🎭 Be World Class in Everything, Center Theatre Group

With the announcement of the Ahmanson Theatre season at the Center Theatre Group (FB) this week, we made the decision to resubscribe at the Ahmanson again. Doing so reminded me yet again of the differences between how the Hollywood Pantages (FB)/Broadway in Hollywood (FB) does the care and feeding of subscribers, vs how CTG does it (especially as we also just resubscribed at the Pantages for their 2020-2021 season). So I thought I would start the morning by writing up this summary — primarily so I could tweet it to @CTGLA and challenge them to match their world-class theatre with a world-class subscriber experience.

I’ve been attending theatre since I was 12 and attended The Rothschilds at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion as part of the LACLO season. My parents were long time LACLO season ticket holders. We’ve subscribed at numerous theatres large and small, from the Pasadena Playhouse for almost 20 years (until their bankruptcy), the Colony, small venues like REP East and Chromolume (both now gone). Currently we subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB),  the Soraya/VPAC (FB), the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) [2020-2021 season] and the Musical Theatre Guild (FB).

Most theatres make it easy for subscribers: call and change your tickets easily, get the best prices (modulo the Goldstar last-minute tickets), often the ability to pick your seats and your nights well in advance. Some of the venues have their quirks: the Thousand Oaks Plaza (home of 5-Star) insists on a change fee, for example, when rescheduling. But the comparison of the two largest theatres in town: the Pantages and the Ahmanson, is telling. Both book Broadway tours and compete for the same audiences, although the former is for-profit and the latter non-profit. Here’s a comparison:

Characteristic Pantages Ahmanson
When you subscribe, can you pick the day you attend? Yes, online Yes, online
When you subscribe, can you pick the date you attend (i.e., which week of the run)? Yes, online, and you can compare seats across the nights Only over the phone, and there’s no ability to compare the different seats across the nights
When you subscribe, can you pick your seat? Yes, online Yes, online
When you subscribe, can you set up a payment plan? Multiple payment plans are possible, up to 10 payments, all can be set up online, no additional fee You can pay online in a single payment, or set up a 2 or 4 payment plan, but only over the phone, for an additional fee.
When do you learn of your subscription dates and seats, so you can block your calendar? At the time of subscription. Months later when they resolve the seats for subscribers, unless you did a phone subscription and picked the week.
Can you improve your seats after the renewal deadline, when non-renewing subscribers have dropped off? Yes, online, for no additional fee. Not that I recall from the last time we subscribed.
Do you get reminders before each show of the opportunity to purchase additional tickets (or exchange your seats) before anything opens to the public or special pre-sales? Yes, online Not that I recall from the last time we subscribed.
Are exchanges easy? Yes, online, for no additional fee. Often, however, it is hard to find a good exchange seat. Somewhat. They are online, but the system is confusing with respect to the full price vs. the exchange price. Often, however, it is hard to find a good exchange seat, especially at the lower price points.
Are there special subscriber events? Numerous evenings to see the theatre and backstage, for free, often with tastings set up from local restaurants. The occasional speaker or educational events.
Any other thank yous? We’ve occasionally gotten thank you bags … and even chocolate. Not much that I can recall.

Now I understand that goodie bags are probably a perk of being a for-profit theatre, and that might also limit the ability to do the tastings (although that’s marketing for the local restaurants, so it is in their interest). But the online ticketing and subscription system of Center Theatre Group is so antiquated and limited in its abilities. It really calls out for improvement. The Pantages is using an instance of the Ticketmaster system (also used by 5-Star, TO Civic Arts Plaza, and the Soraya), which likely means the increased fees are added silently to the ticket prices. But CTG really needs to look into getting some of these capabilities integrated into their system if they are going to successfully compete in the subscriber market. They’ve improved quite a bit from 10 years ago, when it was actually more expensive to subscribe thanks to per-ticket fees than to buy HotTix for each show. But I challenge them to improve again.

Share

🎭 Thoughts on a Theatre Season: Broadway in Hollywood 2020-2021

Broadway in Hollywood 2020-2021 SeasonThis morning, the Hollywood Pantages (FB), also known as Broadway in Hollywood (FB), announced their 2020-2021 season.  It consists of seven shows, although I’m sure more will be added:

  • Nov 3 – Nov 22, 2020 @ the Dolby: Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma revival.
  • Mar 23 – Apr 11, 2021 @ the Dolby: The Cher Show
  • Apr 13 – May 2, 2021 @ the Dolby: Tootsie
  • May 13 – Jun 5, 2021 @ the Dolby: Aida
  • Jun 8 – Jun 27, 2021 @ the Dolby: Pretty Woman: The Musical
  • Jun 25 – Sep 5, 2021 @ the Pantages: The Lion King
  • Oct 13, 2021 – Jan 2, 2022 @ the Pantages: Moulin Rouge! The Musical

So, here are my thoughts:

First, that’s an awfully long stretch for the Pantages and Dolby to be dark. Hamilton is scheduled to run at the Pantages from March through September November 22. But from September November 22 2020 through June 2021, there’s nothing seemingly planned for the Pantages. Either a refurbishment is in order for The Lion King, or there is more to be announced.

Similarly, the Dolby is quiet from July 26 (end of The Bands Visit) to November 3. Where are the shows that typically come in during September and October 2020. Oddly quiet. There must be more shows in the works. There are also no shows at either theatre for the lucrative Christmas 2020 season. Oklahoma closes, and the Dolby is dark until March, and the Pantages is dark through June. Really odd.

Also notable are the shows that are missing. Hadestown, of course, is going to the Ahmanson Theatre. But there are other significant shows that have announced tours: The Prom; You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown; The Lightning ThiefAin’t Too Proud (which started at the Ahmanson, so it is likely to return to the Pantages Going to the Ahmanson); An Officer and a Gentleman (ETA: Going to Broadway in Thousand Oaks). Then there are the musicals that are expected to tour — in particular Beetlejuice. I really expected The Prom (Ahmanson: 20-21), Ain’t Too Proud(Ahmanson: 20-21), and Beetlejuice at the Pantages. Two other tours — although more likely at the Ahmanson — are the Harry Potter play currently at the Curran, and To Kill a Mockingbird (update: Mockingbird has been announced for the Ahmanson). But Broadway in LA doesn’t do plays, although it might make an exception for Harry Potter.

As for what they do have on the season: All are good shows, with only two real retreads. The Lion King hasn’t been around for a while, and it will be nice to see it on stage again. Aida is an interesting choice. Hasn’t been in LA since it was first done at the Ahmanson; we saw it a few years ago in Portland. Hadn’t heard it was being revived and going on tour. The other shows are good, although none bring the big sparks.

Share

🎭 Melting Hearts | “Frozen” @ Hollywood Pantages

Frozen (Hollywood Pantages)Q: So, when Elsa gets hungry in that Ice Palace™ of hers, what does she eat?

A:  Frozen foods.

Are we going out on that joke? No, we’ll do an overdue writeup of a Disney™ animated movie turned into a stage musical first. Will that help? Not much, no.

OK, Stan Freberg aside: Yes, we saw Frozen at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) last Sunday, and this writeup is way way overdue. But it has been a busy busy week in the evenings (which is when I have time to do the writeups), and its not as if this writeup would do much to change the trajectory of this musical, which has its expected popularity with particular audience segments.

The way I’m starting this writeup makes it appear that this was a bad musical. It wasn’t at all. It was essentially the Disney musical on stage, with some adaptations to better fit the limitations of a real, non-animated world. The story was musical to begin with, so there wasn’t the question of whether this should be musicalized. It is clear that Disney intended for this to eventually move to the stage with the structure of the story and songs. The larger question of whether this needed to be on the stage is a different one: is it making an important point or message that isn’t being made elsewhere, or is this a profit calculation. I do think this falls into the latter category — this isn’t a Dear Evan HansenCome From Away, or Hamilton. It is clearly motivated by profit and parents, as evidenced by the length of its sit-down run at the Pantages.

That, by the way, doesn’t make this a bad musical. It is just not one of lasting social importance. But it is revolutionary, in its own way, for a Disney musical. You have princesses wearing pants, for example. But more importantly, you have a princess story where the goal is NOT the princess getting the prince. In fact, the prince is a cad. The true love in this story is the one between the sisters. It is that “true loves kiss” that moves the story forward (and sorry for the spoiler if you haven’t seen the movie). There are some who believe that this story even has a lesbian subtext. I don’t see that — neither sister seems to express a strong sexual desire towards anyone, so this could be asexual at best. But it is a strong story based on the sibling bond, and that’s something you don’t see in Disney that often. That could be one reason why shows like Frozen and Wicked have such a strong following from young women: they center on relationships between women that are/love each other as sisters, and that aren’t centered around the men on the periphery. That’s a message of female empowerment, something that is decidedly not the Disney of Yore.

The stage production is also a technical marvel. First and foremost is the puppetry. There are two primary puppets: Sven (the reindeer) and Olaf (the snowman). Sven is marvelous, with no real hint that there is a human actor inside. Realistic movements, playful, believable. Not at all a cartoon. Olaf, on the other hand, is intentionally cartoonish. You can see the human moving him behind him. But the attachments are such that Olaf really comes to life, and is an equally believable characters. Second and, umm, duomost, is the magic. This is a combination of projection, LED manipulation, stage magic, flying effects. They create Arendale, but more importantly, they create the ice effects and the magical ice palace. They create the magic costume transformations. This magic will make this production memorable for the youth in attendance, and may go a long way to creating lifetime theatre lovers. That’s the good thing. What’s bad? Think regional and smaller productions of this. This will be licensed at some point, and there will be regional and smaller productions of this. How will they reproduce the puppetry and stage magic, within limited budgets? That remains to be seen. Hopefully, the Disney juggernaut has planned ahead for those situations. I’m curious how the productions of Frozen Jr. handle this?

The songs are generally those of the movie, with some substitutions based on the changes in the story — primarily involving how the hidden folk that raised Kristof are presented and integrated in the story. More notably, in terms of music, this is NOT the production that is on Broadway. A new song has been integrated into Act II: “I Can’t Lose You”, which does a great job of showing and emphasizing the sisterly bond between Anna and Elsa. This helps center the story, and foreshadows the conclusion much better. This is as good a place as any to note that the music and lyrics are by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, with a book by Jennifer Lee, who also wrote the Disney animated film, which was directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee.

Under the direction of Michael Grandage, aided by Adrian Sarple Associate Director, the cast does a great job of bringing life to their characters and making them much more than cartoons. They seem to be having a lot of fun with these roles. The director also did a great job of keeping the story moving and presenting it in a way that is entertaining to the clear audience and keeps them entranced. This is especially true with his use of the younger characters, who have to entertain while the required story exposition and setup occurs.

The performances were strong. In the lead positions at our show were Caelan Creaser (FB) as Elsa and Caroline Innerbichler (FB) as Anna. Creaser was the understudy for the role, stepping in for Caroline Bowman (⭐FB, FB). Creaser did a great job with a wonderful voice and movement, and a personality that suited the character. I phrase it that way because Elsa, as a character is an Ice Princess — she is an embodiment of a frozen personality, cold and hiding any warmth inside. Creaser did that well, only showing the required moments of warmth when interacting with her sister. Innerbichler, as the warmer sister Anna, was remarkable. Warm and playful and delightful and (dare I say it) cute and exuding joy. Innerbichler captured that all, as well as playing well with both Hans and Kristof, in addition to her sister. Top that off with a wonderful singing voice.

Beyond the princesses, the other part of the main character group are the characters that travel with Anna to find Elsa: Kristof, Sven the Reindeer, and Olaf the Snowman. At our performance, these characters were brought to life by Mason Reeves (FBKristof, Evan Strand (⭐FBSven, and F. Michael Haynie (FB) Olaf. Due to the physical demands of the role, Even gets the Sunday evening we saw (as well as Wed, Thus matinee, Fri, Sat matinee); Collin Baja gets the other performances. This is good because I got to learn about Evan on his recent West of Broadway podcast interview; Mason Reeves also has an interview on the same podcast. All of these folks were particular strong — especially when you consider their youth. Reeves, IIRC, is a rising senior at University of Michigan. He does a wonderful job with Kristof, bringing loads of personality of fun, as well as a strong singing voice to the character. You don’t get to see anything of Strand beneath the puppet, but he does a great job of bringing the puppet to life and imbuing it with a personality and a character and believability. Haynie’s Olaf is more cartoonish, but he has loads of fun with the character which is transmitted to the audience.

In the second tier are some notable recurring actors. The cutest ones of the bunch are (again, at our performance) Arwen Monzon-Sanders Young Anna W, Th-Mat, Fri, Sat-Mat, Sun-Eve and Jaiden Klein Young Elsa W, Th-Mat, Fri, Sat-Mat, Sun-Eve. They alternate with Stella R. Cobb Young Anna T, W-Mat, Th, Sat-Eve, Sun-Mat and Alyssa Kim Young Elsa T, W-Mat, Th, Sat-Eve, Sun-Mat. Monzon-Sanders (and presumably Cobb) also have notable roles in the ensemble for “Fixer Upper”. These young girls were so cute and playful, especially Monzon-Sanders. They just seemed to be loving their time in front of the audience. They sing and move well, and are just fun to watch. Further, I’m sure that their presence makes the show have a stronger connection to the children in the audience.

The other main characters are perhaps the villains of the story: Austin Colby (FB) Hans of the Southern Isles and Jeremy Morse (FB) Weselton.  Colby, who is in real life married to the actress that normally plays Elsa, does a wonderful duplicitous job of being the charmer that Anna falls in love with, and later the cad that refuses her “loves true kiss” and leaves her to freeze to death. His is strong at capturing the duality of the character. Morse’s character, on the other hand, is much more comically drawn, along the lines of a Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles. But Morse captures the aspect of that character well.

The remainder of the cast serves as the ensemble, with a few folks moving up to featured positions for a moment or two. Note that, due to Caelan Creaser (FB)’s move to Elsa for our show, swing Natalie Wisdom swung into the ensemble and into the featured role of the head handmaiden. The ensemble at our show consisted of the following folk (featured roles noted): C. K. Edwards (FB); Michael Everett (FB); Berklea Going; Michael Allan Haggerty (⭐FB, FB); Tyler Jimenez Pabbie; Hannah Jewel Kohn (FB); Marina Kondo (FB) Queen Iduna; Nika Lindsay (FB); Tatyana Lubov (FB); Adrianna Rose Lyons (⭐FB, FB); Kelly Methven (⭐FB, FB); Michael Milkanin (FB) Bishop, Oaken; Kyle Lamar Mitchell (FB) King Agnarr; Naomi Rodgers (FB); Daniel Switzer (⭐FB, FB); Zach Trimmer (FB); Brit West (FB) Bulda; and Natalie Wisdom (FB) Head Handmaiden.

Other swings were: Dustin Layton (FB), Ralph Meitzler (FB), and Jessie Peltier (FB). Natalie Wisdom (FB) is also a swing, but swung into the ensemble for this performance.

On-stage movement was choreographed by Rob Ashford; aided by Sarah O’Gleby (FB) and Charlie Williams (FB) Associate Choreographers. In general, it was enjoyable, but not that much of the choreography sticks out in the mind a week after the performance … except for two numbers. The “Hygge” number was cute for its well-placed use of body-suits and humor, and the “Fixer Upper” number also had memorable and cute movement from the ensemble. Supporting the movement was Dustin Layton (FB) Dance Captain and Jessie Peltier (FB) Assistant Dance Captain and Fight Captain.

The music was under the direction of Faith Seetoo (FB) Music Director, Conductor. The Frozen orchestra consisted of (🌴 indicates local): Cathy Venable (FB) Assoc. Conductor; Nancy Whelan (FB) Keyboard 1; Josh Cullen (FB) Keyboard 2; 🌴 Jeff Driskill (FB) Flute / Piccolo / Clarinet / Alto Sax / Soprano Sax; 🌴 Richard Mitchell Oboe / English Horn / Flute / Clarinet / Tenor Sax; 🌴 John Fumo (FB) and Aaron Smith (FB) Trumpet / Flugelhorn; 🌴 Charlie Morillas (FB) Trombone; 🌴 Laura Brenes (FB) French Horn; 🌴 Dan Lutz (FB) Bass / Electric Bass; 🌴 Chris Jago (FB) Drums / Percussion. Other music support: Michael Keller and Michael Aarons Music Coordinators; Anixter Rice Music Service (FB) Music Preparation; 🌴 Eric Heinly (FB) Orchestra Contractor; Dave Metzger Orchestrations; Chris Montan Executive Music Producer; and Stephen Oremus Music Supervision and Arrangements. In general, the music was strong, although I feel for the musicians having to deal with all of that theatrical fog rolling into the pit.

Finally, we turn to the production and creative side. I’ve already commented on the artistry of Michael Curry‘s puppet design for Sven and Olaf. Also worthy of mention is Christopher Oram‘s Scenic and Costume Design work in establishing the kingdom and its environs in an effective way for the tour, and for creating the beautiful costumes. This combined with the work of Natasha Katz Lighting Design, Finn Ross Video Design, and Jeremy Chernick Special Effects Design to create the stage magic that makes everything work and astonish the audience. Additional creative and production credits: Peter Hylenski Sound Design; David Brian Brown Hair Design; Anne Ford-Coates (FBMakeup Design; David Chase Additional Dance Arranger; Christoph Buskies Electronic Music Programming; Telsey + Company Casting; Aurora Productions Production Management; Clifford Schwartz (FB) Senior Production Supervisor; Lisa Dawn Cave Production Supervisor; Melissa Chacón Production Stage Manager; Patricia L. Grabb Stage Manager; Theron Alexander Assistant Stage Manager; Brae Singleton Assistant Stage Manager; and Neuro Tour Physical Therapy. This was a production of Disney Theatrical Productions.

Frozen continues at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) through February 2. Tickets are available through the Pantages box office; discount tickets are sold out in Goldstar, but may be available through 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),  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:

Tomorrow brings our last production for January: Cirque Éloize at  the Soraya/VPAC (FB).

Things heat up in February, with The Last Ship (with Sting) at the Ahmanson Theatre the first weekend. The second weekend brings West Adams at Skylight Theatre (FB) on Saturday, and the $5 Shakespeare Company from The Sixth Act (FB) at Theatre 68 on Sunday. The third weekend brings A Body of Water at Actors Co-op (FB) and It Shoulda Been You at Musical Theatre Guild (FB). To top all of that, the fourth weekend brings  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. The last weekend is open, but I’ll probably find some theatre in Madison WI when I’m out there; alas, I’ll be missing both Nefesh Mountain at Temple Israel of Hollywood and Tom Paxton and the Don Juans at McCabes.

March starts with Passion at Boston Court (FB) the first weekend. The 2nd weekend brings the MRJ Man of the Year dinner (and possibly The Wild Party at Morgan Wixson). The 3rd brings Morris’ Room at Actors Co-op (FB) ; and the last weekend brings 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 possibly Hands on a Hardbody at the Charles Stewart Howard Playhouse (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!

Share

🎭 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.

🎭

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!

Share

🎭 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!

Share

🎭 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!

Share

🎭 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!

Share

🎭 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.

🎭

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.

Share