By Pat Launer
While political drama seethes in “Aloes”
And the “Movin’ Out” greasers get war-time lonely,
Romance sings out under Moonlight and Starlight
In “Triumph of Love” and “My One and Only.”
“A Lesson from Aloes” starts quietly. Little happens. We meet a couple, Afrikaner Piet Bezuidenhout and his wife Gladys, sitting in their shabby backyard in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, hometown of the playwright, Athol Fugard. They are waiting for the sunny afternoon to pass. Piet tends lovingly, at times obsessively, to his collection of thorny aloe plants. Together they set the table for dinner; they’re polite, solicitous, non-communicative. But it’s clear that something is seething underneath. It remains unmentioned, apparent only in their strained courtesy and awkward silences. In the second act, Steve Daniels arrives. He’s a ‘Coloured’ man, once a mason and a political activist, recently released from prison. Although he was expected to bring his family, he has come alone, and very late. The tension heightens; by the end of the evening, all three unravel and we learn how their lives have been destroyed by the noxious apartheid policy. The Aloes of the title offer a lesson in survival. The perennial succulent, indigenous to Africa, is pulpy, primeval. Most important, it has an inordinate capacity to endure even the harshest of environments.
This taut, intense play was written in the 1960s, first performed in 1978 in Johannesburg in 1978, with Fugard directing. In 1980, the play won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. In 1991, Fugard himself played Piet in the La Jolla Playhouse production. Apartheid may be officially over, but the damage lingers on. And the consequences of oppressive political regimes seem more relevant to us today than ever. This is one of Fugard’s most gut-wrenching plays, a small drama set against a huge backdrop. A trio of heartbreaking personal narratives and also a cautionary tale.
We learn that Piet’s life was changed when he joined the resistance movement. But now, he is suspected of being a police informer. Steve is giving up politics and going into exile. Gladys has been traumatized in other ways. “Politics and black skins don’t make the only victims in this country,” she asserts.
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, Luis Torner has directed the play with care and with subtle intensity. Bernard Baldan, too long missing from local stages, is low-key and compelling as Piet. Linda Castro is anguished and tragically affecting as Gladys, who is perhaps most damaged of all. And Rhys Green plays a well-modulated but angry and beaten-down Steve. It’s odd that only Green has an accent, since each character represents a different element and social stratum of society. Matt Scott’s set is aptly spare and Sally Stockton’s lighting marks the passage of this long, disturbing and revealing day.
The play is dark and disquieting. Governmental policies violated these people’s humanity and left them in spiritual desolation. But tragic as their stories are, Fugard maintained his optimism. Referring back to the aloes, he has said, “There’s nothing you can do to stop a drought. But bad laws and social injustice are man-made and can be unmade by men. It’s as simple as that. We can make this a better world to live in.” Let it be so. Especially come November.
BILLY AND TWYLA ROCK!
If you like modern/jazzy/acrobatic/balletic/Braodway dance and Billy Joel music, you’re gonna drool over “ Movin’ Out” at the Civic, brought to us by Broadway San Diego. Dance legend Twyla Tharp conceived and choreographed the high-octane evening of Joel classics, sung by Darren Holden with a knockout 9-piece backup band (featuring a killer sax), visible on the catwalk.
First, you need to know (if you don’t already) that this is not a book musical. There is no dialogue. There’s something of a story, following Joel’s native Long Island greasers through love and breakups, sex and war. The Vietnam scenes are especially poignant and extremely well staged. One of the group dies; his girlfriend grieves. Some move on; others go hog-wild. It is the ’60s/70s after all. At the end, love blooms again and the remaining pals, older and somewhat wiser, are reunited. All this is told via two dozen BJ songs, spectacularly sung. From the title tune (AKA ‘Anthony’s Song’) to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and “Still Rock and Roll to Me,” from “Angry Young Man” to “Pressure,” to the romantic “She’s Got a Way” and “Just the Way You Are.”
So before you go, take note of this, too: It’s one voice all night. It isn’t Billy Joel’s voice; it’s actually better quality. Most of the songs are sung pretty much as Billy sings ’em, and his signature piano sound is precisely replicated. The songs are woven together well, enough to make the slight story hang together. But what thrills, over and over (besides hearing tunes you love and may have grown up on, like me) is the incredible dancing. The fabulous leads. The spectacular choreography. Remember Brenda and Eddie (from “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”)? Well, she’s played by the stunning blonde Laurie Kanyok, who spends half her dance time airborne — thrown from one to another, lifted so she soars. She’s also very sexy when she busts out and becomes an oversexed “Big Mouth ” “Uptown Girl.” When she and Eddie get divorced, he goes wild too. and in the second act, Ron Todorowski’s Eddie just about takes over the show. He’s an astonishing dancer, really almost more of an acrobat. His leaps and spins and technical precision are astonishing. The more romantic, balletic couple are Judy (Julieta Gros) and James (Corbin Popp). She spends a good deal of time on pointe; he has much less stage time, since he doesn’t make it back from ‘Nam, but he’s forceful in the battle-scene, excellent in their romantic duet (“Just the way You Are”) and reappears in a potent dream sequence.
Many people have reported being brought to tears. I was too busy ogling the bodies, the dancing, the choreography, the sheer, exuberant thrill of it all. You’d be nuts to miss this.
WARDS OF THE STATE/STATE OF THE WARDS
Okay, while we’re being honest about shows, let’s get it right out on the table about “My One and Only.“ It’s irredeemably silly and vapid. The plot is preposterous. Goofy love story. But, just like “Movin’ Out,” it’s got songs and dancing to die for. Here’s a little background.
The show was initially intended as a revival of George and Ira Gershwin’s 1927 musical, “Funny Face,” starring Tommy Tune and Twiggy. The book was ultimately written by Peter (“1776”) Stone and Timothy S. Mayer. By the time it opened on Broadway, it had gone through four directors and a complete rewrite, including a new name. In fact, after the first performance in Boston, 1983, Tommy Tune actually came out and apologized to the audience for what they’d just seen. So, Tune took up the reins, replacing the string of directors that included Peter Sellars, Mike Nichols and Michael Bennett. The show went on to garner seven Tony noms and three wins, and it ran 767 performances. Certainly not on the strength of its book. But some of the songs are incomparable — the better known ones are clearly better known for a reason — “Strike Up the Band,” “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” the sultry “How Long Has This Been Going On” and the wonderful “‘S Wonderful.” And the dancing… well, lots of tapping onstage, and plenty of toe-tapping off.
At Moonlight Stage Productions, director/choreographers Don and Bonnie Ward are having a family field day. Once again, as they did last summer with their stunning production of “Singin’ in the Rain,” they’ve managed to convince their multi-talented, magnetic son and daughter-in-law, Kirby and Beverly Ward, to come and play. He’s the flying ace Billy Buck Chandler, who wants to set the world record for a New York to Paris flight (it’s 1927). She’s Edythe Herbert, the long-distance swimmer who’s a chorine and sometime slut, under the iron fist of the mad Prince Nicolai, played by the hilarious, Russian-accented Marc Ciemiewicz, who later does double-over duty as a harem-man, Achmed. So, they meet-cute, and there are obstacles galore, skirting death, being stranded on an island (Staten), trekking half-way around the world, they finally get together, “Blah Blah, Blah,” as the song goes (not one of the Gershwins’ finest, btw).
The Wards’ choreography is faithful to the original, and it’s ab-fab. The extra bonus is that the Senior Dancing Ward-Whiz, the Don himself, plays Mr. Magix and gets to teach young Kirby a thing or two in the spectacular, anything-you-can-do-I can-do title duet. Sheer magic!
Kirby and Beverly are pretty terrific together, too, both superb dancers with knock-’em-outta-the-park voices. She’s especially delicious with “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and he’s splendid with “Strike Up the Band,” among others. They make beautiful music — and dance — together.
The costumes, borrowed from Starlight Theatre, are gorgeous. And the chorus gals and guys are great, especially the New Rhythm Boys trio and the Ritz Quartette. The robust, impressive 25-piece orchestra, under the direction of Elan Mc Mahan, is outstanding.
There was only one sour note. I could certainly have lived without the jingoistic American-flag encore tacked-on at the end. It didn’t fit and had no place in this show or evening.
But beyond that, and the silly story, it’s a wonderful, exuberant, thoroughly entertaining spectacle… as long as thinking isn’t on your dance-card.
“Triumph of Love” features four cross-dressing disguises, three seductions and a dizzying entanglement of mistaken identities. Now doesn’t that sound like a French comedy? It is. Adapted from the 1732 work by Pierre Marivaux. The charming chamber musical first saw the light in San Diego in 1999, in a marvelous production at SDSU directed by Rick Simas. The show won two Patté Awards that year, for Outstanding Costume Design (Shelly Williams) and for Outstanding Ensemble.
The story (book by James Magruder), finds its parallels for the conventions of 18th century farce in its witty repartee, sexual innuendo (and how!), inspired buffoonery and tender poignancy.
Here’s the setup: In a garden in Sparta (a Spartan garden, you might say), a book-bound philosopher and his iron-maiden sister live according to an unshakable belief in the power of reason over passion. They are governed by one guiding principle: Love is ruinous! With this credo clutched to their frosty hearts, they shelter their young nephew, Prince Agis, from all things alluring and amorous. Rational thought rules, until the brainy and beautiful Princess Léonide spies the prince and instantly falls utterly in love. She’ll stop at nothing to get her man. So, despite the fact that women are banned, she sneaks into the garden and proceeds to quip, trip and unzip everyone in it. Aided by her wisecracking maid and two wily, willing accomplices, Léonide breaks rules, assumes identities, even bends her gender to snag her prince, who happens to be plotting to kill her for having usurped his throne. Love, as the title tells us, triumphs at the end, but not without its inevitable array of confounding fabrications, frustrations, false expectations and miscommunications.
For the show’s too-brief, one-weekend run, Starlight Theatre brought in guest director Steve Glaudini (who shepherded the Patté Award-winning “Children of Eden” last summer up at Moonlight Stage Productions). And Glaudini brought in an amazing cast; six of the seven players are Actors Equity members, and they are all stellar performers: the director’s sparklingly talented wife, Bets Malone, as the ever-inventive and ever-evolving Léonide; adorable Robert Townsend as the object of her insuperable desire, the clueless but pure Prince Agis; Leigh Scarritt as Léonide’s comic servant/sidekick, Corine (played here like a blonde-wigged Harpo with the gait of Groucho); amusingly lithe Richard Israel and plumped-up Paul James Kruse as the other two comedic underlings; imperious Michael J. Hawkins as the “ferocious philosopher” Hemocrates; and, holding her own quite well among these heavy-hitters, lovely-voiced Debbie Prutsman as the spinster sister, Hesione (though she never looks sexless and frigid; she’s too beautiful from the get-go. So when she has her unbuttoned transformation at the end, she barely looks different).
The songs (music by Jeffrey Stock, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead) are melodic and often clever, and the voices were splendid. The best numbers were the comic “Henchmen ” (Scarritt, Israel & Kruse), Prutsman’s knockout “Serenity” and the lovers’ male-bonding ballad, “The Bond That Can’t Be Broken.” Glaudini kept the cast on the move, sometimes dizzingly so, and he underscored the coarse, anachronistic humor, often to excess. Some of the heart got lost amid the mayhem. I still remember moving moments in Simas’ SDSU production (and the killer central performance by Rebecca Spear, who’s currently knocking ’em dead in “I Love You, You’re Perfect” at the Theatre in Old Town).
Here, I admired the skill but didn’t feel emotionally touched. Nonetheless, with its wonderful costumes (coordinated by Carlotta Malone, originally designed by Catherine Zuber), eye-popping array of dayglo sunsets (lighting by Eric Lotze), excellent (if sometimes overpowering) orchestra (helmed by musical director/conductor Parmer Fuller), the production made for a high-spirited and captivating evening. The planes came and went, but somehow, in this stylized period piece, the freezes worked in seamlessly. Starlight should unequivocally continue its experiment with lesser-known shows. Everyone benefits; everybody wins. Bravo!
In case you need an excuse to catch the last weekend of the Seussentennial Celebration at the San Diego County Fair, how about the actors from the UCSD MFA program, performing in adaptations of the Dr.’s fanciful classics: “Green Eggs and Ham,” “The Sneetches” and “Happy Birthday to You!” Last I heard, ‘regular folks’ can participate in the ongoing readings of all the Seuss books, too. Check the Fair Schedule and Hang loose for Seuss.
And now, for THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“Movin’ Out” — spectacular dancing, amazing choreography, killer songs. What’s not to love? At the Civic Theatre through July 3.
“My One and Only” — See above (description of “Movin’ Out”). Great dancing, choreography, songs and performances. You just have to pretty much ignore the plot. At Moonlight Stage Productions, through July 3.
“A Lesson from Aloes” — taut drama, gripping production, finely nuanced performances. At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through July 21.
“The Maids” — darkly disturbing, enigmatic, and not for everyone, this 56 year-old Genet classic tells a murderous tale of incest, jealousy and dangerous games. A risky/sexy production at 6th @ Penn, through July 25.
“The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow” — fascinating premise, a stellar local lead and excellent direction; at the Globe’s Cassius Carter, through July 18.
“Kid-Simple” — wildly imaginative, and just plain wild. A sound-feast and act-fest. At Sledgehammer Theatre, through July 11.
“Bed and Sofa” – delightfully quirky little musical, gorgeously designed and sung. See it, for sure! At Cygnet Theatre, through July 18.
“Continental Divide” — a pair of plays, for anyone who cares about the state of the Union, the political process, and our loss of idealism (and has a long attention span). In repertory at the La Jolla Playhouse, through August 1.
This week, celebrate your independence … at the theater!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.