By Pat Launer
This week had plenty of theater to choose:
From Moonlight and Starlight, the Blitz and the Muse.
From yarmulkes to blue suede shoes,
Rock ‘n’ rollers to wandering Jews.
And a lot about love, sprinkled with laughter
In two at the Fritz and “Before/After.”
So read what I saw and see what you missed:
What’s hailed or praised, dissed or hissed.
According to a recent Travel & Leisure Magazine poll, taken in conjunction with America Online’s Travel Channel, San Diego ranked 1st among 25 of the U.S.’s most popular destinations as the best city to visit in the summer — and home to the nation’s most beautiful people. I guess it’s gonna be Sardine Season here this summer!
San Diego also ranked in first place for its outdoor activities, as a destination for special holidays, specific seasons and for its ease of getting around by car (Huh??? Where were THEY driving? Surely not the freeways or the Horton Plaza garage!).
And, not long ago, Hispanic magazine named San Diego the top city in the U.S. for Hispanics… in terms of percentage of Hispanics in the city, political representation and the vibrancy and sophistication of the Latin cultural scene. The magazine praised San Diego’s early California missions and UCSD — with its world-class center for U.S.-Mexican studies, including a faculty of 50 full-time Latin American specialists. Bien hecho, San Diego!
Moving eastward, Our Town also scored big in the Rand McNally 2003 Best of the Road Awards, which recognized 27 places on five top drives nationwide that offer “more than just pretty scenery.” One of the top fives was “From Pacific to Palms,” combining the best of San Diego and Palm Springs. Just fyi, the local sites they mentioned were: San Diego’s Tijuana Slough (pronounced ‘slew,’ doncha know) National Wildlife Refuge in Imperial Beach; the Vegetable Shop farmer’s market in Rancho Santa Fe (aka Chino’s) and a few places in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Palm Springs and Palm Desert.
And for you beach bunnies…. for the third consecutive year, Coronado Beach was named among “America’s Top Ten Beaches” by the Travel Channel. The criteria included the quality of sand, tide, water, safety, flora, fauna, amenities, culture, nightlife, access, outdoor/indoor activities and level of excitement. Woo-hoo!
All of this probably wouldn’t be possible without the tireless efforts of the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau, which scored a slew (slough?) of awards, including Corporate & Incentive Travel magazine’s Award of Excellence, and a gold Service ELITE Award from the readers of Meetings & Conventions Magazine. And their Art+Sol Magazine is an industry standard. Bravo to all the ConVis cast and crew (sadly reduced recently, due to budget cuts) and to Director of Cultural Tourism Rick Prickett!
If you want to make more noise, and show how San Diego feels about the paucity of arts in the schools (now THAT’s a tragedy worth crying over!), you can get info and make your voice heard at http://www.americansforthearts.org/ .
AND NOW, AN IMPASSIONED APPEAL TO THEATERS
It’s summer, and the theater livin’ ain’t easy. There are a zillion openings; must they all be on one night??? The Performing Arts League has graciously established a perfectly reasonable and usable Opening Night Calendar (@www.sandiegoperforms.com). It goes out to at least 2005, listing dates, even providing space for pertinent names, details and contacts. PLEASE use it!! Make it easy on all of us, so we critics don’t have to choose among you, and you don’t have to feel slighted on opening night. It’s a snap for League members to fill in the Submission Form; if you’re not a member, this might be yet another incentive to join. We’ll all heave a collective sigh of relief when small theaters don’t go up against big ones or worse yet, little venues aren’t in ‘competition’ with their confreres. Thanks… to all, from all.
NEXT, A PLAINTIVE PLEA TO PLAYWRIGHTS
I wouldn’t dare say it in Berlin or Tijuana, but here, onstage, I beg: Bring back the wall!! Whatever happened to dialogue? Where is the elusive, eternal, forgotten fourth wall? I saw three new plays this weekend, and all of them had one or more characters talking directly, and conspiratorially, to the audience. It seemed sort of retro, or worse, revelatory.. as if it were some new, experimental dramatic practice. There are lots of other ways to scare up some exposition. To coin a Frost-y phrase, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”…. and it must be playwrights.
Now, that said, I can go on to talk about the new works of the week…..
BLITZED BY LOVE
Two cynical views of relationship took center stage at the Fritz Blitz last weekend. First up was “The Party” by Kevin McCarthy of Scotts Valley. Originally called “The Party Pooper,” the playlet features a disgruntled, black-clad single woman (deja bleu ginsberg) who’s subjected to a polluted stream of freaks and geeks at a cocktail party she should have left hours ago, but stays at for some warped, self-flagellating reason. With a slathering of sarcasm and contempt, she analyzes and criticizes everyone, male or female, who comes within ten feet of her (though there isn’t, alas, the proverbial 10-foot Pole). But there are some genuine oddballs. Deliciously, they are all played by Adam Edwards. For years, I’ve been lamenting the lack of variety in the roles Edwards plays. He’s been fantastic in all his portrayals, but most of them have been Queens of one sort or another. He does that soooo well, but with his training at the National Shakespeare Conservatory in New York, I longed to see more. Well, here he really gets to strut his stuff, playing gay men, straight men, macho men, Latin men, nerd-men, hausfraus, bitches et al. Like the old Jonathan Winters sketches on TV, he uses one solitary prop — a red neckerchief — and he works it, Baby — turning it into a headpiece, a handkerchief, a napkin, an apron, etc. etc. ginsberg plays one note to his symphony of lost souls, and her negativity does wear out its welcome, for the partygoers as well as the audience. Director Jessa Watson brings a deliciously brisk, lively pace to the proceedings. An appealing actor, Watson is quietly, deftly developing into a Director To Watch. Meanwhile, Edwards keeps us vastly amused until the piece sort of peters out… no pun intended, though one of his characters (the neckerchief becomes a foldout of kid-pix) does say “Ask me about my sperm count.” It’s all great fun, even if the play doesn’t really go anywhere or say anything new.
Same could be said for “Alone Together,” which traces the on-and-off, past-and-present relationships among four young people. Moving back and forth in time from marriage to separations and reunions, to when they all met in freshman year of college, when the guys were roommates and so were the gals, the piece gives us a quartet of stereotypes. At the outset, one member of each pair is naïve and virginal while the other is wanton and promiscuous. There was coaching and mentoring in matters social and sexual (in some very humorous scenes). Needless to say, one of each type is attracted to his/her antithesis. San Diego playwright Mark Novom nails the dialogue; he’s got the angst of youth and the not-so-young in his pocket (or pen). He plays with structure, too, though it doesn’t always work. The time-hopping is fine, but when a seminal scene for both couples overlaps verbally (the writer’s choice or director Forrest Aylsworth’s?), it’s too conflicting and confusing, and we lose the power and pull of either scene. There are many platitudes spouted, many simplistic statements about love. But the performances are terrific, especially Erin McKown as the worldly-wise Amy and the knockout Gaalan Michaelson as the similarly savvy sex-symbol Tim; these two should be scooped up for a lot more work on local stages as soon as possible. Jim Turner and Lia Metz are fine as the supposedly nice, noble members of each pair, though Turner’s character takes one surprising turn. Overall, it seemed like Novom was leading us somewhere interesting, but by the end, he dropped us off the balcony; not much was resolved or imparted. In the frustration of the final moments, my companion of the evening (fellow critic George Weinberg-Harter) said the play should be called ‘Sexual Timidity in San Diego.’ Oh my, another case of Dramatis Interruptus. Novom clearly has talent and a voice; he needs to flex his muscles to brandish more substantial material.
DOES THE MUSE AMUSE?
Like the Fritz, the Muse Theatre is committed to new works. Last week, they presented the world premiere of Richard Markgraf’s “Before/After.” San Diegan Markgraf has had several successes at the Fritz Blitz (he was chosen Best Playwright of the 2001 Blitz) and he’s got a quirky sense of humor, aptly matched by Katie Rodda’s inventive and unpredictable direction. Here we meet Alec (David Stinnett), who of course, directly tells us all his troubles. He’s having a hard time with his divorcing parents (often-funny, frequently over-the-top Fred Harlow and thoroughly credible Bonnie J. Stone) and his girlfriend Serena (cute Kelli Ruttle). And then there’s Serena’s father (wacko, google-eyed John Garcia), the principal who’s drooling over the high school slut, Carmen “Bombs Away” Zingale (hilarious Jill McIntyre), a sultry, self-possessed A-student who teaches our hero a thing or two about hot sex (of the fire department variety). Markgraf whips us in and out of reality, Alec’s imagination, the Vietnam War, and the play he’s trying to write about all his experiences (weren’t there enough self-referential plays premiering LAST week??). If the actors weren’t ‘acting’ quite so much, the piece would be even funnier, but the playwright definitely has a witty way with words and situations and a cynical side as well. Love conquers some here. But, judging from all three playwrights’ new works this week, most young folks aren’t destined for satisfying relationships — with themselves or others. They take the bumpy ride; we sometimes suffer the whiplash.
MUSIC OF THE NIGHT
Summer evenings — time to get out and see a musical. — by Moonlight or Starlight. Up in Vista, it’s a delight to picnic, sit on the grass, eat and drink your way through a performance, and (if you’re all the way up on the hillside, as we were for the second act) even sing along. Sit back, relax, you’re at “Smokey Joe’s Café.” Actually, you’re at Moonlight’s first musical revue, an evening of songs by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller which, if you were alive at the time, might make you say repeatedly, “Wow! They wrote that, too?” The song list is pretty impressive, from classics like “On Broadway” and “Stand By Me” to Elvis songs like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Hound Dog,” from “Spanish Harlem” and “Young Blood” to the silly/funny “Poison Ivy,” “Yakety Yak” and “Love Potion #9.” Director/choreographer Paul David Bryant, who did such an amazing job with Kathy Brombacher on “Ragtime” last summer at Moonlight, is back to put himself and eight others through a high-octane evening of rock ‘n’ roll music and moves. It’s groovy, but it does go on.
The solos are mostly stunners and the group numbers are great. Each performer gets some scintillating moments in the spotlight, from Moonlight veteran Eric Anderson, with his knee-knockin’, hip-swivelin’ Elvis numbers to adorable, blonde-wigged Charna Feldhous, who’s the best shimmier this side of the millennium. Vonetta Mixson raises the roof with “Hound Dog” and “Fools Fall in Love” (but why twice??). Christia Mantzke, the guest Equity artist who played the role on Broadway, brings the twang of country to all her songs, which works better some times than others. It’s especially poignant in “I Keep Forgettin” and “Pearl’s a Singer.” Each woman puts her own signature spin on “I’m a Woman” and each of the guys — Joshua Breckenridge (“There Goes My Baby”), Ty London [“I (Who Have Nothing”)], Travis Robertson (“Poison Ivy”) and Bryant (“You’re the Boss”) — gets a chance to rock the house. The 7-piece band, led by Don Le Master (who plays piano, has a rocker look, and also sings) is top-notch, but the a capella version of “Stand By Me” is also terrific. Shirley Giltner is the biggest surprise hit of the evening. She’s come a long, long way since her work last summer at Coronado Playhouse and Starlight. She is in outstanding voice, looks fantastic, and tore the place apart with two ultra-sexy numbers, “Don Juan” and “Some Cats Know,” trailing a hot-pink, 20-foot boa (I WANT that thing!). She should land some fabulous roles after this production.
Personally, I still prefer a book musical to a revue, but Moonlight makes its usual magic with music (and the night I was there, it drew an audience of 1200!). If you’ve never seen “Smokey Joe,” and especially if you know the music, you’re sure to have a ball.
Well, everyone knows the music from “Fiddler on the Roof,” or so I thought. The audience at Starlight seemed surprised, amused, even shocked at times by the turn of events in the timeless story of the poor dairyman Tevye and his little fictional village of Anatevka, at the turn of the last century, on the eve of the Russian Revolution. Based on the short story, “Tevye and His Daughters” (1894) by the celebrated Russian-Yiddish writer, Sholom Aleichem (pen name of Shalom Rabinowitz), the musical is nearly flawless, with unforgettable music and lyrics (Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick; book by Joseph Stein), humor, pathos and a heart-rending lesson in “Tradition” and change that applies to any immigrant population at any time. It broke with all prior musical theater conventions, shining a light as it did on persecution and poverty. Of course, the world has changed since 1964, and we’ve had musicals about assassins, trapped-and-dying miners, strippers (of the male and female variety), transsexuals and a bevy of events depressing, distressing, historical and hysterical. But “Fiddler” was the groundbreaker, and it still resonates, musically and thematically.
The 16-piece Starlight orchestra sounds wonderful, with special poignancy in the violins and clarinets that capture the mournful/joyful whine of klezmer and the Jewish diaspora. Stephen Reynolds makes a warm, commanding and comical Tevye, but he has an odd accent which distorts some of his vowels (could be a regional dialect, but it was quite distracting). Speaking of articulation, it should be mandatory for any “Fiddler” production that every single person in the cast master the phlegm-clearing gutturals required to say the name of a major character (Chava) and the refrain of a crucial song (“L’Chaim”). And let’s add two other of Tevye’s daughters to the mix: I don’t think one person said Tzeitel (they all said ‘Zeitel’) or Shprintze (it was repeatedly ‘Sprintze’) correctly. Serious rehearsal time should be devoted to pronunciation, especially in a show that so many people know like the fringe of their prayer-shawl. Aside from this, the humongous cast (occasionally tripping over each other, even on the huge Starlight stage) of nearly 60 sounded wonderful and ambled nimbly through the moves (many borrowed or derived, by Jack Tygett, from the original Jerome Robbins choreography). All told, it’s a spirited if not a heart-wrenching production, not always redolent of a Jewish ‘tahm” (sense, taste or feeling); it underscored the humor more than the suffering and sorrow. But director Jeannette Thomas acquits herself well, and in its 57th season, Starlight has another winner in its fifth production of this irresistible musical, which was also the first show (in 1974) to feature the plane-induced signature Starlight ‘freeze-action’ which we’ve all come to know and expect (17 times on the night I was there).
THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“1776,” a Lamb’s Players Theatre reprise at the Lyceum — better than before; patriotic and irresistible (irresistibly patriotic??)
“Fraulein Else” at La Jolla Playhouse – stellar performance by Francesca Faridany
[sic] at Sledgehammer – nasty, delicious, po-mo urban angst
“Rounding Third” – Little League story, Big League laughs
Well, love and music are in the air. What better way to ‘Put a little Drama in your Life’…..
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.