Assessing The Story Behind The Art

Waterfall (Pasadena Playhouse)userpic=pasadena-playhouseDid you ever look at a painting, and wonder about the story behind the painting? That was the question that Kulap Saipradit asked in his novel “Behind the Painting“, a story that is required reading in Thailand (from what I have seen on the Internet).  It was subsequently adapted into two Thai movies (1985 and 2001), and supposedly into a musical in Thailand (Khang Lang Parp). Richard Maltby. Jr. (Book and Lyrics) and David Shire (Music) have adapted this classic Thai story into a new musical, Waterfall, at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) (which we saw in a preview performance on Sunday night (May 31, 2015)). According to the program, the ultimate plans are for this musical to continue on to Broadway; it was in New York in early 2014 for a lab development reading. PS: The Jewish Journal has a great article on how this show came to America.

The original Thai story dealt with two Thai aristocrats in 1930s Japan and Thailand, who wrestle with their love for each other, and their duty to their family. The two protagonists are both involved in arranged relationships which they entered into out of duty to family and social class.  Maltby and Shire’s adaptation keeps the basic elements of the story, but tweaks the story for American audiences to have a young Thai student fall in love with the young American wife of a senior Thai diplomat. This occurs at the time when Siam was transitioning into Thailand, and becoming a democracy (which, alas, didn’t last). The senior Thai diplomat, who had been about to retire, was enticed to stay by an assignment as an envoy to America (where he married his wife). He was then presented with an opportunity he couldn’t pass up: negotiating an alliance between Siam/Thailand and Japan, in the years just before World War II.

In Maltby’s adaptation (I can’t speak to the original), there are two distinct threads: a political threat and a romantic threat; these two threads are tightly interwoven. The political thread I just mentioned; it primarily concerns Noppon, a young Thai student who starts out idolizing America; the older Siamese diplomatic envoy, Cho Khun Atikarn; and his younger wife, Katherine Briggs Atikarn. Noppon, upon graduation from Thai educational system, has been awarded a scholarship to study politics at a prestigious school in Japan. At the same time, Atikarn has been directed by the Siamese government to negotiate the first ever alliance treaty with Japan. Atikarn arrives in Japan, and Noppon is requested (because he speaks English) to escort Katherine during her visit to Japan. More on that later. The political negotiations start to get testy as Foreign Minister Takamota becomes increasingly anti-American, and Japan starts to exhibit its expansionist side. This creates difficulty in the negotiations; the negotiation break off completely when Atikarn is recalled to Siam to help stabilize the government.

Parallel to this story is the story of Noppon and Katherine. This is the big romantic story that is at the heart of the musical (and, indeed, the Thai variations of it have been at the heart of all productions based on the novel). Noppon, upon seeing Katherine, starts to fall in love. Katherine enjoys the attentions of a younger man, and continues to flirt with him as Atikarn’s work brings them to Kyoto. Noppon and Katherine see the sights in the city: the Tanabata Festival, the Taiko Display. Eventually, they take a tour to Mt. Mitake. There, in front of the waterfall, they dance (mmmm, and a little bit more).

This is where Act I ends. In Act II, we see Katherine and Atikarn leave abruptly for Siam, with Noppon left behind to be groomed for the diplomatic corps. He is head over heals with infatuation, and the sudden departure fractures him and forces him into his work. Katherine, on the other hand, is pragmatic. Flings are flings, and her duty is to her husband, the Ambassador. Noppon’s infatuation leads him to send a set of paints to Katherine, as she had mentioned she had painted when she was young. A few years later, Noppon is posted back to Thailand — and we get the reunion. It it what you might predict, or something else? I’ll leave the story there so as not to completely spoil it.

This brings us to where we started: a painting. Going back to the opening of the musical,  we see this painting being hung in a new house by Noppon. His wife comes by and says she doesn’t see what Noppon sees in the painting, which is a watercolor of the waterfall at Mr. Mitaki. In particular, she doesn’t understand why the title refers to dancers, when there are none in the picture. This is where Noppon smiles, indicates that he sees the dancers, and starts to relate to the audience the story above.

When dealing with a new musical — and the first big staging of a new musical — a number of areas require analysis: the book, the libretto, the performances, and the technical aspects of the presentation. I’ve described the story above; here are my thoughts on the book:

First and foremost, my mind kept contrasting this to The King and I. There are some parallels. The King and I takes place in the 1860s in Siam — less than 100 years before this story. In The King and I, we see some of the first stirrings of modern thinking struggling against Thai tradition. It is in these areas that Anna clashes with the King, but the King holds fast — it is his son that starts to bring in change. In Waterfall, we have a similar theme being echoed: Noppon (representing Siam’s youth) wants to be all things American. This clashes with Japan, which in the ramp up to WWII was rejecting the modernities of America in favor of the preservation of Japanese culture. When Katherine enters the picture, we begin to see the clash of American attitudes with Thai culture and traditions. We see this first in the reactions of Katherine’s servant, Nuan, to American outspokeness — and we see how Katherine wants to be more Thai. This, in turn, moves Noppon to place greater value in Thai culture… which then clashes with the new Thailand values, which wants to discard Thai culture in favor of the modern world and its Western approaches. This, then, is the culmination of the effort begun with the King’s son in The King and I.

I found the political side of the story fascinating (and I find myself seeing echoes of Pacific Overtures). I have never given much thought to the other countries in East Asia during WWII: were they on the side of Allies, or allied with the Axis? Here we see how Japan was growing ready for WWII, and had significant territorial ambitions. We also see how Thailand tried to straddle the middle (at least according to Noppon); it is unclear how what was presented near the epilogue jives with the truth.

This brings us to the romantic story. My wife found it mostly predictable. I didn’t. I thought it was going to go a particular direction (which the first act makes you want to happen), but then you see how a change in the characters changes that direction, and brings the romantic story to a different, but equally touching conclusions. However, I’m unsure how well this romantic story will play on the Broadway stage. It is certainly more interesting than Light in the Piazza, but given the current nature of Broadway I’m not sure that a romantic story would have a long run. This could be one of a string of Pasadena Playhouse musicals that make it to Broadway, only to have their runs fizzle out. The track record speaks for itself: Baby Its You, Sister Act, A Night with Janis Joplin. I still think they should have brought the excellent Mask to Broadway.

But overall, I liked the book. It wasn’t the immediate grab of a Hairspray or The Book of Mormon, but it wasn’t a failure either.

Next, let’s look at the liberetto — the music and lyrics. I tend to like Maltby / Shire musicals — Baby has a wonderful score, and despite it’s problems there are some great songs in Big. Maltby and Shire also know how to write great story and romantic songs — just look at the revue Closer than Ever. The score for Waterfall is one of the most integrated scores I’ve seen from the team. There are a number of songs I liked as I heard them (alas, it is hard to remember them afterwards — I’d need a cast album). They also had songs that were primarily sung in other languages, both Japanese and Thai. I cannot speak to how well they preserved or captured traditional Thai or Japanese musical stylings. But the songs were beautiful, and well executed by the performers. One thing I did notice was that there were just a few musical motifs; they kept being repurposed for similar songs with similar themes (this is best illustrated by the series of “I Am” songs: “I Am Not Thai”, “I Will Be Thai”; or the “I Like” songs: “I Like Americans”, “I Like the Japanese”, “I Hate the Siamese”).

This brings us to the performances. Before I go into the individual performances, I must comment on what this show says about the lack of diversity in the American theatre, and the lack of suitable dramatic vehicles for Asian actors. In reading the credits, the same shows tended to be listed — shows that are (almost stereotypically) Asian: The King and I, Flower Drum Song, Miss Saigon, Pacific Overtures. I think there need to be more shows that provide the opportunity for Asian actors. What East-West Players does is just a start. Of course, things are not helped by the set of Equity actors, which tend to be overwhelmingly of a common hue. This leads to the next casting complaint: Casting directors that seem to think that all Asians look alike. For those who know, there are distinct differences between the various Asian ethnicities, and the Asian casting here was a mix of Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and probably some I couldn’t distinguish. I find this demonstrates a commentary on the acting pool: it indicates there are insufficient actors of a particular group to properly staff the show. This is something the theatre community needs to combat: we need to encourage more diversity in the acting pool (and diverse stories to employ them). [This is where 99 seat theatre demonstrates its importance: it is that stepping stone for non-traditional actors to grow in their craft; the large paying productions cannot employ sufficient ethnic actors and tend to create a high bar to entry.]

In the lead positions were Bie Sukrit (FB) as Noppon and Emily Padgett (FB) as Katherine. This was Sukrit’s first appearance on an American stage — he is evidently a pop star in Thailand — and he came across as the equal to the other Equity actors sharing the stage. I initially found his accent required close listening, but as I got used to it there was no problem. He did, however, need greater amplification to equal Padgett and to overpower the orchestra (hopefully, this will be fixed by opening night). As for Padgett — what a lovely voice, almost operatic. It was well suited for the music, and blended well with Sukrit’s lighter voice. Both did a great job of bringing the characters to life in a way that you believed they were who they were, and that they were reflecting the emotions that the story required. I’d try to name particular songs that they excelled at, but they were all great.

In major supporting positions were Thom Sesma (FB) (Chao Khun Atikarn), J. Elaine Marcos (FB) (Nuan), and as Noppon’s college friends, Jordan De Leon (FB) (Santi, Ensemble), Colin Miyamoto (FB) (Surin), and Lisa Helmi Johanson (FB) (Kumiko, Ensemble). Again, all were excellent. I was particularly taken with the presence that Sesma had as Atikarn — he gave off a wonderful diplomatic flair, and had a lovely singing voice. Marcos, as Nuan, captured the culture clash well and was particularly enjoyable in the number “I Will Be Thai”. Lastly, of Noppon’s college friends, I particularly enjoyed Johanson’s Kumiko, who captured well both the joy and angst of being an Asian who was an American in the period before WWII. This came across extremely well in the song “America Will Break Your Hear”, as well as “Music to my Ears”.

Notable smaller supporting characters were Steven Eng (FB) (Foreign Minister Takamoto) and Marcus Choi (FB) (Thai Minister, Japanese Attaché, Ensemble), both who were great in their songs “I Like Americans” and “I Hate the Siamese” (respectively). Eng was particularly menacing in his role; this is a good thing given the nature of the role. Rounding out the cast were: Eymard Cabling (FB) (Siamese Ambassador, Ensemble), Rona Figueroa (FB) (Yamaguchi Sister, Ensemble), Kimberly Immanuel (FB) (Pree, Yamaguchi Sister, Ensemble), Kenway Hon Wai K. Kua (FB) (Taiko Drummer, Ensemble), Leon Le (FB) (Taiko Drummer, Ensemble), Koh Mochizuki (FB) (Taiko Drummer, Ensemble), Celia Mei Rubin (FB) (Ensemble), Darryl Semira (FB) (Ensemble, Dance Captain), Riza Takahashi (FB) (Yamaguchi Sister, Ensemble), Kay Trinidad (FB) (Ensemble), and Minami Yusui (FB) (Ensemble).  I’ll note that Figueroa, Immanuel, and Takahashi sounded lovely together in “Music to my Ears”.

As previously noted, the show featured lyrics by Richard Maltby. Jr. and music by David Shire. Music supervision and additional arrangements were by John McDaniel (FB), with orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick (FB). Mark Hartman (FB) was the associate conductor. McDaniel and Hartman conducted the 13 piece orchestra consisting of Christian Regul (FB) [Keyboard 2], David Witham (FB) [Keyboard Swing], Greg Huckins (FB) [Reed 1], Sean Franz (FB) [Reed 2], Bill Wood (FB) [Bassoon], Nathan Campbell [French Horn], Marissa Benedict (FB) [Trumpet], Mark Converse (FB) [Percussion], Trey Henry [Bass], Carrie Holtzman-Little and Jody Rubin  [Viola], and Rebecca Merblum (FB) and Stan Sharp [Cello]. The orchestra produced a lovely sound, which was notable for its inclusion of traditional Thai and Japanese instruments, such as the Ranat Ek, a curved, xylophone-like instrument.

Movement was choreographed by Dan Knechtges (FB), assisted by Jessica Hartman (Associate Choreographer). Dance music arrangements were by Greg Jarrett. The movement and dance was visually delightful, especially the numbers that incorporated traditional Thai and Japanese dance movements and motifs. There were also a number of moments of traditional ballroom and modern swing dancing (reflecting 1930s style) that were great. I will note that the kneepads were visible in a number of dance numbers; that could be visually distracting for some. Darryl Semira (FB) was the Dance Captain.

Waterfall was directed by Tak Viravan (FB); Dan Knechtges (FB) was the co-director, and Kenneth Ferrone (FB) was the Associate Director. I’ll note that Viravan, in conjunction with the producer, Jack M. Dalgleish, were the primary drivers on bringing the show to America, and the Dalgleish was the one who reached out to Maltby/Shire to adapt the show for an American audience. I’ve noted before how I have difficulty seeing where the director stops and the actor begins, and so I tend to credit the actor. I’ll credit the director here for the vision that was realized, and for capturing the little things from that culture. This was particularly apparent in the interactions with Nuan, who was very deferential and submission, which made her hesitancy later on speaking up much stronger. Management was provided by the following team: Andrew Neal (FB) [Production Stage Manager], Lucy Kennedy (FB) [Assistant Stage Manager], Heather “Red” Verhoef [Production Manager/Assistant Stage Manager], Joe Witt [General Manager], Kristen Hammack (FB) [Producing Associate / Company Manager].

Lastly, let’s consider the technical side. The Pasadena Playhouse is blessed with a large flyspace, large wings on both sides, and a deep stage. Sasavat (Ja) Busayabandh, the scenic designer made good use of this space for scenic elements that flew down (Christine Peters was the Associate Scenic Designer). However, the main scenic elements were walls with rough jagged edges that slid left and right, seemingly like textured stone walls. Against these walls, projections designed by Caite Havner Kemp [Projection Designer] were used to establish locale. I recently listened to a Producer’s Perspective podcast with director Scott Schwartz where he opined that he didn’t like heavy use of projections; he felt they were a cost-saving crutch and preferred real theatrical designs. Yet these projections worked against the walls; they were particularly noteworthy during the painting scene of the Waterfall where you could see how the watercolors interacted to form the picture. Most of the other scenic elements were a bit simpler; I’ll note that the set piece for the waterfall was notable in its use of real running water on stage that was splashed around (something you rarely see). Overall, the scenic design worked well for the Playhouse space. It also interacted well with Ken Billington‘s lighting design. This design was noteworthy for its used of the color palette, in particular the washes used against the rear cyclorama. The costumes (designed by Wade Laboissonniere) and hair, wigs and makeup (designed by J. Jared Janas) seemed appropriately period; I don’t have the expertise to speak to whether the traditional Japanese and Thai costumes were correct (they appeared correct to my Western eye, but what do I know?). I particularly enjoyed the dresses worn by Katherine (Emily Padgett (FB)) and Kumiko (Lisa Helmi Johanson (FB)), which were both beautiful, flattering to the actors, and fit in the late 30s time period. Lastly, the sound design by Dan Moses Schreier was mostly clear; there were a few microphone static problems that I presume will be corrected by the official opening (this was a particular problem in the waterfall scene). As noted before, Bie needed some additional amplification. Additional design and related credits: Brad Enlow [Technical Director], Stewart/Whitley (FB) [Casting].

According to the main credit page, Waterfall was produced by the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) under the artistic direction of Sheldon Epps, in association with the 5th Avenue Theatre (FB) in Seattle (which will present Waterfall in the fall of 2015). Articles on the show indicate that eventual producers will be the director (Tak Viravan)’s producing business, Scenario Company, in conjunction with Jack M. Dalgleish.

Waterfall continues at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB), formally opening on June 7, 2015 and running until June 28, 2015. If you’re a fan of new musicals, or of Maltby/Shire musicals, or of Asian culture, this is especially well worth seeing. Tickets are available online through the Pasadena Playhouse website. Discount tickets may be available through special Pasadena Playhouse programs, Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, and other common outlets.

One last note regarding Waterfall — in particular, about the Waterfall audience. Sheldon Epps, the Artistic Director of the Playhouse, is well known for pushing diversity on stage. When we were subscribing at the Playhouse, this meant that there were a fair number of African-American themed plays. I always bemoaned the fact that the complexion of the audience would change for those plays; there was a distinct color shift I found disturbing. My disturbance wasn’t due to the black audiences — I want diverse and younger audiences discovering and coming to theatre. My disturbance was more the absence of the typical audience of non-color 🙂 — why were they avoiding the play (I’m similarly disturbed about the fact that the audiences of color don’t come to traditional plays). The same shift was notable in the Waterfall audience — it skewed much more Asian than the typical Playhouse audience. As a result, I must make the comment I always make: Theatre is like music — it is either good or bad. It is not “Asian”, it is not “Black”, it is not “White”. It reflects and comments on situations that are set in a wide variety of communities. Audiences must make an effort to go to a wide variety of theatre that reflects diverse experience, and not only the shows that reflect their particular ethnic experience. This permits theatre to do its job, moving people to learn and think about how people react in various situations. End soapbox.

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

Upcoming Shows: June will be exhausting with the bounty that the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB) brings (ticketing is now open). June starts with a matinee of the movie Grease at The Colony Theatre (FB), followed by Clybourne Park (HFF) at the Lounge Theatre (FB) Camenot at the Complex Theatres (FB) (Clybourne Park was cancelled) on Saturday, and a trip out to see the Lancaster Jethawks on Sunday. The second weekend of June brings Max and Elsa. No Music. No Children. (HFF) at Theatre Asylum (FB) and  Wombat Man (HFF) at Underground Theatre (FB) on Saturday, and Marry Me a Little (HFF) by Good People Theatre (FB) at the Lillian Theatre (FB) on Sunday. The craziness continues into the third weekend of June, with the Nigerian Spam Scam Scam (HFF) at Theatre Asylum (FB) and Merely Players (HFF) at the Lounge Theatre (FB) on Saturday, and Uncle Impossible’s Funtime Variety & Ice Cream Social, (HFF) at the Complex Theatres (FB) on Sunday (and possibly “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) in the afternoon, depending on Hottix availability, although July 4th weekend is more likely). The Fringe craziness ends with Medium Size Me, (HFF) at the Complex Theatres (FB) on Thursday 6/25 and Might As Well Live: Stories By Dorothy Parker (HFF) at the Complex Theatres (FB) on Saturday. June ends with our annual drum corps show in Riverside on Sunday. July begins with “Murder for Two” at the Geffen Playhouse (FB) on July 3rd, and possibly Matilda. July 11th brings “Jesus Christ Superstar” at REP East (FB). The following weekend brings “Green Grow The Lilacs” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) [and may also bring The History Boys at the Stella Adler Lab Theatre (FB) (I’m considering it)].  July 25th brings “Lombardi” at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB), with the annual Operaworks show the next day. August starts with “As You Like It” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB), and is followed by the summer Mus-ique show, and “The Fabulous Lipitones” at  The Colony Theatre (FB). After that we’ll need a vacation! As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.


Thoughts on a Theatre Season: Pasadena Playhouse / Theatricum Botanicum

userpic=theatre_musicalsTime for another post looking at theatre season announcements. Today’s post is triggered by the recent announcements of the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) season and the Theatricum Botanicum Seasons.

Pasadena Playhouse

We used to be long-time subscribers at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB). We weren’t treated well during the bankruptcy itself, and choose to move our mid-side theatre subscription to The Colony Theatre (FB) in Burbank. We’ve enjoyed the productions at the Colony, although they are not that adventurous or likely to move on to bigger and better things (you want adventurous productions that may move on, explore LA’s 99 Seat Theatre scene — which is threatened by AEA — learn more at As for the Pasadena Playhouse, we haven’t much liked Sheldon’s programming — and especially the TBA slot. Still, we’re planning on one show this season there. So let’s see what they are proposing:

  • Thumbs Down Real Women Have Curves. Written by Josefina López. Directed by Seema Sueko. September 8 – October 4, 2015. This is taking a movie and moving it onstage. This can work (and draw audiences), but isn’t that particularly exciting to me… especially as a straightforward drama.
  • Thumbs Down Breaking Through. Book by Kirsten Guenther. Music and Lyrics by Cliff Downs and Katie Kahanovitz. Directed by Sheldon Epps. October 27 – November 22, 2015.  A new musical from a team that hasn’t done musicals before. That may or may not be bad — sometimes it works, sometimes it fails miserably. The story is about a young, talented singer/songwriter, as she tries to navigate the treacherous shark-­‐filled waters of the music business with a a compelling journey to find her way back to her authentic self and in the process rediscovers the music that truly makes her alive. Isn’t that Beautiful or any of a myriad of other shows? Not a compelling story.
  • Thumbs Down Peter Pan and Tinkerbell: A Pirate Christmas. By Kris Lythgoe. Directed by Bonnie Lythgoe. Musical Direction by Michael Orland. Choreography by Spencer Liff. December 9, 2015– January 3, 2016. British Christmas Panto. I’m sorry, but I’m generally not into Christmas-specific shows.
  • thumbs-side Fly. By Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan. Directed by Ricardo Khan. Produced in Association with Crossroads Theatre Company. January 26 – February 21, 2016. Fly tells the story of the first African-­‐ American Army Air Corp fighters known as the Tuskegee Airmen who flew over the skies of Europe and North Africa during World War II. Sigh. This is one of Sheldon’s shows designed to bring in an audience of color. I used to see these every year, and was disappointed that the audience didn’t remain around for other shows (or that the white audience disappeared for these shows). Potentially interesting, but not a must-see. All depends on what else is out around then.
  • Thumbs Up Casa Valentina. By Harvey Fierstein. Directed by David Lee. March 15 – April 10, 2016. Per the description: this moving and insightful play is nestled in the Catskills in 1962 -­‐ land of dirty dancing and borscht belt comedy.  But an inconspicuous bungalow colony is more than a place to escape the sweltering summer heat.  For a group of heterosexual men it is a place to escape something else entirely: being men. Interesting for the director and the playwright. Not sure that it draws me in fully, but this might be good.
  • thumbs-side ARTISTIC DIRECTOR’S CHOICE. To Be Announced. May 31 – June 26, 2015. Otherwise known as the Sheldon CYA slot. I’m not going to commit myself if he can’t.

Not a season that excites me.


Theatricum Botanicum

We’re not subscribers here, but we tend to see a show here and there, if it is interesting. As Theatricum Botanicum (FB) wrote:

The upcoming ‘Americana’ season includes William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, re-set in the Reconstruction-era South with live music of the period; To Kill A Mockingbird, Christopher Sergel’s stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel; August: Osage County, Tracy Letts’ biting portrait of the dysfunctional American family at its finest — and absolute worst; and Green Grow the Lilacs, the play by Lynn Riggs that inspired Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma. Finally, what could be more American than an outing to experience Theatricum’s signature production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, back for the ninth year in a row by popular demand? Audiences flock to this annual family favorite, a beguiling romantic comedy set in Theatricum’s own Topanga forest.

These all run in repertory through the summer. My thoughts:

  • Thumbs Up As You Like It. Seen a number of adaptations of this, including a disasterous one at the Pasadena Playhouse (the only show I’ve walked out on). The era and setting of this sound interesting.
  • Thumbs Down To Kill a Mockingbird. Great play, but I just saw it within the last couple of years at Repertory East. Given how crowded the summer is, I’m not sure it is worth squeezing in.
  • Thumbs Up August: Osage County. A classic play, worth seeing if I can squeeze it in.
  • Thumbs Up Green Grow the Lilacs. This is one I’d really like to see — the basis for Oklahoma. I’ve always heard about it.
  • Thumbs Down A Midsummers Night Dream. This one will be around again, so I’ll skip this time.

They only have seasons subscriptions up, so I’ll either have to remember to put HOLD dates or watch Goldstar.


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.