A Second Chance | “Steel Pier” @ UCLA TFT

Steel Pier (UCLA TFT)Back in 1997, I remember watching the Tony Awards and seeing the scene from the nominated musical Steel Pier, with music by Fred Kander and John Ebb, and book by David Thompson.* I loved the dance, and I loved the music. The Tony Award voters didn’t, and the show lost all 11 nominations (including Best Musical, to Titantic, The Musical. However, I quickly went out and got the CD. I still enjoy the score to this day. However, the show faded quickly on Broadway, and never went on tour. In particular, it surprisingly never made it out to Los Angeles.
(*: It is interesting to note that much of this team is returning in 2018 with a new show.)

Luckily, the UCLA School of Television, Film, and Theatre (FB) remedied that failure, including the show as part of its 2017-2018 Main Stage Season. It entered my theatre RADAR when I learned of their season (and I should note, given this show, I plan to go back to more of their productions). I started scanning Goldstar for discount tickets; when they came online just before we were about to sit down at Candide a few weeks ago, I grabbed them on the Goldstar app.

Seeing Steel Pier allowed me to continue my quest: to see musicals I have only heard. I find this helps me understand the story better. That was certainly true for Steel Pier.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it is the story of a dance marathon on the famed Steel Pier at Atlantic City. Dance marathons were the Survivor of the 1930s: couples would sign up and dance, continuously, for 45 minutes every hour, until only one couple was left. These marathons could go on for weeks and weeks. All this for a cash prize.

Kander, Ebb, and Thomson, working with Scott Ellis and Susan Stroman, used this setting of a story of a C-level celebrity, Rita Racine, the first woman to kiss Charles Lindburgh when he returned from France.  Rita and her secret husband, Mick Hamilton, had kept themselves afloat through the dance marathon business, with Mick MCing the marathon, and engineering things so Rita would win. But this marathon was to be Rita’s last … so she thought. Her partner having not shown up, she teams up with a hot-dog aviator for the marathon. From thereon, the show is a marathon of dancing, specialty numbers, and romance, as we learn about all of the couples. We learn of Mick’s plot for Rita, her goals and desires, and who the aviator really is. We also see Rita finally decide to take charge of her life, seizing upon the second chance this marathon granted her.

The plot is much more complicated than that; you can read a detailed synopsis on Wikipedia. When the show was first performed on Broadway, critics were expecting another Caberet or Chicago (whose revival had just recently reopened). They instead found a different story — something more spiritual, something less cynical. Their conclusion: They wrote it off as bland, but with strong dancing. It didn’t help that the Rita’s husband and marathon MC, Mick Hamilton, was exposed as a swarmy huckster who used and abused women and people. He was the person that drove the story forward, but was intensely unlikable. Even Kristen Chenowith, for whom this show was her Broadway debut, thought the show might have been something Broadway wasn’t yet ready for.

I would tend to agree. In 1997, the NY Times would write: “Mick is set up in tidy opposition to the show’s other male lead, Bill Kelly, a handsome, enigmatic exhibition pilot who falls hard for Rita, his partner in the marathon. You’re right in thinking there’s something otherworldly about this fellow, whose presence tends to set off angel chimes and campy, harmonic celestial voices. Borrowed from vintage movie fantasies like ”Stairway to Heaven,” he represents, as one of the show’s songs baldly puts it, Rita’s ”second chance” at the life she wants.” Back then, 20 years ago, they were seizing on the spiritual aspect of the show. But 2018 is the era of #MeToo, of woman standing up to harassment. It is an era where, on the UCLA campus, they just canned a history professor for such behavior. Today, the show comes across as Rita finally standing up to the manipulator in her life, and kicking him to the curb rather than continuing to put up with his abuse. The aviator’s mystical return is less for him to fulfill his romantic fantasy, but more as the universe providing that second chance, that angel on her shoulder showing Rita that she deserved better, and she can have better than the marathon life.

Seeing UCLA’s exhilarating production of Steel Pier makes me think that this is yet another show that is ripe for a Broadway revival. Instead of trotting back the old-chestnuts (I’m looking at you, Hello Dolly and the forthcoming My Fair Lady), explore some shows that may have been ahead of their times, that provide interesting and entertaining new commentary of today’s situations — such as Steel Pier or Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle. The world wasn’t ready for Chicago when it premiered in 1985; by the 1990s, the OJ trial had made it relevant. #MeToo makes this show relevant and something to be seen.

Under the direction of Adjunct Professor Jeremy Mann, Director of Singing for the UCLA Ray Bolger Musical Program, this production scintillates. There are little things that I presume are directorial touches: a sardonic look here, a playful pause there, aspects of timing and movement, or even background character pairing (I distinctly think that I saw hints of gay characters and a lesbian relationship, which I’m sure weren’t there in ’97), that elevated this production. This production was at the level of a musical I’d see on any mid-size or large stage in Los Angeles — and considering this was student talent — that’s quite a statement. This director deserves credit for molding this student team into a remarkable ensemble. He was aided in this endeavor by Christine Kellogg, who had to work with the student talent to master the art of 1930s dance and the wide variety of styles — and like any marathon, this show had the dancers dancing on-stage for much of the show. A lot of work, and a delight to watch. I contrast this with the recent Dublin Irish Dance I saw. At that show, there was precision, but not fun or joy. Here was dance precision and joy and fun.

The talented actors in this show I expect to see again and again in productions in Los Angeles, and am sure they will have further success on Broadway and other stages. At the top of that list was the lead for this show, Shelby Talley (FB), who played Rita Racine, Lindy’s Lovebird. This young woman could sing and dance spectacularly, and she truly captured the dramatic aspects of Rita. This was best seen by watching her face during songs like “Wet” or “Running in Place”, or in the opening number “Willing to Ride”. She was just a delight to watch.

Her romantic interest, Bill Kelly, was portrayed by James Olivas (FB). We’ve seen Olivas before in 5-Star Theatrical’s Joseph, and were impressed with him then.  He had a lovely warm singing voice, great dancing, and a wonderful acting style that brought both humor and emotion to the role. Again, watch him closely during the “Wet” number, or his playfulness during “Second Chance”. A delight to watch.

The other male lead was Jake Levy (FB) as Rita’s secret husband and marathon MC, Mick Hamilton. Levy had the thankless job of being an unlikable character. He did this very well, capturing the smarminess of Mick, the anger, the hatred, and the drive, without the problems that seemingly plagued Gregory Harrison on Broadway. He had a good singing voice, as well as good comic timing, as demonstrated in his number “A Powerful Thing”.

In the second tier of characters we have a number of specialty characters. As Mr. Walker, Mick’s assistant and henchman, Nick McKenna (FB) showed a remarkable comic flair, especially during the aformentioned “A Powerful Thing” number — his humorous looks and reactions and singing during that number were just a delight. Another notable performer was Claudia Baffo (FB) as Shelby Stevens. Stevens is the “seen-it-all” oversexed professional marathoner. She captured this well in her specialty number “Everybody’s Girl”, as well as showing the character’s tender side during “Somebody Older”. She was also a strong dancer. A third notable second tier character was Molly Livingston (FB)’s Precious McGuire. This was Kristen Chenowith’s Broadway debut role, and Livingston would have done her proud. She captured both the voice and the humor behind “Two Little Words”, and was a remarkable dancer as well.

The remaining second tier characters don’t get singing highlights (technically, the character of Luke Adams (Shelby’s partner) (Ty Koeller (FB)) gets a harmonica solo, but that was covered by the orchestra — in particular, based on his FB, by Scott Senior (FB), who did an excellent job). They do, however, dance and perform like gangbusters. Notable amongst this  tier were the “brother and sister team” of Bette Becker and Buddy Becker, portrayed by Katie Emery (FB) and Calvin Brady (FB). Both could dance up a storm, and I was particularly taken by Emery’s dancing. Brady’s Buddy was more of an enigma. For a minute, just given the look, I wasn’t sure if they were playing on the sexuality of the character; later, I thought they were making it out to be a more gay character. Nothing was said; this was performance and look along. I think it worked well, especially for that time. Also notable, in a similar vein, was Marlena Becker (FB)’s Dora Foster, whose dance partner was Olympic Champion Johnny Adel (Justin Baker (FB)). There appeared to be points where Dora was being comforted, in a “very close” fashion, by another female actor (I’m guessing Shelby Barry (FB)’s Hannah Misiano). Again, I’m not sure this was in the original, but I thought it was a nice, in the background, updating touch. Barry’s Hannah was partnered with Grant Hodges (FB)’s Dom Misiano. Rounding out the named dance couples was Precious McGuire’s partner, Happy McGuire, played by Michael Wells (FB). He had a very touching scene in “Somebody Older”.

Providing a singing backup to Mick Hamilton were “Mick’s Picks”, a singing trio consisting of Nicolette Norgaard (FB), Naama Shaham (FB), and Aliyah Imani Turner (FB). For most of the show, they don’t get to do more than sing and hold signs, however there were interesting flashes of character during some of the scenes in Act II that I really liked.

Rounding out the dancers were the members of the ensemble, who created rotating dance teams throughout the show. The ensemble consisted of Toni France (FB), Sara Gilbert (FB), Haleyann Hart (FB), Kelsey Kato (FB), Charles Platt (FB), Max Risch (FB), Brandon Root (FB), Olly Sholotan (FB), and Kelsey Smith (FB). Of these folks, the one that sticks in my mind is Olly Sholotan, who did some remarkable acrobatic moves in his dancing.  [: Dance Captain; : Fight Captain]

Unseen, but not unheard, were the pit singers: Michael Fajardo (FB), Molly Grant (FB), Ariana Perlson (FB), and Scott Senior (FB).

Music was provided by an onstage orchestra — quite apropos for a marathon in the Big Band era. The orchestra, under the music direction of Dan Belzer (FB), consisted of Sean Bart (FB) and Eric Kong (FB[Keyboards]; Barry Saperstein (FB[Drums]; Dorothy Micklea (FB[Percussion]; Richard Adkins (FB[Violin]; Beverly Shih [Viola]; Chris Ahn (FB[Cello]; Jeff Takiguchi [Bass]; Rob Crosby (FB), Ian Dahlberg (FB), Phil Moore (FB), and Scott Senior (FB) [Reeds]; Dustin McKinney (FB) and Tim Rubottom (FB[Trumpets]; Lori Stuntz (FB) and May Zeng [Trombones], and Julian Sazo [Horn]. The orchestra had a great big band sound.

Finally turning to the production and design credits. It should be noted that all production aspects have been executed by students enrolled in UCLA Department of Theatre Courses in scenery, costuming, lighting, sound, and advanced theatre laboratories.  That said: The scenic design was by Tatiana Kuilanoff, and worked quite well: consisting of an area in front of the orchestra with a movable bandstand for Mick, and an upper level used for various purposes. Costume design was by Caitlin Kagawa and seemed appropriately period — in particular, the dresses for the ladies and the suspenders for the men. The sound design by Ryan Marsh was appropriately directional and there were some great sound effects; further, the amplification for the performers worked well. Zach Titterington‘s lighting design established mood well. Brynna Mason (FB) was the Stage Manager. There were loads of production staff credits, production crew credits, advisors, and such — all worked well together to do a great job.

Alas, I attended the last performance of Steel Pier at UCLA. Those of you who love Kander-Ebb should have been there; it was spectacular. This did put UCLA TFT on my RADAR, however, and I hope to be able to attend more of their shows. As a UCLA alumni (BS, ’82; MS, ’85), I wish I had known about this program during my years on campus — my theatregoing would have been much more than just going to Ackerman Union and buying tickets through the Mutual Agency for the Ahmanson.


Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB), and as of Friday, 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 of March is currently open.

April looks to be a busy month. It starts with the Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB) on Thursday April 5, followed by Love Never Dies at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) [as an aside, there was just a great interview with Glen Slater, the lyricist of that show, on Broadway Bullet that is well worth listening to]. The second weekend brings A Man for All Seasons” at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend brings Bad Jews at The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB) on Friday, followed by The Hunchback of Notre Dame at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) (nee Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)) on Saturday, as well as our annual visit to the Original Renaissance Faire. The last weekend of April sees us travelling for a show, as we drive up to San Jose to see friends as well as Adrift in Macao at The Tabard Theatre Company (FB).

Continuing into May and June: The first weekend in May will bring School of Rock at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), with the following weekend bringing Soft Power  at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). The middle of May brings Violet at Actors Co-op (FB).  The last weekend will hopefully bring a Nefesh Mountain concert at Temple Ramat Zion; the weekend itself is currently open. June — ah, June. That, my friends, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), including The Story of My Life from Chromolume Theatre (FB). Additionally in June we’re seeing the postponed Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), The Color Purple at  the Hollywood Pantages (FB), and possibly Do Re Mi at MTW. The latter, however, is on a Sunday night in Long Beach, and so Fringing may win out. Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018!

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


Going, Going, Gone: Remembrances of Eras Gone Past

userpic=tombstonesThis is another in my ongoing series of news chum posts about things that are going away. In doing this, I’ve come to realize another connection between the items: they are emblematic of an era that has also passed:

  • The 747. Production of the Boeing 747 — an iconic jetliner of the 1970s and 1980s — is slowing and may soon die. Right now, the fate of continued production is in the hands of a Moscow firm: specifically, a Russian freight company that promises to buy 18 over the next few years. If that pledge falls through, and finding financing won’t be easy, Boeing faces a tough choice: End production and take a financial hit, or try to limp along until a cargo rebound yields more sales. For now, Boeing’s backlog is enough to keep building 747s only through mid-2017. Boeing would really like to keep production limping along at least under Congress orders a new Air Force 1: the current AF1 is a 747-200 that is over 20 years old. What’s killing the 747? On the passenger side, it is size: most routes are not economical for the capacity of the plane. Overall, it is pure economics: a four-engine plane guzzles a lot more expensive jet fuel than a two-engine plane. Both of these work to kill the demand. The death of the 747 is the death of an era: the era when flying was glamorous, of piano bars and lounges in the sky. We’re left with an Air Bus.
  • The Vegas Showgirl. The MGM Grand in Vegas has posted a closing date for Jubilee, the last hotel-produced Vegas-showgirl spectacular. At one time, the Vegas showgirl was in every hotel. Hotels produced their own entertainment, and each show featured long-leggy girls, often topless, in a very Vegas-styled entertainment. Today, most shows are four-walled: the hotel rents the room to the promoter, who handles everything else. This results in very different entertainment than in the 1960s-1980s. Jubilee was a relic from that era, and — like the 747 — was no longer economical or the draw.
  • The Physical Camera Store. Bel Air Camera in Westwood has closed as of yesterday. At one time, camera stores were everywhere. There were at least three that I recall in Westwood, all feeding off the neighboring community and college kids with cameras. Now there are none (just like there are no more record stores in Westwood, when once there were at least 3). This, again, is the passing of two eras. The first is the continued decline of Westwood as a college town for UCLA; it is not what it was when Star Wars first premiered at the AVCO. The second is the passing of the film camera. What was once expensive photographic equipment is almost worthless — I know I have expensive film cameras and lenses from my dad that I’m not sure I could give away. We’ve gone to digital, and thus all the infrastructure devoted to lenses, lens effects, developing, mounting, etc. has all been rendered, if not obsolete, than rarely used.
  • LA Chinatown. A few months back, I wrote about the reopening of Empress Pavillion, a long-time dim-sum palace in Chinatown. While it was closed, the business had to shift to Monterey Park — which is where the Chinese community had moved as well. A move, by the way, similar to the migration of Jews from Boyle Heights to the Westside. This week confirms that shift: that Chinatown is perhaps in name only, and is more of a tourist Chinatown than a true home for that culture. The confirmation: Empress Pavillion has closed again as a restaurant and will only be used for banquets and events. Chinatown — your era has passed.
  • Curvy Women. Some of us are old enough to remember the days of the pin-up calendar. Think LeRoy Neiman, and the nudes he would draw for Playboy. An article this week reminds us of one pin-up heroine that has been forgotten: Hilda. Hilda was the creation of illustrator Duane Bryers. She was one of pin-up art’s best kept secrets: voluptuous in all the right places, a little clumsy but not at all shy about her figure. I actually think she’s a lot sexier than the stick-figures society is obsessed with today.
  • Soviet Era Buildings.  This one is just creepy. Here’s a collection of photos of abandoned Soviet era buildings. They are reflective of an era and of an artistic style that has (thankfully) all but disappeared.




userpic=compusaurToday’s EaterLA brings news of the closure of the last Good Earth restaurant in California. This brings to mind a story…

When I was in college at UCLA in the late 1970s/early 1980s, I used to hang around the UCLA Computer Club (3514 Boelter Hall — we would receive mail addressed to “the messiest room on the 3rd floor, Boelter Hall”). Club members would regularly walk down to Westwood to get dinner — this was when Westwood was a much more vibrant college town than it is today (alas).

At this time, there were two general interest bookstores in Westwood: the Pickwick Bookstore near Westwood and LeConte, and College Books (or was it University Books) near Westwood and Weyburn. College Books originally had a basement from which they sold textbooks, but by the early 1980s they had lease out that space to the Good Earth. The Good Earth was one of the restaurants regularly frequented by clubbies (there was also a Thai place behind Ships, but that’s a different story). The Good Earth seemingly had nuts of some variety in every dish one could order.

One day we went to the Good Earth for dinner. As I recall, someone ordered their meal with no nuts. After this, everyone started requesting no nuts, eventually resulting in our singing “nuts, nuts, nuts, nuts” in the manner of the Monty Python spam routine.

I guess you had to be there.



It’s Hot Enough to Fry News Chum

userpic=observationsIt’s Saturday. It’s lunchtime. It’s 105.7°F in the shade on the back porch. You know what that means — it is time to fry us up (on the sidewalk, ‘natch) some tasty News Chum, using those links we saved earlier in the week. Better eat it quick, before it spoils in the heat:

Music: Memories (Barbra Streisand): “My Heart Belongs To Me”


Revitalizing Westwood

userpic=ucla-csunOne of the lead articles at the LA Times today is on revitalizing Westwood, and there’s a companion article at Curbed LA. Both are bemoaning how Westwood has changed, and both suggest ways out of the problem. The Times article notes how Westwood is looking to Downtown for its revitalization model, and looking to bring it more arts (think galleries), performance spaces, and trendy foods. They believe this will restore Westwood to its former glory. I think both are wrong.

Let’s explore what Westwood was, and how to bring it back.

In its heyday — the 1960s through early 1980s  — Westwood was primarily a local community. It had mostly non-chain stores, and catered to the people living in West LA, H0lmby Hills, and Bel Air. It also catered heavily to the student community at UCLA. It had quaint restaurants, and lots of movie theatres that tended to host premieres (because Hollywood had gotten sketchy).

In the mid 1980s, Westwood began to die. Most attribute the death to a gang shooting in 1988 and an incident where some clown drove on the sidewalk (we were actually in Westwood that evening with clients when it happened). However, that’s not what killed Westwood. What killed Westwood was rising rents, “mallification” (that is, takeover by the chain stores with “trendy” clothes), and corporate consolidations that removed classic entities (such as bookstores). Further, the single screen theatres that Westwood had were no longer profitable… so they started closing. In short, what killed Westwood was that it became a mall — just like any other mall — and lost its audience for newer malls.

Westwood was also hurt by poor accessibility, especially with the continuous construction on the 405. Downtown is now accessible via MetroRail, but Westwood won’t have that for at least another decade or two. You have to drive to Westwood, and that’s increasingly difficult. What this means is that, to succeed, Westwood must focus on the locals, not drawing from elsewhere.

So what does Westwood really need to do to come back? First, it doesn’t need art galleries and super trendy joints. These do not attract students and the middle class that used to shop in Westwood all the time. Put the art galleries in Beverly Hills. Here’s what I think Westwood needs:

  • More Live Theatre. Although the single-screen movie theatre is out of vogue, live theatre is inherently single-screen. Westwood should work on expanding its live theatre presence, especially with relationships with the excellent theatre program at UCLA. Get some small storefront theatres (there are at least two major companies in LA (Celebration is one) that are looking for new spaces). Small theatres are also much more affordable for students (especially when compared with the only theatre currently in Westwood, the Geffen).
  • More Club Space. I don’t necessarily meet nightclub space, although having a local space that would appear to the UCLA student crowd would be great. I was thinking more along the lines of comedy and music clubs, that could attract stand up and local acts.
  • Be a Student Town. This needs to be the mantra regarding both food and shopping. Bring in quirky restaurants and shops, but keep them affordable for students (and if you can, accept UCLA meal plan points). I grew up in the days when Westwood had wonderful places such as Yesterdays, Old World, Annas, Bratskeller, and others. We need to get this style of place back.
  • Aim for the Eclectic. What makes a college town special is its eclectic nature. You never know what you will find, and it is most certainly not a mall. There needs to be enough going on in Westwood to draw the students out of the dorms, and to draw the neighbors into the shops.

Basically, Westwood will succeed again if you can attract the students back, and they start bringing their friends. That’s what has always made Westwood special.


University News of Interest

userpic=calToday’s news chum brings a number of items related to my favorite schools – UC Berkeley and CSUN:



userpic=ucla-csunThis week, UC Berkeley ends its spring semester (and students have to be out of the dorms by 10am the day after finals end). So colleges are on my mind this week. Here are two articles (I really tried to find a third) about our family alma-maters:

  • UCLA. Back when I was at UCLA, one of our favorite underground activities was a hike through the steam tunnels. Usually we would enter through the portal in the basement of Boelter Hall (someone in the Computer Club had a master key), and we would wander through the tunnels, usually up to the underground bridge near Murphy Hall. I bring this up because the Daily Bruin has posted a photographic tour of the tunnels. There weren’t as many pictures as I would like, but it does bring back memories.
  • CSUN/UC Berkeley. I ran across an interesting opinion piece on the website of the Daily Sundial at CSUN. This piece looks at the identity of CSUN, and constrasts it with that of UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara. The conclusion: “CSUN may have a non-existent party scene like UCSB, it may not have diverse student housing cooperatives or the prestige of UC Berkeley. It may have no strong culture to identify with and it might have no definitive identity in the scope of UCs and CSUs other than “that commuter school,” but that’s fine. I wanted an education, and I took what I could get. Being able to drive 30 minutes to school every day from the stability of my mom’s house is exactly what I need. CSUN is the only university that offered me the luxury of not having to turn my world upside down to get a degree. Maybe we lose out on a definitive identity,  but I’m okay with that.”

In closing, I wish all the college graduates out there good luck, and I’d like to reassure those high school graduates that you’ll survive the first year of whatever school you choose.


University News Chum: UCLA, UC Berkeley, Emerson

userpic=ucla-csunToday’s lunchtime news chum brings together a number of articles related to happenings on campus:

Music: Once On This Island (Original Cast): “When We Are Wed”