The Man Behind the Face

Stoneface (Pasadena Playhouse)userpic=pasadena-playhouseRecently, Carla Laemmle died. She was one of the last living links to the first era of motion pictures — the silent movie era. Most of today’s youth can hardly imagine the impact of these short, black and white, soundless (but for a piano accompaniment) images on the screen, but in their day… they defined and created stars. There were romantic and dramatic stars, but some of the best known were the comedians: Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Mabel Norman, Roscoe Arbuckle, and Buster Keaton. Some big stage shows have been made for some — there have been at least two musical version’s of Chaplin’s life story, and Norman’s romance with Mack Sennet was the basis for Mack and Mabel. Others have languished in obscurity. Recently, Sacred Fools Theatre had a well-received production of a play with musical accompaniment about the life of Buster Keaton. This play was written by Vanessa Claire Stewart (FB), as a birthday present for her husband, French Stewart (FB), of 3rd Rock and Mom fame, who has the lead role as Buster Keaton (his idol). For the 2013-2014 season, the Pasadena Playhouse announced a remounting of this show, and it was the only show in their season I found interesting. So guess where I was last night? Yup, we were back at our old haunt, the Pasadena Playhouse, seeing Buster Keaton on screen and stage.

So who is Buster Keaton. Many may remember him from his last role: He played Erroneous in the screen version of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum“. But he is best known for his long string of silent movies with well-timed gags starting in 1917, and he made (on average) at least one movie a year until 1966. But all weren’t successes. He had two unsuccessful marriages and a significant drinking problem that derailed his career in the mid-1930s, and his career limped along until he was rediscovered in the 1950s for the genius that he was. His bio at IMDB makes interesting reading.

Stoneface” attempts to tell much of Keaton’s life story. It begins with Keaton at his first drug rehab in 1933 when he is with his second wife, Mae. His story is then told in flashbacks: his marriage to Natalie Talmadge (sister of Norma Talmadge), his friendship and professional relationship with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, his relationship with Joseph Schenck (his producer) and his long line of successful films, the disastrous financial failure of “The General“, the sale of his contract to MGM and his poor relationship with Louis B. Mayer. It also explores his battle with alcoholism, his failure at relationships with his first wife (Natalie) and the loss of his children, and the scandal related to his friend, Roscoe Arbuckle. It shows the period where he had lost his timing and made horrible shorts just to survive. But it also shows his sobering up, his successful relationship with his third (and final) wife, his comeback with Chaplin in 1951’s “Limelight”, and his receiving a special Oscar for his life’s work in comedy. In general, the story worked — although I wish they had mentioned that his final speech actually was at the Oscars, and mentioned his final role in Forum.

The way the production was done was very interesting. There were many scenes that were, essentially, silent movies on stage. There was the occasional projected subtitle, but all the action was silent (often with Keaton’s style of comedy) with piano accompaniment. These scenes were excellent, and Stewart seemed to have quite a bit of fun with them, capturing Keaton’s style quite well. Other scenes were more expositional — conventional scenes in which the story played out. These scenes were a bit more problematic — not because of the writing, but because Stewart seemed a bit off with the occasional line hesitation and restart that impacted his timing. His supporting players, however, were excellent.

This production started at the Sacred Fools Theatre, an under 99-seat venue in Hollywood. At the Playhouse, it was in a 686 seat auditorium. There are those who claim that the production lost something in the transfer to the larger venue. Having not seen it in the smaller venue, I can’t speak to that assessment. I can see, however, how the magic and the performance would have had more oomph in a more intimate venue. I found the production worked at the Playhouse for me; however I think a production like this would be lost at the Ahmanson or Pantages. If it wasn’t for the difficulty in working the scenery, the Colony would be a great venue.

As noted above, French Stewart (FB) had the lead position as Buster Keaton. He captured Keaton’s persona and mannerisms quite well, especially in the silent and physical comedy scenes, but had the occasional line problem in the expositional scenes. Looking at his Facebook, this could be the four-show weekends getting to him; this was near the end of the run. But this does seem to be a character that he really enjoys playing and inhabiting, and it is worth seeing for his performance.

The remaining cast members are strong, but there are some worthy of particular note. Tegan Ashton Cohan (FB), as Natalie Talmadge (as well as part of the ensemble), has an extended sequence with Stewart where she attempts to get him sitting in a chair. The physical comedy in this sequence is spectacular.  There is a similar sequence with Daisy Eagan (FB) as Mae Scriven, his second wife. There is also some good physical comedy with Joe Fria (FB) as the young Buster Keaton; Scott Leggett (FB) is great as Roscoe Arbuckle in the opening sequence of Act II. The rest of the actors handle their roles well, and are remarkable in their interactions with the special effects — in particular, the effect of walking behind a screen and suddenly being in the silent movie. Rounding out the cast were Jake Broder (FB) (Joseph Schenck), Rena Strober (FB) (Norma Talmadge / Eleanor Keaton), Pat Towne (FB) (Louis B. Mayer), Conor Duffy (FB) (Edward Sedgwick / George Jessel), and Guy Picot (FB) (Charlie Chaplin).

The production was directed by Jaime Robledo (FB), who was very clever at providing the production a silent-movie feel, including the aforementioned scenes where the actors go behind a screen and are suddenly in the projected image, or longer scenes that are done entirely as silent movies. These were extremely clever and enjoyable. I’ll note the entire production was helped by the great rinky-tinky piano accompaniment of Ryan Johnson (FB).

This is one show where the technical makes the show. The scenic design of Joel Daavid (FB) was spectacular and truly brought the silent film era of the 1920s to life. This resurrection of the period was aided and abeted by the costumes of Jessica Olson (FB) and the wigs of Jessica Mills (FB). As for the lighting, Jeremy Pivnick (FB) did some things I’ve never seen before, including a moving light on a track in the upper fly space that itself had a moving mirror. The sound by the wonderful Cricket S. Myers (FB) was mostly wonderful — in particular the silent movie projector sound during the projections. However, the music behind Keaton and Arbuckle in the bar scenes was just loud enough to be distracting — in fact, I thought it might be coming from the bar outside. As noted before, projections make this show, and much of the credit goes to Ben Rock (FB) and Anthony Backman (FB) and technical director Brad Enlow. Mike Mahaffey (FB) was the fight director. Susie Walsh was the production stage manager; Hethyr “Red” Verhoef was the stage manager, and Kristen Hammack/FB was the company manager.

Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton” continues at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) through June 29.  Tickets are available through the Playhouse box office, and discount tickets are available through Goldstar.

The Pasadena Playhouse is promoting their 2014-2015 season, but I’m not biting. The season consists of a variation of “Kiss Me Kate” transporting to the mileau of black vaudeville of the early 20th century (umm, no); “Stop Kiss” by Diana Son, a holiday Panto of Sleeping Beauty, “Two for the Seesaw” by William Gibson, “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw, and Sheldon’s favorite show, “TBD”, which he does every season. Of these, the only one interesting me is “Two for the Seesaw“, and that’s primarily because it is the closest I’ll ever come to seeing the musical “Seesaw“, which was based on that play.

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

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  We finish off June with “I’m Not Just a Comic Genius” at Secret Rose (FB) on June 27. July will be busy: “Ghost” at the Pantages (FB) on 7/5, “Return to the Forbidden Planet” at REP East (FB) the weekend of 7/12, “Once” at the Pantages (FB) on 7/19, “Bye Bye Birdie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on 7/26, and “Family Planning” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on 8/2. August then remains quiet as we work around vacations and such (but I’m eyeing a number of productions in Escondido, including Two Gentlemen of Verona” at the Old Globe, and Pageant” at the Cygnet in Old Town. What they have at the Welk (“Oklahoma“), Patio Theatre (“Fiddler on the Roof“), and Moonlight Stage (“My Fair Lady“) are all retreads. Things start to get busy again in September and October, with “The Great Gatsby” at REP, “What I Learned in Paris” at the Colony, and “Pippin” at the Pantages. More on that later. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.


Mothers Day News Chum Stew

Observation StewYou know you want to take your mother to dinner. But what will you talk about? Here’s a bunch of news chum stew items, accumulated over the last two weeks (I’ve been busy, what can I say) that might just do:

  • Size Matters. Here’s a great discussion topic for your mom… or for “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me”. A recent study has shown that, the larger your penis, the greater the likelihood that your wife will cheat on you. In particular, according to this study, every one inch longer penis increased the likelihood of women being involved in extra-marital partnership by almost one-and-half times. I think I’ll leave the subject at that and go on to the next subject…
  • Got Gas? Here’s some more useful information. Remember “Beans Beans They’re Good for the Heart”. Well, it turns out that lots of gas is a sign of a healthy biome in your gut. This reminds me of a joke from Jason Alexander. It seems there was this long married couple whose sex life was in the dumps (see item #1). The wife went to a sex counselor, who suggested they try 69. She came home and explained it to her husband. They got in bed and in the position…. and she ripped a good one. After the air had cleared, they tried it again… and she ripped another one. They were about to try it again when the husband said, “you think I’m going to do this 67 more times, you’re crazy”.
  • It’s the Place To Be. Yup, that Farm Living is the life for me. If this makes you think of Green Acres, you’re not along. There are plans for a Broadway stage play adaptation of the hicksville TV show originally starring Eddie Albert and Eva GaborThe rights to the property were acquired by director Richard L. Bare, who was one of the most prolific helmers on the original series, and by producer Phillip Goldfine through his production company Hollywood Media Bridge.
  • Cramming It In. Sony is working on new technology that will cram 3,700 blue-rays into a single cassette tape. Actually, that’s a little misleading — we’re not talking here about a C-60 or a C-90, but a specially designed cartridge. Still, the technology is intriguing: a whopping 148 GB per square inch, meaning a cassette could hold 185 TB of data. Sony uses a vacuum-forming technique called sputter deposition to create a layer of magnetic crystals by shooting argon ions at a polymer film substrate. The crystals, measuring just 7.7 nanometers on average, pack together more densely than any other previous method. The result is that three Blu-Rays’ worth of data can fit on one square inch of Sony’s new wonder-tape.
  • A Touching Story. Here’s a very touching story about a late night encounter in a supermarket, told by Mark Evanier.
  • Anything But Starbucks. A touching obituary for Herman Hyman, founder of the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf chain. This chain, which roasts its beans in Ventura County, started in a small store on San Vicente Blvd in Brentwood in the 1970s. I think, in fact, that it started not far from my first condo.
  • Buildings Up, Buildings Down. Two interesting buildings in the news. First, the plans have been announced for the former furniture store space across from the Pasadena Playhouse. Should be an interesting project; it will be interesting to see how it changes the character of that area. In Las Vegas news, approval has been given to finally take down the Harmon. If you aren’t familiar with the Harmon, it is the oval blue-glass coated skyscraper next to the Aria and Vdara, across from Planet Hollywood and the Cosmopolitan. It was built wrong and is unstable, but they can’t implode it because it is too close to other stuff. They have to take it down piece by piece. Now if only they could do something with the Fountainbleau, which is an even bigger eyesore on the N end of the strip (where the Thunderbird once was).



Saturday Link Clearing: Pens, Knitting, Pas. Playhouse, Vegas, and Power

userpic=fountain-penIt’s Saturday, and you know what that means — time to clear out the saved links for the week. As always, these links are usually discovered through my reading of the papers and by what comes across my RSS feeds (which I’m now reading via Newsblur):

  • Fountain Pens. Those who know me know I do fit the stereotype in some ways and not in others. Yes, I carry a pocket protector. However, I use it to protect my pocket as it is full of fountain pens. Thus, I found this Boing-Boing article about the Namiki Retractible Fountain Pen quite interesting. It would really depend on the quality of the nib. I’ve actually found that Schaeffers — especially the cheap Shaeffers — work the best for me.  Parkers occasionally work, but I’ve never been able to get the fancier pens — especially Cross Fountain Pens — to work well for this left-handed writer.
  • Knitting. Whereas I love fountain pens, my daughter loves to knit. This article made me think of her: a mobile knitting truck that serves as a locally sourced store for lovers of yarn.
  • Theatre. The Pasadena Playhouse has announced their 2013-2014 season, and my response is a big yawn. Perhaps their bankruptcy soured me on them, but I haven’t been that impressed with their season announcements, which usually change by the time the show is presented. They may have the occasionally good show (I’ve heard good things about the Janis Joplin concert currently there, but I’m not into Joplin); however, overall their seasons are predictable. The chestnut. The black show. The new musical. The TBA. The 2013-2014 season is no different. It starts with the musical jukebox tuner “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” (Sept. 18 to Oct. 13). That’s followed by a new play, “Stoneface” (Nov. 5 to Dec. 1), with French Stewart portraying silent film star Buster Keaton. “Stoneface” might be interesting. After that is the play for African-American audiences, Weinraub’s “Above the Fold” (Jan 28 to Feb. 23)–a fictional story of a female African American reporter who travels to a Southern university where four white fraternity boys have been accused of raping a young African American woman. Next up is the chestnut, Noël Coward’s “A Song at Twilight” (March 18 to April 13, 2014). Closing the season, as usual, is the “To Be Announced” production (May 27 to June 22, 2014), directed by playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps. One potential show of interest.
  • Las Vegas. Those who know me know that I find Las Vegas History interesting. Here’s an interesting story from the LA Times on a man who is trying to get out of Nevada’s infamous Black Book that bars people from casinos for life. No one has ever done that, except by dying.
  • Los Angeles. Lastly, you all know I love LA. Here’s a fascinating map of power consumption across Los Angeles by neighborhood. We’re in a lower-use neighborhood, except during the hot summer months. Other neighborhoods are much much worse. However, some neighborhoods in LA, for some reason, are simply not mapped.

Music: Zorba (1983 Broadway Revival Cast): “The Crow”


What Makes Something Good Art?

Art - Pasadena PlayhouseBeauty is in the eye of the beholder. That’s what they always say, isn’t it. But what if you believe the beholder is an idiot, and what he thinks is beautiful is a piece of shit? That’s the opening premise of “Art“, which we saw last night at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Art“, by Yasmina Reza, tells the story of three friends: Serge, Marc and Yvan—who find their previously solid 15-year friendship on shaky ground when Serge buys an expensive painting. The 5’x4′ painting has a white background, upon which there are some faint white diagonal lines. Serge (a dermatologist) is proud of his 200,000€ acquisition, and fully expects the approval of his friends. However, when his friend Marc, an engineer, sees the painting, he  scornfully describes it as “a piece of white shit”. This sets of an exploration of not only what is art, but what is friendship, for it isn’t clear whether it the painting that offends him, or the uncharacteristic independence-of-thought that the purchase reveals in Serge? Added to this mix is the insecure Yvan. Yvan has just left his job in the textile trade to become a stationary salesman, plus he is about to be married. His friendship with Marc and Serge is safe, and he always attempts to make peace. This, of course, backfires. Eager to please he laughs about the painting with Marc but tells Serge he likes it. Pulled into the disagreement, his vacillations fuel the blazing row. Lines are drawn and the three square off over the canvas, using it as an excuse to relentlessly batter one another over various failures. As their arguments become less theoretical and more personal, they border on destroying their friendship. As this happens, the story becomes more and more hilarious… but I don’t want to spoil the ending.

The Pasadena Playhouse production of “Art” is one that makes me treasure not only the director, David Lee, but especially the actors who make this production something special. Translation: In this production, I could really see the talent of the actors, and what they bring to the production. No more was this seen better than the character of Yvan, played by Roger Bart. Bart portrays Yvan as a pure maniac, crazy in both action and deed, and hilarious everytime you see him because you have no idea what he is going to do. Equally crazy is Bradley Whitford as Marc. Whitford has equally great moves and reactions, and watching him play off of Bart is just hilarious. Lastly, as Serge (the fellow who bought the painting), Michael O’Keefe. Initially the stiffest of the three characters, his personality grows throughout the piece. The three together make a great ensemble that makes this piece a joy.
[All actors are members of æ Actors Equity ]

Turning to the technical: The set (designed by Tom Buderwitz) was simple: a modernistic apartment, with a greyish background. This allowed the focus to be on the acting. Similarly, the lighting by Jared A. Sayeg and the sound by Philip G. Allen were unobtrusive and seemed to be part of real world. This is good. Technical direction was by Brad Enlow. Jill Gold was Production Stage Manager, and Hethyr (Red) Verhoef was Asst. Stage Manager. Joe Witt was the Production Manager.

Art” officially opens at the Pasadena Playhouse today, January 29, and runs through February 19. Tickets are available through the Pasadena Playhouse, as well as on Goldstar and through other discount outlets. The two productions at the Playhouse are “The Hieress” (April 24-May 20, 2012) and “Sleepless in Seattle-The Musical“. The latter doesn’t interest me, but the former does, after I listened to it on LA Theatreworks.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: February theatre starts at Van Nuys High School, with the Senior and Alumni Dance performances on February 2-3. “God of Carnage” at ICT Long Beach follows on February 5. The next weekend sees us in Thousand Oaks for “Ring of Fire” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on February 11. The third weekend takes us to Saugus for “Jewtopia” at REP East. February concludes with “Old Wicked Songs” at the Colony Theatre. March is equally busy, beginning with “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying” at Van Nuys High School (March 2-3 and 8-10; we’re likely going on 3/2), and Bernadette Peters in concert at the Valley Performing Arts Center on March 3. March should also bring “American Idiot” at the Ahmanson, and “Journey’s End” at REP East. It may also bring Albert Herring at the LA Opera, if we can find discount tickets. March will conclude with Tom Paxton in concert at McCabes on 3/31. Continuing the look ahead, April will bring “Billy Elliot” at the Pantages, the Southern California Renaissance Faire, “Once Upon a Mattress” at Cabrillo, and “Dames at Sea” at the Colony. As always, open dates are subject to be filled in with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.

Music: Traditions 4 – The New Era (Vanguard Cadets): 2000: Journey From The Darkness



Some Thoughts on the New TV Season

The new TV season has started, and I’ve watched some of the new programs, as well as some returning favorites. Here are my thoughts. I’d like to hear your thoughts on the season:

Two and a Half Men

This is a show that had started to get tired, irrespect of Charlie Sheen’s real-life problems. One can only be entertained by an alcoholic drug-swilling womanizer for so long before the jokes get tired. So I’m actually finding this season interesting: we still have that character being an adult child succeeding with the women, but for a completely different reason. It will be interesting to see how well the writers handle the character. I’m going to try it for a few more episodes.

Two Broke Girls

I’m actually enjoying this show, although this is another example of the 1970s coming back (this is, after all, Laverne and Shirley under a different name). The actresses work well together and the writing is pretty good. The horse is a gimmick and I’m not sure what they are going to do with it, or whether it is just going to go the way of Ritchie’s older brother. I like the running cash total at the end. This has a feel quite a bit like “How I Met Your Mother”, so it will be interesting to see how it goes.

New Girl

I gave this a try on Tuesday night. It has potential, and has already been picked up for a full season order. Zooey Deschanel is cute and has a quirky quality to her that makes her a joy to watch. I’m curious to see where this goes.


I’ve watched one episode of CSI in the Ted Danson era (I’ll watch the other tonight), and so far, I’m impressed. Danson brings a new and different vibe to the show. A vibe that is more family and less driven, which is quite a change from the old era of either Billy Peterson or Larry Fishburne. I think it will be interesting to see the character develop.


This is still my guilty pleasure. The cast is interesting this season. I do wish Jeff would go back to writing a blog after each show.

And one other note….

Lastly, I read with interest the LA Times review of “South Street” at the Pasadena Playhouse. They ripped that show a new one, including statements such as “Philadelphia’s famed tourist district is the setting of “South Street,” … Alas, it might as well be Sesame Street.” and “Sadly, the variety-show sound and arthritically lame narrative are beyond repair. Pray that the City of Brotherly Love doesn’t sue for defamation of musical character.”. This is echoed in the Bitter Lemons review summary: the essence is that the acting is good, but everything else sucks. This makes me really glad we opted not to renew our Pasadena Playhouse subscription.


Dickens is not Shakespeare

Last night, we went to the final show of the Pasadena Playhouse 2010-2011 season (which started way back in February 2010 with Camelot): “Twist“. Given how the Playhouse has normally ended the season with a jukebox musical (most recently Baby Its You” in 2009), one might have expected “Twist” to be a jukebox musical about Chubby Checker. Alas, we weren’t that (umm) lucky—”Twist” is a modern retelling of the Charles Dicken’s classic, Oliver Twist. I’ll noted that Oliver Twist has been previously musicalized in the extremely successful early 1960s musical Oliver! with book and lyrics by Lionel Bart.

Twist” takes the basic story of Oliver Twist and transplants it to New Orleans in the 1920s. As the musical opens, we meet Roosevelt King, part of a black tap-dancing duo with Boston at an the Jewel Box, an old theatre on the edge of the French Quarter. Roosevelt is leaving the due to run off with Angela Thacher, a white woman he has gotten pregnant. As they meet at the train station, Roosevelt is set upon by the KKK, led by Lucius Thacher. These klansmen kills Roosevelt and gravely injure Angela. Angela crawls to the nearby Parish Orphanage, where she leaves her locket with Della, the teenaged black girl who answers the door, and has her baby. The mulatto child, now named Twist, grows up at the orphanage. When on his 10th birthday he asks for his birthday meat, he is sold to the nearby funeral home to be a funeral dancer for New Orleans’ funeral processions. Oliver Twist gets scared at the mortuary and runs away. Meanwhile, Lucius has used up his trust and wants his sister’s millions… but can’t get them because her child may still be alive. He starts to scheme to recover Twist, so that he can kill him and get the money. Twist eventually ends up in the Quarter, where he becomes a street dancer, and is befriended by one of Fagin’s Boston’s kids, the Artful Dodger Pistol, who brings Twist back to the basement of the Jewel Box. Here Twist meets Boston’s girl, Nancy Della (yes, the same Della from the orphanage) and gets introduced to Boston’s business: running illegal liquor in the Quarter. While out on a liquor run, Twist is nabbed by the police and arrested. Meanwhile, Lucius has learned where Twist is and attempts to buy him from Boston. Twist is saved from prison and released to the custody of Mr. Brownlaw Mr. Prudhomme, who is enamored with black-style performers such as Al Jolson (blackface), Josephine Baker, and Roosevelt King. But Della steals Twist away during Mardi Gras, returning him to Boston, who has worked out a deal to sell him. But Della gets cold feet: she tells Twist of his mother, and calls Mr. Prudhomme to come get him. When Boston learns of Twist’s parents, he decides to say no to Lucius and keep Twist with Della and himself. But Lucius won’t take no for an answer, and in the ensuing gunfight on a bridge, both Boston and Lucius are killed. The musical ends with Della singing how she and Twist will go on.

Twist was performed well (more on that in a bit) and danced extremely well—this is due to the talents of Debbie Allen who served as director and choreographer. Much of the music (written by Tena Clark and Gary Prim) is toe-tapping, although the tunes and lyrics (also by by Tena Clark) don’t stick with you after the show. However the musical ultimately left me cold. I place the fault of this at the feet of the book writers, William F. Brown (who wrote “The Wiz”) and his wife, Tina Tippit. It took me a while to figure out the problem, but ultimately it boiled down to the title of this post: Charles Dickens is not Shakespeare.

Shakespeare is a unique writer: his works can be transplanted into different times and venues and they work. The Lion King is Hamlet. West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet. The underlying basis of the story is Shakespeare, but the timeless tale is told in a new mileau. I don’t think that can be done with Dickens. As I sat through this story, I kept seeing the correspondences to Oliver!. This occurred with songs: “Meat on the Bones” is “Food Glorious Food”; “Death is Alive and Well” is “That’s Your Funeral”; “Be Quick” is “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two”, and so forth. It also occurred with characters (Pistol is Dodger, Della is Nancy, etc.) and locations (the workhouse, the theatre, the death scene on the bridge). The story was too close to the original, and the original had already been told with an excellent musical (Oliver!) and numerous film versions (most recently Polanski’s excellent 2005 version). Perhaps this could have been saved with spectacular music and lyrics, but it wasn’t. As it was, we kept comparing it with Oliver!, and Twist kept coming up short. Brown’s The Wiz had a similar risk, although there it was the original story just with new music and style, and that music and style worked. But with Twist, we kept asking ourselves “why?”. There wasn’t a burning need to move Oliver Twist to a new time and locale. We not even sure if one could do this with Dickens as his stories are so closely tied to their time, place, and people. This hurt this musical, and continues the tendancy of the Pasadena Playhouse to focus on the splash, the dance, and the energy and not notice the book problems (and book problems are behind a large number of unsuccesful musicals).

The book problems also manifested themselves in song problems. Setting aside the lyrics, which tended not to stick with you after the show and leave you humming and singing, both acts ended poorly. Act I ends with “Della/Boston Fight”, a slow ballad—constrast this with Oliver!’s act I ending song, “Be Back Soon” (the act ending with the arrest). Act II ends with a Finale that is a ballad Della sings to Twist—Oliver! ended with a reprise of “Reviewing the Situation” and reprises of “Food Glorious Food”, “Consider Yourself”, and “I’d Do Anything”. Acts should not end on slow songs; they need to leave the audience humming the tune as they walk out of the auditorium. Les Miz demonstrated this well.

However, as I said earlier, the dancing and the performances were remarkable. You can clearly see Debbie Allen’s hard work in the dances, which were spectacular and reminded me of the energy and creativity we saw in the Fame TV series. The stellar cast aided her in this. The mix of equity and non-equity performers aided her in this: they acted and danced their hearts out, working to make this production succeed on their energy, talent, heart, and feet alone. It is hard to single people out in this true ensemble performance, but I must…

Leading the cast was Alaman Diadhiou, a 10 year old wonder who sang strongly, acted strongly, danced even stronger, as was cute as a button. Diadhiou had great stage presence; I hope it translates well to adulthood (alas, it didn’t for most of the youths that have played Oliver!). As Boston, Matthew Johnsonæ was an exceptional singer and dancer, as was his partner in dance, Jared Grimesæ as Roosevelt King. Equally strong, as Boston’s partner in love, was Tamyra Grayæ—she was both a playful dancer and a strong ballad singer. As Mr. Prudhomme, Cliff Bemisæ projected the appropriate warm paternal vibe. On the evil side, Pat McRobertsæ provided the appropriate malevolence as the Bill Sykes parallel; remind me to never name a child Lucius, as the name portends evil.

That addressed the top tier, but within the rest of the ensemble was some remarkable talent. Playhouse regular Cleavant Derricksæ was back as Crazah Chesterfield, the funeral shop owner, who turned that small role into a remarkable performance. I was also taken by the performance of 11 year old Dempsey Tonks, who just drew my eye with her performance whenever she was on stage. Also eye-catching were Diane Delanoæ as Miss Cotton (my mind was remembering her face from Northern Exposure) and Kyle Garvin (who has an extermely unique face). Rounding out the company were: Paul Aguirreæ (Potlatch/Ensemble), Kevin C. Beacham, Jr. (Ensemble), Joshua Bolden (Pistol/Ensemble), Nickolas Eibler (Ensemble), John Fisheræ (Ensemble), Ava Gaudetæ (Angela Thatcher/Ensemble), Chantel Heathæ (Ensemble), Joshua Horton (Ensemble), Holly Hymanæ (Ensemble), Olivia-Diane Joseph (Ensemble), Wayne Mackins (Ensemble), Chase Maxwell (Yancy/Ensemble), Vivian Nixonæ (Ensemble), Micah Patterson (Ensemble), Malaiyka Reidæ, Carla Renataæ (Naomi/Ensemble), Julianna Rigoglioso (Ensemble), Isaac Spector (Ensemble), Terrance Spenceræ (Ensemble), Robert Loftinæ (Al Jolson/Ensemble), Dougie Styles (Ensemble), and Armando Yearwood Jr. (Ensemble).
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

As I noted above, the music in the show was wonderful dance music, although the tunes didn’t stick with you. I’ve already mentioned the composers (Tena Clark and Gary Prim). Orchestrations were by Harold Wheeler. Jim Vukovich was Music Director and Vocal Arranger, as well as being part of the band (Keyboard 1). Wally Minko was Associate Music Director, as well as Keyboard 2, with Lance Lee as Assistant Music Director as well as playing drums. Rounding out the orchestra as Tom Bethke (guitar/banjo), Ernest Tibbs (bass), Vanessa Brown (percussion), Wayne Bergeron (trumpet 1), Larry Hall (trumpet 2), Bruce Otto (trombone/tuba), Tom Evans (reed 1), Dick Mitchell (reed 2), Mark Cargill (violin 1), and Susan Chatman (violin 2). As always, the Playhouse assembled an excellent orchestra with great sound.

Technically, the show was unmatched. This is something the Playhouse tends to do well, with spectacular set designs, costumes, and lighting. The set, by Todd Rosenthal was spectacular, evoking the feel of the French Quarter and the seedier side of New Orleans. The costumes by Esosa were stunning yet appropriate. The lighting by Howell Binkley was critical in establishing the mood and the settings, which is what good lighting does. Lastly, the sound by Peter Fitzgerald was clear, crisp, and otherwise unnoticable (which is what a good sound design does). Dee Dee Irwin and Victoria Watson were associate producers. Joe Witt was the Production Manger, and Alex Britton the Production Supervisor. David Blackwell as Production Stage Manager.

Twist” has extended at the Pasadena Playhouse; it now concludes its run on July 24. Tickets are available through the Pasadena Playhouse; I seem to recall them being on Goldstar as well. This was our last subscription show at the Playhouse; we didn’t renew based on our bankrupcy experience. The Playhouse has announced their 2001-2012 season: South Street – A Musical Comedy (September 20-October 16, 2011); Pastoral (November 1-27, 2011); Art (January 24-February 19, 2012); the Heiress (April 24-May 20, 2012), and Sleepless in Seattle – The Musical (June 12-July 15, 2012). Sleepless is a change from the original announcement, which was to either be Peggy Sue Got Married or The Nutty Professor, but none of the three excite me. As for Pastoral, which was to be with Angela Bassett, that’s going to be replaced, as Bassett has announced she’ll be doing a play in New York then. The replacement hasn’t been announced. This schedule reshuffling is one of the reasons we didn’t renew; I don’t expect that in a subscription house.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Today brings “Jewtopia” at one of our favorite venues, REP East. Next weekend brings Dolly Parton (July 23, Hollywood Bowl) and “Shrek” (July 24, Pantages Theatre, ticketed). July closes with “The Sound of Music” (July 30, Cabrillo Music Theatre, ticketed). August brings “The Boys Next Door” at REP East on August 13, and “On Golden Pond” at the Colony Theatre on August 20, and possibly the last Summer Evening at the Huntington with the Quarteto Neuvo on August 27. September currently only has one weekend booked: “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at REP East on September 24; October shows “Shooting Star” at the Colony Theatre on October 1, “Annie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 22, and (hopefully) Bernadette Peters at VPAC on October 16. October will also hopefully bring The Robber Bridegroom” at ICT. Of course, I expect to fill some of the weekends in August, September, and October with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.


Entertainment News Chum

A few entertainment related items (mostly theatre) from the lunchtime news reading:

  • Pasadena Playhouse. As you may recall, we’re long time Pasadena Playhouse subscribers, but the bankruptcy combined with a lackluster upcoming season have led us not to renew. So here’s more info on the lackluster season to come… it seems they decided on the musical. No, it isn’t The Nutty Professor or Peggy Sue Got Married as they indicated in their season brochure. The musical will be: Sleepless in Seattle: The Musical. The production will be directed by Joel Zwick and feature songs written by Michelle Citrin, Michael Garin and Josh Nelson. No casting, and it is supposedly faithful to the movie (which I have never seen). Color me underwhelmed.
  • Barney Sings. One of the first shows I ever saw on stage was “The Rothschilds” with Hal Linden. Mr. Linden has a beautiful voice, which one rarely hears. The LA Times recently had a nice article on Hal Linden, including a reference to a new CD he is releasing. Some of us oldsters may remember Mr. Linden from his role on Barney Miller—a role he got from his lead performance in The Rothschilds.
  • Corrupting the Kiddies. Hard to believe, but Avenue Q is coming to a high-school near you. Of course, the high school version is very sanitized. The school edition makes the following changes: (1) The language (both dialogue and lyrics) has been cleaned-up throughout, making the show closer to a PG-13; (2) The song “Internet is For Porn” has been replaced with “Social Life is Online”; (3) The songs “My Girl Friend Who Lives In Canada” and “Loud As The Hell You Want” are cut; (4) The videos throughout the show are all now done live using actors; (5) The scenes with the Bad Idea Bears have been trimmed and amended to now focus less on drinking; and (5) A few character names have been changed – Lucy T. Slut is now just Lucy, and Mrs. T. is now Mrs. Butz. Somehow, it seems too cleaned up for me.
  • Seeing the Light. One problem that is non-existant in live theatre is an inability to see the actors. That’s not true for movies, and Roger Ebert has a nice article on the growing dimness in theaters today. He’s not talking about the scripts or the actors, but the projectionists are not projecting the image at the proper brightness. Those of you who are regular theater-goers should read this, and speak up when you are not getting the image you pay for.

Hershey One Note

Last night, we went to see our penultimate (i.e., next to last) production at the Pasadena Playhouse, George Gershwin: Alone (GGA). “George Gershwin: Alone” is part of a four musical series called “The Composer Sonata”. It consists of three movements and a coda: “Beethoven: As I Knew Him“, “Monsieur Chopin“, “George Gershwin: Alone“, and “Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein“. All of these shows feature a book by Hershey Felder, with music by the indicated artists.

George Gershwin: Alone” purports to be a one-man show that tells the life story of George Gershwin. Although in some sense a jukebox musical, it doesn’t have the typical larger cast, nor does it have reenactments of scenes in the life of the group. If I was to try to come up with a close comparison, it would be the one-woman show on Ethel Merman done by Klea Blackhurst. In other words, the show is structured as a single performer (Hershey Felder, in this case) telling the target’s life story, punctuated with the songs from that story. But unlike Blackhurst’s show, which discusses the life of Merman in detail, Felder’s presentation on Gershwin was superficial, concentrating most heavily on the music, not the man, and on the post-Rhapsody period. About the only mention of the extensive Broadway career of Gershwin was the singular mention of Merman and “I’ve Got Rhythm”—and this seemed to be done primarily to get a joke comparing Merman and Jolson (who introduced Gershwin’s first famous song, “Swanee”). Although the production did cover the highlights of Gershwin’s career (popular songs, Broadway, Rhapsody, the Concerto, Porgy and Bess, and his Hollywood work), it never gave the sense of why the Gershwin’s were one of the most popular composing teams of the 1920s and 1930s, and why they had such an impact on American music. In particular, it never gave mention of Gershwin’s targeted political nature, evidenced in shows such as “Strick Up The Band”, “Of Thee I Sing”, and “Let Them Eat Cake”. It scratched the surface of what Gershwin was and the music he gave the world. On the up-side, Felder does a good job of telling the story he tells, and seems to know Gershwin’s life intimantly. He is a virtuoso at playing Gershwin’s music, especially “Rhapsody in Blue”, which takes up the last 10 minutes of the formal show.

The best part of the show was not the formal show itself, but the aftershow. In the tradition of Gershwin, Felder hosts a party at the theatre immediately after the bows. This includes crowding the audience (virtually) around the piano and singing along (“Embrace me, you sweet embracable you…”). It also includes having the audience suggest songs from the Gershwin catalog to sing (in our case, it included “Someone to Watch Over Me”, “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, and “Summertime” — he nixed “Strike Up the Band” because he didn’t have the music (only for the UCLA version), and “Lady Be Good” because it was in a register too difficult for the audience to sing. He also sang a humerous song that Gershwin and Berlin wrote. He also used this time to talk about his new show, “An American Story” about the surgeon who treated Lincoln, and how merch (including advance copies of the CD of that show) would be available in the patio, with proceeds going to the Playhouse.

The show did not give the feeling of a Pasadena Playhouse production. It seemed more like “FDR“, a imported show that was brought into the Playhouse to help fill out the season’s slots after the bankruptcy. Hopefully the next show, “Twist“, won’t have that feeling.

George Gershwin: Alone” was directed by Joel Zwick. The scenic design by Yael Pardess was simple: a grand piano, a table stacked with music, a chair and a light, and some pictures of sheet music. The lighting design by Michael T. Gilliam, assisted by Margaret Hartmann, was relatively basic (c’mon, what was being lit was a piano!). Matt Marsden was Production Manager and Technical Director. Gigi Garcia was the Production Stage Manager, assisted by Nate Genung. I should note that much of this production team were not Playhouse regulars, but were staff from Eight-Eight Entertainment (I’d link, but Google thinks the site is compromised), the production company for “George Gershwin: Alone“—this served to highlight the sense of this being an imported production.

The last performance of “George Gershwin: Alone” is tonight, Sunday, May 8, 2011.

The Pasadena Playhouse has announced their next season. Suprisingly, for a theatre coming out of bankruptcy, they didn’t do this heavily during the show. There was no announcement during the show of the program; there was no insert in the program; there was no full-page ad on the season. Instead, there was a heavily textual 1/3rd page column on the last page of the program-specific material. So I’ll be similarly low-key: you can find a full description in this post. It consists of “South Street” (September 2011), “Pastoral” (November 2011″, “Art” (January 2012), “The Heiress” (April 2012), and a summer musical, which will either be “Peggy Sue Got Married” or “The Nutty Professor”. We’re not subscribing; we may go to particular individual shows.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Next weekend sees us at Van Nuys High School for the “Collabor8 Dance Festival”, which is always excellent. The third weekend in May brings us to “Gypsy… Stripped” at West Coast Ensemble (specifically at the Theatre of Arts Arena Stage in Hollywood) The last weekend of May brings Cabaret” at REP East on May 28. June begins with “Year Zero” at the Colony Theatre on June 5, but most of June is lost to the college visit trip (but who knows — we might go see “Always Patsy Cline” at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville). July should hopefully start with “Les Miserables” at the Ahmanson on July 2 (pending hottix), and continue with Jerry Springer: The Opera (July 8, Chance Theatre, pending ticketing); “Twist: A New Musical” (July 16, Pasadena Playhouse, ticketed); “Jewtopia” (July 17, REP East, ticketed); Dolly Parton (July 23, Hollywood Bowl, pending ticketing); “Shrek” (July 23 or 24, Pantages Theatre, pending ticketing); and “The Sound of Music” (July 30, Cabrillo Music Theatre, ticketed). August will bring “Doubt” at REP East on August 13, and “On Golden Pond” at the Colony Theatre on August 20. The remainder of August is currently open.