A Journey of Discovery

Burnt Part Boys (Third Street Theatre)userpic=theatre_ticketsJourneys and hills. That’s a good characterization of yesterday. We journeyed  over a hill yesterday afternoon to celebrate the life journey of a friend that passed away. We then journeyed to West Los Angeles so that I could see another journey — this time, the journey of five friends up a mountain in West Virginia to the place where their fathers died. The latter, a newish Off-Broadway musical called “The Burnt Part Boys“, was making its West Coast premier at the Third Street Theatre (FB).

I had ordered the tickets to Burnt Part Boys about a month ago, having heard about the musical on one of the blogs I monitor, seen the music highly rated on Amazon, and based on my knowledge that the musical was bluegrass (one of the genres I like). I had only heard the music about a week ago, and liked what I heard.  It was the last in a series of new musicals I had seen over the last two months (bare, Carrie That Tune, and Ordinary Days being the others). But yesterday I wasn’t in the best shape for a musical — a migraine had started during the funeral and it crested about an hour before the show. Luckily the meds kicked in and it cleared about 10 minutes before the show started. I’m glad they did. This was a wonderful show that grabbed my attention and my heart, and the performances and story were the emotional journey that I needed.

The Burnt Part Boys (book by Mariana Elder, music by Chris Miller, and lyrics by Nathan Tysen) tells the story of two brothers — Jake and Pete — a coal mining family in in Pickaway WV in 1962. Their father, along with a number of other fathers from the community, had been working in the local coal mine when it collapsed and caught fire ten years prior (“the burnt part”). Since then, the older brother Jake had gone to work for the mining company, which is about to reopen the Burnt Part. When Pete discovers this news, he decides he can’t let this happen — the Burnt Part must remain closed in order to serve as a sanctuary to the men lost. Drawing inspiration from his heroes at The Alamo, he takes his brother’s mining equipment (i.e., dynamite) and goes off with his best friend, Dusty, to blow up the Burnt Part. Along their journey, they join up with a young women they knew from their school who had also lost her father on the Burnt Part. Meanwhile, Jake discovers the missing dynamite, and heads off with his best friend, Chet, to intercept his brother. Eventually these two groups meet, and decide to continue to the Burnt Part. Once there, Pete sneaks off and detonates the explosives, collapsing the mine and trapping them.

The focus of this story is the journey — or should I say journeys — that each of five young people take. Each is on a different journey of challenges and discovery, and both the journey to the mine, as well as the journey they take after the explosion, changes each in profound ways. It is a fascinating journey to watch, and the performances are such that you are just drawn into these characters. Using a relatively simple set and props, these actors make you believe they are in the West Virginia hills climbing up the mountain. The music serves as a nice augmentation to the book by showing the inner facets of the characters and the emotional journeys they take. Thankfully, this was not another sung-through musical (both bare and Ordinary Days were sung-through, and that trend is tiresome); the music works well here to establish the mood and address aspects of the character that normal dialogue cannot. The characters also seem well established and differentiated — each has different aspects and personality quirks that make them appear real and human, and not the cardboard caricatures you often see in shows. The musical does have its dark aspects — both literally and figuratively, given that a portion takes place in a completely dark coal mine. It ends up finding the light, and the self-discovery journey is one that turns out to be well worth watching.

Director Richard Israel (FB) is one of those local directors who you can  trust to do consistently good work, and he doesn’t let the audience down here. The performances he draws out of these actors are spectacular, and serve to demonstrate how acting alone can transport an audience — extensive realistic sets and locations are not required.  He makes great use of the minimal set to create the illusion of of multiple journeys in the hills, and he uses the actors skill to do the rest. This work combines with the great performances to make this show succeed.

The lead performers are a strong ensemble, which means it is difficult to separate the specific moments and strengths of particular characters. The three younger travelers — Pete, Dusty, and Frances — are brought to life by Daniel David Stewart (FB-Actor, FB-Personal), Adam Dingeman (FB), and Lauren Patten (FB), respectively. The older travelers — Jake and Chet — are brought to life by Aaron Scheff/FB and Joe Donahoe (FB). All gave remarkable performances and sang well. Some special kudos go to Adam Dingeman for his saw-playing (which I hadn’t seen before), and to Lauren Patten for the intensity of her performance. But all of them were spectacular and did a great job of drawing you into their characters, and making you feel that they were real people in that place and time.  They also gave off the feeling of enjoying these roles and these people — and when that happens, the audience shares in that joy.

Supporting these five were the four men who played the fathers lost in the mine, as well as few other supporting roles: Matt Musgrove (FB), Philip Dean Lightstone (FB), Richard Hellstern (FB), and Rich Brunner (FB). All projected the required strength and served the story well. Understudies, who we didn’t see, were Shane Orser/FB and Jessica Evans (FB).

The on-stage (but hidden) band was under the musical direction of Gregory Nabours (FB), and consisted of Nabours (FB) on keyboards, David Lee (FB) on guitars, Eden Livingood/FB on violin, and Nikolaus Keelaghan (FB) on viola and percussion.

The set was designed by Will Pelligrini (FB), and consisted of multiple levels of worn boards and wooden pieces, with a silhouette of mountains in the distance. The supporting props were provided by Nicholas Acciani (FB) and were suitably realistic and period. Supporting this illusion well was the lighting of Johnny Ryman (FB), who created the mood using solely yellows and blues, combined with a few LED lights. Cricket S. Myers (FB) sound was, as it always is, excellent — with particular kudos due for the amazing sound effects. The costumes by Vicki Conrad were also effective in  establishing place and time. Suzanne Doss/FB was the assistant director, and Lindsay Capacio/FB was the stage manager. “The Burnt Part Boys” was presented by Third Street Theatre (FB) and West Coast Ensemble (FB), and was supported by a Kickstarter (which, alas, I didn’t know about).

The Burnt Part Boys” continues at the Third Street Theatre (FB) through October 20. Tickets are available online and through Goldstar.

[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre 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 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 Theatre and Concerts:  Next weekend is currently unbooked — I have no idea what I’m doing. October ends with the Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) production of “Kiss Me Kate” (October 26). November starts with “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” at Actors Rep of Simi (FB). That will be followed by a visit with Thomas the Tank Engine when we volunteer at OERM over Veterans Day.  The third week will be theatre-ish, as we attend ARTS’s Nottingham Village (FB) (a one-weekend ren-faire-ish market — tickets are now on sale). One of those weekends we’re also likely to see a Trollplayers (FB) production of Steven Schwartz’s Children of Eden” (which runs November 8-17) [Trollplayers is the community theatre group at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Northridge]. The weekend before Thanksgiving will be very busy with three shows: Tom Paxton (FB) in concert at McCabes Santa Monica (FB) on Friday; “Play It Again Sam” at REP East (FB) on Saturday, and the rescheduled “Miracle on S. Division Street” at the Colony Theatre (FB) on Sunday. Thanksgiving weekend is currently open, as is much of December (December is due to the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC) in New Orleans, which has me out of two the first two weekends in December… but has me wondering about New Orleans theatre), but should bring “The Little Mermaid” at Nobel Middle School, and “Peter and the Starcatcher” at The Ahmanson Theatre. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.


And I Thought My Mother Was Bad….

Last night, otaku_tetsuko joined us (nsshere wasn’t feeling well) as we ventured to Hollywood to see the West Coast Ensemble production of “Gypsy“. Yes, that “Gypsy“—the one that has numerous big name stars in it (Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, and Patti LuPone) and is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest musicals. West Coast Ensemble is doing a version of the show they are calling “Gypsy… stripped”, which is done in a very small production, directed by Richard Israel, in a 99-seat older theatre, with a five-piece orchestra. A very seedy-feeling production, bare-bones, that focuses on the acting.

Wait, you say you’ve never heard of the story of “Gypsy“? “Gypsy“, on its face, is the story of the creation of the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. In reality, it is the story of her stage mother, Rose Havok. You can find a detailed summary at Musicals.Net, but in short: The story starts in Seattle, where Rose is trying to get her kids, June and Rose, into a kiddy show. She succeeds, and this starts them on the road. They acquire an agent (Herbie) and supporting boys, and start on the vaudeville circuits. Slowly successful, they run into the death of vaudeville. Bookings start to get slower, and the children get older—at least in life, if not on stage. As the first act ends, June has gotten fed up, and one of the boys, Tulsa, has developed his own dance duo act. They elope, leaving Rose, Herbie, and Louise to regroup. In Act II, Rose is attempting to restart the act around Louise, but failing. They eventually end up as a children’s act at a burlesque theatre in Wichita. Here, Louise learns about the stripper’s life. When their gig ends, Herbie is about to marry Rose, when the theatre suddently needs a star stripper. Rose volunteers Louise, which is the last straw for Herbie. Louise goes on, timidly at first, to discover a career she loves and is good at. This leaves Rose unneeded, and as the musical ends, we learn why Rose did it all—not for the children, but for herself, living vicariously through her children’s success that she could never have.

Most versions of Gypsy are built around a star and a star’s performance, and people remember their Gypsy’s by the Mama Rose performer. Oh, I saw Merman. I saw Daly. I saw Peters. For this Gypsy, the Mama Rose actress (Jan Sheldrickæ) was not a big-name star. Her singing was not the calibur of a Peters or LuPone (although it was good); I’m not sure her voice will last out the run. But she was a strong actress… and it is the acting at close quarters that makes this show. Watching her face during performances such as “Roses Turn” you could see the determination and vulnerability of this woman—this was a woman you crossed at your own risk.

Faces. They are what made this production. I just loved watching the faces. My favorite was that of Stephanie Wallæ (). She was just such a great reactive performer. Watching her in “Little Lamb” or “If Mama Was Married” was a delight. She was timid; she was joyful; she was expressive. In “All I Need Is the Girl”, you could see her longing to dance with Tulsa. Perhaps her best faces and reactions were in “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, where her face showed such abject terror and horror as Rose became focused on Louise’s success. Similarly, her face during “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” was remarkable: going from shock to joy. Watching this young woman’s transformation into Gypsy was just great; you could just read the self confidence (although I was disappointed there wasn’t more of the older Gypsy — I seem to recall a bit more in the strip routine number). Although people claim Rose is the star of this show, I personally feel this show was made by Ms. Wall.

Another great face was Michael Matthysæ as Herbie. This is not a strong singing role (the original was Jack Klugman). Mr. Matthys’ strength, again, was in his acting and his face. You could see his love for Rose and the kids. You could see his horror as Rose turned in “Everythings Coming Up Roses”. You could see his disappointment as Rose pimped her daughter in Wichita. Very expressive actor.

A few other “faces” that I want to particularly mention. The first “face” that I found fascinating was that of Caitlin Williams as young Louise. She seemed so lost on the stage when contrasted with her sister (played by Kaleigh Ryan). She seemed off in the dance numbers, a bit lost with the words, but I got the impression that was the actress acting—she was doing a wonderful job of showing Louise as the introverted one who was not comfortable on stage. I also enjoyed the face of Kaylie Swanson as the older June, especially during the “If Mama Was Married” sequence where her personality shone through. As Tulsa, Eric Allen Smith was a remarkable dancer and a delight in “All I Need Is The Girl”. A fourth worthy face was Sara J. Stuckey () as Tessie Tura (she also had a few other small roles). As Tessie, you could she how she enjoyed burlesque for what it was, and how she enjoyed interacting with Mama Rose’s girls.

Rounding out the cast were: L. J. Benet () (performer boy / singer / newsboy); Kelly Jean Clairæ () (Mazeppa / Miss Cratchitt); Quintan Craig (Yonkers); Glory Curda (Balloon Girl); Major Curdaæ (Boy Scout / Newsboy); Saylor Curda (Twirling Girl); Amy Lawrenceæ () (Marjorie); Larry Ledermanæ () (George / Rose’s Father / Mr. Kringelein / Cigar); Dan Pachecoæ (Angie); Tony Pandolfoæ (Uncle Jocko / Mr. Weber / Mr. Goldstone / Pasty); Zack Salas () (L.A. / Bourgeron); Katie Scarlett (Agnes / Showgirl); Jessica Schatzæ () (Electra / Renee / Stage Mother); Ann Villella () (Geraldine / Showgirl); and Petey Yarosh () (Newsboy).
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Technically, the production was bare bones. The set, designed by Stephen Gifford, was primarily a bare stage with vaudeville stage cards and simple props. The costumes, by Zale Morris (assisted by Cat J. Scanlan as associate and Daniel Kingsland as assistant), were appropriately period and seedy (although Tessie’s was a big more risque than I expected). Wigs were by Anthony Gagliardi. The sound by Rebecca Kessin was seemingly unamplified. The lighting by Lisa D. Katz was relatively static and unadored with lots of blues and pinks, with a single follow spot. Stage management was by Nicholas Acciani, assisted by Lindsay Capacio.

The production was directed with Richard Israel, with musical directon by Johanna Kent. The orchestra was uncredited and unseen, but sounded like five pieces. This was a mistake—they deserved credit. Choreography was by John Todd, who did an effective job with movement and dance.

The West Coast Ensemble webpage does not show a closing date for “Gypsy“. It is being performed at the Theatre of the Arts Arena Stage, which is behind the Egyptian Theatre on Las Palmas in Hollywood. Tickets are available through West Coast Ensemble, as well as through Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: The last weekend of May brings Cabaret” at REP East on May 28. June begins with “Year Zero” at the Colony Theatre on June 5, but most of June is lost to the college visit trip (but who knows — we might go see “Always Patsy Cline” at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville). July should hopefully start with “Les Miserables” at the Ahmanson on July 2; pending hottix ticketed, followed by Western Corps Connection on July 3 in Riverside. July should continue with Jerry Springer: The Opera (July 8, Chance Theatre, pending ticketing); “Twist: A New Musical” (July 16, Pasadena Playhouse, ticketed); “Jewtopia” (July 17, REP East, ticketed); Dolly Parton (July 23, Hollywood Bowl); “Shrek” (July 23 or 24, Pantages Theatre, pending ticketing); and “The Sound of Music” (July 30, Cabrillo Music Theatre, ticketed). August will bring “Doubt” at REP East on August 13, and “On Golden Pond” at the Colony Theatre on August 20. The remainder of August is currently open.


Two Things: West Coast Ensemble Season / Paywalls

Today’s been a busy day, but I do want to share / opine on two emails I received recently.

The first was the season announcement from West Coast Ensemble, who have done remarkable shows in the past (I particularly remember their productions of “Zanna Don’t“, “Big“, and “Assassins“). The upcoming season, alas, doesn’t attract me:

  • GYPSY (starting 5/13), with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents, based on the memoirs of burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee. They are presenting the show in the intimate setting of the Theatre of Arts Arena Theatre (formerly the Egyptian Arena Theatre), but haven’t named any cast yet. I’m not drawn to Gypsy with an unknown cast.
  • CRUMBS FROM THE TABLE OF JOY (starting 6/10) by Lynn Nottage, a lyrical and moving coming-of-age story set in post World War II Brooklyn. This production will open for a limited three-week run at the Loung Theatre in Hollywood.
  • LIVE WORK SPACE (starting 7/22) by Don Cummings, a razor-sharp comedy about two loft-living couples in downtown Los Angeles grapple with issues of commitment, sex, intimacy and love in this insightful and challenging love letter to Los Angeles. Presented at the Pan Andreas Theatre in Hollywood.

Alas, I have to say that none of these are calling to me.. Since I wrote that, “Gypsy” called to me and we eneded up seeing it.


I also received an announcement this morning about the upcoming paywall at the New York Times. The rates aren’t that attractive: $15 per four weeks for unlimited access, with only 20 articles for free each month. I go through 20 articles in a week! Home delivery might be a better option: it is $5.20 per weekend, or $3.70 for weekday papers. Hmm, I it looks like the weekday papers is slightly cheaper than the base digital subscription ($3.70/week for the paper, vs. $3.75/week for the digital). Right now, I’m not inclined to subscribe, so hopefully the news chum won’t suffer.


Be Careful What You Wish For

This afternoon, we went to Hollywood to see “big: The Musical” at the West Coast Ensemble. For those unfamiliar with this musical, which is based on the Tom Hanks movie, it tells the story of 12-year old Josh Baskin. Josh is at that awkward age — too small for girls to notice him, awkwardly growing into teen-hood. One day at a carnival, Josh wishes to “be big” at the carnival Zoltar machine. The next morning… he wakes up “big”. A grown up. Of course, his mom thinks he’s a stranger and out of the house he goes. His best friend Billy packs him off to New York to find a job, while he goes to find another Zoltar machine. Josh lands at FAO Schwartz, where he meets a toy company executive who can’t figure out why his toys aren’t selling. Josh, being a kid inside, tells him… and gets hired. Now Josh is in the corporate world… and is a success by being a kid at heart. But he also has to start dealing with things he’s never dealt with before: such as the female co-worker who falls for him. Does he stay “big” for her, or does he go back to being a kid?

But that’s just the story. “big” is really a play about how kids grow up too fast, and what it is really like to be a kid inside. We all lose that kid far to quickly these days. I just heard a wonderful piece on Quirks and Quarks about the importance of play… and that’s something that is harder and harder to do in today’s world: just be playful. We see the view of the parents, whose children grow up far to fast. We see the view of the adults, all business. We also see the dilemma through two important sets of eyes: Josh’s, who must face the difficulties of adult love for the first time, and Susan, the colleague who falls for him, who learns that sometimes playfullness is the secret to love. I should note that the book for “big” is by John Weidman, based on the screenplay by Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg. Music was by David Shire, with lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr..

West Coast Ensemble is a theatre group that does great things with off-beat musicals like this. We’ve seen them work their magic on “Zanna Don’t” and “Assassins” before, and this production was no exception. Working in an extremely limited space, they created the flexibility to pull this off. As an example, one of the best known numbers in the show is the one where Josh and the president of the Toy Company dance on a gigantic floor keyboard. This theater could not afford a gigantic fancy lit keyboard–so they just painted one on the floor, and as the actors danced on the keys, the ensemble behind them sang individual notes. Their musical director (Daniel Thomas) also created a great sound with what appeared to be a single keyboard. A simple multi-level stage became everything from a schoolyard to bunk-beds in an apartment, to a working office, to a toy store… with just a few props. Credit goes to Stephen Gifford for his remarkable stage design and Lisa D. Katz for her imaginative lighting design in the limited space.

Of course, no production would be complete with out the actors, and this production had an excellent set of them. Leading the cast as the adult Josh Baskin was Will Collyeræ, who captured the kid inside of him, as well as being a great singer and dancer. His adult love interest, Susan Lawrence, was played by Darrin Revitzæ, and equally great singer and dancer. Both were just having fun with the roles, which is a joy to see. Others in the cast who particularly impressed me were: Johanna Kent (Mrs. Kopecki/Panhandler/Salesperson/Miss Watson/Diane), who we saw first in Assassins as Sara Jane Moore, and must be one of the most expressive actresses around; Alex Scolari (Cynthia Benson/Goth Girl/Kid/Intern), who we saw in 13 and was just mesmerizing, and LJ Benet as the young Josh Baskin, who in his second act solo number demonstrated a remarkable voice. Also worthy of note were Lisa Picotteæ as Mrs. Baskin and Larry Lederman as Mr. MacMillan (head of the toy company). Rounding out the cast were Ashley Marie Arnold (Tiffany/Kid), Sterling Beaumonæ (Billy Kopecki), Joseph Castanon (Brandon/Kid), Coby Getzug (Derek/Gang Dude/Kid/Intern), Frank Romeoæ (Mr. Kopecki/Arcade Guy/Salesperson/Birnbaum/Nick), Jake Wesley Stewart (Mr. Baskin/Drag Queen/Salesperson/Barret/Tom), Sara J. Stuckey (Mom/Homeless Lady/Salesperson/Receptionist/Abigail), Kaylie Swanson (Debbie/Kid), and Stephen Vendette (Dad/Stoner Musician/Paul Seymour).
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

I’ve already spoken about the excellent technical side of this production. Completing the backstage element were Sharon McGunigle with an excellent costume design (although I’m unsure whether cell-phones were that prevalent during that period), and Cricket S. Myers for Sound Design. The production was directed by Richard Israel assisted by Suzanne Doss. Choreography, which was remarkable given the limited space, was by Christine Lakin, assisted by Corrie English. The stage manager was Amy E. Stoddardæ, who was gracious to take nsshere backstage to discuss working in technical theatre. The producer was Ben Campbell. West Coast Ensemble is under the artistic direction of Les Hanson and Richard Israel.

I should note that if you are familiar with “big” from the cast album: some of the songs appear to be changed. In particular, I noticed a new song for Josh’s mom (“Say Good Morning to Mom”) in the opening, and I think one or two others were changed. However, a number of my favorites are still there, including “Fun”, “Stars”, “Cross the Line”, and “Coffee Black”. Some of the song changes are explained in the Wikipedia page.

“big” continues at West Coast Ensemble through June 28. Tickets are available through West Coast Ensemble, and Tix.Com; discount tickets are available through LAStageTix and Goldstar events. The show is well-worth going to, but note that parking in the neighborhood can be difficult, and the seats in the theatre are very narrow.

Upcoming Theatre: Our next production is “The Green Room at Hermosa Beach Playhouse on May 24 @ 7:00pm. The end of May (May 28, 29, 30) brings Fiddler on the Roof” at Nobel Middle School: we’re planning on going on Fr 5/29. May 31 @ 2pm brings “Setup and Punch” at The Blank Theatre Company. June 20 @ 8pm is “The Little Foxes” at The Pasadena Playhouse. Lastly, July 11 will bring “Fat Pig” at Repertory East Playhouse. Based on the reviews, we’ve decided to take a pass on “Marry Me a Little/The Last 5 Years” at East/West Players. Other shows pending scheduling and ticketing include “Spamalot” at the Ahmanson (7/7-9/6/09), the “Guys and Dolls” concert at the Hollywood Bowl (7/31-8/2/09), and Liza Minelli at the Hollywood Bowl (8/28-8/29/09). Also of potential interest are: “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the Neighborhood Playhouse (Venue Goldstar) (7/9-7/26/09); “Breaking the Code” at The Production Company in North Hollywood (5/15-6/20/09) (on LAStageTix, Venue Goldstar) (with “Equus” over the summer); and “The Apple Tree” at Crown City Theatre in North Hollywood (6/5-6/28/09) (LAStageTix). I’m also always looking for interesting productions on Goldstar and LA Stage Tix.


Everybody Has The Right To Be Happy. Everybody Has The Right to Their Dreams.

In late 1990, a new Stephen Sondheim musical premiered on Broadway, with a book by John Weidman. It was dark, and had a very uncomfortable theme. It was a musical that highlighted the men and women who have a dream, a burning in their bellies, a driving need to do what they think is necessary to make their world a better place. They want to shoot the president. As one might expect, this musical (“Assassins”) flopped, running only 73 performances. In 2001 in one, it was about to be remounted again… and then terrorists flew planes into the WTC and the Pentagon (and wanted to hit the White House) on September 11th — echoing a would be assassin of Richard Nixon in the show, who wanted to fly a plane into the White House. The revival was scrapped again. It was finally remounted in 2004 to a bit more success… but the subject remains uncomfortable.

Today, we saw “Assassins” in its production at West Coast Ensemble. Assassins tells the story of all the successful and unsuccessful presidential assassins: John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln), Charles Guiteau (Garfield), Leon Czolgosz (McKinley), Giuseppe Zangara (FDR, unsuccessful), Lee Harvey Oswald (Kennedy), Samuel Byck (Nixon, unsuccessful), Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (Ford, unsuccessful), and John W. Hinkley Jr (Reagan, unsuccessful). They are egged on by a character called the Proprietior, who is really more of a carnival barker, urging them to “Shoot a President, Win a Prize”. A more sardonic view of the proceedings comes from the Balladeer. What’s hard to figure out is the point of the show. One underlying theme is captured in the title of this post: “Everyone has the right to be happy, everybody has the right to their dreams”. Part of the American dream is the right to take action for what you believe in. Does that include the right to shoot the president? Is that a form of free speech? But the play shows that folks had a variety of reasons behind their actions: to ease their pains, to make a statement, to please someone or to get attention for their cause, or because they were just nuts. But it doesn’t work. They aren’t remembered for their cause, they are remembered because they attempted to shoot the president. Perhaps some lines from the Balladeer’s first number make the point best:

Every now and then
A madman’s
Bound to come along
Doesn’t stop the story —
Story’s pretty strong
Doesn’t change the song…

Listen to the stories
Hear it in the songs
Angry men don’t write the rules
And guns don’t right the wrongs

Hurts a while
But soon the country’s
Back where it belongs
And that’s the truth

So, “Assassins”, in the end, isn’t a musical about the right to dreams. It is more a musical on the strength of the American dream — that even though there are madmen out there who do mad things, these angry men don’t write the rules, and America ultimately will right itself. We now have madmen who are using more than guns, and we have leaders who are tilting the ship strongly in reaction. But the system is strong, and we have the ability to right it. Pretty good message in a dark musical, I must say.

So how did West Coast Ensemble do? I think they did a very good job (only one substantive complaint, which you’ll find near the end). The acting was supurb. The whole cast was remarkable, not only in their singing but in their acting and their nuances. This is one of Sondheim’s most dramatic plays (I think the second half would rival most dramas), and it was just astounding. Some actors deserve some special praise. From the set of assassins, I was particularly impressed with Christopher Davis Carlisle as John Wilkes Booth, the first man to show it was possible to shoot a president; Steven Connoræ at Charles J. Guiteau, who lots of life and energy; Johanna Kent as Sara Jane Moore, who had loads of confused playfullness; Darrin Revitzæ as Lynnette “Squeeky” Fromme, who portrayed the crazy devotion one would expect from a Manson followerer. Even more of note were Dana Reynolds as the Balladeer, who seemed to take glee in interacting and commenting on the assassins. Even stronger was Shannon Stoeke in the dual role of the Proprietor/Lee Harvey Oswald, who was the evil counterpart to the Balladeer, encouraging our protagonists that they had the right, if not a duty, to shoot the president.

The remainder of the company were supurb, but their performances just didn’t “pop” as the folks named above. Rounding out the assassins were Jim Holdridgeæ as Guiseppe Zangara; Larry Ledermanæ as Leon Czolgosz, David Nadeau at John Hinckley, and John O’Brien at Samuel Byck. Others in the ensemble, playing various roles, were Sterling Beaumonæ and Andrea Covell.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Technically, the crew did a remarkable job with the small space they had. The current WCE location was Sydney Chaplin’s first theatre. The stage is very small, with no wing space. But somehow the crew made it work with remarkable sets, remarkable lighting, remarkable costumes (with really fast changes), and remarkable direction. Credit goes to Richard Israel (Director), Carla Barnett (Producing Director), Suzanne Doss (Assistant Director), Lisa D. Katz (Lighting Design), Stephen Gifford (Set Design), Johanna Kent (Music Director), Richard Berent (Orchestral Realizations), A. Jeffrey Schoenberg (Costume Design), and Cricket S. Myers (Sound Design). Stage management was by Erin Bedinger, and produced by Michelle Exarhos and Flip Laffoon. The artistic director for WCE is Les Hanson.

Now for the complaint. Although the page for the theatre says there are 46 seats, I heard there were 99 in there — and they were the narrowest, most uncomfortable seats I’ve ever been in. Hopefully WCE will soon find themselves a venue that is equal to their outstanding productions.

Dining Notes: Dinner was that old standby, Canter’s Deli. Although good, I think either Weiler’s or Brent’s is better. Still, the one on Fairfax is a classic.

So what’s upcoming on our theatre calendar? We have a bit of a break until the end of September, when we are seeing “Vanitites” at the Pasadena Playhouse on 9/20 @ 8pm. I hope to ticket “9 to 5” at the Ahmanson in September (HotTix go on sale on Wednesday). September will also bring “Of Mice and Men” at Repertory East on a date to be determined. October will bring “The King and I” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on 10/25 @ 2pm.


Their Love Was Forbidden… and it Changed The World

Last night, we went to see a musical fairy tale, a gay little romp that is my daughter’s favorite musical about high school life. Grease? Nah. Bye Bye Birdie? Nah. We saw Zanna Don’t at the West Coast Ensemble in Silverlake.

Zanna Don’t” (MySpace) is a musical about love, in all its variations. Set in Heartsville USA, it (like Hello Dolly before it), is the story of a matchmaker changing the world. In this case, our matchmater is Zanna, who lives only to help people fall in love with the right guy or girl. The show opens on a busy day, where Zanna (Danny Calvert), dressed in pink, is creating some new matches between the super-popular Chess team champion, Mike (Dan Pacheco), and the new Football player, Steve (Brent Schindele). He also is matching up Roberta (Natalie Monahan) with the head of the precision mechancial bull riding team, Kate (Rebecca Johnson). He does this all with the aid of his canary, Cindy, his wand, and love music selected by Tank, the DJ (Brian Weir). If you noticed something odd here, perhaps I should explain.

Zanna Don’t is set in a topsy-turvy world, where being gay is normal. Guys go with guys, girls go with girls. Boys have two dads, Girls have two moms. The world stops for the Chess Team champions and the precision dancing team, and football is this off sport that no one understands. The local bar (the “I’m OK, You’re OK Corral”) serves milk, or if you’re having man trouble, Ovaltine.

Back to the story. Life at high school is highlighted by the drama club musical, directed by Candi (Justine Valdez) and her assistant, Brad (Matthew Rocheleau). This year they have chosen to do something daring, something that upsets the locals and the school board. They are doing a musical about heterosexuals in the military. The musical stars Steve (the football player) and Kate (the bull rider). Although they each have their own partners (Steve has Mike, Kate has Roberta), the reluctantly agree to kiss (but who would want to kiss someone of the opposite sex?). As you might guess, they fall in love. But this is a forbidden love, which has its consequences… and it is discovered at the end of Act I.

Act II deals with the consequences of this love. Their partners are left in the dark, not understanding how someone could fall that way. Candi is disgusted, and is protesting to the school board, which promptly bans straight couples from the prom. The couple turns to Zanna, who unleashes a love spell that changes the world, a spell that makes the world safe for heteros. After the spell is cast, the scene changes to the prom… where in their black tuxes, Mike and Roberta and Candi and Brad all gather together to crown their new King and Queen: Mike and Kate. Into this sashays Zanna, in a grey and pink tux… and is immediately the outcast, for he is (gasp) gay. But the attitudes change, and soon everyone is singing about how all love must be accepted (and Zanna finds a guy for himself, Tank).

This is a high-energy, high-spirited musical, with peppy songs by Tim Acito (additional book and lyrics by Alexander Dinelaris), strong direction by Nick DeGruccio, delightful choreography by Christine Lakin (MySpace) and Paul Nygro.

The high energy and high spirits are infectuous, and have clearly infected the cast, who seem to be having the time of their lives in this Los Angeles premier. All are excellent singers and dancers, but a few need to be singled out in various ways. On the singing front, I just adored the powerhouse singing of of Rebecca Johnson (Kate), Brent Schindele (Steve), and Justine Valdez (Candi). All of the cast were strong singers, but these three just blew the house away (in particular Ms. Valdez… I haven’t heard pipes like that since I fell in love with Klea Blackhurst). On the acting and emoting side, all the cast was excellent and having fun with the show (something I love to see), but particular standouts included Danny Calvert (Zanna), Natalie Monahan (Roberta), and Rebecca Johnson (Kate). I particularly enjoyed watching Ms. Monahan, who was having a blast with her role.

The theatre itself is a very small venue, under 50 seats. This strong singing and dancing production fits in only through the clever scenic design of Tom Buderwitz, the direction of Nick Degruccio (assisted by Flip Laffoon), and the previously-mentioned choreographers. The theatre seats, however, are nothing to write home about… but you came for the show anyway! Lighting was by Lisa D. Katz. Sound design was by Cricket S. Myers assisted by Patricia Cardona. Musical direction was by Bill Brown, whose single keyboard made the orchestra come alive. Stage management was by Lara Nall, with production by Richard Israel and Dana Moore, assisted by Suzanne Doss.

Zanna Don’t” continues at the West Coast Ensemble through most of August. Tickets are available through the box office; they are also on Goldstar. I strongly recommend this show.

I should note that the staff of the theatre was also remarkable. My daughter was able to get a poster for her Bat Mitzvah (we would rather promote local theatres in her theatre theme than venues 3000 miles away). We also had the opportunity to meet Steven Glaudini, artistic director of MTW Long Beach, who told us about their 2007-08 season (which sounds excellent). He’s the husband of Bets Malone, whose website is done by our friend shutterbug93. With Steven at the show was Misty Cotton (another friend of shutterbug93, who we recognized from our previous meetings… and thus we took the opportunity to briefly say hello). All in all, a delightful evening. I’ll also note that WCE has an intern program we might explore for nsshere.

Dining Notes: The mood for this delightful evening was set when we had dinner at the Flying Leap Cafe a few blocks up Hyperion from the theatre. The meal was excellent (I had the chicken fried steak, my wife had a steak salad, and my daughter had the cobb salad). But what set the mood was the clientele, for the restaurant and its bar and a very happy crowd, one might even say gay. Didn’t bother us at all, but it did set the mood.

So, what’s coming up on our theatre calendar? Next Saturday night is our playhouse night; we’re seeing “Can-Can” at The Pasadena Playhouse on 7/28 at 8:00pm. This is followed by “Beauty and the Beast” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on 8/4 @ 2:00pm; the DCI 2007 World Championship Finals in Pasadena on 8/11 @ 5:00pm; and “Avenue Q” at the Ahmanson on 9/15 @ 2:00pm. We’re also debating the Hollywood Bowl… in particular, possibly Bernstein/Copland/Gershwin on 8/2, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy on 8/24-25, or American Originals on 9/11. We may also go see “Zanna Don’tagain… it is just that good.