By Pat Launer
It’s a retro week, of the old, not the new:
The Matchmaker, Odd Couple and I Do! I Do!
The Uneasy Chair ’s a Victorian tableau
But the hip hop hit is Honey Bo.
THE SHOW: The Matchmaker, by three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Thornton Wilder (he won for his breakthrough novel, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey ,” as well as the plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, which also could use a local revival). In 1962, Wilder won America ’s first National Medal for Literature. He counted among his friends Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Willa Cather and Montgomery Clift. And he inhabited his own character creations onstage, performing in Teeth and Our Town in summer stock (he even played the Stage Manager for two weeks on Broadway).
THE BACKSTORY: Wilder originally wrote the play in 1938, and called it The Merchant of Yonkers, a riff on the 18th and 19th century European comedies he loved, with their stock characters, like the curmudgeonly skinflint, that go all the way back to Plautus. It was most directly derived from Johann Nestroy’s 1842 Viennese comedy, He Wants to Have a Lark, which was in turn adapted from a London play , A Day Well Spent, by John Oxenford (1835). Although Wilder’s version was helmed by acclaimed German director/producer Max Reinhardt, the farce was a flop on Broadway, and lay fallow for 15 years. Then renowned director Tyrone Guthrie took an interest in it. Wilder, still stinging from the failure of his “ugly duckling,” revised the piece in 1955, expanding the role of Dolly Gallagher Levi to fit the expansive talent of his diminutive star, Ruth Gordon. In 1964, Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart streamlined the cast of characters, added songs and dance numbers, and created the megahit Hello, Dolly!, which launched Carol Channing and pretty much set her up for life. The musical won ten Tony Awards and spawned the wanly reviewed 1969 movie that featured Barbra Streisand, Walter Matthau , Louis Armstrong, Michael Crawford and Tommy Tune, directed by Gene Kelly. The film garnered three Oscars, but not for any of its legendary or soon-to-be-legendary stars (it won for Sound, Art Direction and Score).
THE STORY: Horace Vendergelder , a rich, penny-pinching businessman, employs a wily matchmaker, Dolly Levi, to find him a wife, not realizing that she has her sights – and her claws – on him. The secondary plot involves Vandergelder’s beleaguered chief clerk and his young sidekick, escaping their jobs for the day to find adventure – and a kiss — in the Big City (that would be New York , not far from Yonkers , where the play is set, in the 1880s). After a farcical succession of mixups and mistaken identities, fibs, falsehoods, secret rendezvous, hidings and losses, everyone winds up with the perfect mate.
THE PLAYERS: Director Sean Murray has wrung all the comedy from the script, and then some. He’s chosen a crackerjack cast that handles the verbal and physical comedy with aplomb. As the irrepressible Dolly, Sandra Ellis-Troy masters the casual manipulation and the linguistic cunning. Beautiful Amy Biedel , as the crafty milliner Irene Molloy (whose Irish accent comes and goes), nails the subtle, deadpan machinations of a widow who just wants to have fun. The physical antics are hilariously handled by a deft Sean Cox (super with a derby!) as Cornelius Hackl and pratfalling Jason Connors as Barnaby, his young assistant. They’re very very funny together, especially in that hide-in-the-closet and under-the-table scene in Mrs. Molloy’s hat shop. David Gallagher, who assayed the role of Cornelius Hackl 47 years ago at the Old Globe, makes for a blustery Vandergelder , though he does tend to stay on one bellowing, bombastic note. Andy Collins and Jeannine Marquie do the best they can with the underwritten roles of Vandergelder’s weepy niece, Ermangarde , and the artiste her uncle won’t let her wed. Veronica Murphy walks like a zombie as ole deaf Gertrude, but she’s funny as the scatter-brained, life-embracing Flora Van Huysen . Antonio “TJ” Johnson is a riot as the migrant tippler, Malachi Stack.
THE PRODUCTION: It’s easy to see why Herman and Stewart eliminated the characters they did: the bumbling, hearing impaired servant; the taciturn barber; the bedraggled drinker – they are small roles and don’t really add all that much, though they do give Wilder a chance to espouse some of his philosophies (especially from the mouth of Malachi). In presentational style, characters come downstage and take the audience into their confidence, explaining their acts or revealing their connivances. This works all right during the action, but gets a little heavy-handed at the end, when Barnaby is forced to present an epilogue that spells out the moral of the story (which isn’t all that deep or inaccessible to begin with).
The production looks lovely, with its series of faux-gilt, angel-adorned borders framing the stage, leading the eye back to a sequence of colorful, painterly backdrops that establish each locale. Scenic designer Sean Fanning is a second-year MFA candidate at SDSU, and we’ll all be lucky if this Northern Californian chooses to stay down South after he graduates. The costumes (Jeanne Reith) are quite attractive, especially for the three young women – Mrs. Malloy, her screamy/adolescent assistant, Minnie Fae (cute/naive Rachael van Wormer), and the niece, Ermangarde (adorable Marquie). Their dresses and hats, in fact, outshine those of Dolly in the famous Harmonia Gardens scene (which is famous for the musical’s show-stopping title tune). Dolly could be more extravagantly attired, Horace’s marching uniform could be more elaborate, and I found the one-ripped-pants-leg of the poor alky, Malachi, a distraction. But everyone else looks dandy. Van Wormer and Marquie are especially appealing in their froufrou, multi-curl wigs (designed by Peter Herman). Amy Biedel looks gorgeous in every scene. Any moment that she and Cox are onstage is a winner; the young foursome actually steals the show.
THE LOCATION: Cygnet Theatre, through April 8
THE SHOW: The Uneasy Chair, by Savannah-based playwright Evan Smith, was written in 1998; the North Coast Repertory Theatre production is its West coast premiere
THE STORY: “In my easy chair,” says Capt. Wickett conspiratorially, “I was anything but.” His discomfiture only sets in after the middle-aged bachelor allows a slight de-icing of the frosty formality he maintains with his finagling (also single) landlady. The prickly pair devolve into an increasingly hostile relationship which includes a marriage by spite, a divorce by default and an unenviable old age.
It’s London , 1880s. Smith is trying to recapture the mannered comedies of the 19th century. He gives his characters Dickensian names: Pickles and Wickett . He shoots for the cleverness of Wilde. Like Trollope, he breaks the fourth wall — repeatedly, relentlessly — so characters can turn, in the midst of a tirade, to conspire with the audience, sharing their inner thoughts and ulterior motives. But he just doesn’t have the epigrammatic grace. And his world-view is rather grim. His play is intentionally outmoded, laced with a little existential angst at the end. It’s a sharp turn from the parlor games of the first act, but it fails to ignite. Meanwhile, due to a miscommunication, the niece of Miss Pickles and nephew of Capt. Wickett come together inadvertently and also wind up in nuptial disharmony. But they happily split and go their merry ways. Such is the generational divide. The often stiff, stilted, self-congratulatory play celebrates the misery of matrimony, but it’s no Wilde romp.
THE PLAYERS/PRODUCTION : Under the deft direction of Brendon Fox (making a welcome return to San Diego, now that he’s associate producer at L.A. Theatre Works), the gifted cast elevates this stodgy, talky text from mere Victorian exercise. Lynne Griffin is a sheer delight — delectably impish, with a twinkle in her eye and a wonderful way with a woman’s wiles. She’s found the perfect onstage adversary in Robert Grossman, who also knows his way around a comic moment. They both specialize in hilariously telling facial expressions. As the niece, Alexandrina, Rhianna Basore is adorably ditsy, analytical and insouciant, sometimes all at once. Christopher Williams plays stuffy and lovesick in just the right balance. Craig Huisenga , as the Chameleon, takes on multiple roles, male and female, with riotous precision. This is his best performance ever. He’s especially verbally nimble in the courtroom scene, where he has to serve as both prosecuting and defending attorneys, curly white wig and all. Funny stuff.
Marty Burnett’s Victorian parlor, dressed by Bonnie Durben , is perfectly fussy, with its lace curtains, wood wainscoting and overstuffed chairs. The Glossary in the program proved troubling. It assumes absolutely no knowledge, experience or exposure on the part of the spectators. The list includes a shocking inventory of items that should have been learned in high school, including ‘poppycock,’ ‘axiomatic’ and ‘Robespierre,’ in addition to references such as Oedipus, Sword of Damocles and Jason and Medea. Has no one had any brush with history, literature or a dictionary? Are we all just inveterate, illiterate “American Idol” addicts? Give us a break, and give us some credit.
THE LOCATION: North Coast Repertory Theatre, through March 24
THE SHOW: I Do! I Do! , adapted from Jan de Hartog’s popular play, The Fourposter . Written in 1966 by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, who created The Fantasticks , it was the first American musical with a cast of two. The original duo was Mary Martin and Robert Preston, who were replaced on Broadway by Carol Lawrence and Gordon MacRae . Heavy hitters all.
THE STORY: The show chronicles a 50-year marriage, beginning in 1900, from wedding day to the reluctant, old-age move from the family home. In between, the two bicker, bring up kids, have a dalliance (Him), assert a tiny bit of independence (Her), nearly split up, negotiate a reconciliation , and reveal in song exactly what they mean to each other — at each stage of their lives.
THE PLAYERS/PRODUCTION : Director/choreographers Don and Bonnie Ward, probably the longest-wed duo in local theater, most likely have a soft-spot for this show, which celebrates a successful, long-term marriage. But it’s not for everyone. The night I was there, the audience was decidedly gray-haired. And they enjoyed it. But despite all efforts to jazz it up (dramatically and comically), the piece feels musty, and the songs aren’t all that strong, though there have been a few breakouts: “My Cup Runneth Over” and “The Honeymooon is Over .”
The players are certainly game and talented. Marci Anne Wuebben is perky and pixieish . David Grant is agile and believably arrogant. There are some funny and some tender moments, nicely directed by the Wards, and the score is well sung overall. The accompaniment is excellent, with musical direction and keyboards by Don LeMaster; the other multi-talented musicians are uncredited in the program. The set, by Dixon Fish, is soberly Victorian for most of the evening, but takes some jarring flights of fancy for the Bringing Up Baby scenes. The quick-change costumes (Carlotta Malone) are fine. The most magical moment is always (as in Man of La Mancha), watching the characters make up and age before our eyes. There is definitely some drama and poignancy here, but it’s probably best appreciated by the young at heart.
THE LOCATION: Moonlight Stage Productions at the Avo Theatre, through March 25
THE COUPLING OF A COUPLE
THE SHOW: The Odd Couple, the hit comedy by Neil Simon, won a Tony Award for Best Play in 1966. It was spun off as a successful film and TV series. The original Broadway cast featured Art Carney and Walter Matthau . Matthau was later replaced by Jack Klugman , who appeared in the Emmy-winning TV series with Tony Randall.
THE BACKSTORY: Simon was inspired by his brother, Danny Simon , and theatrical agent Roy Gerber uneasily co-habiting after their divorces. Danny, also a writer, took first crack at the play, but later handed the idea back to Neil.
THE STORY: Felix Ungar , a neurotic, neat-freak newswriter , is thrown out by his wife, and moves in with Oscar Madison , a divorced, slovenly sportswriter. They drive each other nuts, nearly destroying the guys’ weekly poker game; they split up, they meet the Pigeon sisters from upstairs, and they ultimately come to appreciate and learn from each other.
THE PLAYERS/PRODUCTION : Randall Hickman and Douglas Davis do everything together. They direct and design, they created Premiere for Kids and Premiere Productions (for adults), built the lovely Broadway Theatre, greet their theatergoing guests like the gracious hosts they are, make everyone feel warm and comfortable and at-home in their cheery, cozy space. They’re jacks of many trades, multi-talented guys who play every theater role imaginable, including artists (the walls of the theater are adorned with Davis ’ wonderful Hirschfield caricature re-creations; producers, directors, designers, costume coordinators, photographers. Their show programs list their names over and over again, in every imaginable task. Now, they’ve taken on still other roles: Oscar and Felix. Hickman directs, and plays Oscar, and he’s really funny, channeling Nathan Lane at times, but giving the character his own quirky spin. His comic timing is impeccable. Davis seems to be in another production altogether. He plays the fastidious, hypochondriacal Felix as a tragic figure, morose, despondent, not particularly antic, definitely not amusing. Sort of like Strindberg, maybe. Or, as my theatergoing friend put it, Randall was in Neil Simon, Doug was in ‘Virginia Woolf.’ Only his sinus snorting was comical. The rest was a sad-eyed portrait of ‘Pathetic.’ This skews the entire play, since Felix should be, in his manic insanity, hysterically funny. So, the show was kind of lopsided in the center, but potent in the periphery, with spot-on performances from Michael Grant Hall as Murray, the finicky cop; Robert DeLillo as the Miami-vacationer, Vinnie ; and Toni Billante and Joe Palen as the other poker buddies. Suzanne Oswald and Michelle Panek are adorably giggly as the Pigeons. There are still some pretty witty lines and some good hearty laughs. This is one play that never seems to fall out of style.
THE LOCATION: The Broadway Theatre in Vista., through March 25
GO, BO, GO!
THE SHOW: Honey Bo and the Gold Mine, the 2007 POP Tour (Performance Outreach Program) play of the La Jolla Playhouse, which has been traveling to schools and community centers throughout San Diego County since January. This world premiere was written and composed by actor/writer/rapper Will Power, directed by Rebecca Lynn Brown, with choreography by grace shinhae jun , an accomplished dancer who’s pursuing a Ph.D. in hip hop theater at UCSD . In the past two months, the production has been seen by more than 14,000 students, grades 2-6.
THE STORY: The POP tour plays are always educational and inspirational, tackling social and community problems in American culture. This one’s set in a black/Latino neighborhood; the bulldozers are coming and the apartment residents are about to be evicted. Animated, enthusiastic 13 year-old hip hopper Honey Bo wants to save her neighborhood. She’s told to go looking for a chest of gold in the local gold mine. But she learns that “the gold is within yourself ,” and when the community unites, change happens.
THE PLAYERS/PRODUCTION : The production has to be portable, so the inventive, flexible set is composed of screens on wheels that suggest a row of apartment mailboxes or the narrow passageway of a goldmine. Each of three marvelous actor/singers portrays multiple roles, old and young, nasty and nice. Shaun T. Evans is wonderful as hard-working Mr. Lopez, Lisa Payton is terrific as Grandma and as affable Mauby the Miner, Keith Jefferson serves as our guide. All three had been part of the play from the beginning, starting with a reading in November. And then there’s Kerisse Hutchinson, a native New York sprite with rubber legs and megawatt energy, as Honey Bo. She is a magnificent hip hop dancer, and her krumping is jaw-dropping. This martial arts-like dance was used as a non-violent alternative to actual combat between East L.A. gangs in the 1990s. It’s become a bona fide form of “Urban” Black dance, that includes a rapid rhythmic jerking of the body, and an intermittent flex of the spine and thrust-out chest, which is called “the krump ” or a “bobble bounce.” So there. You learned something from the POP Tour, too. Check out the show this weekend; it’s a fun little 40-minute instructional/activist story about the power of community, told in rhyme, rhythm, song and dance. Dig it.
THE LOCATION: Last weekend of performances, open to the public: Saturday, March 10 at 10:30 and 1:00pm; Sunday, March 11 at 1:00 and 3:30pm, in the Seuss 1 Rehearsal Space behind the Potiker Theatre, on the campus of UCSD
THE PLAY: Cygnet Theatre and San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre scored again, with another in their fabulous series of readings of plays by the late, great August Wilson. Floyd Gaffney directed Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, the searing 1988 drama set in 1911, about a man who’s “lost his song,” Wilson ’s metaphor for personal and ethnic identity. That search intersects with the quests of uprooted Southern blacks trying to reconnect with missing family members in the north. The cast, as with the other three readings thus far, is superb, each carving out a multi-faceted character, creating a palpable reality underscored by the musicality of the colloquial Southern speech patterns that serve to evoke a time, a place and a people.
THE BACKSTORY: The fourth of Wilson ’s ten plays – written after Jitney and Wilson ‘s breakthrough, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Fences (the latter two have already been done by the Cygnet/Black Ensemble collaboration )– Turner was his first play conceived as part of the cycle that represents each decade of the lives of African Americans in the 20th century.
The title character is no fictional invention; he never appears in the piece, but his presence is constantly felt. Joe Turner was the brother of the Governor of Tennessee, who, 40 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, still believed in slavery. In the early 1900s, he would capture black men, yanking them off the road and clamping them onto chain gangs for seven years of forced labor which terminated on his birthday. “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” is the title of a blues song by W.C. Handy, and it subtly wends its way through the play. Some think Joe Turner is just a mythical figure, the embodiment of the terror of slavery, still very fresh and raw at the time the play is set.
THESTORY/ THE PLAYERS: The remarkable way Wilson integrates the history into his invocations of African spiritual roots makes Turner one of his most powerful plays, and my personal favorite. The Pittsburgh boardinghouse, run by Seth (outstanding Antonio TJ Johnson) and his wife Bertha (wonderfully earthy, natural Candace Ludlow Trotter), is a cultural microcosm, and uneasy mix of the settled, long-free Northerners and their uprooted, still-wandering Southern tenants. The mythic and historical elements are juxtaposed in the characters of the prophet-guru Bynum (a spooky John Cochran), so called because his “song” brings and binds people together, and Loomis (haunted, chilling Mark Christopher Lawrence), who was a victim of Joe Turner and has spent years, young daughter Zonia in tow (cute/talented 10 year-old Madeline Hornbuckle ), searching for his wife (strong-willed T. Ford). He’s aided by the itinerant peddler, Selig (soft-spoken Texan Joe Powers), a “people-finder” who has his own dark family secrets. Meanwhile, young Reuben (unaffected 8th grader Anwar Addae ) instructs Zonia in the ways of the world, echoing the sweet-talk of Jeremy (Mark Broadnax, an appealing slacker/womanizer) to two different women: the wounded Maddie (touching Che Lyons) and seductive Molly (a deep but devil-may-care Monique Gaffney). Ron Choularton is aptly understated as the narrator. The musical accompaniment (Rhys Green drumming to Deacon Moore’s blues guitar) is an outstanding addition. In the text, hymns are juxtaposed with juba dancing and incantations; Christianity abuts African spiritual beliefs. The play is infused with music, and this reading is a thrilling ensemble piece.
THE LOCATION: Cygnet Theatre on March 13; at the Avo Playhouse in Vista on March 12. cygnettheatre.com/aw.php
.. There was quite an impressive array of talent at the San Diego English-Speaking Union’s 22ndAnnual Shakespeare Competition. Twenty local high schoolers competed with a monologue and a sonnet. They were poised and prepared, invested and inspiring. Serving as Moderator, Mike Auer, who will once again head up the (2nd annual) Student Shakespeare Festival this spring, offered the presenters some dramatic advice, by deconstructing Hamlet’s speech to the Players. As he read each section, he distilled it down to its modern-day essence, which resulted in the following excellent list of Do’s and Don’ts for any actor: ‘Enunciate. Don’t over-gesticulate. Don’t overact. Don’t underact . Let your character motivate your action. Just act naturally.’ Too bad it was a little late in the game for these performers, but maybe they’ll recall some of these timeless tips some time in their future.
UCSD’s voice specialist, Ursula Meyers, Claudio Raygoza and I were judges for the first (semifinal) round, and we unanimously selected five females for the finals (there were surprisingly few male competitors this year). The finals were judged by Rosina Reynolds, Jonathan Saville and Steve McCormick, director of education and outreach for the la Jolla Playhouse. The winner, home-schooled Raechele Hans, who did a lovely job as Juliet. She now goes on to the national competition in New York . Hope she speaks her speech, trippingly on the tongue.
NEWS AND VIEWS…
… Don’t miss “The Legacy of Luis Valdez, Father of Chicano Theater,” the documentary that I wrote and co-produced with City TV’s wonderful station manager, Rick Bollinger, at the San Diego Latino Film Festival. The 20-minute film visits with the whole talented Valdez family, as well as others Luis has touched and influenced, from film actor Edward James Olmos to locals Sam Woodhouse, Jorge Huerta, Bill Virchis and Todd Salovey. This is the 14th year of the San Diego Festival, which is one of the largest and most respected Latino film fests in the country. This year’s event features more than 100 films from around the world. The screenings continue through March 18. “The Legacy of Luis Valdez ” screens on Saturday, March 10 at 3:30pm, at the Ultra-Star Cinemas, Hazard Center , in Mission Valley . Screen #6 (“Border Makers”). Hasta luego !
… KPBS Celebrates COAST TO COAST FASHION with Saks Fifth Avenue, a cool evening of cocktails (four bars), cuisine (from 26 local chefs), and chic new styles in a store-wide fashion show. The fun part is that some of those ‘models’ will be KPBS personalities, including yours truly (I’ll be in Armani!). Other KPBS modeling luminaries are Kathi Diamant, Dwane Brown, John Decker, Tom Fudge, Amy Isackson , Mike Marcotte and Amita Sharma. Music by Halloran from FM 94.9; the store will remain open for event guests only. Thursday, March 15, 7-10pm. $40 general admission; proceeds benefit KPBS. 619-594-6787kpbs.org/celebrates
… Sellout at 6th @ Penn… Glengarry Glen Ross has been overbooked for every performance, breaking all records in the six-year history of 6th @ Penn Theatre. The hard-hitting drama has been extended through March 25. And in its final weekend performance, Doug Hoehn’s double-bill, Bridges: Two Love Stories, was a sellout, too. keep ‘em comin ’….
.. Watch out for Foreign Bodies, the world premiere by acclaimed New York playwright Susan Yankowitz . The new thriller/crime drama is being read as part of Vox Nova’s inaugural season, dedicated to showcasing/reading new work. Kirsten Brandt, former artistic director of Sledgehammer Theatre, now resident director at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, will direct. Yankowitz and Brandt collaborated to outstanding effect on A Knife in the Heart and Phaedra in Delirium. The new play concerns guilt and innocence, sexual predators and human sexuality. This one should be a killer. Monday, March 26, 7:30pm in the Lyceum Theatre.
..Match made in heaven: Also on March 26, there’ll be a reading at Cygnet Theatre, in conjunction with The Matchmaker: Thornton Wilder’s Great American masterwork, Our Town, directed by cygnet associate artistic director George Yé. 7:30pm.
.. New American Musicals… Thanks to Jersey Boys, Spring Awakening, and even the movie “ Dreamgirls ,” there’s been another resurgence of interest in musicals. Now, inspired by the success of shows nurtured in Southern California , like Wicked and JB, there’s going to a SoCal “Festival of New American Musicals,” with participation from more than 30 performing arts venues . Stephen Schwartz (composer of Wicked and Pippin, among others) will serve as advisor, as will Michael Kerker of ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers). The inaugural Festival will be held in May and June of 2008. Theater organizations who’ve already signed on include L.A. ’s Center Theatre Group, Geffen Playhouse and Pasadena Playhouse. Let’s hope San Diego is well represented, too (we sure missed the boat on Suzan-Lori Parks’ “365 Plays/365 Days,” with participants across the country).
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
The Four of Us – a smart, clever world premiere, extremely well presented
On the Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through March 11
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – the stellar New York/London production, featuring killer performances by Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin
The Ahmanson Theatre in L.A. , through March 18
Three Sisters – beautifully detailed, well acted production that mines the humor underneath the pathos
New Village Arts at Carlsbad Jazzercise, running in repertory with The Three Sisters, through March 18
Crimes of the Heart – a whole lotta humor and heart, outstandingly directed and performed
New Village Arts at Carlsbad Jazzercise, running in repertory with The Three Sisters, through March 18
Glengarry Glen Ross – perfect Mamet pacing by a crackerjack ensemble
6th @ Penn Theatre, EXTENDED through March 25
The Secret Garden – the singing trumps everything else; a vocally magical cast
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through March 11
Fiddler on the Roof – wonderful nostalgia, wonderfully sung
At the Welk Theatre, through April 1
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Large or small, intimate or sprawling, there’s a theater waiting for you!
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.