Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Shall We Dance?
THE SHOW: “The King and I,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, presented by the J*Company Youth Theatre
SOME of the “King and I” story is true. The young widow Anna Leonowens did, in fact, go to Bangkok in 1862, and she stayed for five years. And she did teach English – and other things – to the 64 royal children of the King of Siam. She was, indeed, more than a little turned off by some of his cultural habits, not the least his harem. She wrote two books about her experiences (“ The English Governess at the Siamese Court ” in 1870 and “ Romance of the Harem ” in 1872) , both controversial and still hotly contested in Thailand .
Bowing, scraping and female slavery aside, she did think Mongkut (Rama IV) was a very progressive King, But there’s no evidence in her writings that there was any romance between them. He was 60 when she arrived; she was 28. She had her son with her, but few know that she sent a daughter off to boarding school in England , and presumably didn’t see her for the duration of her Asian stay. In her books, Leonowens glorified her own past (she said she was born in Wales, not India; she made her husband an officer, when he was only a clerk, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera). And as for the romance? Who knows, but it sure worked well for Rodgers and Hammerstein (1951); their show ran on Broadway for 1,246 performances and garnered five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The film version (1956) was also wildly popular, winning five Oscars.
You might be interested in the aftermath of Leonowens ’ life (her husband’s name was Thomas Leon Owens; no one is quite sure when, why or by whom the names were conflated). Apparently, she left Siam before the King died, and corresponded briefly with his son, Rama V ( Chululongkorn ). She retrieved her daughter and moved to New York and then Nova Scotia , where she became involved in women’s rights and education. She was a suffragette, active in the National Council of Women and one of the founders of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Small factoids: Her son returned to Siam and set up a business there. Her grand-nephew was the actor Boris Karloff.
The 1944 biographical novel “Anna and the King of Siam,” by Margaret Landon, popularized Leonowens ’ story and gave rise to the 1946 film of the same name, and not long after, the musical and movie.
Now, after a zillion productions, along comes the J*Company, a youth theater based at the JCC in La Jolla . And not only do they present a huge, elaborate and very credible production, they up the ante considerably, with a local, seasonal, philanthropical twist.
Leading man Daniel Myers, age 17, a student at High Tech High, asked his director, Joey Landwehr, if he had to shave his head, in the tradition of Yul Brynner , who created the role of the King on stage and screen. Landwehr said no, but Myers persisted. He decided to surrender his dark, curly hair, but for a bigger, better reason: to raise awareness – and money – for the young cancer patients at Rady Children’s Hospital. Landwehr was so moved, he decided to shave his head, too, in solidarity (they did the deed on local TV). So far, more than $5200 has been raised for the Miracle Makers program (donations are being accepted through www.ljfcc.org/miracle ).
In addition to having a caring, sharing heart, Myers has a huge amount of talent. I’ve been watching his progress since he was 10 years old. For years, he sang in local productions in a pure, sweet soprano; now, his voice has lowered into a smooth, effortless baritone. Unlike some Kings, he can actually sing his role, and he does a wonderful job with “A Puzzlement.” His acting is superb, and he completely captures the essence of the stubborn, curious and progressive potentate. Having performed opposite her in the past, he has a marvelous rapport with Ali Viterbi , 17, who plays Anna.
Just before their lively musical number, “Shall We Dance ?, ” they have an intimate moment that is emotionally stunning here. Viterbi has wonderful energy and she captures the forthright character with aplomb. Another standout in the cast is Gabriella Lipson as Lady Thiang , the King’s head wife. Lipson is assured, both vocally and dramatically (her accent is one of the best), and she holds her own beautifully on the stage, though she’s only 12 years old.
Landwehr has done an excellent job, with a mammoth cast of 54, age 6-18; the little ones are really adorable in “The March of the Siamese Children.” And for the first time in a long time, there’s a 16-piece orchestra (under the musical direction of Jason Chase), that can handle the lush orchestrations. Local dancer/choreographer Deven P. Brawley lent his prodigious talent to the production, which resulted in a compelling presentation of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet. Costumer Shulamit Nelson outdid herself, too, with multiple lovely dresses for Anna, and spectacular costumes and masks for the ballet.
This is the J*Company’s second production in an all Rodgers and Hammerstein season (“The Sound of Music” and “Cinderella” are coming in the spring). If you want to revisit a brilliant classic, and envision the future of theater, you won’t miss it.
THE LOCATION: The J*company at the Lawrence Family JCC, 4126 Executive Dr. , La Jolla . (858) 362-1348 ; http://sdcjc . org/ jcompany
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $13-17. Wednesday-Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday at 10 a.m. (school performance), Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 1:00 and 4:30 p.m. through December 13.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
Glitter and Be Gay
THE SHOW: “The New Century,” a 2008 comedy by Paul Rudnick, at Diversionary Theatre
Paul Rudnick can be one of the funniest people on the planet – but you’ve gotta like that sort of thing. Very gay, very Jewish, very New York . In his latest theatrical creation (he wrote the screenplay for “Jeffrey,” based on his stage play, and the hilarious novel, “I’ll Take It,” among many other works), he takes his three obsessions wayyy over the top (as if they weren’t perched there by definition). In a series of monologues that make ‘stereotype’ seem like a euphemism, Rudnick gives us a smorgasbord of aging, deluded dysfunctionals : Helene, “the most loving mother of all time” (the ultimate Jewish mom from Massapequa, Long Island) and “Mr. Charles, currently of Palm Beach,” the gayest man in the world, so outrageously, unfashionably Nelly that he was “asked to leave New York.” Then there’s Barbara Ellen, compulsive Midwest crafts-person, perpetually smiling goofily and wielding a glue-gun.
They all have great lines. But a string of one-liners, no matter how funny (and these are far from uproarious) doth not a play make. These characters are so extreme (Helene’s children, for example, are: 1. a lesbian; 2. a transsexual and 3. into S&M and scatology — beware: feces and diaper jokes abound), that when they actually say something pointed or poignant, you nearly miss it. Barbara Ellen’s story, of a son who died of AIDS, though she can barely speak of it, is the most compelling. The other two are just shtick. And the final scene, when all of the characters come together (including Mr. Charles’ boytoy and a woman who wants him to sprinkle his fairy-dust on her infant, to make him flamboyant, too, so he can live “in color”), there’s really no place for the piece to go. They find themselves in a New York maternity ward, contemplating the aftermath of 9/11, the future of sexuality and humanity. Their deep, philosophical conclusion? The only way to fix the earth is, as the concluding songs goes: “Everybody dance now.” Wow. Heavy.
Rudnick has a tendency to get silly (“ Valhalla ” and “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told” were based on funny premises that devolved quickly; I think “I Hate Hamlet” is his only consistently satisfying play). True Confession: I don’t do silly well. So I wasn’t exactly rolling in the aisles, though some in the Diversionary audience seemed to be. Sort of.
What is needed to make this play work, as it did in New York and Boston , is a flawless, gut-busting cast. Here, under the direction of Igor Goldin (last at Diversionary to helm the wonderful new musical, “Yank!”), we have a good cast, a competent cast, but not a side-splitting one. A lot of the problem is the text itself. But there are other cracks in the façade, and a good deal of the responsibility has to fall at the feet of the director.
For one thing, and I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, Mr. Charles should be even more exaggerated and extreme than Phil Johnson plays him. His clothes (Jennifer Brawn Gittings at her comical best) are aptly garish and ostentatious. But despite his ridiculous blond wig, he’s … downright subdued. And not very Nelly. Where are the mannerisms, the limp wrists, the lisp? If you’re gonna go to the edge, don’t flinch.
Helene should be much more Jewish and New York (the accent falters frequently). Those are not only her identifying characteristics; they’re her raisons d’être. Dana Hooley gives a solid performance, but she’s not believably Jewish or New York . There’s a certain ‘ taam ’ (Yiddish for something like ‘flavor’ or ‘sensibility’) that is elusive unless you’ve actually lived among – or been – either of those types.
Jacque Wilke , a former stand-up comedian and a wonderful recent addition to the local theater community, does an excellent job with Barbara Ellen, but she really doesn’t have all that much to work with. She smiles a lot and shows off her crafts (props very effective, but not attributed), to hide her pain. Her description of her first view of the AIDS quilt is outstanding.
Adorable, engaging Noah Longton adds some zip (and gratuitous nudity) to two cute characters, and Stacey Hardke rounds out the cast as the distraught mother of the wannabe-gay baby. There just is so little there there .
“Make remarks, not war,” says Mr. Charles. Make plays, not clichés, Mr. Rudnick.
THE LOCATION: Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd. , University Heights . ( 619) 220-0097 ; www.diversionary.org
THE DETAILS : Tickets $25-33. Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m., through January 2. No performances on December 24, 25 or January 1. Special performances: Monday, 12/14 12/and 28 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, 12/26 at 4 p.m., 1/2 at 4 p.m.
Unto Us a Son is Born
THE SHOW: “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful: Black Nativity, the Musical” a celebration of the season, presented by Common Ground Theatre
“Oh, Come All Ye Faithful: Black Nativity, the Musical” is less a show than a community showcase . Hassan El- Amin , the new artistic director of the 47 year-old Common Ground Theatre (the late Dr. Floyd Gaffney was artistic director for 36 years, until his death in 2007), adapted and directed this retelling of the story of the birth of Jesus. The tale is interspersed with performances by various groups from around the county – representing a range of artforms : gospel, praise, hip hop, crunk dance, spoken word, doo wop and worship. Before the proceedings get underway, a chorus or gospel choir performs (on the night I was there, it was the excellent Martin Luther King Community Choir of San Diego ). At each performance, there’s a guest minister from a local church, playing the pastor in the first church-scene. Opening night also highlighted a special cause: Tayari’s “Saving Soles for Souls” Shoe Campaign, a fundraising event designed to collect seven million pairs of shoes for orphaned children in Uganda .
In his curtain speech, El- Amin explained that his production included more than 100 performers (with the youngest being 3 years old), spread out over five different locations, participating in fewer than ten hours of rehearsal. So, it was understandable that things seemed a bit disjointed or under-rehearsed. This was something of a variety show, with a new act and a new feel every few minutes, loosely linked by the nativity story. Not all performances were of equal or high caliber, but all were earnest and heartfelt.
The eight doo wop singers were superb. The vocals were terrific throughout, though many seemed to be raw talent that needed shaping and training, in terms of breathing, phrasing and presentation. Lovely Loren Lott did a fine job as Mary. The dance highlight was “No Room at the Inn ,” a supple and nimble presentation by the Sandra Foster-King Dancers (Foster-King and DaNae Banks were choreographers for the evening). The shepherds’ Krump praise was energizing; some of those dancers were stellar; others, less so.
The night I was there, the audience was lovin ’ it. This was a celebration of unity and community.
THE LOCATION: Common Ground Theatre at the Educational Cultural Complex, 4343 Ocean View Blvd., southeast San Diego . (619) 263-7911; www.commongroundtheatre.org
THE DETAILS : Tickets $10-25. Friday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m., through December 13.
As the Globe Turns
The Old Globe , which will turn 75 next June, just unveiled its exciting new addition: the Conrad Prebys Theatre Center and Copley Plaza , including a brand new, 250-seat, state-of-the-art arena stage – the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, which replaces the Cassius Carter Centre Stage– and the stunning new, 6200 square-foot Karen and Donald Cohn Educational Center . On the upper floor, Hattox Hall, where the celebrations took place, will be a showpiece for the Globe, to be used for cabaret performances as well as lecture/rehearsal space for the Globe/USD MFA students.
The $22 million construction was dedicated on Monday night, a glitzy gala in spite of the awful, rainy weather. The Mayor was there, and many of San Diego ’s elite, to ooh and ahh over the magnificent new facilities, another feather in the cap of the country’s 6th largest theater. The presentations underscored the Globe’s accomplishments over the years: $28 million in revenue and 20 shows sent to Broadway. Everyone was anxious to experience the new theater space firsthand, via a performance by the current stars of the Tony Award-winning revival of “South Pacific” – Kelli O’Hara and Paulo Szot .
Most appropriately, the event was dubbed “Some Enchanted Evening.” The singers were, like the audience, elegantly attired. There was a formality to the performance, a sense of romance and gravity. The singing was glorious; the musical accompaniment was superlative. Music director Ted Sperling was a star in his own right. His eight-piece ensemble was attractively sunk just below the stage, thanks to a full trap in the splendidly equipped theater. The orchestrations were brilliant, and brilliantly played. The songs, leaning heavily on musical theater works by Sondheim, Lerner & Lowe, Irving Berlin and Rodgers & Hammerstein (including, of course, a medley from “South Pacific”), focused on the ‘serious’ works. There was little humor or whimsy, my only complaint about the lovely, hour-long performance. O’Hara’s bright, crystalline soprano was sweetly romantic in every number. A little more stylistic variation, and a few up-tempo numbers, would’ve highlighted her emotional range. Szot heated things up with a Spanish-language medley that included a tango and the Mexican standard, “ Besame Mucho.” His encore, a sexy, sultry Brazilian bossa nova, was a knockout.
It was a starry night, indeed, and the beginning of a new era for the Globe – the next 75 years.
The Globe will host an Open House, for the public to see the new Theatre Center , on Saturday, December 12, from 10 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. The free event will include guided tours of all four levels of the new Center, from beneath the stage to the Shiley Terrace above.
Also on 12/12, the Globe will welcome the legendary lyricist/librettist Tom Jones (best known for “The Fantasticks ”) at the opening of “I Do! I Do !, ” which he wrote in 1966, with his long-time collaborator, Harvey Schmidt. Jones has revised his book for this new Globe production, which stars Patrick Page (“Cyrano de Bergerac” at the Globe last summer) and his wife, Paige Davis. Jones will participate in an opening night post-show discussion. www.theoldglobe.org
Related Story: See video of the new additions to the Old Globe.
NEWS AND VIEWS
.. Time for Giving: Write Out Loud, which brings literature to life by reading it aloud, is presenting “Giving Season,” a family-friendly holiday program that features Foley artist Scott Paulson providing sound effects for a beloved story from the radio era, “Red Rider Nails the Cleveland Street Kid” (AKA, ‘A Christmas Story’) by Jean Shepard . Anne-Charlotte Harvey, SDSU professor emerita , has created, especially for this event, a new translation of “The Legend of the Christmas Rose,” a favorite Swedish story about forgiveness. This will be the first public reading, and Dr. Harvey will participate. “The Peddler’s Gift,” by Maxine Rose Shur , is about a young Jewish boy who learns that what we perceive in people may not be all there is to see. And there’s more. Monday, December 14 at 7 p.m., Old Town Theatre. www.writeoutloudsd.com
… Buff = Bucks: The two biggest hunks on Broadway – Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig – currently co-starring in “Steady Rain,” showed that they can turn their cachet into cash. During this year’s 21st annual Gypsy of the Year competition, which entailed six weeks of curtain appeals for contributions to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the two actors raised a record-breaking $1.5 million, the most ever collected by a single show in the history of BC/EFA fundraisers. During his standing ovation, Jackman quippily thanked “all [the people] we bullied, cajoled and slept with” to collect the money. In a local connection, two of the top four National Tour Fundraisers were “Jersey Boys” companies (the blockbuster musical was launched here, at the La Jolla Playhouse). The culminating event December 8 featured a mixture of satirical skits, inspirational songs and virtuoso dance numbers, all performed by the “gypsies,” the Broadway dancers who go from show to show, providing singing and dancing backup to the leads. Since 1989, the Gypsy of the Year event has raised $40 million, which is distributed to more than 400 AIDS service organizations and charities.
… Life on the West Bank: “Welcome to Ramallah,” set in the Palestinian territory, written by two English-Jewish writers, Sonja Linden and Adah Kay, had its American premiere this past summer at Compass Theatre. The provocative, semi-autobiographical piece is based on Kay’s experiences living in the title city, working for human rights organizations, just like her central character. The fascinating and unnerving work is skillfully acted, and wonderfully directed by Charlie Riendeau . As a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s sure to stimulate heated dialogue and debate. If you’re a thinking person, see it. Only three more performances: 12/13 and 12/20 at 7 p.m., 12/15 at 7:30 p.m. www.compasstheatre.com
… The Tones of Ton3x: San Diegan Ton3x, the one-named wonder who broke out of his gospel roots and was catapulted onto the musical theater stage last year (“ Dreamgirls ,” “The Princess and the Black-Eyed Pea”), winning a Patté Award for Outstanding Performance, has just been nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Urban/Alternative Performance. The song, “Blend,” is part of his new CD, “Unspoken,” which was named Top Gospel CD of 2009 by amazon.com.
… A Platter of Patté : Gorge yourself on a feast 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 King and I” – a delightful production, with a sterling central performance by Daniel Myers as the King, making an excellent connection with Ali Viterbi as Anna
Lawrence Family JCC, La Jolla , through 12/13
“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
“The Seafarer” – spooky, eerie, funny and even thought-provoking; excellent ensemble
San Diego Repertory Theatre, through 12/13
“ Holiday Memories” – sweet and nostalgic
Scripps Ranch Theatre, through 12/12
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer’ into the SDNN Search box.