By Pat Launer
It’s the wackiest week you’ve ever seen:
From Scrooge in Harlem to a Math Team Queen,
The Grinch and a family put to the test
As ‘Cyrano’ hits the Asian Wild West.
Lean, Mean and Green
THE SHOW: Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the 10th anniversary production of the Globe’s holiday phenom, currently making news — and a big splash – in its second year on Broadway (it was the first show to be reinstated during the recent stagehands’ strike, given special dispensation in view of its limited run). Book and Lyrics by Timothy Mason; Music by Mel Marvin.
THE STORY: You’d have to be living under some lichen-licked rock not to know the story of the Whos and their Who-Hash and the Green Meanie who lived above them on Mount Crumpet . The Grinch, hating the Whos and not giving a Whoot for their Christmas, decides to stop the entire event, by stealing all the Who-gifts. Then he runs into sleepy Cindy-Lou Who, and he learns that Christmas comes, like it or not, presents or not. And his heart grows two sizes, and he carves the Roast Beast. In the musical version, all those things happen, plus the entire action is framed as a memory play, with Old Max, the aging, about-to-retire canine pal of the Grinch, recalls that fateful Christmas.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The show has been tweaked to match the New York production, with three new songs added, including the memorable (if unsingable) “Fah Who Doraze,” from the beloved 1966 animated film. The other songs are pleasant, and “It’s the Thought That Counts,” the replacement for “Last-Minute Shopping,” which was a fun/frenetic romp, actually hews closer to the emotional tone of the story (i.e., it’s not the shopping that’s important).
The original production was conceived and directed by Jack O’Brien; this incarnation, intended to mimic what’s happening on Broadway, was helmed by Benjamin Endsley Klein. The original choreography was by John DeLuca; new and additional choreography is by Bob Richard. It’s still colorful (in the same tri-tone palette Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) first used in 1957. The rhymes in the book and lyrics aren’t half as clever as Geisel’s, nor are they perfect rhymes (typically, when the kid-friendly poet couldn’t think of a perfect rhyme, he made a word up to fit. But here, we have a great deal of poetic imperfection, like ‘peeves’ intended as a rhyme with ‘please.’ ugh). But the energy is very high, and the kids are very cute. This is the same Cindy-Lou I saw last year (Skylar Starrs Siben) and she remains adorable without being cloying. I always loved Rusty Ross as Young Max; now he’s on Broadway and James Royce Edwards plays the role exactly the same, equally lovable and canine-cute. As Old Max, Martin Van Treuren cuts an imposing figure, and he has just the right sense of humor and wistfulness. His duet with his younger self is especially charming, the reprise of “This Time of Year” (there are nine reprises all told, out of 19 musical numbers!). As the Grinch, Kevin Bailey moved up a notch, from last year’s Old Max. Over the years, some of the Grinches have been slimy and some have been scary. This one’s downright likable. He smiles more than you’d expect from a Grinch, but he’s very good in his transformation, and in his interactions with Siben’s Cindy-Lou. The nine-piece Who-Chestra, under the baton of conductor/keyboardist Ron Volvard, is lively and entrancing for the tykes, as are all the special effects: the flying sleigh, the snowfall, the puppets. It’s still fun and still puts a little lump in the throat, not in the stocking. Savor it with some little ones; you’ll feel like a child again, too.
THE LOCATION: Old Globe Theatre, through December 30
BOTTOM LINE : BEST BET
Cyranose goes Asian
THE SHOW: Cowboy versus Samurai, a romantic comedy by L.A.-based stage/screen writer Michael Golamco. The play’s 2005 premiere was produced by the National Asian American Theater Company in New York . It’s been listed in two anthologies: “ New Playwrights: The Best Plays of 2006 ” and “ The Best Stage Scenes of 2006 .”
THE STORY: Travis is the loner in a one-Asian cowboy town. No, make that two Asians. There’s also militant Chester , who isn’t quite sure of his heritage/lineage, so he tries on Asian personas and nationalities like so many Stetson hats. Travis is totally assimilated, hiding from a heartbreak and from his own identity. “Things in nature always hide,” he writes in a letter. “When you stand out in the world, you invite danger.” And then, into the tiny Breakneck, Wyoming strides another Asian: Veronica – smart, sassy, take-no-prisoners, date-no-Asians. So naturally, she’s attracted to Del , a big, dumb pseudo-cowboy Caucasian who teaches P.E. part-time (Travis and Veronica are teachers, too). Del can’t woo her like she’d like, so he solicits the help of Travis, who pours his heart out in loving, thoughtful letters that Del delivers. It’s the story of Edmond Rostand’s big-nosed “Cyrano de Bergerac” turned on its Asian ear. It’s a play about honesty and friendship, love and identity and the role of race in relationships. It’s also funny and smart and often beautifully, lyrically written.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Mo’olelo associate director Kimber Lee has cast well and directed with a charming mix of humor, racial sensitivity and genuine emotion. Eric ‘Pogi’ Sumangil is a hoot as goofy, over-the-top but also pathetically lost Chester . Volt Francisco nails theself-effacing diffidence of a man who’s lost his sense of himself and doesn’t really trust his instincts or abilities any more. New San Diego arrival Paul Morgan Stetler is perfect as the lanky Marlboro Man who turns out not to be much of a cowboy, but like Chester, he proves that he can be a friend. As Veronica, Zandi De Jesus tries to hide her attractiveness behind horn-rims, and she’s winning in other ways, but she doesn’t quite have the hard-edged, New York aggressiveness the script describes and demands. The laughs are aimed mostly at Chester ’s harebrained schemes to assert his Asian-ness (first by getting tofu sold in a local store, later by stealing an Asian-linked artifact). None of these folks is comfortable in his/her skin, and all learn to look inside a little more, and to examine their own prejudices and stereotyping. The play’s conclusion is a little too neat. There were two potentially more interesting and enigmatic endings (Travis surrounded by his scattered letters; Veronica walking out on him) that would’ve served the play better than the more pat conclusion Golamco chose, but his writing, especially for the very poetic, imagistic letters, is wonderful.
David Wiener created a background of panels that Jason Bieber lights superbly, conveying a Big Sky Wyoming feel, the loneliness of the environment paralleling the interior lives. Jennifer Brawn Gittings gets the costumes just right, and it’s all underscored by Jeremy Siebert’s country sound. As in so many comedies and country western songs, there’s a whole lotta hurt beneath the humor.
THE LOCATION: Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company at the 10th Avenue Theatre, through December 16. Talk-backs with the director and cast follow each performance this weekend (12/7-9).
BOTTOM LINE : BEST BET
THE SHOW: Christmas is Comin’ Uptown, a hip, jazzy, 1979 musical riff on the Dickens perennial, “A Christmas Carol,” with lyrics by Peter Udell, music by Garry Sherman and book by Philip Rose and Peter Udell. Rose and Udell worked together on the musical Purlie on Broadway. This production is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Floyd Gaffney, the beloved and much-missed artistic director of Common Ground Theatre, who passed away last July.
THE STORY: Scrooge is recast as a Harlem slumlord about to foreclose an apartment house, a recreation center and a church. He’s visited by his old partners and a few other specters, before he has a change of his crusty heart and decides to keep Christmas well — including sending kosher deli over to the Cratchits from the only restaurant open on Christmas eve… Hey, it’s New York !
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Charles W. Patmon, Jr., a protégé and assistant director of Dr. Gaffney, and a singer/dancer/actor in his own right, directs with care and flair. There were sound problems in the cavernous World Beat Cultural Center the night I was there, and the acting was variable. But the singing is quite strong, and the energy is nonpareil. Warren Nolan, Jr., a San Diego native fresh from the 10th anniversary national tour of Rent, which stopped briefly at the Civic Theatre (in July, 2006), is wonderful as Scrooge, and his syrupy-smooth voice brings cred to the production. Golden-voiced, gorgeous Chandra Profit is hot as skin-tight, vinyl-jumpsuit-wearing Christmas Present and tough as Mary, Scrooge’s no-nonsense, erstwhile girlfriend turned hard-nosed social-worker. The jazzy/bluesy Trio – Deanne Cartwright, Loren Lott and Evie Pree — add a lot of glam and panache to the proceedings, and choreographer Manolito Lopez cuts a striking, dreadlocked figure as Marley. Overall, it isn’t perfect, but it sure is hell-raisin’ fun. Floyd would’ve been proud.
THE LOCATION: Common Ground Theatre at the World Beat Center , through December 16
BOTTOM LINE : BEST BET
Putting the Fun in Dysfunctional
THE SHOW: Off the Ground, a world premiere by local writers Amy Chini and Tom Zohar . At the same time as his adult comedy is running in North County , Zohar is playing a smartassed adolescent in Hillcrest — in Torch Song Trilogy at Diversionary Theatre.
THE STORY: Oh no, another dysfunctional family! Yup, we’ve all got ‘em. And we can probably recognize and relate to this one, too. They’re descending on the cluttered Connecticut house of Joel and his grandpa, both hiding from their hurt (Grandma died four years ago, and Joel’s year-old divorce is still fresh in his mind). There’s Joel’s sister Susan, cracking under the weight of her own marital problems (she can’t conceive, her husband Luke can’t keep a job). And then there’s Joel and Susan’s henpecked dad and meddling mom, a yenta-type who brought along a single woman for Joel, which embarrasses both of them no end. The family hasn’t been together in a year. And we soon see why, when the outbursts are followed by door-slamming departures, which are preceded and succeeded by a cross-conversational yell-fest. It’s a comedy, so all’s kinda right by the end. Well, at least some of them wind up singing carols in the kitchen.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The family hijinks veer wildly from funny to sad, pathetic to horrific. That’s relatives for ya. Director Joshua Everett Johnson mines all the genuine emotion from the piece, and keeps the characters from becoming caricatures. (After the performance I attended, the cast couldn’t say enough about his acumen as a director). Much of the dialogue really rings true; there’s a good deal said about the heartaches and compromises of marriage, and how it’s viewed across the generations. Chini and Zohar did a nice job on the sibling relations, too. But there are a few too many issues in their piece, with not enough emotional arc or payoff. This is more a slice of life than a comedy with conflict and resolution.
Joel’s Christmas present for his unseen little daughter just isn’t enough for us to hang our emotional hats on. The sister’s faltering marriage is terrifically conveyed by Wendy Waddell and Terry Scheidt, but her infertility is one complication more than we need. And we never do learn why the grandma would have a house in her own name – or why we should care so much about it. Charlie Riendeau is wonderful as the cantankerous octogenarian grandpa (he’s gotten really good at those), and Francis Gercke is at his fidgety best when Joel is left alone with his guest, Donna (adorable Amanda Morrow, in an under-developed role). Sandy Ellis-Troy commands the stage with her controlling smother-mother, and Jack Missett is a kick as the clueless father obsessed with the tax consequences of the impending house transfer, no matter what other, more serious concerns the plan entails.
Multi-talented Kristianne Kurner (also an accomplished actor and director) designed the set and costumes, which tell their own story. The living room is the ideal suburban retreat, all wood and brick and filled with the detritus of a year of not caring. In the final-scene, the late-night sleep-clothes say a great deal about each of the characters. This isn’t a family you want to adopt or even visit for very long. In fact, they might make you happy to go home to your own, and that’s NVA’s gift to you this holiday season.
THE LOCATION: New Village Arts, through December 23
BOTTOM LINE : BEST BET
Pi in the Sky
THE SHOW: Victoria Martin, Math Team Queen, by Kathryn Walat, is, like, way cool. It’s about a high school girl who’s like, “the third most popular sophomore,” bookended in her classes by the cheerleaders Jen and Jen, and she’s like, dating the basketball star. And then, her world turns to cow-pi. I mean, like, she’s sent onto the Math Team, for godssake, which is, like Geek City . (“The Math Team is like the Black Hole of the popular universe,” she wails). But then, even though she’s the team’s first girl, she gets into it, and she even gets, like into one of the Mathletes. And she helps those number-nerds get to the State finals. And there are like, a few revelations on the Team, and within Vickie herself, and she learns that, y’know, just like with her continent-separated, divorced parents, sometimes you just can’t have it all. But you have to be like, true to yourself. Totally.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Both the play and the production are cool. The action and dialogue take you back to high school, fer shure. “In case you’ve forgotten,” Vickie reminds us after a marathon ‘he said/she said’ phone session with one of the Jens, “this is high school.” Ah yes, I remember it well, though I was neither a cheerleader nor a geek (but I did date a guy on the A-V Squad; does that count?). Anyway, at various points, each of the four pi-heads faces the audience and gives his perspective on high school and growing up and Victoria and things mathematical and emotional. It’s cute and clever and very well done. Jennifer Eve Thorn has directed with humor and restraint. Her production isn’t campy at all, or hip sarcastic/ironic. Even the scene changes, completed by the ‘team’ in high school style, are fun. And the stage business for each mathophile during the ‘States’ (the finals) is really clever. The musical interludes are spot-on, too (sound design by Moxie co-founder Liv Kellgren).
Nicole Monet (a senior theater major at Cal State Fullerton) is pitch-perfect as Victoria , torn between her parents as well as her proclivities. Her voice, her tone, her moves are absolutely on-target. Luke Marinkovich as Jimmy is terrific; he’s the youngest and the nerdiest of the bunch; he’s the stat-guy for the basketball team, and in his excitement, wets his pants during the game. Try living that down in high school! Marinkovich is a pro, totally natural, believable and lovable. As the senior member of the Team, Tim Parker strikes an excellent balance between MIT-bound maturity and helpless infatuation. Lovely, nuanced performance. Jess Al len Moore grows more convincing and effective as his character, the conflicted word-nerd, Max, has to reveal depth and anguish. As his lifelong best friend and the object of his obsession, Joseph Dionisio doesn’t seem quite as credible, and he tends to slur his words. But it’s a really fine ensemble, well directed, reminding us of the pains of adolescence, the small triumphs and tragedies of high school. It’s not a bad place to go back to at all.
THE LOCATION: Moxie Theatre at the Lyceum, through December 16
BOTTOM LINE : BEST BET
NEWS AND VIEWS ….
… Buy your tickets – or your table — NOW! … for the 11th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence. The event is gonna be fabulous, bigger and better than ever – and tickets are already going fast! 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!
Special Patté Bonus for theatermakers: In addition to the regular dinner/table seating, there will be “cheap seats for starving artists” in the mezzanine gallery! Al l-priced tix and tables are at http://tickets.lfjcc.org or the JCC box office: 858-362-1348.
… ON THE AIR… TUNE IN this Saturday, Dec. 8 to see my comments on holiday theater fare, on the KUSI TV weekend show, “Good Morning, San Diego .” I should be on at about 9:45am. Watch – and call in to give them feedback! Channel 51/cable 9.
… As the Globe Turns… Jack O’Brien, artistic director at the Old Globe for the past 26 years, will assume the title of artistic director emeritus, as the leadership team re-shuffles to accommodate his official departure. For the past several years, Jack has been busy with myriad projects in New York , and he’s been living on the East coast as his profile looms ever larger. We wish him well, but we’ll sorely miss him. His San Diego shoes will be filled by a dynamic duo, Jerry Patch and Darko Tresnjak, who will become co-artistic directors, making the Globe’s artistic decisions. A formidable team – marvelous shepherd of new plays and wonderfully inventive director. Meanwhile, executive director Lou Spisto becomes CEO/Executive Producer. It’ll be interesting to see how this reorganization plays out on the Globe’s stages. Congrats to all, and a teary farewell to Mr. O.
… Actor/singer/compose/writer/director Jason Connors was featured in this week’s Night and Day section of the Union-Tribune as one of the Street People to watch. He looked cute and sounded articulate, but I particularly liked what he said he loves most: “collaborating on creative endeavors… riffing on other artists’ natural impulses and seeing how they respond and react to mine.” Now that’s a theater person! Connors is currently singing, playing and acting in Ruff Yeager ’s new holiday musical, A Christmas Carol: Not-so-Tiny Tim’s Great Big Musical, at 6th @ Penn Theatre.
… Transcontinental Divide… Some plays just don’t weather the trip from CA to NY. The Farnsworth Invention, about the invention of television, which got a spectacular production at the La Jolla Playhouse last winter, received a withering review in The New York Times after it opened this week at the Music Box Theatre. Ben Brantley agreed that it came with an impressive pedigree: written by Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing,” “A Few Good Men”), directed by Des Mc Anuff, starring Hank Azaria. But among other things, he said “You’re likely to leave The Farnsworth Invention feeling that you have just watched an animated Wikipedia entry.” I still thought it was one of McAnuff’s cleanest, sharpest, most unadorned — and best — productions. That’s what makes a ballgame.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Victoria Martin, Math Queen – very, like, high school, and very y’know, smart and fun and well done
Moxie Theatre at the Lyceum, through December 16
Christmas is Comin’ Uptown – Scrooge is a slum-lord in Harlem ; the livin’ ain’t easy, but the singin’ is
Common Ground Theatre at the WorldBeat Cultural Center in Balboa Park , through December 16
How the Grinch Stole Christmas – 10th anniversary production, with a gregarious Green Meanie! Sheer delight for the tykes.
At the Old Globe Theatre, through December 30
Off the Ground – world premiere comedy by local playwrights about potentially horrific holidays with a decidedly dysfunctional family (is there any other kind?)
New Village Arts in Carlsbad , through December 23
Cowboy versus Samurai – a contemporary, Asian spin on the classic, big-nosed novel, “Cyrano de Bergerac,” with the self-effacing background guy writing love letters for the less smart and loving, but more attractive male. Funny and fun.
Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company at the 10th Avenue Theatre, through December 16
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 at the Academy of Performing Arts , 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)
Pearl Harbor Day, Hanukkah – whatever you’re commemorating – do it in a 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.