By Pat Launer
You know that it’s that time of year
When stages fill with holiday cheer:
Tiny Tim ages and the winter chills,
Sondheim sings and Medea kills
And Torch Songs are sung by a sad drag queen
While a near-bride gets a Sweet 15.
Carrying a Torch
THE SHOW: Torch Song Trilogy, the groundbreaking 3-act dramedy by 4-time Tony winner Harvey Fierstein (this play gave him his first two Tonys : for Best Play and Best Actor). The Broadway production opened in 1982 and ran for more than 1200 performances. In 1988, Fierstein adapted his work for a film, in which he also starred. The movie was set a decade earlier than the play, in order to avoid mention of AIDS during the peak of the epidemic. The film cast included Anne Bancroft and Matthew Broderick.
THE STORY: The title relates to the diehard romantic whose soul and fatalism derive from the 1920s ballads he adores. The three acts of the play were set in 1971, 1973 and 1980. The Diversionary productions moves the time forward, to 2001, 2002 and the present. In “International Stud,” Arnold meets bisexual Ed and falls in love, but then Ed goes off and marries a woman. “Fugue in a Nursery” finds Arnold with Al an, the love of his life. They settle down and arrange to adopt a child together. Then tragedy darkens their lives. In “Widows and Children First !, ” Arnold ’s mother shleps up from Florida and comes face-to-face with Arnold ’s gay teenage son.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Twenty years ago, Tim Irving played Arnold Beckoff , the Fierstein’s lovable drag queen. Having evolved into one of the county’s best comic directors, Irving maintains his magnificent sense of comic timing, and leads his extremely capable cast through the ups and downs, one-liners and lulls of this nearly four-hour epic. The show moves at a quick clip and never really sags or lags. Irving ’s direction is sprightly and imaginative (the 4-person bed scene is particularly enjoyable).
Stepping into Harvey ’s oversized shoes isn’t easy. But Matt Weeden , at 27, Harvey ’s precise age when he wrote and starred in the play, hits his comic marks and really nails the pathos of this bittersweet life and character. His sad eyes tell a tale all their own. He even gets a chance to sing (he’s a graduate of the SDSU MFA program in musical theater), and his vocal chops, honed during scads of performances in Forbidden Broadway, here and in New York , arereally good. Of course, he doesn’t have Harvey ’s sandpaper rasp of a voice (who does?), which is referred to several times in the play. But Weeden is delightful and charismatic throughout. And he’s surrounded by a strong ensemble.
Barron Henzel is always totally natural and believable. As the confused bisexual, he strikes a very honest note. Sidney Franklin is beautiful as the model, Al an, with an irresistible twinkle in his eye and a good ear for sarcasm (though he could work on his rate and diction). Amanda Sitton is deliciously passive- aggressive, annoying and acerbic in the small role of Ed’s ‘other lover,’ who baits and envies Arnold . Jill Drexler continues her string of funny performances as an overbearing, insensitive Jewish Mama; she totally captures the comedy (even if she wasn’t to the manna born). Tom Zohar is terrific as the adopted adolescent, David, a smartass who’s sometimes quite wise.
The set (David Wiener) is nicely and rapidly varying, and the costumes (Jennifer Brawn Gittings ) are just right. Except perhaps for the ‘back-room’ bars that proliferated in New York in the ‘70s, playgrounds for anonymous sex, the play could’ve been written yesterday. It’s aged very well, and updates equally effectively. The issues haven’t changed; gay men (drag queens or not) still search for true love and a settled family life. Mothers still don’t understand their children’s lifestyles (gay or not). There’s still gay-bashing galore. And the emotional tone, however comic, is still darkly, sadly true. There’s a lot in the play, besides one-liners, to like and ponder and enjoy. Don’t miss this production.
THE LOCATION: Diversionary Theatre, through December 16
BOTTOM LINE : BEST BET
Not So Sweet 15
THE SHOW: Sweet 15: Quinceañera , a world premiere comedy by San Diego native Rick Najera , who plays the central role. A founding member of the erstwhile comedy troupe Latins Anonymous, Najera went on to amass impressive TV and playwriting credits.
THE STORY: A Latino father abandons his family just before his daughter’s big 15th birthday bash, her Quinceañera , a Latina ’s ‘coming out’ and ‘coming of age’ celebration. Ten years later, he returns to give her the big fiesta she never got as a teen. The young woman is disappointed, her mother is angry and her grandma is ready with the pepper-spray and a gun. We’re all invited to the ‘Quince,’ but everything, predictably, doesn’t turn out to be what anyone expected.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The comedy was workshopped a year ago at the San Diego Rep. The latest version has sharpened the storyline. In fact, the plot-points are now hammered home. Before, it wasn’t clear exactly why the father left. Now, it’s beaten into us that he botched a drug-run (a lame effort to raise more money for a better Quince party), and has been hounded by Tijuana ’s drug kingpin, El Jefe , ever since. The daughter’s boyfriend has a smaller role now, and the tagline that accompanies him (“the Indian who doesn’t even own a casino”) grows tiresome. The writing, rife with local references that always go over big with local audiences (though they limit the geographic range of the play) is often trite, predictable or repetitive, but the performances are engaging, if unabashedly over-the-top. For the opening night audience, it seemed the further over, the better. But though the first act is more focused than before, and the characters are a little better defined, the second act still descends rapidly into silliness and camp. And oh yes, there’s audience participation. Five couples, willing and not-so-willing volunteers, become the ‘Court’ to the Quince ‘princess,’ executing a simple Dance of the Flowers. The best part of that segment is the ad libs by Carlo D’Amore as Jorge Rodriguez, the flamboyant party planner who puts them through their paces. D’Amore is very agile and very funny. And he sobers up wonderfully as fish-loving Father John.
Jose Yenque plays the ‘bad guys’ with aplomb — the crooked cop Manuelito and the nasty, gun-toting pachuco , El Jefe . Rick Najera is understated as the father Eddy (he’s about the only actor onstage to whom that adjective could apply). Al ma Martinez, perhaps best remembered for her stellar turn in Luis Valdez’s Mummified Deer, seems to be screaming her role as the oversexed Grandma, but she gets a lot of (well deserved) laughs. It’s another Rep veteran, Fernando Vega, who just about steals the show as Fernando Cahuenga , a washed-up, Liberace-like telenovela actor who does a hilarious impression of the gay, hip-swiveling, Mexican singing superstar Juan Gabriel. He brings the house down repeatedly, with his loose hips and commanding vocal presence. Nina Brissey has little more to do than scowl as the put-upon daughter, who wants a wedding more than a Quince. But she always idolized her missing father and endures the event for him, gritting her teeth all the way. As the wife, angry/sexy/conciliatory Eva, Yvonne DeLaRosa gets to take more of a journey than any other character. But her marriage moralizing at the end is kind of soppy.
Director Sam Woodhouse manages the mayhem with characteristic charm, but the humor definitely aims low and frequently hits below the belt. The set (Ron Ranson ) is probably intentionally tacky, but it’s really cheesy, and not particularly attractive (ugh, that garish orange!). The costumes ( Paloma H. Young) are pretty wild (very tight, lots of bright colors and prints), and not especially flattering to any of the actors But perhaps that’s part of the point. This is a warts-and-all look behind a beloved but kind of crazy tradition, where families spend way beyond their means for one night of frivolity. If you want to join in the wacky fun, be their guest.
THE LOCATION: San Diego Repertory Theatre, through December 16
THE SHOW: A Christmas Carol: Not-So-Tiny Tim’s Big Musical, a world premiere by local writer/director/composer/accompanist Ruff Yeager , the first full production of the year-old Vox Nova Theatre Company Yeager founded to spearhead new work
THE STORY: The narrative pretty much follows the Dickens original, but here, Tiny Tim has grown up to be a termite guy as well as a curmudgeon and a skinflint. His tale parallels exactly that of Scrooge – the late-night visitations, a poverty-stricken child at peril of death (here, it’s a girl who’s lost her hearing to a tumor and may lose her life). The several ghosts of Marley are all has-been actors who played too many an Ebenezer. There’s a Spanish slant (Tim’s secretary is Latina ). And lots of songs, both familiar and new.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Al though everyone involved in this production has done a fair amount of professional work, this new piece feels very much like community theater . And there just doesn’t seem to be a point. If everything that happened to Scrooge happens to not-so-Tiny Tim, then why not just tell the Scrooge story? Is it just about the cycle of un-change? Doesn’t seem to be motivation enough. And the ‘actor’ conceit comes at the beginning of the show and then disappears forever. The termite bit has no relationship to anything, and the generally simple songs don’t really forward the action, though they’re pleasant and hummable . Everyone is working really hard; the cast is game and at times, amusing and/or heartwarming. The production values are extremely minimal. The whole effort has a sort of last-minute ‘Hey! Let’s add some Spanish and humor to A Christmas Carol’ feel. And let’s throw in some audience singalong and participation (Pin the Tail on the Donkey, anyone?). Each member of the ensemble — big-voiced Ria Carey, endearing Jason Connors , solid/sweet Olivia Espinosa, funnyman John Martin, lovely-voiced Jessica Lerner and rubber-faced Fred Harlow (as the title character) — gets a moment in the spotlight, and most play multiple, quick-change roles. They’re all trying really hard to please. That’ll be easier with some audiences than others. Fortunately, when it comes to the holiday season, theatergoers are often both giving and forgiving.
THE LOCATION: Vox Nova Theatre Company, through December 23
THE SHOW: Medea , the second production of Euripides’ horrifying tragedy in a month (the last was at 6th @ Penn). That modern-language translation was by local scholar Marianne McDonald. This one is by Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Rafael (1994). Interestingly, both productions featured high concept and an Asian tinge.
In the gut-wrenching moments before she kills them, this Medea (striking, red-and-black-haired Jiehae Park ) delivers her extended, impassioned speech exclusively in Korean. Avenging her husband’s death by murdering her children is no easy task for this troubled mother and abandoned wife. She wails, she keens, she moans, she intones. If any sensory channel takes precedence in this production, it is sound.
The haunting soundscape that underscores the action is performed primarily on Tibetan instruments, which provide a sometimes earth-shaking, sometimes spine-tingling experience. At one point, the arena stage is ‘played’ like a drum by the two musicians (Jason Rosenberg and Steve Hoey ), and the microphones beneath the circular platform amplify the vibrations into a rumbling, bone-rattling earthquake. Toby Al gya , a second year MFA student, not only designed the sound and composed the music (with the help of his two skilled musicians) , he also created and adapted the Chants which course through the production.
The monotonal presentation of much of the Chorus’ lines renders the text both hypnotic and meditational , but also decreases its relationship to meaning and emotion. The costumes (Maggie Whitaker) don’t always compute in the face of the other elements. The chorus , who leave their writhing, choreographic moves to double as the other characters, wear tan gumshoe trenchcoats . Medea sports a long leather coat. Al l shed their outerwear at propitious moments (especially effective when Medea smothers her children). A word about the children: Ashley Navarro and Parker Shyu , two local third graders who are already theater veterans , are as centered and focused as the very best of adult professional actors. They are extraordinary — in their riveted gaze on their mother, following her every action with their eyes; their perfect stillness; their perfectly synchronized hand motions; and their precise movements around the stage as they try to symbolically re-capture their past, gracefully setting their hands and feet into the sand-impressions already ‘imprinted’ there.
The direction (Isis Saratial Misdary , a second-year MFA student who also adapted the text) and the motions (movement direction by recent UCSD grad Carrie Prince) are stylized, but not always in service of the text. This turned out to be a limitation of both the high-concept Medeas this season. But it also made them provocative and rendered some of their visual images unforgettable.
THE LOCATION: UCSD Theatre and Dance, in the Mandell Weiss Forum Tudio , through December 1.
I caught the final (matinee) performance of Side by Side by Sondheim, and I thought that director Daniel Logan and his cast did a really fine job. Sondheim’s story-songs are extremely difficult, punishingly difficult in some cases, whether in terms of speed or tonality. And in this production, most of them hit just right. Musical director Kirk Valles did an excellent job with the accompaniment, and he and Logan generally matched the songs to the vocal and personal characteristics of the singers.
It was my first time in the new theater space, which is quite attractive and acoustically impressive. The basic set (Tiffany Fenderson ) of various levels of platforms of various Crayola colors, was serviceable. The slide projections worked well: posters from the shows being featured in song, and multiple graphic representations of the show’s title. My only real gripe with the production was the costumes (Angela Wills), which were garish ‘70s polyester prints that often conflicted with each other and with the songs (especially the more somber ones). The notes say the revue is ‘set in the ‘70s,’ but if the songs are timeless (which they are), there’s no need to conceive them for a particular decade. The show premiered on Broadway in 1977, but that doesn’t make any particular difference to this wide-ranging sampling of nearly 30 Sondheim songs written up to that time. There were few props used (there could have been more), but when they were employed, they were quite effective. The narration, as written, sounded too sophomoric for the clever lyrics, and it seemed to bounce back and forth bumpily between shows. The supposedly quippy additions (apparently created by narrator Adrienne René, who was pushing a tad too hard throughout the show) didn’t do the production any favors. Less talking, more singing would have served the proceedings well.
Highlights of the song presentations included Lisa Goodman’s very funny turn in the furiously-paced “Getting Married Today,” form Company She had almost all the comic numbers (including playing the trumpeting Miss Mazeppa in “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” from Gypsy). She was aptly Dietrich-sultry and smoky-voiced in “I Never Do Anything Twice” (also called “The Madam’s Song”) from the 1976 film, “The Seven Percent Solution.” But she was also wonderfully heartfelt and emotional in “I’m Still Here” from Follies. Brett Daniels and Julia Celano were amusing with Company’s “ Barcelona ,” which featured a little more acting than some of the other numbers. Celano is only 23, and she has a powerhouse soprano. More training in breath control and articulatory precision will push her to the next level of pro performance. Daniels was best with “Buddy’s Blues” from Follies and a kind of gay/guy version of “Could I Leave You” (though other lines and situations were a little ‘cleaned up’ for the community theater audience – like the classic Company backstage line, “Who do I have to [here, ‘sleep with’] to get out of this show?” Daniels and Goodman perfectly captured the seething hostility in the ‘perfect relationship’ duet, “The Little Things You Do Together” from Company. Overall, for a small company, low budget and minimal production values, a very commendable job.
NEWS AND VIEWS ….
… Get ready!! Starting next week, you can buy your tickets – or your table — for the 11th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence. The event is gonna be ab-fab , and bigger and better than ever! Monday, January 14, in the David & Dorothea Garfield Theatre at the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla . And it will be broadcast on Cox Channel 4 TV… Verrrry exciting. Special Bonus for theaterfolk : In addition to the regular dinner/table seating, there will be “cheap seats for starving artists” in the mezzanine gallery! The lineup of entertainment is great, and I’m inaugurating the First Annual Patté Scholarship for a Promising Young Theatermaker, presented in honor of the late Dr. Floyd Gaffney. You’re definitely going to want to be there!! Details at www.patteproductions.com . Tickets (after 12/1) at http://tickets.lfjcc.org
… Watch for me on a new KUSI program (well, new for me, anyway!)… Starting in December, I’ll be appearing on the weekend show, “Good Morning, San Diego .” I’ll be there on Saturday, December 8 at about 9:45am, talking about Holiday Fare. Tune in – and call in to give them feedback! Channel 51/cable 9.
… R-Rated… That’s R for Retirement. Big Year for stepping down around town. This week, Bill Virchis , and next spring, SDSU’s Beeb Salzer and Terry O’Donnell. Congrats to all. Now the second chapter of your life begins!! We know you’ll all continue to do something in the theater…. What would your life be without it??
… Kathryn Martin, interim exec director extraordinaire, is doing her efficient, effective thing at a new place: the Center for Jewish Culture at the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla . She’s done superb work for SummerFest (La Jolla Music Society), Starlight, Malashock and others, and she’s sure to make great inroads at the JCC, too.
…WOV Radio is back on the air… in the third annual offering of The 1940s Radio Show Christmas Carol , written by former San Diegan Walt Jones, past chair of the Theatre Dept. at UCSD and former Playreaders artistic director. Very loosely based on the Dickens classic, the comedy includes boffo behind-the-scenes bickering, war-time news bulletins and radio commercials of the day. The show has sold out every year. At Carlsbad Playreaders . Monday Dec. 3 at 7:30pm in the Dove Library. www.carlsbadplayreaders.org
…Same night, different scene… Chronos Theatre Group invites you to its staged reading of the German classic Penthesilea , Monday, December 3, at 7:30pm in the Lyceum Theatre. The 1808 verse drama concerns the tragic love affair between Penthesilea , Queen of the Amazons, and the Greek hero Achilles. This reading features original music by Jason Connors , who also performs in the cast of 11, directed by Doug Hoehn.
… Speaking of readings, Write Out Loud continues its first season of ‘theater of the mind,’ short stories engagingly read to a live audience, with “Giving Season… Holiday Stories for the Whole Family.” Sat. Dec. 15, 2pm at Cygnet Theatre. 619-297-8953; firstname.lastname@example.org
… Ring out the old… with the National Comedy Theatre, which will present its New Years Eve Comedy Spectacular on Mon. Dec. 31, beginning at 9:30pm. In addition to the regular show, somewhat akin to “Whose Line is it, Anyway ?, ” the evening will include a catered buffet, an after-show party with the cast and a champagne countdown to the new year. http://www.nationcomedy.com
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Medea — striking and provocative Asian-tinged production of a classic, underscored by haunting Tibetan instruments
UCSD in the Mandell Weiss Forum Theatre, through December 1
Torch Song Trilogy – sad and funny, sentimental and heartrending. Excellently acted and directed
Diversionary Theatre, through December 16
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)
What? December already?? Where’d this year go? … I guess it all went up in onstage smoke… Make the most of the waning days of 2007… 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 .