KPBS AIRDATE: MARCH 25, 1998
Two clever musicals. Two historic theaters. Two auspicious events. Starlight hits paydirt at the splendid Spreckels Theatre, and the new Green Room Theatre Company brings to the magnificent Balboa Theatre the first live performance in fifty years.
This weekend, the production of “Closer Than Ever” celebrates the 74th anniversary of opening night at the historic Balboa Theatre. Built in 1924 as a movie theater and vaudeville house, the ornate, 1500-seat Balboa is a gorgeous example of Spanish Colonial Revivalism in architecture. In 1977, the San Diego City Council voted to put it on the national registry. In 1996, it was named a historic landmark.
But back in 1960, it almost became a parking lot, and in 1986, the adjacent Horton Plaza wanted to turn it into a mini-mall. That’s when musicians and performing artists formed the Balboa Theatre Foundation to fight for preservation of this important downtown monument. Now, enter the Green Room Theatre Company, dedicated to preserving our musical theater heritage and future. In honor of the Balboa’s Birthday, they’re donating their time, talent and all their revenue to “turning the Balboa around.” And they’re doing it literally, performing on the stage with their backs to the seats. The audience sits on the stage, facing out into the once-lush, now crumbling theater. It’s an inspiring tableau.
The show is “Closer Than Ever,” a smart, slick, urban revue, focused on life after forty, with all its inevitable disappointments, loves lost and found, empty nests, loneliness, and confrontations of mortality. With songs by Richard Maltby and David Shire, you’re not likely to hear more witty, clever, cynical, heart-rending lyrics in any musical anywhere. Each number tells a whole life story, and many settle in as a lump in your throat.
All the right intentions are behind this production, all the energy and good feelings any artists could muster. But none of the cast really has the pipes for this show, which requires an enormous vocal and emotional range. The women — the funny character actor/singer Paula Pierson, and the sweet-voiced Sarah Altman — fare better than the men, though the singing pianist and musical director G. Scott Lacy makes a poignant addition. Each person gets at least one knockout number, perfectly suited to his or her style. It’s the scope that’s a bit limited, as are the choreographic moves.
But this one’s definitely worth seeing. For the tours of the theater beforehand, for the chance to see this site that must be saved, to support these hard-working, good-hearted artists, and most of all, to contribute to this incredibly worthwhile preservation effort. Don’t miss the opportunity to help make a community dream come true.
And don’t miss the chance to see a fairy tale cum musical, the hilariously vaudeville “Once Upon a Mattress,” now showing at another historic site, the Spreckels Theatre. For once in many moons, Starlight has struck gold. They’ve gotten everything wonderfully right in this deliciously revisionist take on The Princess and the Pea. It’s not a thought-provoking tear-jerker like “Closer Than Ever”; it’s pure entertainment and damn good fun.
The production is anchored by talented locals, including Dan Regas, who makes a stupendous directing debut, and, as the prince and princess, Scott Viets and Mylinda Hull, both extremely vocally and physically agile. Hull is a hoot as Winnifred the Woebegone; her look, sound and physical comedy are reminiscent of Carol Burnett, whose career was launched by this role, but she’s got an explosive style all her own. The cast is uniformly excellent; Leigh Scarritt and Tim Irving make an outrageous King and Queen; Shawn Ingram, Saif Eddin, Andy Collins and James Wigdahl are outstanding –and spectacularly costumed by Bryan Schmidtberger. The band is best at its brassiest, the singing and dancing are effervescent. As musicals go, it’s a fairy tale evening. Everyone involved in this production should live happily ever after.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.