By Pat Launer
Whatta week! visits from Die Fledermaus, Romeo, Juliet and others:
Barbara Cook, Brian Stokes Mitchell and the Karamazov Brothers.
And a trip to NTC, a blossoming culture center, for sure,
And the tsunami benefit, Artists for Asia , and the Playhouse POP Tour.
KEEPING YOUR BALLS IN THE AIR
Rambam was definitely into numbers. The 12th century Jewish philosopher, considered the most influential Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages compiled the Torah’s 613 commandments and formulated a credo of Judaism expressed in thirteen articles of faith . [Rambam is the Hebrew acronym of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, aka Moses Maimonides]. Okay, I’m grasping here, trying to find some real connection between the man who wrote the original “Guide for the Perplexed,” and the show by the Flying Karamazov Brothers entitled “Life: A Guide for the Perplexed.”
Let’s see, it’s about mid-life crisis (so that relates to the Middle Ages, right?). And it contains a number of numerical sequences – the seven stages of man (that’s from Shakespeare, though; hmmmm…), and a number of Rules of Life. And there’s an ancient text, but it all really doesn’t add up. Does anyone care? Is anyone counting? It’s not really about reason when the guide for life dispenses such pearls of wisdom as ‘Everyone Drops’ (it’s the Middle Age thing again) and ‘Life is Coincidence,’ not to mention ‘Learn to Trust’ and ‘It’s Never Over.’ But for the flying Ks (who don’t fly, though everything they touch does), the most important rules of the game are #1 ‘Everyone’s a Juggler’ and #6, ‘Life is Improvisation.’ That’s their credo.
They’ll juggle just about anything, and they’ll riff on any situation. And oh yes, they never met a pun they didn’t beat into the ground until it died a horrible death. They’re clever, of course, and fantastic, incomparable jugglers. But a little goes a long way, and two acts is a bit too much for me. But for what it’s worth (what IS it worth, anyway? What’s it all about, Alfie??), there’s fun to be had as Dmitri (aka Paul Magid) who speaks Ladino, which is medieval Judeo-Spanish (aha! Another link!), makes his way through this dusty old tome that’s been Fed Ex-d to him and comes to grips with his middle-aging through repeat visits from the Men With A Bit of Gray In The Beard Association — which precipitates a remark about “foreign white invaders – like Iraq.” There are a few other pointed political comments, which were generally met with enthusiastic responses. In between the parables for self-realization, the foursome (the other mega-talents, in descending age order, are Howard Jay Patterson, Mark Ettinger and Roderick Kimball) sing a sperm song (“We are the Men of Epididymis”), refer to the first fateful letter from AARP as the ultimate sign of age, play multiple instruments (their own and each other’s, all while juggling) and generally go wild for a couple of hours to the vast amusement of the audience. Maybe there’s a kernel of truth and usable info in there (“Every exit is just an entrance somewhere else,” “You end alone in the night”), but it may be buried in the avalanche of cross-cultural, multi-century references — to Hammurabi and Tennessee Williams, Popeye and Hieronymous Bosch. Not to mention the juggling and the puppets and the commedia dell’ arte and the slapstick pratfalls and pies-in-the-face. But it’s all done in great fun, and if you come in with that mindset, you’re likely to go out humming the Epididymis song. Despite the inspiration from the work of a great thinker, this doesn’t call for deep contemplation. Only a spirit of what-the-hell merriment and a love of juggling (BYO items to juggle; they request audience submissions).
At the Lyceum Theatre, though February 6.
BATMAN TAKES REVENGE
“Die Fledermaus” means ‘the bat,’ and it is a moment of humiliation in that particular party costume that sparks the endless series of vengeful practical jokes that pepper the beloved, 1874 Johann Strauss operetta. This is the fourth San Diego visit of the frothy confection; the 1977 production was first, followed by 1980’s killer casting of Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills; the last staging was in 1991. It was a nod to history and a light, entertaining kick-off of the Opera’s 40th anniversary season. And it was a joyous occasion. Full house, and everyone in their best dress and high spirits. There was also plenty of ham and cheese on hand. The comic antics often went way over the top (direction by Lotfi Mansouri) and the plot is kind of silly (libretto by Karl Haffner and Richard Genée, adapted from Le Réveillon, by Meilhac and Halévy). But the San Diego Opera makes the most of it and the result (if long, clocking in at nearly 4 hours!) is delightful.
The opulent sets and costumes, borrowed from the San Francisco Opera, are beautiful to behold. The Symphony, making its debut with the Opera (under the baton of Valéry Ryvkin), sounded rich and full, excellent especially in the huge string section which provided a lush backdrop for all those wonderful waltzes. The en pointe choreography (Peggy Hickey) was a bit uninspired, but the corps de ballet’s execution was outstanding. The voices of the principals were outstanding. Noёmi Nadelmann as the put-upon wife, Rosalinde, and Siphiwe McKenzie as her amusing and upwardly mobile chambermaid, Adele, sang beautifully and acted just as well, with excellent comic timing. Also highly comical were John Osborn as the eternally singing suitor, Alfred, and John Del Carlo as Prison Warden Frank. The baritone brothers Edelmann (Peter as Eisenstein and Paul Armin as Dr. Falke) did pleasing work as well. Guest actor J. Sherwood Montgomery chewed up the scenery to the audience’s great delight. Aslo in the OTT department was the Count Orlofsky, who, despite his diminutive size, made a huge entrance with two Russian Wolfhounds or borzoi). Typically a ‘pants role’ played by a woman, this Count was portrayed by a countertenor (Brian Asawa), whose voice is lovely but whose overaggerated, over-extended speech patterns made his spoken output virtually unintelligible. The highlight of the evening was the ‘surprise guests’ at Orlofsky’s soirée: San Diego Opera favorites Jerry Hadley, Sheryl Woods, the dashing Rodney Gilfry and the rich-voiced Richard Leech. Gilfry and Leech even cavorted with the dancers. Lovely touch. Each performance will have different guest performers. Overall, a lovely, festive, celebratory evening and event. Happy Anniversary, SDO – you DO make music worth seeing!
At the Civic Theatre, February 4, 6, 9.
Did you know that Friar Lawrence was the central character in “Romeo and Juliet”? Well, he is now… or he was, at Poor Players. Ace actor-director Richard Baird cast himself in the secondary clerical role and suddenly, he became the fulcrum of the piece and the one who takes an impressive emotional journey and lives to tell the tale. Odd choice… but Baird is such a potent onstage presence, he probably would’ve stolen the show even if he didn’t seem to have more lines than almost anyone. Things were a tad askew in this production. Though all the right moves were there, there didn’t seem to be much animal attraction between Romeo and Juliet. Brandon Walker played Romeo as quite a hothead, but there wasn’t quite enough emotional nuance in the performance. Walker was good with anger and impetuosity, though at times he seemed a bit too arrogant and insouciant. His romantic scenes could’ve used more depth and heart. But his hesitant first approach to Juliet was truly charming.
Rachael Van Wormer made an adorably impulsive, love-drunk Juliet, with enough spunk, spine and resolve for both of them. Van Wormer radiates warmth and displays admirable emotional breadth, but she needs to develop her vocal tone and range. Her Juliet was an irresistible adolescent, with all the requisite expressive excesses. Grace Delaney was quite amusing as the Nurse, with her delicious, full-on Irish brogue (reportedly difficult for some folks to comprehend). Tom Haine was solid as Capulet, but much more heated, abusive and seemingly misogynistic than I’ve ever seen him. As his wife, Julie Clemmons played one note (pissed off). Max Macke did his usual comic turn as Mercutio and reappeared as a surprising Apothecary-as Street Person; he needed a tad more power and profundity as Mercutio, the thoughtful and doomed friend of Romeo, but his Queen Mab speech was lovely and his death scene poignant. John Aviles was quite the firebrand as Tybalt, but he tended to rush and swallow his words, and that decreased their energy and intensity.
Under Baird’s muscular direction, there were many magical moments. The opening, for instance, with a bit of Puccini as background (beautifully sung by Maile Stephenson), spotlighted the Friar (appearing instead of a Chorus) setting the scene and foretelling the star-crossed story. In a slo-mo mime, the lovers move from dreamy dance to a heap of corpses, as the grieving fathers kneel over them and reluctantly shake hands. Lovely image. The boys-will-be-boys scenes were convincingly testosterone-driven, milking every sexual innuendo imaginable. The mixing and taking of the poison made for wonderful scenes. There was a lot more cigarette smoking than necessary (especially in such a small, close space as the Adams Avenue Theatre) and even (as the Poor Players have done before) a little dope-smoking – but by the Friar?? The smoking jacket and golf clubs for Lord Capulet were hilarious, but the 40s look of the show wasn’t clearly justified (and a Big Band version of “Bei Mir Bist du Schoen” still seemed out of place). A few dramatic excesses were unnerving or annoying, but Baird surely brings the Bard to life in intriguing and inventive ways – ways that consistently appeal to and attract young people, and that’s a boon for us all.
Next up for the company – “ Antony and Cleopatra” (March 11-April 9) in a new venue, the Academy of Performing Arts on Alvarado Canyon Rd. The space is a little hard to find – but Poor Players productions are always worth going out of your way for.
Speaking of being worth the trip, going up to the Orange County Performing Arts Center ( Costa Mesa ) to catch the one-night cabaret-concert of Barbara Cook and Brian Stokes Mitchell was everything promised and expected, and more. She’s a legend; he’s a multi-talented Broadway heartthrob, whom People Magazine named one of their “50 Most Beautiful People.” No surprise, with that billion dollar smile. He’d get my vote any day! It was a felicitous pairing; the old musical theater guard and the new, the veteran and the rising starr.
Cook originated the lead ingénue roles in the Broadway productions of “ Oklahoma !,” “Carousel,” “The Music Man” (for which she won a Tony), “She Loves Me,” “Any Wednesday” and “Candide” (an operatic role which was perfectly suited to her classical training). Now 77, she doesn’t have the chops she once did, but make no mistake; she can still put over a song like nobody’s business. And she can make an audience tear up (as she herself touchingly did at one point) and jump ecstatically to their feet. She started off slowly, with a few safe Rodgers and Hammerstein songs (avoiding the high-soprano numbers), but by the time she got to Sondheim (“”Buddy’s Eyes” and “Losing My Mind”) she had the audience eating out of her hand. It was a treat to see her again. Who knows how much longer she’ll be performing? Her duets with Stokes were cute, but not very interesting. Often, duets will be sung to the audience, with little interaction between the singers; these two completely directed the lyrics to each other, which is fine for love songs (though the pairing wasn’t romantically credible), but it tended to exclude the audience; we felt like we were a little left out of the fun they seemed to be having. Perhaps a director might’ve helped.
And then there was solo Stokes. He was in magnificent voice, his mellifluous baritone soaring through the house, though it was Cook who sang without a mike at one point (“flying without a net,” as he put it, admiringly). He did some jazzy, scat-infused standards (“Cheek to Cheek,” “Make Someone Happy,” “How Long Has This Been Going On”), perhaps in preparation for his cabaret debut which started this week at Feinstein’s at the Regency in New York. Then he hit the Big White Way , and brought down the house with “Wheels of a Dream” from “Ragtime” (“the most magical experience I ever had in theater,” he said. For me, too. I adored his heart-stopping tour de force portrayal of that marvelous character, Coalhouse Walker, Jr., and I grieved when he didn’t win the Tony that year). After he sang “The Impossible Dream” (from his recent revival of “Man of La Mancha”), the audience agreed with Cook when she noted that he just about forced the song into retirement: “Every other singer in the world ought to put that song away,” she said. Amen. Stokes won his Tony for “Kiss Me, Kate,” but alas, he didn’t do any songs from that show. There were several encores, as promised, which were delectable, though I could’ve done very nicely without the cheesy Americana … a medley of jingoistic numbers like “God Bless America .” These days, those songs make political statements, and I didn’t think it fit the tone of the evening at all. One other element bears mentioning: the stellar accompanist, Jeff Harris, who has Broadway credits a mile long, and seemed so totally involved in his playing that he was a trip to watch, too. The bass player, Peter Donovan, is the husband of Audra McDonald, who played opposite Stokes in “Ragtime.” Small theater world.
The highlight of the evening for me was going backstage and meeting the whole Mitchell clan. Local theater-lover Carroll Jean Anderson is a close friend of the family and she introduced me to everyone – father George, brother George, stepmother Dee, and Stokes’ sister and niece, who attends a performing arts high school in northern California . I spent quite a bit of time chatting with George Sr., a former Tuskegee Airman and enthusiastic raconteur, who talked about all his children, especially John, the “Renaissance Man” ( musician, singer, poet, artist, writer of haiku, electronic engineer and by all reports, a very funny guy ) who died in a freak ATV accident last July. But “Brother George” is very much alive and well, another family talent and humorist. He’s a costume designer for theater (and Tony tuxes) who also worked on the movie, “Ray.” Whatta family!
Meeting Stokes was a total treat; he was as gracious and charismatic offstage as on (see photo), and had a warm personal word for everyone. If you ever get a chance to see him perform – in anything! – don’t miss it. He is one vibrant, galvanic mega-talent. And he seemed to feel honored to be teamed with Cook to play that beautiful house with its wonderful acoustics. This was truly a night to remember.
..Lots of firsts this month at the La Jolla Playhouse, with the opening of the new Jacobs Center . This time, it was the launch of the Seuss One Rehearsal space, for the first public showing of the 2005 POP Tour (which stands for Performance Outreach Program), a new commissioned work each year that’s taken into elementary schools around San Diego . “Bay and the Spectacles of Doom” was written by Julia Cho, a graduate of NYU and the Juilliard School, who’s getting to be in high demand, already working on commissions for the Mark Taper Forum and South Coast Rep.
Her slight comic piece concerned a smart, intuitive, bespectacled young geek on his 11th birthday. His goal in life is to become his baseball hero, Yoshiro, but his mother wants him to be Yo-Yo Ma (“Athletes don’t wear glasses,” she tell him. “Musicians do”). It’s all about personal identity and standing up for who you are (glasses or not). The striking Crayola-colored set (designed by UCSD’s Melpomene Katakalos), was inspired by the work of New York artist Keith Haring, and the bright costumes (designed by Mary Larson) reflected this influence, with each character dressed in an eye-popping monochromatic shade.
Poor nerdy, lisping, klutzy Bay is something of a loser. But weird stuff starts happening on his birthday; a rabbit communicates with him, he’s visited by an alien and then, thanks to some ‘Cosmic 8th Dimension Jelly Beans,’ he goes hurtling through the space-time continuum and gets the opportunity to re-fashion his life. Needless to say, when he plays out all his fantasies and alters his past, everything else in his life is affected and the result (present and future) is less than satisfying. Fortunately, he gets the chance to reverse the changes. And he comes to realize that “you can be just be what you are and stop being what everyone expects you to be. Maybe a scientist or a musician. You can be both!” Good lessons for the grammar schooler, and important for older kids, too. But the play seems geared to youngsters, and I can’t quite see it playing to junior high school students. The cast is game, (Rhys Green, Amir Kahstoo, Danielle Kohne, Jeannine Marquie) and the sound effects they create are really fun. Ogie Zulueta, an engaging Equity performer, is a terrific hip hop dancer and a talented actor, but singing doesn’t seem to be his forte. The songs were generally less thrilling than the dialogue, but the musical interludes (composed by Florence Yoo) were enchanting. The kids in the Saturday morning audience were loving it all, and that’s the true test of success. This is what reaching out to youth is all about: teaching them something about life through theater and giving them a really good time. That’s what’ll bring ‘em back.
… I got a sneak preview of the Promenade at NTC in Point Loma. NTC Foundation president Alan Ziter and ace marketing director Toni Robin (newly reunited from their triumphant Performing Arts League days) gave me the cook’s tour of the spectacular site. The plan is to make these 26 still-beautiful historic buildings, flanked by four acres of lush landscaping, into San Diego’s flagship for arts, culture, science and technology. It’s a huge undertaking, but if anyone can spearhead a mammoth task like this, it’s Ziter. The project should be completed by 2010, with some buildings opening this year. Ultimately, the plan includes meeting, rehearsal and performance spaces for dance, theater, music and visual arts, with additional areas for conferences, fairs and all manner of mixed-use potential. The possibilities are endless, especially for uniting science and culture, art and technology. For more than 75 years, the Naval Training Center turned out hundreds of thousands of Navy recruits. “I got my start at NTC” is what alums have said for decades, and that’s precisely the motto Ziter is shooting for again, with a slightly different spin; this time, the launching pad will be arts training, high tech education (High Tech High will be on site) and cultural exposure. Ziter is giddy with excitement about this “big blank canvas” that allows him to indulge his prodigious imagination. Some buildings will open this year; the project should be completed by 2010. Ziter fought to keep the name and branding, but with a twist; he hopes that, with the revitalization of the site, NTC will come to signify “Now That’s Culture!”
LEAN ON ME
If you missed Artists for Asia, you missed the chance to see the theater community come out in full force, to give their hearts, hope, love and talent to a worthy cause. The turnout on Feb. 1 was excellent, the energy was high and the performances were terrific. Kudos to Jenni Prisk and Robert Dahey for making it all happen and go so smoothly. There were some Xx performances, and I introduced them all with a rap number (backwards baseball cap and all) that named all the participants. Many were backstage and didn’t get to hear it, and others in the audience asked to see it. So, here you go…
Yo… y’know, we’re lucky to be livin’ where the weather is so balmy
So we’re here to help less fortunates, the victims of tsunami
The man says do what you do best, to give to the rest
So artists who are blessed are gonna put it to the test.
And I don’t think that there are many; in fact there aren’t any
Who could pull this all together like Robert and Jenni.
In the wake of the trauma, we’ll give you high drama,
Comedy and songs that would amuse the Dalai Lama.
In between the songs and humor, there’ll be dancers and jivers
And more serious presenters with the words of the survivors.
Harrowing tales that make you happy where you’re living,
..And put you in the mood for some intermission giving.
The first piece is a knockout, and you can bet upon it
It’s Jonathan McMurtry, master of the Shakespeare sonnet.
And then survivor stories – swim upstream with Brian Salmon/ Then go Diep with Mr. Huyhn,
And the Moxie gals, Jo Anne and Jen, will put their two cents in…
And then, something unique will come from Monique/ and Julia Kelleher will raise her voice above the din.
And then a song from another dark and decadent day:
Jeremiah Lorenz croons a tune from “Cabaret.”
Next segment’s kinda witty/ Priscilla has a ditty
And then Castro, Scott and Connors kindly do us the honors
Make us do the laughter limbo, with ‘Kimberly Akimbo.’
And they’re followed by chicanery, some antic Dane and Duanery.
After that it won’t be hard, to move on to the Bard;
We’ve got some R&J/ for you today;
Rachael’s the talker and Brandon’s the Walker
And they’ll look pristine/ followed by the figurine/ of that naughty libertine — name of David McBean.
And then, the musical play-man, our own cabaret-man, piano-exploder, the great Todd Schroeder…
So that’s act one, it sounds like fun, and you know the entertainment has just begun
Then you’ll have a chance/ to do the dance/ of taking out your wallet from your purse or your pants.. and come on, giving till it hurts, the cash will come in spurts
And then you’ll be prepared for one more act of ‘just desserts.’
Act two starts strong, with Balinese Legong; that’s Indonesian dance that shows you right from wrong/ and weak from strong
And then, you can prepare/ for more from people who were there, who witnessed their share of the watery nightmare.
Trina, TJ and Jason are a trio con brio
With Yolanda and D’Ann, and Emily and Leo.
And then, look alive/ for a speech from Henry V,
As Poor Player Richard Baird makes you give a damlet/ with some awe-inspiring words from that Great Dane, Hamlet..
Then, prepare for a little pick-me-upper/ Linda, Seema ‘n Erin will ‘Sing for their Supper,’
And Ron Choularton, that gaffer of wit/ recites a smash-hit with true grit, see if you can guess it:
But don’t look at me, I can’t give it away; and he’ll only say … it’s “Not Soft, Not Day.”
Oh yes, and then, we’re back to drama again, with a scintillating scene from ‘Of Mice and Men’
As Joshua fits the battle of Daren Scott, who hasta hear ‘bout rabbits whether he wants to or not.
Then Ron’s back on ‘Vigil’ and Melissa’s ‘Breaking Down,’ and they’re followed by Phil Johnson, that quintessential clown.
It’s a cinch/ then in a pinch/ we get an ‘Angry Inch’/ as the sexy Jeremiah just tightens the winch,
And all the while Linda Libby and her honey, Mooney, keep him rockin’-and-rollin’ and not soundin’ Claire de Lune-y.
So that’s my rap, about tonight/ they’re sick, they’re phat they’re hella tight
Yo dawgs, they’re wack, and their talent will amaze ya,
So chill, here come/ the Artists for Asia…. WORD….…
© 2005 Patté Productions, Inc.
NOW, FOR THIS WEEK’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED‘ LIST:
“Die Fledermaus” – gorgeous (if lengthy) opening to the Opera’s 40th season. Wonderfully sung, beautifully designed
“Einstein Comes Through” – a world premiere co-written by director David Ellenstein. Still a work-in-progress, but a puzzling if sometimes fascinating contemplation of healing through escape and ultimately, self-confrontation. Timed perfectly to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Theory of Relativity.
At North Coast RepertoryTheatre; through February 6.
“Take Me Out” – funny, thought-provoking play about the coming-out of a sports superstar… Baseball, comedy, drama — and a big Bonus! — all those naked men!
At the Old Globe Theatre, through February 20.
“Of Mice and Men” – Renaissance Theatre’s searing production of the John Steinbeck classic. Marvelously acted, directed and designed. At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through February 12.
“Burn This” – highly combustible theater. An offbeat love story that seethes at Cygnet Theatre; through February 13.
“Wrinkles” – three generations of high-powered, hard-nosed Southern women reveal secrets they didn’t know they shared. Outstanding performances. At Diversionary Theatre, through February 19.
This week, the Groundhog predicted another long season of great theater!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.