Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
February 24, 2010
A tomboy, a fantasist, a feminist, a writer. The description applies equally to Louisa May Alcott and one of her most charming creations, Jo March.
Jo, of course, is one of the “Little Women” that made Alcott a household name. A recent PBS “Great Performances” special looked at her life, family, diaries and backstory, and it became clear that a good part of her history found its way into her most famous fiction. Like Louisa, Jo lived in Concord , Mass. ; had three sisters, one of whom died young; endured poverty during the Civil War; and wrote stories to help support her family.
Not surprisingly, some story elements were not mirror-images of reality. In the novel, Mr. March was away at war, serving as a chaplain. Alcott’s father was a staunch pacifist, a transcendentalist like his friends and neighbors Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Unlike Jo, Alcott never married. But their personalities were strikingly similar.
Alcott’s classic, which has been translated into 50 languages and re-conceived for theater, movies, opera, animation, even anime, was originally published in two parts: “Little Women” (1868) and “Good Wives” (1869). This delightful new adaptation, by Jacqueline Goldfinger, who’s done so well for North Coast Rep with her dramatic retooling of “A Christmas Carol,” takes its narrative, dialogue and cues from the first part.
Commissioned by NCRT two years ago, the play covers one difficult but eventful year in the lives of the Marches, from Christmas to Christmas, as the young girls come of age, marry (or nearly marry), pine for their father, who becomes ill at the front, and work to overcome their unique and individual character flaws: Meg’s pride and envy, Jo’s volatility and temper, Beth’s incapacitating shyness and Amy’s vanity and selfishness. Marmee, that ever-wise über-Mom, even confesses to her own weakness, a tightly controlled anger problem. (This trait is exploited to maximum effect in Geraldine Brooks’ masterful, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “March,” that invents the ‘real’ story of the paterfamilias, who has his own surprising adventures, and whitewashes the horrors of the war in his letters home).
The Marches are a close-knit family, and that element is highlighted in this sweetly enchanting version. But there’s still room for fiery outbursts, sibling rivalry, illness and death. And men. Jo (marvelous, vigorous Caroline Kinsolving), the most ornery of the sisters, starts out upside-down, draped over the sofa reading, a delicious reference to Alcott’s self-description as a “topsy-turvy girl.”
Jo spends most of her time with her wealthy, cheerful and adoring neighbor, Laurie (engagingly energetic and droll Tim Parker ). Meg is smitten by Laurie’s stiff but good-hearted tutor, John Brooke (Brian Mackey, first-rate). Amy (effervescent Maddie Shea Baldwin) is amusingly petulant. Beth (nicely centered Brooke Byler), is a stabilizing force in her own quiet way. And then there’s Marmee (Linda Libby, solid and vocally brilliant; she’s really the only one who can sing OR play the piano, though Beth is supposed to be the musically gifted one), always doling out shrewd, prudent words to live by. Libby’s heartfelt rendition of “Nearer My God to Thee” is, along with the farewell reconciliation between Jo and Amy, the most moving moment of the play, more so than the death, which should be the tear-jerker but gets short shrift here.
Kirsten Brandt, the inventive former artistic director of Sledgehammer Theatre, brings whimsy and poignancy to the piece. The fun-loving antics of Jo and Laurie, and the pirate story re-enactments Jo engineers for her sisters, are especially rich. The pleasant, homey parlor (designed by Marty Burnett and dressed by Annie Bornhurst), is warmly lit ( Jason Bieber ). Like the period-perfect costumes ( Mary Larson ), it’s tidy but worn. The sound design ( Chris Luessmann ) features era-defining songs like “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Buffalo Gals,” some of which are gamely sung by the excellent ensemble.
Jo, like her creator, was ahead of her time. Those sparks of feminism and fierce independence lend a vibrant relevance to this timeless, touching and sweetly sentimental testament to family, loyalty, love and the power of the imagination.
THE LOCATION: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Dr. Solana Beach. (858) 481-1055; www.northcoastrep.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $34-41. Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m., select Saturdays at 2 p.m., through March 14.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
THE SHOW: “Culture Clash in AmeriCCa” – a 25th anniversary Best-Of compilation, at the San Diego Repertory Theatre
Immigrants take center stage in “Culture Clash in AmeriCCa,” but to the funnymen of Culture Clash, we’re all immigrants. The L.A.-based Chicano political comedy troupe has performed at the San Diego Repertory Theatre six times, with hilariously pointed social/satirical sketch comedy (“Culture Clash in Bordertown,” “Culture Clash Anthology,” “Radio Mambo”) and fully realized plays (“Water and Power”).
So, many of the characters and scenarios in this piece have already been seen here, some multiple times. Sadly, their incisive observations about the stratification of America , and the clashes between the classes, races, genders, sexual persuasions and ethnicities, haven’t yet gone away.
These little cross-cultural snapshots were captured through ten years of direct interviews in L.A. , New York , D.C., San Diego , San Francisco and Miami . We’re introduced to people on the fringes of society, including all kinds of Latinos: Mexicans, Cubans, Central Americans, Nuyoricans . Though they’re lumped together as Hispanics (a term they all disdain), they each have different accents, sensibilities, concerns – and dancing styles.
One of the signature CC pieces is Ricardo (formerly Ric) Salinas showing how the differences come out in doing the salsa; even whites and blacks get into that act. I’ve seen this piece three or four times, but it still cracks me up. Salinas moves with great agility. They all do. This show really highlights the enormous physicality of these brilliant mimics, who capture a character in a shorthand of well-chosen words and actions.
A few favorites:
– Montoya as a Boston Catholic, finally confronting the priest who abused him and his brothers, and asking Father Joe for forgiveness, for a lifetime of hatred and resentment toward the man.
– Herbert Siguenza’s red-pumped Cuban, under the “transsexual umbrella” (and Salinas , a hoot as his hottie boyfriend).
– Salinas as a Cuban merchant who espouses a “survival of the fittest” mentality. So hellbent on promoting his business, he’ll even exploit the hapless “rafters,” the boat people who try to make their way to America , in his Torino Furniture TV ads.
– All three as brutally honest long-term inmates in a Miami prison.
The backdrop is a huge, stage-sized American flag, against which are projected a shorthand suggestion of settings or iconic images (wonderful lighting by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz). As always, there’s an effort to keep the pieces fresh and relevant. So there are references to Tiger Woods, the teabaggers, curling, Toyota , the Obamas, Sarah Palin writing on her palm, and local hotspots like La Jolla, Sea World, National City , Hillcrest, Coronado and the Centro Cultural de la Raza.
When Culture Clash presented this show at the Rep in 2002, they ended with a wrenching post-9/11 poem by Montoya. This time, the capper could have been another Montoya showcase: his Palestinian cabbie (“I will not be an apologist for my people”), who tells how, after 9/11, “ some American white people came to the mosque to be with us, to pray with us. It was a very beautiful, very courageous thing. This is America to me.”
But perhaps that’s too upbeat for the message the trio ultimately wants to convey. Instead, they concluded with a Pendleton Marine’s letter to his parents. “I’m comin’ home soon,” says an offstage voice. Next thing we see is a flag-draped caisson. Even a comedy troupe never forgets that what’s really going on in America is deadly serious.
THE LOCATION: San Diego Repertory Theatre, in Horton Plaza . (619) 544-1000; www.sdrep.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $18-$47; $18 for students. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., through March 7.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
NOTE : After the conclusion of this brief run, Herbert Siguenza will be workshopping his latest one-man show, “A Weekend With Pablo Picasso.” Since it’s a work-in-progress (directed by the Rep’s Todd Salovey ), there will be no reviews. March 21-April 11.
Out of the Mouths of Babes…
THE SHOW: Plays by Young Writers” – the Playwrights Project presents the winning plays of their statewide contest
Youths speak out — big time — in the 25th annual presentation of Plays by Young Writers. The winning scripts, selected from among the 242 entries in the statewide competition, include three full-length plays, by writers age 16-18, and three short pieces, presented as staged readings, by younger writers, age 12-13. Thus far, I’m seriously impressed.
“In the Stars,” a short piece by a 13 year-old from Carmel Mountain Middle School . Nachiketa Baru is already a two-time statewide Contest winner and a 2008 finalist. His smart, funny-but-sad play, which focuses on a couple of unemployed 20-somethings, touches on the need, greed and the financial crisis; one of the guys bought a house he can’t afford. These two slackers shoot for a get-rich-quick scheme, setting up a fortune-telling business, then getting sucked into a shady Ponzi scheme that goes south pretty fast. “We had morals when it was fashionable to have them,” one of the guys exclaims from his prison cell, at the end. “But we were too greedy to ask questions if there was free money.” Excellently performed, under the direction of Carrie Klewin, the piece had the stunning audacity to confront the repercussions of greed and amorality. Refreshing!
The hot buzz of this year’s productions is “Re-Drowning Ophelia,” written by 18-year-old Katie Henry of Berkeley ; now 19, she’s studying dramatic writing at NYU. Her devastating play is a virulent response to the numerous pop writers and psychobabblers who see all teenage girls in terms of Hamlet’s main squeeze. Her characters, students in a girls’ Catholic high school, are not pathetic victims, they’re not defined by the men in their lives, and they’re not easily categorized or compartmentalized. There are what some might consider high school ‘types’: the jock, the brain, the slut, the alpha girl and her minions, even the lesbian. But these are complex, multi-faceted, thinking young women who defy stereotypes, and reveal some of their inner feelings and demons – as well as how they turned out later in life.
The piece is framed as a lecture given by Olivia, one of the characters, who describes what’s to come as “a look into the world of today’s modern teenage girl,” focusing especially on the hierarchical structure of that seminal microcosm, high school. “Like wolves,” she explains. “I’m gonna make you want to have your tubes tied,” says Olivia at the outset, addressing the audience. “You’re all going back to high school!” And so we do, in all the squirm-inducing reality that entails. The bitchiness, the exclusivity, the cruelty. The occasional, unexpected acts of kindness or compassion. It’s all there. With smart, savvy, insights, compelling characters, sharp dialogue. And plenty of issues, from sex to violence to abuse to parents to homosexuality.
Acclaimed playwright Stephen Metcalfe served as dramaturge on this production. Director Katie Rodda amassed an outstanding cast, and each so totally inhabits her character, it’s breathtaking. The most fascinating part for me every year is watching the plays with a young audience. There were kids from 8th grade through high school on the day I attended (this play’s rated PG-13, and some of the harsher language was excised for the school performance). The piece still packed a gut-punch. If you are, were or know a high school girl, or a guy who loves theater, or even one who doesn’t, this is a show you shouldn’t miss. You’ll be hearing from this writer again. You’ll be seeing these amazing actors again. Catch them now, and prepare to be gobsmacked.
These two plays are paired this Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. On Friday night and Saturday afternoon, you can see two different full productions: “Funny Little Thing,” by Quinn Sosna-Spear of Santa Barbara, and “What All School Children Learn,” by Ben jamin Sprung-Keyser of L.A., with readings of “The Tale of Jack,” by Enrique Hernandez of Escondido, and “The Funny Bone,” by Chris Toth and Mikie Kantya Layavong of San Diego.
THE LOCATION: Playwrights Project at the Lyceum, Horton Plaza . (619) 239-8222; www.playwrightsproject.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $15-20. Friday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., through February 28.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
QUICKIES: Closed Shows Worth Noting
…“A Little Night Music”
I overheard one Lyric Opera San Diego audience member saying, “Some people came here expecting Mozart!” Those must be the classicists, not the musical theater aficionados.
Brilliant composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim (and librettist Hugh Wheeler) did steal the title from the master’s “Serenade No. 13 for Strings in G Major,” AKA “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” but the 1973 musical was really inspired by the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film, “Smiles of a Summer Night.”
Presenting the musical for the first time in 12 years, Lyric Opera employed a full, 25-piece orchestra and used the original Jonathan Tunick orchestrations. “Even the current revival on Broadway, starring Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones,” boasted LOSD artistic director J. Sherwood Montgomery, “uses only eight musicians and a synthesizer.”
Under the baton of general director Leon Natker , the orchestra sounded quite lush. The singing was glorious (musical preparation by Joseph Grienenberger ), though the diction of the chorus wasn’t always crystalline. But equal attention didn’t seem to have been given to character development or highlighting the wry, clever humor of the piece. One of the exceptions was Andrea Huber (who played Countess Maritza at Lyric Opera, in the operetta of the same name), sheer delight as Desirée Armfeldt, the wildly independent actress who realizes, too late, that she wants to settle down (Huber did an excellent job with “Send in the Clowns”). Also Shirley Giltner, who had just the right biting sarcasm as Countess Charlotte-Malcolm, wife of the pompous Count (gorgeous-voiced Raymond Ayers). The coup for this production was getting Old Globe associate artist Kandis Chappell to play Desirée’s jaded mother, Madame Armfeldt. There were some excellent elements to the production, but the wit and lyric genius were under-emphasized. Still, hearing the 3/4-time score in all its glory was a treat in itself.
NOTE : Local soprano Priti Gandhi, whom San Diegans have gotten to know recently through her wonderfully amusing and insightful musings on her two appearances at the San Diego Opera (in “La Bohème” last month and currently, in “Nabucco”), will be performing a recital for Lyric Opera, where she made her professional debut. Having appeared at opera houses all over North America and Europe , Gandhi now she returns to her ‘home company’ for her first-ever solo recital. Accompanied by the San Diego Opera’s director of education, Nicolas Reveles, she’ll present an eclectic selection of music from the worlds of opera, art song and musical theater. March 6, 7:30 p.m. www.lyricoperasandiego.org
…“The Revenger’s Tragedy” at UCSD Theatre and Dance
A play that traffics in greed, lust, envy, vengeance, disloyalty and death sounds pretty modern. Never mind that it was first performed in 1606, it still seems subversive and perverse. Actually, the play is so relentlessly, murderously bloody, so totally over the top, it’s impossible to play it straight. Starting in the 20th century, Thomas Middleton’s gore-fest began to be performed as a black comedy. So it made perfect, up-to-the-minute sense that Christopher Ashley , artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, and this year’s Quinn Martin Guest Chair in directing at UCSD, would combine his interests in technology and the arts to present the piece as a reality TV show.
Plus, he was named first-ever Director in Residence at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), a high-tech research institute at UCSD, which gave him access to a bevy of technological innovators in addition to the talented MFA acting students (plus a few undergrads). The result was a kick; the conceit worked wonderfully, maintaining the intrigue and claw-each-other’s-eyes-out energy. Not everyone in the large ensemble had the requisite ‘attitude’ and linguistic agility. But the projections and film elements were delectable; much of the action was shot and shown live, though the speech was out of synch with the actors. The set (Robert Tintoc) and costumes (Sarah Cogan) were highly imaginative. Standouts in the 21-member cast were Mark Christine, Johnny Gill, Maren Bush and Maritxell Carrero. Kudos to all, for transforming an old tragedy into a humorous and provocative (if lengthy) evening of high comic drama.
NEWS AND VIEWS
… Year of the Pirate: Ahoy, mateys! It’s a swashbuckling season. First came the pirate scene in “Little Women.” And now two – count ‘em, two! – productions of “The Pirates of Penzance,” the Gilbert and Sullivan perennial. Lyric Opera San Diego opens its production, starring J. Sherwood Montgomery in his signature role as the Modern Major General, March 26 (running through 4/11). The Welk Theatre welcomes two stellar performers: Randall Dodge , who won a Patté Award for playing the Pirate King at Moonlight Stage Productions in 2005; and Richard Bermudez, who starred, memorably, in the Welk’s “Joseph… Dreamcoat” last year. March 11-5/2. Arrrrrr. Batten down the hatches.
… The Beatles are Back !: Well, a Beatles tribute band, anyway. Abbey Road , which was selected to headline the Beatles Festival 2010 in an 11-city North American tour, will be performing at the Welk Theatre on Sundays from March 14-April 18, at 7 p.m. The show, called “Ticket to Ride Musical,” offers “a glimpse inside the world of the Beatles from the band’s point of view, as we hear some of the greatest songs ever written.” Fyi , the Beatles Festival tour stops at the Gaslamp Quarter in September, and among many other activities, features an attempt to amass the largest-ever number of people singing “Hey Jude” — to be adjudicated by folks from the Guinness Book of World Records. Tickets for the Welk performances are at (562) 480-7951; www.tickettoridemusical.com
… Singing Out at Schroeder’s: Schroeder’s at Tango Del Rey boasts a heavy-hitting lineup for March. On March 6, there’s “Hollywood Sings , ! ” an evening of Academy Award-winning and nominated songs of the Golden Era, with Karen Giorgio and Glenn Rose. On March 12, it’s “A Night at the Moulin Rouge !, ” a cabaret workshop showcase. And on March 20, Sam Harris, star of stage, screen and television, appears with pianist/singer/showman Todd Schroeder, for whom the cabaret venue is named. Reservations/information at (858) 794-9044; www.tangodelrey.com.
… What a tease !: For the first time in local theater history, a professional theater company is collaborating with a high school to present a big, splashy musical — “Hairspray.” The San Diego Repertory Theatre is teaming up with the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts for the Southern California regional theater premiere of the show first helmed on Broadway by the Old Globe’s former artistic director, Jack O’Brien. This partnering presentation will be directed by San Diego Rep artistic director Sam Woodhouse , with assistance from SCPA’s artistic director, Richard Trujillo . Coming to the Lyceum Theatre this July-August. www.sdrep.org
… The readin’ o’ the green: Write Out Loud, in association with Lamb’s Players Theatre, is presenting “Voices of Ireland,” short stories by and about the Irish, by celebrated writers such as Brendan Behan, W.B. Yeats and Frank O’Connor. Monday, March 15 at 7:30 p.m., at the Horton Grand Theatre, 444 4th Avenue , downtown. For reserved tickets, call (619) 437-6000.
… Another One Bites the Dust: The Denver Center for the Performing Arts just announced that it will phase out its National Theatre Conservatory. The 3-year accredited Master of Fine Arts program in acting, similar to the one at the Old Globe/USD, was founded in 1984 and chartered by the U.S. Congress. It’s considered to be one of the leading MFA programs in the country. In view of “prevailing economic conditions and their impact on operations,” the Centre has decided to focus its attention and resources on its mandate: “producing world-class theater.” Yet another sad casualty of the financial crisis.
…V-Day for Women AND Men: InnerMission Productions is presenting “The Vagina Monologues” at Diversionary Theatre on March 3, 5 and 6. OnStage Playhouse is presenting a benefit production of the same provocative Eve Ensler piece on March 12 and 13 at Mangia Italiano Restaurant in Chula Vista (619-422-7787; www.onstageplayhouse.org). And, continuing an exciting new tradition begun last year, Triad Productions is presenting the man’s-eye view of women and violence, the provocative, constantly-evolving work, “The MENding Monologues,” March 4, 6 and 7 at Diversionary Theatre. Details at www.innermissionproductions.org
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
v Plays by Young Writers – wonderful, insightful, imaginative works by playwrights age 12-18
Lyceum Theatre, through 2/28
v “Little Women” –engaging, amusing and touching new adaptation
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through 3/14
v “Culture Clash in AmeriCCa” – takes a big, cross-cultural, humorous and incisive bite out of the American pie
San Diego Repertory Theatre, through 3/7
v “An Inspector Calls” – razor-sharp production of a mystery/thriller classic
Lamb’s Players Theatre, through 3/21
v “The Wild Party” – wild, indeed! Cheeky, wicked and wonderfully sung/danced/acted
Coronado Playhouse, through 3/6
v “The Man Who” – an actors’ showcase, a hard look at the brain; something different and provocative (the subject matter may not be for everyone, but the performances are!)
New Village Arts , through 2/28
Read Review here: Read Review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2010-02-11/things-to-do/theater-things-to-do/the-wild-party-plus-more-theater-reviews-news
v “The Piano Lesson” –flawless production of August Wilson ’s provocative, Pulitzer Prize-winning drama
Cygnet Theatre, through 2/28
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer,’ and the name of the play of interest, in the SDNN Search box.