Plaids in Drag, Plus a Blond

Mention the Andrews Sisters to most of today’s youth, and you’re likely to get a blank stare. They’re of a generation that has never seen the singing sisters, and their parents have likely only seen the sisters on TV. Perhaps their grandparents might remember them. Today’s youths are more likely to have heard of the Williams Sisters or the Jonas Brothers. However, in their day (the 1940s) they were one of the best known singing groups — and more importantly for the purposes of this post, provided extensive entertainment for Allied forces overseas, touring regularly for the U.S.O. . I mention this because last night we saw the Andrews Sisters on stage. OK, we didn’t, we saw an incredibly accurate facsimile. OK, we didn’t, but we did see an incredible facsimile. Perhaps I should explain….

Last night, we saw the second show of the Cabrillo Music Theatre, “The Andrews Brothers”. “Andrews Brothers” is a jukebox musical written by Roger Bean, an expert in this particular genre of musical. Roger has also done the extremely popular musicals “The Marvelous Wonderettes” and “Life Could Be a Dream”, and so the audience going in knows (a) they will be entertained and (b) plot doesn’t matter. This is a good thing, trust me.

The plot of “Andrews Brothers” exists only to set up the music. Three brothers (Lawrence, Max, and Patrick) are in the South Pacific working as the stage crew for the U.S.O., preparing for the last show of the famous Andrews Sisters at a remote naval base, where the troops are shipping off to the war zone the next day. The stage manager, Max, receives a telegram that the backup singers for the sisters cannot make the show, and to arrange something. The show opens to find Max rehearsing with Peggy Jones, the pinup-girl talent for the show, having convinced Peggy that Max and his brothers are the backup singers. This goes on for most of the first act, until eventually (a) a telegram is revealed indicating the the Andrews Sisters cannot make it, and (b) the boys are figured out for who they are. The brothers and Peggy decide that the show must go on, and since the sister’s costumes are there and the brothers know the dance moves… it was time to do RuPaul proud. The second act is that U.S.O. show with the brothers playing the sisters. At the end of the act, it is reavealed to the troops that the real talent was the brothers, and they come out and do a medley of Andrews Sisters’ hits.

As the above summary makes clear, the story is scaffolding. There’s no depth there, but it provides just enough bones to string a collection of wonderful music. The audience knows this going in, luckily, so the story doesn’t make a difference. Additionally, the show includes a bit of audience participation, which is always good to energize an audience (and is quite funny to watch). What really makes this show succeed or fail, however, is the cast. Get a good cast, you get a good show. Luckily, Cabrillo has an outstanding cast. The reason for this is that the color of the Cabrillo cast is not Army green or Navy khaki, but plaid.

The heart of “The Andrews Brothers” at Cabrillo is Forever Plaid. Well, ¾s of Forever Plaid, for the brothers are played by 3 long-time Plaids: Stan Chandler (Lawrence Andrews), David Engel (Max Andrews), and Larry Raben (Patrick Andrews). This made the first act of the show a bit of “The Plaids Go To War”, but that’s a good thing, because these three actors are extremely talented and a joy to watch. We have seen them on before, not only at Cabrillo, but at venues such as late, lamented Pasadena Playhouse (where I remember Stan well for his performance in Once a Kingdom). The talented trio was rounded out with Darcie Roberts (Peggy Jones), another talented actor, singer, and dancer, who we have also seen before on the Southern California stage. The talents of this group ensure the music is great, the dancing is fun, and oh, who cares about the plot :-).

The production was pulled together by Nick Degruccio, an extremely talented musical director who knows how to get the best out of his cast. If it is an outstanding musical in Southern California, odds are that Nick was involved. Combine this with the choreography of Roger Castellano, and you can’t lose. The presentation was helped by the technical talents of Cabrillo regulars T. Theresa Scarano (Production Manager), Jonathan Burke (Sound Design), Paul Hadobas (Hair/Wig Design), and Cabrillo newcomer Christina L. Munich (Lighting Design). They created a set that evoked a WWII Navy island camp (think South Pacific) during the first act, and a makeshift stage in the second. The lighting deserves a few special comments. Although there was extensive use of follow spots (a Cabrillo trademark, and more of a problem due to spillover in the balcony), there was also some quite effective use of gobos—both to provide flooring effects in the first act and to provide curtain effects in the second act. Sets and costumes were from the Musical Theatre West production. Music was provided by the Cabrillo Music Theatre Orchestra, under the musical direction of Lloyd Cooper, contracted by Darryl W. Tanikawa. The production was staged managed by the “ever capable”TM Lindsay Martens, assisted by Allie Roy, who had the unenvious job of riding herd on the craziness onstage and making it come off perfect.

In a move a bit unusual for Cabrillo, there was pre-show entertainment and intermission entertainment in the form of period newsreels (created by Steve Glaudini, David Engel, and Nick DeGruccio). These also featured aged footage of Harry Selvin and his orchestra… and the opening featured aged footage of the usual opening speaker Carole W. Nussbaum (CEO of Cabrillo) discussing the remainder of the season. I’ll note this show was unusual for Cabrillo in another way: it had a 100% equity cast, with no local Cabrillo on-stage talent, and as such was more of a touring production than Cabrillo normally does. Is this a sign of the economy? I have no idea.

The Andrews Brothers” has its last performance on the Cabrillo stage tonight. Upcoming Cabrillo productions for this season are: “Little Shop of Horrors” (April 23 – May 2, 2010) and “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella” (July 23 – August 1, 2010).

Upcoming Theatre. As for us, what’s upcoming on the theatre calendar? Next weekend sees us running between three theatres: Saturday evening sees us in North Hollywood for Interact Theatre’s “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the NoHo Arts Center, with Sunday afternon bringing “Ray Bradbury’s Wisdom 2116” at the Fremont Theatre Center in South Pasadena, and Sunday evening bringing the February installment of “Meeting of Minds (Episode 23 with Jean Smart as Catherine the Great, Ian Buchanan as Oliver Cromwell, and James Handy as Daniel O’Connell) at the Steve Allen Theatre in Hollywood. The last week of February is open, and may remain that way as we’re seeing our congregation’s Purim Schpeil on Sunday evening. March starts with The Story of My Life” at the Havok Theatre on March 6 @ 8pm (where we’ll be joined by shutterbug93). March 14 brings “On Golden Pond” at REP East, and March 21 will be “Meeting of Minds”. April brings more of potential interest, mostly unscheduled, including Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris” at the Colony Theatre (likely April 10 or April 16), “Damn Yankees” at Van Nuys HS (April 15-17), the April installment of “Meeting of Minds” at the Steve Allen Theatre on April 18, “12 Angry Men” at REP East (likely April 24), and the So Cal Ren Faire (either April 25 or May 16). May looks to be equally busy, with “Little Shop of Horrors at Cabrillo Music Theatre (May 1), See What I Wanna See” at the Blank (likely May 9), The 39 Steps” at the Ahmanson (likely May 15), the May installment of “Meeting of Minds” at the Steve Allen Theatre (May 16), the Spring Dance Show at Van Nuys HS (May 20-22), and “The Wedding Singer” at Repertory East Playhouse in Newhall (likely May 30).

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.


The Music of Your Youth

The subject of 1950 and 1960 harmonizing groups seems to be a popular one. We’ve seen this explored in a number of jukebox musicals, and from a number of different angles. There are musicals that explore the history of the writers, such as “Leader of the Pack”, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe”, or the upcoming “Baby Its You at the Pasadena Playhouse. There are musicals that explore the history of particular groups, such as “Jersey Boys”. There are musicals that combine the music of a number of artists in the story of a fictional group, such as the ever-touring “Forever Plaid” and “The Marvelous Wonderettes”. The author and director of the last show mentioned (“Marvelous Wonderettes”), Roger Bean, has a new show revisiting the era from a different gender and approach, “Life Could Be A Dream”, which we saw last night.

In “Marvelous Wonderettes”, Bean told the story of four high school friends and their life through a series of well-known songs, with bits of dialogue between each song. This was very similar to the approach taken in “Forever Plaid”. You can read my review of “Wonderettes” here. “Dream” is set in the same universe as “Wonderettes”, and focuses on four former members of the “Crooning Crabcakes” (the male choral group that couldn’t sing in Wonderettes). This time the story has a more significant set and plot, but is still a series of well-known do-wop songs strung together to illustrate the story and link together short bits of dialogue. The songs are treated more like performances, and are not integrated into the plot as well as one sees in other traditional musicals. That doesn’t seem to hurt the show–the songs are so well known and well loved that the audience just beams throughout the show. I could see this on the face of one white-haired grandma in the audience, who was just smiling throughout the entire show as the songs of her college years came back to her. Trust me, you do know these songs, which include 1960s standards such as “Sh Boom”, “Get a Job”, “Runaround Sue”, “Earth Angel”, “The Great Pretender”, and “Duke of Earl”. If you enjoyed Wonderettes, Plaid, or just grew up enjoying early 1960s music, you will enjoy this show.

The story is a relatively simple one. Denny (Daniel Tataræ) wants to win the recording contest prize from the radio station WOPR with his nerd-ish friend Eugene (Jim Holdridgeæ). Their friend Wally (Ryan Castellinoæ) works his way into the trio, and while registering the troupe, discovers they need a $50 fee. To get this fee they approach the owner of “Big Stuff Auto”, who sends his top mechanic Skip (Doug Carpenteræ) and his daughter Lois (Jessica Keenan Wynnæ). Skip ends up joining the band, and Lois convinces her dad to sponsor them. However, Skip and Lois fall in love, which leads Skip to get fired and run away… and the other boys in the band fall in lust with Lois. Will they get back together as a band and win the contest? Will Skip and Lois get back together? This is the stuff of which musicals are made! That’s not to say the story is a strong one or has thematic depth. It is clearly a plot contrivance to permit many great songs to be sung. But one doesn’t go to shows like this for the plot — one goes for the music and the performance. C’mon, was Mamma Mia as success due to its uplifting and endearing plot? Did Cats run for years because of the plot? Clearly not (although Cats didn’t run for the music either… it ran for the dance… but I digress).

The cast for this show is excellent–in fact, one could call it a dream cast (ducks and runs). I was mesmerized with Jessica Keenan Wynn (who I know I’ve read about before): she has such a beautiful expressive face I just couldn’t stop watching her whenever she was on stage. She was a strong singer, and had a personality that came through in her face (although at times her smile seemed overly forced, but that could be directorial). I was also impressed with Doug Carpenter who had this marvelous deep voice and an infectious charm. Daniel Tatar was excellent as always (we’ve seen him in a number of productions, including Last 5 Years at the Pasadena Playhouse and Kiss of the Spider Woman at the Havoc. But I could gush about all the leads: they were just wonderful singers and strong actors that just seems to broadcast their joy and happiness of doing this show. They were having fun with it, and through their enjoyment, the audience had a blast. It is worth going to see this show before it closes just for the cast alone: they could do this as a concert, and folks would come out happy.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

If the show had weaknesses, they were on the technical side. The sound design was by the very busy Cricket Myers. I found the sound quality variable: there were points where the voices were clear, and there were points where the voices were a bit muddy. This could just have been a technical problem with a particular microphone. The lighting design by Luke Moyer was more of a problem. This particular theatre doesn’t have room for follow spots, so moving mirror lighting is used. These lights were either mis-aimed or focused (or the actors were slopping in hitting their marks), because often actors wouldn’t be in the spot, or would be half-in and half-out. I had less of a problem when the moving mirrors weren’t used, although my daughter had difficulties with some of the color choices in the scenes where the projected images were used. Additionally, as each act started, the lighting came up in this weird stepped fashion instead of a smooth brightening–again, very odd. It boils down to the fact that at points in the show the lighting proved to be distracting, which lighting should never do: it should be neutral at worst, and enhance at best. The costumes by Valentino’s Costumes were adequately period, although I found (at times) Jessica Wynn’s shoes to be odd — either the high-heels seemed too high or too shiny (again, a distraction that wasn’t needed). The set design by Tom Buderwitz was as cluttered as one would expect a basement to be, with suitable period debris scattered around to establish the time and location.

Other meta-areas were good: The production was directed by Roger Bean and worked well, although if actors are getting off their marks as indicated above, he might want to freshen it. The choreography by Lee Martino was very good and reflected well movements of groups like this, with the additional clumsy humor that was required from the characters. The musical direction by Michael Paternostro, with arrangements by Jon Newton with additional arrangements by Steve Parsons, was quite good, and I was amazed at how they got such a good sounding band squeezed into those little boxes hanging from the top of the stage. The production stage manager was Brigid O’Brien, who wins the award for the best bio in the playbill.

Life Could Be A Dream continues at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre through December 27, 2009 (it has been extended a number of times). Tickets are available through Plays411; they are occasionally available through Goldstar Events, although they tend only to be put up the week before and sell out quickly. Even with the lighting problems, I recommend you see this show. You will enjoy it.

Dining Notes: Dinner before the show was at Zeke’s Smokehouse, always a good choice when going to theatres in Hollywood. Parking is easy, and the food is good and plentiful.

Upcoming Theatre: The upcoming week is a busy one, although not in a theatrical sense. Come visit us in Perris on Veterans Day (Wednesday) at a Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum. Next weekend brings two concerts: Erin is going to the TMBG concert at UCLA, while we will attending Havdalah with Peter Yarrow at the American Jewish University. On November 22 at 2pm we return to REP East Playhouse for “M*A*S*H”, followed by the next installment of Meeting of Minds (Frederick Douglass (Ernie Hudson), Empress Tz’u-hsi (France Nuyen), Cesare Baccaria (Joe Mantegna), and Marquis de Sade (Richard Gilliland)). Thanksgiving weekend is currently open; however, it might be taken by a shift of our production for the following weekend (“Baby Its You” at the Pasadena Playhouse, December 5 at 8pm… which, by the way, features the actress who played Marie Antoinette), due to the fact I head out the morning after we see it for ACSAC in Hawaii. That same weekend (December 3, 4, 5) also brings “The Taming of the Shrew” at Van Nuys HS — we’ll likely be going to the Friday, December 4 performance. I fly out to Hawaii for ACSAC on 12/5 (hint: registration is now open and we have a great technical program — so come to the conference).I return 12/12 (and, alas, this is why we can’t see Equus at LA Valley College the weekends of 12/3-5 and 10-12). December 20 brings “Mary Poppins” at the Ahmanson. We’ll be going to the movies on Christmas Day (as well as having Chinese food), and the likely movie is “Nine – The Musical”. As always, I’m looking for suggestions for good shows to see, especially if they are on Goldstar or LA Stage Tix.

Disclaimer: In light of the upcoming rules, you should know that nobody paid me anything to write this review. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.


Mahvalous Mahvalous, Wunnerful Wunnerful

This afternoon, we went out to the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood to see The Marvelous Wonderettes. Going in, I was a bit out of it, as I had been fighting a bad headache all morning. We had wonderful seats, partially due to our being in shutterbug93‘s group, which was up in the front row.

The Marvelous Wonderettes is initially set in 1958, and bears many similiarites to Forever Plaid. Both musicals tell the stories of harmonizing groups: girl groups in Wonderettes, boy groups in Plaid. Both groups have distinct characters, and do popular songs from the era. Plaid, however, is clear fantasy: it focuses on a group that was permitted to come back after death for one last show. The plot in Wonderettes is much stronger. The show focues on the lives and loves of the Wonderettes: Cindy Lou (Kristen Chandler*), Missy (Kim Huber*), Betty Jean (Julie Dixon Jackson*), and Suzy (Bets Malone*). Act I opens on the Wonderettes as they are the featured entertainment at the 1958 Springfield Prom. You learn about their lives, loves, and distinct personalities during the act. Act II is 10 years later, at the high school reunion. Here you learn how the story turned out, together with the power of friendship. You can get a good idea of the characters in the show by visiting the show’s MySpace account.

What did I think of the show? First, for a show using so much popular music, the plot was extremely well integrated. The actors were excellent, for they became their characters and the personalites. Part of this is because many of the actors originated the roles they were playing. I was particularly enamored with the performances of Kim Huber, Julie Dixon Jackson, and Bets Malone. I should also note that all of the actors are powerhouse singers. It was a very very good show (and had the side effect of making me forget about the headache, always a good thing). I should note that the show has been receiving great reviews.

After the show, we had the opportunity to meet lindasings, as well as all of the actors. This is always nice when it happens.

Production Credits: Roger Bean (Author/Director); David Elzer, Marvelous Dreams LLC, and Peter Schneider (Producers); Janet Miller (Choreographer); Kurt Boetcher (Scenic Design); Brian Baker (Orchestrator); Jeremy Pivnick (Lighting Designer); Sharell Martin (Costume Designer); Cricket S. Myers (Sound Designer); Pat Loeb (Production Stage Manager); Machael Sanfillippo (General Manager); Brian Svoboda (Sound Engineer); and Michael Spellman and Joseph Wisniewski (Production Assistants). I should note that both Mr. Elzer and Mr. Schneider are also involved with the upcoming Sister Act at the Pasadena Playhouse.

As always, the upcoming theatre calendar: The Musical Of Musicals, Sat 10/28 @ 3pm; A Chorus Line, Sat 11/4 @ 2pm; The Beastly Bombing, Fri, 11/10 @ 8pm; Sister Act, The Musical, 11/18 @ 9pm; and Dirk, 11/19 @ 2pm …plus I’m still working on tickets for A Light in the Piazza (11/25, 11/26, 12/2, or 12/3), and 13 (12/30). A busy theatre season coming up. Note: Those of you on my friends list that might be interested in joining us to see Dirk, which is based on Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, for information, see this journal entry (which is friends-only).

*: Member of Actors Equity Association