By Pat Launer
What’s Wrong with this Picture ?, you may ask
Who wrote those Beard/Bard plays, and why?
Young Anne Frank just wants to live
While Atwater ’s Fixin ’ to Die.
Lara’s a siren, but no virago
And she (musically) loves her doctor, Zhivago .
There’s music, there’s singing, there’s snow. There’s blood and death and passion and fury. And a heart-wrenching, irresistible romance. Add in some gorgeous stage pictures (okay, it can’t rival David Lean’s jaw-dropping movie scenery, but what could?). Zhivago has come to a theater near you – the La Jolla Playhouse — as an elaborate, stirring, sentimental and appealing musical. But this world premiere carries on its back a huge legacy. Not only Boris Pasternak’s Nobel Prize-winning 1955 novel. Not only David Lean’s five-time Oscar-winning 1965 film. But the whole history of musical theater. Lucy Simon’s score is not only reminiscent of her own most famous work, The Secret Garden, but also harks back to musicals old and new. The “Wedding Vows” number seems right out of Fiddler, kazatsky and all. And “In This House” is a sad Russian leaving-home song that is the rich man’s “Anatevka.” There’s the lovers’ “Now,” which smacks strongly of Rent’s “No Day Like Today .” And the muscular in-place marching represents the requisite Revolution Rally, redolent of Les Miz. Plus, the set looks more ready for Stomp than Mother Russia.
But there’s also a great deal to lose your heart and give yourself over to. Most of all, the palpable, credible connection between the doctor/poet Yurii Zhivago and the love of his life, attractive and independent Lara Antipova . In the title role, Ivan Hernandez, an alumnus of San Diego State University , who was recently widely praised as a sexy foreman Joe in The Most Happy Fella at New York City Opera, presents a perfect blend of contemplative poet, fiercely committed doctor, anti-war champion of the underdog and torn, heartsick lover. His voice is as robust as his physical presence, and he is compelling in his anguish over loyalty to his wife and overpowering attraction to the irresistible Lara. As that indomitable spirit who bewitches three men, Jessica Burrows has an uncommon beauty, a regal posture, and a stunning soprano. Tom Hewitt (last seen at the Playhouse as the ill-fated Dracula), makes the conniving opportunist, Kamarovsky , an almost sympathetic character. Matt Bogart brings depth and energy to the role of the idealistic revolutionary, Pasha Antipov , who becomes the cynical, murderous Strelnikov during the Revolution.
The love scenes and songs between Yurii and Lara are poignant and heartrending, but the very strongest scene comes in the second act, when the two women, Zhivago’s wife (solid Rena Strober ) and Lara come face to face at last, and just they can’t manage to hate each other (“It Comes As No Surprise”). The potent male counterpart/counterpoint is the trio of men who adore Lara, singing of their lifelong devotion and aching despair in the touching ballad, “Love Finds You,” with Burrows’ voice soaring above them. Many of Simon’s songs are frankly anthemic , beginning with the show opener, the student revolutionaries’ “Peace, Bread and Love.”
Though the novel is set against a backdrop of the Russian Bolshevik and Communist Revolutions (1903-1943), it’s not primarily a political story, but the circumstances surrounding its publication were highly politicized and publicized. In 1958, the Russian government forced Pasternak to renounce the Nobel Prize for Literature, and they refused to allow the book to be published in Russia at all (it was first printed in Milan in 1957, though the book was completed in 1955). The politics of the musical are toned down, but the horrors of war are aptly graphic and grisly. The ensemble (a total cast of 26 actors) morphs into many characters and classes, and provides strong support during Yurii’s travels and travails. The book, by Michael Weller, is far more clear and cogent than it was in last year’s workshop production (it was developed in the Playhouse Page to Stage program). Like the dialogue, the lyrics (by Michael Korie and Amy Powers) are not as poetic as Pasternak’s, but many beautiful images are evoked (“Blood on the Snow,” for instance, and the sentimental love-theme, “On the Edge of Time,” which has more intelligent, evocative words than the film’s familiar and over-lush “Somewhere My Love,” penned by Francis Paul Webster and Maurice Jarré ).
La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff dexterously keeps the plot and characters moving at a rapid clip. But there’s too much moving of the high-tech set (designed by Heidi Ettinger ), which is in constant, frantic, attention-deficit-disorder motion during the first act. Some of the movements, a strip of mobile floor here, a steel girder there, seem so pointless and unnecessary. In the second act, things settle down to a much more watchable and appropriate tempo. But the scenic design remains the most serious flaw in this otherwise engaging production. There is a shiver-inducing suggestion of tundra cold and ice-crystal formations – and even a romantic snowfall near the end – but this high-tech, multi-level steel structure doesn’t smack of Old Russia at all, even with an elaborate, descending chandelier. And we don’t need to be told (by a harried cast-member) where each scene is set; the locales are self-evident.
All the other design elements are excellent: Howell Binkley’s mood-setting lighting (a tad heavy on the flag-waving, battle-scarred red); Steve Canyon Kennedy’s marvelous soundscape and David C. Woolard’s ever-changing, class-defining costumes. Under the direction of Eric Stern, and with deft orchestrations by Don Sebeskey , ten instruments sound like a veritable pit-full.
With its sweep of history, its formidable arguments about the brutality and futility of war and the eternal clash of classes, the story seems surprisingly fresh and relevant again. And tear-jerking romance never goes out of style. Theatergoers should swoon.
At the La Jolla Playhouse, EXTENDED through July 9.
THE BOTTOM LINE : BEST BET
THE MAKING OF A SPINMEISTER
THE SHOW: ATWATER FIXIN’ TO DIE, a 1992 play by Robert Myers, a year after the death of Harvey Leroy “Lee” Atwater
THE STORY: Atwater was a ruthless political consultant and strategist, an advisor to two Presidents (Reagan and Bush I) and a mentor of Karl Rove. His attack politics were hard-nosed, cold-blooded and laced with lies. Some called him the “Darth Vader of the Republican Party. After the heinous attacks that lost Michael Dukakis the 1988 election to Bush Senior, Atwater was named chairman of the Republican National Committee (at age 38), but he didn’t serve for long. He was dead of an operable brain tumor by age 40. A rabid Southerner, born in Georgia , Atwater was energetic, charismatic and multi-faceted. His work with Strom Thurmond didn’t stop him from pursuing his lifelong love of the blues, and his friendship with B.B. King. On his deathbed, he had a moral epiphany, converting to Catholicism (though he first had his operative investigate all possible religions) and apologizing to the people he had most wronged, including Dukakis. Way too little far too late. Myers’ play tries to make Atwater an understandable, sympathetic character. It’s a stretch. He was a monster, and the bio-drama never really tells us why. He got his devious beginnings as a junior in high school, when he invented a fantasy candidate for class president, and the make-believe character snagged 70% of the vote. But what made him that way so young (and ever after)? What drove him to that level of one-upmanship and hard-hearted competition? Why did he always have to win? We never learn. But personally, I could muster more compassion for Iago or Richard III.
THE PLAYER/THE PRODUCTION: This is a solo effort, and the actor is called upon to play multiple roles and assume various accents and moods. Under the skillful direction of Rosina Reynolds, Jeffrey Jones delivers the goods. It’s a tour de force performance, a mad race through a life and a little chunk of American political history. He’s wild, he’s reckless, he’s mono-maniacal. He talks to and for others, sometimes interacting with cardboard cutouts of other figures, who are scattered about the red, white and blue, bunting-draped stage (designed by Sean Murray). This Atwater relishes his nefarious triumphs and puts his failures behind him, determined to win better, push harder the next time. If we can’t feel anything positive for the guy, it’s not entirely clear how much responsibility rests onstage. Maybe it’s in the writing. Perhaps it’s just the monster himself .
THE LOCATION: At Cygnet Theatre, through June 18.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
FAITH AND HOPE
THE SHOW: SOUL OF A YOUNG GIRL: DANCES OF ANNE FRANK, third presentation of a piece premiered in 1996 by Gina Angelique and her Eveoke Dance Theatre. The provocative production won a Patté Award for Outstanding Dance Theatre in 2000. As relevant as “The Diary of Anne Frank” remains, choreographer Angelique thinks the piece should be reprised every six years, and she’s good to her word.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Only one dancer (Nikki Dunnan) from the original all-female cast remains. This year, there are two men in the ensemble. The piece interprets a number of scenes from Anne’s diary, excerpts of which are read as narration, in the youthful voice of Paula Present. It helps to have some familiarity with the characters, since they are not very clearly defined or differentiated, except for Anne (emotionally charged Yvonne Hernandez), Peter (marvelously agile Anthony Rodriguez) and Pim, Anne’s father (Douglas Johnson, a role originally danced to perfection by Angelique herself). There is some focus on Anne’s budding sexuality and love for Peter, but mostly, it’s about the communal anxiety, the night terrors, the horror of being cooped up, eight people in a small Amsterdam attic, hiding from the Nazis. We know how it ends, and after all the freneticism and the fear, Angelique leaves us with that understanding – the flickering flame of a memorial candle left burning on a table on a dim, empty stage. The anxious, restless moves are well executed, and the space is well used (though the expanse and high ceilings of the new 10th Avenue Theatre belie the claustrophobic smallness of the real Annex). Charlene Penner makes a wonderful addition as a haunting specter of death and lies, a nighttime vision of the horrors to come. Chris Hall’s scenic design is as effective as ever – more cattle-car/transport than garret, it has the confining feel of a pen. And it remains equally restrictive for the audience, whose seats are hemmed in by slats that convey the feeling of constraint and constriction. Angelique’s symbolism is transparent but effective: a trailing ribbon for Anne’s first menstruation; the one shared blanket, stretched across the stage; and that haunting final candle. The stage pictures are often marvelous, though the characters are less well etched than before. Still, this is a stirring production, an excellent evocation of a story that must continue to be told – of the hideousness of war and racism; of survival, endurance, the hope of youth and faith in the human spirit. If you haven’t seen it – or even if you have – you owe it to yourself and your family. The Jewish motto is ‘Never Forget.’ The socially conscious credo of Eveoke is the same.
THE LOCATION: At the 10th Avenue Theatre, through June 4.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
MURDEROUS MOO SHU
THE SHOW: WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?, an early work by award-winning playwright Donald Margulies (The Model Apartment, Dinner with Friends, for which he won the Pulitzer, and – his two most thought-provoking plays, in my estimation – Sight Unseen and Collected Stories, which is about to open at North Coast Rep)
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: It’s a very New York , very Jewish play, as is most of Margulies’ work – and the folks at the Broadway Theater – Premiere Productions – totally nail it. It isn’t easy to get the rhythms, the accents, the tone of a Jewish family, going at each other’s throats (lovingly, of course) in the aftermath of the mother’s accidental death from choking on moo shu pork. The play is a little schizophrenic; it’s got great comedy in the first act, and then it veers into the realm of fantasy and finally, dark drama. At heart it’s a sobering story about grief, guilt, dealing with death and moving on. And along the way (in a way that has become a lot less funny in the intervening years since the play was written in the early 1990s), it makes light of a the memory lapses of Alzheimer’s disease. So, tonally, it’s got lots of challenges, but director Randall Hickman and his capable cast meet them with aplomb.
As Morty , the devastated husband, Paul Halem is totally credible; a nice guy, a little zhlubby, who looks at his wife (when she returns from the grave) with such love in his eyes, as if she’s the most beautiful thing ever put on the planet. Lovely. D’Ann Paton makes a welcome return to the stage as the deceased Shirley, with just the right blend of humor and pathos – and a lot to tell us about what it’s like on the Other Side (you can vacuum, but not sleep or have sex). She isn’t quite as seductive and flirtatious as the script describes her, but she’s a faithful and fastidious Brooklyn housewife. Matthew Gherna is wonderful as her surly teen son who has yet to shed a tear in the shiva week since his mother’s death. Gherna is a still-young man who got his theatrical start 14 years ago, when Hickman and his partner, designer Douglas Davis, first started Premiere Productions for Kids. Gherna is definitely Someone to Watch. He’s pitch-perfect as an adolescent struggling with his sexuality and his mother’s absence, equally uncomfortable with her post-mortem presence (and his family’s probing into his first sexual fumblings). Patrick Hubbard makes demented Grandpa Sid a comprehensible and sympathetic character. Patricia Sullivan isn’t quite as kvetchy as some in the role of Sid’s wife Bella, but she’s kvetchy enough. Susan Korean makes a big transition from first act to second; at the outset, she’s a take-charge kind of single mom. Later, she seems to be freaked out by Shirley’s return, and she becomes a hand-wringing, sniveling milksop.
On their shoestring budget, Hickman and Davis have worked wonders with the costumes and set. Davis ’ New York apartment is ornate and detailed, Old World and definitely lived-in. Hickman’s costumes suit the characters. And Hickman has to get a good deal of the praise for getting the tone and tempo just right. Kudos to all. This is a little intimate theater that’s worth traveling to; it already has an impressive local following.
THE LOCATION: Premiere Productions at the Broadway Theatre in Vista , through June 4.
BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
WHOSE PLAYS ARE THEY, ANYWAY?
THE SHOW: THE BEARD OF AVON , Amy Freed’s parody/comedy/mystery about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays
THE BACKSTORY/THE STORY: Too bad “Shakespeare in Love” came out before the premiere of Freed’s hilarious play. She has so many great ideas and characters, and she has so much fun with them, it’s a pity the movie makes it feel a little too familiar. I saw the marvelous world premiere at South Coast Rep in 2001, and it featured Mark Harelik, a frequent and much-admired visitor to San Diego , in the role of the licentious, egregious, outrageous Edward de Vere, the 17TH Earl of Oxford, who still remains the favored contender for the creation of the Shakespeare canon. But everyone who’s ever been suggested gets into the (playwriting) act here, from Queen Elizabeth to Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson to actor Richard Burbage. Will, the country bumpkin, serves as a ‘beard’ (or cover) for all of them, since regal types couldn’t stoop so low as to involve themselves in theater (“To fraternize with actors is to debase oneself,” says DeVere , who’s not above “sodomy, buggery and pederasty,” not to mention adultery, when he beds Shakespeare’s wife). Anachronisms abound, with the theater references especially ripe: From gems like “ Assaulteth me with dramaturgy?” to allusions to an actor’s character motivation or ‘pulling focus’ onstage. The writing is quippy and clever, and the jokes fly by at a fast and furious pace. There are, of course, many insider puns, riffs and wisecracks; the more you know of Shakespeare, the funnier you’ll find it. And Will presciently predicts: “Posterity’s heads shall reel with the question of our authorship.” Indeed.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: This is an undergraduate production at UCSD, directed by Amy Cook, who’s soon to be leaving for a post-doc at Emory University . She’s done some wonderful work during her years at UCSD (most recently an excellent reading of her husband Ken Weitzman’s play, The As If Body Loop ), but she hasn’t quite nailed the tone of this one. When I first saw it, the piece was uproariously funny. This production is only mildly amusing. One misstep is the Earl of Oxford. The role works much better if it’s played much broader; DeVere was such a debaucher, who ultimately died of his own decadence, that only extremism in performance makes the character as wild, wicked, amoral and larger-than-life as he’s written. Brian Kelly does have has his jocular moments in the role, especially in the second act. Amanda Hallman looks stunning in a killer gilded Queen getup (wonderful costumes by Tania Henetz, a junior Psych major and theater minor – very impressive). But the whole effort is played so straight it seems like a drama, and the lack of a comic sensibility and snappy comic timing saps a lot of the juice from the succulent writing. Dylan Seaton is amiable and appealing as the simple hayseed Will, who composes doggerel and turns the dim ideas of others (“Any Way You Want It” or “The Three Whores,” or DeVere’s “I see a hunchback; you flesh it out”) into sheer genius (As You Like It, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Richard III), even though no one believes he’s capable. Ultimately, feeling used, he laments, “My name’s become a ‘brand.’” Though Freed flirts with the specifics and the speculations, the message of the play is expressed most forcefully by DeVere : “What does it matter who wrote them? The work is there.”
THE LOCATION: UCSD in the Potiker Theatre, through May 27.
LATE ADDITION TO THE TONYS
Even though we’re not related (he shares my maiden name), I feel connected to Danny Burstein, a Tony nominee whom I neglected to mention last week. He got his MFA at UCSD in 1990, and was a classmate of Todd Salovey, who remembers him as extremely funny and talented. Burstein’s been busy ever since, in musicals like Harmony at La Jolla Playhouse, on TV in “Law and Order,” “Hope & Faith,” and as Martin, Eddy’s adopted son, in “Absolutely Fabulous.” Alongside John Lithgow and Sigourney Weaver, he originated the teacher’s role in the world premiere of Mrs. Farnsworth Off Broadway, and appeared in the musical version of Harold and Maude. Now he’s Aldolpho in The Drowsy Chaperone, for which he got him a Tony nom (Featured Actor in a Musical). The bad new is – he’s up against charming and adorable San Diegan Christian Hoff in Jersey Boys. That’s stiff competition. I’ll be watching like a hawk. (June 11. Be there!). Oh, and a little P.S./ fyi on Danny; he’s married to golden-voiced Rebecca Luker (they met during Time and Again at the Old Globe, and started dating when they appeared together in Harmony). Christian is also married to a beauty with a beautiful voice – Melissa Hoff, who wowed audiences last summer in Moonlight’s Pirates of Penzance, and is currently onstage in Zhivago . Great to have her back on home turf!
GET THE INSIDE SCOOP
Learn How to Audition Like a Professional, in a high-profile workshop taught by local heavy-hitters: David Ellenstein, Kristianne Kurner, Sean Murray, Rosina Reynolds and Sam Woodhouse. The “institute,” as it’s being called, will include eight hours of coaching over two nights, a résumé review, and a DVD of your audition session. June 5 and 6, at the University of San Diego on; tuition is $129; limited enrollment, register online: www.comforum.org (sponsored by the communicationFORUM , a non-profit organization).
ALAS, POOR WENDY, WE KNEW HER WELL…
…Coming up… Don’t miss the Tribute to an Uncommon Playwright: Wendy Wasserstein at North Coast Repertory Theatre, performed in concert with the 13th annual Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival. Readings of three of Wasserstein’s plays, featuring all-star casts. On Monday, June 5, Uncommon Women and Others (June 5), directed by Rosina Reynolds; on Tuesday, June 6, Isn’t It Romantic (I’ll be part of that knockout cast, which also includes Rhianna Basore , Tom Zohar, Ralph Elias and Christy Lipinsky , co-directed by Todd Salovey and Emily Cornelius); and on Wednesday, June 7, Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Heidi Chronicles, starring David Ellenstein and Lynne Griffin, who performed 14 years ago in the first San Diego production! Hurry and get your tix @ 888-776-NCRT or www.northcoastrep.org
CALLING ALL KIDS…
The California State Fair is looking for young folks to compete in its first annual Kids Talent Show. Preliminary auditions will be held Saturday, May 27 at Cal Expo (the Sacramento County Fair’s Community Stage). Any California student age 15 or less can participate. They’re looking for a 2-minute audition piece; singers and dancers preferred. The top audition finalists will compete at the State Fair in August. The top three finalists from that event will share a prize pot that includes cash, gifts and the official title of ‘State Fair’s Most Talented Kid.” Go get ‘em, Kids! (The Fair runs Aug. 11-Sept. 4). Call 916-263-7950 or email email@example.com.
MORE ON LOCAL LOSSES
In the wake of Kurt Reichert’s much-lamented departure, a huge supporter of local theater has also left our midst: Judith Munk , who so generously offered her and husband Walter’s splendid backyard amphitheatre, The Folly Theatre, in La Jolla , for what they called “ friendraisers ,” including events benefiting the Shakespeare Society and the Playwrights Project, among many others. I used to live next door to them, when the theater was being built. Judith was wonderful, forceful, courageous, funny and warm, a highly creative artist, sculptor and architect, a world traveler who designed their unique home. She was a major supporter of UCSD and Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where her husband of 53 years, Walter Munk , is a renowned oceanographer. I loved the fact that she’d take his many awards and turn them into pendants and rings, which she wore as daily jewelry. A celebration of the life of Judith Munk will be held on Sunday, June 25 at 3pm at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (signs and balloons on La Jolla Shores Drive will direct you). Gifts can be made in Judith’s memory in support of the planned scientific and meeting center, Scripps Seaside Forum at SIO/UCSD. Judith was intimately involved with the design of the Center, and the garden will be named in her honor.
And of course, we’re all still grieving over Kurt. His long-time pal and collaborator, Linda Vickerman , tells me that his spot in the Actors Festival is being held open for readings of the poems he wrote as a youth in Vienna .
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Zhivago – the world premiere musical is here at last, with all the romance and extravagance you anticipated
At the La Jolla Playhouse, EXTENDED through July 9.
“Soul of a Young Girl: Dances of Anne Frank – physically confining, emotionally powerful
Eveoke Dance theatre at the Tenth Avenue Theatre, through June 4.
What’s Wrong With This Picture? –a funny/sad/poignant play, with some fine performances and just the right Brooklyn Jewish tone
Premiere Productions at the Broadway Theatre in Vista , through June 4
Atwater Fixin ’ to Die – unsatisfying play, unsavory man, but excellent solo performance by Jeffrey Jones
At Cygnet Theatre, through June 18
Pulp – side-splitting spoof of lesbian pulp fiction; terrific ensemble
A MOXIE/Diversionary co-production, at Diversionary Theatre, through June 11
Nocturne – magnificently written, superbly performed; a poetic contemplation of grief, loss and redemption
New Village Arts at Carlsbad jazzercise, through May 27
No Way to Treat a Lady – hilarious noir musical (murder CAN be tuneful and funny!), an outstanding cast, well directed
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, through June 4
Crave – very well done, but not for everyone (dark, confusing, disturbing, depressing)
At Lynx Performance Theatre space in Clairemont, through June 11
Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit – drop-dead uproarious. RUN, don’t saunter, to see this side-splitting spoof of Broadway shows, with the mega-talented Off Broadway cast. Limited engagement; what are you waiting for?
At the Theatre in Old Town , LAST CHANCE: through June 11.
Make new memories this Memorial Day – at the theater!
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.