Portrait of a Dysfunctional Family

Last night, we went to Rep East Playhouse to see the last show in the 81 series: “Sideman”, by Warren Leight. This wasn’t our first time seeing the play: we saw the 2001 production at the Pasadena Playhouse, but that was almost a decade ago and the memory fades.

A “side man”, according to Wikipedia, is a professional musician who is hired to perform or record with a group of which he or she is not a regular member. They often tour with solo acts as well as bands and jazz ensembles. Sidemen are generally required to be adaptable to many different styles of music, and so able to fit smoothly into the group in which they are currently playing. Often aspiring musicians start out as sidemen, and then move on to develop their own sound, a name, and fans of their own, or go on to form their own groups.

The play “Side Man” tells the story of one such man: Gene Glimmer, a trumpet player. It is told from the point of view, and narrated by, his son, Clifford. It is centered around the time that Clifford is about to leave his family and move west in 1985, prompting a goodbye visit to his mother and a meeting with his father, who is estranged from the family. Through a series of flashbacks we learn the story of Clifford’s life: how Gene met and wooed his wife, Terry; the relationship with the other sidemen in Gene’s life (Al, Ziggy, and Jonesy); the role of the Melody Lounge and its waitress, Patsy. We see how the relationship between Gene and Terry was tolerable in the beginning, but began to slide downhill with the birth of Clifford. We also see how the death of the big band era and the growth of rock and roll meant the end of the way of life for the big band sidemen: journeymen horns found little work as the touring big bands dried up, the regional and house big bands disappeared, and the musical style changed. We saw the effect of this on the family: Gene being oblivious to anything but the music, and Terry sinking deeper and deeper into the bottle.

The story itself is an ultimately moving one, and could be said to be focused on the notion of the toll that obsession takes on a person and those around him. In this play, the primary obsession is Gene’s: at the center of everything is the music—it is the god that is worship, and the god to whom homage must be paid and sacrifices made. Financial and relationship success are meaningless: art is everything. Terry is less obsessed with the music: she is obsessed with the musician, and over time that obsession is replaced with hatred for him, hatred for herself, and an obsession with the booze. Clifford, the narrator, has his obsession too: he’s obsessed with pleasing people: trying to make peace whatever the cost—a classic enabler. I know what Clifford went through: my mother was like Terry—although brilliant, obsessed with the bottle at times and prone to the violent outbursts at those she loved. The play tells the story of these obsessions well. If it has a problem, it is in the structure: at times the all-known narration diffuses the tension, in the same way that a family member of an alcoholic attempts to joke to diffuse the tension in the house. The narration also treats the audience as a character, and is occasionally noticed by the characters in the play (“Who are you talking to, Clifford?”), creating an odd and jarring juxtaposition.

The play, as with all plays at the REP, was very well acted. Clifford (Reid Gormly) did a believable job as the narrator. In this play, the real test of Clifford is when he is called upon to play a younger version of himself (this was noted as a problem in the 2001 Pasadena production). The trick is to channel the inner 10-year old while still being an adult narrator. It is difficult to do, and was only partially successful here. That’s about the only area that could use improvement in an otherwise spot-on performance.

As Gene, David Heymannæ captured the man addicted to the music well. You could see him zoning out on a hot riff, riding the music. It is, in a sense, a form of aspergers: the social skill to read people is replaced with the musical talent. Heymann captured this well, and was a delight to watch.

Terry, Clifford’s mom, was played supurbly by Chera Holland. She captured the drunk, abusive mother so perfectly I was reminded of how my mom was at times. You could see her love of the man, not the music. You could also see how she wasn’t the material type: she lumped her son together with the father: he was something put in her life to take care of her, not for her to take care of. Well played, well acted.

Rounding out the cast were the other sidemen and denizens of the Melody Lounge. The other sidemen were Ziggy (Richard Van Slykeæ), Al (Michael Hanna), and Jonesy (Gabriel Kalomasæ). All were quite good (although I kept thinking that REP regular Johnny Schwinn would have been great in the Jonesy role, had he been in town). As Patsy, April Audiaæ, did a wonderful and believable job as the all knowing waitress and wife/lover to numerous sidemen.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

The production was directed by Mark F. Kaplan, who did a supurb job of pulling these characters out of the actors and assembling the story on stage. The technical aspects of the production were assembled by the usual REP team: Steven “Nanook” Burkholder (Sound Design), Tim Christianson (Lighting Design, with an assist from my daughter on hanging and aiming), and Jeff Hyde (Scenic Design). All were at the usual “excellent” REP level. Costumes were by Claudia Wells and the cast. “Sideman” was produced by Mikee Schwinn and Ovington Michael Owston. Katie Mitchell was the stage manager.

Side Man” runs for one more weekend at the REP, closing on August 28. Tickets are available through the REP Online Box Office. They are often up on Goldstar. There are two productions remaining in the REP MMX season: “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” (September 17–October 16) and “Amadeus” (November 12–December 11). I learned from “O” that the 2011 season has been decided upon, but I’ll wait for the formal announcement from the REP so I don’t spoil their thunder. Look for it in my review of “Jekyll”, if not before.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. Next Friday brings us to North Hollywood and “U.S.S. Pinafore”, a mashup of Star Trek and Gilbert and Sullivan that’s running at the Crown City Theatre. September starts with “Free Man of Color” at the Colony on September 4. The following weekend brings The Glass Menagerie at the Mark Taper Forum on September 11. The weekend of September 18 is Yom Kippur; no theatre is currently scheduled. The last weekend of September brings “Leap of Faith” at the Ahmanson Theatre. October is currently more open, with “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at REP East anticipated for October 9. and Happy Days: The Musical” at Cabrillo Music Theatre ticketed for October 30. I should note that October 23 will be a Family Gaming Night at Temple Ahavat Shalom. , November will see “Bell, Book, and Candle” at The Colony Theatre on November 13; Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels” at the Mark Taper Forum (November 10–December 22, Hottix on sale September 9, potential date November 21); and Amadeus” at REP East (Potential date: November 27). December will bring Next to Normal” at the Ahmanson (November 23–January 2; Hottix on November 2; planned date December 11). Of course, I learn of interesting shows all the time, so expect additions to this schedule.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.

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Meeting of Minds #19 (Part 1 – Smith, Ghandi, Sanger)

Sunday night we went down to the Steve Allen Theatre for the last “Meeting of Minds” at that location. As a reminder, for those unfamilar with Meeting of Minds, it was an innovative PBS program developed by Steve Allen that brought together four (three in the last season) historical figures for a round-table discussion on a variety of topics. Extensively researched, it is both entertaining and educational. These programs were only available for a short time on videotape, and have never been released on DVD. Late in 2009, the good folks at Working Stage productions—in particular, Dan Lauria, Bob Ladendorf and Diana Ljungaeus brought back Meeting of Minds as a staged reading. Their goal is to not only produce these programs in Hollywood, but to perform at colleges, high schools, universitites and other educational or cultural venues, with name actors. With respect to the Hollywood production, they have been on a regular schedule of the third Sunday every month at 7pm at the Steve Allen Theatre; however, they have lost this location as of last night’s show.

Last night’s episode was #19, and featured:

  • Adam Smith (1723-1790) [Ian Buchanan]. Scottish economist and philospher who developed the foundations of classic economics in his book, The Wealth of Nations.
  • Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) [Chacko Vadaketh]. The founder of Modern India, known for his non-violent protest methods.
  • Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) [Barbara Bain]. American Birth Control activist.
  • Steve Allen (1921-2000) [Jack Maxwell]. Writer of more than 50 books, composer of more than 8,500 songs, TV host (invented The Tonight Show as well as Meeting of Minds), actor, comedian, author, rationalist.

One of the first thing you may notice is that we had the same actor as different characters in back-to-back episodes: Ian Buchanan was both Oliver Cromwell and Adam Smith. It is a testiment to Mr. Buchanan’s skills that you didn’t easily realize this: he embodied each with drastically different personalities, voices, and mannerisms. His Adam Smith wasn’t a dry Scottish economist, but you clearly got the sense that this was a man who enjoyed the pub and the fruits of his earnings as well as any Scotsman could. Complementing him were the other actors: Vadaketh’s Ghandi projected a wonderful sense of inner piece and strength, whereas in Bain’s Sanger you could see the activist trying to get out, but having difficulty with the other personalities around the table. Yet again this demonstrated the quality of the actors this production draws, as well as the work of the director, Frank Megna.

Being the first episode of this pair, there was more exposition. We learned about Ghandi’s life, but didn’t have time to go deeply into what lead to his pacifist approach. Rather, we learned more of his attitude towards self restraint and self control, which he felt was more significant than birth control. Sanger, on the other hand, was strongly promoting birth control, including handing out a pamphlet enumerating the seven cases where she felt that birth control was needed: (1) the husband or wife has transmittable diseases (e.g., epilepsy, syphilis, or certain forms of insanity; (2) the wife suffers from afflictions of the lungs, heart, or kidneys if a cure is retarded by pregnancy; (3) parents have subnormal children; (4) husband, wife, or both are teenagers; (5) husband’s earnings are insufficient; (6) births should be spaced two or three years apart for the mother’s health or better care for children; and (7) newlyweds for one year. It is hard to believe those seven cases were controversial, but in her time, they were extremely incendiary. There wasn’t much exploration of Adam Smith’s philosophy, other than to note his background and the fact that he was more than an economist, but also looks into the moral and philosophical issues.

“Meeting of Minds” has been produced monthly by Bob Ladendorf and Diana Ljungaeus for Opening Minds Productions. There is no formal next episode, although an episode will be produces as part of the Secular Humanism Conference in October.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. August 21 brings the last 81 Series production: “Side Man” at REP East. September starts with “Free Man of Color” at the Colony on September 4. The following weekend brings The Glass Menagerie at the Mark Taper Forum on September 11. Pending ticketing is “Leap of Faith” at the Ahmanson Theatre (September 11-October 24, Hottix on sale August 17; potential dates: 9/19, 9/26, or 10/10), and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at REP East (September 17-October 16; potential date 10/2). The only show currently ticketed in October is “Happy Days: The Musical” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 30, but I’m sure some interesting productions will pop up. They always do.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.

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Exposing Life Through Debate

Sex scandals involving adults and youths. They are in the news far too much these days. But how well do we understand them, especially from the youth’s point of view? That’s the basic question explored in the 2006 play “Speech and Debate”, currently being presented by the Secret Rose Theatre in North Hollywood, which we saw last night.

Speech and Debate tells the story of three teens at North Salem High School in Salem, Oregon: Solomon (Simon Daniel Lees), an enterprising reporter and pro-life Democrat who wants to investigate sex scandal of the conservative mayor who has just been discovered frequenting gay.com; Howie (Matt Strunin), a gay teen who cruises gay chatrooms, and just made a connection with the Drama teacher at North Salem; and Diwata (Tiffany Jordan), an online blogger and high-school drama nerd with a grudge against the Drama teacher and a desire to form a speech and debate club. A podcast by Diwata hinting at sexual misbehavior by the drama teacher brings Howie out of the woodwork with his incident, and Solomon’s investigation of his story then brings him to Howie. This, in turn, all brings them to Diwata’s Speech and Debate club-a-bornin’. Whereas Diwata sees this club as the opportunity to perform the musical version of The Crucible that she wrote, it provides the framing device for the students to slowly tell their stories as Diwata works to convince them to participate. I’m not going to spoil the specifics, but suffice it to say that each of these students has sexual secrets to be revealed, and the desire to keep them hidden forms a bond between the three and propels the story to an interesting climax.

Each of the three principal cast members were very very good. As Diwata, Tiffany Jordan created an obsessed drama nerd: obsessed, that is, with Mary Warren of The Crucible and all the roles in high school musicals that she didn’t get. In fact, Warren and The Crucible are almost an additional character in the piece, raising the question of how much of the persecution seen these days are just witch trials fueled by hysteria and the desire for revenge. Jordan inhabited this character, capturing the craziness and the obsession and the burning desire to tell the story, as well as having a great singing voice. Instigating the investigations was Simon Daniel Lees as the seemingly straight-laced Solomon: Lees captured the repressed nature of this character well: you could see how he was obsessed with the story he was investigating, but you couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t give it up. The third character in the triangle, Howie, was played by Matt Strunin, who did a great job of capturing the sensitive nature of this young man who came out at the age of 9 (well, 10) in Portland OR, and is now in the more repressed community of Salem. As the show went on, you could see through Strunin’s portrayal how Howie became more confident in himself and who he was. Rounding out the cast was Nina Donato as the Teacher/Reporter.

The production was directed by Jon Cortez, who did an excellent job of bringing out these characters and making them realistic. Choreography (for this was a play with music and movement) was by Crystal Castillo. The set (designed by Mike Rademaekers, Jay Bienenfeld, and Jon Cortez) provided the basic school setting with, with alcoves on the side to represent student bedrooms. Jason Henderson’s lighting did a good job of illuminating the mood without distracting. A key centerpiece of the production were the video interstitials and the intrepretation presentation: the main video production was by Jason Henderson, with the interpretation presentation by Matt Strunin. Sound recording was by Simon Daniel Lees. Illustrations were by Ryan Fabian. Hallie Baran and Danielle DeMasters were the stage managers, assisted by Jason Henderson.

[ETA: They did a report on the production on the local NBC station. Click here to see the report on You Tube.]

Speech and Debate” continues at the Secret Rose Theatre through August 22. Tickets are available for $15 through Goldstar; however, you may be able to do better paying cash at the theatre directly when service charges are added: prices at the door are nominally $25 for adults and $10 for students, but may be less if you mention facebook.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. Next weekend brings the August “Meeting of Minds”, which will be the last production at the Steve Allen Theatre and features Ian Buchanan (Adam Smith), Chacko Vadaketh (Ghandi), T. B. Specified (Margaret Sanger), and Jack Maxwell (Steve Allen). August 21 brings the last 81 Series production: “Side Man” at REP East. Currently, the only show ticketed in September is “Free Man of Color” at the Colony on September 4. Pending ticketing is “Leap of Faith” at the Ahmanson Theatre (September 11-October 24, Hottix on sale August 17; potential dates: 9/19, 9/26, or 10/10), The Glass Menagerie at the Mark Taper Forum (September 1-October 17, Hottix on sale August 11; potential date: 9/11), and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at REP East (September 17-October 16; potential date 10/2). It is unknown if there will be a September “Meeting of Minds”, and if so, when and where. The only show currently ticketed in October is “Happy Days: The Musical” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 30, but I’m sure some interesting productions will pop up. They always do.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.

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A Review of a Musical about Two Guys Writing a Musical….

One of the things that’s rare on the stage is a truly original musical; that is, a musical that isn’t derived from some previous source material, such as a book, movie, play, or song catalog. If you look on Broadway, a truly original musical is something rare indeed. This review is about an original musical.

Back in 2004, two friends—Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, were trying to come up with an idea to submit to the New York Musical Theatre Festival in three weeks. The idea that they hit upon was something remarkably meta: a show about two guys writing a show about two guys writing a show. In other words: they wrote about themselves writing the show… and the result was “[title of show]”, which is having its premiere Los Angeles production at the Celebration Theatre in West Hollywood.

The show really does tell the story of its creation. Two Broadway-geeks (Jeff and Hunter) want to submit to the festival, and realize that their playful conversations are more fun than any fictional ideas, so they run with it. They bring in two of their theatre friends (Heidi and Susan) and an orchestrator (Larry), and off they go. The result is a curious mishmash that illustrates the creative and development process from the birth of an idea to the point it reaches Broadway, and along the way numerous popular culture, and even more Broadway show references are thrown around just for fun. Once presented at the festival, the show creation didn’t end, for it was updated to reflect its subsequent life Off-Broadway, on the Internet, finally getting to the point where it was mounted on Broadway (and thus, it contains some songs not on the Off-Broadway Cast Album).

As with any meta-discussion, the show plays on a number of levels. The basic story of its creation is entertaining, although there could have been some tightening in the post-Off-Broadway portions, where it got a bit dark and slow. The continuous barrage of obvious and non-obvious references is entertaining to the theatre-geek like me, but probably totally missed by much of the audience. This particular production seemed to emphasize the gay theatre vibe a bit more—perhaps this is because one of the missions of the Celebration theatre is to present LBGT works, and Jeff and Hunter are gay. Of course, if you’re a straight theatre geek you squirm a bit, especially when they go on about the collection of Playbills and Programs that they have (and yes, I must admit to keeping all my programs as well). The music of the show is quite entertaining and engaging, although only one or two of the songs work well outside of the show: “A Way Back to Then” and “Nine People’s Favorite Thing”. The last song is perhaps the mantra of the show… and perhaps a good mantra for life: “I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing than 100 people’s ninth favorite thing.”

Production-wise, the show was very strong, with minor weaknesses. I truly liked the actors playing Jeff and Heidi, Michael Joyce (understudy for Jeff, who was on last night) and Carey Petersæ. Both were great singers (I particularly enjoyed Peters’ voice—what is it about actresses named Peters….) and great actors. It was just a joy to watch their faces and their enjoyment of doing this piece. Jennifer R. Blakeæ was great as Susan in the acting department, although her voice needed to be just a bit stronger to compete with Peters’ voice. Micah McCain, as Hunter, was good in the acting and singing, but again the problem for me was vocal: there was just something in his voice that didn’t work right. Lastly, in the backround was Gregory Nabours as Larry. He was great on the keyboard, as well as being quite funny in his few lines. Most importantly, this cast was having fun with the show—this is something I always enjoy seeing and find infectious. If the performances come from the heart and the internal joy and are not just rote, everyone wins. That happens in this production.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Technical-wise, what is there to say. The set is four chairs and a keyboard, which doesn’t leave much for the prop designer (Michael O’Hara) or the scenic designer (Kurt Boetcher) to do. Similarly, the clothing is current-day street clothes, meaning no extensive sewing for Raffel Sarabia, the costume designer (although based on the songs, I expected Heidi’s looks to be a bit *more*. The lighting, designed by Matthew Brian Denman, worked well. The sound design by Veronica J. Lancaster was primarily amplification of the music and some sound effects; I found myself wishing either the keyboard was less-amplified or the music was more-amplified so that I could hear the words clearer (although admittedly this could be because the sound was tuned for the front, as opposed to the sides where we sat).

The production was directed by Michael A. Shepperd (assisted by Nik Roybal), who did a great job of bringing out the joy of this show and translating the page into appropriate movement and expression. The movement and choreography was by Ameenah Kaplan (assisted by Jeffrey Landman, who normally plays Jeff, as Dance Captain). The music director was Gregory Nabours. Mercedes Clanton was the Production Stage Manager. “[title of show]” was produced by Tijuana Gray and Jim Halloran, and Erick Long (Associate).

[title of show]” continues at the Celebration Theatre through the end of August (August 29), and is well worth seeing. Tickets are available through the theatre’s ticketing site as well as through Goldstar, although note that (a) Goldstar is currently sold out, and (b) the Goldstar seats are on the side.

Dining Notes: Dinner before the show was at one of our favorites: Zeke’s Smokehouse, which is about a block away at LaBrea and Santa Monica. This is a wonderful BBQ restaurant; highly recommended. If you don’t want to hassle the street parking, eat at Zeke’s and just park at the center—parking totals around $7.50. Dessert was at IcePan at the same center, an interesting ice-cream place where you pick the dairy (non-fat, low-fat, whole milk or soy milk), the flavor, the mix-in, and they make the ice cream in front of you. No pre-frozen ice cream; they make it on an ice-pan. Quite light and quite good.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. We have one more show this weekend: “Speech and Debate” at the Secret Rose Theatre on Saturday, August 7. August 15 brings the August “Meeting of Minds”, which will be the last production at the Steve Allen Theatre and features Adam Smith (Ian Buchanan), Chacko Vadaketh (Ghandi), T. B. Specified (Margaret Sanger), and Jack Maxwell (Steve Allen). August 21 brings the last 81 Series production: “Side Man” at REP East. Currently, the only show ticketed in September is “Free Man of Color” at the Colony on September 4. Pending ticketing is “Leap of Faith” at the Ahmanson Theatre (September 11-October 24, Hottix on sale August 17; potential dates: 9/19, 9/26, or 10/10), The Glass Menagerie at the Mark Taper Forum (September 1-October 17, Hottix on sale August 11; potential date: 9/11), and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at REP East (September 17-October 16; potential date 10/2). It is unknown if there will be a September “Meeting of Minds”, and if so, when and where. The only show currently ticketed in October is “Happy Days: The Musical” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 30, but I’m sure some interesting productions will pop up. They always do.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.

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Oh, The Things That You Think!

This evening we did something a little unusual and saw a mid-week musical: “Seussical: The Musical” as done by the Teenage Drama Workshop at CSUN. It was a show we hadn’t seen, and we knew a number of kids in the cast from Erin’s days at Nobel.

As background, “Seussical” is a musical based on the Dr. Seuss books, with music by Lynn Ahrens, Book and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, and co-conceived by Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, and Eric Idle. The story basically combines “Horton Hears a Who” with “Horton Hatches an Egg”, with a number of other Seuss stories and characters thrown in for good measure. If you are familiar with the two-act version of the cast album, this is a cut down, one act version that preserves the basic story, but cuts out some of the more extraneous stuff, such as the Butter Battle, and the environmental subplot (it appears to be the Jr. High/Middle School version). Most of the songs were preserved that related to the main plot, although I noticed some tweaks along the way.

The TADW kids did an excellent job with the show. I want to highlight some particular performances before I list everyone. Standouts in the cast were Sarah Martellaro as Gertrude McFuzz and Ian Fairlee as Horton. Sarah in particular was spectactular: she had great comic timing and expressions, and her vocal quality was excellent. She moved well and danced well and just drew your eye. As Horton, Ian had good vocal quality and expression; his role has much less dancing and movement. I was also impressed by Brittany E. Williams as the Sour Kangaroo: she had a very strong jazzy singing voice and good moves and expressions.

My second tier were some folks who had some problems, but were entertaining none-the-less. In this group were Colin Mika as Jojo: he had a few weak singing moments, but on the whole was fun to watch. I also enjoyed Lindsay Kazan as Mayzie LaBird: other than some points where her voice mysteriously disappeared, she had a strong singing voice and good dance moves. As The Cat, Daniel Stewart was very good on the acting and the movement, but his voice was a little bit nasally for my taste.

Completing the cast were: Aaron Jacob (Mr. Mayor), Milli Miereanu (Mrs. Mayor), Yael Karoly (Wickersham), Lily Lester (Wickersham), Devon Yaffe (Wickersham, Puppeteer), Tiffany Conway (Bird Girl), Lili Khalighi (Bird Girl), Lindsay Robb (Bird Girl), Josh Knoller (The Grinch), Evan Sanford (Thing #1, Cop Who), Camden Garcia (Thing #2, Kid Who), Kate Westrum (Miss P. Bush, The Guff, Puppeteer), Kaitlyn Rickaby (Vlad, Shopping Lady Who, Puppeteer), Zach Birch (Hunter, Marching Band Who, Puppeteer), Kathy Steele (Hunter, Tennis Who, Puppeteer), Camille Martellaro (Yertle the Turtle, Librarian Who, Puppeteer), Samantha Hartmann (It’s Possible Dancer, Yep on a Step), Raleigh Stamper (It’s Possible Dancer, Rainbow Bellied Flark), Nichole Church (The Purple Smerk, Puppeteer), Mara Eisner (Twin Gink, Puppeteer), Daniela Grinblatt (Twin Gink, Puppeteer), Olivia Hsia (Flying Feegle, Puppeteer), Sarah Lasky (The Parazeek, Puppeteer), Rocio Alvarenga (Baker Who), Kaitlyn Katalbas (Little Girl Who), Kyla Lockette (Rainy Day Who), Collette Navasartian (Boo Who), Haley Perkins (hard Hat Who), Annie Reznik (Cindy Lou Who, Puppeteer), Analisa Venolia (Teen Who), and Gracie Wall (Business Lady Who, Puppeteer).

The production was directed by Ronnie Sperling, who did a great job of bringing these kids together into an excellent cohesive whole. Choreography was by Candy Sherwin, with Kailey Short as Dance Captain. Music direction was by Ed Archer, assisted by David Lockwood. Owen Panno was Stage Manager.

Technically, the production was very very good. I was extremely impressed with the sets (designed by Cesar Holguin) and the lighting (designed by Rob Fritz). They created the mood well and integrated creatively into the production. It was particularly taken with the fish designed for the bath sequence; credit for the puppet design and construction goes to Renee Vlashi. The excellent costumes were designed by Maro Parian, assisted by Tamara Cooper and Becca Lasky. Props were by Matthew McKenna. Sound was by Caroline Law.

There are two more performances of “Seussical” on Thurs, 8/5, and Friday, 8/7, both at 11am.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. Our busy theatre week continues on Friday, when we’re seeing [title of show] at the Celebration Theatre on Friday, August 6 and “Speech and Debate” at the Secret Rose Theatre on Saturday, August 7. August 15 brings the August “Meeting of Minds”, which will be the last production at the Steve Allen Theatre and features Adam Smith (Ian Buchanan), Chacko Vadaketh (Ghandi), T. B. Specified (Margaret Sanger), and Jack Maxwell (Steve Allen). August 21 brings the last 81 Series production: “Side Man” at REP East. Currently, the only show ticketed in September is “Free Man of Color” at the Colony on September 4. Pending ticketing is “Leap of Faith” at the Ahmanson Theatre (September 11-October 24, Hottix on sale August 17), The Glass Menagerie at the Mark Taper Forum (September 1-October 17, Hottix on sale August 11), and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at REP East (9/17-10/16). It is unknown if there will be a September “Meeting of Minds”, and if so, when and where. The only show currently ticketed in October is “Happy Days: The Musical” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 30, but I’m sure some interesting productions will pop up. They always do.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.

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It’s Alive… and It Tap Dances… and You Should See Its Schwanstuker

Many people opine that Young Frankenstein is Mel Brooks best movie. If not the best, certainly one of the best, together with “Blazing Saddles” and “The Producers”. It is number 13 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 funniest American movies. So, naturally, given the steamroller that “The Producers” was on Broadway, it is no surprise that “Young Frankenstein” was also mounted for the stage. The show is now on tour, and in Los Angeles for two weeks… so guess where we were this afternoon :-). [As a side note: According to Mel Brooks in today’s LA Times, he is toying with the notion of a Blazing Saddles musical]

That’s right: this afternoon we saw “Young Frankenstein… at the Pantages. This time, we saw downstairs in the back part of the Orchestra (row RR), and the sound was significantly better than when we saw “In The Heights” from the Balcony a month ago. I’m also pleased to report that the show was well executed and entertaining. The book (by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, based on the original screenplay by Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder) was what you would expect from Mel Brooks: entertaining, silly, and filled with sexual double entendres. Lots of sexual double entendres. It is a very different comedy than “The Lieutenant of Inishmore”. If you want black and bloody comedy, go to the Taper. If you want your comedy light and silly, see “Young Frankenstein” when it comes to your town.

The story of “Young Frankenstein” is almost exactly the plot of the movie. If, by chance, you aren’t familiar with the movie: go see it!. If you can’t be bothered, rest assured it is a parody of Frankenstein horror movies with lots of sexual innuendo (in your what?) thrown in. The musical simply elogates and musicalizes some of the moments, and uses the music to provide character insights. Perhaps this is why YF was not the success on Broadway: the movie was too well known, and the musical too faithful to the movie. Although entertaining, it didn’t improve on the original (whereas The Producers did with some inspired bits of zaniness). But irrespective of the critics, I enjoyed it and would recommend it.

What makes this production is the casting: in particular, the leads. The cast features two of the New York original cast (Roger Bart and Cory English), and their talent shines through. As Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Frankensteen”), Roger Bart is simply comically inspired: playing to the crowd, playing to the character, and having that perfect comic timing that amplifies the humor of the writing. Bart’s foil is Cory English as Igor (pronouned “Eye-gore”), who equally plays to the audience and the character and amplifies the humor. These two actors take the piece from the ordinary to the extra-ordinary (although, watching Bart, I kept wondering what Johnny Galecki would do with the role). I really can’t put into words what these two brought to this show.

This is not to say that the other lead cast members were slackers. Far from it. You could see that these folks were just having fun with their characters, especially in each character’s signature numbers. I think my favorite of the bunch was Anne Horak as Inga, who was perfectly sexually playful in the number Roll In The Hay. Countering her, both as the love interest of Dr. Frankenstein as well as in a more tightly-wound sexual nature, was Beth Curry as Elizabeth. She had a much smaller role, but was fun to watch in Don’t Touch Me. As Frau Blucher <insert sound of horse’s rearing up in fear>, Joanna Glushak expresses both a terrifying nature and the repressed love for Dr. Victor Frankenstein in the song He Vas My Boyfriend. Lastly, as The Monster, Shuler Hensley doesn’t have much of a speaking role, but is a joy to watch in the signature number, Putting On The Ritz. Brad Oscar was Inspector Kemp and the Hermit, and was fun in the Please Send Me Someone number.

The ensemble rounds out this production. One thing I enjoy doing is pulling out my binoculars and watching the faces of the ensemble, and these folks were having fun. The ensemble consisted of Lawrence Alexander, Preston Truman Boyd, Jennifer Lee Crowl, Stacey Todd Holt, Matthew Brandon Hutchens, Sarah Lin Johnson, Melina Kalomas, Amanda Kloots-Larsen, Kevin Ligon, Brittany Marcin, Christopher Ryan, Geo Seery, Lara Seibert, Jennifer Smith, and Matthew J. Vargo. All the actors are members of æ Actors Equity.

What distinguishes “Young Frankenstein” from the movie is the music and lyrics. The movie had a modicum of music; this show is filled with it. The songs (also by Mel Brooks) are not of the same quality as those of The Producers, but are still quite fun. Adding to the fun is Susan Stroman’s direction and choreography—you can always expect her to come up with interesting ways to do things (think the dancing old ladies in The Producers). I particularly liked how she handled the horses in Roll in the Hay. Steven Zweigbaum was the Associate Director, and Jeff Whiting was an Assistant Director and Choreographer. James Gray was also an Assistant Choreographer, and was a co-dance-captain, together with Kristin Marie Johnson. Musical Supervision was by Patrick S. Brady, with musical arrangements and supervision by Glen Kelly. Orchestrations were by Doug Besterman. Robert Billig was the Music Director and Conductor of the four member Orchestra (boy, they had great sound for a group that small!). John Miller was Music Coordinator.

The sets (designed by Robin Wagner) were extremely creative and incorporated all sorts of mad scientist stuff. Costumes were by William Ivey Long. The sound by Jonathan Deans did a reasonable job of overcoming the limitations of the Pantages, as well as providing great environmental effects. The lighting by Peter Kaczorowski made good use of strobes and moving lights, and conveyed the mood quite well while keeping the actors visible. Hair and wigs were by Paul Huntley, with makeup by Angelina Avallone. Joseph Sheridan was the Production Stage Manager, with Trinity Wheeler as Stage Manager and Scott Pegg as Assistant Stage Manager.

Young Frankenstein” continues at the Pantages until August 8, 2010. You can get tickets through Ticketmaster; you might find them on Goldstar. With respect to the Broadway LA 2010 season, there are only three shows of interest—two a strong “YES”, and one a maybe. The “YES” shows are Rock of Ages” (February 15-27, 2010) and Shrek: The Musical” (July 12-August 7, 2011), and the “Maybe” is the updated version of “West Side Story” (November 30-December 19, 2010).

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. Next week is a busy week, theatre-wise. Wednesday night we’re going to the TADW production of “Seussical, followed by [title of show] at the Celebration Theatre on Friday, August 6 and “Speech and Debate” at the Secret Rose Theatre on Saturday, August 7. August 15 brings the August “Meeting of Minds”, which will be the last production at the Steve Allen Theatre and features Adam Smith (Ian Buchanan), Chacko Vadaketh (Ghandi), T. B. Specified (Margaret Sanger), and Jack Maxwell (Steve Allen). August 21 brings the last 81 Series production: “Side Man” at REP East. Currently, the only show ticketed in September is “Free Man of Color” at the Colony on September 4. Pending ticketing is “Leap of Faith” at the Ahmanson Theatre (September 5-October 17, Hottix on sale August 17), The Glass Menagerie at the Mark Taper Forum (September 1-October 17, Hottix on sale August 11), and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at REP East (9/17-10/16). It is unknown if there will be a September “Meeting of Minds”, and if so, when and where. The only show currently ticketed in October is “Happy Days: The Musical” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 30, but I’m sure some interesting productions will pop up. They always do.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.

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A Word of Advice: Don’t Touch The Feckin’ Cat

I used to make the claim that theatre was more civilized; that you would never see a theatre production with as much blood and gore as your typical male shoot-em-up summer macho flick. I was wrong.

This afternoon, we went to see The Lieutenant of Inishmore” at the Mark Taper Forum. The Lt. of Inishmore is a dark comedy by Martin McDonagh. It tells the story of a group of Irish revolutionaries in 1993. The cat of one of the more violent revolutionaries, Padraic, has just been discovered to be killed in a violent fashion. Padraic’s father, Donny, blames the young man who discovered it, Davey, for ther murder. This cat, Wee Thomas, was Padraic’s only friend growing up, and the news prompts him to stop torturing James, the drug dealer, and return to Inishmore. The story progresses from there and I don’t want to spoil the surprises. Just know that along the way you meet Mairead, Davey’s sister and a wanna-be revolutionary, and Christy, Brandon, and Joey—three men who were part of the revolutionary group with Padraic until Padraic split off to form his own splinter group. If you really want the gory details… and this time I really mean gory… read the Wikipedia synopsis.

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Statistics and Suspension of Disbelief

Cinderella has always bothered me.

I mean, I can suspend disbelief about the whole fairy godmother thing. I’m cool with the pumpkin turning into the coach, the mice into coachmen, some birds into valets, and rags into a beautiful outfit. But why, oh why, don’t the shoes change back at midnight like everything else. And to make it worse, the shoe being used as a form of unique identification? C’mon now. I only need 57 people to have a 99% probability of them having the same birthday, and there are 365 possible birthdays in a year. But shoe sizes? Going to woman’s shoes, and there are what… if I’m generous and include ½ sizes, women’s shoe sizes go from 2 to 16, there are perhaps 29 sizes. Hmmm, like a month. As for widths, there are perhaps 10: A, B, C, D, E, EE, EEE, EEEE, F, and G (like shoemakers in Cinderella’s day made all the widths). So we’re looking at around 300 permutations of shoes. If you’re birthday won’t uniquely identify you, then shoes certainly wouldn’t. Not to mention, of course, if it’s larger than your foot, you’ll just claim it fits. Thus Cinderella’s foot must have been on the tiny size, because we know the stepsister’s had to cut their feet to get them to fit. So the shoes, which didn’t transform, as a form of unique ID? No. The prince just had a foot fetish, and planted that shoe to distract his parent’s from that fact.

Then there’s the whole message thing in Cinderella. Sure, I can suspend my disbelief about the magic, but now you’re trying to convince me that it is only inner beauty that matters; that outward appearance means nothing? Sure that’s what the Fairy Godmother says, but she must be smoking something. If that was the case, then the Prince would have seen the beauty in the stepsisters. But (as Steve Martin would say) noooooo… He goes for the beautiful Cinderella. C’mon, even supermodels look good in rags. So here we now have a prince, who expressed no interest in girls until his parents held a fancy dance, who claims to find a girl he likes at the dance and that she left a shoe, who then goes around the city touching the feet of every girl until he finds a beautiful girl of the lowest social standing, and then he tells his parents he wants to marry this beard girl. He was just distracting his parents from the reality. Even the US Military would see through this one.

So why am I riffing on Cinderella? If you hadn’t guessed it by now, we went to Cabrillo Music Theatre last night to see their production of “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella”. Cinderella is one of R&H’s later productions, coming on the heels of two of of their few flops, Me and Juliet and Pipe Dream, and just before Flower Drum Song. It is the only R&H musical done directly for TV (it was first broadcast in 1957), and was later adapted for the stage. As such, it actually has few complete new songs, but lots of reprises and musical underscoring. The songs aren’t distributed evenly across acts (the first act has 13 and the second has just 4); and many of them are evocative (or some might argue duplicative) of other R&H songs. And everything, and I mean everything, seems to be a waltz.

What Cinderella should have going for it is the family friendly aspects. It should draw whole families into the theatre and sell the tickets, getting the kiddies into the seats and introducing them to theatre. This is what the Cabrillo summer production always does: “Cats”, “Singin’ in the Rain”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “The Music Man”, “The Wizard of Oz”. That this production did, although not to the extent of past summers: we still had a mostly empty balcony, with almost daily exhortation about cheap mezzanine seats.

So let’s suspend our disbelief about the weakness of the book and of the artistic selection of the show. That’s something we can’t change. How did Cabrillo do with the show? There, the statistics are born out: even with a weak show, Cabrillo does a great job. The performances and production win you over.

Let’s start with the stunt casting first, although this appeared to be more for the parents than the kids. In this show, the name players were Marcia Wallaceæ (famous from The Bob Newhart Show and The Simpsons) and Sally Struthersæ (famous from All In The Family, Gilmore Girls, and numerous other shows). I’ll note that Struthers got a nice writeup in the LA Stage Blog. Wallace played the wicked Stepmother (are there any other kinds?), and Struthers the Fairy Godmother. Both did good with these small roles, putting their comic timing and expressions to good use. Struthers was particularly funny in the second act as Harold the Herald, but you could see her repeating some of the Gloria mannerisms. I enjoyed her bit with Portia’s creeky knee—especially the “Oklahoma” reference. Both were tolerable on the singing, but these aren’t the major singing roles.

The true leads of the show were a pair of lesser-knowns: Melissa Mitchell as Cinderella and Derek Klena as the Prince. Klena has perhaps the best claim to notariety, having been on American Idol. Both were excellent singers, and Mitchell in particular was a strong actress. Klena had moments where he broke out of the wooden straightjacket that is the prince’s role. They were fun to watch.

Of course, this being Rodgers and Hammerstein and in the traditional musical model, there had to be comic secondary couples. In this case, the first couple was Norman Largeæ as the King and Christina Saffran Ashfordæ. They had great chemistry together, which doesn’t come as a surprise as they appear to regularly tour together. Large, in particular, was quite good as the harried King, and Ashford was fun as the dominating wife. The second couple were the “ugly” stepsisters: Ann Myers as Portia and Dana Shaw as Joy. Both were great comic actresses (although admittedly I kept imagining Rain Pryor from Sisterella). Again, not large singing roles, but that’s due to the weak book.

Rounding out the cast were Chris Caron (the Herald); Justin Jones (the Chef); Ryan Ruge (the Steward), and David Gilchrist (the Minister). The ensemble consisted of Andrew Allen, Jebbel Arce, Kayla Bailey, Michael Brown, Tyler Matthew Burk, Chris Caron, Drew Foronda, Jennifer Foster, Gari Geiselman, David Gilchrist, Tessa Grady, Justin Jones, Nathan Large, Jessie Lee, Noelle Marion, Tyler Olshansky, Madison Parks, Melissa Danielle Riner, Daniel Rosales, Christanne Rowader, Ryan Ruge, Natalie Sardonia, Karen Staitman, Matthew Stewart, Kurt Tocci, and Estavan Valdes. The children’s ensemble was Alexandria Collins, Gabi Ditto, Joah Ditto, Natalie Esposito, Griffin Giboney, Max Kennedy, Lyrissa Leininger, Quinn Martin, Reno Selmser, Erin Ticktin, and Anthony Valdez.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Turning to the technical side: The sets were provided by Theatre Under The Stars in Houston TX (I’m guessing the economy has Cabrillo renting as opposed to building sets) and were… and were… they did the job well. Not spectacular, but not shabby either. Lighting was by Jean-Yves Tessier and had some pretty gobos and effects, but suffered from the usual Cabrillo follow-spot problem. The sound, by resident sound designer Jonathan Burke was clear and crisp with no glitches. The wardrobe was supervised by Christine Gibson using costumes from the Musical Theatre of Wichita, with hair and makeup by Paul Hadobas. Both are Cabrillo regulars. The prop designer was Anna Grulva.

[ETA: I also must mentioned the splended technical transformation special effects of Adam J. Bezark, who used black lighting quite effectively to handle the transformation of Cinderella’s pumpkin and mice, as well as the return transformation. Quite stunning.]

The production was directed by Lewis Wilkenfeld, and choreographed by Heather Castillo. Steven Smith was Musical Director, and the orchestra was conducted by Lloyd Cooper. I should note the Orchestra was quite large—17 players. This was refreshing in these days of single-digit bands. John W. Calder III was Production Stage Manager (alas, dear youarebonfante is off working a cruise), with Allie Roy and Taylor Ruge as assistant stage managers.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella” continues at Cabrillo for one more weekend, until August 1. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster or the Civic Arts Plaza Box Office. I’m sure they are also available through Goldstar or LA Stage Tix.

Dining Notes: Last night, we tried Pacific Fresh Grill at 2060 E Avenida de Los Arboles. I think we’ll do it again, although my MIL didn’t like her spinach salad. My grilled Salmon was excellent, and the other dishes looked quite good. You can see their menu at Sporq.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. Today it is time for blood and gore with a touch of comedy, as we see “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” at the Mark Taper Forum. August starts with “Young Frankenstein” at the Pantages on August 1. The next weekend brings [title of show] at the Celebration Theatre on August 6. August 15 brings the August “Meeting of Minds”, and August 21 “Side Man” at REP East. Looking into September, there is “Free Man of Color” at the Colony on September 4, and “Leap of Faith” at the Ahmanson Theatre (September 5-October 17, to be ticketed), and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at REP East (9/17-10/16). It is unknown if there will be a September “Meeting of Minds”, and if so, when and where. October will bring “Happy Days: The Musical” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, and possibly “The Glass Menagerie” at the Mark Taper Forum.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.

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