By Pat Launer
Local theater’s a constant source of surprise:
From Disney to Dickens to Cecilia’s demise.
THE SHOW: A Christmas Carol – the 30th year for the 1843 Dickens classic at the San Diego Rep, and this one’s a knockout
THE SCOOP: An All-American Carol, with all the jazzy immoderation that entails. Ingenious production
THE STORY, THE PLAYERS: Well, of course you know the story, but you’ve never seen it like this. ( even though you might have seen it as a homeless tale, or a circus family or a gospel choir – all at the Rep in years past). But this time out, in a highly inventive conception, Scrooge and Marley’s is a Chicago nightclub, a sometime speakeasy, circa 1920s-40s. Old Marley (funnyman Phil Johnson), who dealt in black-market booze, was gunned down in ‘The Christmas Eve Massacre,’ and he makes his chain- shlepping (and kid-scary) appearance riddled with bullet-holes and spattered with blood. Scrooge (Greg Mullavey ) is a penny-pinching fatcat who cares more for his cash register than the rich, reveling snobs or poor, starving slobs that surround him.
D.W. Jacobs, the Rep’s co-founder, who’s been revising this script for decades, has delightfully employed all the jargon and slang of the era and the locale to make the story swing. (This Scrooge is more likely to say “Ahh, Phooey!” than “Bah! Humbug !, ” especially when Marley says “The jig’s up!”). Jacobs has crammed in everything from war bonds to the WPA, Roosevelt’s Fireside chats to Rosie the Riveter, Marines to fan dancers, all underscored by the Andrews Sisters sound, sultry blues singers, brassy jazz and boogie woogie dance routines (high-spirited, whimsical choreography by Jean Isaacs).
Though Mullavey never tugged at my heart, he makes the requisite transformation and finds redemption at the end (“and he was a Prohibitionist the rest of his life!”). The rest of the ensemble sparkles: Victor Morris is our silken-voiced Narrator/Guide, who blows a mean horn between scenes. Lisa H. Payton shows off her killer voice, especially in Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” and the spunky, tight- harmony, multi-talented trio of Jenn Grinels , Jeannine Marquie and Seema Sueko is endlessly changing and relentlessly adorable. Ruff Yeager’s a hoot as a range of characters (Fezziwig, the Future Ghost and the nasty pawnbroker/Collector, as well as a carousing guy in top hat and tails). Jeremiah Lorenz captures film noir bearing with perfection as young Ebenezer and he’s charming as Scrooge’s nephew Fred. Johnson is aptly jumpy but warm-hearted as Bob Cratchit, and Rebecca Lauren Myers is sweet, without being maudlin as Tiny Tim (who really should get the last word). Nice to see Sonya Bender (Little Fan) and Zev Lerner (Urchin) getting more onstage exposure (she was terrific in the Lynx production of In Arabia We’d All Be Kings; he was wonderful in Adam Baum and the Jew Movie at 6th @ Penn – and his brother Ari is nearly edible in The Grinch ).
THE PRODUCTION: Wildly imaginative. David Cuthbert has outdone himself, creating the concept, lighting, scenic and projection designs, each of which is better than the others. It’s the crazy clock that changes repeatedly, and shows Marley’s face (instead of the door-knocker) and the projections magically set the ever-changing scenes, through the windows, outside the door. The band (leader/keyboardist Don LeMaster, with Rik Ogden on winds, guitar and banjo; percussionist David Rumley and bassist Oliver Shirley) swirls on an off the playing-space on a turntable, to provide lovely versions of classics and original creations (Steve Gunderson). The character-defining wigs (Peter Herman) and costumes (Mary Larson) are outstanding. Brandt’s done a magnificent job. The play feels fresh and new and inspiring all over again.
THE LOCATION: The San Diego Repertory Theatre, through December 24.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
THE SHOW: The Lion King; ‘ Nuff said. Months of hype have preceded it, and now the 1997 Disney extravaganza, with music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice – with additional, more African and more interesting, if less singable music by Lebo M, Mark Mancina , Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer. Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi . But this will always be Julie Taymor’s show. In 1998, she became the first woman ever to receive a Tony Award for Best Director of a Musical; she also won for Best Costume Design, and the show nabbed four other Tonys, including Best Musical.
THE SCOOP: It’s one of the most eye-popping spectacles you’re ever likely to see on a stage – and this touring production is better than the Broadway original
THE STORY and PRODUCTION: As you know, it started as a treacly Disney cartoon (voiced by James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons and Nathan Lane ) – a mythical story of young Simba , growing up to take his place at the head of the food chain as the titular potentate. It’s really a tale of social Darwinism, survival of the fittest, maintaining your appropriate place in the natural pecking order. If you try to mess with Nature, havoc ensues. That’s what happens when Simba’s evil uncle Scar murders the king, puts the blame on and banishes Simba , and then takes over, with the hysterical scavenging hyenas as his henchmen. But though there is a storyline and we do learn the catchy tune of “ Hakuna Matata ” from the sybaritic, devil-may-care warthog and meerkat — Pumbaa and Timon – this show is all about the genius of the animal creations. Taymor’s brilliant costume/mask/puppet designs, that simultaneously show the actor and suggest the animal, are mind-boggling. Of course, the beautifully choreographed moves (Garth Fagan) make those miraculous puppets, headpieces and masks come magnificently alive. The opening Circle of Life procession, when all the animals parade down the aisles, takes your breath away no matter how many times you’ve seen it (and being on the aisle sure helps).
Note to the Civic Theatre: you may lose some seats and sales, but this is a much more user-friendly configuration.
The show’s scenic design is attractive, if not astounding, but the lighting is marvelous, creating glorious African sunrises and sunsets. And the 17-piece orchestra sounds great.
THE PLAYERS: The cast for this touring production – one of nine currently out and about in the world — is superb. Not too showy, no scenery-chewing/star-mugging. Just excellent triple threats (singer/dancer/actors) doing an excellent job. From the first searing, soaring tones from the seer/guide/baboon Rafiki (wonderfully inhabited by South African Gugwana Dlamini , who’s astounding with her click-language monologue), the music soars (even if the Elton John/Tim Rice part of it is a bit smarmy).Rufus Bonds, Jr. is majestic as the original Lion King, but the villainous Scar (Larry Yando ) gets the juicier role. As Young Simba Khaleel Mandel Carter (who alternates in the part) was cute and vocally powerful, but physically kinda puny and not all that well coordinated. He’s way outshone by a smashing 10 year-old, Milan Barnes- Shuford , who plays Young Nala with sass, style and ‘ tude . Derek Hasenstab is a compelling performer and puppeteer as the avian wiseguy , Zazu . And comic relief (of the most adolescent kind) is provided by the gaseous Pumbaa (Phil Fiorini , doing what amounts to a Nathan Lane imitation) and Timon (Damian Baldet ), Grown-up Nala ( Ta’Rea Campbell) has a small role, but the buff adolescent Simba (strikingly handsome, regal, charming Wallace Smith) is definitely someone to write home about. Whoever said this show was just for kids?
THE LOCATION : The Civic Theatre, through January 15.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet (tickets are going fast; get ‘em while you can)
ST. CECILIA DIES AGAIN
May it rest in peace. But may the evil spirits Past, Present and Future visit those who decided to tear it down. St. Cecilia’s Playhouse will soon be walloped by the wrecking ball, to make room for yet more downtown condos. What a tragedy. And watching the Sledgehammer folks and their minions shred the place apart was distressing, to say the least. St Cecilia’s, built in 1928, was a former funeral chapel; after it was turned into a theater, Sledge was its resident company for 10 years, and before that, the San Diego Rep. The theater’s demise could not go unmarked and uncommemorated . So, acting artistic director Scott Feldsher staged A/Wake: a De-Installation with Choir and Soloists for four nights last week. Each evening, a little bit more of the theater was dismantled, as the audience watched in awe, horror, disbelief and ‘fascination for the abomination’ (to quote Conrad). On the night I was there, dubbed “Cecilia’s Beatitudes,” a team of workers pulled the stage apart, board by board, using jackhammers and hacksaws and of course, sledgehammers (hard hats and ear-plugs were provided for all). How long it took to create the theater, to create ANY theater work, and how rapidly it’s demolished… By the end of the evening, which was primarily hosted by composer Francis Thumm, riffing and improvising as weird objects were pulled from below the stage (a shoe, a fake rat, and then – unplanted – a real one), they went after the seats, collapsing row after row. “Lord of the Flies”-style, the audience began to get into it, triumphantly helping to knock down their own seats. (Audience participation was encouraged). But I sat there, thinking of all the magical productions that had been created on that stage. When the red mesh curtain came down to protect the onlookers, I was transported back to Sledge’s brilliant, 5-hour deconstructed Hamlet (1990). And then, when they back-lit the beautiful stained glass window upstage, I nearly wept. Will someone keep that, or will it, too, go the way of St. Cecilia and her ghosts? The evening was, as promised, all about the sacred and the profane. Thumm talked about Cecilia, the patron saint of singers and musicians, as “a girl with a past,” and up above him, in the choir loft, the 24-member La Jolla Country Day School Choir evocatively sang ‘Beatitudes’ and meditational chants, often bone-chilling (if a bit ear-piercing at the top notes). Sarah Golden, Dana Hooley and Terril Miller, dressed all in black, linked arms and intoned Latin and English free verse about home, ghosts, remains and the dying of the light. At times, they sounded harmonically like a Tibetan singing bowl, backed by the eerie, loud (when the power tools were used), ethereal, gloomy, poignant and provocative music of Thumm, Jim Mooney and a six-piece, multi-instrument band. Powerful stuff, not soon forgotten. With all its drafts and discomfort, odd rake and climatic inconsistencies, St. Cecilia’s had a certain charm and a charmingly checkered past. She’ll be sorely missed.
… SAVED!! Thanks to the timely and supportive assistance of Osborn Hurston , sdtheatrescene snagged a generous grant from the Tippett Foundation . Kudos to Osborn and sincere gratitude to the Foundation, for end-of-year munificence. So this column will live on….
… In the meantime, wanna hear about some current productions, holiday and otherwise? Tune in to “Full Focus” on KPBS-TV (channel 15/cable 11) on Tuesday, December 20, when I’ll be chatting about what’s happening onstage these days. 6:30 and 11:00pm. Be there!
….and my voice will be heard (well, seen) in yet another venue come January. I’ll be writing a monthly column in San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles Magazine. Each month, I’ll write three features: one on a visual artist, one on a special Night Out (alt music, mainly) and one on the ‘Lively Arts’ (which could be theater, dance, opera, comedy, improv , whatever). I’m already working on the April issue (!), so if you have an event to tell me about next summer, pitch away! And till then, buy the magazine and see what it’s all about!
…Bye Bye Bairdie ….This is your absolute last chance to see the riveting Richard Baird perform in San Diego … and an opportunity to wish him well as he shuffles off for Ashland and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (at which happy performers seem to stay for years, alas for us). He’ll be directing some of his stalwart Poor Players, and others, in a staged reading of Dickie3, that is, King Richard III, this Monday, December 19, 7pm at North Coast Repertory Theatre. Aren’t you tired of holiday treacle? What you need is a good dose of someone who’s irredeemably bad to the bone… and Tricky Dick’s the one! Baird plays the humpbacked King, with Beth Everhart as Lady Anne, Julie Clemons as Queen Margaret, Grace Delaney as the Duchess of York, and, in a range of roles: Nick Kennedy, Brandon Walker, Marc Overton, Justin Lang, Jeff Sullivan, Neil MacDonald, Tom Haine , Max Macke and Keath Hall. This is one you won’t want to miss. $10 donation. Reserve at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-255-1401.
And, for a dramatic sendoff, the Poor Players are hosting an au revoir event for Richard, chez Marc Overton, at Smoke Tree Adobe Falls Townhouse, 5581-A Adobe Falls Rd., SD 92120 , Wednesday, Dec. 28, 6-10pm. Parting, of course, will be sweet sorrow.
..Now, put this on your new 2006 calendar: This is Our Youth, the play that established the reputation of Kenneth Lonergan (The Waverly Gallery, Lobby Hero) will be presented as a staged reading by some of our most talented young locals. These are our youth: Brandon Walker, Rachael vanWormer and Tom Zohar . The piece follows three very lost, disillusioned souls on the Upper West Side of New York at the dawn of the Reagan era. Tuesday, Jan. 24 at 7m, at Diversionary Theatre.
OTHER DRAMATIC HOLIDAY FESTIVITIES :
… La Pastorela Noel, the latest edition of Max Branscomb’s holiday perennial that tells the story of the birth of Jesus from the perspective of the shepherds, opens December 8 on the Cassius Carter Centre Stage. Once again, Máscara Mágica’s Bill Virchis directs, and there will be all manner of topical references. See if Mayor Dick and The Duke make it in this year.
.. Crumpet is back! That nasty little Macy’s elf, recalling his Santaland Diaries, is brought to us once again by Cygnet Theatre, and stars the irresistible Dennis Scott. Based on David Sedaris’ beloved NPR commentary, this show is the perfect antidote to holiday treacle. Through December 23. Note that the spectacular production of The Little Foxes still continues at Cygnet through December 18.
… New Village Arts presents an exclusive reading of Conor McPherson’s Dublin Carol, featuring Ron Choularton , Fran Gercke and Kristianne Kurner . Hors d’oeuvres and dancing ( ZannaJazz ) precede the production, and dessert/Irish tea follows, served by some of NVA’s favorite actors: JoAnne Glover, Brandon Walker, Grace Delaney, Jessica John , Jack Missett, Dana Case, Sandra Ellis-Troy and Pat Moran. Thursday, December 15, 6:30-10:30pm. $50; 760-433-3245.
…The Gospel Messiah, an adaptation of Georg Fredric Handel’s masterwork and a spinoff of Quncy Jones’ “Soulful Celebration, ” will be presented by the San Diego Symphony and Church Choir Conference Chorale, directed by Calvin Manson, with musical direction by Dr. Rose Buchanan. Saturday December 17 (7:30pm) at Otay Ranch High School and Sunday, December 18 at Copley Symphony Hall. 619-235-0804; www.sandiegosymphony.org
…Premiere Productions is presenting its 10th annual Christmas Theater Festival in Vista ’s Avo Playhouse. The Festival features three productions: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, A Christmas Story and The Year Without a Santa Clause. www.premiereforkids.com
… How the Grinch Stole Christmas: is as delightful as ever – especially for the tykes. So grab a kid and go; or go by yourself. It’s 70 minutes of feel-like-a-kid-again holiday joy. A new green meanie (Leo Daignault ) bares the dark .underbelly of Youknowho . Through December 31.
.. and for a dramatic New Year’s Eve, the Ramona Theatre is holding a special performance of “Pete ‘n’ Keely ,” the fun/funny showcase for the broad talents (comical and musical) of Randall Dodge and Kristen Mengelkoch . The show starts at 9pm, with drinks and food till midnight. Sing, laugh, sip, reminisce and celebrate another theater year. www.ramonatheatre.com ; 760-789-7008.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (Critic’s Picks);
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
“A Christmas Carol” – wildly imaginative, in direction (Kirsten Brandt), design (David Cuthbert) and adaptation (D.W. Jacobs). Plus, the performances are a delight! Terrific all around.
At the San Diego Repertory Theatre, through December 24.
“The Lion King” – better than the original New York production; less funny, more heartfelt. Those jaw-dropping costumes still amaze.
At the Civic Theatre, through January 15.
“The Little Foxes” – deliciously vicious play, stunning production; beautifully designed, directed, lit and acted – by a killer cast.
At Cygnet Theatre, through December 18.
“Black Nativity” – A tuneful telling of the birth of Jesus, from a black (gospel) perspective
Common Ground Theatre at the Lyceum Space, through December 18.
“The Sum of Us ” – A lovely, heartfelt production of a flawed but fascinating play
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through December 21.
“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” – a new, more sarcastic Grinch, a great little Cindy-Lou Who, and a still-wonderful ensemble that makes children swoon
At the Old Globe Theatre, through December 23.
“Festival of Christmas’ – set in 1928, this Kerry Meads creation gives the “Christmas Carol ” a jazzy twist; beautifully designed, well acted and sung
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through December 29.
“Pete ‘n’ Keely – A funny, silly revue with knockout performances by Randall Dodge and Kristen Mengelkoch
At the Ramona Mainstage Theatre, through January 22.
“Too Old for the Chorus, But Not Too Old To Be a Star” – if you haven’t had your fill of menopausal musicals, this is great for a date (the guys remind us it’s called MENopause ). Excellent performances , some cute/clever bits and songs.
At The Theatre in Old Town , EXTENDED through March 30 – and maybe beyond.
It’s looking a lot like Christmas… in a theater near you!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.