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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Upcoming Shows:

Tonight continues the theatre with A Bronx Tale at the Hollywood Pantages (FB); Monday we have A Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (OERM) (FB). The third weekend of November brings Beyond Jacobs Ladder from Jewish Woman’s Theatre (FB) at our synagogue on Saturday, and Finks at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB) on Sunday. Thanksgiving weekend has Steambath at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB) on Saturday and Remembering Boyle Heights at Casa 0101 (FB) in Boyle Heights on Sunday. December starts with the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC), followed by a hold for the Canadian Brass at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Then we may travel up to the Bay Area for Tuck Everlasting at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (FB) (although that is starting to look less likely).

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

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

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🎭 Lizards and Lovers | “She Loves Me” @ Actors Co-Op

She Loves Me (Actors Co-Op)What is the odd connection between the Austin Lounge Lizards and the musical She Loves Me? The last time we saw She Loves Me, back in 2014 at the Chance Theatre, we saw an afternoon matinee, and then rushed to Culver City to see the Lizards at Boulevard Music. Last weekend, we actually moved our tickets for She Loves Me  at Actors Co-op (FB) to Sunday so we could see the Austin Lounge Lizards at Boulevard Music on Saturday night. We still rushed on Sunday: this time from Stitches So Cal in Pasadena to Hollywood for She Loves Me.

Oh well, at least it allows me to repeat my description of the show itself.

For those unfamiliar with She Loves Me, you probably know the story but by another name. The story started out as the play Parfumerie by Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo. This was later made into the movie The Shop around the Corner with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan in 1940. It was then re-made into the movie In The Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland and Van Johnson in 1949. Most recently, it was re-made into the movie You’ve Got Mail in 1998 with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. On the stage, however, in 1963 Parfumerie was turned into the musical She Loves Me by Joe Masteroff (book — he later went on to do the book of Caberet), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics — he next went on to Fiddler on the Roof), and Jerry Bock (music — and again Fidder).

The basic bones of the story are simple: Single man has a pen pal with whom he is falling in love. Single gal has a pen pal with whom she is falling in love. Single man and single gal work at the same place and hate each other’s guts, without knowing that each is the other’s pen pal. Now, bring them together with some catalyst, turn the gears, and enjoy the show.

In the case of She Loves Me, the story sticks pretty close to the original source. Georg is a clerk at Maraczek’s Parfumerie in Budapest in 1937 (although there are no hints of war — evidently, the real world doesn’t intrude on this story). He works together with the other clerks: Ilona, Sipos, and Kodaly, and the delivery boy Arpad, for Mr. Maraczek. When the competing parfumerie closes, one of their clerks, Amalia, talks her way into a clerk job (which upsets Georg, who starts getting on her case). While all this is happening, Kodaly is busy persuing anything in a skirt — in particular, Ilona. When Mr. Maraczek suspects his wife of cheating, he starts bearing down on Georg, who passes the pressure on to the rest of the staff — making things even testier with Amalia. His only consolation is his pen-pal, who he has never met or seen, but loves anyway. He schedules a rendezvous with her, without knowing she is really Amalia. They day they are to meet, Georg gets fired and send Sipos to tell his unknown date he won’t be there. Sipos sees it is Amalia, and gets Georg to go talk to her. Thinking he is spying on her, they have a gigantic fight. End Act I. In Act II, of course, all things predictably come together in predictable fashion, which I, predictably, won’t spoil :-).

The music in this story is just a delight. From the initial “Good Morning, Good Day” to “Days Gone By” to “Tonight at Eight” to “Try Me” to “Ice Cream” to “She Loves Me” to “A Trip to the Library” — it is just a joy. If you haven’t heard the score, I strongly suggest you pick up one of the cast albums out there. You’ll fall in love with it.

So, we’ve established that we have a classic love story with a winning score. Why isn’t this musical done more? In 1963, there were the big song and dance numbers that people expected, and it was booked into the wrong theatre at the wrong time — and thus lost money. This led to a perception that it was a failed show. Remember , however, that Chicago was a failure when it first hit Broadway. Often great shows aren’t always profitable or recognized as such. You can learn more about the show and the details of the synopsis at Wikipedia.

So how did Actors Co-Op do, when compared to Chance? Under the direction and choreography of Cate Caplin (FB), the actors were clearly having fun with the piece, and that fun was projected to the audience. The overall company was quite fun to watch, and there was lots of joy in the production.

In the lead positions were Claire Adams as Amalia Balash and  Kevin Shewey (FB) as Georg Nowack. We had seen both before in the Actors Co-Op production of Violet back in May: they were strong then, and they gave strong performances now. They have great singing voices, wonderful personalities that come through in their performances, and a nice chemistry between the two of them (demonstrated exceptionally well in the second act).

In the second tier, we had the other clerks at Maraczek’s: Darren Bluestone as Steven Kodaly, Beau Brians (FB) as Arpad Laszlo, Avrielle Corti (FB) as Ilona Ritter, and Tim Hodgin (FB) as Ladislav Sipos. I was really taken by the performances of Corti and Hodin. Both had these wonderful twinkles and characterizations that made them a delight to watch; both also sang well.  Brians brought a great boyish charm to Arpad, and was strong in his numbers. I was a bit less taken by Bluestone: he had fun with the Gaston-ish primping, but otherwise, I got no real sense of his character or what he was bringing to the role.

In a slightly smaller role was Greg Martin (FB)’s Mr. Maraczek. He brought the right amount of gruffness and tenderness to the role, and was fun to watch.

Rounding out the cast in small named roles and ensemble positions were Carolyn Carothers (FB) [Parfumerie Customer, Cafe Patron]; Cy Creamer (FB) [Keller]; Phil Crowley [Headwaiter]; Tyler Joseph Ellis (FB) [Busboy, Arpadu/s]; Rachel Geis [Parfumerie Customer, Cafe Patron]; and Carly Lopez (FB) [Parfumerie Customer, Cafe Patron]. All were fun to watch, especially the mix in the 12 Days to Christmas sequence. The customers, in particular, brought some interesting and different characterizations to their tracks each time they appeared.

Understudies were Lea Madda (FB) [Ilona Ritteru/s]; and Susanna Vaughan (FB) [Amalia Balashu/s].

The biggest difference from the Chance production was the orchestra. Whereas Chance had a single piano and gypsy violin, Actors Co-Op had 6 pieces: Keyboards (Anthony Lucca, who also served as conductor); Violin (Miyuki Miyagi); Cello (Cyrus Elia); Reeds (Austin Chanu); Trumpet (Nathan Serot); and Percussion (Ian Hubbell). The orchestra had good sound, although a few notes sounded a bit off.

Turning to the technical and production: Stephen Gifford (FB)’s set design was, as usual, elegant and worked well within the confines of the Schall Theatre space. It was supported by Lori Berg (FB)’s property design. Michael Mullen (FB)’s costume design also worked well in conjunction with Klint Flowers wig, hair, and makeup. Sound design was by Adam R. Macias, with lighting by Luke Moyer (FB).  Derek R. Copenhaver (FB) was the stage manager, assisted by  James Ledesma (FB). Other credits:  Heather Chesley (FB) [Artistic Chairwoman];  Selah Victor (FB) [Production Manager]; Nora Feldman [Publicity].

She Loves Me continues at Actors Co-op (FB) through December 16, 2018. It’s a cute show; you’ll enjoy it. Tickets are available through the Actors Co-Op Website; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar.

***

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

Upcoming Shows:

Next weekend is very busy: Dear Even Hansen at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and A Bronx Tale at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), as well as A Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (OERM) (FB). The third weekend of November brings Beyond Jacobs Ladder from Jewish Woman’s Theatre (FB) at our synagogue on Saturday, and Finks at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB) on Sunday. Thanksgiving weekend has Steambath at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB) on Saturday and Remembering Boyle Heights at Casa 0101 (FB) in Boyle Heights on Sunday. December starts with the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC), followed by a hold for the Canadian Brass at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Then we may travel up to the Bay Area for Tuck Everlasting at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (FB) (although that is starting to look less likely).

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

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

 

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🎭 An Interesting Beast | “Shrek: The Musical” @ 5-Star Theatricals

Shrek - The Musical (5-Star)Musicals take interesting paths. Some are clear hits, running forever on Broadway, and taking their own sweet time on hitting the regional market (ex: Wicked). Some are perennials: classics on Broadway and on the regional market (ex: Fiddler). Some are Broadway hits, but never quite get the knack of the touring production, and never quite make it in the regional market (ex: Natasha, Pierre, …). Some are so-so on Broadway, and perhaps they do a tour, but then they fade away (ex: Catch Me If You Can). Some fade away as soon as they open on Broadway (ex: Tuck Everlasting).

But then there are shows that embrace the tour. They get reworked for the road, and that rework makes them much stronger than the original Broadway production. The reworked version works well, and quickly goes into the regional market and becomes a staple production, from the school level to the community theatre to the larger regional theatre.  These are shows like Legally BlondeThe Addams Family, and Shrek.

Here in Southern California, it seems to have been a season of Shrek. I recall quite a few productions: Simi Valley, one in Santa Clarita, loads of school  productions. But they weren’t there when 5 Star Theatricals (FB) announced their production at the beginning of the year. The season they announced was intriguing: Shrek (perhaps overdone at the school level), Matilda (first large regional production), and West Side Story (appropriate, for Lenny’s 100th). Two were new for 5-Star. This was also coming after some turmoil at the company: Will North, who had picked the prior season (JosephHunchback, and Beauty and the Beast) and had starred in Hunchback, quickly disappeared and Patrick Cassidy (FB) was there as Artistic Director. Quite likely, it was North that picked the current season, which Cassidy got to execute. We renewed — not only because the shows are interesting, but because 5-Star has a great mission in serving the Ventura County community that is deserving of support.

Back to Shrek (which we saw Saturday night at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) in Thousand Oaks): The stage production lasted a year on Broadway, and was mostly true to the movie. You could see the story points from the Dreamworks Movie and the original book by William Steig that the book author (and lyricist), David Lindsay-Abaire (FB), and the composer, Jeanine Tesori, wanted to preserve. But some elements kept changing and adapting on tour and in the West End, and these made it back into the show that was eventually licensed. [This highlights yet another difference between stage and screen. The screen stays the same, forever: story and performance. Stage adapts: what was on Broadway is different from the tour and regional, and performers constantly change, and every performance is unique.]

As with The Addams Family, the eventual licensed version became stronger than the original. There also seemed to be a bit more freedom — I noticed some very topical additional to the show, and references to shows that were produced after Shrek was on the Great White Way. This is good, and it reminded me that we shouldn’t assume we know a property from the Broadway production and the cast album, and that there is value in seeing a show you already know again.

The story of Shrek is essentially the movie on stage, with some slight modifications for the limitations of live action over animation. The Wikipedia page has a good summary of the original Broadway production. The licensing page from MTI (click on synopsis) provides a summary of the licensed version. I’ll wait while you read (plays with phone and taps feet).

Watching the show, a number of thoughts came to my mind. The first was something that happens more and more of late: there were resonances with current events. In this case, Farquaad’s notion of petty dictatorship, the hatred of the other Fairy Tale creatures and the desire to keep them out and walled away, and the subsequent reveal that he, too, was one of them, had far too many echoes of the current occupant of the White House, a leader for whom the size of his ego makes up for his other shortcomings. There were other echoes of politics as well, including songs about building a wall. At least I don’t recall any consent issues in the show (that has made a number of other shows much more creepy), although there was a great Cosby reference.

Second: This show was a love-letter to Broadway. Just as the original movie had loads of references to Disney and other children’s movies, this show had loads of references to other Broadway productions. There were lines from Gypsy, Fosse style dancing, references to Dreamgirls and Les Miserables and Wicked and Beauty and the Beast. There were puppets from the Lion King. There was even a reference to Kinky Boots. If you are Broadway-aware, see if you can catch all of them.

The message of the story — thanks to the current situation — transcended the original as well. Coming out of the original production, one would have been imbued with the message of the importance of being who you are, and that there is someone out there who will love you for who you are. But today, the message of “letting your freak flag fly” has a difference resonance — especially as we are in an election season where those whose voices have been trampled by the pandering to the Trump base can finally speak back up and assert our power. The ending of the show is a clear reminder of the importance of “letting your freak flag fly” at the polling place the first Tuesday in November.

In summary, this was a show that entertained the kiddies at one level, with the storytale antics and fart jokes of the original. But for the adults, it was something that transcended the original Broadway production. It brought a level of self-awareness of what it was, with an undercurrent of political meaning, that adults would pick up on. As such, it was very very enjoyable.

It didn’t hurt that, under the direction of Kirsten Chandler (FB), the performances were very strong. This was supplemented by the great choreography of Karl Warden (FB). Of course, this wasn’t quite at the pinnacle of the previous Beauty and the Beast with the original Broadway Belle, but it was very very good. I’ll note here the one big drawback with this show: For most of the characters, the heavy costumes and heavy makeup often obscure the actor as the physical presence. These costumes also tend to limit what is possible in terms of the choreography — it’s hard to dance in oversize shoes and donkey hoofs. That’s a problem not of this production, but endemic to this show and other similar animation adaptations.

In the lead position was Trent Mills (FB) as Shrek. Mills, who looks to be a newer performer in the area, did a spectacular job and held his own against his Equity colleagues. He had a very strong singing voice, and generally brought the right presence to Shrek, capturing the humor well.

Rounding out the lead triumvirate were Lawrence Cummingsæ (FB) as Donkey, and Alison Woodsæ (FB) as Princess Fiona. We have seen both recently on the 5-Star/Cabrillo stage in The Little Mermaid. Cummings projects a great attitude and is seemingly game for anything. He has a strong singing voice, and handles the comedy and movement of the character well. Woods, also, is strong and possessed of a lovely singing voice. For this character, she captures the feistyness of the Fiona quite well, and seems to be having quite a bit of fun in “I Think I Have You Beat”. Both are very fun to watch. The only weakness with Fiona was the transformational makeup, and I don’t believe that was an actor issue.

This brings us to  Marc Baron Ginsburgæ (FB) as Lord Farquaad. We’ve seen a lot of Marc of late, from his Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast and his remarkable Levi Strauss in Levi! (not to mention other Cabrillo/5-Star roles). He’s a remarkable character actor and singer, and the Southern California area is lucky to have him in so many shows, for the always guarantees a good show. That’s no different here: he brought a level of fun to Farquaad, capturing the innate absurdity and projecting it out well. [Odd thought: Ginsberg as Pseudolus in Funny Thing. Just saying. Or as Meyer Rothschild in The Rothschilds. Yes, he has that range.]

The remaining performers had multiple tracks and roles for the most part, also serving as part of the ensemble (the exception were the younger performers). This group consisted of the following folks — and there are a few whom I single out at the end: Kyle Frattini (FB) [Pinocchio, Dragon Puppeteer, Ensemble]; Deanna Anthony (★FB, FB) [Mama Ogre, Mama Bear, Dragon, Ensemble]; Zachary Thomson [Young Shrek, Dwarf]; Bayley Tanenbaum [Young Fiona]; Kate Godfrey (★FB) [Teen Fiona]; Gabrielle Farrow (FB) [Queen Lillian, Wicked Witch, Ensemble]; Dominic Franco (FB) [Peter Pan, Dragon Puppeteer, Ensemble];  Sara Gilbert (IG, FB) [Ugly Duckling, Ensemble, Fionau/s]; Kevin Gilmond (FB) [King Harold, Captain of the Guard, Pied Piper, Bishop, Dragon Puppeteer, Ensemble]; Isaiah Griffith (FB) [Bricks – Pig, Knight, Ensemble]; Augusto Guardado (FB) [Sticks – Pig, Knight, Ensemble]Mitchell Johnson (FB) [Big Bad Wolf, Dragon Puppeteer, Ensemble]; Drew Lake (FB) [Fairy Godmother, Dance Captain, Ensemble]; Colden Lamb (FB) [Straw – Pig, Ensemble, Dragon Puppeteer]; Julia Lester (FB[Sugar Plum Fairy, Gingy, Ensemble]; Natalie Miller (FB) [Shoemaker’s Elf, Blind Mouse, Ensemble]Kat Monzon (FB) [Little Bo Peep, Blind Mouse, Ensemble]; Matthew Christopher Thompson (★FB, FB) [Papa Ogre, Papa Bear, Thelonius, Knight, Ensemble, Shreku/s]; and Alexa Vellanoweth (FB) [Baby Bear, Blind Mouse, Ensemble]. Of this group, there are a few worth special notice. First, there is Deanna Anthony — who has a truly remarkable gospel and theatre voice, which she uses to great effect on “Forever”. Also notable was Julia Lester’s double duty, and her ability to switch quickly from Gingi to the Sugar Plum Fairy voice, all while belting out the lead in Freak Flag. The actors that did the puppetry of the dragon (Frattini, Franco, Gilmond, Johnson, and Lamb) did remarkable work on bringing the dragon to life. On the kid side, both Tanenbaum and Godfrey had very strong voices and captured their characters well (although it is interesting to see how Fiona got smaller moving from teen to adult — usually, its the other way around). The three blind mice — Miller, Monzon, and Vellanoweth — were hilarious during their number, making stumbling around into an art.

Music was provided by the 5-Star Theatricals Orchestra, under the direction (and conduction) of  Dan Redfeld (★FBFB), and contracted by Darryl Tanikawa (FB). The musicians were: Gary Rautenberg (FB) [Flute, Piccolo, Clarinet, Alto Sax]; Matt Germaine (FB) [Flute, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Soprano Sax, Tenor Sax, Baritone Sax]Melissa Hendrickson (FB[Horn]Bill Barrett (FB) [Trumpet, Piccolo Trumpet, Flugelhorn]; June Satton (FB) [Trombone, Bass Trombone]; Ruth Bruegger (FB) [ViolinI, Concertmaster];  Sally Berman [ViolinII];  Rachel Coosaia (FB) [Cello]; Steve Bethers [Electric & Acoustic Guitar, Ukelele]; Gary Solt  [Electric & Acoustic Guitar, Mandolin];  Chris Kimbler (FB) [KeyboardI]Lloyd Cooper (FB) [Keyboard SynthesizerII]Shane Harry (FB) [Electric Bass, Acoustic Double String Bass]; Alan Peck [Set Drums]; and Tyler Smith (FB[Percussion].

Finally, we turn to the production and creative side. The sets, scenery, and props were provided wholly or in part by 3D Theatricals (FB). This included the first time I can recall seeing a turntable on the Kavli stage. Some elements were quite clever, some looked a bit shopworn (perhaps rented out a bit too much without refurbishment), and some seemed a bit more amateur (a scrim or two). I miss the days Cabrillo built their own, but these were serviceable and gave the “Broadway” level to which 5-Star strives, but couldn’t afford if it had to amortize the sets over two weekends of performance. Additional props were by Alex Choate (FB). The costumes (supplied by 3D) were coordinated by Kathryn Poppen (FB), with hair and wig design by Jim Belcher (FB), and makeup by Denice Paxton (FB). For the most part, these worked — although the heavy costumes in this show often hide the beautiful and expressive faces and movement of the performers (which isn’t a fault of the team, but inherent in the show). A few costumes could use a little work: Young Shrek needs to grow into his head, and the transformed Fiona (likely due to time) needed a bit more ogre and a bit more green to fully pull off the transformation. Jonathan Burke (FB)’s sound design mostly worked: the sound effects were spot on, including the synchronization for the dwarf at the end, but there were points where the performers voices were lost in the hall (especially up in the Mezzanine). Hopefully, that can be adjusted before the final weekend.  Jose Santiago (FB)’s lighting design worked well, and there wasn’t overuse of the spotlight as we used to see in Cabrillo productions. Rounding out the production team:  Jack Allaway [Technical Director]; Talia Krispel (FB) [Production Stage Manager]; Tawni Eccles (FB) and Julian Olive (FB) [Asst. Stage Managers]David Elzer/Demand PR [Press]Richard Storrs (FB) [Marketing Director]; Fresh Interactive (FB) [Marketing Team]; Jason Moore [Original Direction]; Rob Ashford [Original Direction]; and Patrick Cassidy (FB) [Artistic Director].

Shrek: The Musical continues at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) for one more performance today, and for next weekend. It’s a fun show and a great diversion, with some very strong performances. Tickets are available through the 5-Star box office; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar.

***

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

Upcoming Shows:

October will close with the Contemporary Crafts Show in Pasadena.

Continuing the lookahead: November starts with the Austin Lounge Lizards at Boulevard Music on Saturday, and She Loves Me at Actors Co-op (FB) on Sunday, and a visit to Stitches So Cal sometime over the weekend.  The second weekend of November is very busy: Dear Even Hansen at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and A Bronx Tale at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), as well as A Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (OERM) (FB). The third weekend of November brings Beyond Jacobs Ladder from Jewish Woman’s Theatre (FB) at our synagogue on Saturday, and Finks at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB) on Sunday. Thanksgiving weekend has Remembering Boyle Heights at Casa 0101 (FB) in Boyle Heights on Friday, and Steambath at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB) on Sunday. December starts with the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC), followed by a hold for the Canadian Brass at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Then we may travel up to the Bay Area for Tuck Everlasting at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (FB).

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

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

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🎭 Controlled Explosions, Under Pressure | “Oppenheimer” @ Rogue Machine

Oppenheimer (Rogue Machine)Most people who read these particular posts may think I’m a theatre reviewer. While it is true that I go to lots and lots of theatre, and I write up every show that I go to, that’s not my full time profession. Similarly, although I do the California Highways Web Page, I neither work for the Transportation Department, nor am I a historian. Rather, in my full-time life, I’m an Engineer, doing cybersecurity, working (shall we say) for the public good. This means that my heart is with science and mathematics (which is where my degrees are); my wife is similar attached to Chemistry, Physics and Engineering. This is all a long-winded way of saying that when I learn about a good hard science play, we want to go.

When I first heard about the play Oppenheimer at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB), I mistook it for a play produced many years ago by LA Theatre Works (FB) as part of The Relativity Series, a collection of science themed plays. I was confusing it in my head with Copenhagen, a play about Warner Heisenberg,  Moving Bodies, a play about Richard Feynmen, and The Real Dr. Strangelove, a play about Edward Teller. All dealt with the same events as Oppenheimer, all involved J. Robert Oppenheimer as a character, and all involved the development of the atomic bomb. But none of them were Oppenheimer. In any case, I coordinated some tickets for the show remembering that I liked it — then I realized it was a different show. But never mind — it was about science, and I was looking forward to going to it.

At this point, I’d like to emphasize how vitally important it is to have and to get people to see plays about science. Theatre excites, theatre raises questions, theatre starts discussions. Theatre gets people thinking. Further, theatre doesn’t have the distance of movies; you see these are people just like you. It can excite and encourage people to go into the sciences, to see the value of science, to not fear science, and to see the value of critical reasoning and thinking, and the pure joy that can come from it.

Last night was the opening night of Oppenheimer, as well as being the opening night for Rogue Machine Theatre (FB) at their new digs at the Electric Lodge (FB) in Venice, and it was that — electric. Although the show was long — 2 hours, 45 minutes with intermission — the time just flew by. The story and the presentation were so engrossing it drew us in; we left thinking this was the best drama we have seen to date in 2018*. Just like our favorite show of 2017 (This Land at Company of Angels), it touched upon an area we love; it also got the facts right and made us think. It left us talking about the show and its ideas, and wanting to strongly encourage others to go see the show. It took a complex issue and made it understandable and entertaining. It showed the power of theatre.
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* The best comedy was Paradise, which we saw a few weeks ago at Ruskin Theatre Group.

Oppenheimer, written by Tom Morton-Smith in its American Premiere, tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who is generally known as the father of the Atomic Bomb. It starts in his early days when he was splitting time between Caltech and UC Berkeley, and dabbling in leftist ideas and leftist politics — as were many scientists and philosophers in the days after the Great Depression, when socialist ideas were in vogue and helping the nation recover under FDR. The scenes alternate between establishing Oppenheimer’s social character and social circle, and establishing his scientific credentials and his scientific circle, which often overlapped. We get to meet some of the key scientists in Oppenheimer’s circles — his brother, Frank; Bob Serber, Joe Weinberg, Hans Bethel, and later, Edward Teller. We get to see the extent to which they were involved in leftist and Communist causes, we get to see Oppenheimer’s lover Jean Tatlock, his colleague’s wives Charlotte (Serber) and Jackie (Oppenheimer), his future wife Kitty, who he stole from another professor, Richard Harrison. We see the fervor and the passion — both for their causes, and even more so, for the atomic science that is developing as they hear and read reports from folks like Heisenberg and Bohr in Germany.

Oppenheimer - Cast Photo StripWe also get to see this academic exercise make the transition to a military exercise, and how the families and relationships deal with the strain of that transition — and the moral impact of what they are actually developing. As this is occurring, we also see the impact of the past coming back to haunt them (just like so many Livejournal, My Space, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts of today). We get to see the strengths and the weaknesses of Oppenheimer’s character — his devotion to the science, but the weakness with the women. We see how politics and ambition created difference between Oppenheimer and his brother Frank, how it may have led his lover to suicide, and how his handling of incidents came back to haunt his life.

From what I know of Oppenheimer and the other characters at the time, they got the story right — although a bit simplified for a theatre audience. This comes not only from the plays I’ve seen, but the research I’ve done and reading of Feynman’s books. They got the science right. They got the way the military behaved right. In fact, it brought to mind the notion of Program Protection — the concept of protecting CPI (Critical Program Information) to prevent your adversary from being able to duplicate your technology and field it before you. Those are terms from today’s DOD (DODI 5200.39, 5200.44), but those notions are clear in this play with Oppenheimer’s strong desire to protect the information they are developing. According to my wife, they even got the projected equations correct.

In other words, in the story aspect of this show — they got it right. They made it exciting. They got the right balance of technical, people, and story to make it interesting, but not insulting to those who understand the technology and the history. You’ll walk out of this show both enlightened, informed, and entertained. A great combination.

A few additional notes:

  • I appreciated the opening number of Act II, “We’ll Meet Again”. I have no idea whether the younglings attending the theatre will recognize that as the closing song in Dr. Strangelove. I did.
  • The “Little Boy” monologue reminded me of the similar scene in the musical Allegiance about the dropping of the bomb, and the reaction from the other side. It is interesting to think about the two productions in juxtaposition, and the overall message of what it says about the war effort, and what Americans are willing to do when they believe they are at war with an intractable enemy.
  • There were some interesting comments in the story about the importance of science and scientific thinking, and how it can combat the ability to believe anything you hear. There were specific references in there to vaccinations, and it was eerily foreshadowing the current administration (this was written in 2014) with its anti-science attitudes towards climate change, research, and so forth.

Under the direction of John Perrin Flynn (FB), the actors were believably their characters, and clearly seemed to be enjoying their parts. Flynn had to corral a very large cast (much larger than you usually see in LA’s intimate theatre), and he pulled it off with a precision and storytelling flair that made me think this should be on the larger stage — the Mark Taper, the Ahmanson, or dare I say it (dare, dare): New York. The story, direction, and performance is of that caliber.

In the lead position was James Liebman (FB) as J. Robert Oppenheimer. Liebman captured the look and personality well, tall and gangly, quick to respond, projecting the right aura of confidence in his knowledge and rightness, but a bit less sure in the social situations. He clearly seemed to enjoy this role, and that joy was projected to the audience.

Moving to the next tier, let’s turn to the scientists whose characters stuck in my mind: Ryan Brophy (FB) [Frank Oppenheimer], Mark Jacobson (FB) [Bob Serber]; Michael Redfield (FB) [Hans Bethel, Piano Player, Musical Director]; Dan Via (FB) [Edward Teller]. This was primarily because their characters appeared throughout the entire storyline or were particularly memorable. Brophy captured the younger brother well, both with the competition aspect with his older brother, as well as the stronger fervor for the leftist causes. Jacobson was very strong as Serber, one of the key secondary scientists and the only one — other than the Oppenheimers — who was presented as having a family. He radiated the scientific excitement well, and served as a great sounding board for the lead. He was fun to watch. Redfield’s Bethel was a European representative, again capturing the science well. Lastly, Via’s Teller was more the elder scientist, presenting a man much more interested in the science than the weapon.

As a digression, regarding the “stuck in my mind”: This was a large cast show, and it was difficult at times to tell characters apart and remember their names. The program would be helped with a few pages of Dramatis Personæ, identifying the major characters and their roles, and perhaps a little historic background.

Continuing the second tier, let’s look at the lead women: Rachel Avery (FB) [Kitty Harrison]; Kirsten Kollender (FB) [Jean Tatlock]; Jennifer Pollono (FB) [Charlotte Serber]; and Miranda Wynne (★FB, FB) [Jackie Oppenheimer]. Let’s start with Kollender — she’s one of the first we see, as Jean, Oppenheimer’s lover. Her performance exudes vivaciousness and sex, but even more so, her suicide scene in the second act is extremely touching and emotional, and was just a great performance. Turning to Robert Oppenheimer’s other woman — Kitty. She gives off a different vibe — one more of lush aloofness, with an emphasis on the lush. She makes you wonder what her relationship was with the man — was he a way to get away from one husband, or was there true depth of feelings here. The actress captured that aloofness well. Pollono and Wynne had more supporting roles to their husbands, although Wynne captures the energy of her character well, and Pollono gets a wonderful moment during the second act when she stands up as a department head. All were really fun to watch.

In the third tier were the scientists who either had smaller roles (such as those brought into Los Alamos for the bomb work), or those who disappeared before Los Alamos primarily due to their leftist affiliations: Rick Garrison [Klaus Fuchs]; Zachary Grant (FB) [Robert Wilson]; Daniel Shawn Miller (FB) [Luis Alvarez, Doctor]; Brewster Parsons (FB) [Joe Weinberg]; Brady Richards (FB) [Richard Feynman]; and Kenney Selvey (FB) [Giovanni Rossi Lomanitz]. All captured the scientific curiosity and energy well, and came across believably as scientists who knew what they were doing and the gravity of it.

Also in this tier was Ron Bottitta (FB) [General Leslie Groves, Albert Einstein]. In my professional life I have worked with numerous colonels, lt. colonels, and even the occasional general in Space Division. Bottitta captured the senior officer quite well — the authority, the intelligence, and the calibrated bullshit tolerance level. He was fun to watch.

In the last tier are the smaller roles and the ensemble members: Marwa Bernstein (★FB, FB) [Ruth Tolman, Choreographer], Daniel Jordan Booth (FB) [Soldier, Ensemble]; Jason Chiumento [Soldier, Policeman]; Brendan Farrell (FB) [Kenneth Nichols, Richard Harrison]; Rori Flynn (FB) [Waitress, Ensemble]; Scott Victor Nelson (★FB. FB) [Haakon Chevalier, Colonel Paul Tibetts]; Delilah Bank [Little Boy]; Landon Tavernier (FB) [Peer de Silva]; and Rachel Sorsa (★FB) [Singer]. A few performances are worth highlighting here. Bank was spectacular in the Little Boy monologue that I mentioned earlier. Nelson was strong as Tibetts in his one scene, capturing the Army Air Corps pilot quite well (remember, the USAF was not created as a service until 1947, after the war).

Understudies were: Daniel Jordan Booth (FB), Jason Chiumento, Rori Flynn (FB), Daniel Shawn Miller (FB), and Jennifer Sorenson (FB). Sophie Pollono was listed in the program as “Little Boy”; it is unknown whether she alternates in the role with Bank, or Bank was a replacement.

Finally, turning to the production and creative side of the team. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz (FB)’s set was both sparse and spectactular, showing the power of theatre to not need the realism of film. Simple walls with hooks and squares, a few benches, some chalk, and a few wood hanging pieces, and your mind created the necessary barracks and parties and rooms and such. Realism is highly overrated. This design combined with the projection design of Nicholas E. Santiago to create a holistic fusion providing not only the place but the setting. Projections provided the titles for each scene, and they provided selected additional scenic elements. These aspects were supported by Matt Richter’s (FB)’s lighting design and Christopher Moscatiello‘s sound design. Richter’s lighting utilizing moving LEDs and moving mirror lights, in addition to both LED and lekos to highlight portions of the stage and particular characters, they also provided an effective flash during the bomb sequences. The sound design also worked well during the bomb sequences, providing the deep notes of the explosion quite well. The final key piece of the design picture was Dianne K. Graebner‘s costume design. Although we had a few minor quibbles with the military costumes (unsurprising, as we both work with, and have worked with, the military extensively) that we let her know about during the opening reception (and which will likely be corrected), the costumes overall fit the period well and provided the final piece in establishing the time, place, and setting. Rounding out the production team were: Barbara Kallir (FB) [Asst. Director]; Sam Kofford (FB) [Asst. Director]; Steve Vance [Scientific Advisor]; Susan Wilder [Research]Marwa Bernstein (★FB, FB) [Choreography]Michael Redfield (FB[Music Director]; David A. Mauer [Technical Director, Bomb Design]; Amanda Bierbauer [Production Manager, Prop. Design]; Victoria Hoffman [Casting]; Tor Brown [Lighting Co-Designer]; Michelle Hanzelova [Projection Co-Designer, Key Art Design]; Jacquelyn Gutierrez [Asst. Scenic Design]; Judith Borne [Publicity]; and Corryn Cummins [Social Media]. There was no explicit credit for stage manager (tsk, tsk); presumably, that was Amanda Bierbauer.

Oppenheimer continues at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB) until December 30th. Go see it, it is one (if not the) best dramas we have seen in 2018. Tickets are available through the Rogue Machine box office. They do not appear to have a listing on Goldstar.

***

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

Upcoming Shows:

October continues next weekend with Moon River -The Music of Henry Mancini at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). The third weekend of October brings Shrek at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). October will close with the Contemporary Crafts Show in Pasadena.

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

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

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🎭 Not Quite T. S. Eliot | “Bark” @ Theatre Palisades

Bark (Theatre Palisades)I want you to think about musicals and plays about animals — particularly ones told from the animal’s point of view. What comes to mind? For cats, there is (of course) The Lion King and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats.  Both are soaring epics — one based on Hamlet, the other on the poems of T. S. Eliot. Both have remarkable music from remarkable composers, and both have spectacular dance.  Both use the art of costuming to transform their performers into the animals they are portraying. All this for felines that are indifferent to us, at best (unless you have an Aby, as one of my friends will point out).

What about man’s best friend, the dog? Well, there’s Snoopy, the sequel (in some sense) to You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Never a big hit. There’s the play Sylvia, about a dog and her owner. Both are funny, and either that particularly memorable.

In 2004, the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood introduced yet another musical about dogs: Bark! The Musical.  Bark! featured music by David Troy Francis (FB), with lyrics by Gavin Geoffrey Dillard (FB), Robert Schrock (FB), and Mark Winkler (FB), with additional music by Jonathan Heath and Danny Lukie. The book was by Mark Winkler (FB) and Gavin Geoffrey Dillard (FB). Bark! told the story of six dogs through song, and was the longest running musical in the Coast’s history. They produced a cast album in 2005, which I picked up in 2008 and enjoyed.

Fast forward to this year. I’m scheduling October, and I get an email from Goldstar about Bark! being performed at Theatre Palisades (FB). I was unfamiliar with the theatre, despite the fact that it was across the street from my high school (it opened 11 years after I graduated), but Bark! was on my list of shows that I had only heard but not seen. I knew they had good talent, because they had cast a friend of mine in a recent show there.. So I got tickets for last night. The theatre is quite impressive for a community theatre, with a stage that could house 2 99-seat theatre, including substantial space in the wings. The show also gave us the opportunity to see the new Caruso Palisades Village while we hunted down dinner.*
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*: So what did we think of it? A nice walking space with a good village feel. The stores that were opened were nice. It didn’t, however, have quite the old “downtown Palisades” feel of the days of the House of Lee and Morts. It was a Caruso-sanitized shopping experience, which didn’t make it bad, just … overpriced. Given the growth of housing prices and the wealth in that community, perhaps that’s more appropriate now than it was in the 1960s and 1970s.

As for Bark! The Musical. This ain’t Cats folks. Cats are complex creatures, with quirks and oddities that inspire, well, poets. Dogs are simpler: give them love, attention, play with them, and for the most part, they’ll love you back unconditionally. The musical is equally simple: a series of songs sung from the dog’s point of view about their lives. The characters in the show represent a mix of dog types: King, an older dog whose boy has gone off to college; Boo, a scruffy dog owned by a family; Chanel, a poodle owned by a gay couple; Golde, a pampered dog owned by a Jewish couple, Sam, a mutt, and Rocks, a puppy. The songs aren’t particularly deep (c’mon, they sing about wizzing on cats!), but they are entertaining and enjoyable. A few of them are particularly moving. All in all, it makes for an enjoyable night out that doesn’t require a lot of thinking. In particular, given the events of the recent weeks, it gives a night out where you don’t need to think about politics (although there are a few folks I’d love to take a wiz on).

Under the direction of Susan Stangl (FB) with choreography by Heidi Dotson (FB), the actors do a reasonable job of capturing dog mannerisms — the excitement, the scratching, the nervousness, and so forth. But unlike the productions for their larger feline siblings, the mannerisms only went so far. You knew these actors as their characters, but they didn’t become dogs. I think a bit more imagination and creativity might have been required to create that illusion, including a stronger use of perspective in the set design, more ecovative costume direction, and such. But then again, this is community theatre with community theatre resources — so for what they had, they did well. The director did build a good chemistry within the team, and the dance worked will with the skill of the performers.

Of the six “dogs”, I really liked three of them. Two others were a close second, and the last was promising but needed to grow into his feet. In the favorite’s positions were Julie Hinton (FB) [Chanel]; Greg Abbott (FB) [King]; and Elena Coleman (FB) [Boo]. Hinton was extremely strong, with a truly remarkable singing voice, and a playfulness and personality that shined through her performance. She was really strong in her solo number, “‘Il Cane Dell’ Opera”, but was equally fun in numbers like “Siren Symphony” and “Three Bitches”. Abbott also brought a remarkable personality and a strong voice to his numbers, really capturing his character well. This was most noticeable in “A Grassy Field”, but also in his number about “Lassie”. I just really enjoyed watching him (and I kept wondering if he was the same Greg Abbott that went to Pali in the 1976-1977 time period). Lastly, there was Coleman’s Boo, who was not only really cute, but brought that cuteness to her personality and character. She also had a strong voice and strong acting skills, which she demonstrated  in numbers such as “Guarding Janie” and “Life Should Be Simple”.

In the second tier, down just a notch, were Marina Tidwell (FB) [Goldie] and Peter Miller (FB) [Sam]. Both were just a bit weaker on the singing side, but really strong on the acting side. Tidwell was a hoot in “Hey, You” and the “Howling numbers, and hilarious in “Cones” about the cone of shame. Miller’s Sam was fun in the background scene, and really really funny in the “M-U-T-T Rap” and “Seniorita La Pepita” numbers. The comic performances from both were just great.

In the third tier was the puppy of the group, Ben Fuligni (FB) [Rocks]. His performance was not bad, but truly a case of “growing into his feet”. This young man clearly has talent, and embodied the puppy personality and enthusiasm well. He simply needs a bit more experience and training and time, so when contrasted with the others in the cast — it showed. I look forward to seeing him in more local production as his experience grows.

Music was provided by an on-stage band: Gary Nesteruk (FB) [Music Director, Keyboards]; Dan Radlauer and Dave Kief (FB) [Bass]; and Tom Zygmont (FB) [Drums].

Turning to the production side of the show: The set and lighting design was by Sherman Wayne, and it worked reasonably well. There could have been a bit more forced perspective in the set to give the realization that we were seeing this through a dog’s eyes; instead, it was a if the dogs were the size of humans. But again, this is community theatre, so there’s a bit more leeway. It was supported by sound and projection design by the director,  Susan Stangl (FB). These worked very well, especially during the “M-U-T-T” number with the large variety of dogs. Also doing double duty was the choreographer, Heidi Dotson (FB), who did the costumes. Here was perhaps my largest quibble: other than being in a dog-appropriate color palette (browns, whites, greys), the costumes did not evoke “dog”. I think a tad more costume creativity was needed to provide that evocation, which would have helped the suspension of disbelief aspects a bit more. Other production creidts: Josh Harper (FB[Stage Manager]; Joanne Reich [Poster Design, Scenic Design]; Ria Parody Erlich (FB) and Sylvia Grieb [Producers]; Gavin MacLeod and Arnie Wishnick (FB[Executive Producers].

Bark! The Musical continues at Theatre Palisades (FB) through October 7, 2018. It is a cute show, and an enjoyable way to pass the evening. Tickets are available through the Theatre’s website; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar.

***

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

Upcoming Shows:

October starts with Oppenheimer at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB). The following weekend brings Moon River -The Music of Henry Mancini at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). The third weekend of October brings Shrek at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). October will close with the Contemporary Crafts Show in Pasadena.

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

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

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🎭 Pride Cometh Before the Fall | “Rope” @ Actors Co-Op

Rope (Actors Co-Op)Why do we see the shows that we see? After all, given my druthers, I tend to pick musicals over plays, comedies over dramas. But this is where the importance of a season subscription at a theatre that does good work comes in. In additional to getting the biggies that bring in the Broadway stuff or do only musicals (Pantages, Ahmanson, 5-Star Theatricals), we always include in our subscription mix small to mid-size theatres that do a mix of dramas and musicals, new and old. This brings in the work I might not normally pick, and broadens our horizons.

That is one of the many reasons we subscribe to Actors Co-op (FB). I don’t necessarily align with their mission (ministry), but their shows are top notch, their selections always interesting, and the acting excellent. The dramas that they pick challenge our thinking, and that is a good thing. That is work worth supporting.

Last night’s show was no exception. I’m not one for dark shows, and I’m not into thrillers or murder mysteries (other than TV procedurals). I’ve never seen the 1948 Alfred Hitchcock movie Rope. The closest I’ve come to seeing live theatre revolving around the perfect crime is listening to the cast album of the musical Thrill Me, which is the story of Leopold and Loeb who also thought they had committed the perfect crime, and who thought they were intellectually superior (hmmm, some interesting parallels there). This was not a show I would have picked to go see. But it was part of the season, and so we went.

I’m glad we did. It was a very interesting show, from the suddenness of the opening, to the arrogance of the crime and the dinner party, to the method of resolution. It kept me on the edge of my seat, and my mind was involved with the story. Would they get away with it? You know the answer going in: murderers never get away with it because our story conventions dictate that is not an acceptable resolution. So the real question was: How would they be discovered? For that, Patrick Hamilton‘s story worked quite well. It kept the discovery right on the edge until the eventual climax of the story.

The rough outline of the story is this: Wyndham Brandon and Charles Granillo devise a scheme to murder a classmate of theirs, the sun of Sir Johnstone Kentley. They do this, and put his body in a locked chest in their house. They then host a dinner party where they invite the young man’s father (the aforementioned Sir Johnstone Kentley), the father’s sister Mrs. Debenham, and three of their friends: Kenneth Raglan, Leila Arden, and Rupert Cadell. They latter they thought might have been smart enough to join them in the murder, but decided not to invite him because he wouldn’t have the gumption to go through with it. They felt they would get pleasure during the party because the guest would be unaware there was a body in the chest. But then one of the guest jokes that there could be a locked body in there, and …. well, I’ll spare you the details but there is the steady march to discovery.

One of the relevant notions of this play is the idea that arrogance is a personal characteristic that often leads to a downfall. We see that in the murder here, where the perpetrators are so confident that they have pulled it off that their behavior gives them away. It is something that is seen in Leopold and Loeb. It is something we’re seeing in politics today, where arrogance of the party in charge that thinks it is smarter than everyone else, and therefore can do anything they want — moral or immoral — may be coming back to bite them. One wonders if this is subtle ministry from the company, for it is the Bible that notes “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Clearly, it is the pride of Brandon and Granillo that lead to their fall.

Under the direction of Ken Sawyer (FB), the performances are tight. There is an enthusiasm and a belief and personification of their characters that the actors capture spot-on, from bubbly to panicked, from nervous to intrigued. Leading the charge are our two murders: Burt Grinstead (★FB, FB) as Wyndham Brandon and David Huynh (FB) as Charles Granillo. Both capture the arrogance and fear of the characters well, especially Grinstead for the former, and Huynh for the latter. They were fun to watch.

In the next group, I put the three younger characters invited to the dinner party: Kyle Anderson (★FB, FB) [Kenneth Raglan]; Heidi Palomino (FB) [Leila Arden]; and Donnie Smith (FB) [Rupert Cadell]. Of these, my favorite was Smith. He kept reminding me of someone, and I figured it out after the show — he was a mix of Tim Curry and Christian Borle, which a wry smile and a playfulness that was delightful to watch. He truly gave the impression of a cat that was just wondering when he was going to pounce and get it over with, with never a doubt. Anderson and Smith were more supporting: Anderson as the good natured chum who was up for anything, and Palomino as the over-eager young thing, easily excitable. The script set the two up as an eventual couple, and there was clear chemistry between the two. This was not a surprise — writing this up I discovered that they are married in real life. There affection and like for each other came across well in these roles.

In the older category were Carl Johnson (FB) as Sir Johnstone Kently and Elizabeth Herron (FB) as Mrs. Debenham. Johnson’s role called for him being the upstanding father, which he handled well. Herron’s role was more interesting, as her character spoke very little. She seemed to handle it very well, especially the bit with the rope.

Rounding out the cast was Actors Co-op regular Deborah Marlowe (FB) as the maid, Sabot. She brought her usual humor to the role, and was fun to watch as always.

Understudies were Julia Aks (★FB, FB) and Isaac W. Jay.

Hellen Harwell (FB)’s scenic design used lots of red and black to establish the mood — from the floors to the furnishing. I’m always amazed by the skills of the scenic designer to create flooring effects and how they finish furniture to create a mood, and this show was no exception. It all worked quite well. Also strong was Adam R. Macias‘s sound design, which used sound to great effect to startle and distract. Supporting all of this was Matthew Richter (FB)’s lighting design, especially the very dark blackouts. Paula Higgins (FB)’s costumes worked well, although my wife noted that the seam on Palomino’s stockings should have been a little straighter. Other production credits: David Scales [Production Manager]; Lydia Soto [Stage Manager];  Nora Feldman (FB) [Publicist];  Kevin Shewey(FB[Producer]; and  Heather Chesley (FB[Artistic Chairwoman].

Rope continues at Actors Co-op (FB) through October 28, 2018. Tickets are available through the Actors Co-Op Website. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar.

***

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

Upcoming Shows:

The last weekend brings Bark: The Musical at Theatre Palisades (FB). October is also getting quite full. It starts with Oppenheimer at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB). The following weekend brings Moon River -The Music of Henry Mancini at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). The third weekend of October brings Shrek at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). October will close with the Contemporary Crafts Show in Pasadena.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Upcoming Shows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upcoming Shows:

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

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

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

 

 

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