🎭 At a Loss for Words | “Indecent” @ Ahmanson Theatre

Indecent (Ahmanson)Over the last few weeks, a large number of my friends have seen the play with music Indecent at  the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), and have raved about the show. They’ve been telling me to see it. Unfortunately, my season tickets were the penultimate Friday of the run (yet another reason we’re not renewing — the Ahmanson isn’t as friendly as the Pantages on adjusting those things or having seats available), and we just hadn’t seen it yet.

We saw it Friday night, and I’m at a loss for words.

Literally.

I was so caught up in this story, and how it was told, and the beauty of it. I was so caught up in the Yiddish theatre, and the current resurgence of Yiddish in our society (which our daughter will help, in no small part). I was so caught up in the sadness of the story, the sadness of the times, the sadness of the circumstances. And I was so caught up in the inspiration that led to the return of this show to the stage that … well, I’m at a loss for words. I have nothing to compare this to. All I can say is: If you can make it for the last week at the Ahmanson, do so. If this comes to your town, go see it. It is as simple as that.

Indecent tells the story of the play God of Vengence, written by Scholem Asch around 1907. The play was notorious for featuring a lesbian kiss, prostitutes, a brothel, and an implied desecration of the Torah. The Yiddish theatre at the time though the play might be seen as antisemitic for portraying Jews in a less-than-positive light. But Asch persevered and got the play produced: first touring around Eastern and the Western Europe, and finally, the troupe came to America. In America the play was find as long as it was running in smaller off-Broadway theatres. But when it came to Broadway, American Jews protested the obscenity they thought was there, and had the actors arrested on obscenity charges on opening night.

The remainder of the play picks up the story from there. It shows the PTSD that Asch felt after seeing what was happening to Jews in Europe in the 1930s. It shows the trial, and the results. It shows the troupe returning to perform the play in Europe, and even performing the play in the Warsaw ghetto. And it shows what invariably happened to the troupe. Lastly, it shows the attempts to revive the play in the 1950s.

All of this is done with a rotating troupe of actors and musicians playing all sorts of different characters, from the actors, to the authors, to the Yiddish intelligentsia of the time. It is supported by English and Yiddish subtitles, often indicating when characters would be speaking in Yiddish or English. It made numerous use of “A blink in time” to move time forward.

Was there a protagonist who was changed by this story? Arguably, Asch. Arguably, Lemmi, the stage manager. But arguably the entire troupe was changed in various ways because of the play.

Was there a point being made by this presentation and history lesson? Perhaps that the ideas we think are new really aren’t. Perhaps that we’ve attempted to censor theatre, but truth will out. Perhaps that nowhere is safe from the scourge of antisemitism, and perhaps the goyim only tolerate the Jewish world when we are acting safe and non-threatening. But threaten their Christian order and values, and face the consequences. Indeed, a survey out this week show that 20% of Americas still think it is acceptable to not serve Jews. Twenty percent! Is the antisemitism that Asch and his troupe faced gone from the world? Have we really learned anything?

This particular play came about when the playwright, Paula Vogel was at Cornell, and in the process of coming out, and her professor pointed her to the play. Twenty years later, the director Rebecca Taichman (FB) was at Yale, reading God of Vengence, when she gets the idea to stage the 1923 obscenity trial as her directing thesis.  The met, the ideas merged, and we have what we have on stage.

Unsurprisingly, given her history with this play, the direction by Rebecca Taichman (FB) was outstanding. Actors moved between characters and characterizations seemlessly, reactions seemed believable, and it just drew your attention. Choreography was by David Dorfman (⭐FB).

Given the nature of this show, particular actors (and the musicians, for the musicians also acted) are difficult to single out as the entire ensemble was strong. The acting team consisted of: Richard Topol (FB) Lemmi, the Stage Manager; Elizabeth A. Davis (⭐FB) Actor; Joby Earle (⭐FB; FB) Actor; Harry Groener (⭐FB) Actor; Mimi Lieber (⭐FB; FB) Actor; Steven Rattazzi Actor; Adina Verson (FBActor; Matt Darriau (⭐FB; FB) Musician: (Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Tin Whistle); Patrick Farrell Musician: (Accordion, Baritone Ukulele, Percussion); and Lisa Gutkin (⭐FB) Musician: (Violin, Mandolin, Percussion).

Understudies were: Ben Cherry (FBfor Mr.(s) Earle, Groener, Rattazzi, Topol; Lisa Ermel (FBfor Ms.(s) Davis, Verson; Valerie Perri (FBfor Ms. Lieber; Leo Chelyapov (FBfor Mr. Darriau; Janice Mautner Markham (FBfor Ms. Gutkin; and Isaac Schankler (FBfor Mr. Farrell.

Robert Payne was the Orchestra Contractor. The show featured a score and original music by Lisa Gutkin (⭐FB) and Aaron Halva (FB). Lisa Gutkin (⭐FB) was music supervisor.

Turning to the production and creative side: Riccardo Hernandez‘s scenic design was relatively simple: a platform some chairs, tables, and other accouterments of a travelling troupe. It was augmented to some extent by the projection design of Tal Yarden (FB), which provided context for the scene, as well as Yiddish (or Yiddish translateration) subtitles. Also supporting was Emily Rebholz (FB)’s costume design and J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova זיל (⭐FB)’s hair and wig design.  Christopher Akerlind‘s lighting was effective on establishing the mood, Matt Hubbs sound design blended into the background. Other production credits: Rick Sordelet (FBFight Direction; Joby Earle (⭐FB; FBFight Captain; Ashley Brooke Monroe (FBAsst. Director; Sara Gibbons (FBAssoc. Choreographer; Adina Verson (FBDance Captain; Tara Rubin (⭐FB) Original Casting; Alaine Alldaffer Boston Casting; Michael Donovan CSA Los Angeles Casting; Amanda Spooner (FBProduction Stage Manager; Emily F. McMullen (FBStage Manager.

Indecent continues at  the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) through July 7. Tickets are available through the Ahmanson box office. It does not appear to be on Goldstar, but does appear to be on TodayTix.  Go see it.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) [2018-2019 season], and the Musical Theatre Guild (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 the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB) is almost over. If you are unfamilar with Fringe, there are around 380 shows taking place over the month of June, mostly in the stretch of Santa Monica Blvd between 1 bl W of La Brea to 1 bl E of Vine, but all generally in Hollywood. On a first pass, there were lots I was interested in, 30 I could fit on a calendar, but even less that I could afford. Here is my current Fringe schedule as of the date of this writeup. [Here’s my post with all shows of interest — which also shows my most current HFF19 schedule. Note: unlike my normal policy, offers of comps or discounts are entertained, but I have to be able to work them into the schedule with the limitations noted in my HFF19 post]:

Key: : Non-Fringe Show/Event; °: Producer/Publicist Arranged Comp or Discount

As for July, it is already filling up. The first weekend of the month is still open. The second weekend brings An Intimate Evening with Kristen Chenowith at,The Hollywood Bowl (FB).  The third weekend of July brings Miss Saigon at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), followed by A Comedy of Errors from Shakespeare by the Sea (FB)/Little Fish Theatre(FB). The last weekend of July brings West Side Story at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). August starts with an alumni Shabbat at camp, and The Play That Goes Wrong at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). August ends with Mother Road and As You Like It at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (FB). In between those points, August is mostly open.

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. 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. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!

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🎭 A Time It Was, And What a Time It Was | “Falsettos” @ Ahmanson

Falsettos (Ahmanson Theatre)Normally, the progression of how I see major musicals is to see a regional tour first, then see the a major regional production, and then see the intimate theatre version or versions of the show. But 25 years ago I was seeing less theatre and preparing for the birth of my daughter, and so missed Falsettos when it was at the Ahmanson at the Doolittle. My first exposure to the show, instead, was back in 2011, when the YADA/Third Street Theatre mounted a production. About that show, I wrote:

Falsettos” is really two parts of a three part trilogy of one-act musicals with book by William Finn and James Lapine and Music and Lyrics by William Finn (it premiered on Broadway in 1992). The first part of the trilogy (which is not in “Falsettos“) is “In Trousers“, which introduces us to the main character, Marvin, and his discovery that he prefers men to women. The two parts of “Falsettos ” take place after this: Marvin has just divorced his wife, Trina, and has become involved with Whizzer. The first act, “March of the Falsettos“, addresses the desire of Marvin to have a tight-knit family of Marvin, his lover Whizzer, his ex-wife Trina, his son Jason (age 11), and their psychologist (and Trina’s eventual husband), Mendel. This act explores the impact of Marvin’s relationships on those around him, ending up with Trina in a somewhat happy relationship with Mendel, Jason reconciled with his dad, and Marvin and Whizzer split. The second act is the last part of the trilogy, “Falsettoland“. It deals with Jason’s Bar Mitzvah under the Marvin being reconciled with Whizzer, and the shadow of Whizzer coming down with AIDS and eventually dying.

Neither of these are the happiest of subjects, and William Finn’s sung-through music provides opportunity after opportunity to explore all the angst. Unlike “Spelling Bee” or “New Brain“, the music isn’t particularly memorable or uplifting. So overall, we walked out of the musical with an “eh” reaction to the book: it wasn’t quite as incomprehensible as “Adding Machine“, but it wasn’t particularly a wow either. That’s not to say there aren’t some good songs. I’ve always like the opening of both acts: “Four Jews in a Room Bitching”, which opens “March of the Falsettos” and “Welcome to Falsettoland” which opens “Falsettoland“. March (Act I) also contains the wonderful “I’m Breaking Down” (originally in In Trousers): this is a comic delight that Trina sings while making some god-awful baked contraption. The visual gags alone are a delight. Falsettoland” (Act II) has a few good numbers as well, in particular, “Watching Jason (Play Baseball)”, where the characters bemoan how Jewish boys can’t play baseball, and “Everyone Hates Their Parents” where Mendel and Jason sing about how teens always hate their parents as teenagers, but when they are older, they hate them less, and that when they have kids, their kids will hate them. As the father of a teen who is in this stage, all I can say is “how true!”. Lastly, Marvin’s haunting last number, “What Would I Do?”, is just wonderful: it poses the question of what Marvin’s life would be had Whizzer not been it in. It is a suitable capstone to the piece, showing the value of love and friendship.

It is now (looks at watch) 8 years later. Do I still think it is “eh”? If anything, this has become much more of a period piece: we now know how to manage AIDS/HIV, and we can essentially cure or render the disease non-detectable. That’s a good thing: we no longer have the epidemic of men and women dying of this disease. This piece, on the other hand, takes place at the start of the AIDS/HIV era, when we didn’t even know what the disease was — only that men were dying of it. Think of a continuum: this piece capturing the start, with pieces like Rent squarely capturing the middle (recall the “AZT break, referencing the cocktail that had just become common), and pieces like The Prom capturing the modern era where the disease isn’t a consideration. In that continuum, this piece has increased in importance to remind us where we were, and how a disease can rip apart families. It also reminds us that families are who we choose them to be.

But still, this is not a show where you walk out of the theatre cheering. As we drove home, we were listening to an episode of The Ensemblist with Shoshana Bean, and she talked about Hairspray,  and how it ended with all the cast on stage happy and singing. Sister Act, last week, ended similarly. But this show? Let’s just say it ends on the predictable downbeat, with the teeny tiny band. As a result, you still walk out of the theatre a bit “eh”. You enjoyed the show, there were great and wonderful performances, but it left you … solemn. It’s a downbeat book. Not Mack and Mabel downbeat, but still downbeat. But the performances were great.

Before I get into the individual performances, I would like to highlight some of the great moments in this show — because although overall it was down, there were some great ups along the way:

  • I love the opening songs in each act: “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” for Act I (March of the Falsettos), and “Welcome to Falsettoland” for Act II (Falsettoland).
  • “I’m Breaking Down” is still a comic masterpiece, and one of my favorite songs overall.
  • “Everyone Hates His Parents” is an absolute truism, and was wonderfully performed.
  • “The Baseball Game” is just so true, especially as I know Jewish Men that try to play baseball.

Under the direction of James Lapine, and with choreography by Spencer Liff, the production is incredibly creative. The first act has the characters using a large cube of oddly shaped pieces to create the various scene bases, and the dance is less the “step turn step step twist turn” cheorography of a big show with lots of dancers, and more of a choreography through life. Nowhere are both better demonstrated than in “I’m Breaking Down”, where the simple act of making a cake becomes both a dance and an exercise in mental collapse. That is the perfect mess of directors getting the best out of their actors, and cheoreographers making the movement seem natural yet integral to the storytelling.

The performances in this piece were strong. It is hard to tier the first act leads, as they all have relatively equal roles (two characters get added in the second act). But let’s start with the centers of the story: Marvin and his son Jason.

Marvin is in one sense the center of the triangle in the story: He was married to Trina and divorced her; he left her for Whizzer; and his psychiatrist was Mendel, who fell in love with Trina. Playing Marvin, Max Von Essen (⭐FB, FB) captures a man who doesn’t know what he wants in life exceptionally well. He has a lovely voice, which he shows in quite a few numbers, but especially in “What Would I Do?” or his very neurotic numbers like the opening “A Tight Knit Family”.

But Marvin isn’t the only center of the story: there’s also Jason, Marvin’s son. Two actors alternate playing Jason: Thatcher Jacobs and Jonah Mussolino (⭐FB). At our performance, we had Mussolino, who appears to have moved to this tour from the Les Miserables tour (which is across town at the Pantages, if he wants to see his friends). Mussolino was spectacular. His expressions, his playfulness, his singing and performance (for example, in “Everyone Tells Jason to See a Psychiatrist”) in the first act were only surpassed in the second act with his Bar Mitzvah, in “Everyone Hates His Parents”, and “Cancelling the Bar Mitzvah”. Great great performance.

However, if I had to pick a first choice in the performances, it has to be the top of the triangle, Eden Espinosa (⭐FB) as Trina. Just watching her energy, her fact, her embodiment of her character is just a delight. I noted before her performance in “I’m Breaking Down” as a comic masterpiece; but she’s strong in every number she’s in.

Trina is one point of the triangle; another point is Nick Adams (⭐FB, FB)’s Whizzer, the gay man with whom Marvin, Trina’s ex, falls in love in. Adams gets the lucky honor of not surviving the story. I think his character changes the most between the two acts: a bit more aloof and unexplored in the first act; a lot more open and loving in the second act, and with a decidedly stronger relationship with Jason, Marvin’s son. Adams captures those changing characterizations well, and moves from his initial stereotype to a warm person the audience cares about. He sings wonderfully and moves well.

The final point in the triangle was Nick Blaemire (⭐FB, FB) as Mendel, the Psychiatrist. Blaemire, who also wrote the musical Glory Days (which we saw the same year we first saw Falsettos) captures the self-effacing humor of Mendel well, and creates a very relatable  down-to-earth character who does a wonderful job of creating a new family with Trina. He sings wonderfully, is very playful in his movement (look at “Everyone Hates His Parents” or his scenes with Jason), and is quite fun to watch.

In the second act, two additional characters were introduced — the lesbians next door: Dr. Charlotte (Bryonha Marie Parham (⭐FB, FB)) and Cordelia, the Kosher Caterer (Audrey Cardwell (FB)). First and foremost: Ms. Parham has a voice on her — she sings, and sings wonderfully. It was a delight to hear her on all her numbers, in particular, her characterization and expression in “Something Bad is Happening”. Cardwell’s Cordelia gets less of an established personality in the writing, but Cardwell does great with what she gets, pushing her food with style :-).

Standbys and understudies were: Josh Canfield (⭐FB, FB) [who was on Survivor, cool!], Melanie Evans (FB), Megan Loughran (FB), and Darick Pead (FB).

The on-stage “teeny, tiny, band” was conducted by P. Jason Yarcho (FB), and consisted of: P. Jason Yarcho (FB) Conductor, Piano; Max Grossman (FBAssoc. Conductor, Keyboard; Philip Varricchio (FBReeds; Jeremy Lowe (FBDrums/Percussion. Other music credits: Michael Keller (FB) Music Coordinator; Taylor Williams (FB) / Randy Cohen Keyboards Keyboard Programmer; Vadim Feichtner (FBMusic Supervisor; Michael Starobin (FB) Orchestrations.

Lastly, turning to the production and creative credits: David Rockwell (FB)’s set was extremely clever. Starting out as a cube on stage with a backdrop of New York (presumably), the cube came apart to form walls, houses, chairs, desks, and you name it. This was extremely clever, but we replaced by more realistic elements, such as hospital beds and walls, in the second act. Still, the set was an extremely clever conception to execute. It was augmented by Jeff Croiter (FB)’s lighting which mostly worked well, but which also left some characters in the dark or at the edges thereof when they were still the focus of attention. Jennifer Caprio‘s costumes seemed appropriately period, as did Tom Watson‘s hair and wigs. Dan Moses Schreier‘s sound was clear. Rounding out the production credits: Eric Santagata Assoc. Director; Ellenore Scott (⭐FBAssoc. Choreographer; Tara Rubin CSA (FB), Eric Woodall, CSA, and Kaitlin Shaw, CSA Casting; Broadway Booking Office NYC Tour Booking &c; Gregory R. Covert (FBProduction Stage Manager; Amber Dickerson (FB) Stage Manager; Hollace Jeffords (FB) Asst. Stage Manager; Joel T. Herbst Company Manager; Gentry & Associates General Manager.

Falsettos continues at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) through May 19, 2019. Tickets are available through the Center Theatre Group. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar or through TodayTix.

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The Ahmanson Theatre (FB) has announced their 2019-2020 season, and coming off of their 2018-2019 season, my reaction is much like my reaction to Falsettos: eh. There are only two shows I’m interested in seeing out of the seven: Once on This Island and The Last Ship. Further, the Ahmanson does not understand care and feeding of season patrons (especially the feeding, as we saw at the Pantages subscriber backstage events at the Pantages and Dolby, where local restaurants brought their wares). When I recently had to exchange tickets, I was forced into a higher priced tier because of the paucity of seats available on any date — even weekdays — at my price point. The website was unclear and I needed to call customer service to confirm whether the price was before or after the exchange. Add to that the fact that, when we subscribed originally, they forced us to subscribe on a weeknight (as there were no tickets in the lowest price tier available for subscribers on weekends), and didn’t let us pick the week. Basically, they don’t make me want to go out of the way to be a subscriber even if there is a show or two I don’t like. Good treatment of subscribers is something I’ve seen the Pantages demonstrate. So I think for 2019-2020, it is single tickets. Similarly, there’s only one show in the Taper season of interest: What the Constitution Means to Me. Again, single-tickets. I am, however, considering the Musical Theatre Guide (MTG) season, if it isn’t too expensive: BarnumThe Goodbye GirlIt Shoulda’ Been You, and Kismet.

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

Upcoming Shows:

Tonight brings another tour: Les Miserables at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The third weekend of May brings The Universe (101) at The Main (FB) in Santa Clarita (we loved it at HFF18), as well as The Christians at Actors Co-op (FB).  May closes with two concerts: Lea Salonga at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) and Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes (FB) … and that’s not even the weekend. The last weekend of May will see me at Bronco Billy – The Musical at Skylight Theatre (FB).

June, as always, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB). If you are unfamilar with Fringe, there are around 380 shows taking place over the month of June, mostly in the stretch of Santa Monica Blvd between 1 bl W of La Brea to 1 bl E of Vine, but all generally in Hollywood. On a first pass, there were lots I was interested in, 30 I could fit on a calendar, but even less that I could afford. Here is my current Fringe schedule as of the date of this writeup. [Here’s my post with all shows of interest — which also shows my most current HFF19 schedule. Note: unlike my normal policy, offers of comps or discounts are entertained, but I have to be able to work them into the schedule with the limitations noted in my HFF19 post]:

In terms of non-Fringe theatre (which, yes, does exist): Currently, the first weekend of June is open, although I’m thinking about Ready Set Yeti Go at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB) [if the publicist contacts me or I see it on Goldstar for Saturday]. Fringe previews start the next week. The end of June also brings Indecent at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on June 28, just before the busy last weekend of Fringe.

As for July, it is already filling up. Although the front of the month is currently open, July 20 brings Miss Saigon at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), followed by A Comedy of Errors from Shakespeare by the Sea (FB)/Little Fish Theatre(FB). The last weekend of July brings West Side Story at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). August starts with an alumni Shabbat at camp, and The Play That Goes Wrong 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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🎭👠 What Is It With the UK and Shoes? | “Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella” @ Ahamanson

Matthew Bourne's Cinderella (Ahmanson)Quick: Think of something musical on stage that takes place in the UK, has dance, and is focused on shoes. Got it?

If you said, “Kinky Boots” — no, that was last month, when the tour stopped by the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for a week. Try again.

Perhaps you meant Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella, which is currently on-stage at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). That, after all, is musical, although not a Musical. Bourne’s staging does set the story in London during the Blitz, and that’s in the UK. It is Cinderella, so there has to be a shoe involved. Lastly, it is Matthew Bourne (FB)’s New/Adventures (FB) company, meaning it is an updated ballet, and thus dance on stage. The only difference is that this has recorded music, vs. the live musicians at Kinky Boots.

That, and Kinky Boots has a voice. Bourne’s Cinderella is wordless, although it still tells a story, just through a different medium.

We saw Cinderella last night at the Ahmanson, and my reaction was decidedly mixed. It was part of the subscription season, and as such, fulfilled that which a season subscription is supposed to do: expose me to things that I might not go see on my own. I am first and foremost a theatre person: I haven’t really seen other stage forms such as traditional opera, ballet, or modern dance. This version of Cinderella is from the modern ballet world. Bourne’s approach to ballet and dance is to combine a level of theatrical storytelling with the movement. I can appreciate that effort.

But this is also ballet, which has its own conventions and style. Most significantly: it is wordless storytelling. Consider: In theatre and in opera, the story is often told through words (with the exception of the occasional ballet insert). But in ballet, the entire story — exposition, character development, interactions, hopes, desires, fears — that would normally be told through dialogue and song are instead told through movement to a score. If you are coming from a theatrical background, this is something that can be disconcerting.

As a result, I found it difficult to get into the story of Cinderella, and I identify who the myriad of characters were. The dance itself was beautiful, and the dancers were highly skilled, and much emotion was conveyed. But what who did what? I wasn’t always sure. Which of the Pilot’s friends was Tom and which was Dick — I have absolutely no idea. In fact, other than seeing the characters as their “role” (pilot, stepmother, child), I couldn’t tell you who was which name. Although there was theatricality, the notion of conveying more than the gist of the story to the audience was lost.

So what was the story? You get some from the title itself: Cinderella. We all know that classic story: There’s a family with a stepmother, a father who has withdrawn in some way, some stepchildren, and a natural daughter who is treated badly. Invitiation to some form of party arrives, and the family goes off to enjoy themselves. Daughter is left behind in the ashes. Magical creature arrives to save the day and get the girl to the party (presumably to meet the man of her dreams), with one caveat: she only has until midnight. Girl arrives at party in fancy gown, and even her relatives don’t recognize her. She wins the guy, only to rush off at midnight, leaving a shoe. He hunts for the girl. Many pretend. He eventually finds her, and they marry and live happily ever after. Because they always do.

As the poster for the show illustrates, Bourne places his version in London during the Blitz. Cinderella is evidently living with her invalid father, her step-mother, and her step-family in some large house in London. The family consists of two step-sisters, and three step brothers — one of whom is normal, one of whom is fey (in the stereotypical sense), and one of whom is an overgrown child. Yes, they have names, but they are never spoken. An invitation to something arrives, but it is clear that Cinderella isn’t invited. After a bombing, a handsome pilot shows up injured. Cinderella hides him and tends to him, while her family entertains their boy and girl friends. They discover the pilot, and make fun of Cinderella, driving the pilot away. They then head off to the party, leaving Cinderella alone. Cinderella runs away, and the Angel shows up, getting Cinderella an invitation to the party and other magical stuff.

In Act II the party occurs, and we see all the characters having fun. The pilot and his friends show up and start socializing and winning over the girls. Cinderella shows up and the pilot is smitten. Cue loads of romantic dance, with characters trying to break them up. Eventually Cinderella and the Pilot go to his flat, but when midnight comes, she runs away again. She reappears as her drab self as the bombs drop, and she is taken away to hospital.

In the last Act, the Pilot hunts for the girl. He eventually finds her, with predictable results. So does the Stepmother, who tries to kill her, but is eventually carted off to jail. The Pilot and Cinderella marry, and go off to live happily ever after.

You can find a bit more detailed of a synopsis here.

That’s the story, at least as I could figure it out. There were some good comic bits in the background, most involving a servicewoman chasing someone, the overgrown child. There were also some interesting bits involving a gay couple, but in many ways those were both stereotypical and they didn’t fit the period. There was also a nagging #DancersSoWhite problem. Yes, I understand that a majority of ballet dancers are white, but it would have been nice to see a better effort made towards diversity, especially as this was a fantasy story that wasn’t dogmatic about accuracy to the time period mores.

In essence, story-wise, I was … meh. I’m glad I saw it, but it is not a medium that I would go out of my way to see again. It certainly didn’t make me want to go see more of Matthew Bourne’s stuff — and more on why that is important at the end of this all.

Dance-wise, the movement was beautiful. Although I missed how effectively dialogue and songs can concisely move a story along, I did appreciate the dance language to tell the story. It was moving and interesting to watch. I found it enlightening how essentially pantomime can be used to convey the story, with dance for the emotions. However, for two-and-a-half hours (with 2 intermissions), it can be exhausting to translate the visual into story. Although beautiful, it doesn’t make me want to go out of my way to see this style of dance. Theatrical dance, yes. Modern dance, maybe. But this form of ballet … meh.

The dancers were all strong. I’m going to list them here, but it is hard to know who was dancing what, for most roles were multiple cast, but the players board only listed the five principals (💃 indicates who was dancing at our performance):

Because I don’t know who actually was doing what, especially in the minor roles, I can’t complement the minor roles or the ones doing great stuff and movement in the background. So it goes.

This production (alas) used recorded music, playing Cinderella, Op. 87, by Sergei Prokofiev, recorded by the 82 piece Cinderella UK Orchestra at Air Studios, 2010.

Turning to the production and creative credits: The set and costume designs were by Lez Brotherston (FB), and they accurately represented the era well and were suitably creative. Neil Austin‘s lighting design suitably established the mood, and Paul Groothuis‘s sound design took you back to the war-torn UK with its ambient air and bomb sounds. Duncan McLean‘s projections augmented the set design well in establishing place. Other production credits: Etta Murfitt (FB) [Assoc. Artistic Director]; Neil Westmoreland (FB) [Resident Director]; Shae Valley [Production Supervisor]; Nicole Gehring (FB) [Company Manager]; Heather Wilson (FB) [Stage Manager]. Other company information can be found on the New Adventures page.

Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella continues at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) through March 10, 2019. If you are into ballet and dance, by all means go and see it. If you are more the musical theatre type, it could be a good exposure to the world of ballet — but be forwarned — this is not musical theatre and there is no song or spoken story to go with the dance. Tickets are available through the Ahmanson Theatre; discount tickets may be available on Goldstar.

***

On the day we saw Cinderella, the Ahmanson announced their 2019-2020 season. We knew about one show (Once on This Island), and I had attempted to predict the rest of the season when the Pantages announced their season. Needless to say, I got it completely wrong. Here’s the Ahmanson season:

  • Latin History for Morons. SEP 5 – OCT 20, 2019. Written and performed by John Leguizamo.
  • The New One.  OCT 23 – NOV 24, 2019. Written and performed by Mike Birbiglia.
  • New Adventures: Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake.  DEC 3, 2019 – JAN 5, 2020. Directed and choreographed by Matthew Bourne.
  • The Last Ship. JAN 14 – FEB 16, 2020. Starring Sting (in all performances). Music and lyrics by Sting.
  • The Book of Mormon.  FEB 18 – MAR 29, 2020. Book, music, and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez & Matt Stone
  • Once on This Island.  APR 7 – MAY 10, 2020. Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; music by Stephen Flaherty.
  • One show to be announced.

My reaction: Meh. There’s not a lot here for the musical theatre fan: Mormon is in the area regularly, and The Last Ship got poor reviews. One gets the impression that the Ahmanson spent its funds on the current season, and just couldn’t afford to bring in the good stuff. Not a way to keep your subscribers. Certainly not this one. We’ll get single tickets for the shows of interest, but right now this isn’t saying “subscribe” to me.

***

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

Upcoming Shows:

Tonight brings the annual MRJ Regional Man of the Year dinner at Temple Beth Hillel. The next weekend brings “Disney’s Silly Symphony” at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). The third weekend of March brings Cats at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The following weekend is Matilda at  5 Star Theatricals (FB) on Saturday, followed by Ada and the Engine at Theatre Unleashed (FB) (studio/stage) on Sunday. March was to conclude with us back at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but that date had to chance so that we could attend the wedding of our daughter’s best friend, who is a wonderful young woman.

April starts with Steel Magnolias at Actors Co-op (FB) and the MoTAS Men’s Seder. During the week, we are back at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for our rescheduled performance of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The next weekend has a hold for OERM.  April will also bring Fiddler on the Roof at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and the annual visit to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. Looking to May, only four shows are currently programmed: Falsettos at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), Les Miserables at the Hollywood Pantages (FB); The Christians at Actors Co-op (FB); and Lea Salonga at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Because some of those shows are mid-week, two weekends are currently open (but will likely be programmed as press announcements are received). June, as always, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (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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🎭 People and Connections | “Come From Away” @ Ahmanson

Come From Away (Ahmanson)It’s been a year, hasn’t it. In 2018, we’ve seen the growth of hate in our society. From shootings to xenophobia, from tribal politics and the detesting of anyone on the other side of the political spectrum. From families being torn apart, from having leadership in our country that is tearing people apart. These are sad, sad times.

But even in the worst of times, there are glimmers of the humanity that make us special, that gives us hope that — just perhaps — people can be better.

The play we saw last night, Come From Away at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), provides us that hope. It was just the right thing to be reminded of as our last live theatre of 2018.

For those unfamiliar with the story behind Come From Away: It tells the story of the small town of Gander, Newfoundland. A small town of perhaps 7,000, it was at one time a major airport with the responsibility of fueling any trans-Atlantic flight. But by 2001, jets had rendered that function obsolete, and they had perhaps a half-dozen flights a day.

Then 9/11 happened. Then the US airspace was closed, and every flight destined for the US was diverted to the nearest airport. For 38 jets from across the world, that airport was YQX, Gander. With no notice, this small town saw its population double, and a need to accommodate, feed, and take care of passengers from these 38 planes for almost a week.

They stepped up. They did. They made friendships. They demonstrated the human spirit of caring and compassion. They didn’t asked to be paid, or for any compensation.

Come From Away is this story. Authors, composers, and lyricists Irene Sankoff and Devid Hein take the thousands of citizens of Gander, and the thousands of airplane passengers, and tell their story with just 12 actors. Under the direction of Christopher Ashley, it becomes a theatrical fugue or theatrical tapestry, weaving together different voices / threads that come together, when viewed at a distance and as a completed whole, that ultimately is captured in the refrain, “Welcome to the Rock”. It is that phrase, “welcome”, that is at the heart of this piece — and that welcome is successful because it is part and parcel with the notion of respecting the Come-from-aways because, ultimately, they are Islanders as well.

It is an attitude that society can do well by remembering. It is an attitude that we saw before the show, when getting coffee after our dinner. My wife was fighting with the Starbucks app, and the person behind us just paid for her coffee. She, in turn, will pay it on. Just think about what our society could be if instead of the hatred that permeates everything today, we had the kindness of the citizens of Gander.

I liked the story here. I liked the message here. I liked the music here (especially the jam session at the end).

Dear Evan Hansen, the show that preceded this at the Ahamanson, had at its heart the message that no one should be forgotten, no one should be alone. It was a message that resonated in our alienated and isolated society of today. But Come From Away gives a stronger message: “Welcome”. Even if you are different. Even if we fear you. Even if you are a Bonobo monkey. We care about you, and you will get through this — no, we will get through this together.

We’re in crappy times. But we will get through this together, through the simple act of welcoming the stranger. What better sentiment to be sharing at this time of year. Don’t build the walls to drive us apart, but say “Welcome, come in, have some tea, and the whisky is in the cabinet downstairs.”

Go see this. You will be uplifted.

The cast for this was truly an ensemble cast — a collection of threads of different sizes and shapes and colors, all of whom were strong. This cast consisted of:

With an ensemble cast, it is hard to single out folks. To a person, the actors seemlessly transitioned from character to character — a slight costume change, a slight voice change — and — boom — a new person. It was a remarkable transaction, which showed the remarkable talent of this team. There are a few I would like to especially commend. Becky Gulsvig’s Beverly characterization was really great, and an inspiration to women considering male-dominated careers. I also liked Kevin Carolan’s Mayor Claude. But all of them were great (and I got a kick discovering that we had the entire cast of Daddy Long Legs in this show).

Standbys were: Julie Garnyé (★FB, TW); Marika Aubrey (★FB, TW); Jane Bunting (FB), Adam Halpin (TW), Michael Brian Dunn (FB), and Aaron Michael Ray (FB, TW).

The on-stage band was spectacular, especially during “Screech In” and the closing playoff. I wish they had an album out there of Newfoundland music. The band consisted of: Cynthia Kortman Westphal (FB[Music Director, Conductor, Keyboard, Accordion, Harmonium]; Isaac Alderson (FB) [Whistles, Irish Flute, Uilleann Pipes]; Kiana June Weber (★FB) [Fiddle]; Adam Stoler (FB) [Electric / Acoustic Guitar]; Matt Wong (FB) [Acoustic Guitar, Mandolins, Bouzouki]; Max Calkin (FB) [Electric / Acoustic Bass]; Steve Holloway (FB) [Bodhran, Percussion]; and Ben Morrow (FB) [Drums / Percussion]. Other music credits: Cameron Moncur [Assoc. Music Director]; David Lai (FB) [Music Coordinator]; Andrew Barrett for Lionella Music LLC [Electronic Music Design]; Zach Redler (FB) and Ryan Driscoll [Music Preparation]; August Eriksmoen [Orchestrations]; Ian Eisendrath [Arrangements, Music Supervision].

Lastly, turning to the remaining creatives and the production team. The wonderful movement and dance was the creation of Kelly Devine.  Beowulf Boritt (FB)’s scenic design was simple: trees, chairs, and such. What made the characters even more was Toni-Leslie James‘s costume design and David Brian Brown (FB)’s hair design. Joel Goldes (FB) was the dialect coach. The design elements were supported by the sound design of Gareth Owen (FB) and the lighting design of Howell Binkley (FB). Other production credits: Shawn Pennington [Production Stage Manager]; Geoff Maus [Stage Manager]; Margot Whitney (FB) [Asst. Stage Manager]; Daniel Goldstein [Assst. Director]; Richard J. Hinds (FB) [Assoc. Choreographer]; Telsey + Company [Casting]; Erik Birkeland [Company Manager]; Michael Rubinoff [Creative Consultant]; Juniper Street Productions [Production Manager]; Alchemy Production Group [General Management]; and On The Rialto [Marketing Strategy].

Come From Away continues at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) through January 6th. It will uplift your soul. Go see it. Tickets are available through the Ahmanson Theatre; 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 (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

All that is left in December is the obligatory movie on Christmas Day — our one day a year for filmed entertainment.

January is much more open, especially after the postponement of Bat Out of Hell at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Right now, all there is is a Nefesh Mountain concert at Temple Judea and a hold for the Colburn Orchestra at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) but the rest of the month is currently open (as few shows run in January due to complicated rehearsals over the holidays). We’ll keep our eyes open. February starts with the Cantor’s Concert at Temple Ahavat Shalom (FB), Hello Dolly at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), and Anna Karenena at Actors Co-op (FB).  There’s also a HOLD for 1776 at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB), and Lizzie at the Chance Theatre, but much of February is also open.

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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🎭 When The House Collapses | “Dear Evan Hansen” @ Ahmanson

Dear Evan Hansen (Ahmanson)My brother died when I was 10 (he was 18). My parents told me one story of why he died, but I’m not sure I ever processed or believed it. A few years ago, I learned that his life was much more complicated than I imagined, that there were undercurrents and understories that gave a completely different spin on what he was going through. My parents (to my knowledge) never knew that stuff — they gravitated to the story that gave them comfort — something that fit their image and that their brains could accept.

From what I’ve later learned, my brother may have been dealing with some form of depression — which we didn’t know as much about in 1970. Depression, and other forms of mental illness, have a significant impact on society (as we have seen far too often in today’s society). But it is something we’ve hesitated to talk about.

Occasionally, a musical comes along that does attempt to open the dialogue. Quite a few years ago, the musical Next to Normal burst upon the scene, exploring the impact of bi-polar mental illness not only on the individual but on the family surrounding the individual. It was raw, real, and won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for its efforts.

A couple of years ago, another musical dealing with mental illness hit the boards of Broadway: Dear Evan Hansen. The North American Tour of the musical just hit the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) in Los Angeles, and last night we saw it — on the heals of the Thousand Oaks Shooting, and the deadly and destructive Camp, Hill, and Woolsey fires.

Dear Evan Hansen (book by Steven Levenson; music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) tells the story of (duh) Evan Hansen, a high school student with severe social anxiety, with a single mom who is working so hard to support her family that she has little time for her son. Evan’s therapist has assigned him the task of writing letters to himself to help deal with that anxiety. After a day when incidents at the first day of school make Evan feel transparent and unseen, he writes a letter to himself detailing his feelings. Connor Murphey, another loner student — who has also been dealing with depression and drugs —  finds the letter on the printer. As it mentions Connor’s sister, Zoe, who Evan has a crush on, he teases Evan about the letter and takes it with him. When Connor commits suicide a few days later, his parents find the letter and believe it to be his suicide note. Grasping at straws, they believe Evan was the friend they never knew their son had, and draw him into their circle to learn more. With Evan’s anxiety, he can’t bring himself to correct them. With the help of his family friend, Jared, Evan builds a backstory of his friendship with Connor. This draws Evan even further into the sphere of the Murphy family, and ever closer to Zoe. A similarly unseen girl at school, Alana, similarly latches onto her “close acquaintance” with Connor, and soon there is a blog and a project dedicated to his memory, an effort to ensure that no one will be forgotten.

End of Act I, and a good place to pause to explore the story to this point. When I discussed it with my wife at intermission, she was very bothered by the story, because it was all built on a lie — the fake premise that Evan actually was friends with Connor, and all the pain that could come from it when the house of cards collapsed. That bothered me as well, but I saw a lot more. First, as noted above, I saw the parallels to Next to Normal: the study of how someone’s mental illness impacted the family around him. In this case, it was how Connor’s depression and suicide drove the narrative of Connor’s family, destroying relationships. I saw how the desire to believe that their son was normal led that family to grab anything and ignore other facts. I also saw the message that likely resonated the most with the audience — the message drummed into the audience’s head as Act I reached its crescendo: NO ONE DESERVES TO BE FORGOTTEN, NO ONE DESERVES TO FADE AWAY. That fear of not being seen, of being invisible, of not making a difference is a powerful one. It is something that the audience ate up, permitting them to set aside the recognition of the lies that led to the message.

But the problem with a house of cards is that the slightest windstorm will topple it. That windstorm occurs in Act II, as it must inevitably. By the end of the act, the message of not being forgotten that was beaten into your head in the first act has been replaced by something — in my opinion — that is more important from a mental health perspective: honesty. The key scene here is near the end of the act, when Evan is alone with his mother, admitting for the first time the truth about what had happened. His mom, similarly, shares the truth of what is happening with her. In doing so, we see the power of telling the truth about what is going on in our lives to those we love, and the importance of listening and being there through the hard times. Connor’s suicide was the result of his not being able to communicate his depression to those around him. Evan’s house of cards  came from Evan not being able to admit to himself the truth. Healing came when the truth was admitted and heard.

The first step on not being forgotten, on not facing away, is to be seen. The next step is to be heard. The third step is to be listened to.

My wife left the show lukewarm to the story — the whole notion of lying and the construction of the house of cards really bothered her. It nagged at me, but I found the overall messages of the show to be quite powerful: the importance of not forgetting people, the importance of seeing people, the importance of listening to people, the importance of telling the truth of what is going on in your lives to those around you. I saw the message this show imparted about the damage that can be done to not only you, but to your friends and family, if you construct that house of cards to protect you. I saw the power of the love of a family to heal.

The show gave me some insight on what my parents must have gone through when my brother died. It is quite likely they knew the true situation, but it was too painful for them, and so they constructed the house of cards of belief to get themselves true. Then, as we’ve seen from what is happening in Washington DC, if you tell a lie long enough it becomes the reality you remember and create, and it became the story that they told.

I prefer the likely truth. But I’m an engineer.

Under the direction of Michael Greif (who also directed Next to Normal and Rent), the show has powerful and raw performances. This isn’t your typical musical with large song and dance numbers (although there is choreography by Danny Mefford (FB)). Rather, it is mostly family situations, teen interactions, and exposure of raw nerves and emotions, especially in the second act.

Leading the performance team is Ben Levi Ross as Evan Hansen (Stephen Christopher Anthony does the role on Wed, Thu, and Sat matinees, and Sun eve.). I found Ross’s performance powerful, capturing the social anxiety well. His collapse in the 2nd act is spectacular. He has a strong singing voice, and handles his numbers well.

As his mother, Heidi Hansen, Jessica Phillips (FB) is somewhat lightly used in the first act, with a perfunctory single-mom role. But where she shines is in the 2nd act, particularly in the penultimate number “So Big/So Small” where every parent will recognize her raw emotion and feeling for her son.

The Murphy family is represented by the catalyst for the story, Marrick Smith (FB) as Connor Murphy; Aaron Lazar (FB) and Christiane Noll (FB) as his parents Larry and Cynthia Murphy; and Maggie McKenna as his sister, Zoe. Smith’s role is small: you see him at the beginning as himself; later appearances are as a figment of Evan’s imagination. Still, in those numbers, Smith is still quite fun to watch. Lazar and Noll are strong as the Murphy parents. Lazar, in particular, was very strong in the “To Break In a Glove” number, and Noll was just great throughout. McKenna brought an interesting look to Zoe, and a delightful smile in her “Only Us” number in the 2nd act. McKenna had a great singing voice. All shone in the “Requiem” number.

Rounding out the cast were Jared Goldsmith as Jared Kleinman, and Phoebe Koyabe as Alana Beck. Both were very strong, particularly in the “good for You” and the “Disappear” numbers.

The “Community Voices”, who are heard in the “Disappear” number, are: Becca Ayers, Mary Bacon, Gerard Canonico, Jenn Colella, Adam Halpin, Mykal Kilgore, Stephen Kunken, Tamika Lawrence, Carrie Manolakos, Ken Marks, Asa Somers, Jason Tam, Brenda Wehle, Natalie Weiss, Tim Young, and Remy Zaken. Understudies were Stephen Christopher Anthony and Noah Kieserman (FB) for Evan, Jared, and Connor; Jane Pfitsch (FB) and Coleen Sexton (FB) for Cynthia and Heidi; Ciara Alyse Harris (FB) and Maria Wirries (FB) for Alana and Zoe, and John Hemphill for Larry. Jane Pfitsch (FB) was Dance Captain.

Music was provided by an on-stage band under the direction of, and conducted by, Austin Cook [Keyboards]. Garrett Healey was the Associate Conductor. Other band members were: Matt Sangiovanni and Matt Brown [Guitar]; Ryan McCausland [Drums]; Matt Rubano [Bass]; Jen Choi Fischer [Concertmaster]; Linnea Powell [Viola]; David Mergan [Cello]. Rounding out the music credits: Robert Payne [Local Contractor]; Randy Cohen [Keyboard Programmer]; Jeremy King [Assoc. Keyboard Programmer]; Enrico de Trizio and Scott Wasserman [Abelton Programmers]; Emily Grishman Music Preparation [Music Copying]; Alex Lacamoire [Music Supervision, Orchestrations, and Additional Arrangements]; Ben Cohn [Assoc. Music Supervisor]; Michael Keller and Michael Aarons [Music Coordinators]; Justin Paul [Vocal Arrangements and Additional Arrangements].

Finally, turning to the production and creative team: The combination of David Korins‘ Scenic Design and Peter Nigrini‘s Projection Design worked together to create a modernist set that  primarily consisted of moving scrims with projections from internet social media as well as scenes (although the piercing blue of the end scene was remarkable), and little in the way of traditional place-establishing scenery, although there were numerous place establishing props. These worked well Nevin Steinberg‘s sound and Japhy Weideman‘s lighting designs. Emily Rebholz‘s costumes and David Brian Brown‘s hair seemed, well, everyday — which means they did what they were supposed to do, making the characters appear as relatable teens and parents. Other production credits: Tara Rubin Casting [Casting]; Judith Schoenfeld [Production Supervisor]; David Lober [Production Stage Manager]; Michael Krug [Stage Manager]; Sarah Testerman [Asst. Stage Manager]; Juniper Street Productions [Production Supervisor]; Adrienne Campbell-Holt, Sash Bischoff, and Adam Quinn [Assoc. Directors]; Danny Sharron [Asst. Director]; Jonathan Warren and Mark Myars [Assoc Choreographer]; Liz Caplan Vocal Studios LLC [Vocal Consultant]; and Buist Bickley [Production Properties Supervisor].

Dear Evan Hansen continues at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) through November 25, 2018. Tickets are available through the Center Theatre Group website. They do not appear to be available on Goldstar.

Note: As always, we seem to hit at least one Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS performance every year. Last night was no exception; the actors were out with their red buckets. We expect to get hit up again tonight at A Bronx Tale. So, we’ll hit you up as well. Donate to BC/EFA here.

***

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:

Tonight continues the theatre with A Bronx Tale at the Hollywood Pantages (FB); Monday we have A Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (OERM) (FB). The third weekend of November brings Beyond Jacobs Ladder from Jewish Woman’s Theatre (FB) at our synagogue on Saturday, and Finks at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB) on Sunday. Thanksgiving weekend has Steambath at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB) on Saturday and Remembering Boyle Heights at Casa 0101 (FB) in Boyle Heights on Sunday. 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) (although that is starting to look less likely).

January is much more open, especially after the postponement of Bat Out of Hell at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Right now, all there is is a Nefesh Mountain concert at Temple Judea and a hold for the Colburn Orchestra at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) but the rest of the month is currently open (as few shows run in January due to complicated rehearsals over the holidays). We’ll keep our eyes open. February starts with the Cantor’s Concert at Temple Ahavat Shalom (FB), Hello Dolly at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), and Anna Karenena at Actors Co-op (FB).  There’s also a HOLD for 1776 at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB), and Lizzie at the Chance Theatre, but much of February is also open.

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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🎭 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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