Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
Thursday, September 10, 2009
THE SHOW: “I Love You Because ,” the San Diego premiere of a 2006 musical, presented by North Coast Repertory Theatre
The inspiration for this little gem of a show was Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” but it’s come a long (unrecognizable) way, Baby. The only reference that remains is a quartet of characters looking for love (and ultimately finding it in the most unlikely mate) and their gender-bent names. “ P&P’s ” Bennet sisters have become the Bennet brothers: Jeff and (aptly) Austen. More cleverly, Fitzwilliam Darcy has been spun into Marcy Fitzwilliams , and Charles Bingley has become Diana Bingley. Other than that, Jane’s addictions are nowhere to be found.
But NYU college buddies Joshua Salzman (music) and Ryan Cunningham (book and lyrics), who wrote this as a thesis project in 2004, have created something charming and enchanting in its own right. The original piece was expanded and the Off Broadway debut was in 2006. The plot may have a predictable outcome, and the music may not be unforgettable, but the lyrics are crisp and witty, and the sum total is frothy but fun. And protracted. It could easily lose a half-hour (it’s over two hours now). Or maybe it should just become one brisk 90-minute act. After all, it isn’t that profound, although there are a few gems about relationships and opposites attracting, and loving someone “because” rather than ‘in spite of’ their differences from you. Brevity and wit are soulmates , as the Bard so wisely told us, not exactly in that way.
It’s all about Rebound relationships. Persnickety, fussbudget Austen (Nick Gabriel, who looks and acts more than a bit like Steve Carell ) and free-spirited Marcy (SDSU MFA alum Kelsey Venter) have just been dumped by their respective long-term main squeezes. In an effort to help them heal, their sidekicks offer advice. Playboy/ fratboy /sex fiend Jeff (buffed-up Jason Maddy ) suggests getting out and getting around. Diana (Kristen Mengelkoch , another SDSU musical theater MFA grad) is more systematic about it. She’s an actuary, and in the show’s funniest number (“The Actuary Song”), she works it all out mathematically, determining Rebound Time by assiduously calculating Relationship Length, Number of Former Boyfriends and the all-important Bitterness Factor. Before Marcy can find Mr. Right, Diana advises, she should seek out Mr. Wrong, as a kind of placeholder.
So, through J-Date (don’t ask!), Marcy meets Austen, at the same time that Diana meets Jeff (they set up the meeting, with no personal expectations). But the two couples represent personality polarity. Somehow, with all the quirks and dissimilarities, and some electrifying coupling (there’s a hilarious sex scene between the hot-blooded Diana and Jeff), both duos wind up happy. Even in cynical New York . With the approval of a couple of Greek chorus-type baristas (and other characters, all of questionable necessity, played by Geno Carr and Heather Anne Paton). So that’s it. Love conquers all. Differences be damned.
Despite the inevitability of the book, this production is a winner, under the high-spirited and amusing direction of Dr. Rick Simas, professor of musical theater at SDSU ( Mengelkoch , Venter and Paton are his former students), with cunning moves choreographed by Justin Deater and Kyrsten Hafso . It’s endearing, the four central performers are excellent – and they have wonderful, believable chemistry, which can’t always be said of onstage couples.
Gabriel is funny in his uptight, tie-wearing way; he has superb comic timing and an appealing voice. Venter can belt, but she’s best at the touching ballads, like “Even Though.” Mengelkoch , much missed since she moved to New York , is a power-voiced comedienne, and Maddy (fresh from a formidable turn in “Macbeth”) displays his versatility, physical agility and comic chops (and bulging biceps). Those two are a hoot together, and their disingenuously self-denying duet, “We’re Just Friends,” is a highlight of the evening.
The set ( Marty Burnett ) is a colorful, stylized New York skyline, attractively lit (Matt Novotny). The costumes (Jennifer Brawn Gittings ) are cutely character-defining (where DID she find a whole wardrobe of argyles for Austen?); and Marcy’s second-act skirt, fashioned completely of men’s neckties, is ingenious.
Musical director Steven Withers is an ace on keyboards, with sparkling support from an array of woodwinds (Matt Best) and percussion (Tom Versen ).
Salzman and Cunningham are an upcoming musical theater team to watch. They’re working on a new show, “Next Thing You Know,” which may turn out to be something of a sequel to “I Love You, Because .” I hope we get early dibs on that one, too. This one may be light and frothy, but it’s delightfully irresistible.
THE LOCATION: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Dr. , Solana Beach . ( 858) 481-1055 ; www.northcoastrep.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $32-50. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m ; select Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and select Saturday matinees at 2 p.m., through September 27.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
THE SHOW: “It’s the Housewives !, ” a musical brought down from L.A. by Juber Productions, in association with the 10th Avenue Theatre
Twenty-five years ago, Hope Juber was in a rock ‘n’ roll band called The Housewives. They showed up with ironing boards and vacuum cleaners and sang about … housework . The gig lasted for about a dozen years. More recently, she decided to weave those songs into a theatrical show. As is always the case with jukebox musicals, it’s a tricky business to create a book to wrap around already-written songs.
Juber decided to tell the backstory of the fictional Housewives, who soared to international fame, and then, in the familiar old story, crashed and burned (that part didn’t happen to her group, but the luster did fade). So, Becca (Jamey Hood) is back to being a sort-of normal housewife, and she decides to dump the whole not-so-sordid tale on the plumber who’s currently under her sink, and happens to have been a long-time fan of the group. As soon as he realizes he’s getting a major scoop, he tries to sell the story to the highest tabloid bidder.
A weak book isn’t the only problem with this show, even though it had a successful four-month run in L.A. a year ago. The songs, which have cute housewifey names like “Ironing Bored” and “Rock ‘n’ Hot Rollers” and “In Sink and At Your Disposal,” not to mention “It Sucks” (about vacuuming), are more a cute idea than a set of cohesive or clever lyrics. And since the story is tacked onto the songs, or vice versa, they have little to do with the action.
There isn’t any major conflict in the group (they broke up over competing guacamole recipes), there’s no sex, drugs, outrageous or immoral behavior. These women just aren’t that interesting, and they’re pretty much stock characters. There’s the blonde bimbette ( Jayme Lake ), the compulsive cleaner who turns into something of a diva (Corinne Dekker) and the earnest songwriter (Hood). They’re surrounded by a variety of supporters and detractors who could easily be played by just one man and woman, but instead there are five additional actors: Tony Cicchetti , O.P. Hadlock , Andy Lurie, Lisa Cicchetti and Dan Gordon.
The direction ( Juber ) and choreography (Kay Cole) are uninspired. The production cries out for other input and perspectives; Juber is credited with direction, book (with Ellen Guylas ) and music and lyrics (along with her husband, guitarist Laurence Juber , who also serves as musical director). Plus, it’s her story. She may just be too close to the material.
The central performers are bouncy and energetic, but they have little to play, except one single personality characteristic, and at least on opening night, they appeared to be working very hard to obtain our affection. At the 10th Avenue Theatre, the sound is a serious problem. Miking doesn’t seem necessary in such a small venue, and the output is so disembodied that it looks for all the world like the trio is lip-synching, a perception that is further enhanced by their extreme over-articulation and exaggerated facial expressions.
It’d be better to hire fewer actors and invite in some live musicians. The set (DC2) is rather basic, and the video projections ( Gabrieal Griego ) don’t add much. The costumes ( Sharell Martin, who did some excellent work for Moonlight Stage Productions in 2003 and 2004) are imaginative, and in the case of Hood’s turkey outfit, inspired.
Perhaps if the show were pared down to one brief, brisk act (it’s two acts and over two hours now), it’d convey its story and sensibility with more efficiency. A re-examination is definitely in order.
THE LOCATION: Juber Productions and the 10th AvenueTheatre , 930 10th Avenue , downtown . ( 888) 663-3729 ; www.ticketderby.com ; www.itsthehousewives.com
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $15-30. Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m ; select Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and select Saturday matinees at 2 p.m., through September 27.
N EWS AND VIEWS
… The San Diego/Jersey Connection: To commemorate a local boy-made-good, The City of San Diego has designated September 12 “Christian Hoff Day.” The Tony Award-winning co-star of the original, La Jolla Playhouse-sprung “Jersey Boys” is back in his hometown to give a benefit concert at the place where it all began for him: San Diego Junior Theatre. Hoff started at JT when he was 8 years old, and performed in shows such as “Mary Poppins ,” “Tom Sawyer” and “Grease.” He went on to appear in “ The Who ’s Tommy” at the Playhouse, and in the world premiere of “Jersey Boys,” traveling with the show to New York . He snagged the 2006 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Tommy DeVito , the hotshot organizer/petty criminal of The Four Seasons. This month, Hoff opens in the award-winning dramatic musical, “Parade,” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles (9/24-10/24). In addition to his active stage work, he’s made guest appearances on the TV shows “Ugly Betty” and “Law and Order: Criminal Intent.” His one-night only performance in San Diego will be at 8 p.m. on September 12 in Balboa Park ’s Casa del Prado Theater. (619) 239-8355; www.juniortheatre.com
… Sing with the Stars!: Five Broadway performers are offering a chance to join them onstage in Neil Berg’s “102 Years of Broadway” at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido on October 1. The concert features stars of “Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Miz ,” “Jekyll and Hyde,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Cats,” “Tarzan” and “It Ain’t Nothin ’ But the Blues,” backed by an all-star New York band. Up to two winners and ten runners-up will be selected by a panel of experts that will include producers, singers and managers, as well as the creator of the show, Neil Berg. To audition, contestants should upload a 90-120 second video clip of themselves — singing a Broadway show tune — to YouTube, MySpace or Facebook. Then go to www.singingwiththebroadwaystars.com and select ‘ San Diego ,’ fill out a submission form and send a link to your video. Entrants must be at least 15 years of age. Runners up, who will perform as part of the ensemble in one number, will receive a pair of complimentary tickets to the show. Winners, who’ll sing a short solo in at least one song in the show, will get four free tix . The submission deadline is 5 p.m. on Monday, September 21.
… On the Green: As part of its relocation to Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, Cygnet Theatre has begun its “Storytelling on the Green,” outdoor, abridged productions of Shakespeare, performed by two actors in mid-19th century attire (true to the period of Old Town’s heyday). “Macbeth” has already been doing his dastardly deeds on the green. Now, a comedy is in the works: the misadventures of those silly, star-crossed lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe , from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The actors perform in Delsarte style, common during the American Period (1840-1872), which featured bare-bones productions, the actors arriving with a wagon platform that serves as stage and carries all the props, sets and costumes. The shows, which are presented for free, three days a week, are targeted to elementary school students, who revel in the laughs (even in “Macbeth!”), quick-change costumes and characters, and audience participation. Francis Gercke directs the ensemble that includes Brian Mackey, Jacob Caltrider and Rachael Van Wormer. On the Old Town lawn, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
… Arts for Peace: “Bearing Exquisite Witness” is a three-day Festival organized by the Women’s PeaceMakers Program at the University of San Diego ’s Institute for Peace and Justice. The event was designed “to highlight the ability of the arts to transform individuals and reconcile communities who have suffered conflict and violence.” On 9/24, at 3 p.m., Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company will present a reading of “Dog and Wolf,” by Catherine Filloux . On 9/26, at 11 a.m., Moxie Theatre offers a reading of “Maria Kizito ,” by Eric Ehn . Details and full Festival schedule at www.sandiego.edu
… Not-so-plain-Jane: The beloved novelist returns to North Coast Repertory Theatre in “Jane Austen Unscripted,” brought to us (again) by L.A. ’s marvelous, madcap ImproTheatre . Audience suggestions fuel an evening of inspired anguish, passion and betrayal, à la Austen. One night only. Monday, September 21 at 7:30 p.m. www.northcoastrep.org
… Benefitting Research: The UCSD AIDS Research Institute and Butterworth Dance are presenting “Investigating Motion,” an evening of dance whose proceeds will benefit the Institute. Malashock Dance will preview a segment of the company’s newest work, “After Dust.” Butterworth Dance Company , somebodies dance theater and UCSD faculty member Eric Geiger will also perform. October 1, 6:30 p.m., at The Abbey, 2825 Fifth Avenue . (858) 534-5545; email@example.com
… Viva VAPA!: Ron Jessee, Visual and Performing Arts Coordinator at the San Diego County Office of Education, has been selected by the California Educational Theatre Association (CETA) as the Administrator of the Year. In 2008, he received the Outstanding Leadership in Arts Education Awards from CSU San Marcos. The highly and justly honored Jessee was named Outstanding Administrator by the California Music Educators Association, and he received the Pelican Award for the Advancement of Theatre Arts from the La Jolla Playhouse. He’s focused his prodigious energies on developing and sustaining standards-based arts programs in the 42 school districts of San Diego County . We need him now more than ever.
… Re- “ State ” : “State of the Art,” a comedy by Craig Abernethy, premiered at 6th @ Penn Theatre in 2003, directed by Robert May. Now May, Abernethy and “State” are back, with the clever comedy (expanded to two acts) about a bumbling trio, struggling inside a writer’s mind, to create a play, or, as they put it, contemplating “process-wise,” what they’re “doing, do-wise,” to determine what’s going to happen in the piece “place-wise,” “less-is-more-wise” and “spoof-wise.” Rapid-fire dialogue, funny situation. Calandra Crane, Danielle DeCarlo and Charles Peters star. Opening on October 3 and running weekends through October, in the Green Room at Twiggs, 4590 Park Blvd. , in University Heights .
Readings of comedy, drama and short fiction coming up:
…”Greater Tuna” – Carlsbad Playreaders at Dove Library. 9/14 at 7:30 p.m.
… “Seascape,” by Edward Albee, at the Avo Playhouse in Vista , sponsored by The Moonlight Cultural Foundation. 9/14 at 7:30 p.m.
… “From Russia With Love” – Russian-themed story readings by Write Out Loud, 10/5 at 7 p.m., Old Town Theatre.
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
“I Love You Because” – charming romantic musical (with a comic edge), delightfully presented
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through 9/27
“Drink Me, or The Strange Case of Alice Times Three ” – excellent production of a quirky, amusing and discomfiting mystery
Moxie Theatre at the La Jolla Playhouse, through 9/27
“Leaving Iowa ” – funny, poignant, reminiscent; brings back those family road-trips we all recall
Lamb’s Players Theatre/Coronado, through 9/20
“Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps” – splendidly imaginative, superbly executed
La Jolla Playhouse, through 9/13
“ Godspell ” – inventive, energetic and inspiring
Lamb’s Players Theatre at the Horton Grand Theatre, open-ended
“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
“Cyrano de Bergerac” – stunning, magnificent production of a timeless, heart-rending classic
The Old Globe’s Festival Stage, in repertory through 9/27
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer’ into the SDNN Search box.