Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
April 1, 2010
Barber- ous Butchery
THE SHOW: “ Sweeney Todd , The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, ” the 1979 Stephen Sondheim musical classic, at Cygnet Theatre
Behold Victorian London, where extreme class distinctions meet the cannibalizing effects of the Industrial Revolution. That’s the environment that spawned Sweeney Todd. For two centuries, the saga of “the demon barber of Fleet Street” has captivated the public, a dark revenge tragedy about a victim of society, driven mad by his fixation on vengeance and his rage at the inequities of his uncivil civilization.
Sweeney’s story first appeared in a penny-dreadful serial entitled “The String of Pearls” (1846-1847), which was quickly re-worked as a melodrama, billed as “founded on fact.” But no historical evidence has ever been found; Sweeney is an English urban legend that Americans have hungrily embraced (we do love our blood-lust). A 1973 London play, “Sweeney Todd,” by Christopher Bond, was used by Hugh Wheeler as the basis of the musical’s book.
Five movie adaptations appeared from 1926-1970, leading up to 2007’s slasher film starring Johnny Depp . A ballet version was performed by the Royal Ballet in 1959.
But it was the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim that immortalized the tale of the butcherous barber who returns to London after 15-year forced exile in Australia , determined to destroy the scurrilous judge who unjustly sentenced him, then ravished his wife and now plans to marry his daughter. The musical opened on Broadway in 1979, and garnered eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score. It’s Sondheim’s most brutally beautiful work, perfectly meshed with the legend in its fiendish ingenuity and Grand Guignol sensibility.
In a climactic moment in the musical, Sweeney has the judge in his specially outfitted chair, biding his time, wistfully singing about “Pretty Women,” when the magistrate is suddenly called away. The barber snaps, and his fulminating wrath turns indiscriminate; he begins to systematically slit the throats of all his tonsorial customers, whose bloody bodies are then ground into meat pies by his enterprising accomplice, the cheerfully barbaric baker, Mrs. Lovett.
There are several side-stories: a love affair between Anthony (engaging, sweet-voiced Jacob Caltrider ), the young sailor Sweeney meets on his return trip to London, and Sweeney’s beautiful young daughter, Johanna (lovely, golden-voiced Ashley Fox Linton), a ward/prisoner of Judge Turpin; the self-important, self-flagellating Judge ( Steve Gunderson , formidable, and impressively singing baritone-bass instead of his usual melodious tenor), who wants Johanna for his own; the Judge’s obsequious subordinate, the nasty Beadle ( Geno Carr, excellent); the flamboyant, blackmailing snake-oil salesman, the barber/competitor Pirelli ( Kürt Norby , hilarious, and his tenor is dazzling); the toothless, wailing Beggar Woman (compelling Cynthia Marty), who’s the first to suspect what’s really going on in the pie shop; and the lame, simple-minded but good-hearted apprentice, Tobias ( Tom Zohar , wonderful), one of the few left standing at the end. Sarah Michelle Cuc , with her stratospheric soprano, and Trevor Hollingsworth, attractive and effective in his various guises, assay an array of characters to fill in for the normally much larger cast.
Of course, center stage, there’s Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett. Cygnet artistic director Sean Murray (who inventively co-directed, with James Vasquez ) is spectacular as the barbarous barber. His rich baritone is in splendid form, and he brings multiple dramatic layers to the character, making him both anguished and understandable, even a little sympathetic, not villainous or wildly insane, as in some portrayals. (Just one niggling question: Why is he the only character without an English accent?)
Deborah Gilmour-Smyth, the associate artistic director of Lamb’s Players Theatre, is stupendous as Mrs. Lovett. With her wide-ranging vocal prowess and acting acumen, she’s expansive and expressive; romantic and flirtatious; motherly and tormenting; vicious, protective, playful, imaginative, and very, very funny. It’s a knockout performance. Their duets, especially the deliciously wicked “A Little Priest,” are sheer delight.
All the singing is outstanding, as is the musical accompaniment, under the direction of Charlie Reuter , who masterminds the piano and keyboards, including the “Phantom”-like opening organ riffs. His crackerjack band includes Manny Castro on bass, Diana Elledge on cello, Joseph Howell on woodwinds, and Dave Rumley marshaling a mind-boggling assortment of percussive sounds. Every killing is marked by a bone-chilling musical shriek.
The evocative, bi-level set (Sean Fanning) features sooty brick walls and rusty double-doors that open to a smoggy London skyline. The barber shop is up above, containing the signature ejector chair that catapults the corpses to the blazing oven down below. The technical work is exceptional, making wonderful use of the space, with performers in the aisles, Sweeney popping up in a hair-raising entrance from the trap below, and a few set pieces dropping down from the fly-space. The lighting (Eric Lotze , also flown in – from his current home in Canada) is stunning, gorgeously outlining a character, or fogging the action in dim shadow, or screaming blood-red alarms. The costumes (Shirley Pierson), props (Bonnie Durben ) and crystalline sound (Matt Lescault -Wood) are pitch-perfect. The special effects are great; not as much spurting blood as was shown in Cygnet’s pre-production blogs, and that’s fine. There’s blood enough for any carnage enthusiast.
In execution, the production is traditional; there are no outrageous liberties taken or new perspectives offered (in John Doyle’s acclaimed 2005 Broadway revival, in which the ten actors also served as the show’s musicians, the entire tale was told as a remembrance, by a straitjacketed Tobias). Here, the ‘dead’ (or characters who don’t actually belong in a scene) rise to sing chorus parts, but the dim lighting helps, and the conceit generally works. In fact, everything works here — like crazy.
This is one glorious, gory, musically miraculous production. Do not miss it.
THE LOCATION: Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. , Old Town . (619) 337-1525; www.cygnettheatre.com
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $17-$49. Wednesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., Saturday-Sunday at 2 p.m., already extended through May 9
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
THE SHOW: “ Speech and Debate , ” a 2006 comedy, at Diversionary Theatre
It begins with a little voyeurism. The first thing we see is a projection of an evolving conversation in a gay online chat-room. An older man (36) is setting up a meeting with an 18 year-old. At the same time, a wacky, friendless female is video-blogging (in song!) about the drama teacher in her high school, who goes after boys. A third student, a geeky would-be journalist, wants to write a school paper exposé on the Mayor, who seems to be a pedophile.
Ultimately, they all come together in the Speech and Debate club. Each has a sexual secret. In this coming-of-age tale, they all learn about privacy rights and public humiliation, when it’s okay to speak out and when it’s best to clam up. As they explore the heinous hypocrisy of the adult world, they’re forced to confront some of their own. Ultimately, they explore their own emerging identities.
Playwright Stephen Karam created the play when he was just 25, working from actual transcripts of online chats between the former mayor of Spokane , Washington , and a gay teenager. The play, which Karam set in Salem , Oregon (the comparison with that other Salem is made plain) was workshopped in 2006 at Brown/Trinity Playwrights Repertory Theatre in Providence , Rhode Island . It went on to an Off Broadway run at the Roundabout Underground, and received a GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Media nomination. Last year, “Speech and Debate” was the third most produced play in the country. It’s easy to see why.
The characters are quirky, the dialogue is quick, quippy and clever – and, according to a gay high schooler I spoke to, very close to the bone and true to reality. We learn that BSA doesn’t just stand for the Boy Scouts of America; it’s the “Bathing Suit Areas” the students are taught about in the school’s ‘Stranger Danger’ lecture. These kids are having sex and obsessing about sex, considering exposing a scandal focused on sex, but the parts put to use for it are called Bathing Suit Areas.
The oddball Diwata (wildly funny Rachael VanWormer ), a talentless, wannabe musical theater starlet, can’t get cast in the school play (by the same drama teacher she’s already exposed online – by name). She’s convinced that the various Speech and Debate team presentations will showcase her talents. Howie ( Markuz Rodriguez, solid, underplayed), the new gay boy in school, wants to form a GSA, Gay-Straight Alliance. Solomon (Kevin Koppman-Gue, funny in his seriousness), the brainy, nerdy, alligator-logo shirt-wearer, wants to get his articles about the sex scandal published. In the end, in some way, they all get what they want.
But first, these misfits come together for a wild interpretive performance, after they share their secrets and their dreams — about Mary Warren, the weak-willed witch- exposer in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” in Diwata’s case; for Howie , it’s a fantasy about a young, gay Abraham Lincoln.
The play is amusing, enjoyable, a little off-the-wall, fun and informative, an intriguing reflection of the youthful zeitgeist, the plight of the high school outcast, the search for identity and developing an ability to communicate. The adult perspective is provided by a rule-following teacher and a probing public radio reporter (both well played by Wendy Waddell).
There are a few unconvincing moments: What 18 year-old wouldn’t know what ROFL means, for one thing? (Rolling on the Floor Laughing, for you non chat-roomers, Facebookies or tweeters). Structurally, the Speech and Debate meeting is far more effective than the GSA gathering, which is followed by an awkward (not in a good sense) scene between the two boys.
But the Diversionary Theatre production is delightful, under the assured direction of Jason Southerland (the artistic director of Next Theatre in Chicago , whose prior work at Diversionary was co-direction of the delectable MOXIE/Diversionary musical , ” Pulp!”). The spare set (Ted Crittenden) works very well, offering multiple playing spaces: a classroom and the kids’ bedrooms. The projections are effective, each of the 12 scenes announced by a description of a Speech and Debate category: “Extemporaneous Commentary,” “Declamation,” Group Interpretation,” etc.
The play is young and hip, a sometimes startling, if accurate, consideration of high school outcasts and the effects of the internet’s unique brand of communication. Take a trip back to high school (if you dare); you’re sure to have a few (uncomfortable?) laughs.
THE LOCATION: Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd. , Hillcrest. ( 619) 619-220-0097 ; www.diversionary.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $25-$33; Wednesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 2 & 7 p.m. Special added performance on Monday, April 5 at 7:30 p.m. ; through April 11
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
THE SHOW: “ Alive and Well , ” a co-world premiere, at the Old Globe
“Alive and Well ,” alas, is neither. A flawed play in a flawed production.
It seems that the primary interest of playwright Kenny Finkle was trying his hand at a romantic romp in the mold of “It Happened One Night” or ”My Man Godfrey,” with their hard-boiled dolls doing battle with a diametrically opposed male; the quippy conflict leads inexorably to love. The Civil War part just appears to provide an untried setting, for no deeply discernible reason.
Zachariah (James Knight, charming and likable) is a Civil War re-enactor, a coarse, rugged kind of guy who chews loudly, with his mouth open (that’s how we first see him). Zack’s ( mis )match is Carla (Kelly McAndrew ), a Yankee city-girl (though, except for her Blackberry, there’s absolutely no way to know that. McAndrew’s look screams Girl Next Door – down to the ponytail).
Why a man with machismo, ensconced in a macho Southern culture, would be a big old crybaby is beyond credulity. But it’s only the first of many cognitive-emotional stretches in the piece.
Carla’s supposed to be a feminist – but she loves James Bond movies. And she’s a journalist who says she’s not good at asking questions, and admits that she hasn’t done any prep for this assignment. Oh, and while we’re talking realism, what freelancer gets $5000 sight-unseen for a magazine piece, with $2500 provided up-front?
So, here’s the setup: Carla’s an out-of-work writer who’s been hired to spend a week tracking down an elusive Lonesome Soldier, the oldest living Civil War veteran, and Zachariah is to be her guide. Wait a minute! Wasn’t the Civil War over in 1865? Since the play is set in the present, that would make this Confederate 165 years old. Didn’t that cross Carla’s mind? Or is she too self-absorbed (yes!) to do the math?
Of course, they get off to a bad start. On first sight, she criticizes his eating habits; very refined manners on her part. She is, overall, an annoyingly persnickety type who can never be wrong – about anything. She looks down on him and his country ways. Then his compass goes kerflooey (can that really happen?) and they get lost and stranded in a storm. Conveniently, they’ve both just been dumped by their mates. But even at the end, there’s little real chemistry or connection between them.
Perhaps they’re supposed to be emblematic of the North/South divide. They’re not. He’s way too hypersensitive and weepy, and she’s too… unbelievable (except when she gets drunk on his moonshine; that’s McAndrew’s finest and most credible moment, by far). There are many character inconsistencies. He’s a cab driver (“I do re-enactments to feel alive”), who keeps a journal and uses words like “snarky” and “ironical,” but has no idea who Georgia O’Keefe is. And she never heard of “hardtack.”
For the journey, she wants to use her GPS and stay in hotels that have WiFi . He’s all for roughing it, so she can get a real feel for this “sacred” land, and for the significance of the surrender at Appomattox, where they’re headed (about 100 miles away). But when they get there and view the little courthouse, there’s no payoff. We aren’t given enough to make us understand why he’s so impassioned by this place, and why she becomes so enamored of his passion. Speaking of passion, there’s no romantic payoff. It’s fine, and cute, that she keeps interrupting his attempts to kiss her, but can’t they finally get the job done at the end, so we get a little closure, too?
Even the couple’s comeback contest (of the “You’re so stupid…” variety) is uninspired, and features nothing but old, worn “ rankouts .” This ‘Anything You Can Do’ competition scene might’ve been a lot more imaginative if Finkle had actually come up with his own fresh, new comebacks.
There are problems with the direction as well. Jeremy Dobrish doesn’t make the greatest use of the arena stage. It seemed like every time Zack was slobbering over food, it was directed at just one side of the house. Same side as when he helpfully removes Carla’s clothes, when she’s too drunk to do it herself. Fortunately, we were seated on that side. But I think other theatergoers missed some of the good stuff. And how about that rifle? How’d it appear at the end, when it didn’t seem to be with them in the cabin after the storm?
The production values, as always at the Globe, are excellent. Robin Sanford Roberts ’ set is attractive, layers of sandstone (isn’t that more of a Southwest look, with flat mesas rather than rolling hills?), representing both a relief map and a landscape, nicely lit by Michael Gottlieb. The costumes (Shelly Williams) seem authentic, but McAndrews ’ outfit doesn’t do her any favors.
I’m all for theater collaborations – this is a co-world premiere with Virginia Stage Company in Norfolk . But the play isn’t sufficiently dramaturged or fleshed-out, and it isn’t ready for primetime at a world-class theater. This would be misstep Number Four for the Globe in less than a year, from “The First Wives Club” to “Sammy,” and more recently, “Boeing-Boeing” and now, “Alive and Well.” It’s becoming increasingly evident that our oldest and most venerated theater needs a more active literary management team or play selection committee or a full-time artistic director. Or all three. A similar point, a call for artistic vision at our high-profile SoCal theaters, was recently made in the Los Angeles Times. The time has come.
THE LOCATION: The Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre at the Old Globe, Balboa Park . ( 619) 234-5623 ; www.theoldglobe.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $29-$62. Tuesday-Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., Saturday-Sunday at 2 p.m., through April 25
NEWS AND VIEWS
… Back to the Bard: The fifth annual Student Shakespeare Festival, organized by the San Diego Shakespeare Society, is a free, one-day outdoor festival that will showcase the talents of more than 500 local students as they perform 10-minute scenes from the Bard’s timeless plays. Among the dozens of presentations, you might see Shakespeare done with puppets, in American Sign Language, or danced to Latin jazz. It all begins at 12:30 on April 24, with a parade of costumed performers starting at the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park . Scenes will be presented on several stages along the Prado. www.sandiegoshakespearesociety.org
… Harvey Rules: “Dear Harvey,” the moving, inspiring play about Harvey Milk that premiered last year at Diversionary Theatre and at SDSU, will be presented in a concert reading with professional actors at the Kennedy Center in Washington , D.C. , during the American College Theatre Festival, when 18,000 students from colleges and universities nationwide come together. Playwright Patricia Loughrey and composer Thomas Hodges have received fellowships to attend the weeklong national Festival, including the reading on April 16. “Dear Harvey,” which has been endorsed by The Harvey Milk Foundation, will be read, in part, at the Foundation’s May 12 gala at the California Museum in Sacramento . Additional productions are scheduled in Bakersfield and Los Angeles this year. A reading will be presented at Diversionary Theatre in May, in commemoration of California ’s first “Harvey Milk Day,” May 22. The play is available for productions or readings, royalty-free, during the week of Harvey ’s birthday: May 17-24. firstname.lastname@example.org
… Bunny Buds: The Moonlight Cultural Foundation is hosting the New York-based youth company Theatreworks /USA and its touring production of “Max and Ruby,” a new musical based on the books and animated TV show about animal sibs. Max is a rambunctious and determined 3-year-old bunny while his big sister, Ruby, age 7, is a goal-oriented , sometimes restrictive rabbit. The uplifting stories show Max and Ruby exercising respect in resolving their conflicts. The new show’s music and lyrics were created by Carol Hall (“ Sesame Street ,” Free to Be … You and Me,” and the Broadway musical, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas ”). The book is by Glen Berger (Off Broadway’s “Underneath the Lintel”). The 60-minute musical premiered Off Broadway in December 2007 and starred Vista ’s Kelly Felthous as Ruby. Saturday, April 24 at 5 p.m. at Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista . Tickets are $5. (760) 724-2110; www.vistixonline.com
MUSIC AND DANCE
… Mixed Media: Art of Élan is presenting the world premiere of “ ALICE : Re-Imagining Wonderland through Music, Dance and Spoken Word,” a work for chamber ensemble and contemporary dance. A collaboration of Art of Élan, a young chamber music organization, and the Colette Harding Contemporary Dance Company, the piece features new music written by the Philadelphia-based young composer Joe Hallman. The dance element is a mix of classic and contemporary choreography, enhanced by Asian and European influences. The new work is aiming to shed new light on the Lewis Carroll story , to reveal the tale of a girl coming into maturity through a journey that blends reality and fantasy. April 16 at 8 p.m. and April 18 at 2 p.m., at Sherwood Auditorium in the Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla . Tickets are at (619) 692-2081l www.artofelan.org
… Earth-Dance: Stella Nova Dance Company premieres “ Prajna Within,” a journey through the human psyche and its relation to Mother Earth. Taking the audience on a trip into the complexity of the human mind, the piece captures the human condition and the importance of emotional well-being. Seventeen dancers from the Stella Nova youth company portray the connection between thoughts and emotions. In commemoration of Earth Day, info from local green businesses will be on display in the lobby. April 23 at 8 p.m. and April 24 at 2 and 8 p.m., in the Garfield Theatre of the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla . (858) 362-1348; tickets.lfjcc.org.
… City Slick: “Urban Moves” features world premiere works from four local dance companies: The PGK Project, Eveoke Dance Theatre, somebodies dance theater and Jennifer Curry with dancers of The California Ballet. At the Golden Hill Youth Center , 2220 Broadway. www.thepgkproject.com
… Studio Moves: Malashock Dance once again invites the community to a work-in-progress studio series. Watch choreographer John Malashock as he and his company create their next dance piece, “Floating World,” a multimedia collaboration with filmmaker/video artist Tara Knight, produced in collaboration with ‘Dreams and Diversions,’ the San Diego Museum of Art’s exhibition of Japanese Woodblock Prints. “On the Spot,” April 10-11 and “On the Way,” May 15-16, at Dance Place San Diego at NTC. Tickets are at http://malashockdance.org
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
v “Sweeney Todd” – a glorious production of Sondheim’s goriest (and most gorgeous) musical
Cygnet Theatre, extended through 5/9
v “Speech and Debate” – hip, young, and very well done
Diversionary Theatre, through 4/11
v “An American Duet” – two provocative plays in repertory, both excellently executed
ion theatre, through 4/17
Read the Review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2010-03-24/things-to-do/theater-things-to-do/american-duet-boeing-boeing-plus-more-theater-reviews-news
v “The Pirates of Penzance ” – amusingly overblown and over-the-top, with over-the-moon singing
The Welk Resorts Theatre, through 5/2
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer,’ and the name of the play of interest, in the SDNN Search box.