Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
March 18, 2010
THE SHOW: “ Romeo and Juliet , ” the Gounod opera, at San Diego Opera
Passion. Murder. Revenge. Suicide. Everything but the family reconciliation.
Charles Gounod’s 1867 opera, “Romeo and Juliet,” retains almost all of Shakespeare’s original elements – minus a few characters, plus one (Romeo’s page, Stephano). But the real focus here is on unabashed, unadulterated love. The titular paramours even have the benefit of a poignant, tragic final duet (Shakespeare’s Juliet is dead by the time Romeo arrives in the family crypt).
Gounod’s luscious music is as lyrical and romantic as its theme and source. The libretto (by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré) even borrows directly from the Bard, though the language (supertitles by Geoffrey Moore, provided by the Dallas Opera) is modernized.
Gounod’s creation, like Shakespeare’s, is set in 14th century Verona . The first musical strains are ominous, portentous, foreshadowing the tragedy to come. At the San Diego Opera, which hasn’t performed the work since 1998, the gorgeous opening scene, at the Capulet Ball, is the embodiment of a Renaissance painting, all lush, earthy browns, claret and blues, bathed in golden light (lighting design by Ruth Hutson). The masked revelers are scattered about on two levels in the attractive, malleable set (designed, like the lovely costumes, for the Utah Symphony). The energetic dance (choreographed by Keturah Stickann ) features eye-popping males in tights who perform dazzling entrechats. Director Cynthia Stokes gives the magnificent Chorus credible stage business, and keeps the suspense and romance sizzling throughout. Every element underscores the undeniable attraction of the title characters, played by a striking offstage couple who bring an easy ardor to their roles.
As Juliet, Ailyn Pérez is exquisite, a tiny dynamo of energy and passion. Her lust for life’s experiences is immediately evident, as is the clarity and agility of her crystalline coloratura, in her radiant aria, “Je veux vivre” (I want to live). Pérez’s tall, hunky husband, Stephen Costello, makes for a dashing Romeo, all brash impetuosity and ardent devotion. His bold tenor voice leaps and soars, and melds magnificently with her luminous lyric soprano in their four luscious, amorous duets, from the tender minuet of their meeting to the hot-blooded, breathless beauty of the balcony scene, to their heartrending finale. The third-act romp in Juliet’s gossamer four-poster is blistering.
The rest of the mostly American principals are excellent: baritone David Adam Moore as a wonderfully vigorous and droll Mercutio and commanding bass Kevin Langan as the well-meaning Friar Laurence. Mezzo soprano Suzanna Guzmán, a frequent performer at SDO, makes a formidable Gertrude, Juliet’s protective, solicitous nurse, though the character loses much of her bawdy humor in this version of the story. Powerful bass-baritone Scott Sikon is an imposing presence as Count Capulet (only one parent in this R&J incarnation, instead of four).
Tenor Joel Sorensen is aptly bull-headed and bellicose as Tybalt, who insists on defending the Capulets against what he perceives to be marauding Montagues. But that, as we know, turns out badly for all. In the trouser role of Romeo’s page, Stephano, an amalgam of Shakespeare’s servants, New Zealand mezzo Sarah Castle is spunky and spirited. The duels (fight director Dale Anthony Girard) are admirably executed.
Resident conductor Karen Keltner, a master of the French repertoire who’s fluent in the music and the language (she also serves as diction coach), elicits fervent, rhapsodic emotion from the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. Chorus Master Timothy Todd Simmons does the same for the sonorous vocalists.
If you’re an opera-lover, a Shakespeare-lover – or just a lover – this stunning production is not to be missed.
THE LOCATION: The Civic Theatre, 3rd Avenue and B St., downtown San Diego. (619) 533-7000 ; www.sdopera.com
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $35-190. Only two more performances: Friday 3/19 at 8 p.m., Sunday 3/21 at 2 p.m.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
NOTE : And if you’d like to revisit the original – with “no holds Bard” – check out the Poor Players production of “Romeo and Juliet,” 3/19-4/4 at Swedenborg Hall. www.poorplayers.com
Yo Ho Ho and a Barrel of Fun
THE SHOW: “The Pirates of Penzance” – the Gilbert & Sullivan classic, The Welk Resorts Theatre
Soft-hearted, sensitive pirates meet cavorting, cowardly cops in “The Pirates of Penzance; or, The Slave of Duty,” an 1879 comic opera by W.S. Gilbert (libretto) and Arthur Sullivan (music), which premiered in New York in 1879. That was the only time the brilliant Victorians opened a work anywhere but London. When, 101 years later, the show opened again in New York, it was pumped up and camped up, and that’s pretty much the way it’s been done ever since.
It’s kind of hard to take the silly story seriously, so you might as well take it over the top. This is the charmingly inane tale of Frederic, who, through a hearing mis-perception, spends years apprenticed to a pirate (it was supposed to have been a pilot). Now he’s 21, and his duty is done. He leaves behind the nurse who made the mistake but stayed with him throughout, and sets off to see the world. His first encounter is with a bevy of beauties, the eight virginal daughters of a bombastic Major General. Frederic falls instantly for Mabel, and vows to wed her. But the Pirate King and nurse, not wanting to let go of the delightfully ingenuous Frederic, convince him that, since he was born on leap year, February 29, he’s not 21 years old at all; he’s actually only 5½, and he has 63 more years of duty and obligation to the would-be brigands. Of course, this being comic opera – the fanciful forerunner of musical theater – everything comes out right in the end for just about everyone.
Director/choreographer Ray Limon has staged the show many times, most recently in these parts at Moonlight Stage Productions in 2005, where his two male leads were knockouts: Randall Dodge , who won a Patté Award for his bravura performance as the Pirate King; and wide-eyed, talented Richard Bermudez as Frederic. Felicitously for all, Limon brought them to the Welk (a very welcome return for Dodge, who’s been living in Chicago and has now moved back San Diego, with his wife, actor Brenda Dodge and their latest addition). Both Dodge and Bermudez, first-rate actors and singers, cheerfully overplay every ridiculous moment, and the show is the better for it. The rest of the cast is excellent, too.
Karenssa LeGear brings a winning way and an outstanding soprano to the role of Mabel; Bart Williams is comical as the “modern Major General”; and Sue Goodman, though she doesn’t look quite old enough, is clever and capable as Frederic’s adoring nurse, Ruth. Rick Cox is fun as the Smee-like pirate, Samuel, joined by two others — a rather small band — who double as cops.
They all seem to be having a marvelous time, romping about and horsing around. As the police sergeant (and dance captain), Dennis Kenney gets to flaunt his terpsichorean skills, including a mid-air split. But I had the same complaint about the cops this time as I did during the Moonlight production: they’re just not funny enough, or bumbling enough. They look great, dressed like Keystone Kops, but they don’t bump into each other and trip all over each other and otherwise demonstrate how completely inept (and gutless) they are. This is social satire, after all. Their policemen’s second act number, “When the Foeman Bears His Steel,” should be a side-splitting show-stopper. Not, alas, here.
The simple set and attractive costumes (from Theatrical Productions, Inc.) work well. The pared-down orchestrations (musical director/pianist Justin Gray, and four musicians) sound a tad anemic for the big, brassy numbers. But there’s plenty of movement, activity, talent and shtick to command your attention. And the voices are estimable. Each of the daughters (six here, instead of the eight in the original) manages to carve out a cute little character.
It all adds up to an amusing, entertaining experience — buffoonish, overblown fun for the family.
THE LOCATION: Welk Resorts Theatre, 8860 Lawrence Welk Dr., Escondido. ( 760) 749-3448 ; www.welktheatresandiego.com
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $44-47; $58-63 with buffet. Thursday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m., through May 2.
THE BOTTOM LINE : Best Bet
NOTE : More Pirates on the way. Lyric Opera San Diego’s production of “The Pirates of Penzance” runs 3/26-4/11 at the Birch North Park Theatre. www.lyricoperasandiego.org
STATE OF THE ARTS: Report on the local visit of NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman
Rocco Landesman , the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), made San Diego the first California stop on his national tour promoting the NEA’s “Art Works” initiative. A former theater producer (a “recovering Broadway producer,” as he put it), Landesman, the 19th chairman of the NEA, was here to promote the idea that the arts are intrinsic to the spiritual and social/economic health of a community and a nation. His visit came just five weeks after Mayor Jerry Sanders met with NEA officials to talk about San Diego’s thriving arts community and how the NEA might partner with San Diego in helping the city celebrate the 2015 centennial of the Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park .
Landesman said he was especially pleased to be returning to the place where his theater career began. The first show he ever produced was “Big River” at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1984. His second show was “Into the Woods” at the Old Globe (1987). He described the “triple entendre” of his initiative’s title: “Artworks as a noun, an artform. Art works — to change and inspire, to help us understand ourselves. And art works, that is, arts jobs are a real part of the economy. $2.4 billion in revenues in California. The arts build stronger, more livable, sustainable communities.”
Some of the more important points he made:
v “Any plan for coming out of the recession has to include the arts.” Citing studies, he said, “People who participate in arts and culture activities are more likely to engage in the community, and in politics. And the racial/ethnic tensions in the community decrease. The arts make a major difference in child welfare, decreasing truancy and juvenile delinquency. And art is a poverty-fighter. Arts jobs leverage other jobs: administrators, designers, stage hands, parking lot attendants and more.”
v Federal agencies and the private sector must work together as catalysts to use the arts for revitalization (e.g., artist housing, an arts charter school to transform a neighborhood), inserting the arts into everyday business.
Landesman’s toured local locations that showcase San Diego as an arts innovator: Balboa Park, NTC Promenade, MCASD downtown, the Children’s Museum and others. On Saturday afternoon, a large swath of the arts community showed up for a public forum with Landesman at the La Jolla Playhouse. After questions were presented to the panelists by moderator Chris Ashley, artistic director of the LJ Playhouse, there was a Q&A with the audience. The panel included: Lou Spisto of the Old Globe; Alan Ziter, NTC Foundation; Victoria Hamilton, San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture; Hugh Davies, Museum of Contemporary Art; Vicki Estrada, Media Arts Center/Latino Film Festival; and Jennifer Vanica, Market Creek Plaza. Each panelist demonstrated how San Diego is making Art Work.
Victoria Hamilton reported that the 72 organizations funded by the Commission for Arts and Culture contributed more than $180 million in direct spending to the local economy. They also attracted an estimated 1.6 million cultural tourists, who spent nearly $394 million here in 2008.
“Collectively,” said Lou Spisto, “arts and culture is a big industry in San Diego. We outpace the Chargers, with 4500 arts-related businesses employing 24,000 people. The Old Globe alone is one of the largest employers of artists in the country.”
Hugh Davies talked about using new technology and social media to engage new audiences. The Museum of Contemporary Arts has nearly 3800 Facebook fans. They have artist interviews on YouTube, installation images on Flickr, and cellphone/iPhone tours of exhibitions. Davies made a plea for reinstating the NEA’s “Artist Grants,” which fostered “direct subsidy of creativity.” That comment drew appreciative applause. Jennifer Vanica talked about young people using phone “flash-mobbing,” which can “draw and mobilize 1000 kids in one minute, to get them to come to an event.”
One of the first audience questions was: Why did San Diego only receive $75,000 of NEA funds last year (the Globe receiving $50,000 of that amount)? There was discussion about getting a California representative on the National Council on the Arts, which advises the Chairman of the NEA.
Fielding another question, Landesman said a Cabinet level position for an Arts & Culture Minister was unlikely any time soon (“”That’s a quick ticket out of town for any President”). But he did say that, for the first time in a long while, “arts are part of the national conversation and part of domestic policy.”
Landesman noted that the number of cultural institutions has been proliferating, but the number of people attending is declining. The question is: Are we overbuilt?
“We may be in the middle of a sea-change,” the NEA chairman said, “in terms of the ‘reverential temples’ that have housed the arts. We might need to get out into the community.”
Hugh Davies countered Landesman’s assertion, noting that audiences for museums are actually increasing, perhaps due to the ease of access (no particular start/end time for visiting, etc.).
Another audience question was: What is San Diego doing to develop the next generation of arts leaders? Victoria Hamilton described a $500,000 grant (with money from the Irvine Foundation) for an Emerging Leaders Program. Other local organizations provide internships, artist-in-residence support and USD has a Non-Profit Management program, in addition to the MFA training programs at USD, SDSU, UCSD and Pt. Loma Nazarene.
Several panelists talked about the need for openness: access to rehearsals and work in progress, to engage the community more directly. One of the barriers to this, at present, is union (e.g., Equity) rules, that Landesman said are “from another era.”
Among the major challenges to the arts community that were discussed: the changing demographics of our community (i.e., reaching more young people and more diverse populations); how to bring the arts to the diverse communities, not just bring the communities to the arts; the lack of high-level civic pride in the arts we do have; creating facilities to house all the arts organizations we have (“We can’t even build a library downtown,” said Alan Ziter. “I bet the football stadium gets built before the library”).
Landesman reiterated that theater, as the most collaborative art, should be a model for system-wide collaboration. He indicated that collaboration is “the ethos of this Administration. The President has directed other agencies to collaborate with the NEA. Every agency has an arts aspect. This Administration gets it, that the arts are about quality of life.”
Perhaps no new ground was broken during the meeting, which in some ways was a show-and-tell and in others, a gripe session. But getting all those arts and culture folks together in one room was important. If just one or two viable ideas, partnerships, alliances or collaborations come out of the event, it will have been worthwhile. It’s a gathering that’s worth having once or twice a year.
NEWS AND VIEWS
… No Reviews Allowed: But suffice to say that John Leguizamo has a boatload of slavishly devoted fans. On the night I was there to see his Page to Stage work in progress at the La Jolla Playhouse, two women threw panties up onto the stage (should I mention that he sniffed them?). The outrageous performer lives up to the title of his new solo piece: “Diary of a Madman.” Interesting that we’ve got two multi-culti autobio shows going on at once; the other is Mo’olelo’s “self (the remix),” starring hip hop/spoken word performer Robert Farid Karimi . See ‘em both to compare, if you can, though at last check, Leguizamo’s entire run was sold out and many Mo’olelo performances were, too. Both shows run through 3/21.
… More hip hop: Classics 4 Kids is presenting Culture Shock at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido on Wednesday, 3/24 at 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. The $2 performance is geared for students in grades 6-12. Through the power of music and dance, Culture Shock is dedicated to cultivating self-worth, dignity and respect for others. (760) 988-4253; www.artcenter.org
… More Culture Shock: The Culture Shock Dance Center will host Dance 4 Haiti, a hip hop benefit with proceeds going to the American Red Cross’ efforts on behalf of the earthquake-ravaged country. A day of Master Classes will feature instructors such as Leslie Scott, who has danced for Beyoncé and P. Diddy, and Japanese wacking and locking expert Kanna Burch. Saturday 3/27 from 3-9 p.m. The public is invited “to get down and boogie for a great cause.” www.cultureshockdancecenter.com
… Let It Be : Let it be Art! Harold Clurman’s Life of Passion will be presented as a one-night, off-night performance at North Coast Repertory Theatre. Clurman, a visionary director and theater critic who died in 1980, was “the elder statesman of the American theater.” The solo show, which recently played Off Broadway, is written and performed by Ronald Rand. Wednesday, April 14 at NCRT. www.northcoastrep.org
… Mark Twain Tonite!: SDSU is presenting a new play, “Tom and Huck and Jim, A Mark Twain Centenary Tribute,” a literary tale set in 19th century, segregated Hannibal, MO, where Samuel Clemens grew up and wrote his classic novels. Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the death of the Great American Author, the play features his timeless characters, whose adventures have lessons to teach about freedom and justice. Adapted and directed by Margaret Larlham, with original musical compositions by recent Patté Award winner Thomas Hodges . In the Experimental Theatre on the campus, through 3/21. (619) 594-6884; theatre.sdsu.edu
… Movin’ On, Movin’ Up: Local actor/photographer Daren Scott has just snagged a recurring role on the new TV private-eye comedy, “Terriers.” The pilot is currently being shot in Ocean Beach … UCSD alumnus Mat Smart (MFA in playwriting, author of “The Hopper Collection,” among others) will premiere his play, “Samuel J. and K.,” at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts this summer… and a frequent former Moonlight Stage performer Josh Breckenridge, is appearing in “The Scottsboro Boys,” the final musical penned by Kander and Ebb (“Chicago,” “Cabaret”), currently running Off Broadway.
… Moxie Theatre continues its first New Play Festival, staged readings of plays by feisty females, entitled “Fighting Words.” The playwrights are Jennifer Barclay (“Red Helen”), Katie Henry (“Re-Drowning Ophelia,” recently premiered at Plays by Young Writers), Lojo Simon (“Adoration of Dora”), Zsa Zsa Gershick (“Coming Attractions”) and Jacqueline Goldfinger (“the terrible girls”). March 19-28. Tickets at (858) 598-7620; www.moxietheatre.com
… PowPAC, Poway’s Community Theatre, presents a staged reading of “Collective Dating,” by V.B. Leghorn. A series of seven vignettes on the humor and hazards of hooking up, from matchmakers to blind dates, from speed dating to drag dating, the show plays on Sunday, 3/21 at 7 p.m., upstairs in the Lively Center at 13250 Poway Road. Reservations recommended (858) 679-8085; www.powpac.org.
… American International Theater, Inc. and local bed and breakfast Jamul Haven are collaborating for a monthly play reading series at the luxury, arts-focused Victorian inn. The free readings, which began in March, will be held at 5 p.m. on the first Saturday of each month, with audience discussion to follow. AIT producing director William Roetzheim (playwright of “Dickinson,” presented last year by Lynx Performance Theatre) says the series will allow local playwrights to hear their plays read and obtain audience reaction. The next reading, to be held on April 3, will feature Roetzheim’s newest creation, “Tempestuous,” a riff on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Updated to a modern setting, the stormy story is re-told from the perspective of the sprite, Ariel, an orphan girl rescued from a life on the streets.
… The Carlsbad Playreaders are presenting a reading of “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” a Tony nominee for Best Play of 2006. Another black comedy from Martin McDonagh, it’s a tale of murderous revenge, featuring a dead cat, a tortured drug dealer and a brutal, bloody shootout. McDonagh is always good for a few laughs. Ron Choularton, Mike Sears, Tim Parker , Erika Beth Phillips, Donal Pugh and others star. Monday, March 22 at 7:30 p.m. at the Carlsbad City Library, 1775 Dove Lane. Reservations not necessary.
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
v “Romeo and Juliet” – beautiful, lyrical production of the Gounod opera, gorgeously sung
San Diego Opera, through 3/21
v “The Pirates of Penzance” – overblown and over-the-top, with over-the-moon singing
The Welk Resorts Theatre, through 5/2
v “Ring Round the Moon” – delightfully daft comedy
Moonlight Stage Productions at the Avo Playhouse, through 3/21
v “self (the remix)” – intriguing solo hip hop autobiography
Mo’olelo at the 10th Avenue Theatre, through 3/21
v “An Inspector Calls” – razor-sharp production of a mystery/thriller classic
Lamb’s Players Theatre, EXTENDED through 3/28
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.