Everybody Say “Yeah Yeah”

In the musical “Fiddler on the Roof“, Tevye the milkman sings about tradition. Tradition is important in musicals. Most musicals have a traditional structure: they tell a fictional story with characters that show growth. They feature particular types of songs structured into typical places to musicalize important points or emotional moments of that story. Other shows are more “jukebox” shows: they present a catalog of an artists music, perhaps arranged so as to tell the life story of the artist. I was just recording one of those yesterday: a collection of songs illustrating the life of Cole Porter. “Fela“, which we saw last night at the Ahmanson Theatre, is not your typical musical.

I went into Fela knowing nothing about the story of Fela Kuti, other than he was the founder of afro-beat music. I was expecting some form of afro-beat jukebox musical. What I got was something I didn’t expect, and didn’t fully understand.

Fela transports you to “The Shrine”, Fela’s concert home in Lagos, Nigeria, at an unspecified point of time. This is to be Fela’s last concert; he has made the decision to leave Nigeria for his personal safety and the safety of his family. But the ghost of his mother and his ancestors are urging him to stay and fight for Nigeria. The musical is the telling of that decision process. Through what I would best characterize as afro-beat rap, Fela tells the story (in pidgin English) of his life, how it lead him to create afro-beat music, and how that music intertwined into Nigerian life.

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And I Thought I Was Done With Travelling for December

Some like to travel. Some don’t. I’m one of the latter folks, until I’m actually off and in the adventure. For example, I was on travel all last week to ACSAC in Orlando. I didn’t look forward to the travel, but I did look forward to the people I was with. I’m talking about travelling because last night we saw a play about travelling: “Travels with my Aunt”, based on the novel by Graham Greene, adapted by Giles Havergal. This was the fourth play in the six play Colony Theatre subscription season.

Before I came into this play, my mind was mixing up this play with a combination of “Travels with Charley” and “Charley’s Aunt” to give “Travels with My Aunt”. I was wrong. “Travels with My Aunt” is Graham Greene’s only book that he wrote for the fun of it. It starts at the funeral, where we meet Henrey, a 30-year bank manager who has just retired. The funeral is for Henrys’ mother. At the funeral, we meet his Aunt Augusta, who informs Henry that she needs a travelling companion, and that his father liked to sleep around his mother may not be his mother. From there, the travelling begins, with trips to Brighton, Istanbul, Brazil, and eventually Paraguy. As you can imagine, through all these journeys, Henry and Augusta meet numerous characters: college students, spies, nazi collaborators, police officers, porters, servents, and such.

Here’s the kicker: This show has a cast of four. That’s right. Four. They play all the parts, with two of the actors being primarily Henry and Augusta, and the other two actors playing all the other characters. Reminds one a bit of “The 39 Steps“. In some sense, this show is like that, but a little less madcap. I should mention, of course, that Aunt Augusta is played by a man. A man who does not dress like a woman. But guess what? If you give it a chance, it works (and works quite well). [Alas, about 20 audience members didn’t give it a chance, and left at intermission. Their loss.]

In a show like this, credit goes not only to the writer but to the director and the actors. Let’s start with the director, David Dean Bottrell, who does a great job of bringing out all of the different characters (20 in all) and making it clear that these are all different characters. This is done through voice, mannerisms, slight differences in costume, and actually isn’t confusing at all. This allows men to play women, women to play men, and men to even play dogs. The talented acting team helps here as well. In the lead positions we have Thomas James O’Leary as Henry (and the young Visconti). O’Leary has a friendly manner as Henry that draws you to him; he’s simple and likable, and you would want to travel with him. Mark Capri plays Aunt Augusta (and Sparrow). Capri plays August in men’s clothes, but becomes an excentric doddering aunt through mannerisms and voice alone. He does a great job with it. Rounding out the cast, playing the remaining 18 roles, as Larry Cedar and Sybyl Walker. Cedar played the Vicar, Wordsworth, The Dog, Hakim’s Assistant, Miss Patterson, O’Toole, and Yolanda. That’s right: a range that included a black African (Wordsworth), females, animals, and tourists. Walker played Miss Keane, Sparrow’s Assistant, Hatty, Tooley, an Italian Girl, Frau General, Hakim, a Spanish Gentleman, and the Older Visconti. That’s right, a range from men to women, from Caribbean to Nazi. You can imagine how crazy it could get… but it worked.
[All actors are members of æ Actors Equity ]

The technical side was strong. The scenic design by Michael C. Smith was simple: travel posters in the back, and crates and suitcases that were flexible enough (when the props and dressing by MacAndME were added) to become almost anywhere. SImilarly simple and flexible was the costume design by Sherry Linnell, which provided the merest hint or suggestion for each character. Lighting was by Jared A. Sayeg, with sound design by Cricket S. Myers. Rebecca Cohn was the production stage manager, and Robert T. Kyle was the Technical Director.

Travels with My Aunt” continues through next weekend, December 18, 2011. Tickets are available through the Colony Theatre, and should be available through Goldstar. The remaining productions in the Colony Season are “Old Wicked Songs” (Feb. 1 to March 4, 2012) and “Dames at Sea” (April 11 through May 13, 2012).

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Theatre is quiet for the next few weeks; our next live theatre is at the end of December, when we see Fela!” at the Ahmanson Theatre (on 12/29). Of course, there is the de rigueur movie and Chinese food on Christmas day. January will bring the first show of the REP East season, as well as (hopefully) “Art” at the Pasadena Playhouse and “God of Carnage” at ICT Long Beach (ticketed for February 5). February will also bring “Ring of Fire” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, “Old Wicked Songs” at the Colony Theatre, and Bernadette Peters in concert at the Valley Performing Arts Center. As always, open dates are subject to be filled in with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.


Forgotten Gems Revisited

We all know the successful musicals. What we don’t know is the story of how they got there—and more imporantly, what great songs were cut along the way. We’re less likely to know the musical flops, especially the flops that never made it to Broadway. These two categories are an area that are explored very successfully in a new revue being presented by the Theatre Academy at Los Angeles City College: “Lost and Unsung: A New Musical Revue. This revue, concieved, directed, and narrated by Bruce Kimmel, based on his series of CDs “Lost in Boston” (I, II, III, IV) and “Unsung Musicals” (I, II, III) (all done when he was at Varese-Sarabande), is a celebration of the great songs either cut on the road or rarely sung because their host musical flop. The show is concieved as a simple revue: a bunch of singers and a pianist interpreting the songs; what makes it special is Kimmel’s narration, where he shares stories about the songs and their shows. Kimmel knows this area well—he has written, acted-in and produced stage shows throughout his professional life (we love his “Brain from Planet X“), plus he is an active record producer of cast albums, and knows the composers and lyricists quite well. Even if the evening was Kimmel just telling stories, it would be great.

What makes this show shine even more is the singing talent. The cast is a mix of well-known equity actors plus students from the Theatre Academy. The ensemble consisted of Tara Collins, Will Collyeræ, Sarah Fontenot, Melody Hollisæ, Damon Kirscheæ, Brett McMahon, Harrison Meloeny, Julia Rose, Alet Tayloræ, Lucy Taylor (Alet’s daughter), and Alexis Williams. Guess which ones were the students :-). Bruce Kimmel narrates the show, and sings on a song or two… or was that Guy Haines singing. I couldn’t tell.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

The production is divided into two parts. In the first act, the music cut from successful (and moderately successful) musicals is highlighted. Some highlights of this act include a wonderful version of “Mama’s Talking Soft” (cut from Gypsy) by Melody and Lucy, “Ten Percent” (cut from Chicago) by Damon, a beautiful “So Little Time” (cut from Barnum, and not on any Lost In Boston album that I recall), and a fun “Big Fat Heart” (cut from Seesaw) sung by Tara, Sarah, and Alexis. Alet and Damon did a good “Thirty Weeks of Heaven” (cut from By the Beautiful Sea), but as I’m in love with Klea Blackhurst, I prefer the album version. However, Alet was really great in “If I Can’t Take It With Me” (cut from Goldilocks) and the closing number, “Take It In Your Stride” (cut from Annie Get Your Gun), I do wish he had included my favorite, “Throw It Away”, cut from “I Do! I Do!”.

The second half consisted of the unsung songs—great songs from failed musicals. Some notable songs here included “Starfish” (from La Strada), sung by Alexis, a hilarious “Silverware” (from We Take The Town), hilariously sung by Damon and Will, “The Dog and Cat Duet” (from Collette), sung by Harrison and Sarah. Alet and Damon bring the title song, “Sherry!” (from Sherry!) to life, and Melody does a great job on “I Want To Be A Rockette” (from Kicks: The Showgirl Musical). This act also includes “At The Same Time” (from Freaky Friday), which was well performed by Harrison and Tara, although I really can’t stand some of the rhymes in this song. Lastly, Alet does a very touching version of “New Words” (from “1 2 3 4 5”).

Technically, the show was very simple. Music was provided by Jose C. Simbulan, the musical director, on piano. The simple scenic design (a series of steps, with Kimmel off to the side at a table), was done by Kevin L. Morrissey, who also served as producing director. Lighting was by James Moody and was simple but effective. Wardrobe was by Abel Alvarado, Jessica Zavala, and Catalena Lee; I should note that Alet’s second act wardrobe prompted a comment from my wife, who noted the cut was attractive, although the misaligned plaids were distracting. Adryan Russ was the associate producer, and Tony Baltierra was the production stage manager.

The last performances of “Lost and Unsung” are today at 2pm and 8pm. Tickets are available through LACC; they may also be available through Goldstar. A note: the signage on campus leaves a lot to be desired. Hint: Instead of looking on Vermont, look for the metered parking on Heliotrope behind the campus. The Caminto Theatre is near the Sheriff’s substation, behind the woman’s gym.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Next weekend brings with a Mens Club Shabbat in the morning, and Travels with my Aunt” at the Colony Theatre in the evening. The end of December brings Fela!” at the Ahmanson Theatre (on 12/29). The remainder of December is unscheduled, but there is the de rigueur movie and Chinese food on Christmas day. January will bring the first show of the REP East season, as well as (hopefully) “Art” at the Pasadena Playhouse and “God of Carnage” at ICT Long Beach (ticketed for February 5). February will also bring “Ring of Fire” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, “Old Wicked Songs” at the Colony Theatre, and Bernadette Peters in concert at the Valley Performing Arts Center. As always, open dates are subject to be filled in with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.


Mrs. Robinson, I Think You’re Trying to Seduce Me

If I was to say to you, “Plastics, Benjamin”, you would likely think of a particular movie instantly. The same thing likely would occur with the line “Mrs. Robinson, I think you’re trying to seduce me” or if you heard the Simon and Garfunkel song, “Mrs. Robinson”. All of these reference the wonderful 1960s movie, “The Graduate“. This movie was adapted for the stage and had a successful run on Broadway with Kathleen Turner (the audio version was recently broadcast on KPCC/LA Theatre Works). Our favorite little theatre you probably didn’t know about, REP East, has recently opened its version of “The Graduate”, and I’m pleased to say that have done their usual excellent job with it.

You’re not familiar with the movie, you say? Well then, I’ll just have to summarize the story. Benjamin Braddock (24) has recently graduated from college and is unsure what to do with his life. At his graduation party, Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father’s best friend comes on to him, but he rebuffs her. She asks him to drive her home, and once she gets home, she attempts to seduce him. This rapidly turns into a full blown affair. When Elaine Robinson, her daughter, comes home from Berkeley, Benjamin’s parents and Mr. Robinson set them up on a date. Mrs. Robinson objects, but Benjamin goes anyway. He is rapidly smitten, ends the affair, and pursues Elainse. The pot boils over when news of the affairs comes out, and, well, you’ll need to see the play to see the rest.

As you can tell, this play has adult themes. The director, Mikee Schwinn, has toned down the nudity a little for Santa Clarita audiences, but unless you’re familiar with the original, you probably won’t notice (basically, the shocker of the Kathleen Turner version was the amount of full-frontal nudity, and there is much less—but still some—in the REP version). However, the story itself is unchanged and is executed well. The performances themselves are very believable—you can easily see why the terms “Cougar” or “MILF” could have originated with this story.

The three lead performers are excellent. As Benjamin Braddock, Reid Gormly does a good job of portraying a fresh college grad who doesn’t know what he wants out of life, chasing the now. He falls into the affair, because it was there, and it likely seemed like a good idea at the time. This all comes across in Gormly’s performance. Playing his older foil, Jordana Capraæ is a woman who wants to be in control—to get what she wants—and she takes no prisoners along the way. However, when she is crossed there is trouble to pay. Lastly, as Elaine Robinson, Jessica Temple wonderfully portrays Elaine’s initial naivete, but by the end you realize that she’s got the same “take charge” attitude as her mother. All great.

In the second tier, we have Daniel McCann as Mr. Robinson, Harry Bennettæ as Mr. Braddock, and Laurie Morgan as Mrs. Braddock. These are smaller roles, but all the actors do well. In particular, McCann does a good job of portraying the hurt, cuckolded husband, and I particularly enjoyed Morgan portrayal of Benjamin’s mother in the earlier scenes. Lastly, Kevin Rhedin rounds out the cast in various small roles.

The set, constructed by O Michael Owston (the artistic director) manages to support a large number of different scenes in a very small space, with an upper bedroom area, a lower area that doubles as a wide variety of locals, and a bed that pushes out for more “in front” bedroom scenes. It could be improved by adding some curtains on the sides to shield the offstage area better. The lighting, by Tim Christianson, was excellent as usual. Steven “Nanook” Burkholder provided good sound effects, although the crowd noises could be lowered slightly. Vicki Lightner served as stage manager and coordinated the props.

The Graduate” continues at REP East until December 17. Tickets are available through the REP’s Online Box Office. Subscriptions for the 2012 season at the REP area now available ($230 for two tickets to every show, $120 for one, and $81 for a 5 show flex pass, with additional discounts for seniors and students). The 2012 season consists of: “Jewtopia” (January 20-February 25), “Journey’s End” (March 16-April 14), “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” (May 11-June 16), “The Laramie Project” (July 13-July 28), “Play Dates” (August 17-September 1), “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure” (September 21-October 20), and “Moonlight and Magnolias” (November 16-December 15).

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: The first weekend of December brings “Lost and Unsung“, a celebration of music cut from musicals, at LA City College. The next weekend is busy, with a Mens Club Shabbat in the morning, and Travels with my Aunt” at the Colony Theatre in the evening. The end of December brings Fela!” at the Ahmanson Theatre (on 12/29). The remainder of December is unscheduled, but there is the de rigueur movie and Chinese food on Christmas day. January will bring the first show of the REP East season, as well as (hopefully) “Art” at the Pasadena Playhouse and “God of Carnage” at ICT Long Beach (ticketed for February 5). February will also bring “Ring of Fire” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, “Old Wicked Songs” at the Colony Theatre, and Bernadette Peters in concert at the Valley Performing Arts Center. As always, open dates are subject to be filled in with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.


A Musical So Energetic It Leaves You Exhausted

The theme for this week seem to be “pure entertainment”. Last weekend, we saw “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang“: a children’s story with a nonsensical plot that is wonderfully entertaining. Thanksgiving Day, we saw “The Muppets“, a movie designed to reintroduce wonderfully entertaining characters. Last night, we saw yet another super-entertaining show without deep thoughts: “Bring It On: The Musical” at the Ahmanson Theatre…. and it was entertaining. I haven’t seen a show fire-up an audience like this one did in a long, long time.

Bring It On: The Musical” is inspired by the 2000 Kirsten Dunst film of the same name, although the only similarity is that there are two high school teams, one from a rich white school and one from a mixed school that compete for the national championships. The musical version uses a libertto by Jeff Whitty, one of the authors of “Avenue Q“, that tells the story of the teams from Truman and Jackson High Schools. We are first introduced to the team from Truman High School, led by Campbell (Taylor Louderman), Skylar (Kate Rockwell), and Kylar (Janet Krupin). This is Campbell’s senior year, and she’s finally going to lead the team to the National Championships. They recruit to fill the team, rejecting the large-sized team mascot, Bridget (Ryann Redmond), and finding the spirited sophmore Eva (Elle McLemore), who is made sophmore captain. Just before school starts, Campbell finds out she has been redistricted to Jackson High (together with Bridget). Jackson High doesn’t have a cheer squad—it has a hip-hop dance team. At Jackson High, the hip-hop crew is led by Danielle (Adrienne Warren), together with her best friends Nautica (Arianan DeBose) and La Cienege, a transvestite (Gregory Haney). Campbell has trouble fitting in, but Bridget is accepted immediately due to her curves. Bridget and Campbell work their way onto the dance team. After learning that Eve is now captain of the Truman Team (Skylar flunked home ec, and Kylar suddenly came down with Mono) and has Campbell’s boyfriend, Campbell convinces Danielle to go to regionals and then to championships. I think you can guess how the plot goes from here, so I won’t give it away.

Intellectually, this story is…. light. It’s a high school musical, folks, about competing cheer teams. You don’t get a lot of depth from cheerleaders. That’s not to say there aren’t messages in the show: most notably, the messages of acceptance that Bridget finds, and the message about friendship that Campbell finds. Bridget goes from being the ostracized team mascot because her looks and behavior don’t fit the mold of the skinny white bitches at Truman to being a sexy figure whose individuality and dance is cherished at Jackson. Although this is a good message, it is also a bit stereotypical, implying that white kids are overly focused on thinness, and ethnic kids accept some junk in the trunk. Campbell’s message is different: she learns that winning the championships at all costs isn’t everything—the true value is the friends you make along the way and how you compete. In doing this she learns to accept the differences of her friends. Again, the stereotypical message for a story like this. However, they are also positive messages, and do get the audience going.

But it is a musical, you say… so how is the music. Reasonably good, although you don’t walk out of the theatre humming any tunes. The production features music by Tom Kitt (“Next to Normal”, “High Fidelity”) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In The Heights”), with lyrics by Amanda Green (“High Fidelity”) and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Most of the songs are high-energy numbers behind the cheer routines, and thus, non-traditional showsongs. The second acts features a few more traditional numbers, in particular a number sung by Natica and La CIenege to Bridget, encouraging to embrace her individuality and curves. That number works very well. I’ll note that I’ve read that there will eventually be a cast album from this show, which is a good thing (this is of particular significance because “Bring It On: The Musical. ” is not going to Broadway, although the tour is going almost everywhere else… and non-Broadway shows don’t always get cast albums). As we’re on the subject of music, I’ll note that arrangements and orchestrations were by Tom Kitt and Alex Lacamoire; Lacamoire also provided music supervision and dance arrangements. Michael Keller was the music coordinator, and Dave Pepin was the music director and conductor of the 7-piece orchestra (small, for the Ahmanson), featuring Pepin on keyboard, Andres Forero on drums, Joey Joseph on second keyboard, Josh Weinstein and Ralph Agresta on guitar, Ken Wild on Bass, and M. B. Gordy on percussion.

Turning to the cast: This is a very high-spirited cast of mostly newcomers. For many cast members, this is their first show—their main experience is cheerleading. This works to the show’s advantage: the cheer numbers are spot on and filled with youthful energy, and none of the actors bring in previous-show baggage. It is also a very young cast: although not all high-schoolers, I’d have to guess no one in the cast is over 25; there are certainly no “parent” roles or “adult” (i.e., non-teen) roles in the cast. Leading the spirited ensemble are Taylor Louderman (twitter) as Campbell and Adrienne Warren (twitter) as Danielle. Both are high energy, superb dancers and good at cheer, and portray their characters in a very realistic fashion. It was a delight to watch them, and I hope this propels them further.

In the second tier—but no less talented—are Ryann Redmond as Bridget and Elle McLemore as Eve. Redmond does a great job with Bridget—she brings joy and energy and vitality to the role. I was initially worried that her role would devolve into the stereotypical “fat girl”, but luckily it doesn’t and Redmond is one of the reasons. She’s a standout and deserves the applause she gets. McLemore’s role is a bit more of a characture of the scheming bitch, but she brings a lot of perky to the role. I could see McLemore eventually performing a number of roles similar to Kristen Chenowith: she has the same spirit and pop. Also in this tier are the lieutenant on each side: Kate Rockwell as Skylar and Janet Krupinas Kylar on the Truman side, and Ariana DeBose (Nautica) and Gregory Haney as La Cienega on the Jackson side. We see less of Rockwell and Krupin, but Rockwell plays the honest bitch role well, and Krupin is good as her underling. We see more of DeBose and Haney. In particular, Haney takes over any scene she (he) is in. The two work well together, and prove to not only be good actors, but great dancers.

If you’ve noticed, so far I haven’t mentioned any male roles. That’s because the “named” males have smaller roles. We’re introduced first to Steven (Neil Haskell), who plays the jock boyfriend of Campbell and later Eva. There’s not much depth to the role as written, but Haskell does what he can with it. On the Jackson side, there is Jason Gotay, who plays Randall (the non-cheer musician interested in Campbell), and Nicholas Womack, who plays Twig (the boy interested in Bridget). Again, lightly written roles, but these two do the best they can with these roles.

Rounding out the cast is a very talented ensemble of mostly newcomers, mostly seen before in cheer or otherwise involved with UCA (Universal Cheer Association). I’m marked the folks primarily involved with cheer with ♦, those in their professional debut with ◊. The remainder of the ensemble (additional roles noted) are: Calli Alden◊, Antwan Bethea♦◊, Dexter Carr◊, Courtney Corbeille♦◊, Brooklyn Alexis Freitag♦◊, Shonica Gooden, Haley Hannah, Rod Harrelson, Dominique Johnson (Cameron, Dance Captain), Melody Mills♦◊, Michael Mindlin (Cheer Camp Leader), Michael Naone-Carter◊, David Ranck♦, Bettis Richardson◊, Sheldon Tucker♦◊ and Lauren Whitt♦◊. Three performers are credited as soloists on songs; I didn’t recognize them singing, so they may have been in the background behind the cheer routines: Shonica Gooden on “Don’t Drop”; Nick Blaemire on “Cross the Line”, and Alysha Umphress on “Legendary”. Standbys and Swings were: Nikki Bohne (Standby for Campbell, Eve), Danielle Carlacci♦◊ (swing), Dahlston Delgado♦◊ (swing), Casey Jamerson (swing), Adrianna Parson (swing, assistant dance captain), and Billie Sue Roe♦◊ (swing).
The production was directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, who did a good job with this talented crop of newcomers and making the most of the light material. The dance routines were also very strong—both the hip-hop and the cheer routines. Credit for this goes to Blankenbuehler, as well as Stephanie Klemons (Associate Choreographer), Jessica Columbo (Cheer Consultant), and Varsity (Cheerleading Consultant). Holly-Anne Ruggiero was the assistant director.

Turning to the technical… The set, by David Korins, was relatively simple: a number of video screens, some movable locker structures, a bedroom set, a “Burger Pagoda” set. Most of the locales were established by the videos, designed by Jeff Sugg. Lighting was more significant: there were movers and LED lights everywhere, and used to great effect both for mood and the “wow” factor. The lighting was designed by Jason Lyons. The sound, by Brian Ronan was loud but with no apparent problems; at times, it was difficult to understand lyrics, but that may have been more the music than the sound. The costumes, by Andrea Lauer were (to my eyes) quite representative of high school, but I’ll leave that to my daughter to judge. Hair and Wigs were by Charles G. Lapointe, and were both invisible and sturdy enough to hold up to the cheer routines. Bonnie Panson was Production Stage Manager, and Ryan J. Bell was Stage Manager (assisted by RL Campbell). Jake Bellwas Technical Supervisor, and Lisa Dawn Cave was Production Supervisor.

It is clear that “Bring It On: The Musical” is intended not for Broadway, but to have a long life as a high-school production, in the same vein as Disney’s High School Musical. Viewed in that light, this should be a very do-able production, if the school has a suitably talented cheer team and hip-hop squad. The sets don’t require the videos (they just provide the “pop”), and static sets might work well providing the transitions could be worked out. What makes this show is the dance, and if the school can pull it off, it should work well.

Bring It On: The Musical” continues at the Ahmanson Theatre until December 10. Tickets are available through the Ahmanson Box Office, and there’s a good chance Hottix are still available. Tickets may be available on Goldstar. After Los Angeles, the remainder of the “Bring It On: The Musical” tour itinerary is: San Francisco, CA (Dec. 14-Jan. 7, 2012, at the Orpheum Theatre); Denver, CO (Jan. 10-21, 2012, at the Buell Theatre); Houston, TX (Jan. 24-Feb. 5, 2012, at the Hobby Center); Fayetteville, AR (Feb. 7-12, 2012, at the Walton Arts Center); Dallas, TX (Feb. 14-26, 2012, at the Music Hall); Des Moines, IA (Feb. 28-March 4, 2012, at the Civic Center); Chicago, IL (March 6-25, 2012, at the Cadillac Palace); St. Louis, MO (March 27-April 8, 2012, at the Fox Theatre); Charlotte, NC (April 10-15, 2012, at the Belk Theatre); Durham, NC (April 17-22, 2012, at the Durham PAC); Providence, RI (April 24-29, 2012, at the Providence PAC); and Toronto, ON (May 2-June 3, 2012, at the Canon Theatre). The next show at the Ahmanson is “Fela“, moved up from April to fill in for “Funny Girl“, which was postponed. “Fela” runs from 12/14-1/22, and hottix are already on sale.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: This evening sees us back in Saugus for the last show of the REP season, “The Graduate”. The first weekend of December brings “Lost and Unsung“, a celebration of music cut from musicals, at LA City College. The next weekend is busy, with a Mens Club Shabbat in the morning, and Travels with my Aunt” at the Colony Theatre in the evening. The end of December brings Fela!” at the Ahmanson Theatre (on 12/29). The remainder of December is unscheduled, but there is the de rigueur movie and Chinese food on Christmas day. January will bring the first show of the REP East season, as well as (hopefully) “Art” at the Pasadena Playhouse and “God of Carnage” at ICT Long Beach (ticketed for February 5). February will also bring “Ring of Fire” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, “Old Wicked Songs” at the Colony Theatre, and Bernadette Peters in concert at the Valley Performing Arts Center. As always, open dates are subject to be filled in with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.


Green and on the Screen

Last week, I wrote about our visit to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a show that one attends for the entertainment value, not any significant or heavy plot. Today, as we’ve been orphaned for Thanksgiving, we decided to break with tradition and go see a movie: “The Muppets“, which opened yesterday.

Now, I have a smart spot in my heart for the Muppets. Growing up, The Muppet Show was one of those TV shows that appealed to my sensibility. It was a little bit Broadway, a little bit pop, with the right level of subversive and out of the box humor to appeal to my warped sense of humor. The early Muppet movies were good (and I always enjoyed the subversive nature of Muppet Classic Theatre), but later ones lost their way. Especially after the death of Jim Henson (so young), Disney just didn’t seem to know what to do with the Muppets, and they languished, forgotten and neglected.

I’m pleased to say that this movie confronts that issue dead on. As the movie starts, we meet Gary (Jason Segal), Mary (Amy Adams), and Gary’s brother, Walter (Walter, in a stunning debut). Gary and Mary are going to Los Angeles to celebrate their 10th dating anniversary, and they decide to bring Walter along to see the home of his heroes, the Muppets. Alas, when they arrive, the Muppet studios are derelict, and the Muppets are spread across the continent. The studio is about to be sold to a developer who wants the land for its oil. They only way to save the studio is to raise $10,000,000 by an artificial deadline, and the only way to do that is to reunite the Muppets. From this setup, the movie moves steadily to its goal: first the race to find and reunite everyone, and then restoring the theatre and putting on the Muppet telethon, all the while dealing with the bad guy, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) (insert maniacal laugh). As one with expect with this being a Disney movie, the theatre is saved, but that is the least of the story line.

The movie is full of vintage Muppet humor (and that includes old jokes, wocka wocka). It includes self-referential humor. It includes lots of singing and dancing (this really is a musical, folks, but what did you expect?). It confronts the issue of what happened to the Muppets with humor straight on—it acknowledges that today’s audiences are believed to have moved beyond the basic humor that were the Muppets. It also provdes that belief wrong—it demonstrates that intelligent humor, singing, and dancing are more entertaining than fart jokes. Don’t believe me? Just look at where the box office receipts are going: The Muppets vs. Jack and Jill. Good humor and good writing will always win.

The performances were excellent. Jason Segal has lovable schlub down to a science, although it was unnerving to see him on the big screen. Amy Adams was back in the Enchanted-groove, with very strong singing and dancing (I had never noticed how muscular her legs are). Chris Cooper made a good evil guy, even if he couldn’t laugh. Jack Black, playing Jack Black, was very Jack Blackish. As for the Muppets themselves: the current voice talent is pretty close to the original, and the new writers generally had the characterizations right. Walter is the only new Muppet, and he never realizes he is a Muppet until the end—this is the basic conceit of the Muppet world: that they are no different than anyone else in the world. As would be expected, there are loads of cameos—I won’t mention them so as not to spoil them.

Not surprisingly, the movie does have some adult themes. The basic question the movie addresses is “What is our purpose in life?” For Muppets, that is clear that their purpose is to entertain; that is where they are happiest. Until they discover (or should I say, re-discover) that truth, they were doomed. There is also the question of finding out what we really love, and putting that love in our life with the correct importance. Love has always been a central theme in the Muppets; in this movie, there is not only the love between Kermit and Piggy, but the love between Gary and Mary. Both must be acknowledged for the world to be whole.

I truly hope that this movie creates a Muppet resurgence. I understand that NBC has requested a pilot for a new Muppets show. I’m hopeful, but this is NBC we are talking about. The Muppets are good, but I don’t know if they are strong enough to save the network (further, I’m curious why ABC isn’t doing the pilot). We need the Muppet’s brand of humor these days, and we need to bring back real variety shows.

Mahna Mahna.

Previews: Just a few previews. The first was for “Brave“, which looks to be a good girl-empowerment movie from Pixar. We’ll probably see it, but not in the theatre. The second was for a Japanese-style remake of The Borrowers called “The Secret World of Arrietty“. This uses traditional animation and will likely be good; however, I don’t think it will be a strong success at the box office just because of the nature of the typical audience. The third preview was for “Mirror Mirror, another comedy-fantasy based on Snow White that seems to focus on women-empowerment. Looks good, but Julia Roberts appears miscast. The last preview was for “Paranorman, which seemed out of time. This looks to be a good Halloween movie, but is being released in August, and previewed in November a year before. Perhaps they are trying to build word of mouth, but I’m not sure it will be successful, although they might pull a “Nightmare Before Christmas” out of it. From the folks that did Coraline.

Future Movie Plans: We plan to see a movie on Christmas Day (and have Chinese food); I’m not sure which one yet. Who knows… if Puss and Boots is still in the theatres we might see that; I’ve also heard good things about “Hugo“. Looking at the December releases, not much screams out: there is Carnage, but we are seeing the play in January, and I’d rather see the play first. “The Iron Lady” is a possibility, but I want to see the reviews. “Tintin” is another, but again I want to see the reviews. As for theatre… this weekend brings both “Bring It On” at the Ahmanson and “The Graduate” at REP East. For the rest, look at the bottom of the Chitty review.


A Fantasmagorical Production

Sometimes, you go to the theatre to be intellectually challenged. Sometimes you go to see a familiar story. Sometimes, you simply go to be entertained with engaging music and a light story. I’m pleased to say that the Actors Repertory Theatre of Simi‘s production of the musical “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang“, which opened tonight at the Simi Cultural Arts Center, is thoroughly entertaining. In fact, you might even say it is fantasmagorical.

Let me step back a bit. It has been years since we had gone to the Simi Cultural Arts Center. Our last visit was back in 2007 for Edwin Drood, and before that for Thoroughly Modern Millie the same year. Both productions were good for community theatre, but didn’t create the strong desire to be regulars there. However, when I saw that the stage version of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” was going to be local, I decided it was time to give them another try. This is one of only two productions of the show in the US this year; the stage version hasn’t been at a major venue in Los Angeles that I can recall. I am very glad I gave them the try: Actors Rep of Simi has improved tremendously, and did an excellent job with this production, especially considering the limitations that their facility creates for them. So before I jump into the review proper, let me summarize: this production is worth seeing.

I should note, however, that you don’t go to see CCBB for the plot. The original story by Ian Fleming was Fleming’s only children’s story inbetween everthing that was James Bond. MGM was able to steal away the Sherman Brothers from Disney when the book was adapted for the screen, which created a memorable score in 1964. More recently, the story was adapted for the stage by Jeremy Sams and Ray Roderick, but the story is essentially the film story… and that story is very slight. Crackpot inventor Caractacus Potts is convinced by his two children, Jeremy and Jemima, to rescue a former racing car from the junkyard. This car is the target of spies from Vulgaria, who want it to restore national pride in the Grand Prix. To try to raise money, Potts attempts to sell a candy invention to the Scrumptious Family, based on his meeting Truly Scrumptious. That doesn’t work, but he eventually buys the car. Meanwhile, the spies steal Pott’s father, thinking he’s the inventor and take him to Vulgaria, where children are forbidden. The family goes to rescue him, the car floats, the car flies. and hijinx ensue. You can get more details in the film synopsis, but there are some slight differences.

As I said, you don’t go to this show for the plot. The plot is silly—it’s a children’s story. Some of the songs are clearly filler, but they are just so fun. The music is infectious, joyful, and sticks in your head (what would you expect from the team that wrote small world). [I should note that Richard Sherman was actually in the audience tonight, and I did go up and thank him for his music].

The acting in this show is spot on: the actors are clearly having fun doing the show, and they are performing well and know all their lines down pat (something I don’t always see even in professional productions). In the lead posiution is Kristopher Kyer (the only equity actor) as Caractacus Potts. This man channels Dick Van Dyke in acting, singing, and comic timing. He is just a joy to watch, and a delight in the role. My only quibble is minor: his kids have British accents; his father has a British accent, but Caractacus—an American accent. But that is truly minor. Speaking of Truly, she is played by newcomer Heather Barnett. Barnett has a lovely voice, and plays and moves well against Kyer’s Potts. Supporting these two were Carter Thomas as Jeremy Potts and Natalie Esposito as Jemima Potts (these two alternate with Stanley Miller and Rachel Albrecht, who we did not see). Thomas and Esposito both gave strong performances: singing, dancing, movement, and acting were all great. All four of these leads were just joys to watch.

In the secondary tier, we had David Gilchrist as Grandpa Potts. We’ve seen Gilchrist before at CMT, where he was strong, and he continued that tradition here giving a playful character to the role. On the more comic-evil side, we had Danielle Judovits as the Baronness and John McCool Bowers as the Baron, who both played the roles for their comic potential. Also notable for their comic roles were the two spies, John Dantona as Boris and John David Wallis as Goran, who again played the comedy to a hilt. Not strictly a comic role, but a role that was suitably played for laughs as well, was George Chavez, who we know from REP East, as the Childcatcher.

Rounding out the cast were: Bart Sumner (Toymaker), Genevieve Levin (Violet, Adult Ensemble), Larry Shilkoff (Chef/Turkey Farmer), Chris Carnicelli (Coggins/Sid), Adam Friedman (Ensemble), Alesandra Shultz (Dance Ensemble), Ava Miele (Ensemble), Melissa Miller (Ensemble), Amanda Drewes (Ensemble), Olivia Miele (Ensemble), Anthony Valdez (Ensemble), Kimberly Kiley (Dance Emsemble), Emerson Oliver (Ensemble), Isabella Phillips (Ensemble), Rebecca Thomas (Dance Ensemble), Sara Gilbert (Ensemble), Gabriella Friedman (Ensemble), Haley Gilchrist (Ensemble), Madeline Gambon (Ensemble), Zach Kaufer (Ensemble). Mimi Mize (Ensemble), and Kassie Bales (Ensemble).

The production was directed by David Daniels, who did an excellent job of both bringing out the characters from this regional theatre team (i.e., he brought out great performances), as well as using the limited basic auditorium setup at the Simi Valley CAC to its best advantage. Aiding him was Rebecca Castells, who did the Choreography. The dancing in this was excellent—in particular, I would like to highlight the numbers “Me Ol’ Bamboo” and “The Bombie Samba”, which were very well moved.

Musically, the performance was under the musical direction of Matthew Park, who led the large volunteer orchestra located in the front of the stage: Cary Ginnell (Reed I), Ron Munn (Reed I), Dylan Regalado (Reed II), Bernard Selling (Reed III), Janet Stuhr (Reed III), Mike Munson (Reed III), Rob Sack (Trumpet I), Mel Batorr (Trumpet I), John Hansen (Trumpet II), Richard Nevarez (Trumpet II), Travis Thomas (Trombone), Clary McCarter (Trombone), Jerrry Lasnikm (Horn), Susan Freece (Horn), Lance Merrill (Piano), Matthew Park (Piano), Kevin Hart (Bass), Jodie Morse (Percussion), and Lucas Mille (Drums). I particuarly want to highlight Jodie Miller, who was fascinating to watch with all her percusion: her face was just so interesting.

Technically, this team didn’t have a lot to work with. Simi CAC doesn’t have a lot of fly space, there are limited lights (a few leicos, two movers). But they made it work, including a pretty good GEN11 Chitty Chitty car. Credit goes first and foremost to Sean P. Harrington, the production designer. Also deserving of credit was Lori Lee Gordon, the costume designer, Lacey Stewart, the lighting designer, Evan Acosta, who did the CG Animation Projections, Will Shupe, the technical director, and the uncredited sound designer. There wasn’t a single microphone glitch in this entire performance. Great job!

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” runs through December 23, 2011 at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, with additional performances on 12/10 and 12/17 at 2pm and 12/22 at 7:30pm. It is worth seeing. Tickets are available through Simi Arts; they are also available on Goldstar. ETA: Actors Rep Theatre of Simi has also announced their 2012 season: Avenue Q (Feb 26-April 1, 2012); To Kill a Mockingbird (June 2-July 8, 2012); The Music Man (July 21-August 26, 2012; and Spring Awakening (Oct 27-Dec 2, 2012). Of these, we’re interested in To Kill a Mockingbird if we have time, as we’ve seen the other musicals. I am curious how they will do Spring Awakening“, given that Simi Valley is a relatively conservatve town. I’ll also note that SVCA (Simi Valley Cultural Arts) will be presenting Hairspray from Jan 7-Feb 12, 2012.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Thanksgiving weekend brings two productions: “Bring It On” at the Ahmanson on Friday and the last show of the REP season, “The Graduate”, on Saturday November 26. The first weekend of December brings “Lost and Unsung“, a celebration of music cut from musicals, at LA City College. The next weekend is busy, with a Mens Club Shabbat in the morning, and Travels with my Aunt” at the Colony Theatre in the evening. The end of December should bring Fela!” at the Ahmanson Theatre (Hottix on sale 11/22). The remainder of December is unscheduled, but there is the de rigueur movie and Chinese food on Christmas day. January will bring the first show of the REP East season, as well as (hopefully) “Art” at the Pasadena Playhouse and “God of Carnage” at ICT Long Beach (ticketed for February 5). February will also bring “Ring of Fire” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, “Old Wicked Songs” at the Colony Theatre, and Bernadette Peters in concert at the Valley Performing Arts Center. As always, open dates are subject to be filled in with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.


The Women in His Life

Two of a man’s most fundamental relationships are those with his wife and with his dog, not necessarily in that order. The play we saw last night, “Sylvia“, by A.R. Gurney, which is currently in production at the Edgemar Center in Santa Monica, explores just those relationships.

Here’s the scoop, Scooby-doo. Sylvia takes place in the mid-1990s (although it could be anytime) in New York City. Greg, a middle-age middle-class man who hates what his job as become finds Sylvia, a dog played by a human, in the park and takes a liking to her. He brings her back to the empty nest he shares with Kate. Kate, on the other hand, has finally escaped the kids and the dogs, She’s got a new job teaching English to inner-city kids, and is enjoying going out with Greg to the nightlife of New York. A dog destroys this. So when Kate comes home to Sylvia, she wants her gone. They eventually decide that Sylvia will stay for a few days before they decide whether she can stay longer, but Greg and Sylvia have already bonded. Greg starts spending more and more time with Sylvia, and less and less time at work. Greg talks to Sylvia, and she listens. Tension increases between Greg and Kate, and eventually, Greg becomes completely obsessed with Sylvia. Meanwhile, Kate is fearing that their marriage is falling apart. Kate and Sylvia are at odds with each other, each committed to seeing the other defeated. The detent continues until two breaking incidents: first, Sylvia goes into heat and has an encounter with Bowser at the dog park, leading to Sylvia getting spayed. Secondly, Kate applies for a grant to teach in London, and gets accepted. This means that Greg must decide between Kate and Sylvia, because the UK has a six-month dog quarantine. I’ll leave the final resolution a surprise. If you’re really curious, read the Wiki Synopsis.

(I’ll note the synopsis discusses a scene with a therapist. Either I blacked out at some point, or the Edgemar cut that scene (at least last night). The character is listed in the program, so perhaps they had it at one point. I didn’t miss it.)

At its heart: Sylvia is a combination love story and growing older story, just like “On Golden Pond“. In this case, the growing older part addresses the (far too often, although I’m still waiting for mine) mid-life crisis that men go through. They’ve been with the same job for 20+ years, the same woman for 20+ years, and having a new beauty in their life adds spice and vitality, and reenergizes them. This beauty can be a sportscar, it can be a mistress, or in Greg’s case, it can be a dog. They lavish time and attention on this thing, which loves them back, while ignoring older relationship. This comes back to bite them in the butt, and they eventually need to decide: which relationship is more important. Sometimes they can work it out, sometimes they can’t. This is what Sylvia explores, in a very funny manner.

At the heart of Sylvia is Sylvia herself, the little bitch (I had to work that in somewhere). Sylvia is portrayed by Tanna Frederickæ, a super-energetic skinny little thing who works her tail off, bounding from here to there in a performance that is not overly cutesy. Tanna jumps on furniture; she licks; she humps; she barks. She captures all those dog mannerisms in a portrayal that is, at its heart, human. You really get the feeling that she loves Greg, unconditionally. You sometimes wonder why her original owner gave her up.

Sylvia’s owner, Greg, is portrayed by Stephen Howardæ. I truly liked his performance, perhaps because he seemed so easy going, so lost in where his job was going, and so needing the acceptance that Sylvia gave him. You didn’t get the feeling that this was an actor playing a character; you felt this was a man with his dog. Stephen was just at home being Greg.

Greg’s wife, Kate, was played by Cathy Ardenæ. Again, Cathy was at home with the character of Kate. You could tell she was in love with Greg, and wanted to spend more time with him… and was thus exasperated when his attentions turned to Sylvia, the other woman. An enjoyable performance.

Rounding out the cast was Ron Vignone, in the dual roles of Tom and Phyllis (a third role, Leslie, is also listed in the program, but this is the therapist scene that was cut). Evidently, Vignone was a replacement for Tom Ayers, who became sick in August, threatening the future of the play’s run (it started in May). Vignone has down well with the small parts, especially with the portrayal of Tom in the second act, when Sylvia goes into heat.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

I should note that there is a significant reason why this cast works so well together: the three principles played the same roles when the production was done at the Sierra Madre Playhouse a long time ago.

The production was directed by Gary Imhoff, who not only has managed the mayhem, but turns humans into dogs quite convincingly. Leslie Turner served as stage manager, assisted by Jo Amari. Sylvia was produced by Alexandra Guarnieri.

Turning to the technical. The set was designed by Joel Daavid, who created a warm and welcoming apartment scene as well as side areas that served as the dog park. Daavid also served as lighting designer, using a simple design that focused on the actors. No credit was provided for sound, although there were suitable sound effects during the dog park scenes, as well as a wonderful collection of dog-themed music both before the show and at intermission.

Sylvia continues at the Edgemar Center for the Arts; no end date has been announced. Tickets are available through the Edgemar; they are also available via Goldstar.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Next weekend brings “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center on its opening night, November 19. Karen will also be seeing “Riverdance” at the Pantages on November 16. Thankgiving weekend brings “Bring It On” at the Ahmanson on Friday and the last show of the REP season, “The Graduate”, on Saturday November 26. The first weekend of December is lost preparing for ACSAC—you are coming, aren’t you? The next weekend is busy, with a Mens Club Shabbat in the morning, and Travels with my Aunt” at the Colony Theatre in the evening. The remainder of December is unscheduled, but I’m sure we’ll fill things in for Winter Break. Of course, there is the de rigueur movie and Chinese food on Christmas day. January will bring the first show of the REP East season, as well as (hopefully) “Art” at the Pasadena Playhouse and “God of Carnage” at ICT Long Beach. February will bring “Ring of Fire” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, possibly the “Funny Girl replacement show” at the Ahmanson, “Old Wicked Songs” at the Colony Theatre, and Bernadette Peters in concert at the Valley Performing Arts Center. As always, open dates are subject to be filled in with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.