By Pat Launer
It’s a Wonderful Life, if you take the right path
But you just might choke on The Grapes of Wrath
Amahl could win the Spelling Bee
Cause All he wants for Christmas is some dough re mi.
THE SHOW: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the first national touring production of the multiple Tony Award-winner, conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with additional material written by Jay Reiss; book by Rachel Sheinkin, music and lyrics by William Finn (Falsettos, A New Brain). Based on a play called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, which was conceived, directed and performed by Feldman and her company, The Farm. Spelling Bee premiered in 2004. On Broadway it won Tonys for Best Book and featured Actor (Dan Fogler, who played slovenly William Barfee); there were Tony noms for best score and director (James Lapine, who also directed this roadshow)
THE STORY: Six geeky, adolescent word-nerds vie for the Big Bee, under the aegis and watchful eye of a former bee-winner and a super-drip vice principal. It’s dog eat dog out there in this witty, brainy confection, a kind of Chorus Line with orthography instead of choreography, as each kid (all played by adults) gets to tell a (fairly pathetic) family backstory, and to learn about competition and getting along. The angst of puberty is a palpable presence. And there’s the extra bonus of audience participation: four volunteers are selected before the show, and they become fellow contestants. On opening night, one was so adept (he actually nailed the arcane word ‘caterjunes!’), so they had to come up with something even harder to knock him out of the contest. That was pretty funny, too. The show was also up-to-the-minute, referring to local schools and the recent Michael Richards bad-language debacle (“This Bee is nose-diving faster than Michael Richards’ career”).
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The characters are engaging, all whiz-kid outcasts who never fit in at school, but here, on this Spelling Bee stage (the delightfully whimsical and reminiscent set was designed by Beowulf Boritt), they get to sparkle and shine. They’re a psychiatrist’s dream-team: compulsives, obsessives, overachievers, self-destructives and the self-esteem-impaired. It’s a lovely bunch of neurotics, excellently portrayed by a talented cast, several of whom performed on Broadway, including super-agile Katie Boren as Marcy Park; Jennifer Simard, she of the rafter-shaking pipes, as host Rona Lisa Peretti; and funny/shrill-voiced/signing Sarah Stiles as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the daughter of two pushy, unethical fathers. Eric Petersen is amusing but not show-stopping as the zhlubby, nose-picking William Barfee (“It’s Bar-FAY!”), and his tell-all song, “Magic Foot,” reveals disappointingly little about his family or character. Lauren Worsham is adorable as the neglected Olive Ostrovsky; Michael Zahler is a hoot as insecure/slacker Leaf Coneybear (whose sibs are named Landscape, Pinecone and Raisin); Alan Green is versatile and talented as Mitch Mahoney, the ‘comforter’ on parole; and Miguel Cervantes is amusing as the most embarrassingly adolescent of the boys, the one whose below-the-belt body betrays him during the Bee. Most of the songs are cute and clever, but the humor (hilarious in the first act) does wear out its welcome after a time, and nearly two hours is a long one-act. But still, there is so much to like – and learn! – here , that the smart, sassy show is simply irresistible.
THE PLACE: Broadway San Diego brings the show to the Civic Theatre, through December 10
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
DUST BOWL BLUES
THE SHOW: The Grapes of Wrath , adapted, from the 1939 novel by Pulitzer Prize-winner John Steinbeck novel, by Steppenwolf’s Frank Galati (In 1989, his stellar production came to the La Jolla Playhouse)
/THE STORY: It’s all about the Joads, but it’s the story of America during the Depression – and America today, in terms of migrant workers and immigrants, labor practices and human rights . One iconic family, sharecroppers booted off their land by dust, drought and destitution, heads West for the fields of California, seeking some land, work and dignity, but finding a great deal of loss and disappointment along the way.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Ion Theatre founder, artistic director and scenic designer Claudio Raygoza has done a masterful job bringing this epic to life. And he certainly had to do it under adverse circumstances. First, he lost his lovely space, the meticulously renovated New World Stage that he and partner Glenn Paris built as a haven for ion and other theater groups. They were delayed by inspectors and codes and finally forced to shut down. In the middle of rehearsal, they had to move to the 10th Avenue Theatre, which also may be in trouble. Then there were electrical problems. On opening night, there was a computer breakdown. It’s a triumph of the will, not unlike the Joads’ fraught journey. A tribute to the perseverance and dedication of Raygoza, Paris and their cohesive and committed cast that the production got up and on its feet – if only for a way-too-brief 6-day run. The production is unequivocally worth seeing. Raygoza, who designed the set, has created the dusty look and feel of Great Plains poverty, with dirt on the ground, crumbling wood structures and a highly inventive, disassembling wagon to carry the family across the country.
His ensemble is wonderful, 25 actors playing some 50 roles. Sylvia Enrique, Bob Smith and Blair Whitcomb provide the musical bed for the production, most of which they created, the mournful, down-home feel of Woody Guthrie, punctuated by strains of “Wayfarin’ Stranger.” At the center of the action, in very potent performances, are Andrew Kennedy as a stalwart and low-key Tom Joad, Dana Hooley as his resolute über-mother, and a dry-mouthed, bearded Matt Scott as the disillusioned, disaffected preacher. As other members of the Joad clan, the following gave notably credible and unaffected performances: William Tanner as Pa Joad; Tim Schubert as Al; John Garcia as Uncle John; and Sara Beth Morgan as Rose of Sharon, who is the centerpiece of the heartbreaking final stage picture of the play. Walter Ritter, Jon Sachs and D’Ann Paton also create genuine, flesh-and-blood characters. Under Raygoza’s assured and visionary guidance, everyone is first-rate. This production makes you feel like you’re living through those awful times, which have been revealed as a deadly combination of bad weather, bad luck, bad timing and bad agricultural judgment on the part of individuals and the government. It’s a cautionary tale for our times; if we don’t listen to and respect the Earth, it’s going to take its vengeance. Global Warming deniers, take note!
THE PLACE: ion theatre at the 10th Avenue Theatre space, through December11
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
SOUNDS LIKE A CLASSIC
THE SHOW: It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play , a delightful adaptation of the Lux Radio Theatre performance of the 1946 Classic Frank Capra film, created ten years ago by playwright Joe Landry
THE STORY: You have to be living under a rock or a bridge not to know the story of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” one of the most beloved of all holiday traditions. Big-hearted George Bailey of little Bedford Falls , is thwarted in his every attempt to get out of town. His father dies, his brother gets married, and he gets stuck taking over the bank and battling the bully who owns most of the town. When everything seems to conspire against him, he attempts suicide. But he’s saved by Clarence, his bumbling guardian angel, who shows him just what life in Bedford Falls would be without him. He realizes how much he has and how much he’s done and gleefully, gratefully returns home to find that the whole town has come to his assistance, raising the money that will bail him out and ensure his continued happiness.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Director/designer Sean Murray has knocked another one outta the park. He’s gathered a multi-talented ensemble, as strong vocally as they are dramatically. The production is heavenly. Tom Andrew is terrific as George, often channeling Jimmy Stewart, but also putting his own heartfelt spin on the role. Amy Biedel is thoroughly lovable as his steadfast, faithful wife, Mary Hatch. Trevor Hollingsworth, Veronica Murphy and Melissa Fernandes (especially strong as a the youngest Bailey child) are great in multiple roles, and David Gallagher is outstanding as the hapless Uncle Billy and the hopeful angel, Clarence Oddbody. Mark Larson brings his stentorian tones to the friendly radio host and nasty Mr. Potter. Amy Dalton provides excellent accompaniment, and the singing is consistently outstanding. Jeanne Reith’s costumes are beautifully ‘40s and Bonnie Durben has dressed the radio studio set with delectable period detail. But the real highlight of an already high evening is watching Foley sound master Scott Paulson do his thing, using an amazing array of everyday items to create a delicious soundscape, from harp glissandos (which he told me, musicians refer to as “harp vomit”) to the crushing of a box of cornstarch to simulate footsteps crunching in the snow, and a creaky spring-activated ice cream scoop for summer crickets. He’s brilliant at what he does… and he also plays several instruments, including the aforementioned harp, baritone sax and oboe.
If you don’t shed a tear at the end of this show, you’re one stony, pitiless person indeed.
THE PLACE: Cygnet Theatre, through Dec. 24
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
WE THREE KINGS
THE SHOW: Amahl and the Night Visitors , a one-act operetta, the first ever written for television (1951), created by Italian composer Gian Carlo Menotti. The show became a holiday perennial, and ran for 15 years. Directed by Dr. Floyd Gaffney, with musical direction by Michael Morgan
THE STORY: Amahl is an impoverished, disabled young boy who has little but his dreams and fantasies. One cold winter night, he wanders home late, telling his mother he was fascinated by an especially bright special star in the sky. Tired of his incessant fabrications and confabulations, his mother refuses to believe him. She’s at her wit’s end, as they are completely penniless and she dreads having to send her only son out to beg. Uncomplaining, he goes to bed without supper or the warmth of a fire. In the middle of the night, they’re awakened by a knock at the door. Three kings, on the way to see a blessed new child, have come to seek shelter for the night. Though Amahl’s mother has nothing to offer her royal guests, she welcomes them, and invites in the neighboring shepherds, who bring food and entertainment. The mother covets the kings’ gold, wishing she had something for her own blessed boy. She’s caught stealing, but she is exonerated by the benevolent kings. Amahl offers to send his sole possession, his crutch, as a gift for the baby, and when he does, a miracle occurs, and he is able to walk. He dances around, and vows to accompany the kings to see the holy child. It’s a tender story of selflessness, faith and forgiveness.
THE BACKSTORY: Although the contemporary music is at times complex and challenging, Menotti wrote the piece for children, in an effort, he said, to recapture his own childhood. In Italy , there is no Santa Claus; Christmas gifts are brought by the Three Kings. Strolling through the Metropolitan Museum in New York , Menotti reported being struck by Hieronymous Bosch’s “Adoration of the Kings” which reminded him of the Christmas kings of his childhood. The story goes that, as a young boy, Menotti became lame; the doctors could find no cause or cure. In desperation, he was taken to be blessed at the holy Sanctuary of Sacro Monte, where he was miraculously cured.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: In its 44th year of operation — first as Southeast Community Theatre, now as Common Ground — the culturally diverse company has once again teamed up with St Paul ’s Cathedral Center for the Performing and Visual Arts. The production is simple and heartfelt. The evocative set (Ted Crittenden) is the rustic walled interior of Amahl’s weathered and worn hovel, backed by a starry sky. The class-defining costumes (Joan Wong) range from earthtone peasant rags to multicolored, regal robes. The cast is variable, the choreography very basic, but the lead actors acquit themselves very well. Ten year-old Spike Sommers has the voice of an angel, agile in negotiating the tricky melodic turns of the wide-ranging musical role. His limp is as believable as his acting. He’s definitely someone to watch. As his mother, 19 year-old Noelle Tetrick displays a sparkling, supple soprano, and her ability to create a credible character. Tom Oberjet brings humor to the doddering, hearing impaired King Kaspar. Together, the three royals (Joe Pettigrew as Melchior and Arthur Wheatfall as Balthazar) sound is vocally strong. Director Gaffney mines the lightness and humor of the one-hour piece, while maintaining the weight of the music and message.
THE PLACE: Common Ground Theatre at St. Paul ’s Cathedral; December 14-17
THE BOTTOM LINE: Good bet
THE SHOW: All I Want for Christmas , Lamb’s Players’ 29thFestival of Christmas presentation penned, like all the annual holiday fare, by resident artist Kerry Meads, and directed by Deborah Gilmour Smyth, with musical direction by Cris O’Bryon
THE STORY: Set in 1949, this is a family drama about a family that needs a little holiday light – and learns a thing or two about the true meaning of Christmas. Grandma is raising inquisitive young Clark because his mother ran off and his father is too busy trying to hit it big with his a capella quartet. Grandma is a war widow who hasn’t had time to indulge her own needs, though the milkman has his eye on her. The denizens of her diner include the feminist taxi driver who’s looking for love in a radio contest, and the fix-it man who may just have the missing parts she craves. Meanwhile, Great Grandpa has something going with the kvetchy neighbor, and the singing group may be getting its break – or falling apart. All this is punctuated by knockout boogie-woogie renditions of Christmas carols, set against a backdrop of post-war San Diego
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: When I looked back at my comments on this play from its first production in 1999, I realized that neither the piece nor my opinion had changed; there’s still far too much local historical background, and the narrative feels stretched and protracted. There are more musical interludes than necessary, even though the arrangements are unique and exciting and the tight harmonies are often thrilling. But there’s so much buildup and backstory, and so little action, that when all the problems are tied up with a big red Christmas bow at the end, the audience already has holiday fatigue. With some serious pruning, the play would be genial at 90 minutes. Still, the production and performances are beyond reproach. Mike Buckley’s diner set is delectable, and Jeanne Reith’s costumes are outstanding. The ensemble is great, though most are playing character types they’ve inhabited many times before; it’s a tribute that they don’t make the work seem tired. Jim Chovick is always fine as a crusty patriarch, and Kerry Meads is ever the sensible Mom. David Cochran Heath is expert at shy, stammering guys who wish they could express their feelings, and Doren Elias does the taciturn workingman well. Jon Lorenz is the exuberant (adolescent) young man and K.B. Mercer is wonderful as the wise but offbeat buddy. Season Duffy brings her usual comic warmth to the role of a singer/girlfriend, and Kelli Kelley is fine as her sister. Kürt Norby is less obnoxious, flirtatious and Italian than written. Nine year-old Ian Brininstool, in his second Festival of Christmas production, is a delight as Clark, a believably ingenious and ingenuous kid with a golden voice. The show definitely has some touching moments, but it do go on.
THE PLACE: Lamb’s Players Theatre, through December 30
THE STATE OF THE CITY
The annual meeting of the San Diego Performing Arts League was held on Dec. 4 at the Birch North Park Theatre. And quite an impressive event it was. More than 200 people showed up, a striking increase from last year, when there were 50 attendees. Enthusiasm was high as the Mayor addressed the assemblage, saying “You can’t cut out arts and culture and expect the citizenry to feel good about the place they live in.” Awards were given: the National Arts Marketing Project Award to Lendre Kearns of the La Jolla Playhouse; the Business Volunteers for the Arts Award to Ross, Dixon & Bell , LLP; and the ARTS TIX Excellence in Ticketing Award went to Joshua Jantz of Starlight Theatre. The League’s exciting new executive director, Jacqueline Siegel, revealed her ambitious plans for the future of the organization. She described our “burgeoning arts community of more than 200 mission-driven arts groups and more than 15,000 volunteers,” and cited her three major challenges: to re-affirm the value of the League; to re-focus the League’s programs and to elevate the perceived value of the arts for all San Diegans. Amen to part 3 in particular! Siegel plans a dynamic new branding and visibility campaign.
In his keynote speech, Chris Lavin, the Union-Tribune’s senior editor/special sections, talked about the uniqueness of San Diego . “Virtually no city in America has two major regional theaters,” he said. “Few cities support an Opera that consistently finds new stars on the way up. Few have such diversity.” And echoing what Siegel has proposed, he said that the one change he’d like to see in the arts community is that “the arts organizations speak with one voice” to sell their importance to the community. The arts, he said, need “a public relations makeover, not just a change.” Unlike sports teams, he suggested, the arts display their talents 365 days a year. “You are more than entertainment,” he asserted. “In the end, the show is not the only thing.” Food for thought and a gauntlet thrown down. Looks like the newly re-energized is up to the challenge. The program concluded with a robust performance by the San Diego Men’s Chorus. An inspiring evening overall.
NEWS AND VIEWS
…MUSICALS IN THE NEWS: While the new Beyoncé film, “Dreamgirls” is getting big Oscar buzz, some other musicals are making a splash, too. The Broadway cast recording of the Tony and Grammy-winner, Wicked, has just gone platinum, selling more than a million copies. That’s pretty amazing for a musical; it wasn’t always that way, but has been for a long time – except for Chicago and oh yes, that ABBA-dabba favorite, Mamma Mia!, which is approaching double platinum in the U.S., as well as going platinum in German, Dutch and Swedish… And Chita Rivera, whose bio-musical, The Dancer’s Life, was launched at the Old Globe, is going on a 15-city national tour. The show had a surprisingly brief run on Broadway. No word on whether it’s headed back to San Diego , but it will make a stop at the Orange County Performing Arts Center next March.
…TWISTED SISTERS… Straighten up. Sister is back. In duplicate. Or maybe it’s in tandem. Sister’s Christmas Catechism, the holiday riff on the hilarious Late Nite Catechism, will return for three nights at North Coast Repertory Theatre (Dec. 18-20; it played there last year, too) after completing its run at the Theatre in Old Town (through Dec. 13). If you’ve always wondered what happened to the Magis’ gold, go for it.
…. GET A HANDEL ON CHRISTMAS… Check out The Gospel Messiah (AKA Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration), an inventive twist on the beloved oratorio, presented by director Calvin Manson and musical director Dr. Rose Buchanan, with a cast of 18 (plus an array of musicians) conveying the story of Christmas through a range of musical styles: from classical to gospel, jazz, blues and ragtime. Dec. 17 at Bonita Wesleyan Church and Dec. 22 at Faith Chapel Church in Spring Valley … Those prodigious producers of Vista , Randall Hickman and Douglas Davis, the creative force that is Premiere Productions, are staging no fewer than five productions this month – two in their Broadway Theatre and three at the Avo Playhouse. All are Christmas themed, and two are San Diego premieres. The Queen of Bingo runs at the Broadway Theater through 12/23 ; The Littlest Angel and Annie are at the Avo through 12/22. The alternating premieres are Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Gifts of the Magi (through Dec. 23). Those guys never rest!
… Dance… and More: Local director/choreographer Kiturah Stickann, former performer with Malashock Dance, among other prestigious companies, will present an evening of stage and video dance works she’s calling … In Time. The program includes three stage works and two short videos. In “Lights Out (Hush), Part II,” Stickann collaborates with 6 year-old Dominica Savant-Bunch. The themes of the pieces include sibling dynamics, female identity and cultural exchange. December 17 at the Arts & Entertainment Center in North Park , 3026 University Ave. Ffor tix or info: 858-752-7560; homepage.mac.com/tura62.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
The Grapes of Wrath – marvelous re-creation of an epic and a classic; expertly directed, excellently performed
Ion theatre at the 10th Avenue Theatre, through December 11
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play – marvelous singing and heartfelt performances, backed by brilliant sound effects
At Cygnet Theatre, through December 24
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – smart, sassy and irresistible; monstrous moments of adolescence everyone can recall
At the Civic Theatre, through December 10
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
Get your holiday shopping done early and dramatically…Give the gift of Theater!
© 2006 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.