By Pat Launer
Angels and Flippers and man-eating plants:
What else can you do but go into your dance?
ANGELS AMONG US
THE SHOW: The Honky Tonk Angels , the kickoff to North Coast Repertory Theatre’s 26th season. The musical revue was a hit for artistic director David Ellenstein last year at the Al abama Shakespeare Festival, and he thought he’d mine more country gold back in the Golden State. The show was created by Texas-based Ted Swindley , who also conceived the popular bio-musical Al ways… Patsy Cline. This one must’ve made a big splash, because Swindley has turned it into a cottage industry; he’s written two sequels: The Honky Tonk Angels Holiday Spectacular and Bubba’s Revenge: The Honky Tonk Angels’ Final Chapter.
THE BACKSTORY/THE STORY: The title was the name of a 1993 album that hooked up three country superstars: Dolly Parton , Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn. A couple of the songs on that album even show up in the musical revue: “ Sittin ’ on the Front Porch Swing” and “It Wasn’t God Who Made the Honky Tonk Angels.”
The three ‘angels’ in the show are patterned after those three divas: Sue Ellen is the Partonesque blonde bombshell who’s singin ’ and workin ’ “9 to 5”; Darlene is, like Lynn, a “Coal Miner’s Daughter”; and then there’s homey, “Stand By Your Man” Angela (a Wynette spinoff ), who fearlessly ends her signature song saying “ Bullcrap !,” but goes slinking back to her husband at the end of the show anyway.
The storyline is feather-light, fraught with inconsistencies extrapolated from the lyrics of the 32 songs included in the 2½ hour show. Three Southern gals escape their unfulfilling lives to pursue a dream… becoming a country singer in “ Music City USA ,” AKA Nashville . They come from different places and live different lives: Texas-born Sue Ellen toils (and does her nails, while avoiding her married boss’s increasingly aggressive advances) in L.A.; guitar-strumming naïf Darlene hails from Mississippi (where, conveniently, the Tallahatchie Bridge is located – and oh yes, her boyfriend was the late, lamented subject of “Ode to Billie Joe”); and Angela (get the ‘angel’ in her name?) is a long-married mother of six, from a trailer park in Waxahachie , Texas . But they meet-cute on a Greyhound bus and start to harmonize and hold hands right off the bat, which convinces them to bond further — into a honky tonk singing group.
Act one is singing exposition (with a little dialogue and a few family complications thrown in). Act two is a performance at Hillbilly Heaven, the final night of a six-week run, after which only one of the trio will stay on to follow her hillbilly bliss.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Two of the three actor/singers performed in Ellenstein’s prior production. SDSU Musical Theater alumna Merideth Kaye Clark is a knockout; her voice is even bigger than her wig, by far the strongest and most versatile of the bunch. Kelli Maguire can really belt, and she nails all the comic numbers. She’s especially funny in “Don’t Come Home a- Drinkin ’” and “Harper Valley PTA.” Jenni-Lynn McMillin is the newest addition, whose accent, acting and naiveté are convincing, but her voice is weak, and sounded hoarse by the end of the evening I was there (the traditionally tough night-after-opening). She cuts loose, vocally and dramatically, when her character reluctantly sashays onstage in slinky red satin and oversized boa for “Fancy.”
The voices mesh well for the tight harmonies and a capella numbers. The show gets off to a slow start though, and it meanders through too many songs, some of which are shoehorned in via a lame conceit of the “Honky Tonk Angels Hall of Fame,” which allows the piece to wander off the Country road, both musically and sartorially (the wacky costumes range from Cleopatra to Heidi). Under the guidance of music director/keyboardist W. Brent Sawyer, a native Texan, the accompaniment sounds top-notch throughout: Rik Ogen on guitar, Don Sankey on fiddle, Oliver Shirley on bass and Dave Rumley on percussion. They even sing and get into the act a few times. The audience is also called upon to do the latter, not always to fine effect. But it all went over really big with the older crowd.
Marty Burnett’s set creates three playing spaces in the first act, with painted drops that inventively sport several suggestive 3-D elements. The second act is an aptly cheesy barroom (complete with bar – heavy on the Jack Daniels, of course). It’s a pleasant enough evening, and the songs are fun or earnest. But the message gets pretty muddy, and how these women wind up seems a little less than the “I’ll Fly Away” feminism the show promises. No heavy thinking required here. Just sit back and enjoy the music (and don’t sit too close to the front if audience participation isn’t your thang ).
THE LOCATION: North Coast Repertory Theatre, through October 7
THE PLANT THAT ATE NEW YORK
THE SHOW: Little Shop of Horrors, the 1982 musical based on a low-budget 1960 Roger Corman movie. Book and lyrics by the late, clever Howard Ashman; music by Disney darling Alan Menken (“The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” etc.). The 1986 film re-make was a comics’ bonanza, starring Rick Moranis , Steve Martin, Christopher Guest, Bill Murray, John Candy and Jim Belushi .
THE STORY: A spoof of 1950s sci-fi films, the show was a huge but unlikely success — because all the principals wind up dead by the end of the evening. The campy, comic horror-show satire ,concerns a man-eating plant developed by a nerdy nice-guy florist’s assistant working in the mean streets of New York ’s Skid Row. Meek, milksop Seymour names his plant Audrey II, after the slutty salesgirl he adores from afar. Audrey I is in a physically abusive relationship with a sadistic dentist, and Seymour ’s psychologically abused by his boss, Mr. Mushnik , the penny-pinching ‘savior’ who rescued Seymour from the orphanage. The plot thickens as Audrey II develops bloodlust ( er , hunger); Seymour feeds him human blood, in a Faustian exchange for fame, as a Greek chorus of street kids (three smartass, sassy, harmonizing urchins) underscore and comment on the action.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The Moonlight production, under the direction of Kirby Ward, features excellent singing, cute costumes and a fabulous plant (controlled by puppeteer Donald Lee McKee). But in this bland but entertaining presentation, the piece has lost its edge, its heart and some of its humor. Everything is played very straight. The plant doesn’t frighten the audience at the end with its threat to take over the world. The dentist laughing himself to death on nitrous oxide isn’t particularly amusing (I still remember Duane Daniels doing the role at Moonlight years ago, when I literally laughed till I cried). And the show’s best song, the sweetly sentimental “Suddenly Seymour,” doesn’t evoke the usual teary response.
Though David Engel cuts a strikingly attractive figure as the leather-clad, Harley-riding dentist, he never captures the humor in that role, nor in the array of quick-change characters he assays in the second act. The three girls (Kimberly Henry, Leslie Tammone , Jenn Aedo ) are fine singers; more dancing, especially from ace dancer/director Ward, would have been nice. John Massey does a credible turn as Mr. Mushnik , and Jimmer Bolden is in outstanding voice as the seductive, blues-singing plant.
As dreamy, squeaky-voice Audrey, Kristen Chandler (most recently seen at Moonlight in the title role of Sweet Charity), acts the role to the hilt. I loved that little squeal of hers. But there’s a disconnect between her speaking and singing voices. More often than not, she launches into serious and solemn singing, displaying her considerable vocal talent, but completely leaving behind her ditz-blonde persona. Endearing, engaging Scott Dreier is a delight as terminally zhlubby Seymour , a role he’s played seven times before. He totally nails the character and all his vocal numbers. Musical director/conductor Terry O’Donnell manages to create a big sound from just a few instruments (thanks to the wonders of keyboard electronics!); he and Michelle Sorger are on piano, with Kenneth Dumlao on guitar, Zach Pike on bass and Phil Rowley playing percussion. The small pit orchestra works for this intimate show. But there should be a lot more edge, fear and satire up on the stage.
THE LOCATION: Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista , through September 16
The 14th annual Fritz Blitz of New Plays by California Writers ended with … something of a thud.
A Fish Without His Flippers, written by La Mesa native/L.A. resident Bill Robens , is a silly exercise in film genre satire. The movie references fly by at a furious pace, though the play itself feels languid and leisurely. The film noir, Tex-Mex western and Southern gothic spoofs were really good. But, apparently unable to leave well enough alone, writer threw in some sort of comic ‘exposé’ of the SF Fire Dept. that really came out of nowhere. The performances were spotty; most of the nine actors got to flex their comic/dramatic muscles by playing multiple roles. But as directed by Triple Espresso’s Dane Stauffer, it all felt like a campy, summer-camp in-joke. The more you knew the players, the more amusing the play. That doesn’t, however, make for a very satisfying evening of theater, however brief (about 85 minutes).
In this warped little memory play, Duane Daniels , founder/artistic director of the Fritz, did a Norma Desmond/Sunset Boulevard turn as a turbaned, cigarette-holder-puffing old bat who’s looking through her steamer trunk of theatrical memorabilia, revisiting 50 years of plays she’s written, before she’s forced to move out of the family home. Several of her bizarre creations are re-enacted, with some humorous bits. But it wasn’t as funny as it should’ve been (a weakness of both play and production). And it was never quite clear just how campy the director intended the proceedings to be. I mean, did he really want tone-deaf singers? Or was that just an unfortunate by-product?
There were some fun comic turns by Wendy Savage as a ditsy, abused, eternally optimistic Southern girl; Elzie Billups as her sharecropping slave/friend, a classic, shuffling Stepanfetchit ; Volt Francisco as a stereotypical Mexican outlaw (sans ‘ stinkin ’ badge’); Diana Renden , recent graduate of SDSU, as the geeky high- schooler inviting foreign exchange student Adolf Hitler to the prom; and Duane Weekly in a variety of macho bad-guy roles. Overall, a lot of effort expended for minimal payoff.
This wasn’t the strongest Fritz Blitz on record. But there were two comic gems – Bets and Blue Notes and In the Wake of the Bounty. Plus, we got to see Duane Daniels back on a local stage. And there’s always Blitz 15 to look forward to.
NEWS AND VIEWS…
… Okay, last chance. Malashock Dance’s 20th anniversary fundraising event, “Malashock Thinks You Can Dance” is almost sold out. I’m ready to roll… er , dance. Check out my Dance Blog on my website ( www.patteproductions.com ), and my feature story in the San Diego Jewish Journal (sdjewishjournal.com). It’s gonna be a super event, so come on down! This Saturday, September 15 at 8pm in the new Irwin M. Jacobs Qualcomm Hall in Sorrento Valley . Proceeds support Malashock’s extensive education and outreach programs. Get tix at 619-260-1622; www.malashockdance.org
… Speaking of dance, I was privileged to attend Eveoke Dance Theatre’s beautiful, bayside Patron Party, for a final farewell to founder/artistic director Gina Angelique and her producer/designer husband Chris Hall. Mega-talented Ericka Moore presented them with a hand-made quilt, crafted from fabric swatches from many Eveoke performances. Erica Moore waxed lyrical and poetic, with a lovely tribute. Gina was, as always, heartfelt, impassioned and energizing. As she and her family pursue a self-sustaining life in NoCal , we celebrate her creativity, energy and legacy. Moore and Nikki Dunnan take up the reins and usher in the new Eveoke with an Afternoon of AbunDANCE on Sept. 30. www.eveoke.org.
… I was thrilled to have caught a performance of MizeranyDance , which only ran for a weekend. Michael Mizerany , dancer/choreographer extraordinaire, really got to show his range and versatility. His pieces, and the one commissioned by John Malashock , were the highlights of the evening. Mizerany opened the evening with his 1995 creation, “The Soldier,” an aggressive, angry, fearful piece that speaks volumes, timelessly. Mizerany’s robust, muscular moves were gorgeous. Malashock’s premiere, “Silver and Gold,” was delightful, with elfin, ultra-agile Christine Marshall literally walking all over Mizerany – standing on his shins, his back, his abdomen. She’s mesmerizing, light and delicate as gossamer, but physically powerful. The piece was impressive, expressive and thoroughly unpredictable. Act one was rounded out by well-executed works by Colette Harding and Bradley Lundberg. Act two featured five whimsical pieces comprising the title premiere, “Riding in My Car.” Here, Mizerany showed his humorous side, and his dancers – Deven P. Brawley, Jeff Bulkley , Katie Griffin, Kevin Ho and Christine Marshall – rose to the comic occasion. Brawley was especially funny as the swaggering car-crazed macho-man in “In My Car,” and he also shone in the highly amusing “Third Wheel, with Katie Griffin and Kevin Ho trying to get together, while Brawley kept popping up between them to interrupt their connection. The evening was delicious, and Mizerany is definitely a choreographer to watch. He’ll be dancing at the Malashock event on Saturday. Don’t miss him this time.
… As The Globe Turns… The Old Globe just received a $1.6 grant from the State of California , through The California Cultural and Historical Endowment, to support the theater’s capital campaign: Securing a San Diego Landmark. The grant will help fund the construction of a new second stage and education center, as well as a new plaza.
Al so this week, the Globe held a media event/press conference to introduce the cast and creators of actor/writer Harvey Fierstein’s latest creation, a musical version of A Catered Affair, inspired by the 1956 Bette Davis film, which was based on a Paddy Chayefsky teleplay. Everyone was quite excited about the new project, which will be directed by Tony Award-winner John Doyle, who helmed the inventive revival of Sweeney Todd. The new show, set in the Bronx , 1953, concerns a family stressed to the max in planning a wedding. The score is by heartfelt pop and musical theater composer John Bucchino , and the stars are Tony winners Faith Prince and Tom Wopat as the mother and father of the bride; Harvey plays the uncle. The young couple is portrayed by adorable Matt Cavanaugh and Leslie Kritzer . The entire ensemble totals ten, and the piece will be abbreviated, too – only 100 minutes.
Globe executive director Lou Spisto reported that this will be the Globe’s 20th show with “Broadway transfer aspirations.” He called Doyle “one of the hottest directors on the planet right now.” The Scottish-born Doyle, surprisingly shy about public speaking, admitted that he’s shocked to be “hot at 54.” He recalled that he was smitten by the show after reading the first ten pages of the script.
Then Harvey stepped up to the podium. It’s hard to believe he really does talk like that, with the Gravel- Gertie voice that scrapes the ground and makes your throat hurt. But he’s funny and quick-witted and ecstatic about his new project and collaborative team. He noted that this project is being done with the blessings of the Chayefsky family. The event concluded with wedding cake and a champagne toast. Let’s hope it’s an Affair to remember.
… Don’t miss these upcoming readings (but since several of them are on the same night, you have to make some judicious choices):
King Hedley II , another of the August Wilson plays presented by Cygnet Theatre in collaboration with the San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre. Sept. 17-18 at Cygnet Theatre. cygnettheatre.com or 619-337-1525…
A benefit reading of Ladies First, An Anti-War Comedy by Lauren Simon and Anita Simons, Sept. 16 at 3pm at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Hillcrest. 619-884-6482 or 858-459-4650
Carlsbad Playreaders opens its season with Neil LaBute’s ‘shocking romantic comedy,’ The Shape of Things to Come. September 17, 7:30, Dove Library.
… Set your TiVo now:
The Jersey Boys will be performing on the Primetime Emmy Awards, Sept. 16 on Fox TV… and plan ahead: they’ll be in San Diego October 17-November 11. www.broadwaysd.com
MTV has filmed the Broadway production of Legally Blonde: The Musical for broadcast on September 29 (and possibly several times thereafter). To prepare for the taping, the producers placed an ad on craigslist requesting audience members to ‘wear pink – and appear to be between the ages of 15 and 25.’ Guess only the young are pretty in pink.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Bronze – Ruff Yeager’s intriguing, intense and suspenseful drama about personal and communal failure; excellent ensemble
6th @ Penn Theatre, off-nights through September 26
Communicating Doors – murder, mayhem, mystery, time travel and a dominatrix – who could ask for anything more? Intriguing script, terrific production
Cygnet Theatre, through September 23
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean – marvelous ensemble, darkly comic production
6th @ Penn Theatre, through September 30
Susan and God – airy but well-done fun; Sarah Zimmerman is luminous
Lamb’s Players Theatre, through September 23
Two Gentlemen of Verona – light, frothy, goofy, well-acted fun
The Old Globe’s Festival Stage, in repertory with Hamlet and Two Gentlemen of Verona, through September 30
Measure for Measure – beautiful , comprehensible, relevant, flawlessly directed and performed
The Old Globe’s Festival Stage, in repertory with Hamlet and Two Gentlemen of Verona, through September 30
(For full text of all of Pat’s past reviews, going back to 1990, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Happy 5768! Even if you don’t celebrate the Jewish New Year…you can make a fresh start with a new schedule of theatergoing!
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.
For more than 20 years, Pat Launer has been the only regular broadcast theater critic in San Diego . An Emmy Award-winner with a Ph.D. in Communication Arts & Sciences, Pat sees and reviews more than 200 local theater productions every year. For the past decade, she has hosted and produced The Patté Awards for Theatre Excellence, a gala community event that honors local theatermakers (“San Diegans making theater for San Diego ”) and celebrates the broad diversity of San Diego theater .