Four Jews (well, Five Jews) in a Theatre, Bitching (and Singing)

Occasionally, I pick up cast albums on the strength of the composer or other recommendations. After listening to the albums, I get curious as to the storyline of the full show. When these shows then turn up on my theatre-scope, I go see them. Adding Machine“, back in February, was an example of this. I ended up not loving that show, but at least I understood it. Last night was another example of this phenomemon: we went to see the inagural production of the Third Street Theatre in West LA: William Finn’s “Falsettos.

Falsettos” is really two parts of a three part trilogy of one-act musicals written 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.

Aside from the story problems (which are beyond the theatre’s control), this production was excellent, with an extremely strong cast, good direction, and pretty good technicals. Before I discuss the actors, I’d like to give particular kudos to the director and choreographer. The stage was a mostly bare white expense with a white door; Richard Israel (an excellent local musical director) used this very effectively. He brought out the emotions and the characters from the actors, and made these people believable characters. John Todd‘s choreography was excellent: the movement was powerful and precise. I noticed this especially in the number introducing us to Marvin and Whizzer—the dancing was just “wow“! But it also came through in the general fluid movements throughout the show.

The acting was top rate, with many folks we had seen before. All were excellent. Strong singers, Strong dancers. It’s hard to single any particular member out, as they were such a strong ensemble. In the lead positions were Jesse Einstein as Marvin and Richard Hellstern as Whizzer. Both were strong: Marvin came across as suitably neurotic; even better was Hellstern’s Whizzer, especially in the Falsettoland section, where he came across as decimated from AIDS. A remarkable transformation. In the secondary tier (although they are equally leads) were Chip Phillipsæ as Mendel, Major Curdaæ as Jason, and Lani Shipmanæ as Trina. I was particularly taken with Shipman’s Trina, who was a comic delight, wonderful to look at, wonderfully danced and performed. Phillips was fun as Mendel, and Curda brought at child’s playfullness to Jason. Rounding out the cast were Kim Reedæ as Charlotte and Wendy Rosoffæ as Cordelia. These two played the lesbian next-door neighbors who cater the Bar Mitzvah; Charlotte also happens to be Whizzer’s doctor. These two were also fun to watch, and made quite a believable couple. All in all, this was just a great cast.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Music was provided by the onstage “teeny tiny band” under the direction of Gregory Nabours, who has done music for a number of shows we have enjoyed. Supporting Nabours (who was playing keyboards) was Brian Morales on reeds, and Brian Cannady on drums.

Turning to the technical… Kurt Boetcher‘s set was simple and white: a white back wall, a white door, white boxes, white beds, white tables. This highlighted the actors and allowed them to create the story in an effective manner. Jessica Olson’s costumes were wonderful and captured the late 1970s/early 1980s well—I particularly found myself drawn to the browns worn by Shipman and Phillips. The lighting by Lisa D. Katz was effective and unobtrusive. If I had any complaints on the technical side, it was with the sound design of Ric Perez-Selsky: the actors were over-amplified, making the sound muddy. This was a small enough theatre that the micing might not even have been necessary. Nicholas Acciani was the property master, and likely had his hands full with all the chess pieces, cooking pieces, and chairs flying everywhere. Faryl Saar was the Stage Manager.

Falsettos” continues at the Third Street Theatre until October 16, 2011. Tickets are available through ShowClix; we got ours through Goldstar Events.

Dining Notes. Before the show, we hit Chili Addiction on La Cienega just N of Beverly, near the Coronet where we saw Tick Tick Boom ages ago. It’s a come-back. Gluten-free food (including buns and macaroni), home-made chili, home-made ice cream, prime rib burgers, and tasty sausage and hot dogs. I got the chili-cheese hot dog (with the prime-rib chili); next time I’d like to try the burger with chili. Their salads looked great as well.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Our theatre calendar is filling up nicely. Next week sees us back at the REP for “Laughter on the 23rd Floor on September 24. We then enter October, which starts with “Shooting Star” at the Colony Theatre on October 1. The following Saturday is taken with Yom Kippur, but we might do something on Sunday, 10/9—in particular, I’m watching for tickets for Boomermania at the NoHo arts center (currently, tickets are up on Goldstar only through 10/2) or , “Kvetch” at the Whitefire (again, tickets are up on Goldstar only through 10/2). The third weekend of October brings “Annie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 22. The last weekend of October brings “Victor Victoria” at the Malibu Stage Company on Saturday; Sunday is being held for “Come Fly Away” at the Pantages (pending ticketing). November will start with The Robber Bridegroom” at ICT on November 5. It will also bring “Day Out With Thomas” at Orange Empire (We’re working Veterans Day, but we’re not sure about the weekend yet). It may also bring “Riverdance” at the Pantages (held for November 20, pending ticketing), and “Bring It On” at the Ahmanson (held for November 25, pending ticketing, hottix on sale October 4). Thanksgiving weekend also brings the last show of the REP season, “The Graduate”, on Saturday November 26. Also of potential interest, if time is available, are “A Sentimental Journey: The Story of Doris Day” at the El Portal (Nov 2-20) and “Don’t Hug Me, I’m Pregnant” at the Secret Rose (9/30-11/20). The first weekend of December is lost preparing for ACSAC, although I might squeeze in something on Saturday. The next weekend is busy, with a Mens Club Shabbat in the morning, and Travels with my Aunt” at the Colony Theatre in the evening. The remainder of December is unscheduled, but I’m sure we’ll fill things in for Winter Break. Of course, there is the de rigueur movie and Chinese food on Christmas day. As always, open dates are subject to be filled in with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.


Revisiting a Pond

Last night, we took a brief sojurn to Maine, to revisit a pond we had seen 18 months ago. I’m happy to report that the pond is in good shape, inhabited by the same lovable and crotchety characters as always. Of course, I’m talking about the play “On Golden Pond“, which we saw last night at The Colony Theatre in Burbank.

For those that don’t remember the story of “On Golden Pond”, here’s how I recapped it back in March 2010: The play takes place at a fictional location (Golden Pond) in Maine, where Norman and Ethel Thayer have a summer cottage they visit every year. The play takes place during their 48th visit in 1979, and takes place over the summer. It starts in May, when the couple arrive and open the cottage. We see how Ethel is full of life, but Norman is crotchety and feeling his mortality. By June, they have settled into the cottage. Norman is looking for a job, but it is clear he is losing his faculties and is starting to have what we now know is Altzheimers. We learn about the locals, including Charlie Martin, who brings news that their daughter, Chelsea, will be arriving later that summer with her boyfriend. In July, Chelsea arrives with her boyfriend Bill and his 14-year-old son, Billy. We learn about the love between mother and daughter, but the tension between Norman and Chelsea. Ethel convinces Norman to let the boy, Billy, stay with them while Chelsea and Bill go to Europe. Act 2 opens in August, where Billy and Norman have become fishing buddies. Chelsea returns, and reveals that she and Bill got married in Brussels, while going on and on about the past. Ethel grows impatient with this, especially with Chelsea’s dispute with her father. After a butting of heads, Chelsea and her father reconcile to an extent. The last scene of the play takes place in September as Norman and Ethel are closing up the cottage. Chelsea calls and invites her parents to visit her in California. Ethel is eager, but Norman is reluctant to go… until he realizes he can spend time with Billy.

What makes a play such as this is the casting and direction. In March 2010, we had the REP East production: no headliners, but wonderful acting and wonderful direction. At Colony, we’ve got headliners, and with equally strong casting and direction. Headlining the Colony production were Hal Linden as Norman Thayer and Christina Pickles as Ethel Thayer. Both were excellent. Mr. Linden, who is a wonderful actor, is just about the right age to play the part, and he captured the old man so well. He did not emphasize less the “New England” aspect as you often see; instead, he captured an elderly man who gets his joy from verbally sparring (not fighting) with people. It was the little things in his performance, such as the shaking hands and the seeming ad-libs. He was having fun with the role. As his “better half”, Ms. Pickles held her own quite well, coming off as grandmotherly, caring, but dotty in her own way. You could see that these two loved each other deeply and had adapted to each others peculiarities. The director, Cameron Watson, is to be commended for bringing out such a nuanced performance from these two leads.

Of course, the story of “On Golden Pond” is not the story of Norman and Ethel, but the story of the interaction of these two with the rest of their family. As their daughter, Chelsea, Monette Magrath was playful and delightful, yet with a spirit underneath that made her fun to watch. Perhaps due to the actress (or my perspective), she came across as a little younger than 42 (the age in the script), but that didn’t hurt. As Billy Ray, Nicholas Podany made a good foil for Norman and played the catalyst for finding the child in Norman well. Jerry Kernion had an infectious laugh and personality as Charlie Martin, and Jonathan Stewart embodied the nervous Bill Ray well.
[All actors are members of æ Actors Equity ]

Technically, the product exhibited the usual excellence we expect at the Colony. Scenic Design was by John Iacovelli, who made a wonderful rustic Maine lodge, with the usual eclectic set of properties and set dressing artifacts from MacAndME. Costumes were by Terri A. Lewis and were appropriately period. Lighting design was by Jared A. Sayeg, and sound was by Rebecca Kessin—both were so natural that neither called attention to themselves. Alexander Berger was production stage manager.

On Golden Pond” continues at The Colony Theatre until August 28. Tickets are available through the Colony Website.

A side note: I did take the opportunity to go up to Mr. Linden after the show and thank him. After all, the first live theatre I saw was “The Rothschilds“, starring Mr. Linden, at the LA Civic Light Opera in 1972… it started the love of live theatre for me that has continued to this day.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Our theatre calendar gets lighter for a while, although I do have some shows to book. September currently only has one weekend booked: “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at REP East on September 24; October shows “Shooting Star” at the Colony Theatre on October 1, and “Annie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 22. October will also hopefully bring The Robber Bridegroom” at ICT. Of course, I expect to fill some of the weekends in September, and October with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.


Living with Impairment

“I’m living in a mental institution!” You may have heard someone say this when life around them is getting crazy, but have you wondered what it is really like? Tom Griffin‘s play, “The Boys Next Door”, which we saw last night at the Reperatory East Playhouse in Newhall, may help provide an answer to that question.

“The Boys Next Door” is a series of vignettes, with a slight through story, about the lives of four mentally-impaired men living together in a group apartment near a prison near Boston. Throught the story, we get to know these ment by observing there lives. It is not a comedy per se—for you don’t want to be laughing at these men—but it does have its funny movements, as life often does. Rather, this play attempts to treat these men with dignity, showing them doing the best that they could do, despite their impairments (which, to the men, are just part of who they are). These men are: (1) Arnold Wiggens, who has severe OCD, is hyperactive and talks constantly, but can function in the normal world; (2) Norman Bulansky, the moderately-impaired romantic, obsessed with his keys, who works in a doughnut store and is starting to find love with Sheila, a mentally-impaired young woman; (3) Barry Klemper, a schitzophrenic who professes to be a golf pro, but whose facade is broken when his abusive father visits; and (4) Lucien P. Smith, a large black man who has the most severe impairment, but despite that, is perhaps the most noble of the group, for he tries the hardest.

These four young men are working at the top of their abilities, and thus the play—intentionally—doesn’t show them growing much. At the end of the play, we see them exhibiting the same patterns they were behaving when we met them (in fact, some have regressed and gotten worse). However, as I noted previously, there is a through story of growth. This story concerns Jack, the social work assigned to these men. Through these asides, we see how Jack cares for these men, but gets increasingly frustrated with them as well. He tries and he tries to get them to improve, to help them function better. In the end, Jack makes the decision to leave social work, and we see how this decision affects the Arnold, Norman, Barry, and Lucien.

To work well, a play such as this needs to not fall into stereotypes about the mentally impaired. These can’t be the portrayals of “retarded” people that we often see on television: these must be realistic characters that permit the audience to see them as people, and as people with their own dignity and strength. Luckily, for this production, strong direction by Jeff Johnson (in his directing debut) and a wonderful cast pull it off. The performances in this show will touch your heart, and I’m not sure you’ll look at people the same afterwards.

Leading the very strong cast were the four boys. George D. Cummings, an on-air personality at KHTS, portrays Arnold Wiggins. George captures OCD well, from the begininng when he is obsessed about his purchase of 9 boxes of Wheaties, to the end where we see him at the train station, waiting for the train for Russia, because he cannot deal with Jack’s leaving. As Lucien P. Smith, Gregor Mannsæ is perhaps the strongest actor, portraying the severely impaired large man, so proud of his reading card (even though he can’t read), caring about others, wanting so to succeed. He is particularly moving during the one scene where he jumps out of character and turns to the audience with an inner monologue that begins “I stand before you, a middle-aged man in an uncomfortable suit, a man whose capacity for rational thought is somewhere between a five-year-old and an oyster. (Pause.) I am retarded. I am damaged. I am sick inside from so many hours and days and months and years of confusion, utter and profound confusion.” Gregor was just remarkable in this role—a remarkable demonstration of the capacity of this actor. As Norman Bulansky, Marc Segalæ portrayed a romantic man, in love with his doughnuts and keys, starting to reach out to a young woman, but not fully understanding how to do so. Lastly, as Barry Klemper, Jeff Alan-Leeæ gives the facade of the golf pro eager to teach students (even though his knowledge isn’t very deep); however, this is really a front for a very emotionally disturbed young man. We discover this when Barry’s father visits, and we see how the emotional and physical abuse has scarred the character for life. Jeff’s moving portrayal of Barry at this point was wonderful, and made me think about some situations I know where people are being scarred by abuse.

These four men were supported by Kevin Rehdin as Jack, one of the few “normal” people in the show. Kevin comes across as likable and caring about these men, but does a great job of showing how this care takes its toll on his emotions. We also see how hard it is for him to leave them.

Supporting these five wonderful actors, in smaller roles, are Jennifer Beth Lambertus as Sheila, with a portrayal that captured the mental impairment well; Michael Collins as Mr Klemper, the angry and abusive father of Barry; Barry Agin as Mr. Hedgets/Mr. Corbin/Senator Clarke, and Carole Catanzaro as Mrs. Fremus/Mrs. Warren/Clara.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Technically, things were mostly good, with the staff of REP regulars (and a few new folk) doing wonderful jobs. Jeff Hyde’s set captured the boy’s apartment well, and provided the few ancillary locations required. Tim Christianson lighting was a bit more problematic: not in the design, but in the execution—specifically, there seemed to be some lighting problems for some of Jack’s asides to the audience, where he was lit poorly or not at all. The sound effects by Steven “Nanook” Burkholder were excellent, as was the choice of music (especially TMBG). Costumes were by Kristi Johnson. Michael Keane was the stage manager.

“The Boys Next Door” continues at REP East until August 28. Tickets are available through the REP Online Box Office and through outlets such as Goldstar Events. Next up at REP East will be Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”, running September 16 through October 22, 2011.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Our theatre calendar gets lighter for a while, although I do have some shows to book. Next week brings our last booked show for August, “On Golden Pond” at the Colony Theatre on August 20. September currently only has one weekend booked: “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at REP East on September 24; October shows “Shooting Star” at the Colony Theatre on October 1, and “Annie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 22. October will also hopefully bring The Robber Bridegroom” at ICT. Of course, I expect to fill some of the weekends in August, September, and October with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.


They’re alive! They’re alive! OMG They’re Alive!

The hills, that is. With the sound of music.

The hills in question, of course, are those surrounding Thousand Oaks, California, as Cabrillo Music Theatre concludes their 2010-2011 season with an excellent production of “The Sound of Music“, which we saw last night.

I’m pretty sure that most people are familar with this show, It was the last original stage musical from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. It debuted in 1959, following the moderately successful “Flower Drum Song. The original musical starred Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel; in 1965, it was made into an extremely successful movie starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. “The Sound of Music” was the 2nd stage musical I’d ever seen (after “The Rothschilds” with Hal Linden). I saw it at the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera (an organization that no longer exists; it has been subsumed by Broadway/LA) in 1972, in a production starring Sally Ann Howes, Bob Wright, Werner Klemperer, Patricia Morison, and Jean Sanders. I saw it again at the LACLO in 1978 with Florence Henderson and Edward Mulhare. More recently, Cabrillo did “The Sound of Music” in 2001 with Christina Saffran Ashford and Norman Large .

The Sound of Music” features a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, and purports to tell the story of the origin and escape of the Von Trapp Family Singers (although the real story is different; many facts were changed for the purpose of storytelling). The musical storyline tells the story of a young Catholic postulant, Maria Rainer. Maria never quite fit in at her small Austrian abby, and is sent to act as the governess to the seven children of widower Captain Georg von Trapp. Arriving at the von Trapp villa, she wins the children over with music, singing songs that would go on to become popular in a musical film. Eventually, she realizes she is falling in love with the Captain, and he with her, and so she runs away scared to the Abbey. The Captain proposes instead to Baroness Elsa Schräder, which Maria discovers after she is convince to return. Meanwhile, the Germans are taking over Austria, which creates problems for the von Trapps who are strongly Austrian and anti-German. This eventually breaks up the Captain and the Baroness, for she wants to give into the Germans. Maria and the Captain profess their love, and they get married. While they are on their honeymoon, the Anschluss occurs and Max Detweiler, in Maria’s absence, calls the family the Von Trapp Singers and books them into the Kaltzgberg festival. Upon the return of the Captain and Maria, the Germans start pressuring the Captain to join the German navy. To delay having to give an answer, Maria convinces the officers that the Captain and Maria are part of the singers and must perform at the festival. The Captain realizes the only way to avoid the Germans is to leave, and uses the time before the festival to figure the way out. At the concert, the von Trapps sing a number of songs, but when it comes time to give the awards, they are gone. We discover them hiding at the abbey, where the nuns help them escape over the mountains to Switzerland.

A few notes on the book and music itself, seen with a fresh eye. For the most part, the crafting of the musical still holds up well. It is clearly in the classic musical mode, with the lead couple (Captain and Maria) and the couple added for comic relief (Elsa and Max). It has a surprising amount of musical reuse. Songs are used over and over… and over again. I’ll note that Cabrillo did the version that adds two songs that were written for the film version, “I Have Confidence” and “Something Good”. It is clear to see how most of the songs became the classics they are: they are well crafted, entertaining, and serve their roles well. I did realize that I don’t like the song “No Way To Stop It”—well, I like the music, but the words make absolutely no sense in the context they are using it. It also reminds one of how Rodgers and Hammerstein tackled controversial subjects for their time: this was one of the first musicals to deal with the Nazis.

Cabrillo’s production of “The Sound of Music” was excellent. Starting from the startlingly beautiful “Preludium’ (which made me realize the quality of the Kavli as a good concert hall) to the finale, this was just a great production through and through. Partial credit goes to the director, Lewis Wilkenfeld (who is also CMT’s Artistic Director), who brought out the fun in the cast, turning what can easily be wooden roles and performances into real characters you thought you would like. Even characters like Max came across well. About the weakest was Elsa, who always comes across weakly due to a poor characterization in the book. Wilkenfeld did a great job here, and deserves recognition.

A good director needs good actors, and luckily Wilkenfeld assembled a good team (supposedly 512 auditioned for the 30 or so roles). The actors are a mix of equity professionals, local professionals, and local amateurs. Wilkenfeld likes to emphasize that Cabrillo does not present tours, but neither are they the weak regional theatre productions one often sees with part-time actors. Cabrillo is regional theatre with professional acting and professional production values, which puts it in a very unique position (and a very good value, if you look at their subscription prices).

Anyway, as I was saying, Wilkenfeld assembed a great team. In the lead positions were Shannon Warneæ at Maria and Tom Schmidæ as Captain Von Trapp. We’ve seen Warne numerous times before, both in Cabrillo productions as well as in Camelot at the Pasadena Playhouse and Having It All at the NoHo Arts Center. She brought a wonderful playfullness to the role—a delight, a joy, with a little bit of inner vulnerability tinged with strength. It was a delight to watch. We’ve also seen Schmid before; he was in I Do! I Do! at the Pasadena Playhouse. He had a lovely singing voice and brought out the inner Captain quite well.

The supporting positions were also strong: Marilyn Anderson as the Mother Abbess, Laura Cable as Elsa, and Michael G. Hawkinsæ as Max. A few notes here. I particularly enjoyed Hawkins portrayal of Max: he brought a playfullness and delight to the role I hadn’t noticed before (I have Warner Klemperer burned into my mind here). Cable was also looser as Elsa than I had remembered, and had a good singing voice. The Abbess has a smaller part, but Anderson had the needed operatic voice that makes “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” work.

Also in supporting positions are the Von Trapp Children: Alison Woods (Liesl), Michael Kennedy (Friedrich), Lyrissa Leininger (Louisa), Mason Purece (Kurt), Audrey Miller (Brigitta), Natalie Esposito (Marta), and Kristina Van Horst (Gretl). Of these, two are notable. Woods, as Liesl, had a delightful singing voice, and was extremely good in her duets with Warne in “The Lonely Goatherd”. Van Horst, of course, won over the audience as the extremely cute Gretl.

Rounding out the cast, in small and ensemble roles, were: Tyler Matthew Burk (Rolf), Gloria Bennett (Frau Schmidt), David Gilchrist (Franz), Patrick J. Saxon (Herr Zeller), Robert Weibezahl (Baron Elberfeld), John McCool Bowers (Admiral Von Schreiber), CMT regular Farley Cadena (Sister Margaretta), Becca Cornelius (Sister Sophia), Karen Sonnenschein (Sister Berthe), Ronni Coleen Ashley (Ensemble), Carol-Lynn Campbell (Ensemble), Carolyn Freeman Champ (Ensemble), Judy Domroy (Ensemble), Lori Merkle Ford (Ensemble), Heidi Goodspeed (Ensemble), Stephanie Hayslip (Ensemble), Julie Jones (Ensemble), Laura Leininger (Ensemble), Maegan Mandarino (Ensemble), Jacqueline Elyse Rosenthal (Ensemble), Christanna Rowader (Ensemble), Catherine Wallet (Ensemble), Emily Works (Ensemble), David Kennedy (Ensemble), Mark David Lackey (Ensemble), Bart Leininger (Ensemble), and Jesse Test (Ensemble).
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Musical direction was by Darryl Archibald, who also conducted the excellent Cabrillo orchestra. Matthew Smedal was assistant musical director and associate conductor. Choreography was by Heather Castillo.

Technically, this musical was quite interesting. The set can trace its lineage back to that 1972 production of “The Sound of Music” that I saw at LA CLO; it’s now owned by Musical Theatre West. It held up quite well. Of course, it had some assistance. It was lit quite nicely by Rand Ryan, the lighting designer, and augmented by Anna Grijalva, who developed additional props. Tim Schroepfer, the technical director, was also likely involved in figuring out how to put it together. Also helping technically was Jonathan Burke, the sound designer (who did an exceptional job this time with the directionality of the sound), Christine Gibson as the wardrobe supervisor, and Mark Travis Hoyer (wing and makeup design). Allie Roy was the Production Stage Manager, assisted by Taylor Ruge and Jessica Standifer.

Tonight is the last performance of “The Sound of Music” at Cabillo. Tickets are likely available; visit the online box office or give them a call. Cabrillo has announced their upcoming season: “Annie“, “Ring of Fire“, “Once Upon a Mattress“, and “Meet Me in St. Louis“.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Our theatre calendar gets lighter for a while, although I do have some shows to book. August brings “The Boys Next Door” at REP East on August 13, and “On Golden Pond” at the Colony Theatre on August 20, and possibly the last Summer Evening at the Huntington with the Quarteto Neuvo on August 27. September currently only has one weekend booked: “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at REP East on September 24; October shows “Shooting Star” at the Colony Theatre on October 1, and “Annie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 22. October will also hopefully bring The Robber Bridegroom” at ICT. Of course, I expect to fill some of the weekends in August, September, and October with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.


It’s Big, Green, Scary… and On The Stage

There is this common belief in certain sectors in Hollywood that animated pictures translate well into stage musicals. Sometimes they do, and are quite successful—witness the continuing success of “The Lion King” or “Beauty and the Beast”. Sometimes the result is just average, as in “The Little Mermaid”. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all, as in “Tarzan”. Some animated shows that cry out to be turned into musicals, such as “Up”; and some are better left on the screen, such as “Home on the Range”. Today, we saw one of the entries in the “just average” camp: “Shrek—The Musical” at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.

Shrek—The Musical” basically tells the story told in the film, with a little added backstory. The story begins with Shrek’s backstory: On his seventh birthday, Shrek’s parents kick him out of their house and into the world to make his living. We see how Shrek is attacked and ends up alone in a swamp, only to be invaded by a bunch of fairy creatures exiled from the Kingdom of Duloc by order of the diminutive Lord Farquaad. Shrek decides to travel to see Farquaad to try to regain his privacy, reluctantly rescuing a talkative Donkey along the way. Meanwhile, Lord Farquaad uses torture on a cookie to discover the whereabouts of the princess he wishes to marry to become king. We learn her backstory, and Shrek is recruited to rescue the princess. Shrek and Donkey then set off to find the princess. Arriving at the castle, Shrek sets off alone to rescue Fiona while Donkey encounters a ferocious female Dragon who initially wants to eat him, but then wants to keep him for her own after Donkey manages to charm her. Shrek rescues Fiona, but his lack of interest in playing out her desired rescue scene leaves Shrek no choice but to drag her off by force. The two of them reunite with Donkey and all escape. After convincing Shrek to reveal his identity, Fiona is appalled that her rescuer is an ogre. Shrek explains that he is merely her champion; instead, she is to wed Lord Farquaad. The trio begins their journey back to Farquaad’s palace, while Fiona attempts to hide her secret: She turns into an ogress at night. As the trip continues, Shrek falls for Fiona, and then gets angry when he overhears her saying that no one can love an ugly beast. Lord Farquaad now arrives to claim Princess Fiona. While not very impressed with Farquaad, Fiona agrees to marry him and insists that they have the wedding before sunset. As they ride back to Duloc, Donkey tries to explain the misunderstanding to Shrek, and Shrek rejects him as well, declaring that he will return to his swamp alone and build a wall against the outside world. Meanwhile, the fairy tale creatures decide that just because they are freaks does not mean they deserve to be hated. The predictable ending happens: Shrek rescues the Princess from her wedding, aided by the fairy creatures. During the argument, the sun sets, causing Fiona to turn into an ogress in front of everyone. Farquaad, furious and disgusted over the change, orders that Shrek be killed and Fiona banished back to her tower. As Farquaad proclaims himself the new king, Donkey whistles for the Dragon, who crashes through the window and destroys Lord Farquaad. Admitting their love for each other, Shrek and Fiona share a kiss. Fiona’s curse is broken and she takes her true form: an ogress. They all live happily ever after.

In other words: What we have here is basically a children’s story on stage for 2½ hours. There are in-references to other musicals thrown in (I quickly identified homages to Dreamgirls, Lion King, B&TB, Les Miz), and a few more adult jokes (such as Lord Farquaad being thrown out because he was 27 and living in his parent’s basement) to try to make the parents happy, but it is a children’s story at its heart. That can work if the underyling book is timeless (witness The Lion King, which is really Hamlet), but often it fails. Shrek, at its heart, is a film that did not cry to be musicalized. The music, while cute and at times memorable, does not always move the story along. Hence, the book dooms this musical to the second tier.

The second problem with the show is almost every actor is in some form of heavy costume, the exception being Fiona. This limits the actor’s ability to express themselves in manners other than something vocal. This is especially a problem for the Shrek character, whose acting is mostly plastic due to the costume. At least Donkey and Farquaad get a full face. This doesn’t mean that some of the costumes aren’t inspired. Farquaad’s costume, in particular, is excellent: the actor does the entire show on his knees to simulate the short height of the character, and it works. Donkey’s costume is effective, as is Pinocchio’s.

There are also some wonderful character effects. One of the big changes from the Broadway production—and one that works quite well—is the conversion of the dragon to a large puppet handled by four actors. This is actually one of the best things about the show: it moves well and effectively, and emotes much better than Shrek! The dragon is voiced by an offstage actress. Also effective was Fiona’s transformations, both as she aged and as she turned into the ogress. I’ve already noted the wonderful way they handle Lord Farquaad.

Most of the actors were pretty good (what you could see of them), although Erin though Shrek didn’t hit all his notes. In the lead, Eric Petersen sang reasonable well and attempted to act through the heavy makeup. As Princess Fiona, Haven Burton has a lovely singing voice, and portrayed the character quite well. Even stronger was Alan Mingo Jr. as Donkey: he had a great singing voice and reasonably good comic skills, although the book needed to give him more humor. Lastly, as Lord Farquaad, David F.M. Vaughn did remarkably on his knees, singing and playing quite well.

In the second acting tier, there were some remarkable standouts. I particularly liked Carrie Compere (Dragon, Mama Ogre, Tweedledum) as the singing voice of the Dragon. She has a lovely voice, and I hope she goes far with it. Also strong was Blakely Slaybaugh as Pinocchio: he brought some nice comic touches to the role. Rounding out the cast were Holly Ann Butler (Wicked Witch, Blind Mouse, Queen Lillian), Tyrone Davis Jr. (Bricks, Guard, Dragon Puppeteer), Sandra Denise (Sugar Plum Fairy, Bluebird), , Hayley Feinstein (Young Shrek, Dwarf), Aymee Garcia (Mama Bear, Gingy), Derek Hanson (Papa Ogre, Straw, Knight, Pied Piper, Bishop), Benjamin Howes (Papa Bear, Thelonius Knight), Cara Kem (Baby Bear, Blind Mouse), Denny Paschall (Pepter Pan, Guard, Dragon Head), Sarah Peak (Ugly Duckling, Teen Fiona), Keven Quillon (Guard, Dragon Puppeteer), Morgan Rose (Shoemaker’s Elf, Blind Mouse), Jason W. Shuffler (Big Bad Wolf, King Harold, Captain of the Guard, Knight), Danielle Soibelman (Young Fiona), and Julius Thomas III (Sticks, Guard, Dragon Puppeteer). Joe Abraham, Emily Cramer, David Foley Jr., Sean McKnight (Assst. Dance Captain), and Mara Newbery (Dance Captain) were swings.
[All actors are members of æ Actors Equity ]

Shrek features book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori. The production was directed by Rob Ashford and Jason Moore. Choreography was by Josh Prince.

Technically, the production was pretty good. The sets, costumes, and especially the puppets by Tim Hatley were wonderful. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting was nice. The sound by Peter Hylenski was reasonably clear (by the way, we learned a trick for the Pantages: rent a headset). Wig/Hair design was by David Brian Brown, with makeup by Naomi Donne. Marshall Magoon was Illusions Consultant. Joel Rosen was Production Stage Manager, with Anna R. Kaltenbach as Stage Manager and Bryan Rountree as Assistant Stage Manager.

Orchestrations were by Danny Troob, assisted by John Glancy. Tim Weil was music supervisor. Andy Grobengieser was music director. Music coordination was by Michael Keller. Dance arrangements were by Matthew Sklar. Evan Ensign was associate director, and Stephen Sposito was assistant director.

This is the last stop on the “Shrek—The Musical” tour, with the last show on July 31. We’re exploring getting Flex tickets to Broadway/LA for their next season. Shows of interest are Billy Elliot: The Musical (D, E, K), The Addams Family (D, E, K), Million Dollar Quartet (D), La Cage Aux Folles (E), Memphis (D, E), and Riverdance (K).

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: July closes with “The Sound of Music” (July 30, Cabrillo Music Theatre, ticketed). August brings “The Boys Next Door” at REP East on August 13, and “On Golden Pond” at the Colony Theatre on August 20, and possibly the last Summer Evening at the Huntington with the Quarteto Neuvo on August 27. September currently only has one weekend booked: “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at REP East on September 24; October shows “Shooting Star” at the Colony Theatre on October 1, “Annie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 22, and (hopefully) Bernadette Peters at VPAC on October 16 (rescheduled to March 2012). October will also hopefully bring The Robber Bridegroom” at ICT. Of course, I expect to fill some of the weekends in August, September, and October with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.


Finding Ms. Right

The search for love is an interesting endeavor. It always seems we want what we shouldn’t have. The staid and stolid types want the risky girl. The risky types want that quiet girl. Jews often want non-Jewish girls, whereas non-Jews are often drawn to Jewish girls. The latter two cases were the topics of this afternoon’s play, Jewtopia, at Rep East Playhouse.

Jewtopia tells the story of Chris and Adam, two young single men in their 30s, looking for love. Chris, more formally Chris O’Connell, a non-Jew, wants to find a good Jewish girl to marry so he never has to make a decision again… but the Jewish girls are uninterested in him because he’s a goy. His best friend, Adam Lipschitz, has the opposite problem: he’s more interested in shiksas (non-Jewish girls), but has the family pressure to find a Jewish girl to marry, so he needs to find one he likes. So these two make a pact: Adam will teach Chris how to be Jewish so that he can get the Jewish girl he wants, while Chris will introduce Adam to Jewtopia, the land of Jewish girls, and teach him how to attract a Jewish girl who will finally say “yes, yes, oh yes”. The rest of the play is the story of that question: Chris and his journey to convince the family of Alison Cohen that he is Jewish-enought for their daughter… and Adam and his journey through 155 Jdate dates to find a Jewish girl that he likes. Along the way, every (and I mean every) stereotype of Jewish families is exposed, ripped asunder, and exaggerated for humor and amusement (as examples, Jews never own tools, and if we do, we don’t know where they are or how to use them; Jews always are complaining about one medical problem or another, etc.)

Essentially, Jewtopia is a series of comic sketches highlighting what it means to be culturally Jewish. The traits they highlight may be exaggerated, but they are there and are touched upon out of a sense of love, not mocking. They quest they describe is true. I remember it from my college days, as well as from talking to my friends. If you are Jewish, you’ll enjoy this play and see yourself. If you are not Jewish… well, bring a Jewish friend to explain things to you.

The cast for this production was very good. The standouts were the two leads: Aaron Wong as Chris O’Connell and Marc Ginsburgæ as Adam Lipschitz. These two young men portray Chris and Adam in a very convincing manner, likable and earnest in their searches. Rounding out the cast in various supporting roles are Susan Huckle (various crazy girls, Jill), Michael Levine (Rabbi Schlomo / Grandpa Irving), Judy Greenberg (Marcy Cohen / Arlene Lipschitz), Bonnie He (Rachel Kahn / Nurse), and Darel Roberts (Dennis Lipschitz / Party Guy). The production was directed by Marlowe Weisman, assisted by Bill Quinn: a team that did a great job of bringing the inner Jew out of their actors, Jewish or not.

Technically, the production was relatively simple. Jeff Hyde’s set was primarily projections onto a pseudo-Torah. Costumes and additional set decor were by Lisa Melcombe, and captured the vibe well. Lighting and sound were by REP-regulars Tim Christianson and Steven “Nanook” Burkholder, respectively. Shawna Voragen was production stage manger.

Jewtopia was written by Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson.

Jewtopia” continues at REP East until July 30. I’d tell you how to get tickets, but the run is already sold out. It will be returning to the REP in early 2012.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Next weekend brings Dolly Parton (July 23, Hollywood Bowl) and “Shrek” (July 24, Pantages Theatre, ticketed). July closes with “The Sound of Music” (July 30, Cabrillo Music Theatre, ticketed). August brings “The Boys Next Door” at REP East on August 13, and “On Golden Pond” at the Colony Theatre on August 20, and possibly the last Summer Evening at the Huntington with the Quarteto Neuvo on August 27. September currently only has one weekend booked: “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at REP East on September 24; October shows “Shooting Star” at the Colony Theatre on October 1, “Annie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 22, and (hopefully) Bernadette Peters at VPAC on October 16. October will also hopefully bring The Robber Bridegroom” at ICT. Of course, I expect to fill some of the weekends in August, September, and October with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.


Dickens is not Shakespeare

Last night, we went to the final show of the Pasadena Playhouse 2010-2011 season (which started way back in February 2010 with Camelot): “Twist“. Given how the Playhouse has normally ended the season with a jukebox musical (most recently Baby Its You” in 2009), one might have expected “Twist” to be a jukebox musical about Chubby Checker. Alas, we weren’t that (umm) lucky—”Twist” is a modern retelling of the Charles Dicken’s classic, Oliver Twist. I’ll noted that Oliver Twist has been previously musicalized in the extremely successful early 1960s musical Oliver! with book and lyrics by Lionel Bart.

Twist” takes the basic story of Oliver Twist and transplants it to New Orleans in the 1920s. As the musical opens, we meet Roosevelt King, part of a black tap-dancing duo with Boston at an the Jewel Box, an old theatre on the edge of the French Quarter. Roosevelt is leaving the due to run off with Angela Thacher, a white woman he has gotten pregnant. As they meet at the train station, Roosevelt is set upon by the KKK, led by Lucius Thacher. These klansmen kills Roosevelt and gravely injure Angela. Angela crawls to the nearby Parish Orphanage, where she leaves her locket with Della, the teenaged black girl who answers the door, and has her baby. The mulatto child, now named Twist, grows up at the orphanage. When on his 10th birthday he asks for his birthday meat, he is sold to the nearby funeral home to be a funeral dancer for New Orleans’ funeral processions. Oliver Twist gets scared at the mortuary and runs away. Meanwhile, Lucius has used up his trust and wants his sister’s millions… but can’t get them because her child may still be alive. He starts to scheme to recover Twist, so that he can kill him and get the money. Twist eventually ends up in the Quarter, where he becomes a street dancer, and is befriended by one of Fagin’s Boston’s kids, the Artful Dodger Pistol, who brings Twist back to the basement of the Jewel Box. Here Twist meets Boston’s girl, Nancy Della (yes, the same Della from the orphanage) and gets introduced to Boston’s business: running illegal liquor in the Quarter. While out on a liquor run, Twist is nabbed by the police and arrested. Meanwhile, Lucius has learned where Twist is and attempts to buy him from Boston. Twist is saved from prison and released to the custody of Mr. Brownlaw Mr. Prudhomme, who is enamored with black-style performers such as Al Jolson (blackface), Josephine Baker, and Roosevelt King. But Della steals Twist away during Mardi Gras, returning him to Boston, who has worked out a deal to sell him. But Della gets cold feet: she tells Twist of his mother, and calls Mr. Prudhomme to come get him. When Boston learns of Twist’s parents, he decides to say no to Lucius and keep Twist with Della and himself. But Lucius won’t take no for an answer, and in the ensuing gunfight on a bridge, both Boston and Lucius are killed. The musical ends with Della singing how she and Twist will go on.

Twist was performed well (more on that in a bit) and danced extremely well—this is due to the talents of Debbie Allen who served as director and choreographer. Much of the music (written by Tena Clark and Gary Prim) is toe-tapping, although the tunes and lyrics (also by by Tena Clark) don’t stick with you after the show. However the musical ultimately left me cold. I place the fault of this at the feet of the book writers, William F. Brown (who wrote “The Wiz”) and his wife, Tina Tippit. It took me a while to figure out the problem, but ultimately it boiled down to the title of this post: Charles Dickens is not Shakespeare.

Shakespeare is a unique writer: his works can be transplanted into different times and venues and they work. The Lion King is Hamlet. West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet. The underlying basis of the story is Shakespeare, but the timeless tale is told in a new mileau. I don’t think that can be done with Dickens. As I sat through this story, I kept seeing the correspondences to Oliver!. This occurred with songs: “Meat on the Bones” is “Food Glorious Food”; “Death is Alive and Well” is “That’s Your Funeral”; “Be Quick” is “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two”, and so forth. It also occurred with characters (Pistol is Dodger, Della is Nancy, etc.) and locations (the workhouse, the theatre, the death scene on the bridge). The story was too close to the original, and the original had already been told with an excellent musical (Oliver!) and numerous film versions (most recently Polanski’s excellent 2005 version). Perhaps this could have been saved with spectacular music and lyrics, but it wasn’t. As it was, we kept comparing it with Oliver!, and Twist kept coming up short. Brown’s The Wiz had a similar risk, although there it was the original story just with new music and style, and that music and style worked. But with Twist, we kept asking ourselves “why?”. There wasn’t a burning need to move Oliver Twist to a new time and locale. We not even sure if one could do this with Dickens as his stories are so closely tied to their time, place, and people. This hurt this musical, and continues the tendancy of the Pasadena Playhouse to focus on the splash, the dance, and the energy and not notice the book problems (and book problems are behind a large number of unsuccesful musicals).

The book problems also manifested themselves in song problems. Setting aside the lyrics, which tended not to stick with you after the show and leave you humming and singing, both acts ended poorly. Act I ends with “Della/Boston Fight”, a slow ballad—constrast this with Oliver!’s act I ending song, “Be Back Soon” (the act ending with the arrest). Act II ends with a Finale that is a ballad Della sings to Twist—Oliver! ended with a reprise of “Reviewing the Situation” and reprises of “Food Glorious Food”, “Consider Yourself”, and “I’d Do Anything”. Acts should not end on slow songs; they need to leave the audience humming the tune as they walk out of the auditorium. Les Miz demonstrated this well.

However, as I said earlier, the dancing and the performances were remarkable. You can clearly see Debbie Allen’s hard work in the dances, which were spectacular and reminded me of the energy and creativity we saw in the Fame TV series. The stellar cast aided her in this. The mix of equity and non-equity performers aided her in this: they acted and danced their hearts out, working to make this production succeed on their energy, talent, heart, and feet alone. It is hard to single people out in this true ensemble performance, but I must…

Leading the cast was Alaman Diadhiou, a 10 year old wonder who sang strongly, acted strongly, danced even stronger, as was cute as a button. Diadhiou had great stage presence; I hope it translates well to adulthood (alas, it didn’t for most of the youths that have played Oliver!). As Boston, Matthew Johnsonæ was an exceptional singer and dancer, as was his partner in dance, Jared Grimesæ as Roosevelt King. Equally strong, as Boston’s partner in love, was Tamyra Grayæ—she was both a playful dancer and a strong ballad singer. As Mr. Prudhomme, Cliff Bemisæ projected the appropriate warm paternal vibe. On the evil side, Pat McRobertsæ provided the appropriate malevolence as the Bill Sykes parallel; remind me to never name a child Lucius, as the name portends evil.

That addressed the top tier, but within the rest of the ensemble was some remarkable talent. Playhouse regular Cleavant Derricksæ was back as Crazah Chesterfield, the funeral shop owner, who turned that small role into a remarkable performance. I was also taken by the performance of 11 year old Dempsey Tonks, who just drew my eye with her performance whenever she was on stage. Also eye-catching were Diane Delanoæ as Miss Cotton (my mind was remembering her face from Northern Exposure) and Kyle Garvin (who has an extermely unique face). Rounding out the company were: Paul Aguirreæ (Potlatch/Ensemble), Kevin C. Beacham, Jr. (Ensemble), Joshua Bolden (Pistol/Ensemble), Nickolas Eibler (Ensemble), John Fisheræ (Ensemble), Ava Gaudetæ (Angela Thatcher/Ensemble), Chantel Heathæ (Ensemble), Joshua Horton (Ensemble), Holly Hymanæ (Ensemble), Olivia-Diane Joseph (Ensemble), Wayne Mackins (Ensemble), Chase Maxwell (Yancy/Ensemble), Vivian Nixonæ (Ensemble), Micah Patterson (Ensemble), Malaiyka Reidæ, Carla Renataæ (Naomi/Ensemble), Julianna Rigoglioso (Ensemble), Isaac Spector (Ensemble), Terrance Spenceræ (Ensemble), Robert Loftinæ (Al Jolson/Ensemble), Dougie Styles (Ensemble), and Armando Yearwood Jr. (Ensemble).
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

As I noted above, the music in the show was wonderful dance music, although the tunes didn’t stick with you. I’ve already mentioned the composers (Tena Clark and Gary Prim). Orchestrations were by Harold Wheeler. Jim Vukovich was Music Director and Vocal Arranger, as well as being part of the band (Keyboard 1). Wally Minko was Associate Music Director, as well as Keyboard 2, with Lance Lee as Assistant Music Director as well as playing drums. Rounding out the orchestra as Tom Bethke (guitar/banjo), Ernest Tibbs (bass), Vanessa Brown (percussion), Wayne Bergeron (trumpet 1), Larry Hall (trumpet 2), Bruce Otto (trombone/tuba), Tom Evans (reed 1), Dick Mitchell (reed 2), Mark Cargill (violin 1), and Susan Chatman (violin 2). As always, the Playhouse assembled an excellent orchestra with great sound.

Technically, the show was unmatched. This is something the Playhouse tends to do well, with spectacular set designs, costumes, and lighting. The set, by Todd Rosenthal was spectacular, evoking the feel of the French Quarter and the seedier side of New Orleans. The costumes by Esosa were stunning yet appropriate. The lighting by Howell Binkley was critical in establishing the mood and the settings, which is what good lighting does. Lastly, the sound by Peter Fitzgerald was clear, crisp, and otherwise unnoticable (which is what a good sound design does). Dee Dee Irwin and Victoria Watson were associate producers. Joe Witt was the Production Manger, and Alex Britton the Production Supervisor. David Blackwell as Production Stage Manager.

Twist” has extended at the Pasadena Playhouse; it now concludes its run on July 24. Tickets are available through the Pasadena Playhouse; I seem to recall them being on Goldstar as well. This was our last subscription show at the Playhouse; we didn’t renew based on our bankrupcy experience. The Playhouse has announced their 2001-2012 season: South Street – A Musical Comedy (September 20-October 16, 2011); Pastoral (November 1-27, 2011); Art (January 24-February 19, 2012); the Heiress (April 24-May 20, 2012), and Sleepless in Seattle – The Musical (June 12-July 15, 2012). Sleepless is a change from the original announcement, which was to either be Peggy Sue Got Married or The Nutty Professor, but none of the three excite me. As for Pastoral, which was to be with Angela Bassett, that’s going to be replaced, as Bassett has announced she’ll be doing a play in New York then. The replacement hasn’t been announced. This schedule reshuffling is one of the reasons we didn’t renew; I don’t expect that in a subscription house.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Today brings “Jewtopia” at one of our favorite venues, REP East. Next weekend brings Dolly Parton (July 23, Hollywood Bowl) and “Shrek” (July 24, Pantages Theatre, ticketed). July closes with “The Sound of Music” (July 30, Cabrillo Music Theatre, ticketed). August brings “The Boys Next Door” at REP East on August 13, and “On Golden Pond” at the Colony Theatre on August 20, and possibly the last Summer Evening at the Huntington with the Quarteto Neuvo on August 27. September currently only has one weekend booked: “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at REP East on September 24; October shows “Shooting Star” at the Colony Theatre on October 1, “Annie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 22, and (hopefully) Bernadette Peters at VPAC on October 16. October will also hopefully bring The Robber Bridegroom” at ICT. Of course, I expect to fill some of the weekends in August, September, and October with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.


Twenty-Five Years of Les Misérables — Visiting the Juggernaut

Back in 1985, a musical juggernaut was created: Les Misérables, the musical version of the Victor Hugo novel. It hit Los Angeles in 1988, opening at a rejuivenated Shubert Theatre in Century City, where it ran for fourteen months. It returned to Los Angeles numerous times since then under Broadway/LA’s banner (2004, 2006). However, it wasn’t until the current 25th anniversary production at the Ahmanson Theatre that I finally saw the show. As my wife said as it ended last night, “Wow!”.

Les Misérables” (the musical) tells the story of Jean Valjean, also known as prisoner 24601, and his adopted daughter, Cosette. It is based on the Victor Hugo of the same name, but does cut a few elements of the story. The story, which covers 17 years, is so complicated that a synopsis needs to be published in the program (seemingly, a bad sign). Given that, I’m not going to attempt to repeat it here. You can read it yourself in the program, or from the Wikipedia Page on the show. Suffice it to say that the show condenses the 1,200 page, five volume novel into two acts of 90 minutes and 65 minutes respectively. The first act covers Jean Valjean’s release from prison and the interaction with the Bishop at Digne, the mayoral years at Montreiil-Sur-Mer where Valjean meets Fantine and takes responsibility for Cosette, the visit to Montfermeil where Valjean obtains Cosette from the Thénardiers, and the years in Paris where the student revolt begins and Marius and Cosette fall in love… all of this while the police officer Javert is chasing Valjean. The second act is solely in Paris and covers the student revolt, its failure, the subsequent growth of the relationship between Marius and Cosette, the final confrontations of Valjean and Javert, and the final redemption of Valjean. That’s a lot of material to cover—trying to cover so much material and so much time is the reason many great novels, such as Gone With The Wind, never make it to the Broadway stage. It is a testament to the original authors Claude-Michel Schönberg (music) and Alain Boublil (a French-language libretto) that they were able to take the beast of a novel and turn it into something understandable (although, arguably, this is really a full opera presented in the guise of a “musical”—at times, the lines between the two blurs). It is also a testament to the English language adapters, Herbert Kretzmer who developed the English language libretto, and Cameron Mackintosh, the original producer, who discovered the French production in 1982 and has sheparded it ever since (I’ll note Mackintosh’s full bio in the program was: “Produces musicals.”). The production was adapted by Sir Trevor Nunn and John Caird.

The translation does have its weak parts, however, primarily in how manipulative it is for the audience. By this, I mean the show in engineered to be a pleaser, with music that builds and leaves the toes tapping; with moments designed to permit the actors to shine; and with act-ending finales designed to stir the soul. In that sense, it is truly operatic as opposed to dramatic. It it also, at times, emotionally overwrought—again, a hallmark of the more operatic side. To some that is a fatal flaw that reduces the worth of the show, but I do enjoy the general effect. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy VK and Impulse!—two drum corps known for their general effect work as opposed to production perfection. Oh, sorry, I slipped into the mindset for tonight’s show.

For the most part, the production at the Ahmanson was excellent: the cast was perfect, the direction by Laurence Connor and James Powell was excellent, and the musical staging by Michael Ashcroft was a delight. But there were a few problems. Although I appreciate color-blind casting, it was a bit jarring for Éponine to change from a little white girl to a black young women; one wonders how about life in France in the 1800s can do that. More annoying, however, was the backstage. Theatre must preserve the illusion to the greatest extent possible whereever one sits in the theatre. We were all the way on the side in the orchestra, and it was disconcerting to see the backstage doors opening and closing, and the conductor monitor going on and off, in the rear stage, stage left portion of the theatre. This was especially jarring during Castle on a Cloud. Whoever designed the set to not have a curtain covering those areas should be sent to a French prison.

The cast for this production was excellent—strong singers, strong dancers, strong dramatic actors to the lowest ensemble member. All appeared to be fully enjoying and inhabiting their roles (I particularly recall the two women who, during one of Valjean’s big songs in the second act, were on stage rolling bandages and pouring mugs of wine). In the lead positions were J. Mark Mcvey as Jean Valjean and Andrew Varela as Javert. Mcvey had a voice with remarkable range (as demonstrated in Bring Him Home); it was a delight to hear him sing and to watch him. Varela was more controlled. In the second tier were Betsy Morgan (Fantine), Jenny Latimer (Cosette), Chasten Harmon (Éponine), and Justin Scott Brown (Marius). All were wonderful singers and actors. In the comic relief positions—and doing a wonderful job with the roles—were Michael Kostroff (Thénardier) and Shawna M. Hamic (Madame Thénardier). Rounding out the very large cast* were: Richard Barth (Swing—at our performance, Combeferre Fauchevelevent); Cathryn Basile (Crazy Whore, Ensemble); Julie Benko (Inkeeper’s Wife, Ensemble), Cole Burden (Courfeyrac), Briana Carlson-Goodman (Ensemble), Casey Erin Clark (Ensemble), Colin DePaula (Gavorche), Jason Forbach (Feuilly), Katherine Forrester (Little Cosette), Lucia Giannetta (Factory Girl, Ensemble), Ian Patrick Gibb (Constable, Jean Prouvaire), Jeremy Hays (Enjolras), Beth Kirkpatrick (Old Woman, Ensemble), Anastasia Korbal (Young Éponine), Cornelia Luna (Wigmaker, Ensemble), Benjamin Magnuson (Bishop of Digne, Babet), Jason Ostrowski (Factory Foreman, Dance Captain), Max Quinlan (Laborer, Montparnasse), John Rapson (Farmer, Bamatabois, Claquesous), Sarah Shahinian (Young Whore, Ensemble), Alan Shaw (Constable, Joly), Joseph Spieldenner (Innkeeper, Grantaire, Major Domo), Joe Tokarz (Champmathieu, Brujon, Loud Hailer), and Aliya Victoriya (Ensemble).
[*: I’m listing the cast we saw, and not listing u/s or swings we did not see]
[All actors are members of æ Actors Equity ]

Turning to the technical: Matt Kinley did the scenic and image design. The sets were fine, in and of themselves: barricades that came in and out, factory settings, ballustrades, and so forth. The more intriguing aspect were the images: projections were used to provide locales such as the sewers of Paris; these were very effective, especially when they were moving. Lighting was by Paule Constable and was extremely effective, although there were points where extremely bright white lights were shining to the eyes of those on the sides of the theatre. This was an example of the extensive use of backlighting to create mood. The sound, by Mick Potter, was odd. The orchestra seemed over-amplified at times (perhaps this is where we were sitting), and there were some odd echoes during soft points. I’ll write this off as poor tuning to the specific auditorium; otherwise, the amplification worked fine and actors were mostly audible. The costumes, by Andreane Neofitou, with additional costumes by Christine Rowland, were delightful and appeared appropriate to period.

Musical supervision was by Dan Bowling. Robert Billig was Music Director and Conductor of the 16-piece orchestra (quite a large group). Original orchestrations were by John Cameron, with new orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke, and additional orchestrations by Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Brooker.

Rounding out the credits: Jean-Marc Natel (Original French Text); James Fenton (Additional Material), Anthony Lyn (Associate Director), Christopher Key (UK Associate Director), Tara Rubin Casting (Casting), Townsend Teague (Company Manager), Corey Agnew (Resident Director), Trinity Wheeler (Production Stage Manager), Heather Chockley (Stage Manager), Mitchell B. Hodges (Assistant Stage Manager).

Les Miserables” continues at the Ahmanson until July 31. HotTix may be available. You can also buy tickets online; I forget if they are on Goldstar.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Tonight takes us out to Riverside to see a Drum Corps show: Western Corps Connection on July 3 in Riverside. The following weekend is open, as Jerry Springer: The Opera did not work out datewise. A possibility is Working” at the Ruby Theatre in Hollywood; it is their closing weekend. The weekend of Carmageddon brings “Twist: A New Musical” (July 16, Pasadena Playhouse, ticketed) and “Jewtopia” (July 17, REP East, ticketed). The wekeend of July 23 brings Dolly Parton (July 23, Hollywood Bowl) and “Shrek” (July 24, Pantages Theatre, ticketed). July closes with “The Sound of Music” (July 30, Cabrillo Music Theatre, ticketed). August brings “Doubt” at REP East on August 13, and “On Golden Pond” at the Colony Theatre on August 20, and possibly the last Summer Evening at the Huntington with the Quarteto Neuvo on August 27. September currently only has one weekend booked: “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at REP East on September 24; October shows “Shooting Star” at the Colony Theatre on October 1, “Annie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 22, and (hopefully) Bernadette Peters at VPAC on October 16. October will also hopefully bring The Robber Bridegroom” at ICT. Of course, I expect to fill some of the weekends in August, September, and October with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.