By Pat Launer
Theater variety’s far from sparse:
Music, dance, drama, farce.
“Too Old for the Chorus” pays tribute to Boomers
“The Scottish Play’s” fraught with malevolent humors.
“In Arabia .. Kings” are doomed bar-sitters
And “ Chita ’s ” the Queen of the heavy-hitters.
While ‘Gypsy’ may take off her clothes,
The spotlight is on Mama Rose.
THE SHOW: “ Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life,” written by Terrence McNally, directed and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, with additional music by Lynne Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty
THE SCOOP: Chita ’s a veritable force of nature. Still slim and lithe and mega-talented at 72, she’s warm and charming, gracious and irresistible.
THE STORY: By this point in her life and career, Chita could certainly sit back and rest on her (considerable) laurels, the most recent of which was the 2002 Kennedy Center Awards, which is used as a framing device for the show. We see her as a young, feisty D.C. kid with congenital ‘attitude’ and we watch her develop into a dancing, singing, acting phenomenon. Many of her stories (loves, losses, triumphs, accidents, flops and affairs) are told in dance. Most of all, though, she pays tribute to the gifted choreographers who shaped her: Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Peter Gennaro , and Jack Cole.
THE PLAYERS: There are nine dancers up there with her, but this feels like a one-woman show. Chita is incredible, unstoppable; she’s onstage for nearly the entire two hours+ (though she does get to sit and reminisce a few times). But she seems tireless. One of the dancers (lovely Allyson Tucker) is the wife of Broadway baritone/heartthrob, Brian Stokes Mitchell. Others (Richard Amaro , Lloyd Culbreath , Malinda Farrington) are notable knockouts. The game little girl (Liana Ortiz) who plays young Chita , does her darnedest, but she hasn’t got any of the spark or ‘attitude’ of the original. Hard act to emulate, but still…..
THE PRODUCTION : McNally’s script leaves a great deal out. We don’t actually learn that much about Chita the person — certainly not Chita the mother (there’s only one line about her daughter), or lover (there’s a very brief anecdote about a short-lived affair with Sammy Davis, Jr., and allusions to many other men). There’s a sexy dance (with sexy Richard Amaro ) of attraction and separation that represents her divorce. Mostly, the show is about being a dancer and the making of a dance superstar. And with Chita telling the story, that’s really good enough. The set (Loy Arcenas ) has glam and glitz and multiple, intriguing permutations, including excellent use of scrims, shadows and projections, thanks to the gorgeous lighting of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer . For the wonderful musical entr’acte, there are pin spots on the faces of the marvelous nine-piece (uncredited) orchestra, otherwise bathed in blue. Just beautiful. Daniele’s choreography keeps the focus on Chita , but supports her well. The most dramatic moment is when Chita describes the technique and influence of the choreographers who were so important in her life, and behind her, there’s a seemingly endless ‘parade’ of dancers in silhouette, gliding across the stage in the signature style, shape or slouch of her favorites.
THE LOCATION: The Old Globe Theatre, through October 23.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet (catch it quick , before it goes – directly – to Broadway).
THE CURSE OF ‘MACBETH’
THE SHOW: ‘The Scottish Play,” written by Lee Blessing.
THE SCOOP: To quote “Macbeth,” which is (peripherally) what this new work is all about, Blessing’s latest play is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
THE STORY AND PLAYERS: It’s almost impossible to believe that this play was written by the same man who gave us “ A Walk in the Woods,” “Two Rooms” and the amusing “Hamlet” sequel, “Fortinbras” (each of which also premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse). To put it bluntly, the piece is a mess. The (flimsy, ill-conceived) plot concerns the Northernmost Shakespeare Festival, a small but persistent company about to celebrate its 30th anniversary. They’ve done every Bard-work except the one Which Shall Not Be Named (hence, the euphemistic, superstitious title of this play). The artistic director, Billy (a very fey, prancing Peter Bartlett) refuses to do “Macbeth,” because of the long history of calamities and catastrophes that have dogged productions for 400 years. (Even this one, cursed as it is, was delayed a year when the new Potiker Theatre wasn’t ready, and the director and other collaborators were replaced. But what were they doing that whole year?? So many opportunities to improve this unfunny farce).
Then wemeet ambitious, non-superstitious Jack (played by Jere Burns as just about the only character not given to histrionics, but that, too, falls by the wayside in the disastrous second act). He agrees with the producer, Alex (stalwart John C. Vennema ) to direct the Scottish play, pushing Billy aside, which causes the queen-y Billy to turn into a vindictive bitch. He proceeds to hire Jack’s three ex-wives to play the witches. The cat-fights (and food fight!) would be funnier if these weren’t all caricatures: there’s Maud (Susan Knight), the cynical, all-knowing mother of Jack’s estranged son; whacked-out, pill-popping pseudo-shrink Zita (Rebecca Wisocky ) and Eden (Bridget Regan), the beautiful young ditz-brain. When blizzards, earthquakes, floods, frogs and other plagues descend, the show is without a Macbeth or his Lady. The wives want the role of Lady M, and Alex brings in Path Sanderson , a mindless movie star (hunky Erik Heger ) to play the title role. Mayhem ensues and escalates, until Path switches roles and rewrites the script so he can be both star and hero. It’s now called “ Macduff ,” at which point the fictional (and onstage) productions lose all steam – and any point for the play to be cursed, since it’s no longer theill -fated ‘Macbeth.” There are so many loose plot points it’s pathetic. The performances are all fine, if over-eager. Everyone is obviously working hard, trying for laughs, and they just don’t come. Not only that, but with no three-dimensional characters, only stock cartoonish caricatures, we couldn’t care less about anyone. There’s a subplot of unrequited love between ever-faithful Pewter (Diana Ruppe ) and Fred (Robert L. Devaney ) which is cute but trite.
THE PRODUCTION : The Potiker Theatre works great as a thrust stage. The sets (Judy Gailen ) are attractive, and make a dramatic transformation when struck by the final attack (a tornado, I think; I lost track of the cataclysms). The lighting (Daniel Kotlowitz ) and sound (David Remedios ) are well executed. Most interesting is the original music, composed by Michael Roth and performed by Morris S. Palter. It’s a screechy, eerie, supernatural, witchy kind of sound and noise-making that’s fascinating to watch (a lot more interesting than a lot of what’s going on onstage). Melia Bensussen’s direction is frenetic; there’s a lot of activity, but after awhile, it all feels repetitive (like the script) and uninspired.
THE LOCATION: La Jolla Playhouse (the Potiker Theatre), through October 23.
BOOMER OR BUST
THE SHOW: ‘Too Old for the Chorus, But Not Too Old To Be a Star,” written by Mark Winkler, Marie Cain and Shelly Markham, further developed (for this San Diego production) by locals Paula Kalustian and Jill K. Mesaros
THE SCOOP: Just when you thought you’d heard everything there was to know about those ubiquitous Baby Boomers, here they are again, kvetching and singing. You could call this “Boomers” (the Lamb’s oft-repeated musical): The Post-50 Sequel. The new revue doesn’t cover much new territory, but it tells its tales of being Invisible/Invincible with talent and pizzazz.
THE STORY: Boomers are getting older. They get that dread letter from AARP. Their spouses leave them, their kids go off to college, they’ve hit a stained-glass ceiling. No plot to speak of. Just a humorous, musical cataloguing of problems and complaints, with a rosy, upbeat ending about rediscovering yourself and realizing that you have ‘Potential.’
THE PLAYERS: The cast of five is terrific; each brings warmth, heart and humor to a thoroughly recognizable character. Steve Anthony is the hoofer who no longer gets callbacks. He shows his comic chops (‘Lunch Hour Lift’) and does some great dancing (‘When 50 Wore a Tux’). Brian Byers is the Rhodes Scholar, summa cum laude wunderkind who’s now a techno-troglodyte working for a boss half his age. His father-son duet with the appealing if less-buff David Holmes (‘The Child is Father to the Man’) is touching. And Holmes gives a clever spin to aging as measured in pets (‘Dog Passages’). Susan Jordan is bouncy and funny, especially in her several menopausal moments. She’s the wife who’s been left behind, but is determined to re-invent herself. With her whiskey voice and weathered look, Broadway vet Teri Ralston gets the more serious songs, the ballads about ‘The Road Not Taken.’ You feel you’ve heard it all before, and yet, the performers are so engaging, and their characters so familiar, it’s as warm and fuzzy and comfortable as an old robe to spend an evening with them.
THE PRODUCTION : Paula Kalustian has directed with verve. And though there isn’t quite enough choreography (Steve Anthony) what there is looks clever, if not intricate (except for what Anthony created for his own dance solos). Jordan is also agile, and her spunk adds a lot to the mix. David Weiner’s set is amusingly reconfigured and well lit by Jeff Fightmaster .
THE LOCATION: The Theatre in Old Town , through January 1.
THE SHOW: “In Arabia We’d All Be Kings” by Stephen Adly Guirgis
THE SCOOP: If “Too Old for the Chorus” is too frisky for you, here’s something guaranteed to bring you down. A bar-full of losers and deadbeats, alkies and crack-heads, come together in pairs and trios to curse fate and each other. The performances are uniformly excellent, but this one won’t send you out whistling. It paints a sad picture of a run-down dreamland inhabited by drunks and punks, which is about to be upgraded, or Disneyfied , thanks to the efforts of former New York Mayor Giuliani.
THE STORY: The denizens of Jake’s Bar will cry, scream, swear, berate, delude and dissolve – and some will even die – before they realize that they’re about to lose the only refuge most of them have – this seedy, grungy Hell’s Kitchen haven they call home. Money, dignity and life expectancy are short. Weapons are at the ready; drugs and prostitution are the activities du jour. The New York school of hard knocks never looked so hard, so brutal, so hopeless (except in Guirgis ’ later, award-winning “Jesus Hopped the A Train”). Despite some viciously realistic dialogue, it’s not at all clear why we should grieve with these lowlifes about losing their unholy ground to gentrification.
THE PLAYERS: Outstanding performances. Sonya Bender is achingly adorable as the addict/hooker Chickie , whose nervous, gullible boyfriend, Skank (beguilingly jumpy Ciceron Altarejos ) promises her a dream-life with his famous-actor friend in Baltimore . The off-kilter barman, Charlie (Walter Ritter, in his best performance ever), sees himself as a Jedi fighter from Star Wars. Demaris (magnificent Monique Gaffney, with angry, adolescent attitude to spare), is a teenager with a gun, who craves security for herself and her out-of-wedlock baby. She and her hooker-mom (nicely blowsy Veronica Murphy) go at it like rabid dogs. Sammy (in a lovely, understated but often amusing performance by Bill Kehayias ) wakes up from his perpetual drunken stupor to ooze a memory and express a drowsy fear that his wife will find him. Linda Libby is strung-out but still sexy as Daisy, who hangs onto whoever’s near: first, ex-con Lenny (truly menacing Steven J. Warner); then no-nonsense bar-owner Jake (a somewhat bland Josh Adams). Claudio Raygoza is ominous and intimidating, casually cruel as Greer, who’s bought the hangout, seduced poor Skank and plans to rip out all the history to clean the place up. In this world of zero tolerance, the barflies’ illusions are as ripe for demolition as the dilapidated bar.
THE PRODUCTION : It’s an incredibly intense 100 minutes. You want something good to come to somebody. But that ain’t gonna happen in this neighborhood. Director Al Germani brings all the requisite darkness, violence and intensity to this bare-bones production. The focus is on character, on brutal interactions. And on a dim, slim possibility for reconciliation, if not redemption, at the end.
THE LOCATION: Lynx Performance theatre, Clairemont ; through October 23.
BOTTOM LINE: Best Bets
LET ME ENTERTAIN YOU
THE SHOW: “Gypsy,” music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents (suggested by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee)
THE SCOOP: Fine but not stellar production; some excellent performances, but somewhat uneven at the center.
THE STORY: This is one of the Great American Classics. Ethel Merman defined it, Styne and Sondheim made it sing. It’s the tale of the ultimate Stage Mother, Mama Rose, who pushes her daughters to perform, vowing to make first June and then the less-talented Louise, into a star. But Rose’s insatiable, vicarious ambition stems from unvarnished narcissism, which demolishes or demoralizes her daughters and destroys her relationships with men. When Louise becomes the understated stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee, Mama Rose has her celebrated onstage 11 o’clock breakdown (‘Rose’s Turn’).
THE PLAYERS: The large cast does multiple duty . The little kids are adorable (Janie Escalle as Baby June is especially adorable, with a million-dollar smile). Von Schauer makes a welcome appearance in a number of surly roles, most funny/sleazy as the kid-hating kid-show host, Uncle Jocko. Jeff Austin is solid and totally credible as Herbie, the gentle man/mouse who loves Rose and her girls; but even he has his limits (and a rich, mellow voice). Jill Townsend is spunky as grown-up Dainty June, and as her main squeeze, Tulsa , Justin Caster is a wonderful dancer (whose hoofing out-shines his singing). As the tough-talking Tessie Tura , Diane Vincent is a hoot, as are her stripper sidekicks, Ria Carey as Mazeppa and Tracy Powel as Electra. Talented Sarah Ramsey Duke makes a wonderful transition from the plain-Jane, overlooked Louise to the strikingly beautiful Gypsy Rose Lee. Her crystalline voice is as lovely as she. And then there’s Rose. Mary VanArsdel nails her aggressive pushiness, her raw ambition. But she misses the desperation and despair in the meltdown that is “Rose’s Turn.” She just plays it as a star-turn. Her voice, forever seeming to emulate Ethel Merman’s, is powerful in the mid-range, but shaky at the top. There isn’t quite enough nuance in her performance, and insufficient charm. This unbalances the production, which features so many potent performances and a strong supporting cast.
THE PRODUCTION : Lewis Welkenfield’s direction feels both rushed and sluggish in the first act; but he really gets his stride in the second. John Charron’s choreography is just right for his cast. Mike Buckley’s malleable set design employs TV monitors to establish the frequently-changing locations, which gives a bit of a contemporary spin to this 1959 standard. Ambra Wakefield’s costumes are clever and often comical. Everything here riffs on the original, and most of it works just fine. The five-piece ‘orchestra’ is aptly brash (if a little brassy), but handles this glorious music well.
THE LOCATION: The Welk Resort Theatre, through November 13.
NEWS AND VIEWS
REP TO REP!
….The benefit reading of Betsy Howie’s “Callie’s Tally” at the San Diego Repertory Theatre was a smashing success. Not only because the four actors – Linda Libby, Seema Sueko, Karen Robinson and Carman Vogt – were so skillful and funny. But because it raised nearly $1100 for the Katrina-destroyed Southern Repertory Theatre, the only regional theater in New Orleans . Way to go!
….Floyd Gaffney’s Common Ground Theatre opens its 2005-06 season this weekend with “Dancing with Demons,” by Donald T. Evans, at 6th @ Penn, 9/30-10/16.
… Speaking of 6th @ Penn, the theater is inaugurating a new series of staged readings of international, rarely performed classics. The first performance, this Saturday, October 1st at 4:00pm, will be the hilarious ancient Roman comedy, “ Menaechmi ,” by Plautus (the basis for Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors”). 619-688-9210
.. Nickel and Dimed : On (Not) Getting by in America ,” Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 ground-breaking, eye-opening book, has been made into a play (adapted by San Franciscan Joan Holden), which runs at SDSU in the Don Powell Theatre, September 30-October 9. At 3pm on Sept. 30, playwright Holden will speak in Montezuma Hall. On November 3, author and acclaimed journalist Barbara Ehrenreich will give a free lecture.
…Another Southern California premiere: “Dear Ella,” written and directed by Calvin Manson, with music by the Dennis Dawson Quintet, will play at Caesar’s Café, a presentation of Ira Aldridge Repertory Players, San Diego ’s only black dinner theater. Sept. 30-Oct. 20. email@example.com .
….Dr. Robert M. Biter wrote, stars in and co-directs the local premiere of his award-winning play, “Strangers.” Biter appears with Sue Oswald and co-director Jennifer Austin, Oct. 7-9 and 13-15 at the Carlsbad Cultural Arts Center . All proceeds go to Her Heart’s Wish, a Foundation started by Biter and dedicated to fulfilling the dreams of women with terminal cancer. 760-633-6633.
…Hurry up and register for Many Voices, One Message: The Challenge to Act, hosted by the Commission for Arts and Culture, on October 5. For reservations and information, contact Linda Sokol at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NOW, FOR WHAT’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (i.e., Critic’s Picks );
Last chance to catch all the Shakespeares !!
(For full reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
“ Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life” – like visiting with (theater) royalty. At 72, Chita still has the style, grace and ‘attitude’ she was, apparently, born with. In her singing/dancing narrative, she’s warm and lovable, gracious and irresistible. See her before she heads back to Broadway.
At the Old Globe, through October 23.
“In Arabia , We’d All Be Kings” – dark, intense, depressing… but beautifully performed.
At Lynx Theatre Performance Space, through October 23.
“Too Old for the Chorus, But Not Too Old To Be a Star” – if you haven’t had your fill of menopausal musicals, this is great for a date (the guys remind us it’s called MENopause ). Excellent performances , some cute/clever bits and songs.
At The Theatre in Old Town , through January 1.
“Da Kink in my Hair” – high energy, great talent, gut-wrenching stories interspersed with singing, dancing and African drumming. This U.S. premiere needs a more pointed story-line, but it’s a foot-tappin’, hair-raisin’ experience.
At San Diego Repertory Theatre, through October 16.
“ Valhalla ” – director Tim Irving is the perfect conveyor of the wacky humor of Paul Rudnick. If you love camp (and non-stop one-liners), this is the dream cast to deliver the goods.
At Diversionary Theatre, through October 2.
“Romeo and Juliet” – NCRT director David Ellenstein mines all the humor and ribaldry in the play. Wonderful ensemble work, crystalline language.
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, through October 2.
“The Winter’s Tale” – beautifully designed and directed. Director Darko Tresnjak is a wonder, and he teases outstanding performances from his talented ensemble.
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through October 2.
“Macbeth” – marvelous direction (Paul Mullins), costumes (Linda Cho ) and truly spooky, chilling moments make this “ MacB ” a standout.
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through October 2.
“The Comedy of Errors” – Director Darko Tresnjak shows his sillier side, with a farcical, slapstick production that’s precisely directed and humorously performed.
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through October 2.
It’s October… don’t get spooked; get to a theater!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.