By Pat Launer
This week, the theater covered myriad themes:
From immigrant “Souls” to Strindberg “Dreams.”
Political issues made raucous noise
And we witnessed the rise of the Valli Boys.
The Joisey Boys are in town — and it’s gonna be pretty hard to ignore them — or to see them. The world premiere musical, “Jersey Boys,” is a knockout. After a lackluster summer season, the La Jolla Playhouse has a bona fide, first-rate hit on its hands. Tickets may be scarce… so get a move on. Director Des McAnuff is in his rock ‘n’ roll element — and he’s in terrific form.
Everything about the show is incandescent. From the fabulous voices to the dynamic projections, the splendid book to the period-perfect costumes — this is the Real Thing. It may not have an original score, but it’s got a great one — all the hits of those matchless Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
“Jersey Boys” tweaks the catalogue or ‘jukebox’ musical. It’s not a concert, though at times it feels deliciously like one. It’s not a revue (like “Smokey Joe’s Café,” the songs of Lieber and Stoller). And it’s not an unrelated, made-up narrative superimposed on a catalogue of songs (like “Mamma Mia!” or “Movin’ Out!”). Though it tells the life-story of the protagonists, it’s not a superficial ‘biopic’ like “Love, Janis.” It’s a bit more like “The Buddy Holly Story” or “Hank Williams: Lost Highway,” which delves deeper and manages (thanks to top-drawer book-writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice) to come up with a funny, touching, nostalgic, dramatic ‘play with music,’ where the songs follow, reflect and forward the story. In its signature twist, nearly every actor onstage plays an instrument (even the tough-as-nails Mafioso don gets a drum-kit for the finale!). For some of us, these songs marked a certain period in our lives. But you sure don’t have to be a Boomer to love the “Jersey Boys.” They and their show are simply irresistible.
If you lived any time in the late 20th century — no matter how old or young you are — it’s not possible that you don’t know the Four Seasons songs (written by Bob Gaudio, with lyrics by Bob Crewe) — even if, like many young people I talked to, you don’t think you knew them. But consider this catalogue: “Walk Like a Man,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Sherry,” Dawn,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” “Oh What a Night,” “My Eyes Adored You,” “Rag Doll,” Working My Way Back to You,” “Who Loves You,” “Let’s Hang On (To What We’ve Got)” and so many more. And just in case you thought it was all just oldies-but-goodies, the show opens with a French, hip-hop rendition of “Oh What a Night,” which, we learn was a Top Ten hit in Paris in 2003!
Back in Jersey, The Seasons started out as four blue-collar Italians. None of them graduated high school. They got their start singing under a streetlamp and they had the most amazing rags-to-riches ride. But it wasn’t all fun and games. Like the group’s timeless songs, the show isn’t just mindless twaddle. There’s a very serious undertone; the songs concern class distinctions and male-female as well as father-son relationships. In real life, it was divorce and payola, imprisonment and betrayal, even a devastating death. It’s all there in the show, punctuated appropriately by the songs, set amid chain-link fencing (scenic design by Klara Zieglerova) and backed by a season-changing array of Roy Lichtenstein-like projections (designed by Michael Clark) — huge, three-screen Crayola-colored heartthrob illustrations reminiscent of romance comic books of the ’50s and early ’60s. Everything here is 100% authentic, from the outfits (costumes by Jess Goldstein) to the raw, raunchy Jersey language, to the spectacular sound of the singers.
The cast is stupendous. This could be a star-making performance for David Noroña (Frankie Valli), who made his Broadway debut in “Love! Valour! Compassion!.” You may recognize him as the guidance counselor in the critically acclaimed TV show, ‘Six Feet Under.’ The diminutive vocal powerhouse — with, incredibly, a range as vast and a voice as sweet as Valli’s — is adorably charismatic. He’s a smooth dancer and a convincing actor who’s at the center of a story that’s told by shifting narrators. We hear from each of the guys along the way, and at the end, each comes forward to tell us what happened after the group broke up, after their reunion at the Hall of Fame induction and where they are now. In case you were wondering — which of course, by the end, you are.
After the opening (which was also attended by Frankie Valli) Seasons composer Bob Gaudio told me the second act was really pretty hard for him to sit through. That’s because it was his life up there. His and Frankie’s and Tommy DeVito’s and Nick Massi’s.
There are so many emotional moments — both musical and dramatic — that there are nights when show-stopping standing ovations occur in the middle of an act! Of course, there was a wild, spontaneous, uproarious standing O on opening night. Well deserved, too.
Christian Hoff is wonderful as the controlling, compulsive group leader, Tommy DeVito; J. Robert Spencer is touching as Nick De Massi; Daniel Reichard is convincing as the more serious, business-oriented composer, Bob Gaudio; and Peter Gregus is expansively fey as lyricist Bob Crewe (who, also in the audience, looked similarly funky-punky for his time).
It was great to see local Steve Gouveia play so many roles, including a funny, slouchy Joe Pesci (now no slouch as an actor), who was a musician with Gaudio and introduced him to Valli and the other guys. Gouveia, who shares lead singer/guitarist roles with McAnuff in the Red Dirt Band, has the chops and the presence for some real time in the spotlight.
There were almost always some musicians onstage, but down below, out of sight, was a killer cohort of seven more, playing everything from harmonica to baritone sax to flugelhorn. The sound (Steve Canyon Kennedy) is excellent throughout.
So, what are you waiting for? If this show doesn’t get to Broadway, I’ll eat my hat (that would be the one I bought at “Crowns“).
Be a Big Girl. Walk like a Man — directly to the La Jolla Playhouse.
At La Jolla Playhouse, through November 21.
Life is a dream, according to playwright Calderón de la Barca. But for August Strindberg, it was more like a nightmare. Before Freud or surrealism took hold, he tried to capture the illusory, ever-changing quality of nighttime reveries, which he depicted in his most radically innovative work, “A Dream Play.” Written in 1901 but first performed in 1907, Strindberg called the difficult piece “my most beloved play, the child of my greatest pain.” It was created shortly after the playwright married actress Harriet Bosse (his third nuptial attempt); his revived fantasy of marital happiness was crushed when she left him. He sequestered himself and suffered alone for 40 days, ultimately inspired to write the play, as he concluded that life is an illusion that never fulfills our dreams.
That theme courses through the play, in a lively new translation by SDSU professor/Swede/Strindberg specialist, Anne-Charlotte Harvey. We are shown a disappointing marriage and, most poignantly, a man waiting vainly at a theater stage door for a fiancée who never comes. The seasons pass, we see the trees change (in David Cuthbert’s wildly imaginative, ever-changing projections) and still he paces hopefully, wilting roses in hand. Ruff Yeager is superb in this part, his eyes aflame, his military posture erect, his pathetic optimism undimmed.
At the center of the play, approaching the stage on a walkway that drops down from above (try to avoid sitting dead-center in the theater), is the daughter of the Hindu god, Indra. At first, we hear father and daughter having an offstage conversation, and then she descends, to see how humankind is fairing. On earth, she assumes the role of Anges, a woman who moves through various states and strata of life, and manages to help the Officer, marry a Lawyer, bear a child, meet a Poet, suffer for/with others and finally return to heaven with the realization that “It is not easy to be human.”
During the fantastic journey in Agnes’ mind, the play evokes various attempts to answer life’s Big Questions, drawn from the Old Testament, Christianity and Buddhism. It often-cynically confronts matters such as morality, religion, sexuality and academia. Death is deliverance. Happiness is elusive. It’s not possible to do good without also hurting someone or doing evil. Repeatedly, Indra’s daughter says (in Swedish) “Mankind is to pitied.” And in these dark days, that couldn’t be more true.
Director Kirsten Brandt is an ideal match for this piece. And she seems to be relishing every moment. All her best skills come to the fore: her precise, choreographic direction; the deft handling of repetition, irony, sly humor and poetic language; the excellent use made of her multi-talented cast, most of whom are part of her regular ensemble. The nine actors morph seamlessly into some 40-odd characters (sometimes very odd). But despite the play’s shifts of time and space and person, the action is not hard to follow. And it’s beautifully underscored by David Weiner’s spare set (with its rotating turntable that permits aptly rapid scene-change); David Cuthbert’s lighting, Mary Larson’s often-amusing costumes and Paul Peterson’s outstanding sound design.
Standouts in the cast, in addition to Yeager, are Janet Hayatshahi, both forceful and ethereal as Indra’s Daughter and grounded as the earthbound Agnes; Walter Murray as a philosophical Poet and a bedeviled Father, Husband and Pensioner; Kim Strassburger, excellent in a variety of roles, especially a Mother, Student and Blind Woman; and David Tierney as the defeated, pessimistic Lawyer.
The evening is a tad too long; that second-act Agnes/Poet dialogue does go on. But the production is a stunning, stimulating phantasmagoria . Just as with a dream, you have to relax and go with it; let it run its course, and see where it takes you.
At Sledgehammer Theatre, through November 21.
It isn’t easy to leave your home, however war-torn, and make your way to a new country. It’s hard to tell the story, harder still to dramatize it. But that’s just what the Playwrights Project set out to do, as part of the San Diego Public Library’s ‘Stories of Faith’ project, a five-month program that explores the role of religion as a filter through which San Diegans can understand their history and changing community.
A variety of playwrights spent time interviewing immigrants who had harrowing tales to tell. Each then gave a dramatic spin to the story and handed it over to playwright (former Young Playwrights statewide winner) Lisa Kirazian, who wove the individual segments into a beautiful tapestry of the American immigrant experience, touched by faith. The stirring, affecting “Soul Fire” is being presented for two weekends only. And in this time of misuse and subversion of faith, these stories will break your heart — and make you think differently about your own life. As a friend said on leaving the theater, “And I complain about my computer booting up slowly?”
Esther Emery has directed a wonderfully versatile cast who, with the most minimal props and costume elements, interlace these stories from Africa, Eastern Europe, the Holocaust, stories that will take your breath away. But they’ll also inspire you; the power of faith, the endurance and perseverance of those who want freedom, who will themselves to live, will linger with you long after this evening is over.
Kudos to everyone involved, including producer Deborah Salzer and actors Mark Broadnax, Anne Tran, Walter Ritter, Silvia Torres, Milena Sellers, Puay Kua, and the always-compelling Antonio TJ Johnson who (if a bit loudly at times for the small space) serves as our ragtag guide, prophet, narrator, singer and facilitator.
This is a lovely event, with a huge heart. And talk about the difficulty of watching your own story onstage! Several of the immigrants were in the audience and that was grueling to imagine… re-living all those horrors in a public place. But they seemed cheerful, and probably still grateful. It’s a lesson we all could learn.
At the City Heights Performance Annex, through 10/24.
Theater back-office surprise of the month: La Jolla Playhouse Managing Director Terry Dwyer is leaving San Diego in January to become managing director of Houston’s Alley Theatre. Dwyer saw the theater through an amazing period of artistic, educational and institutional growth (as well as nearly-crippling deficits). He spearheaded the successful $44 million capital campaign that resulted in the soon-to-be-inaugurated theater complex — the Jacobs Center — that will expand the Playhouse exponentially, in terms of theater and office space, education, new-play commissions and season-length. Dwyer’s dozen years in San Diego coincided with the reigns of Des McAnuff, Michael Greif, Anne Hamburger (briefly) and again, McAnuff. While serving the Playhouse, he also served all of San Diego. So I want to take this opportunity to thank him and wish him well.
Last week, another departure stunned the arts community. It’s a great local loss — but we hope not for long. The Performing Arts League’s long-time, ace marketing director, Toni Robin and marketing associate Cate Burke, were laid off as a result of League belt-tightening. The news sent shock-waves through the community — and to Toni herself, who was only given one day’s notice of her termination. I want to acknowledge here, publicly, the spectacular job she did at the League. Over nearly ten years, and working closely with former executive director Alan Ziter, Toni helped the P.A.L. become a leader in the field of about two dozen performing arts service organizations nationwide (other members include the Theater Development Fund in NYC, Theatre Bay Area, the League of Chicago Theaters, etc). The massive, high-profile and colorful county-wide awareness campaign: Music-Dance-Theatre-Life — was her idea. She inaugurated Arts Tix online, the first of its kind in the nation. She and Alan launched BRAVO San Diego. She kept pretty much out of the spotlight, but she deserves a standing ovation, for her boundless energy, enormous creativity and deep commitment to the arts in San Diego. I sincerely hope she continues to serve the arts community in some way; she’s one of our true local treasures. Three years ago, she was one of the 50 People to Watch in San Diego. She still is.
The love affair is over. After a year and more than 400 performances, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” is closing. But not until January 2, 2005. So you still have time view the many musical permutations of romance — from giddy adolescence through engagement, marriage, kids, divorce and old age. Catch the hugely talented local cast (mostly SDSU-sprung) — Susan De Leon, Ryan Drummond, Nick Spear and Rebecca Spear — before they move on to other long-running hits. At the Theatre in Old Town through Jan. 2, 2005.
MUSIC IS IN THE AIR
Hope it’s not too late by the time you get this to catch some segments of the PBS series on the “Broadway: The American Musical.” Hosted by Julie Andrews, it celebrates 100 years of Broadway magic, a potent reflection of our national history. The 6-part show has aired this week in three segments (Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings, 9-11pm). Hope you tuned in or taped it — and that KPBS repeats it some time soon. Tuesday spotlighted the very beginnings of Broadway, from the Ziegfeld Follies to the groundbreaking “Show Boat.” The Wednesday focus is 1929-1960, including shows such as “Porgy and Bess,” “Oklahoma,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Kiss Me, Kate” and “The Sound of Music.” Thursday night brings us from 1960 to the present, highlighting, among others, “West Side Story,” “Hair,” Cabaret,” “Chicago,” “A Chorus Line,” and “42nd Street” right up to “The Lion King,” “Rent,” “The Producers” and even “Wicked.” Don’t miss this dramatic (and musical) television event — featuring clips, interviews, rare archival footage, private home movies and a lot more! So grab a front-row seat in your living room –and enjoy!
CATCH THIS PITCH
Sure, I know. You always intend to become a member of KPBS. You rely on its unbiased presentation of news and information — not to mention its arts coverage. So here’s your big chance — an opportunity that benefits you, the station and the arts community. I’m gonna be on the air pitching, as part of the Fall Membership Campaign. And during my time, there’ll be a very special giveaway — the fabulous new book of Ken Jacques’ photos of 20 years of San Diego theater productions. It’s called The Play’s the Thing: A Photographic Odyssey through Theatre in San Diego, and all proceeds benefit the Performing Arts League. I wrote the Foreword and Sam Woodhouse wrote the Intro. I’ll be giving away just a few autographed copies on the air; it’s the best holiday gift you could buy! — for a theater-lover or for yourself. Tune in during late-afternoon drive-time: Wednesday, October 27 from 3:00-6pm on KPBS radio, 89.5FM. You’re gonna love this book!
If you haven’t heard about our local Artists for Intelligent Politics, you should! There are still two more weeks of their four-week series of “staged readings of very political plays for this very political season.” producer Laurie Lehmann-Gray gathered together a bevy of local actors with a twofold purpose: to create a forum to discuss the issues raised by these highly political plays; and to invite the audience to ask questions about the plays and how they reflect on the current political climate.
I served as moderator for a post-performance discussion of “Pugilist Specialist,” a dark, searing piece on that old oxymoron, military intelligence. It was created and staged by Adrian Shaplin and the San Francisco-based Riot Group. In 2003, the play won the “Best of the Fringe” award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and this year, it got great reviews in New York and London. London critics called it “Mesmerizing…. Brilliantly dissect[ing] the American military mentality” (The Guardian) and delivering “remarkable theatrical impact. Shaplin’s dialogue has the touch of a poet” (The Evening Standard). From the just-closed New York production, the play goes on to Athens, Hong Kong and Stuttgart.
The local reading didn’t evoke quite the breathless praise that the original mustered. Directed by SDSU faculty Peter Cirino, it was highly naturalistic and perhaps that encouraged the audience to see it as a piece of realist theater, rather than a cautionary-tale populated by archetypes: the leader who demands unswerving loyalty (a darkly intense Joe Powers); the historian who equates neutrality with indifference (Mario Holten); the macho killer/Marine (Geronimo Omabtang) and the woman (Shalico Sain) who wants power and respect, but who becomes a scapegoated casualty of an intentionally failed assassination effort — of a moutachioed leader in a far-off desert land. Chilling piece of work, which weaves sex into all talk of war and violence. Since it was developed as an improvisational piece, it would probably be striking to see the original company perform it. Nonetheless, it generated heated and enthusiastic discussion in a good-sized, animated audience.
There’s still time to catch the last two readings, which will be held at 7pm in the downstairs lobby of the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza:
§ Monday, October 25, “The Private Room,” by Mark Lee. Directed by UCSD’s Bill Fennelly, and described as “the world of Wall Street Traders juxtaposed with Guantánamo Bay interrogators.”
§ Monday, November 1, “Stuff Happens” by David Hare — breeding controversy in London this month. Directed by series co-producer Forrest Aylsworth, this one’s a “docudrama on the planning and plotting of Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rice and 43 others.” Ron Choularton just told me he’s playing Tony Blair. So batten down the hatches!!
Speaking of Ron Choularton, he’s also appearing next week in another political play-reading. We have so few political plays in town — must they show up on the same night??
§ Monday, October 25, “A Girl’s War,” Joyce Van Dyke’s explosive play about “love and hate in a region shattered by a war of ethnic cleansing.” This one’s directed by Robert Dahey, and also features Anahid Sharik and D’Ann Paton, as well as Brennan Taylor, Juan Manzo, Markuz Rodriguez and Leo Baggerly. 7:30 pm in the Carlsbad Library, 1775 Dove Lane.
21st CENTURY TOWN-HALL
It may not be theatrical, but it sure was dramatic. Last Saturday, I took part in the national project of civic/political discourse sponsored by PBS and the MacNeil-Lehrer Report. The By the People event was held simultaneously in 17 cities around the country– from Miami to Seattle, Albuquerque to Baton Rouge. KPBS hosted the PBS Deliberation Day activities in the most fitting setting: the awe-inspiring Joan Kroc Center for Peace and Justice at USD.
The 100 or so randomly selected participants were placed in small groups of ten. I was fortunate to be one of the group facilitators. The intent was to bring together people from different demographics for civil civic discourse — to discuss the relevance of foreign policy issues to local concerns. There were two topics — National Security (including Pre-emptive Action, Working with Allies vs. Going it Alone, and Civil Liberties) and American Jobs in a Global Economy (trade, taxes and outsourcing). The small groups spent about 4 hours together during the course of the day, and generated questions for a panel of experts — an economist, an ambassador and a corporate executive. What a fabulous, stimulating, confidence-restoring day of engaging conversation. That is an experience I won’t forget any time soon. Especially as Election Day approaches, and people become more and more heated and polarized, this was a true example of the beauty of democracy.
HOT NEWS BRIEFS
…After her huge success with “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow,” Kirsten Brandt will direct another play at the Old Globe in the spring. This time it’s Kenneth Lonergan’s “Lobby Hero.” Lonergan will also be represented locally with “The Waverly Gallery,” which will be presented in March-April by New Village Arts.
…Speaking of playwrights, A.R. Gurney (whose “Mrs. Farnsworth” is drawing large, appreciative audiences at the ARK Theatre) was just named to the Theater Hall of Fame. He’s joined by actors Estelle Parsons, Ian McKellen, Brian Murray, Len Carious and (posthumously) Gregory Hines. Also part of the 2005 inductees becoming part of the 400 already listed in gold on the walls of Broadway’s Gershwin Theatre producer Elizabeth McCann and designer Santo Loquasto….
…Adorable, talented UCSD alum Christine Albright wrote excitedly to say that she just scored the plum role of young Thomasina in Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” at the Manhattan Theatre Source; she opens in December.
NOW, HERE’S THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST:
“Jersey Boys” — smash-hit world premiere musical, telling the rock ‘n’ roll, rags-to-riches story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Fantastic fun! Run, scamper, scurry — see it!
At La Jolla Playhouse, through November 21.
“Soul Fire” — a spellbinding Playwrights Project production, which dramatizes the bone-chilling narratives of various immigrants to San Diego and the trials and perils that brought him here.
At the City Heights Performance Annex on Fairmount Ave.; through October 24.
“A Dream Play” — gorgeous, riveting production that recreates a dream-state and turns reality upside down. wonderful design work, compelling performances. At Sledgehammer Theatre, through November 21.
“Mrs. Farnsworth” — a juicy little anti-Bush comedy, with a fine cast and a few intriguing twists. At the ARK Theatre, through October 31.
“The Chosen” — NCRT artistic director David Ellenstein has poured his heart and soul into this lovely, moving reworking of Chaim Potok’s acclaimed novel. A marvelous ensemble and a glorious production. Extended again; director Ellenstein takes over in the role of the Narrator this weekend only — great excuse to see it again! At North Coast Rep, through Oct. 24.
“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.
“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.
“Dial M for Murder” — striking production of a Hitchcockian mystery. At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through November 14.
“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.
In the final weeks of the election season, there’s plenty of political drama out there — in and out of the theater!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.