By Pat Launer
It was a week replete with holiday fare:
“Carol,” the “Angels” and “St. Nicholas” were there
And oh yes, the Lambs were totally “Live”
And GrooveLily ‘struck 12’ with rhythm and jive.
The only dark note that one could see
Was a focus on human ‘Hyprocrisy’.
But this was a trifle, a mere declivity
Among all the raucous seasonal festivity.
Part 2 of “Angels in America” didn’t disappoint (this time, we rented our own HBO box, just for the week!). “Perestroika” is not as strong a piece as Part 1, “Millennium Approaches,” but director Mike Nichols made it a thing of beauty… and a joy forever. Heaven is a burned out San Francisco, but it has ancient, Italianate glory (I think it was filmed in Italy, too). and that flaming Stairway to Heaven: drop-dead gorgeous. It’s always good to watch Roy Cohn die a horrible death again (Pacino was terrific) and Emma Thompson was a striking wild-woman as the now-black-clad, frustrated/aggravated angel.
The whole cast convenes as the Heavenly host, and they all looked pretty much like themselves, oddly enough (except for Ben Shenkman, who was bearded — and who, btw, was a LOT stronger in his characterization in Part 2). Mary Louise Parker was wondrous as the hallucinatory (but clear-thinking) Harper and Patrick Wilson held his own (sometimes literally) as her confused husband. Meryl Streep was grounded and a lot less flashy as Mother Pitt than as Ethel Rosenberg or (in Part 1) the orthodox rabbi. She was totally convincing in both, and the Hebrew/Yiddish accent was spot-on. Justin Kirk, in hooded black cape, looked the part of Prophet, and despite his AIDS, brought conscience and cognition to the universe, and the angels, movingly choosing life over health. Jeffrey Wright was consistently wonderful as the nurse/caregiver Belize, who serves Roy Cohn as well as his beloved friends. All in all, I was so glad I saw it and it’ll be a buyer and keeper for me when it comes out on DVD. Hope you got to see it, or will, soon.
NICK AT NIGHT
Sean Murray took center stage in a benefit performance for his new Cygnet Theatre last Tuesday and Wednesday evening. He did a reading (though he was pretty much off-book) of Conor McPherson’s “St. Nicholas,” a dark and delicious little ghost story, told in rich, gorgeous prose. Murray obviously has the luck o’ the Irish running through his veins. His dialect was pitch-perfect as he led us on the twisted journey of a cynical, disgruntled theater critic (juicy!) whose life changes dramatically when he meets a vampire. Fascinating piece, wonderfully done. I loved the little vampiric detail that the undead, like animals, are mindless driven automatons who merely feed their hunger, with no thought or conscience. And they’re obsessive about having to count rice. So…. If you’re trying to ward off the nigh-stalkers, forget the garlic or crosses or stakes; just pour rice on the windowsill and they’ll be compelled to stop whatever they’re doing and count it, grain by grain. Lovely image! Sean, like the story, was entrancing. Maybe next Halloween…….
TV… OR NOT TV
It’s the 12th show in 23 years, and one of the Lamb’s audience favorites. This year’s Festival of Christmas — “It’s Christmas — and It’s Live!” is being repeated for the third time, with good reason. It’s fast-paced fun, with wonderful music, glorious singing and plenty of laughs (both corny and genuine). The setting is Studio 22 in 1952 (hilarious period costumes by that clothes-wiz, Jeanne Reith). There’s an East Coast blizzard that prevents all the on-air acts from getting to the studio — all except the geeky winners of the Amateur Talent Search, who’ve spent three days on a bus from Dubuque (“that’s in Iowa,” is the oft-repeated line for the benefit of New Yorkers who haven’t got a clue about anything west of the Hudson River). The Harmonaires say hello in four-part harmony, and they’re tickled pink (and plaid) to be on the “Festival of Popular Song” show with heartthrob Steve Fairfield (comical Cris O’Bryon as a smarmy lounge lizard, audience-winks and all). The director (OTT-but-funny Paul Eggington) becomes hysterical as his cast and crew fail to show up, and he’s calmed by his level-headed right-hand woman and former paramour Lorraine Lacy (Kerry Meads, who penned this and all the other Lambs Festival plays). There’s a harried techie (Spencer Moses, just right in his calm and frenzied moments ) and a couple of couples, new and established, onstage and off (the latter would be talented Ryan and Lisa Drummond), and don’t forget the wealthy, intrusive, demanding sponsor (amusing Darlene Trent, tiny doggie in tow). And then the lights go out.
It all makes for a highly entertaining evening, what with the high energy and marvelous voices and Vanda Eggington’s magnificent arrangements of holidays songs old and new. Director Deborah Gilmour Smyth keeps it moving and musical, with clever footwork by Pamela Turner. Sure, it gets a little treacly, but this is the time of year to O.D. on sweets, isn’t it?
IN THE GROOVE(LILY)
In an effort to cut some of the sugar and throw in a little spice, the Old Globe has cooked up some more grownup holiday fare. The last two years brought us David Sedaris’ acid-laced “SantaLand Diaries,” and this year it’s “Striking 12,” a concert-narrative performed by the engaging members of the soft-rock NYC trio GrooveLily. The three go in and out of the fourth wall, commenting on the story, each other and even the audience. They weave in and out of the cabaret tables (the Cassius Carter is enchantingly reconfigured by David Ledsinger) and generally delight the onlookers. It’s an odd combo package: songs and story in the first act, full-on concert in the second act. But somehow, it all works. The members of GrooveLily are terrific musicians: keyboardist/singer Brendan Milburn is the rocker; Valerie Vigoda (vocals and electric violin) has the classical training and Gene Lewin, the drummer/singer, provides comic relief.
The plot goes like this: Milburn plays a worker bee who’s toiling late on New Year’s eve; he’s a bit of a curmudgeon who doesn’t feel like joining his friends at any obligatory festivities. Along comes Vigoda (with babushka on her head) as a door-to-door seller (on New Year’s??) of full-spectrum lightbulbs to counteract seasonal affective disorder. (My Dutch companion, who’d never heard of the condition, thought it was uproarious, because everyone in Holland is depressed all winter; only Americans, she said, would call it a syndrome). Anyway, he gets rid of her fast, but then she reminds him of “The Little Match Girl,’ that poor, freezing, doomed 19th century Hans Christian Andersen heroine. Re-reading the original story (in a maudlin, melodramatic translation) works on his guilt and he goes after her, turning the bleak, dismal conclusion into the ‘other’ kind of fairy tale ending. Then it’s intermission and the concert of Groovelily’s CD recordings begins. Of course, all through the storytelling, there are songs appropriate to the unfolding events, with some humor thrown in by Lewin, including a portrayal of the matchgirl’s (somehow Jewish) grandmother. The live music is energetic and energizing; these folks are obviously accustomed to interacting with an audience and they win us over fast. Surprisingly, when I listened to their CD, it lost a lot in the translation — the immediacy, the upbeat personalities. On tape, they sounded less groovy, more lily-livered — an up-tempo, electric easy listening combo. But in the theater, they’re dynamic. The acclaimed director Ted Sperling makes the evening hum, and sound designer Rob Killenberger keeps it all well balanced. The lyrics are often clever and comic, sometimes touching. See them live, and relish their sparkling spontaneity and infectious energy.
“Hypocrisy” is a new play by Timothy Allen Smith, produced by Twenty/20 Productions at St. Cecilia’s Playhouse and directed by PM Bonds. There’s a lot of earnestness in every aspect of this production. Smith has a great deal on his mind, and as he feels compelled to consider every possible source of hypocrisy in our society, his plot sometimes goes catawampus. He covers religion, politics, marriage, parenthood, spousal abuse, racism, sexism, homophobia, self-esteem issues, silicone, new age gurus, drug addiction — and more. Then he uses a spoken word poet to spell it all out for us. There’s a lesson here for the creators: Trust the audience.
Second lesson: Be honest with the audience. When I called earlier in the day, I was told that the play ran 90 minutes with intermission. Naively, I asked, ‘If it’s less than 90 minutes, why need an intermission?’ Well, on opening night the show ran nearly 2 1/2 hours. Of course, if they’d cut out just about all of the set changes, it’d shorten the play considerably. And they could also lose the extra-slow scene startups, where people mill about, or sit and talk sotto voce so we can’t hear them. We sit and waitfor something to happen or something to hear.
Which brings us to Lesson #3: Less (especially when you don’t have much in the financial department) is more. It seems like some kind of operating rule of fledgling theatermakers that more stage business means more depth or intensity. For a two-minute scene, there is no need for a complete scene change, with sofas and chairs, screens and table place-settings laid out, only to be replaced in a matter of moments. This show, which had some important things to say, could’ve been done on a bare stage with two stools and we would’ve gotten it, no problem. Which brings us back to Lesson #1: Trust the audience. We have an active, vivid, willing imagination.
Now, to the production itself. The actors work hard, and many succeed. As Mack, an ultra-hip, undereducated and -employed, womanizing (or at least fantasizing) black cat, Mark Broadnax is pretty funny, even though he only gets to play one note. Michelle De Francesco is bubbly as an ingénue who learns a thing or two. Ashley Rose is credible as the no-nonsense Erika, whose character takes a downhill turn when she has to come out to her family and friends. Jesse Boyd is cute as a drug-running gofer who aims to please; Tricia Craven Worley transforms into two OTT moms; and Kelan Thomas (AKA Thomas Wright, the producer, AKA Timothy Allen Smith, the writer) plays the lead role of Nathan, the poet who rips away various hypocrisies and tries to uncover the Truth. This doesn’t always pan out well for everyone. The main casualty is his main squeeze, Claire, a New Age book writer/shrink who’s off-track (and has got tracks), a woman abandoned and suffering, supposedly counseling others but carrying a truckload of her own painful past. Thomas is an engaging performer, as is Kathryn Venverloh as Claire. This would be a much more powerful piece if it were a lot shorter and less on the nose. But there are valiant efforts here, and that’s always to be applauded.
THE TINIEST TINY TIM
TinyTim is a girl. A Latina. A powerhouse. Six year-old Bibi Valderrama nearly steals the show. But there’s so much else to marvel at, to enjoy, to warm to in the San Diego Rep’s 28th “A Christmas Carol,” that she’s got plenty of scene-stealing competition. Reprising last year’s production, adapter D.W. Jacobs and Rep associate artistic director Todd Salovey have gone back to a traditional, Victorian version of the timeless classic, written in 1843 by Charles Dickens (who often performed it onstage as a reading). Dickens appears onstage at the Rep, too (Jonathan McMurtry, potently reprising his narrator’s role and hitting those plosives like there’s no tomorrow, beginning the evening with a revergerating “Marley was dead-duh” ).
There’s lots of joyful noise, thanks to wonderful singers and the original music and arrangements of Steve Gunderson. Javier Velasco’s choreography is clever, as is much of Salovey’s staging. The Ghosts are more intriguing and a little more frightening this year. I never quite understand that tripartite Ghost of Christmas Past, though; this has been happening for years now. Doug Roberts makes an expansive Christmas Present and the oversized, red-eyed Black Shape is a scary Ghost of Christmas Future. Once again, David Fenner is lively and engaging as Bob Cratchit, and he’s surrounded by a wonderful family (who play many other roles as well): humorous Paul James Kruse, chameleon Linda Libby, endearing Shana Wride. Jennifer Shelton is lovely as Belle and Scrooge’s niece, with her warm, alluring voice. Robert Townsend makes an adorable addition in a variety of roles.
At the center of it all, there’s Broadway veteran Peter van Norden, who takes us on Ebenezer’s harrowing journey, from monstrous miser to fearful traveler, to reminiscent regretter to tearful realist to giddy recipient of wisdom, revelation — and the spirit of Christmas. It’s a roller-coaster ride, a ghost story that’s been thrilling audiences for 150 years. And the Rep production doesn’t disappoint. You may feel jaded and think you’ve seen it all before. But what makes this perennial irresistible is that it never fails to have the desired effect, to make you feel more expansive, more giving and more understanding of others. You emerge a better person, every time. And isn’t that what theater is all about??
LAST-MINUTE SHOPPING (To quote a ‘Grinch’ song)…
There’s still time for Giftix. These little ho-ho-humdingers come in increments of $10 and they’re accepted at more than 60 San Diego theaters. Now that’s a dramatic seasonal gift! Go to the Performing Arts League at www.sandiegoperforms.com and get ’em while they’re hot.
THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“Striking 12” -new adult holiday fare at the Globe; NYC band, GrooveLily is a talented, engaging trio of expert musicians; through December 31.
“A Christmas Carol” — the Rep’s 28th year; a holiday family tradition. Traditional, musical, inspirational; at the San Diego Rep through December 28.
“It’s Christmas.. and it’s Live!” — one of Lamb’s Players Theatre’s Festival of Christmas best; great singing, beautiful arrangements, and great family fun all around; at lamb’s home-base in Coronado (“An American Christmas,” another songfest, with 5-course dinner, is at the Del); Festival runs through December 28.
“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” — a walk down memory lane (as the book springs gorgeously to life) or an eye-popping treat for a little one. New and improved! at the Old Globe through Dec. 31.
“Story Theatre” — The Grimm Brothers were aptly named! And Aesop wasn’t far behind. Fairy tales come to life in inventive ways. Great ensemble, fun for the family. At North Coast Repertory Theatre, through December 21.
“Beehive” — one of San Diego’s longest-running musical hits, is closing soon; all those great girl-group songs; irresistible! And Jenn Grinels (recently so stellar in “Hedwig”) returns… without the beard! At the Theatre in Old Town, through January 4 only.
Hope you have delicious, dramatic Holidays — Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas!
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.