It’s Not What You Think

Last night, we took our daughter out for her birthday to see “Lars and the Real Girl.” I’m sure that some were unsure about this, having read the synopsis on Yahoo:

Lars Lindstrom is a loveable introvert whose emotional baggage has kept him from fully embracing life. After years of what is almost solitude, he invites Bianca, a friend he met on the internet to visit him. He introduces Bianca to his brother Gus and his wife Karen and they are stunned. They don’t know what to say to Lars or Bianca–because she is a life-size doll, not a real person and he is treating her as though she is alive. They consult the family doctor Dagmar who explains this is a delusion he’s created–for what reason she doesn’t yet know but they should all go along with it. What follows is an emotional journey for Lars and the people around him.

In reality, the movie film (correction courtesy of nsshere) is an unexpected gem.

Lars (Ryan Gosling) is an extremely introverted IT office worker for whom touch is painful, with a co-worker into porn and action figures. Lars is functioning in the real world, but isolating himself. Trying to draw Lars out of the isolation are those who care about him: Karin (Emily Mortimer) and Gus (Paul Schnieder), his pregnant sister-in-law and brother; Margo (Kelli Garner), a single female co-worker, and the rest of the town. Lars reacts to this by ordering a full-size anatomically-correct sex doll, dressing it up and treating it like a real woman, Bianca (note: you always see the doll dressed). The town’s doctor, Dagmar, believes this is a delusion and is Lars’ way of coping with the world. She indicates the town should humor him, while seeing Bianca weekly for her low blood pressure (and talking to Lars at the same time). The town does this, getting Bianca involved in all sorts of activities. Over time, Lars grows in learning how to relate and react to other people, eventually moving from Bianca to the world of real people.

As I said, this was a quiet surprise movie film. No special effects: the strength of the movie film was its acting and its story. The actors were all very strong (well, Bianca’s performance was a bit wooden and stiff), and one really believed this slightly off-beat Minnesota town could exist, with people that care about their own.

I’ll also note that the movie film was believable in a sense. I know people like Lars in real life: folks that isolate themselves from personal relationships and touch for whatever reason, whose families and friends wish for them the joy they have from personal relationships (no, the person who came to mind on this is not on LJ). Lars learns to relate to others through Bianca, who draws him out, and through Dagmar, who teaches him that touch isn’t painful. You have the feeling at the end of the movie that a relationship will blossom between Lars and Margo, all thanks to the groundwork laid by Bianca.

I’ll also note that the theatre we were in was packed. Every seat appeared to be full… and this for an independent movie film that has been out for a month. I’m guessing that word of mouth on this movie film is growing, so I’ll add my recommendation to the pack. Eschew the popular — you don’t need to see “Beowolf”, “Dan in Real Life”, or “Mr. Magorium”. Go see the quiet wonder and the joy that is “Lars and the Real Girl.”

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So what’s next on the calendar? Movie-wise, we normally see a movie on Christmas Day, and currently we’re expecting that movie to be the new Tim Burton version of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, although I fear Tim Burton may have excised too much of the music, and over-emphasized the drama and the gore (of course, this means it will be successful as a movie). We also saw a preview for the movie “Persopolis”, an animated movie about the fall of the Shah of Iran and its effect on an Iranian family. This looked quite interesting, and is another possibility. It appears that Lars turned our daughter into someone liking art movies.

As for non-movies, that resumes next week with “The Unexpected Guest” at REP East (Myspace) on 11/24 @ 8pm. This is followed by “Ray Charles Live” at the Pasadena Playhouse on 12/1 @ 8pm; Tom Paxton at McCabes on 12/2 @ 7:30pm; and the highly anticipated “The Stinky Cheese Man And Other Fairly Stupid Tales” at Nobel Middle School on 12/6 @ 7pm, 12/7 @ 7pm, and maybe 12/8 @ 5pm.

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I Now Pronounce You Man and Wife, and Man and Wife, and Man and Wife, and…

This afternoon, we trudged out to Thousand Oaks to see the first show of the 2007-2008 Cabrillo Music Theatre season, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” The musical is based on the 1954 MGM Movie Musical starring Howard Keel and Jane Powell with songs by Johnny Mercer and Gene DePaul (both also known for Lil Abner). It was originally adapted for the stage in 1979 with a book by Lawrence Kasha and David S. Landay, where it had a successful national tour, but closed on Broadway after five performances (but it did win a Tony for Best Score). It was revived again in 2005, when additional songs by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn were added. This production was more successful, and appears to be the version used by Cabrillo Music Theatre.

The story of “Seven Brides” is based on the movie adaptation of the short story “The Sobbin’ Women,” by Stephen Vincent Benét, which in turn is based on the Ancient Roman legend of The Rape of the Sabine Women. The musical tells the story of Adam Pontipee and his six brothers in Oregon in the 1850s. He’s decided he needs a wife, and thus goes into town to get one before he returns the next day. He wins over Millie, a local waitress who is sick of men, looking forward to a home with just her husband. He brings her back to the cabin, where she discovers the brothers. She eventually warms to the cabin and the life, and teaches the brothers how to court women. They go into town to a social, and are doing fine until a fight breaks out, resulting from their banishment from town. But they have found girls to love in the town, and so, after reading about the Sabine Women, they go into town and kidnap the women… but forget the preacher. This results in the men living in the barn, and the girls in the house. After a while, however, sparks do fly and courtin’ does occur (and Mille has Adam’s baby). The suitors from town finally get to the cabin, and attempt to take the women back… but all the women claim the baby is theirs, resulting in six shotgun weddings for the brothers. You can find more details in the MTI Plot Synopsis.

As you can tell by reading the plot, it is contrived and dated, and has aspects of political incorrectness from today’s point of view. So why do the show? Because it is a super dancing show, with joyful tunes and a large cast. This is great for regional production… and Cabrillo did their usual excellent job with it. They put together a strong cast of good dancers and reasonable actors, with strong orchestration, sets, and makeup. Their costumes were a little bit incongruous at times (especially Adam’s polo shirt — I didn’t think those existed in the 1850s). They should have fixed one lyric that referred to Mille as having wheat hair and blue eyes (which was being sung to a brown-eyed brunette). I also found the choreography a bit odd at time: since when do brothers in 1850’s Oregon know ballet moves? But on the whole, I had no significant complaints with Cabrillo’s execution.

The production starred Stuart Ambrose* (Adam) and Shannon Warne* (Millie ). Both were very strong singers and dancers, and were a pleasure to watch. The brothers consisted of Jonathan Sharp* (Benjamin), Joe Hall¤ (Caleb), Drew D’andrea¤ (Daniel), Trevor Krahl¤ (Ephraim), Andrew Reusch (Frank), and Jeffrey Scott Parsons (Gideon). Of the brothers, I was most impressed with Jonathan Sharp, who was a strong singer as well as a dancer. Most of the other brothers were more experienced as dancers (and it showed), but their acting was reasonable. Their eventual brides consisted of Aubrey Elson¤ (Alice), Karlee Ferreira¤ (Martha), Sarah Girard (Dorcas), Cassie Silva (Ruth), Andrea Taylor (Sarah), and Marni Zaifert¤ (Liza). All of these were reasonable actors who got into their roles quite well, and excellent dancers. I was also amused by Andrea Taylor’s ponderable in her bio: “If a cat always lands on its feet, and buttered bread always lands butter side down, what would happen if I tied buttered bread on top of a cat?”

Turning to the minor roles… the suitors who lost the girls were Alexander Gomez (Zeke), Eric Hoggins¤ (Luke), Erik Kline (Carl) [his day job is at Google], Jacob Leatherman¤ (Matt), Raymond Matsamura¤ (Jeb), and Don Pietranczyk¤ (Joel). Townspeople included Terrie Benton (Mrs. Kines), Carol-Lynn Campbell (Mrs. Bixby), Jonathan Carlisle (Mr. Perkins), Larry Craig (Mr. Sanders) [a founding member of the Colony Theatre], David Friel (Mr. Kines), Julie Jones (Mrs. Newland), John D. LeMay (Mr. Bixby), Lynda Reed (Mrs. Perkins), and Josh Shipley (Preacher). The children’s chorus consisted of Ashley Marie Arnold, Heidi Bjorndahl, Ben Gutierrez, Madeline Holcombe, Kurt Kemper, Tate Lee, Quincy Unseth, and Sydney Unseth. All of the actors in the minor roles got into their characters; I enjoyed watching them play the parts while others were doing the main singing and dancing.
(*: Actors Equity Member; ¤: primarily dancing credits)

The show was choreographed by John Charron. Musical direction was by Steven Applegate. Lighting design was by Rand Ryan, sound design by Jonathan Burke, prop design and scenery by T. Theresa Scarano, and wardrobe supervision by Christine Gibson. Hair and makeup were by Paul Hadobas and Ashley Hasson. Production stage management was by Linda Tross* and Lindsay Martens*, assisted by Rachel Samuels. The production was directed by Lewis Wilkenfeld.

One last thing while we’re on the show. nsshere and I were musing on how to update the show. I suggested “Seven Brothers for Seven Brothers”, the all-men version of the show. She countered with “Seven Boys for Seven Bruddahs”, and then we started riffing on all the possibilities. I can just see it now…

So what’s next on our theatre calendar? Next weekend there is no theatre, as I’m busy with my 30th High School Reunion on Saturday evening, and working at A Day Out with Thomas at OERM on Sunday afternoon (come on out and say “Hi”). Theatre currently starts up again after Thanksgiving with “The Unexpected Guest” at REP East (Myspace) on 11/24 @ 8pm. This is followed by “Ray Charles Live” at the Pasadena Playhouse on 12/1 @ 8pm; Tom Paxton at McCabes on 12/2 @ 7:30pm; and the highly anticipated “The Stinky Cheese Man And Other Fairly Stupid Tales” at Nobel Middle School on 12/6 @ 7pm, 12/7 @ 7pm, and maybe 12/8 @ 5pm.

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Whodunnit? I dunno. Let’s vote on it.

Last night, we went to the final performance of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center. I was very glad that we only had to go to Simi Valley and not the REP, because we were able to avoid the mess that is the I-5/Route 14 junction. Anyway, on to the show.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is a musical based on the unfinished novel by Messr. C. Dickens, with book, music, and lyrics by Messr. Rupert Holmes. The story concerns a young man, Edwin Drood, who is about to marry a beautiful young lady, Rosa Bud. Unfortunately for Edwin, his uncle is Rosa’s music teacher and is also in love with Rosa. His uncle also suffers from a medical condition (I think migraines) that has him visiting the opium dens in London (run by Princess Puffer). Added to the mix is are the brother and sisters Neville and Helena Landless from Ceylon: Neville and Edwin have a distinct dislike for one another, as Edwin is English and Neville is British. There is also the comic relief subplot about Durdles and Deputy digging a crypt for the Lord Mayor, and a seemingly lecherous Reverend Mr. Chrisparkle. One night, after a dinner at Jaspers, Edwin disappears. The group starts to investigate the murder when… led by Princess Puffer and a mysterious stranger, Dick Dachery. However, shortly after that point, Dickens died and the story was finished.

Here is where the conceit of the play comes it. The play is told in the setting of an English Musical Hall (in fact, the original opening number (captured on a Lost in Boston album) was “An English Music Hall”), and so the actors are playing actors in the Music Hall Royale production of December 29, 1892, who are playing the actors in the story. This leads to an intentional “melodrama” style of performance, where actors are introduced as the Music Hall actor in their first scenes, and the play is presided over by a Chairman who relates the story and sets each scene. It also leads to the main conceit: audience participation.

Yes, audience participation. When the play abruptly stops, there are four open questions:

  • Is Edwin Drood dead or just missing?
  • Who is Dick Dachery?
  • Who murdered Edwin Drood?
  • Who eventually falls in love with each other?

The first question is always answered by the company, who vote Edwin dead. The rest are voted on by the audience, and the actors in the music hall then end the story based on the vote. In the production we saw last night, a minor character (Bazzard) was voted to be Dachery, the murderer was Neville Landless, and the couple was Princess Puffer and the Reverend.

So how did the company do? Acting-wise, quite well for what they are. The Actors Rep of Simi Valley rarely uses equity actors, and is more on the level of local community theatre (vs. Rep East, where there are regular equity actors). The actors were all reasonably competent, and some were quite good. We were all very impressed with Elisabeth Stockton as Princess Puffer/Miss Angela Prysock and Anna Graves as Edwin Drood/Miss Alice Nutting. Both sang and acted quite well. Comically, John Sarkela did an excellent job as The Reverend Mr. Chrisparkle/Mr. Cedric Moncrieffe, with Nick Furguson and Corey Slack as the bumbling Durdles/Mr. Nick Cricker and Deputy/Master Dick Cricker, respectively. Jodi Wurts had the appropriate melodramatic chops as Neville Landless/Mr. VIctor Grinstead, playing up the role to the hilt. Kristina Reyes as Rosa Bud/Miss Deirdre Peregrine was beautiful, but at times came off as stiff. I was less impressed with Ryan Neely as John Jasper/Mr. Clive Paget–his performance just seemed a bit off for me, but I can’t put my finger on why. Amanda Lastort as Helena Landless/Miss Janet Conover was competant, but seemed to be overacting a bit which was distracting. The very rotund Fred Helsel as Mr. William Cartwright/Lord Mayor/Chairman occasionally tripped over his tongue but recovered well. Rounding out the cast were Seth Kamerow as Bazzard/Mr. Philip Bax and Sarah Goodwin, Erica Hess, Megan Tisler, and Heather Neely as The Sparkling Ingenues. I should note that the cast did an excellent job of remaining in character when they mingled with the audience during the pre-show and intermission.

My main complaint with the production was technical. The musicians were over-amplified, making it difficult to hear the words the actors were singing (better enunciation would have helped as well). The costumes were occasionally off-period, and more ill-fitting (especially on the larger busted ladies, who looked to be nearly falling out of their tops). So who did what technically? The production was directed by Fred Helsel, produced by Fred Helsel and Linda Gray. Musical direction was by Gary Poirot, with vocal direction by Bonnie Graeve and choreography by Alexandra R. Lastort. The effective lighting design was by Christian West, costumbe by Randon Pool, and scenery by Fred Helsel.

Tonight is the last night of the production.

Dining Notes: Dinner last night was at Reds BBQ in Simi. Quite tasty. Highly recommended.

Speaking of upcoming shows, here’s how our calendar is looking: We have a break before our next show, which is “7 Brides for 7 Brothers” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on 11/3 @ 2:00pm. The rest of November is taken up by other activities: 30th High School Reunion, Thomas at OERM, and isn’t programmed. Theatre starts up again in December, with “Ray Charles Live” at the Pasadena Playhouse on 12/1 @ 8pm; Tom Paxton at McCabes on 12/2 @ 7:30pm; and the highly anticipated “The Stinky Cheese Man And Other Fairly Stupid Tales” at Nobel Middle School on 12/6 @ 7pm, 12/7 @ 7pm, and maybe 12/8 @ 5pm.

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I Won’t Grow Up! Awwww, Do I Have To?

Last night we went to one of our favorite venues, the REP East in Newhall, to see the play “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”, based on the books by Robert Fulghum, as adapted by Ernest Zulia. This was not your typical comedy or drama with a connected plot. Rather, it was a series of scenes illustrating various life lessons, all with the general theme of reminding us with what we learn as we grow up. As a result, the title served only to refer to the first scene, wherein we learned that when we were in Kindergarten, we were willing to try and do anything (whether we knew how or not)… but as we grew older, we became more aware of our abilities and limitations, and tried less and less–the point being (I think) that we should continue to have that childish enthusiasm and constantly try. It is OK to fall on our face and look silly sometimes. We do forget that as adults (well, most of us, that is).

As I said, there were a number of scenes, and I don’t recall them all. There are a few that stick in my mind, however. “Cinderella” was about a shy boy in Kindergarten who decided to be the pig in Cinderella (yes, I know there isn’t one in the story)–and his pig became the star of the show. This boy was unaware of conventional limitations, and succeeded because no one told him they existed. There is a lesson there. “The Stuff in the Sink” was about the gunk that collects in the sink when you do the dishes, and you have to periodically clean it out. Adults recognize this as a part of life, but kids hate dealing with the gunk. The segued into a high school graduation, where the speaker reminded the kids that growing up means being willing to deal with the gunk in the sink, changing the poopy diapers, cleaning the vomit of a friend off the floor, and so on, and the kids all quickly decided they didn’t want to grow up. But it is something we forget. There was also a scene called “Problems and Inconveniences”, reminding us that what so often seem to be problems are really just inconveniences, or as the play put it, “A lump in your oatmeal is very different than a lump in your breast.”

The second act had more scenes along these lines: “MOTB” made me think of the upcoming Bat Mitzvah: it was about a mother of the bride who worked to have everything perfect for her daughter’s wedding… only to have the bride eat too much while getting dressed, and rolf over the entire front pew at the ceremony. They all learned to laugh at this. There was a scene about the relationship about “Fathers and Sons”, as well as how that mirrors how children approach “Pigeons” (one can never get too close). There was a scene about “Geek Dancing”, which was about how one needs to find the joy in doing this, and who cares what the rest of the world thinks. The last scene, “Are There Any Questions”, was about the purpose of life… and how it is to be a mirror that helps shine others into the deep crevaces of life.

Gee, I guess I got more out of this play than I thought six hours ago. That is the mark of a good play: one that upon reflection gets even stronger. Of course, I think this was helped by the excellent cast (playing a variety of roles): George M. Chavez II, Marla Khayat, Jeff Lucas, Jymn Magon, and Erin Rivlin-Sakata. Some of these are regular REP folks we’ve been seeing throughout the year; some are new. All were excellent. I particularly enjoyed the enthusiasm of George and Erin, and I loved Jymn and Marla’s facial expressions and glee. There were a few line hesitations, but that is part of life, and they didn’t serve to distract from the show at all.

The uncredited stage design was simple and worked well, with much of the mood established through the lighting of Tim Christianson. Sound was by the always excellent “Nanook” Burkholder, with costumes (primarily clothes that didn’t distract from the actor) by Ryan Todd. Stage management was by Lauren Pearsall, with direction by the theatre’s artistic director, “O” (Owington Michael Owston). The show runs through October 20.

At the performance, REP East announced their 2008 season, which looks quite good. No dates as of yet, but the shows planned are: “Steel Magnolias,” “W;t,” “The Full Monty: The Musical,” “Of Mice and Men,” and “Ten Little Indians”. The 81 Series (short run shows for mature audience) are “Hurleyburly”, “Necessary Targets”, and “Suburbia”. I don’t know about the 81 series, but the main stage shows look great. I haven’t figured out if we’re doing season tickets (as they are good and start their season in January, not June like everyone else, which helps the pocket book), or will continue to go through Goldstar.

This debate occurs because they still have trouble coming up with a season ticket packet that works for us. All of their subscription packets consist of 8 shows, and I really just want a main stage (5 show) subscription (which I think many families would want). There’s also the pricing question. There are times I get season tickets because the shows don’t always show up on Goldstar with suitable times (Pasadena Playhouse), at all (Cabrillo Music Theatre), or might have great demand (Ahmanson). REP East shows up regularly on Goldstar, and the discount is better than the season discount. The only reason to get the season pass would be to show support for the theatre. This could easily be done by showing that the season tickets are not just paying for the tickets: the tickets are effectively at Goldstar prices, with the remainder of the season fee being a (tax-deductable, hopefully) donation to the group. The packages are also oddly structured: the Patron Circle and Members Circle are essentially the same goodies (the former is for one, the latter for two)… except that the latter is more than double the former. The only difference is where you are in the program. Again, making clear that this is a greater donation to the theatre would really help here. I know that folks from the show read these reviews, so hopefully these ideas will help them (or they will comment here–I invite you to join Livejournal).

Speaking of upcoming shows, here’s how our calendar is looking: Next weekend, we have “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center on 10/13 @ 8:00pm; followed by “7 Brides for 7 Brothers” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on 11/3 @ 2:00pm. The rest of November is taken up by other activities: 30th High School Reunion, Thomas at OERM, and isn’t programmed. Theatre starts up again in December, with “Ray Charles Live” at the Pasadena Playhouse on 12/1 @ 8pm; Tom Paxton at McCabes on 12/2 @ 7:30pm; and the highly anticipated “The Stinky Cheese Man And Other Fairly Stupid Tales” at Nobel Middle School on 12/6 @ 7pm, 12/7 @ 7pm, and maybe 12/8 @ 5pm.

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The Power of the Code

Last night, we saw the play “Matter of Honor” at the Pasadena Playhouse. “Matter of Honor” is an interesting one-act 90-minute play that tells the story of Johnson Whittaker, one of the first African-American cadets at the Military Academy at West Point (he wasn’t the first, however; that honor goes to Henry O. Flipper). During his first class (senior) year at West Point, Cadet Whittaker was found one morning in his room, beaten and bound, with cuts to his ears and a brused and bloodied head. The play tells the story of the investigation into this beating, under the direction of the superintendent of West Point, General John McAllister Schofield. General Schofield brings in an outside investigator, Mr. Chase, to apply scientific methods to the case (such as they were in the 1880s). Chase interviews other cadets, notably Stanton, a gentlemanly son of the south, as well as Whittaker, to come to his conclusion, all the while running into the honor code of West Point, combined with the silent overt segregation of the sole black cadet. He initially concludes that Whittaker beat himself, but later changes that position as Whittaker protests his innocence throughout the court martial. The play is framed throughout with Chase being subjected to questioning by an army officer (Stern) about whether Gen. Schofield interfered in the case.

This was a very intense drama, but one that doesn’t have a real good conclusion (it didn’t in real life either). You never find out who really beat Whittaker (although initially court-martialled for beating himself, that was later overturned… but he still was separated for not passing philosphy… it wasn’t until President Clinton that the separation was overturned and he was posthumously awarded his lt. bars). There were some strong parallels to today, with the military being notoriously tight lipped about what goes on inside its walls, not letting outsiders see the truth.

The performances were very strong, as we’ve come to expect at the Playhouse (although, alas, the audience was only about half full). Whittaker was played by Cedric Sanders, a relative newcomer but a very strong actor. The investigator, Chase, was played by Eric Lutes, who did an excellent job shifting personas between the alcoholic Chase of 1882 (post-investigation) and the eager Chase of the 1880 investigation. Enforcing honor, for right or wrong, was Richard Doyle‘s Gen. Schofield, who had the right amount of bluster and bravado to pull it off. Rounding out the cast were Steve Coombs as Stanton, Adam J. Smith as Stern, Brian Watkins as Foster, and Steve Holm, John O’Brien, and Ryan J. Hill as various cadets. The play was written by Michael Chepiga and directed by Scott Schwartz (who also directed tick, tick… BOOM).

On the technical side: the Scenic Design was by Robert Brill, who built a stone West Point facade that was nothing short of remarkable, combined with an incredibly raked stage. Costumes design was by Maggie Morgan (with military precision), and lighting was by Donald Holder (who created some remarkable mood with lighting shifts). Sound design was by Mark Bennett, with video design by Austin Switzer. The videos were used to provide captions and date framing, as well as providing updates on the story to the present day. Dialect coaching was by Joel Goldes, and fight coordination was by Tim Weske (who I also think did Can-Can).

“Matter of Honor” continues through September 30, 2007.

Dining Notes: Nothing really, as we had to stop by the mall to hit Teavana (eh, in my opinion… I prefer Franklin Tea), and thus quickly hit Barney’s Gourmet Hamburgers, which were actually quite good.

What’s next on the theatre calendar? Next is “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” at REP East on 10/6 @ 8:00pm; “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center on 10/13 @ 8:00pm; and “7 Brides for 7 Brothers” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on 11/3 @ 2:00pm.

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I Wish I Could Go Back To College…

…for life was much simpler back then.

This musing is brought to you, of course, by the letter Q, as in Avenue Q, the musical we saw today at the Ahmanson Theatre. Avenue Q, for those who haven’t seen it, is a musical with puppets that is definately not for the little kiddies. This is no Flahooley, folks. Avenue Q is the story of Princeton, a freshly-minted BA in English, who is trying to find his Purpose in life. However, life is proving to be much harder than he expected… with jobs, housing, personal problems, and all the other aspects of daily life that frustrate us. Can we go back to college yet?

Along the way, we meet the cast of characters that inhabit the block of Avenue Q that is affordable by Princeton: Kate Monster, a kindergarten TA; Brian, an out-of work comedian; Christmas Eve, Brian’s fiancee and an unsuccessful therapist; Rod, a closeted gay Republican investment banker; Nickey, Rod’s roommate; Gary, the superintendent; and Trekkie Monster, an, ummm, Internet entrepreneur and all-around pervert. Note that some of these are puppets, some of these are real people, and some bear a close resemblence to Sesame Street characters, but not close enough for a lawsuit. All have relationship trouble of some form, just like in real-life. All of them also have the “Bad Idea Bears” whispering bad ideas into their heads that they listen too. In other words: the story mirrors real life, which is why it has been so successful, going on to win a Tony Award in 1994 2004, as well as winning the hearts and minds of the Internet generation. Porn has nothing to do with it. Yeah, right.

The production at the Ahmanson was excellent. It is hard to match performers with the physical characters, as often the actual puppet manipulation was swapped between actors. But let’s try to name names anyway, based on the characters played or voiced. In the lead was Robert McClure, who voiced Princeton and Rod. McClure had a strong singing voice and made the puppets come to life, although he was occasionally off on his synching of the puppet with the words. Even stronger was the female lead, Kelli Sawyer, who voiced Kate Monster, Lucy T. Slut, and other characters. She had an extremely strong singing voice (especially in the torch songs), and I hope she goes far. Rounding out the major puppet vocals was Christian Anderson as Nicky, Trekkie Monster, and one of the bad-idea bears. His “Ernie” voice was dead on, and his Trekkie was raw (as it should be). The last puppet vocalist was Minglie Chen, who played Mrs. Thistletwat, a bad-idea bear, and assisted with puppet manipulation. She really didn’t speak much.

Turning to the human characters, we had Cole Porter (no, not the composer, he’s dead) as Brian; Angela Ai as Christmas Eve, and Carla Renata as Gary Coleman. All were strong; I was particularly taken by the comic stylings of Ms. Ai (and her voice during her one big song), as well as the singing voice of Ms. Renata. The ensemble consisted of Maggie Lakis, Seth Rettberg, and Danielle K. Thomas.

Turning to production information: Avenue Q has music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, with a book by Jeff Whitty based on an original concept by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. Puppets were conceived and designed by Rick Lyon. Scenic design was by Anna Louizon; Costumes by Mirena Rada; Lighting by Howell Binkley; Sound by Acme Sound Partners. The animation was by Robert Lopez (the co-composer/lyricist), and brought back memories of days watching Sesame Street, especially come+mittment. Musical drection was by Andrew Graham, with supervision and orchestrations by Stephen Oremus. The production was directed by Jason Moore, with technical direction by Brian Lynch, and stage management by Marian DeWitt. Overall, this was a production of the Center Theatre Group, Michael Ritchie artistic director.

Avenue Q runs through October 14, 2007. I believe that discounted tickets are available through Goldstar Events as well as Hottix.

By the way, at the end of Avenue Q, Princeton believes that his purpose is to put on a show about how to get through life, thus being self-referential. I can think of two other shows that were similarly self-referential: A Class Act, where Ed Kleban’s dying wish was that his songs be assembled into a show and presented in a large dark room, preferably in the center part of town, in front of a bunch of people, all of whom have paid a great deal to come in. The other show is Curtains, where the opening songs makes reference to a lawman from the east who came into to save the show.

Dining Notes: Before the show, we did a dim-sum run to Empress Pavillion in Chinatown. We need to remember that my favorite, the BBQ Pork, doesn’t come out until 11am (together with goodies like the meats and the turnip cakes), although there are goodies like juk and lemon tarts and greaseballs, oops, jin dui, available. Also, it doesn’t appear that crowded on Saturday.

Dining Note 2: Dinner was at Carnival, a Lebanese restaraunt in Sherman Oaks. This place is yummy, with good lentil soup. I was less impressed with their hummas, although the kebabs we had were quite tasty.

So, Mr. Wizard, what’s next on the theatre calendar? “Matter of Honor” at the Pasadena Playhouse on 9/22 @ 8:00pm; “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” at REP East on 10/6 @ 8:00pm; “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center on 10/13 @ 8:00pm; and “7 Brides for 7 Brothers” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on 11/3 @ 2:00pm.

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“I can’t believe we’re paying to see something we get on TV for free!”

This afternoon, we decided to beat the heat and head over to the mall and see a movie. Today was the last of the three summer movies of interest: The Simpsons Movie. Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 20 years (although I hear the housing prices are good there), you know who the Simpsons are and what the general plotline of most Simpsons episodes are: Homer/Bart does something stupid, people get mad at him, Homer/Bart makes it right, everyone is happy at the end. So I’m not going to give you the detailed plot (plus you’ve likely already seen it, and since when has plot mattered to The Simpsons).

I will, however, tell you what I thought of it. I thought that it was reasonably good for what it was: a ninety-minute episode on the big screen. After all, there is no cinematography in a movie such like this, and any depth is an illusion. There were jokes and scenes that were laugh out loud funny. The story wasn’t afraid to make fun of itself or its audiences. It made use of many stock Simpsons’ bits (although not all), and I’m sure that if I was a more regular viewer of the series, I would have caught more. They attempted to do a little-bit more than usual with some of the animation (going for that deeper feel), and it was certainly better than Sponge-Bob. The music, as always with this series, was excellent (although I was surprised to not see Alf Clausen in the credits). It was certainly worth what we paid for it, but then again, we had two free passes and only had to buy a kids ticket.

I’ll also note that the theatre was relatively crowded, almost full. Given this far into the release cycle for this movie, that is remarkable. It certainly has had more staying power than Hairspray or Harry Potter 5 in terms of audience. People were actually singing along with various parts (“Spiderpig, Spiderpig”), so this may be on its way to becoming a cult favorite.

The Simpsons is a perfect summer movie, for those looking for non-action-adventure summer movies. It was brainless escapism (d’oh, just like Homer). It was a wonderful way to beat the heat on Labor Day afternoon… plus Nancy Cartwright rocks (I have to say that as she is the honorary mayor of Northridge).

As for the promo reels, there were mercifully few:

  • Horton Hears a Who. Eh. Now, if they were making a musical of Seussical, which tells the same plot, using animation, that would be awesome.
  • Run Fat Boy Run. Double Eh. Run from this movie–at least the trailer doesn’t sell it well.
  • Good Luck Chuck. This seemed like a cute movie at the Showtime level (i.e., worth watching on Showtime, but not the big screen), until the showed the scene with the fat lady. Sorry, they lost my business. Fat people seem to be the one stereotype Hollywood can still insult, but I don’t like it.
  • Alvin and the Chipmunks. They are trying to appeal to the baby-boomer audience with CGI, but there are those of us that still remember the original Alvin Show, and I don’t think this will cut it. It is on the level of The Garfield Movie.

So what will our next movie be? Usually, we see a movie on Christmas, and it will most likely be Sweeney Todd (with Johnny Depp). I saw the original back when it was first at the Ahmanson in the 1980s; we’ll be seeing it again in the revision early next year. I love the music and love the show. Also sticking in the mind is the preview for Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium which comes out in November, however I don’t know the buzz on that.

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Swingin’ at the Bowl

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post asking what were the sounds you only hear during the summer? If you’re in Los Angeles, I heard one of them last night: concert music and fireworks at the Hollywood Bowl. More specifically, the sounds of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy at the Hollywood Bowl.

Let me explain the bowl for those unfamiliar: what you have is a large natural amphitheatre that seats loads and loads of people (just under 18,000), out under the stars. Seats range from pricey private boxes to the nosebleed benches. The sound is wonderful. You bring a picnic dinner, enjoy the food, and then enjoy the show.

The program last night started with the Hollywood Bowl orchestra, conducted by Michael Krajewski. The program for the evening was “Jump, Jive, and Swing!”, and their music consisted of just that:

  • Bugle Call Rag (Jack Pettis)
  • South Rampart Street Parade (Ray Bauduc, Bob Haggart)
  • ”Essential Ellington” (a medly of Duke Ellington swing music)
  • April in Paris (Vernon Duke, done in the Count Basie style)
  • One O’Clock Jump (Count Basie)
  • In The Mood (Joseph Garland)

For a number of these songs, a local swing dance group, the Hollywood Hornets, joined the band on the stage.

After intermission, it was time for Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. The last time we saw BBVD was at CSUN, in an enclosed auditorium. The music was great, but it was LOUD! The bowl was a much better venue, volume-wise (especially as we were in T1, one tier below the nosebleed seats). They did their usual great program. I didn’t write all the songs, but it included many of their big hits and our favorites: Minnie the Moocher, Save My Soul, You & Me & The Bottle Makes 3 Tonight (Baby), Go Daddy-O, Jumpin’ Jack, I Wanna Be Like You, King Of Swing, Zig Zaggity Woop Woop, and Mr. Pinstripe Suit. They do a wonderful show that can’t help but leaving you feeling good. The Hollywood Hornets provided some dancing on the stage.

The program closed with the Hollywood Orchestra doing “Sing! Sing! Sing!” by Louis Prima… with fireworks timed to the music. After this, all the artists came out to join BBVD in So Long, Farewell, Goodbye (music samples).

It was a wonderful show, although with the park-and-ride busses to and from the bowl, it was a late, late evening.

Next up on the concert calendar is likely “Tom Paxton” at McCabes on December 2nd, although I need to move some Pasadena Playhouse tickets first. In terms of theatre, next up is “Avenue Q” at the Ahmanson on 9/15 @ 2:00pm; “Matter of Honor” at the Pasadena Playhouse on 9/22 @ 8:00pm; and “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” at REP East on 10/6 @ 8:00pm

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