By Pat Launer
Hank Williams had less than a Fabulous Life
And The Bacchae confront religious strife.
In addition to wine, women and queers,
You, too, can relive your Wonder Bread Years.
THE SHOW: The Bacchae , the Euripides classic in a forceful translation by Marianne McDonald
THE BACKSTORY: Euripides was one of the three great tragedians of ancient Greece , and the most stridently anti-war defender of democracy. This play, which wasn’t performed until after his death (c. 405 B.C.), concerns religious freedom and religious fanaticism, topics as relevant today as 2400 years ago.
/THE STORY: Dionysus, the god of wine, ecstasy and inspiration, returns to his birthplace, Thebes , to assert his divinity, which has been questioned. Bacchus, as the Romans called him, is a petulant and punishing god, and his most ardent followers, the Bacchante, are frenzied fanatics. When the young king, Pentheus, repudiates and tries to imprison him, Dionysus exacts cruel retribution: he humiliates Pentheus by dressing him like a woman, then points him in the direction of the Baccantes, who proceed to rip him limb from limb. One of the ardent attackers is Agave, Pentheus’ mother. When she is relieved of the madness of her religious fervor, she realizes, in horror, that she has killed her own son. This cautionary tale shows the deadly effects of revenge, religion and violence taken to extremes. McDonald’s clean, crisp translation makes the contemporary relevance unmistakable. It’s the perfect play for our inflammatory, intolerant times.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The tiny 6th @Penn Theatre has been transformed into a forest. Tropical plants lead the way into the space, preparing us for the hothouse exploits to come. Further enhancement is provided by the lighting and sound design (Mitchell Simkovski; Eusevio Gordob). The Chorus (Shondra Mirelle, Leti Carranza, Melissa Hamilton) are Bacchante, provocative, garishly made-up harpies who climb and adorn the trees. The king (Kevin Koppman-Gue) is a snappish, ill-tempered boy. The elders (Gerry Maxwell as a goofy Tiresius; Rhys Green as Cadmus, the only voice of reason) don’t seem old enough for their grandfatherly roles. Daniel Heath cuts a dashing and arrogant figure as Dionysus, and as Agave, Bonnie Stone is gut-wrenching in her horrific realization of what she has done. Director Douglas Lay obviously had a strong vision for the piece, though not all his performers are up to the task. Still, it’s a potent production, well worth seeing for its searing and timely message.
THE PLACE: 6th @ Penn Theatre, through December 23
THE BOTTOM LINE: GOOD BET
THE RAINBOW REINDEER
THE SHOW: It’s a Fabulous Life , a très gay take on the 1946 Frank Capra classic, with book by David Sexton, songs by Albert Evans and David Sexton, additional music by Eric Alsford and Andrew Sargent
THE BACKSTORY: Playwright Sexton went through his own identity crisis, which spawned the play. He was everything a young gay man should be: handsome, fit and creative. A perfect stereotype. But then he was diagnosed with colon cancer, and his weight dropped to 79 pounds. As he examined his new, non-stereotypic identity, he realized how much he loved his gay life, even with all its trials and challenges. His musical play started in 2003 in Ft. Lauderdale , went on to Miami and Chicago, and this is its West coast premiere.
THE STORY: Riffing on “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Sexton gives us Joe (the Jimmy Stewart stand-in), but his problems are a world away from George Bailey’s. He’s trying to rehearse his recently-written holiday show, Randolph the Rainbow Reindeer, but the cast – a bevy of queens, divas and a dyke – is driving him nuts. And his parents won’t let him bring his boyfriend home for the holidays. It all becomes too much for him; he wishes he hadn’t been born gay. And presto! Change-o! A guardian angel appears to grant his wish. Just as George did, Joe sees what his friends would be like without his influence. He comes to cherish everything he nearly left behind, and he returns happily to his lavender lifestyle.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Director/choreographer David Brannen has marshaled an energetic, 11-member cast, and put them through their paces — even if not all of them can sing or dance with aplomb. They can put over a song – and isn’t that all that counts? Well, in this kind of play it is. Musical director/accompanist Steven Withers sees to that. With all the males up there, it’s actually the lone woman, Victoria Rose, first a dykey reindeer and then a knockout chanteuse, who has the most powerful and versatile voice. But there are many musical highlights in campy-but-clever numbers like “The Pole Got Hot” and “ Don’t Drag Me Through the Holidays Again.” As the outrageous drag queen Miss Carlotta, Trevor Peringer, with the megawatt smile, is uproarious (and makes quite a femme fatale). C.J. Altarejos is touching as Joe’s lover, Luis; Aaron Marcotte is funny as the relentless star-wannabe; and as the angel, Ole Kittleson is a charmer, white tux, wings and all (after he’s successful with Joe, he earns his lavenders). There’s a positive message of self-acceptance under all the glitz, feathers and tight pants (though those bike shorts don’t do anyone any favors). But mostly, this is just a delicious, over-the-top holiday confection. As the Diversionary folks put it, you’ll Jingle All the Way home.
THE PLACE: Diversionary Theatre, through Dec. 17
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
WHATCHA GOT COOKIN’?
THE SHOW: Hank Williams: Lost Highway , an anthology musical of the work (and some of the life) of the Alabama-born “Hillbilly Shakespeare,” created by Randal Myler and Mark Harelik
THE BACKSTORY: Mark Harelik, who used to perform frequently in San Diego, once told me he always thought country music was “irritating, repetitive and revolting; the music of stupid, ignorant hicks.” But when the rural West Texas native moved to California , he began to feel nostalgic for the things that reminded him of home; to his surprise, he developed a taste for Mexican food and country music. And in 1979, while he was a student at PCPA (the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria ), he performed in an early version of the Hank Williams story, a musical revue at PCPA Theaterfest. The idea started growing, and gained Randal Myler (a collaborator on Harelik’s autobiographical play, The Immigrant, who went on to create other revues: Love, Janis and the Tony- nominated It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues). The play was produced in Denver and L.A. in 1987-88. And in 1992, the lean, lanky Harelik performed the title role outdoors on the Festival Stage at the Old Globe. He was wonderful, and looked thinly, darkly and intensely like the legendary, hillbilly singer. After decades of ignoring, losing, revisiting, fixing and tweaking, the show opened in New York in 2002, and in 2003, it moved to the Little Shubert Off Broadway. A good deal of that cast is in the current San Diego Repertory Theatre production. But the bio-musical hasn’t noticeably improved over the years. It still feels like the “dream play slash performance piece” that Harelik called it 15 years ago. And it still hasn’t resolved its structural/narrative weaknesses.
THE STORY: At the beginning of the play, Hank has just died, at age 29. The rest is memory, re-creating what little is known of his life and his meteoric rise and fall; his entire career lasted only four years (1948-1952), before he drank and drugged himself to death. We’re treated to about 20 of his seminal songs, classics like “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Jambalaya (On the Bayou).” But we never learn what his inner demons were, or why he self-destructed (it couldn’t just be because his wife kept “ridin’ him”). Nor was his dark interior incinerated solely by fame. We don’t find out what drove him – forward or down. His second wife is gone from this version, and the breakup with his first is dealt with summarily and superficially. Same with his interactions with the members of his band, the Driftin’ Cowboys. His mother is a lot less harsh and controlling than in earlier incarnations of the piece. And the waitress with whom he spent one night is still pretty completely ancillary to the play, though she is used to convey backstory and exposition. The blues singer, Tee-Tot, who had such a profound effect on Hank, frames the play and serves as a kind of Greek chorus or conscience, but he always seems to be outside the action and not organic to it. The lifestory snippets remain intriguing and the performances are excellent. And of course, there’s the music, which still sounds terrific.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Van Zeiler, fresh from his acclaimed London performance as the title character in The Buddy Holly Story, was an alternate as Hank Off Broadway. He comes by the accent naturally; he’s a Southerner like Hank, born in Atlanta . He’s a good deal more robust and a lot less skinny than Hank (Hank’s scrawny, increasingly skeletal appearance is mentioned multiple times throughout the script), and he sings better than Hank (certainly less nasally). He totally nails the twang and the yodeling, and the country/Cajun/boogie/blues/swing/gospel sound that was Hank’s signature musical stew. He’s engaging and likable but not as charismatic as Hank must have been (especially given the legend’s less-than-stellar voice). Zeiler doesn’t wail from a place of deep pain, but his dramatic ups and downs are credible. The rest of the cast is winning, too, with Mississippi Charles Bevel (who also appeared at the REP in It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues, in 1998) as Tee Tot, singing the blues and sounding really fine. The band-members are excellent (Stephen G. Anthony on bass; H. Drew Perkins on fiddle and mandolin, and the delightful, humorous Myk Watford on guitar), though they really just provide backup all around. The women – Hank’s mother, wife and one-night stand – are pretty much small-role window dressing, but they do more than all right with what they’re given. Still, the strongest moments, musically and dramatically, are the ‘tutoring’ sessions between Hank and his mentor/muse, Tee Tot. for the rest, just sit back and listen (when you hear the real Hank singing in the lobby, where his CDs are being sold, surprisingly, it isn’t dramatically different at all.
THE PLACE: In the Lyceum Theatre, through December 17
THE BOTTOM LINE: GOOD BET , for the music
THE JELL-O GENERATION
THE SHOW: The Wonder Bread Years , a nostalgic one-man touring show geared for Baby Boomers. At one time, a PBS one-hour special
THE STORY: His intention, writer/performer Pat Hazell tells us, is to “help you unlock your sense of wonder. Simple memories evoke joy.” Well, he does bring back simple memories of simpler times: from Sugar Smacks to Spam, lawn darts to milk money and show-and-tell. Oddly, he rarely mentions Wonder Bread. He does suggest, however, that “for every adult problem, there’s a kid solution” (do-overs , touch -black-no-back, etc.). But his 90-minute show (including an intermission!) is like the Halloween candy he spends a good deal of time discussing: very sweet, a little gooey, quickly gone and forgotten. Still, there are a lot less amusing ways to spend an evening, and folks of all ages (from 8 to what seemed like 80, the night I was there) were hootin’ and howlin’ and yellin’ out their pre – peri – and post-Boomer memories.
Hazell, born in 1961, is an end-of-the-era Boomer who grew up in the Midwest in a working class Catholic family of eight kids (hence, the eternal hand-me-downs and scant choices for Halloween costumes). You may not share all his experiences, but there are enough to jog your memory and make you laugh. He has comedic bona fides, having been one of the original four writers for “Seinfeld”. In the promotional material, Jerry calls his show “milk-snorting funny.” If only he’d deepened and enriched the piece by further exploring the “unlock your sense of wonder” theme.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The (uncredited) set features a clothes line of little kids’ garments (his own sons’, Hazell tells us), a front stoop (at least that’s what we called them in New York ) and a few other props of the time. The show opens and closes with projections: a montage at the beginning (Eskimo Pies! Mystery Date! Silly Putty, Smokey the Bear and Slinky!) and family photos at the end, which confirm everything he’s been telling us. Hazell is pleasant and comical company, though he tends to rush his words at times. In his program notes, he says that slice-of-life humor requires a “delicate recipe to achieve the proper harmony between comedy and nostalgia.” He’s mixed up a frothy treat, but he still hasn’t gotten all the ingredients in exactly the right proportions.
THE PLACE: The Theatre in Old Town , just EXTENDED through Jan. 1
THE BOTTOM LINE: Good bet , for Boomer humor
NEWS AND VIEWS
…Hot News from New York : Matt Weeden, the SDSU MFA musical theater alum who wowed audiences in Forbidden Broadway: SVU at the Theatre in Old Town , has been asked to cover the show in the Big Apple for 3-4 weeks. And then he’ll go out on the road for some tour gigs. Rock on, Matt!
… Busy Monday: It’s another of those over-scheduled off-nights. Monday, Dec. 4 features the following options: The Carlsbad Playreaders’ immensely popular A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol, by Walt Jones, very loosely based on the Dickens original. It was a sellout last year; performances are Dec. 4 & 5 (7:30pm at the Dove Library)…. The SDSU MFA students in musical theater will present their end-of-semester Portfolio performances on Dec. 4. See the new class of 2008 and hear the best of Broadway’s Golden Age. 7:30pm at Cygnet Theatre. MTArch@mail.sdsu.edu …. The annual meeting of the San Diego Performing Arts League also takes place on Dec. 4 – at the Birch North Park Theatre. The Mayor will speak and the League’s new executive director, Jacqueline Siegel, will reveal her ambitious plans for the future of the organization.
… Dance on the Move: Malashock Dance, the San Diego Ballet and Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theatre are moving into the new Dance Place San Diego on the NTC Promenade. And they want to show it off. On Dec. 26, the three groups will offer a free day of dance, including a tour of the facility, some simple classes, and meetings with instructors. The next day, a winter workshop of technique and repertory classes begins at the new Malashock studio. For info: www.malashockdance.org
… Go for the Grinch: The Old Globe is gearing up for its “Grinch Family Experience” with loads of activities for kids, Sunday, December 3, 11am-2pm.
… Fun at the FunHouse… The Fun House/TheatreSports is offering an improv version of A Christmas Carol, with the audience determining the presentation genre. Dec. 15 and 16. If you wanna be more naughty than nice, check out their Blue Show, for adults only, Saturday Dec. 9 at 11:45pm. The Fun House also offers an intensive weekend workshop in improv, storytelling and character work. And there’s the Youth League, an after-school arts program that teaches confidence and social skills as well as improv. Info at: firstname.lastname@example.org . Take it from Wayne Brady (“The Wayne Brady Show” and “Whose Line is it Anyway ?”) who recommends TheatreSports for improv training.
… North Coast Rep scores big: NCRT has received its largest individual gift ever: a $50,000 donation from Del Mar philanthropists Sheryl and Harvey White. The gift was established as a matching grant, to inspire the community to join them in supporting the theater. When the initial amount is matched, the Whites have pledged an additional $25,000 to the North County venue. Sheryl and Harvey were the Gold Star Honorees at the Performing Arts League’s Star Awards event last year, an acknowledgment of their long-time commitment to the San Diego arts community.
.. More news from up north: Jessica John has just been named producing artistic director of New Village Arts. The founding artistic director of Backyard Productions, John is an acclaimed local actor and one of San Diego Magazine’s “50 People to Watch” in 2006. So, watch her! In her new position, she’ll work closely with NVA founding artistic director Francis Gercke and newly promoted executive director Kristianne Kurner. John will offer artistic vision and guidance, plan programs, select guest artists and directors, and raise funds. She’ll also continue to provide marketing and public relations for NVA.
… America ’s Finest Arts Un-friendly City?? The blossoming downtown theater scene is being nipped in the bud. Rumor has it that there’s trouble with the 10th Avenue Theatre. And ion theatre, which built a lovely space on 9th Avenue , the New World Stage, a welcoming venue for peripatetic theater companies (with a full schedule for the coming months and beyond) is now being forced out of the building. After all approvals were in place, a ‘specialist’ in ceiling beams and codes wandered in and raised some new questions, noting that there are over 700 buildings downtown that are also ‘in question.’ The City has admitted its errors in the situation, but no one seems ready or able to rectify or remediate the problem. There may be some recourse, but as of now, ion is out and they’ve moved their production of The Grapes of Wrath to the 10th Avenue Theatre, also apparently on metaphorical shaky ground. Stay tuned for news updates on these disturbing developments. With the outrageous demands from the State for use of the Theatre in Old Town , the loss of the Ira Aldridge and Korbett productions spaces in North Park and these downtown difficulties, this isn’t looking like a very arts-friendly place at all.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
The Bacchae – intense, timely, well conceived
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through December 23
It’s a Fabulous Life – outrageous, campy, over-the-top fun
At Diversionary Theatre, through December 17
Wet – swordplay, sexy female pirates – who could ask for anything more? New play, excellent production
MOXIE at the Lyceum, through December 10
Dutchman – provocative, disturbing piece of racist theater, by the incendiary Amiri Baraka
At the Lynx Performance space in Rose Canyon , through December 10
It’s December. The holidays are getting close. Consider giving the gift of Theater to everyone on your list.
© 2006 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.