Tell Me It’s Not True. Tell Me It’s Just A Story

So did ya’ hear the story
of the Johnstone Twins
As like each other as two new pins
Of one womb born, on the self same day,
How one was kept, and one given away?

When I was young, I had a brother. Owing to our eight year difference in age, we didn’t do that much together, but we did have a bond. Bonds between brothers can be quite strong… and this can be true sometimes even if they don’t know they are real brothers. I mention this because last night we went to the Whitefire Theatre to see “Blood Brothers: The Musical. I had never heard of this musical before it was recommended to me my greenscar — it is in the 21st year of its long run in London. It was on Broadway in the early 1990s, and had a number of 1993 Tony award nominations.

Blood Brothers tells the story of Mickey Johnstone and Edward Lyons. It begins in the late 1950s, when their mother, Mrs. Johnstone tells of her life: she was once married but is now a single parent with lots of children. She is pregnant at present but feels she can just about cope with one more child. She is a cleaner for an upper-class couple, the Lyons, who are desperate for a baby but is unable to have one, and her husband does not want to adopt. When Mrs Johnstone discovers she is having twins, she makes a deal with her employer to give one up. She is made to swear on the bible to keep to the deal. After the babies are born, Mrs Lyons fires Mrs Johnstone, and tells her that “if twins separated at birth learn that they were once one of a pair they will both immediately die”. But one cannot escape fate, and the boys, not knowing they are twins, make a pact to be blood brothers. The musical follows them as they grow up. The families move, but they boys rediscover themselves. They fall in love with the same girl, Linda (who Mickey eventually impregnates and marries). There paths cross and cross again, permitting the audience to see Mickey’s life going down the path of the dole and depression and job loss, and Edwards path going to success, but not having the girl he loves. The last time their path cross, Linda has an affair with Eddie… and Mickey finds out. Mickey, distraught, becomes a madman and grabs a gun before storming down to the council offices to confront Eddie. There, Eddie is giving a speech when Mickey storms in with the gun. Mickey asks why, even though Eddie has everything and Mickey has nothing, Eddie would take away the one good thing that Mickey had. Eddie denies this intention, and the police enter, demanding that Mickey put the gun down. Mrs Johnstone runs onto the stage and, in an attempt to stop Mickey from shooting Eddie, tells the two brothers the truth. Mickey despairs that he wasn’t the one given away, because then he could have had the life given to Eddie. He accidentally sets the gun off, shooting and instantly killing Eddie. The police shoot Mickey, even though Mickey attempts to shout that it was an accident. Mrs Lyons’s superstitious prediction has come true, but the Narrator comments that class was more to blame than superstition. The story ends.

This is a powerful story, one that grabs you and twists you and turns you around, and you get so into it that the final shot at the end is really a shock. The questions raised are good ones, from the classic “nature vs. nurture” to the effects of superstition, to the question of the power of class differences. The presentation of this powerful story is enhanced by the performances at the Whitefire, which were uniformly strong. In fact, there was only one significant weakness, which was less performance than characterization: given the setting of the story, the performance would have been enhanced by having the correct accents — this is especially true for a London-based musical where ones dialect and accent is a significant denotation of class. However, I don’t feel this detracted from the quality of the acting — rather it was an area that would have moved it from strong to superb.

So who were these remarkable actors? Mrs. Johnstone was played by Pamela Taylor (a UC Davis grad), who was a very strong singer, and brought a great underclass look to the part. Her look of sorrow in the final scene was just haunting. Playing the other “mom” in the story, Mrs. Lyons, was Judy Nortonæ. Both were strong, but what draws you into this story isn’t the mothers, but the brothers and their life.

Inhibiting the part of Mikey Johnstone was Eduardo Enrikez (who also served as a Co-Producer). His 8 year old Mickey was playful; his 14 year old Mickey was the shy adolescent; and his 20-something Mickey was the picture of depression. His “blood brother”, Eddie Lyons, was inhabited by Ryan Nealyæ who provided the upperclass counterpart to Mickey. The girl who was between them was Linda, played by Sita Young, who I just found riviting. All were strong singers and performers. Rounding out the major characters was Gil Darnell as the Narrator, who actually had both the proper accent and the requisite evilness for the role.

Turning to the supporting roles, all of which had strong performances, but no particular strength to highligh: Mueen Jahanæ as Mr. Lyons and a number of supporting characters; Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooperæ as Sammy Johnstone; and Debra Arnott and Jess Busterna (who bears a remarkable resemblance to Alan Cumming) in multiple ensemble roles.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Turning to the technical side: here is where the production had some problem. There were a number of things that worked: in particular, the set by Victoria Profitt and the lighting by Derrick McDaniel. The costumes by Susanne Klein were for the most part reasonable, although I did find Mickey’s costume in the last scene a bit odd (brand names were visible). The real problem was the sound design by Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski — there were times where the band overpowered the actors, and the clearly obvious microphones on the actors kept going in and out of operation, or having an annoying background hiss. Sound design should be transparent — and this one wasn’t.

The production was produced by Laura Coker and Eduardo Enrikez. It was directed by Bryan Rasmussen. The musical director was Carson Schutze (yes, a linguistics professor), with musical staging and choreography by Brian Paul Mendoza. The stage manager was Gabrieal Griego. “Blood Brothers: The Musical” features book, music, and lyrics by Willy Russell.

Blood Brothers: The Musical” continues at the Whitefire Theatre through November 23.

As for us, our next show is Saturday, November 8 @ 8pm, when we’re seeing “Into The Woods” at the Lyric Theatre in Hollywood. The weekend after that (11/15 @ 8pm) is “The Lady With All The Answers” at the Pasadena Playhouse. 11/21 brings “Spring Awakening” at the Ahmanson. Friday 11/28 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). Lastly, I need to remember to explore tickets for “I Love My Wife (Reprise), which only runs 12/2-12/14 — right around the dates of ACSAC.


Rogers. Hammerstein. Anna. King. Et cetera. Et cetera. Et cetera.

Yesterday afternoon, we all went out to see “The King and I” at Cabrillo Music Theatre. I must confess I wasn’t in the best of moods going in, as I had a headache starting (which turned into a full headache near intermission), and The King and I isn’t one of my favorite R&H pieces. The theatre staff also didn’t help my mood. We’re long time season subscribers (perhaps 10 years) with tickets in the balcony. Evidently, they had lower attendance yesterday, for they shunted us off to the mezzanine instead… but then sat us all the way on the side, instead of our normal “in the center” seats. They then only said we could have one program per family (which I’ve never seen), meaning we all couldn’t read the program before the show. Lastly, during this production the balcony mezzanine was filled with elementary school children who had not been educated on theatre decorum, plus at least two people had brought infants that cried during most of the second act. This didn’t lead to the greatest of show environments.

So, turning to the show itself. I’m sure we are all familiar with “The King and I”. It was the 5th Rogers and Hammerstein musical, coming two years after the successful “South Pacific”. After “The King and I”, R&H would have a string of unsuccessful or less successful musicals (“Me and Juliet, “Pipe Dream”, “Flower Drum Song”) until their final paydirt, “The Sound of Music”. I find “The King and I” to have a less engaging plot line, and although there are memorable songs, there seem to be fewer than usual. It is also one of the “old chestnuts”, as the main upbeat R&H musicals (“Oklahoma”, “The King and I”, and “The Sound of Music”) tend to be regulars in the regional circuit. Me? I want to see those lesser done ones.

As for the show’s plot. Many should know it from the beloved movie version. The R&H Theatricals site describes it thusly: “It is 1862 in Siam when an English widow, Anna Leonowens, and her young son arrive at the Royal Palace in Bangkok, having been summoned by the King to serve as tutor to his many children and wives. The King is largely considered to be a barbarian by those in the West, and he seeks Anna’s assistance in changing his image, if not his ways. With both keeping a firm grip on their respective traditions and values, Anna and the King grow to understand and, eventually, respect one another, in a truly unique love story. Along with the dazzling score, the incomparable Jerome Robbins ballet, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” is one of the all-time marvels of the musical stage.”

What makes a production of “The King and I” succeed or fail are its leads. For this production, Anna was played by former pop star Deborah Gibsonæ, and the King was played by Daniel Guzmanæ. Gibson did a good job with the role: I didn’t see outstanding flashes of character or something unique she brought to the role, but her singing and dancing were excellent. I was more impressed with Guzman, who seemed to bring a playfulness to the King that was a delight to see. The casting demonstrated the usual flaw of K&I: the casting often focuses on the Anna, whereas it is the King that makes or breaks the show.

The B storyline of the show concerns the ill-fated lovers, Lun Tha (Joseph Andres) and Janelle Velasquez. These two get the main love songs, and they do a good job on them. Otherwise, their scenes are primarily limited to the shadows, although Velasquez does have a small burst of character as she narrates “The Small Cabin of Uncle Tom” ballet. The C storyline is the friendship between the Prince Chulu-longkorn (Ben Gutierrez), who is heir to the King, and Louis (Michael Kennedy), Anna’s son. Both do well in the role, although their poor mic-ing in the reprise of “A Puzzlement” didn’t serve them well.

Rounding out the major cast members were Glenn Shiromaæ (The Kralahome), Annie Nepomuceno (Lady Thiang), John Gaston (Sir Edward Ramsay), David Gilchrist (Captain Orton), Aladdin Marquez (Phra Alack), Kristan Cleto (Interpreter), and Olivia Lee (Princess Ying Yaowlak). There was a large ensemble as Royal Princes and Princesses, Royal Wives, Amazons, Guard, and Priests, and as Royal Dancers. All did what they had to do (especially the children, who had to hit their marks and look cute), with no particular standouts.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Turning to the technical side: the locally-developed sets by T. Theresa Scarano didn’t appear to take advantage of the full Cabrillo stage, but were acceptable. The lighting design of Rand Ryan was more problematic, with heavy use of follow spots that served to distract from the action (however, I don’t know the lighting limitations of the house). Jonathan Burke’s sound design was problematic from the side of the house where we were shunted (I’m sure it would have been better from the center balcony, our normal seats), plus there were a few times where the actors mics appears not to be working. The costumes (under the supervision of Christine Gibson) and hair and makeup (Paul Hadobas) were excellent as always.

Lastly, to the backstage folks. The production was directed by Lewis Wilkenfeld, who is also Cabrillo’s Artistic Director. Heather Castillo served as choreographer, with Irene Cho doing the choreography for the “Small House of Uncle Thomas”. Both did excellent jobs — I was impressed overall by the movement in this piece. The ballet sequence (“Small House”) is perhaps dated these days, but does a good job of echoing the “B” storyline, as well as the importance of standing up to a king. Music Supervision was by Darryl Archibald, who also conducted the large 21-piece orchestra (who played with their usual excellence). Last, but certainly not least, was the “ever capable” 🙂 Lindsay Martens as Production Stage Manager, assisted by Mary Kimball and Emilee Wamble. Alas, we were unable to meet with Lindsay after the show due to her security demands — we hope to see her the next show.

Today (October 26, 2008) is the last performance of “The King and I”.

As for us, our next show is Saturday November 1 @ 8pm, when we are seeing “Blood Brothers – The Musical” at the Whitefire Theatre. On 11/8, we’re seeing “Into The Woods” at the Lyric Theatre in Hollywood. The weekend after that (11/15 @ 8pm) is “The Lady With All The Answers” at the Pasadena Playhouse. 11/21 brings “Spring Awakening” at the Ahmanson. Friday 11/28 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). Lastly, I need to remember to explore tickets for “I Love My Wife (Reprise), which only runs 12/2-12/14 — right around the dates of ACSAC.


Do The Dance, But Beware Of Her Kiss

Today, we went to see a musical about political prisoners, and how the government tortures them to get the information they want. This government also believes that homosexuality is wrong, and has a vendetta to put gay men that look at min0rs in jail. No, we didn’t go to North Hollywood Arts Center to see the return engagement of “Bush Is Bad: Alaska Beauty Queen Edition”. Rather, we went to the Havok Theatre in the Westlake District of Los Angeles to see the Kander-Ebb musical “The Kiss of the Spider Woman”. It too was timely, but dark.

The Kiss of the Spider Woman” is a 1993 Tony-award winning musical (Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book) with book by Terrance McNally and music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, based on the Manuel Puig novel. The story (adapted from the Wikipedia entry) centers on Luis Alberto Molina, a gay window dresser, who is in a prison in a unnamed Latin American country, serving his third year of an eight-year-sentence for corrupting a minor. He lives in a fantasy world to flee the prison life, the torture, fear and humiliation. His fantasies turn mostly around movies, particularly around a vampy diva, Aurora. He loves her in all roles, but one scares him: This role is the spider woman, who kills with her kiss. One day, a new man is brought in his cell: Valentin Arregui Paz, a Marxist revolutionary, already in a bad state of health after torture. Molina cares for him and tells him of Aurora. But Valentin can’t stand Molina and his theatrical fantasies and draws a line on the floor to stop Molina from coming nearer to him. Molina, however, continues talking, mostly to block out the cries of the tortured prisoners, about Aurora and his mother. Valentin at last tells Molina that he is in love with a girl named Marta. After taking care of Valentin for a while, the prison director announces to Molina that his mother is very ill and that Molina will be allowed to see her. Condition: He must tell the name of Valentin’s girlfriend. Molina tells Valentin about his love: A waiter named Gabriel. Only a short while afterwards, Molina gets hallucinations and cramps after knowingly eating poisoned food intended for Valentin. He is brought to the hospital ward, talking to Aurora and his mother. As Molina is brought back, Valentin starts suffering from the same symptoms, also from poisoned food. Molina is afraid that Valentin will be given substances that might make him talk and so protects Valentin from being taken to the hospital. As Molina nurses him, Valentin asks him to tell him about his movies. Molina is happy to do so; Valentin also shares his fantasies and hopes with Molina. Molina is allowed a short while at the telephone with his mother, back he announces to Valentin that he’s going to be freed for his good behaviour the next day. Valentin begs him to do a few telephone calls for him, Molina at first refuses, but Valentin knows how to persuade his cell mate. Molina is brought back the next day, heavily injured. He has been caught in the telephone call, but refuses to tell whom he has phoned. The warden draws his pistol, threatening to shoot him, if he doesn’t tell. Molina confesses his love to Valentin and is shot. Aurora bends over him and gives her deadly kiss.

As you can see, this is a very dark plot. It is certainly unclear what the audiences of 1993 thought of it: we were in the Clinton administration, and the outlook was sunny. Today, the plot makes a little more sense in the context of Gitmo and the way some groups want to treat gays these days (oh, by the way, vote No on 8). There are even echoes of our current political battles in it. Still, it is difficult to ascertain the point that the authors wanted to make. Were they saying that to escape to a fantasy world can help one make it through the hard times (the John McCain point of view)? Were they saying that one can make it through by knowing the world will get better tomorrow, or the day after that (the Barack Obama point of view)? Were they just trying to make the point that love can make one strong, and that we can sometimes find our internal courage through love? It is hard to say, and that is what makes this a difficult musical.

However, there is one that that is not difficult to figure out, and that is that Nick DeGruccio is a great director. He took this complicated and difficult show, and made it a thing of beauty, especially in the converted braissere factory that is the Havok Theatre. Under his direction, the actors do remarkable things, and achieve a level of depth of characters one rarely sees. Of particular note in the cast were the three leads: Terra C. Macleodæ as Aurora/Spider Woman, Chad Bordenæ as Molina, and Daniel Tataræ as Valentin. All were strong and remarkable singers and dancers, in particular Borden as Molina. Others in the remarkable cast were Ed F. Martinæ (Warden), Eileen Barnettæ (Molina’s Mother), Zarah Mahler (Marta), Alex Alvarez (Marcos), Che Rodriguez (Esteban), Salvatore Vassalloæ (Gabriel/Prisoner), Shell Baumanæ (Fuentes/Prisoner), Hector Guerreroæ (Observer/Emilio/Prisoner), Jeffrey Parsons (Religous Fanatic/Prisoner), Mike A Motroni (Aurelio/Prisoner), and Oskar Rodriguez (Escapee/Prisoner).
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Also remarkable was the technical staff. The movement and dancing (under the choreography of Lee Martino) was spectacular. The scenic design (by Tom Buderwitz) consisted of a prison of metal tubing and bars, with two beds on a rolling platform front and center. I was also taken with the lighting design of Steven Young, who turned the former factory into a remarkable prison, combining well placed overhead and floor lights, moving mirror lights, projected shadow images (gobos, according to nsshere), and a series of lights around the bed. Truly fantastic. Sound design was by Drew Dalzell assisted by Rebecca Kessin. The production had a 5-piece orchestra that sounded much larger, with Musical Direction by Michael Paternostro, assisted by Steven Ladd Jones, who also served as conductor. The stage manager was Lara E. Nall.

The following is a YouTube video giving you a taste of the production:

Kiss of the Spider Woman” continues at the Havok Theatre until Sunday, October 26, 2008.

Dining Note: Dinner after the show was at one of our favorite coffee shops on that side of the hill: Fred 62 on Vermont near Los Feliz.

As for us, our next show is on Saturday October 25 @ 2pm when we see “The King and I at Cabrillo Music Theatre (alas, nsshere may be unable to make it due to a Speech and Debate competition, we’re looking still forward to seeing youarebonfante after the show, as she is managing the production). Saturday November 1 @ 8pm brings “Blood Brothers – The Musical” at the Whitefire Theatre. On 11/8, we’re seeing “Into The Woods” at the Lyric Theatre in Hollywood. The weekend after that (11/15 @ 8pm) is “The Lady With All The Answers” at the Pasadena Playhouse. 11/21 brings “Spring Awakening” at the Ahmanson. Friday 11/28 brings the last show of the RepEast season, “And Then There Were None”. December 4th and 5th brings “Scapino” at Van Nuys High School (with nsshere doing the lighting). Lastly, I need to remember to explore tickets for “I Love My Wife (Reprise), which only runs 12/2-12/14 — right around the dates of ACSAC.


“Tell Me Again About The Rabbits, George”

This afternoon we went out to the Repertory East Playhouse in Saugus to see the John Steinbeck classic “Of Mice and Men”. This was our second time seeing the play this year: we saw it back in May at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Surprisingly, the basic story hasn’t changed since that performance :-). “Of Mice and Men” tells the story of George and Lennie. George is the smarter member of the duo, making plans for a secure future for the two. He tries to do all the talking. His best friend Lennie is a gentle giant of a man, but obviously with a mental problem that makes him appear slow and stupid. Lennie loves to pet soft things: he loves to hug them and squeeze them, but sometimes he doesn’t know his own strength. When we meet these two, they are on their way to a job in Soledad CA to buck barley. We learn that Lennie has had trouble before grabbing a girl’s dress in Weed CA and they were run out of town, and that Lennie loves to pet mice, but they often are squeezed to death. These two eventually get to Soledad and the farm, and quickly become friends with most of the other workers, including Candy, an old swamper, and Crooks, a negro stablehand. Lennie even finds something soft to pet, and Slim, the foreman, gives him a new puppy to pet. But there’s trouble brewing when Curley’s wife keeps coming out to talk to the men. First Curley gets in a fight with Lennie, and Lennie injures Curley. Later Curley’s wife is found by the boss talking to Crooks, Candy, George and Lennie, and this leads to the ultimate ending, which I don’t want to spoil. Throughout this all, George is talking and talking about the days when he and Lennie can buy a small plot of land and grow their own food and be their own boss, and Lennie can tend to the rabbits. He talks about how important it is that they are there for each other, and how they watch out for each. As such, this play focuses on the nature of this relationship, the importance of hope, and the ultimate price of actions. It is a classic story, one that should be taught in every high school. Oh, that’s right, it is.

Unlike the Pasadena Playhouse version, which attempted to move the play to the Bracero era through accents and casting, Rep East kept it to the original era — the dustbowl and bindlestaff. As such, it seemed even more relevant, with the current economic crisis threatening so many jobs.

For the most part, the casting and acting was excellent (as we have come to expect from Rep East). Particularly strong were the lead actors: Tyler Brooks (George Milton) and Michael Bruce (Lennie Small). A number of the other supporting roles were also quite strong, in particular Daniel Sykes (Curley), Jarod Scott (Slim), and Tyrone Washington (Crooks). I was less impressed with the performance of Michael Levine (Candy), as it came off a bit-too-much like Gabby Hayes. I also felt the performance of Kerry Bishop (Curley’s Wife) was a bit weak — in particular, during her long monologue in the penultimate scene, I felt there needed to be more depth of emotion and conviction of character — what she did played a bit flat. Rounding out the cast were Ed Hill (The Boss), Michael Collins (Carlson), and Marlowe Weisman (Whit).

Turning to the technical side, RepEast (as usual) make the most of their small space. The set (scenic design by Jeff Hyde) was a simple rustic bunkhouse, lit very effectively by Tim Christianson. Tim also came up with an interesting lighting for the river. Sound design was by the always invisible Steven “Nanook” Burkholder, who did an excellent job with the creation of nature effects. Costumes were by Lynn McQuown and were reasonably period. The production was directed by Ovington Michael Owston (“O”, the artistic director of Rep East), assisted by Daniel Lench. Sarah Massey served as Stage Manager.

Of Mice and Mencontinues at Rep East until October 18.

In the program, Rep East announced their 2009 program, which is as follows: “A Streetcar Named Desire”, “One Flew Over the Cockoo’s Nest”, “The Wedding Singer: The Musical”, “M*A*S*H”, and “Sherlock Holmes’ The Hound of the Baskervilles”. The 81 Series (for mature audiences) will be “Eve-olution”, “Fat Pig”, and “Beyond Therapy”

As for us, our next show is on Sunday October 12 (2pm), when we see “Kiss of the Spider Woman” at the Havok Theatre (Nick DeGruccio, Artistic Director). Two weekends after that we see “The King and I at Cabrillo Music Theatre (we’re looking forward to seeing youarebonfante after the show, as she is managing the production). Saturday November 1 @ 8pm brings “Blood Brothers – The Musical” at the Whitefire Theatre. The next weekend is open. On 11/8, we’re seeing “Into The Woods” at the Lyric Theatre in Hollywood The weekend after that (11/15 @ 8pm) is “The Lady With All The Answers” at the Pasadena Playhouse. 11/21 brings “Spring Awakening” at the Ahmanson Still to be ticketed is “Spring Awakening” at the Ahmanson (HotTix go on sale 10/8 — I’ll try for 11/9 @ 1pm). There is alsowith hopefully the last show of the RepEast season, “And Then There Were Noneon 11/28 which runs 11/14-12/13, which I’ll likely schedule for 11/28 or 11/30. Lastly, I need to remember to explore tickets for “I Love My Wife (Reprise), which only runs 12/2-12/14 — right around the dates of ACSAC.


Just Call It Sexual Harrassment Training

Back in 1980, I had a crush on a girl in my Jewish Studies class from Capetown SOUTH AFRICA. I mention this not because I’ll ever see her again (she married a dentist, and to my knowledge still lives in South Africa), but because I always remember seeing two movies with her: Fame and Nine to Five. Of course, this all came back to my mind because this afternoon we went to the Ahmanson Theatre to see “9 to 5 – The Musical.

For those unfamiliar with the movie, 9 to 5 tells the story of a mid-1970s office that produces, well, we’re never told quite what. There is the typical 1970s male chauvanist sexist pig boss, Franklin Hart (Dabney Coleman in the movie), who makes life a living hell for his buxom country assistant, Doralee Rhodes (played by Dolly Parton in the movie), his efficient head secretary Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin in the movie), and the new hire, Judy Bernly (Jane Fonda in the movie). Fed up, one night they smoke pot and fantasize about how they would do him in. The next day, they almost mistakenly do it. While attempting to clean up the mess, they kidnap him and hold him prisoner in his house. They then take over running the company in his stead, improving efficiency… until he escapes. In the end, good defeats bad, and everyone gets what they deserve.

As this is a new musical, let’s spend a few minutes on the book and music first, independent of the acting. The book is by Patricia Resnick, author of the original screenplay, with music and lyrics by Dolly Parton. The musical book hones very closely to the original screenplay, keeping almost all of the major movie incidents intact (including the fantasy sequence, for those that want to see Allison Janey dressed up like Snow White). It does provide some additional expansion on the home lives of Doralee, Judy, and Violet. For the most part, this works well. I’m not so sure about retaining the epilogue (i.e., what happened to the characters) — it could have just ended with the successful last scene. But on the whole, the story worked well. The music was also quite strong, including the well-known theme song together with newer songs by Parton (which do have the distinctive Parton voice). I liked them, and I look forward to an album from this show. I will note that one song in the show, “One of the Boys”, kept making me think of the song of the same name from the musical “Woman of the Year”. Perhaps it is because they both had similar themes.

The musical also made me do a mental comparison with some other office musicals. The first that comes to mind is “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying” which reflected the office environment of the late 1950s/early 1960s: bullpens of desks, with secretaries wanting to marry their bosses (look at the problematic song “Cinderella Darling”)… although it did note that “A Secretary is Not a Toy. In the late 1960s, there was “How Now Dow Jones about a young stockbroker who refuses to marry his fiancee until the Dow Jones Industrials Average reaches 1,000 (as of 1967, the daily average had never yet reached that peak). Another quasi-office musical was “Promises Promises, about a man who lends his apartment to businessmen having affairs in an effort to advance himself in the business world. In short, in these early shows, we had a reflection about how women were viewed in the corporate world. “9 to 5” is the next step, looking at the world in the late 1970s, when women were just starting to assert themselves, and women were realizing they could run companies better than the old boys club (but they still needed to be accepted by it). “Women of the Year” had similar notions. I’m not sure there has been a modern office musical. It should also be noted that many of the office musicals had an office romance at the center of the musical — but not “9 to 5. There was romance, but it was a very minor story — the key story was the strength of women.

Do I think this will succeed on Broadway? I hope so. It certainly has the energy and the joy, and the staging and acting will give the audience what they pay for. I don’t see much needing to be changed, but then again, I didn’t see much needing change in other Broadway bound shows such as 13 or Sister Act that have changed. I wish the production well; I think it will be out in late 2009.

On to the acting, which was superb. As I noted above, the key movie roles were maintained in the musical. Violet Newstead was played by Allison Janney, who we all know from The West Wing. Her performance demonstrated not only her excellent acting and comedic skills, but her strong singing and dancing skills. Doralee Rhodes was played by Megan Hilty (channeling Dolly Parton to a “T”), who as we learned in Wicked has extremely strong singing and acting skills. Judy Bernly was played by Stephanie J. Block, another Wicked alumna with strong singing and dancing skills. Franklin Hart Jr was played by Marc Kurdisch to sexist pig perfection. Other significant characters were Kathy Fitzgerald (Roz), Charlie Pollock (Dwayne, Ensemble), Maia Nkenge Wilson (Anita, Ensemble), Ann Harada (Kathy, Ensemble), Tory Ross (Daphne, Ensemble), Lisa Howard (Missy, Ensemble), Ioana Alfonso (Maria, Ensemble), Andy Karl (Joe), Karen Murphy (Margaret, Ensemble), Van Hughes (Josh, Ensemble), Dan Cooney (Dick, Ensemble), Jeremy Davis (Bob Enright, Ensemble), and Michael X. Martin (Tinsworthy, Ensemble). Other ensemble members were Timothy George Anderson, Justin Bohon, Paul Castree, Autumn Guzzardi, Brendan King, Michael Mindlin, Jessica Lea Patty, Wayne Schroder, and Brandi Wooten. I must mention that the ensemble was especially strong in their singing and dancing, and everyone in the cast seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves, which adds to the fun. All actors are members of æ Actors Equity.

Turning to the technical side: the production was a technical marvel, with a full-size LCD backstage providing projection, multiple hydraulic elements moving major pieces up and down, numerous flying units (including Franklin Hart!), and loads of moving lights and scrims. The costumes seems reasonable for the era (much as I can remember), and the wigs were spot on. Credit goes to Scott Pask (Scenic Design), William Ivey Long (Costume Design), Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (Lighting Design), John H. Shivers (Sound Design), Peter Nigrini (Imaging), Paul Huntley (Wig and Hair Design), and Angelina Avallone (Makeup). The production was directed by Joe Mantello, with Dave Solomon as Associate Director. Choreography (which was superb) was by Andy Blankenbuehler, with Rachel Bress as Associate Choreographer. Musical Direction was by Stephen Oremus, with Orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin. The production was supervised by William Joseph Barnes, with theatrical supervision by Hudson Theatrical Associates. Stage management was by Timothy R. Semon assisted by Chris Zaccardi. Note: Quite a few of the acting and technical folks have a connection to the musical Wicked, for whatever reason.

You can read nsshere’s review here. She’s written an excellent review, and I encourage you all to read it.

9 to 5 – The Musical” continues at the Ahmanson Theatre until October 19, 2008.

Transit Note: To avoid the mess of parking with the Grand Avenue Festival, we took the MTA Red Line from North Hollywood to the Ahamanson. Very, very smooth, and we’ll likely do it again.

So what’s next on the theatre calendar? Next Sunday (10/5 @ 2pm) is “Of Mice and Men” at Repertory East Playhouse in Saugus. Sunday October 12 (2pm) brings “Kiss of the Spider Woman” at the Havok Theatre (Nick DeGruccio, Artistic Director). The next weekend is currently open, for I thought I was going to an event at camp. The next weekend is “The King and I at Cabrillo Music Theatre (I still don’t know if we’re looking forward to seeing youarebonfante after the show, as she is managing the production… and congrats to Cabrillo on their 19 Ovation Nominations). Saturday November 1 @ 8pm brings “Blood Brothers – The Musical” at the Whitefire Theatre. The next weekend is open. The weekend after that (11/15 @ 8pm) is “The Lady With All The Answers” at the Pasadena Playhouse. Still to be ticketed is “Spring Awakening” at the Ahmanson (HotTix go on sale 10/8 — I’ll try for 11/16 @ 1pm). Lastly, I need to remember to explore tickets for “I Love My Wife (Reprise), which only runs 12/2-12/14 — right around the dates of ACSAC.


But I Didn’t Like The Cheerleaders When I Was In High School

Last night, our theatregoing started back up with a visit to the Pasadena Playhouse to see their production of “Vanities: A New Musical” (official page). Vanities is a Broadway-bound (opening around February 2009) musical based on the 1976 Jack Heifner play of the same name.

Vanities tells the story of three Texas girls through a series of four snapshots of their lives. The first three were in the original play; the last was added for the musical. The first scene is in 1963, when the girls are cheerleaders preparing and organizing for the big high-school football game and pep rally. It is here we first learn the characters of the girls. Mary (Lauren Kennedy) is the wild one of the group. Kathy (Anneliese Van Der Pol) is the great organizer, the one who plans the best parties and is captain of the cheerleading squad. Joanne (Sarah Stiles) is the good girl: saving herself for marriage and her high school sweetheart. We also learn that these girls are fast friends. The second scene moves us forward to 1968: the girls are graduating college and planning their last semester at KKΓ. Mary (who was evidently a swinger on the pill in college) is going to Europe to experience life (and get away from her drunk mother). Joanne is getting married to her high-school boyfriend Ted, and Kathy is still trying to decide what to do with a degree in Physical Education, as well as figuring out how to deal with a broken heart. The next scene (which was the last in the play) takes place eight years later (1974) in a penthouse apartment in New York. Mary is back from Europe, running an erotic art gallery, still wild and free. Joanne is happy with her married life and children… on the surface. Kathy has given up teaching PE, and is living the life of leasure in the penthouse apartment in NYC. But this last scene shows there’s more to the story, as Kathy is a “kept woman” (the implication being it is Joanne’s hubby), and Mary has been having affairs with the same husband. The last scene, added for the musical, takes place almost 15 years (1990) later at the funeral for Mary’s mother. Still fast friends, we see how life as changed for these women: Mary is about to get married; Joanne is happy with her second husband; and Kathy is writing books, still searching for the meaning of life in Idaho.

The story is a good one: there is growth in the characters, and you do grow to like them. I think the show’s structure and length (under 2 hours, no intermission) works well for a theatre the size of a Pasadena Playhouse (under 1,000 seats). For a Broadway house, I’m less sure. I think the scenes need to be expanded slightly to permit an act break between college and the remainder of their lives, and there need to be some additional numbers in the last scene showing character growth of the characters, including some high energy number as in the first act. Note that the show already contains 13 numbers (music and lyrics by David Kirshenbaum), with the bulk being in the early scenes (scene 1: 3; scene 2: 4; scene 3: 3; scene 4: 1). It also evidently had an intermission at one point.

One thing that shouldn’t change is the acting talent. Lauren Kennedy is a remarkable Mary: she conveys wild and free, and I can see her number “Fly Into The Future” becoming a classic song in her repertoire. Anneliese Van Der Pol breaks out of her Disney background as Kathy, the party organizer (with her chicken wire and newspaper), trying to find her life. She also is an extremely strong singer and great actress; I particularly liked her number “Cut Boys with Short Haircuts”. Lastly, Sarah Stiles is entrancing as Joanne, the virginal small-town girl marrying her high-school beau… who finds out that the facade isn’t what it is made out to be. Her signature song, “The Same Old Music”, truly showcases how she is just happy with her career goal of wife. All are great, all are strong singers and actresses, and all make the show (and have a clear friendship). Oh, and all of them are members of æ Actors Equity.

Technically, the show is amazing, perhaps because all characters are on stage at all times, including for 95% of the costume changes. The scenic design by Anna Louizos has three main vanities on the stages that rotate for different purposes, a wooden backdrop with panels that illustrate different scenes and permitting a change from a high school gym to a fancy penthouse apartment. There are also lights the drop down to create the mood, as well as the normal theatrical use of lights (the lighting design was by Paul Miller). The costumes (Joseph G. Aulisi, costume designer) and wigs (Josh Marquette) do a remarkable job of conveying the sense of time and personality, as well as adapting to the constant on-stage changing. Sound design was by Tony Meola and was quite good, although a few times I lost the illusion that the sound was coming from the actresses (I should note that it appears the Playhouse has a new speaker system). You can learn a bit more about the sound work in Vanities from Mr. Meola’s Downstage Center podcast.

With respect to program management: The production was directed by Judith Ivey, with musical staging by Dan Knechtges. Orchestrations were by Lynne Shankel, with musical direction and vocal arrangements by Carmel Dean (who also served as conductor for the 8 piece band). Richard Roland was the associate director. The Production Stage Manager was Pat Sosnow assisted by Lea Chazin. The Pasadena Playhouse is under the artistic direction of Sheldon Epps; Brian Colburn serves as Managing Director (although he is leaving soon); and Tom Ware is Producing Director.

ETA: nsshere’s review of the production is here.

For a video interview with some of the Vanities: A New Musical cast, click here. There is also a good interview with the three actresses in Episode 213 of Broadway Bullet, which includes some snippets of the music. Vanities: A New Musical continues at the Pasadena Playhouse until September 28, 2008.

As for us, I said this was the start of another theatre string of shows. Next Sunday (9/28 @ 1pm) we see another Broadway-bound musical: “9 to 5: The Musical” at the Ahamanson Theatre. The following Sunday (10/5 @ 2pm) is “Of Mice and Men” at Repertory East Playhouse in Saugus. The next weekend is currently open, for I thought I was going to an event at camp. Sunday October 12 (2pm) brings “Kiss of the Spider Woman” at the Havok Theatre (Nick DeGruccio, Artistic Director). The next weekend is “The King and I at Cabrillo Music Theatre (I don’t know if youarebonfante is managing the production). The following two weekends are open, the latter originally for nsshere’s birthday. The weekend after that (11/15 @ 8pm) is “The Lady With All The Answers” at the Pasadena Playhouse. Still to be ticketed is “Spring Awakening” at the Ahmanson (HotTix go on sale 10/8 — I’ll try for 11/16 @ 1pm should just be going on sale — I’ll call today for 11/23). Another show of interest is “Blood Brothers – The Musical” (Goldstar Link) at the Whitefire Theatre (which runs through November 23 — 11/2 @ 3pm is a possibility, but we need to see when greenscar is going, so I’ll have to double-book a weekend). Lastly, I need to remember to explore tickets for “I Love My Wife (Reprise), which only runs 12/2-12/14 — right around the dates of ACSAC.


Everybody Has The Right To Be Happy. Everybody Has The Right to Their Dreams.

In late 1990, a new Stephen Sondheim musical premiered on Broadway, with a book by John Weidman. It was dark, and had a very uncomfortable theme. It was a musical that highlighted the men and women who have a dream, a burning in their bellies, a driving need to do what they think is necessary to make their world a better place. They want to shoot the president. As one might expect, this musical (“Assassins”) flopped, running only 73 performances. In 2001 in one, it was about to be remounted again… and then terrorists flew planes into the WTC and the Pentagon (and wanted to hit the White House) on September 11th — echoing a would be assassin of Richard Nixon in the show, who wanted to fly a plane into the White House. The revival was scrapped again. It was finally remounted in 2004 to a bit more success… but the subject remains uncomfortable.

Today, we saw “Assassins” in its production at West Coast Ensemble. Assassins tells the story of all the successful and unsuccessful presidential assassins: John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln), Charles Guiteau (Garfield), Leon Czolgosz (McKinley), Giuseppe Zangara (FDR, unsuccessful), Lee Harvey Oswald (Kennedy), Samuel Byck (Nixon, unsuccessful), Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (Ford, unsuccessful), and John W. Hinkley Jr (Reagan, unsuccessful). They are egged on by a character called the Proprietior, who is really more of a carnival barker, urging them to “Shoot a President, Win a Prize”. A more sardonic view of the proceedings comes from the Balladeer. What’s hard to figure out is the point of the show. One underlying theme is captured in the title of this post: “Everyone has the right to be happy, everybody has the right to their dreams”. Part of the American dream is the right to take action for what you believe in. Does that include the right to shoot the president? Is that a form of free speech? But the play shows that folks had a variety of reasons behind their actions: to ease their pains, to make a statement, to please someone or to get attention for their cause, or because they were just nuts. But it doesn’t work. They aren’t remembered for their cause, they are remembered because they attempted to shoot the president. Perhaps some lines from the Balladeer’s first number make the point best:

Every now and then
A madman’s
Bound to come along
Doesn’t stop the story —
Story’s pretty strong
Doesn’t change the song…

Listen to the stories
Hear it in the songs
Angry men don’t write the rules
And guns don’t right the wrongs

Hurts a while
But soon the country’s
Back where it belongs
And that’s the truth

So, “Assassins”, in the end, isn’t a musical about the right to dreams. It is more a musical on the strength of the American dream — that even though there are madmen out there who do mad things, these angry men don’t write the rules, and America ultimately will right itself. We now have madmen who are using more than guns, and we have leaders who are tilting the ship strongly in reaction. But the system is strong, and we have the ability to right it. Pretty good message in a dark musical, I must say.

So how did West Coast Ensemble do? I think they did a very good job (only one substantive complaint, which you’ll find near the end). The acting was supurb. The whole cast was remarkable, not only in their singing but in their acting and their nuances. This is one of Sondheim’s most dramatic plays (I think the second half would rival most dramas), and it was just astounding. Some actors deserve some special praise. From the set of assassins, I was particularly impressed with Christopher Davis Carlisle as John Wilkes Booth, the first man to show it was possible to shoot a president; Steven Connoræ at Charles J. Guiteau, who lots of life and energy; Johanna Kent as Sara Jane Moore, who had loads of confused playfullness; Darrin Revitzæ as Lynnette “Squeeky” Fromme, who portrayed the crazy devotion one would expect from a Manson followerer. Even more of note were Dana Reynolds as the Balladeer, who seemed to take glee in interacting and commenting on the assassins. Even stronger was Shannon Stoeke in the dual role of the Proprietor/Lee Harvey Oswald, who was the evil counterpart to the Balladeer, encouraging our protagonists that they had the right, if not a duty, to shoot the president.

The remainder of the company were supurb, but their performances just didn’t “pop” as the folks named above. Rounding out the assassins were Jim Holdridgeæ as Guiseppe Zangara; Larry Ledermanæ as Leon Czolgosz, David Nadeau at John Hinckley, and John O’Brien at Samuel Byck. Others in the ensemble, playing various roles, were Sterling Beaumonæ and Andrea Covell.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Technically, the crew did a remarkable job with the small space they had. The current WCE location was Sydney Chaplin’s first theatre. The stage is very small, with no wing space. But somehow the crew made it work with remarkable sets, remarkable lighting, remarkable costumes (with really fast changes), and remarkable direction. Credit goes to Richard Israel (Director), Carla Barnett (Producing Director), Suzanne Doss (Assistant Director), Lisa D. Katz (Lighting Design), Stephen Gifford (Set Design), Johanna Kent (Music Director), Richard Berent (Orchestral Realizations), A. Jeffrey Schoenberg (Costume Design), and Cricket S. Myers (Sound Design). Stage management was by Erin Bedinger, and produced by Michelle Exarhos and Flip Laffoon. The artistic director for WCE is Les Hanson.

Now for the complaint. Although the page for the theatre says there are 46 seats, I heard there were 99 in there — and they were the narrowest, most uncomfortable seats I’ve ever been in. Hopefully WCE will soon find themselves a venue that is equal to their outstanding productions.

Dining Notes: Dinner was that old standby, Canter’s Deli. Although good, I think either Weiler’s or Brent’s is better. Still, the one on Fairfax is a classic.

So what’s upcoming on our theatre calendar? We have a bit of a break until the end of September, when we are seeing “Vanitites” at the Pasadena Playhouse on 9/20 @ 8pm. I hope to ticket “9 to 5” at the Ahmanson in September (HotTix go on sale on Wednesday). September will also bring “Of Mice and Men” at Repertory East on a date to be determined. October will bring “The King and I” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on 10/25 @ 2pm.


“Lina. She can’t act, she can’t sing, she can’t dance. A triple threat.”

Yesterday afternoon (I would have written this last night, but a headache intervened) we went out to Thousand Oaks to see “Singin’ In The Rain” at Cabrillo Music Theatre. This is the stage version of the theatrical musical “Singin’ in the Rain”. This musical, with book by Betty Comden & Adolph Green, and songs by Nacio Herb Brown & Arthur Freed, is pretty much the 1952 movie on stage. Although the movie is described as one of the best musicals ever made, topping the AFI’s 100 Years of Musicals list, and ranking fifth in its updated list of the greatest American films in 2007, as a stage musical… it creaks. By this I mean that it doesn’t fit the concept of modern musical, where modern refers to the post-“Oklahoma” musicals. Although the story is reasonable for what it is, the songs rarely serve to move the story forward or to illustrate the inner emotions of the characters (with the notable exception of the title song, “Singin’ in the Rain” and Cosmo’s signature number, “Make ‘Em Laugh”). Instead, most of the songs are more novelty songs, inserted in the action to highlight the singing and dancing talents of the cast. This is not a fault of Cabrillo but of Brown & Freed, and the problem dates back to the original movie. It may come from the fact that many of these songs were reused, having been written originally for movies in the 1920s and 1930s. I hazard a guess that if this were to appear today as a new musical on Broadway, the book and lyrics would be faulted for being horribly out of date.

So what is the story. Well, it’s a common one of the late 1920s. The stock market crashes, everyone is turned out on the street, and is forced to busker during downpours in order to make a living. No, wait, that’s what’s happening today. This is another story common in the late 1920s. Don Lockwood (David Engel) is one of Monumental Picture’s leading stars. Together with his leading lady (and rumored fiancee) Lina Lamont (Melissa Fahn), they are attending the successful opening of their most recent silent swashbuckler. Walking home, Don runs into Kathy Selden (Shanon Mari Mills) who appears not to be a fawning fan, and thus Don is attracted to her. When later Don runs into her at a party, she gets upset at him and throws a pie at him… missing him, but hitting Lena. Lena gets her fired, and Don is now searching to find his love. Don also has bigger problems: “The Jazz Singer” has hit the street, and everyone is demanding talkies…. but have you heard Lena’s voice? Nails on a chalkboard. Like many actors, she just isn’t right for the talkies, and as a result, the new picture, “The Dueling Cavalier”, is going to flop. Don’s best friend Cosmo Brown (Randy Rogel) comes up with the solution: turn it into a musical. But just as Lena can’t talk, she can’t sing or dance. Cosmo’s solution: dub her voice (no, this isn’t “Looped”)… and the actress doing the dubbing… Kathy Seldon. The results from there are predictable.

So, given this lightweight material, the well-known (and well-loved) songs, and the heavy dance influence of the movie (a Gene Kelly special), how did Cabrillo do? Very well. David Engelæ (playing Don Lockwood) is a consummate song and dance man–he channels Kelly and does the dancing numbers with ease and grace, and was a delight to watch. He also served as choreographer, and enticed the entire cast to dance up a storm. His cohort, Randy Rogelæ (playing Cosmo Brown) equally channels Donald O’Conner: he sings, he dances, and he has excellent physical comic timing. Shanon Mari Mills (playing Kathy Selden), who we’ve seen previously in “Mask” and “They’re Playing Our Song”, is a delightful ingénue, a superb singer and a strong dancer. Lastly, Melissa Fahnæ (playing Lena Lamont) is wonderfully comic and has the voice down pat (although the particular role doesn’t allow us to hear her real voice). So the production was well cast, well sung, and well danced.

The remaining cast members were strong in their roles, although not as standout as the leads. These members were: Gary Gordon (R. F. Simpson, owner of Monumental Pictures), Rita Tarin (Dora Bailey), Terry Fishman (Roscoe Dexter), Gene Bernath (Diction Teacher), Farley Cadena (Miss Dinsmore), Linda Neel (the Girl in the Green Dress, a dance role made famous by Cyd Charisse), Rocky Lynch (Young Don), Jacob Tobias (Young Cosmo), Ann Myers (Zelda Zanders, friend of Lena), Chris Ramirez (Rod), and Richard Storrs (Sid Phillips). Other members of the ensemble were Neal Bakke, Chris Acuff, Kasey Alfonso, Layne Baker, Christopher Bray, Cory Bretsch, Amanda Brown, Drew D’Andrea, Jasmine Ejan, Jennifer Foster, Brandon Heitkamp, Erik Kline, Holly Long, Lindsay McDonald, Carly Pippin, Jonalyn Saxer, Deborah Shulman, Marni Zaifert, Delany Miner, Riley Miner, and Sami Staitman.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Technically, the production stretched the Cabrillo resources, with a number of extremely large set pieces that had to be moved in and out, including a full-sized unit that permitted the titular song to be performed in actual rain. These pieces also required a few numbers to be performed in front of a backdrop so that the scenery could be changed beind the scenes. The scenery overall worked well, although it surely gave our favorite production stage manager, youarebonfante, lots of work to do coordinating everything. The production was directed by Larry Rabenæ. Lighting design was by Jean-Yves Tessier and was a bit spot heavy, but otherwise good. Sound design was by Jonathan Burke, who got the wonderful job of designing a sound system that could work under water. Wardrobe supervision was by Christine Gibson, with hair and wig design by Karen Zanki. The sets were provided by 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle Washington and were designed by Michael Anania. The production manager and prop designer was T. Theresa Scarano. The Production Stage Manager was the ever capable™ Lindsay Martensæ (who we thank for meeting us afterwards, and we hope to meet again) assisted by Rachel Samuels. Musical direction was by Alby Potts, who conducted the excellent 17-member orchestra. CMT is under the artistic direction of Lewis Wilkenfeld.

Cabrillo has announced their 2008-2009 season, and the first production of the 2009-2010 season. The 2008-2009 season will be “The King and I” (October 17-26, 2008); “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” [The Neal Sedaka Musical] (January 9-18, 2009); “42nd Street” (March 27-April 5 2009); and “Cats” (July 24-August 2 2009). The first production of the 2009-2010 season will be “Dreamgirls” in October 2009.

So what’s upcoming on our theatre calendar? Our last play ticketed for August is “Assassins” at West Coast Ensemble (Sun 8/10 @ 2pm). In September we’ll be seeing “Vanitites” at the Pasadena Playhouse, and I hope to ticket “9 to 5” at the Ahmanson (HotTix go on sale in August). September will also bring “Of Mice and Men” at Repertory East on a date to be determined. October will bring “The King and I” at Cabrillo Music Theatre.