By Pat Launer
A whirlwind trip to the Great White Way
Where “Jersey Boys” really won the day,
But “The Color Purple” left some “Doubt”
About what a new musical is all about.
“The Light in the Piazza” was thoroughly stunning
And “Mr. Marmalade” was crafted with cunning.
The new “Sweeney Todd” sure took its toll
As grisly, macabre grand guignol .
THE SHOW: ‘Jersey Boys, The Story of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, originated at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2004. Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice ; music by Bob Gaudio , lyrics by Bob Crewe
THE SCOOP: Multiply extended when it was here, beloved by all, the show is still great fun – and it’s being lapped up by audiences and critics alike
THE STORY and BACKSTORY: A jukebox musical that isn’t just some random narrative glommed-onto a song catalogue, this really does, as advertised, tell the tale of the rise and fall and rise of The Four Seasons, culminating in their induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame – for their 100 million records sold, and hits like “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” Oh, What a Night” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” Every one of them sounds fantastic, with a backup band that, like the singers, captures the exact feel of the time, the tempo and the tunes.
THE PLAYERS: Most of the La Jolla cast is intact, except for the central role. I loved David Noroña’s Frankie Valli. I thought he was adorable, irresistible, extremely charismatic. And he really did “sing like an angel,” as a line in the show goes, stretching into the falsetto stratosphere and making the naïve but steadfast singer thoroughly believable. John Lloyd Young looks more like the craggy Valli, but he doesn’t quite have his chops. And on opening night, his voice seemed to be raspy at times. The role is incredibly vocally demanding; I really think it should be double or triple cast. Perhaps if that’d been the case, Noroña could still be involved. By all accounts, he opted out of the show because of his commitments to his wife and baby in L.A. ,, but he was also having trouble sustaining his voice through eight performances a week. Reportedly, Young had auditioned for the part in the La Jolla premiere, but Noroña won out. I missed him, though Young did a fine job. I also missed local Steve Gouveia playing Joe Pesci , but Michael Longoria was funny, too. It seemed like the “Boys’ were pushing a little on opening night, but they’re all really stupendous singers and endearing actors: Christian Hoff as Tommy DeVito , the group’s organizer, resident thug and compulsive gambler; Daniel Reichard as musical whiz Bob Gaudio and J. Robert Spencer as the principled Nick (who complains of being ‘the Ringo ’ of the group). It was so great at the end of the show, when all the REAL Seasons came up onstage: Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio , Bob Crewe (the lyricist, who appears as a fey, visionary producer in the musical, and only gets credits for lyrics in the program), and Tommy DeVito , still a Vegas fixture, though not, like Valli, as a performer. Nick Massi , as the show tells us in the final-moment confessionals, died in 2000. Lots of other luminaries were there on opening night: Robert DeNiro , a number of “The Sopranos” cast, Dick Cavett , Bebe Neuwirth, John Lithgow, Frankie Avalon, etc. Great fun all around.
THE PRODUCTION : The heavy-metal, industrial-looking set design ( Klara Zieglerova ) remains the same, but the projections have changed somewhat. The show is still framed by the seasons – starting the with budding of the group in spring, proceeding to the winter of their discontent. The pop-art Roy Lichtenstein images are much more effective than the other, newer cartoons, some of which redundantly underline the dialogue (like the oversized handshake that represents a contract, Jersey-style). The costumes (Jess Goldstein) are terrific, as are the choreographic moves (Sergio Trujillo). The band sounds fantastic, and you just can’t sit still when those famous songs fly by. The show opener, “Oh What a Night” sung in French, is a hoot. But there’s a lag until the Seasons score their first big hit – “Sherry” — and then the music and the story grab you. Still, for me, the emotional connection was less intense; the tragedy of the second act mercifully lost its un-subtle, stage-spanning coffin, but it lost some poignancy, too. And yet, here is so much energy here, so much megawatt talent that it’s absolutely impossible not to get sucked into it, clapping and rocking and having a ball.
THE LOCATION : The newly renamed August Wilson Theatre (formerly the Virginia ), probably settling in for a nice, long run.
Now, some quickies on the other shows I saw, and their San Diego connections (or not):
THE SHOW: The Light in the Piazza is flat-out gorgeous. Lush, beautiful music, composed by Adam Guettel, whose work was last seen here in the love-it-or-hate-it musical, Floyd Collins, at the Globe (1999). Piazza won six Tony Awards this year – all unequivocally deserved – for Original Score, Scenic Design, Costumes, Lighting, Orchestrations and Best Actress in a musical. Michael Yeargan’s smoothly gliding Florence sets are stunning, magnificently lit by Christopher Akerlind . The costumes (Catherine Zuber ) are character-precise and evocative. The orchestrations are thrilling (Ted Sperling and Adam Guettel). Guettel, who writes his own lyrics, has some of the best genes in the business: his grandpa was Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers & Hammerstein fame) and his mother, Mary Rodgers, wrote Once Upon a Mattress. Adam’s new work is sweet, sentimental and romantic – at a time when all of those have become dirty words. The book, by Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, Reckless), based on the novella by Elizabeth Spencer, strains credulity at times. But there is so much heart, you lose yours to it. T he story concerns a mother and daughter traveling through Italy in 1953. The daughter, slightly brain damaged from a horse accident in her youth, falls instantly in love with a dashing Florentine, and the overprotective mother is determined to keep them apart. Every sense is engaged in this glorious production, lovely to look at and listen to. Victoria Clark won the Tony as the mother, and she’s quite fine. But Kelli O’Hara is simply heart-breaking as her daughter, Clara, guileless but just a little ‘off,’ and credibly overwhelmed when she loses her way. The new addition to the cast, Aaron Lazar, is marvelous as the antic Fabrizio . As his brother and sister-in-law, Michael Berresse and Sarah Uriarte Berry provide excellent comic relief. The subtle and superb direction is by Bartlett Sher , who got his professional theater start in San Diego in the early ‘80s, serving as dramaturge for the La Jolla Playhouse production of A Man’s a Man and co-founding the San Diego Public Theatre. He and his team have created an unforgettable piece of theater; it’s all about passion – in the writing, the production, the performances.
At Lincoln Center (Vivian Beaumont Theater)
THE SHOW: Doubt – Pulitzer and Tony-winning 2005 play by John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck).
I saw the West coast premiere a few months ago in Pasadena with Linda Hunt. And when the audience poll was taken at the end, there just wasn’t enough doubt. The deck was so stacked against the hateful nun (Hunt) in favor of the priest she accuses (Jonathan Cake). But in the superb New York production, there’s a level playing field, with two magnificent actors going head-to-head: Cherry Jones and Brían F. O’Byrne, in this disturbingly enigmatic contemplation of the fine line between faith and justice, paranoia and pedophilia. Jones was seen at the Globe most recently in Nora Ephron’s flawed theatrical debut, Imaginary Friends; she also starred in Pride’s Crossing at the Globe (1997). Here, she is the stern and definitive Sister Aloysius, principal of St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx (almost identical to the school of Shanley ’s youth). The year is 1964, and things are changing in the world and in the church. But Sister will have none of it. Father Flynn, however, is all about closeness and camaraderie, coaching the kids in basketball and life. Young Sister James (wonderful Heather Goldenhersh ) has a passion for teaching. But that, too, is discouraged by the stern Sister Aloysius, who has grave doubts about Father Flynn and who is determined to get rid of him and his flagrant ways. When the mother of the suspected ‘victim’ is called in, things take a surprising turn. On the day I was at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, Tony Award-winning Adriane Lenox didn’t perform, and her understudy, Caroline Stefanie Clay, was so sick (hoarse, stuffed up), she could barely bring much volume – or character – to the small but pivotal role. No matter. The rest of the proceedings were riveting. The play is remarkable and important, and will leave you talking long into the night.
At the Walter Kerr Theatre
THE SHOW: Mr. Marmalade is a dark, quirky comedy by Noah Haidle that premiered at South Coast Rep in 2004. The Mister of the title is an imaginary friend of an extraordinarily precocious 4 year-old (marvelously played by grown-up Mamie Gummer). Her parents are divorced, her mother is distracted, and Lucy spends far too much time alone – mostly inventing an alternate universe. She spews very adult utterances and lives in a made-up world of undependable, workaholic, abusive men. Michael C. Hall (David in “Six Feet Under”) is delightfully slick as the title character and David Costabile is precise and efficient as his personal assistant. Then Lucy befriends her suicidal five year-old neighbor (endearingly gawky Pablo Schreiber). He’s a Jersey Boy, too (the play takes place in The Garden State). The play is amusing if unnerving, inventively designed (Allen Moyer) and whimsically directed by Michael Greif, former artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse. Understudying the title role is a recent UCSD alum, talented Alex Cranmer . The Roundabout Theatre production hasn’t officially opened yet, but it should be totally appealing to those who like off-kilter work, very well done.
At The Roundabout Theatre
THE SHOW: Speaking of dark and quirky, there was a great deal of buzz in NY about the new revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (book by Hugh Wheeler). This is the Broadway debut for British director John Doyle, whose idiosyncratic production was nominated for prestigious Olivier and Evening Standard Awards for Best Musical Revival (it did win the Whatsonstage Award for same). On this side of the pond, Doyle called in some American heavy-hitters and Bingo! The most unpredictable approach to this difficult work is making audiences leap to their feet. Purists may be put off, but the adventurous and open-minded will be richly rewarded – that is, if they harbor a bit of blood-lust.
The premise is simple; Doyle has pared down the production to the barest essentials. He’s even designed the set, comprising a platform, ladder and a large and small coffin. Plus, lots of rusty tools. What’s most innovative and unique is that he’s only got a cast of ten for what’s typically a large-scale musical with a huge orchestra in the pit. Each of the actors also plays an instrument (or several). Even star Patti LuPone plays the triangle – and the tuba! (Though this has been hyped quite a bit, her having offered her tuba expertise to her high school marching band, she barely plays 50 notes in the whole show. But seeing her parade across the stage in short skirt, provocative, thigh-high stockings and shlepping that massive instrument (not the triangle) is really something. LuPone is a very different Mrs. Lovett from the lovably comic cartoon of Angela Lansbury (and most folks who emulate that signature performance). This Mrs. Lovett is a bit blasé, a tad cynical, more than a little sexy and definitely cruel. No soft-hearted, upbeat pie-maker she. In this grisly, grand guignol production, she’s the perfect foil for the murderous, vengeful Sweeney, who was wrongfully, spitefully sent away to lifelong imprisonment, leaving a beloved wife and daughter behind. Now he’s escaped and he’s back in London to excise his pound of flesh. Michael Cerveris , a Tony Award-winner for his fantastic performance in Sondheim’s Assassins last year, was the original Tommy in The Who’s Tommy, which premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1992. As Sweeney, he’s positively terrifying, with his ashen face , dark -rimmed, wild eyes, shaved head and menacing mien. He’s also in terrific voice – and he contributes some guitar chords, bells and percussion.
The production begins with young Tobias being untied from his straitjacket, so he can admonish us to “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.” He bookends the play, being re-wrapped at the end, as if this was all a tale told by an idiot – or a lunatic. The ghoulish story is certainly sheer lunacy (making meat-pies of men). As Toby, Manoel Felciano shows striking triple-threat talent – singing, acting and playing violin, clarinet and keyboards. The two ingénue lovers, Anthony and Johanna (Benjamin Magnuson and Lauren Molina), are both, appealingly, cellists, with beautiful voices.
The entire production is in black and white, splashed by garish red lights and the pouring of ‘blood’ from one bucket to another as each target meets his maker. Then, each dons a blood-spattered lab-coat. It’s gleefully ghoulish. The simplicity and precision of the striking staging underscore the complexity of the music, and also its brash, unabashed beauty. This is one of the best-sung Sweeneys you’re likely to see. And the most distinctive.
At the Eugene O’Neill Theatre
THE SHOW: Still in previews, The Color Purple is the only New York show I saw that had no San Diego connections. And right now, it needs all the help it can get. Despite a significant monetary infusion from Oprah Winfrey (who made a VERY star-driven entrance – for both acts – on the night I was there), this musical is really in trouble. It’s muddy and messy, despite obviously good intentions. The book, by Marsha Norman (The Secret Garden , ‘night, Mother) based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker, is just too overstuffed. There’s too much expanse and not enough character development to make us care; that’s what’s needed most in this poignant drama of African Americans who find redemption. Mostly, it’s a tale of strong Southern black women, both abused and independent, who find and make their way with heads held high.
The night I was there, the audience was packed with Oprah-lovers, who seemingly would have adored anything put before them. Once again, Oprah is doing the country a literary/artistic service, this time bringing new faces to the theater (she’s famous for, among other things, getting people to read again). But if they’d look closely, the observers would see what trouble this show is in. The music and lyrics (Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray) are trite and derivative. Whether due to the sound system/design or the orchestrations, the 18-piece orchestra sounds thin; it doesn’t fill the space (the Broadway Theatre). Even the sets and lighting are heavy-handed. The singing is great, and the acting is earnest, but the production, with all its hard-working willingness to please, just doesn’t capture the heart of the story. There’s a wonderful dance number in the second act (the dancers are terrific), illustrating the life of Celie’s beloved sister in Africa . The choreography (Donald Byrd) while excellently executed, looks like something straight out of The Lion King, and it feels oddly out of place in this show.
As the stalwart but put-upon Celie , La Chanze doesn’t sufficiently command the stage or capture the heart. Scenes are repeatedly stolen by the knockout Elisabeth Withers-Mendes as Shug Avery, the promiscuous beauty that everyone loves. Renée Elise Goldsberry has a wonderful presence (but a very small role) as Celie’s sister, Nettie . Kingsley Leggs isn’t forbidding or terrifying enough as Mister, Celie’s cruel husband. But Brandon Victor Dixon is charming as the good-hearted Harpo, whose scenes with Felicia P. Fields as his wife, the capacious Sofia, are delightful — except when they verge on the sexually vulgar; there isn’t much subtlety in Gary Griffin’s direction. The show had trouble in its Atlanta tryout, too. It just doesn’t seem ready for Broadway, or for a December opening.
At the Broadway Theatre.
NOW, WHASSUP HERE AT HOME?
… Don’t miss the Post-Menopausal Monologues — ‘Tales from the Far Side of Fifty’ – 14 women from 58-87 sharing their stories and songs about the problems, horrors and humor of post middle-age. Little old ladies – NOT! ( my 87 year-old spitfire of a mother is one of ‘em, and my sister, Lonnie Burstein Hewitt, is the writer/producer). Delicia Turner Sonnenberg directs. These are Wild Women; hear ‘em roar ! Sunday, November 20 at 1:30pm in the Recital Hall of Balboa Park (near the Automotive Museum ). For info: firstname.lastname@example.org
…Ongoing, and generating a buzz… the off-night evening of one-acts at 6th @ Penn, including Monique Gaffney and Dale Morris in I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda. Check it out. Sunday-Wednesday, through Nov. 16.
…Get into Instant Theatre… Coming up at 6th @ Penn, a 24-hour collaborative dramatic experience. Local artists will be randomly grouped to write, direct and perform – off-book and in front of an audience! – 12 short 5-7minute original plays. Anyone can sign up. You can participate as a writer, director or actor. The event takes place November 19th and 20th. For info or to sign on, contact producer/director Raab Rashi . Space is limited to 12 writers, 12 directors and 40 actors. The final performances will be held on Sunday, November 20 at 6 and 8 pm. Tickets are $5. InstantTheatre@hotmail.com .
… Another UCSD alum on the move. Just heard from adorable Joy Osmanski , now living in L.A. , who’s just wrapped the first few episodes of a new Fox TV show, “The Loop,” set to premiere next spring. She’s one of a group of twentysomethings who goof off or get work; sometimes both. Her co-stars are Brett Harrison (“Grounded for Life”), Eric Christian Olsen (“Dumb and Dumberer ,” “ Tru Calling”), Philip Baker Hall (“Seinfeld,” “Bruce Almighty”) and Mimi Rogers (“Austin Powers,” “Hope and Faith”). Joy writes: “I’m so amazingly grateful for this experience, regardless of what happens with the show. I’ve learned so much about the process of television, which I find fascinating. My character, Darcy, is so much fun to play…she’s totally bitter and dry and sarcastic. I LOVE it! Everything I learned at UCSD has come into play here .. I wouldn’t trade those three years of grad school for anything.” That should serve as inspiration to current, struggling students – and add approbation to the acclaimed UCSD actor training program.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (i.e., Critic’s Picks );
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
IN NEW YORK : Jersey Boys, Mr. Marmalade, Sweeney Todd, The Light in the Piazza, Doubt
HERE AT HOME….
The Miser – magnificent; theater magic. Théâtre de la Jeune Lune mines the darkness beneath the farcically comic surface. The physical production is gorgeous – as are the set, makeup, movement, direction, acting. It’s all good. Very good. Some people find it dark; don’t expect a farce, but be prepared for something unique and wonderful.
At La Jolla Playhouse, through November 13.
“The Winslow Boy” – beautifully designed and acted. A marvelous ensemble piece, with striking philosophical resonance.
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through November 20.
“Too Old for the Chorus, But Not Too Old To Be a Star” – if you haven’t had your fill of menopausal musicals, this is great for a date (the guys remind us it’s called MENopause ). Excellent performances , some cute/clever bits and songs.
At The Theatre in Old Town , through January 1.
Take a Veteran to the theater this week…
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.