By Pat Launer
Bacharach was here, to hear his songs,
And The Wizard sang Oz singalongs.
While Hamlet indecisively gnashed his molars
And two wackos made us all wear bowlers.
THE SHOW: HAMLET, outdoors, in modern dress (with swords!), courtesy of New Village Arts, its 5th annual free Shakespeare in the Park. Directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg
THE PLAYERS/PRODUCTION: New Village Arts founders Francis Gercke and Kristianne Kurner like to sink their teeth into meaty fare. But they also have a kid, and they’re devoted to including him in their work and attracting his peers into the theater. So they’ve fulfilled all their missions with this production: It’s Hamlet, it’s short, and Noah gets into the act.
Significantly trimmed to its barest essence (and a mere 2+ hours), the play will be attractive to picnicking families, but the brevity is at the cost of a great deal of nuance, subtlety and character development. That’s also partly due to directorial and acting choices. Most of the secondary characters come off as mere ciphers. We don’t really get a sense of who Queen Gertrude is, for example. Does she really dote on her son, or her new husband? We’re not really sure, though Theresa Lynne has a formidable, even regal, physical presence. King Claudius? He’s pretty much the same, emotionally, throughout, whether he’s romancing his ill-gotten new wife, planning his nephew/stepson’s death or frustratingly unable to pray. Walter Murray plays the monstrous monarch on one indecipherable note. Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, often portrayed as a comic Tweedle Dee and Dum duo, have no discernible personalities (though, for some unknown reason, talented Tom Zohar moves from the cardboard Guildenstern to a fey, mincing Osric – a somewhat odd choice for the middleman in the final Hamlet/Laertes duel. On the subject of swordplay, however, the fight scenes are wonderfully directed by Christopher Williams). The gravediggers, alas, don’t provide much comic relief, either, though it was inspired to have poor hapless Ophelia (lovely Jo Anne Glover, who makes of the newly orphaned, thwarted lover a surprisingly lively madwoman, unfortunate but not heartbreaking) come back just after her drowning, amusingly clothed and bewigged, to dig her own grave — with her ‘dead father,’ Craig Huisenga , as her gravedigging sidekick. Huisenga’s Polonius is more reasonable and rational than most , neither a doddering fool nor a prolix expounder. The cross-gender casting of Horatio as a woman (resolute Kristianne Kurner) doesn’t really add anything to the mix, though the promotional material promised that it would show how Hamlet interacts in a platonic relationship. Dennis Henry is potent and aptly emotional as hotheaded Laertes. Amanda Morrow cuts a striking figure as the guard Bernardo and shows impressive agility as one of the Players; another is young Jonah Gercke, who gets to piggy-back on a seminal Hamlet line during the famous speech to the Players.
The whole production pretty much rests on Hamlet’s head. And Gercke rises to the occasion. His amusing entrance, roaring in on a motor-scooter with Ophelia in tow, sets the stage for the feckless youth of his Hamlet. This isn’t a man-Hamlet; it’s a boy, a student back from college, who delights in his rapier wit and doesn’t quite know what to make of all the mayhem in his homeland or his home. He’s clearly unnerved by the ghostly appearance of his father. (Note: Considering that the production’s whole PR campaign hinged on the provocative ‘Do You Believe in Ghosts ?, ’ the specter isn’t very spooky or scary or ethereal. Pity.). Gercke prances and cavorts in his pre-‘antic’ turbulence; he’s riveting to watch, and he gives a number of unpredictable, thought-provoking line readings. He has obviously mulled over every syllable. His articulatory precision is excellent, as always, and he handles the poetry with aplomb. He’s a likable if not a tragic Hamlet. In fact, it’s the tragedy that’s most lacking from this production. Depth and subtlety and gravitas have been sacrificed for clarity. And when you’ve got a bunch of families lolling on the grass, that’s not necessarily such a bad thing. Hamlet-lovers may not have their hearts broken (don’t I wind up wishing, every production, that maybe this time things will turn out differently and Hamlet will survive to tell his own tale?), but if young minds are titillated and turned on to the Bard, then sweet success is NVA’s . And Bravo to them for doing what they do – for love, for free and for the North County community.
THE LOCATION: La Costa Canyon HS, through August 20
NOTE: Coming up at NVA in 2007 (no specific dates announced yet), a deliciously cynical “Celebration of Family”: two terrific casts, three superb shows. The Sistuhs (the outstanding trio of Jessica John, Kristianne Kurner and Amanda Sitton ) play Crimes of the Heart and Three Sisters in repertory. The Bruthahs : Fran Gercke and Joshua Everett Johnson make sparks fly in True West. Hot stuff!
THE SHOW: all wear bowlers, the New Vaudevillian show created and performed by Trey Lyford, a UCSD MFA alumnus, and Geoff Sobelle , who attended the prestigious comic/clown movement/theater school of Jacques LeCoq in Paris . This is a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, but the show was first workshopped at UCSD in 2000 and has toured around the world
THE STORY: Well, there isn’t much of a story. It’s a bit of existential angst, riffing on Beckett (whose Waiting for Godot stage directions provided the title), silent screen comic icons and Magritte (a gorgeous stage picture recreating his iconic bowler- hatted man with a green apple face, “ La Grande Guerre( bis ),” is one of the evening’s highlights).
THE PLAYERS/PRODUCTION: Beautifully directed by Aleksandra Wolska , with impeccable comic timing, the two clowns cavort through various missteps and mishaps. They start off brilliantly, with a black and white film perfectly representing the setting for Godot – one lone, leaning tree in a deserted wasteland. Then the two tramps, Wyatt and Earnest, tramp on. They seem to be lost. They consult a map. No luck. And then, thanks to their marvelous magic, and the filmmaking wizardry of Michael Glass, they step out of the film and onto the stage, shocked to find an audience there. They go back onto the screen; they come back on the stage. As enchanting as this is, it does get repetitive. Ultimately, they can’t return onscreen, and they spend some of the rest of their 75-minute stage time attempting to find their way back—including trying to break through the roof and nearly destroying the whole La Jolla Playhouse stage. They hang precariously in the air, fall from ladders, spew water, start fires, spout eggs from all places (especially Lyford’s mouth, a fecund font), they walk onto the audience seats (very much like their mentor, David Shiner, did in his incomparable Fool Moon). They even remove some seats, booting out the theatergoers, and they drag the chairs onstage and proceed to turn the tables, watching the onlookers watch them. Some very clever stage business ensues, entailing tricks and illusion, death and rebirth, ventriloquism and obscenities (surprising and unnecessary). There’s little dialogue overall; mostly, they produce unintelligible utterances à la Mump and Smoot, and Sobelle berates Lyford in the manner of Laurel and Hardy. They are very talented, if crazily silly, men. Lyford has a malleable sad-sack face that could melt an iceberg. Sobelle is the nastier (sweatier), more aggressive one, but his character is no less clueless and moronic. And he’s magnificent in his rubber-limbed physical comedy. There are hilarious moments, and stunning clownish/comic feats. But this isn’t really my personal cup of comedy; for me, a little (even in so short an evening) goes a long way. If you love slapstick and pratfalls, have at it.
THE LOCATION: La Jolla Playhouse, through September 3
FOLLOWING THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD
THE SHOW: THE WIZARD OF OZ, sandwiched in between its inventive knockoffs, Wicked and the upcoming Wiz
THE BACKSTORY: Starlight producing artistic director Brian Wells knew just what he was doing, cashing in on San Diego ’s Wizardly phenomenon this year.
A lthough the 1939 MGM movie is the best-known dramatization of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, it was not the first production. In June 1902, an extravagantly mounted musicalized stage version opened in Chicago to considerable critical acclaim. The 1903 New York production became one of the greatest successes in Broadway history at that time and continued as a road-show for another decade. In 1914, Baum founded a Hollywood film company, but its five silent features and a few short subjects based on his stories were not successful, and the studio closed within a year. In 1925, Chadwick Pictures released a silent version of the Wizard , which took great liberties with the book’s plot and was also a box-office failure. But the Academy Award-winning MGM film has become an American classic. Because of its many television showings, it has reportedly been seen by more viewers than any other movie. A recent People Magazine poll dubbed it the favorite movie of the 20th century.
THE PRODUCTION/THE PLAYERS: Hearing that Starlight was using the sets and costumes from the revival at Madison Square Garden , I thought it would be unbelievably extravagant and elaborate. But the pedestrian sets, even for Oz, were a disappointment at best, only made interesting by Eric Lotze’s outstanding lighting effects, backed by the exciting sound effects provided by Steve Stopper and the Stopper Group (the miking problems at Starlight Bowl persist, however). The costumes lived up to expectations. They were colorful, inventive, wildly imaginative at times. And they looked great on the hordes, young and old, who made up the approximately 50 Munchkins, Ozians and others. The Apple Trees and Crows (wonderfully played by women, voiced by men, or vice versa) are especially ingenious. The singing is uniformly strong, thanks to musical director/conductor Parmer Fuller, who coaxes full-bodied sound out of his 18 musicians.
The lead performers are all capable and effective, but on opening night, they didn’t feel quite energized or cohesive enough. The direction and choreography (Dan Regas, Shauna Markey) seem uninspired. Most of the songs are presented in a very straightforward manner, with no singular style or interpretation. As Dorothy, college freshman Lindsey Grubbs has a lovely voice, but she puts no personal stamp on the role. (Judy Garland, you may remember, was only 16, and she won a special Oscar for Best Performance by a Juvenile). Grubbs’ Yellow Brick buddies are more interesting: Scott Dreier cute as the Scarecrow, Cory Bretsch heartful as the Tinman , and Justin Robertson, recently so delightful as Horton the Elephant in Moonlight’s Seussical , by far the most comical and improvisational as the Cowardly Lion (he even jauntily throws in a bit of “ Hakuna Matata ” and “ Wimoweh ” – very funny). This seems to be the only place where artistic ‘liberties’ were taken. More would be better, including the elimination of the lengthy, non-contributory second-act ‘Jitterbug’ number (despite the cute insect costumes). The Witches are fine, thought Dawn Walters could have a little more oomph as Glinda the Good, and Tracy Lore, fun as nasty Miss Gulch, could be more villainous (and nefariously low-pitched) as the Wicked One. A couple of appealing cameos are put in by Kayla Stults as the Mayor and adorable A.J. Foggiano as the Coroner. Overall, a pleasant, well sung but not dazzling production. Still, the multitudinous kids (the young and young at heart) have been eating it up.
THE LOCATION: Starlight Bowl, through August 20
WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW…
THE SHOW: BACK TO BACHARACH AND DAVID, conceived, in 1992, by San Diegans Steve Gunderson and Kathy Najimy (well known for the film “Sister Act,” and the voice of Peggy on “King of the Hill”; recently seen at the Old Globe in Dirty Blonde,). The Off Broadway production opened in 1993
THE SIDESTORY: Although lyricist Hal David purportedly attended the show in New York (and maybe L.A. ), rumor had it that Burt Bacharach had never seen it, a rumor he confirmed the other night when he attended the North Coast Rep production. Looking trim and fit at 78, and wearing an ultra-soft lavender cashmere sweater, he and his young wife and very young daughter were obviously enjoying the show. He claimed not to have been aware of it, and seemed anxious to have it produced again in L.A. That’s where he calls home, but spends summers (especially during track season) in Del Mar. He was “tickled,” he said, by the whole thing, and “couldn’t imagine any better cast.” He was enthralled by Gunderson’s arrangements, which are actually the very best part of the 30-song revue.
THE PLAYERS/PRODUCTION: Bacharach, whose ‘60s-‘70s hits were made famous by Dionne Warwick (“Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” etc.) was known for his complicated melodies, even if some of David’s lyrics leaned toward the soppy, adolescent or melodramatic. But it’s the complex compositions that have attracted recording artists from Elvis Costello to Dr. Dre (who, like Rufus Wainright , played on Bacharach’s latest, 2005, CD). Gunderson is a gifted comic, singer and composer, whose intricate arrangements of Bacharach’s songs are often breathtaking, and sometimes performed by the four-member cast in angelic a capella. Gunderson and fellow cast-member Melinda Gilb appeared in the New York production, which was directed by Najimy . Now the duo are joined by mega-talent Jenn Grinels and young belter Tiffany Jane (who was, by mom Leigh Scarritt’s report, in the E.R. with health problems the day before I saw her perform, so I might not have heard her in full voice; at times she seemed to be straining). Still, the vocal work is excellent throughout, and each performer gets some terrific moments in the spotlight: Gunderson’s “What’s It All About, Alfie? ”, Grinels’ gospel-infused “Let Me Be Lonely,” Gilb’s comic “I just Don’t Know What to do with Myself,” and Jane’s “Are You There With Another Girl?”
The medleys are beautifully intertwined, even if some of the individual song segues are a little less smooth. Most intrusive is the staging (Javier Velasco and James Vasquez), which is rarely organic to the song, and features repeated, pointless movement of mic stands and small box/platforms. The choral hand and body actions, an apparent attempt to mirror the moves of ‘60s backup groups and dance parties, are generally lame. The costumes (Gilb) are unflattering, except for Grinels in her mini skirt and go-go boots. Given the fact that there’s no storyline and so little happening onstage, the show fairly cries out for multiple costume changes, which never even occur during intermission, let alone during offstage song breaks. The whole effort might look better performed concert-style, with no distracting, unmotivated movement. Then we could just focus on the songs and the song stylists. Even the band seems underused, focusing mostly on piano (Bill Doyle) with minimal inclusion of bassist Fred Ubaldo or percussionist Tom Versen . By all accounts, the New York production was light and funny, never taking itself too seriously. There’s little of that comic sense in evidence here, except in a few Gunderson moments (like “Twenty-four Hours from Tulsa ”). Even an ultimately lighthearted song like “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” with its sad start and comic-twist ending, was sung tearily throughout. The final medley: “Walk On By”/“Always Something There to Remind Me”/ “Anyone Who Had a Heart”/“Don’t Make Me Over” provides a vocally powerful ending to an uneven evening.
THE LOCATION: North Coast Repertory Theatre, through August 20
A FEW OTHER THEATRICAL MUSINGS
…Honk! – Anxious to see what sandiegotheatrescene youth columnist Alice Cash was up to, I caught a performance of her Broadway Kids of San Diego doing Honk! at the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla . Wow! This is one motivated, talented, ambitious gal! The 1993 musical, based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of The Ugly Duckling, is no swim in the park. The music (by George Stiles, lyrics by Anthony Drewe ) is tricky and rangy. And then there are all those animals to outfit! In terms of design, Alice and company (costumes by Guyanna Bedington and Alejandra Jimenez) stuck pretty much to street clothes and colorful, suggestive accessories, some of which were very imaginative. Serving as company founder, producer, director and set designer, Alice gathered together an enormous ensemble – 40 kids in all, ranging in age from 7 to 18. That alone is a triumph; traffic direction is a challenge, let along choreography. Many of the participants, including Alice , are students or protégés of Leigh Scarritt, that powerhouse promoter of young talent. Several bona fide belters were up there, including sexy Gabriella Espinal as The Cat. Jacob Sampson was funny as The Bull Frog and Cameron Elmore was cute in the dual roles of Penny and The Turkey. Zoe Katz and Mathew Maretz were aptly shrewish and clueless as the bewildered parents of Ugly (Victoria Tecca , who made a beautiful transition to a swan). The little ducklings were adorable. This was an impressive effort all around; kudos for an incredible undertaking, well executed.
…I made a second visit to Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit, to catch mega-talented Kristen Mengelkoch stepping in as a full-fledged cast member. (and my theater playpals for the evening, besides my ever-present husband John, were none other than George and Vally Flint, in San Diego for a brief visit, and anxious to see Kristen, and killer pianist Cris O’Bryon, in the show. George had worked with both of them when he directed Tomfoolery last summer at North Coast Rep). When Kristen served as an understudy (for both women) in the FB production that came to the Theatre in Old Town last spring, direct from New York , she really impressed creator/director Gerard Alessandrini and producer John Freedson . So now that the show is back by popular demand (by the end of the last version’s twice-extended run, they were turning away patrons at the door), Kristen’s officially in. And she’s fantastic – funny, versatile and vocally mind-boggling. Within the next few weeks, the entire cast will be local – all alumni of the SDSU MFA program in musical theater. By August 23, Matt Weeden (who was also an understudy, and who’s been wowing audiences in all his local performances – most recently, Twilight of the Golds and When Pigs Fly at Diversionary) will jump in, joined by Nick Spear and Rebecca Spear, that dazzling couple who proved so funny in NCRT’s No Way to Treat a Lady. Producer Freedson told me “they’re all New York-caliber performers.” So, cheer on the Home Team and catch FB this time, whether you saw it before or not. I’ll be back for Time Three, long before the show closes in October.
NEWS AND VIEWS
.. Slight change in the schedule of Hemingway’s Rose, the new play by Matt Thompson, having its premiere production at 6th @ Penn under the banner of Thompson’s Plutonium Theatre Company. The quirky schedule goes like this: Fridays and Saturdays, September 29-October 28, at either 10:30pm or 4:30 pm (sometimes both in one day). Directed by Angela Miller, the play about two perfect strangers who aren’t strangers at all, stars Jonathan Sachs, Julie Sachs and Plutonium’s Ted Reis.
…Get ready – and get tickets — for the 13th annual Fritz Blitz of New Plays by California Writers — four weeks, eight plays, and a bevy of talented actors and directors, some of San Diego’s best, headed up by The Fritz Theatre’s indomitable founder/artistic director, Duane Daniels. In the Lyceum Space, August 24-September 17.
…Also coming up soon… the FREE Celebrate Dance Festival in Balboa Park , produced by Eveoke Dance Theatre. This is the 11th edition, with some downsizing due to seriously increased Park fees. But with regularly scheduled workshops and more than 35 companies involved, it’s still one of the largest events of its kind. Last year, 10,000 people attended and got a delicious taste of what’s available in the San Diego Dance community. Don’t miss it. 8/26, 11am-10pm and 8/27, 11am-9pm.
…And there’s still time to catch the return of Poor Players, who continue their second series of performances of The Tempest Aug. 17-27 at New World Stage downtown, on 9th Avenue . Nick Kennedy directs. Coming this fall: Hedda Gabler . www.poorplayers.com
.. A politically-charged double whammy is coming from ion theatre this fall: Awake and Sing and The Grapes of Wrath. Claudio Raygoza and Glenn Paris are hoping to double cast this double-feature. Sing opens Oct. 28 and Wrath Nov. 25. On their new downtown New World Stage on 9th Avenue . The time is definitely right for both these shows.
… Wanna clown around? Try a Commedia del’arte workshop, taught by Gale McNeeley , an actor/dancer/singer/clown, who graduated from the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in Northern California and the Scuola Dell’Attore Comico in Reggio Emilia, Italy . The 3-day, 17-hour workshop includes slapstick, improvisation, and acting in the traditional leather half-masks. September 1-3, at the Sophia Isadora Academy of Circus Arts, 4241 Park Blvd. Phone 805-925-1882
… News from Anahid … After co-producing the Broadway production of Beast on the Moon, Anahid Shahrik is at it again! She’s associate producing the world premiere of a play called Little Armenia, which just opened at The Fountain Theatre in L.A. (the same company that premiered Beast on the Moon five years ago). Based on scores of interviews with residents of the Little Armenia section of Hollywood , and commissioned by the Los Angels County Arts Commission and the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, this fictional inter-generational story tells of Armenian immigrants in transition between the Old Country and the New. Universal tales; we’re all immigrants, aren’t we? Check it out if you can; through September 3. www.fountaintheatre.com/perform.html . Looks like Anahid will also be appearing in the Fritz Blitz .. as will her main squeeze, Landon Vaughn. It’ll be nice to see them both onstage again.
… A Very Jewish King, Allan Havis’ clever riff on King Lear, will have a world premiere one-night reading starring legendary comedian Shelley Berman. Featuring an all-star cast of San Diego REP favorites – including Armin Shimerman , Rhona Gold, Matt Henerson , Wendy Waddell, Moira Keefe and Julia Fulton – the play concerns a once-great star of the Yiddish Theatre who is hellbent on bequeathing his legacy to his three daughters. Sunday, August 27, 7pm in the Wagner Dance Building at UCSD (next to the Potiker Theatre). For tickets, call the REP box office: 619-544-1100.
…THEATER FOR SALE … What was once the Manhattan Theatre in Lakeside, run by Wayne Alan Erreca (who took over Octad-One from the late, great Martin Gerrish), has been lying fallow since Erreca sustained an injury and moved back to the Midwest several years ago. The facility is owned by a family trust that wants to sell. The trustee would like to see it remain a theater, preserving its value as an arts venue, as well as its historic value. It has quite a history, starting from its debut as a movie theater in the 40’s and 50’s, then becoming a church, a saloon and cowboy gathering place (used in the TV show ‘Renegade’) and finally a theater, with some intriguing tales along the way. The trustees have delayed the sale, hoping the Lakeside Revitalization group would be able to make the purchase, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. Now, the trust is pushing for the space to be sold no matter what. If you have any interest, or know someone who would, contact Betty McMillen 619-443-1133. Preserve history – and theaters! We need all the theater venues, in all the county areas, we can get.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Hamlet – not the definitive production, to be sure. Very pared down and rather on-the-surface. But it’s worth it to see Francis Gercke bite into this most juicy of roles. His performance is riveting.
New Village Arts at La Costa Canyon High School , through August 20
all wear bowlers – if you love physical comedy and new vaudeville clowning, you’ll adore these two talented wackos
La Jolla Playhouse, through September 3
The Sisters Rosensweig – a flawed but sometimes effective production; you owe it to the late playwright (Wendy Wasserstein) to see her first production at the Old Globe
At the Old Globe, through August 20
Titus Andronicus – a lot of political references and many laughs along with the gore; as director Darko Tresnjak puts it, his production is “bloody good fun!”
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through September 30
Othello – potent production. robustly acted and directed
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through October 1
You don’t have to worry about the heat now, so you can focus on the theater. Do something dramatic before the summer ends!
© 2006 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.