Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
Thursday, July 16, 2009
READ MINI-REVIEWS OF: “ Yerma ,” “Shakespeare Unscripted”
Those Dancin ’ Feet
THE SHOW: “42nd Street,” the ultimate musical about musicals, with book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, lyrics by Al Dubin , and music by Harry Warren, at the Moonlight Amphitheatre
Early in the 1930s, there was a dancer on Broadway who wrote a novel about what he knew best: Broadway. Bradford Ropes’ little creation was called “ 42nd Street ,” and it went on to become a 1933 movie classic, choreographed by Busby Berkeley (with Ruby Keeler in her screen debut, and Ginger Rogers in a secondary role) and nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Years later, in 1980, the show-within-a-show, behind-the-scenes story was turned into a stage musical, which won two Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and another Tony in 2001 for Best Musical Revival.
Quite a pedigree. But wait; it gets better. A featured dancer and dance captain for the original Broadway production, which was directed and choreographed by the legendary Gower Champion, is now directing the beloved musical at Moonlight Amphitheatre. L.A.-based Jon Engstrom was here in 2005 to direct “ 42nd Street ” at the Welk Resort Theatre. In fact, over the past three decades, he’s re-created the show nearly 60 times, at regional theaters nationwide. And despite the musical’s decidedly old-fashioned feel, the story has a poignant relevance right now.
It’s all about a dictatorial director trying to mount a musical extravaganza at the height of the Great Depression. The auditions for the 1933 production of “Pretty Lady” are just about over when Peggy Sawyer steps off the train from Allentown , PA , suitcase in hand, wide-eyed and innocent, determined to get her big break on Broadway. Billy Lawlor , already cast as one of the leads, bumps into Peggy and hoping to charm her into a date, brings her to the auditions. She gets hired for the chorus, and then summarily fired. She runs afoul of the prima donna star. And then, when said diva sustains an injury, Peggy is called back in at the last minute, to save the show and become its headliner. Sometimes, fairy tales do come true.
Moonlight Stage Productions’ “ 42nd Street ” is an absolute dream. It’s a stunning production (with scenery from Reagle Players in Waltham , MA , and elaborate costumes designed for the Theatre Company in Upland , CA , locally coordinated by Roslyn Lehman, Renetta Lloyd and Carlotta Melone ). The new, multi-million-dollar stagehouse should also get star billing. Not only does it make the whole Moonlight experience brighter and more accessible, it provides outstanding, crystalline sound (Peter Hashagen ), typically a major problem in outdoor theaters, as well as dazzling lighting (Christina Munich). And with the musical direction of Elan McMahan, the orchestra, under the baton of Kenneth Gammie , sounds full and robust, as brassy and brash as Broadway.
Engstrom has created stellar dance numbers for his high-kicking, high-energy cast of 39, bringing back all the glitter, glam and lock-step precision of the Busby Berkeley originals. The singing is superb, and the leads, most of whom have played these roles before, bring flash, flair and polish to the production.
Cute-as-a-button Cassie Silva is sheer ingénue delight as Peggy; when she taps, her feet move so fast they seem to be electronically controlled. She makes a charming match with adorable, mega-talented Jeffrey Scott Parsons as Billy; they display an easy rapport, having played opposite each other in the same roles at Cabrillo Music Theatre in Thousand Oaks . David Kirk Grant, who manages to bring a little heart to the gruff, autocratic director, also portrayed Julian Marsh on the show’s national tour.
As the mean-spirited fading star, Dorothy Brock, Amy Biedel shows off her gorgeous lower register and authoritative stage presence. Jennifer Wilcove has just the right sass and sarcasm as the new show’s author, and Justin Robertson, an Equity actor who got his start at Moonlight, is funny as her writing partner.
Some of the songs are unforgettable: “Lullaby of Broadway,” “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me,” “We’re in the Money,” “Shuffle Off to Buffalo ,” and of course, the title tune (only in Noo Yawk would the words “naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty” actually rhyme!).
So, as the song goes, beat feet to “where the underworld can meet the elite, 42nd Street .”
THE LOCATION: Moonlight Amphitheatre in Brengle Terrace Park , 1200 Vale Terrace Dr. , Vista . (760) 724-2110 ; www.vistixonline.com
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $22-44. Wednesday-Sunday at 8 p.m. (no performance July 29), through August 1.
Whips and Chains
THE SHOW: “Twist,” a fresh (definitely!) new musical version of Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” with book and lyrics by Gila Sand and music by Paul Leschen with Gila Sand (additional music by Garrit Guadan ), at Diversionary Theatre
Twisted Oliver. When he asks for “more,” it’s more about grueling than gruel. Handcuffs or riding crop, anyone?
Oh, my. What would the Victorian Dickens think? Though nominally a member of the Anglican Church, he did express interest in Unitarianism, so maybe his leanings were a tad more liberal. He was vilified for talking about heinous underdogs and prostitutes (he had to take the word out of the first edition). And he did a great deal for human rights. So perhaps he’d support a show based on one of his most famous novels being an official event of San Diego LGBT Pride. On the other hand, he could be rolling in his grave.
Not important. His colorful characters live on, no matter how leather-clad or cross-dressed they may become. The funny new adaptation, which snagged a Drama Desk nomination after only nine performances Off Off Broadway, hews surprisingly close to the original, in plot if not in tone. This Oliver (pliable, ingenuous Jacob Caltrider ) says all he’s ever known was “Do what you’re told to do.” So he does — and then some, buffeted by fate and battered by all and sundry, generally to his great glee.
The poor orphan boy, mistreated by Bumble (Tony Houck) and his sadistic sidekick Matron ( David McBean ), is sold off to the exceedingly creepy undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry (a hilarious turn by Andy Collins ; his best work ever), where he’s terrorized by the bully Noah Claypool (sneering Scott Striegel) and runs away. In the street, he meets and falls for the Artful Dodger (spectacular Tom Zohar , very buff and butch, dressed and made up like an exile from “Cabaret” or “A Clockwork Orange,” and in excellent voice). It’s mutual attraction. One may have wondered at the relationship of the two boys in the original; but that’s another story entirely.
Dodger takes Twist to Fagin, a nasty, red-wigged drag queen (delightful David McBean , doing what he does so well, but unexpectedly out of his vocal range on a number of songs) who already has his claws on Dodger, and definitely doesn’t countenance competition. Fagin’s minions include Charlie Bates (Houck again, uproarious in his French maid’s getup and three-inch red eyelashes), the good-hearted Nancy (Amy Northcutt, endearing and adorable in her pink pigtails) and her main squeeze (in the worst possible way), Bill Sykes (Striegel, ominous). The one addition to the original, which seems a tad strained, is Lady Downlow , a riff on the wealthy and avuncular Mr. Brownlow, who ultimately adopts Oliver (we never learn about his hidden heritage in this version).
In order to maintain the kinky conceit, the Lady has to have some obsession; so, it’s a shoe fetish. She doesn’t like boys or girls; she likes shoes. She even binds Oliver’s feet, while dressing him up in pink satin undies . This segment doesn’t work as well as some of the other twists, but the footwear is pretty wild. The costumes all around (Jeannie Galioto ) are as outrageous as you’d expect; heavy on the heavy metal (chains, collars, grommets) and skin-tight leather. McBean is amazingly adept in those high-boot stilettos. Director/choreographer James Vasquez offers just the right amount of precision, humor and S&M, and his talented cast is game to go anywhere, do anything. It’s a blast.
The set (Kristin Ellert ) is serviceable, but putting the musicians behind chainlink fencing is inspired. The three-piece band (musical director Tim McKnight on keyboards, Jonathan Davis on guitar, with percussion by Nathan Hubbard) is small but mighty. The songs run from pop (“Trouble,” a new addition for this production) to comic (“I Always Come Out on Top,” “Clothing Makes the Man”) to Latin (“Bolero de las Talones ”) to sweet and/or sad ballads (“Slip Away,” “Reflections”). There’s even a charming, well-sung quintet (“Night is Quick”), which culminates in a gruesome throat-slitting. The finale, “Beautiful Boys and Lovely Ladies,” was also written for this production, and it sends the audience out quite satisfied, indeed.
Note : With all its gleeful gayness and bondage, this show isn’t for everyone. But if you take the chance, prepare to open yourself (so to speak) to anything.
THE LOCATION: Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd . ( 619) 220-0097 . ; www.diversionary.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $27-35. Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m., through August 9. Monday, July 27 performance at 7:30 p.m.
What’s the Good Word?
THE SHOW: “ Godspell ,” the musical retelling of the last seven days of Christ, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (“Pippin,” “Wicked”) and book by John-Michael Tebelak , presented by Lamb’s Players Theatre
The Seventies were a good time for the Bible. Testament musicals abounded: “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat ” and “ Godspell ” among them. Well, the Bible is back. Two of those three shows are now on local stages: “Joseph…” at the Welk and “ Godspell ” at Lamb’s.
The Gospel According to St. Matthew was the source material for “ Godspell ,” written as a whimsical, innocent, peace-love, flower-child affair. Those guileless, halcyon days are long gone, but the messages are timeless. The parables of Jesus come humanly and stirringly to life in the show. Perhaps the main story is the way the disparate characters, some rather hedonistic and materialistic, come together under the tutelage of a charismatic leader, to create a loving community.
It’s an excellent match for the Lamb’s Players, which first produced the musical in 1982 and has presented it three times since. In this tough economic climate, there didn’t seem to be a call for a newly-created set and costumes. The ever-resourceful scenic designer Mike Buckley and costume designer Jeanne Reith trolled through the Lamb’s storage facility and put together a hodgepodge, or as the company likes to say, a “theatrical touring trunk” of stuff from other shows. So, you can take a walk down Lamb’s Memory Lane , and identify bits and pieces from decades of shows, which adds another fun layer to the proceedings.
The seven-member ensemble is energetic, enthusiastic, flexible and vocally unassailable. They seem to be truly reveling in the telling of the story – and the donning of a humongous array of outfits. The look, as well as the sound of the show is pastiche, and it fits just right. The original concept, created by college student John-Michael Tebelak in 1970, portrayed Jesus and his disciples as clowns dedicated to bringing joy to others. Here, they’re sometimes more formal (there are even neckties worn). But the cast is still cavorting in “a playground of the imagination.”
Under Robert Smyth ’s crisp direction, it’s a highly physical production. Lance Arthur Smith, a sanguine, patient, jovial and athletic Jesus, swings or hangs from a chinning bar, as does the very muscular Greg Thompson. The rest of the cast includes Tracy Hughes, Jon Lorenz, Leonard Patton, Season Duffy and Jessica Couto (a talented, attractive, statuesque and graceful new San Diego transplant). Choreography is provided by Colleen Kollar Smith, and musical director G. Scott Lacy does a wonderful job freshening songs such as the anthemic “Day by Day.”
The only weak elements are the sound and the show’s early moments, when the cast is portraying regular, everyday people with contemporary concerns. None of them seems believable; everyone is declaiming and overacting. But when they become followers of the magnetic leader (Smith), and begin acting out his parables, they start showing their strengths, such as Duffy’s humor and the vocal styling of Patton, Lorenz and Hughes. In the mishmash of vaudeville, commedia, solemnity and shtick, all sorts of current references are thrown in to make the show more timely and topical, from iPhones to the IRS, Mister Rogers to Chuck E. Cheese, Bill Cosby to Sarah Palin . There are plenty of laughs, but the inspirational undertone is always there. And always relevant.
THE LOCATION: Lamb’s Players at the Horton Grand Theatre, 444 4th Avenue . (619) 437-0600; www.lambsplayers.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $27-48, Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m. Saturday at 4 p.m., Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m.; open-ended
“ Yerma ,” written in 1934, was Federico Garcia Lorca’s lyrical critique of the morals and mores of Spanish society. He called it a “tragic poem.” The play concerns a childless Spanish country wife trapped in a barren marriage. Her desperation for motherhood, in a society that renders females little more than subservient baby-makers, becomes an obsession that eventually drives her to murder. The piece is part of Lorca’s rural trilogy; the other two plays, “Blood Wedding” and “The House of Bernarda Alba,” are better known and more frequently presented.
Enter Chronos Theatre Group, which loves to unearth and burnish neglected classical works from around the world. Pairing up with A Talent to aMuse Theatre Company, they presented a brief run of “ Yerma ” at Swedenborg Hall. One of the most compelling elements of director Doug Hoehn’s production was the Spanish guitar which underscored the action, played by Javier Guerrero, who also portrayed Victor, the shepherd to whom Yerma is briefly attracted. The music was adapted from compositions by Lorca himself.
Justine Hince , a UCSD alumna in theater, did an excellent job of conveying the rocky emotional terrain of poor, unhappy, fixated Yerma . Sandra Ruiz was notable as her fertile friend, Maria, and Reina Menasche was dynamic as the Pagan Woman. Josh Freeman conveyed the stern, controlling nature of a husband more concerned with sheep than children, and baffled by his wife’s escalating anxiety. The rest of the 14-member cast was uneven. Hoehn created one especially magical moment, using colorful scarves, as the woman wash their clothes in a mountain stream, and spread gossip in the wind. The source of the translation is not indicated; the frequent songs, conveyed in inconsistent voices, contributed little and sometimes slowed down the action. But the play was well worth seeing.
They came baaaack . Those fabulous improvisers from L.A. ’s Impro Theatre made another welcome visit to North Coast Repertory Theatre, where they played to a full and fervent house, for one night only. Their last two ventures, completely created on the fly, given a few audience suggestions, were “Tennessee Williams Unscripted” and “Jane Austen Unscripted.” This time, it was “Shakespeare Unscripted.” And it was a hoot.
These terrifically talented, classically trained actors brought us the requisite Shakespearean girls dressed as boys (the wickedly beautiful Tracy Burns and comical Lisa Fredrickson); the oft-confused twins (both played by a side-splitting Paul Rogan); a controlling if bumbling father (funnyman Brian Lohmann ) who makes an inappropriate if lucrative match for his daughter, in this case, Don Padrona from Spain ( pratfalling Dan O’Connor, the group’s artistic director); the low-bred boyfriend of said daughter (the hyper-lyrical, pastoral metaphorical Floyd Van Buskirk ); and of course, a plotting villain (wondrous Brian Jones).
They seem to take such delight in what they do, egged on by a crowd of wildly enthusiastic onlookers, and they appear to adore tripping each other up, ridiculing each other’s turns of phrase, relishing the surprise move or plot-twist, supporting each other with sound effects, and coming back, over and over, in the most hilarious ways, to the audience suggestions. They even brought in a rejected audience idea, a volcano (which didn’t appear much in Elizabethan England, but somehow, they made it work).
The more you know about Shakespeare, the more you’ll love what these highly skilled improv pros can do with a word, a phrase, an idea. It’s breathtaking. And stomach-grabbing funny. The group is due back in the fall with “Jane Austen” again (“the Austen fans are like Trekkies ,” one of them told me). I put my order in for their newest creation, “Sondheim Unscripted.” Lohmann and Burns were especially adept at creating rhymes for their exit lines. I’d like to see that at breakneck, Sondheimian speed. Count me in!
NEWS AND VIEWS
… Something ‘Wicked’: One more week till the phenom returns. Broadway San Diego is bringing back the smash-hit musical, “Wicked,” to the Civic Theatre. And once again, they’ll be holding a day-of-performance lottery. Each day, 2 ½ hours prior to showtime , those who present themselves at the ticket office will have their names placed in a lottery drum. Thirty minutes later, names will be drawn for a limited number of seats at $25 each (cash only), with a two-ticket limit per person. The last, two-week engagement of the multi-award-winning musical, in 2006, broke box office records and sold out in record time. So this year, it’s a month-long run (7/29-8/30). The New York Times has called “Wicked” “one of the most successful shows in Broadway history.” It’s a sensation, to be sure. And two San Diego actors are in the cast: Kevin McMahon and Merideth Kaye Clark, who’ll also be appearing in the one-night performance of “Musical Theater Divas,” four former SDSU MFA students in musical theater who’ve gone on to greater glory. At North Coast Repertory Theatre, August 10, 7:30 p.m. Tickets for “Wicked” are at www.broadwaySD.com , (619) 570-1100 and Ticketmaster (800-982-2787). Information on “Divas” is at www.northcoastrep.org
… Pass the Pasta: Also back for another run: “The Original Joey & Maria’s Comedy Italian Wedding Show,” which spawned a zillion interactive dinner theater knockoffs, including Dillstar Productions’ own sequel, “The Soprano’s Last Supper,” which also enjoyed a long local run. Now in its 16th year, the crazy matrimonial comedy, which played in San Diego from 2001-2005, returns. Prepare to become part of ‘the family’ – and to dance the Tarantella. At the Culy Trucking Warehouse downtown, Saturday nights at 7:30 p.m., beginning August 22, and continuing at least until the end of the year. Info at 1-800-944-JOEY; www.dillstarproductions.com
… And another return engagement: “Don’t Dress for Dinner,” at North Coast Repertory Theatre. A laugh-till-you-cry farce directed by Rosina Reynolds . It was such a huge and hilarious hit last summer, they’re bringing it back, with the entire, side-splitting cast intact. Through 8/2. Don’t miss it this time .( 858) 481-1055; www.northcoastrep.org
… David does it again !: Local writer David Wiener has been named a finalist for the 2009 Heideman Award in the National Ten-Minute Play Contest. This past spring, his “Feeding Time at the Human House” was dubbed Best Play in the 15th Annual New York City 15-Minute Play Festival. Heideman Award Finalists were selected from over 1300 entries, and will be considered for inclusion in the prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays next spring. The winner will be announced in January. Meanwhile, Wiener, resident playwright at the San Diego Shakespeare Society, is writing a series of scripts for Bardian education and outreach.
… Musical Americana : Orchestra Nova, under the baton of maestro Jung-Ho Pak , will present ‘Pops at the Center’ at the Grape Day Park in Escondido . The concert, “A Slice of Americana,” will feature American favorites including show tunes from Rodgers and Hammerstein, music in tribute to Frank Sinatra, movie soundtracks and good old-fashioned patriotic songs. Guest conductor Dana Mambourg Zimbric , conductor and music director with Classics4Kids, will present songs from “High School Musical.” Admission is Free. Sunday, August 9 at 7 p.m. www.orchestranova.org
.. A Fond Farewell: in 2005, the Poway Center for the Performing Arts hosted a production of “A Couple of Blaguards ,” written by Frank and Malachy McCourt. Frank won the Pulitzer Prize for his dark autobiographical books, “Angela’s Ashes” and “’ Tis .” While he didn’t appear in the local production, Frank did make a surprise appearance at the performance, which was enacted by Malachy and Jarlath Conroy. Frank emerged from the audience and took the stage to swap engaging childhood tales with his brother. More recently, while being treated for melanoma, Frank McCourt contracted meningitis. He died last week, at age 78. His surprise appearance in Poway is something local attendees will not soon forget.
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
“ 42nd Street ” – fabulous production of a tap-happy musical classic
Moonlight Stage Productions, through 8/1
“Twist” – kinky, funky and fun new musical
Diversionary Theatre, through 8/9
“ Godspell ” – inventive, energetic and inspiring
Lamb’s Players Theatre at the Horton Grand Theatre, open-ended
“Don’t Dress for Dinner” – it was a hilarious hoot last year; it’s gotta be great again
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through 8/2
Read last year’s review here: http://www.patteproductions.com/Reviews/rev08/ts081031.htm
Resilience of the Spirit Festival – topical, gripping, memorable
Compass Theatre, through 8/5
“Twelfth Night” – not perfect, but perfectly good fun
The Old Globe’s Festival Stage, in repertory through 9/27
“Coriolanus” – political and provocative
The Old Globe’s Festival Stage, in repertory through 9/27
“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat ” – funny, colorful, well sung and danced
The Welk Resort Theatre, through 8/30
“Cyrano de Bergerac” – stunning, magnificent production of a timeless, heart-rending classic
The Old Globe’s Festival Stage, in repertory through 9/27
“The Fantasticks ” – musical, fanciful, delightful
Lamb’s Players Theatre, through 7/28
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer’ into the SDNN Search box.