Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
Thursday, December 17, 2009
THE SHOW: “I Do! I Do !, ” the 1966 musical, newly revised, at the Old Globe
It’s all about the bed. A giant fourposter takes center stage in the 1966 Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt show, “I Do! I Do !, ” the first Broadway musical ever to feature a cast of only two. It was adapted from a popular play, “The Fourposter ,” by Dutch-born Jan de Hartog , who wrote it in the 1940s while he was in hiding from the Nazis. Years later, he brought his work to New York ; the piece garnered a Tony Award for Best Play in 1952, the same year it was made into a film. The story, chronicling the vicissitudes of a long-term marriage, was modernized as a straight play in 2001 (“An Infinite Ache,” produced by the Old Globe in 2002), which inspired another musical (“Long Story Short,” 2008, produced at the San Diego Repertory Theatre earlier this year). So, can we retire the bed already? Apparently not.
Broadway veteran Patrick Page, who was Shiley artist in-residence at the Old Globe, and performed in three productions there this year (among which, his magnificent “Cyrano”), decided it was time to give “I Do! I Do !” another go-round. In the round. It seemed the perfect vehicle for him and his wife, Paige Davis, who’s also trod the Broadway boards.
In theater, as in life, timing is everything. The Globe’s gorgeous new, state-of-the-art arena stage, The Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, was completed ahead of schedule. The Pages had a window of time, and wanted to float this balloon in a welcoming spot. And Tom Jones, the lyricist/librettist, was ready to revisit his 43 year-old creation and ‘fix’ the problems he’d always seen in it.
So, opening night featured a post-performance talkback with the spry, lively, funny and sharp-witted 81 year-old Jones (whose memory for dates, names and details is breathtaking). That was the highlight of the evening. Jones had never seen the show performed in the round before (“it has a nice sort of sacrificial quality,” he mused). He talked about the original production, directed by the late, great Gower Champion, and starring the amazing Robert Preston and Mary Martin (“we definitely had them in mind when writing”). Jones said he was “awed” at what the couple had done for the Globe production; “such a complicated show in such a little amount of time.” But Page admitted that they had been “reading it across the kitchen table for years.” It showed.
Page and Davis are terrific in their characterizations. Michael, a pompous writer, and Agnes, a retiring, dutiful wife/mother who comes into her own in middle age (“Flaming Agnes”), were brought to stunning life by the pair. We don’t exactly admire these people (neither is particularly appealing, especially in the 21st century, when he’s so demanding and domineering, and she’s so subservient). But we applaud their perseverance over 50 years of marriage, complicated by children, success, aging (but no apparent infirmity) and of course, a mid-life affair. Both are compelling performers, and their ready-made rapport is palpable and irresistible. But neither is really up to the task vocally. They were obviously straining, pushing at notes beyond their range, at times reverting to talk-singing (musical direction was by Ben Toth , who made two instruments sound like a whole lot more). The unfortunate fact is , neither actor/singer is a superstar like the originators of the roles. And that’s what it would take to make this somewhat musty play really sing.
All the elements are there: a nicely serviceable set ( Ralph Funicello ), stunning lighting (Chris Rynne ), period-perfect costumes (Charlotte Devaux ) and clear, sharp sound (Paul Peterson). The staging (Richard-Jay Alexander) is clever, though the choreography (James Kinney) could be more imaginative and elaborate. The score is more predictable in its lyrics than its melodies (in my mind, I was still hearing Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme , singing “The Honeymoon is Over,” with vocal snap and considerable wit).
I wish everyone well in moving this production forward. But I must confess , I do have my doubts.
THE LOCATION: The Old Globe’s new Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, in Balboa Park . (619) 23-GLOBE; www.theoldglobe . org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $39-85. Thursday-Friday at 8 p.m. , , Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m. through December 20.
Related Story: See video of the new additions to the Old Globe.
The Elfin Man
THE SHOW: “The Santaland Diaries,” based on the popular NPR commentary by David Sedaris, at New Village Arts
For the ultimate antidote to holiday treacle, spend some time with Crumpet. When he was first introduced to America in 1992, on National Public Radio, the elf catapulted writer David Sedaris to fame. It was that fey, whiney voice, telling the side-splitting story of the then-unemployed humorist’s desperate last-ditch holiday job: becoming an elf at Macy’s New York ’s humongous Santaland . With all the behind-the-scenes angst, aggravation and humiliation, it wasn’t a pretty picture. But it sure was a hilarious one, among NPR’s most requested.
In 1996, actor/director Joe Mantello created a stage adaptation (never really accepted or embraced by Sedaris). This is the fifth time the one-man comic tour de force has been presented in San Diego , and it may just be the best.
Daren Scott has a similar sensibility to Sedaris (without the whine); he’s sarcastic, sardonic, and very very funny. Other performers attempting this piece have leaned toward the silly, or over the top, or nasty or pathetic. Scott is grounded but comical, equal parts caustic and cavalier. He’s wonderful with the various accents, dialects and genders that make up a huge cast of characters, from weepy kids to pushy parents to sadistic Santas .
The scenic design (Tim Wallace) is Crayola -colored (though this show is definitely not for kids). The elf costume (Kate Stallons) is a garish green getup, replete with turned-up-toe elfin shoes. Both are intentionally tacky and tasteless. The working train-set is a bonus. And the lobby of New Village Arts sports photos of the creative team with Santa – some taken in their youth, some in the past few weeks. Tongues are firmly planted in cheeks throughout. The show’s publicity shots were taken by the star, a very talented guy. And a comically cynical one. His Crumpet is delicious.
THE LOCATION: New Village Arts , 2787 State Street , Carlsbad . ( 760) 433-3245 ; www.newvillagearts.org
THE DETAILS : Tickets $20. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., through December 23
Won’t You Come Home, George Bailey?
THE SHOW: “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” the fourth year of a continuing holiday tradition, at Cygnet Theatre
The one holiday show that brings me to tears every year is “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The same timeless tale that’s told in the 1946 Frank Capra film, which was loosely based on the short story “ The Greatest Gift ,” by Philip Van Doren Stern .
Seneca Falls, New York claims that when Frank Capra visited their town in 1945, he was inspired to use it as his model for the fictional Bedford Falls . Every December, the town has an annual “ It’s a Wonderful Life ” festival. Earlier this year, The Hotel Clarence opened in town, named for the guardian angel in the story, who saves George Bailey from leaping to his death, and makes him realize that his life is worth living after all.
Who among us hasn’t thought, at one time or another, that the world wouldn’t even notice their absence? Who doesn’t rejoice at George’s 11th-hour deliverance, thanks to the love and generosity of all the folks he’d helped over the years, putting aside all his own dreams and desires to sustain the family business, a ramshackle Building and Loan. Would that there were such selfless bankers nowadays!
This is the fourth year of Cygnet’s radio play version, which in itself has a formidable history. Between 1947 and 1951, there were three radio adaptations of the film, including one for the Lux Radio Hour. James Stewart and Donna Reed reprised their roles in all three versions. In 1997, visual artist/cartoonist/playwright Joe Landry created the adaptation that Cygnet (like many other theaters) has used.
The new Old Town theater space allows the company to spread out, and expand the conceit of actors playing actors performing a radio play. They welcome audience members in the lobby, they assume personalities for their actor-characters (though these seem somewhat less defined than previously). Under the direction of Sean Murray , the cast is terrific. Most are returnees, but a lovely addition this year is Amanda Sitton as George’s ever-devoted wife, Mary. It’s great to have Melissa Fernandes back; she’s great as the kids, the dogs, and a host of other characters (her Violet, the good-hearted town floozy, is a tad less sassy and sexy than before). I missed the Andrews Sisters-type number, but the singing overall, as always, is excellent.
Tom Andrew is superb as George; he has a lot of Jimmy Stewart in his portrayal, but also plenty of his own energy and heart. Scott Paulson once again makes magic with his sound effects and multiple-instrument playing (harp, toy piano, baritone sax, and more). The ‘commercial’ breaks are always fun (I still can’t believe they actually called Lux a “toilet cake!”).
The set ( Sean Murray ) meticulously recreates a 1940s radio station, replete with light-up applause lights. The costumes (Shirley Pierson) are period-perfect, as are the wigs ( Peter Herman ). The lighting (Michelle Caron) and sound (Matt Lescault -Wood) add greatly to the mix, as does Amy Dalton’s piano accompaniment.
Judging by the frequency with which the movie plays on television — not to mention its appearance on many lists of the top films of all time — folks just can’t get enough of this story. And the poignancy is brought home even more onstage. Turn off the tube and go see it live!
THE LOCATION: Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. , Old Town . (619)337-1525; www.cygnettheatre.com
THE DETAILS : Tickets $17-46. Tuesday -Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., EXTENDED through December 31.
BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
THE SHOW: “A Christmas Carol,” an adaptation commissioned by North Coast Repertory Theatre
There couldn’t be a Christmas season without “A Christmas Carol.” The holiday perennial has been inspiring audiences since it was written in 1843, when Charles Dickens started taking it on the road, throughout England and the U.S. , as a solo reading. He revised the text many times, and had an abbreviated, 90 minute version for his presentations. So why not a 75-minute rendition at North Coast Repertory Theatre?
The company commissioned the play from former San Diegan Jacqueline Goldfinger, who’s currently working on their next production, an adaptation of “Little Women.” Over the three years of this play’s staging, she’s made changes (for the better) and the theater has enlisted a different director each time. So though the basic premise remains the same – small cast portraying multiple characters, carols woven throughout, narration provided by all the players – there are slight variations. The otherworldly element seems to be highlighted by this year’s deft director, Matt Thompson (director of North Coast Rep’s theater school).
The expert cast of 11 features many returnees, and three new youth as well as two excellent adult additions: Aaryn Kopp and Tracy Williams. At the center is local favorite Jonathan McMurtry , veteran of 200 Old Globe productions and four prior “Christmas Carols.” His Scrooge is aptly curmudgeonly at the outset, his face twisted into a perpetual sneer. His trepidation mounts; his transformation is touching. A particularly touching moment occurs when he gives a tentative but hearty hug to his cheerful nephew, Fred (Brian Mackey, excellent throughout, and especially strong in his interactions with ensemble member John Tessmer). Von Schauer is a potent player this year as well, in multiple roles.
The sound design ( Chris Luessmann ) remains outstanding, with a bump in the ghostly reverb this year, and added auditory texture, such as dripping water and gnawing rats. The lighting ( Jason Bieber ) is fine and the wintry period costumes (Jan Mah ) are evocative. The scenic design allows for quick changes with minimal fuss.
What stands out most in this production is the wonderful words of Dickens, his sly humor and lush descriptions. In this brisk foray, there isn’t enough time for deep character or sub-plot development; everything moves with alacrity, and we’re swept along. The speed makes it feel hurried at times, but the brevity will appeal to families.
You have to visit with Scrooge at least once each year; it’s good for the soul – and for enhancing holiday benevolence.
THE LOCATION: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive , Ste D, Solana Beach . (858) 481-1055; www.northcoastrep.org
THE DETAILS : Tickets $15-30. Thursday-Friday (12/17-18) at 7 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, 12/19-20 at 2 and 6 p.m., Tuesday 12/22 at 6 p.m., Wed. 12/23 at 2 and 6 p.m., Thurs. 12/14 at 3 p.m., Sat. 12/26 at 6 p.m., Sun. 12/27 at 2 p.m., through December 27.
NOTE: North Coast Rep will once again host L.A. ’s superb Impro Theatre for just two performances of “An Unscripted Carol,” an improvised version of the classic that promises it’s “never the same show twice.” December 21 and 28 only, 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15-20. www.northcoastrep.org
BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
NEWS AND VIEWS
… Memphis Blues: This week, there was a limited release of the Broadway cast recording of “Memphis,” the musical about the birth of rock ‘n’ roll that premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse, helmed by Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley. The show’s score, composed by Bon Jovi co-founder/keyboardist David Bryan, was described by Christopher Isherwood of the New York Times as evoking “the powerhouse funk of James Brown, the hot guitar riffs of Chuck Berry, the smooth harmonies of The Temptations, the silken, bouncy pop of the great girl groups of the period.” The special edition CD, available only at the Shubert Theatre or online at www.memphisthemusical.com , features a bonus track of “Memphis Lives in Me ,” performed by Bryan . Nationwide distribution will come shortly. “ Memphis ” has been running on Broadway since previews began in September.
… Coming to a theater near you: Four-time Tony winning director Jerry Zaks is coming to L.A. , to collaborate with Oscar winning composer Randy Newman on a new musical, “Harps and Angels.” Like “Randy Newman’s Faust,” which premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1995, the show will draw heavily from Newman’s songbook. The plot is being kept under wraps, but it’s said that the story involves “a compelling, honest and humorous commentary on what it is like to be born, grow up, fall in love, and live and die in America .” The story possibilities are endless.
… Short and Sweet: San Diego playwright David Wiener has just had his third short play published in the Smith and Kraus Best Plays anthology series. “Feeding Time at the Human House,” which premiered locally at Compass Theatre, went on to win Best Play in the 2009 New York City 15 Minute Play Festival, and was included in the new book, “2009: the Best 10-Minute Plays for Two or More Actors.” Wiener’s other published plays, “Bride on the Rocks” and “An Honest Arrangement,” are scheduled for production at one-act festivals in Sacramento and Oxnard . The playwright is currently at work on a series of education/outreach scripts for the San Diego Shakespeare Society.
… Holiday Whirl: Take a spin and fulfill a fantasy, courtesy of three resident dance companies at NTC’s Dance Place San Diego . For the fourth year, Malashock Dance, Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theater and the San Diego Ballet are offering a holiday gift to the community: a Free Day of Dance on December 26. Free classes (including stretch, ballet, jazz, tango , modern and hip hop) begin at 9 a.m. and run throughout the day, targeting all ages and levels– even age 3-6. Complete schedules are available ats : www.malashockdance.org , www.sandiegodancetheater.org , www.sandiegoballet.org
… Patté on a Platter: Feast on a smorgasbord of local talent. Attend The 13th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence, a gala community celebration that honors the Best of the Best of San Diego theatermakers. Monday, January 18, 2010. Tickets available at www.thepattefoundation.org.
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
“The Santaland Diaries” – snarky and funny and very well done
New Village Arts , through 12/23
“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” – heart-rending, heartbreaking and full of heart (and music!)
Cygnet Theatre, extended through 12/31
“A Christmas Carol” – brisk but bracing
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through 12/27
“Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” – great fun for the whole family
Old Globe Theatre, through 12/27
“Bonnie and Clyde ” – an evolving new musical that has a good deal to offer (but still needs work)
La Jolla Playhouse, through 12/20
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer’ into the SDNN Search box.