By Pat Launer
Dear Miss Breed is anything but silly
(Though that can’t be said of Modern Millie);
Lou’s Camelot King may leave you cravin ’
But no musical gaffes in Ain’t Misbehavin ’.
THE SHOW: Thoroughly Modern Millie, the fluffy-light musical that began at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2000 and went on to win 6 Tony Awards on Broadway, including Best Musical and Best Actress for Sutton Foster, who famously stepped up from understudy to star. Based on the goofy 1967 movie starring Julie Andrews, Carol Channing and Mary Tyler Moore.
THE STORY: More retro than ‘modern,’ the show is a coming-of-age story about a wide-eyed Kansas girl who makes her way to the Big Apple to become a ‘modern,’ a flapper, a strong-willed woman who marries for money, not for love. Of course, she gets both in the end, after chasing after the wrong guy and getting mixed up in the white slavery trade. Dick Scanlan and Jeannine Tesori’s updated score hypes the silly plot and underlines the comedy, which renders the show less racist (fake Asian accents, real Asian servants), more harmless, and basically, mindlessly irresistible.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The Welk has gone all out for this one, with a rollicking, multi-talented cast of 26. Though there are only four musicians in the pit (conducted by pianist Justin Gray), thanks to good keyboards and good sound, you’d swear there was a bona fide brass section down there (well, there are a couple of trumpeters, and they really shine in the big, brassy Broadway overture). L.A.-based director Todd Nielsen and choreographer Troy Magino keep the energy high. The male dancers are especially expert. But this production underplays the comic side of the piece. The love duet between the pompous boss (Quinn VanAntwerp ) and refined Miss Dorothy Brown (Sarah Bermudez) is vocally delightful but not half as hilarious as it could or should be (and was when Bermudez played the role last year at Moonlight, opposite Randall Dodge, and they nearly stole the show). Two other funny bits were sadly omitted – the elevator that can only be started by tap-dancing, and the Chinese supertitles for the English version of “Mammy,” sung by those wacky, non-English-speaking brothers, Ching Ho (Kevin Panmeechao ) and Bun Foo (Emir Yonzon ). The vocal work is excellent throughout. Diana Kaarina is a little dynamo as strong-willed Millie, and she connects wonderfully with lithe, agile Matt Lutz as Jimmy. Funnywoman Melinda Gilb has a field-day with the dastardly Mrs. Meers , and Karole Foreman looks gorgeous in her outfits as chanteuse Muzzy Van Hossmere (though the songs she’s given are less than stellar). Overall, this is a super production, thoroughly fizzy and fun.
THE LOCATION: Welk Resort Theatre, through November 4
BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
One Never Know, Do One?
THE SHOW: Ain’t Misbehavin ’, the 1978 revue that pays homage to the music of Fats Waller, Harlem Renaissance stride pianist and songwriter extraordinaire.
THE BACKSTORY: The original show launched the career of the late Nell Carter, who won an Obie , a Tony and an Emmy for her performance. Also in the first cast were a few faces familiar to San Diego theatergoers: Andre De Shields (The Full Monty at the Globe), Ken Page (seen at the La Jolla Playhouse in Randy Newman’s Faust and opening next week, the work-in-progress musical, Most Wanted), and Charlaine Woodard ( LJP’s Good Person of Setzuan ).
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The Rep’s high-octane ensemble includes three locals – Lisa Payton, Valerie Payton and Robert Barry Fleming — and two out-of-towners: Austen Van and John Steven Crowley. Fleming came into the cast after TC Carson (Kyle Barker on “ Livin ’ Single”), sustained an injury during rehearsals. Director Patdro Harris (who directed the Rep’s Crowns in 2004) even stepped in for a performance or two until Fleming was ready. And it turns out, this last-minute replacement is one of the major delights of the show. His elastic, rubber-limbed body provides the best dance moves of the evening. And his deliciously supple, stoner rendition of “The Viper’s Drag” (“I dreamed about a reefer five feet long”) is a show-stopper.
There is no story, and virtually no dialogue. In fact, there’ almost no mention at all of Waller until midway through the second act, when suddenly there’s a piece of narrative about Fats peddling his mainstream songs for Tin Pan Alley, then going uptown (to Harlem) for fun. This demonstrates the class/race split of the time; those dreamy, romantic songs intended for a middle-class white audience (the title tune and “Jitterbug Waltz”) and the sexy, raunchy, comic songs he wrote for his own folks, like “Your Feet’s Too Big” and “Lounging at the Waldorf,” which paints an amusing but unmistakable picture of the American racial divide. Crowley looks a little like Fats, with his dark, hyperactive eyebrows, and he knows his way around smooth talkin ’ (“Honeysuckle Rose”). Valerie Payton can drip with sexuality and sensuality (“Squeeze Me”), doing more for plus-sized women than a hundred Hairsprays. Lisa Payton is in splendid, silken voice, and the 20s look is great for her, though the first-act costumes (designed by Reggie Ray) don’t do anyone any favors. When the group spruces up to get down in the second act, the dresses are a lot more flattering. Lisa nails the bluesy numbers, such as “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling.” Van, the only other dancer onstage, displays a wide vocal range in songs like “Jitterbug Waltz,” but her voice can veer into shrill territory at times.
Because of serious sound and miking problems the night I was there, the often clever, double entendre lyrics were extremely difficult to understand, and any spoken comments were completely drowned out. The balance between singers and musicians was completely off. But oh, that band! Four guys who just make magic up there onstage – JMichael on piano, Kevin Cooper on his new, blond upright bass; Danny King, happily getting lots of solo time, whackin ’ away on percussion; and versatile M’tafiti Imara on flute, sax and clarinet. The Joint is Really Jumpin ’ when those guys strut their stuff, especially at the top and bottom of the second act.
Robin Sanford Roberts’ set is gold, glitzy and deco, and Jennifer Setlow (making a brief but welcome return to San Diego ) colors the lights to reflect the mood of each number – cool blue, red hot, even a heart-shaped spotlight.
If you’re looking for a storyline, or a bio of Waller, you’ll have to look elsewhere, though his lyrics (when you can comprehend them) provide a lot of detail about the rhythm and music he created and loved. If you like jazz or blues, if you’re a student of history and the creative genius of the Harlem Renaissance, this show will rock you.
THE LOCATION: San Diego Repertory Theatre, through October 7
BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
THE SHOW: Dear Miss Breed, a stage adaptation of the book by Joanne Oppenheim , about a San Diego Public Librarian who maintained a correspondence with more than two dozen young San Diegans of Japanese descent, ages 5-19, interned by the government during WW II.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: It isn’t easy to dramatize letters. But these poignant outpourings of hope and hopelessness, frustration, patriotism and perseverance can’t help but touch the heart and engender pangs of guilt over this dark page out of the American history book.
Director/producer Andy Lowe, making a most welcome return to theater work (since his departure from the Asian American Repertory Theatre he founded), has dreamed up numerous inventive ways to bring these letters and their writers to life. The characters of the young girls aren’t always readily distinguishable, but the young cast capably conveys the kids’ youthful enthusiasms and disappointments. Despite the skepticism and even hostility of those around her, and at considerable personal risk, Miss Breed stood up for these struggling youth, and for her beliefs. She went public with her outrage; she wrote letters and articles. Juxtaposed with unconscionable public acts, she proves that one person can make a difference. Just when we’re sickened by the cruel injustices of our own country, she restores our faith in humankind. This roller coaster of emotions can’t help but register in even the most uninformed observer. Dear Miss Breed should be toured around to all the schools in San Diego – and beyond. It’s a harrowing cautionary tale for these xenophobic times. Happily, the play has an upbeat ending. Fifty years after those letters were written, we’re told, 700 people, Miss Breed’s grownup “children” and their children’s children – got together to honor, thank and pay tribute to the woman who was their long-term, faithful friend.
The production is respectful of the material, supporting the narrative with projections – of the internment camps and the letters themselves. Pictures of the kids might have been nice, too, and perhaps a little less repeated use of certain slides. But Lowe and his cast do an excellent job of keeping us engaged. Noteworthy performances are by Ciceron Altarejos as the hard-working young man, Tets , and Susan Hammons as the upright, unswerving Clara Breed. Did I say the piece should be seen by all local schoolkids ? Correction. It should be seen by all Americans.
THE LOCATION: Asian Story Theatre , in cooperation with the City of San Diego Public Library , at the Lyceum Theatre, through September 30
BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
One Bright Shining Moment… er , Performance
THE SHOW: Camelot, Lerner and Loewe’s 1960 musical retelling of T.H. White’s version of the Arthurian legend, “The Once and Future King.” Coming right on the heels of the collaborators’ mega-successful My Fair Lady, Camelot had the biggest advance sale in Broadway history up to that time. The original cast featured Richard Burton as King Arthur, Julie Andrews as his errant Queen, Guenevere and Robert Goulet as Sir Lancelot du Lac. Later, Goulet made a cottage industry of touring in Camelot, graduating to the King. The 1967 film version starred Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave . This new production, dubbed a “daring re-staging” by Glenn Casale , is adapted “with an edgy new concept” by Michael Lerner.
THE STORY: There is no historic evidence of King Arthur or his famous Round Table of Knights. But real or fictional, he certainly embodies the best of mankind, an unprepossessing man who didn’t know his own regal or physical power until he drew the sword Excalibur from that stone. As the story goes, he was a wise and fearless ruler who dreamt of creating a utopian state, where “might would only be exercised in the name of right.” He gathered together the greatest warriors in Europe to eschew war and violence and settle disputes in a court of law. The location of the mythical Camelot remains a mystery. As for the relevance of the piece today, in addition to the undying reference to the John F. Kennedy presidency, perhaps lyricist Alan Jay Lerner said it best: “I believe it is the idealism expressed in the concept of the Round Table that accounts for the indestructibility of the Arthurian legend. Stripped of its tales of derring-do, its magic, love potions, and medieval trimmings and trappings, there lies buried in its heart the aspirations of mankind, and if Arthur lived at all, he was a light in the Dark Ages.”
We could surely use an Arthur now, someone dedicated to peace and justice, civility and gentility, a ‘new order of chivalry.’ Now that’s the stuff of legend.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Okay, here’s the crucial question: Who on earth is doing the casting for these touring productions?? Who is it that thinks that B-list actors like George Hamilton and Lou Diamond Phillips can carry major singing roles in huge musicals? Whoever it is, they oughta be shot. I thought Hamilton was ridiculous, but Phillips is a travesty. The man seems to be tone-deaf, and he’s got the Lead Role, a singing role (unless, like Harris and Burton , you acknowledge that you can’t sing and just talk the lyrics, Rex Harrison-style). Phillips reaches for notes, and is tones away. His flatness was downright wince-inducing. Yes, he looks cute, and wears tights well. But his acting in this role just isn’t strong enough to cover for his vocal inadequacies. And alas, he has almost no connection with his beloved Guenevere , attractive Rachel de Benedet , who has a lovely voice but no emotional or physical presence (she spends a good deal of her sitting time fingering her hair, and her singing time facing out, with her hands at her sides). Surprising as it may seem from this performance, Phillips snagged a Tony nom as that other sovereign, in The King and I (1996). When he was last seen on a San Diego stage, in The Good Person of Setzuan (La Jolla Playhouse, 1994) he was riveting. Here he’s declaiming. To be fair, this triumvirate of principals has only been together for three weeks; maybe Lou was just having an off (key) night.
As for the rest of the cast, local favorite Eric Anderson, now wowing them in L.A. , puts in a spooky/funky performance as a dreadlocked Merlyn. Shannon Stoeke , as the dastardly Mordred , is oddly dressed like one of those dancing street monkeys, with the little tilted pillbox hat. Time Winters ’ Pellinore , while providing the lugubrious show’s only comic relief, seems to have escaped from Spamalot . But it is Matt Bogart (last seen here as the dashingly intense Pasha/ Strelnikov in the world premiere of Zhivago at La Jolla Playhouse), in addition to a fine ensemble of dancers and singers (including adorable local Robert Townsend), who saves the day. He is costumed, at first, as a silvery, French Incredible Hulk. He is startlingly, amusingly, earnest and intense. When he says “All fanatics are bores,” we believe him, and we think of all the worldwide fanatics who are boring us to death (when they aren’t trying to kill us outright).
Only Bogart captures the passion of the play. When he looks at Guenevere , you know how he feels and what he’d like to do about it. No other emotions on that stage ring as true. There are some glorious songs, but the evening do wear on (nearly three hours), and with its extended stretches of dialogue and intrusive singing at the most inopportune times, it feels distinctly old-fashioned, despite the so-called “edgy new concept,” which eluded me. The scenic design (John Iacovelli , a wonderful and knowledgeable professional who often comes to San Diego to participate in SDSU’s Design Performance Jury), is lush and evocative, majestic and frequently-changing. The costumes are attractive (though the men don’t change half as often as the women, or at least not as much as Guenevere , but perhaps ‘twas ever thus). Overall, one credible performance doth not a musical make, no matter how good the ensemble singing is. Better luck next time… and I hope the lead can sing. Oh, wait! It’s Jersey Boys (Oct. 18-Nov. 19)… and the leads (ALL of ‘ em !) had better sing their lungs out. Well, we know we can count on San Diegan Steve Gouveia . Let’s hope the rest of the fab foursome is up to his level.
THE LOCATION: Civic Theatre, brought to us by Broadway San Diego, through September 30
NEWS AND VIEWS…
… Me and KUSI… … If you missed us on Wed. Sept. 26, you can watch the segment online; there’s a link on my website: www.patteproductions.com . I talked about Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Adding Machine , and upcoming productions of Humble Boy and The Turn of the Screw. My next appearance on “Inside San Diego ” – with a video of my prize-winning waltz performance with Daniel Vasco – is Wed. Oct. 17. Be there!
…New media platform: My suggestions for Hot Tix of the Week are appearing on KNSD’s What’s Hot webpage every week: http://www.nbcsandiego.com/whatshot/index.html . Or, you can just go to their website, www.nbcsandiego.com , and click on What’s Hot on the homepage.
… Get on the Trolley… The 9th annual Trolley Dances, presented by Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theater and the Metropolitan Transit System, opens this weekend, and with five choreographers dancin ’ around the East Village , it promises to be a winner. I’ll be there with my winningest waltz partner, Daniel (and our other partners, too!)… Hope to seeya there! Sat. and Sunday 9/29 and 30 (and next weekend: 10/6 and 7). 2-hour tours begin every 45 minutes from 11am to 2:45pm. Start at the new Smart Corner at the City College trolley stop, Park Blvd. & Broadway. Tix at 619-225-1803 or www.sandiegodancetheater.org .
… Another five dances at multiple venues… Mojalet Dance Collective, under the umbrella of the SDSU School of Music and Dance, will present five works by artistic director Faith Jensen-Ismay, with live original music by Noby Lehmann and Rhythm Talk. Performances, Sept. 28-30, will be at the SDSU Studio Theatre (ENS 200). On October 10, the dancers move to the El Camino High School Theater in Oceanside , and the final performance, October 12, will be at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts. www.mojalet.com ; 858-679-0979.
… Political reading: The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, a free-verse drama to be presented by DJ Sullivan’s Sullivan Players. Father Daniel Berrigan based his play on the transcripts of the trial of nine Catholic men and women, including two priests ( Berrigan and his brother) who, in 1968, entered the Selective Services Offices in Catonsville , Maryland , removed several hundred draft records, and burned them with homemade napalm in protest against the Vietnam war . The staged reading takes place Monday evenings in October (October 8, 15, 22 & 29) at 7pm in the Swedenborg Hall. Discussion to follow. http://swedenborghall.org/content/trial-catonsville-9-0
… New group on the boards… Actor/director Douglas Lay is inaugurating a new theater company, The Theatre, Inc., dedicated to the classical canon. His first season opens with Aristophanes’ comedy, The Frogs (Nov. 1-18), to be staged at The Ark, 899 C St. , downtown. 619-216-3016.
… Tony’s in Town…. Tony Kushner, the visionary Pulitzer/Tony/Emmy/ Obie -winning playwright who gave us Angels in America, Slavs, A Bright Room Called Day, Hydriotaphia and (more recently on Broadway), Caroline, or Change, will be speaking at the San Diego Jewish Book Fair at the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla. Ever the mega-focused political activist, Kushner is currently working on a new play called The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. 7:30pm Nov. 6. Tix at: 858-362-1348 or www.lfjcc.org/bookfair .
… Keeping the Dream Alive… Common Ground Theatre has decided to move forward on the productions planned by Dr. Floyd Gaffney, its beloved artistic director, who passed away on July 19. Awaiting Judgment was the last production Gaffney directed. The show premieres on Sunday, September 30 at the Christian Fellowship Congregational United Church of Christ (619-262-8095), and moves to St. Paul ’s Cathedral on October 5-6 (619-298-7261 Ext 356). The play, by Art Cribbs , is set in a prison, and brings together two 20th century theologians: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer . Common Ground dedicates this production to the memory of Dr. Gaffney, and pledges to continue his work with underserved youth through his Youth Academy and arts education programs. In a further effort to carry on his legacy, Gaffney’s daughter, Monique Gaffney, has joined the board of CGT.
… The Bard on the Big Screen… “The Film’s the Thing: Shakespeare on Screen,” the new series co-presented by the Old Globe Theatre and San Diego Shakespeare Society, is well underway, guest curated by film critic Beth Accomando . Next up on the weekly Thursday showings is Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed classic, “Throne of Blood” (an otherworldly riff on Macbeth, set in medieval Japan), on Oct. 4, with Guest Speaker, UCSD professor Stefan Tanaka . Wrapping up the series, on Oct. 11, is Tom Stoppard’s deliciously whimsical “ Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead ,” the fantastical Hamlet backstory. Free to MoPA members/$6 for the general public. All films show at 7pm in the Museum of Photographic Arts , Balboa Park . www.mopa.org ; 619-238-7559 x202.
… Adieu, Bip . Having just revisited the magnificent film, “Children of Paradise,” and watching the genius of Marcel Marceau , Jean-Louis Barrault and Étienne Decroux , I’m saddened to think how degraded and disgraced the art of mime has become. The beauty of it is heartbreaking, and no one touched us more deeply and achingly than Marceau and his sad-faced, incompetent Everyman, Bip . We’ll not see his balletically brilliant like again. One fluid, dancerly Marceau movement was worth a zillion words. They’ve been written about him this week. The rest is silence.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Thoroughly Modern Millie — thoroughly delightful production, with great singing and dancing
Welk Resort Theatre, through November 4
Ain’t Misbehavin ’ – hot – and cool — Fats Waller songs, well sung and excellently played
San Diego Repertory Theatre, through October 14
Dear Miss Breed – a dark chapter of our collective history, touchingly told
Asian Story Theatre at the Lyceum, through September 30
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean – marvelous ensemble, darkly comic production
6th @ Penn Theatre, through September 30
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)
Yikes! October already! Make the most of Fall … at the theater!
© 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 .