🎭 The Power of the Group | “Ain’t Too Proud” @ Ahmanson

Ain't Too Proud (Ahmanson)With the passing of Labor Day, we’re out of the summer show season and into the fall theatre season. This brings the season openers for many companies, including the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). The Ahmanson’s first show is an odd beast: it was essentially a replacement for Crazy for You, announced for February 2018 but later postponed. This meant that it was an addition to the previous season as well as being (due to timing) the first show in the 2018-2019 season. This made me glad I hadn’t gotten tickets to Crazy for You, because we ended up subscribing. This also meant that there was essentially double the audience fighting for seats, so that when we changed our seats due to our vacation, we ended up in the far back row (row Z; our subscription is Row S).

This is also a biographic jukebox musical, along the lines of Jersey Boys. However, the songs generally don’t serve to tell the story, but to tell the time — presented chronologically where they are in the storyline, as opposed to being used to provide the story line.

Lastly, this is also a pre-Broadway musical. It has been announced for the Imperial Theatre, although the cast or opening date is still pending. The Los Angeles production is the 3rd developmental production; there is still one to go in Toronto.

Hence, when looking at this musical, we’re not just judging it as a replacement show for a revision of an (essentially) George Gershwin jukebox (for that, really, is what Crazy for You is). It is a new musical, and it needs to meet the standards of Broadway.

Does this production, which features a book by Dominique Morisseau (FB), based on the book The Temptations by Otis Williams (FB) with Patricia Romanowski, music and lyrics from “The Legendary Motown Catalog”, and direction by Des McAnuff, meet those standards? No. In many ways, it reminds me of Baby, It’s You that we saw at the Pasadena Playhouse many many years ago … and which went to Broadway and quickly disappeared. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed, but in its present form, it will have problems. Luckily, these problems are primarily book-based (a major problems for shows). The Motown music catalog is always a delight, although with the recent Motown and shows like Dreamgirls, it may be a well that has been drawn from too frequently.

As just noted, the story is based on the book written by the one constant member of the Temptations, Otis Williams. As such, it does tend to present his view of the story; given the various infighting over the years, one would expect some differing views might have emerged — but they are never presented. Reading through the Wikipedia history, the version on stage seems to capture the highlights, although it glosses over many of the numerous changes and problems over the years.  All for entertainment sake, I guess. In terms of all the personnel changes and the fighting over the group’s name, it reminds me of all the changes in groups like The Kingston Trio or the Limeliters over the years. I guess folk and R&B are connected. In terms of how accurate the music was, I must confess to not having even a shallow Temptations catalog — out of the 45,000+ songs on my iPod, only 5 are from the Temptations — and 3 of those are from the Motown musical.

The main book problem with the show is that it is very narrative driven. The scenes in the show often don’t tell the story — they are performances. What tells the story is the narrator. That’s wrong for a musical. In a musical, either the scenes or (ideally) the music should tell the story. That it doesn’t here is a problem that book writers need to address before this arrives on the Great White Way.

But that’s structural, and structure is often different than entertainment. This show is entertaining, no question. The music is a collection of Motown hits — and not just from the Temptations, but from other Motown groups such as the Supremes. There is the remarkable dance and choreography of the Temptations, recreated by the choreographer Sergio Trujillo.  There is the remarkable on-stage but hidden band  under the direction of Kenny Seymour. When they rock out at the end of the show, you are just blown away. As a concert and dance performance with a Cliff Notes story, this is just great.

The performances — especially the singing and dancing performances — are exceptional. The main problem is that with so many changes in the composition of The Temptations, many of the later members become indistinguishable, especially if you are seated at a distance. This is complicated by the reuse of the ensemble in multiple roles — making it difficult to tell who is who.

Luckily, that’s less of an issue for the top tier — the main Temptations: Derrick Baskin (FB) [Otis Williams], James Harkness (★FB, FB) [Paul Williams]; Jawan M. Jackson (★FBFB) [Melvin Franklin]; Jeremy Pope (★FB, FB) [Eddie Kendricks]; and Ephraim Sykes (★FB, FB) [David Ruffin]. They are unmistakable, especially Jackson’s deep voice.

A few others have primary named roles and a few background unnamed ensemble tracks: Saint Aubyn (FB) [Dennis Edwards, Fight Captain, Ensemble]Shawn Bowers (FB[Lamont, Asst. Dance Captain, Ensemble]; E. Clayton Cornelious (★FB) [Richard Street, Ensemble]; Jahi Kearse (FB[Barry Gordy, Ensemble]; Joshua Morgan (★FBFB[Shelly Berger, Ensemble]; Rashidra Scott (★FB, FB[Josephine, Ensemble]; Christian Thompson (★FB[Smokey Robinson, Ensemble]; and Candice Marie Woods (FB[Diana Ross, Ensemble]; Note that Morgan is the easiest ensemble member to identify; he’s the only white guy in the cast.

As for the rest, the multiple casting makes them hard to tell apart: Taylor Symone Jackson (FB[Johnnie Mae, Mary Wilson, Ensemble]; Jarvins B. Manning Jr. (★FB, FB[Al Bryant, Norman Whitfield, Ensemble]; and Nasia Thomas (FB[Mama Rose, Florence Ballard, Tammi Terrell, Ensemble].

Swings were Esther Antoine [Dance Captain]; Rodney Earl Jackson Jr. (FB); and Curtis Wiley (★FB).

As I said before, the orchestra was strong, under the direction of Kenny Seymour [Keyboard1]. The other members were: Sean Kana (FB[Assoc Conductor, Keyboard2]Sal Lozano [Reed]Dan Fornero (FB) [Trumpet, Flugelhorn]Robert Payne [Trombone, Contractor]; Keith Robinson [Guitar]; George Farmer (FB[Bass]; Clayton Craddock [Drums]; Mark Cargill and Lesa Terry [Violins]; and Lance Lee (FB) and Joey de Leon [Percussion]. Other music positions were: John Miller [Music Coordinator]; Steven M. Alper [Music Preparation]; Randy Cohen (FB[Keyboard Programmer]; Tim Crook [Assoc Keyboard Programmer]. Orchestrations were by Harold Wheeler. Music was by arrangement with Sony/ATV Music Publishing.

Finally, turning to the production and creative side. The scenic design by Robert Brill was tightly integrated with the lighting design of Howell Binkley and the projection design of Peter Nigrini. It made heavy use of projections and LEDs, and was at times very busy without the traditional scenic elements. It was, perhaps, a little too busy for my tastes, but generally worked. The sound design of Steve Canyon Kennedy was clear in the back of the theatre. The costumes of Paul Tazewell worked well, as did the hair and wig designs of Charles G. LaPointe. Rounding out the production team: Steve Rankin [Fight Director]; Edgar Godineaux [Assoc Choreographer]; Molly Meg Legal [Production Stage Manager]; Tara Rubin Casting [Casting]. Most of the other credits are management, but two are of note: Shelly Berger, who was the original Temptations manager, was the creative consultant, and Otis Williams, the last remaining original Temptation, was an Executive Producer. 

AIn’t Too Proud continues at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) through September 30. It was quite entertaining, even if it needs some work. Tickets are available through the Ahmanson Box Office.  Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar.

***

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:

Today will bring  Paradise – A Divine Bluegrass Musical Comedy at the Ruskin Theatre (FB) on Saturday. The fourth weekend of September has Rope at Actors Co-op (FB), and the fifth 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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Soft Power, Hard Landing | “Soft Power” @ Ahmanson

Soft Power (Ahmanson)Wikipedia defines the term “soft power” as:

…the ability to attract and co-opt, rather than by coercion (hard power), which is using force or giving money as a means of persuasion. Soft power is the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction. A defining feature of soft power is that it is noncoercive; the currency of soft power is culture, political values, and foreign policies. Recently, the term has also been used in changing and influencing social and public opinion through relatively less transparent channels and lobbying through powerful political and non-political organizations. In 2012, Joseph Nye of Harvard University explained that with soft power, “the best propagandais not propaganda”, further explaining that during the Information Age, “credibility is the scarcest resource.”

American Musical Theatre has long been a form of soft power, of propaganda, of pushing western thoughts and ideas upon to other cultures. It has been a means of subtly advancing the notion that the West and White is right. This was true in the musicals of the 1950s such as The King and I and even My Fair Lady to current efforts such as The Book of Mormon. It was the intense … presumptuousness … of The King and I, combined with the growth of China as a superpower, that influenced writer David Henry Hwang to start the notion that led to his musical (excuse me, “play with a musical”) Soft Power that formally opens May 16 (and which we saw last night, May 12) at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB).

The trope in The King and I that caught Hwang’s attention was the notion of a White teacher coming into Siam, and through a relationship with the King, convincing them that their traditional ways are wrong and that western ways are better, and along the way using theatre to make fun of and denigrate that Siamese culture, all while winning a Tony award. Subsequent productions of The King and I around the world advanced these subliminal and subtle “West is Best” notions, and demonstrated the power of theatre and musicals — an American art form — to influence minds. This combined with a real life incident in which Hwang was stabbed in the neck while walking home in Brooklyn,  seemingly because he looked like an Asian delivery boy and wouldn’t complain to the police, to provide the basis for what became Soft Power.

Unfortunately, while the underlying notion of China wanting to improve its reception in the world-wide community through the exertion of soft power is an interesting one worth exploring, the execution in the play with a musical Soft Power at the Ahmanson lands with a thud, leaving audiences dazed and confused in a whirlwind of cognitive dissonance.  There are moments where the audience experiences feelings not unlike the opening night audience of Carrie, their jaws open in stunned amazement like the scenes in Springtime for Hitler at the sheer audacity of the production. This was a preview, and so things may change, but the presentation of the embedded musical needs completely different framing to be accepted by American audiences. Further, the ending is a complete whiplash, a stab in the neck (so to speak) that makes one go “WTF?”. As it stands currently, although some tweaks might be made, some fundamental rethinking of the approach and the presentation of the message is required if this “play with a musical” is going to have long term success.

Before I can attempt further analysis, let’s synopsize the show. Note that this is from memory, as there is no scene list nor song list in the program.

The show opens with David Henry Hwang (yes, the playwright) having a meeting with a Chinese media company about bringing a rom-com TV series set in Shanghai to both American and Chinese audiences. The Chinese executive wants changes in the story, which he feels reflects too much of an American view of China, and not the image China wants to present of itself and its values throughout the world. As an example, he objects to a reference to “a day with good air quality”, for it implies that there are days with bad air quality. The discussion then turns to the personal, where this producer Xue Xing, talks about his girlfriend Zoe and his wife back in China. They get together that night to see The King and I at the Ahmanson (yes, really, even though it actually played the Pantages) and then go to a Hillary Clinton rally. The girlfriend talks about The King and I as a message delivery system (ouch, sorry, I just got hit on the head with a hammer), while Xue talks about the craziness of the American electoral system. He notes that in China, elections aren’t necessary because the best person — such as Hillary — just gets appointed to positions of power. After the meeting, they watch the election returns and see Hillary’s loss. Xue returns to China, and Hwang to Brooklyn. Walking home, he is stabbed in the neck and loses consciousness, and apparently imagines the musical that is to occur.

It is now 100 years in the future, and China is remounting their worldwide successful musical about this incident, based on a biography written by Xue’s dauther, Jing. The musical starts with Xue leaving his daughter for America. Arriving at the Hollywood Airport, he is met by gangs of rappers, threatened with guns, and essentially mugged. Saved by his driver Bobby Bob, he is driven to Hollywood and Vine where he meets with DHH (Hwang) about producing the musical. They agree to meet again, at a popular American restaurant, McDonalds, where Hillary Clinton is having a campaign rally. During this rally, Hillary sings and dances in tights, and meets with Xue. He tells her she should win, how China supports science and fights global warming and for truth, and how she deserves to be General Secretary. Leaving the rally, Hwang gets stabbed in the neck and dies. When Hillary loses the election (obstensibly because she met with a Chinaman who endorsed her), all hell breaks lose. End Act I.

There’s also a number — I can’t remember whether it was Act I or Act II — with the Chief Justice singing about how silly the American primary and electoral system is.

Act II opens with a retrospective media panel in the future talking about this musical. It includes the children of the musical’s authors, Xue’s granddaughter, and a media professor from USC. When the Chinese presenters talk about this new artform and how it took the world by storm, the professor notes that it was invented in America. The Chinese note that the initial idea was American, but that was overly simplistic — after all, they wrote musicals about cats and singing lions — and that the Chinese improved the artform. The professor talks about how the presentation of America was incorrect and inaccurate, and the Chinese note that was the account in the book, and it must be correct. They then return with the musical, with Hillary sitting on the stage bemoaning her loss and eating pizza and Ben and Jerry’s. Xue comes to visit with her. She tells him that America has declared war on China, and he vows to go to Washington to make things right. Meeting with the new White House, which is festooned with Budweiser pylons, the Vice President and senior officials are singing and dancing a song titled “Good Guy with a Gun”. Xue convinces them to lay down their guns and create a new Silk Road under China’s leadership. Returning to Hillary with his success, he tells her that he loves her, only to have her reject him in favor of American values and “Democracy”. He returns to China. The closing scene in the “musical” is him in his hospital bed, relating the story to his daughter.

Suddenly, we return to the present and it is Hwang in the hospital bed, telling his story again. He points out how unrealistic is is, and suddenly the cast returns in street clothes singing about “democracy”. Curtain closes.

WTF?

While watching this, I started out thinking it was going to be OK. When the musical started, however, things went sideways and I sat there, mouth open and stunned. The sheer offense at the portrayal of America, the insulting nature of how Hillary was portrayed, the insulting attitude towards the American electoral system, the notion of singing and dancing and praising guns: it was just too much, too soon, and way over the top. Intellectually, I could see this as a direct parallel to how The King and I portrayed Thai culture and made fun of it. Emotionally, however, it is just as King and must have hit with Thai audiences. Upon reflection, the message was imparted; however, sitting in the seats in the Ahmanson, it didn’t work. Thinking about it makes me think of the lines from Urinetown: “I don’t think that many people are going to want to see this musical, Officer Lockstock?” “Why do you say that, Little Sally? Don’t you think that people want to be told that their way of life is unsustainable?” American audiences will not accept this portrayal of America as crime ridden, while people get stabbed in the street and left to die without health insurance, where we worship our guns and defend our ballot system even when it gives the wrong results. They will not see this as a future Chinese view of an American system that China views as inferior; they will view it as a direct commentary and reject it at the box office. Sledgehammers such as this rarely work in the theatre; points are made stronger by allegories such as Urinetown.

Another interesting compare and contrast is with the other recent juggernaut, Hamilton. Hamilton also comments on the American way and upon current attitudes towards the immigrant with a positive message and portrayal. It is successful precisely because of that. The negative mocking view of American political leaders in Soft Power will be treated as insulting by both Hillary and Trump supporters. The author misjudged, in my opinion, how this would land.

This brings us to the ending, which is a WTF? Suddenly, the whole cast is singing about “Democracy”, just as if they didn’t have faith in the message they were bringing, and had to reassure the audience. The story needed a different setup at the start to frame the musical, and a different analysis and denouement at the end to recast the musical and make a statement. Without that, the musical comes off like the Uncle Tom’s Cabin ballet in King and I, a misguided and pointless commentary on a system through different eyes.

We walked out of Soft Power thinking that it was a train wreck, yes, but trying to see how the train wreck differed from the crash and burn that was Love Never Dies at the Pantages. With LND, I opine, the flaw was fundamental: the notion that a rape occurred, and the Phantom escaped, for everything to happen again in Coney Island. The story should never have been done in the first place. With Soft Power, the underlying notion is a good one: China wanting to gain power by presenting itself in a different light through the American musical form. But the execution of the idea was what was flawed. Some subgroups in China, such as the Falun Gong, already exploit the American Musical Form for propaganda purposes through the Shen Yun shows. It doesn’t change opinion. China is much more successful wielding soft power throughout the world through their engineering efforts in Africa, through their manufacturing prowess, and through behind-the-scenes lending. A Chinese musical commentary on the weakness of American values would not be through the American musical form, and wouldn’t use the heavy-handed colonialism style of The King and I.

Musically, the score was not one of Jeanine Tesori‘s best. None of the songs were particularly hummable or memorable. There were no ear-worms as were inflicted by Love Never Dies. Perhaps the most catchy number was the most offensive one, “Good Guy with a Gun”. There were rock power ballads such as “Democracy” that came out of no place and didn’t fit musically. If the embedded musical was to be a Chinese developed musical — even in the future — the music would have had a Chinese cultural form and instrumentation to be accepted by Chinese audiences. It wouldn’t ape Western forms. Essentially, the music landed mostly with an equal thud, not making its point. Tesori can do better — look at the scores for shows like Fun Home as a good example, or Shrek, or Violet (which is just about to open at  Actors Co-op (FB)). Rethinking of the presentation and the music is needed, in this audience member’s opinion.

I think some of the blame here belongs with the Dramaturg, Oskar Eustis, of the Public Theatre. According to Wikipedia, the process of dramaturgy is “broadly defined as ‘adapting a story to actable form’. Dramaturgy gives a performance work foundation and structure. Often the dramaturg’s strategy is to manipulate a narrative to reflect the current Zeitgeist through cross-cultural signs, theater and film historical references to genre, ideology, role of gender representation etc. in the dramatisation.” In this case, the dramaturg should have recognized that the embedded musical was veering the production into a direction an audience would not accept, and that the musical forms used were inappropriate to the story being told.

Similarly, I think the director, Leigh Silverman, and the choreographer, Sam Pinkleton, did the best with the material they had. They tried to bring good performances to the actors, but the material was so over-the-top that any believably was lost, and the story framing was off so that the non-believability didn’t land either. The dances were entertaining, and appropriate to the scenes, but were completely incongruous, and inorganic to the story line. Again, the fault is with the story, I believe.

The performances, however, were strong. Particularly notable was Alyse Alan Louis (FB) as Zoe/Hillary, who blew the audience away with her singing on “Democracy”.  If I wasn’t so stunned by the audacity of the writing, I would have been cheering for the performance.  She got stuck with misguided characterization of Hillary Clinton, which she handled reasonably well. Her sitting on the edge of the stage eating pizza and ice cream, while singing, was a hoot.

Also strong was Francis Jue (FB) as DHH (David Henry Hwang). His role was more of a dramatic one, but he was believable as the playwright, and you couldn’t really ask for more than that.

As the main protagonist of the story, Xue Xing, Conrad Ricamora (FB) provided a non-caricatured performance in a clearly caricatured world. He handled the singing and the story quite well.

The remaining actors served as members of the ensemble and provided smaller character roles; a few had standout or solo moments in song (which the lack of a song-list in the program makes it difficult to highlight). The ensemble consisted of: Billy Bustamante (FB) [Xue Xingu/s], Jon Hoche (FB) [Tony Manero, Chief Justice]; Kendyl Ito (FB) [Jing]; Austin Ku (FB) [Bobby Bob]; Raymond J. Lee (FB) [Randy Ray, Veep, DHHu/s]; Jaygee Macapugay (FB); Daniel May (FB) [Asst Dance Captain]; Paul Heesang Miller (FB); Kristen Faith Oei (FB); Maria-Christina Oliveras (FB) [Campaign Manager]; and Geena Quintos (FB) [Dance Captain]. Of these, performances that stick in my mind include Ito’s Jing and her singing in the closing number, Lee’s Veep in the gun number, and Ku’s Bobby Bob, who was a hoot.

Swings and understudies were: Kara Guy (FB) [Zoe/Hillaryu/s]; Trevor Salter (FB); and Emily Stillings (FB).

The music in the show had a good sound, although it could use a hint of Chinese flavor in Danny Troob‘s orchestrations. The 22-piece orchestra, under the musical direction of David O (FB), consisted of  Alby Potts (FB) [Assoc Conductor, Keyboard];  Sal Lozano, Joe Stone, Jeff Driskill (FB), and Paul Curtis (FB) [Woodwinds]; Joe Meyer, Kristy Morrell (FB) [French Horns];  Dan Fornero (FB), Rob Schaer (FB) [Trumpets];  Robert Payne [Trombone, Contractor]; Amy WIlkins [Harp]Ken Wild (FB) [Bass]; Ed Smith [Drums]; Matt Ordaz [Percussion];  Jen Choi Fisher (FB[Concertmaster];  Grace Oh (FB), Rebecca Chung, Marisa Kuney (FB), Neel Hammond, and Mark Cargill [Violins]; Diane Gilbert [Viola]; and David Mergen (FB) [Cello]. Alex Harrington was the Associate Music Director. Chris Fenwick was music supervisor.

Finally, turning to the creative and production team. David Zinn‘s scenic design worked well to establish place and mood, although a few aspects were a bit overdone (although that might have been interpretation of the Chinese’s future’s lens). It was supported by Mark Barton‘s lighting and Anita Yavich‘s costumes. The lighting generally worked well to establish time and place; the use of red was particularly well done. Most of the costumes had a suitably Chinese feel to it, although there was one dress for Hillary that struck me as a bit odd. Tom Watson‘s hair and wig design was believable, as was Angelina Avallone‘s makeup. Kai Harada‘s sound design was suitably clear. Other production credits: Joel Goldes [Dialect Coach]; Joy Lanceta Coronel [Dialect Coach]; Steve Rankin [Fight Director]; John Clancy [Dance Arranger]; Heidi Griffiths CSA [Casting]; Kate Murray CSA [Casting]; David Lurie-Perret [Production Stage Manager]; Shelley Miles [Stage Manager]; Ellen Goldberg [Stage Manager]; David S. Franklin [Stage Manager]; Nikki DiLoreto [Assoc. Director]; Sunny Hitt [Assoc. Choreographer]; East-West Players (FB), The Curran (FB), and The Public Theatre (FB) [Assoc Producers].

Soft Power continues at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) through June 10. Tickets are available through the Ahmanson Box Office.  Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. This show is clearly a work in progress, and for us, it landed with a thud. Still, it is an interesting attempt, and if you’re into interesting attempts, you might want to see it. Your mileage may vary.

***

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 company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district (although, alas, they just announced they are going dark after Fringe), a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (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 Violet at Actors Co-op (FB).  The last weekend will hopefully bring a Nefesh Mountain concert at Temple Ramat Zion; the weekend itself is currently open.

June — ah, June. That, my friends, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), including The Story of My Life from Chromolume Theatre (FB). You can find a detailed discussion of the Fringe schedule here. Right now, it looks like the following:

July will get busier again. It starts with the 50th Anniversary of Gindling Hilltop Camp, followed by On Your Feet at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The next weekend may bring Jane Eyre The Musical at Chromolume Theatre (FB) [although it is unlikely… Chromolume has announced they lost their lease and are closing, and that their Fringe show will be their last show … and hence, Jane Eyre may not happen and that weekend will be open]. The third weekend in July brings a Bat Mitzvah in Victorville, with Beauty and The Beast at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) that evening. The last weekend may be a Muse/ique (FB) show. August starts with Waitress at the Hollywood Pantages (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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Thoughts on a Theatre Season – Ahmanson 2018-2019

As I noted a few days ago, the Ahmanson Theatre (FB was on the verge of announcing the rest of their season. Today they did it, and my guess was mostly correct. If you recall, I said: “As for the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), which has two slots to announce, I predict that one will be a show in development, and the other will either be Natasha, Pierre, … , or some form of dance or ballet, like the Matthew Bourne stuff that they’ve done recently.”. Well, I got the Matthew Bourne right, but their other show came out of left field — and I couldn’t be happier, given my daughter is a Yiddish scholar.

So what is the final Ahmanson season, and my thoughts on it? Here goes:

  • “Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations”. August 21 through September 30, 2018. This is the usual musical-in-development that the Ahmanson does (and that the Pantages will never do, unless it is already on tour. Should be good.
  • “Dear Evan Hansen” . October 17 – November 25, 2018. The big Tony winner last year. Pasek and Paul. ’nuff said.
  • “Come From Away” . November 28, 2018 – January 6, 2019. I’ve heard the music from this, and it should be spectacular.
  • Matthew Bourne’s “Cinderella”. February 5 – March 10, 2019. The Ahmanson likes the dance stuff from Bourne. I haven’t seen it; it will be an interesting change of pace.
  • “Falsettos”. April 16 – May 19, 2019. The only show I’ve seen before, but that production was in an intimate theatre. Should be good.
  • “Indecent”. June 4 – July 7, 2019. The story of a Yiddish play that had the first lesbian relationship. Wow. I’m surprised by this, and looking forward to it. You normally don’t get two plays out of the Ahmanson.
  • “The Play That Goes Wrong”. July 9 – August 11, 2019. Great comedy. Should be a lot of fun. 

This is one of the best seasons the Ahmanson has had in a while. Suffice it to say that I’m calling tomorrow (so I can split things over 4 payments) to subscribe. Now to figure out how to work things into my calendar….

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Thoughts on a Theatre Season – 5-Star Theatricals, Theatreworks, and a little bit more

It’s season announcement time, and I’ve gotten a few more in the mail. What am I interested in and what will I attend? What should you consider? Read on, McDuff!

🎭 5 Star Theatricals (FB) 🎭

This is the company that was formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre. They operate out of a large regional theatre in Thousand Oaks, doing locally-cast musicals with a mix of Equity performers, non-Equity professionals, and up and coming artists. They have announced three shows for the 2018-2019 season (currently remaining in the 2017-0218 season are The Hunchback of Notre Dame (April 20-29) and Beauty and the Beast (July 20-29)):

  • Shrek. 👍 Oct. 19-28, 2018. This is the first time 5-Star/Cabrillo is doing Shrek (Music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire), although it has been done regionally before (notably at Simi ARTS back in 2014). We last saw this back in 2009 at the Pantages; it should be nice to see a good regional production of the show.
  • Matilda the Musical 👍 March 22-31, 2019. Book by Dennis Kelly and Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin (FB) based on the novel by Roald Dahl (FB). This is the regional theatre premier for the region. We last saw this back in 2015 at the Ahmanson.  5-Star should do a good job with this.
  • West Side Story. 👍 July 26-Aug. 4, 2018. A classic show, with score by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Very appropriate in this year celebrating Leonard Bernstein. We last saw it at Cabrillo back in 2004.

We should be renewing our subscription when the packet arrives.

 🎭 Silicon Valley Theatreworks (FB) 🎭

I recently received the announcement of Theatreworks next season. Theatreworks is in the San Jose/Palo Alto area, about 300 miles away, but for the right show I might drive up, plus I have friends who live in that area. Here is their next season:

  • HOLD THESE TRUTHS. By Jeanne Sakata. REGIONAL PREMIERE. Palo Alto: July 11–Aug 5, 2018. An unsung American hero, Gordon Hirabayashi, fought passionately for the Constitution against an unexpected adversary: his own country. During World War II, he refused to report to a relocation camp with thousands of families of Japanese descent, launching a 50-year journey from college to courtroom, and eventually to a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
  • NATIVE GARDENS. By Karen Zacarias. REGIONAL PREMIERE.  Mountain View: Aug 22–Sept 16, 2018. In this cutting edge suburban comedy from America’s hottest new playwright, gardens and cultures clash, turning well-intentioned neighbors into ecological adversaries. When an up-and-coming Latino couple purchases a home beside the prize-winning garden of a prominent Washington D.C. family, conflicts over fences and flora spiral into an uproarious clash of cultures, exposing both couples’ notions of race, taste, class, and privilege.
  • FUN HOME. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Book & Lyrics by Lisa Kron.  Mountain View: Oct 3–28, 2018. [They don’t say it, but I think this is a premiere at the regional level.]  Welcome to Fun Home, the blazingly honest memoir of Alison, a graphic novelist exploring her youth in a loving, dysfunctional family whose secrets of sexual identity echo her own. Winner of every Best Musical award of 2015, this tragicomic tale is told with enormous emotion and sensitivity, its haunting yet amusing score illuminating one of the most extraordinary and original musicals of our times.
  • TUCK EVERLASTING. Book by Claudia Shear & Tim Federle. Music by Chris Miller. Lyrics by Nathan Tysen. REGIONAL PREMIERE. Palo Alto: Nov 28–Dec 23, 2018. An enchanting bestseller springs to life in this 1890s tale of Winnie Foster, a free-spirited girl whose search for adventure leads to the Tucks, a close-knit family that has discovered the secret to everlasting life. With a rousing score and a wealth of warm-hearted humor, this whimsical Broadway musical offers Winnie the choice of a lifetime: return to everyday life, or join the Tucks on their infinite, irreversible voyage through time.
  • FROST/NIXON. By Peter Morgan. Mountain View: Jan 16–Feb 10, 2019. Richard Nixon has resigned. David Frost has been canceled. With America caught in the riptides of Watergate and Vietnam, the former leader of the free world and the lightweight British talk-show host clash in a legendary series of TV interviews that will determine the President’s legacy forever. In a riveting political prizefight unseen again until today, the cameras roll, the truth spins, and it becomes clear that he who controls the medium controls the message.
  • MARIE AND ROSETTA. By George Brant. WEST COAST PREMIERE. Palo Alto: March 6–31, 2019. Stirring churches in the morning and the Cotton Club at night, Sister Rosetta Tharpe became a musical legend. With competition growing on the 1940s Gospel Circuit, she auditions a new partner, a beauty with a voice made in heaven. Will they blend, break, or find harmony at last? Don’t miss this roof-raising musical hit from our New Works Festival, the saga of the woman who inspired Elvis, Ray Charles, and more on her way to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
  • Hershey Felder: A PARIS LOVE STORY. Featuring the music of Claude Debussy. Written and Performed by Hershey Felder. WORLD PREMIERE. Mountain View: April 3–28, 2019. Virtuoso Hershey Felder takes us on his own personal journey as he explores the life and music of Impressionist composer Claude Debussy. For decades Felder’s “Great Composer Series” has celebrated the brilliance of Beethoven, Berlin, Tchaikovsky, and more. In this glorious series finale, he brings to life a visionary who proclaimed nature his religion and romance his milieu, creating music of ravishing beauty, color, and compassion. From the sweeping La mer and evocative L’après-midi d’un faune to the mystical Clair de lune, this soaring tribute will never be forgotten.
  • ARCHDUKE. By Rajiv Joseph. NORTHERN CALIFORNIA PREMIERE. Mountain View: June 5–30, 2019. Can one man, one moment, derail a century? Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph explores the present by focusing on the past: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, 1914—the flash that ignited World War I. On a darkly comic quest for immortality, three hapless insurgents prove that little has changed from then to now. This New Works Festival sensation is from the author of Broadway’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.

An excellent season. If I lived in Northern California, I’d subscribe both to TheatreWorks and to Tabard, whose season I already mentioned in my review of A Walk in the Woods:

  • The Tabard Theatre Company (FB) in San Jose has an interesting season coming up: Another Roll of the Dice / Sep 14 – Oct 7, 2018; The Explorer’s Club / Oct 26 – Nov 18, 2018; Uptown Holiday Swing / Nov 30 – Dec 16, 2018; Snapshots: A Musical Scrapbook (featuring songs from the Stephen Schwartz catalog)/ Jan 11 – Feb 3, 2019; Beau Jest / Feb 15 – Mar 10, 2019; and Queen of the Mist / Apr 5-28, 2019.  If they weren’t 300 miles away, we’d consider subscribing; still, we may drive up for Queen of the Mist. If you’re in the southern Bay Area, you should consider subscribing in our stead.

Looking at the TheatreWorks season, I’m really interested in Tuck Everlasting. This failed on Broadway, so it is unlikely that Los Angeles will see a tour. This means I’m dependent on a theatre company down here to do it, which isn’t that likely given our companies (I could see Chance giving it a try, or MTW. But anyone else? It might be a while). Yet I loved the music and the premise of the show. That might make it worth the drive for either Thanksgiving weekend or after the ACSAC conference.

 🎭  Chromolume Theatre (FB) 🎭

Chromolume just announced their Hollywood Fringe Festival production, and I’m excited. Here’s what they wrote:

We are happy to announce that our 2018 Hollywood Fringe Festival production will be the one-act musical, The Story of My Life! We are also excited to announce we will be performing at the The Hobgoblin Playhouse. We are excited to bring this story to you…coming in June! Click on the link below to find out more!

http://crtheatre.com/story.html

And for those of you who don’t know, if you purchase your season subscription before our current production ends, you will get free tickets to see this production!

We last saw Story of My Life back in 2009, right after the death of our dear friend Lauren. The story touched me in special ways; it is just a beautiful and meaningful show. Here’s one verse from a song in the show:

“You’re a butterfly my friend,
Powerful and strong
And I’m grateful for the way
You’ve always hurried me along.
When you flap your wings to stretch yourself
It might seem small to you
But you change the world
With everything you do.”

I’m really, really, excited for this show. We’re season subscribers. You should subscribe as well: $60 for Dessa RoseJane Eyre The Musical, and Sondheim’s Passion, as well as the Fringe show. Support a wonderful small theatre.

 🎭  Ahmanson Theatre (FB 🎭

Lastly, an update on the Ahmanson. They’ve been announcing their season in pieces, with the first chunk here, with an additional show I discussed with the Pantages season. There are two shows left to announce, and when I asked, CTG replied:

So, in two weeks, I hopefully should be able to make the final subscription (and see if I got my predictions right).

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God, I Hate Shakespeare … and WordPress | “Something Rotten” @ Ahmanson

Something Rotten (Ahmanson)Sometimes, second tries are better. Hopefully, that will be true for this writeup, because after four hours, when I went to post the first version of this writeup, WordPress not only ate it with an unknown error, but conveniently hadn’t been saving a backup. Of course, it doesn’t help that I’m writing this with a headache I didn’t have the first time. [Update: I discovered Monday morning that the original review did post, only with a date of November 21, 2016 — because it also crossposted to DW! I’ve fixed the date, so now there are two copies of the review. Are they different? You’ll have to read them to find out.]

However, sometimes first attempts are great. Witness the show now at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). It is from two new writers for Broadway, Karey Kirkpatrick (FB) and John O’Farrell (although both have extensive writing experience). It is from a first-time Broadway song-writing team, brothers Wayne Kirkpatrick (FB) and the aforementioned Karey Kirkpatrick (FB) — although both have extensive experience on the pop music side. Lastly, it is based on a new (i.e., first-time) idea from those brothers.

This could have had the makings of a total disaster. After all, two brothers, writing a show for a medium they’ve never worked in, with a totally new idea. What could go wrong? Hold that idea for the synopsis.

So what was their idea? After all, some shows have very simple ideas at their heart. Gang warfare. A matchmaker. Stealing a loaf of bread. A litterbox. A breakfast food. At the heart of this show — it’s genesis — is the idea: “What if Shakespeare had been the rock star of his age, with all the ego that comes therewith?”

And that, friends, it the plot of Something Rotten. Can I go home now? I feel like I’ve done this before.

OK, so that’s not all their is to Something Rotten. There is also a lot of satire of shows that have been previously on Broadway. This creates an interesting coincidence. Last week, we saw another show that poked fun at Broadway shows, Spamilton. Two consecutive shows that have a common thematic element. That also happened the last time we were at the Ahmanson: Both Bright Star and Mice! share a common thematic elements. The third time, however, won’t be the charm. I’m at a loss to think of a single common thematic element between Soft Power and either School of Rock or Violet. But who knows….

So what is the story of Something Rotten? Imagine it is the Renaissance — you know, what you see at your local RenFaire. Shakespeare is at the top of his game and is the equivalent of a rock star. The rest of the writers in town? Well, they’re just a renfaire show compared to him. But two brothers continue to try to best him: Nick and Nigel Bottom. Shakespeare once was a part of their troupe, until they fired him for having no talent as an actor — they told him to try writing. A big mistake. Since then, he’s been rising and they are having trouble paying the bills (as his wife Bea, who will do anything to help him, continues to remind him). Nick is the outward face and the main writer; Nigel is a poet at heart. Knowing they must find the next big thing to beat Shakespeare, Nick visits a soothsayer. The prediction: Musicals. At this point, Nick decides to write a musical, using Nigel’s lyric sonnets as lyrics. They start with a first attempt, but their topic just doesn’t sell — a musical about the Black Plague. Nick decides he just needs to know what Shakespeare’s next big hit will be? He visits the soothsayer again, and the answer is:  Well, it looks like something called Omlette. There are also visions of Ham and Danish, along with snippets of plots and loads of other musical ideas. So off Nick goes to write a musical about breakfast foods. He even allows the Jewish financier, Shylock, to invest.

You can see where this is going, right?

Complicating the plot are the Puritans. They really know how to destroy the mood.  In this case, the daughter of Brother Jeremiah, Portia, has fallen in love with Nigel’s poems — and thus with Nigel. But Nigel is a man of the theatre, where men dressed as women kiss other men, and they are bringing in song and dance. He forbids the relationship, and we all know what happens with forbidden relationships in Elizabethan times.

I think you can take it from there.

The humor in this show is very broad, and there are loads of sexual jokes and double entendres. If you’ve ever been at a renfaire, you know that fits right in. There are loads of references to other Broadway shows, either by word or sight gag. If those are your tastes in humor, you will love this. They are, and I did. I found this an extremely funny show — perhaps not as funny as Spamilton, but very very close. I also enjoyed the music quite a bit. Ever since the Tony Awards showcased “A Musical”,  I’ve loved that song, and other songs such as “Right Hand Man”,  “Welcome to the Renaissance”, and “Make an Omlette” are equal earworms. So this show had broad humor and great music. It’s not very deep, but when you go to see a musical, who wants to see something dark and dreary. Well, except for Les Miserables.

Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw understands broad humor, given his background with Drowsy ChaperoneBook of Mormon, and Spamalot. He works with the performance team to bring the humor out to the audience, playing it broad and including the timing for the laughs. He fills the dances with energy as if they were something new, and cleverly plays with and on the conventions being parodied. It works well and is quite enjoyable.

So should you see this for the story? Yes, you’ll have lots of fun, and find it well worth the price (which will be substantially less than you’ll pay for that show on Hollywood Boulevard — and that’s no joke). But the story isn’t all — there are great performances in addition.

In the top positions are Rob McClure (FB) as Nick Bottom and Josh Grisetti (FB) as Nigel Bottom.  McClure’s Nick is in many senses a classic straight man — he isn’t in on the joke of what is going on around him, and in that, he’s hilarous. He plays that aspects quite well, which combined with strong singing and dancing make him a joy to watch. I’ve heard him before but never quite connected the voice to the performance (in both Honeymoon in Vegas and Chaplin), and I’ve likely seen him in the Avenue Q tour, but his performance here makes me want to follow his career a bit more. Just watch him in numbers like “God, I Hate Shakespeare”, “A Musical”, “Bottom’s Gonna Be On Top” or “Make an Omlette”. He also has great chemistry with his on-stage wife, Bea (Maggie Lakis (FB)), which comes across wonderfully during their shared “Right Hand Man”. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as his on-stage wife is his off-stage wife of 12 years — they met in the cast of Grease. That certainly must make touring easier.

I haven’t forgotten about Nick’s on-stage brother, Nigel. Of the two, Nigel is more the poet of the two, and has less of the physical and dance humor. He does get a cute girl, tho…. Grisetti handles NIgel’s character well, capturing the poetic side of him and the adultation of Shakespeare (which his brother hates). He also has a very nice singing voice which is shown in his numbers with his love interest, Portia, played by Autumn Hurlbert (FB): “I Love the Way” and “We See the Light”. He also demonstrates it in his number “To Thine Own Self”.

Of course, how can we forget the rock star bard, Will Shakespeare, played by Adam Pascal (FB). Pascal captures the character well, perhaps from his actual rock star experience, both from his lead roles in both Rent and Aida, as well as his rock credentials. It is clear he is having fun with this role and is conveying that to the audience. Watch him in “Will Power” and “Hard to Be The Bard” and you’ll see what I mean.

Moving to the remainder of the named characters, the next two main ones are Nostradamus, played by Blake Hammond (FB), and Shylock, played by Jeff Brooks (FB). Hammond’s Nostradamus is a hoot, from the first time we see him just before “A Musical”. He sings well, dances well, and most importantly, plays the humor well while having a load of fun. Just a joy to watch. I also enjoyed Brooks’ Shylock. A much smaller role, but I have to love a MOT in a role that highlights what it was like for Jews during those times (something conveniently omitted from your local RenFaire). He does great in “To Thine Own Self”.

The remaining named role is Scott Cote (FB)’s Brother Jeremiah, head of the Puritans and father of the aforementioned Portia. Cote gets some of the best double entendre lines in the show, and he says them with a great straight face and the occasional double-take. He is also great in the “We See The Light” number.

This then brings us to the ensemble and the smaller named roles. Two things I would like to highlight about the ensemble: (1) Nick Rashad Burroughs (FB) [Minstrel, Snug, Chef Trio] was wonderful as the MInstrel who opens each acts; (2) the ensemble seemed to be having loads of fun with this show. I watch a show both with and without binoculars, and it was fun just watching the faces of the ensemble as they were performing and just having fun. That fun is infectious and carries to the audience. The ensemble, in addition to Burroughs,  consisted of (additional named roles and understudy (u/s) noted): Lucy Anders (FB) [Portiau/s]; Kyle Nicholas Anderson (FB) [Tom Snout, Chef TrioNigel Bottomu/s]; Daniel Beeman (FB) [Yorick, Shakespeare’s Valet, Will Power Backup BoyShakespeareu/s]; Mandie Black (FB) [Asst. Dance Captain]; Pierce Cassedy (FB) [RobinNigel Bottomu/s]; Drew Franklin [Will Power Backup Boy]; Ralph Meitzler (FB) [Will Power Backup BoyShakespeareu/s]; Patrick John Moran (FB) [Francis Flute, Master of the JusticeNostradamusu/s, Brother Jeremiahu/s, Shylocku/s]; Joel Newsome (FB) [Lord Clapham, Eyepatch ManNostradamusu/s, Brother Jeremiahu/s, Shylocku/s]; Con O’Shea-Creal (FB) [Peter QuinceWill Power Backup BoyChef TrioNick Bottomu/s]; Kaylin Seckel (FB) [Beau/s]; Sarah Quinn Taylor (FB); Tonya Thompson (FB); and Emily Trumble (FB) [Beau/s].

The following folks were in the cast as backup swings: Kate Bailey (FB) [Portiau/s]; Brandon Bieber (FB[Dance Captain]; Ian Campayno (FB); and Cameron Hobbs (FB). I’ll note there’s a clear reason Bieber is the dance captain — he’s got loads of asst. choreographer credits under his belt.

Turning to the music, without which the songs and the dances would …. look funny. Brian P. Kennedy (FB)  was the Music Director and Conductor, with Music Supervision and Vocal Arrangements by Phil Reno, music arrangements by Glen Kelley, orchestrations by Larry Hochman (FB), and music coordination by John Miller (FB). The orchestra consisted of: Brian P. Kennedy (FB) [Conductor / Keyboard1]; William Shaffer [Assoc. Conductor / Keyboard2]; Cameron Rasmussen (FB) [Guitar1]; Brad Flickinger [Drums / Percussion], Sal Lozano  [Reed1]; Rob Schaer [Trumpet];  Robert Payne [Trombone / Contractor]; Jen Choi Fischer (FB) [Violin]; Justin Lees-Smith (FB) [Guitar2];  Alby Potts (FB) [Keyboard3]; Ken Wild (FB) [Bass]; John Sawolski (FB) [Keyboard2 Sub]. Music Copying was by  Emily Grishman, who was joined by Katharine Edmonds  for Music Preparation.

Finally, turning to the production and creative team. The scenic design was by Scott Pask, who creates a reasonably flexable approach using backdrops and lighting; it looked flexible enough to allow this to be easily adapted for the high-school and regional crowd — ensuring a long life. The sound and lighting design was by Peter Hylenski (FB) [Sound] and Jeff Croiter (FB) [Lighting]. Costume Design was by Gregg Barnes (FB), who created a look that was a bit fancier than RenFaire, but probably fit what people were expecting. Josh Marquette (FB)’s Hair Design was great at the design level, but there was an execution problem — with the binoculars, the hair-net of the wig was a clearly visible line on the forehead, and that’s not great for suspension of disbelief. Rounding out the production credits were: Jeff Norman [Production Stage Manager]; Matt Schreiber [Stage Manager]; Brae Singleton (FB) [Asst. Stage Manager]; Steve Bebout (FB) [Assoc. Director]; Eric Giancola (FB) [Assoc. Choreographer]; Telsey + Company (FB) [Casting]; Jim Harrison [Company Manager]Port City Technical (FB) [Production Management].

Something Rotten continues at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) through December 31. Tickets are available through the CTG Website; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. The show has broad humor, great singing, great dancing, and loads of references to other shows. Who could ask for anything more … oh, right, never mind that line. Still, it is a wonderful show and you’ll have a great time.

But don’t leave just yet. Twice a year Broadway turns to us, its captive audience, to demand ransom (uh) request our support for Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS (FB), an organization that — all joking aside — does some remarkable work. We go to enough theatre that we always seem to catch the BCEFA appeal, and we always give something. You should too, by clicking here. Alas, no one donated enough at our performance so that this happened.

While this season is troubled for the Ahmanson with the postponement of the next show, the next season is looking great. In addition to the previously announced 👍 Dear Evan Hansen, CTG has announced three more shows: 👍 Falsettos, 👍 Come From Away, and 👍 The Play That Goes Wrong.  Depending on what the last two shows are, this might entice me to subscribe.

***

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 company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre(FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (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:

November concludes with the Anat Cohen Tentet at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB) and  Levi (a new Sherman Brothers musical) at LA Community College Caminito Theatre (FB).

December starts with ACSAC 2017 in Orlando FL. As soon as we return, we’ve got Pacific Overtures at Chromolume Theatre (FB) and the Colburn Orchestra at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB). The weekend encompassing Chanukah sees us back at the Saroya  (FB) for the Klezmatics (FB). We also hope to squeeze in a performance of A Christmas Story at the Canyon Theatre Guild (FB). Of course there will also be the obligatory Christmas Day movie — who knows — perhaps it’ll be the upcoming The Greatest Showman.

Right now, early 2018 is pretty open, with only a few weekends taken by shows at the Pantages and Actors Co-Op. I did just pick up tickets for Candide at LA Opera (FB). But that will likely fill up as Chromolume announces their dates, and announcements are received on interesting shows. Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018! We may also be adding a CTG subscription, given their recent announcements regarding the next season.

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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God, I Hate Shakespeare | “Something Rotten” @ Ahmanson

Something Rotten (Ahmanson)[This is the post that I thought was lost. Instead, it crossposted to Dreamwidth, but with a date in 2016! I corrected the date, so now there are two copies of the review. Are they different? You’ll need to read them to find out.]

Most musicals start with a simple premise, idea, or property. I’m sure your familiar with this. A musical swinder. A gang fight, A matchmaker. Breakfast foods. You get the idea. The show we saw last night at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), Something Rotten, was such a show. The premise? What if Shakespeare had been the stuck-up rock star of his generation?

The rest of the theme then follows quickly: What about the other “rock stars” of that era — the other writers? How did they get visibility when outshone by Shakespeare’s sun? How would they achieve the level of fame and fortune? Add in a bit of referential humor, and you basically have the plot of Something Rotten.

That referential humor, by the way, creates quite a interesting coincidence. When we were last at the Ahmanson back in October, we saw the musical Bright Star. The next day I saw a play that had echoes of the same thing – Mice. Last week, we saw Spamilton at the Kirk Douglas. It was a musical that was chock full of references to other musicals in addition to their main target of parody. Last night’s Something Rotten? Same thing. Most of the sequences involving the soothsayer were filled with references to other musicals, starting with “A Musical” (which you might remember from the Tony Broadcast) and exploding in the “Make an Omlette” scene. So, both recent visits to the Ahmanson have been sequential with related shows. That trend probably won’t last: Soft Power is sandwiched between School of Rock and Violet.

As I alluded too earlier, the plot of Something Rotten revolves around Shakespeare. Specifically, it is the story of the Bottom Brothers, Nick and Nigel, who are competing playwrights to Shakespeare. He used to be part of their acting troupe, but was fired because he was a bad actor (and he was told to become a writer). Shakespeare’s star keeps rising, and the Bottom Brothers keep failing. In an attempt to find the next big thing, Nick Bottom consults a soothsayer who says it will be … Musicals. Nick is eventually convinced and starts writing, using his brother’s poetry as lyrics. But the subjects just don’t work out, and so he visits the soothsayer again to learn what Shakespeare’s next big hit will be? The answer? Omlette, and perhaps something to do with Ham and Danish. Nick starts running and won’t be deterred, even when his brother falls in love with a Puritan’s daughter, and writes perhaps the best play he’s ever written. You can guess a bit as to what happens then: Shakespeare steals the good play and Omlette fails … and we deal with the aftermath. What? You didn’t want that spoiler? Well, Romeo and Julia both die as well.

Along the way, we meet some various other characters: Bea, Nick Bottom’s long suffering wife that just wants to help him succeed in any way she can; Portia, the aforementioned Puritan’s daughter who falls in love with Nigel’s words; Shylock, the Jewish financier who just wants to be a producer (answering the question of why you see so few Jewish folks at RenFaire); and the Puritans headed by Brother Jeremiah, who believe that theatre is a sin — especially those men dressed as women kissing men — and that music in theatre is just heresy and an abomination. Puritans really know how to screw up anything that’s fun. Give them an inch, and next thing you know, they’ll screw up the ideals of that new world we just discovered.

In general, the show is a delightful silly romp — made even more fun by all the interpolated show references. First time theatre writers Karey Kirkpatrick (FB) and John O’Farrell have crafted a hilarious story that allows you to forget the cares and troubles of the outside world for two and a half hours, and that’s sorely needed now. Kirkpatrick (FB) and his brother Wayne (FB, ★FB) — first time Broadway musical writers — also crafted some fun music for the show with some songs that have rapidly become favorites — in particular, “A Musical”, “Right Hand Man”, and the opener “Welcome to the Renaissance”. Director and Choreographer Casey Nicholaw then infused the stage expression with energy and the right level of self-referential camp to make it all work.

That’s two stellar CTG shows in a row.

It also helps that the performances are great as well. In the top position — sorry, Will — are Rob McClure (FB) as Nick Bottom and Josh Grisetti (FB) as Nigel Bottom. Rob McClure is someone I never realized I liked as much as I do. Perhaps I should explain. I’m actually a fan of the music of Jason Robert Brown’s Honeymoon in Vegas,  which flopped on Broadway but starred McClure. I also enjoyed listening to McClure’s work in Chaplin. But I had never seen him in person. Not only did he sing well, but he handled the humor and dance well, making this an enjoyable production. He also has great chemistry with his on-stage wife Bea, played by his wife-in-real-life, Maggie Lakis (FB). This real-life chemistry adds to the stage chemistry in songs such as “Right Hand Man”, which they both nail. But even in other numbers, such as my fav “A Musical” or “I Hat Shakespeare” or “Make an Omelette”, he is just spectacular. Turning back to Grisetti’s Nigel Bottom: This is the less comic, more romantic character who is the poet, who handles the humor, singing, dancing, and performance very well.  He is also quite strong, especially in his scenes with his love interest, Portia, played by his not-wife-in-real-life Autumn Hurlbert (FB). The duet with the two in “I Love the Way” and “We See The Light” is just great, but Grisetti does well by himself in “To Thine Own Self” (and the scene surrounding it).

Then there’s Shakespeare. What more be said. But seriously, Adam Pascal (★FB)’s portrayal of the bard has the right rock-star edge in it because Pascal has experience playing rock-star like characters from both Rent and Aida. He has experience with the rock style of music, and handles both the music and the swagger well. P.S.: This was a BCEFA weekend, and evidently two nights ago someone donated $1K, resulting in this.

I’ve already touched upon the two major second tier characters — the love interests Bea and Portia. Both gave wonderful performances, and I’ve already mentioned their singing. Alas, this show was not written with large roles for women that would showcase them even more. Also standing out on this tier were Blake Hammond (FB)’s Nostradamus and Jeff Brooks (FB)’s Shylock. We first see Hammond in the showstopper “A Musical” where he leads the action, and then he reappears in songs like “Bottom’s Gonna Be On Top” and “To Thine Own Self”. He handles not only the singing and the dancing, but the comedy side of the performance as well, as is just fun to watch. Brooks’ Shylock has a smaller role, but the nature of the character and the point that he is making appeals to me.

The last significant named character is Scott Cote (FB)’s Brother Jeremiah, who plays Portia’s Puritan father. A fun performance, especially in his comic interactions (not sung, but — for example — at the end of the Black Death scene) and in “We See the Light”.

Rounding out the on-stage cast were the members of the ensemble. It is harder to single out performances here, as the audience does not have an easy way of putting names with faces. I would, however, like to highlight Nick Rashad Burroughs (FB), who opens the show and Act II as the Minstrel, and who has a remarkable singing voice. In general, the ensemble does a fantastic job. I enjoy occasionally pulling out the binoculars and watching the faces of the ensemble, and these folks were clearly having a lot of fun, and that comes across to the audience. The ensemble consisted of the following folks (additional roles beyond the ensemble are noted): Lucy Anders (FB) [u/s Portia]; Kyle Nicholas Anderson (FB) [u/s Nigel Bottom]; Daniel Beeman (FB) [u/s Shakespeare]; Mandie Black (FB) [Asst. Dance Captain]; Pierce Cassedy (FB) [u/s Nigel Bottom]; Drew Franklin; Ralph Meitzler (FB) [u/s Shakespeare]; Patrick John Moran (FB) [u/s Nostradamus]; Joel Newsome (FB) [Lord Clapham; U/s Nostradamus, Brother Jeremiah, Shylock]; Con O’Shea-Creal (FB) [u/s Nick Bottom]; Kaylin Seckel (FB) [u/s Bea]; Sarah Quinn Taylor (FB); Tonya Thompson (FB) and Emily Trumble (FB) [u/s Bea].

The Off-stage cast (i.e., swings) were: Kate Bailey (FB) [u/s Portia]; Brandon Bieber (FB) [Dance Captain]; Ian Campayno (FB); and Cameron Hobbs (FB). Looking up the websites for this writeup, I can see why Bieber was Dance Captain — he has a hella lot of Assistant Choreographer experiences.

My periodic note to actors regarding my searching for their websites: I encourage you to get yourself websites — this provides a good stable place to put your credits and contact information. If you have such a site, remember to pay the domain name fees and keep it current. If you don’t have a site, the next best are sites like www.abouttheartists.com, Backstage, and other of those ilk with your resume. My last link of choice is Broadway World, Broadway.Com, or Playbill, because those only list Broadway credits, not the regional stuff you’ve been in.

Turning to the music side of things: Larry Hochman (FB) did the Orchestrations, with Music Arrangement by Glen Kelly (FB).  John Miller (FB) was the Music Coordinator. The orchestra was conducted by Brian P. Kennedy (FB), who also was first Keyboard. Others in the orchestra were: William Shaffer (FB) [Associate Conductor; 2nd Keyboard]; Cameron Rasmussen (FB) [Guitar]; Brad Flickinger  [Drums/Percussion]; Sal Lozano [1st Reed]; Rob Schear [Trumpet]; Robert Payne [Trombone, Contractor]; Jen Choi Fischer [Violin]; Justin Lees-Smith (FB) [2nd Guitar]; Alby Potts (FB) [3rd Keyboard]; Ken Wild (FB) [Bass]; John Sawolski (FB) [2nd Keyboard Sub]. Emily Grishman did the music copying, and was joined by Katharine Edmonds in doing the music preparation. Phil Reno was the music supervisor and did the vocal arrangements.

Finally, we come to the remaining production and creative credits. The scenic design was by Scott Pask, and worked reasonably well. In particular, I noted that it is something that might be doable by high schools, so this show might have a good long life. The sound design was by Peter Hylenski (FB), with Jeff Croiter (FB) doing the lighting design.  Both did what they were suppose to do: create the mood clearly, while otherwise being unobtrusive. Gregg Barnes (FB) did the Costume Design, and Josh Marquette (FB) did the hair design. The costumes worked well, although they seemed a bit more stereotypical than the costumes I see at the RenFaire, so someone’s got their history wrong. The hair — specifically the wigs — were more problematic. Note the quality of the hair itself, but watching the show with binoculars I was clearly able to see the net wig lines on foreheads — and that hurt the illusion. The fact that it is a wig must be invisible. Other production credits: Jeff Norman (FB) – Production Stage Manager, Matt Schreiber (FB) – Stage Manager, Brae Singleton (FB) – Assistant Stage Manager; Steve Bebout (FB) – Associate Director; Eric Giancola (FB) – Associate Choreographer; Telsey + Company (FB) – Casting; Jim Harrison (FB) – Company Manager; Port City Technical (FB) – Production Management.

Twice a year, the Broadway community raises funds for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. We always seem to catch one of these fund raising performances, and this weekend was no exception. We donated. Now it’s your turn.

Something Rotten continues at the Ahmanson through December 31. You can get tickets through the Ahmanson Website. Discount tickets may be available on Goldstar. This is a very funny and entertaining show; go see it.

The Ahmanson Theatre (FB) has announcement more of its 2018-2019 Season. In addition to the previously announced 👍 Dear Even Hansen, the Ahmanson has announced three more shows👍 Come From Away; 👍 Falsettos; and 👍 The Play That Goes Wrong. This is shaping up as a season worthy of subscription — I just need to learn what the remaining two shows are. Knowing the Ahmanson, one will likely be a pre-Broadway musical.

***

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 company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre(FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (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:

November concludes with the Anat Cohen Tentet at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB) and  Levi (a new Sherman Brothers musical) at LA Community College Caminito Theatre (FB).

December starts with ACSAC 2017 in Orlando FL. As soon as we return, we’ve got Pacific Overtures at Chromolume Theatre (FB) and the Colburn Orchestra at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB). The weekend encompassing Chanukah sees us back at the Saroya  (FB) for the Klezmatics (FB). We also hope to squeeze in a performance of A Christmas Story at the Canyon Theatre Guild (FB). Of course there will also be the obligatory Christmas Day movie — who knows — perhaps it’ll be the upcoming The Greatest Showman.

Right now, early 2018 is pretty open, with only a few weekends taken by shows at the Pantages and Actors Co-Op. I did just pick up tickets for Candide at LA Opera (FB). But that will likely fill up as Chromolume announces their dates, and announcements are received on interesting shows. Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018! We may also be adding a CTG subscription, given their recent announcements regarding the next season.

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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Too Many Words | “Spamilton” at Kirk Douglas

Spamilton (Kirk Douglas)First and foremost, my apologies in the delay in posting this. I’ve just been slammed this week in the evenings, combined with a migraine cycle.

Shortly after the Hollywood Pantages (FB) announced that it was bringing in the Hamilton juggernaut, the Center Theatre Group (FB) was faced with a dillemma: how to counterprogram? Their answer was to jump on the bandwagon with Spamilton.

Spamilton is a parody musical that sprung from the creative mind of Gerard Alessandrini (FB), creator of the long running spoof series, Forbidden Broadway. The Forbidden series has been long known to skewer current and past Broadway shows, and Spamilton could well have been titled Forbidden Hamilton — for that’s what it is: taking all of the hot air out of the musical theatre over-inflated Hamilton while simultaneously showing its love for the show. Along the way, it skewers other present and past Broadway shows.

Miraculously, I had not had the opportunity to obtain the Spamilton cast album before the show, and I hadn’t heard the songs. I recommend you do this as well so that the humor is fresh. Overall, I found the show hilarious — one of the funniest I’d seen in a while. But then again, I got about 98% of the jokes because I’m familiar with the shows and conventions skewered. If you’re less familiar with theatre and Hamilton, you might not get it all.

The reference to “Too Many Words” refers to the target of this parody: not Hamilton but it’s author, Lin-Manuel Miranda (FB). They comment on how many words Lin crams into a song and a lyric, his forced rhyming styles, his comparison to heroes like Sondheim and past shows. They highlight rap and hip-hop from previous Broadway shows (which wasn’t called hip-hop them, but was still highly patterned rhythmic rhyming). Over the bulk of the 90-so minutes, what one comes away with a sense of is their love of what Lin created. After all, you don’t see them making fun of High Fidelity, do you (and I happen to like that show).

With respect to Lin himself, Alessandrini gets it mostly right. He identifies Lin’s major works, of course: In The Heights and Hamilton, as well as his work with Disney. But he misses the opportunity the other recent show that Lin had a hand in — and that started here in Los Angeles: Bring It On The Musical. As least to me (perhaps because I recently listened to the Broadway Backstory on the show), it was a big omission.

Along with poking fun at Lin, Spamilton pokes fun at what Hamilton has become: a steamroller with overpriced seats, for which all are clamoring for tickets, and how the song and story entered the cultural vernacular (how often have you seen “in the room where it happens” or “tell your story”?) It also examines, albeit briefly, other recent Broadway shows of varying depth and quality, together with a number of past shows. For example, there is a reference to The Unsinkable Molly Brown, but I’m not sure who other than theatre nerds will get the joke. Molly Brown hasn’t had a revival since the early sixties when it opened. There also was the required reference to Barbra Streisand, although thankfully there is none of the usual references to Mary Martin or Carol Channing (although there is a Dolly reference).

Unfortunately, the delay between writing this up and seeing the show (we saw it Sunday evening — the start of the headache cycle) means that some of the best jokes have faded from memory. This is why I now plan to get the cast album. What hasn’t changed is the memory that this is one of the few shows that had me really laughing during the show; my wife noted that she hadn’t wanted to see a show that night, but she really enjoyed it. That said something about how the humor of this parody hit the two of us — probably a representative sample of those who see too much theatre. It was able to cut through the trite and find the body, and then to parody and skewer that body in a truly hilarious way.

I do recall that the production was jam-packed and non-stop, moving from parody to parody with nary a moment to catch your breath. Uhh, just like that other show over on Hollywood Blvd.

Gerard Alessandrini (FB) directed his ensemble well, enabling them to move from characterization to characterization smoothly and to have fun with the material and the audience. The ensemble itself — Dedrick A. Bonner (FB), John Devereaux (FB), WIlkie Ferguson III (FB), William Cooper Howell (FB), and Zakiya Young (FB) keeps switching roles, but primarily play the actors behind the characters in Hamilton. But they have loads of non-Hamilton characters as well, and if there is anything that can be said about the ensemble, it is that they pull this off with talent, aplomb, and a lot of pluck. Given the constantly switching characters, it is hard to single anyone out — they are all that good.

Added to the Ensemble for a specialty number or two are Glenn Bassett (FB) and Susanne Blakeslee (FB). Bassett primarily comes on as King George, but Blakeslee is  more broadly credited as “Diva”, taking on a number of, well, white actresses: Glen Close, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, and so forth.

The understudies for the show are Becca Brown (FB) and Elijah Reyes (FB).

Working up this writeup on the cast (and thus searching for their bios), what strikes me is how “LA” this cast is, unlike most CTG / Ahmanson shows. This production is really an LA-incarnation of Spamilton with actors grounded in or originating from LA, unlike the New York visitors we often get. That’s a refreshing and good thing to see, CTG.

The show was choreographed by Gerry McIntyre (FB), who made the movement seamless while still remaining very Hamilton-like.

Music for the show it provided by an on-stage piano, which is not explicitly credited in the program, but which I’m assuming was being tickled by Music Director James Lent (FB). Music supervision and arrangements were by Fred Barton (FB), with additional arrangements by Richard Danley (FB). Gerard Alessandrini (FB) presumably wrote the lyrics as he is credited as the writer of the show, and there is no separate “music and lyrics” credit; he also likely adapted the songs as necessary.

Production-wise, things are … simple. There’s no credit for scenic design because there really is none — there is just a poster of Spamilton that the actors can disappear behind. Everything else is done with props, which is why Glenn Bassett (FB) is also credited with being set and prop consultant. Much more important to setting the scene in this show is the costume design work of Dustin Cross (FB). I can’t vouch for accuracy with the shows they parody, but the costumes evoke enough similarity to identify the shows and that is what matters. They are also flexible enough to accommodate the large variety of characters portrayed by each actor. They were also all made by the CTG costume shop; these are not tour costumes. All of this is supported by the lighting design of Karyn D. Lawrence (FB) and the sound design of Adam Phalen (FB) [although, alas, the latter was marred in execution by a large amount of microphone static at our performance]. Other production credits: Andrew Lynford, CSA – Casting; Lindsay Allbaugh (FB) – Associate Producer; Brooke Baldwin (FB) – Production Stage Manager; and Maggie Swing (FB) – Stage Manager.

Note that, although this is a local production, it is also the start of a tour.

Although Spamilton in New York is closingSpamilton in Los Angeles has extended to January 7, so disregard what is on my graphic. Tickets are available through the CTG websiteSpamilton is on Goldstar, but is sold out. TIckets don’t appear to be available on TodayTix. So, although they are less expensive, Spamilton tickets are harder to get. It is well worth seeing.

***

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 company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre(FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (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:

Thanksgiving Weekend will bring Something Rotten at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). November concludes with the Anat Cohen Tentet at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB) and  Levi (a new Sherman Brothers musical) at LA Community College Caminito Theatre (FB).

December starts with ACSAC 2017 in Orlando FL. As soon as we return, we’ve got Pacific Overtures at Chromolume Theatre (FB) and the Colburn Orchestra at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB). The weekend encompassing Chanukah sees us back at the Saroya  (FB) for the Klezmatics (FB). We also hope to squeeze in a performance of A Christmas Story at the Canyon Theatre Guild (FB). Of course there will also be the obligatory Christmas Day movie — who knows — perhaps it’ll be the upcoming The Greatest Showman.

Right now, early 2018 is pretty open, with only a few weekends taken by shows at the Pantages and Actors Co-Op. I did just pick up tickets for Candide at LA Opera (FB). But that will likely fill up as Chromolume announces their dates, and announcements are received on interesting shows. Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018! We may also be adding a CTG subscription, given their recent announcements regarding the next season.

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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A Southern Story | “Bright Star” @ The Ahmanson Theatre

Bright Star (Ahmanson Theatre)I have a wide ranging taste in music (as anyone who has listened to the 41,583 songs on my iPod on shuffle knows), but one of my longest lasting musical loves has been folk music, which branches very quickly into its kissing-cousins: Bluegrass and Celtic. So when I learned that Steve Martin (FB) — of King Tut fame — was not only an accomplished Bluegrass musician but was working on a musical with Edie Brickell (FB) — another accomplished musician — I was intrigued. I got the cast album of the musical (Bright Star), and fell in love with the music. So I was very pleased when a tour was announced, and the show became part of the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) season. We saw it last night, and even through a headache, we fell in love with the show.

The story of Bright Star is a hard one to describe, especially because going into too much detail might derail the second act. Suffice it to say that the story explores the interconnection between two families in North Carolina: the Murphy family and the Cane Family. It focuses on two relationships. The first is the relationship between Alice Murphy, the daughter of a local preacher, and Jimmy Ray Dobbs, the son of the Mayor. The second is the relationship between Billy Cane, who has just returned from WWII, and Margo Crawford, who has been waiting for him. The time frame varies from the time of Billy’s return and shortly thereafter, to times in the past when Alice was Billy’s age.

I had had an inkling of the story from the cast album before going in, but I still found it wonderfully touching. The pacing of it unfolded well, giving us time to get to know the characters and their motivations, which made what happened in the second act much more effective.

The music of the show is squarely in the bluegrass and folk realm, with twinges of country and gospel. It is a genre that is underrepresented on Broadway — the only other musicals with scores of this style are The Robber Bridegroom and Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge. I loved it, and I strongly recommend listening to it. We were lucky enough to have the key voice on the album, Carmen Cusack (FB), playing the same role in Los Angeles.

The staging of the show, as conceived by director Walter Bobbie (FB) and choreographer Josh Rhodes (FB), was beautiful. The band was primarily in a wooden house on the stage that the characters kept moving around and turning around. The ensemble remained in fluid motion around and behind the characters, transforming scenes as needed. I found it magical and charming (but then, I liked Amalie as well for similar reasons). This was one of those shows with what I would call a representative set — small stage pieces that represent a place — as opposed to some of the hyper-realistic sets you might see in another show. It worked, and it worked well.

The casting was spectacular. As noted before, the lead character of Alice Murphy was played by the originator of the role, Carmen Cusack (FB). It was no surprise, therefore, that the role fit her like a glove, and she was able to be playful and quirky and to truly inhabit the character. She also had a wonderful voice for the part. As I’m typing this up, I’m listening to the album she recorded at 54 Below, and it is just a marvelous voice.

Playing opposite her as her love interest Jimmy Ray Dobbs was Patrick Cummings (FB). Cummings had great chemistry with Cusack, especially in the scene where we see the relationship between the two while he is working on the icebox. Not a great surprise – he had also been with the cast for a while and was the understudy for Jimmy Ray on Broadway. He also had a wonderful voice for bluegrass.

Leading the other key relationship as Billy Cane was A. J. Shively (FB), who was also in the Broadway cast in that role. Lovely singing voice, great playfulness and earnestness. I particularly liked him in the “Another Round” number and in his interactions in both the bookstore and at the literary publisher.

Billy’s love interest, Margo Crawford, was played by Maddie Shea Baldwin (FB). Her role was smaller, but she shone in it, providing a lovely light and lightness in her scenes. She had a lovely singing voice.

In terms of recognizable supporting characters, there were two primary sets. The first set were what were essentially comic relief characters in Ashford at the publishing company: Daryl Ames [Jeff Blumenkrantz (FB)] and Lucy Grant [Kaitlyn Davidson (FB)]. Both played their roles perfectly. Blumenkrantz is a master of comedy; this was demonstrated the last time we saw him in Murder for Two.  He captured the sardonic nature of his character quite well. Davidson was a good foil: good looks, good delivery, wonderful movement, and great expressions. Both were just fun to watch.

The other set of supporting characters were the parents of the leads: Stephen Lee Anderson as Daddy Murphy; Allison Briner-Dardenne (FB) as Mama Murphy; David Atkinson (FB) as Daddy Cane; and Jeff Austin (FB) as Mayor Josiah Dobbs. All brought the requisite characterization and authority to their roles; many had played them on Broadway. Anderson, Briner-Dardenne, and Austin had particular nice voices for this music. I’ll note we’ve seen Atkinson many times before, being subscribers to  Actors Co-op (FB).

Rounding out the cast in smaller and ensemble roles were: Devin Archer (FB) [also: u/s for Jimmy]; Audrey Cardwell  [also: Edna, u/s Alice]; Max Chernin (FB) [also: Max, u/s Daryl]; Robin de Lano (FB) [also: County Clerk, u/s Mama Murphy]; David Kirk Grant (FB) [also: Dr. Norquist, u/s Mayor Dobbs]; Kevin McMahon (FB) [also: Stanford Adams, u/s Daddy Cane]; Alessa Neeck (FB) [also: Florence, u/s Margo and Lucy]; and Michael Starr (FB) [also: u/s BIlly]. Swings were Kelly Baker (FB); Richard Gatta (FB) [also: Fight and Dance Captain]; Donna Louden (FB) [also: u/s Alice]; and Robert Pieranunzi (FB) [also: Asst. Dance Captain.] This group should be noted for their beautiful and fluid movement, in addition to the characters they portrayed. They seemed to be having quite a bit of joy and fun with their roles.

Music was provided by a wonderful on-stage bluegrass band: I would have gone just to hear a two hour concert of these wonderful musicians. The band was under the musical direction of Anthony De Angelis (FB) – conductor, piano. The other members — onstage and in the pit — were: Jason Yarcho (FB) – Assoc conductor, accordion, autoharp; George Guthrie (FB) – banjo, acoustic guitar; Eric Davis (FB) – acoustic guitar, electric guitar; Wayne Fugate (FB) – Mandolin, acoustic guitar; Martha McDonnell (FB) – violin / fiddle; Skip Ward (FB) – bass; Joe Mowatt (FB) – drums / percussion; David Gold (FB) – viola / violin; and David Mergen (FB) – cello. Peter Asher (FB) was the music supervisor; Rob Berman (FB) was the supervising Music Director and did the vocal arrangements; and  Seymour Red Press as the Music Coordinator. Orchestrations were by August Eriskmoen (FB).

Rounding out the production and creative credits: As I noted earlier, the scenic design of Eugene Lee, with scenic design supervision by Edward Pierce (FB), worked very well to create the scene and the mood. This was supported quite well by the costume design of Jane Greenwood, the lighting design of Japhy Weideman, the sound design of Nevin Steinberg, and the hair and wig design of Tom Watson. Everything seemed suitably North Carolina and of the period; the moving set pieces worked well, and the lighting and sound worked to establish mood well.  Additional production credits: Lee Wilkins (FB) – Associate Choreographer; Howard Cherpakov, CSA– Original New York Casting; Calleri Casting (FB) – Additional New York Casting; Michael Donovan, CSA– Los Angeles Casting; Anjee Nero (FB) – Production Stage Manager; David Van Zyll De Jong – Company Manager; Larry Morley – Touring Technical Supervisor; Kirsten Parker  and Susie Walsh – Stage Managers.

Bright Star continues at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) through November 19, 2017. Tickets should be available through the Ahmanson Website. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar.

***

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 company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre(FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (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 drought has ended, and the last three months of 2017 are busy busy busy. A little later today, I’m going to see a thriller penned by the fellow through whom we get our Saroya (VPAC) subscriptions, Schaeffer Nelson (FB) — Mice at the Ensemble Studio Theatre LA (FB) in Atwater Village. The weekend before Halloween brings This Land at Company of Angels (FB) in Boyle Heights

Looking into November, we start with the Nottingham Festival (FB) in Simi Valley, followed by The Man Who Came to Dinner at Actors Co-op (FB). The following weekend brings a Day Out with Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (FB), as well as The Kingston Trio (FB) at the Kavli Theatre in Thousand Oaks (FB). The third weekend will bring Edges at the CSUN Theatre Department (FB) on Friday, the Tumbleweed Festival (FB) on Saturday, and Spamilton at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (FB) on Sunday. Thanksgiving Weekend will bring Something Rotten at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and hopefully Levi (a new Sherman Brothers musical – join the Indiegogo here) at LA Community College Camino Theatre (FB). November concludes with the Anat Cohen Tentet at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB).

December starts with ACSAC 2017 in Orlando FL. As soon as we return, we’ve got Pacific Overtures at Chromolume Theatre (FB) and the Colburn Orchestra at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB). The weekend encompassing Chanukah sees us back at the Saroya  (FB) for the Klezmatics. We also hope to squeeze in a performance of A Christmas Story at the Canyon Theatre Guild (FB). Of course there will also be the obligatory Christmas Day movie.

Right now, early 2018 is pretty open, with only a few weekends taken by shows at the Pantages and Actors Co-Op. But that will likely fill up as Chromolume announces their dates, and announcements are received on interesting shows. Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018!

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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