By Pat Launer
Three fierce women, wild and fearless,
Don’t make for shows that are perfect or peerless.
OVERVIEW : It’s a big week for women: death-defying females are the centerpiece of two world premieres and a 10 year-old megamusical . Two of these superwomen wind up dead, and the third, seriously injured. They all stand up to controlling men. They face their fates with dignity and resolute pride. Let’s hear it for the girls! But oh, how their theatrical vehicles weigh down these iconic heroines. Two operatic adaptations – both pale, pathetic shadows of their lofty source material — and a little lack of horse-sense in the equine comic drama.
TOREADOR, EN GARDE !
THE SHOW: CARMEN , the world premiere of a musical based (as was Bizet’s 1875 opera) on the 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée . Conception, book and choreography by dancer/choreographer Sarah Miles; music by John Ewbank (English-born, Dutch-raised songwriter/producer/arranger who’s a big recording star in Europe ). Lyrics by AnnMarie Milazzo , music direction by Jeffrey Klitz . Directed by Franco Dragone , who helmed ten Cirque du Soleil spectacles, as well as “A New Day…” the Vegas extravaganza of Céline Dion .
THE STORY: Carmen is a s ensual gypsy, a life-loving seductress who ensnares men with her fatal charms but loves her freedom above all else. She attracts the attention and affection of the hot-tempered sergeant José, who becomes, like many other men, obsessively smitten. Out of his ardor for Carmen, José kills a man, mutinies against his superior, deserts his regiment, joins Carmen’s gypsy band of smugglers, and then is driven to madness when she turns from him to the bullfighter Escamillo .
Carmen may be a world premiere, but it has a pronounced ‘been there/seen that’ sensibility. The soldiers’ stomping chorus smacks of Les Miz and The Scarlet Pimpernel. The spirited, skirt-lifting girls’ dance has the indubitable scent of West Side Story’s “ America .” The rape scene has all the moves and mien of Man of La Mancha ’s “Little Bird.” The bland, pop-rock- ish music feels derivative throughout. Al l the songs sound the same and many of them seem to be reprised multiple times (but it’s hard to distinguish the new songs from the retreads). Al l are belted out at feverish pitch, as if each is the anthemic 11 o’clock number. Every song heads for the rafters, which doesn’t leave anyone very far to go as the drama escalates. The nine-piece, heavily synthesized-sounding under-stage band feels distant and disembodied. The vocal and musical volume is so loud, so relentless, so in-your-face pushy, that a number of people left the theater with a headache; a few just left.
Subtlety is not the name of this game. Sure, it’s an operatic story with larger-than-life characters. But they’re writ so large here, you can’t begin to get to know them. With very little text, the tale is supposed to be told primarily in song and dance. But the lyrics are so weak, sophomoric and uninspiring, there is no depth of character. And the flamenco-heavy choreography features a disappointingly small dance vocabulary; skirt-swirls and foot stomps abound.
The problems of the show are compounded by the pre-production hype. The creative team crowed that this show would change the face of the American musical. It would, they promised, plumb the emotional depths of its iconic heroine. (It doesn’t). Characters, they averred, would never stand, facing out to the audience, and just sing. (They do). The whole effort feels far more retro than fresh; Dragone’s staging is surprisingly featureless and flat, despite all the histrionics.
Even the gorgeous stage pictures become tiresome after awhile. Al l those dark, brooding skies (lighting design by Christopher Akerlind ). The symbology is of the battering, sledgehammer sort. A large gilded bull head is the central figure (Carmen as wild, untamed beastie who will be brought down by machismo?). At the beginning, a red ribbon unfurls from the suspended animal’s mouth. At the end, it’s an (endless) pouring of blood-red sand (which then accumulates on the ground and turns pale, to become a burial mound). Red is ubiquitous – but not on Carmen herself, despite the provocative scarlet-singed promotional photos. The rivulet of water downstage glows red as the death toll mounts. Death imagery is everywhere. Skeletons are scattered about the set. Black-clad figures hover on the upper level of the mile-high walls. There’s even a lynched figure dangling from a rope, leading one to expect some cirque-style acrobatic angling mid-air. But alas, no.
Nothing here is really breathtaking. Except the excess. It’s hard not to think of the cost of the venture, the millions poured into this elaborate muddle. And in the end, we learn no more about Carmen and her motivations that we knew before – and much less about the Rom (gypsies) or José’s neglected wife than the opera offers.
The misguided elements of the production have nothing to do with the performers, who bring boundless brio to their overblown, under-developed roles. Janien Valentine makes a marvelously high-spirited and seductive Carmen; she’s independent, indomitable, and fully in control. Valentine’s voice is powerful, her charisma palpable. What she needs is a more challenging vehicle. Al l her suitors are attractive and appealing: the robust baritone Neal Benari as the captain, Zuniga; the regal Victor Wallace as Escamillo , the matador (who should be a dancer, too – and whose big final-scene bullfight is reduced to a few lame moves behind a scrim, often overlapping rather than ‘attacking’ a projection of a bull). Brash Ryan Silverman shines as the rash and impulsive José. The deadly, climactic finale is underplayed, but the aftermath (the falling sand) dribbles on. Still, the attraction between Escamillo and Carmen feels genuinely lusty. Carmen’s seduction of José, played at the end of a rope, is titillating, too. As poor, letter-writing Micaela , José’s forgotten wife, Shelley Thomas has little to do, but displays a lovely voice. The ensemble of dancer-singers is talented, but they aren’t given much variety or range.
A direct parallel of the story, it’s hubris – here, in the creation and presentation – that ultimately brings a well-intended effort down.
THE LOCATION: La Jolla Playhouse (Mandell Weiss Theatre), through July 22
AND THEY’RE OFF….
, the world premiere of a play by North County/Orange County-based Mary Fengar Gail. The play was commissioned by the National New Play Network and has had several readings; this is its first full production.
“National Velvet” meets “Dr. Doolittle” in Voodooland . Playwright Gail likes to infuse her plays with mystery, fantasy, the supernatural and science fiction. They’re all in the saddle in her latest play, a feminist view of the very masculine sport of horse racing – and so much more. In the domain of the supernatural alone, she’s got out-of-body experiences, horse whispering and voodoo ritual. There’s some wild-and-crazy medical practice and talk of electroshock therapy. Al l for the treatment of ‘ equinomania ,’ an obsession with horses (and a tendency to turn into one) suffered by an ambitious, obsessive female jockey who sustained a serious head injury in a racing accident that may reflect foul play (hence, the mystery, which doesn’t build up a big head of steam). The flexible cast of six plays some 24 roles, including horses and their jockeys, often one after the other, in the breathtaking racing scenes, brilliantly directed by Esther Emery (who shares the directing reins with Jennifer Eve Thorn). The issue of horses and young women is raised repeatedly, but Gail doesn’t really posit an explanation for the well-trod affinity.
So, we meet Devon , and her parents (her mother an acclaimed trainer, her father a compulsive tippler and bettor); her secret lover, the African American groom; and an investigator who stalks the many short, episodic (really filmic) scenes. Narrators come and go and morph into characters. The tone changes; the humor and irony are muted here.
The set (a marvelous creation by Nick Fouch) beautifully captures the equine ambience: the audience sits on two sides of the playing space, behind rough wood fencing. On one end, there’s a very credible paddock, and on the other, the jockeys’ locker. Devon ’s accident happens right up at the top, and she spends a good deal of her time in a hospital bed. Her unconventional medical treatment includes an admonishment to lie quietly and not think, while she’s visited by a nurse who calms her with voodoo incantations. Meanwhile, she learns that she can travel outside her body, and she lopes over to the paddock, where she hangs with the horses. She finds that she can speak their language. She begins to train on the new beauty, Devil Dog Six, a massive stallion her mother has recently acquired. The owner is an Arab (another apparent McGuffin in a play overstuffed with them). Gradually, Devon begins to turn into a horse; she whinnies and neighs, refuses to bathe, grows thicker, mane-like hair, likes her boyfriend to hose her down after sex. Meanwhile, the jockeys make disparaging, misogynistic comments about her, and one of them seems to be guilty of a lot more than that. And so on and so on. The heavily loaded plot, which doesn’t develop character very much (no time, with all those character and cross-species transformations!), bogs down and we lose interest. But every time there’s a race, we’re totally into it. In fact, MOXIE has built something very clever into the mix. For a buck, you can bet on the winner of the final race. If you guess right, you get two tix to the Del Mar Races. Very sweet deal.
The production is sweet and imaginative, too, with lighting by Jennifer Setlow (leaving town this summer – a great loss to the community); costumes by Devin Bowman and sound by Rachel Le Vine. This is almost an all-female creative team, though there are only two women in the play itself. The highlights are those races; Laurence Brown, appealing in all his roles, is especially excellent as a competitive or majestic horse. The ever-malleable Terri Park also has the inside track on equine moves, and she’s great as Devon ’s tough-as-nails Mom. As Devon , Jo Anne Glover , who spends a good deal of the evening airborne (carried by Brown as rider— or lover), is terrific, high-spirited and engagingly Southern. Tim Parker is believable as the doctor (as believable as that pseudo-scientific whack-job can be) and Marc C. Petrich makes the father a caring, paternalistic (if oft-inebriated) nice-guy. Bill Dunnam is saddled with the thankless (and often intrusive) role of the investigator. So, what’s it all about, Al fie ?… Who knows? Breaking down the glass hayloft? Wild women with overweening ambition? Staying in the race, despite the eternal inequality of the sexes? Learning how to be a ‘real’ female? There isn’t a pointed point here, and that makes for a frustrating evening, despite all the delights of this lively, inventive production.
THE LOCATION: MOXIE Theatre at the Lyceum, through June 30
LET MY PEOPLE GO
THE SHOW: Elton John and Tim Rice’s AIDA , the regional theater premiere of the 1998 Disney musical that played on Broadway for 1852 performances (2000-2004) and won four Tony Awards. A modernized, pop-rock riff on the beloved 1871 Verdi opera. Music by Elton John , lyrics by Tim Rice , and book by Linda Woolverton , David Henry Hwang and Robert Falls .
THE STORY: Both opera and musical are based on a story by French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette . Aida, a Nubian (Ethiopian) princess, is captured and brought into slavery in Egypt . A military commander, Radames , is taken by her fierce beauty and intelligence. Soon, he’s caught between his love for her and his loyalty to Pharaoh , to whose daughter, Amneris , he is betrothed. When the clandestine affair is revealed, the lovers are, according to law, buried alive. At the end, although thwarted, Amneris requests that the two be sealed in a tomb together for eternity.
THE PLAY AND PRODUCTION: Giuseppe Verdi must be rolling in his grave, ever since Elton John and Tim Rice got hold of Aida. The pre-Broadway production of the musical literally collapsed under its own weight. In Chicago , a piece broke off the hefty, suspended ‘tomb’ of the show’s climax, injuring stars Heather Headley and Adam Pascal. The Atlanta staging was burdened by a movable, six-ton, $10-million gold pyramid, which kept breaking down, and finally (along with the designer) had to be replaced. Emblematic of the whole enterprise, which does injury to Verdi’s original and also to the talented performers who try desperately to make John’s lackluster score sing. The music and lyrics are pedestrian at best, underwhelming in the extreme, though the score is well-played by eleven musicians under the baton of musical director/conductor Parmer Fuller. The repeatedly revised book is also less than rich, deep or rewarding.
Several of the performers at Starlight have been part of the original production or the national tour. They exhibit strong voices and fiery romantic connections. The (several) love ballads between Aida and Radames are sexily staged by director/choreographer Carlos Mendoza. But given all the glitz of the original show and its Egyptian source, this is a remarkably drab production visually. It’s aptly oversized, but dull in color (sets rented from Gateway Playhouse; Bellport , NY ). And the costumes are a startling hodgepodge that seems to have been pulled from a multi-show theater trunk (rentals from The Theatre Company; Upland , CA ). The servant girls sport tiny white tennis dresses. Poor Amneris is forced to wear garish satin numbers, and even a kimono and parasol (Aida goes Mikado!). A few outfits come straight out of “The Arabian Nights.” But they do highlight the physical attributes of the leads: handsome, hunky Todd Fournier (with his six-pack abs), and lithe and lovely Marja Harmon. Both have potent pop-rock voices (a tad on the “American Idol” side at times, with all those note embellishments) and they bring power to their characterizations as well. As Amneris , Kelli Provart has a more difficult task; her role is the campiest, but she has to evolve into a bona fide national leader by the end. Jospeh Al mohaya is vocally and emotionally credible as the loyal, well-connected Nubian, Mereb .
Since the show is directed by a choreographer, staging expectations ran high. But there’s more placing, stamping and posing than actual dance. More disconcerting is the misconstrued framing device. In the original musical, and the road show that came through town in 2003, a modern young couple (ostensibly the heirs to the story’s timeless love) meet-cute in the Egyptian room of a museum. Amneris steps out of her glass case to sing her “Tale as old as time”-type song, “Every Story is a Love Story.” But in this local production, the setting is a picnic in the park. So what on earth is an Egyptian princess doing there? At the end, a little boy and girl, meant to represent the eternal connection of the ancient lovers, play in the sand again, and he gives her the amulet around his neck, just as Radames had done to Aida. But this nifty idea (the primary use for the downstage sand) is subverted when each child runs back to his/her Mom and they’re pulled apart, not united for eternity as the play would suggest. And Amneris is left standing in the sandbox.
Overall, this is a valiant effort, a large undertaking, well executed (vocally, at least) within the confines of a constraining, overblown show.
THE LOCATION: Starlight Theatre, through June 24
NEWS AND VIEWS…
… The FY06 Economic and Community Impact Report on San Diego’s Arts and Culture recently revealed that the 82 City-funded arts organizations collectively spent $132.2 million in 2006, and cultural tourists poured approximately $442 million back into the San Diego economy. As Mayor Sanders put it, “This report helps explain why, during these difficult financial times, maintaining arts and current funding levels was a top priority for this year’s budget.” Let’s hope he continues to feel that way in the future.
… Sing out, Louise! … The Gay Men’s Chorus of San Diego will be singing the National Anthem at “Out at the Park – San Diego Pride Night at Petco Park ” on Sunday, July 8 (Pads vs. the Braves). Discount tix are available at the Padres website: http://sandiego.padres.mlb.com/sd/ticketing/groups/pride_night.jsp . Be sure to enter the promo code: PRIDE. And later in the month – July 28-29, the Chorus will be presenting “Diva by Diva,” an admittedly over-the-top tribute to superstars like Barbra, Bette, Josephine Baker, the Andrews Sisters, Tammy Wynette , Patsy Cline, Aretha, Madonna and k.d . lang , among others. “Of all the crazy shows we’ve produced over the last 15 years,” says artistic director Gary Holt, “’Diva by Diva’ stands alone as the ‘mother’ of all gay concerts.” Tix are at 619-57.GMCSD or gmcsd.com.
.. Selected Shorts… a new San Diego performing company, Write Out Loud, will premiere “Something New,” readings of short stories, each dealing with ‘something new.’ In the spirit of New York’s “Selected Shorts,” presented at Symphony Space and broadcast on National Public Radio (though no longer locally), Write Out Loud was formed to “inspire, challenge and entertain by reading short stories – the classics, the forgotten and the brand new.” In their first presentation, short fiction by Mark Twain, Katherine Mansfield and Anton Chekhov will be read by group founders Walter Ritter and Veronica Murphy, as well as Mike Buckley and Pamela Brittain. Friday, June 29 at 2pm, North Coast Repertory Theatre. Tix : 619-297-8953 or writeoutloudsd.com.
… Hamlet, right where he belongs… As the Old Globe gears up for its Hamlet opening outdoors on the Festival Stage (currently in previews, officially opening June 30), Tall Blonde Productions in L.A., in association with Hollywood Forever Cemetery, is presenting the first annual production of ‘Shakespeare in the Cemetery,’ starting with that ever-depressed Dane, Hamlet. Friday June 22 at Hollywood Forever Cemetery , 6000 Santa Monica Blvd. It should be the perfect s etting when all those bodies pile up at the end.
… The Actors are Coming , the Actors are Coming… Get ready for the 17th Annual Actors Festival, brought to us by the San Diego Actors Al liance. There will be plays old and new, comic and tragic, written by knowns and unknowns, living locals and historical greats. This is a terrific opportunity for performers to stretch and flex their creative muscles… writing, directing, producing and of course, acting. Program One, with plays by George Soete, Matt Scott, Jim Caputo and Tim West , kicks off the Festival on July 11. But there’s a Special Program, a fundraiser for the Al liance , that premieres one day before the Festival begins. The wacky show is called Easy Targets, and it became a cult hit in L.A. after a critically acclaimed run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Produced, written and directed by the 10 year-old L.A. company, The Burglars of Hamm, the show is “a collection of terrible one-person shows designed to irritate and enrage,” as the press release puts it. But, unlike other bad theater, the audience is encouraged to assault the performers — with rolled-up socks (graciously provided to theatergoers). The first ten socks are free with admission, but ballpark-style vendors roam the rows between playlets , hawking socks for additional purchase (Note: These items are not edible, or wearable. Don’t try them at home). The show will be performed July 10 and 21, in the Lyceum Space, Horton Plaza . Reservations: 619-544-1000.
… EQUITY actors wanted… for the final production of 6th@Penn’s Resilience of the Spirit Human Rights Festival 2007, a four-performance August reading of Buried: The Sago Mine Disaster by Jerry Starr. The piece, says the playwright, is part docudrama, part historical work, relating to the horrific West Virginia accident that occurred in January 2006, when 13 men were trapped in a coal mine for two days. The media circus that ensued included massive misinformation, most memorably, the public being informed that 12 survivors were found and only one miner had died. Shortly thereafter, the families were notified that, in fact, there had been only one survivor, while the other 12 perished. The United Mine Workers of America union has provided funds to pay Equity actors for the reading. The performance, which will take place August 9, 10, 11 and 12, will be taped. At least two rehearsals are planned. If Equity actors are not available, non-Equity performers will be included. Contact Dale Morris at email@example.com .
.. Meanwhile, back at this week’s offerings from the Human Rights Festival 2007, check out the double bill of No Sit, No Stand, No Lie and Niger (June 21-July 6) playing in repertory with another double-header: Pistachio Stories and The Color of Black. More provocative theater on stimulating subjects, ranging from torture to famine, the racial divide to invasion of privacy. Get all the details at www.resilienceofthespirit.com.
.. You Oughta Be In Pictures… To celebrate their production of the procreative musical, Baby, North Coast Repertory Theatre staged a Baby Photo Contest, focused on children ander age 5 who already showed ‘star style.’ And the winners are…. Lauren Robinson, age 2 months, who took the prize in the Infant category and 4 year-old Kendal Furman, who beat out all the other Toddlers. They’ll each receive a Baby poster, a certificate of merit, and their picture in two print ads, to be published in the Union-Tribune and North County Times. Parents of the winners scored two tickets to see Baby at NCRT . Look for these kids on a stage or screen near you, some time in the future.
… Shakeup/Shakedown at PAL…. The new executive director of the San Diego Performing Arts League, Jacqueline Siegel, who assumed the position a mere eight months ago, has parted company with SDPAL , effective June 15. Rumors have been flying for months, from the end of ArtsTix to the dissolution of the entire organization, an umbrella arts advocacy group with 141 members (theater, music and dance companies). No one is providing many details. “Over the last five years,” said Siegel in her departure statement, “there were severe financial difficulties. In my brief tenure as Executive Director, the League made measurable progress to restore the confidence of our member organizations, build new community relationships and gain public and private sector financial support. Unfortunately, those efforts were not enough.”
“It was a mutual decision,” says Board President Kevin Chaisson , a businessman (fitness and real estate) who’s been with the League for three years. “The Board is continuing to look at ways to meet the needs of members and fulfill its mission. Jacqueline Siegel was definitely an impactful person in the community. We have no immediate plans for launching or replacing the position. None of the rumors are founded, as of yet. We are pursuing all avenues to fulfill our mission.”
That mission, established when the organization was founded in 1983, was to serve and promote the arts community. “Audience development is always a priority,” says Chaisson , “through ArtsTix or direct promotion or linking member groups with other marketing sources. We’re always advocating for members, through the San Diego Regional Arts and Culture Coalition and local politicians. And we’re always looking to help members interact.” But most of my questions he was “not at liberty to discuss.” The PAL, he said, has a “bare bones” budget of $550,000; fees bring in about $50K, that is, about 10% of costs.
“We’re going through financial restraints,” says Chaisson . “Times are tough. And we’re continually challenged by the competition” – Ticketmaster , 411 Tix , and all the other local listings of “What’s Playing” (the name of the League’s bi-monthly guide). The $16K net from the recent STAR Awards event, staged each year to honor performing arts volunteers (attended by nearly 800 people earlier this month) will go to “pay off STAR Awards and to support general League programs.”
What exactly went on in all those hush-hush, closed-door meetings, no one is saying. The 17-member Board (11 of whom are representatives of member organizations) made the current fiscal/personnel decision. The next round of discussions will be held by the Membership committee. If there is any consideration of dissolving the entire operation, that must legally be put to a vote of the general membership.
Commentary: It would be a tragedy to lose the organization that was once a national flagship for promoting the arts. Al an Ziter , who helmed the League for 20 years, was a visionary (he still is, now devoting his talents to the development of NTC ). The very short-term executive director who succeeded him took the group down some unfortunate paths. Siegel had all the wherewithal to make a difference, but it seems that she wasn’t given the chance. Half-price ArtsTix , and the prime real estate where they’re sold — in front of Horton Plaza – would be a tragic loss. Some of the League’s programs – like Business Volunteers for the Arts and Lawyers for the Arts – have provided crucial services for members. Raising the profile of the arts is vital to the health of the county. In the realm of theater alone, tourists and theatermakers across the country know that this is a theater town, but most locals do not. Perhaps times and technology have changed and the League needs to be re-framed. But it should not be disbanded.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Devil Dog Six – delightful production of a convoluted play. But watch those ponies run!
MOXIE Theatre at the Lyceum, through June 30
Sassy Sarah Vaughan, The Divine One: more a cabaret concert than a play, but a wonderful performance by Ayanna Hobson and a killer band
Ira Al dridge Repertory Players, at Caesar’s Café, downtown San Diego , through July 1
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
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
(For full text of all of Pat’s past reviews, going back to 1990, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Usher out June… in the comfort of a theater.
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.