🎭 Finding Your Center | “The Joy Wheel” @ Ruskin Group Theatre

The Joy Wheel (Ruskin Group Theatre)I recently passed the 30 year milestone at my place of employ (what, you think I write up theatre for a living‽). Unsurprisingly, questions of retirement have started to cross my head, although I’ve still got a good 10 years to go). For many men, the sense of identity you get through your job is central to your life, and when you retire, that identity goes “poof”. What then? What do you hold on to? What anchors you?

I think that’s the question at the heart of the world premiere play, The Joy Wheel, by Ian McRae (FB), which just opened at the Ruskin Group Theatre (FB) in Santa Monica (and which we saw Sunday afternoon). The play explores the relationship between Stella and Frank Conlin. As the play opens, Frank is in the process of retiring from a 45 year career at some unnamed plant or factory, getting the retirement party, the de rigueur gold watch, and presumably the hearty handshake. This momentous occasion has unsettled Frank: he’s nervous about his future, and nervous about having to give the speech, and desperately needs his wife to hang on to. But Stella has been talked out of the house to participate in a community play — a mounting of a show very similar to The Vagina Monologuesand in doing so is getting in touch with parts of herself that she had long neglected or fogotten. Frank had been neglecting those parts as well, leaving the two of them to grow apart.

So where did Frank grab instead? His friend, Stew. Stew used to work with Frank at the factory but had been laid off for some unspecified reason (although there was an implication that he had gone at little batshit at work); he grew close to Frank after that, and after Stew’s wife left him. Stew is a prepper, a survivalist who believes that the government and society is out to get him, and who must establish elaborate bunkers and facilities in order to survive the coming apocalypse and repopulate the world. Stew has convinced Frank to drain his pool, and turn the space into an underground bunker, and to buy into his survivalist beliefs (which Frank does, a little half-heartedly).

Frank’s retirement brings everything to a head, however. Stella isn’t there for him, and he screws up his speech. Stella is drawn into the show, and the sphere of influence of her wisecracking liberal and liberated friend Margie, whose attitudes bring her into direct conflict to the toxic masculinity and attitudes of the prepper, Stew. It doesn’t help that Stella is upset about the pool conversion and the change in Frank.

With this setup, the play explores how Frank regains his anchor, and what happens to Stew when he loses his. The title of the play, The Joy Wheel, relates to an old-time spinning amusement park ride. If you’re at the edges, the centripetal force will spin you off. But if you can make it to that pole in the center and hold on, you’re stable. But if someone else grabs you along the way, you can lose your stability and go spinning off to the void.

The Joy Wheel (Ruskin Group) - Publicity PhotosThis is the second show we’ve seen at Ruskin (the first was Paradise), and they are two for two. This production was funny and touching and just a joy to watch. As usual, there are many factors that contributed towards this.

Ian McRae’s story, under the direction of Jason Alexander, hit a realistic nerve. Although I do not understand the prepper mentality, I can understand your identity being closely tied to a long-held job (as I’ve been doing cybersecurity for 33 years), and being adrift when that identity goes away. I can also understand the couple in the show, growing apart as different interests, friends, and hobbies pull and tug at you, and try to get you to the edge of that wheel. I recognize the struggle shown in the show of holding onto that center: of figuring out what really keeps you stable in your life.

The point the show makes by its conclusion is a strong one: what keeps us centered isn’t our work, and it isn’t our hobbies. It is our closest relationships: the family we are born with, or the family we choose to make. That’s a good point.

The journey the show makes to get to that point — the journey that allows the central characters to find that pole and hold on (to use the metaphor of the title) — is an interesting one. Each character has something trying to pull them out of the central relationship. Stew is trying to pull Frank into the prepper world: questioning and trusting no one, believing that the world is out to get him. Margie is similarly tugging at Stella to get out into the liberated world, to pull away from Frank and his craziness and to explore the wild side of herself. Each are strong pulls, but the central relationship is like a novelty finger toy, tugging back the harder one tries to escape it. It makes for good theatre.

This brings us to the second factor that makes the show so good: the performances. I recall reading somewhere that the essence of performance for an actor is listening: listening to the audience, and listening to the other actors. This is one of the first shows where I really noticed the listening going on, and it made a big difference. If you see the show (and I suggest you should), watch the actors in the background as they listen and react to the performers in the foreground — especially in the final scenes. These performers are communicating the story non-verbally through their attention. It is fascinating to watch.

Portraying the central characters are Dann Florek (FB) as Frank Conlin and Gina Hecht (FB) as Stella Conlin. My wife likes to refer to LA Theatre as an actor’s playground — it is where actors from TV and film go out to play and exercise their acting muscles — and where we the audience benefit from their having fun. This was a prime example of these: these are two name actors primarily from the film and TV side who give remarkable performances, having loads of fun inhabiting these characters and playing off the other actors, and amplifying the audience. Further, as any audience member will tell you, when the actors are having fun, the audience has fun, and a performance feedback loop is created making the show even better.

Florek and Hecht make these characters come alive, and turn the potential caricatures into real people you might enjoy knowing in real life. You feel they have been married for 45+ years, that they know each other’s foibles and truly care about each others. It was fun to watch.

Supporting the central characters are Lee Garlington (FB) as Margie and Maury Sterling (FB) as Stew.  Garlington’s Margie is a wise-cracking gem. As written by McRae, she has the words to fight back against the attitudes of Sterling’s Stew. What Garlington is able to add, however, is the perfect attitude to go with the lines. That attitude also shows is her interactions with Hecht’s Stella, subtly encouraging subversion through the wordless interaction on top of the written words. She is just a joy to watch. Sterling’s performance brings the appropriate level of paranoid and BSC to Stew (and what is it with folks named Stew being BSC — I know one from work as well). Yes, Stew is more of caricature, but the performance brings a nice depth to it.

Understudies (who we did not see) are: Christine Kaplan (FB) [Margie]; Jim Stapleton (FB) [Frank]; and Mercer Boffey (FB) [Stew].

This brings us to the third factor that makes the show work: creativity. The Ruskin is a tiny tiny space. Think of a rectangle with seating on two of the four sides. Around the rest they have to fit the set. Set designer John Iacovelli (FB) somehow figured out how to get both the inside of the house as well as the prepper’s pool into all of this. The figures to the right will give you an idea of the house set; for the prepper pool, they brought in rolling carts with all the prepper supplies, and arranged it so that the normal door in the back up a small flight of stairs was tilted at perhaps a 50° angle, increasing the perception you were going down into a pool. This necessitated complicated scenery changes, which the director, Jason Alexander, addressed by having a single character give their dialogue (essentially a brief monologue) with a single light on them, allowing the scene change to go on behind in the dark while the audience was distracted. It all worked well. This scenery was supported by the property design of Props Master David Saewert (FB). The lighting and sound design of Edward Salas worked well to establish time, place, and mood. Sarah Figoten‘s costumes seemed appropriate for the place and era, and worked to establish the characters well. Other production credits: Nicole Millar (FB) [Stage Manager]; Hamilton Matthews (FB) [Asst. Stage Manager]; Laura McRae (FB) [Asst. Director]Amelia Mulkey Anderson [Graphic Design]Paul Ruddy [Casting]Judith Borne [Publicity]; Nina Brissey [Videographer].  The Joy Wheel was produced by John Ruskin [Artistic Director, RGT] and Michael Myers (FB) [Managing Director, RGT].

The Joy Wheel continues at Ruskin Group Theatre (FB) through March 24, 2019. It is a fun and enjoyable show; well-worth seeing. Tickets are available online through Ruskin; they do not appear to be listed on Goldstar.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

Next weekend brings our annual trek to the Anaheim Hills for Lizzie at the Chance Theatre (FB).

March starts with Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), followed by the annual MRJ Regional Man of the Year dinner at Temple Beth Hillel. The next weekend brings “Disney’s Silly Symphony” at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). The third weekend of March brings Cats at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The following weekend is Matilda at  5 Star Theatricals (FB) on Saturday, followed by Ada and the Engine at Theatre Unleashed (FB) (studio/stage) on Sunday. March concludes with us back at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Lastly, looking into April: The month starts with Steel Magnolias at Actors Co-op (FB) and the MoTAS Men’s Seder. The next weekend has a hold for OERM.  April will also bring Fiddler on the Roof at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and the annual visit to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

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🎭 How To Save Paradise | “Paradise” @ Ruskin Theatre Group

Paradise (Ruskin Theatre Group)I find the shows that we see in many different ways. Sometimes they are part of a subscription. Sometimes we’re in an area and we look for a show. Sometimes I learn about a show and find discount tickets. And sometimes a publicist mails me about a show (viewing me as a critic because I write so much about theatre), and the show sounds so interesting I just need to arrange for tickets*. This was the case with Paradise – A Divine Bluegrass Musical Comedywhich we saw last night at the Ruskin Theatre Group (FB) in Santa Monica. I heard the words “bluegrass” (a musical genre that I love), and “musical theatre”, and I had to see it.
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(*: Note: Publicists often arrange free tickets for critics, but I insist on paying what I would on Goldstar, because of the ethics rules I follow at work that prohibit accepting gifts above a nominal value from a supplier.)

Going in, I didn’t know much about the show other than the synopsis about a preacher coming to a small depressed town with a miracle solution to save it. As we waited for the show to start, there was music in the lobby by one of the composers of the show, Cliff Wagner (FB). I immediately made a note to get more of this guy’s music. His bluegrass was that good. After we were seated and I waited for the show to start, we were toe-tapping to the bluegrass band that was providing music for the show. They were one of the best bluegrass bands I’ve heard in a long time. I turned to my wife, and noted that I’d be happy just hearing a concert of them playing — they were that good.

Then the show started, and … and … I sat there, alternating between laughing my head off (which I rarely do during a show, even when the rest of the audience goes crazy) and being completely shocked at what was happening on the stage. Trying to characterize the show afterwards, the answer hit me with the phrase “Avenue Q meets Book of Mormon meets Trial & Error meets Elmer Gantry“. Paradise was a surreal story in a surreal setting that made specific relevant comments on the dangers of relying upon reality TV and its hucksters to bring us solutions to real life. It did so through a story that had toe-tapping bluegrass music, and songs that were incredibly outrageous.

I so want a cast album of this show. Oh, so much.

Paradise: A Divine Bluegrass Musical Comedy (music and book by Bill Robertson (FB), Tom Sage (FB), and Cliff Wagner (★FB, FB)) is the story of depressed small small town — under 50 people — presumably somewhere in Coal Country (likely West Virginia). The town needs a miracle to survive. The “heart” of the town is Louanne Knight, who runs the corner store and post office that was started by her mama, recently deceased. She just wants to leave the town, but can’t. The mayor, a man named Gayheart, is upset that his son, “Tater”, will not take up musical comedy and that the town preacher has just up and left. Another resident, Cinderella Tiara Applebaum (called “Cyndi”, pronounced “Cindai”), has just blown up the church. There’s also Ezra, a blind man who sits on the porch and makes sardonic comments. But there is nothing to worry about. A preacher, the Reverend John Cyris Mountain, and his assistant, a former Las Vegas stripper Chastity Jones, is coming to town to save it. The preacher’s solution: Have the town star in a reality TV show produced by Peter Martinez about the most desperate downtrodden town in the nation, and use the funds to build a mega-church at the mouth of the old coal mine.

Right there, we’re in Trial and Error territory — and by this I mean the completely surreal NBC comedy about a small town in the south where everything is totally warped and weird. That’s certainly the case here, with a gay mayor who is a germaphobe who has a black son, a woman in the town that is certifiably insane, with another woman subject to virgin rage. Literally, But the songs started, and I was like … WTF? When Chasity starts singing “Jesus is deep inside me (and he won’t pull out)”, your mind just starts reeling. There are songs about hillbillies, reality TV, the importance of profit in the ministry, and more. Then it gets even stranger in the second act, with songs about flaming bags of shit, and “Tater”‘s real father, “Big Rod Brown”. Yes, they go there. This is where the Avenue Q meets Book of Mormon comes in.  But, like those shows, the offense has a point to make about society and the evangelical movements, and fits in the surrealism of the show.

That brings us to the Elmer Gantry aspect of it all: the selling of religion to small town America as salvation, with a preacher who is more than he seems, whose intentions might not be so altruistic. That’s certainly the case here — it is not a spoiler to reveal that the preacher is not doing this to save the town. He is doing it to enrich himself. This attitude of slime permits there to be many jokes that reference America’s current political leadership without being explicit, because there is similar slime using evangelical trappings to save America while leading it to its destruction. There is similar doom in place for the fictional town of Paradise, although I won’t spoil the denouement.

But of course, this is a musical, and so the town is saved … unsurprisingly, by its music. The couple find each other and the virgin is no more, and everyone gets what they wanted. Musicals, of course, must end on a happy, well, note.

This is a musical that has long been in development. It was first presented back in 2013, and was based on a reality TV experience of the authors, combined with the wonderful song about Jesus not pulling out. Times have changed, and with Trump in the White House, it was even more appropriate to revive and revisit the piece. As I noted before, I found the show hilarious and wonderful, and would love to see it again (if I could get a seat). But what is it’s future. With its’ scale, this isn’t a Broadway show. It is just too small and doesn’t have the elements that would make it work on the grand stage. But this is a wonderful musical comedy at the off-Broadway level: satirical and toe-tapping, along the lines of a Toxic Avenger or Bat Boy musical. It shocks while it comments, and the bluegrass music and genre is infectious (and rare in musical comedy — I can think of only a few musicals that use the genre, including Robber Bridegroom and Bright Star, and perhaps Big River). I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I think it helped that the performances, under the direction of Michael Myers (FB), were so over the top. These actors were having fun with their roles, occasionally going above and beyond to top each other, and this was transmitted to the audience (who were transmitting the fun back). This doesn’t happen with movies, folks — it is unique to the stage and what makes live performance so magical. An amplification loop was formed, and the results were just so spectacular.  The actors also played to the audience, which meant that there were — at times — overly exaggerated dance movement and synchronization and seemingly playful amplification through positioning and movement. With this show, that worked quite well.

As the heart of the town, Kelsey Joyce (FB)’s Louanne Knight is spectacular. She’s making her debut (which I why I couldn’t find anything about her online — girl, make a website!). She has a lovely singing voice for bluegrass, and is able to maintain her small town innocence despite all the crazy around her. She’s just wonderful to watch, and I hope to see her in other shows in the future.

Dave Florek (FB)’s Blind Ezra Johnson is the first character we meet — he’s on the porch listening to the band as the audience is seated, and eggs on the band to do more. He has a wonderfully sardonic way about him and is a hoot to watch.

Chip Bolcik (FB)’s Mayor Gayheart is hilarious. His performance captures the character to a “T”, and his feedback loop with the audience is remarkable. He is over-the-top wonderful, completely surreal. At our performance, Jeff Rolle Jr. (FB) was playing the role of his son, “Tater” (normally played by Randy Taylor (FB), according to the program). Rolle was very strong in the role, with a great presence and interaction with Bolcik as his father. His reactions in “BIg Rod Brown” and his performance in “I Don’t Wanna Sing on Broadway” were just great.

This brings us to Paige Segal (FB)’s Cinderella Tiara Applebaum (Cyndi / Cindai). Again, a hoot who creates a feedback loop with the audience for her craziness. Her performance in the song “The Missing Link” — about leaving a flaming bag of shit on a porch for revenge — is hilarious.

Driving the story around these characters are the preacher and his assistant: Jon Root (FB) as Reverend John Cyrus Mountain and Nina Brissey (FB, resume) as Chastity Jones. Root is wonderful as the preacher — slimey and talented, manipulative and handsome, just a devil of man. Brissey is the only performer who was in the 2013 version of the show, and her familiarity with the material shows in her comfort with her role as a former stripper. She brings the sex to the role, together with wonderful singing and dancing. Both are a remarkable team.

Lastly, there is Jamie Daniels (FB)’s Peter Martinez. His character, like Joyce’s Louanne, is anchored in reality. He’s the trust fund kid who is producing the show. He captures the sane-in-a-world-of-crazy well, and has a nice chemistry’s with Joyce’s Louanne.

The listed understudies are: Jamie Daniels (FB) [Reverend Mountainu/s], Donovan Farwell (FB) [Ezra Johnsonu/s], Emily Anna Bell (FB) [Louanne Knightu/s], Charlene Rose (★FB, FB) [Chastity Jonesu/s, Dance Captain], Michael Berckart (FB) [Mayor Gayheartu/s]Jeff Rolle Jr. (FB) [Tater Gayheartu/s] (who went on at our performance), Hamilton Matthews (FB) [Cyndiu/s], and Ryan Stiffelman (FB) [Peter Martinezu/s]. I’m intrigued by Matthews casting as Cyndi. ’nuff said.

Music was provided by a wonderful bluegrass band consisting of: Jim Doyle (FB[Musical Director, Drums]; John Groover McDuffie (FB[Guitar, Banjo]; Gregory Boaz (FB) [Bass]; and Devitt Feeley (FB) [Guitar, Mandolin]. These guys need to put out a bluegrass album, and then play at McCabes — they are that good. It does appear that one of them is in a local bluegrass band.

I’ve already mentioned the movement when discussing the director, but some of that credit goes to Tor Campbell (★FB, FB)’s choreography. In general, the dance was strong, especially the group numbers. I should note that this is the only show I’ve seen with a credit for Pole Dance Choreography (Jess Hopper)

Finally, turning to the production side. Stephanie K. Schwartz‘s scenic design captures Appalachia well, with a number of nice little touches. It works well with Edward Salas‘s lighting design to establish mood and time. Chip Bolcik (FB)’s sound design was unobtrusive. Dianne K. Graebner‘s suited the characters and established them well. Other production credits: Amelia Mulkey [Graphic Design]; Paul Ruddy [Casting]; Judith Borne [Publicity]; Meagan Truxal [Stage Manager (at our performance)]; Nicole Millar [Stage Manager (in program)]; John Ruskin [Artistic Director]Michael Myers (FB) [Managing Director].

Paradise: A Divine Bluegrass Musical Comedy continues at the Ruskin Theatre Group (FB). No end date is listed, but the ticketing website shows only one more weekend, September 21-23, which is sold out. Hopefully, they will extend — this is a great show. Update: Per a comment received, they have been extended, so please check their ticketing website.

***

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

The fourth weekend of September has the first show of the Actors Co-op (FB) 2018-2019 season: Rope, and the fifth weekend brings Bark: The Musical at Theatre Palisades (FB). October is also getting quite full. It starts with Oppenheimer at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB). The following weekend brings Moon River -The Music of Henry Mancini at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). The third weekend of October brings Shrek at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). October will close with the Contemporary Crafts Show in Pasadena.

Continuing the lookahead: November starts with She Loves Me at Actors Co-op (FB) and Stitches So Cal. The second weekend of November is very busy: Dear Even Hansen at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and A Bronx Tale at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), as well as A Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (OERM) (FB). The third weekend of November brings Finks at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB). Thanksgiving weekend has Steambath at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB). December starts with the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC), followed by a hold for the Canadian Brass at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Then we may travel up to the Bay Area for Tuck Everlasting at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (FB). Lastly, January will start with Bat Out of Hell at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

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