By Pat Launer
In four consecutive days,
What is the likely chance
Of seeing a comedy, drama, and musical,
Plus the Symphony and Dance?
It you got it, flaunt it. And the San Diego Rep has got it. “Crowns” is a foot-stompin’, roof-raisin’ gospel celebration of African American women and their hats — and how those hats make them feel whole – and holy.
Based on the coffee-table book, “Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats,” by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, Regina Taylor’s musical has less story than soul. But its slim narrative spine concerns a street-wise, tough-talking, Brooklyn hip-hop girl whose brother was just murdered and who’s hanging with the wrong crowd. So her mother sends her to spend some time with her grandmother down South, to find out who she is and where she comes from. Mother Shaw and her friends help Yolanda to move beyond her pain by telling their stories — about their hats, their sisterhood, their fathers and other triumphs and trials of their lives. They’re sassy and stirring, and they all undoubtedly have what they call “hattitude.”
These women are strong — survivors, groundbreakers, church-goers — who have a personal relation with their God and who mark the seasons of their lives in song. They get dressed to go to church and they “gotta look right” ’cause they’re “goin’ to see the King.” So they put on their own crowns — wild, wonderful, individual, personality-defining hats. The scene-stealing headgear was created by San Diego hatter Dianne Davis’ the silky, drapey costumes are by Jennifer Brawn Gittings.
The music is spectacular – a tasty mélange of traditional, rousing and heart-rending gospel, blues, jazz, skat and even rap. The latter is Yolanda’s domain, and Monica Patrice Quintanilla does it to a T; unfortunately, she has to spend most of her stage-time in a perpetual sneer, since she rejects these women and everything they stand for — at first. But once she catches the spirit, she’s as lively and inspired a participant as anyone else. Peggy Blow is a stately, dignified presence as Mother Shaw, and the other gals are all vocal powerhouses as well: locals Karole Foreman (who graced the Rep’s stage with her beauty and charisma in “Celebration of the Lizard” and “Cabaret”), Lisa Payton (a long-running wonder in “Beehive” at Old Town), and Rep first-timers Valerie Payton and Charyn Cannon. With a hot voice and a cool swagger, Ronald McCall plays the men in their lives.
Director-choreographer Patdro Harris last made a big splash at the Rep with his work on “Slam.” He outdoes himself on this show, creatively keeping the pace and the stories moving. Musical director e’Marcus Harper is killer on keyboards, and he and ace percussionist Danny King make such joyful noise they sound like a huge band, just as the voices sound like a much more massive chorus. Jerry Sonnenberg’s set is spare and suggestive, adorned with hats and highlighted by Jennifer Setlow’s colorfully saturated lighting.
Not only is the show great, heart-warming fun, and not only are the hats lovely to look at, some just like them are for sale in the lobby. As I said to Sam Woodhouse on opening night, “You really know how to entertain an audience – and open a 29th season! One-stop theater, music and shopping – who could ask for anything more?”
At the San Diego Repertory Theatre., through October 31.
BUCKS IN THE BACKWOODS
Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I’m not a big fan of fart jokes, which feature prominently in “Escanaba in Da Moonlight,” the up-country comedy by actor Jeff Daniels, the second show of the second season at Cygnet Theatre.
It’s an odd choice, an odder play. But what artistic director Sean Murray has done with it is miraculous. The trappings are terrific. The multi-talented Murray has designed an extravagant set — if one can use that word to describe an overstuffed, rustic hunting cabin. The detail is stunning, the detritus unlimited: wood-slats, deer-heads, camping gear, faded photos, and male-bonding paraphernalia of all stripes. (Prop design credited to Bonnie Durben). George Ye’s sound design is spectacular, from country songs to nature noises (winds to ducks to monstrous, heavy-breathing something-or-others) to ethereal, spooky sounds during the ‘spectral’ segment of the show, perfectly paired with Eric Lotze’s wonderfully varied lighting design. Shulamit Nelson’s costumes are aptly heavy on plaids, beer-bellies, shit-kicker shoes and longjohns.
It’s all a big, tall hunting tale, set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in a town called Escanaba. The patriarch of the Soady family, Albert, settles down into his easy chair to share one with us (“Everyone who’s got a pint, take it out,” he welcomes us). We learn more about Yoopers (not to be confused with Lopers, those who don’t live in the U.P.) than we might ever care to know. And about the importance of ‘bagging a buck’ to prove your manhood and put meat on the table. That’s the whole story.
Thirty-five year-old Reuben hasn’t yet reached this all-important milestone, and the family is beginning to think he’s cursed. So this year, he’s breaking all traditions, coming in with some ritual of his own (including a “moose-piss” potion), thanks to his Objibwa wife — to ward off the evil and bring him good luck. It would be unbearably silly if it weren’t for the fantastic performances Murray has teased out of his talented cast. It’s a marvelous ensemble: David Gallagher is a fine, crusty, tale-telling old hand as Papa Soady, and as his two dimwit sons, heavily-bearded Manny Fernandes (his best performance yet) and Kenny Taylor are delightful. J. Michael Ross is a hoot as the wacko Jimmer, whose speech has been weirdly affected by his abduction by aliens (he says, for example, “shacker fish” for ‘sacrifice.’ Half his funny dialogue requires consecutive interpretation). He also channels the grandfatherly forebear of the family during the ghostly scenes. David Radford does a topnotch job with the thankless role of the weird Ranger Tom, who has an epiphany and sings “Swing Low, Sweet Charity” through a good part of his stage-time.
So, all the creative and technical elements are flawless. But then there’s the play itself. If an evening with beer-swilling, buck-bagging, piss-drinking, fart-loving Yoopers sounds like your kinda fun, go for it. It’s open season at Cygnet.
At Cygnet Theatre, through November 7.
JUST THE FACTS?
The first act of “Fiction” feels like the grownup version of those linguistic smartasses in “Suitcase” (the grad students in Melissa James Gibson’s play at the La Jolla Playhouse last summer) who just need to have some sense slapped into their smug, self-indulgent selves. They’re too clever by half, and they just can’t stop the annoyingly analytical, masturbatory, self-congratulatory banter that makes you dislike them instantly and irrevocably.
Here, we have the story of two novelists, a somewhat competitive husband and wife. Both present themselves as snobby purveyors of literary fiction, but the husband has succumbed to hack-dom and has taken the potboiler fast-track to Hollywood. The wife teaches creative writing and disdains just about every other writer. There’s a big question here of whether fiction should be based on fact, also a major issue in “Brooklyn Boy” (at South Coast Rep, reviewed here last week). Playwright Steven Dietz seems to be supporting the flipside of Donald Margulies’ argument; the Brooklyn writer was self-doubting because he feared that less imagination and skill go into fact-based fiction taken from real life. In Dietz’s play, there’s the intimation that fiction should be reality-based; if not, it’s a sham. What exactly, are “lies” in fiction, anyway? The plot turns, therefore, on a shaky premise, and some of its twists and turns are also wobbly; Linda, for instance, is dispatched far too summarily.
Late in the first act, she is diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Then the plot and conflict begin to kick in. Before she dies, she wants to read Michael’s journal/diaries, and she tells him that after she dies, he can read hers.
The duo turns into a love-triangle with the appearance of Abby, a young, writers’ colony distraction. She becomes the (often-unseen) fulcrum of the piece, which swings — wildly, at times — up and down around her. At least in the second act, less to-the-audience talky than the first, we’re engaged by the semi-mystery unraveling. But engaged isn’t enthralled.
Despite the actors being real-life husband and wife, there’s no palpable connection between them until Linda’s diagnosis. Then we start to feel their connection and their pain, their connivance, untruthfulness and the fiction that underlies their personal and professional lives. It’s too little, too late. But it might make you think.
Rick Seer has directed well, and the cast — Nance Williamson and Kurt Rhoads as the Watermans, and Rachel Fowler as their foil — is adept and credible. Robin Sanford Roberts’ minimalist set works well, as does Trevor Norton’s lighting and Paul Peterson’s sound, to keep the focus on the words, words, words. If only the “Fiction” were a bit more substantive.
On the Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through October 31.
Post-Script Question to the Globe: What message does it send that the play’s Synopsis is printed only in Spanish in the program? The point, one person told me, was “not to ruin it” for the English-speaking audience. So what does that mean? The ending revelations can be ruined for Spanish-speakers? Or they’re not likely to understand the plot without a synopsis? Or did I miss something here??
CLANG, CLANG, CLANG
This year’s Trolley Dances had more walking, less trolley than last year. But also more varied participants: non-dance-body dancers, two pregnant women and a performer in a wheelchair. Not every choreographer made the best use of the spaces selected, but the standouts were Jean Isaacs’ whimsical cavorting around the County Administration Building, using music by the Steel Monarch (the steel band from the Monarch School for homeless kids); Faith Jensen-Ismay’s “Life-Styles,” three couples (with cat-burglars, preggos, able-bodied and the disabled interacting marvelously) on the terrace of the Camden Tuscany Apartments. Just walking through that breathtaking lobby to get to the terrace was a thrill. Then there was a glorious, super-athletic work inside the Gallery at the Museum of Contemporary Arts, with guest choreographer Gabriel Masson using Jean Isaacs’ wonderfully agile, spirited company. The fountain at the Gaslamp Quarter was the site for a quirky-flirty pas de deux by grace shinhae jun with Olase Freeman, set amid the randomly shooting sprays of water. I’ll skip two underwhelming dance-pieces to applaud the finale: Jean Isaacs’ funny, corporate-meeting spoof, performed around a conference table in a meeting room in the Omni Hotel.
Kudos to Isaacs for bringing this unique experience to San Diego. Sign me up for next year; I wouldn’t miss it for anything!
WE MAKE BEAUTIFUL MUSIC
Gala, indeed. The San Diego Symphony made a spectacular debut on its opening night. The orchestra was in terrific form, the hall was sold out and the energy was very high. Did the pre-show champagne help?? Maybe a little, but everyone was really visibly excited to witness this new beginning. There was a great deal to celebrate.
Conductor Jahja Ling was confident and assured, and he became downright playful with guest performer, flutist Sir James Galway (whom I’ve admired for years). His wife, Lady Jeanne Galway, was also good, if a bit showy. But he’s amazing. An Irish raconteur (is that redundant?), he told some tales, celebrated a young musician he’d met years ago in Chicago and who’s now our Symphony’s principal flutist (Demarre McGill), and even did a flashy duet with him (“a lollipop,” as he called it). Galway was consistently entertaining, paying tribute to the two great Irish composers — Mr. Anonymous and Mr. Traditional — and playing, to the audience’s delight, a stirring rendition of “Danny Boy” (aka “Londonderry Air,” which I always think of as London Derrière), following the more serious classical works.
The program was wonderfully varied, to spotlight the skill and versatility of the orchestra: there was a piece just for the winds (Gounod’s “Petite Symphonie”), one for sheer brass (Giovanni Gabrieli’s “Canzona noni toni, à 12, for Three Brass Choirs) — which featured the musicians dramatically situated up above, in the balcony, filling the house with trumpeting sound. And two pieces were delightfully percussion-heavy: the sprightly, modern concert-opener (John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine”) and the head-spinning “Kaleidoscope” by Don Miller. It all came to a rousing end with Rimsky Korsakov’s “Capriccio Español,” which showed the best of the company and the conductor.
What an exciting night for San Diegans… and they came out in full force. Not just the dressed-to-the-nines hoity-toities for the Grand Gala, but young people, too. It was a splendid beginning to Jahja Ling’s tenure and the Symphony’s new lease on life, thanks, of course, to the enormous generosity of Joan and Irwin Jacobs. What a source of civic pride!
SONNETS R (were) US
The San Diego Shakespeare Society’s 3rd annual Celebration of the Sonnet was a smashing success – a standing O and a near sellout in the Old Globe. The mood was festive, and on the ‘green,’ there were Elizabethan musicians to welcome you, and child performers, too. The 24 presenters were superb, and I loved emceeing the whole event, the proceeds of which benefit the first-ever, 2006 San Diego Shakespeare Festival for grades 2-12. And as part of the 24 sonnet-presenters, there were three young people, who really blew the crowd away: 9 yea-old actor Sam Jacobs; 13 year-old Olivia Metcalfe (who had a touching father-daughter sonnet-interplay with her dad, playwright Stephen Metcalfe); and poised-and-beautiful 17 year-old Kelsey Formost, winner of the 2004 San Diego English-Speaking Union’s Shakespeare Festival, who recited (off-book) the sonnet she presented at Lincoln Center last spring. TJ Johnson nearly stole the show, with his blues-sung renditions of two sonnets, accompanied by guitar, and Rhys Green on jimbay drum. In addition to those we knew were gonna be there, like San Diego City Schools Superintendent Alan Bersin, the Opera’s Director of Education, Nic Reveles, actors Jonathan McMurtry and Jack Montgomery, last-minute additions/surprises included KPRI’s Madison in the Morning (Keith Miller, who arrived with his ‘friend,’ a Yorick skull); KUSI news anchor Kimberly Hunt; Poor Players’ Richard Baird; and the Globe’s Brendon Fox and Darko Tresnjak (and his former Columbia U. teacher and Summer Festival actor, Gregor Paslawsky).
What a night it was!! If you missed it, alas and alack! Thou shalt mark it in thy PDA for next year!
SAN DIEGANS IN THE NEWS….
Ask Ryan Lowe to give your regard to Broadway... Ryan left San Diego several years ago, after doing tons of work with San Diego Opera, Moonlight Stage Productions and various classical music organizations. After working on cruise ships, Off Broadway and a European tour of an Andrew Lloyd Webber revue, he debuts on The Great White Way in “Chicago,” as the tabloid reporter, Mary Sunshine, a drag role requiring a counter-tenor voice. According to music aficionado Joseph Grienenberger, Ryan possesses “a legit tenor voice and an astounding soprano.” He signed on for a four-month contract, and opens on November 30. Another local makes good!
And closer to home.. If you missed it before, this may be your final, solid-gold opportunity. Rosina Reynolds, opening this Friday in “Mrs. Farnsworth” (at the ARK Theatre), is doing double-duty on off-nights, reprising her spectacular performance in “Shirley Valentine.” Check it out; she’s sold out every other run… and it’s a performance not to be missed!
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, 8pm Oct. 19-20, 25-27; and 2pm Oct. 20 and 27.
Well, our theater year is shaping up to be one of peat and repeat.
SDSU and NVA (New Village Arts; 11/13) are doing Sam Shepard’s “A Lie of the Mind” this fall. And Macbeth will make several visits to town: Poor Players opens next weekend, the Globe will bring the Thane to next summer’s Outdoor Shakespeare Festival, and La Jolla Playhouse will offer its (postponed) Lee Blessing commission, “The Scottish Play,” next season.
And then, there’ll be TWO new musical incarnations of “Alice in Wonderland” next summer: one at Lamb’s (Elizabeth Swados’ “Alice: A Musical Journey through Wonderland” — a semi-reprise of their 1993 “Alice in Concert”) and one at La Jolla Playhouse (“The Essential Alice,” a world premiere by Annie (“Be Aggressive”) Weisman, with music by Michael (“Paris Commune”) Friedman. Down the rabbit-hole again….
AND NOW, FOR THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS‘ PRODUCTIONS:
“Crowns” — a crowning glory! Gorgeous gospel singing and heart-warming stories. It’s all in the hattitude! You won’t want to miss this one — an inspiring, feel-good, foot-tappin’ time!
At San Diego Repertory Theatre, through October 31.
“Brooklyn Boy” — Donald Margulies’ painfully funny world premiere (headed for NY in Feb.) about a best-selling author, the price of success, and going home to the old neighborhood. At South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa, through October 10.
“The Chosen” — North Coast Repertory Theatre artistic director David Ellenstein has poured his heart and soul into this lovely, touching reworking of Chaim Potok’s acclaimed novel. A marvelous ensemble and a glorious production. Extended again, and director DAVID ELLENSTEIN takes over in the role of the Narrator for the last two weekends — great excuse to see it again! At North Coast Rep, through Oct. 31.
“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” — Jack O’Brien-directed world premiere musical starring John Lithgow and the amazing Norbert Leo Butz. A little raunchy but very funny. Catch it here, now, before it heads to New York. At the Old Globe Theatre, extended through Nov. 7.
“Two Rooms” — tense, gripping drama about terrorists’ hostages — and the families who are left behind. Stone Soup Theatre’s excellent, timely production will be reprised for a special performance the night before the election, followed by a post-show discussion.
At SDSU, Nov. 1 only.
Time to start stocking up on Halloween candy; in the meantime, get your tricks and treats at the theater!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.