By Pat Launer
Two dreamers—one Biblical, one political
Whose effects on society turned out to be critical.
NOT SO MANY COLORS…
THE SHOW: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat , the 1968 musical which was the second collaboration between composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice (the first was The Likes of Us, a musical written in 1965, which wasn’t staged until 2005)
THE BACKSTORY: The show began as a 15-minute pop cantata performed by/for the students of the Colet Court School in London , commissioned for their annual spring concert. The piece kept growing in size and stature until, riding on the coattails of the creators’ second rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, it finally made it to the London stage, in 1972. It didn’t premiere on Broadway until 1982, where the title role was played by Bill Hutton, and subsequently, Andy Gibb and David Cassidy. Sam Harris came through San Diego on the most recent national tour, in 1995. Following the success of the BBC/Lloyd Webber interactive reality TV talent show, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?,” which documented the search for the lead in the 2006 revival of The Sound of Music, a new “American Idol”-like series, called “Any Dream Will Do” (after the song of the same name in the show) will select the title character for the July 2007 opening of a new revival of Joseph…. Dreamcoat .
THE STORY: Based on the Biblical tale of Joseph, his 12 brothers and his coat of many colors, from the book of Genesis, the show is sung through, with no dialogue, framed as a story about a dreamer, told by a Narrator to other potential dreamers.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Lamb’s Players Theatre first produced the musical in 1989, and I’ve lost count of the number of subsequent incarnations. But it’s always been a cash-cow for the theater. Not surprising, since it fits snugly into the company’s mission, it spotlights the young and upcoming talent of the troupe, and it is one of the most dependably profitable titles in musical theater history, having been mounted by some 20,000 schools and amateur theater companies alone. So, despite the fact that in many ways, this is an unsatisfying production, it’s just what the audience came for – sheer, unadulterated entertainment. And on opening night, they duly leapt to their feet at the conclusion. But there was less to applaud than usual. Perhaps it was just opening night jitters, or a not-quite-fully-ready show, or that annoying startup with the supposed ‘technical difficulties,’ but everything felt forced. The smiles, the energy, the dancing, even the voice of the normally flawless soprano, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, who’s reprising her recurring Narrator. She sounded hoarse and strained in reaching for those absurd highs in the very rangey vocal role.
At the center is Spencer Moses, a talented alumnus of the SDSU MFA program in musical theater, engaging but not riveting. His Joseph is a kind of goofy naïf with a pleasant, if not rafter-rattling, voice, especially good with the ballads. He has three instead of 12 brothers in this production (Steve Limones , Jon Lorenz, Lance Smith), though director Robert Smyth deals with that in inventive ways. The Wives (Season Duffy, Colleen Kollar and Joy Yandell, making a very welcome return to the stage after time off for mothering) are mostly there for window dressing and backup singing. The choreography is by Collar, but the standout dancers are Smith and Yandell, with Keith Jefferson, playing father Jacob and others, reprising his jazz/hip turn from American Rhythm. The versatile band (Patrick Marion, Rik Ogden, Dave Rumley, Oliver Shirley) does a fine job with G. Scott Lacy’s updated musical direction, but the sound is a problem throughout, and all the performers, despite being miked , seem to be struggling to sing above the accompaniment, which makes most of the (sometimes clever, sometimes lame) lyrics unintelligible, a serious problem when the songs have to tell the whole story.
This is a newly designed production, with a glitzy, nightclubby set (Mike Buckley) that sports a multi-hued floor, metallic-and-neon palm trees and (inexplicable) steel girders framing the onstage band. The ever-changing costumes (designed by Patté Award-winning UCSD MFA alum Michelle Hunt), have to keep up with the frenetic musical pastiche, comprising parodies of French ballads (“Those Canaan Days”), Elvis-style R & R (“Song of the King”), country Western (“One More Angel in Heaven”) and disco-turned-pseudo-hip hop (“Go, Go, Go Joseph”). Each song/scene is color coordinated, with aptly wacky and imaginative riffs on, say, black and white geometrics. The Egyptian and Elvis costumes are pretty cool; loved the girls’ pink felt camel – instead of poodle – skirts! And speaking of camels , that shaggy, life-sized one (possibly a remnant of earlier productions) is terrific. But everyone seems to be trying so hard to be likable and enthusiastic, the whole brief effort wears out its welcome (it’s a fairly long 90 minutes). Still, the show will undoubtedly pack ‘ em in. And if you’re out/up for a frothy, summer, feel-good evening of mindless, middle-brow entertainment, this coat has your name sewn into the lining.
THE LOCATION: Lamb’s Players Theatre, through July 15
LIFE AFTER DEATH
THE SHOW: Lemkin’s House, an expressionistic drama written in 2005 by French – Algerian – American playwright Catherine Filloux , which won the 2006 PeaceWriting Award from the Omni Center for Peace. Like her subject, the San Diego resident is an internationalist. In 2003, while a Fulbright Senior Specialist in playwriting in Cambodia , she began her four plays about the Khmer Rouge genocide. Lemkin’s House premiered (in the Bosnian language) in Sarajevo , Bosnia in 2005, and was read at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington , D.C. that same year. The U.S. premiere and an Off Broadway reprise came in 2006.
THE BACKSTORY: Raphael Lemkin ( 1900 – 1959 ) was a Polish – Jewish lawyer who devoted his life to the study and eradication of ‘genocide,’ a term he coined in 1943 from the root words genos ( Greek for family, tribe or race) and – cide ( Latin for killing). Ironically, it was not the persecution of his own people that caused him to fixate on mass murder (he lost 49 family members in the Holocaust); he was inspired and outraged by the Assyrian massacre in Iraq in 1933 and the Armenian genocide during World War I.
In Poland , his father was a farmer and his mother a highly intellectual woman (though she looks like a peasant in the play); she was, in fact, a painter, linguist and philosophy student with a large collection of books on literature and history. With his mother as an influence, Lemkin mastered nine languages by the age of 14, including French, Spanish, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian. He spent a good part of his life in exile in the U.S. , campaigning to make genocide an international crime. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was formally presented to the U.N. General Assembly in 1948 . In 1951 , Lemkin partially achieved his goal, after the 20th nation ratified the treaty. The U.S. was the 98th country to sign on; although our nation had signed the Genocide Treaty in 1948, it wasn’t till 50 years later, in 1988, that Congress ratified the pact — and that was only as a concession to Jews, concentration camp survivors and WWII vets angered by then-President Reagan’s controversial appearance at the German military cemetery at Bitburg in 1985.
Lemkin was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 , 1951 , 1952 , 1955 , 1956 , 1958 and 1959 , but he never received the honor. In 1959, at age 59, he suffered a fatal heart attack, while standing in a New York public relations office (in the play, he dies outside a Senator’s office). In a final twist of fate, for a man whose life was dedicated to the remembrance of millions, only seven people attended his funeral.
In 2001, on the 50th anniversary of the U.N. ratification of the Genocide Convention, Lemkin was honored by the U.N. Secretary-General as an inspiring example of moral engagement.
THE STORY: Although the play is a tribute to Lemkin , it’s primarily intended as a call to arms, however surreal, otherworldly and humorous it tries to be. We meet Lemkin at the moment of his death. From then on, he’s post-mortem, confined to some walled-in, barred-window ‘house’ (his ‘halfway house’ between the realms of the living and dead, perhaps? Or a crumbling symbol of the world having to get its metaphorical/political house in order?) where he is visited, lambasted, begged and bombarded by people past and present (including his Nazi-gassed mother). Most of the visitors are modern-day victims and perpetrators of genocide, primarily Rwandan and Bosnian, and those in positions of authority at international organizations that either ignore or accept the endless cruelty and carnage, refusing to put an end to it. “When I was alive,” Lemkin says, “I was haunted by the dead. Now that I’m dead, I’m haunted by the living.” The truth, he finally learns, is that “people could care less.” And that’s the geopolitical problem this play tries to address, in a stylized, unconventional, hopefully non-didactic form.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The director, Hénia Belalia , like the playwright, is part Algerian. After graduating from the UCSD theater program, she spent time in Spain directing a young experimental theater troupe. Clearly, she’s simpatico with the playwright, her intentions and her international inclinations. However, both play and production are muddy and confusing in their form, style and execution. The play presents Lemkin as a befuddled fuddy-duddy, though he was only 59 when he died, and he must have been a tireless powerhouse of some sort. He seems tired, a little clueless, baffled by all the goings on, no matter how endearingly he’s played by a (surprisingly hairless) Walter Ritter. The action is fragmented, episodic; people rush in, bloodied, anguished . Someone is killed; a baby is born and handed off to Lemkin before the Rwandan mother is brutally murdered (this is one of the most touching scenes in this production; another is a tender scene with a desperate Bosnian woman escaped from a “rape camp”). People emerge from the fireplace; things fall from the ceiling. It’s hard to keep track of which killers and victims are from which countries or cultures (the possibilities range from past to present, Native America up to Liberia and Darfur . The ensemble – Duane Weekly, Connie DiCrazia , Anthony Hamm, Monique Gaffney — works hard to convey the broad range of characters and accents, with quick costume changes offset by scene-stopping dead spaces (“interludes”) of music but no action. Though there is apparently some humor intended , there is little of it evident. This is a choppy and very earnest, disturbing affair overall. The herky-jerky rhythm works against the creators’ intentions; it serves to distance us and to make us spend more time decoding and disentangling than thinking about how we feel about the underlying concepts and constructs, and maybe even what we can do about the problem that can’t be legislated and won’t go away. Still, you have to admire the commitment, dedication and political zeal behind the play and the production.
THE LOCATION: 6th @ Penn Theatre, part of the Resilience of the Spirit Human Rights Festival 2007; alternating with the evening of one-acts, 100 Birds and The Last Class, through June 18
NEWS AND VIEWS…
… Let’s have a dialogue… Put your Comments online following my reviews at kpbs.org.
… Not-so-Simple Simon …. Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound is one of his deeper, more intense classics; it’s got troubled marital, parent-child and sibling relations, and a whole lot more. Come see a reading as part of the 14th annual Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival . Monday, June 11, directed by ion theatre’s Glenn Paris, featuring David Ellenstein and me as the parents of Tom Zohar and Chris Williams, with Debra Wanger as my sister and L.A. actor Jack Axelrod as my father. This is one super (if not happy) family! Check us out. One night only.
The next night, June 12, there’s a reading of Simon’s beloved comedy, The Sunshine Boys, directed by Todd Salovey and starring Jack Axelrod and his fellow L.A. actor Tom Markus. Both shows are at 7:30pm at North Coast Repertory Theatre. Come for a laugh; stay for the drama! 858-481-1055.
… TONY TIME… Don’t forget to watch the 61st annual Tony Awards this Sunday night, June 10 at 8pm on CBS. Check out the stars, the new shows…and root for our own Jack O’Brien, favored to win Best Director of a Play (Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia , which is also slated for Best Play, and other awards). There won’t be a single host, but the following will be on hand as presenters: Matthew Broderick, Harvey Fierstein , Marvin Hamlisch , Patti LuPone , Bebe Neuwirth , Donny Osmond, Bernadette Peters, Ben Vereen , Harry Connick , Jr., Claire Danes, Angela Lansbury , Robert Sean Leonard, Audra McDonald, David Hyde Pierce, Christopher Plummer, Liev Schreiber, Kevin Spacey, John Turturro , Usher, Sam Waterston, Vanessa Williams. — and the original Broadway Jersey Boys: John Lloyd Young, Christian Hoff, Daniel Reichard and J. Robert Spencer. Don’t miss it!
… Honor the REAL STARS… at the Performing Arts League’s STAR Awards event, that honors the thousands of volunteers who keep San Diego’s performing arts organizations humming. This year’s theme is “Inspiring by Example,” and nearly 1000 guests are expected to attend. Proceeds benefit the League, the region’s only umbrella organization dedicated to promoting and advancing San Diego ’s broad and diverse community of performing arts. The event in Tuesday, June 12, 6-9pm at the San Diego Marriott. Be there! For tix , go to sandiegoperforms.com
… Local Playwright Update: Matt Thompson premieres his latest one-act, Apemantus , in which a stranger opens the eyes of a man who is afraid of change. Sunday, June 10. 7pm at the Broadway Theatre in Vista . And George Soete is having his newest work, Nest, presented as a staged reading at Twiggs Coffeehouse on Park Boulevard , June 10, 2pm. A full production, presented by Inner Mission Productions, also directed by Carla Nell, will be staged on July 1, 7 & 8 at the Sunset Temple Grand Hall on University Ave. (behind Claire de Lune coffeehouse). George describes it as “a comedy about an extreme makeover” of a young couple. www.innermissionproductions.org
.. Accessible Opera… In its ongoing effort to make opera as accessible as possible, the San Diego Opera’s Education and Outreach department served some 89,000 people during the 2007 season, 63,000 of whom were students in the San Diego/Baja California region. The programs include “Student Night at the Opera,” the San Diego Opera Ensemble Tour and the creative/performance programs, “Opera For Kids… By Kids” and “Words and Music.” Bravo!
…Chekhov as Tonic .. Tonic Theatre Productions follows its successful production of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf with an evening of Chekhov’s beloved one-acts. Dubbed Flies in the Snuffbox: Four Comic Crises by Anton Chekhov, the four new translations are by New York-based Dustin Condren, who directed Eyolf and has worked locally at the Globe (assistant director on Trying and dramaturge for the Globe/MFA production of Uncle Vanya ). Condren has a masters degree from Stanford, in Slavic Language and Literature. For the Tonic production, he’ll direct The Bear. Esther Emery, flush from her big success with Bunbury at Diversionary, takes on Swan Song. Tonic founding director Amy Biedel (last seen and heard to great effect in The Full Monty, the debut production of San Diego Musical Theatre) directs The Proposal, and two visiting artists from Utah, J. Scott Bronson and Christopher Clark, will present On the Harmfulness of Tobacco. Clark has trained with Steppenwolf Theatre and the renowned Second City improv troupe. Local actors appearing in the pieces include: John DeCarlo , Amanda Cooley Davis, Amanda Sitton , Ed Eigner , T.J . Johnson and Ron Ray. At North Coast Repertory Theatre, June 26-30. 858-571-2155.
… New gig… “After seven years of freeway flying and teaching for 13 institutions all over the city,” theater professor/Ph.D./director Katie Rodda reports, she’s landed a full-time, tenure track position at San Diego City College , beginning in the fall. She starts out as Assistant Professor of Dramatic Art… and plans to blow the place away. Three cheers for one-stop work!
.. New work… on ice. Chuck Zito, former executive director of Diversionary Theatre, will be back in San Diego , reading from (and signing) his latest novel, “Ice in His Veins, A Nicky D’amico Mystery.” Once again, Nicky’s theater work is upstaged by murder. This time, it’s interrupting an all-male production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Good Company in New York . Zito has won praise for the first two books in his mystery series; Booklist called his work “a laugh-out-loud romp” with a “funny and lovable protagonist.” The reading, co-sponsored by Diversionary Theatre and Obelisk Bookstore, takes place on Monday, June 11 at Diversionary. 619-220-0097.
… Over the pond, out of the director’s chair: Alan Ayckbourn , the frightfully prolific playwright (creator of Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, the Tony Award-winning Bedroom Farce – and, coming to Cygnet Theatre August 25, Communicating Doors), has decided to step down from his position as artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theater in Scarborough, England – a post he’s held for 37 years. But the playwright, who had a stroke last year and was knighted this year, will continue to premiere his new plays at the theater and will direct two shows next season. Now that’s dramatic perseverance and longevity!
… It’s not easy being green… Two edgy theaters, on the edge of a new world. Both Moxie Theatre and Mo’olelo Performing Arts are touting their green leanings. Moxie has teamed up with HelioPower , a company that helps people and business Go Green; the company is providing financial support to enable Moxie to stage its season at the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza . “We have a lot in common, says marketing director Jennifer Eve Thorn. “We both are working to dispel myths, to educate and to make our world a better place. I hope other artistic organizations can partner with like-minded businesses and start cross-promoting and supporting each other’s common goals.” And so they have.
Mo’olelo has just announced its “Greening Mo’olelo Initiative,” an effort to “institute sustainable practices and encourage the use of environmentally friendly materials throughout the theater community.” To launch its initiative, the company recently published “GREEN Theater Categories and Sustainable Guidelines,” which suggests do-able greening techniques, as well as recommending architects and other experts in the green industry. “ Mo’olelo’s work is very much about building community,” says artistic director Seema Sueko. “Yet, ironically, many traditional practices in the performing arts are hurtful to the environment – form the amount of paper we use for scripts, to the energy needed to light a performance, to the woods and paints used on sets.” The document is available online at http:// www.moolelo.net /mission/green.html. “We have the forum to influence change in the community as a whole,” says Sueko. Fine, green words to live by.
… Myra and Veronica… I just heard from San Diego actor Myra McWethy, who’s been performing all over the country, making a plea to save “Veronica Mars” and all the jobs the CW TV show has provided for San Diego actors over the past three years. The program is, she says, is “in a weird state of semi-cancellation.” She’s urging all theaterlovers to sign an online petition to renew the show. Your name, she swears, will not be put on any ‘lists’ if you sign, “ but the CW network will see that the fan base is willing to stick around and pull for the show.” Sign the petition, she pleads, and pass it along to friends and family; there are nearly 38,000 signatures so far. To support what Time Magazine calls “one of the six best dramas on TV,” go to: http://www.petitiononline.com/mod_perl/signed.cgi?vm4fulls
..Sondheim coming West . Here’s something to put on your calendar: Stephen Sondheim will be interviewed by New York Times activist/columnist (and former chief theater critic) Frank Rich, as part of the UCLA 2007-2008 season of events. Taking place on March 13, 2008, it’s being called “A Little Night Conversation.” Also on the very impressive schedule is the Royal Shakespeare Company presentation of Ian McKellen in King Lear (Oct. 19-27, 2007) and Chekhov’s The Seagull (Oct. 20-28). Check out the rest of the bill of fare, including Yo-Yo Ma, Laurie Anderson, Pina Bauch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal , and scores of others. www.uclalive.org
… Other celebs within driving distance: former San Diegan Annette Bening stars in The Female of the Species, a premiere comedy by Australian Joanna Murray-Smith; and Christine Lahti plays another feminist (this one of the decidedly P.C. variety), in Wendy Wasserstein’s last play, Third, directed by former San Diegan and UCSD directing alum Maria Mileaf . Both coming to the Geffen Playhouse in 2008. The theater begins its fall season by participating in Suzan-Lori Parks’ grassroots theater project, 365 Days/365 Plays. (Still waiting for a high-profile San Diego theater to step up to that plate). Both the Geffen and South Coast Repertory Theatre will premiere newly commissioned works by Pulitzer Prize-winner Donald Margulies ( Dinner with Friends, Collected Stories, Brooklyn Boy): Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself) at the Geffen (9/28-10/14); and at SCR , The Elephant in the Room (June 2008). Just a few (more) things to look forward to….
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ? – intense , brutal, funny, acerbic, painful – and a masterpiece. A ¾ perfect production directed by Rick Seer
The Old Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through June 24
100 Birds and The Last Class – a provocative double bill that’s part of 6th @ Penn’s Resilience of the Human Spirit: Human Rights Festival 2007. One short, powerful play focuses on revenge (for childhood sexual abuse), the other on regret (for recklessness, paths taken/not taken). Potent work all around.
6th @ Penn Theatre, through June 18
Baby – a trifle of a musical, with the conception of conceiving; the excellent singing and acting elevate the effort considerably
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through June 24
All in the Timing – quick -witted, fast-paced and well presented; supremely literate fun, good for some great guffaws
ion theatre at the 6th Ave. Bistro downtown; 1165 6th Ave. 92101; open-ended run
(For full text of all of Pat’s past reviews, going back to 1990, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
It’s officially June – the crickets are chirping! – beckoning you into a theater.
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.