By Pat Launer
Dark comedy, sci-fi and religious revels:
As rappin ’ angels battle bilingual devils
In a new incarnation of “La Pastorela .”
While Seymour, that most unhappy fella
Loves a man-eating Plant and a ditsy blonde bimbo,
And family dysfunction devours “Kimberly Akimbo.”
Meanwhile, ‘Sister’ explains it all with witticism
When you attend your “Late Nite Catechism.”
Sister is back in town, so you’d better spit out that gum, sit up straight and stop holding hands. Class is in session; now pay attention to your “Late Nite Catechism.” The comic Catholic cash-cow has settled in at the North Coast Repertory Theatre… and it’s bound to be a hit (of the knuckle-rapping variety). The audience-friendly, truly non-denominational show just extended for the 11th time at the Laguna Playhouse, and it’s running in L.A. and points East as well. It’s a veritable cottage industry; the producers only allow their own trained pros to play the part, and they send their scenery with her (a lovely little schoolroom flat filled with Catholic and educational memorabilia, the cursive alphabet sprawled across the top and photos of the ‘important’ Presidents looking grimly out at us: Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy and the current one.
The Sister we saw (Kathryn Gallagher, with her Chicago flat As ), has been playing the role for nearly three years. She’s performed at five theaters, including Second City Los Angeles. Improv skills are certainly a must here. Not only is there a Q&A after ‘class,’ but Sister has to riff on whatever’s happening in the audience – latecomers, phone answerers, romantics, low-cut blouse-wearers, etc. Watch out if you’re in the first row – but truly, no one escapes Sister’s penetrating gaze (and startling memory; she recalled even the names of the pets of those who spoke up!).
Thanks to a hilarious script by Maripat Donovan and Vicki Quaid , you don’t have to have actually attended Catholic school (or catechism) to laugh your don’t-dare-say-it off. Even if you didn’t attend, you know someone who did – and you’ve heard all the stories, of crimes and punishment, of no patent-leather shoes (always my personal favorite!) and the legendary nuns and their (nasty) habits. There’s info that might be new to you, like the Pagan Baby Program (“Sally Struthers takes care of that now”) or the backstories of some of the saints. It’s great fun, and largely determined by the audience du jour. Mine was a bit dry, but Gallagher did the best she could to make it livelier (she alternates with Murphy O’Malley). Go with a group. Entice your recovering-Catholic friends … and the Jews and Muslims, pagans and atheists. You’ll be blessed for going, and you may even score a dashboard Madonna (John won a crucifix with a built-in knife, just in case Jesus ever fails to protect him). The show is heavenly; miss it and you could be damned for eternity.
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, through December 28.
ON THE BORDER (BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL)
Speaking of heaven, hell and damnation, it’s Angels and Demons again in the 14th incarnation of Máscara Mágica’s “ Pastorela ,” written by Max Branscomb and directed by Bill Virchis . The pastorela story, which follows the shepherds’ pilgrimage to witness the Nativity, traces its lineage back 1000 years, to European morality plays. A mixture of music, commedia dell’arte , social satire and parody, pastorelas are performed in many Latin countries. But they’re especially near and dear to Mexico . Branscomb has reframed the story to focus on modern-day campesinos who cross the U.S-Mexico border on their way to the Holy Land , El Norte. They are watched over by Archangels and tempted by Devils. But they always find their way to their destination ( Virchis creates a lovely final stage picture of the First Family in the manger).
This year’s version, “La Pastorela de los Inmigrantes ,” features a vast array of topical references that includes the kitchen sink. In his doggerel verse, Branscomb invokes a motley assortment of pop and political cultural obsessions, from reality shows to Karl Rove, Kim Jung-Il to Donald Trump, Scott Peterson (“now playing golf with OJ Simpson”) to Zell Miller, Michael Jackson, Rodney Dangerfield, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Iraq, Dr. Phil, surfer dudes, Extreme Makeover, Nick Nolte, Queer Eye, Krispy Kreme , Mr. Blackwell, Britney Spears, Barry Bonds, Fear Factor and so much more (if you can believe it). It’s all great fun – with a point… about faith, belief, temptation and staying on message.
The cast, as always, is a hodgepodge of amateurs and pros, and that’s intentional. Some of these folks have been in the show for years, even generations. The Angels and Devils are usually more experienced; Willie Green shines as the Archangel Michael, who morphs into a very credible Bob Marley and Muhammad Ali. His moves and voice are great. As his sidekick, a Valley-speaking surfer-dude, Jamie Orphanos is a hoot. Von Schauer is underused (and over- miked ) as Lucifer. His minions (Satan, Moloch and Anger) go in and out of lusty humor and over-the- topness ; Timothy Paul Evans and Anthony Hamm play off each other as a goofball duo and the red-clad Deanne Cartwright is gorgeously aggressive as one of the Seven Sins, the whip-wielding Anger. The solo songs are well executed, but in unison, the cast sounds vocally weak. The audience is always game for the bilingual holiday singalongs (lyrics provided in the program). Some of the humor and political jabs are pitch-perfect. Others fall flat, but it’s all in the game. This is a tradition of mezcla ; a mixture of cultures and styles, drama, music and holiday gaiety. And as that it thoroughly succeeds.
On the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through December 23.
OLD BEFORE HER TIME
Boy, oh boy, have these gals got Moxie. Might as well call them The Four Tops … the quartet of beauties that form the core of the new Moxie Theatre: Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, Jo Anne Glover, Jennifer Eve Kraus and Liv Kellman . As a fundraiser for their new company and its first season, they’re reprising the glorious “Kimberly Akimbo,” which premiered earlier this year at 6th @ Penn. Now, they’ve moved into the Lyceum Space, and the venue change has had an effect on the production – but not the performances. The coming-of-(old)-age story concerns Kimberly Levaco (Linda Castro), a teenager with a disease akin to progeria (“without the dwarfism and beaked nose”), in which her body ages 4½ times faster than average. Her hair is graying and she’s already gone through menopause. Her expected lifespan is 16. We meet her on the eve of her 16th birthday, which nearly everyone in her whacked-out family has forgotten. There’s her spineless Dad (Matt Scott), an alcoholic dreamer who makes promises he never keeps (including picking her up from school and making a dinner other than dry cereal). Then there’s her mother (Jo Anne Glover), a pregnant, kvetchy , hypochondriacal nutcase with both hands in casts from recent carpal tunnel surgery; Kimberly has to feed her; her husband wipes her. Into this mess, unannounced and generally unwelcome, bounds the mom’s sister ( Liv Kellgren), a hyperactive, lesbian ex-con with a check-laundering scheme up her sleeve. In the midst of the maelstrom, there’s a budding romance with Kim’s classmate, the loner, Jeff, a geeky word-freak whose father neglects him. The kids are more adult and responsible than their elders. Everyone seems to be ignoring the menace of Kimberly’s imminent demise, in the face of the (ill-conceived) new baby that is destined to be “perfect.” Yet, given all the horrors of the grownup world, Jeff and Kim manage to find their own little refuge and escape hatch.
Everything about David Lindsay Abaire’s story and family is unconventional, and in the tiny 6th @ Penn locale, gifted director Sonnenberg packed in every bit of pain and pathos she could. It was a just-about-flawless production. In the small, close space, there was an added claustrophobia and the rapid-fire scenes had a manic, frenetic quality. Now there’s lots of space – between props and scenes (punctuated by often-annoying and surprisingly non-complementary – and uncredited — musical interludes during repeated blackouts). The set (Jerry Sonnenberg) is more upscale (and New Jersey garish) but less amusing. Even the rotating burger-joint, on a real turntable rather than manually rotated, fails to get the laughs.
It’s the mirth that’s muted here. Instead of a frenzied and hilarious loony bin, what comes through in this production is the emptiness inside all the characters and the sadness of Kimberly’s story. That’s fine; there’s definitely a dark underbelly to the piece. This incarnation enhances the poignancy and plays down the hysteria. It’s not quite as comic, but it’s more touching (though I did miss the gut-wrenching belly-laughs). There’s a bit more sense of outstanding individual performances and a tad less of the feeling of a tight, organic ensemble. But each actor brings his/her quirky character marvelously to life. You wouldn’t want them as a family, but they sure are something to watch.
At the Lyceum Theatre, through Dec. 24.
FEED ME, SEYMOUR !
It all started with Roger Corman , and his famous Film Shot in Two Days (1960). And do you know who played the dentist in the original faux- sci fi “Little Shop of Horrors”? You win if you said Jack Nicholson. The campy musical appeared in 1962, with the musically unlikely (if Hamlet- ian ) premise that all the main characters are dead by the end of the show. In 1986, Frank Oz made the film version with a cast of comic powerhouses: Rick Moranis , Steve Martin, Christopher Guest, Bill Murray, John Candy and Jim Belushi . Whew!! And Ellen Greene reprising her stage performance.
The recent, goosed-up Broadway revival is now on tour, and we were treated to a stellar production last week, compliments of Broadway San Diego. The cast was terrific – headed by the adorably shlumpy Anthony Rapp (OBIE Award-winner as the original Mark in the original “Rent”); Tari Kelly as the tough-but-vulnerable, squeaky-voiced romantic bimbette , Audrey; Lenny Wolpe as the avuncular Skid Row flower-shop owner, Mr. Mushnik ; and the deep, rich voice of Michael James Leslie as the amazing, animatronic Jim-Henson Workshop-designed Audrey II, the carnivorous fly-trap with blood-lust for world domination. [Side-Note: Leslie, a Cornell Law School grad, is an alum of the Broadway production]. James Moye , who played the cruel, sadistic dentist, was a lot less funny in that role than in the quick-change series of characters (both male and female) he played later. I’ll never forget Duane Daniels’ portrayal of that dentist at Moonlight some years back; I literally laughed till I cried.
The singing in the touring production was superb – though the doo-wop, Supremes-like trio, Ronnett , Crystal and Chiffon ( Latonya Holmes, Amina S. Robinson and Yasmeen Sulieman ) was generally impossible to comprehend (Civic acoustics, methinks) — but they had ‘ tude to spare. The pop-rock-Broadway score is remarkable – singable and memorable, with catchy tunes by Alan Menken and ultra-clever lyrics by the late-great Howard Ashman. The production values were great, though the 10-piece orchestra sounded totally synthesized (Civic acoustics again). The special effects (that plant looming out over the audience 23 feet above the ground, for example) were superb. Rumor has it that this tech-extreme version will no longer tour (some theaters had to reinforce their stages to accommodate its enormous weight). Rapp may be leaving the tour as well. So we got a treat in this production, for sure.
But what really got to me was the story. Yeah, I understand that it started out as a B-movie. That it’s set in the ‘60s. But I sure didn’t care for all the laughs about a girl getting beaten up by her boyfriend — repeatedly. And the sly suggestion that it’s kind of all right that he dies, because he was a bad guy anyway. And when someone ( Mushnik , in this case) finds out the truth, he needs to die, too. And that white-jacket-wearing motorcyclist probably set dentistry back 20 years. I dunno ; there were a lot of kids in the audience, but it didn’t seem like kid-fare to me. On the other hand, the 13 year-old who wrote the review in the paper called it “everyone’s favorite science-fiction-musical,” so maybe it’s just my problem and perception — although the kid-reviewer did concede that the show was “a little bit scary.” I was with a friend who was going to recommend the production to some 2nd graders she works with. After seeing it, she most assuredly would not. But technically and musically, it sure was a treat.
MARK YOUR CALENDAR FOR…
…the 20th annual Plays by Young Writers , brought to us by the Playwrights Project. Distinguished alumni of the program include Josefina Lopez (“Real Women Have Curves”); Annie Weisman (“Be Aggressive”) who’ll be back at the La Jolla Playhouse with a new commission next spring; Jim Knable , three-time winner, now a New York playwright/screenwriter/songwriter whose recent commission by the Playwrights Project, “Hyper-Focus,” was terrific, informative and provocative. And then there’s our own Andy Lowe, founder of San Diego Asian American Repertory Theatre, whose first play, “The Cultural Hyphen,” was produced by Plays by Young Writers a dozen years ago. This year, AART artists Anne Tran and George Yé are directing. The winning playwrights have been mentored for months by working professionals such as Stephen Metcalfe (“Strange Snow,” “Emily”) and Ruth McKee, former Education Director for Young Playwrights, Inc., now a grad student in playwriting at UCSD. The series runs on the Cassius Carter Centre Stage, January 13-23, and features four full productions: Under the Hood by William Alden, Welcome to Me and Mine by Patricia Ash, The Other Side by Teddy Steinkellner and Over the Asian Airwaves by Lauren D. Yee and four Readings by very young writers (age 12-13): Purposely Mistaken by Karen Barros , A New Beginning? by Marina Cook and Trouble with Magic by Jessie Mos. These are the writing stars of tomorrow… check ‘em out today!
… The 8th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence — January 10, 2005, in the Shiley Studio at KPBS. Tickets are going fast… If you don’t make it to the main event, check it out on KPBS-TV, Sunday, Jan. 16 at 3:30pm.
… Makin ’ your list, checkin ’ it twice? Don’t leave out “The Play’s The Thing: A Photographic Odyssey Through Theatre in San Diego ” – it makes a great gift for all your favorite theater-lovers. The compact new coffee-table book features fabulous photography by Ken Jacques (with Intro by Sam Woodhouse and Foreword by me). Order it online at www.sunbeltbooks.com (extra bonus: free shipping!), or check it out it at a bookstore near you! And if you plan to come to the Book Launch at the Rep Wednesday (12/15, 5-7pm), please rsvp ( 619-258-4905 ext 103; JRedmond@sunbeltpub.com ). Autographed copies will be available.
… And don’t forget to try to get up to the Ahmanson to see the fantastic, bilingual production of the La Jolla Playhouse-sprung, Roger Miller musical, “Big River, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” in English and American Sign Language. Really like nothing else; if you care about theater, you MUST see this show. 2 weeks only, Jan. 11-23.
NOW, FOR THIS WEEK’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED‘ LIST:
“Late Nite Catchism ” – hilarious; you don’t need to have a dashboard Madonna to love it. Totally ecumenical, but if you went to Catholic school, you’ll laugh your thorn-crowned head off. At North Coast Repertory Theatre, through December 28.
“Kimberly Akimbo” – reprise production of great performances, an outstanding ensemble wonderfully directed. The craziest family this side of yours! A fundraiser for the new Moxie Theatre. At the Lyceum, through December 24.
“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.
“Hecuba” – beautiful, stark production, excellently designed and directed, featuring a gut-wrenching performance by Robin Christ. At 6th @ Penn Theatre, 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.
“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.
” 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.
Only a few more shopping days till you-know-what! How about giving the gift of theater??
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.