most entertaining character be on stage for both acts. This is because the first act, due to the demands of exposition, must introduce you to each of the children, and provide the background on their characters, their faults, and their ambitions. That’s a story that — if you recall the movie — is absent Willy Wonka. In the movie, Wonka doesn’t show up until the start of the factory tour. But that cannot work on stage: you want to see Wonka. So the story now opens with Wonka on-stage, explaining that he has decided it is time to pass the factory down. He then transforms into the owner of the candy shop that now sells Wonka products, and starts interacting with Charlie, encouraging him to buy a bar. He keeps encouraging him throughout the first act, as each ticket is found, being disappointed that Charlie cannot afford to buy the bar that the candy shop owner so clearly wants him to buy (and, with the audience in on the secret of who the candy shop owner is — they know Wonka really wants Charlie to get a ticket). In desperation, after the 4th ticket is found, Wonka closes the shop claiming to be sold out, but leaves a dollar on the floor for Charlie to find … and plants the bar where Charlie can purchase it. Random chance of Charlie getting the ticket? Doesn’t pass the sniff test, with the framing device.

Most reviews I have read do not like this change. Most reviews I have read complain about the first act taking so much time to introduce the characters. But the story just doesn’t work with any other structure. The framing device changes the story, yes, but in a way that works for the stage, and lets the audience in on a secret that the characters on stage don’t know. I’ll note that reviewers also complain that the only child on stage is the actor playing Charlie. All the other kids are portrayed by adults. Again, these are the demands of the stage (children, for example, can’t do that much on-pointe dancing), but the suspension of belief of the stage makes it work.

When Wonka returns to the stage as Wonka, the energy and the imagination ramps up. This is hinted at in the closing number of the first act, but even more so as the second act opens and the tour begins. The stage cannot duplicate the film, but does imagination in its own way. How they handle the fates of the children is both more violent than the movie, and much more imaginative. Violet explodes on stage. Veruca is torn limb from limb. MIke becomes an animated puppet. But I think the best sequence is before Mike’s demise: when they must walk across the marshmallows, make a u-turn into the wind tunnel, and then walk across the field of flying frying pans. Mind you: there is nothing on the stage. They are doing this with pure pantomime and sound effects, and it is magical. Pure stage magic. For me, this was the scene that made the entire show magic. No projections. No props. An empty stage with pure performance and imagination magic.

Then there are the Oompa-Loompas. When they make their entrance, the audience goes wild. They are a combination of puppetry and dance, and are magic in the imagination displayed. They are indescribably funny, and they are such a creative use of the ensemble.

Through a combination of projection effects, puppetry, and performance, this production creates a new level of stage imagination. It is different than the movie, and to compare the two is to invite disappointment. They are different, and must be judged separately. The stage Wonka provides a different type of lunacy than Wilder brought to the role, although there is a modium of the deadpan WIlder aspects that cannot stop the children from their natures.

So, yes, I enjoyed it.

Kudos to the director, Jack O’Brien (and the London director, Sam Mendes), and the choreographer, Joshua Bergasse (and the London choreographer, Peter Darling) for the creativity and movement they brought to this production.

Let’s now turn to the performance aspect of the piece.

Willy Wonka is created on stage by Noah Weisberg (FB). Weisberg does not have the same demented deadpan nature as Wilder, but he does make the role his own in his own way. Watch the joy of the character in the first act as he portrays the shop owner. Then see how his nature changes in the second act as the lunacy and the foreknowledge kicks in. He knows who the bad kids are, and knows that nothing he will do will stop them. In many ways, he is much more knowingly leading them to their demise, putting just the temptation in front of them that will pull to the problems in their nature. Note that he does this with Charlie at the end as well, but the temptation is of a different nature and in a different direction, and it is that different direction that allows Charlie to succeed. Weisberg’s Wonka succeeds well in pulling off the character. Just watch his face closely in the opening numbers, and you can see that he is making clear that his character is much more … omniscient … than perhaps he is saying with his words. He sings well, dances well, and handles the comedy spectacularly.

Charlie Bucket is played by the only children on stage — and three young men divide the role. At our performance, we had Rueby Wood (IG); the other performers are Henry Boshart (IG) and Collin Jeffery (FB, IG).  Wood captured the character well. I initially was unsure about his voice, but it got stronger throughout the evening and worked well. He was able to capture the right range of emotion and wonder for the character, and sang and moved well for someone so young.

Turning to Charlie’s family next: three of the four grandparents were mostly comic relief and played more as part of the ensemble. We’ll cover them there. The standalone family members were Amanda Rose (FB) as Mrs. Bucket and James Young (FB) as Grandpa Joe.  Rose’s mom was sweet and caring; you knew she knew she had a special child that she had to nurture in a hard world (and one can, perhaps, understand why they changed it from just the dad in London). She sang beautifully in her main number. Young’s Joe (I want to say Mighty Joe Young) was much more of a comic character. Unlike the movie’s Jack Albertson who was just sweet and old, this Joe had an imagination equal to young Charlie, as demonstrated by the story telling. He sang well and performed well; his character was less pushed into the dance aspects.

This brings us to the other “children”, all of whom were played by adults. Most of these performances were limited by book to be somewhat broad and stereotypical. In the required fat suit was Matt Wood (FB) as Augustus Gloop.  Wood’s Gloop was perhaps the least characterized of the kids: food gluttony is easy to portray on stage, and he didn’t do much more than stereotypically go after his food. His mother, played by Claire Neumann (FB),  was less rounded as Augustus, but more rounded as a character. She captured well the mom that couldn’t say no to her children in terms of food.

[Hmmm, as an aside, one wonders if this is a cautionary tale more for the parents than the children, for all the parents of the problematic children had one thing in common — they could not say no to their children … whereas Charlie’s parent was the only one that said “no” and stood by that decision. Would that the parents of the child in the White House have learned that lesson, and taught the meaning of “no” … but I digress]

Anyway, back to Neumann’s Mrs. Gloop. She played his mother well, and had a strong voice in her number introducing Gloop. The second child was Veruca Salt, played by Jessica Cohen (FB). She certainly had the demanding aspects of the performance down well, both in the “I want it now and my way” aspects, but even more so in the continual ballet pointe dancing. Naturally, she moved well and had a good singing voice. Her father, played by Nathanial Hackmann (FB), was a much more stereotypical Russian portrayal. It worked, for what it was. This brings us to our third child, Violet Beauregarde, played by Brynn Williams (FB). When she came on stage, I turned to my wife and said, “that girl has a voice!” She sings strongly and powerfully, and had great dance moves and was fun to watch. Again, her father on stage was much more stereotypical “professional hood dad” — for which I fault the writing — but David Samuel handled it well. Our last “child” as Daniel Quadrino (FB)’s Mike Tevee. His role was more teen brat, but he did remarkable in the wind-tunnel scene, and had a wonderful interaction with Wonka over his cell phone. It was a lesson I wished the audience members took to heart. Stealing her scenes, however, was Jennifer Jill Malenke (FB) as Mrs. Tevee. Her wonderful knowing looks and interactions with Wonka over alcohol were just priceless and delightful to watch.

This brings us, at last, to the very talented ensemble. They got to not only be dancing and acting as characters in the background, but became the Oompa Loompas in the second act. In those roles, they shone. They covered the lesser grandparents and the reporters, and made the magic happen behind the characters. They consisted of (additional named roles as noted): Sarah Bowden (FB, FB) also Cherry Sundae; Alex Dreschke (FB); Jess Fry (FB); David R. Gordon (FB); Chavon Hampton (FB); Sabrina Harper (FB); Benjamin Howes (FBalso Grandpa George; Karen Hyland (FBalso Grandma Josephine; Lily Kaufmann (FB); David Paul Kidder (FB); Joe Moeller (FB); Tanisha Moore (FB); Joel Newsome (FB) also Jerry Jubilee; Kristin Piro (FB) also Grandma Georgina; Armando Yearwood Jr. (FBalso Mrs. Green; and Borris Anthony York (FB). Of particular note here were Yearwood’s Mrs. Green, who was hilarious,  and Howes’s Grandpa, who got some wonderfully comic lines.
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[ indicates performers swung up from the ensemble or as swings]

Swings who weren’t swinging were: Colin Bradbury (FB); Elijah Dillehay (FB); and Kevin Nietzel (FB). Normal performers who weren’t on at our performance were: Madeleine Doherty (FB) normally Mrs. Teveee; Kathy Fitzgerald (FB) normally Mrs. Gloop; Clyde Voce (FB) normally Mrs. Green/Ensemble, and Caylie Rose Newcom (FB) normally Ensemble.

Music direction was by Charlie Alterman (FB), who conducted the Pantages orchestra (with John Yun (FB) [Assoc. Conductor]). The orchestra consisted of (🌴indicates local): Charlie Alterman (FB) Keyboards; John Yun (FB) Keyboards; Kelly Thomas (FB) Keyboards; Greg Germann (FB) Drums / Percussion; David White (FBBass; Jen Choi Fisher (FB) 🌴 Violins; Ira Glansbeek 🌴 Concertmaster, Cello; Richard Mitchell 🌴 Reed 1 (Flute / Piccolo / Alto Sax / Clarinet); Jeff Driskill (FB) 🌴 Reed 2 (Clarinet / Soprano Sax / Tenor Sax / Bass Clarinet); John Fumo (FB) 🌴 Trumpet / Piccolo Trumpet / Flugelhorn; Charlie Morillas (FB) 🌴 Trombone; Mike Abraham (FB)  🌴 Guitar (Solid Body Electric, Jazz Electric, Banjo, Nylon Acoustic, Steel Acoustic); Alby Potts (FB) 🌴 Synth Sub. Other music support: Eric Heinly (FB) 🌴 Orchestra Contractor;  Doug Besterman (FB) Orchestrations; Marc Shaiman (FBArrangements; John Miller (FBMusic Coordinator; Nicholas Skilbeck (FBMusic Supervisor; Michael Starobin (FBAdditional Orchestrations; Phij Adams (FBMusic Technology; JoAnn Kane Music Service / Russell Bartmus, Mark Graham, Josie Bearden, Charlies Savage Music Copying.

Finally, turning to the production, creative, and support side of the equation. Mark Thompson‘s scenic and costume design worked well. The main set pieces: the Wonka factory, the Chocolate Store, the Bucket Residence, and the various pieces in the factory itself — were suitably creating and worked well for the story. Similarly, the costumes worked well to establish each character in broad strokes with their personality. This was supported extensively by Jeff Sugg‘s video and projection design, which provided the amplification of the imagination. It will be interesting to see how regional productions of this adapt without the heavy video usage. More imagination, I guess. Basil Twist (FB)’s Puppetry Design was spectacularly — not only for the Oompa Loompas, but for the miniaturized Mike Tevee who was believably shrunk. Also supporting these on-stage design aspects was Campbell Young Associates‘s hair and makeup design, as Buist Buckley (FB)’s production properties. Andrew Keister (FB)’s sound was reasonably clear and had good sound effects; Japhy Weideman‘s lighting established place, time, and mood well. Other creative and support were: Kristin Piro (FBDance Captain; Kevin Nietzel (FB) Asst. Dance Captain; Matt Lenz (FBAssoc. Director; Alison Solomon (FBAssoc Choreographer; Andrew Bacigalupo (FBProd. Stage Manager; Alan D. Knight (FBStage Manager; Cate Agis Asst. Stage Manager;  Telsey + Company (FB) Casting; Juniper Street Productions Production Manager; Foresight Theatrical General Management.

Due to our having to shift seeing this production due to a wedding, we saw it much later in the run than normal. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory closes at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) on Sunday, April 14. If you can get tickets, go see it.

***

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:

Tonight brings us to the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for our rescheduled performance of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The next weekend brings the annual visit to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire (FB). The third weekend of April will bring Fiddler on the Roof at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The fourth weekend of April is interesting, as my wife is having a small procedure during the week. Thursday may bring Chris McBride’s Big Band at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB), but this is looking less likely. Saturday will bring In The Heights at the LA Pierce College Theater (FB) (featuring a performer we saw at REP), but for me alone. Looking to May, the month starts out with Sister Act at Casa 0101 (FB) in Boyle Heights, simply because we love the work of this theatre, and we want to see how a small theatre tackles this big show. The second weekend of May brings  Falsettos at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and Les Miserables at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The third weekend of May brings The Universe (101) at The Main (FB) in Santa Clarita (we loved it at HFF18), as well as The Christians at Actors Co-op (FB).  May closes with two concerts: Lea Salonga at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) and Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes (FB) … and that’s not even the weekend. Who know what the weekend will bring! June, as always, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB). I’m just starting to wade through the list of 306 shows, but I already see some I want to see, including The Seven Year Itch[title of show], and the return of Tabletop: The Musical. As for July, it is already starting to fill, with Miss Saigon at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and West Side Story at 5 Star Theatricals (FB).

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.

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🎭 Think Of It As a Dance Show | “Cats” @ Hollywood Pantages

Cats (Hollywood Pantages)The most important thing to remember, when thinking about the production Cats (currently at the Hollywood Pantages (FB)), with music by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics (mostly) by T. S. Eliot* (supplemental lyrics by Trevor Nunn), is that it is not a musical, despite everything you hear. It is a dance show, pure and simple. Go in thinking that, and you won’t be disappointed by the paper thin plot, the lack of real characters, the absence of character growth, or any silly musical theatre notions like that. If you read reviews of Cats and you find they are disappointed with the show, 9 times out of 10, you’ll find that they were going in expecting a traditional musical.

So, I’ll say it again: Cats is a dance show. And as a dance show, it is a spectacular one, with catchy if simplistic tunes that exist solely to support the dance, wonderful movement, and some lovely character vignettes that showcase characters you don’t see again as their characters. This shouldn’t be surprise, as this show was based on a collection of children’s poems, not any sort of story or novel with a through line.

I”ll repeat it a third time, because if you say it three times it must be true: Cats is a dance show. It only lacks the introduction that Bob Fosse put on his show Dancin’: “This show has no plot; it is a dance show.”.

I’m a big fan of comparing and contrasting shows, and ignoring my sojourn into Silly Symphonies at the Soraya the weekend between,  I had two dance shows in a row: Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella at the Ahmanson,  and Cats at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). Both celebrated and were centered around dance. One told a story without words, showing character growth. One used words to accompany the dance, but really didn’t tell a story. One used the classical repertoire; the other used more pop and rock stylings. One shows up only periodically; the other was one of the longest running shows on Broadway. Ultimately, I think I found Cats more satisfying. Perhaps it is the whole issue of accessibility. Using more modern music, and having songs to accompany the dance, ultimately made the dance itself more satisfying. The paper thin story went by the wayside, and one could enjoy the dance for what it was. With Cinderella, one had to focus on the dance and the language of the dance in order to figure out the more substantial story — and in doing so, the enjoyment of the dance itself was lost.

We last saw Cats in 2009 at Cabrillo Music Theatre (now 5 Star Theatricals (FB)); before that, it was the original production in 1985 at the Shubert Theatre in Century City.

There are those who somehow believe there is a story line in Cats. They think it has something to do with cats auditioning to go to the Heavyside layer, and ultimately Grizabella the Glamour Cat being chosen for no reason other than she has the one new song in the show. But given you really only see the other cats do their numbers and disappear (only three remain really visible in the ensemble dancing — Mungojerrie, Rumpleteaser, and Rum-Tum-Tugger), that story isn’t really there. It is grafted on to give an excuse for the song “Memory”. Don’t think about it. This is a dance show. Enjoy the spectacle.

I must, however, note some interesting story changes in this version. At the top of Act II, we have Gus the Theatre Cat’s number. Normally, this has been “Growltiger’s Last Stand”, with the whole number with the Siamese cats that was borderline offensive when the show premiered in the 1980s (with the use of stereotypes and such — not surprising, given when and where the poems were written). The 2016 revival on Broadway replaced that number with a different poem, “The Pekes and the Pollicles”, using some but not all of the original music. The new number works, but it creates an interesting discontinuity in the “McCavity” number where a mention is made of Griddlebone — who is now no longer in the show. Some other numbers have had their tempos changed or adjusted. I believe some of these adjustments derived from the 2015 London revival.

It is also important to understand the role productions such as Cats play in the musical ecosystem. Cats is not a star vehicle. Sure, there can be a star turn for the actor playing Grizabella — they get to shamble on, sing a spectacular number, shamble off, and then in the second act, shamble back in, sing a reprise of that number, and then die on stage. But for all the other actors in the show: this is ensemble heaven. It is a training ground for dancing, singing, and background characterization. When you go into the show, look for that. Watch each individual cat and how they succeed or fail in making each cat their own character. Look at their movement. Note who they are. This is how they get their exposure: doing this show with a paper-thin plot but spectacular movement and characterization exercises. For many of them, you’ll see them grow over the years into musical or dance mainstays.

But there is that one problem of identifying the performers. The individual cats are not all named in the show, so how do you know who is who? These answer is that the Wikipedia page provides a list of all the cats, their names, and a description of their costumes. This is a must, and should be in every program, because the individual cats are never introduced in the show — and other than the actors, the audience has no way of knowing who is performing whom (unless they happen to have done the show before). I think providing this listing would be a courtesy to the actors/dancers, as then they can be properly credited for their outstanding work.

I’ll note that this production was directed by Trevor Nunn, with choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler based on the original choreography by Gillian Lynne. I’ll also note that the entire performance team was strong, and the dancing was just a joy to behold. Writing this the night after the show, there are a few performances I’d like to highlight:

  • Caitlin Bond (FB)’s Victoria (the white kitten) is just amazing. Her moves and her talent are just wonderful. I really enjoyed watching her.
  • Rose Iannaccone (FB)’s Rumpelteazer was also fun to watch. Small, lithe, and with some spectacular moves — as well as great facial expressions. My eyes kept being drawn to her.
  • Emily Jeanne Phillips (FB)’s Jennyanydots did a spectacular tap number. I tried to recognize her elsewhere in the show, but couldn’t.
  • PJ DiGaetano (FB)’s swung into Mr. Mistoffelees, and did an outstanding job with it. DiGaetano normally portrays Coricopat.
  • Keri Rene Fuller (FB)’s has essentially a “walk-on” as Grizabella — she doesn’t really do all that much dancing. She does, however, get the powerhouse number in the show: “Memory”, and she does wonderful with that number.
  • Timothy Gulan (FB)’s does good as Asparagus, the Theatre Cat — I liked his characterizations and facial expression. I was a bit less taken with his Bustopher Jones.
  • Erin Chupinsky (FB) swinging in as Demeter, and Charlotte O’Dowd (FB) swinging in as Bombalurina, did a wonderful job on “McCavity” with some spectacular dancing.
  • McGee Maddox (FB)  gave a strong turn as Rum Tum Tugger/Bill Bailey. A different swagger in the characterization than I’ve seen before, but fun to watch.
  • Marian Rieves (FB)’s Cassandra is one of the ensemble cats that catches your eye. A seemingly Siamese shorthair (at least she has a more slinky costume than the other cats), she has wonderfully lithe movement. Her tumbling runs were incredible.
  • Ahren Victory (FB)’s Sillabub is the cat that sings with Fuller’s Grizabella, and does a spectacular job of it.

The other performers were strong dancers, but other aspects of their performances either didn’t stick out in my mind, or I couldn’t identify their character well enough to comment. Other cast members were: Phillip Deceus (FB) [Alonzo]; Lexie Plath (FB) [normally Bombalurina, but out last night]; Justin W. Geiss (FB) [Swing, who I’m guessing swung in for Coricocat]; Liz Schmitz (FB) [normally Demeter, but out last night]; Kaitlyn Davidson (FB) [Jellylorum]; Tion Gaston (FB) [normally Mistoffelees, but out last night]; Tony d’Alelio (FB) [Mungojerrie]; Dan Hoy (FB) [normally Munkustrap, but out last night]; Tyler John Logan (FB) [Plato / McCavity]; Anthony Michael Zas (FB) [Pouncival]; Ethan Saviet (FB) [Skimbleshanks]; Halli Toland (FB) [Tantomile]; Devin Neilson (FB) [Tumblebrutus]; Brandon Michael Nase (FB) [Victor / Old Deuteronomy]; Maria Failla (FB), Adam Richardson (FB), Tricia Tanguy (FB), Andy Michael Zimmermann (FB[Cat’s Chorus]; Zachary S. Berger (FB) [swinging in as Munkustrap]; Nick Burrage (FB) [Swing]; and Laura Katherine Kaufman (FB) [Swing].

The Cats orchestra was conducted by Eric Kang (FB), who was also musical director. Other members of the orchestra (🌴 indicates local) were: Evan Roider (FB) [Assoc. Music Director, Keyboard3]; Luke Flood (FB) [Keyboard1]; David Robison (FB) [Keyboard2]; Garrett Hack (FB) [Reed1]; Dave Stambaugh (FB) [Reed2]; Ralph Agresta (FB) [Guitar]; John Toney (FB) [Bass]; Aaron Nix (FB) [Drums / Percussion]; Jeff Driskill (FB) 🌴 [Flute / Clarinet / Tenor Sax]; Sean Franz (FB) 🌴 [Clarinet/Soprano Sax/Bari Sax]; Mike Abraham (FB) 🌴 [Guitar (Electric, Steel String Acoustic, Banjo, Nylon String Acoustic)]; Dan Lutz (FB) 🌴[Bass (Electric, Fretless)]; William Malpede 🌴 [Keyboard Sub]. Orchestra support: Eric Heinly (FB) 🌴 [Orchestra Contractor]; Kristen Blodgette [Music Supervisor]; Brian Taylor (FB) [Assoc. Music Supervisor]; Stuart Andrews [Keyboard Programmer]; and Talitha Fehr [Music Coordinator].

Turning to the production and creative side of the equation: Alas, nothing can top the original scenic design in the Century City Shubert theatre, where the entire theatre was transformed into a larger-than-life junkyard. This is a tour, which constrained John Napier‘s scenic design primarily to stage, with a few rows of lights. It was still a junkyard; just not as immersive. The audience did, however, get to see Napier’s design in another area — the costumes — when the actors came into the audience. Still, even here he was constrained by the original, as he had to keep the character designs within the constraints of the original design. Still, the impact of the actors going in the audience should not be discounted; Marian Rieves relates the story of going into the audience in the Pantages and making a little black girls day by showing what she could be when she grows up. Theatre does change lives. Where there has been a significant change since the original production is in the technology, and that is no where more apparent than in Natasha Katz‘s lighting design. Lightweight LEDs have transformed the theatre, from the eyes on stage, to Mr. Mistoffelees’ spectacular costume, to the changing colors of the light strands, to the on-stage flashlights. Katz’s design makes use of this well. Victoria Tinsman (FB)’s hair and makeup design is a key part of these characters, and what I’m sure was a time-consuming job paid off well in their looks. About the only weakness was Mick Potter‘s sound design: one of the characters had a very muffled microphone (I want to say Alonzo), and my wife noticed a number of balance problems. As an aside, I’m so looking forward to productions at the Dolby Theatre, because it should not be plagued with the muffled sound that is endemic to the Pantages’ rococo design. Knitting by Jo Thompson (Leg and Arm warmers) and Marian Grealish (Skimbleshanks / Victor). One other key creative credit for this show: Neuro Tour provided the physical therapy, which I’m sure these dancers depend upon. Other production and creative credits: Chrissie Cartwright (FB) [Assoc. Director / Choreographer]; Kim Craven (FB) [Assoc. Choreographer]; Ellenore Scott (FB) and Lili Froehlich (FB) [Asst. Choreographers]; John Clancy [New Dance Sequences for selected numbers]; Nick Burrage (FB) and Erin Chupinsky (FB) [Dance Captains];  Tara Rubin Casting (FB) [Casting]; Abigail Hahn (FB) [Assoc. Costume Designer]; Donovan Dolan (FB) [Production Stage Manager]; J. Andrew Blevins (FB) [Stage Manager]; Laura C. Nelson (FB) [Asst. Stage Manager]; Aaron Quintana (FB) [Company Manager]; Justin Coffman (FB) [Asst. Company Manager]; Troika Entertainment LLC [Tour Manager].

Cats continues at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) through March 24. Tickets are available through the Pantages website; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar or TodayTix. After Los Angeles, the Cats tour moves on to Seattle WA. If you like theatrical dance, it is worth seeing. If you are looking for a real musical with a plot and deep characterizations, and a storyline that means something, pass. Cats is a dance show, as I’ve said before.

PS: Let’s start the rumor: Cats in Yiddish. Ketz anyone?

ETA: Something I never knew: T.S. Eliot was antisemitic. Luckily, I don’t think he is making the big bucks off the musical, nor do I think there are any such references in this work, but it does make “Growltiger’s Last Stand” even more problematic.

***

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:

Next weekend brings Matilda at  5 Star Theatricals (FB) on Saturday, followed by Ada and the Engine at Theatre Unleashed (FB) (studio/stage) on Sunday. March was to conclude with us back at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but that date had to chance so that we could attend the wedding of our daughter’s best friend, who is a wonderful young woman.

April starts with Steel Magnolias at Actors Co-op (FB) and the MoTAS Men’s Seder. During the week, we are back at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for our rescheduled performance of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. 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. Looking to May, only four shows are currently programmed: Falsettos at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), Les Miserables at the Hollywood Pantages (FB); The Christians at Actors Co-op (FB); and Lea Salonga at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Because some of those shows are mid-week, two weekends are currently open (but will likely be programmed as press announcements are received). June, as always, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB).

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.

 

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