By Pat Launer
Gershwin has rhythm, and talent to spare
Dreamgirls have music – and all that hair!
Hasta luego to this year’s Blitz;
Welcome Gaytino and Ms. Ella Fitz.
FITZ LIKE A GLOVE
THE SHOW: Ella, a bio-concert about “The High Priestess of Song,” conceived by Rob Ruggiero and Dyke Garrison, directed by Ruggiero, with book by Jeffrey Hatcher (whose Compleat Female Stage Beauty and Scotland Road have been seen at the Globe; and whose Tuesdays with Morrie, co-written with Mitch Albom, is coming to North Coast Rep). The show marks the opening of the San Diego Rep’s 31st season
THE STORY: Jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996) was known as “The Modest Goddess.” She wasn’t a diva, didn’t live a wild life. As she says in the play, “My life is more like Doris Day’s than Lady Day’s!” For her, it was all about the music. And that’s pretty much what the show is, too, with some two dozen songs that made Ms. Fitz, who recorded more than 200 albums and won 13 Grammys, such a superstar. The whole production is framed as a concert which took place in 1966, in Nice. It’s just after her beloved half-sister Frances died. And her estranged son, Ray, Jr., is supposed to be attending the concert. Ella is edgy, non-plussed. Her producer/manager, Norman Granz, convinces her that she has to engage in a little ‘patter,’ which she doesn’t usually do. Has to interact with the audience, make peace, let them know she’s all right, despite the backstage personal trauma. So she starts to tell us stories, and we learn about her amateur night win at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre at age 17– though they never let her go on, because she wasn’t pretty enough. There’s a brief, fleeting suggestion of abuse by her stepfather. There are a couple of bad choices in men, brief marriages. And the inability to have a child, which prompts Frances to offer an incredible gift. But it turns out she wasn’t much of a mother, always performing, ever on the road. Ray Jr. was raised by a nanny, whom he called Mama. To him, the voice on the other end of the phone, from the other end of the world, was ‘Ella Fitzgerald.’ These are fleeting glimpses behind the curtain. Mostly, what we get is musical reminiscences, an invocation, not an imitation (impossible!) of the incredible style, clarity, purity and beauty of an unforgettable voice. But there are a few moments, especially when Ella is supposed to be looking out at Ray Jr., especially given the rumor that the real Ray Jr. was going to be in the audience on opening night, when there was a total suspension of disbelief. And we felt like we were really there, about to witness this painful mother-and-child reunion.
THE PLAYERS/PRODUCTION: Tina Fabrique has a marvelously supple voice, which she wisely uses to suggest rather than emulate Ms. Fitz. Her scat singing is terrific, and is the highlight of her performance. Her acting is convincing, and she gives us a sense of some of the pain that went into Ella’s bluesy, jazzy sound. The set, lighting and costumes are serviceable, unobtrusive. The band is outstanding, featuring stellar trumpet solos (and a killer Satchmo imitation) by Brian Sledge. The guys play most of the men in Ella’s life, too, along with John Rosen, who portrays Norman Granz. Most of the text comes from her letters, but since Ella was known as “”the quiet one,” we don’t learn all that much about her life. However, unlike some bio-shows, the musical performance is extremely satisfying, and the songs, of course, are superb. Everything from the playful “A Tisket, A Tasket,” which Ella co-wrote with Van alexander, to several by the Gershwins (“The Man I Love,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “’S Wonderful,” “Lady Be Good”) and Irving Berlin (“Blue Skies,” “Cheek to Cheek”), not to mention the signature swing-song of Duke Ellington (“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing”). You’ll ooh, you’ll ahhh, you’ll swing, you’ll sway, you’ll lose yourself in the music. And you’ll fall in love with Ella all over again.
THE LOCATION: The San Diego Repertory Theatre, through October 15
BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
Side-Note: Ira Gershwin, George’s brother and lyricist, once said, “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.” So now, you get to hear the songs marvelously played (in George Gershwin Alone) and the ‘Ella sound’ singing them, all at once, on two San Diego stages.
THE SHOW: George Gershwin Alone, written, conceived and performed by Hershey Felder, who’s performed the role, worldwide, more than 2500 times since it premiered in 1999
THE BACKSTORY/THE STORY: As part of his five years of research, Hershey Felder played George Gershwin’s Steinway grand, visited his homes, studied his scores and got unprecedented access to the family archives. By all accounts, he looks uncannily like George and pounds on the piano like him. And he displays (at least onstage) a good deal of the great composer’s bravado. He certainly has the same passion for his instrument. Felder exhibits a palpable joy when he’s about to demonstrate something on the piano, just as Gershwin reportedly did. Felder is committed to composers. This is the third part of his trilogy, The Composer Sonata; a sonata typically contains three movements: Beethoven is the first, Monsieur Chopin the second.
George Gershwin (1898-1937), who was the child of Russian-Jewish immigrants, was a quintessentially American composer. He blended traditional music with folk and jazz, forever changing the American musical landscape and the American musical songbook. In his all-too-short 38 years (he suffered lifelong headaches and died of an undiagnosed brain tumor), he penned 1000 songs, spanning diverse genres: from Tin Pan Alley pop to opera, movie scores to orchestral pieces. His brother Ira was his lyricist (“He wasn’t just my brother,” says Felder as Gershwin. “He was my other half. We were two parts of one brain”). Ira brought the warm, human heart to George’s melodies.
THE PLAYERS/PRODUCTION: Under the direction of Joel (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) Zwick, Felder is energetic, aggressive, instructive, filled with passion for the music. Every time he sits down at that big, fat, black Steinway, he is in a state of euphoria. He seems genuinely eager to share the thrilling little tidbits about how a song was created, why a given note or chord or key was chosen, so it would be unpredictable and unique. Felder seems genuinely tickled to impart these gems. As any gifted pianist would be, and any lover of Gershwin songs. He’s slightly less voluble and enthusiastic when telling stories about his life, how he was “a wild kid,” with “hoodlum friends.” How his mother wanted him to “make good,” but was never quite satisfied. How he left high school at 15 and became “a piano pimp,” playing anywhere and everywhere. But what he always wanted was “to be famous.” It was Joley (Al Jolson) who launched him, with a song George wrote in 15 minutes on the No. 5 bus (“Swanee”).
He eagerly relates how he and Ira would put “dummy lyrics” into a song before they got it right. Before it was “I Got Rhythm,” it was “roly-poly; eating solely, ravioli; better watch your diet or bust!” After many incarnations, “the lyric revealed itself as if by magic.” There’s a little about an aborted love interest, and the ambivalent response of critics (his mother said, “Why can’t you get good reviews like Irving Berlin? He makes his mother proud!”). And a quote from the anti-Gershwin, anti-Semitic rant of Henry Ford. A few sentences about the infernal headaches, leading to the final diagnosis, an inoperable mass. We may be hungry for details, but really, this is just ‘patter,’ to borrow from Ella. What we really want, we get in spades: full-on, full-tilt musical renditions of glorious Gershwin songs, from “Bess, You Is My Woman” to “An American in Paris ,” culminating in a heart-stopping performance of “Rhapsody in Blue.”
At the outset, Felder/Gershwin claims that composers don’t usually have decent voices. And he’s good to his word. He has what George would call “musical intention,” to be sure, but his attempts at a booming baritone sound forced and his falsetto is reminiscent of Tiny Tim in the Tulips. What he lacks in vocal quality, he makes up in zeal. He speaks with a bit of an accent, and he’s thoroughly convincing all the way through. It’s a stunning performance, set in a corner of an opulent, fantasy living room; the edges of the carpet seem to be reaching up to the drapes (scenic design by Yael Pardess). The excellent lighting (Michael T. Gilliam) often spotlights just the hands as they make musical magic. At the end, you feel that you’ve been in the presence of genius, or some semblance thereof. And you’re willing to toss inhibition to the wind and Sing Along with Hershey, as he requests Gershwin faves from the audience, and even segments the seating to encourage three-part harmony. (It doesn’t work all that well, but he insists that San Diegans are the best singers ever. I bet he tells that to all the girls!).
The story goes that the last tune he was working on, which Ira and musical friend Vernon Duke had to complete after George’s death, was “Our Love is Here to Stay.” The starry-eyed song applies to all of us, and to the enduring quality of the Gershwin songbook and legacy. George Gershwin Alone may not qualify as a traditional play, or even a bona fide piece of theater. But it sure makes a delectable evening of entertainment.
THE LOCATION: The Old Globe Theatre, through October 22
BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
THE SHOW: Dreamgirls , the six-time Tony and two-time Grammy-winning 1981 musical (book and lyrics by Tom Eyen; music by Henry Krieger), closes Moonlight Stage Productions’ outdoor season this weekend
THE STORY/THE BACKSTORY: In 1997, when I wrote a preview of the national touring production of a Dreamgirls revival, one of the leads told me, “Every ten years, people need to be reminded — about the black music industry and all that’s happened, starting with the Motown sound.” That was ten years after the first production of Dreamgirls came through town. And now, here we are again, just about right on time. “The problems of assimilating and compromising,” she went on, “and white artists stealing the black sound, are still here.”
The story about the corruption of innocence was based on the trials and triumphs of the Detroit-based Supremes, a success which was maneuvered by Motown Records chief Berry Gordy. He dropped lead singer Florence Ballard in favor of Diana Ross, who presented a more appropriate ‘image.’ Here, it’s the Dreamettes, three young, naïve, ambitious girls from a Chicago ghetto whom the controlling manager, Curtis Taylor, Jr., renames (the Dreams), reshapes and refashions to cross over into the white music world and master the Motown sound, the pop/R&B conflation that changed mainstream music forever. Unlike Florence Ballard, who drifted into obscurity and died at the age of 32, the fictional, oversized Effie surmounts her pain and humiliation and goes on to win fame on her own, paralleling the success of Deena Jones, with whom she’s reunited for the grand finale. Actually, there’s a backstory there, too. In the original production, the Tony-winning super-singer Jennifer Holliday refused to be in the show because Effie died in the second act. Auditions were held to replace her, but no one could replicate her dynamic vocal ability, so the end of the musical was re-written on a happier note.
The action begins in 1962, at talent night on the stage of the Apollo Theatre in Harlem (same place Ella Fitzgerald got her start decades earlier) and ends ten years later in Hollywood . The original glitz-and-glitter, 20-scene, 30-song tuner was sung through. But now, though some of the dialogue sounds oddly rhymed, there is conversation instead of operatic recitative.
THE PLAYERS/PRODUCTION: When the show premiered, it was considered a brilliantly theatrical breakthrough musical. But it feels a little musty today. The songs aren’t half as good as most of the Motown tunes that really launched those ‘60s girl groups. The incomparable director/choreographer Michael (Chorus Line) Bennett is long dead. But director John Vaughan and his game cast do their darndest to make the evening sparkle and sing. The energy and enthusiasm are there; the costumes (Lynda Krinke) are perfect evocations of the beads-and-boas girl-group era, and the musical accompaniment (14 musicians under the baton of Kenneth Gammie and the musical direction of Don LeMaster) is excellent. Orlando Alexander’s choreography is sometimes more balletic than black, but it’s well executed by a ten-member ensemble. And the vocals are pumped up by an effective handful of pit-singers. The lead actors are variable, with standout performances by big-voiced, emotion-filled Vonetta Mixson as Effie, handsome/snaky Allen Christopher as the seductive, manipulative Curtis; and rockin’ Rovin Jay as the James Brown-like soul-man, James “Thunder” Early. One of the musical highlights is the men’s tantalizing “Steppin’ to the Bad Side.” That number, well into the first act, is the first high-octane musical moment of the evening. And, beside the gut-wrenching, act-ending “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” (achingly sung by Mixson), it’s the closest thing to a show-stopper. You’ve gotta give it to Kathy Brombacher and her Moonlight madness, for always trying to take her loyal audiences to places they haven’t been before. Including Harlem .
THE LOCATION: Moonlight Stage Productions at Brengle Terrace Park , through Sept. 24.
Movie Note: Leading up to the December opening of the film version of Dreamgirls, the producers are encouraging amateur productions of the musical, to familiarize audiences with the show. They’re even going so far as to pay the licensing fees. The movie’s all-star cast features Beyoncé Knowles as Deena Jones (the Diana Ross stand-in) Jennifer Hudson (of “American Idol” fame) as Effie, Jamie Foxx as Curtis, Eddie Murphy as James “Thunder” Early, Danny Glover as Early’s manager and Keith Robinson as songwriter CC White (a role originally earmarked for Usher, but reports have it that an acceptable deal couldn’t be negotiated).
THE SHOW: Gaytino !, a solo self-identity show about the journey to becoming a happy Chicano theater queen
THE STORY/THE PLAYER: Dan Guerrero is the son of bandleader Lalo Guerrero, ‘the father of Chicano music,” but when he was growing up in East L.A. , he hated what his father did; all he listened to was musical theater records (“My magic carpet of shiny black vinyl”). It took him decades to rediscover his roots, by way of New York — performing, producing, writing, coming out and coming back. That’s the basic story; Guerrero tells it amusingly and he tells it BIG, with many large, super-snap double takes, snippets of songs and occasional dance-moves. He bills himself as an ‘a singer/mover with lots of personality,’ but his moves – except for the sexy Latin ones – are less than Broadway-supple. Same with his voice. He’s charming, but it feels like he’s acting most of the time, not like he’s invited us in to tell us, directly and intimately, the story of his life, which in many ways, isn’t all that unique or exceptional. On the night I was there, only when he talked about the AIDS-death of his best friend, Chicano artist Carlos Almaraz, did he really seem present, totally engaged and inside his story. But in a narrative sense, that was also the most unsatisfying part of his tale, since he never says how Carlos, whom he represents as straight and married, contracted the deadly virus. Latino/Chicano stories (Guerrero does clarify the distinction) and especially gay Latino/Chicano stories, are rarely heard in the theater. You may not get deep insights, but you’ll hear one man’s life journey to self, pleasantly told.
THE LOCATION: Diversionary Theatre, through October 1
STRIPPIN’ AT THE BLITZ
THE SHOW: Final Week of the 13TH ANNUAL FRITZ BLITZ OF NEW PLAYS BY CALIFORNIA PLAYWRIGHTS was, well, long. Hypocrites and Strippers was more like a lecture than a play, particularly as directed by Chrissy Burns. Jyl Kaneshiro had some fine moments (pole-dancing was one of them), but there’s way too much talk, sex, titillation and more than you’d ever want to know about the frustrated lesbian girlfriends of strippers. And it was pretty odd that, in the one moment where the solo actor strips down (only to underwear) in a play about strippers, she did her disrobing behind a screen. It was also unnerving, on opening night, when the performer kept disappearing offstage and gamely apologizing for it (presumably to check the script). There’s a play in there somewhere, there is actually a story perhaps worth telling (for some listeners) about this particular underworld. But this didactic treatise wasn’t it. Needless to say (dare I mention it again?), the loss of the first-choice script for the ending of the Blitz was a blow to the whole proceedings. Mary Steelsmith’s Isaac, I Am was actually one of artistic director Duane Daniels’ favorite pieces for this year’s Blitz. And it would have ended the festival on a high comic note instead of a depressing, over-sexed downer.
Quick mention of the Scripps Ranch Theatre production of Blithe Spirit, directed by Brian Salmon. Nicely done. And it featured three fresh, young (20-something) Faces to Watch: Karla Francesca, who’s nothing short of gorgeous as the ghostly Elvira, sporting blonde, crimped hair (not the greatest-fitting wig, but she wears it so well), a slithery silver slipdress (thanks to costumer Jeanne Reith) and pert, red rosebud lips. She’s stunning, sexy and very talented. Kelly Lapczinski is formidable and credible as Ruth, the put-upon second wife. And Chris Kennedy did a marvelous job on the sleek, upscale, suggestive set design. The show continues through October 7.
NEWS AND VIEWS
…Ding, Ding, Ding goes the trolley… for the opening weekend of Trolley Dances, Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theater’s exciting annual event. This year’s offerings take you to some of San Diego ’s most diverse neighborhoods, along the Orange Line, beginning at the Euclid Ave. trolley stop near the Market Creek Plaza . Tour guides will escort you to the new public art installation at the revitalized Cesar Chavez/25th and Commercial Ave. area. This year’s choreographers include New York ’s Monica Bill Barnes (making a third return visit), Ben Levy of San Francisco ’s Levy Dance, SDDT dancer Bradley Lundberg, and three new works by Jean Isaacs. Sept. 23-24, and Sept. 30-Oct. 1; guided tours begin every 45 min from 10am to 3:15. for more info: www.sandiegodancetheater.org .
… The Poor Players are back… and they’re doing their thing with Ibsen instead of Shakespeare. Tom Haine directs Hedda Gabler, “the original Desperate Housewife.” The cast includes Amy Mayer, Sandy Gullans, Hillary White, Max Macke, Jen Meyer and Brennan Taylor. Oct. 21-29 at the Westminster Theatre, 3598 Talbot in Point Loma. Info: 619-255-1401; 619-223-3769; email@example.com. www.poorplayers.com
… The Women’s Resource Center and Diversionary Theatre are co-hosting OUTSpoken, a two-night competition of lesbian, bisexual and transgender women speaking out. If you come the first night, you can be part of the audience of judges. Attend the second night and see who walks away with the OUTSpoken crown. 7pm September 26 and 27. interested artists should contactg Claudia Lucero ( firstname.lastname@example.org ).
…Also at Diversionary: A benefit performance called Lush Life: Boys, Blues & the Majesty of the Blues, which takes its title from Billy Strayhorn’s most popular tune. The cabaret concert, featuring Angelo D’Agostino and musical director/arranger G. Scott Lacy, is equal parts history lesson and improvisation, a musical journey through “some of the best jazz and blues songs ever written.” October 6 and 7.
… What a Pip! R&B soul singer/actress Gladys Knight performs at Harrah’s Rincon Casino & Resort, Oct. 14-15. Tickets: 1-866-468-3399; www.ticketweb.com
… and SDSU MFA alum Merideth Clark, fresh from the wilds of Alabama (she spent ten months at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival), is back in New York , playing her own Alabammy-inspired music. This weekend, at The Baggot Inn on West 3rd St. check out www.meridethkayeclark.com for updates and info, including photos from her dramatic year.
…And closer to home, don’t miss the upcoming performances of The Far Side of Fifty, words of wisdom and humor from 14 women, age 58-88 (my mother’s the 88). The September 30 (2pm) presentation at the Avo Playhouse in Vista and the November 12 performance at the La Jolla JCC, are benefits for women’s organizations. For the Avo: call 760-724-2110 or vistixonline.com; for the JCC appearance, go to lfjcc.org (after 10/2).
NEW THEATER VENTURES
… Ruff Yeager’s new Vox Nova Theatre Company proudly welcomes the acclaimed, iconoclastic playwright Mac Wellman, who appears LIVE in San Diego this weekend in “A Conversation with Mac Wellman.” The three-time Obie Award winner will talk about contemporary American acting, directing and playwriting. At New World Stage, 7pm on Sunday, Sept. 24. Reserve tix ($20) at 619-374-6894. The next night, Monday, Sept. 25 at 7pm in the Lyceum, there will be readings of two of Mac’s latest plays, Three Americanisms and Psychology, or Bring a Weasel and a Pint of Your Own Blood.
…Black Rabbit Theatre Company is a community effort inaugurated in 2003 and founded by a group of theater artists (including designer Pam Stompoly-Ericson), with co-founder Jayscott Crossley as artistic director. The mission is to “allow members of San diego ’s theater community to follow their passions and curiosity in the theater arts…. Creating a venue where actors can design, designers can direct, directors can be on crew… and we try to provide a mentoring relationship with them on their journey.” In preparation for a January production of The Shadow Box by Michael Cristofer (at the New World Stage), they’re producing a star-studded fundraiser: Love Letters, performed by some of San Diego ’s finest. All performances take place at the Scripps Performing Arts Center, 9920 Scripps Lake Dr., Suite 104; SD 92131. Here’s the impressive lineup: Sept. 29, 8pm: rosina Reynolds & Jonathan McMurtry; Sept. 30 8pm, Priscilla Allen & Jack Montgomery; Oct. 1 at 2pm: Michelle Burkhart & Daniel Hall; Oct. 1 at 8pm: D. Candis Paule & Doren Elias. Ace photographer Ken Jacques also donated his talent and time to create publicity shots. So see some of your favorites and help out a new company. email@example.com
… Excellent Motion Shakespeare Company (XMO), a new company that uses “Renaissance Style Staging” – i.e., minimal sets, fast-paced action, cross-gender casting audience seated on three sides, and house lights on — is presenting its debut production, Macbeth (He Who Must Not Be Named). It’ll be presented at 7:30pm on 9/22 at Mar Vista HS in Imperial Beach ; 9/23 at El Camino HS in Oceanside ; and 9/27-28 at the Normal Heights Community Center . Productions will “focus on the text and audience interaction rather than on special effects.” The XMO artistic director is San Diego native and SDSU alumnus Dennis Henry. The production is directed by New York-based actor/director Benjamin Curns. The Macbeths are played by veteran actors” Gregory Jon Phelps and Joann Sacco. Members of the seven-person cast have worked at various Shakespeare theaters and festivals around the country. Check out something new: www.excellentmotion.com.
… Former actor/now PR guy Dan Gruber called to tell me about a new play that sheds light on one family’s journey through the trials and triumphs of dealing with cancer. Based on transcriptions of family phonecalls, it’s all about communication – on the subject of terminal illness. Written by Patricia Loughrey, directed by Carla Nell, and produced by Wayne Beach, professor of communication at SDSU, listen is a touching story, told with compassion, hope and humor. The production premieres for one weekend only, Oct. 5-8, in the Experimental Theatre of SDSU. Tickets are available through ARTS TIX ( www.tickets.sandiegoperforms.com ). For info: 619-594-8483; firstname.lastname@example.org.
…Old company, new production: Common Ground Theatre, kicking off its 44th year, is presenting Four Queens – No Trump, by Ted Lange, directed by Floyd Gaffney. It’s a story of four female friends who meet every Friday for a no-holds-barred round of bid-whist, a card game of strategy, skill and “sometimes intense trash-talking that has been enjoyed by African Americans since the Civil War.” Says Dr. Gaffney, “the play will have you laughing and crying, as bid-whist becomes the backdrop for the women’s shared stories of love and loss in the ultimate game of life.” Sept. 28-Oct. 15 at the New World Stage.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
George Gershwin Alone – a rhapsody of melodies, fantastically played (and you find out a few things about George, too, by George!)
At the Old Globe, through October 22.
Ella – some great singing and playing; wonderful performance, excellent band
At the San Diego Repertory Theatre, through October 15
Copenhagen – deep, profound, important and impeccably acted
At Cygnet Theatre, through September 24.
Leading Ladies – incredibly silly, but inescapably funny (especially in the second act)
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, through October 8
Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit – hilarious spoofs, now featuring an all-San Diego cast (all alums of the SDSU MFA program in musical theatre). Get ‘em while they’re hot!
At the Theatre in Old Town , ongoing
Titus Andronicus – a lot of political references and many laughs along with the gore; as director Darko Tresnjak puts it, his production is “bloody good fun!” It’s inventive and terrific
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through September 30
Othello – potent production. robustly acted and directed
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through October 1
It’s getting cooler; get your last outdoor theater kicks, then warm up in a dramatic indoor venue.
© 2006 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.