By Pat Launer
New format, for awhile,
A leaner, cleaner, friendlier style.
Kind to those short on time and attention,
( though shows and news will still get a mention).
This week, a cross-cultural feast:
In “Miss Saigon,” West meets East
And it’s way down South with ‘Pump Boys and Dinettes’
While some laughs in ‘ Valhalla ’ are Marie Antoinette’s.
THE SHOW: ‘ Valhalla ,” by Paul Rudnick
THE SCOOP: If you love camp, or wacky spins on literary history or gay stories with heart (and LOTS of laughs), you’re gonna love “ Valhalla .” Diversionary kicks off its 20th anniversary season with a hoot and a holler.
THE STORY: The play intricately intertwines two coming-of-age, coming-out stories: the historical King Ludwig II, the 19th century “Mad King of Bavaria,” and the fictional James Avery, a small-town Texas boy (circa 1930s) who’s too cute (and too bad) for his own good. Each is on a lifelong quest for beauty and grandeur – a passionate yearning to find a world that offers more than is available, a world that values pulchritude — and their special (read: gay) sensibilities. Both first fall in love with a swan (a real one in Ludwig’s case, a crystal one that James steals – harking back to Rudnick’s hilarious shoplifting novel, “I’ll Take It”). Both have rather difficult mothers (to say the least). And although Rudnick has sworn that he’s “ operaphobic ,” Wagner and especially “ Lohengrin ” feature prominently here. Ultimately, these two disparate worlds collide in a Bavarian castle – in a plot-twist that’ll make your head spin. And the aforementioned crystal swan comes home to roost when a kvetchy New Jersey guide, Natalie Kippelbaum , meets James’ heir on a castle tour. Rudnick weaves together a multiplicity of themes, from homosexuality to opera, madness to mothers, to show how despite the divide, these two men mirror the times they lived in, and the attitudes and perceptions of unconventional behavior (homosexual and otherwise).
THE PLAYERS: All the characters are larger than life, though some really lived… so, was Ludwig mad or just eccentric? He managed to bankrupt his country, and wind up in a loony bin. James spent some time in prison. They’re both oddly appealing, intriguing characters. Angelo D’Agostino is flat-out adorable as James, with that bad-boy glint in his eye, and an insouciance that’s irresistible (to men and women, in this story). Andy Collins makes Ludwig a prancing, well-meaning but misunderstood guy whose tastes run to the frankly bizarre. Andrew Kennedy, who’s fortunately being seen more on local stages, gets to show more of his talent in a variety of roles – the Germanic personal trainer, Helmut, who humps his host, the King; and the endearingly naïve, sexually confused Henry Lee, who is James’ lifelong obsession. Laura Bozanich is great as various monstrous Moms, played with whip-snapping humor and crackerjack timing. Lisel Gorell-Getz is delightful as most of the young women, especially luscious as the narcissistic Sally and the hunchbacked Princess Sophie (and quite lovely as Marie Antoinette – in full regalia). Zachary Mikles adds support in a number of male (and female) roles.
THE PRODUCTION : Sleekly designed (by David Weiner) for maximal flexibility (all those locale changes!) and nicely lit by Mia Bane Jacobs. But it’s the costumes that really stand out. Shulamit Nelson has outdone herself, with a bevy of quick-change outfits that are lavish and often laughable. Mark Bennett created the evocative sound design and original music.
THE LOCATION: Diversionary Theatre, through October 2.
PUMP IT UP!
THE SHOW: ‘Pump Boys and Dinettes,” created by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel and Jim Wann
THE SCOOP: Okay, so I’m a little late coming to this (Southern) party; the show ends its extended run next weekend. But it’s a lot of fun, if good singin’ and down-home music is your thang .
THE STORY, THE PLAYERS: The musical reprise for Lamb’s (first mounted in 1994, the show features two of the original performers: ace bass-man Oliver Shirley and actor/singer/washboard-player Kerry Meads). With no plot to speak of, it’s really a showcase for some mega-talent. Each of the excellent singers also plays at least one instrument. The two Equity actors (and SDSU MFA alums) are Nick Spear (Elvis hip- swiveler and knockout guitarist) and Spencer Moses (rockin’ pianist and uke -player, fresh from his turn in the world premiere La Jolla Playhouse production of “ Palm Beach , The Screwball Musical”). They both display their comic chops, and meld wonderfully with Meads, and Deborah Gilmour-Smyth and guitarist/singer-songwriter Leigh Taylor. All the performances are excellent, and each has a song perfectly matched to his/her copious skill. That doesn’t make the play any more substantial, but the bussed-in senior-center matinee crowd howled with glee.
THE PRODUCTION : Beautiful, detailed design (Mike Buckley, with wonderful garage/diner props by Cecilia Church). Consummate singing (musical direction by G. Scott Lacy) with apt costumes (Jeanne Reith). The direction (Robert Smyth) is fine, but there could be a lot more (and more intricate) choreography (Colleen Kollar ).
THE LOCATION: Lamb’s Players Theatre, through September 18.
THE HEAT IS ON
THE SHOW: “Miss Saigon” by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg (the famous “Les Miz” creators — though Boublil’s name is spelled wrong multiple times in the program!); additional material by Richard Maltby, Jr.
THE SCOOP: A really fine production (maybe a bit short on Asian actors — but the ones who are there are terrific). Strong performances in all the lead roles, with marvelous voices throughout. A great look and, after a slow start, a wonderful feel for the time and the material.
THE STORY: The flip side of the “Hair” story. Those guys protested and these guys fought that moronic war…. and left plenty of human casualties behind. A riff on “ Madama Butterfly,” the story focuses on poor misguided Kim, a country girl (forced into prostitution in the Big City ) who falls for an American Marine in 1975, during the fall of Saigon . He leaves (by helicopter, you might recall), and she finds herself pregnant. But she knows some day, he’ll return…. At least this American is a bit more caring than that nasty, unfeeling Pinkerton in the Puccini version. But the heartbreaking fatal outcome is the same.
THE PRODUCTION: The show is extremely well done, even if it lags a bit in the first act, and “The Heat is On in Saigon ” isn’t quite as glitzy as one might hope (though it had a lot of sexy bumps and grinds, thanks to the choreography of David Brannen). The piece picks up a lot of heat and steam in the second act. There are 13 skilled musicians in the pit, under the baton of musical director Parmer Fuller. The flutes (including Asian flutes) are particularly attuned to the cultural divide. The set and costumes (rented) are sumptuous, and the lighting (Trisha Schleicher) helps establish the tone and focus the attention. There were some miking problems the night I was there. But all the megamusical elements are in place – including a drive-on Cadillac for the knockout “American Dream” number, and an inventive suggestion of a helicopter (if not an actual ‘landing’).
THE PLAYERS : The cast is huge (more than three dozen), and perhaps a bit short on Asians in some critical places, but all the chorus numbers are well executed, and the leads are uniformly strong. Robert Townsend is attractive and intense as Chris, and he connects well with the lovely Jennifer Paz as Kim (she was last seen here in the national tour of “Miss Saigon” which premiered in San Diego at the Civic Theatre in 1998, nearly a decade after its debut. Interesting side-note: on her new CD, Jennifer sings duets with the original Kim, Lea Salonga ). The voices (Townsend and Paz) are ideally suited to their roles, and they make a most appealing couple. As Chris’ American wife, Heidi Meyer has a small role (which she played for awhile on Broadway) but a full and robust voice. Victor Chan is marvelous as the Engineer, a slimy, greedy pimp. He totally nails all his numbers — and the sleaze factor of this devious conniver. The guy with the conscience, Chris’ buddy, John, is earnestly portrayed by Jim Chatham, who’s the theater director at Granite Hills High School – which helped bring a LOT of young people to the show (always a good thing!).
THE LOCATION: Starlight Bowl in Balboa Park , through September 18.
NEWS AND VIEWS
ON THE MOVE
….Public art. Site-specific production. Movement and moving performances. It’s all there in Trolley Dances 2005, the 7th year of this unique local offering. It’s a great opportunity to ride the new Mission Valley East trolley line, and to see six new works by five hot choreographers. You’ll get on, get off, and watch dance in wild venues: a 40-foot elevated platform, an underground tunnel and the sleek new station at SDSU. September 24-25 and October 1-2; www.sandiegodancetheater.org.
THE REP HELPS THE REP
….The San Diego Repertory Theatre has scheduled a reading to benefit Southern Repertory Theatre, the only regional theater in New Orleans . Destroyed by hurricane Katrina, the theater was set to open its 19th anniversary season with the world premiere of “Callie’s Tally,” by Betsy Howie , adapted from her best-selling book of the same name. Instead, theater companies across the country are presenting benefit readings of the play to help this vital theater organization survive. The comic piece, about the cost of raising a child – and demanding payback from said offspring! – was written as a one-woman showcase. At the Rep, the role will be shared by Linday Libby, Karen Robinson (from the cast of the Rep’s production of “Da Kink in My Hair”), Seema Sueko and Carman Vogt. I’ll be reading the stage directions. We know you’ve given to the Gulf Coast survivors; now you can contribute to the renewal of its vibrant arts community. Just $10 admission: Monday, September 26 at 8pm in the Lyceum Theatre.
‘RENT’ FOR SALE
… In other benefit news, Sony Pictures Digital has created the first ever mobile charity donation program, based on the upcoming release of the film version of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent.” Fans of the multiple award-winning Broadway show can download their favorite “Rent” characters to their mobile phone, while at the same time donating money to worthy charities. For each of the eight main characters (Roger, Mimi, Mark, Collins, Angel, Benny, Joanne, Maureen), a mobile wallpaper has been created and is available to Cingular and Sprint subscribers by sending a text message of “RENT” to 4SONY (4-7669) from a mobile phone. Each wallpaper costs $2.50; a portion of all proceeds will be donated to the following charities: The National Marfan Foundation, The Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids Foundation.
NO ONE”S NEATUH THAN CHITA
… If you miss(ed) my interview with the inimitable musical theater legend/icon Chita Rivera on KPBS-TV on Thursday, September 15 (6:30 and 11:00pm), you can catch it again on Friday 9/16 at noon (Channel 15/cable 11). Get a preview of her new show, “ Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life,” which goes directly from the Old Globe to Broadway. 72 and still going strong – for eight shows a week! Amazing!
…Another (local) Energizer Bunny… Floyd Gaffney. His recently formed Common Ground Theatre opens its 2005-06 season with “Dancing with Demons,” by Donald T. Evans, a story of two male misfits. Gaffney directs this one (9/30-10/16 at 6th @ Penn) and then heads right into helming a reprise of “Black Nativity,” which he’s been doing for years. This is the Langston Hughes version of the birth and death of Jesus, told with a church-full of spiritual music (Opening Dec. 1 at the Lyceum Space in Horton Plaza ).
… Check out the inaugural reading by Carlsbad Playreaders . Beth Henley’s “Crimes of the Heart” opens the season on Monday, September 19 at 7:30pm. With an all-star local cast, directed by Kristianne Kurner, the 1981 Pulitzer Prize winner promises to be a killer.
… and don’t forget to head over to 6th @ Penn Theatre, for dynamic duos’ reading A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters”: Monday, Sept. 19: Sandra Ellis-Troy and Ron Choularton. Tuesday, September 20: Marianne McDonald and Dale Morris. Wednesday, September 21: George Flint and Trina Kaplan.
NOW, FOR WHAT’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (i.e., Critic’s Picks )
“Miss Saigon” – first-rate production, expertly directed by Brian Wells (especially flashy and touching in the second act). The leads are excellent, and all the glitz and guts are there.
At Starlight Bowl, through September 18.
“ Valhalla ” – director Tim Irving is the perfect conveyor of the wacky humor of Paul Rudnick. You’ve gotta love camp (and non-stop one-liners). If you do, 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.
“Hair” – the ‘60s are back; Fritz artistic director Duane Daniels has captured the look and the feel – and of course, the nudity. He hopes this energetic young cast will shine light on the similarities between then and now. Bravo. The Fritz is back in the business of politics.
At the Lyceum Space, through September 28.
“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.
Take a break from giving Gulf Coast relief – and get a little relief for yourself – at the theater!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.