By Pat Launer
The Actors Al liance has duly impressed
With their Wicked best in last week’s Fest
And When Pigs Fly for social climbing
The skill and finesse is Al l in the Timing.
THE SHOW: WICKED, the Broadway mega-hit of 2003 (nominated for 10 Tonys ; though it lost Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book to Avenue Q, it did win for Scenic and Costume designs, as well as Best Actress in a Musical for Idina Menzel , the original Elphaba ). In 2005, the cast recording won the Grammy for Best Musical Show Al bum. Financially, the show earned back its entire $14million investment within one year. It still grosses more than a million bucks a week. In January, it broke the record for highest weekly box office gross in Broadway history (surpassing the previous record-holder, The Producers). In March, the show celebrated its 1000th Broadway performance.
THE STORY: Loosely based on the 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire, “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” the show unfolds as a flashback, telling the backstory of “The Wizard of Oz,” sans Dorothy and Toto (they’re vaguely alluded to, though they never appear; we do learn an alternate version of how the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion came to be). The plot is primarily about the unlikely friendship between the Good and Wicked witches, Glinda and Elphaba , each of whom is actually misnamed. The blonde and beautiful Gelinda (she later reduces the name as a lame political act) is rich, spoiled, selfish, vacuous, envious, self-serving .. and “Popular” (one of her knockout numbers). Elphaba , the Green One, is smart, fiery, caring and grossly misunderstood. She also possesses the kind of magical powers everyone else dreams of (her show-stopper, the eye-popping first-act-ender, is “Defying Gravity”). It’s all supposed to be a provocative exploration of the rainbow’s darker side, but the storyline (book by neophyte librettist Winnie Holzman ) is convoluted, and stuffed to the gills with themes like tolerance for animals – and people who look different; valuing truth over hypocrisy; and the triumph of sisterhood over all. Unfortunately, it’s all drowned out in the spectacle, but that’s what a lot of the audience came for, anyway. On opening night, they started screaming before the first note was sung. Little girls were there in ruby slippers and pointy black hats. The excitement was palpable. And the fact is , the show is pretty amazing to see, especially such an elaborate touring production.
THE PLAYERS/PRODUCTION: The production values are outstanding. There’s that huge, hovering, green-eyed, fire-breathing dragon hovering atop the proscenium. And the inexplicable Time Dragon Clock, whose cogs and complex works dominate the inventive, ever-changing set (designed by Eugene Lee). The costumes (Susan Hilferty ) are beyond description – incredibly colorful and creative. In the pit (under the baton of Dominick Amendum ), there are five traveling musicians and ten locals, and the resulting sound is Broadway-lush. Composer Stephen Schwartz penned a few winners for the show (though none as memorable as almost anything from “The Wizard of Oz”) and his lyrics are the most clever he’s ever written. Wayne Cilento’s choreography is disappointingly uninspired, though director Joe Mantello keeps things moving in other ways (thanks to the sets, lighting and special effects). Besides the effects, it’s the cast that warrants most mention. Kendra Kassbaum is terrific as Glinda ; she’s so perky you could spit, and she’s perfect with those adolescent hair tosses and insouciant leg-swings. The role of Elphaba is a lot less flashy; she’s kinda drab and bookish at first (and not even that green), but Julia Murney makes her a likable frump who grows in stature, status, integrity and political awareness. Both women have powerhouse voices, amazing ranges and big belt-ability. Veteran actor Al ma Cuervo is great as the imperious magic teacher, Madame Morrible , and K. Todd Freeman does a touching turn as poor Doctor Dillamond , the goatish professor who’s losing his speech, thanks to the increasingly despotic rule of the Wizard ( P.J .Benjamin, whose vaudeville solo is strongly redolent of Chicago’s “Mr. Cellophane,” which he’s been singing for the past six years on Broadway). The Wizard is espousing an Orwellian “Animal Farm” philosophy (two legs good, four legs bad); he ultimately convinces everyone that ‘wicked’ is the name for freedom-loving truth-tellers, which is how Elphaba gets ostracized. Sebastian Arcelus is very cute as the vapid prince Fiyero , and Kirk McDonald is sprightly as Boq , the disgruntled Munchkin. This is a strong lead cast, backed by a large, potent ensemble, which includes San Diego actor Maria Eberline , who also appeared in the national tours of Fame, Grease and Evita , not to mention playing Carol Burnett’s role in a regional production of Once Upon a Mattress – directed by Carol Burnett. Meanwhile, this show, while not deep or musically memorable, will be enjoyed by the whole family. Just try getting tickets for ‘ em ! The only possibility left is the pre-show lottery when, two hours before curtain, you take a number and several (maybe up to 20) lucky recipients are chosen for the remaining $25 seats. There’s also a standby line on the day of the show. If all that fails, be patient; a sit-down, open-ended production is coming to L.A. next winter. At the Pantages . Maybe you wanna snag some tickets now!
In the meantime, there’s plenty of Oz to go around: Starlight opens its production of The Wizard of Oz next week (with sets and costumes borrowed from the revival at Radio City Music Hall ) and as New York is buzzing, Des McAnuff premieres his very-likely- Bway -bound re-imagining of The Wiz this fall at the La Jolla Playhouse. If all that doesn’t make you think ‘there’s no place like home,’ nothing will
THE LOCATION: The Civic Theatre, through August 6
THE SHOW: WHEN PIGS FLY, the wacky gay musical revue created and costumed by Howard Crabtree (book and lyrics by Mark Waldrop, music by Dick Gallagher), who died of AIDS at age 41, just days before the show opened Off Broadway in 1996 (and just after he finished his final costume for it). Pigs ran for a whopping 840 performances, winning an OBIE , the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical Review, and the Drama Desk Award for Best Off-Broadway musical.
THE STORY: The grand finale says it all: “Over the Top.” Actor/costume designer Crabtree was absent the day they taught ‘subtlety’ in school. But he didn’t miss his life-changing encounter with a pinched and bitter guidance counselor in his small Missouri town, who inadvertently gave him the title for his show. That’s how she told him when he’d make it as a performer and costume designer. So , this is his revenge play. It’s also his fantasy autobiography. In the show, Howard is an idealistic visionary/fantasist who never met a marabou he didn’t like. Sequins and feathers were mother’s milk to him. He was inspired by everyday objects; Crabtree could take a shower hose, a toilet plunger, a vanity table and turn it into, if not high art, then certainly high camp. His costumes, reproduced (more or less) for every production, are alone worth the price of admission. First, we meet Howard as ‘Dream Curly’ (one of many references to Broadway musicals, this one recalling Oklahoma —or maybe he predicted its late sequel, Oklahomo ). In a very fey/gay show, Howard is the straight man (so to speak); he’s the sweet optimist who’s sure he can put on the elaborate, outrageous revue of his dreams, despite costume malfunctions, prima donna diva behavior and other assorted ills. And don’t think that purse-lipped guidance counselor doesn’t make repeat appearances, to rub his nose in his potential for failure. A few sly political comments aside, this is feathery-light fare, with a bubbly, feel-good ending — when the titular porkers do, in some way, take flight.
THE PLAYERS/PRODUCTION: Director Rick Simas (with co-director Lisa Drummond) has gathered three of his talented and versatile SDSU musical theater alums to drive the action. And drive this big unwieldy, outrageous tank of a show they do. Omri Schein , a really funny/gifted guy, is especially comical as the soul-destroying guidance counselor, Miss Roundhole , and the white- tuxed lounge lizard singing torch songs to Dick Cheney (uproarious new lyrics added for this production by lyricist Mark Waldrop). Matt Weeden plays the head Queen, and also the side-splitting Carol Ann Knippel , artistic director of the Melody Barn, a small-town theater that specializes in musicals of its own creation, such as (not really that funny or unlikely any more) Quasimodo (there is/was a musical version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”) and Annie 3. Adorable Eric Vest plays the ever-cheerful Crabtree with an endearing innocence. Trevor Peringer (with his million-dollar smile) and Erick L. Sunquist (who makes a great-looking woman in any costume) carry most of the dance moves (choreography by Aaron Pomeroy). Anthony Randall (stiff but incredibly hunky) provides eye-candy in his small roles.
The costumes (inventively constructed by Shulamit Nelson and Linda Pate, based on Crabtree’s original, off-the-wall designs) are the highlight of this goofball evening. And the wild wigs (created by Peter Herman and Cindy Kinnard ) are to die for, especially those far out, foam French-fop creations. The skits and scenes are variable and often silly, but the lyrics (like the text, written by co-creator Waldrop) are witty and the music is bouncy (composed by Dick Gallagher, who died last year at age 49). Accompanist Steve Withers brings the songs to life, and gets into the act for a moment or two.
But honestly, how many shows of the ‘We’re Here/ We’re Queer’ variety have been produced in the past decade? Too many to count. And this one feels decidedly retro. It was the perfect entertainment for Pride weekend. The audience ate up every minute of it. Still, there’s a fine line between intentional corn and insufferable camp, and it’s crossed a few too many times. I firmly believe that the clever, rousing first act ender, “A Patriotic Finale,” should be the official gay anthem. It’s about diversity and the contributions/importance of gays to America : “Without US there is no U.S.A. ” Some of the verses, like, “You can’t take the color out of Colorado,” “You can’t take the Mary out of Maryland” and “You can’t have New York City without Queens,” are really really good, but my all-time favorite is “Just try to take the K-Y from Kentucky.” Now THAT made me laugh out loud.
THE LOCATION: Diversionary Theatre, through August 13
PHILIP GLASS SPEAKS UNAMUNA
THE SHOW: ALL IN THE TIMING by David Ives, was originally a book of six one-act plays, dating from 1987-1993 (published in 1994). Now the collection contains 14 one-acts, but the original six are most often performed.
THE PLAYS/PLOTS: The playlets are short, funny and very smart (perhaps more than a tad elitist), rife with sly intellectual allusions and intricate wordplay.
In Sure Thing, a man and woman meet for the first time in a café, where they have an awkward interaction, their meet-scene reset and replayed repeatedly until they get it right. In Words, Words, Words, three chimps try to play out Dr. David Rosenbaum’s scientific conjecture that if you put a few apes in a room with typewriters, eventually they’ll produce Hamlet. These primates don’t even know what “a Hamlet” is, though they randomly quote Shakespeare and Milton and Kafka. The Universal Language is linguistically the most elaborate, complex and amusing piece. A con-man speaks exclusively in a new language, Unamunda , while trying to teach, bilk and pork a shy, unsuspecting, stuttering woman – with an unexpected outcome for both. The second act opens with Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread, a wildly humorous musical parody of the work of the minimalist composer, in which he has an existential crisis in a bakery, backed by a chorus of onlookers. In The Philadelphia, a man gets trapped in a strange, cheese-steak state of mind (he’s in ‘a Philadelphia ’). His friend, who’s just lost his wife and his job, doesn’t seem to care; he’s in a cool, shades-wearing ‘ Los Angeles ,’ but not for long. In Variations on the Death of Trotsky, the axe-murdered Russian revolutionary learns of his death from a post-dated encyclopedia — and dutifully dies, several times.
THE PLAYERS/PRODUCTION: Claudio Raygoza, who’s become known for his intense productions and portrayals, happily turns his prodigious talent and attention to Ives’ brainy, literate comedies. In this co-production between ion theatre and InnerMission Productions, Raygoza splits the directing duties with Carla Nell, general manager of New World Stage and co-founder of InnerMission Productions. The production is seamless; minimal set changes are accomplished with wit and alacrity, and it’s not easy to tell who directed which piece, which is good. Raygoza particularly nails the hair-trigger timing of Sure Thing and Philip Glass, while balancing the history/humor quotient in Trotsky, which unfortunately offers a weak ending to the highly entertaining evening. Nell does a fine job with Universal Language, Philadelphia and Words. The cast is masterful with the requisite quick-change characters and settings. And the pacing overall is excellent. Laura Bozanich and Jonathan Sachs are preternaturally funny, so they nail every one of their characters, from her stutterer to his Trotsky. Kim Strassburger is spot-on as a frustrated, howling chimp, and Andrew Kennedy is quite adept with the cleverly constructed Unamunda , welcoming his ‘prey’ with “Velcro! Harvard U?” ( welcome ; how are you?). This is definitely thinking-person’s theater. If you qualify, you won’t want to miss it.
THE LOCATION: New World Stage, San Diego ’s newest theater, downtown on 9th Avenue ; through August 13
BEST FEST OF THE WEST
Well, the 16TH ANNUAL ACTORS FESTIVAL is over, but it won’t be forgotten. Just about everything I saw was top-notch, especially in terms of acting and directing – and isn’t that what it’s all about? A marvelous showcase for local talent.
Program 4 was all emotional highs and lows. It began with a humorous bang — Awkward Silence by Jay Reiss, produced and directed by Jason Heil . Outstanding pacing and timing, as Lisel Gorell -Getz and Ryan Drummond meet on a first date and find little to say (while regaling us with all their innermost thoughts). This little piece was extremely well done all around. And it certainly merited its designation as Best of the Fest.
The Elixir of Genius , written, produced and directed by Festival artistic director George Soete, is a clever piece about a blocked writer (reliably funny Jonathan Sachs), who struggles over his computer, while a mysterious woman (Lori Pennington) shows up to torment him, as a range of his characters. As they play out potential scenes, Sachs gets inspired to create – or destroy, in the electronic equivalent of crumpling paper. Cute and finely executed.
A harrowing scene from The Rehearsal, a 1950 drama by Jean Anouilh , was also produced and directed by Jason Heil . This extreme change of tone showcased Heil’s directorial versatility. The Rehearsal concerns, as many of Anouilh’s works did, loss of innocence and the conflict between idealism and reality. It’s good vs. evil, the naïf against the shark, as a bitter, alcoholic, be-wigged French noble exacts a very precise, premeditated revenge on his old buddy, the Count, by ensnaring, entrapping and seducing the Count’s nubile, faithful but unworldly young mistress. He’s a Big Bad Wolf satirically named Hero. “I like breaking things,” he says with a gleeful sneer. When he’s done, both he and she are shattered. Douglas Lay bites into the role of this monstrous, self-loathing debauchee with gusto, oozing venom, circling his prey with grim, salivating, cavalier delight. It’s a delectable performance, ideally offset by the gentle, waifish virtue of radiant, white-clad Jennifer Sowden . Honorable Mention for Best of the Fest.
The Manager was one of a pair of works written, produced and directed by James Anthony Ellis. Erin Cronican makes a delightful return in this solo piece about a woman waiting, but trying not to wait, for a phonecall from a guy, while she analyzes every syllable he uttered for deeper significance “What is he thinking? He said ‘Later.”). Ultimately, she asserts her independence and self-respect – sort of. The other Ellis piece was the last of the evening, the blink-brief Which Reminds Me, in which a brother and sister rat on each other, bicker and fight, only to find their deeply-rooted connection and commonality. John Henry and Jessica Parsell perfectly captured the brattiness of sibs – and their underlying affection. And the light little piece made for a welcome emotional relief from the dark intensity of what preceded it… Matt Scott’s Storm Windows.
By far the most intense, chilling piece of the program was Storm Windows, a searing drama about a husband and wife in the not-too-distant future. She’s trying to get him to sign some papers; they’re actually his death warrant. He’s a quadriplegic in a semi-comatose state. An injection by a dispassionate physician ( Todd Blakesley ) renders him briefly lucid and verbally fluent. The interaction is gut-wrenching. Scott has had some personal experience with this sort of disability and, under the watchful eye of fastidious director Claudio Raygoza, his performance is breathtaking and heartbreaking. He details, with precision, all the moves and speech quirks of the neurologically impaired. Monique Gaffney is beautifully restrained as his pained, loving but levelheaded wife. It’s a provocative piece, an outstanding showcase and an unnerving picture of the kind of ghastly decisions families are forced to make every day. Gorgeous job, which won, quite appropriately, Best of the Fest.
NEWS AND VIEWS
NOT DONE YET>>>>
.. Matt Thompson, whose play, A FARE RIDE, just won Best of the Fest at the Actors Festival (he also produced and directed), has started a new theater company with fellow actor Lance Smith, who’s currently singing and dancing his way through the last century, in American Rhythm at Lamb’s Players Theatre. The Plutonium Theatre is premiering Matt’s latest creation, Hemingway’s Rose, August 11-September 2, at 6th @ Penn Theatre (quirky performance times: 10:30pm Fridays and 4pm Saturdays only). The play, directed by Angela Miller, stars Jonathan Sachs, Julie Sachs and Plutonium’s Ted Reis.
…Speaking of Festivals and New Plays, mark your calendar for the 13th annual Fritz Blitz of New Plays by California Writers — four weeks, eight plays, satisfaction guaranteed by the Fritz Theatre. In the Lyceum Space, August 24-September 17.
… Al so making a return this summer is Poor Players, who open their 2006 season with The Tempest, in two venues (August 11-13 at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Pt. Loma; Aug. 17-27 at New World Stage downtown). Nick Kennedy directs. Coming this fall: Hedda Gabler . www.poorplayers.com
… and another summer redux : The Supper Club at Café Lautrec in La Jolla . Eillen Bowman, Rita Cantos Cartwright, Skyler Dennon and Rick Hernandez (many of them long-time affiliates of La Jolla Stage Company) will sing for seven sizzling summer nights, accompanied by Bob MacLeod. The quaint garden setting is French, the food is Mediterranean and the evenings should be gourmet/cabaret.
… If you want to have your say on public art, show up for the first joint meeting of artists and community members, regarding a commissioned artwork for the new 1.3 acre East Village Park (14th Street between Island Ave. and J Street). The artists will invite dialogue about the site, the neighborhood and the local culture. The planned project is sponsored by CCDC and will be administered by the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture. The meeting is Saturday, August 5, from 10am to noon, in the community room of the Potiker Family Center , 525 14th Street .
… Poppin ’ Up to Vista … The San Diego Symphony is brining its Summer Pops concert to Moonlight Amphitheatre in Brengle Terrace Park , for an evening under the North County stars. The concert, “ Groovin ’ Down With Motown,” will feature such all-time favorites as “My Girl,” Tears of a Clown,” “Can’t Help Myself” and “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” The Symphony promises singers, dancers and lush orchestrations. Sunday, August 13. www.moonlightsummerpops.com
… Fully Re-Committed… David McBean happily reports that he’s changed his mind, and his plans. He’s no longer pursuing a career as a sign language interpreter. The experience of Fully Committed has made him realize that he belongs onstage, and will re-dedicate his life to perfecting his prodigious performing talents. That’s good news for theater (not-so-good news for the deaf community).
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Wicked – extravagant production, wonderful voices, fun for the whole family
At the Civic Theatre, through August 6
Al l in the Timing – clever, literate writing, wittily acted and directed
At New World Stage on 9th Avenue , through August 13
The Sisters Rosensweig – a flawed but sometimes effective production; you owe it to the late playwright (Wendy Wasserstein) to see her first production at the Old Globe
At the Old Globe, through August 20
Fully Committed – virtuoso performance by David McBean , who’s better than ever (this is a reprise production)
At Cygnet Theatre, through August 13
Iphigenia at Aulis – modern production and translation make the well-presented play timeless and politically relevant
At 6th @ Penn Theatre , through August 6
Titus Andronicus – a lot of political references and many laughs along with the gore; as director Darko Tresnjak puts it, his production is “bloody good fun!”
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through September 30
Othello – potent production. robustly acted and directed
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through October 1
We’re almost in the infamous Dog Days of summer…. so Get some bite… at the theater.
© 2006 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.