By Pat Launer
Vacations are great, but they set you back, y’know…
So, with the Actors Fest and every other missed show,
I’ve been Breaking Legs to get my (Lucky) Ducks in a row!
There’s a lot riding on “Lucky Duck” at the Old Globe: a truckload of labor, talent, energy, money — and five years of development. Why we needed another musical based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” is beyond me. The witty, Olivier Award-winning “Honk!” got an outstanding airing last year at SDSU. For that show, Exeter University alums George Stiles (music) and Anthony Drewe (book and lyrics) created a charming riff on Being Different and accepting others.
Now, along comes this high-octane triumvirate of Bill Russell (book and lyrics), Jeffrey Hatcher (book) and Henry Krieger (music), teamed with Tony Award-winning (“Urinetown”) director John Rando. The result is intended to drench you in fun and good feelings, but it rolls off you like the proverbial water off…. well, you know.
The book is the major culprit. Instead of sticking to some semblance of the originally dark fairy tale of misery and humiliation, the creators piled on so many extraneous ideas that the whole effort lays an egg. Both dialogue and lyrics make fricken chicasee of poultry platitudes and puns. And on the subject of animals, why are there only Birds and Dogs in this universe? Because the musical market was already cornered on Cats? Here in Poultry Nation, the hens rule the roost and the canines are relegated to chasing their tails in Dog Town — though the Wolf has been accused of nabbing a chick or two.
Serena, the bedraggled bird whom no one allows to sing (for some not-clear reason; do ducks OR swans sing, anyway?), just wants to be an “Average, Simple, Mega Superstar.” Her supposedly haunting melody that finally triggers a Cataclysm (now wouldn’t that be the perfect feline entry cue??) is a mere series of la-las that didn’t seem to inspire flights — of fancy, ideas or birds. Well, Serena is forbidden by her nasty Mallard-Mom from entering the King’s contest for the most beautiful songbird — the winner of which gets to wed the handsome, womanizing (hen-pecking??) Prince Drake.
The contest is prompted by the opening of a new sports arena, the Quackerdome, which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with much of anything. Serena goes off to find her own way in the forest, where she meets the Wolf (thoroughly winning, mellow-voiced David McDonald), two supposedly clownish coyotes (Todd Weeks and Andre Ward, a lot less amusing than they should be) and some other fellow travelers, including Leda, the Swan (get it?) and a flamboyantly gay choreographer (outrageous Stephen DeRosa)… Don’t even ask what he’s doing in Poultry Nation. And since it’s all so confused — or maybe it’s just cause this is a fairy tale after all — we need a voiceover narrator to spell it all out for us. This framing device does provide the opportunity for some clever commentary, as the fourth wall is broken and the characters respond to the narration (usually with irritation).
Overall, the plotline needs rethinking. As perhaps you can tell, the book is an over-cluttered, convoluted jumble of ideas that don’t cohere. If this were a screenplay, it’d be one of those with a long, long list of writers, most of whom were probably never in the same room together; the script has the flavor of too many cooks in the kitchen.
Henry Krieger’s score is tuneful and eclectic, but the nine singers leave something to be desired. Often, they seem to be straining out of their ranges. Few can knock a song out of the park (or make it fly, to continue the fowl metaphors).
As Serena, Marcy Harriell is adorable; she’s perky and spunky, with a million-dollar smile, but she isn’t a vocal powerhouse, and this role should be a star-maker. The choreography (Casey Nicholaw), like the set (Rob Odorisio), is cute if not inspired, and the music (directed and arranged by piano-playing Sam Davis) sounds distant and overly synthesized. The real stars of the show are the costumes of Gregg Barnes, who makes US the Lucky Ducks, because he’ll be back at the Globe in the fall to design “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” His glitz, glam, feathers, frills and frocks, for a free-range of animals, is sheer magic… Barnes delivers more than anyone else involved in the effort; he gives us the fairy AND the tail.
PASS DA PASTA
Back when I lived in New York, I had an aunt who dated a man named Fuzzy Falgiano. He had a restaurant in Queens, a friendly neighborhood spot where there were always ‘private parties’ in the back room, ‘business meetings’ populated by men in sharp suits, dark shirts, light ties and diamond studs. I felt right at home at North Coast Rep, where Marty Burnett has recreated precisely that kind of place for the delightful production of Tom Dulack’s “Breaking Legs.”
The play is a comic trifle, about getting a play produced — in this case, by La Familia. Terence, a college English prof, is desperately searching for backers. His former student, Angie, has a father in the restaurant business who has a lot of ‘contacts.’ These guys have plenty of money and muscle; they’re always up for a gamble. Terence would settle for Off Off Broadway, but now he’s playin’ with the Big Boys, and they’re goin’ for the whole enchilada (or would that be the Big Rigatoni?) — Broadway. Oh and did I mention that his controversial little play is about murder? Ironically, during the course of the ‘negotiations,’ he gets a first-hand education. Frankie Salvucci, who’s welched on a debt, is dispensed with by the Boys in the alley. Things get hot for Terence and Angie, too.
Under the sure, sharp direction of Geoffrey Sherman, NCRT has a hot, saucy hit on its hands. The cast is first-rate. Stage vet and long-time Equity actor Robert Grossman is hilarious as Mike Francesco, the dyspeptic Don whose lips don’t move when he laughs. Grossman nails the guy. I can’t wait to see him on the other side of the (Brooklyn) street, when he returns to Solana Beach in September to play an orthodox Jewish patriarch in “The Chosen.” It’s really just a short step — a mere letter reversal — from ‘Yo!’ to ‘Oy!’.
Right up there with Grossman in the Authentic Italian mode are Von Schauer, thoroughly credible as Angie’s over-anxious father Lou, the restaurateur; and as his daughter, the captivating Jennifer Eve Kraus, who looks terrific in her ultra-teased tresses and stiletto heels. This bambina knows what she wants and how to get it; she even makes ‘Uncle Mike’ cower.
John Nutten is charmingly guileless as Terence, the poor guy who’s overpowered on all sides. Paul Bourque and Mark C. Petrich round out the consummate cast as the taciturn Tino and the poor, fricasseed Frankie. Martha Phillips has costumed them just right (all those slutty little outfits for Angie!) and M. Scott Grabau’s sound design strikes a delicate alla’italia balance between Sinatra and tarantella. Karin Filijan’s lighting highlights all the nuances of Burnett’s glorious gavon set.
Okay, So dis ain’t Shakespeare. Wanna make sumpin’ of it? How ’bout you make yourself a side-splitting noche at the theater? Or else.
FASTEST FEST IN THE WEST
The 14th annual Actors Alliance San Diego Festival 2004 is in full swing, high gear, and already starting to wind down (it ends Sunday, 8/1/04). By press-time, I’d seen Programs #1 and 2, and they were a mixed bag. The opener was a winner, though… an evening of quirky humor and prodigious talent, which showcased actors’ physical agility as well as writing and performance ability. Appealing pre-show music was provided by local pianist/singer/songwriter Mike Frost. Then, we were treated to Jim Caputo’s delightful “At Rise,” a two-hander starring the excellently matched and balanced Walter Murray and D. Candis Paule as two playwrights who meet-and-collaborate-cute. A witty, smart, engaging little piece, astutely written, well acted and crisply directed by Robert Dahey, who made a comical cameo appearance at the end.
The insider’s tone was perfectly matched by Phil Johnson, who stepped in to fill a slot when another show had to be scrapped because an actor pulled out at the last minute. The lovable lounge-lizard nutcase (dressed in a flowered polyester shirt, plaid pants and white patent leather slip-ons), was with us to address parents whose kids might want to get into theater. He offered, hilariously, the real scoop on how to “claw your way to the middle,” citing all the innumerable advantages of a career in theater: the big bucks, glamorous lifestyle, job security and irresistible directors. He writhed into deliciously chameleon character impersonations and assassinations, as he chronicled his various experiences and how he got to be how and who he is today. The largely actor-infested audience howled. And with good reason. As an extra bonus, just to show how lucrative the theater life is, Johnson scored a big win in the evening’s raffle.
Lory Tatoulian also performed her own material, a neck-snapping ride with her obsession and love-object, her car. Like Johnson’s piece, her “Autosapiens” may not be breaking new ground, but her writing and delivery made it purr and hum and whiz by. Like Johnson, she’s an admirably supple performer and she evoked many a well-earned laugh.
The only serious piece of the evening was “Brackish Waters,” which Annie Hinton wrote, produced and performed, onstage with Dana Case. In this silent, enigmatic bit of noh-like theater, backed by eerie, evocative music by Bridget Brigitte, two women in white gossamer gowns and face masks try on other masks — one is playfully, the other reluctantly. The look was lovely, but the intent was less than crystalline.
The evening ended with Todd Blakesley’s humorously twisted look at marriage, “Sick In Love.” Amusingly and intelligently written, sharply directed by Doug Jacobs and wonderfully performed by Liv Kellgren and Blakesley himself, the play concerns a mad scientist and a woman in pain. She’s desperate, and so is he. Different problems, but both ultimately get what they want, thanks to Dr. Carter’s Miracle Machine, whose amusing design went, alas, uncredited. The nature — and science — of love, the definition of devotion and the weird wanderings of the imagination are irresistibly explored. A really fun, inventive evening.
Program #2 was less satisfying — and dragged on for three hours, due to excessive time spent on unnecessary scene changes. Overall, the writing was pedestrian, though the actor pairings were felicitous. The high point of the evening, by far, was Jack Banning and Jim Chovick in David Mamet’s “Duck Variations,” directed by the ubiquitous Robert Dahey. This condensed version of the brief 1972 one-act featured two post-Beckettian geezers on a bench, pontificating about life, death and the migratory patterns of Midwestern fowl. The rat-a-tat Mametian timing was impeccable. Chovick seemed sensible, if officious; Banning was brilliantly wacky. At times, the pileup of pathos and non sequitur gave way to moments of breathtaking elegance. Sweet, poetic, confused, endearing.
In George Soete’s “Want Want Love!” directed by Doug Hoehn, Christyn Chandler and Jeff Wells gamely handled some trite situations and dialogue, though it wasn’t clear why this clueless Slovak didn’t have an accent; that surely would have clarified his character and his locutions.
June Gottlieb and Pat Moran made a comical couple in the occasionally-amusing “Johnny and Wilma” (from “Lovers and Other Strangers” by Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna). But the set was wayyyy too elaborate for this little bedroom pas de deux, directed by Janene Possell. The setup was even less engaging in “Feathers and Magazines” by Jolene Hui, directed by Jason Montgomery. The characters were insufficiently motivated and rather unlikable, and love was defined by cliché. But Hui, Cristyn Chandler and Tim Curns did well with the sometimes bitchy/sometimes shallow material.
In her solo showcase, “Chela,” Dulce Soliz showed a good deal of energy, flair and flexibility, but her multi-character, multi-monologue piece lacked focus and cohesion. Sheri Wilner’s “Bake Off” (directed by Sylvia Enrique) was a shopworn housewife/feminist screed set in the Pillsbury competition kitchens. At least here, all the setting-up made sense… eggs were broken, flour was scattered, dishes were hurled. Steve Hohman and Olivia Espinoza made the most of their harried, competitive bake-off contestants and Claudio Raygoza was a hoot as the Doughboy himself.
Seven programs in all. There’s no predicting what you’ll get, but some gambles in life pay off. And there’s a bonus attached. With all they’re offering audiences, the Actors Alliance is also giving something else to the community: A portion of the proceeds from this year’s Festival are going to four local non-profits: Christie’s Place (a family HIV/AIDS haven), Global Education Through Music, San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program and Young Audiences of San Diego. AASD, you rock!
… now ‘DON’T MISS‘:
The 14th annual Actors Alliance Festival – talented theater folk doing fun/amusing/creative/innovative/intense and sometimes wildly unexpected things… Through this weekend only, at the Lyceum Space. See the Best of the Fest at 7:30pm, Aug. 1.
“Breaking Legs” — Do NOT fuggeddaboudit. This is the real linguine. Slight but very funny Italian/Noo Yawk comedy, delightfully acted, directed and designed. Through August 8.
“Continental Divide” — a pair of plays, for anyone who cares about the state of the Union, the political process, and our loss of idealism (…and has a long attention span). In repertory at the La Jolla Playhouse, through August 1.
The summer’s half over! Make the most of it — at the theater!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.