By Pat Launer
Even The Most Happy Fella is occasionally glum,
And there’s sex inside your chewing Gum.
History and mystery can be abstruse
When Restless Spirits are on the loose.
THE SHOW: Restless Spirits , a world premiere mystery written by a San Diegan (Allan Havis) and set in and around San Diego
THE BACKSTORY and STORY: Based on 200 interviews on both sides of the border, including diverse immigrant populations, the play explores the presence of ghosts and spirits in the area. A recent survey suggested that some 80% of Americans believe in angels… so why not ghosts? Actually, the scenes set in San Diego locales seem most forced and least effective. But the multi-cultural rituals are riveting and soul-stirring. There are a few too many strands and intersecting stories, too much didactic exposition (in the form of university lectures, a tired conceit), and the tales are literally all over the map. But the love story is intriguing, as are the central characters: Jessie, a passionate African American scholar (Karole Foreman) who is carrying on her late father’s study of ghosts and spirits; the man who loves her ( Kinan Valdez), an elevator inspector who may or may not be among the living; and the monstrous murderer (Jim Chovick) who’s out to kill Jessie – a thinly disguised, demonic David Westerfield , infamous local child abductor and abuser (here, visited by young abductees dead and alive). Jessie’s passions, visions and nightmares force her on a journey that crosses the life-death and the cultural divide. The mystery unfolds slowly and enigmatically (too much so for some people, who had a hard time following the disparate threads). But there are many intriguing, ethereal elements as well as moving or harrowing moments.
THE PLAYERS: The cast is superb. As the central character, Jessie, Foreman is endearing, bewildered, indomitable, agile . She shows both physical and character strength, in addition to playfulness and loving tenderness. Valdez is irresistible as the mystifying Felix – sly, smart, secretive, informative, adoring . Chovick is delicious in his most evil, hideous role to date, a twisted, malevolent destroyer of all things good, innocent or pure (though it’s not clear exactly why he’s even there, with his Malaysian toyol , a demon-in-a-jar). As the little girls who make ghostly, singsong appearances, Zoe Eprile and Bibi Valderrama are captivating. Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson brings her usual authority and integrity to the thankless, superfluous role of Jessie’s mother. Raul Cardona and Wendell W. Wright are fascinating as men from other cultures who perform breathtaking, indigenous healings and ceremonies, and April Doctolero enchants as the tough-tender Korean facilitator, Quee .
THE PRODUCTION: The production is as mystical and mythical as the text. Robin Sanford Roberts has designed a marvelously ambiguous, multi-leveled set, all San Diego earth-toned swirls and ramps, platforms and ominously descending prison bars that suggest wildly varying local locales. Jennifer Setlow’s lighting and George Ye’s sound contribute enormously to the otherworldly ambiance. Sam Woodhouse’s direction, coupled with Jean Isaacs’ choreography, try valiantly to keep us spellbound and enchanted; unforgettable stage pictures abound. But with all its good intentions, the play repeatedly lets us down. It’s trying to do way too much, it needs considerable trimming and tightening, and though it’s part of the San Diego Rep’s Calafia Initiative, which is dedicated to local, cross-cultural creations, this one would benefit from less geographical specificity to enhance its ghostly universality.
THE LOCATION: San Diego Repertory Theatre, through February 19.
SOMETHING TO CHEW ON
THE SHOW: Gum, written in 2002 by former San Diegan Karen Hartman, concerns two young women’s quest for pleasure, identity and independence in a cloistered, controlling, misogynist world
THE STORY: Set, symbolically, in a blooming, fertile but walled-in garden, the play takes place in an unnamed fundamentalist Muslim country, where faces and bodies must be covered, pre-marital virginity checks are de rigueur and chewing-gum is contraband. Inspired by a 1996 news article about rumors of foreign-tainted, aphrodisiac gum corrupting Egyptian college girls, the brutal and lyrical play focuses on two well-to-do, blossoming young sisters, Rahmi and Lina , who exhibit sexual curiosity that’s sublimated by JuicyFruit , with its sensuous “burst of hidden flavor.” But Rahmi has gone beyond fantasizing; she’s indulged in an orgiastic romp with two boys in the back seat of a car. Now, she faces an arranged (chattel) marriage to Inayat , a conservative young man of unimpressive means who seems to love her, or he may just be in love with the social advancement her family represents. He adores her wild nature, but there’s every indication that he will try to tame her. “I want her wild,” he says. But he is certain that, “like a wild-eyed bird, you will nest.” When their chaperone Auntie and Rahmi’s intended hear about her illicit exploits, the smooth surface of the play cracks, the tightly coiled lives unravel. Disaster and death ensue (this is, after all, a country of female genital mutilation, euphemistically called circumcision) and long-held, painful, life-changing secrets are revealed.
There’s a dreamy intensity to the piece; Hartman has crammed many themes into a brief, breath-holding 70 minutes. Her language is rich, poetic, sharp, sexy and violent. There are beautiful, sensuous scenes (the girls’ songs and shared bath) and horrific moments, too.
THE PLAYERS / THE PRODUCTION: Under the assured guidance of acclaimed guest director Chay Yew, the performances are finely etched, and the balance between sensuality and violence, poetry and brutality, is beautifully maintained. Especially strong are Liz Elkins and Hilary Ward as the sisters. As Rahmi , Elkins is lively, energetic, impassioned, untrammeled, thrilling and a little dangerous. Her sister is a bit more reserved, a lot more compliant. They play off each other wonderfully well; their mutual devotion is palpable. Their Auntie (Liz Jenkins) seems innocuous, barely present, though she plays a pivotal role in making harsh judgments, revealing regrets, divulging secrets. Eduardo Placer, perched in a tree, gets the sexiest monologue, a detailed description of the back-seat ménage a trois. As Rahmi’s suitor, Peter Wylie is aptly earnest and enamored, but also clearly conservative and controlling. The set ( Elsi Thompson) is evocative, the bathtub scene provocative. The play is at once engaging and disturbing, well written and well executed.
THE LOCATION: UCSD (Weiss Forum Studio), through February 19.
SIDE-NOTE: This is the same play that sparked controversy several months ago when Lynx Theatre’s Al Germani tried to deconstruct the script, and the rights were rescinded the night before opening. Post-script: It doesn’t need deconstruction.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
MORE OR LOESSER
THE SHOW: The Most Happy Fella is legendary composer Frank Loesser’s 1956 foray into flights of operatic fancy.
THE BACKSTORY and STORY: Loesser adapted Sidney Howard’s 1924 Pulitzer prize-winning play, They Knew What They Wanted, into an ambitious musical opus, with 30 numbers ranging from arias, canons and choral pieces (complete with operatic recitative) to dances, instrumental interludes and splashy Broadway numbers like “Standing on the Corner” and “Big D,” which seem surprisingly out of place. Some consider it a masterpiece; to me, it’s a bit of a mishmash . When it opened on Broadway, it garnered six Tony noms , no wins (but it was up against My Fair Lady). Still, with all its musical complexity, this is far from Loesser’s still-fresh-and-funny Guys and Dolls. But it’s a laudable creation and a commendable undertaking for Moonlight Stage Productions.
The story concerns a lonely San Francisco waitress and an aging, expansive Italian immigrant who owns a vast vineyard in the Napa Valley , circa 1920s. He sees her once, calls her his ‘ Rosabella ,’ and after a Cyrano-inspired assisted-correspondence, proposes by mail. When she learns that her groom is far from the young hunk in the picture he sent, she takes solace in the winsome, wistful foreman, with potentially disastrous repercussions. Meanwhile, there’s a secondary love-story, between ‘ Rosabella’s ’ spunky, oversexed waitress-pal (like Oklahoma ’s Ado Annie, a girl who cain’t say no) and an optimistic/pacifistic ranch-hand. In the end, there are lessons learned, of love and forgiveness, honesty, illusion and acceptance. But those two brash Broadway numbers – “Standing on the Corner” and “Big D” — still stick out like big sore thumbs, in an opera/operetta that feels more than a tad musty, however touching, joyful and tearful it may be.
THE PLAYERS, THE PRODUCTION: The show calls for a large cast, an orchestra and a constellation of killer voices. This production takes a hint from the 1992 revival, with only two pianos (dramatically placed on either side of the audience, for a delightful ‘surround sound’ effect), foregoing quantity for quality. The vocal work is superb. Equity performers Sandy Campbell and Richard Kinsey make a lovely May-December couple. He has a rich, robust baritone, and enough charm, energy and charisma to make the gentle, well-meaning Tony spring to life. Campbell ’s lilting soprano is perfect for ‘ Rosabella’s ’ sweeping arias and heartfelt duets. Randall Dodge is just right as the handsome foreman with an eye for the ladies and a melancholy wanderlust. He does especially well with the pensive, beckoning “Joey, Joey, Joey .” By all reports, Kristen Mengelkoch nearly steals the show in the gritty, high-spirited comic role of Cleo, and she’s a cute match for smiley/talented Eric Vest. The three singing waiters (“ Abbondanza ”) are a hoot, musically and physically, though the Italian accents are variable. Susan Boland is fine as Tony’s dour sister, Marie. With direction and choreography by Don and Bonnie Ward and co-direction by Kathy Brombacher, there’s a lot of movement, but the chorus/dance numbers feel cramped and a little formulaic; there are few bona fide dancers, and on opening night, which got off to a sluggish start, the others seemed to be counting beats.
Mike Buckley’s painterly set, with its beautifully lush-Valley, trompe l’oeil backdrop, is flexible and changeable (the turntable works great for different interior/exterior scenes). But that onstage arbor construction, while exciting to watch, only cuts the playing space even further. Bonnie Durben works her usual magic with set dressing and props, and Eric Lotze and M. Scott Grabau provide vivid lighting and sound. The accompaniment is splendid, with musical director Don LeMaster on one side and Amy Dalton on the other. It’s a very intricate score, and it never lets up. Hats off to them; the original production was scored for nearly two dozen instruments, though Loesser did sanction the two-piano version of 1992. You can’t quite call this a good old-fashioned musical. It’s a classic, but not in the classic Broadway sense. But if you’re open to something different (if not new), and you love first-rate singing, head on up to Vista .
SIDE-NOTE: Next month, another revival of The Most Happy Fella will be staged by the New York City Opera.
THE LOCATION: Moonlight at the Avo, through February 26.
TAKE YOUR PLACE IN HISTORY
Last chance to be part of StoryCorps . Sign up to interview a friend, family or loved one for a 45-minute session, then take home a CD of your experience; a copy will also be sent to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. KPBS and SDSU are co-sponsoring the local visit. The StoryCorps Mobile Booth is at SDSU through Feb. 20, and moves to Balboa Park Feb. 23-March 5. To reserve your place in history, go to kpbs.org.
BRIDGE TO BROOKLYN …..
… Perfectly timed in this season of fictional memoirs (cf. the James Frey flap), Carlsbad Playreaders opened its 2006 season with a stellar start – a poignant and effective reading — of Brooklyn Boy, the latest creation by Pulitzer Prize-winner (Dinner with Friends) Donald Margulies. The play concerns a newly-famous writer, whose novel is obviously autobiographical, but he refuses to admit it. The book is entitled “Brooklyn Boy.” He goes back to the old stomping grounds to visit his dying Dad, and even though he’s made the Times Best Seller list, his emotionally barren father still can’t give him a scrap of encouragement, praise or support. His childhood friend says he stole his life, his wife wants a divorce and Paramount thinks his Brooklyn Jewish upbringing is too Jewish for the movies. (Apparently, things haven’t changed much since the early 20th-century setting of Adam Baum and the Jew Movie, recently at 6th @ Penn, with its fact-based scenario involving a thinly disguised Sam Goldwyn, fearing excess Jewishness in film). This play is about midlife crisis, the price of success, going home again. But mostly, it’s about fathers and sons.
Making a trip back onstage after a long hiatus was Steven Adler, a genuine Brooklyn Boy himself, as the lost and confused central character, Eric Weiss (an emotional escape artist who, not coincidentally, has the same name as Houdini). He was wonderful — as dry, empty and adrift as Adam Arkin, who originated the role at South Coast Rep in 2004 and went on with the show to Broadway. Now provost of Earl Warren College at UCSD, Adler spent plenty of professional time in New York . He stage-managed countless Broadway shows, and wrote two enlightening and edifying books (“On Broadway: Art and Commerce on the Great White Way ” and “Rough Magic: Making Theatre at the Royal Shakespeare Company”). He created the MFA program in stage management at UCSD, and is about to teach a course on Woody Allen. Multi-talented man; he should come back onstage soon. Sparring with him mercilessly as Eric’s stern, emotionally distant father, was Arthur Wagner, founding Chair of the Dept. of Theatre and Dance at UCSD (ace director Amy Scholl, a former student of Wagner’s, brought out UCSD’s heavy-hitters!). Wagner also clearly knew his character intimately, and made him particularly compelling in the softer, revelatory moments at the end. The rest of the cast was terrific, too: Matthew Henerson , hilarious as the school-chum turned disaffected deli-man; Terri Park, credible and effective (as always) as the envious ex-wife; Julia Fulton (wife of playwright Allan Havis), amusingly unrestrained as a phony, faux-sensitive Hollywood producer; Lisa Marie King, a talented UCSD senior, spot-on as a truth-spouting literary groupie who talks in, like, y’know , Valley Girl up-speak?; and actor/marketing director/law student Lance Rogers as the clueless WASPy movie hottie du jour, who wants to play the lead in the film (which he should have played WAY WAY over the top in the sample scene-reading). Walt Jones (the director’s spouse and co-producer of Carlsbad Playreaders ) did a great job on the opening video, with many evocative Brooklyn shots, including Nathan’s, Lundy’s, young Steven Adler and playwright Margulies’ real-life father. Although the end of the play is a tad predictable, this reading made it more potent and plausible than the original production. It was an often funny, poignant and affecting evening (thoroughly enjoyed by the many Noo Yawkahs who contributed to the full house and standing O).
… Another Monday, another reading – of a new musical revue, Defying Gravity: A Celebration of the Words and Music of Stephen Schwartz (Tony and Grammy-winning composer/lyricist of Wicked, Godspell, Pippin, Children of Eden, Pocahontas and The Prince of Egypt).Conceived by Rob Stevens, directed by Kathy Brombacher and featuring an all-star (nearly all Equity) cast, many of them Moonlight regulars: John Bisom , Misty Cotton, Michael G. Hawkins, Kim Huber, Debbie Prutsman and Teri Ralston. Monday, Feb. 13 at 8pm, and Tuesday Feb. 14 at 8pm (pre-show interaction with cast at 7:00). Moonlight Stage Productions at the AVO; 760-639-6199.
KING OF DESIGN
Flush from his funny/touching return to the stage last fall in Moonlight’s On Golden Pond, Marty Burnett is lording it over the kids – as the King in the North Coast Repertory Theatre School’s production of Rumplestiltskin , adapted and directed by Joe Powers. March 2-5; 858-481-1055, www.northcoastrep.org.
… This weekend, SDSU is performing The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler’s provocative, political and hysterical history-maker. All proceeds from the production, part of the 2006 V-Day College Campaign, sponsored by Planned Parenthood and Luna Bar, go to The Women’s Resource Center, YWCA and SAFER, organizations working to end violence against women and girls, as Ensler requests. Friday Feb. 10 at 5 and 8pm; Saturday, Feb. 11 at 8pm, in the Don Powell Theatre. Further info is at: http://events.vday.org/2006/College/San_Diego_State_University .
… Later in the month, Moxie Theatre will do its thing with the Vagina Monologues, as a benefit for the Community Resource Center ’s Domestic Violence Program. Monday, February 27 at the La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas. For tix and info, contact the Community Resource Center ; 760-753-1156, ext. 304.
… And, less vaginal, more romantic: Shakespeare’s Sonnets, choreographed by Javier Velasco, will be performed by the San Diego Ballet, February 10-12 at the Lyceum; 619-544-1000.
DO IT FOR THE KIDS
…The first annual San Diego Student Shakespeare Festival is coming this spring. And more schools need to get involved. If you know any teachers who should participate, tell them to fill out an application (available at sandiegoshakespearesociety.org/Festival.htm) and attend the mandatory meeting for teachers on Sat. Feb. 25, 10-12, at the Mission Valley Library. For further info, contact Student Festival executive director (and recent Patté Award winner) Mike Auer: email@example.com
CALLING ALL GRANT-SEEKERS
The deadline for the San Diego Foundation’s Spring 2006 Community Impact Grants is Monday March 13. Get the guidelines at: sdfoundation.org/communityimpact/cycle2006.html. But first, check out the Arts & Culture Grantseeker Workshops for info and advice: Wed. Feb. 15, 3-4:30pm at the San Diego National Bank Building on Kettner Blvd., and Thursday, Feb. 16, 10:30-12 in the Carlsbad Library. Rsvp to Julie Fry: Julie@sdfoundation.org .
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (Critic’s Picks);
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Gum – a piercing one-act about repression, sexuality and fundamentalism; brutal and poetic; well acted and directed
At UCSD, through February 11.
Restless Spirits – the world premiere, multicultural, metaphysical play needs work, but the performances are terrific.
At the San Diego Repertory Theatre, through February 19.
The Most Happy Fella – gorgeous voices, touching tale; a little dusty, but Loesser is always more
Moonlight at the Avo, through February 26.
Hips – political and whimsical, a moving dance tribute to single motherhood
A t Eveoke’s new Tenth Avenue Theatre, through February 12.
Halpern and Johnson – poignant story; perfectly paired, finely nuanced performances
A t North Coast Repertory Theatre, through February 19.
Biedermann and the Firebugs – wacky satire, deadly/fiery subject, hilarious performances.
At Cygnet Theatre, through February 12.
Too Old for the Chorus, But Not Too Old To Be a Star – Lively, funny, extremely well executed.
At The Theatre in Old Town , EXTENDED through March 19.
Give your Valentine a gift of Passion — theater tickets!
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.