Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Spy vs. Spy
THE SHOW: “Alfred Hitch cock’s The 39 Steps,” Tony Award-winning, four-person comic adaptation of the film, in a co-production with Seattle Repertory Theatre, at the La Jolla Playhouse
How many Alfred Hitch cock movies can you name – or recognize? Well, bring your list and listen up, because they’re probably all referred to, in wink-nudge fashion, in “Alfred Hitch cock’s The 39 Steps.” You’ll hear everything from “It’s too high; I get Vertigo” to “We’ll have to go North by Northwest”; from “Go out the Rear Window” to “He’s a Man Who Knew Too Much.” You’ll even get a glimpse of the famous “Psycho” shower scene.
Every trick – and shtick – in the book is whipped out in this highly comical (if supremely silly) adaptation of the 1935 Hitch cock film. The play won London ’s Olivier Award for Best Comedy in 2007 and garnered two Broadway Tony Awards (for Lighting and Sound) in 2008; it was also Tony-nominated for Best Play, Direction, Costume and Scenic Design.
Hitch cock took his plot (and title) from John Buchan’s best-selling 1915 novel. Buchan is so well known on his home turf that when the wacky show opened in London (where it’s still running), it went under the name of “John Buchan’s The 39 Steps.”
The stage play was adapted by Patrick Barlow, based on an original concept by Simon Corbel and Nobby Dimon , who conceived of a two-actor version of the story. Now it’s a four-actor tour de force – and those four actors are kept mighty busy, creating scads of characters, male and female, with all manner of accents, from Scottish to various English classes and dialects.
All of the plot, and most of the text, comes directly from the film, which became something of a boilerplate for many of Hitch cock’s subsequent efforts: an innocent bystander is thrust into a morass of espionage and pursued by the forces of both good and evil. Along the way, he hooks up with a gorgeous blonde who reluctantly becomes his partner in saving the day – or maybe the world.
Here, we have Richard Hannay , who’s sucked into single-handedly cracking a German spy ring that’s about to undermine British air defense. He’s snagged by the enigmatic Eastern European agent, Annabella Schmidt, who meets him at the theater, invites herself to his flat, and soon falls all over him (rather hilariously) with a knife in her back and a map of Scotland in her hand. He feels compelled to take up her quest, and along the way, hooks up (literally, by handcuff) with blonde Pamela, who’s alternately with him and against him, and ultimately falls for him. The demonic spy they’re seeking is a German posing as an Englishman, living in Scotland and identifiable by the missing first joint of his little finger.
In the play, Hannay , who’s feeling bored, useless and sorry for himself, says, “I’ve got to find something to do, something mindless and trivial, something utterly pointless; I’ll go to the theater!” And that’s a pretty apt description of this production. But if you’re a fan of slapstick and physical comedy, hair-trigger timing and the visible magic of theater, you’re gonna love it.
What’s most thrilling about this thriller is the virtuosity and ingenuity that goes into creating all the characters and visual illusions. Characters morph effortlessly into other characters – and actors sometimes play two characters at once. You can’t help but get caught up in the breathtaking speed of the moves, the genius of creating a train, a chase, a car, a bridge, using lighting, sound, silhouettes and shadow puppets to re-create the story in the most theatrical way possible. Hitch cock would’ve gone gaga; he even begins and ends his film in a theater.
Major credit goes to the wildly imaginative director Maria Aitken and her creative confrères : Peter McKintosh (set and costumes), Kevin Adams (lighting) and Mic Pool (sound). And the cast is nonpareil.
Ted Deasy has just the right unflappable savvy as Hannay , and Claire Brownell, who comes directly from the Broadway production, is terrific as Annabella , Pamela and the miserable, emotion-starved Margaret, who’s stuck in the Scottish moors with a rigid and religious husband. The handcuff scene of Hannay and Pamela, that fabulous moment on the bed when she takes off her stockings, with the help of his hand, is superb, as it was in the movie.
Eric Hissom and Scott Parkinson play all the other characters (some writers have estimated more than 100). They’re amazing – vocally, physically and linguistically agile. Parkinson has strutted his stuff in San Diego before; he was a mercurial Mercutio at the Old Globe in a 1998 production of “Romeo and Juliet.” And as the ash-faced, weird-haired, contorted Zygote, he was the most interesting part of the La Jolla Playhouse premiere of “The Third Story” in 2008.
“The 39 Steps” may be too silly for some, but you just have to roll with this dizzy, dazzling genre spoof. If that doesn’t appeal, just sit back and marvel at the theatrical wizardry.
THE LOCATION: The Mandell Weiss Theatre of the La Jolla Playhouse, on the campus of UCSD. (858) 550-1010 ; www.lajollaplayhouse.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $30-65. Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m , through September 13.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
See the Film : The La Jolla Playhouse has organized several community screenings of Alfred Hitch cock’s classic movie, “ The 39 Steps .” Tickets for the Playhouse stage production will be given away at each event. The movie screenings are FREE at the Museum of Photographic Arts (7 p.m. on August 27; (619) 238-7559, mopa.org) and the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library (7:30 p.m. on September 1; (858) 454-5872, ljathenaeum.org ). The Maritime Museum is charging $13 for adults, $8 for children (8 p.m. on August 28; (619) 234-9153, sdmaritime.org ). Tickets are available through each organization.
Note : Directly after this production closes in La Jolla, it opens in Seattle , and then transforms into the national touring company.
Music of the Night
THE SHOW: “Phantom,” a different musical version of the famous legend, at Moonlight Stage Productions
Okay, you’ve probably seen that ‘other’ “Phantom,” the gargantuan blockbuster by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Personally, I’m not a fan. And no matter how many times I’ve seen the show, I can never fully follow the convoluted plot.
Welcome to the “Phantom” of Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston , which was also based on the 1910 Gaston Leroux novel, and was written the same year as Lloyd Webber’s invention – 1985. Timing, as they say in theater, is everything.
This storyline is more clear and far more interesting. You come to understand the Phantom a lot better; you even meet his family, and view his tortured relationship with his father. These are credible, believably motivated characters, who undergo an actual dramatic arc.
The score, while not as grand – and grandiose – as Lloyd Webber’s, is pleasant, if not memorable. The music is lilting and blessedly non-repetitive. The whole effort feels manageable, not overreaching or overwhelming. And the Moonlight production is delightful, appealing and rewarding in every way.
The lovely costumes come from San Jose Civic Light Opera. The attractive scenery is on loan from Houston ’s Theatre Under the Stars. The famous Paris Opera House chandelier falls a lot more subtly; it doesn’t steal focus by seeming to come crashing down on the audience. The attention is directed where it belongs: on the performances. And they are outstanding.
Sarah Bermudez displays her stunning, stratospheric soprano as Christine Daaé , the street singer discovered by the Count de Chandon (Cris O’Bryon, in excellent voice and impressive dramatic and physical agility). Bermudez wonderfully inhabits Christine’s full range of emotions. Chris Warren Gilbert is a splendid, dashing Phantom; he’s so humanized he even has a name: Erik. Gilbert’s voice has a broad and supple range, from baritone to falsetto. He fusses a bit with his voluminous cape, but his climactic moments – both amorous and destructive – are riveting. Debbie Prutsman is amusingly over-the-top as the self-aggrandizing diva, La Carlotta. Norman Large gives another of his compelling and convincing performances as tormented Gerard Carriere , who gradually reveals his long-held secrets.
Once again, Moonlight has assembled a stellar creative team. The director, Todd Nielsen, was resident director for the national tour of Disney’s “The Lion King.” The choreographer, DJ Gray, served as associate choreographer for the Broadway production and national tour of “ Xanadu ” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Their work is superb, well integrated and well executed by a deft ensemble of 30. The lighting (Christina Munich) and sound (Peter Hashagen ) combine to create charming special effects. The excellent 22-piece orchestra, under the baton of musical director Elan McMahan, offers all the excitement and emotion the story demands.
Overall, it’s a thoroughly enchanting production – elaborate without being overdone, dramatic without edging over into melodrama, tuneful without being cloying. The only other time this show has been produced locally was in 1996 — by Moonlight Stage Productions. Congratulations to the company on its sensational stagehouse upgrade and its willingness to present lesser-known musicals to a dedicated audience.
THE LOCATION: Moonlight Amphitheatre, in Brengle Terrace Park . (760) 724-2110 ; www.vistixonline.com
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $22-44. Wednesday-Sunday at 8p.m., through August 29.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
NEWS AND VIEWS
…Wicked Cool: Another San Diego connection for the current touring production of “Wicked,” which is once again breaking box office records at the San Diego Civic Theatre. Chandra Lee Schwartz, a San Marcos native and graduate of San Marcos High, takes over the role of Glinda on Friday, August 21. She was last seen here in 2008, when she was very funny as the drama queen, Sharpay , in “Disney High School Musical On Tour.” Now, she joins SDSU MFA/Musical Theatre alum Merideth Kaye Clark, who’s the Standby for Elphaba (the green one), and frequently performs the role, especially at matinees; and former San Diegan Kevin McMahon, who plays the Ozian Official. The blockbuster musical, brought to us by Broadway San Diego, runs through August 30.
… Benefit: Speaking of “Wicked,” the national touring company will host “Defying Inequality,” an evening of cabaret performances by members of the cast and crew, as well as guests, to promote civil rights. This one-night-only event will benefit four non-profit charitable organizations working to legislate marriage equality and protection of the rights of the GLBT community: Equality California, Empire State Pride Agenda, Garden State Equality and Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force. Performers, including Donna Vivino ( Elphaba ), Nina West (2008 National Entertainer of the Year), Alison Arngrim (“Little House on the Prairie”) and local Judy “The Beauty” Forman, will underscore the musical’s theme of acceptance. Tickets are available through Equality California, at www.eqca.org , or Broadway San Diego: www.broadwaysd.com ; (888) 937-8995. At the Birch North Park Theatre, 7:30 p.m. on Monday, August 24.
… Support of Experimental Work: In Los Angeles , the Center Theatre Group’s new play production program just received a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, specifically geared to developing productions with L.A.-based artists who use “new technologies and a non-textual approach to performance.” The program will support commissions, completion funds for works already in progress and an “innovation fund” to nurture projects involving unusual approaches to theater. Impressive.
… The Seattle/San Diego Link: Jack O’Brien, the Old Globe’s artistic director emeritus, is in Seattle , at the 5th Avenue Theatre, mounting a new musical, “Catch Me If You Can,” based on the Steven Spielberg film. Another Tony Award-winner, Bartlett Sher, the outgoing artistic director of the esteemed Intiman Theatre, got his theatrical start in San Diego . And he got to choose his successor. He named Kate Whoriskey , who had a surprisingly short stint at the La Jolla Playhouse, as associate artistic director under Des McAnuff . Sher moves on to New York , where he’s already garnered much acclaim, and maybe O’Brien’s production will, too (previews began July 28). Meanwhile, we wish Whoriskey well; she never had a chance to demonstrate her creative skills here.
… Freedom Now !: President Obama recently named 16 recipients of the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. The awardees were chosen for their work as “agents of change,” in the fields of sports, medicine, science, politics, public policy and the arts. As the President put it, “Each saw an imperfect world and set about improving it, often overcoming great obstacles along the way.” This year’s honorees include theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, Sen. Edward Kennedy, tennis pro Billie Jean King , Joe Medicine Crow (the last living Plains Indian war chief, and the author of seminal works on Native American history and culture); gay politician/activist Harvey Milk, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, actor Sidney Poitier, and Tony Award-winning actor/singer/dancer Chita Rivera. Rivera, a warm and gracious theater icon, premiered her Broadway-bound show, “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life,” at the Old Globe in 2005. “Their relentless devotion to breaking down barriers and lifting up their fellow citizens,” said the President, “sets a standard to which we all should strive.”
… The mismatch from hell: Can it be possible? What with multiple online spoofs, is this a genuine pairing? Apparently so. Disney has tapped David Mamet, the award-winning creator of innumerable foul-mouthed, violent, testosterone-driven macho-men, to write and direct a new film version of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Look for the script satires on youtube . Hilarious. The new movie will, by report, draw on the original diary, the stage play written by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich and new material from Mr. Mamet. That last phrase is the scary part. The 1959 film version of the Diary, directed by George Stevens , won three Academy Awards and was nominated for Best Picture. The cast and release date of this dubious new venture have not yet been released. There’s still time for minds to change…
FREE STUFF !!
… ion theatre company is presenting a reading of “Who is the Enemy?, by H. Lee Sarokin . Glenn Paris directs a cast that includes Dan Feraldo , Dough Hoehn, Jeffrey Jones , Catalina Maynard, Sara Beth Morgan , Claudio Raygoza and Walter Ritter. The courtroom drama, written by a retired judge (appointed by President Carter, elevated to the Appellate Court by President Clinton), considers “the current tension between our security and our liberty.” A man who insists that he’s been unlawfully detained is suing the United States President. The setup is a trial, and the audience gets to vote. Discussion, which will include Judge Sarokin , follows the performance, as does a dessert reception. Monday, August 24, 7:30 p.m., at Diversionary Theatre. Admission is free.
… Celebrate Dance!: The 13th annual Celebrate Dance Festival will be held this weekend, August 21-23, at the Casa del Prado in Balboa Park, featuring more than 70 dance organizations, artists and collectives. There’ll be something for everyone, from classes to workshops to performances: hip hop to ballet, folklorico to flamenco, modern dance to acrobatics and cloggers . It’s a huge community collaboration, produced every year by Eveoke Dance Theatre. Info and schedule at: http://www.eveoke.org/cdf/info.html
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
“Alfred Hitch cock’s The 39 Steps” – splendidly imaginative, superbly executed
La Jolla Playhouse, through 9/13
“Phantom” – compelling characters and performances, lush production, gorgeous singing
Moonlight Stage Productions, through 8/29
“Wicked” – excellent touring production, in all its glorious greenness
Broadway San Diego at the Civic Theatre, through 8/30
Read review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2009-08-05/things-to-do/pat-launer-on-san-diego-theater-wives-wicked
“ 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
“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat ” – funny, colorful, and very 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
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer’ into the SDNN Search box.