By Pat Launer
Mendel and STARs and Mothers to cry for,
And the TONYs were really something to die for!
They gave us the vapours, they went to our head —
They sent us, swooning, to Sofa (or Bed).
Whatta night! We scored BIG in San Diego. there were so many local connections, we can really be busting our buttons! First and foremost, Jack O’Brien‘s second consecutive Directorial win, proving his enormous versatility — one year for a splashy musical, the next for a Shakespearean history. Adapter/dramaturge Dakin Matthews (who’ll be dramaturging for New Village Arts this summer — what a score!) had already won a Drama Desk Award for his adaptation. And it was thrilling that Ralph Funicello was nominated for his scenic design. “Henry IV” also won for best Revival of a Play.
It was, perhaps, no surprise that “I Am My Own Wife” won for Best Play, since it’d already snagged the Pulitzer Prize. But when UCSD alum Jefferson Mays beat out heavy-hitters like Kevin Kline, Christopher Plummer and Frank Langella — wow! that was really something to crow about. His performance, of course, was magnificent — one of the best, most subtle and nuanced I’ve ever seen. And I’m proud that I might have been the first to honor him — I gave him a Patté Award in 2001. His acceptance speech was lovely, and he paid wonderful tribute to his “own wife.”
Here are some of the other local connections:
- Joe Mantello , like Jack O’Brien, scored back-to-back Tonys, this time for a musical (“Assassins”) and last year for “Take Me Out,” which he’ll be at the Globe to direct in the fall.
- Jerry Mitchell, who choreographed “The Full Monty” at the Globe and on Broadway, was nominated for Best Choreography for “Gotta Dance,” which was directed by former La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Michael Grief. Mitchell will be at the Globe this fall, too, to choreograph Jack’s production of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”
- The other hefty UCSD connections to the Tonys this year had to do with the Best Musical Revival, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s “Assassins,” which also won for Featured Actor (Michael Cerveris, who appeared at the La Jolla Playhouse in “The Who’s Tommy”), Orchestrations (fabulous), and Lighting Design (stupendous). Robert Brill, UCSD alum and co-founder of Sledgehammer, was nominated for his Scenic Design and another UCSD alum, Mary Catherine Garrison, played Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme.
- A really multi-faceted local connection was “The Retreat from Moscow,” which was up for Best Play. Laurie Williams, a UCSD alumna (1995), was the producer of the play, which just happened to star John Lithgow, who’s about to come to San Diego as the lead in Jack’s upcoming world premiere musical, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” which heads right from here to Broadway, Ironically, it was Lithgow who presented the Best Direction award to Jack at the Tonys. It’s all so incestuous, isn’t it?
- And we can’t forget the Lifetime Achievement Award that went to James M. Nederlander, whose company’s local arm, Broadway/San Diego, brings touring musicals to the Civic Theatre, including, this summer, Jack O’Brien’s Tony-winning “Hairspray” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (which we saw at the La Jolla Playhouse before it went to Broadway).
Whew! We made a SERIOUS showing at the Awards, which, while perhaps not scintillating, did have some moments. Like Carol Channing and LL Cool J (most folks were either familiar with one or the other, not both; they occupy different planets), Hugh Jackman embarrassing the hell out of Sarah Jessica Parker, who couldn’t begin to dance with him when she couldn’t keep her strapless dress up. And then there was Mary J. Blige, massacring “What I Did for Love,” making it into something 100% unrecognizable. Viewership was down, and that wasn’t helped locally — especially with its direct connections — by the La Jolla Playhouse scheduling an opening night right at Tony Time. What on earth were they thinking??
Q:WHAT’S BLACK AND WHITE AND SUNG AT CYGNET??
A: It’s “Bed and Sofa!”
In 1926, a Russian silent film of the same name so offended cinema officials with its candid portrayal of the sexual dilemmas facing a married couple and a single man, not to mention the bleak conditions under which they lived — together! — that it was almost immediately banned. Fifty years later, Abram Broom’s film was rediscovered, and it’s now regarded as a masterpiece of its era.
In the mid-1990s, along comes composer Polly Pen who, teaming up with writer Laurence Klavan, decides to musicalize the silent film. She goes on to win a 1996 Obie Award for her score and he snags two Drama Desk nominations for his book and lyrics.
The story concerns Ludmilla (Julie Jacobs) and Kolya (Eric Anderson), who live in a small Moscow apartment furnished with little more than the basic necessities (see title). Ludmilla is unhappy in her marriage to this brutish, self-involved construction worker. She stays at home and dreams of romance. When he runs into an old Army buddy, Volodya (Michael Elliott), a sensitive printer who’s just arrived and can’t find a place to live (MAJOR housing shortage in Moscow), he invites him home to their tiny flat. Volodya can have the sofa, he sings, while he and Ludmilla take the bed. (“We’ll take the bed and you the sofa; “I’ll take the sofa, and you the bed”). This motif repeats throughout the show — who’s on the sofa and who’s on the bed varies by the moment and the relationship permutations. In clever ways, the battles are played out in the sleeping arrangements and in a checkers game. After awhile, Ludmilla realizes she’s trapped by the oppressive attitudes of both men. Pretty proto-feminist and racy stuff for 1920s Russia, and great fun for 2004 Americans. The dilemma is expressed directly in song: “Love is big and complicated.”
The intermissionless musical is sung-through; it’s a delightfully stylized, semi-operatic chamber piece that’s getting a dazzling production at Cygnet Theatre. Sean Murray not only directs a magnificent cast but he also designed the stunning, black and white set, featuring cutouts of the Moscow skyline and a bemused Big Brother Stalin glaring down. The costumes (Shelly Williams) are also all in black, white and gray, which reflects the film source and the bleakness of these lives.
Silent movie conventions are effectively transferred to the stage; compressed shards of phrases repeat and transform, as if we’re hearing silent movie titles (“The stain! The drain!”). Priscilla Allen’s authoritative voiceovers introduce scenes by spewing ironic Bolshevik aphorisms. A scene in a movie theater is wonderful; all the lighting (Karin Filijan) is excellent and evocative, as is the sound design (Kenny Lewis).
The score for this unique and innovative show is whimsical, sophisticated, intricate and unusual, the libretto haunting. The musical background is expertly played and directed by Don LeMaster (with Wendy Hoover on violin), marrying the period flavor of waltzes and folk melodies with a contemporary sensibility. Pen’s melodies play with rhythms and timing, repeating themes and underscoring the intricacy of the story’s emotions. The lyrics range from poetic to quotidian, from poignant to satiric.
The show demonstrates how simplicity begets complexity, but the story is told conversely — a turbulent narrative is communicated with a remarkable economy of words and music. Themes focus on basic needs; shelter is as crucial for the body as love is for the soul. Men are brutes; women may be vain fantasists, but when cornered, they’re able to take control of their destiny. The acting and singing are superb. Jacobs’ silky soprano is in glorious form, as is Anderson’s rich baritone and Elliott’s bright tenor.
If you’re not a musical fan (even more so if you are), if you disdain opera, if theater’s got you down… this is something you’ve never seen before. Unique, provocative, extremely well acted and sung. Beautiful to look at. And quite a singular evening at the theater.
LAST WEEK’S STAR MOMENTS…
“Mendel, Inc.” was a hoot — and a sellout at North Coast Rep as part of the Lipinsky Jewish Festival of the Arts. There was a long waiting list for cancellations. The audience loved it, and the playwright’s 82 year-old son (both named David Freedman), was sitting in the front row, beaming — mouthing all the lines. During the intermission, 8 year-old Ari Lerner, who played my son, turned to me and said, “That guy in the front is saying all my lines!” he was adorable, and I loved being David Ellenstein’s wife for a night, with Peter van Norden as my brother and Ralph Elias as my brother-in-law (they were the comic duo of Shtrudel and Shnaps). A very funny piece, very well received.
It was a big night at the 13th annual STAR Awards, the San Diego Performing Arts League’s annual tribute to arts volunteers. There were 80 honorees from 68 organizations, who keep the arts humming and alive. Housed in a beautiful new venue — the Hyatt Regency La Jolla at the Aventine, the event moved at a brisker than usual pace. Dea Hurston and Jeff Dunigan made for hilarious co-chairs (physically, as well as verbally) and Iris and Matt Strauss were charming and gracious as the Gold Star Honorees. The reception was filled with music… including the Second Avenue Klezmer Ensemble, whose excellent lead singer, Debbie Davis, was also onstage with me in “Mendel,” and sported a wicked Yiddish eksent. A lovely time was had by all….
For reasons noted above, I only got to see one part of David Edgar’s 2-play cycle, “Continental Divide ,” at the La Jolla Playhouse. I’m reluctant to talk about each without having seen both, but I think a one-day marathon might be a bit much anyway… six hours of theater is tough even for us diehards. I’ll be better able to compare them next week, but for now, I’ll offer a few comments, and say that “Mothers Against” is a long and rather talky play, even preachy at times. The first act drones on, and it’s hard at times to maintain focus.
The second act, which is the rehearsal for the gubernatorial debate (this is sooo clearly California we’re talkin’ here), has a lot more energy and interest value. Director Tony Taccone pumps up the pace and rhythm, as the script raises the dramatic stakes.
After all the background and exposition of Act I, we finally get to the fast-paced debate prep (‘Boot Camp’) it was all building up to, in Act II. Lorianne Weiner clearly seems to be a stand-in for Ann Coulter, playing the Dem candidate in the mock-debate. As played by Christina Rouner, she’s sexy and strong-willed. As Connie, the wife of the candidate, Robynn Rodriguez has just the right loyalty, arrogance and imperiousness (shades of Nancy Reagan). Bill Geisslinger has a likable, nice-guy manner as the candidate who sticks to his guns (except when he sells out). As his campaign manager, Don D’Avanzo, Michael Elich looks and sounds very much like James Carville (sans Southern accent) — even if he is on the Republican side here. Paul Vincent O’Connor is fine as the candidate’s hard-nosed brother, Mitchell, with his deep, dark (and way too opaque) secret.
But I wasn’t buying the characters (or performances) of Derrick Lee Weeden as policy advisor Vincent Baptiste, despite his mellifluous voice; Caryl Marquez, the pollster (Vilma Silva); or the tree-hugging daughter of the candidate, Deborah Vine (Christine Williams, who wasn’t in the slightest convincing). She makes an appearance in “Daughters of the Revolution,” too, so I’ll see how/if she fleshes out the character more credibly there.
For political junkies, it’s a treat to see the grimy underbelly of the pre-election process, and clearly, Edgar has done his homework. But sometimes, this felt more like a civics lesson than a play, until things starts to bubble and boil over in the second act. And then, all the real events occur in neck-spinning succession, at the tail end of the piece. Edgar, like Tony Kushner, is the kind of playwright who paints on a large, broad, politically-loaded canvas. Last year’s production of “Pentecost” at the Globe was a deep, rich, provocative experience that’s been hard to forget. So far, this one is hard to remember. But I’m reserving final judgment until I’ve gotten the complete picture. Tune in next week….
TAKE A SEAT
You might have read a piece in the paper a coupla weeks ago, about the new seats coming to the Old Globe. And the fact that the 600 old seats were going to be donated to Teatro Juarez in La Paz, Mexico. Well, looks like there’s a snag. The company who had donated the transportation of the seats has punked out. All these plans are coming from the International Community Foundation (ICF), and if money isn’t raised to transport the seats by June 14-15, the whole deal is off and the Globe will have no choice but to relegate the seats to the Miramar Landfill. What a shame that’d be.
Soooo, the bottom line is — as always — the bottom line. Within the next few days, the ICF has to raise at least $2200 to cover the cost of renting two 48-foot trailers (each is $6800, but they have some reserve; if it turns out that three trucks are needed, they’re short $5600). These seats represent an important gift to the city of La Paz, to help them promote arts and culture, and it would serve as a terrific act of goodwill on behalf of San Diego. If you, or anyone you know, is in a position to make a contribution, contact Amy Carstensen at the International Community Foundation, 858-677-2914; firstname.lastname@example.org.
And now, for THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“Bed and Sofa” – quirky little musical, gorgeously designed and sung. See it! At Cygnet Theatre, through July 18.
“Don Juan” — brilliantly directed, wonderfully acted, beautiful to behold. If you love the theater, you really CAN’T and SHOULDN’T miss this one! At the Globe, through June 13.
“Shirley Valentine” — virtuoso performance by Rosina Reynolds in a warm, funny, touching play. At North Coast Repertory Theatre June 10-13.
Avoid June Gloom– go to the theater!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.