By Pat Launer
‘Medea’ does drag; ‘The Music Man’ blows
And the ‘Children of Eden’ are musical pros
It’s back to School; back to basics, too:
From the Greeks to the Garden to 76-skidoo.
Flush from his latest local success and comeback — directing “Sight Unseen” at North Coast Repertory Theatre, Ralph Elias and wife Allison Brennan have officially moved back to San Diego. Ralph spent two years as artistic director of a theater in Sanibel, Florida, then moved to Frederick, MD, near where he grew up (Allison was business manager for a theater in Frederick). Now, Allison snagged a full-time job as office manager for a psychiatrist in Del Mal, and Ralph plans to “cobble together as much directing, acting and teaching — in that order” as he can. He hopes to do more work with/for long-time friend David Ellenstein at NCRT, and he’s looking into teaching at a community college. Since he’s been gone, he earned a master’s degree in England and directed in Russia, and his one-man show, “Player’s Joy,” which he performed here at The Green Room/Twiggs several years ago) has been made into an independent film which will tour indie festivals come fall.
Welcome, back, Ralph and Allison! Hope to see you both onstage again, soon.
RAISING FUNDS AND RAISING THE ROOF
This past week, I was privileged to attend to wonderful theater events… Broadway at the Playhouse for La Jolla Playhouse and Sledgehammer’s ‘Godesses and Modwomen‘ gala… both stellar fund-raisers for the theaters.
The La Jolla Playhouse bash was held at the breathtaking, oceanfront Del Mar home of Mary-K and Ross Gilbert. The emcee for the luncheon was musical theater historian and UCSD professor Steven Adler. Amusing comments came from noted TV veteran and ‘Laugh-In’ producer Ed Friendly.
The ‘Broadway’ entertainment began with a couple of heartfelt songs from Warren G. Nolan (one from his recent appearance as Whizzer in “Falsettos” at Diversionary Theatre). The sweet-voiced Nola is currently featured in Sledgehammer’s “Medea in Colchester” (see below). Then came the spectacular jazz flutist Holly Hoffman, who blew everyone away with her Cole Porter renditions and jazzy takes on Broadway tunes, with backup by a tight and terrific trio.
The capper of the event was Emmy and Tony Award-winner Hal Linden (aka Barney Miller) who did a dazzling musical medley about New York, Broadway and never having sung a show-stopper (he recently appeared on The Great White Way in ‘Cabaret,’ ‘The Gathering,’ ‘The Sisters Rosenzweig’ and ‘I’m Not Rappaport’). He did do a tour of ‘Man of La Mancha,” and really knocked the hell outta songs from that one. In short, he gave a show-stopping performance in Del Mar. A lovely day all around.
Saturday night was Sledgehammer’s fundraising ‘bacchanal’ (perfect title, since it’s heralding two months of Greeks). The evening began with an award ceremony, honoring Women Who Make theatre Happen. The awardees were powerhouse multi-board member Dea Hurston, County Supervisor Pam Slater, playwright Susan Yankowitz (“A Knife in the Heart’ and the upcoming “Phaedra in Delirium”) and I had the privilege of presenting the lovely, shapely (she called it phallic) award to scholar/teacher/playwright/philanthropist Marianne McDonald, whose premiere of “Medea of Colchester” followed the awards. Then there was a great silent auction (I unfortunately was outbid for a weekend at Marianne’s custom-built, gorgeous-view home on Palomar Mountain. Bummer. The dinner at Faz was scrumptious and a festive time was had by all.
MURDER MOST FOUL
In her recent, readable and highly informative new book, The Living Art of Greek Tragedy, playwright/philanthropist/professor Marianne McDonald discusses the multitudinous adaptations of Euripides’ “Medea” — in the form of plays, poetry, operas and film. Now she’s added her own adaptation, “Medea, Queen of Colchester,” which retells the harrowing tale of a passionate woman who exacts a terrible revenge on her faithless husband — killing her own children and getting away with murder.
The Medea of Euripides (written in 431 B.C.) was a sorceress and a foreigner in Corinth, where she lives with Jason (of Argonaut and Golden Fleece fame). She’s often referred to as a ‘barbarian’ from Colchis. McDonald’s modern-day Medea is from Colchester, a small town in South Africa. And in Las Vegas, where she and ‘James’ now live, she is also an outsider; not just for being a Cape Coloured (mulatto) African, but also a drag queen. Medea is a huge success who performs at The Parthenon, a Vegas club owned by Michael Creon, whose daughter is to wed James, now that he has abandoned Medea. The central character’s constant companion is Nuria (‘Nurse’ to Euripides), a Cape Coloured transvestite. Medea’s long-time friend ‘Aigeus’ becomes Edward Jameson, owner of the Phoenix Theatre in Cape Town, and the ‘Messenger’ is now Nick, a gay stage manager.
McDonald hews close to the original story, although her tale of honor and revenge also speaks to issues of gender equality and gay rights. Only at the very end does she also air grievances about colonialism and slavery Though the issues are certainly important, Medea’s ranting accusations seem to come out of nowhere; they haven’t been mentioned or even alluded to before. It also weakens the story to have Medea kill Jason’s offspring, children not sprung from her own loins. This is the most terrifying part of the narrative; that a woman would kill her own children to avenge her honor, to mortally wound her husband, knowing that she, too, will suffer for eternity. Even if she raised and loved the children, the act is less self-destructive when she is killing Jason’s sons (by a deceased wife).
In their staging of the world premiere, Sledgehammer artistic director Kirsten Brandt and co-director David Tierney have conceived the entire setting as a Vegas nightclub, with each character (or ‘act’) being introduced to the audience. Medea has backup from two Divas who sexily, dangerously, voice her thoughts, fears and monstrous plans. This is an intriguing addition to the play, but works best when the two (dressed, in black and bowler hats, like Bob Fosse dancers who sound like “The Rocky Horror Show’s” Magenta) just express Medea’s inner monologue, and don’t also try to interact (sometimes confusingly) with other characters. As the Divas, Jessa Watson and Kim Strassburger are wonderfully, frostily sultry, and they add mystery and intensity to the mix.
As Nuria, Warren G. Nolan Jr. makes a great-looking femme (as he did last year in North Coast Rep’s “Pageant”) and he has a beautiful singing voice, which he gets to use to great effect in the ‘chorus’ of songs (composed by Jean-Claude Rideau). But his words are often swallowed up in less than precise articulation, and almost all the lyrics of the (sweet but similar) songs are lost to the audience. George Alphonso Walker is making his acting debut as Medea, and it shows. He is less than assured and he, too, needs work on enunciation. It’s a boon to his character and performance to have the backup Divas, though his moment of other-worldliness, conjuring up African potions and poisons, is powerful and haunting. Walker looks less than the alluring beauty he should be as the irresistible Medea (whom everyone on the stage has made love to — or wants to); his wig is unappealing, and he seems unsteady in his ultra-high platform shoes, especially when he has to make prolonged entrances down a long, steep flight of stairs (set by French interior designer Mathilda de Luce, whose furnishings are lovely, though the bi-level design appears precarious at times). David Cuthbert’s lighting is, as always, provocative.
The most compelling performance is by Ruff Yeager as Michael Creon, a Greek-American macho-man with a heavy accent and a sinister mien. Greg Tankersley is amusing as Edward Jameson, an Irish buddy of Medea who provides her escape and asylum. Robert MacAulay is aptly arrogant and self-important as James, but his apparent madness at the very end is less than credible. Chris Hatcher is straightforward and convincing as Nick, who has to report on the offstage horrors: the deaths of James’ new bride and her father, Michael.
The language of the play is harsh and brutal at times, perhaps more raw and rough than it needs to be. But it brings a fresh perspective to the timeless and horrific tale, and makes it relevant to modern audiences, It could use some tightening and a bit more dialogue than monologue. But this is a thought-provoking production of a disquieting and unsettling play.
Okay, here’s one you DARE not miss; God is onstage, and He’s watching you!
The Moonlight Theatre production of “Children of Eden” is paradise found. Flawless. Beautifully acted, sung, directed and danced. It’s a knockout in every way. Several of the four Equity leads have played their roles before, and each has a beautiful voice and a confident air. This Stephen Schwartz musical focuses on Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and Noah and the Ark. But it’s really about fathers and sons, and this production makes that recurring theme crystalline and heart-wrenching.
As Father (the Father of us all), John Huntington is regal and commanding. This is his fourth time playing God (my husband John and I introduced Moonlight to George Flint, who, as a former surgeon, said he used to do that every day!). As Adam and Eve, and also Noah and Mama Noah, David Engel and Bets Malone are an irresistible couple; she, with her wide-eyed curiosity, he with his unswerving devotion to his Father and his sons. I remember them both from so long ago; before he went on to Broadway (“Putting it Together,” “Seussical,” “La Cage Aux Folles”), he was the original Smudge in “Forever Plaid,” in its first incarnation at the Globe (as well as in New York, London and L.A.). Bets got her start at Moonlight 20 years ago, and I recall her fondly, starring in “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Evita” and so many more. In “Children of Eden,” she brings down the house at the end with the rousing gospel anthem, “Ain’t It Good?” Her husband, Steve Glaudini, is the incredibly creative director of this magnificent show. He’s also a veteran of this musical, having directed it at Performance Riverside, where he’s been executive director/producer for the past four years. Glaudini wisely cast the engaging, adorable and enormously talented David Burnham in the dual roles of Cain and Japheth, to which he brings a gorgeous voice, unstoppable energy and a million-dollar smile. In the Act Two opener, Jimmer Bolden and Jeneen Hammond bring tremendous vitality to the rousing African-rhythm opener, “Generations.” And it’s great to see another of the SDSU MFA musical theater students, Caleb Goh (who plays the gentle and obedient sons, Abel and Ham) on a larger local stage.
The colorful costumes are wildly imaginative (designed by Sharrell Martin, who recently did such a superb job at Moonlight as the personal costumer of Erin Anderson’s Lina Lamont in “Singin’ in the Rain”). The 14-piece orchestra is ebullient and robust, under the musical direction of Don LeMaster, conducted by Kenneth Gammie. Lee Martino was brought in from L.A. to choreograph, and her work is stupendous, part modern dance, part musical theater, all gorgeous and extremely well executed by a lithe and smiling corps du dance.
Everything about this performance is stellar. You’ve got to get back to the Garden; or you’ll be “Lost in the Wilderness” yourself.
7 OR 6 TROMBONES (okay, maybe four, plus three trumpets and a tuba)
The brass had a lot of brass in Christian Community Theater’s production of “The Music Man,” Meredith Willson’s incomparable story of conmen, salesmen, love and blind faith. I hadn’t been to CCT in some time… and I’ve always enjoyed the view from Mt. Helix and an evening under the stars (though I’ve never quite gotten used to prayers before a musical theater production. Is that legal on public property???) Anyway, the 20-piece orchestra was a little light in the string section, but very robust in the horn section, which is just what’s needed in this show of “76 Trombones” and other brassy delights. The piece was a little weak at the center (Dan Walsh wasn’t up to the role vocally or dramatically) but Sandy Campbell made a powerful and charming Marian and that “Lida Rose” barbershop quartet was super. In supporting roles, Kathy Schmidt mastered a ripping brogue as Marian’s mother, Mrs. Paroo; David Macy-Beckwith was a commanding presence as that skeptic and womanizer, Charlie the anvil salesman; Becky Bell was credible and amusing as the Mayor’s wife; and as the Kute Kids, Winthrop and Amaryllis, David Cabinian and Kelli Plaisted were aptly adorable. As the secret young lovers, Tommy and Zanetta (the ‘bad boy’ and the mayor’s daughter), Justin Caster and Brooke McKinney danced wonderfully and showed real musical theater talent. Much of the direction (by Tom Schmidt) was heavily borrowed from Disney’s recent TV production (which starred Matthew Broderick — also not the strongest of Harold Hills — and a delicious Kristen Chenoweth as Maid Marion). The cast wasn’t always up to the ambitious production, but the second act increased in energy and vitality.
And now, for THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“Children of Eden” — flawless production; gorgeous to look at and listen to; Moonlight scores BIG! Through 8/31
“Beside Herself” — interesting play, lovely performances — at 6th @ Penn, Sundays through Wednesdays, through 8/30
“Dirty Blonde” – terrific performances; Sally Mayes, who played the role at the Kennedy Center and was Tony-nominated for “She Loves Me,” has just taken over ) — at the Globe, through 8/30
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” — Jeremiah Lorenz is fabulous, and the band, though ultra-loud, is killer. The Cygnet is hatched, and it soars; through October
“Sight Unseen” — provocative play; well crafted, well acted production; through 9/7
“Private Lives” — the most deliciously Cowardly lines! Smart, funny production @ Lamb’s Players Theatre; through 9/21
Music, comedy, drama and drag — get out there and put a little something in your life!
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.