By Pat Launer
The Swallow flies above, Punks and Cry-Baby beneath;
We all get by – By the Skin Of Our Teeth
THE SHOW: Cry-Baby, a brand-new musical based on the music-infused 1990 (Johnny Depp -starring) film by John Waters, variously known as the King of Camp, the Titan of Trash and the Sultan of Sleaze. The world premiere has a book by Mark O’Donnell (Tony-winner for that ‘other’ musical based on a Waters film, Hairspray) and Thomas Meehan (two-time Tony-winner for Annie and The Producers), and songs by David Javerbaum (executive producer of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) and Adam Schlesinger.
THE STORY: Baltimore , 1954. “Romeo and Juliet” gets twisted in “Grease.” It’s a quirky coming-of-age story about star-crossed lovers. She’s a Good Girl (a wealthy, squeaky-clean “Square”); he’s a Bad Boy ( a white trash graduate of juvie hall; a motorcycle-riding, black leather-jacket-wearing tough). They meet at the first annual Anti-Polio Picnic, where they get “Infected” with forbidden love. They’re several social strata apart, but they’re both orphans (his pacifist parents got the electric chair). Now she’s got a stern, etiquette-obsessed grandma and he’s got a perennially pregnant sister. Cry-Baby explains his name in a song (“One Tear”): “It’s meant to be ironic, ‘’ cuz I don’t really cry…. One tear is all you’ll get from me,” which includes the irresistible couplet “I’m in complete command of my lachrymal gland.”
The Squares (and their white-bread leader, Baldwin) are threatened by Cry-Baby and his followers (he’s “the most popular loner in school”). But the Drapes welcome Al lison into their wacky fold and their Turkey Point hangout. They’re happy to introduce her to “the lower crust,” which includes tight, sexy clothes and funky, sensual music (though I missed the ‘makeover’ she got in the movie). Baldwin ( Al lison’s erstwhile beau) shows up with his goofy goons (they look, dress and sing like the plaid-wearing nerds in Forever Plaid) and a fire ensues. The Drapes are accused, arrested and sent away to prison or reform school. Al lison pines. Cry-Baby and Crew break out. There’s a chase scene. The Grandmother recants. The Truth is revealed. The gorgeous girl winds up ugly (by choice), the ugly, scar-faced girl gets pretty (not by choice). Everyone ends up paired off and happy, though in an unsatisfyingly realistic twist, the real perpetrators of the destruction get off scott-free (as the song says, “You Can’t Beat the System” – unless you’re rich). And the grand finale is a wide-eyed Pollyanna- ish “Nothing Bad’s Ever Gonna Happen Again.” Welcome to Waters-Land!
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The production is eye-popping (sets by Scott Pask , lighting by Howell Binkley). When the curtain goes up, the look, lighting and costumes are so brilliantly bright, colorful and ‘Up With People’ wholesome, you have to blink your eyes to adjust. Then the Drapes come bursting onstage in a red convertible (there’s even a peacock-blue ’54 T-Bird parked outside the Mandell Weiss Theatre – or at least there was on opening night). The culture clash is great fun throughout – the farty , corny Squares with their ballads and barber-shop harmonies vs. the oozing sex of the Drapes and their hip-swiveling, gospel-inflected, R&B-meets-R&R wailers.
The energy is incredibly high and the direction, by Mark Brokaw, is exciting and dynamic without being hyperactive. But it’s Rob Ashford’s choreography that steals the show. This is the best dancing in a musical in decades. The show’s heights of creativity are scaled in the moves and the lyrics. Both perfectly capture the twisted whimsy of Waters’ warped humor. The book isn’t always so successful. Both acts bog down in unnecessary narrative detail (that Theme Park scene can go, among others) and there’s a sense of repetitive numbers that sound like other songs (heavy on the Elvis, R&B and ballads) and only serve to describe character or situation rather than forwarding the action. And the audience should go out with a song they can sing and dance to (like “Can’t Stop the Beat” in Hairspray, which kept folks boppin ’ long past the lobby).
The show needs to be pared down. But the vitality is awesome. And there are two show-stopping songs, which not all new musicals can boast. The best song, by far, is “Screw Loose,” in which the loony-tunes Lenora, who drools over Cry-Baby and tries to sabotage his relationship with Al lison, croons to her lost love,`a la Brenda Lee and Connie Francis, “I’ve got a screw loose for you.” At the end of the song, she reminds him that she’ll “be here if you need a new screw.” Big-voiced, elfin Al li Mauzey brings down the house.
The other clever song is more about the moves and the lyrics than the music, but it’s a keeper: “Can I Kiss You …” ( the ellipses masking the R-rated missing words “with tongue”). Hilarious lines, and the most imaginative, making-out-behind-rocks moves you’ve ever/never seen. Fantastic!
Catherine Zuber’s costumes have the era and characters down pat, except for Mrs. Vernon-Williams, Al lison’s granny. Her outfits aren’t starchy or classy enough. And Broadway (and Thoroughly Modern Millie) veteran Harriet Harris is woefully miscast in the role. This character has been expanded from the movie, and she gets a seminal song in the second act, “I Did Something Wrong Once,” a confessional ballad that should be a star-turn in its own right. Harris hasn’t got the vocal chops; even talk-singing, she doesn’t really register. A much stronger character actor is needed, one who can bite into the role with ferocity (in the movie, Polly Bergen had a fierce sense of dignity; even that is missing here).
Elizabeth Stanley has that beautiful blonde bimbette look the somewhat thankless role of Al lison demands. Stanley has a strong voice and an attractive presence, but we never really come to know this girl. We don’t know that much about Cry-Baby for that matter, either. They’re kind of uni -dimensional cardboard characters as written. Though James Snyder is cute and Elvis-swivels his hips like nobody’s business, he isn’t hearth-throbbing charismatic.
As Dupree, Cry-Baby’s sidekick, the Little Richard/James Brown stand-in who wails and splits and puts the rhythm in Rhythm ‘n’ Blues, Chester Gregory II is terrific. And the backup girls are great: spunky fireplug Carly Jibson as preggo Pepper; l ong -legged Lacey Kohl as sexy stunner Wanda; and forceful Cristen Paige as the knife-wielding Scar-face, Mona. Christopher J. Hanke is as smarmy as the scheming straight-arrow, Baldwin , should be.
The ensemble is galvanic. The vitality is infectious. The choreography and dancing are fantastic. The 13-piece band sounds brash, brassy and twice its size (orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke ; additional arrangements by musical director Lynne Shankel ). Okay, so the story is ridiculous, and it’s way too similar to Grease. It doesn’t make much of a point. There isn’t a moral or lesson; even “Hairspray” had racial integration. But like many of Waters’ works, it celebrates the outsider, rejoices in freaks and weirdos , and shows that a Bad Boy can have a good heart. It isn’t deep, but it’s a helluva lot of fun.
THE LOCATION: La Jolla Playhouse, through December 16
BOTTOM LINE : BEST BET
THE SHOW: Punks, a world premiere by local writer/actor/director Claudio Raygoza , conceived by his life-and-theater partner, director Glenn Paris , inspired by Jean Genet’s 1948 shocker, The Maids
THE STORY: The true story of two domestics murdering their mistress, which occurred in 1933, inspired all kinds of adaptations, including the 2000 movie, “Murderous Maids.” Genet, a petty criminal in his own right, was fascinated by the story. Flagrantly gay, frequently degenerate, he spent most of his life in the seamy, steamy underworld. One of the play’s themes, in addition to deception, artifice and the defense of social outcasts and the oppressed, was the fluidity of sexuality. Genet saw gender as just one more mask in a bourgeois world filled with artifice. Masks, gender, deception – it’s all theater (there’s a play-within-a-play-within-a-play in The Maids and in Punks). Genet even suggested that all three of his female characters be played by boys. So he’d probably get a kick out of Raygoza’s twisted take on his classic: the sibs are men, the power above them is a woman playing a man dressing up as a woman. They’re Latino hustlers; s/he’s an Anglo actor turned lounge lizard. There are games, rituals, fetishes. Cruelty, seduction, self-loathing, sexual predation, jealousy and perversion. And in this version, nudity, drugs and very raw language. It’s not for the linguistically or thematically squeamish. But there are some bracingly wonderful turns of phrase, and terrific performances.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The piece gets off to a glacially slow start. We see a disheveled, crumbling room (design by Raygoza and Matt Scott). A bare lightbulb . Pictures of men on the wall. Women’s shoes on the floor. A curtain blowing at the window. Another curtain, diaphanous, center stage, barely masking two men sleeping in a bed. The sounds of traffic. An extended lounge song plays, from start to finish, all about life and loneliness. We wait. Nothing happens. The man/woman, in a trenchcoat and fedora, enters through the window. Silently, s/he turns on the TV, sets the digital clock to 1:10 and leaves. The alarm goes off and the action begins. It’s a long time coming, but once it starts, we’re sucked into 90 minutes of intensity, ruthlessness, torment, enigma . The brothers switch names, identities, power positions. One is dressed in leather, the aggressor. He’s the writer of the ‘play’ to come. He’s tough, has done a few things he regrets. The other, the actor, is more subservient, but he can turn vicious on a dime. They are low- lifes , Latinos on the bottom rung (“When’s the last time La Raza got anything but the short end of the stick?”). They’re hooked on drugs, and their dysfunctional relationship with each other and with Marion, who returns to play out the drama s/he ‘commissioned,’ dressing up in high period drag (including a foot-tall Marie Antoinette wig). “Lurid fantasies,” one of the brothers says, “are a veil of the world.” They play out a dangerous game, but what they’re all looking for is salvation. The play, like its inspiration, shatters ideas about fantasy and reality, power differentials (less class than racial, in this version) and the need to be noticed, acknowledged, to succeed , in whatever pathetic way possible.
Raygoza’s muscular writing keeps us off guard, uncertain. Events unfold unpredictably, but we know it won’t end well. Paris has cast excellently and directed with precision. George Yé has done a superb job in directing the fights. The performances are riveting: Steven Lone beautiful in his callousness and regret (and his skin-tight leather!); Markuz Rodriguez compelling in his weak, incestuous dependence. And Robin Christ, with her laser focus and economy of motion, is a mesmerizing presence; you can’t take your eyes off her, and you can’t ever tell what she’s thinking or what she’ll do next. This isn’t theater for the faint of heart; but it’s a cold splash of illusion — and the shattering of illusions. And a fascinating contemplation of the role of theater in life.
THE LOCATION: ion theatre at the Academy of Performing Arts , through December 16
BOTTOM LINE : BEST BET
The Ice Age Returns
THE SHOW: The Skin of Our Teeth, Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1942 play.
THE STORY: Written in the throes of the Second World War, the absurdist piece was framed as a hilarious but foreboding romp through human experience. Structurally, it was way ahead of its time. Ancient, Biblical and literary characters co-exist with mammoths, dinosaurs and a 20th century New Jersey Everyfamily . The husband and wife have been married for 5000 years. They and their two off-beat offspring are assaulted by a series of catastrophes: climate change, famine, floods, Depression, a devastating war. There are refugees, unsavory politicians, book-burnings, violent acts. The text is so topical it could have been ripped from yesterday’s paper. And that’s just the point. These disasters occur over and over. We pick ourselves up and rebuild. The play is a tribute to the indomitable human spirit, and the will to survive both natural and man-made disasters – even if we only do so by the skin of our teeth.
The three acts vary wildly in tone. The play is simultaneously funny and tragic, gloomy and hopeful. It begins and ends in the same way, just as time and catastrophes are cyclical. History keeps repeating itself. Mankind has always been on the brink of cataclysmic devastation, and probably always will be. We don’t learn from our mistakes, but we soldier on, we regroup, we rebuild and renew. At the end of the play, the actors acknowledge that there’s an “as yet unwritten fourth act,” and they give the audience the responsibility of completing the work and saving the human race.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The UCSD production is often engaging and imaginative. It captures a sense of the absurd at times, but not enough. The focus is more on the whimsy, but there isn’t a sufficiently ominous undercurrent of disaster and despair. There’s no real sense of danger. And the aggressive, sadistic son is more playful bad boy than the very seeds of violence, which are sown not overseas but in our own homes. Director Sarah Rasmussen creates some attractive stage pictures particularly in the Fellini-esque second act, which takes place on the Atlantic City boardwalk and is populated by a wild array of eccentrics and oddballs. Her leads are good (Rebecca Levy is especially intriguing as the maid/seductress Sabina, but even she could be more extreme – in her seductions and machinations). Most of the cast seems to be playing one note. There is so much roiling beneath the surface in this play; the actors need to show multiple levels and layers of meaning and motivation at almost all times.
The colorful, cockeyed set (Kristin Ellert ) is aptly offbeat, and the costumes (Rachel Shachar ) are imaginative (especially the housepet wooly mammoth). The sound design (Christopher M. Luessmann ) foretells and underscores the various disasters. Local choreographer Liam Clancy has created some fascinating, stylized moves, but they’re not always well integrated into the action. With its huge cast of characters and wildly swinging tonal shifts, the play is extremely difficult to get right and do well. Kudos to Rasmussen and her 20-member cast for taking on this mammoth (oops!) task.
THE LOCATION: UCSD Theatre and Dance, in the Potiker Theatre, through December 1.
Note: UCSD closes the fall quarter with Medea , Nov. 26- Dec. 1, in the Mandell Weiss Forum Studio.
Songs of Love
I caught one of the last performances of The Swallow, the English version of a rarely performed work by Puccini, originally La Rondine . The contemporary English translation of the original libretto (Dr. A.M. Wilner , Heinz Reichert, Giuseppe Adami ) was by Robert Hess. First performed in 1917, the small opera was an attempt to mimic the sensibilities of the Viennese operetta tradition. But it has loftier ambitions, too, including elements of its bigger and better sisters, La Traviata , Madama Butterfly and La Bohème . Set in 1870s Paris , it features a courtesan who falls in love with a naive, country boy but, unable to be confined to a conventional life, she returns to her old ways, in the process breaking his heart. With its balancing act between the cosmopolitan and the sentimental, the score features a mix of lilting melodies, lovely waltzes and cynical outlooks.
The Lyric Opera production was lovely to look at; the smoothly changing, upper crust-to-demimonde sets came from the Des Moines Metro Opera. The lush, colorful costumes were rented as well. The direction, by J. Sherwood Montgomery, was especially strong in the second act crowd scenes in the seamy Parisian nightclub, where a delightful array of stage business was given to every member of the ensemble. The first act features elegant attire and the beautiful aria, “Canzone di Doretta ,” sung by Magda , the flighty bird of the title. It’s the third act that felt unsatisfying here, though it’s the most emotionally fraught. The singing was pleasant, if variable throughout.
There are some wonderfully passionate and romantic melodies, which were nicely handled by the chorus and the 34-member orchestra, under the lively baton of James Lowe. The principals were less consistent. As Magda , Suzan Hanson appeared vocally and dramatically head and shoulders above her castmates . Most of the time, she seemed to be holding back her pure, powerhouse voice, to accommodate the others. She connected well with handsome tenor Chad A. Johnson, who cut a heroic and tragic figure as her doomed love, Ruggero . Soprano Susan Holssonbake (wife of the conductor) was delightful as Magda’s maid, Lisette , an airy wannabe actress who willingly goes back to servitude when she fails onstage. Egging her on and demeaning her at the same time is her surreptitious lover, the pretentious poet Prunier (pleasant tenor Enrique Torál ). Baritone William Nolan, as Magda’s aging sugar-daddy, seemed to talk more than sing his small but seminal role. The trio of giggling girlfriends, which included Michelle Kei Ishuu and talented local twins Shelly Hart Breneman and Shauna Ostrom, deftly took their comic turns. The production as a whole proved a pleasant diversion, though it fell short of being a heart-stopping operatic experience.
Lawyers in Love
Aspire Playwrights Collective, founded by Kristina Meek in 1006, is dedicated to developing new works. And it was in that spirit that they presented a staged reading of a play-in-progress, Kevin Six ’s Love Negotiated. This incestuous group of friends is heavy on cynical legal eagles, who write pre- nups , post- nups and non-nuptial agreements for themselves and each other. (Note to actors – and others: The word is Nuptial, not nupTUal ; there’s no ‘u’ in it, and no ‘u’ in the pronunciation). Anyway, this play, often very clever and comical, is an examination of love and marriage, framed as a kind of “Friends” episode plus gays and lesbians. It’s a very GenX conceit: multiple hookups and breakups among a group of amigos that includes a number of exes. At times, the humor undercuts the seriousness, but the serious moments sometimes tend toward the trite. Six has a good ear for hetero dialogue, less so for gay confessionals. The piece needs trimming and tightening — and fewer of those “M-word,” “D-word,” “C-word” references. And in future readings, it’d be helpful if the cast was more familiar with the text. Still, this was a pleasant way to spend an evening, and there was a very impressive turnout at the Athenaeum Studio on Park Blvd. Six clearly has some talent – and some ideas; hopefully, his Collective will help him hone both.
NEWS AND VIEWS ….
… A Taste of Patté… The Date is set, the plans are made and it’s gonna be bigger and better than ever! The 11th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence will be held on Monday, January 14, in a brand-new venue: the David & Dorothea Garfield Theatre on the Jacobs Campus of the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla . Verrrry exciting: the intimacy and camaraderie of table seating, the capabilities of a state-of-the-art theater AND “cheap seats for starving artists” in a gallery up above! Plus, I’m inaugurating the First Annual Patté Scholarship for a Promising Young Theatermaker, presented in honor of the late Dr. Floyd Gaffney .Details at www.patteproductions.com
…Ch- ch-ch-Changes … KUSI is shifting its “Inside San Diego” show back to an all-news format. But they’re expanding the arts coverage on their weekend show, “Good Morning, San Diego .” That Saturday and Sunday morning program attracts their largest audience, and that’s the one I’ll be on come December. My first appearance will be Saturday, December 8 at 9:45am; I’ll be talking about Holiday Fare. And then I’ll be on again Dec. 29. Be there! Channel 51/cable 9.
… The “Musical Shakespeare Evening,” hosted by the San Diego Shakespeare Society, featuring a stellar cast of characters that spanned artforms (music, theater, dance ) was, by all reports, a huge success. More than 200 people came to celebrate the musical brilliance of the Bard, guided by theater faves Rosina Reynolds and Jonathan McMurtry . Society President Al ex Sandie was ecstatic with the result: “ We feel this will now be an Annual event,” he crowed. “There is so much talent in San Diego and so much Shakespeare to draw from…..we have just scratched the surface.” Watch for the event next year… and sing along with Shakespeare!
… A Classical Music Workshop for Teachers will be held at the California Center for the Arts on Dec. 4. In these days of shrinking arts education, it’d be great to learn more about how to incorporate dance, music, theater and visual arts into the classroom. Free to all teachers, K-12. Reservations at 760-839-4194.
..CONGRATULATIONS to our own Craig Noel, Father of San Diego Theater, who was just awarded a National Medal of Arts. I was glad to do my little part, writing a letter on his behalf. Craig is a local and a national treasure: he devoted his entire life to the Globe, along the way helping to launch the regional theater movement and the careers of untold actors, directors, donors and supporters of the theater. Bravo, Craig! You’re our Hero!
…Free Day of Dance !… As a holiday gift to the whole community, three resident companies at Dance Place San Diego , NTC, will offer one free day of dance classes, Wednesday, Dec. 26, from 10am to 7:30pm. Be a part of Malashock Dance, Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theater or San Diego Ballet for a day. A complete schedule is available at each company’s website. And that same week, four-time Emmy-winning choreographer John Malashock will offer intensive workshops for professional and pre-professional dancers. Saturday 12/27. Info at www.malashockdance.org .
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Cry-Baby – feather-light but fantastic fun. The choreography and dancing steal the show — and the lyrics are pitch-perfect, slightly wacky John Waters.
La Jolla Playhouse, through December 16
Punks – down-and-dirty, sexually explicit, strong writing and strong language; a world premiere inspired by Jean Genet’s The Maids
ion theatre, through December 16
(For full text of all of Pat’s past reviews, going back to 1990, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Don’t be a Turkey – our stages are as stuffed as you are! Get thee to a theater… pronto!
© 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 .