By Pat Launer
One day in Vegas, giving talks at a meeting;
It’s not my Nirvana; our time there was fleeting,
But there’s always a moment to squeeze in a show,
Especially when the production is “O.”
And before we headed to Zion Nat’l Park,
I was re-‘ Catechismed ’ just for a lark.
Okay, so maybe I’m a little late coming to the table. More than 5 million people have already seen ‘O.’ But I don’t get to Vegas often, and I don’t stay there long when I do. But this time, I had to be there overnight, and I thought that, until “Avenue Q” comes in September, there’s absolutely nothing I’d rather do than see “O.” Admittedly, I’m not the biggest Cirque du Soleil fan; I’ve seen about 4 or 5 of their shows, and nothing comes close to the thrill of the first time, when it was a small, intimate, uniquely mind-boggling operation. Now it’s a multinational megacorporation , and it’s lost a lot of its charm as it’s gained caché and cash. And yes, I know; the Cirque already has another, newer show added to its Vegas roster, bringing the total to four (there are six others on tour): “ Mystère at Treasure Island,” “ Zumanity ” at New York – New York , the latest, “Ka,” at the MGM Grand, and the beloved “O” at the Bellagio. Speaking of ‘O’ (the title comes from the French word for water, ‘eau’), we also caught the dancing waters outside the Bellagio, which were quite a spectacle in their own right. And then there’s the hotel lobby (the stained glass ceiling is a bit overdone, but the Conservatory is magnificent, and the scent of flowers is everywhere) and the Impressionist exhibit (with its $15 admission – almost as much as the newly refurbished MOMA in NY).
But the main attraction (for the non-nonstop gamblers and gawkers ) is “O,” with its massive pool that holds more than 1.5 million gallons of water and extends to a depth of 25 feet. That makes the wonderful water-set of Lambs’ “Metamorphoses” seem like a sidewalk puddle. This bathtub is 150×100 feet at its widest, and by means of seven sophisticated hydraulic lifts, it can move 20 feet up and down at speeds ranging from 5 to 20 feet per minute. So, a given character can be walking on water one moment, and suddenly be underwater the next. Pretty incredible! Every one of the 85-member international cast is scuba-certified and can make use of any of the 18 breathing stations under water. There are 150 stage technicians to make it all run smoothly. The numbers are as mind-blowing as the acts.
The special effects are eye-popping, as are the performances. As background, ten live musicians (from Canada , Senegal , China and the U.S. ) play a wide and distinctive array of instruments, from cello to Colombian guitar, from bagpipes to African harp and ancient woodwinds. Together, they create that ethereal, non-specific sound that underscores every Cirque show, sung in the invented language that sounds exotic but unidentifiable. The set, sound, costume and lighting design are incredible. You almost have to see the show more than once to appreciate all the amazing moments and images, the spectacular feats, the perfection of grace, style, performance and direction. The story itself is never a Cirque strong suit. There are a few enigmatic central characters who wind up in many different worlds, and that’s probably all you need to know. It took the press packet to reveal that the stooped, white-faced old omnipresent geezer in the tails was ‘an aging theater manager who… provokes us to see the dark side of ‘O’… He embodies the cyclical part of life where everything old becomes new again.” Coulda fooled me. Other characters are called Le Travesti and Aurora, La Ballerine , Le Waiter and Le Zèbre (whose costume and colleagues are breathtaking).
Esther Williams, in her wildest dreams and nightmares, never imagined that all this could be done in water, onstage. live . Synchronized Swimmers that are amphibious, beautiful both above and below the water. Ultra-high divers. A man all aflame. Aerial hoops that float down scores of feet and then dip beneath the shimmering surface. A barge and Bateau that form the stunning backdrop for acrobatic moves of head-spinning precision. A 60-foot Bungee freefall. And of course, there are the clowns (never very funny to me at Cirque shows) and the contortionists (with their stomach- churningly unnatural flexibility).
This is by any definition an extravaganza. It may not teach you anything new (except maybe that human ingenuity and dexterity know no bounds). You won’t walk away humming the tunes or speaking the lines (there are none). Or aching to try out the moves at home (you’d better not!). This is nothing more than the genius of sheer spectacle, a conflation of everything, and yet unlike anything, you’ve ever seen in any Cirque or circus production. It’s steep ($99-150) but unforgettable. No one in that specially-built, 1800-seat theater went away disappointed. Including me.
Ongoing, at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas .
It’s not often that I get to see a show a second time. But my friends were dying to go to “Late Night Catechism,” so I had sushi next door at Samurai and accompanied them to the theater. As luck would have it, the same ‘Sister’ was ‘teaching’ the last time I’d been there. So it was another rare opportunity: to see an improvisational performer do her thing more than once. And it was quite a different experience. In an audience participation event, clearly, the audience is a crucial ingredient. This was a lively and interactive group, and the performer rose mightily to the occasion. Kathryn Gallagher was hilarious; she was merely funny the last time. There are now three ‘Sisters’ alternating in the role at North Coast Rep (Kristen Moneagle and Nonie Newton-Breen are the others this round), in the play written by Vicki Quaid and Maripat Donovan. The first run at NCRT (December 2004) was so successful, the theater brought it back for more off-night airings (Mondays and Tuesdays, originally for four weeks, but now extended through the end of June). And the next incarnation, the holiday show, “Sister’s Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold,” will have a full run next winter (December 1-31).
You don’t have to have gone to Catholic School to enjoy this evening of infotainment (I learn a thing or two each time; this is the third or fourth viewing for me), but it sure seems to heighten the experience, from the looks (and laughter) of it. We hear all about the reasons people were whacked with rulers (females as well as males, for infractions as meager as ‘stepping over the gender line’ in the schoolyard that separated the sexes, or marching out of step in formation). The questions at the end are always fascinating, and Sister handled them with aplomb. Disturbing response from the audience, however, when my friend asked about the Nazi background of the new Pope; they hooted and booed. I guess the humor factor only goes so far with them; some topics are still verboten, though I think this one needs to be discussed further by all. Sister responded quite professionally, saying ‘We all make mistakes.’ She was hilarious in response to other questions, making comments such as “If Cain and Abel married their mother, we’d all be playing banjo,” or “Episcopalians are Catholics with cash,” and “Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland; how they all wound up at Enron is beyond me.” there were many updates this time (“St. William Gates says we must constantly upgrade”), including references to Opus Dei, the innocence (or lack thereof) of Robert Blake, “girlie men” and Pope John Paul (“we know he’s in heaven because Fox News has told us so”).
All in all, it was another thoroughly enjoyable evening. If you want to add your two cents, or learn a thing or two about the saints (the current and ‘defrocked’ ones — thanks to Vatican II), or just laugh at the ludicrous nature of dogma, you really shouldn’t miss this one. (When I was a kid, I latched onto two amazing proscriptions that I learned from my Catholic friends: not wearing patent leather shoes and not standing over a sewer in a skirt; both had the same rationale: the boys would be able to see the reflection of your underwear. God forbid!).
At the North Coast Repertory Theatre, Mondays and Tuesdays, extended through June 28.
TONY-TIME .. and the San Diego Connections
… Well, 2005 Tony Award nominations have been made public… and San Diego has some juicy connections. Two shows that started here have made a big splash this pre-Tony time. “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” snagged 11 nominations, including Best Director for Jack O’Brien. The La Jolla Playhouse-sprung “700 Sundays,” the Billy Crystal show directed by Des McAnuff, got a nod as Best Special Theatrical Event. Norbert Leo Butz , who was so uproarious in “DRS,” already won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Performance in a Musical, as did Billy Crystal for Best Solo Performance. Former San Diegan Barlett Sher , who directed locally, is nominated for direction of “The Light in the Piazza,” composed by Adam Guettel , who wrote the music for “Floyd Collins” (at the Globe in 1999); the most recent (and excellent) work of Sher’s I’ve seen was an adaptation of Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed ” at the Mark Taper Forum (2002), which will be presented by SDSU in the Fall. He’s now artistic director of Seattle ’s Intiman Theatre and, coincidentally, he directed “The Light in the Piazza” at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago . Small (theater) world.
Sara Ramirez, who attended the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, is nominated for her portrayal of the Lady of the Lake in “ Spamalot ,” which beat out all the competition with 14 Tony nominations. Ramirez already won the Outer Critics Circle Award for her performance.
The Regional Theatre Tony Award will go to Minneapolis ’ Théâtre de la Jeune Lune , which comes to the La Jolla Playhouse this fall with its production of Molière’s “The Miser.” The Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre will be presented to Edward Albee, a frequent visitor to San Diego (brought to town repeatedly by his longtime buddies, Deborah and Beeb Salzer, for the Playwrights Project and the SDSU Design Performance Jury). The 59th annual awards show will be broadcast from Radio City Music Hall on Sunday, June 5; don’t miss it. For the third year, that Boy from Oz, Tony-winner Hugh Jackman , will host.
PLAYIN’ AT THE PLAYHOUSE
Jill McIntyre, the fun-loving and efficient former public relations maven at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, will be coming back to town to take on the role of public relations manager at the La Jolla Playhouse. She replaces the delightful Jessica Padilla, who took a job with the City of Carlsbad . Jill left the Rep in 2003, worked for a publishing house as director of public relations, then went to work for San Jose Rep as associate director of communications. She starts at LJP on June 1. Welcome back, Jill! Break a leg in your new gig.
As “ Corridos Remix” continues at the San Diego Rep, the documentary, “The Legacy of Luis Valdez, Father of Chicano Theater,” will continue to air on City TV and can also be seen on KPBS-TV. I wrote and co-produced this short, 25-minute documentary with CityTV . We got loads of archival footage; you’ll love seeing Luis with Cesar Chavez, and finding out why he keeps coming back to San Diego to premiere his plays.
If you live within the City of San Diego , you can view the documentary this weekend on City TV, Cable Channel 24 (Cox or Time Warner), at 7pm on Friday, Saturday or Sunday (May 13, 14, 15). The show streams live at sandiego.gov/citytv . Or, set your VCR or TiVo for the KPBS-TV airing (channel 15, cable 11) on Sunday, May 20 at 10:30pm.
THE PLAY’S THE THING
Come see Ken Jacques’ beautiful theater book, ‘The Play’s the Thing: A Photographic Odyssey through Theatre in San Diego,” at Barnes & Noble Bookstore in Encinitas, Saturday, May 14, 12-5pm. Ken and I (I wrote the book’s Foreword) will be talking, briefly, and signing books. Check out his wonderful pictorial record of 20 years of San Diego theater productions, with comments from many of San Diego ’s local luminaries. The co-sponsor of the event is North Coast Repertory Theatre, whose youth theater group will perform on Saturday; a portion of any money spent from 12-5 will benefit NCRT’s education and outreach programs. Download vouchers at northcoastrep.org.
NOW, FOR WHAT’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (i.e., Critic’s Picks )
“O” – O is for Outrageous. The Cirque du Soleil extravaganza is an amazing array of talent and techno-wizardry, unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
At the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas , ongoing.
“Late Nite Catechism” – ‘class,’ whether Catholic or secular, with or without ruler-whacking, was never this hilarious. Three alternating ‘Sisters’ explain it all and interact with the audience. Be careful what you wear, say or do. Sister is watching.
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, Monday and Tuesday nights, extended through June 28.
“ Corridos REMIX” – Luis Valdez is back onstage after a decades-long hiatus, and that alone is worth the trip. But so’s this irresistible cross-cultural celebration of the Americas , as told in narrative song. A star is born in Yvette Gonzalez- Nacer ; see her now, before she’s hurtled into the theatrical stratosphere.
At the San Diego Repertory Theatre, through May 22.
“Metamorphoses” – lovely re-creation of Mary Zimmerman brilliant creation (pool and all!), extremely well designed, dressed and directed.
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, extended through May 22.
“Raisin’ the Rent” – hand- clappin ’, foot- stompin ’, heartbreakin ’ jazz and blues, sung in cabaret style by six killer performers. At Caesar’s Café downtown, through May 22.
“Pageant” – where the girls are guys and the competition is ferocious. Loads of smarm and charm, and a lot of laughs.
At Cygnet Theatre, extended through May 22.
“The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron” – a fun date night, which shows both genders a few of their more amusing and infuriating foibles.
At the Theatre in Old Town , ongoing.
The Tony nominations celebrate our theatrical bounty; you should, too!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.