By Pat Launer
While the Monty guys are busy undressin ’
Josephine gets a Piano Lesson.
TAKIN ’ OFF … BY TAKIN ’ IT OFF
THE SHOW: The Full Monty, the regional theater premiere of the Tony Award-nominated musical version of the 1997 sleeper film, which debuted at the Old Globe in 2000 and went directly to Broadway, where it ran for two years (770 performances). Music and lyrics by David Yazbek ; book by 4-time Tony winner Terrence McNally. The show was nominated for ten Tony Awards, but timing is everything; that was the year of The Producers, which took home every honor.
THE BACKSTORY: The founders/executive directors/producers of the San Diego Musical Theatre are Gary and Erin Lewis, San Diego natives and long-time business-owners, with a whole lotta volunteer and vicarious experience in the theater. Their daughter is musical theater performer Jill Lewis (most recently seen in The Fantasticks at North Coast Rep in 2004, and a frequent performer at the Welk ) who happens to be married to Robert Townsend (leading roles in 2005 in Beauty and the Beast at Moonlight and Miss Saigon at Starlight, among many other local productions). They’re both currently in the national tour of Camelot, and they surprised the Lewises Senior by flying in for the Monty opening.
Behind the scenes, there were a couple of snags. The costumes, at first rented from another company, turned out to be unusable. So costume ace Jeanne Reith had just four days to build the whole show – which not only came out great, but will now be available for rental by other theater companies.
THE STORY: The movie was set in the Yorkshire steel-mill city of Sheffield , England . The musical moved the action to an American steel-town, Buffalo , NY . The accents and locales have changed, but the plot remains the same. The mill workers have been laid off and they feel like “Scrap” (the opening number), discouraged and disenfranchised. When a Chippendale act comes through town and drives the women wild, six cash-strapped guys decide to take matters into their own hands. They mount their own strip act; to regain their money, manhood and self-respect, they drop their fears, their nerves and their drawers. The fell-good story is not all fluff; it’s about friendship and what it means to be a man; fatherhood and taking responsibility. And it also takes jabs at our image-obsessed society, and while it doesn’t do much for women, it celebrates the physical fluctuations of men.
THE PRODUCTION: This new company spared no expense, and went first-class all the way. They brought in a highly regarded L.A. director, Nick DeGruccio (winner of L.A. Ovation Awards for his Direction of a Play and a Musical), and L.A. choreographer Lee Martino, who did glorious work on the Patté Award-winning production of Children of Eden at Moonlight in 2003, as well as Moonlight’s Into the Woods and Cabaret; she’s also choreographed Monty before, and she wisely hews close to the Jerry Mitchell original. The wonderful sets were rented from the Gateway Playhouse in Bellport, Long Island , and they glided effortlessly and unobtrusively on and off the Birch North Park Theatre stage. Jeanne Reith ’s costumes were perfect, mostly mimicking the original production, but adding some color and spice to the gals’ outfits. The musical director/conductor is the multi-talented Don LeMaster , who’s assembled a marvelous orchestra of 12. They got off to a slightly shaky start with the Overture on opening night, but then they blew the place away, displaying a whole lotta brass (in both senses of the term).
THE PLAYERS: The cast is uniformly terrific, all triple-threats who create credible characters, sing like the dickens and dance up a storm. New York-based Al lan Snyder is charming and irresistible as the boyishly irresponsible Jerry Lukowski , who dreams up the whole plan, so he can keep seeing his precocious 12 year-old son, played by that deliciously real 11 year-old stage vet, Ari Lerner. John Massey, Jr., has played the role of big, sad Dave Bukatinsky before, and he really has a handle on it – with all its humor and poignance . Reggie Burrell is fine as “Horse”; he captures the character’s “Big Black Man” angst, but he doesn’t steal the show like the role’s originator, the killer dancer Andre de Shields.
Andy Collins, Kevin McMahon and David Cooper do a great job as the rest of the guys, Craig Cady is a convincing stripper, and Priscilla Al len is a hoot as the raunchy pianist. Amy Biedel, looking incredibly sexy in skin-tight jeans, is super as Dave’s enthusiastic, frustrated and understanding wife. The juxtaposition of her waiflike svelte and his rotund paunch makes quite a striking visual image. The ensemble brings added vivacity to the production, which is well lit by Jennifer Edwards (those blinding last-minute lights make the final ‘Full Monty’ a fig-leaf of the imagination). The sound (Steve Stopper) was tricky on opening night, inconsistent and unpredictable. But overall, this was an A+ presentation. Huge kudos to the Lewis clan, and to the whole company. They deserve a big welcome – and an equally sizable audience. Catch this heart-warming and message-containing musical while you can!
THE LOCATION: San Diego Musical Theatre at the Birch North Park Theatre, through May 13; www.sdmt.org
FYI : The prodigious Master Plan for San Diego Musical Theatre is to produce shows year-round, five per annum. The Lewises ’ ultimate goal is to build a performing arts center in coastal North County , where they can start a youth theater program and make the space available to other theater companies. For now, here’s the rest of their first season: Guys and Dolls (1/11-1/20/08), Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (4/4-4/13/08) and Dreamgirls (6/20-6/29/08). www.sdmt.org
VIVE LE REHEARSAL!
THE SHOW: Josephine Tonight!, the musical story of the early life of Josephine Baker, with book and lyrics by Sherman Yellen , music by the late composer Wally Harper. The only production of the show so far took place last year in Chicago . For this West coast Common Ground premiere, celebrating the centennial of Baker’s birth, Yellen flew out from Chicago on opening night.
THE BACKSTORY: Sometimes it’s better to postpone an opening. The show was at least days, maybe more, from readiness on the night the critics were invited. We were later informed that this had been an invited dress (it certainly looked and felt like a rehearsal), and we were welcomed back, when the cast was more comfortable with the work and the photographic projections of the real Baker were present and operative. Al as, this review must rely on the performance seen.
JOSEPHINE’S STORY: Josephine Baker (née Freda McDonald) was an African American icon: an indomitable spirit, a unique talent and a bona fide ground-breaker who led an amazing, storybook life.
Starting out in St. Louis as a street performer, she went from the Jim Crow South to the black vaudeville circuit (at age 15), to New York during the Harlem Renaissance, and finally to Paris, where she became an instant success, rousingly applauded for her near-nude erotic dances. In one legendary performance, she wore only high heels and a skirt made of bananas. She was often accompanied by her pet cheetah, Chiquita (who frequently escaped into the orchestra pit, terrorizing the musicians).
Josephine, dubbed “Black Venus”, “Black Pearl”, and “Creole Goddess,” ultimately became the most successful American entertainer in France , where there were no color barriers. In the 1930s, she appeared in several films, and she inspired creative artists like Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Langston Hughes. During WWII, she participated in the French underground, for which she was awarded the Croix de Guerre. She was a major supporter of the American Civil Rights movement, and refused to perform for segregated U.S. audiences; her insistence helped integrate shows in Las Vegas . In 1963, she stood beside Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington ; she was the only woman to speak at the rally. Protesting racism in her own style (an early stillborn delivery had precipitated an emergency hysterectomy), she adopted 12 multi-ethnic orphans, her “Rainbow Tribe,” as she called them, who came from backgrounds as diverse as Finnish, Korean, Japanese, French, Colombian, Canadian, Venezuelan and Moroccan. When she died in 1975, at age 69, from a cerebral hemorrhage, she became the first woman to receive French military honors at her funeral. Paris came to a standstill on that day, as 20,000 fans crowded the streets to watch the procession. She was buried in Monaco . The Place Josephine Baker in the Montparnasse Quarter of Paris was named in her honor, as was the restaurant Chez Josephine, on Theatre Row in New York .
THE MUSICAL’S STORY: The show’s creators chose to focus only on Josephine’s life from age 15-20, demonstrating how she developed her strong sense of self and her professional persona. But some of the later years are much more interesting, and this rags-to-riches Cinderella story bears many similarities to the life of Gypsy Rose Lee, immortalized in the musically brilliant Gypsy. Josephine’s tale is told from the perspective of her mother, Carrie McDonald, but she’s no Mama Rose. She’s a put-upon laundress who supports her high-spirited, iconoclastic daughter in most of her out-of-the-box, sometimes off-the-wall decisions. One of the more fascinating characters (though underdeveloped in this production) is Big Bertha Smith, the centerpiece of a vaudeville show who takes Josephine under her wing. Then there are the predictable ‘regulars’ in this sort of tale: the gossiping churchgoers, condescending white woman and adoring husband who’s left behind.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The production values are minimal and obviously low-budget. The costumes (Joan Hanselman -Wong) are fine for the poor times, but fail to deliver for the big costume numbers; Josephine was known for her outrageous outfits, bespangled with sequins and feathers. The sound was consistently problematic on opening night.
The show itself has many problems; there are two dozen songs, ranging from ragtime to gospel to vaudeville comic numbers to belt-‘ em -out blues. Not all of them forward the action, and there are just too many of them. Though they’re sprightly and occasionally comic or dramatic, none (except Bertha’s blues) is a show stopper, and none remains in memory. Under the direction of Floyd Gaffney and the choreography of Araceli Carrera , the cast is extremely uneven – both vocally and physically (some of those dancers just can’t dance. Same goes for the singers). At the center, Karole Foreman has all the gamine charm, slender angularity and rubber-legged moves of the real Josephine (would that she were given more varied choreography). She’s most endearing in the feisty youthful scenes, when she’s gangly but dogged and determined. We see the beginnings of who she became, but some of the later stories of Josephine’s life were so incredible and outrageous, they would have made a much more interesting show. Candace Ludlow Trotter does a tremendous turn as Big Bertha, struttin ’ her big-bottomed stuff and wailin ’ out “Bertha’s Blues.” Ida Rhem provides solid ballast as Josephine’s mother, our sometime narrator. The rest of the leads have moments: Rhys Green and Chirell Warren in their goofy vaudeville number, “Slap Happy Joneses,” Patricia Elmore Costa as an array of supercilious white women; John DeCarlo as Josephine’s oh-so-French lover/promoter (though he shouldn’t be asked to sing). The theater schedule being what it is , it’s unlikely I’ll get to see the show again. But you may want to take a chance on it, if only to get a sense of the beginnings of this pioneering African American powerhouse.
THE LOCATION: Common Ground Theatre at the Lyceum, through May 20
ON THE ROAD
THE SHOW: The Grapes of Wrath , the 1988 Frank Galati adaptation of Nobel Prize-winner John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1939 novel. At SDSU, it was the last production directed by Nick Reid, before his retirement as director of the School of Theatre , Television and Film (formerly the Theatre Dept.). Nick has spent 34 years at State, 24 as chair and 10 as Staff , primarily “painting scenery,” as he recalled at his lovely farewell party last week. He calculated that over the years, he’s designed 41 shows, directed 11, taught 120 classes and drunk 25,000 Diet Pepsis.
The gentle, soft-spoken designer worked at theaters around the County, including the Old Globe and the San Diego Rep. He made his directorial mark at SDSU with huge productions, some of the Department’s largest: The Kentucky Cycle, Angels in America (Parts I and II) and as his swansong, The Grapes of Wrath. A capable cast of 23 inhabited some 46 characters in this elaborate production, which included three marvelous, mega-talented, era-establishing onstage musicians from the 7th Day Buskers (winners of the 2004 San Diego Music Award for Best New Band, who performed in the Lambs Players Theatre production of Cotton Patch Gospel): Shawn Rohlf , who composed many of the numbers, played guitar, banjo, mandolin, harmonica, hawharp and vocals; Dan Broder was on guitar, mandolin, bowed psaltry and vocals; and Beth Mosko , a lean, mean fiddler/vocalist looked like she just stepped out of a Dorothea Lange photograph.
THE STORY/THE PLAYERS: The ensemble gave their all, though a few rushed or mumbled their words. But they completely conveyed the anguish of the Dust Bowl madness: the dispossession, the migrant farmer exodus from the Dust and the Depression; the hostile work environment encountered in California ; the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, the powerful and powerless.
Standout performances included Nick McElroy as passionate but plainspeaking Tom Joad ; Brandon Joel Maier (so effective in SDSU musicals) as the disenchanted preacher Jim Casey; Thomas Hodges, recent winner of the Young Playwrights contest, in an inspired, garbled-speech portrayal of dull-witted Noah; James Paraiso as the feisty Grandpa; and Christa Pozzi as officious, rule-establishing Jessie Bullitt. Kymm Hansen and Matt Warburton tried to convey all the suffering and distress of Ma and Pa Joad , but it’s hard for actors so young to plumb the depth of that kind of despair.
THE PRODUCTION: The set (created by Sean Fanning, a 2nd year MFA student who recently designed The Matchmaker at Cygnet Theatre) was a changeable rustic-wood array of platforms and billboards, sand and water, attractively lit (by Maureen Hanratty ) in golden, dusty or sepia tones. The costumes aptly conveyed the time period; the choreography (Margaret Larlham ) and stage combat (Martin Katz) worked quite well. The sound was variable, but the energy and sentiment were there; it was clear that these students had become well versed in the Dust Bowl era and the plight of migrant workers which, sadly, hasn’t progressed very far.
AND MORE: At the party and the production, I ran into Rob Morgan, the charming and talented scenic designer to whom I gave a Patté Award in 1998, when he was still a student at SDSU, for his jaw- dropping design of The Kentucky Cycle (directed by Nick Reid), which went on to be selected to the U.S. Schools of Scenography Exhibit at the 1999 Prague Design Quadrennial. And, coming full circle, his recent design for A Moon for the Misbegotten at A.C.T . in San Francisco was chosen as the U.S. selection for the Prague Quadrennial of 2007. Rob has done quite well for himself since he left San Diego; he spent three years as resident designer at the Denver Center Theatre Company, and now, based in San Francisco, he teaches at Berkeley and has designed all over the country, from the Magic Theatre in SF to the Al liance in Atlanta. He came to San Diego twice last week in honor of Nick, and made a stirring, touching, funny speech about him at the party. Lovely to reconnect with him again, and to see how successful he’s become – and how humble he’s remained.
AUGUST, IN BRIEF….
The Piano Lesson was the final presentation in the series of five outstanding readings of August Wilson plays, co-produced by the San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre and Cygnet Theatre. This one was as excellent as the rest, and for those who find Two Trains Running (currently at the Old Globe) a tad too rambling and amorphous, this play, Wilson ’s second Pulitzer Prize winner, has a clear and uncluttered narrative arc, with plenty of the playwright’s signature supernatural elements. Set in Wilson ’s native Pittsburgh Hill District, against the backdrop of the Great Depression, the play focuses on the continuing struggle between North and South, city and rural life, faith and superstition. It all comes to a head in the tale of two siblings (she living in the North, he going back to claim land in the South), who argue over a family heirloom, a piano crafted by their enslaved grandfather, carved with images of their African ancestors. The outstanding cast includes Mark Christopher Lawrence as the impulsive and ambitious Boy Willie; Monique Gaffney, strong-willed and resolute as his sister Bernice; TJ Johnson and Ernie McCray as their two disparate uncles, one sensible and law-abiding, the other, alcoholic and peripatetic; Laurence Brown as Willie Boy’s credulous sidekick; Rhys Green , full of religious hellfire and heartfelt emotion as the preacher; Kaja Dunn as Grace, an impatient nighttime pickup; and making her third appearance in the readings, the very poised and credible fifth grader, Madeline Hornbuckle . With a resonant voice, Wilson Adam Schooley does a nice job with the narration. Delicia Turner Sonnenberg has directed this superb reading of a historically significant drama.
**You have two more chances to see this excellent piece of work: Tuesday, May 15 at 7:30pm, and during the August Wilson Festival, when all five of this year’s splendid readings will be reprised in one week, at Cygnet Theatre. June 6-10. Info at www.cygnettheatre.com
NEWS AND VIEWS…
… PUT YOUR 2¢ in… Add a comment to my online reviews at kpbs.org.
… New Era for Young Playwrights… Big changes afoot at the Playwrights Project. After 22 years, the incomparable, inspiring, dynamic founding artistic director, Deborah Salzer, is stepping down from her position; she’ll serve as Artistic Mentor, and will work part-time on special projects. Now, the search is on for a full-time artistic director, a visionary who’ll take up the reins in August 2007. A very tough act to follow. For info, visit www.playwrightsproject.org .
… Politics, values, patriotism, romance and comedy collide in Neil Simon’s Vietnam-era love triangle, The Star Spangled Girl, to be presented as a staged reading at Carlsbad Playreaders. The cast, directed by Bill Maass , features Amanda Sitton (triumphant in New Village Art’s Sailor’s Song, Crimes of the Heart and The Three Sisters, as well as North Coast Rep’s Collected Stories); Adam Brick (recently seen in New Village Arts’ Three Sisters); and Justin Snavely (recent grad of UCSD’s Theatre Dept., last seen as the stalker in Carlsbad Playreaders’ Boy Gets Girl and currently assistant directing the NVA production of True West). Monday, May 21, 7:30pm at the Dove Library.
Mark your calendar and Be Prepared!! Coming to Playreaders this fall: Neil LaBute’s nasty little drama, The Shape of Things, about art, psychopathology, intimacy and manipulation. 9/17/07
…… Sushi goes North … The Myth Project II, a provocative dancetheatre piece, moves to Encinitas for its final weekend, taking a site-specific journey through Oakcrest Park this Saturday and Sunday. Wear comfortable shoes.
.. A replanted garden… Ruff Yeager ’s latest play, El Jardin Secreto , a bilingual adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved classic, “The Secret Garden,” was first presented as a Vox Nova reading last November. Now it gets a fully staged production, at Castle Park High School in Chula Vista , where the Drama Dept. features 20 actors and giant tree puppets created by Icarus Puppet Theatre. May 11, 17 & 18 at 7pm.
… Jersey Boys update: The second national touring company is blowing the roof off San Francisco ’s Curran Theatre . Al ready considered one of the hottest shows ever to play SF, the new touring cast features San Diego ’s own Steve Gouveia as Nick Massi , one of the original Four Seasons. Steve assayed several small roles (though he stepped in as Nick several times), and played his guitar like crazy on Broadway, for more than 600 performances. He is amazed by how much he loves this new cast, which moves on to Chicago after San Francisco . But then Steve transfers to another touring cast in mid-July, which means there’ll be four JB tours, and Steve will be performing back in his hometown, at the Civic Theatre, in October (10/17-11/11/07). That’ll be a sweet return.
… The Theater Awards season has begun… The New York Drama Critics’ Circle named The Coast of Utopia, directed by the Old Globe’s beloved artistic director, Jack O’Brien, as the Best Play of the 2006-2007 season . And, as the Globe and San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre continue their focus on the plays of August Wilson (Two Trains Running and The Piano Lesson, respectively), the great playwright’s final work, Radio Golf, was named Best American Play, and the Signature Theatre Company’s production of Two Trains Running was lauded as Best Revival. Meanwhile, the Lucille Lortel Awards, which honor Off Broadway productions, nominated Two Trains for three awards; the show snagged two wins: Outstanding Revival and Outstanding Featured Actor (Arthur French).
The Tony Award noms are up next… coming next Tuesday. The televised Tonys are on June 10. Set your TiVo now.
… And speaking of New York theater, don’t miss the former NY Times theater critic, Frank Rich, now the cultural/political conscience of the country, who writes incisive Op-Ed pieces in the Times every week; they’re my first Times stop on Sundays (I even get his column online on Saturday night!). See Rich in person, in the Price Center Ballroom, brought to us by ArtPower ! at UCSD; he’s scheduled to discuss the collusion between mainstream media and the White House following the 9/11 attacks. But late-breaking news could force him to say something surprising and unexpected. Monday, May 14 at 8pm. www.artpower.ucsd.edu.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
The Full Monty – terrific inaugural production by a new local musical theater company; first class all the way. Wonderful cast and a good-sized live orchestra. Great fun all around!
The New San Diego Musical Theatre, at the Birch North Park Theatre, through May 13
Two Trains Running – a beautifully calibrated ensemble, maximizing the musicality of the text
Old Globe Theatre, through May 27
Desire Under the Elms – very well crafted; not quite as deep and dark as one might hope, but showing every promise of getting there soon
Cygnet Theatre, through June 3
Wit – lovely, searing production of a very intense play
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through May 13
Enchanted April – feather-light, but enchanting; and very well done
Lamb’s Players Theatre, through May 13
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
What are you doing for your Mom this weekend? Skip the flowers and surprise her with theater tix (okay, you can bring the flowers, too).
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.