Just Consider The Problems of the Poor Elf

We just got back from our last show of 2006: Santaland Diaries and Seasons Greetings at the Rep East Playhouse in Newhall. This is actually three shows:

  • Front Row, performed by the Artistic Director, Ovington Michael Owston. This is a monologue that is purportedly a theatre review column on a local radio station. In this monologue, the announcer provides a number of reviews of elementary Christmas show. As one would expect from versions of A Christmas Carol and other such shows, they are not up to professional snuff, and he rips them quite to shreds. As one who has had to suffer through such shows, I knew what he was thinking.
  • Seasons Greetings, performed by Erin Rivlin-Sakata, was a monologue reading of one of those cheerful newsletters one often gets in the mail this time of year. The author, a bright and perkey housewife (think Corky Sherwood from Murphey Brown… on steroids) relates the trials of her life, her husband, her children, her new step-child, Kai-son, a Vietnam-war baby who just shows up, wears string bikinis all the times, and only knows how to say “give me five dolla”. She talks about how her daughter had a crack baby. The monologue ends on a sad note, when she leaves the baby with Kai-son, telling her to watch the baby. Kai-son hears “wash”, and proceeds to run the baby through the laundry. The monologue was written by David Sedaris. Seasons greetings!
  • Santaland Diaries, performed by George Chavez II, can best be described as: Are you a man, or are you an Elf? It is a monologue of a man in New York, who needing work, answers an ad from Macy*s to be an elf in “Santaland”. He goes on to describe his training, the layout, the people, the Santas, the moms, the dads, the other elfs, and the whole craziness that is the Santa setup at Macy*s. This was actually a very very funny routine. The “Santaland Diaries” routine was written by NPR humorist David Sedaris. You can hear some audio selections here.

The performances were excellent — we have been uniformly pleased with the work of the Santa Clarita Rep East this season. They have announced their 2007 season: A Few Good Men (Aaron Sorkin; Jan 19-Feb 17); The Last 5 Years (Jason Robert Brown; Mar 9-Apr 7); Driving Miss Daisy (Alfred Uhry; May 18-Jun 16); All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (Robert Fulghum; Sep 21-Oct 20); and The Unexpected Guest (Agatha Christie; Nov 9-Dec 8). For summer in the park, they are doing A Midsummers Night Dream.

And with this review, I bring our 2006 Theatre Year to a close. I hope you have enjoyed reading these reviews as much as I have enjoyed writing them. I do encourage you to go out and see live theatre — there is nothing so good as a play or a musical on the stage.

For us, there is one more review upcoming in 2006: our annual Christmas movie… we’re planning on going to go see Dreamgirls. I saw the original stage production when it toured in Los Angeles in the 1980s, so it should be an interesting comparison. As for our 2007 calendar: there is 13 at the Mark Taper Forum on January 14; Defiance at the Pasadena Playhouse on February 10; Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center on February 25; Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (concert) at CSUN Performing Arts on March 10; and Smokey Joes Cafe at Cabrillo Music Theatre on March 30. I also plan to see both A Few Good Men and The Last 5 Years at REP East and They’re Playing Our Song at Valley Musical Theatre during that period; the tickets just haven’t shown up on Goldstar yet.


If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar… Come in!

If you are a dreamer, come in,
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in!

And with this, the Nobel Middle School Theatre Arts department started their first production, An Evening of Silverstein, which was a combination of The Giving Tree with a number of Shel Silverstein poems. This was the first production of the reincarnated Theatre Arts Department, with 62 super-energetic kids. So, first and formost, how did they do? In my opinion (as I said yesterday), they did excellent. They all projected well, they all moved, they all spoke to the audience. No one forgot their lines, no one cracked up on stage, no one bumped into anyone else unintentionally, no one fell off the stage. More importantly, they danced, they conveyed emotion, they acted, they sang. They had fun. They became a theatre family. In the words of George Gershwin, “Who could ask for anything more?”

Were there things I would change? Yes. I wasn’t that enamored of the rap version of Unicorn, perhaps because the movement kept the kids from the microphone. Some of the poems that were selected were not ones I would have chosen — I wasn’t that crazy about Thumbs or Hot Dog, but that was more the poem, not the acting. I did find the acting in Tug of War a little creepy (and I can’t quite say why). I do wish they had included The Little Boy and the Little Man and Polar Bear in the Frigidare. I also wish nsshere had a larger part, but isn’t that always a parent’s lament?

Most importantly, unlike Thursday night, we had two Vice-Principals there for the performance, so they got to see the talent of the kids… plus the magnet coordinator saw all the performances during the day. Supposedly, they raised over $2K over two nights, which says something, as they sold no ads and publicity was primarily word of mouth.

I think they did great!

By the way, for those who think Shel Silverstein is only a kid’s poet, you’re wrong. Take a look at this site, which has Shel’s adult works. So let’s end this post with a few lyrics you don’t often see from Grizzly Bear:

Yeah, they call me Grizzly Bear.
They say I’m kooky and square.
They can say anything they want about me I don’t care. (I don’t care.)
Because I’m takin’ it day by day,
And I’m livin’ my own sweet way.
Let me tell ya’ that I howl, yowl, growl like a Grizzly Bear.

Gather ’round fellas, I’ll tell you some tales / About murder and blueberry pies…

… well, maybe not murder… at least yet.

The title of this post is from a poem by Shel Silverstein; the full verse is:

Gather ’round fellas, I’ll tell you some tales
About murder and blueberry pies
And heroes and hells and bottomless wells
And lullabys, legends and lies.

Why am I quoting Shel Silverstein to you? Because last night was the first performance of nsshere‘s drama class, and the reviewer in me must speak.

The show? The show was blueberry pie. Sweet and tasty, with lots of juicy bits. It was a collection of Shel Silverstein poems, together with a performance of The Giving Tree, the famous co-dependency story everyone knows far too well. Alas, they didn’t include my favorite Shel Silverstein (the ABZ book), or even my favorite kids poem (see the end of this post). But it was great nonetheless. How did the kids do? I was very impressed. This was a collection of enthusiastic 11-13 year olds. They spoke clearly, cleanly, and projected. They conveyed emotion. They made the poems come alive. A few were silly, but for an initial drama performance of a new drama program, they were excellent. I look forward to them doing even better tonight.

So where does the murder and the hell come in? That, dear friends, is reserved for the school administration. They provided this program no support. There wasn’t an article promoting it in the school newsletter (but they did promote the band and pep squad). There wasn’t anyone videotaping the program (but they do video the band and pep squad). There was no one from the administration there last night to encourage the students, tell them how proud the school was of them. I’m sorry, but I think that is the role of the principal and vice-p’s: build that school spirit, make the students want to come to school and enjoy learning. You don’t promote some programs and not others. Here you had a bunch of kids bonding, doing excellent work, learning skills that will serve them well in real-life even if they don’t go into the LA Media world — for the public speaking skills are critical in every field. They should be encouraging these kids, and I know there was disappointment that the administration wasn’t there.

Today, the drama class is doing presentations for the entire school. Tonight is the last performance. I have written a note to the one administrator’s address I could find on the web. Let’s see if they redeem themselves this evening.

Oh, and my favorite Shel Silverstein poem?

Said the little boy, “Sometimes I drop my spoon.”
Said the old man, “I do that, too.”
The little boy whispered, “I wet my pants.”
“I do that too,” laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, “I often cry.”
The old man nodded, “So do I.”
“But worst of all,” said the boy, “it seems
Grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.”
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
“I know what you mean,” said the little old man.

Pulling Strings in Italy

Today we went to the Ahamanson Theatre to see A Light in the Piazza. I didn’t have high expectations going in, even though the show won 6 Tony awards (score, orchestration, lead actress, scenic design, costume design, lighting design). Why? When I listened to the cast album, it didn’t grab me. There’s a particular type of music that, to me, typlifies good show music: a good brass line. Yes, I like the strings and the winds, and of course there must be good percussion, but it is brass and piano that really get me going. The music from Light in the Piazza was heavily strings, with a little winds and a little percussion. Very soft. Very Montovani. To me, not my taste. It was unbalanced.

As for the story. There is the mother and her daughter visiting Italy in the early 1950s. The daughter, who is about 26 but bright and cheerful and carefree, meets an Italian fellow. It is fate. The gods (and the writers of the book) decree that (stenotorian voice here) “they must get together”. That they do, over the mother’s initial objections. Why does the mother object? It appears her daughter is special. She got kicked in the head by a pony when she was ten, and although her body has aged, her mind hasn’t. Does this stop the marriage? C’mon, beautiful young girl and an Italian hunk of a man. Of course not. The mother eventually lets go, and they get married.

How to characterize this show? My wife felt it was the theatre equivalent of a “chick flick”, especially after two hours of looking at said Italian hunk mostly with his shirt off. She said this is the sort of a show that married women go to and drag along their husbands. I would tend to agree: the plot didn’t really do much for me. If I want an Italian romance musical, I’ll go see Do I Hear A Waltz?.

How would I characterize it? I think it has parallels to Gypsy, although it is not as strong in either music or story. Both are stories where you have a mother that doesn’t want to let go of the child she has protected. In Gypsy, it is the mother who yearns for the daughter’s life. In LitP, it is the mother who won’t accept her daughter’s life. Both learn, but luckily for the mother in LitP, the relationship isn’t destroyed.

Note that I haven’t said anything about the acting. There’s a reason. Whatever I didn’t like about this show, it wasn’t the acting. The actors did a marvelous job with the material they had: it was wonderfully acted and wonderfully sung. The production stareed Christine Andres as Margaret Johnson, and Elena Shaddow as Clara Johnson, her daughter. Both were remarkable actresses; I was particular taken with the beauty and skill of Ms. Shaddow. On the other side of the wedding aise, we have the Naccarelli family (boy, I feel like Richard Dawson), with David Ledingham as Signor Naccarelli (the father), Diane Sutherland as Signora Naccarelli (the mother), Jonathan Hammond as Giuseppe Naccarelli (the brother), Laura Griffith as Franca Naccarelli (Giuseppe’s wife), and David Burnham as Fabrizio Naccarelli (the hunk). Of the Naccarelli’s, I was impressed by Mr. Burnham, who had a remarkable voice and presence. Rounding out the cast were Brian Sutherland, Evangelia Kingsley, Craig Bennett, Wendi Bergamini, Laurent Giroux, Sean Hayden, Leslie Henstock, Prudence Wright Holmes, Evangelia Kingsley, and Adam Overett. The production was directed by Bartlett Sher, with book by Craig Lucas and music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, basen on a novel by Elizabeth Spencer (and yes, it was based on a movie). Musical direction was by Kimberly Grigsby, and musical staging was by Jonathan Butterell. There are more credits available at the Taper Ahmanson site.

The upcoming theatre calendar is getting sparser. We have the production for my daughter’s show on 12/7 and 12/8 (email if you want to attend); Santaland Diaries/Seasons Greetings, 12/23 @ 8pm; 13 (a new musical by Jason Robert Brown) on 1/14 at 2:30pm; and Defiance in early February 2007.


You See, There Was This Salt Shaker in a Grecian Pot, and…

This afternoon, we took our daughter (nsshere) and eight of her friends, together with ellipticcurve, otaku_tetsuko, kuni_izumi and corronerbob to see Dirk, the United States premier of the play based on the novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

For those unfamilar with the story, this play is about, ummm. You see, there’s this detective, Dirk Gently, who never really finds lost cats. No, that’s not it. There’s this Professor of Chronology, Reg who has a horse in his bathroom. No, that’s not it. You see, there’s Dirk’s former roommate, Richard, who climbed into his girlfriends apartment while her brother was being murdered… No, that’s not it. You see, there were these aliens… Oh, never mind. Read the book. Not that it will help you make sense of the plot, but it’s a good read anyway.

I know the plot sounds odd, but think of it like Lost or Heroes: there are all these pieces that don’t make sense until everything gets put together at the end. Even the salt shaker gets explained. You find the answer to everything, except for the horse in the bathroom.

Given a plot like this, it take a remarkable and talented production team to present a coherent play. Luckily, the playwrites found such a team in the Road Theatre Company. The play did a number of novel techniques, most notable of which was an electronic projected background, changed during the show, with which the characters interacted. They would open windows on the background, and even walk into the background. It was like a live movie at points, and it is something I have never seen done before. Through the talents of the writing and the acting, this program made sense of a story that is normally quite difficult to follow. The actors even noted that Douglas Adams himself liked this adaptation of this work.

The cast itself was great, and included (* indicates Actors’ Equity members): Scot Burklin* as Dirk, Dennis Gersten* as Michael Wenton-Weakes/Perkins, Carl J. Johnson as Professor Regius “Reg” Chronotis, Ambre Low* as Janice/Sarah/Lady Magna/Housekeeper, Tripp Picknell as Richard MacDuff, Heather Dara Williams as Susan (a UCD grad, for you Davis-ites), Daniel R. Vasquez as Gordon Way, and James K. Ward as Police Inspector Gilks. On the technical side, the projection was written by Arvin Ethan David and James Goss, and directed by Jeff Griffith. It was producted by Amy Buffington, Helen Harwell, and Julie Quinn. Film Producer was Tye Beeby; the Stage Manager and Multimedia Director was Matt Kaiser. Desma Murphy did the sets, Luke Moyer did the lights, Dave B. Marling did the sound, Lee Osteen helped with the sound and did the webpage, Caryn Drake did the costumes, Jeff Marsh composed the music. Lastly, in a credit you rarely see, Anaitte Vaccaro was the Digital Scenographer.

It is really difficult to single out particular cast members, for this was a talented ensemble. Many of them are road theatre regulars, any many were involved in Road Theatre’s recently acclaimed production of Bunbury. They were also really nice people offstage as well as on. How do I know this? Let me explain.

A while back, my daughter indicated she wanted a theatre party. I posted this on my journal, attempting to decide between The Marvelous Wonderettes and Dirk. The concensus was for Dirk, cemented by the email I received from their producer, Helen Harwell. It seems my journal posting had generated a lot of hits for their website, and did they have a deal for us. She arranged group rates, as well as a Q&A session with the cast and crew after the play.

When we got to the theatre with our appetizers, she whisked them away from us. She had a specially roped off section in the first two rows for us (this is only a 42-seat theatre). At the end of the play, when normally they would project the credits, they instead posted birthday wishes for nsshere, and the cast, crew, and audience sang her happy birthday. We then had a lovely Q&A, and I think the crew was surprised by the level of intellegent questions that came from this group of 12 year olds… plus the few fangeeks in the audience. We later went downstairs to snack, and the crew came down, and we had some delightful discussions with them. Everyone truly enjoyed themselves. My public thanks to Helen Harwell and the cast and crew of Dirk: You are a talented bunch, and we will keep our eye on the Road Theatre Company for other productions of interest. Those in the Los Angeles area: go see Dirk if you can… it is excellent.

Here’s the remainder of the theatre schedule for 2006: A Light in the Piazza, 12/3 @ 2pm; Santaland Diaries/Seasons Greetings, 12/23 @ 8pm …plus I’m still working on tickets for 13 (12/30). I should also note that nsshere will be in a school production of “An Evening of Silverstein” on December 7th and 8th–if you are interested, let me know.


Praise The Lord!

Musicals that are based on movies are a hit or miss thing. There have been some notable successes: Hairspray, The Producers, Dirty Rotten Scoundels. There have also been some significant flops: Carrie comes to mind. But such transformations are the current “in-thing” on Broadway, so much so that the musical [title of show] makes fun of the fact that it is not a musical based on a previous movie. The upcoming season is going to see a number of such shows hit the stage in New York, from Mary Poppins to Legally Blond. Even more are in the works, including musical versons of Get Shorty and Rocky.

Back in April 2005, Peter Schneider had an idea for such a show: a stage version of the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg vehicle “Sister Act“. After a difficult genesis (described in this article), the show emerged as the last presentation in the 2006 Pasadena Playhouse season. I saw it last night.

Wow! Call out the choir and sing it to the rafters, because this show has success written all over it.

For those unfamiliar with the original movie, Sister Act: The Musical (book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, based on the original story by Joseph Howard) tells the story of Deloris Van Cartier (nee Deloris Carter), a 3rd rate lounge singer. One evening at the lounge, in a rage when her boyfriend, the gangster Curtis Shank, fails to give her a ring for her finger, she walks in to see him killing a snitch. Knowing her life is now in danger, she runs to Sgt. Eddie Souther of the Philadelphia PD (who it turns out she knew as “Stinky Eddie” in high school), and he puts her in protective custody. Where? In a 3rd rate convent of course, a convent being kept afloat by the contribution of the PD to the Monsignor. At the convent, Deloris (now Sister Mary Clarence) initially has trouble fitting in to the spartan lifestyle and the nuns who love their calling. But then she is assigned to the choir, and this is God’s miracle. Sister Mary Clarence takes the choir and turns it around to the point where the Pope has to create an audience to get a ticket. This, of course, gets publicity… and with the publicity, Curtis’s goons find her. Pulled out of the safety of the cloister for her safety just before the big show, Deloris has to make the decision: a safe life, or doing what is right by God. I think you can expect the answer.

The show is set in the 1970-1980s, and is filled with high energy music by Alan Menken with lyrics by Glenn Slater. From high-energy songs such as “Raise Your Voice”, “Light My Way”, and “Mirror Ball” to softer songs such as “I Could Be That Guy” or “The Life I Never Led”, the score is a treat. Songs even change context: “Take Me to Heaven”, an orgiastic number singing the joys of sex in the lounge because an ode to the Lord when sang from the pews. I can’t wait to get the cast album.

I should note that this is a show in progress. It goes from Pasadena to its co-producing partner in Atlanta GA before hitting Broadway. As such, they are continually fine tuning. As I watched the show, I had only three suggestions (all minor). First, the show needs an overture. The current start, a soft version of “Light My Way”, doesn’t build the energy the way an overture would. Second, the second act number “Sister Act” needs work. It tells a key plot point (about the facade of both Sister Mary Clarence and the Mother Superior), but the music comes across as wrong. Lastly, the show needs a larger stage to fit the appropriate choreography. But these do not detract from the show.

What was the audience reaction? I haven’t seen a Playhouse audience this enthused since… well, I haven’t seen it, and we’ve been coming since 1986! My wife thought the crowd might have been this energetic after “Sisterella“, but I don’t recall that. Perhaps the energy was there for “Fences“, the last Playhouse play. I was unsure about the Playhouse at the beginning of the season: “Diva” was weak, and “As U Lyk It” was abominable. But the remainder of the season has been spectactular, and with “Sister Act” the season has gone out on a high-energy note. This is one remarkable theatre folks; one that certainly rarely gets its due from the awards. The upcoming season at the Playhouse looks like it will continue the spectacular streak.

The cast of Sister Act was remarkable. You can read all of their bios here. Standouts included Dawnn Lewis as Deloris/Sister Mary Clarence; Beth Malone as Sister Mary Robert, Amy K. Murray as Sister Mary Patrick, Audrie Neenan as Sister Mary Lazarus, and David Jennings as Sgt. Eddie Souther. All were remarkable, but I’ll particularly highlight Ms. Malone, who would have been in “The Marvelous Wonderettes which we saw recently (she originated the role of Jean). We missed her there, but I’m glad she was in this, for she did a knockout Sister Mary Robert. Also to be acknowledged is the conductor, Brent-Alan Huffman, who was part of the cast as much as anyone else, with his bobbing head and energy that could be seen from the audience. He even changed costumes during the show.

As for the production team, the show was produced by the Pasadena Playhouse and the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta GA. Music by Alan Menkin. Lyrics by Glenn Slater. Book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner. Directed by Peter Schneider. Choreographed by Marguerite Derricks. Music supervision, vocal and incidental music arrangements by Michael Kosarin. Sets by David Potts. Costumes by Garry Lennon. Lights by Donald Holder. Sound by Carl Casella and Domonic Sack. Orchestrations by Doug Besterman. Music director/conductor Brent-Alan Huffman. Production stage manager Eileen Haggerty.

Sister Act has been extended through December 17, 2006. If you can somehow get a ticket, go see it.

I should note that it is nice to see Los Angeles becoming a place for initiating new musical theatre. We had this back in the 1950s and 1960s with Edwin Lester and the LA Civic Light Opera, but it had died. In the last two years, however, we are having a number of shows that have and should go on to win Tonys: The Drowsy Chaperone, Curtains, and now Sister Act. This is a good thing.

And lastly, the upcoming theatre calendar… Dirk, 11/19 (today) @ 2pm; and A Light in the Piazza, 12/3 @ 2pm; Santaland Diaries/Seasons Greetings, 12/23 @ 8pm …plus I’m still working on tickets for 13 (12/30). I should also note that nsshere will be in a school production of “An Evening of Silverstein” on December 7th and 8th–if you are interested, let me know.


Things That Make You Go “Ummmmm”

I just received my weekly event posting from Goldstar Events (use this referral link and I’ll get a little credit). Goldstar is a service that offers half-price tickets in a large number of cities including Los Angeles/Orange County, the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington DC, New York City, and Boston (the latter two have just been added). They have a weekly email posting of events that might be of interest.

Anyway, I’m skimming this week’s message when I see the following:

You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, but do you recall Rudolph the cross-dressing reindeer, the gay circuit boy elves, the Hitler Santa Claus, the alcoholic Mrs. Claus and the Abominable Drag Beast? No? Well, this is not the “claymation” holiday musical you see every year on television. So “don we now our gay apparel” and head for the Elephant Theatre to enjoy the latest outrageous treat from TheSpyAnts Theatre Company.

Rudolph the cross-dressing reindeer?!?