Folk Singers Never Age

This evening we went out to McCabes to see Tom Paxton. Tom has been writing and playing folk music since 1960s (he wrote Marvelous Toy in the summer of 1960), meaning he is approaching 50 years of being a folk singer, but is ever young. Each of his shows has a distinct character: some are more political, some are downers, and some are just family affairs. This evening was a family affair: there were lots of sing-a-longs, and lots of Tom’s friends in the audience, including Milt Okun (his publisher), the person who signed him to Elecktra records, and Joe Frazier of the Chad Mitchell Trio. Tom was accompanied in his performance by Fred Sokolow. The songs sang during the show were (“?” indicates I’m unsure about the song name; “*” indicates songs where Joe Frazier from the Chad Mitchell Trio sang with Tom):

How Beautiful Upon The Mountain
I’m Changing My Name to Fannie Mae
There Goes The Mountain
Whose Garden Was This
Out on the Ocean
What a Friend?
She’s My Reason To Be?
And If It’s Not True
The Marvelous Toy
I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound*
Bottle of Wine*

Did You Hear John Hurt?
Anytime
I Took Another Way?
Jennifer’s Rabbit
Katie, Little Katie
Jennifer and Kate
Marry Me Again
The Last Thing On My Mind
The Last Thing On My Mind (Parody)
Rambling Boy

The Bravest
Comedians and Angels

All in all, it was a delightful show. Tom always does great folk music. One other note: During the intermission, Tom was out signing copies of his new book, The Marvelous Toy (signing activates the full color), as well as CDs (it activates the full sonic quality). I indicated I thought about having him sign my iPod to activate the full sound quality of his songs there. He didn’t think it would help. 🙂

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A Truly Intellectual Discourse

I am reminded again what a visionary and talent Steve Allen was.

Perhaps I should explain. Back when I graduated high school in 1977, Steve Allen started a series on KCET (our PBS channel) called “Meeting of Minds”, where he would bring together four historical figures for a roundtable discussion. Disguised as theatre, this was education. Those speakers from the past spoke to the problems of the 1970s and 1980s, reminding people how we could learn from history. Alas, the program has never made its way to DVD, it existed as memories… and scripts.

Luckily, the good folks at Working Stage (led by Dan Lauria) decided to do something about it, and have (with the blessing of the Allen family) brought “Meeting of Minds” back to life. Tonight they did their second production of an episode. Tonight’s was episode #1, and featured Gary Cole as Steve Allen, Danica McKellar as Queen Cleopatra, Joe Spano as Father Thomas Aquinas, Steven Culp as Thomas Paine, and Bill Smitrovich as President Theodore Roosevelt. I should note this was a staged reading: the actors had the scripts in front of them, and there were occasional line hesitations and restarts. That goes with the territory of a staged reading.

Watching the performance, I was reminded of the vision of Steve Allen, and how the history echoes what is happening today as well. Consider the following exchange:

ROOSEVELT: I also persuaded the big lumber corporations to adopt selective cutting techniques so that future generations would have timber in this country.
ALLEN: Well, I imagine all of this must have made you even more of a national hero.
ROOSEVELT: Don’t you believe it. The people often didn’t know what I was trying to do for them, and the big interests and their lackeys in Congress responded with hysterical charges…”

Exchanges like this resonate today with the hysteria in the healthcare debate.

Consider the following, referring to Roosevelt’s work in ensuring pure unadulterated food:

ALLEN: What accusation were made against you, Mr. President, when you tried to protect the public in this controversy?
ROOSEVELT: Oh, we were all called Socialists, among other things.

Sound familiar?

Dialogues such as these are remarkable for teaching history in the guise of theatre. Dan Lauria talked a bit about the effort of reviving this program: they plan to do a episode monthly, and would like to get universities to invite their group to present episodes on campus. They would record the episodes, and get them broadcast on NPR. He mentioned that actors are calling him to get involved: Keith Carradine (who was in the audience) has already indicated a desire to play Thomas Jefferson, and Lou Diamond Phillips was interested in playing Emiliano Zapata. He also indicated they have name writers lined up (I heard David Mamet mentioned) to write new episodes. This is an effort I really hope gets off the ground. He indicated that the next episode should be at the Steve Allen Theatre on October 5th (which is a Monday, so I’m not sure the date is correct).

As a theatrical staged reading: This was thoroughly enjoyable. As education: this was great. As a reminder of my college years, where I touted this program reguarly, it was priceless. Kudos to the folks at Working Stage, the Center for Free Inquiry, and the Steve Allen Theatre.

Other notes on the night: My wife got the opportunity to talk to Danica McKeller, and complimented her on her book on how girls can do math, and how important math education is. If you didn’t know, McKeller is a graduate of the UCLA Math Department (we both have BS degrees in Math, although I went on to an MS in Computer Science). I also got the opportunity to meet rialtus and his lovely wife, and got to introduce ellipticcurve to Meeting of Minds. All wins in my book.

Upcoming Theatre: We have a bit of a break before our next theatre: currently the next weekend devoid of theatre, and the following weekend brings not a theatrical event but a concert: Tom Paxton at McCabes on 9/13. The following weekend also has no theatre, but brings Rosh Hashana and the birthday party for a rediscovered childhood friend. The following weekend (9/25) sees us back at the Pasadena Playhouse for “The Night Is A Child”. The first weekend of October brings “The Hound of the Baskervilles” at the REP on 10/3 @ 8pm and hopefully another “Meeting of Minds”. Either the weekend of 10/10 or 10/17 will be “Parade” at the Mark Taper Forum (HotTix go on sale 9/3; the show runs 9/24 through 11/15). The following weekend (10/24) will bring “Guys and Dolls” at Cabrillo Music Theatre. Halloween weekend is open. November brings Thomas the Tank Engine at OERM, TMBG for Erin at UCLA, and somewhere in there, M*A*S*H at REP East. As a reminder, I’m also always looking for interesting productions on Goldstar and LA Stage Tix, so if you have a production to recommend, please do so.

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It’s ‘Z’, not ‘S’: How Could You Forget?

Last night was the second of our two outings to the Hollywood Bowl this summer. The first, as you might recall, was Guys and Dolls in Concert. Last night’s outing was less theatrical, in a sense. At least it was less plot driven, for we saw that most theatrical of performers, Liza Minnelli. Now, given who we saw and her following, this review looks at two things: Liza herself, and the audience.

Liza is back. Those familiar with her might recall that after her initial debut in Flora The Red Menace, she did some wonderful work in the 1960s and early 1970s. This time brought her award-winner performances in Caberet, her participation in Chicago (she didn’t originate the role, but came in later), and one of my favorite films of hers that we rarely see anymore, The Sterile Cuckoo. It saw her on Broadway in shows like The Act and The Rink, and it saw her on the small screen on the spectacular Liza with a ‘Z’. However, by the late 1980s and especially during the 1990s, her life became a parody (and was parodied in shows such as The Boy from Oz). But she came back with a roar last year in her performances at the Palace, which won her a special Tony award. Liza is back.

I think the reason for Liza’s success is that she embodies the meaning of “performer”. She loves her audience, and her audience loves her back. She’s a very theatrical performer, especially for songs where she can act out a character. She also relates to the audience as a human: she doesn’t hide behind the microphone, but interacts, acknowledges her age and foibles, and just as the love to be onstage. She also chose songs that played to her strengths, for the most part.

Act I consisted of 9 songs, which was almost the same as the first act from the Liza at the Palace performance: “Teach Me Tonight”, “I Would Never Leave You”, “If”, “What Makes a Man a Man”, “My Own Best Friend”, “Maybe This Time”, “He’s Funny That Way”, “Until You’ve Played the Palace (Medley)” and “Caberet”. “If” was perhaps her weakest song vocally: she acted it strong, but her voice is too breathy for the words to be distinct, and I prefer Kristen Chenowith’s enunciation. Other than that, this was a strong first act, and it played to a large component of her audience: the gay men (especially “What Makes a Man a Man” and “Caberet” — I never caught the double-entendre of “When I saw her laid out like a queen” before). But these songs emphasized Liza’s theatricality: she brought them to life with her vocal energy and acting, and you knew you were watching a star.

Her second act was more specific to Los Angeles. She started and ended the act the same as the Palace performance, opening with “The World Goes Round” and closing with “Mammy” and the song that she originated (and not her “Uncle Frank”): “New York, New York”. The three songs in between were different (replacing the Kay Thompson tribute in the Palace performance). She did the comic number written especially for her by her long-time partners and friends, Fred Kander and John Ebb, “Liza with a ‘Z’”. She then sang a song with her conductor, Billy Stritch, that she dedicated to Michael Jackson (as last night would have been his birthday): “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”. She then did the jazzy “Alexanders Ragtime Band”.

As her post-show encore numbers (every band seem to have them), she did “Everytime We Say Goodbye” as a duet with Billy Stritch, and then came out and did an acapela rendiation of a song whose name I cannot remember, but seemed specifically designed to be the “go away” song (PP&M’s song is “Goodnight Irene”, and they emphasize the line “Go home to your wife and family…”).

Liza’s show was spectacular: she no longer has the ability to dance as she did in the 1970s, but she still has the moves and the dance in her (as can been seen from her upperbody). She is classy and elegant, an actress on stage whose presence transcends her problems. It was a delight to watch.

Completing the show credits: Liza was backed by a 12-piece band consisting of Billy Stritch (piano), Ross Konikoff (trumpet), Dave Trigg (trumpet), Dale Kirkland (trombone), Chuck Wilson (reeds), Frank Perowsky (reeds), Ed Xiques (reeds), Mike Berkowitz (conductor/drums), Chip Jackson (bass), Bill Washer (guitar), David Nyberg (percussion), and Rick Cutler (keyboards). She was classy enough to bring the entire band on stage with her to take bows at the end of the show. She also brought onto her stage her director and choreographer, Ron Lewis. No credits were given for lighting and sound: the lighting was very good: timed well to the performance and emphasizing her mood and the song’s tempo, and utilizing moving lights more a quick color changers. Sound was typicaly bowl, especially at the back where the echos can make it muddy, although the amplification worked well unless Liza stepped away from the microphone.

What wasn’t pretty about the show was the audience. Perhaps I’m more used to live theatre where the audiences are well-behaved as opposed to concerts, but this audience was apalling. Let me count the ways: We had a mother who had brought her adult obviously disabled son who kept loudly slapping the bench (she was able to control him about 75% of the show, but that remaining 25% was distracting). We had someone smoking pot. We had a Russian group behind us that kept talking, loudly. We had a large contingent behind us that continually screamed “I Love You Liza” and gave loud whistles during the performances. We had folks singing along with the songs, loudly. A number of these problems (esp. the last two) were worse in the second act, perhaps because of the effects of the wine and beer consumed with the picnic lunches (although the pot odor was in the first act). Although the audience was colorful and fun to watch, during the actual performance I had hoped for a bit more decorum. Alas, I’m not sure that outdoor concerts, combined with various culture clashes, are conducive to that. Perhaps they were better behaved in the pricier seats (we were up in the nosebleed section, W2). On the entertaining side of the audience, we did have someone in full out dress as the Emcee from Caberet, a large contingent of red hatters, and the usual audience accoutrements as only the Liza audience can come up with.

Upcoming Theatre: Tonight takes us to the Steve Allen Theatre at the Center for Free Inquiry in Hollywood for a staged reading of the first episode of “Meeting of Minds” (with a stellar cast: Gary Cole (Steve Allen), Danica McKellar (Queen Cleopatra), Joe Spano (Father Thomas Aquinas), Steven Culp (Thomas Paine), and Bill Smitrovich (Theodore Roosevelt)). September brings the High Holy Days (Rosh Hashana is the evening of 9/18 and the morning of 9/19; Yom Kippur is the evening of 9/27 and the day of 9/28). The only theatre ticketed so far in September is “The Night Is A Child” at the Pasadena Playhouse on 9/25 @ 8pm. Concertwise, September brings Tom Paxton at McCabes on 9/13. October brings “The Hound of the Baskervilles” at the REP on 10/3 @ 8pm and “Guys and Dolls” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on 10/24 @ 8pm, and should also bring “Parade” at the Mark Taper Forum (HotTix go on sale 9/3; the show runs 9/24 through 11/15). As a reminder, I’m also always looking for interesting productions on Goldstar and LA Stage Tix, so if you have a production to recommend, please do so.

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Patently Insane

We see theatre when we’re on vacation; we see theatre when we’re home. Some may think we’re crazy. Some may think we need to see a head-shrinker. So we did… last night we saw “Beyond Therapy” at REP East.

If you asked me to summarize “Beyond Therapy” (written by Christopher Durang), I couldn’t. Well, I might say that it is a story of a couple, Bruce and Prudence, and how they got together. But that would give you no idea of what really happens. I found one theatre website that summarized the story as follows:

BEYOND THERAPY is an off-the-wall comedy and a singular love story. It is a tale of two unusual people who, aided by their dedicated therapists, strive to wrest happiness from an indifferent world. Bruce and Prudence are two New Yorkers who have met via the classifieds. Each is a bundle of neuroses not exactly made for the other; he’s an overly emotional, high-strung bisexual, and she’s intensely repressed. They try to create a relationship anyway, over the protests of Bruce’s live-in lover, Bob. Of course, they’re never going to get help from either of their therapists, who are in even worse shape. Prudence’s therapist is a male chauvinist with whom she slept just after they started their analysis, and Bruce’s therapist is a crazed, scattered woman with a penchant for malapropisms.

But even that doesn’t catch the craziness of this play, which also includes therapists having relationships with each other, fake accents, a restaurant that keeps changing theme, a mother who behaves like Marlene Deatrich, water being thrown hither and yon, surreptitious drinking. This is a play that just calls for craziness on stage.

I found a more detailed synopsis on a password protected site indexed by Google, but luckily, it was cached so you can read the summary. The Wikipedia page also gives some details. As one can see from this, there is lots of craziness is this play, and at times, even multiple actions and threads progressing seemingly simultaneously. It is distinctly silly and clearly insane.

During the play, there were some, like my wife (who is truly amused by silliness), that were laughing themselves silly. Others, like me (a very linear thinker) laughed at the occasional joke but were otherwise perplexed. After the show, I spoke to the director, Brad Sergi. Brad had worked with Durang on some productions of the play. He indicated that the play, which was written in the 1970s when all sorts of crazy psychotherapies abounded, was a commentary on odd psychotherapy approaches. I can see that explanation applying, but it still didn’t help my understanding. I’m guessing for linear thinkers like me understanding this play is difficult.

One thing that isn’t difficult to understand is quality of the acting that was shown. Just as it is difficult for someone who sings well to play singing badly, it is difficult to act insanely in a convincing manner. The cast that was assembled by the REP did just that. No, not sing badly… act insanely in a convincing manner (hmmm, I just realized there appears to be a lot of insanity at the REP this season, what with Cuckoo’s Nest earlier in the year, and M*A*S*H later in the year… must be something in that Santa Clarita water). In the lead positions were Nicole Dionne as Prudence (a repressed writer for People magazine that answers a personal Internet ad) and Mikee Schwinn (in his annual appearance) as Bruce (The man Prudence meets through that add, who is emotionally expressive, bisexual, impusive, and equally crazy in a different sense). Providing these two therapy were Carlo Pietrosanti as Dr. Stuart Framingham (Prudence’s therapist, who has a bad habit of sleeping with most of his female patients… including Prudence… and doesn’t like her relationship with Bruce) and Erin Michaels as Mrs. Charlotte Wallace (Bruce’s therapist, who is completely uninhibited, attached to a stuffed dog that she barks to encourage her patiences, and who believes it is better to risk and be insane than be boring, normal, and structured). Complicating Bruce’s life were Anderson Reid as Bob (Bruce’s male live-in lover, who is in group therapy) and Von Rae Wood as Mrs. Lansky (Bob’s mother and Marlene Dietrich surrogate… who happens to also be seeing Dr. Framingham). Lastly, complicating everything are the denizens of the ever-changing-theme restaurant: Tyrone “Tippy” Washington as the head waiter; Ransom Boynton as the other waiter, Andrew Wallace (son of the therapist Charlotte Wallace, who is also seeing her professionally); and Bill Quinn as an unnamed patron of the restaurant who flashes the waiter, but otherwise just sits in the restaurant and reads his book, silently observing the insanity. As I noted before, these folks did a wonderful job of playing insane… except Bill, who kept a straight face throughout everything. I particularly enjoyed the performances of the leads (Mikee and Nicole), who were quite fun to watch.

Turning to the technical side: As I noted above, the production was directed by Brad Sergi assisted by Bill Quinn. Johnny Schwinn served as Stage Manager. Nicole Dionne handled the choreography. Lighting and sound were by the award-winning regular REP team of Steven “Nanook” Burkholder (sound) and Tim Christianson (lights).

Beyond Therapy” continues at the Repertory East Playhouse in Saugus through August 29, 2009. Tickets are available through the REP East Online Box Office, and possibly through Goldstar Events and LA Stage Tix. Performances do sell out (our show was sold out), so get your tickets quickly.

Upcoming Theatre: Next weekend brings us two productions: On Saturday 8/29 we’re going to the Hollywood Bowl, where we are seeing Liza Minnelli. Sunday sees us back in Hollywood: this time at the the Steve Allen Theatre at the Center for Free Inquiry in Hollywood for a staged reading of the first episode of “Meeting of Minds”. September brings the High Holy Days (Rosh Hashana is the evening of 9/18 and the morning of 9/19; Yom Kippur is the evening of 9/27 and the day of 9/28). The only theatre ticketed so far in September is “The Night Is A Child” at the Pasadena Playhouse on 9/25 @ 8pm. Concertwise, September brings Tom Paxton at McCabes on 9/13. October brings “The Hound of the Baskervilles” at the REP on 10/3 @ 8pm and “Guys and Dolls” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on 10/24 @ 8pm, and should also bring “Parade” at the Mark Taper Forum (HotTix go on sale 9/3; the show runs 9/24 through 11/15). As a reminder, I’m also always looking for interesting productions on Goldstar and LA Stage Tix, so if you have a production to recommend, please do so.

Lastly, remember that a recent study showed that it isn’t possessions that are important — it is shared experiences. So go have one of the best shared experiences there is: go support your local live theatre, and help keep all the people who work at the theatre (from the cast to the technical staff) employed.

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The Forge of Love

What’s a weekend without theatre. Yes, we’re on vacation, but that doesn’t stop us from our theatre. We loves our theatre, yes we do. Oh, right, the review. (straightens his metaphorical tie) Ahem…

Tonight we drove down to Palo Alto (well, actually, we drove up from Mountain View, as we were seeing friends) to Theatreworks to see to closing performance of the new musical “Tinyard Hill“. This was the world premier of this new musical, part of Theatreworks New Works Festival ’09, which features book, music, and lyrics by Tommy Newman and Mark Allen.

Tinyard Hill” takes place in the summer of 1964, as the Vietnam War is ramping up. It tells the story of two families in Tinyard Hill, GA: Russell Kingsley (James Moyeæ) and his son, David Kinsgley (Chris Critelliæ), and May Bell Whitehead (Allison Brineræ) and her niece Aileen Garrett (Melissa WolfKlainæ). Russell and his sons are blacksmiths, and David has ideas to make his father’s shop a success. Aileen has come to Tinyard Hill to escape the craziness of her upcoming wedding, and to have her aunt make her a wedding dress. But then David and Aileen meet… with predictable results. Let’s just say that sparks fly, and not just from the anvils. Add to this some history between Russell and May Bell, and a draft notice for David, and you can see how the drama builds.

As this is a new work, let’s start with the book. Some portions are predictable: you know that David and Aileen will eventually come together, although you don’t know how the other family dynamics will work. Some portions aren’t: such as the family history or the interaction with the Vietnam War. However, even with the predictability the story is enjoyable and fast paced. I certainly sensed no gaping flaws, no areas that required suspension of disbelief.

The actors were all superb. I was particularly smitten with the looks and the enthusiasm, as well as the singing ability, of the younger leads (Chris Critelli and Melissa WolfKlain). I would love to see both again, especially in productions closer to home. Their investment in their characters was remarkable. The older leads were also very strong — I liked James Moye quite a bit, but there were times where Allison Briner seemed a little off for the role (not that she acted or sang badly, but she just didn’t have the gospel feel she seemed to need at points).
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Technically, the show was remarkable. The sets (by Tom Langguth) did a remarkable job of evoking the feel of the rural south, and seemed to miraculously float in and out. When combined with the effective lighting by Pamila Gray the effects were spectacular. I especially enjoyed the little touches, such as the use of LED lighting bugs on the trees, or the gentle blues of the swamps. The sound design by Cliff Caruthers ensured that all could be heard, and there were no microphone glitches. The costumes by Cathleen Edwards effectively established both the era and locale.

The show was directed by Robert Kelley. Stage management was by Jaimie L. Johnson, assisted by Joshua M. Rose. Musical direction was by William Liberatore, who was part of and conducted the six member band, which played wonderfully.

This was the last performance of “Tinyard Hill“. We were impressed with TheatreWorks, and would see more of their productions…. if they weren’t in a city 400 miles from home!

Upcoming Theatre: Next Saturday (8/22) sees us back at the REP for “Beyond Therapy by Christopher Durang. August closes with the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday 8/29, where we are seeing Liza Minnelli. September brings the High Holy Days (Rosh Hashana is the evening of 9/18 and the morning of 9/19; Yom Kippur is the evening of 9/27 and the day of 9/28). The only theatre ticketed so far in September is “The Night Is A Child” at the Pasadena Playhouse on 9/25 @ 8pm. Concertwise, September brings Tom Paxton at McCabes on 9/13. October brings “The Hound of the Baskervilles” at the REP on 10/3 @ 8pm and “Guys and Dolls” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on 10/24 @ 8pm, and should also bring “Parade” at the Mark Taper Forum (HotTix go on sale 9/3; the show runs 9/24 through 11/15). As a reminder, I’m also always looking for interesting productions on Goldstar and LA Stage Tix, so if you have a production to recommend, please do so.

Lastly, remember that a recent study showed that it isn’t possessions that are important — it is shared experiences. So go have one of the best shared experiences there is: go support your local live theatre, and help keep all the people who work at the theatre (from the cast to the technical staff) employed.

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Learning Lessons from an Expedition

Tuesday evening, at the urging of our friend A.J., we joined him to see one of the staged readings in the New Works Festival at Theatreworks Palo Alto. Tonight’s production was “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, performed by Valerie Vigodaæ of Groovelily. This was a developing production with book by Joe DiPietro, music by Brendan Milburn, and lyrics by Valerie Vigodaæ.

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” tells the story of Kat, an aspiring music writer and electric violin player whose claim to fame is writing the full orchestral score to the video game “Space Pirates”. Based on the success to that, she has gotten a contract to “Space Pirates 2”, … and “3”, … and “4”. However, between a new baby, a disintegrating relationship, and the dogs that remain from that relationship, she’s creatively blocked. Further, she’s been awake for 36 hours straight. In the delierium that results, she starts receiving calls from Ernest Shackleton, an Antartic explorer. Over the course of these calls, she musically tells Shackleton’s story, and learns the power of perseverence and an appropriate role model… as well as a banjo. She also receives calls from Ponce De Leon (yes, that Ponce De Leon), who also wants to win her affection.

Yes, I know the story above sounds strange. But delierium can do that to you :-). More importantly, it sounds non-traditional for a musical… but it works. In many ways, the story made me think of “Next to Normal“, with its exploration of what the mind does to resolve issues when stressed. But whereas “Next to Normal” looks at the mental problems and their aftereffects, “Ernest Shackleton” explores the issue from a more personal level. This is a one person show, and likely will always be a one-person focused show (if other actors are added, they would be playing out the scenes that Kat narrates). As such, combined with the music, the experience the audience receives is much more personal.

This production consisted solely of Valerie (as Kat) on stage with all her electronics. Val did most of the voices, except for Shackleton and Ponce de Leon, who were voiced by music director Brendan Milburn (this was a change from earlier readings where Val did everything, and reflects the creative process that is the purpose of staged readings). There were a few voiced stage directions, and one cycle (the final part of the Shackleton story) was simply read lyrics, as the music has not yet been composed. This is a work in progress, so this is to be expected. The music had that beautiful Groovelily sound, and I really enjoyed the lyrics and how they told and advanced the story. I also enjoyed the banjo, but then I’m an old folkie. They certainly did a good job of introducing me to the story of Ernest Shackleton (whom I knew nothing about before the play).

I had more difficulty picturing the eventual staging. The stage directions indicated use of projections, but in my mind I could see more. In particular, in my minds eye, I could see Val off on one side of the stage (representing her normal life in the music studio). On the other side of the stage I could see actors portraying the Shackleton expedition or her former boyfriend’s band… they would be taking the actions narrated by Val, with appropriate projections for the background. This would provide a simple way of distinguishing reality from the perceived distorted reality. One thing I wouldn’t want to see is Shackleton or De Leon in the real world side of things picking up the phone. That would destroy the illusion of the delusion.

I don’t think this is a large theatre show. If done in Los Angeles, this would be a perfect production for the Kirk Douglas Theatre, or perhaps the Mark Taper Forum, or perhaps a venue like the El Portal. It’s not an Ahmanson or Pasadena Playhouse show. On the other hand, I don’t think this would work well in the really small houses that abound in Los Angeles — the electronic sound might overpower (certainly it would at places like the Celebration or the Chance).

Technically, the production was simple: sound, and relatively simple lighting. Again, this was to be expected: this was a staged reading. The production was directed by Kent Nicholson, with Heath Beldenæ as stage manager. Music direction was by Brendan Milburn. Sound design was by Ryan Kleeman and Mike McCann, with lighting design by Selina G. Young. The production assistant was Emily Gregory. It was interesting to watch the technical side onstage, seeing Val triggering sound queues from occasionally recalcitrant equipment.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

As with the Playhouse last Saturday, we can’t go anywhere without running into folks we know… in this case, we ran into members of the Biggar clan. We also talked to the artist after the show, and passed on hellos from otaku_tetsuko and kuni_izumi.

Upcoming Theatre: This coming Sunday sees us back at Theatreworks for “Tinyard Hill” at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto on Sun 8/16 @ 7:30p. Sat 8/22 sees us back at the REP for “Beyond Therapy by Christopher Durang. August closes with the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday 8/29, where we are seeing Liza Minnelli. September brings the High Holy Days (Rosh Hashana is the evening of 9/18 and the morning of 9/19; Yom Kippur is the evening of 9/27 and the day of 9/28). The only theatre ticketed so far in September is “The Night Is A Child” at the Pasadena Playhouse on 9/25 @ 8pm. Concertwise, September brings Tom Paxton at McCabes on 9/13. October brings “The Hound of the Baskervilles” at the REP on 10/3 @ 8pm and “Guys and Dolls” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on 10/24 @ 8pm, and should also bring “Parade” at the Mark Taper Forum (HotTix go on sale 9/3; the show runs 9/24 through 11/15). As a reminder, I’m also always looking for interesting productions on Goldstar and LA Stage Tix, so if you have a production to recommend, please do so.

Lastly, remember that a recent study showed that it isn’t possessions that are important — it is shared experiences. So go have one of the best shared experiences there is: go support your local live theatre, and help keep all the people who work at the theatre (from the cast to the technical staff) employed.

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“We always keep our heads covered…”

In “Fiddler on the Roof”, there is a line in the song “Tradition” where Tevye talks about how Jewish tradition is to always keep ones head covered, in order to show constant devotion to God. No, this isn’t a review of the current Fiddler tour with Topol. I’m mentioning this because it is not only a Jewish tradition to cover one’s head during worship. It is an African-American tradition too, and one that we learned about last night at The Pasadena Playhouse when we saw the musical “Crowns”, written by Regina Taylor.

Crowns” tells the story of hats, and their connection to the African-American experience. This is done through the journey of a young woman from the streets of Brooklyn NY, Yolanda (Angela Wildflower Polk). As the play starts, Yolanda has been sent to Darlington SC after her brother was shot to live with her grandmother. In the south, Yolanda sees the intersection of her street-developed unique style with the southern African-American rhythm, and the tradition of church hats. This she learns through various stories and experiences told by her grandmother, Mother Shaw (Peggy Ann Blow) and a circle of women (Velma (Sharon Catherine Blanks), Jeanette (Vanessa Bell Calloway), Wanda (Suzzanne Douglas), and Mabel (Ann Weldon)), assisted by a male character (Clinton Derricks-Carroll), who takes on many roles. These stories all connect to the importance of hats in a culture where church was often the only place to wear the finery, and a hat was that unique expression of style. As such, the hat was not a representation of piety and respect that Tevye speaks about, but rather captures the notion that when one goes to meet the king, one wears your best.

The play tells this story not in the traditional structure of characters talking in a living room, but in a space that stylistically represents a number of different churches, all hinted at through the slightest abstractions. As such, it is hard to get into the story at first: you wonder who this rapping girl is, and why there is this vaguely African group going on behind her. As it moves into a service structure (procession, morning service, marriage, funeral, baptism, recessional) the stories start coming. Through most of this, Yolanda seems to be an oddly separated observer: the stories happen and she sings and moves, but it is just going through the motions.

Stories are told of the different morning services and the roles that hats played in the lives of these women. We see the morning service, and how hats gave these women their pride, and something to be proud of. This includes a remarkable performance of “Eye Is On The Sparrow” by Sharon Catherine Blanks. Even more touching is the “Jumping the Broom” scene, where we see the life of a couple and the role that hats play in that life: from when they meet to their marriage, through their children (the wedding shawl is transformed into the baby), and through the husband’s death (and the wedding shawl becomes the funeral shroud) and burial in his hats. It was in this scene in particular that I was really impressed with the acting ability of this ensemble, in particular, the performance of Clinton Derricks-Carroll.

As we move into the funeral scene, we begin to see the transformation of Yolanda and the cracking of the Brooklyn-hard persona. As she tells the story of the murder of her brother, Teddy, and how she wore a special hat to the funeral and was transformed by it, the audience is transformed. During this scene, the acting of Angela Wildflower Polk was just amazing. We then see Yolanda’s baptism in the south, and as she sees the joy of rebirth, her transformation.

I’ve told the story of this musical and described the players in a manner quite different than I normally do. But this is quite a different play. You start out wondering what’s going on around you (like Yolanda), and you get drawn into the transformational spirit that these hats bring. This is a testament to Taylor’s writing (the play is adapted from a book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry) and the infectuous gospel style music arranged by Linda Twine and David Pleasant, with additional arrangements by Eric Scott Reed. As a side note, this appears to continue artistic director Sheldon Epps theme of plays about the African American experience which has been ongoing for many years — in particular, I felt that this play dovetailed quite well with a play in a previous season, “Cuttin’ Up — a story about black barbershops — also by Marberry. Hair and hats have an importance in the African-American culture that is something unfamiliar to me with my Jewish cultural background… and so I learn. It is interesting that Epps is successfully doing this where he is — in Pasadena, California, a town that was shaped by the midwestern Iowans and is traditionally portrayed as lily white. The audience color shift I’ve written about previously was still present, although a bit weaker (it still boggles my mind about why one color audience tends not to go to shows about the other color — good theatre is good theatre). By the way, “Crowns” was a co-production with the new Ebony Repertory Theatre which presented it earlier in the season. The ETR is a new company whose mission is to create, develop, nurture and sustain a world- class professional theatre rooted in the experience of the African Diaspora and shaped by a dynamic perspective that incorporates an understanding of, and respect for, the unique African- American journey to freedom. Given Sheldon’s commitment to this sub-genre, I expect to see more ERT co-productions.

As I noted above, the acting and singing in this production were exceptional. There are a few I would like to highlight. Cinton Derricks-Carroll shined whenever he got the chance in this company of women; Angela Wildflower Polk, Sharon Catherine Blanks, and Vanessa Bell Calloway proved not only to be remarkable actresses but powerful singers. The weakest performance was that of Ann Weldon: although never dropping character, she had a larger than expected number of line hesitations and the occasional start-over that was slightly distracting. All actors are members of Actors Equity.

The set design by Edward E. Haynes Jr. was simple, with a number of floor to ceiling structures just holding hundreds of hats. Simple elements flew down to suggest different churches, and simple prayer benches were moved as necessary to suggest other structures. The lighting design by Lap Chi Chu initially struck me as odd: very dark, with an overuse of spotlights (shakey at that) that made one feel alien. However, this turned out to be just echoing the mood, because as the production progressed the lights became brighter, the spotlights less noticable, and the colors more integrated with the story. The sound design by Southern California sound specialist Cricket S. Myers was what a good sound design should be: clearly audible, with decent sound effects, and otherwise unnoticable. Of course, in a production such as this the costumes are key. Dana Rebecca Woods’ did a nice job with the dresses and an even nicer job with the hats, which came from local milliners Louise Green Millinary, Leola’s Fashion Hats and Accessories (Leola Speed), and One-Of-A-Kind Hats (Sonja Robinson).

The production was directed by Israel Hicks, with choreography by Keith Young. The production stage manager was Gwendolyn M. Gilliam, assisted by Playhouse regular Lea Chazin. The musical director was Eric Scott Reed, who conducted and played piano during the performance, together with Derf Reklaw on percussion and Trevor Ware on bass. Tom Ware was the Producing Director.

Crowns” continues at the Pasadena Playhouse through August 16, 2009. Tickets are available through the playhouse, and likely through Goldstar and LA Stage Tix. I should note that Erin came with us for the remarkable price of $15 for orchestra tickets. She took advantage of the Playhouse’s student rush tickets, which are available with student ID one hour before the performance for $15. For non-sold-out shows, as they say, “such a bargain”. She was 10th row orchestra, center.

Upcoming Theatre: Although we’re going on vacation, the theatre just doesn’t stop! Our next theatre looks to be Tuesday evening, when at least one of us (I need to get tickets for the other two) will be seeing a staged reading of “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me”, a new Groovelily musical at Palo Alto Theatreworks. The following Sunday sees us back at Theatreworks for “Tinyard Hill” at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto on Sun 8/16 @ 7:30 (there as 1 ticket left on Goldstar as of 824a 8/9, if you want to join us). Sat 8/22 sees us back at the REP for “Beyond Therapy by Christopher Durang. August closes with the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday 8/29, where we are seeing Liza Minnelli. September brings the High Holy Days (Rosh Hashana is the evening of 9/18 and the morning of 9/19; Yom Kippur is the evening of 9/27 and the day of 9/28). The only theatre ticketed so far in September is “The Night Is A Child” at the Pasadena Playhouse on 9/25 @ 8pm. Concertwise, September brings Tom Paxton at McCabes on 9/13. October brings “The Hound of the Baskervilles” at the REP on 10/3 @ 8pm and “Guys and Dolls” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on 10/24 @ 8pm, and should also bring “Parade” at the Mark Taper Forum (HotTix go on sale 9/3; the show runs 9/24 through 11/15). As a reminder, I’m also always looking for interesting productions on Goldstar and LA Stage Tix, so if you have a production to recommend, please do so.

Lastly, remember that a recent study showed that it isn’t possessions that are important — it is shared experiences. So go have one of the best shared experiences there is: go support your local live theatre, and help keep all the people who work at the theatre (from the cast to the technical staff) employed.

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It’s a sucker bet when the deck is stacked…

Last night we went to the Hollywood Bowl for our first bowl outing of the summer: “Guys and Dolls in Concert”. “Guys and Dolls” isn’t new to us: Karen worked on the show in her high school years; and we’ve seen it many times — most recently, in 2004 at the St. Louis Muny Opera. “Guys and Dolls” is one of members of the set of perfect shows (the set also includes “Gypsy” and “The Music Man”): wonderful book, wonderful music, and wonderful lyrics. So, you take a perfect show, and then stack the deck with a dream cast, and your odds of success are damn good.

For those unfamiliar with “Guys and Dolls”, you can find a full synopsis on Wikipedia. In a nutshell, it tells the story of Nathan Detroit, an inveterate gambling arranger, and his fiancee of 14 years, Miss Adelaide. Nathan is trying to arrange a location for a floating crap game, but needs $1,000 to secure the place. To get the money, he bets another gambler, Sky Masterson, that he will not succeed in taking the lead missionary from the Save Your Soul Mission, Sister Sarah Brown, to Havana Cuba for dinner. In the process of wooing Miss Brown, Sky gives her his marker for at least 1 dozen certified sinners for a midnight prayer meeting. To cover the craps game planning. a date is finally set for Nathan and Miss Adelaide. Sky gets Sarah to Havana, and while he is there the craps game is held… at the mission, without Sky’s knowledge. When they return, Sarah believes Havana was just a subterfuge for the game, and dumps Sky. But Sky must redeem his marker for his dignaty, so he bets the other gamblers for their souls… he wins, and as a result, they must attend the prayer meeting. Doing so forces Nathan to miss his elopement, and Adelaide dumps him… but after a great duet with Sarah, they realize they have to marry their men in order to change them. All of this is told in the mileau of Daymon Runyon’s colorful world and style. “Guys and Dolls” features a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser.

The music for this show is likely familiar to you, and includes such standards as “Guys and Dolls” and “Luck Be A Lady”. I mention this to note that there was one song I actually hadn’t heard before, which I’m guessing is called “Adelaide, Adelaide”. This takes place in Act I, Scene 7, and is sung by Nathan. There is the possibility that it just isn’t a formal song.

As I said before, the deck was stacked for this production. Not only did the production pick a spectacular work to produce, the casting team of Margery Simkin and Michael Donovan C.S.A. assembled a stellar cast for the show. This cast helped the show reach the heights, and was almost perfect. Let’s look at the principals:

Nathan Detroit was played by Scott Bakulaæ, a remarkable actor familiar to many from Chuck, Enterprise, and Quantum Leap. Many do not know that Bakula is quite the song-and-dance man, a talent demonstrated ages ago in the animated film Cats Don’t Dance. As Nathan, Bakula did a wonderful job — he wasn’t as outrageous as Nathan Lane (1992 revival), and came off as someone who really cared about Adelaide. He sang strong and clear, and was a strong dancer.

Miss Adelaide, Nathan’s long-time fiancee, was played by the wonderful actress Ellen Greeneæ, who many know from Pushing Daises, Heroes, and Little Shop of Horrors. Greene’s Adelaide was a bit more vulnerable and a bit more comic, and was played well by Greene. About the only weakness is this role was age: Greene is nearing 60, and the character is likely in her 30s. She was able to pull off the look and the singing, but at times the movements left her a little breathless. Still, this was minor, and this is a part she plays with perfection. As a side observation, I note that whenever Greene said (as Aidelaide) that she just wanted a nice home in the suburbs, I kept wishing she would add, “you know, somewhere that’s green”.

Sky Masterson, the suave gambler-of-gamblers, was played by Brian Stokes Mitchellæ. Mitchell is primarily a Broadway-man, and is well known for his roles in Ragtime and South Pacific. He is a wonderful actor, and has one of those voices that makes you melt. He did a remarkable job with Sky, even better (in my opinion) than Frank Sinatra (movie) or Peter Gallagher (1992 revival).

Miss Sarah Brown, Sky’s object of affection, was played by Jessica Bielæ. Most of the world knows Biel from Seventh Heaven, which suprisingly was omitted from her bio. She does have a series of successful movie roles, but no major theatrical roles. She was very strong in the acting portion of the role, and her comic timing (which was well demonstrated during the Havana scene) was spot-on. She was also very good in her dancing. As a singer, she couldn’t compete with the other major singers — being a bit weaker in vocal power and having difficulty at the top of her range — but she did give a reasonably acceptable performance. It will be interesting to watch how this affects her career, and if she keeps working on her voice to continue on the stage.

Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Nathan’s second-in-command and a major comic lead, was played by Ken Pageæ. Page is a wonderful singer and actor (and the 2nd native St. Louisian — together with Scott Bakula), having made his name in the original casts of Ain’t Misbehavin’, The Wiz, Cats, and many more. He was a joy to watch, especially in his big numbers “Guys and Dolls” and “Sit Down, You’re Rocking The Boat”.

Other notable names in the cast, all of whom gave excellent performances, were Beau Bridgesæ as Arvide Abernathy, grandfather of Sarah Brown; Jason Graaeæ as Benny Southstreet; Danny Stilesæ as Rusty Charlie; and Ruth Williamsonæ as Gen. Mathilde Cartwright. Others in the strong cast were: Jody Ashworthæ (Lt. Brannigan), Cindy Bensonæ (Agatha), Sandahl Bergmanæ (Hot Box Girl), Catherine Chiarelliæ (Ensemble), Josh Christoff (Ensemble), Paul Deanæ (Ensemble), Chelsea Fieldæ (Ensemble), Daniel Guzmanæ (Ensemble), Chris Hollyæ (Ensemble), Jane Lanieræ (Hot Box Girl), Bill Lewisæ (Harry the Horse), Christopher L. Morganæ (Ensemble), Valarie Pettifordæ (Hot Box Girl), Tracy Powellæ (Hot Box Girl), David Raimo (Ensemble), Stefan Raulstonæ (Ensemble), Kyrra Richards (Ensemble), Angelo Riveraæ (Ensemble), Oskar Rodriguez (Ensemble), Herschel Sparberæ (Big Julie), Amir Talaiæ (Angie the Ox/Joey Biltmore), John Toddæ (Ensemble), Nikki Tomlinsonæ (Ensemble), Grace Wallæ (Martha), and Kathryn Wrightæ (Hot Box Girl).
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

The production was directed by Richard Jay-Alexander, with choreography by Donna McKechnie, assisted by James Kinney. The direction and choreography did an adequate job of covering the large Hollywood Bowl stage (especially for a concert production), but at times there were multiple things going on at once, making it difficult to follow the action.

The sets (designed by Evan A. Bartoletti) were very simple and meant to hint at locales; they also had to fit within the limitations of the Bowl — meaning no fly space, and set pieces had to be carried on or off stage by actors or stagehands. Within that, they worked. Also successful were the costumes by Thomas G. Marquez and the hair and makeup (designed by Michael Moore, executed by Valarie Jackson). Other technical aspects were more problematic. The sound was clear at the back (no design credited; presumably the captive Bowl designer), although there were clear audio hums from an orchestra microphone, one failing microphone, and significant outside noise (a problem at the Bowl) from some party down on Highland. I also found the odd dripping noise distracting in the sewer gambling scene. The lighting design by Tom Ruzika was weak: often the colors at the top of the bowl were odd or didn’t quite fit the action, and the other lighting was more non-descript. The video aspects (presumably the standard Bowl staff) made faces look abnormally white on the big screen views; luckily, I had good binoculars.

Musically, the Hollywood Bowl orchestra, led by Kevin Stites was excellent. The production stage manager was Meredith J. Greenburg. Barbara Donner was the associate stage manager, and Stacey Sensenbach was the assistant stage manager.

Lastly, the crowd control at exit was horrendous: there was a major pileup at the bottom of the lower escalator, nearly resulting in injuries.

Upcoming Theatre: Next weekend (Saturday night August 8) brings us back to the Pasadena Playhouse for the musical “Crowns”. We go on vacation shortly after that, but while on vacation we’re seeing “Tinyard Hill” at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto on Sun 8/16 @ 7:30 (Goldstar). Sat 8/22 sees us back at the REP for “Beyond Therapy by Christopher Durang. August closes with the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday 8/29, where we are seeing Liza Minnelli. September brings the High Holy Days (Rosh Hashana is the evening of 9/18 and the morning of 9/19; Yom Kippur is the evening of 9/27 and the day of 9/28). The only theatre ticketed so far in September is “The Hound of the Baskervilles” at the REP on 9/25 @ 8pm. Concertwise, September brings Tom Paxton at McCabes on 9/13. October brings “The Night is a Child” at The Pasadena Playhouse on 10/3 @ 8pm and “Guys and Dolls” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on 10/24 @ 8pm, and should also bring “Parade” at the Mark Taper Forum (HotTix go on sale 9/3; the show runs 9/24 through 11/15). As a reminder, I’m also always looking for interesting productions on Goldstar and LA Stage Tix, so if you have a production to recommend, please do so.

Lastly, remember that a recent study showed that it isn’t possessions that are important — it is shared experiences. So go have one of the best shared experiences there is: go support your local live theatre, and help keep all the people who work at the theatre (from the cast to the technical staff) employed.

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