By Pat Launer
War is raging, alas and alack:
A great time to bring Mother Courage back.
While nostalgically and with bravado
Starlight brought us Hot Mikado,
And Miracle Productions bids Old Town adieu
With a wacked-out Texas Barbecü.
THE SHOW: MOTHER COURAGE, Bertolt Brecht’s timeless socio-political masterpiece of struggle, survival and the pointlessness of war
THE STORY/THE BACKSTORY: ‘Mutter Courage’ is a character from a novel by 17th century German author Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen. Brecht brought her into the 20th century (his original title was Mother Courage and Her Children), but he set his 1941 classic during the Thirty Years’ War (the Catholic vs. Protestant conflagration which was fought primarily in Germany from 1618-1648, though the conflict continued on for 300 more years). It was a not-so-transparent response to the rise of fascism and the threat of a second World War.
With war raging nonstop, a desperate woman strives to keep her family alive. One by one, though, she loses her children to the ravages of war, but she refuses to part with her livelihood, the signature wagon of peddler’s goods (here, a rotted, rusty half-Jeep) that is her home. Courage is both sympathetic and supremely mercenary, a fiercely loyal mother and a ruthless war profiteer, ironically nicknamed for her less-than-heroic actions under fire. The play is perfect for our war-torn times, with religious conflict looming large, questions of morality tearing at the fabric of our society and materialism virtually ruling our lives.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Brecht created a dazzling blend of pathos and burlesque, and director Lisa Peterson (a former associate director at the La Jolla Playhouse) has remained true to his esthetic of political provocation intertwined with entertainment. There’s a ragtag circus feel to this production, and more than a tad of faded vaudeville and grungy music-hall cabaret, which suits the play just fine. David Hare’s translation is foul-mouthed, at times amusing, and definitely, aptly, brutal. But like Brecht’s original, it is relentless. Brecht was never one to shy away from an issue or perspective, or to pounding it home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. So the show racks up nearly a three-hour running time; some people didn’t make it back after intermission. Their loss. There may be war fatigue in living rooms (and battlefields), but Brecht forces us to continue to look, to confront the wretchedness and the cost – personal, political and psychological – of prolonged (and pointless) combat. It’s a chilling indictment, with music. True to the play’s era and creator/collaborator, Gina Leishman’s music is a little Weimar /a little Weill… not always melodic, tinged with the harsh carny/circus edge of squalid beer halls and hardscrabble reality. Her instruments of choice are brilliant: piano, accordion and tuba, with martial, heartbeat drumming (on various surfaces) thrown in for good measure. Her score, as dramatic and ironic as the play, is wonderfully brought to life by Mark Danisovszky (piano/accordion) and Jonathan Piper (tuba/accordion). Twelve scenes, twelve songs, twelve performers. A spartan setting (design by Rachel Hauck) – black walls and floors, perilous ladders, and throughout, actors scrawling screeds and scene-sets in white chalk behind and below. Very minimalist, very effective. The quick-change costumes (David Zinn) range from gritty to overblown, military to mismatched .
Peterson doesn’t over-sentimentalize Courage; the play mocks her foolhardiness and points to her unflagging pursuit of profit, which underscores the unholy alliance of war and commerce. Ivonne Coll makes her losses palpable — her silent scream at the death of one child is heart-rending — and there’s plenty of her fearless, dauntless spirit. By turns ruthless, affectionate, degrading and flirtatious, Coll evinces and evokes a range of emotions in this stellar performance. The rest of the ensemble provides malleable and masterly support, with Katie Barrett especially engaging, sporting a saucy look and a wonderful voice. The others suitably talk, belt or emote their songs. But Barrett gets the ballads, and she does them beautifully (she has performed with the Washington Bach Consort and as a soloist at Washington National Cathedral). Brent Hinkley (associate artistic director of the Actors’ Gang of L.A.), Marc Damon Johnson and Patrick Kerr bring the most humor to the piece. Second-year MFA student Scott Drummond shows his pugnacious side (as he has before, most effectively, in university productions). It’s a long but powerful production – of a still-potent and important play.
THE LOCATION: La Jolla Playhouse, through July 23
BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
THE SHOW: HOT MIKADO, the regional theater premiere of a jazz riff on Gilbert and Sullivan’s most beloved operetta
THE STORY/THE BACKSTORY: Written in 1939 and revised in 1986, Hot Mikado is a jazzy update of the 1885 original, which was a satire of Victorian English society, set in Japan. Now, jazz, blues, gospel and Andrews Sisters girl groups are somewhat awkwardly superimposed onto this wacky tale of a lovelorn ‘wandering minstrel,’ Nanki Poo (really the son of the somewhat sadistic Mikado), drifting around in disguise to avoid a forced marriage to an older harridan, Katisha. Meanwhile, his beloved Yum-Yum is betrothed to the witless Ko-Ko, the spineless Lord High Executioner. After many twists and turns and threatened beheadings, Ko-Ko winds up with Katisha, and Nanki Poo and the airheaded YumYum live happily ever after. So, how do these folks transform into cool cats and (anachronistically) zoot-suit wearers? If you’re gonna have a mishmash , you might as well go the whole hog.
THE PLAYER/THE PRODUCTION: The show was obviously written with black hipsters in mind, but there was little of that particular sensibility here. And the script disturbingly retained a number of casual references to ugly Asian stereotypes. Still, the production, directed by Carlos Mendoza (who also choreographed, along with musical director Parmer Fuller) had a lot to recommend it. The dancing may have been repetitive, but it was generally well executed, and the costumes (coordinated by chorine Brenna Fleeman) were clever and colorful. Best of all was the singing. Especially noteworthy were vocal-knockout Laura Dickinson as Yum-Yum’s sister, Pitti Sing; Richard Bermudez as a suave Nanki-Poo; the Big Mama belting Debbie Nicastro, dressed in brash black and white like Cruella deVille, as the man-eating Katisha; and Danny Bolero, who seemed to be channeling early, whiny Jerry Lewis as Ko-Ko, the cowardly executioner. The six-person orchestra sounded jazzy and robust, with hot/cool arrangements that featured (at various times) sax, flute, trumpet, trombone and flugelhorn. Some of the song reimaginings were actually an improvement on the originals, most notably the comic Ko-Ko/Katisha duet, “Beauty in the Bellow” and the gorgeously harmonic a capella “Swing a Merry Madrigal.” The mics were consistently problematic; this is something that really needs fixing at Starlight. Maybe Cinda Lucas’ 320,000 dollar matching grant, announced on opening night, will help.
The whole effort was an affectionate homage to the show that inaugurated Starlight Theatre in 1946 – The Mikado. Sixty years and four million patrons later, this quirky bit of nostalgia paid tribute to Starlight’s amazing longevity (airplanes notwithstanding) and one of the original cast-members, Bailey Warren, who played Nanki Poo in ’46. His son, Ken, took a bow, and was right proud. He sat just in front of us, and recalled how he was 5 years old when he saw the role played by his father, who was the first staff announcer at Channel 8, opening the station along with Bob Dale, in 1949. Cool bit of history and trivia.
THE LOCATION: Starlight Theatre, through June 25 (only a one-weekend run – but there are, you may recall, 2000+ seats in the house).
WAGNER FIRES UP THE BARBIE
THE SHOW: DAS BARBECÜ, a Texas-set musical by Jim Luigs (book and lyrics) and Scott Warrender, which premiered Off Broadway in 1994
THE STORY: Okay, so you think a jazzy Japanese Mikado is a wild concept? How about a hootenanny version of Wagner’s 20-hour, 4-opera Ring Cycle? All one can say is yee-haw and oy vey. Das Barbecü features all of the melodrama, little of the drama (let alone the mind-blowing music) of the original. It’s beyond silly; it’s preposterous. And it feels like a high school musical. Like the original, there are dwarves and giants, Rivermaidens, mischief makers and jilted brides. But there are also guitar-strummin’ cowboys, Texas Rangers and guacamole mavens. Some of the 30 characters (the construction-worker giants, for instance) make a one-second cameo and never reappear. So much of the convoluted storyline is conveyed, it’s exhausting. The musical tires of the plot itself, repeatedly trying to explain it to the audience (which is spoken to or interacted with several times during the evening).
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Five game performers give their all trying to make this silliness sing. But the music is forgettable, and the overblown story (as in the mythical original) is ludicrous. And they can’t even pronounce each other’s names right (is it Ziegfried or Siegfried? Getruna or Getrune? No one seems to know for sure). Some of the setups are mildly amusing, such as the Esther Williams cum Sea World Rhinemaiden number. But this is a far cry from the magnificent and hilarious Forbidden Broadway that preceded it in the Theatre. The cast is working overtime, with their quick-changes into funny wigs and so-so costumes (except for Getrune’s uproarious, mini-skirted, ultra-tulle wedding dress, replicated later in black), but the script doesn’t provide sufficient payoff. They all sing well, though gorgeous-voiced Jenn Grinels gets the best song, a wistful ballad, “County Fair.” Rebecca Spear is adorable looking but sometimes shrill; Alison Bretches tends to over-belt, Nick Spear is understatedly funny (and fine on guitar, as is Grinels) and in multiple roles, Steve Anthony gets to show his comic chops, physical agility and musical theater moxie.
The set (Sean Fanning) is all down-home woodsy, lit (by Matthew Novotny) in sky-blues, fuchsias and fire. The sound was inadequately managed and mixed; almost everything sounds way too loud. But the 4-piece band is terrific, with musical supervision and keyboards by ace pianist Cris O’Bryon; Doug Myer on acoustic, electric and pedal-steel guitars, Dan Sankey on fiddle, mandolin and banjo; and Danny King workin’ overtime on percussion. It’s a hootenanny, but it isn’t, alas, a hoot.
THE LOCATION: The Theatre in Old Town , ongoing.
I was lucky to catch one of the last Lunchtime at the Lyceum events of the Mainly Mozart Festival. Mojalet Dance Collective presented a delightful program in honor of Mozart’s 250th birthday, including dances to selections from “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” Cosi fan Tutte, The Magic Flute and “The Requiem.” Artistic director Faith Jensen-Ismay (who also created the costumes) came out onto the stage to explain a bit of the backstory to the formidable audience which had a large contingent of elementary school children. I happened to be sitting next to the woman who got them there: Cheryl Brown, founder of ArtsBusXpress, which provides transportation for schoolchildren to arts activities and events. Since it was founded in 2002, the program has helped more than 29,000 students get on board, from 158 schools across the County. What a fabulous, sorely needed program! The kids du jour were from the Wintergarden School in Lakeside , where Faith has served as artist in residence. The kids were absolutely rapt throughout, which was a credit to Jensen-Ismay’s prior visit and prep at the school. But also to the presentation, which was marvelous. “Mozart Mambo,” danced to the first movement of “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” was sexy, sassy and whimsical. The Requiem piece, by contrast, was achingly slow and silent, wonderfully executed by a corps of ten. The several sections from The Magic Flute were lively and engaging, capped off by a delightfully joyful reunion of Papageno and Papagena, danced by David Hanlon and Jensen-Ismay. It was a thoroughly satisfying midday treat for all.
IN THE NEWS
…GRINCH TAKES A BITE OF BIG APPLE
The Old Globe has announced that its wildly successful holiday production of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas will premiere on Broadway this fall, running from October 25-January 7 at the Hilton Theatre. The original production team will remain intact, though Jack O’Brien will only be listed as Production Creator and Supervisor, while the director of record is Matt August, who helmed Time Flies and The Food Chain at the Globe. This year’s production of the show marks its 9th presentation in San Diego .
…. Skilled and engaging local actor Tom Zohar is thrilled to be getting an amazing opportunity this weekend. He’ll be appearing in Zhivago at the La Jolla Playhouse for the matinee and evening performances on July 2. A family wedding obligation called the actor away and Tom is stepping in (ecstatically).
… and another local actor/singer is getting a big break. Warren G. Nolan, Jr. will play Collins in the touring production of the Tony and Pulitzer-winning Rent. Seeing the show nine years ago inspired him to parlay his vocal talent into musical theater. He’s also performed as Young Max in the Globe’s Grinch, as well as in Falsettos at Diversionary and Pageant at North Coast Rep (you may remember him as Miss Industrial Northeast). The show comes to the Civic Theatre July 11-16.
… Later this month, Lyric Opera San Diego General Director Leon Natker will fly to Graz , Austria , to judge the 26th annual International Meistersinger Competition. He’s been invited by the governor of the Austrian province of Styria and the Mayor of Graz, the second largest city in Austria and this year’s Cultural Capital of Europe. The competition for young opera singers will be held on July 29 and 30.
…Don’t forget to sign up for the Arts & Culture Roundtable Discussion: Friday, July 7, 9:30-11:30am OR Thursday, July 27, 1-3:00pm. Participate in a dialogue about “Understanding the San Diego Region,” a research project on arts and culture from the San Diego Foundation. Space is limited; rsvp to www.pARTicipatesandiego.org , 619-814-1326.
…CHANGE of DATE … Last week, I mentioned Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company’s upcoming Sneak Peek at Since Africa, a new play by Mia McCullough. Both the date and venue have been changed: the presentation will now take place on Sunday, July 30 at 2pm at St. Luke’s Church and Refugee Network, which, according to director Seema Sueko, is “ home to many Sudanese refugees, so it seemed quite fitting” for this play about a “Lost Boy of Sudan.” The all-star cast features: Rosina Reynolds, Erika Beth Phillips, Mark Christopher Lawrence and Alephonsion Deng. Reservations requested: at 619-342-7395 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
… Mark your calendar for an exciting reading performed by an internationally acclaimed duo: playwright Athol Fugard and writer/scholar Marianne McDonald. To raise funds for 6th @ Penn Theatre, the duo will read Medea the Beginning by McDonald … Jason the End by Fugard. You WON’T want to miss this. Sunday, August 27 only. 7:30pm. $50 donation. 619-688-9210.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Mother Courage – still one of the most potent anti-war statements around; beautifully, simply, elegantly presented
At the La Jolla Playhouse, through July 23
Hannah and Martin – provocative story and a fascinating play, expertly acted and directed
Laterthanever productions at the Lyceum, through July 2.
Krapp’s Last Tape –beautifully crafted, intensely precise performance by Claudio Raygoza
Ion theatre in their new downtown theater space, New World Stage, through July 9.
Amadeus – it’s talky and prolix and beats you over the head with its messages, but it’s a great story (whatever part of it is actually factual) and it’s very well presented by a fine, committed cast
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through July 23
Christmas on Mars –wacky and wildly over the top; well performed, but not for everyone
On the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through July 9
Zhivago – the world premiere musical has all the romance and extravagance you anticipated. You’re sure to get caught up in the legendary Russian romance. Catch it here before it heads to Broadway…
At the La Jolla Playhouse, through July 9.
Flex your Independence this holiday weekend – celebrate freedom of speech at the theater!
© 2006 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.