By Pat Launer
Comedy rules. Viva inanity!
What the Butler Saw is sheer insanity.
In Room Service, the deals are shady
And there’s laughter and music in My Fair Lady.
But less amusing (for those over 3)
Is Dolittle , which did-little for me.
THE SHOW: My Fair Lady , the Lerner & Lowe masterwork, a giant show masterfully trimmed and tweaked by Cygnet Theatre into a glorious chamber piece – just in time for the musical’s 50th anniversary
THE BACKSTORY/ THE STORY: An adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play, “Pygmalion” (1914) ,My Fair Lady (which used a good deal of Shaw’s original dialogue) was one of the most distinguished productions of all time. It opened in New York in 1956 and ran for more than 2700 performances, and for nine years, was the longest running musical in Broadway history. Lerner and Lowe took on the task after Rodgers and Hammerstein and Noël Coward passed on it, and Julie Andrews created the signature role of Eliza Doolittle after Mary Martin turned it down.
Shaw’s concern with class distinction and his belief that equality would ensue if all Englishmen learned to speak their mother tongue properly was embodied in the story of Eliza, the cockney flower-seller, who’s given linguistic lessons by the sanctimonious phonetician Henry Higgins, on a bet that he can pass her off as a princess at the Embassy Ball. Eliza succeeds so well that she transcends her social status, attracts the attention of the effete Freddy Eynsford -Hill and, in a development added by librettist Lerner, even gets the misogynist Higgins to fall in love with her — or at least to grow accustomed to her face. Everything about the show is sheer genius; practically every song is a singalong (and this production takes advantage of that in both of the numbers by Eliza’s boisterous boozer of a Dad), the lyrics are incredibly clever, and the book is hilariously funny, which is also wonderfully underscored in this production.
/THE PLAYERS THE PRODUCTION: Co-director/designer/star Sean Murray has really all his dazzling talents on display in this production. His design for the simple, off-white set is accented by projections of beautifully evocative pen-and-ink drawings of various London locales – which he also created. And he makes a magnificent Higgins – supercilious but not too prissy, pompous but not insufferable, funny, dismissive and also vulnerable and sensitive. Murray can ‘talk’ through a song like the inimitable Rex Harrison, or he can nail a number with his rich, mellow baritone. He’s especially amusing in “Why Can’t the English,” arrogant in “A Hymn to Him” (“Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”), and wistful and heartfelt in “Accustomed to Her Face.” It’s a marvelous performance. Tom Stephenson provides fine support as Higgins’ equally upper-crust but more human/humane sidekick, Col. Pickering. And holding her own quite nicely against these gents is Amy Biedel , most recently seen in small roles in non-musicals: The Invention of Love at Cygnet and A Bright Room Called Day at Diversionary Theatre/Backyard Productions. Who knew she could sing? She has a bright soprano (a little thin at the upper end) and fine acting chops. She’s excellent with the dialects (Rosina Reynolds served impressively as dialect coach) – yowling as the Covent Garden flower-girl, scrupulously precise and then outrageously raucous at the uppity Ascot Races (“Move yer bloomin ’ arse !”) and sylph-like and elegant in her Ball-gown. Sean Cox also brings surprising vocal talent to the party; though his Freddy doesn’t have much personality (some play him as a nerd, some as a Mama’s Boy, some as a condescending snob), he brings a stirring tenor and credible sentiment to “On the Street Where You Live.” Nearly stealing the show is the hilarious Ron Choularton as Eliza’s father, the wheedling philosophical drunk who makes his numbers (“With a Little Bit of Luck,” “Get Me to the Church on Time”) jubilant and exuberant. Choularton seems to be having the time of his life, and the audience happily joins in.
Murray has pared down this typically massive production to a delightfully intimate musical. The talented ensemble of ten is constantly on the move, thanks to the effectively-used turntable, co-director David Brannen’s lively choreography and the rapidly changing outfits, which require them to change social class along with their clothes. Lee Lampard has the toughest transitions: from Eliza’s cockney street-pal to Higgins’ no-nonsense housekeeper to a crusty upper crust lady. Veronica Murphy goes from toothless plebe to Higgins’ starched but sensible Mum. Jodie Bowman, Andy Collins and Erick L. Sundquist round out the very capable cast, gorgeously dressed by Jeanne Reith. The lighting and sound (Eric Lotze, George Yé) consistently establish and enhance the mood. Though the music is pre-recorded (music direction by Amy Dalton), the orchestrations are terrific (courtesy of Sierra Repertory Theatre) and they make these 50 year-old songs feel young and fresh. No matter how you feel about musicals, this is inarguably one of the all-time greats. And this production is so bright, joyful, inventive – and loverly – you dare not miss it!
THE LOCATION: Cygnet Theatre, through April 23.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
THE DOCTOR DID IT!
THE SHOW: What the Butler Saw, the inspired lunacy of Joe Orton
THE BACKSTORY/THE STORY: The play was first performed in 1969, a year and a half after its author’s death at age 34 (he was bludgeoned by his boyfriend; see the excellent 1987 Stephen Frears film, “Prick up Your Ears,” for the full, gory story). Like Orton’s earlier work (e.g., Loot), What the Butler Saw appalled and outraged theatergoers with its blatant sexuality and attacks on authority and morality. The first audiences yelled out and threw things at the actors. At 6th @ Penn Theatre, you’re so close to the performers you could do damage, but you’ll be far too busy howling at the hilarious shenanigans in this outrageously black comedy.
The title comes from an Edwardian peepshow and the play is intended to make us feel like voyeurs. We get a glimpse into a crazy psychiatric clinic where it’s hard to tell the sane from the certifiable. In Orton-land, the doctors take the biggest hit. But marriage, religion, family and sexual identity are delicious targets, too. Dr. Prentice is a sex-obsessed psychiatrist who, at the outset, is attempting to seduce a prospective secretary, but is interrupted by the arrival of his nymphomaniac wife, her would-be rapist, a genuine nutcase of an over-enthusiastic hospital inspector and a dim-witted English Bobbie. The clinic becomes a bedlam of undressing and cross-dressing, mistaken identity, dropped drawers and heightened libidos in the classic traditions of farce, spiked with subversive Ortonion glee.
THE PLAYERS/ THE PRODUCTION: It’s exceedingly difficult to do farce well; it requires impeccable timing, flawless comic chops and an assiduous aversion to camp and wink-nudge blatancy. Fortunately, director Peter Cirino , an SDSU faculty member, has a stellar cast whom he gives the right amount of rein and the perfect stage business, which they execute with uproarious precision. Douglas Lay seems quite matter-of-fact in his lechery, until he starts comically unraveling from all the lies, subterfuge and semi-clothed fugitives crowding his office. His medical counterpart, the absolutely bonkers Dr. Rand, is played by Brian Salmon with the same solemn insanity he brought to the role some 20 years ago. He is so convinced of his irrational rightness that he blithely turns confusion into chaos as he gradually implodes and then explodes in side-splitting paroxysms of lunacy. Between the two is the oversexed Mrs. Prentice, Leigh Scarritt at her vampiest and funniest. Her finger-walk down the bare chest of her latest conquest, the hunky bellhop (SDSU student Philip Kruse), is worth the price of admission (Leigh said she adlibbed the move the night I was there, much to Kruse’s surprise, though he never turned a hair, even as her fingers teetered perilously below the belt). Another SDSU student, adorable Tess McIntyre, is wide-eyed innocence personified as the prospective secretary. She tries to hold onto the show’s only shred of moral rectitude — if only she could hold onto her clothes. Fred Harlow is aptly clueless as the policeman who winds up running on and off in bare-butted Dr. Denton underwear. The costumes (Jeannie Galioto ) are spot on, and the set ( Sabato Fiorella , Claudio Raygoza, Dale Morris) does everything possible to provide as many egresses as possible. Psychiatry never looked so crazy – and audiences never had so much dark, farcical fun.
THE LOCATION: 6TH @ Penn Theatre, through April 30.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
LEAVING THEIR MARX
THE SHOW: Room Service began as a play (1937), by John Murray and Allen Boretz , and went on to be immortalized on film (1938), thanks to the wild shenanigans of the Marx Brothers
THE STORY: Another wacky backstage theater comedy (not as funny as Noises Off or The Producers, not as telling as It’s Only a Play or Light Up the Sky), this one concerns a down-and-out, wheeler-dealer producer who’s trying to keep his flailing Broadway production afloat and avoid being evicted from his third-rate hotel room. He’s thwarted or abetted by a bunch of nutty characters (here played more as caricatures): a wisecracking director; a novice, hayseed playwright; a Russian actor/waiter; a nervous-Nellie hotel manager; and a foaming, exasperated hotel executive.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: After a rash of successes as founder/artistic director of Renaissance Theatre Company, guest-director George Flint sings his swansong at Moonlight. Unfortunately for San Diego theater , he’s about to leave us for colder climes, moving East to Chicago . His very best work has been with classic dramas and dark comedies. For this farce, he’s assembled a capable cast, but they don’t all seem to be in the same show. Most haven’t clinched a fully-fleshed character, instead playing one note of comic shtick or stereotype. One (Robert T. Nanninga ) is doing Harpo (wild hair and all), but no other Marxes are in sight (though Nanninga does sport a very Groucho-esque moustache). As the centerpiece, the Producer role that Groucho played, Frank F. Remiatte is a charming schemer, but he’s not hard-edged or conniving enough for the role. And he’s not half as funny as he was under Flint ’s direction in Scripps Ranch Theatre’s 2003 production of Arsenic and Old Lace. Paul Bourque does his best work as the Russian actor; his accent and his audition scene are superb. Terry Scheidt plays panicky extremely well (as he did in Moonlight’s The Boys Next Door); he’s effective as the high-strung manager, and Larry Parker is fine, if eternally over the top, as the apoplectic exec. The two who completely capture the tone of the piece are Daniel Logan, wonderfully dry and droll as the jaded director, and Tom Zohar, who just keeps getting better and better, as the fresh-faced, ingenuous playwright from the boonies of upstate New York . The rest of the 13-member cast tries valiantly to be lively and keep the pace up, but it’s not as madcap as one would hope. The gray-toned set (Marty Burnett) is stunning, but far too high-end for the theater-district fleabag this is supposed to be. Jeanne Reith’s costumes are spot-on, perfectly capturing the post-Depression period. So-called ‘screwball comedies’ are very tricky, and this one just isn’t screwy enough.
THE LOCATION: Moonlight at the Avo, through March 19.
I’D RATHER TALK TO ANIMALS
THE SHOW: Dr. Doolittle , the musical. On the road (to Broadway? Seems unlikely)
THE BACKSTORY/THE STORY: You remember. It’s the guy who talks to animals, the eccentric, misanthropic English veterinarian created by Hugh Lofting (in 12 post WWI books) and immortalized in the Oscar-winning 1967 film (with Rex Harrison, talk-singing again). Well, Leslie Bricusse , who wrote the book, music and lyrics for the film, created a $3million extravaganza which went on the road and bombed last year. The show was shut down in October, and 9-time Tony Award-winner Tommy Tune, dancer/singer/choreographer extraordinaire, and expert at saving troubled out-of-town productions, was brought in. And so was Lee Tannen , to re-work the book. Tune got billing as director and star.
The somewhat muddled story concerns the good doctor, who’s seen throwing ‘a female’ into the sea, and is accused of murder. During the trial, he explains that he was sending his friend, Sophie the Seal (dressed, for some unknown reason, in baby clothes and wheeled in a pram) back to her fiancé in the North Sea . His neighbor, the feisty, “impossible” Lady Emma Fairfax (Broadway veteran Dee Hoty ) testifies at the trial. Doolittle loses his license, and with a bunch of animal friends – and Fairfax as stowaway – sails off to find the Giant Pink Snail, but not before he receives the two-headed Pushmi-Pullyu as a gift and takes it to the circus. Huh? Ultimately, his license is reinstated, he and Emma are united in marriage, and he gets help along the way from his various feathered and furry friends (played, à la Lion King – but a lot less brilliantly — by puppets and their visible puppeteers).
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Tune stands 6-foot-6 and just turned 67. He still looks great, but sadly, this former superstar no longer has the vocal or dance flair that once wowed audiences. The lackluster, uninspired choreography (Patti Colombo) seems dumbed down for him, and when the going gets tough, he gets going, surreptitiously leaving the stage until the heavy legwork is over. But none of the dancers is a knockout, including 12 year-old Aaron Burr, winner of the “Good Morning America” competition for “Greatest Dancer in America” (judged by Tune). Burr plays the little monkey, Chee-Chee , and his numbers are no great shakes. The best dancer, performer, actor, juggler of the lot is unequivocally Broadway vet Joel Blum, who makes the circus-man, Blossom, an interesting and effervescent character, the only one onstage. He also gets the best number, “I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It.” The rest of the score runs from familiar (“Talk to the Animals” and the pretty romantic ballad, “When I Look into Your Eyes” – though it’s sung to a seal!) to unmemorable to awful (the opener, “Dr. Dolittle ,” which is, unfortunately, reprised at the end). Hoty is pitifully underused, but her vocal vibrato is working overtime. The book seems to be condescendingly geared for the preschool set, rife with mugging and puerile puns, but overloaded with kid-unfriendly love songs and ballads. Overall, it’s not quite clear who this show is geared for. The frequently-changing sets (Kenneth Foy) are storybook two-dimensional. The costumes (originals by Ann Hould -Ward, with additions by Dona Granata ) are wildly colorful and some of the animals are cleverly done. Tune appears to be struggling through it all, and not having a whole lotta fun. He seemed to want and need considerable affection and applause; he even asked for it when he made his entrance, and again when he addressed the audience after the show. Despite all the time, money, talent and tweaking, this is not, as billed, “Everybody’s Musical.” I’m not sure it’s anybody’s.
THE LOCATION: Broadway San Diego at the Civic Theatre, through March 12.
ONE PLAYWRIGHT, VERY SMART
Mat Smart , UCSD alum from the MFA Playwriting program, wrote a wonderful, provocative play for his 2004 Master’s thesis. The Hopper Collection premiered at the Baldwin New Play Festival. And now it’s being produced at The Huntington Theatre in Boston . Artistic director Nick Martin (who’s been to San Diego several times to direct at the Old Globe) called it an “astounding new play… Mat Smart is a fresh new voice on the American theatre scene, and this play is as sharp as it is affecting.” I loved the play, which concerned two quirky couples brought together by the 1947 Edward Hopper painting “Summer Evening.” I’m so happy for Mat, a charming, talented and unprepossessing guy who deserves great success.
A MOST HAPPY SAN DIEGO FELLA
SDSU musical theater MFA alum Ivan Hernandez just opened in the New York City Opera’s revival of The Most Happy Fella (seen recently at Moonlight Stage Productions). He got the funniest review at theatermania.com: “Tony’s handsome ranch foreman, Joe [is played by] the studly Ivan Hernandez, who possesses a fine singing voice and manages to hit all his notes while wearing the tightest jeans imaginable.” I picked him out as someone to watch in 1996. Now all New York is watching! (The NY Times gave him a good review, too, saying he “looks great and sings robustly”) . Rock on, Ivan!
NEWBIES IN TOWN
A local SDSU professor and several students/alums have taken the bold move of starting a new theater troupe, and they’re about to mount their first production. Peter James Cirino , SDSU professor (see What the Butler Saw, above) is artistic director of The Collective Theatre Company. The group’s other directors are co-founder/resident artist Zoe Caslin , Bernadette Hobson and Carla Nell. All are listed as directors of Personal Space: A Woman’s Body Writes, which features an all-female cast in original works by 12 playwrights from across the country. Focusing on a broad array of topics, from infanticide to gay marriage to using menstrual blood as an aphrodisiac, the plays run from March 17-April 2 at The Show Must… Go On Theatre (formerly The Fault Line Theatre) at 3152 Fifth Ave. in Hillcrest. The Collective’s mission is “to produce works that exemplify cultural diversity and foster community ties. The company is dedicated to creating art with a social conscience.” There couldn’t be a better time to meet those needs.
THE REIGN IN SPAIN
Based on historical records, set during the time of Ferdinand and Isabella, Lope de Vega’s 1619 drama, Fuente Ovejuna (The Sheep Well), features political intrigue, cross-class rape, communal vengeance and royal retribution. Chronos Theatre Group presents a staged reading on Monday, March 20 at 7:30pm at 6th @ Penn Theatre.
If you remember heartthrob Tab Hunter, you might want to see the still-handsome 75 year-old here in San Diego . I’ll be doing a live onstage interview with him as part of the Distinguished Author Series of the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture at the Lawrence Family JCC. Tab’s new book is “Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star.” So, if you wanna hear how he got made (and by whom), come to the JCC in La Jolla on Tuesday, March 21 at 7:30pm (tix are $10-12; 858-362-1348; www.lfjcc.org
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
My Fair Lady – spectacularly inventive production; beautifully designed, directed, acted and sung
At Cygnet Theatre, through April 23.
What the Butler Saw – deeply disturbed, hilariously funny. A pitch-perfect black farce, wonderfully acted and comically timed
At 6th @ Penn Theatre (Thurs-Sat.), through April 30.
Brothers All – a new play, a mammoth undertaking, based on Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” Needs a trim, but it’s well written, well acted, worth seeing
At 6th @ Penn Theatre (Sun-Wed.), through March 15.
A Body of Water – an unsettling, thought-provoking piece of theater, outstandingly acted, directed and designed
On the Old Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through March 19.
Into the Woods – well played, well sung, well seen
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, EXTENDED through March 26.
Too Old for the Chorus, But Not Too Old To Be a Star – Lively, funny, excellently executed.
At The Theatre in Old Town , through March 19.
It’s mid-March already – what are you waiting for? Get thee to a theater!
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.