By Pat Launer
In serious contrast to the holiday confections:
“ Guantánamo ” and its political reflections.
But fear not: seasonal fare is headed to ya ’
From Dickens to Handel’s Hallelujah.
The San Diego Repertory Theatre’s 29th version of “A Christmas Carol” is in trim, vigorous, fightin ’ shape. For his third year directing the timeless Dickens tale — aptly set in a dark, dank Victorian England (beautifully designed by Giulio Cesare Perrone ) — Todd Salovey decided to streamline and simplify, so the classic ghost story is told in one breathless, seamless, intermissionless , 90-minute piece. It works wonderfully, thanks to a terrific, malleable ensemble, delightful music (composed by cast-member Steve Gunderson) and lively direction and dance (choreography by Javier Velasco). Oh, and the costumes are great, too ( Perrone again), slightly altered from last year – particularly the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present – to excellent effect. Third time’s a charm; Salovey and writer D.W. Jacobs got it all right.
Jonathan McMurtry is funny and serious and gentle and prodding as our narrator and guide, Mr. Dickens himself, hewing close to the original (very humorous) text. Peter Van Norden is sheer delight as Old Ebenezer. He’s crotchety at the outset and genuinely tickled by his redemption at the end. There isn’t a false note in Van Norden’s performance. Steve Gunderson is thoroughly amiable as Bob Cratchit , and his family is appealing, too – all of whom reappear in multiple roles — Shana Wride , Linda Libby, Paul James Kruse, Catie Marron (who’s now 14, and has developed into quite the charming, multi-talented young lady since we appeared together in “Bye Bye Birdie”), and once again, as Tiny Tim, the adorable Bibi Valderrama (age 7). Jennifer Shelton and Robert Townsend make a striking pair as Belle and young Ebenezer and again as Scrooge’s nephew Fred and his wife. Townsend is in terrific voice; his pure, clear tenor has never sounded better. Plus, he skates and juggles! Don LeMaster has done an excellent job with the musical direction, and his little band of four sounds spirited and robust.
The message of the play still comes through loud and clear, especially in these dark days of poverty and dwindling social welfare programs, coupled with the hyper-commercialism of the season. The ending always makes you want to go out and do something for someone less fortunate. Hail to the Rep, for making us think and remember every year.
At the San Diego Repertory Theatre, through December 26.
THE GOSPEL TRUTH
In 1992, Quincy Jones won a Grammy for his all-star African American holiday riff called “ Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration.” With collaborators like Stevie Wonder, Al Jarreau , Patti Austin and Take 6’s Mervin Warren, Jones took a pop approach to the 1742 oratorio, jazzing it up with African drumming, a taste of calypso, a bit of rap, soul, fusion R&B and gospel. There were 16 cuts on the original album. In the local adaptation by Common Ground Theater, directed by Floyd Gaffney, only seven numbers make an appearance, tucked in between the Biblical narration/explanation, traditional songs (“Go Tell it on the Mountain,” “Drummer Boy”) and the periodic dance and rap performances. It’s not clear who wrote the sometimes poetic, sometimes prosaic narrations (uncredited), but they’re excellently delivered by an appealing, golden-voiced trio: Laurence Brown, Claude E. Cole, Jr. and Yolanda Franklin.
The production draws from some of San Diego ’s finest church choir singers. And that is the way they are directed, with minimal movement, often sitting, standing or swaying. Each number features a soloist, who starts slow and belts out to beat the band, battling the cavernous locale (the World Beat Center), the faulty mikes and the problematic acoustics, so that sometimes they’re drowned out by the chorus of 12. Although an effort is made to create a dramatic/theatrical diversion, not just a concert, there’s a sameness to the proceedings – in the musical arrangements (by Dr. Rose Buchanan), the dancing (by graceful and beautiful Monique Gaffney) and the few rap segments (by cute-but-shy 16 year-old Marcus Scott). Each seems to have a limited lexicon from which to draw, so although any given number may be meaningful, energizing or outstanding in its own right, the sum total, 2+ hours long, feels wearing and repetitive. The look is lovely (colorful African-inspired costumes by Joan Wong) but also unvarying. As sacred service, the production appealed mightily to the churchgoers in the audience. As theater, it was static. But despite the lateness of the hour, when the Hallelujah chorus came around, the audience was on its feet, catching the infectious spirit of jubilation.
At the World Beat Center on Park Blvd. Dec. 9-11. Two performances at St. Paul ’s Cathedral on Dec. 12.
POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE
It’s been called a legal black hole. The most powerful democracy on earth is detaining, at the U.S. Naval base at Guantánamo Bay , Cuba , hundreds of un-charged international suspects from around the world; for months or years, they await trial on capital charges by military tribunals. The Geneva Conventions have been flouted; humanitarian law has been ignored. Here, people are presumed guilty until proven innocent. They have no access to the writ of habeas corpus, to determine whether their detention is even arguably justified. When (and if) the trials come, the military will act as interrogators, prosecutors, defense counsel, judges and if death sentences are imposed, as executioners. The trials will be held in secret. The military controls everything. They offer no basic guarantee of a fair trial, no access to the U.S. court system. The detainees are beaten, abused, confined, treated like animals.
This is the backdrop of “ Guantánamo ,” created by writers Victoria Brittain (an English journalist) and Gillian Slovo (a South African novelist). Although they based the play on letters and interview transcripts, personal stories, legal opinion and political debate, “ Guantánamo ,” subtitled “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom,” isn’t the dry, instructive history lesson that was David Hare’s “Stuff Happens.” This is the human story, the personal tribulations and frustrations of the families and the detainees themselves, some of whom (the British in particular, in a shocking American display of “most favored nation status”) have been released. Although it reads like a series of monologues, Dale Morris, who directed the heart-stopping reading last week at the Joan Kroc Center for Peace and Justice (IPJ), tweaked and adjusted the text so that narratives were split between speakers, which gave the powerful impression of dialogue, letters written and responded to, plea or pronouncement and reaction.
The cast of eleven was uniformly outstanding, even if all the accents didn’t match the descriptions (one Manchester bloke, for instance, sounded anything but; good thing Ron Choularton wasn’t there!!). But the emotions of a father whose son has been detained for years, and a brother whose sister died in the World Trade Center , put a human face on these horrific stories of torture, cruelty and neglect.
The presenters, in addition to the Kroc Institute, were Amnesty International and the International Museum of Human Rights at San Diego . The post-show forum was excellent, the discussion facilitated by Anne Hoiberg , president of the International Museum, with guest speakers William J. Aceves , director of the International Legal Studies program at Cal Western School of Law, and attorney Gwen Young, Human Rights advisor for the IPJ. The facts are dispiriting (and awful new ones just in this week from the ACLU) but there are efforts being made, actions being taken, petitions circulating, legal challenges in process. The play incited anger and heartache, and a commitment to do something. And isn’t that what theater does best?
PERFORMANCE OPPORTUNITY ??
Okay, maybe it’s not your thing… but maybe it is. The Pageant of the Masters –the world’s most famous presentation of tableaux vivants (living pictures) of works of art, etc. — is looking for performance volunteers for next summer. The open-house Casting Call is January 8 and 9. Call 949-494-3663 for an appointment (if you can’t make those days), or for further info. The ‘audition’ location is backstage at the Irvine Bowl in Laguna Beach ( 650 Laguna Canyon Road ). The only talent requirement? – that you can stand still. ADHD candidates need not apply.
HOT STUFF, WORTH NOTING
… The invitations are out for the 8th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence . The live event is January 10, 2005, in the Shiley Studio at KPBS. Tickets are already going fast… If you don’t make it to the main event, check it out on KPBS-TV on Sunday, Jan. 16 at 3:30pm.
… Want a great last-minute gift idea? Check out “The Play’s The Thing: A Photographic Odyssey Through Theatre in San Diego ,” the gorgeous new coffee-table photography book by Ken Jacques (with Intro by Sam Woodhouse and Foreword by me). Order it online at www.sunbeltbooks.com , or see it at a bookstore near you!
… Kudos to the La Jolla Playhouse, Old Globe and Sledgehammer Theatres for earning coveted NEA grants to develop new work. For the Playhouse, it’s $38,000 for a Page to Stage workshop production of Melissa James Gibson’s modern interpretation of “The Odyssey.” (Let’s hope it’s as amusing and engaging as [sic], a recent Sledgehammer production, and not as infuriating as “suitcase,” which appeared last summer at the Playhouse). The Globe will use its funds ($30,000) to develop a new musical about James Joyce and his wife, “Himself and Nora,” created by Sheila Walsh and composer Jonathan Brielle. Sledge will rework Kirsten Brandt’s elaborate “Frankenstein Project” into a new, improved, updated “Frankenstein Project 2005.” This should, presumably, guarantee more of Brandt’s creative returns to San Diego !
… Speaking of leaving Our Town, it’s time to bid a fond farewell to Patrick Stewart, who served as producer/director/associate of the San Diego Black Ensemble Theater, and more recently, the managing director of the J* Company at the Lawrence Family JCC. Patrick got an offer he just couldn’t refuse: Executive Director of the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington , D.C. The facility, a 58,000 square foot venue comprising four theaters, three dance studios and a visual arts gallery, is ideally located just east of the Capitol building. Companies already in residence include ACTCO , DC ’s largest, high profile Black Theatre Company, and Joy of Motion, the dance company for which Debbie Allen serves as artistic advisor. Patrick brought his talent and energy to many local productions, most memorably, the dark, dramatic “Slave Trade” (which he directed, as well as designing the sound and set), an outdoor production of Athol Fugard’s gut-wrenching “ Boesman and Lena,” and his interracial, tri-company collaborative, “Fool for Love” (with Asian American Rep and the Fritz Theater). Patrick will surely leave a gap in the theater community. In a note to me this week, shortly before his upcoming departure, he wrote: “To you and everyone with whom I have worked in San Diego , I will miss you terribly.” Goodspeed , Patrick. And good luck to Tammy in her continued writing career.
… Well, Billy Crystal opened on Broadway this week in “700 Sundays,” which premiered as a Page to Stage work-in-progress at the La Jolla Playhouse earlier this year, directed by Des McAnuff. All-star attendance at the opening ranged from Yogi Berra to Jessica Lange, Robert DeNiro to Jon Bon Jovi , Robin Williams to Andre De Shields, James Lipton to Harvey Keitel . The reviews were generally rapturous, though a few sour notes were sounded about this memoir of Crystal ’s family, especially his late father and recently deceased mother.
Theatermania.com called it “the funniest Broadway show about death and grieving that you will ever see.” Clive Barnes of the New York Post said “Broadway belongs to Billy….It’s not a one-man show; it’s a one-man phenomenon.” Howard Kissel of the New York Daily News deemed it “hilarious and unexpectedly touching. The first act is stand-up comedy; the second act is extremely moving theater.” I have to agree. I laughed my ass off through the first act and wept through the second. My father also died when I was young (Billy was 15, I was 17) and I grew up not far from him on Long Island . I know those members of his family (except I wasn’t babysat by Billie Holiday). His unhealed response to his father’s death is heartbreaking; the scene about his mother’s post-stroke, Alzheimer’s haze is devastating. His humor is razor-sharp, his delivery impeccable. Ben Brantley of the Times emphasized the show’s “artfully calculated comfort factor,” comparing it to “an old bathrobe, with plenty of Kleenex in its pockets.” He complained of “a synthetic gloss” to the show, just as Variety’s David Rooney bemoaned the “slickness and overscripted lack of spontaneity.” But Billy Crystal is perhaps the hottest ticket on Broadway. As Brantley so wisely admits, “’700 Sundays’ needs no critic’s benediction to be a sold-out hit.” With nearly $10million in advance ticket sales, he’s got that right!!
NOW, FOR THIS WEEK’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED‘ LIST:
“A Christmas Carol” – the Rep’s 29th version, a delightfully streamlined, intermissionless ghost story that hits all the notes, wrenches the emotions and features a stellar ensemble.
At the San Diego Repertory Theatre, through December 26.
“Jesus Hopped the A Train” – outstanding, intense, riveting production of a powerful, provocative play. Not for the faint of heart (linguistically speaking), but if you love deep, dark drama, this is definitely for you. At Lynx Performance Theatre in Rose Canyon , through December 12.
“The Lion in Winter ” – a taut and often quite humorous production, with an outstanding performance by Charlie Riendeau as King Henry II. Makes your crazy family look good! At the Broadway Theatre in Vista , through December 19.
“The Santaland Diaries” – the most delightfully sarcastic elf you’ll ever meet. Spend a brief evening with Crumpet, and you’ll be thoroughly sated. At Cygnet Theatre, through December 20.
“Hecuba” – beautiful, stark production, excellently designed and directed, featuring a gut-wrenching performance by Robin Christ. At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through December 19.
” Jersey Boys” — smash-hit world premiere musical, telling the rock ‘n’ roll, rags-to-riches story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Fantastic fun! Run, scamper, scurry — see it!
At La Jolla Playhouse, extended AGAIN!! through January 16.
This year, do something different. Be equanimical and ecumenical : Celebrate Hannukah ( Dec. 9-17 ), Solstice ( Dec. 19) , Kwaanza ( Dec. 26-Jan. 1 ) and Christmas (well, you know that date) with the family – at the theater!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.