Milking A Review For All I Can Get Out of It

As is our tradition on Christmas, we went out to see a movie (the Chinese food will be a bit later). Alas, the pickings weren’t that great. “Benjamin Button” is just a Forest Gump in a different setting. “Doubt” and “Frost/Nixon”… I’d rather see them in the theatre. “Valkyrie” is a bit dark for a Christmas movie. I just couldn’t bring myself to see “Disney’s Bedtime Stories” or “The Tale of Despereaux”. nsshere suggested “Milk”, and that seemed to be the best of the bunch. So it was off to the Laemmle’s Fallbrook 7 to the 12:40p showing.

“Milk” tells the story of the political ascent of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay supervisor elected to office in San Francisco. It chronicles his three losing campaigns and his final successful one, his campaign against Proposition 6, and his relationships, both at the personal level and with political colleagues such as Dan White. One glaring omission from those relationships was Dianne Feinstein: you see her in one news clip at the beginning, and hear her purported voice in one scene… and that’s it. I don’t know whether that omission was intentional.

Ob road geek, before I go into the review: In the scene where they drive into San Francisco, there are bright green reflective road signs with exit numbers. Bzzzzzt. Try again. Caltrans was still using the dark green signs with button copy in the 1970s, and the only exit numbers were on three exits in downtown Los Angeles. Almost as glaring was the use of the modern restored Market Street PCC cars, and that wonderful boom mike that was visible in one scene.

Anyway, on to the acting. The principle actor in the movie was Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. He gave a very good performance, and is growing well into a leading man. Josh Brolin was a bit stiff as Dan White, but I don’t know if that is how the original politician was. The other actors were pretty much in the background, as I guess happens in a bio-pic. They seem to have been cast primarily because of their resemblance to the real-life people.

The story itself was timely, given the passage of Prop. 8 here in California. The fight that Milk fought still needs to be fought today — there is absolutely no reason to discriminate based on sexual preference. In that, the movie does good, but it also does bad. It is in your face about male homosexuality (there’s nary a lesbian to be seen, except for Alison Pill’s character). But what it doesn’t show is the discrimination that was really faced back then. It doesn’t show the taunting and violence that occured, and what happened in the workplace. This would have been useful to show, if only to show how remarkable Milk’s success was… and how far we still have to go.

I was just starting college around the time that Harvey Milk was shot. I don’t remember following the events, but I do remember hearing about them and about Dan White’s “Twinkie Defense”. I do remember how society at that time viewed homosexuals (with a last name that started “Faig” and being your typical nerd-with-a-briefcase in high school, I got the teasing). Certainly at Palisades High School in the mid-1970s, it wouldn’t have been acceptable for someone to be homosexual. Nowadays, there are kids who are openly gay or lesbian in high school, and no one thinks twice about it. Our society has come so far in the years since then, thanks to the work of people like Harvey Milk. Although I’m not gay, this battle is just so important, because it is up to the law to protect the rights of minorities–we can’t trust the majority to do it.

So, not your typical Christmas movie. But I think it was an appropriate one–as its message was hope, and about triumph over adversary. Isn’t that one of the messages of this season? To get through what we are facing as a nation, don’t we need hope and confidence that we can overcome our trials?

[And, as a note, this should close out my reviews for 2008. Hopefully, you’ve had as much fun reading them as I have had writing them.]


You Gotta Use What You Got To Get What You Want, Before What You Got Is Gone

Back in 1997, I was watching the Tony Awards when I saw a performance by one of the nominated musicals, “The Life”, by Cy Coleman and Ira Gasman (book by Coleman, Gasman, and David Newman (who also did “Oh Calcutta” and “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman”). The song “My Body” (video) just blew me away. I went out and got the cast album; but sadly, a production never made its way to the west coast. Until now.

Last night, we went to the Stella Adler Theatre in Hollywood to see the Los Angeles premiere of the Jaxx Theatrical’s production of “The Life”. “The Life” tells the story of a group of prostitutes and their pimps in New York. It focuses on the character arc of Queen, who is in love with her man, Fleetwood, and dreams of making enough money to escape the Life. Returning from yet another stint in jail, Queen discovers that Fleet has sent their savings up his nose. Working with Jojo the hustler, Fleet attempts to expand his business by adding fresh-off-the-bus Mary, while Queen is on the street with her friend, Sonja. Blond-haired, blue-eyed Mary moves up fast, loving the easy money and attracting Fleet from Queen. This sends Queen into the clutches of Memphis, a menacing pimp who rapidly saddles her with a debt that she must work to pay off. She tries to escape, but the thugs and Memphis won’t let her. Things escalate, culminating in tragedy and death. Queen does escape, but at what price?

Unlike Coleman’s previous prostitution musical, “Sweet Charity”, this is a very dark musical, especially in Act 2. There is significant violence against women (as does exist on those streets), and the life is not romanticized as often happens in the musicals. This is a musical that would make an especially good transition to film: it could capture the grit and hardness even stronger, and could be quite remarkable. It is strong, it is cynical, it is assertive, it is in your face, and it is touching. It is not an easy story; it is not a gay hearted romp through Oz or even Nazi Germany.

This production was particularly strong, owing to excellent performances by the cast. Let’s go to the hookers first (I’ve always wanted to say that). Queen was played by Dionne Gipson (), a talented young actress who could not only sing and dance, but had the dramatic skills to stand up to Memphis’ beating and abuse, yet still convey fragility. Her best friend was Sonja, played by Cheryl Murphy-Johnson. Here we have another wonderful singer and actor, who can belt out a song, but play the exhausted hooker to the hilt. You can see her sing “The Oldest Profession” in this You-Tube clip. Also notable was Stephanie Girardæ as Mary, the fresh girl off the bus who moves to Go-Go Dancing and on to a better life in the adult industry in Los Angeles. Yet another powerful singer who was also able to convey both innocence and cynicism. Rounding out the hookers — all powerful singers and dancers — were Willam Belliæ (his/her blog) as April, Mara Hall as Chi-Chi, Taryn Reneauæ as Carmen, Cindy Sciacca as Frenchie, and Robin Ray Elleræ as Tracy. Lastly, in a truly walk-on performance, was Tiffany Tang as the new girl in town.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Turning to the male cast members, there are four who deserve special notice. Playing JoJo, a hustler, was Ethan Le Phongæ, who we have seen previously in Pippin and Mask. Ethan gave a very Fosse-esqe performance, just gliding in and out, singing and dancing super strong. You can see a video of him doing “Mr. Greed” here. Robert Geeæ played Fleetwood, Queen’s vietnam-vet boyfriend/pimp. Another strong singer and actor, with afro to boot… he was just great. David St. Louisæ played a menacing and violent Memphis (I kept imagaining Avery Brooks) — again, strong singing and acting skills, especially in the confrontation with Queen after the Hooker’s Ball. Speaking of the Hooker’s Ball (yes, there really is one), Samuel Redrunningbear Savageæ played Lacy, the proprieter of the ball and the host of the local hooker hangout. Savage was an extremely strong singer and dancer, and I particularly enjoyed his dancing in the Hooker’s Ball number. Rounding out the male cast was Joshua Campbell as Snickers, Rusty Hamrick as Slick, D.T. Matiasæ as Enrique, Tony Melsonæ as Bobby, and Chris Cobb Olsenæ as Lou.

The set itself was very plain, mostly open space with the band in back. A bed was moved onstage when necessary, as was a bar. The set design was by Brett Snodgrass. The sound design by Eric Snodgrass was mostly unnoticible (except for cell phone interference), although I got the feeling it wasn’t necessary given the power of the singers and the smallness of the room. The lighting design by John Ryman was good, eschewing the use of spots, and instead using LED lights and effective pre-positioned lights. Costumes were by Dan Selon with makup by L. B. Benson — both were excellent, although the costumes should have been a bit more revealing and risque than they were. The choreography was by Paul Romero Jr. assisted by Erin Spencer and was reasonably strong, although Le Phong’s numbers seemed very Fosse-esque and different than the rest. Direction (both musical and otherwise) was by Joe Green. The on-stage band was excellent: conducted by Alex Georgakis, it included Georgrakis on piano, Takashi Iio on bass, Ryan Stern on trumpet, Nicholas Sobko on reeds, Kristina Raymond and Colin Woodford on drums, and Brett Fisher on keyboards and trombone. Matthew Sandlin was stage manager, assisted by Karen Baughn. The show was produced by Justine Baldwin, Mark Espinosa, and Jeremy Lucas of Jaxx Theatricals.

The last performance of “The Life” is tonight, December 21, at 8pm.

One last note about “The Life”: If you haven’t heard the album, give it a listen, it has some great music. There was another album, “Music From The Life”, which was a “concept” album featuring covers of songs from the show by name artists. George Burns, in his last performance, basically spoke the song “Easy Money” — and doing so, changed it from a song about how easy it was to make money as an adult star to a song about how easy it was to make money as a aging former valdvillian. Reading the lyrics again, it seems to be the perfect song for the times that led to the recent recession:

Easy money
I’m learnin’ how to make it
Easy money
You just reach out and take it
Ain’t it funny how things can change
My take home really’ was low
I never knew 1t was so…

Easy, honey
Just give ’em what they came for
Easy, honey
Just smile and play the game for…
Easy money
Don’t let it end
Oh that easy money
Is so easy to spend

Dining Notes: Last night we made a big mistake, and drove to Hollywood and Highland, thinking we would have time to eat before the show. Remind me never to do that again — traffic was horrible with the club scene and the tourists, and we barely had time to grab a coffee at Kelly’s. Next time, we take the red line, as it stops right there. So we went to dinner after the show at Jan’s Coffee Shop.


That should be it for our 2008 theatre, unless something pops up in the next week. It has been a great year of theatre here in Los Angeles. Movies are static: the performance never changes once recorded. Live is something special — especially in a 99-seat equity-waiver house, it brings you up close with the actor, and draws you into a story as a movie never can. Go see a musical or play today — you won’t regret it.

As for us, the 2009 theatre season is starting on January 17th brings “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” at Cabrillo Music Theatre. The next few weeks are still to be ticketed, but my thinking as as follows: “Cabaret” by the Aerospace Players (Jan 30-Feb 7) on the Jan 31 W/E; “Minsky’s at the Ahmanson (Jan 21 – Mar 1) on the Feb 7 W/E (Hottix on sale 12/30); “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Rep East (Jan 23 – Feb 21) on the Feb 14 W/E. February 21 brings “Stormy Weather: The Lena Horne Musical” at the Pasadena Playhouse. Lastly, March 12 through21 will bring “Little Shop of Horrors” at Van Nuys High School. I’m sure more will join the 1Q09 list as I peruse Goldstar Events, a wonderful way to find half-price tickets.


If Wishes were Fishes…

Now that the conference is over, I can get back to regular activities… and that includes theatre. Last night, we went to see the Nobel Middle School winter production, “Be Careful What You Wish For…: A Series of Folktales from Around the World”. If you’re wondering why we went (after all, nsshere graduated last year), we went because she remained involved in this production as a lighting consultant and overall “stalker”.

The show wove together six folktales (The Near-Sighted Gardner, The Stonecutter, The Fisherman and his Wife, The Woodcutter and his wife, The Stone, and Too Much Noise) under the guise of examining the cases of five “wish-givers”, their apprentices, and their supervisors. All of the stories had the common theme of the wishes eventually being reversed, and the wisher being back to where they were to start, with a little additional experiential wisdom. In general, the stories worked well, and the additional glue also worked. There were some cute references to past Nobel MS productions. In some cases, there was a little too-much teen behavior humor (but that’s to be expected), but many jokes worked well for the adults as for the kids.

I’m not going to list the entire cast, as this was a large cast involving all the Play Production students. I do want to single out a few notable folks. I was most impressed with Henry Rosen (Horst, The Woodcutter and his Wife). I’ve seen Henry grow in ability over the years–he gave a clearly superior performance, speaking and projecting well, acting well, and interacting well. Nicole Zweig as his wife, Seiglinde, also has grown in her performance ability, and worked well with Henry. In the story The Stone, I was impressed with Camille Martellaro as Madronna–she is another that has continued to get stronger–she wowed us in both productions last year, and has continued to improve. Lucas Bashaar in the same story also showed some good dancing skills. I also enjoyed the kids who made up the animal ensemble in Too Much Noise, as well as Christian Lippe as the Whistler. Elliot Aronson was also strong as Herschel in the same story. All of the actors were having fun and enjoying the show, which is a good thing to see.

Turning to the technical: The sound situation in the Nobel MPR has improved, although they had the gain too high in the first act. The lighting was better (thanks to nsshere), but could still stand some improvement. Specifically, they should use what they have better: individually control the lights on the side, and see how they can improve the stage lights. nsshere has some specific recommendations I hope they follow.

As for us, what’s next on the theatre calendar. Our last scheduled show for 2008 is on Saturday December 20th, when we’ll be seeing “The Life” at the Steller Adler Theatre. Turning to 2009, January 17th brings “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” at Cabrillo Music Theatre. The next few weeks are still to be ticketed, but my thinking as as follows: “Cabaret” by the Aerospace Players (Jan 30-Feb 7) on the Jan 31 W/E; “Minsky’s at the Ahmanson (Jan 21 – Mar 1) on the Feb 7 W/E; “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Rep East (Jan 23 – Feb 21) on the Feb 14 W/E. February 21 brings “Stormy Weather: The Lena Horne Musical” at the Pasadena Playhouse. Lastly, sometime in March will be “Little Shop of Horrors” at Van Nuys High School. I’m sure more will join the 1Q09 list as I peruse Goldstar Events, a wonderful way to find half-price tickets.


That’sa One-a Spicy Meatballa

Last night, we went to see the 2nd performance of Scapino at Van Nuys High School [ETA: This review was edited slightly after the Saturday evening performance]. “‘Scapino” is a liberal adaptation of Moliere’s “Les Fourberies de Scapin” written by Jim Dale and Frank Dunlop, and designed to be performed in a zany commedia dell’arte style. The play takes place in contemporary Naples, Italy, where the leading character, Scapino, devises a complex plot to help two pairs of lovers against parental opposition that, it turns out, does not exist. Scapino is a rapscallion, a fast-talking, quick-thinking scamp who cleverly manipulates and cajoles everyone into doing what Scapino intends them to do. The story itself is a simple one: sons getting married to women their fathers don’t want them to marry; a scamp trying to help them; and everything working out right in the end (gee, this sounds like “The Fantastiks”). The story can evidently work in the right hands: after all, it was on Broadway and earned its original performers some Tony nominations. It appears to have been done in numerous locations, and has been successful. But note that I said “in the right hands”. More on that later.

This production was the product of “Actors in Action” (), which is a group of actors developed in the Performing Arts Magnet at Van Nuys High School. The actors all are reasonably inexperienced (after all, they are high-school students), but did an OK job. Let me call out a few whose performances I found noteworthy. First, I liked Dominic Gessel () (Scapino) — he was playful, and seemed to do a lot of accents and comedy very well (although, unfortunately, an Italian accent wasn’t one of them). I also enjoyed the two fathers: John Armstrong () (Argante) and Sevan Ghadimian ( ) — both spoke clearly and acted well, and conveyed their comedy well. An excellent repeat performer was Cody Banks () as Ottavio, one of the young men. Cody acted well, although he spoke a little too fast. Johnny Geronilla () as Sylvestro also showed some comic skills, especially in the gangster scene. Smaller roles who I thought had notable performers were Mikel Bossette () as Zerbinette — she’s a delight to watch in anything she’s in, and does comedy quite well; Quest Zeidler as Waiter #2, who made a valient attempt to sing “O Danny Boy” with a failing microphone (he did an excellent job on the song Saturday night); and James Gelinas (), who also had some good comedic timing. Others in the cast were Timothy Glick () (Leandro), Julia Rachilewski () (Giacinta), Celina Pacheco (Nurse), Sameer Nayak (Head Waiter), Sandra Duran () (Waitress), and Joseph Cayanan () (Waiter #1). The production was under the stage management of Astghik Sinanyan (), Patty Ponce (), and Mayra Mendoza ().

Technically, the set by Mr. Kirkpatrick and his unnamed students was workable. It was colorful and permitted the movement, although it only weakly suggested Italy. The sound by Mr. Coy and his sound-students (Emily Tugwell, Jayson Hill, with Slater Lopez, Nico, and Leslie Montano as spot technicians) had some microphone problems, especially with Tim Glick’s and Quest’s microphones in Friday’s performance (there were different problems in Saturday’s performance). The students also need to be coached to speak slower, so that we can hear what they say. Lighting, also by Mr. Coy was excellent. Although uncredited in the program, I should note that the lighting students (Shaunna Lucas, nsshere (), and Josh Price) did an excellent job running the board at our performance, although the spotlight was a bit abrupt going on and off. The backstage folks (who saved people from dying) were Anthony Flores and Christina Soldano)

Remember that earlier I alluded to some problems with the production, and used the phrase “in the right hands”. I don’t think the problem are in the script, as it has been received well. I can’t blame the actors, as they are still learning for the most part, and they did reasonable (although not fully professional) jobs. I think weaknesses were partially in the direction by Randy Olea, which failed to bring out the humor to an audience that was about 25 years too young to get many of the jokes. The physical comedy, for the most part, worked. The spoken comedy was lost to too fast speech, and poor Italian accents. The production would have been stronger if they didn’t attempt the fake Italian accents, which made those portions of the story harder to follow. I don’t know if it was in the original play or was a script modification, but the notion that any word ending in a vowel sound could be passed off as Italian became annoying after a while. But then again, they no longer teach Italian at Van Nuys.

The last performance of “Scapino” at Van Nuys High School is at 7:00pm tonight. Tickets are $10 at the door. The VNHS spring production will be “Little Shop of Horrors”.

As for us, what are our future theatre plans (beyond tonight’s performance of “Scapino”)? Although I won’t be there, the following weekend brings “Be Careful What You Wish For: A Series of Folktales from Around the World” at Nobel Middle School, where nsshere will be advising on lights and backstage stuff. Saturday December 20th we’ll be seeing “The Life” at the Steller Adler Theatre. That’s it for 2008, right now. Turning to 2009, January 17th brings “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” at Cabrillo Music Theatre. January will also likely bring “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Rep East (January 23rd – February 21st), and “Minsky’s at the Ahmanson (January 21 – March 1), although neither are ticketed yet. I’m also exploring tickets to “Cabaret” being done by the Aerospace Players (Jan 30-Feb 7). February 21 is “Stormy Weather: The Lena Horne Musical” at the Pasadena Playhouse. I’m sure more will join the 1Q09 list as a peruse Goldstar Events, a wonderful way to find half-price tickets.


Ten little Soldier Boys went out to dine / One choked his little self and then there were nine.

Last night, we went to see Agatha Christie’s play “And Then There Were None” at the Repertory East Playhouse in Saugus. “And Then There Were None” is Agatha Christie’s best-selling novel with 100 million sales to date. It has also been published under the title “Ten Little Niggers” and “Ten Little Indians”; the latter was the original title for this production in the 2007 season announcement.

And Then There Were None” is a murder mystery based around the following childhood poem:

Ten little Soldier boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Soldier boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.
Eight little Soldier boys traveling in Devon;
One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.
Seven little Soldier boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.
Six little Soldier boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.
Five little Soldier boys going in for law;
One got into Chancery and then there were four.
Four little Soldier boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.
Three little Soldier boys walking in the zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.
Two little Soldier boys playing with a gun;
One shot the other and then there was One.
One little Soldier boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.

Ten apparent strangers are all brought together at an inn on an isolated island off the coast of Devon; the island has no phones, no communications, no way to get off except for the morning boat. They are the only people on the island. We later learn that all have been involved with a death for which they didn’t claim responsibility. Then they all start being killed, one by one, in the manner of the poem. Who is the killer? You can find more details on the plot at Wikipedia; I don’t want to spoil it here.

Rep East did a reasonable job with the play. As this is an old story, the director (Mikee Schwinn) makes some tweaks to update it: he added in a reference to a cell phone and no service (this being the equivalent of making something modern, in the same way that wrapping something in burlap makes something renaissance); he made the origins of the people more diverse; he had the introductory accusations on a CD; and he had the General’s war experience be Vietnam instead of WWI. For the most part, these worked, although some were a little jarring.

The cast worked well together, although there were a larger number of line-pauses and flubs than we usual see. I’ll attribute that to Thanksgiving :-). It was the usual mix of REP Players and new folks, some stronger than others. I felt the best players some of the regulars, although one newcomer I liked quite a bit. The regulars of note were Bill Quinn as Judge Wargrave and Daniel Lenchæ as Dr. Edward Armstrong; the newcomer was Leila Zia () as Vera Claythorne. All gave strong performances and were a delight to watch. Other actors in significant roles were Tony Cicchetti (William Henry Blore); Nolan LeGault (Cpt. Phillip Lombard) and Adrian Iles (Thomas Rogers). They were good, but not as strong as Quinn, Lench, and Zia. Others in the cast were Marla Khayat (Miss Emily Brent), Ron Karl (General McKenzie), Donna Marie Sergi (Ethel Rogers), Travis Beatyæ () (Anthony Marston), and Steven “Nanook” Burkholder.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Turning to the technical. The stage design by Adam Williams was quite nice, including a rain fall (with seemingly real water) in the back. The lighting by Tim Christianson was very effective in setting the mood. The sound design, as it should be, was unnoticable and clear, thanks to the work of “Nanook”. Mikee was assisted in his directing by Melanie Gilpin. Mikee’s brother, Johnny Schwinn, served as stage manager. Rep East is under the artistic direction of Ovington Michael Owston.

And Then There Were None” continues at Rep East until December 13th.

While we were at Rep East, we renewed our Season Tickets for 2009. We have a “Flex Pass”, which allows us to see any five of their eight shows (we do the main stage season, not the 81 shows). The 2009 Main Stage Season at Rep East is: “A Streetcar Named Desire”; “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, “The Wedding Singer: The Musical Comedy” (Los Angeles Premier), “M*A*S*H”, and “Sherlock Holmes’ The Hound of the Baskervilles”. The 81 Series is “Eve-olution”, “Fat Pig”, and “Beyond Therapy”. Do remember that theatre makes a great gift, supports local business and people, and doesn’t add to the clutter in the house.

Dining Notes: As we drove up to Santa Clarita for dinner, we were planning on hitting one of our favorites, Don Cuco. But the line was out the door, and we had limited time. So we went next door to Love Sushi and Roll. We’ll be back — they were able to get us out quickly (even though they were crowded), their sushi was good, plentiful, and reasonably priced, and their hot dishes were quite good. We’re adding this to our Santa Clarita dining list.

Future Theatre: As for us, next week (December 4th, 5th, and 6th) brings “Scapino” at Van Nuys High School (with nsshere doing the lighting board on Friday, and coordinating things backstage the other days). Although I won’t be there, the following weekend brings the winter show at Nobel Middle School. Saturday December 20th we’ll be seeing “The Life” at the Steller Adler Theatre. I had hoped to see “I Love My Wife (Reprise), but it looks like the dates won’t work out. January 17th brings “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” at Cabrillo Music Theatre. January will also likely bring “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Rep East, and “Minsky’s at the Ahmanson, although neither are ticketed yet. February 21 is “Stormy Weather: The Lena Horne Musical” at the Pasadena Playhouse. I’m sure more will join the 1Q09 list as a peruse Goldstar Events, a wonderful way to find half-price tickets.


Teen Angst, On Stage

Being a teen is hard. All those emotions coursing through you. All these changes you don’t understand. Your parents don’t understand you. Your body is doing strange things. No matter what you do, you seem to fuck it up. But you can always sing about it.

That seems to be the central idea of “Spring Awakening, the musical we saw last night at the Ahamanson Theatre. “Spring Awakening” was originally written as a play (Frühlings Erwachen) in 1891 by Frank Wedekind. It was rarely performed because of its controversial nature. The story concerns a bunch of German teens coming into their sexuality. There are three principle characters: Melchior Gabor (Kyle Riabko) is handsome, 14 years old, an atheist and rebel, and knows about sex. Wendla Bergmann (Christy Altomare) is a 14 year old girl who knows nothing about where babies come from, other than what her mother has told her — you love your husband very much. Moritz Stiefel (Blake Bashoff) is confused about his sexual awakening, a poor student, and in many ways a lost soul. The other characters are primarily the schoolmates and friends of these three: Ilse (Steffi D), a carefree spirit who ran away from home; Thea (Kimiko Glenn), Anna (Gabrielle Garza), and Martha (Sarah Hunt), childhood friends of Wendela, the latter being subjected to physical abuse at home; Hänschen (Andy Mientus) & Ernst (Ben Moss), two classmates of Mechior who are discovering they are gay; and Otto (Anthony Lee Medina) and Georg (Matt Shingledecker), two classmates of Mechior.

The story begins with Wendela asking her mother where babies come from. Her mother (all of the adult women were played by Angela Reed) can’t bring herself to tell her, and simply says you need to love her huband. We’re then introduced to the boys school where we meet Moritz (who is having trouble), and Mechior, his best friend. Mechior helps him not only in school, but writes a 10 page illustrated essay about sex. But Moritz is borderline, is disliked by the administrators (all male adult roles are played by Henry Stram), who conspire to fail him. Meanwhile, Melchior and Wendela start to fall for each other. By the end of the first act, Moritz is expelled, and Mechior and Wendela are having a tryst in a hayloft. The results of this come back to bite them in the second act. I don’t want to spoil everything (you can read the full synopsis at Wikipedia), but let’s just say it doesn’t end well.

What makes “Spring Awakening” unique is its staging, under the direction of Michael Mayer. In the midst of this old German story (and they keep it in that period), modern microphones come out and the adolescent actors sing strong rock songs and ballads that reflect the inner turmoil and angst of their characters. These are remarkable strong strong songs (lyrics by Steven Sater, who also adapted the book; music by Duncan Sheik) that convey raw emotion (just look at the titles: “Totally Fucked”, “The Bitch of Living”). The set (designed by Christine Jones) is this big open box (with audience seating on the sides) — but it too is raw, with no real scenery or props, other than the occasional chair. The lighting too is raw (lighting design by Kevin Adams): moving lights, raw blue florescents hanging by wires, red orange and yellow florescent tubes, on stage and behind, with only an occasional spot from the front. The sound (designed by Brian Ronan) is equally raw and pulsing. In fact, if you had to characterize this show in two words, it would be raw angst. It comes at you, it screams at you, and it leaves you limp and applauding at the end.

I’ve mentioned the names of the actors above (others in the ensemble were Julie Benko, Perry Sherman, Claire Sparks, and Lucas A. Wells) and I want to single a few out for specific mention. Christy Altomare as Wendla had a remarkable voice, but I was more touched by her vulnerability, especially in the scenes with Mechior. Her confusion about sex and her wonderment came across when she and Mechior tentatively started to make love. Kyle Riabko was equally strong as Mechior, being both touching and the rebel — and an extremely strong singer. As for Blake Bashoff as Moritz, he exhibited that confusion and outcast geekiness that many of us were all too familiar with. My other favorites had smaller roles. Steffi D as Ilse was remarkable in her last scene with Moritz — she had a strong singing voice and was just touching. I also loved the raw emotion of Kimiko Glenn — in a role with no major lines, she just gave it her all, pouring her soul into her music and acting. Hauntingly beautiful.

Let’s turn to some of the other technical credits, not mentioned, starting surprisingly with the stage managers, Eric Sprosty, Alison Harma, and Jason DePinto. I mention these folks up front because they took the time to talk to nsshere, and have even invited her to shadow them for a show. I think this was very gracious and will be a wonderful learning opportunity for her. I should note that nsshere loved the show — not for the “live porn” (as she put it — you get a glimpse of boob and butt), but for the geekgasm she had with all the lighting techniques and tricks.

Turning to other technical credits. The show was choreographed by Bill T. Jones (assisted by Joann M. Hunter) who put raw power into the dances. The costumes, which were relatively simple, were designed by Susan Hilferty. The music was supervised by Kimberly Grigsby, coordinated by Michael Keller, directed by Jared Stein. Stein (assisted by Kristen Lee Rosenfeld) led the onstage band consisting of Alon Bisk (Cello), Julie Danielson (Bass), Freddy Hall (Guitar), Ben Lively (Violin/Guitar), Marques Walls (Percussion), and Karen Waltuch (Viola). Annmarie Milazzo provided Vocal Arrangements, and Simon Hale did the string orchestrations. The technical supervisor was Neil A. Mazzella. The general manager was Abbie M. Strassler.

All of the actors are members of æ Actors Equity.

Spring Awakening” continues at the Ahmanson until December 8.

As for us, next Friday brings the last show of the RepEast season, “And Then There Were None”. December 4th, 5th, and 6th brings “Scapino” at Van Nuys High School (with nsshere doing the lighting). Although I won’t be there, the following weekend brings the winter show at Nobel Middle School. Saturday December 20th we’ll be seeing “The Life” at the Steller Adler Theatre. I had hoped to see “I Love My Wife (Reprise), but it looks like the dates won’t work out. January 17th brings “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” at Cabrillo Music Theatre. January will also likely bring “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Rep East, and “Minsky’s at the Ahmanson, although neither are ticketed yet. February 21 is “Stormy Weather: The Lena Horne Musical” at the Pasadena Playhouse. I’m sure more will join the 1Q09 list as a peruse Goldstar Events, a wonderful way to find half-price tickets.


Dear Ann Landers…

Dear Ann Landers:

I never thought I would be writing this to you, but it seems that no one else will listen to me. Last night, I went to see a play at the Pasadena Playhouse about you called “The Lady With All The Answers”. It featured you (or an actress purporting to be you — see, we all have a fantasies, but I know you know that — you shared the letters) reading a number of your letters. This sharing with the audience seemed to be a delaying tactic while you were trying to write your 1975 letter where you told of your divorce from your husband of 36 years, Julius Lederer. I wonder what you would say about someone who keeps putting off what needs to be done? Anyway, while putting off the inevitable, we learned a little about growing up with your identical twin (you were Esther Pauline (“Eppie”), and she was Pauline Esther (“Popo”)), your rivalries (you started your column first, she copied you when she started “Dear Abby”). We learned a bit about Julius. But we learned most about your readers — and their obsession with sex, marriage,… and toilet paper (and how it should be hung from the roll). You presented your life as a series of anectdotes and letters, and although we learned about you in snippets, something was missing.

Ann, I’m sure you’ve seen plays. After all, Chicago, where you live, has some excellent theatre. What would you think of a play that was mearly anecdotes, told by one person standing in an apartment, occasionally typing away without saying anything to an audience? What would you say about a comedy that was mild? What would you say about a play that really didn’t have a dramatic arc? Even comedies show some growth of the main character — look at how Oscar and Felix grow in The Odd Couple, or how the main characters grow in The Constant Wife. The only plays without growth are farces — and your life wasn’t a farce. Your growth, according to the play, was accepting premarital sex. It was unsatisfying. But this seems to be the style of the author who dramatized your story, David Rambo, who also wrote Tea At Five. He does good at CSI:, but I’m not sure about this.

But Ann, you always said to see the good, not the bad. There was some good here. You were played by Mimi Kennedy, who seemed to capture that midwestern style (although I’m unsure about the midwestern Jewish-ness). She had your looks down, thanks to the costumes by Holly Poe Durbin and the hair design by Carol F. Doran. She even had the right Chicago accent, thanks to dialect coach Joel Goldes. This wasn’t a dramatic part, but she did a credible job of capturing your humor and what I’m guessing was your style (as we’ve never met). That may be due to the direction of of Brendon Fox. You (or should I say “She” — I’m getting confused here) spent the entire play in your apartment in Chicago, which was beautiful, thanks to the scenic design of Gary Wissmann, who has done a number of Playhouse Productions.

I know, Ann, that you’re going “Where’s the question, bub?” Just hold on, because I’m still giving you the background of what I saw. I did think the lighting design was weak: all white lights, primarily the lights that you had in the apartment… plus a follow spot for your interview with Linda Lovelace. This design was by Trevor Norton — and I guess it fit the show because of the weak nature of the book. At least the sound design, by Lindsay Jones was transparent (as a good sound design should be), as was the stage management by Lea Chazin assisted by Hethyr Verhoef (I particularly liked updating the time on the clock, and actually finding a working electric typewriter). As you treasure honesty, Ann, I should note that the actors and stage managers are members of æ Actors Equity.

So, Ann, on to the question. As a hobby, I write theatre reviews. I hope that people read them and enjoy them, but I rarely get feedback on them. Should this bother me? Am I just being a comment whore?

I look forward to your reply.

Ignored in Northridge

P.S. I’m sure you want to know what I’ll be reviewing in the future. Next Friday night we go to the the Ahmanson for “Spring Awakening”. The following Friday brings the last show of the RepEast season, “And Then There Were None”. December 4th, 5th, and 6th brings “Scapino” at Van Nuys High School (with nsshere doing the lighting). Although I won’t be there, the following weekend brings the winter show at Nobel Middle School. Lastly, I still hope to explore tickets for “I Love My Wife (Reprise), which only runs 12/2-12/14 — right around the dates of ACSAC, so it may not work out. We’re still working on our schedule of theatre for 1Q09; suggestions are welcome.


Children, Remember This: The Closer to the Family, The Closer to the Wine

“What If?” With those two little words, we can be transported to a fairy-tale world, a world where stories are simple and morals clear. We know the morals of stories like Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and the Beanstalk. But where are the fairy-tales for adults; where are the stories that can help guide us along the path as grown-ups and parents. Often, they are in the theatre.

One such morality play was written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine in the 1980s: “Into the Woods”. I’ll let Sondheim’s website describe the show:

Into the Woods blends various familiar fairy tales with an original story of a childless Baker and his Wife, who catalyze the action of the story by attempting to reverse a curse on their family in order to have a child.

In the first act, the characters set out to achieve their goal of living “Happily Ever After” through familiar routes – Cinderella goes to the Ball and captures the heart of Prince Charming, Jack climbs the Beanstalk and finds a land of Giants and Gold, Little Red Riding Hood survives her clash with the wolf at Grandma’s house, and Rapunzel manages to escape her tower with the aid of a handsome prince who climbs her long hair. The Baker and his Wife move through their stories while pursuing their own goal – the witch who keeps Rapunzel (revealed to be the Baker’s sister) has put the curse on his house, and agrees to lift it if the Baker and his Wife can find the ingredients to help her reverse a spell which her mother has laid on her, keeping her old and ugly. Those ingredients are: A Slipper As Pure As Gold, which the Baker’s wife gets from Cinderella, A Cow As White As Milk, which the Baker buys from Jack in exchange for the fateful magic beans, A Cape As Red As Blood, which the Baker gets from Little Red Riding Hood in exchange for freeing her and Granny from the Wolf, and Hair As Yellow As Corn, which they get from Rapunzel. The ingredients are gathered, and the spell works, stripping the Witch of her power, but restoring her beauty. At the end of Act I, all characters seem poised to live “Happily Ever After”.

Act Two, however, deals with the consequences that traditional fairy tales conveniently ignore. What does one do with a dead Giant in the back yard? Does marrying a Prince really lead to a happy and fulfilling life? Is carving up the wolf the solution? Is the Giant always wrong? In Act Two, all the characters must deal with what happens AFTER “Happily Ever After”. As they face a genuine threat to their community, they realize that all actions have consequences, and their lives are inescapably interdependent, but also that that interdependence is their greatest strength.

“Into the Woods” teaches significant lessons: that children learn from their parents both the good and the bad; that people are quick to blame but slow to take responsibility; that success comes from working together; and that we must be careful what we wish for, for wishes have consequences.

I mention this all because last night we went to the Lyric Theatre ( ) in Hollywood (the former WCE space at 520 N La Brea) to see their production of “Into The Woods”, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine. I’ve seen “Into The Woods” in a large setting — when it first went on tour in 1989, we saw the production (with Cleo Laine as the witch) at the Ahmanson Theatre. The Lyric production gave the opportunity to see the show in a Waiver (99-or-less seat) setting, which was a completely different and remarkable setting, seeing the actors up close and personal. And the lyric did an excellent job with the production.

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