Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
June 17, 2010
FOR THURSDAY, 6/17
THE PLAY: “ Harvey ,” a classic American comedy, at Lamb’s Players Theatre
Let’s say you’re walking down the street, and you see a 6’3” rabbit leaning on a lamppost, calling your name. Would you answer? Would you befriend him? Would you interrupt your sister’s soirées to introduce him around?
Meet Elwood P. Dowd, who admits that he “struggled with reality for 40 years,” and “I’m glad to say I finally won out over it.” His family’s distraught. Neighbors call him “the biggest screwball in town.” But he’s happier than any of ‘ em .
“In this world,” says Elwood, “you need to be either oh so smart or oh so pleasant. I was smart for 40 years.” Now he’s unflaggingly, unflappably pleasant. And that’s a problem for his overwrought, social-climbing sister, Veta Louise (Kerry Meads) and her unhappily unmarried daughter, Myrtle Mae ( Carly Nykanen ). It’s tolerated by the family attorney, Judge Gaffney ( Jim Chovick ). It’s appalling to snooty Mrs. Chauvenet (Glynn Bedington ). And it’s grist for the headshrinking mill of psychiatrists Chumley (John Rosen) and Sanderson (Lance Arthur Smith). Mrs. Chumley (Cynthia Gerber, very funny in her cameo appearance) and Nurse Kelly (Kelli Kelley; whew! that’s a lotta Kellys !) are rather smitten by Elwood’s charming, gentlemanly ways. The sanitarium orderly (Brian Barbarin ) would as soon break his neck as his spirit. Only the cab driver (Greg Good) really ‘gets’ Elwood; after the psychiatric ‘treatment,’ he tells Veta , “your brother’s gonna be a normal human being – and you know what bastards they can be!”
Yes, driven to desperation, Veta decides to have Elwood committed to Chumley’s Rest. But when she confesses to occasionally seeing Harvey herself, it’s she who’s carted off, kicking and screaming.
Harvey , you see (or do you?), is a pooka , a mythical prankster of Celtic folklore, a shapeshifter who has the power of human speech, which he uses to give advice and keep people from harm. He’s done well for Elwood. After a daft comedy of errors in the farcical second act, the head psychiatrist sees the error of his ways (“”I’ve been spending my life with flyspecks, when miracles are leaning on lampposts”), but Elwood makes it clear that, no matter how much you may want Harvey, or someone like him, “you don’t find him; he finds you.”
Margaret Chase’s 1944 classic ran for 1775 performances on Broadway, earned a Pulitzer Prize, and provided a terrific screen vehicle for Jimmy Stewart (1950). There are some serious themes beneath the silly surface, including friendship and loyalty, sanity vs. lunacy, reality vs. delusion and the appeal of eccentricity. The Lamb’s Players’ Elwood (David Cochran Heath) is not the harmless town drunk of earlier productions; under the direction of Robert Smyth, the focus is all on the overblown, over-the-top comedy. There’s a good deal of unchecked overacting and hysteria, more caricatures than full-bodied caricature. Perhaps things will settle down over the course of the run. This is a very talented cast; they just need to pull back a bit. The situations can carry the humor.
Heath is splendidly understated, thoroughly affable and likable, the calm in the midst of the maelstrom. Mike Buckley’s set morphs magically – and humorously, with hopping, skipping choreographed moves – from the family mansion to the psychiatric clinic, a hotbed of overheated emotions. The costumes ( Jeanne Reith ), especially the hats, are delicious. In the end, Harvey helps bring people together. But playing it straighter might make it funnier.
THE LOCATION: Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Ave., Coronado. (619) 437-6000 ; www.lambsplayers.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $28-58. Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., through July 18
Bottom Line: GOOD BET
NOTE : Lamb’s Players Theatre is also presenting their perennial bluegrass/gospel favorite, “Smoke on the Mountain,” at their other space, The Horton Grand Theatre in the Gaslamp Quarter, through 6/27.
… Last chance to catch “Master Harold … and the Boys,” Athol Fugard’s chilling, 1982 drama of the evolution and legacy of apartheid, is being presented as an superb staged reading by San Diego Actors Theatre. The last of three site-specific performances takes place at 7 p.m. on June 17 at Sushi Performance, 390 11th Ave. , downtown San Diego . The searing play was originally banned in South Africa . An excellent local trio of actors, under the direction of Patricia Elmore Costa , brings the piece to vibrant life, with vocals and guitar by Teresa “Tess” Henning. Set in 1950, the play follows Master Harold (Morgan Hollingsworth) a young white boy, as he devolves into the harsh taskmaster he’s destined to be, turning his back on the two black men who helped raise him, tried to teach him how to be a man, and were his only childhood companions in a loveless household. Laurence Brown and Antonio “TJ” Johnson are spectacular as the two who try to maintain their dignity in the face of abject, inherited racism. Don’t miss it!
…As part of the 17th annual Lipinsky Family Jewish Arts Festival, Malashock Dance premiered three sections of “Chagall,” which is evolving into a full-scale dance musical, a collaboration between choreographer John Malashock and composer/musician Yale Strom. The three performances also featured the pair’s first collaborative effort, “Tribes” (1996). The new pieces represent scenes from the life and loves of the iconic artist, Marc Chagall, who came from humble beginnings in Vitebsk , Belarus . The first section was the most whimsical, a reflection of the fanciful, color-drenched work of the painter, who depicted poor but vibrant shtetl life. It ended with the agile artist (Michael Mizerany) holding a paintbrush aloft. The second two segments were snapshots from the artist’s love life – his budding sexuality, his two first loves – Thea (Lara Segura) and his early muse, Bella (tiny, featherlight Christine Marshall), vying for his attention. Both the trio and the pas de deux are highly sensual. The choreography is often angular, jagged, athletic . The vocal accompaniment, with lyrics drawn from Chagall’s and Bella’s own poetry, was sung by Elizabeth Schwartz (Strom’s wife), Trevor Hollingsworth and Lisa Hightower. In this tricky score, created in English, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew, the sound was intriguing, but the lyrics could have been more intelligible (perhaps a sound problem). It will be fascinating to see how this work evolves over time.
… This week, I did something I can’t recall having done before: I caught an elementary school musical theater production: “Pirates” at Kate Sessions Elementary in Pacific Beach . I was invited by the lead actor, Adira Rosen, who is definitely a face and talent to watch. This one-hour show, one of several created by John Jacobson and Roger Emerson specifically for elementary school students, marked Adira’s musical theater debut. Coming from a highly artistically evolved family (her mother and grandmother are symphony/concert musicians and her uncle is an L.A. actor who’s appeared at the Old Globe), she’s got the genes, the chops – and as her invitation revealed, the requisite chutzpah. With more training and experience, she has the promise of becoming a performing knockout. Kudos to music teacher Matt Fowler, for directing more than 60 fifth graders, including special needs students. And this was only his second musical theater production! I’m not a great fan of glorifying the plundering, brigand’s life; the young man Adira played wanted, more than anything on earth, to be a pirate. And that’s before s/he learned that the pirates engage in an annual singing competition. “Glee” meets “American Idol,” heavy on the arrrrrrr .
NEWS AND VIEWS
… TONY FEVER!! The big news this week for San Diego was the four Tony Award wins for “ Memphis ,” which premiered locally at the La Jolla Playhouse, under the direction of Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley . Three other theaters ( TheatreWorks , Palo Alto ; North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly , Mass. ; and the 5th Avenue Theatre, Seattle ) contributed to the development of the race-mixing 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll musical, which began in 2004, and was presented here in 2008. Four was the magic number for “ Memphis .” The show won four Drama Desk Awards, including Outstanding Musical; four Outer Critics Circle Awards, including Outstanding New Broadway Musical; and four Tonys (of eight nominations), including the Big One, Best Musical. Though Ashley didn’t capture Best Direction of a Musical, and the show’s choreography wasn’t even nominated (big mistake), “ Memphis ” snagged Best Original Score (Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan), Best Book of a Musical (Joe DiPietro ) and Best Orchestrations (Daryl Waters and David Bryan). “Memphis” joins an ever-expanding list of productions or premieres that have gone on from La Jolla to Tony glory: “Jersey Boys” (Best Musical, 2006), “I Am My Own Wife” (Best Play, 2004); “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (Best Musical, 2002); “The Who’s Tommy” (five Tonys, 1993); and “Big River” (ahead of all the rest, with seven Tony wins, including Best Musical, 1985).
This was a banner year for Hollywood at the Tonys. Scads of Tinseltown Big Names were nominated, and many of them won, including Denzel Washington and Viola Davis (Best Actor and Best Actress in a Play, for “Fences”), Scarlett Johansson, making her Broadway debut (Best Featured Actress in a Play, for Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge”); and Catherine Zeta-Jones (Best Actress in a Musical, for “A Little Night Music,” though her performance of “Send in the Clowns” was decidedly underwhelming). It was the first time in Tony history that black performers won best actor and best actress in a play. And Denzel Washington was the first black actor to win for a leading performance in a play since James Earl Jones won in 1987 – for the same role in the same play, “Fences.” Too bad August Wilson couldn’t have lived to see it (the groundbreaking playwright died in 2005, and a Broadway theater now bears his name).
Sean Hayes, nominated for his role in the musical, “Promises, Promises,” acquitted himself well as comical, costume-changing host, and the production numbers were pretty exciting. There were even two killer performances from “Glee’s” Broadway veterans: Lea Michele (Rachel, looking wayyy more mature than her TV high schooler) and Matthew Morrison (AKA Mr. Shue , who can certainly sing and cut a rug). They were among the few who belted ‘traditional’ Broadway songs; the evening was dominated by a range of non-Broadway styles: the punk of “American Idiot,” the Sinatra stylings of “Come Fly Away,” the Afrobeat rhythms of “ Fela !” and the early R&R/R&B of “ Memphis ” and “Million Dollar Quartet.”
Some of the concerns about this year’s Tony Awards included the paucity of original music (“Memphis” was the only show nominated for Best Musical that had an original score), the lack of creative – or Lifetime Achievement – awards on the national broadcast (they were presented at a prior event), and the fact that the 100 theater critics and journalists were banned from voting. Though the Tonys are Broadway’s highest industry honor, it’s a notoriously insider event, with many of the 769 voters — Broadway producers, directors, designers — having a vested interest in the outcome. Some of this will be partly rectified next year: selected drama critics will be allowed to vote. So Congratulations, San Diego ! Here’s to a great year of local theater – and continued high-profile visibility at next year’s Tonys!
… A&C in America ’s Finest: At a press conference this week, Mayor Jerry Sanders unveiled the latest Arts and Culture Impact Report, at which he conceded that “no city can be a great city without a thriving arts and culture community.” Once again, he said, we had a highly successful year, and the future looks bright for San Diego ’s arts and culture.’ The FY 09 report revealed that the 76 arts and culture organizations funded by the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture’s Organizational Support Program stimulated the economy by employing more than 7000 San Diegans and generating over $181 million in expenditures, including $87 million in salaries. Economic activity created by cultural tourists — visitors who tend to stay longer and spend more – pumped more than $750 million into the local economy. Our region, home to nearly 4300 arts-related businesses, both non-profit and for-profit, ranks 8th among the top largest U.S. cities – ahead of Denver, Boston and Philadelphia, according to Americans for the Arts. These businesses employ almost 23,000 individuals, placing San Diego 9th in the country. And Dalouge Smith, chair of the San Diego Regional Arts and Culture Coalition, reminded us not to forget the more than 12,000 arts volunteers, 1200 of whom serve on boards of directors. Over the course of the year, he reported, more than 5500 program visits were made by local arts organizations to local schools, libraries, community and senior centers. We are, concluded the Mayor, “a world-class city.”
… A Snapshot of the Globe: In celebration of its 75th anniversary, the Old Globe has opened a permanent visual art exhibit comprising photos, custom wall-mounted illustrations, motion-activated digital picture frames and lenticular printing that allows images to change when viewed from different angles. The displays, which are located in the Cohn Education Center and the Old Globe Theatre lobby, focus on the creative artists who have contributed to the development of the Globe, as well as the theater’s historical and cultural significance over time. The exhibit can be viewed by the public as part of regularly scheduled, 90-minute “Behind the Scenes” tours, which take place Saturdays and Sundays at 10:30 a.m. The cost is $5 ($3 for students and seniors); no reservations needed.
… ‘sup, Dude?: Patrick Page, who was such a stunning “Cyrano de Bergerac” at the Old Globe last summer, sorely disappointed local fans by bowing out of his announced appearances in the Globe’s Summer Shakespeare productions of “King Lear” (he was to play the Fool) and “The Madness of George III” (title character). Now, it’s been revealed that, due to scheduling conflicts, he has also pulled out of the Shakespeare Theatre Company ( Washington , D.C. ) production of Pirandello’s “ Enrico IV,” a play and role that were chosen specifically for him. As a result, the play has been removed from the STC summer season. Patrick, we love you, but you definitely need a better calendar, or a calendar-keeper.
…What Dennis did: In most of the obituaries and memorials of actor/filmmaker/artist Dennis Hopper, who died May 29, there was mention of his having gotten his stage start at the Old Globe. In case you were curious, here’s what he appeared in, and when: he was a caroler in “A Christmas Carol” (1949), and in 1954, he acted in “Twelfth Night,” “Cheaper by the Dozen,” “Othello” and “The Merchant of Venice” (he played Lorenzo, who marries Shylock’s daughter, Jessica).
… Sounds of Music: San Diego Musical Theatre, winner of several Patté Awards for their outstanding productions, is returning after a one-year hiatus, to present a three-show season, beginning in September. The shows will be: “Smokey Joe’s Café,” directed and choreographed by L.A.-based Ron Kellum ( SDMT’s “Dreamgirls”), followed by the San Diego premiere of “The Story of My life,” a tribute to the power of friendship, written by Neil Bartram and directed by Nick DeGruccio ( SDMT’s “The Full Monty”); and “A Chorus Line,” directed/choreographed by Kay Cole, who originated the role of Maggie on Broadway. All performances will be at the Lyceum Theatre. Tix and info at sandiegomusicaltheatre.com
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS FOR THE WEEK
v “Dog Sees God” – the Peanuts gang grows up – badly; darkly comic
InnerMission Productions at Diversionary Theatre, through 6/27
v “Private Lives” – bitter, acidic and deliciously irresistible
Cygnet Theatre, through 7/3
v “Summer and Smoke” – early Tennessee Williams, wonderfully evocative
New Village Arts , through 6/20
v “The Voice of the Prairie” – sweetly nostalgic, marvelously acted
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through 6/20
v “Frankie and Johnnie in the Clair de Lune” – poignant, funny and excellently acted
ion theatre, extended through 6/19
v “Footloose” – footloose and fancy free; high energy, fine singing and dancing
Welk Resorts Theatre, through 6/27
v “Gam3rs” – LOL funny
ion theatre, extended through 6/20
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer,’ and the name of the play of interest, in the SDNN Search box.
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic. She can be reached at patlauner.sdnn ( at) gmail.com