Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Messing with Mortality
THE SHOW: “I’m Not Rappaport ,” winner of the 1985 Tony Award for Best Play, presented by Scripps Ranch Theatre
“Growing old isn’t for sissies,” the adage goes. And Nat and Midge are here to prove it. The two octogenarians meet on a bench in New York ’s Central Park . Nat starts talking… and he never stops. At first, he bothers the more taciturn Midge. But then, Midge gets caught up in Nat’s wild tales, his incredibly eventful history. Incredible might be the operative word. Nat’s backstory is a little more fluid than Midge would like; it changes on occasion and on a whim. Depending on the moment, Nat could be a Hollywood mogul, a lawyer, an activist; whatever’s needed. And he’ll fight off any offender, from a drug dealer harassing a young girl, to the apartment building guy trying to boot Midge out of his 42-year job as resident caretaker, to his own daughter, who’s badgering him to stop the silliness and act his age (whatever that means).
Amid all his fantasies, one fact is irrefutable: Nat isn’t taking this aging thing lying down. He’s following Dylan Thomas’ advice literally; he’s gonna “rage against the dying of the light.” Reluctantly, inevitably, Midge gets caught up in his madness. Both wind up injured. Bloody but unbowed, they’re having one helluva time. And more power to ‘ em .
Inspired by two actual gentlemen Herb Gardner observed in Central Park, the playwright created the feisty, Borscht Belt Jew and the cantankerous African American who spend most of their time on a bench clashing and quarreling, trying to mask, or hold at bay, the realities of aging — the physical weakness, the failing vision, the cane or walker — all the while escaping into the tall tales that Nat so deftly spins.
The often funny play touches on some serious issues: society’s treatment of the elderly, aging with dignity, the parent-child role reversal (adult children who think they know what’s best for their parents), the genuine dangers of urban living, and the importance of camaraderie and friendship, at any age. Oh, and of course, the power of the imagination.
The dialogue is often hilarious, but there’s a lot of depth, heart and pain behind the comical one-liners. Nat exists in a perpetual Day of Atonement, for a slight that may have contributed to a young woman’s early death. Midge is a former fighter who feels he’s on the ropes, in his final round. Till Nat starts coaching. Late in the first act, Nat waxes philosophical, giving that jogging young apartment guy (Max Macke, quite effective) a brilliant piece of his older mind.
“You collect old cars, furniture, photographs; everything but old people,” he reproaches. “Don’t you understand that you, too, will join this odd tribe? Look at us: we’re the coming attractions.”
If we could all keep our wits about us – and our wit! – the world, both young and old, would be a much nicer place. Meanwhile, we have theater to open our myopic eyes to the way things could or should be, thanks to gifted writers like Gardner (1934-2003), who also created the funny, poignant and memorable “A Thousand Clowns.”
And thanks to an excellent production at Scripps Ranch Theatre, his words and attitudes get an ideal airing. Charlie Riendeau is wonderful as Nat. He’s light, glib, fanciful, often uproarious — and riddled with guilt and shame. A Don Quixote for our age. As Midge, Antonio “TJ” Johnson is a little less self-consciously comical, but no less amusing and entertaining. Midge is a guy who’s been beaten down by life; true to his boxing background, he keeps his head low, ducks and bobs and weaves. But Nat brings him alive. They make a terrific and unforgettable pair.
They’re backed up by an impressive supporting ensemble: Julie Sachs, making a welcome return to the stage after her new-mom hiatus, is very solid as Nat’s exasperated daughter, Clara, who offers him three ultimatum/options — a residential facility, living at her house on Long Island or participating in the programs offered by a Manhattan Senior Center — which in his estimation equate to: Devil’s Island, exile in Siberia or kindergarten. As the lovely but mostly silent girl on the bridge, Catherine Dupont does a lot with few lines but many facial expressions. Dylan Chouinard and Reed Willard are seriously menacing as the punk and the drug dealer.
The set (Amy Gilbert Reams) is one of the best yet at SRT. A stone bridge, a lamppost, some shrubbery, that all-important park bench, and a scattering of realistic New York trash. Very evocative, and nicely lit (Mitchell Simkovsky ). The sound ( Jason Connors ) and costumes (Lisa Burgess) add to the ambiance (except for Clara’s oversized suit, which doesn’t seem to fit the character – or the actor).
Under the skilled and assured direction of Robert May, the production gives the piece its due, both comically and dramatically. This is the kind of play that crosses the generations, and stays in the mind.
THE LOCATION: Scripps Ranch Theatre performs at the Legler Benbough Theatre, on the campus of Alliant University , at 10455 Pomerado Rd . ( 858) 578-7728 ; www.scrippsranchtheatre.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $18-20. Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m , through October 10.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
THE SHOW: “Cats,” the perennial musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, presented by Moonlight Stage Productions
True Confession: I’m allergic to cats – the animal and the musical. I cannot, for the life of me, understand how that derivative, one-note pastiche ran for 21 years in London and 18 years on Broadway. For a very long time, it was the longest-running musical in history, in both cities; but in 2006, it was surpassed by “The Phantom of the Opera” in New York and “Les Miz ” on the West End .
From my perspective, here are the problems with “Cats”: no plot, no dialogue, no variety, no arc, no point. One set. One array of costumes (awe-inspiring, at least on first encounter). One memorable song (repeatedly). And an oddball ending about ascending on a giant tire to The Heaviside Layer, some sort of cat-heaven.
It does have a snooty literary pedigree, being taken from a slim volume of poems by T.S. Eliot, about the psychology and sociology of felines with fabulous names. “Old Possums’ Book of Practical Cats” (1939) was reportedly a childhood favorite of composer Lloyd Webber. So he did his pastiche-y thing with it, employing musical genres ranging from classical to pop, music hall to electro-acoustic, jazz to hymns. As is patently clear, it isn’t my favorite show. And yet, Moonlight Stage Productions always does such excellent work, with musicals of every stripe, that I forswore my vow never to see “Cats” again (after at least five prior experiences with the little darlings), and ventured up to Vista.
Moonlight didn’t disappoint. They’ve mounted an excellent production. The set (on loan from Fullerton Civic Light Opera) offers all the requisite junkyard detritus, backed by a full moon (attractive lighting by Christina Munich). The costumes (also from Fullerton , but surprisingly saggy, instead of skin-tight, on a number of performers) and the striking makeup (based on a workshop given by locally-based, nationally busy makeup artist Paul Hadobas ) have the desired ooh- ahh effect.
Director Steven Glaudini has given the piece an extra boost: a context, showing a compelling (but uncredited) video of pages from Eliot’s original, with the wonderfully whimsical accompanying drawings by famed illustrator Edward Gorey . Choreographer Carlos Mendoza gives the dance some extra pop, too. Not so many cutesy cat-moves, more modern dance melded with acrobatic actions, a tweak of the Gillian Lynne original here, a hipper fine-tuning there. And to help him carry out his ideas, an outstanding array of dancers. The 26 performers are marvelous: agile, athletic, lithe and yes, feline.
Standouts are the flamboyant, Mick Jagger -like, chain-wearing, eternally bumping-and-grinding Elijah Reyes as the unappeasable Rum Tum Tugger (apparently, he, too, can’t get no satisfaction); Aaron Lloyd Pomeroy as “magical Mr. Mistoffelees ,” who executes fouettés en tournant , and other impressive balletic spins, with aplomb; and Robert Pieranunzi , potent as Munkustrap , the show’s de facto narrator, protector of the Jellicle tribe. Michael Skidgel brings his formidable voice to the outsized task of playing the lovable patriarch, Old Deuteronomy. And Debbie Prutsman offers heart and pathos as the grizzled Grizabella , the former Glamour Cat who’s lost her sparkle and now only craves acceptance. Prutsman manages to give a dramatic read and a fresh spin to the time-worn favorite, “Memory.”
The singing is vigorous throughout, and the 16-piece orchestra, under the direction of Kenneth Gammie , sounds robust and energetic, with particularly strong contributions from the reeds.
So, if you’re a feline fanatic, if this show is the cat’s pajamas to you, pounce on it while it’s here.
THE LOCATION: The Moonlight Amphitheatre in Brengle Terrace Park , 1200 Vale Terrace Drive , Vista . ( 760) 724-2110 ; www.vistixonline.com
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $22-44. Wednesday-Sunday at 7:30 p.m., through September 26.
Critics only got a quick peek, and since it’s a work in progress, I can’t say much at this time… but what I saw looked very promising.
“Sammy,” the world premiere musical about the roller-coaster life of Sammy Davis, Jr., is about to open at the Old Globe, with an extremely strong creative pedigree and as many new songs as familiar favorites. (9/19-11/8). Read PREVIEW here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2009-09-10/things-to-do/ambitious-musical-sammy-to-premiere-at-old-globe
A READING THAT SHOULD GO ON TO GREATER GLORY
… The Moonlight Cultural Foundation, fundraising arm of Moonlight Stage Productions, kicked off its season of free play readings, called WordsWork , with a bona fide winner. And a serious challenge. Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Seascape” calls for two couples, one older, one younger, and many philosophical meanderings, from aging to Darwinism. Doesn’t sound that demanding, until you realize that the two younger characters are giant lizards, sea creatures who crawl up out of the ocean for an encounter with The Other. It’s an eye-opening experience for all concerned, including the audience. Jackie Cuccaro , recently seen in Diversionary’s “Twist,” directed a spectacular cast: Sandra Ellis-Troy as the go-for-the-gusto, live-till-you-die wife to Charlie Riendeau ’s more sedentary husband, a man who’d be content to just do “nothing” with the remainder of his life. Their world – and world-views – are shaken up by the arrival of the lizards: Joshua Everett Johnson , spectacularly reptilian in his sharp moves and flicking tongue, and the adorable and agile Amanda Morrow as his more trusting mate. Too much work went obviously went into these superb characterizations for the actors not to have the opportunity to delve further into this thought-provoking piece. I hope some theater will rise to the occasion, and present at least a reading, if not a full production soon – before the mega-talented Johnson leaves us for New York in November.
NEWS AND VIEWS
… Even the Puppets are Downsizing : As further evidence of how the economy is affecting the arts, “Avenue Q,” the delightful, R-rated puppet musical, is making an unusual move: from Broadway to Off Broadway. The smart, funny show, which won the 2004 Tony Award for Best Musical, will transfer from the Golden Theatre (800 seats) to the 500-seat New World Stages in Clinton (aka Hell’s Kitchen, or Midtown West). The show will be dark for two weeks, from September 15 to October 8, while it makes the transition. Top ticket prices will decrease from $110 to $87, and actors’ salaries will come down, too, from $1600/week for a Broadway performer to $1100/week Off Broadway. The orchestra will likely shrink as well. This is, apparently, the first time a musical has made this kind of transfer within the same season. “We think it’s important that we stay in New York , and we stay in the neighborhood,” said one of the producers of the sometimes raunchy “ Sesame Street ” knockoff that’s set in New York . The show didn’t fare at all well in Las Vegas , and closed in short order (Too hip? Too cerebral? Too much ‘full puppet nudity’? We’ll never know).
… Extended Outreach: The McBeth Foundation has just pledged $50,000 to the California Center for the Arts, Escondido to extend and expand its 2009-2010 Education/outreach programs for local students and underserved youth. “My Story: Literacy through the Arts” engages 4th and 5th grade students in lessons that combine the arts with academic learning, using drama techniques and digital photography. The Center Stage Performances for Youth program introduces schoolkids to the world of live theater, bringing them to special matinee performances for just $2 a ticket.
… More provocative than we thought: High schools around the country objected to presenting the gritty musical, “Rent,” even in a somewhat watered-down School Edition. But the opposition reached an apex (or would that be a nadir?) in Orange County , where a handful of varsity athletes threatened to rape and kill the lead actress in their school’s production. Corona Del Mar High School officials initially canceled the production, but that decision was later rescinded, and the show went up, uneventfully, in May. In recently settling a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District agreed to provide anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training to students and staff members throughout the district. Hail Ketchum, the student actress who was threatened in a video posted on Facebook, said that while the attacks “were disgusting and very disturbing to me personally, what was really disheartening is that when I complained about them, the administrators did little to deal with them.” Ketchum is now a freshman at Loyola Marymount University ; the district has agreed to issue an apology to her.
…Diamond-Sharp: “Diamond is Forever: The Neil Diamond Experience” will be presented for one night only at the Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista . A tribute to “the sound, style and feel of the phenomenal pop icon… on a Hot Summer Night,” the show features life-long entertainer David J. Sherry and his band, using Diamond’s own words to tell the story of his life and the stories behind his songs—from early ‘60s creations to his latest, 2008 album, “Home Before Dark.” Sherry says that, as long as audiences keep coming back and cheering for more, he’s going to keep “spreading the good news of Neil.” October 3, 6:30 p.m. Information at www.davidjsherryproductions.com . Tickets at (760) 724-2110; www.vistixonline.com
… Looking for “Christmas Carol” Kids: The Welk Theatre has put out an Open Casting Call for their production of “A Christmas Carol,” running from Nov. 12-Jan. 3. Two casts of children, ranging in age from 8-12, will be needed. They’ll alternate matinee and evening performances, with one week on, one week off. Complimentary tickets will be issued to families during the run. Auditions will be held at the theater, on Lawrence Welk Drive in Escondido , at 4 p.m. on October 1. Young actors should bring sheet music and be prepared to sing 16 bars and read from a script if asked. www.welktheatresandiego.com
Dance into Fall
… Get on Board: It’s time, once again, for the highly anticipated and highly enjoyable “Trolley Dances,” brought to us by Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theater. Every fall, a different trolley line is selected; attendees hop on and off to watch brief dance performances. This year, it’s the Blue Line. Six daily tours, which start at the Bayfront Trolley Station in Chula Vista , will travel to the U.S./Mexico border in San Ysidro . A cast of 50 dancers will perform world premiere, site-specific works by Peter Chu, Swiss choreographer Elfi Shaeffer Shafroth , Miroslava Wilson of Tijuana ’s Pendulo Cero, Kim Epifano (director of San Francisco Trolley Dances) and artistic director Jean Isaacs , who will create two new dances. September 26-27 and October 3-4.
… Green Day: Stella Nova Dance Company, which bills itself as “the community’s only ‘Green’ Youth Dance Company,” will present a fall show entitled “The Magic of Mingling,” which features the work of various choreographers (artistic director Rayna Stohl and guests Yvonne Hernandez and Ellen Maynard) and showcases the new company’s 13 young dancers, including seven high school students. Three performances, September 25-26, at the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla . (858) 362-1348; tickets.lfjcc.org
… A Decade of Dance: Dance troupes from around the globe will converge in San Diego for the 10th anniversary Choreographer’s Showcase, hosted by the local hip hop company, Culture Shock San Diego (CSSD). The performance will include excerpts from the group’s evening-length hip hop musical, “Graffiti Life.” Guests will include: Dziah , an acrobatic, all-male troupe from New Zealand ; Rough and Ready from Germany ; and Stylize Crew from Switzerland . Local companies will also take the stage, including Encinitas-based FORMALity and Choreo Cookies; the latter company won the World of Dance’s upper division competition in 2008 and 2009.
The 17 year-old Culture Shock San Diego is the main branch of a nationwide Culture Shock hip hop community; Culture Shock visitors will be coming here from L.A., Oakland, Las Vegas, Chicago, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., as well as Ottowa and Toronto, Canada. Alums of the local company have gone on to perform with Destiny’s Child and Missy Elliott, and several were part of Jabbawockeez , winners of “ America ’s Best Dance Crew.”
The original purpose of the Choreographer’s Showcase, says CSSD founder/executive director Angie Bunch, was “for dancers to connect, but now it’s a way that the community can connect with hip hop dancers.” During the pre-show, the San Diego group, World Famous, will perform in the courtyard, while onlookers are invited “to freestyle to the beat of a live DJ.” On October 25, the spotlight will be on youth hip hop groups, including San Diego’s Future Shock (high school-age dancers), who won the 2009 Hip Hop Dance Battle at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. Other highlights of the two-day event: Culture Shock San Diego will be selling its new line of “hot urban clothing.” And on Sunday, Oct. 25, the troupe will hold master classes with teachers from other Culture Shock branches. October 24-25 at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido . ( 800) 988-4253; www.cultureshockdance.org
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
“I’m Not Rappaport ” – outstanding production of a funny, touching, thought-provoking play
Scripps Ranch Theatre, through 10/10
“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
“ 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.