Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
Thursday, November 12, 2009
THE SHOW: “Parade,” a 1998 musical, at the Mark Taper Forum
It was 1913. Leo Frank was a Northeastern, Jewish intellectual living in Atlanta . That made three strikes against him for the redneck anti-Semites of the city, even though he was married to a Southern (Jewish) gal. So when a 13 year-old girl was found, raped and murdered, in the factory where Leo was the superintendent, the xenophobes were all too happy to pin it on him.
The scurrilous prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey, in cahoots with a crooked, self-serving judge, coerced false testimony from a bevy of townspeople. The jury’s verdict was swift and unwavering: Guilty. The sentence: death by hanging.
Leo was something of a loner, aloof, arrogant and condescending, which didn’t really help his cause. He spent two years in prison, and during that time, he came to see the unmistakable value of his indomitable wife. She worked tirelessly to get the court decision reversed. Finally, she convinced the governor to reopen and reconsider the case. This engendered nationwide controversy; pressure poured in from Northeast liberals, the broad-reaching Jewish community, even Thomas Edison. When the governor commuted the sentence, all hell broke loose. The bloodthirsty, narrow-minded mob wanted retribution, and they took matters into their own hands. The incident fostered the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.
The ultimate resolution of the events, which doesn’t appear in the musical, is that 70 years later, an eyewitness to the crime came forward to exonerate Frank. In 1986, he was granted a posthumous pardon.
Seems like gloomy, cheerless material for a musical. But there’s a precedent for shows with social/political leanings that condemn prejudice and the miscarriage of justice, both fictional and factual, from “Show Boat” to “South Pacific,” “Ragtime” to “Sweeney Todd.”
When “Parade” (whose title refers to the Confederate Memorial Day proceedings that bookend the show) opened at Lincoln Center in 1998, it was nominated for eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical; it won for Best Book and Best Original Score. Its pedigree was outstanding: the book was by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry Uhry , whose plays (“Driving Miss Daisy,” “The Last Night of Ballyhoo”) were all about his experience growing up Jewish in Atlanta . The music and lyrics were by wunderkind Jason Robert Brown (who later wrote “The Last Five Years”). The co-creator was 21-time Tony-winning director Harold Prince.
A 2007 London revision/revival (at the Donmar Warehouse), directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford, snagged six Olivier Award nominations ( England ’s Tonys ). Now Ashford and his leading lady, Lara Pulver , have brought their prodigious talent to the L.A. production.
The show, beautifully designed, lit in shadows and sepia tones, is a moving, disturbing, gut-wrenching experience, all the more gripping for being based in fact. The narrative is haunted by an earlier time in the South; ghosts of a Confederate soldier, and the hoop-skirted damsel who awaited him, recall a more elegant time in the South, but a no less brutal or prejudiced one.
The direction and choreography are perfect; and there’s even an opportunity for two stellar dancers to have a bit of a go at it. Michael Berresse and Charlotte D’Amboise, stars of the recent revival of “A Chorus Line” (they played Zach and Cassie) assay small roles here, but we do get to see them move, briefly but effortlessly. The gorgeous-voiced Davis Gaines, who performed the title role in “The Phantom of the Opera” more than 2,000 times, also has minor parts, but he makes them sing. Former San Diegan Karole Foreman (who starred here in “Josephine Tonight” and “Celebration of the Lizard,” among many others) is in the Ensemble. And former San Diegan Christian Hoff plays the villain of the piece.
The score is earnest, touching and unpredictable, ranging from anthems to ballads to gospel, blues and patriotic celebrations. The 9-piece orchestra (musical direction by Tom Murray, with orchestrations by David Cullen), which includes accordion, cello and French horn, provides an evocative, often mournful underscoring. The singing is superb.
T.R. Knight (one of the promiscuous interns in “Grey’s Anatomy”) is marvelous as the smug and remote Leo Frank, and Pulver is wonderful as his indefatigable helpmate. Hoff does another sleazy, manipulative turn as the prosecutor (he won his Tony Award as the dastardly Tommy DeVito in “Jersey Boys”). And in several small but seminal roles, David St. Louis steals nearly every scene he’s in, with his muscular, commanding presence and deep, resonant voice.
This is a story and a show that are hard to forget, and shouldn’t be missed.
THE LOCATION: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave , in downtown Los Angeles . ( 213) 628-2772; www.centertheatregroup.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $20-80. Tuesday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 12:30 p.m. ,
Sunday at 1 & 6:30 p.m., through November 15
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
THE SHOW: “ Boston Marriage,” by David Mamet, at Compass Theatre
For his 1998 comedy, “Boston Marriage,” David Mamet came out of the slime and into the parlor. A far cry from his macho man-fests, this play boasts an all-female cast (and slightly less swearing), though it can’t be said to free him from his misogynistic leanings. These certainly aren’t likable women, though they’re smart and crafty and even elegant. Two of them are in a “Boston Marriage,” which, at the turn of the 20th century when the play is set, meant independent women living together, in an emotional and/or physical relationship. These two definitely have both.
In order to live in the style to which she’d like to become accustomed, Anna (Anne marie Houghtailing ) VALERIE: NOTE that she spells the marie without capitalization!) has become the mistress of a wealthy man, who’s set her up in lovely digs (very pink, in Adam Lindsay’s design, with none of the chintz so frequently referred to).
“Love,” as her beloved Claire (Ravenna Fahey) says, “like expensive jewelry, conquers all.” There is a very expensive emerald necklace that features in the plot and sets off whatever conflict and action there is — besides a good bit of jealousy and cat-fighting, and demeaning of the maid (Michelle Brooks with a fine Scottish brogue).
Events are set in nefarious motion when Claire admits that she’s fallen in love with a much younger, more innocent woman than Anna. And this after Anna’s gone to all this trouble for Claire, acquiring the flat and decorating it with chintz (which, she only later finds out, Claire loathes). Claire wants to schedule her seduction of the Sweet Young Thing in said flat. The maid, meanwhile, has gotten knocked up. And the necklace seems to be the property of someone most inconvenient.
Doesn’t sound like something to work up a sweat about. It isn’t for the actors, either, though Mamet has stuffed their mouths (especially Anna’s) with a torrent of oh-so-clever, literary-referenced language… with a few Mametian curses thrown in for fun.
It all seems like a dramatic exercise, like Mamet was trying to prove something to all those naysayers who thought he could never create three-dimensional female characters. Well, he hasn’t. At least not as played here. The actors are working hard, and the costumes (Lisa Burgess), are quite attractive (particularly the ones for Anna, much less so for Claire). But under the direction of Don Loper (a considerable comic actor in his own right), there isn’t enough edge to the production. The stakes don’t seem high enough, the comedy isn’t sharp enough, and that’s only partly the fault of the play. Houghtailing , returning to the stage after a long hiatus (she shouldn’t stay away any more), achieves the sought-after mix of insouciant superciliousness. She tosses off a curse, an endearment, an abuse or a bon mot with equal nonchalance.
The play is a dollop of Henry James and a pinch of Oscar Wilde, but a lot more smugly self-conscious and self-satisfied than either, and a lot less clever than it thinks it is. But this is a local premiere, and a Mamet play with smart (if nasty and calculating) women. So if that’s enough to whet your dramatic/comedic appetite, go for it.
THE LOCATION: Compass Theatre, 3704 6th Avenue , on the edge of Hillcrest . ( 619) 688-9210; www.compasstheatre.com
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $15-23. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m. ,
Sunday at 2 p.m., through November 22. A hot dog and a coke come with tickets for the Thursday, 11/19 performance.
NEWS AND VIEWS
… Tony Tonéx : Or is that Ton3x? The knockout San Diego singer (who won a Patté Award last year for his spectacular performance in “ Dreamgirls ”) is now in the running for a Grammy nomination. His latest album, “Unspoken,” is on the long-list in several categories: Best Urban/Alternative Performance, Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Contemporary R&B Gospel Album. This won’t be a first; Tonéx has earned both Grammy and BET Award noms in the past. With multiple gold and platinum recordings in the gospel domain, he’s a two-time winner of the Dove Award and he’s garnered eight Stellar Awards. The nominees for the 52nd Grammy Awards will be announced in a primetime concert special on December 2 (CBS-TV). The Awards show will be held on Jan. 31.
… Spreading their Wings: The Theatre School at North Coast Repertory Theatre is presenting a world premiere adaptation of the beloved Linda Sherry short story, “Beatrice the Butterfly.” Theatre School director Matt Thompson created the new show, which is all about family, friendship, tolerance and inner strength, as Beatrice learns that it’s our unique differences that make us all alike. It’s 11/19-22 at the North Coast Rep in Solana Beach ; (858) 481-1055; www.northcoastrep.org
… Back onstage: It was a treat to see Arthur Wagner, founder of the UCSD Dept. of Theatre, back on the boards again. The occasion was what seemed like a first read of a new play, “A Word of Secrecy,” by playwright/UCSD faculty member Allan Havis. The work is based on the true story of an 85 year-old man, living in a New Jersey retirement community, who confessed to leaking classified U.S. military documents to an Israeli agent in the early 1980s. Stand-up comedian Shelley Berman (not an actor) played the lead role, with excellent support from Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson, Rhona Gold and Julia Fulton, Havis’ wife. Ruff Yeager directed. No formal review, though, since it’s a work-in-progress.
… Ralphie and the Leg Lamp: Get your Red Ryder BB gun ready; “A Christmas Story” is coming to a theater near you. A stage adaptation of the beloved 1983 holiday movie will be presented by San Diego Junior Theatre. December 4-20 at the Firehouse YMCA Theatre in downtown La Jolla . (619) 239-8355; juniortheatre.com.
… Drama in the Class!: Courtney Flanagan, long-time drama instructor at the Bishop’s School in La Jolla, was giving the Deborah Salzer Excellence in Arts Education Award at the Playwrights Project’s “Lights Up!” event last weekend. Named for the energetic, influential founder/executive director of the Playwrights Project, the award and honor were part of an evening introducing the winners of the 25th annual California Young Playwrights Contest. Those plays will be given full productions at the Lyceum Theatre, February 18-28. Info at www.playwrightsproject.org
… News from Mo’olelo : The tiny Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company has had an impact on great, big Broadway. At the TCG (Theatre Communications Group) Fall Forum for nationwide nonprofit theaters, Mo’olelo artistic director Seema Sueko was part of a panel called “The Green Opportunity,” concerning eco-friendly theater . The rep from the Broadway Green Alliance admitted that, when his group was starting to launch its Broadway Goes Green effort, they used Mo’olelo’s “Green Theatre Categories and Sustainable Guidelines” as the blueprint. Not to get too swell-headed, the company is busily back at work, mounting a staged reading of “26 Miles,” by Quiara Alegria Hudes , Pulitzer Prize finalist and book-writer for the Tony-winning musical, “In the Heights.” Set in 1986, the play concerns a half-Cuban/half Jewish 15 year-old who runs off on a spur-of-the-moment road-trip with her estranged mother, in search of antiques, buffalo and peace of mind. Part of the “Tuesdays at The 10th” series, the reading features Rachael Van Wormer, Catalina Maynard, Lance Arthur Smith and Claudio Raygoza. November 17, 6-8 p.m. at The 10th Avenue Theatre, 930 10th Ave. , downtown. Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $10. Space is limited. RSVP to (619) 342-7395 or firstname.lastname@example.org
… Shakespearean AND Lincolnesque : The San Diego Shakespeare Society and Write Out Loud are presenting “Lincoln’s Shakespeare,” an evening dedicated to that great Shakespeare fan, Abraham Lincoln. Adapted from a scholarly essay, “Steeped in Shakespeare,” by UC Riverside English professor John Briggs, the piece examines the political and psychological insights Lincoln gleaned from a lifelong study of the Bard, and how he effectively employed quotes and concepts from the plays in his addresses to the nation. Vanessa Dinning and Walter Ritter prepared the adaptation, which will be read aloud and enhanced by excerpts from the plays. The performers – Walter Ritter , Steve Lipinsky , Charlie Riendeau , Mike Auer , Vanessa Dinning , Victoria Mature and Steve Jensen – will be directed by Veronica Murphy . December 8 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town . Info at www.writeoutloudsd.com or www.sandiegoshakespearesociety.org
… The show WILL go on: It was touch and go there for awhile, with the overblown, out-of-control new Broadway production of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” The runaway costs of the show, directed by Julie (“The Lion King”) Taymor , had escalated to an estimated $50 million, the highest in Broadway history, trailing a stack of unpaid bills and costly theater renovations. Though the number is astronomical, it may not be extreme given the production’s intention to “reinvent Broadway.” There was speculation that the elaborate effort would never materialize. And then deus ex machina , a rock concert promoter with ties to the Rolling Stones and U2 (the Edge and Bono have written the musical’s score) stepped in to save the day. Producer Michael Cohl now says the musical will open some time in 2010 and that a relatively unknown actor, Reeve Carney, has been cast in the lead role of Peter Parker and his webby alter-ego, Spider-Man. Referring to the Yankees’ recent win, Cohl said they were “a team that spent millions of dollars to win a championship. Sometimes it takes a lot of money to build a championship team, and that’s what we’re doing.” There’s still a long way to go in this dramatic world series .
.. TWAIN !: It’s Mark Twain Week at the California Center for the Arts, November 14-21. Events will be held at various locations throughout Escondido , culminating with the inimitable Hal Holbrook in his long-time, multi award-winning solo performance, “Mark Twain Tonight.” November 21 at 8 p.m. Information and tickets and www.artcenter.org
… You Ain’t Chopped Liver: Tickets are now on sale for The 13th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence, a repeatedly sold-out community celebration that honors the Best of the Best of local stage talent. The electrifying evening includes a sit-down dinner and high-octane musical numbers from local theater productions. The event will be televised on Channel 4 San Diego. If you’re a theatergoer or a theaterlover, you won’t want to miss it. Monday, January 18, 2010. Tickets are at www.thepattefoundation.org.
… Much Ado : It’s a match made in Shakespearean heaven: Beatrice and Ben edick , the clever feuders in “Much Ado About Nothing.” Taking up the delicious duo of roles are real-life mates, Robert and Deborah Smyth of Lamb’s Players Theatre. This is the premiere production in Intrepid Theatre’s “Free Will” series of staged readings of Shakespeare. The fledgling company is dedicated to making Shakespeare “ accessible and affordable,” and it doesn’t get more affordable than FREE. Based on the rehearsals so far (I’m thrilled to be part of the cast), it’s going to be great fun. The ensemble includes Tom Hall, Brian Mackey, Jim Chovick , Linda Libby , Douglas Lay, Melissa Fernandes, Intrepid co-founder Sean Cox , and others, under the direction of Intrepid associate artistic director Jason D. Rennie. Monday, 11/16 at 8 p.m. at The Theatre Inc., 899 C Street , downtown. www.intrepidshakespeare.com
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
“Parade” – searing, stirring musical about an ugly page in American history; marvelous production
Mark Taper Forum, L.A. , through 11/15
“ Ben t” – an intense, gut-wrenching story, superbly told
Diversionary Theatre, through 11/22
Read Review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2009-11-04/things-to-do/theater-things-to-do/pat-launer-theater-things-to-do-things-to-do/bent-still-packs-a-wallop
“Dog Act” – inventive, amusing, linguistically brilliant and magnificently performed
Moxie Theatre, through 11/22
“A Joyful Noise” – joyful, indeed! outstanding presentation of a historical drama
Lamb’s Players Theatre, through 11/22
“Talley’s Folly” – lovely performances of a sweet, gentle, touching late-life romance
North Coast Repertory Theatre, EXTENDED through 11/14
“ Godspell ” – energetic, inspiring
Lamb’s Players Theatre at the Horton Grand Theatre, through 11/22
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer’ into the SDNN Search box.