Published in Décor & Style Magazine
It’s a Broadway musical kind of month: a couple of local premieres, and a triumphant, drawer-dropping return.
The latter would, of course, refer to The Full Monty, which started its wildly successful stage life in San Diego. It emerged first onscreen in the 1997 Oscar-nominated movie, and evolved into a musical at the Globe Theatres before dancing off to Broadway and garnering ten Tony nominations, then heading to London and now, a national tour. First stop is the Orange County Performing Arts Center (September 3-15; 714-740-7878), and after a sojourn in San Francisco, it lands at the Civic Center, courtesy of Broadway/San Diego (October 15-20; 619-570-1100 or 619-220-TIXS).
The feel-good but not mindless musical concerns six working-class buddies (originally from industrial Sheffield, England, relocated in the stage show to steel-town Buffalo, NY). Their unemployment is eating away at their manhood. In a desperate attempt to get their lives back together, they drop their fears, their nerves and their pants. When they see a local male strip show make a big hit with the local womenfolk, the cash-strapped factory workers strap on their own distinctive solution and go The Full Monty.
Four-time Tony Award-winning writer Terrence McNally said his dramatic musical comedy “is about friendship, about being a parent… and also about an image-obsessed society that says you have to look like Brad Pitt. This show says quite the opposite. It celebrates everybody for exactly who they are.”
The Monty we’ll be seeing features the same cast that performed in L.A., a production the L.A. Times called “a slam-dunk musical sensation.” According to the Orange County Register, “David Yazbek’s witty songs have an edgy, hip quality. Jerry Mitchell’s dance numbers are fresh and alive with energy and high spirits. And McNally’s book is a comic gem. The show has so many highlights and show stoppers, one loses count.” Others praised director Jack O’Brien (artistic director of the Globe Theatres) who “gets the cast to whip the audience into a frenzy,” and called the show a “unique combination of high-gloss glitter, steel-mill grit and recession-era social consciousness.”
Just in case you’re wondering, and if you haven’t seen the show before — yes, they do go The Full Monty, briefly and dimly lit. But it’s an exuberant ending to a lovable, high-spirited show.
Two other musicals are making their regional premieres in San Diego this month, both derived from literary sources. First, there’s Ragtime at Vista’s Moonlight Productions (through September 8; 760-724-2110) and then, Jekyll and Hyde at Starlight Musical Theatre in Balboa Park (9/12-22; 619-544-7827).
Ragtime , based on the spellbinding, 1975 epic novel by E.L. Doctorow, weaves a complex and intriguing tapestry from the social and political events/upheavals of the early 20th century. The music (by Stephen Flaherty, with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens) represents a wide range of styles, from vaudeville to Dixieland, waltzes to rags. The show’s book is much closer to the source than the disappointing 1981 movie. The story manages to be both thrilling and historically informative, with its wildly imaginative intertwining of fictional and factual characters. Henry Ford, Emma Goldman and Harry Houdini mingle with the three fascinating, wildly disparate families that represent turn-of-the-last-century America: upper-crust WASPs, immigrant Jews and Harlem blacks.
The Moonlight production will be huge, bigger than the national tour which stopped briefly at the Civic Theatre last year, with 41 actors onstage and 26 musicians in the pit. Two of the lead performers (Victoria Strong as Mother and Jennifer Shelton as Sarah) come from the touring company. And the choreographer, Paul Bryant, is a 3 1/2-year veteran of the tour, having worked with the original, acclaimed creative team: director Frank Galati and choreographer Graciela Daniele.
“If there was such a thing as a perfect musical,” says the affable Bryant, who’s now based in L.A., “this comes very, very close.” The reviews concurred. Long-time New York theater critic Clive Barnes fairly crowed when the show first opened: “WOW!,” he said. “The new musical Ragtime is not simply a colossal hit, it is …. like a tidal wave — unstoppable, irresistible.”
Moonlight’s artistic director Kathy Brombacher calls Ragtime her “favorite musical of the 20th century… one that has the power to change lives.” And, as choreographer Bryant puts it, “the story couldn’t come at a better time than in the aftermath of 9/11. It’s really about people learning to accept and respect one another for who or what they are, regardless of religion, class or color of skin, trying to make the world a better place.” It can’t get more relevant or significant than that… and it’s a rip-roarin’ good time, too!
A bit darker musical creation is Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll and Hyde, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella. As you may recall from your high school reading requirements, it’s about a brilliant young research scientist who tries to separate the good and evil inherent in every human being and extract the evil tendencies. When his experiment goes awry, Jekyll inadvertently gives life to Edward Hyde, his murderous alter-ego, who unleashes a reign of terror on London society.
Starlight Musical Theatre was the first in San Diego to acquire the regional rights. Producing artistic director Brian Wells will shepherd a “mix and match” production, culled from the many versions and revisions of the adaptation, which was begun by Wildhorn and lyricist Leslie Bricusse in 1990 and was re-tooled and reworked multiple times up to its Broadway opening in 1997, and since. The musical focuses more on blockbuster pyrotechnics than the moral/ethical dilemmas, but it has a huge following of devotees (called ‘Jekkies’). The lead actor, T. Eric Hart, played the role recently at Fullerton Light Opera. And this production is still different from that one.
“What we’re doing,” explains Wells, “most closely resembles the national touring version, which is like the pre-Broadway show.” Wells says the Broadway production was criticized for being “shallow, understating Jekyll’s inner turmoil and motives. It wasn’t clear if he was opportunistic, or if he really regretted his deeds.” This version plays up the dichotomies — the good and evil of Jekyll and Hyde and the two leading ladies, the educated, upper class Emma, and the less fortunate prostitute Lucy, who seem, says Wells, “very similar on the surface, but antithetical because of their upbringing, education and place in society.” Sounds like food for thought… plus some pyrotechnics.
Now, lest you think it’s all music all the time this month, there is other thought-provoking fare at the theatrical smorgasbord. The La Jolla Playhouse is entering the second year of its innovative Page To Stage project, which facilitates the birth of a new theater piece in a “critic-free, workshop environment, as a work-in-progress.” That means we’re not allowed to review, which in the case of last year’s presentation, Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife, was a genuine pity, because it featured one of the best performances I’d seen all year — by the gifted Jefferson Mays, a UCSD alumnus. Even if I couldn’t formally review the piece, I was able to give Jefferson a Best Performance statuette when I presented my annual Patté Awards for Theatre Excellence last January.
The exciting part of the project is that it gives audiences a chance to get in on the ground floor of a potentially hot property, watching it evolve and becoming part of a new work’s creative process. As Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff puts it, audiences get to “play an intimate role in shaping a production. [The Writer] who’s in residence at the Playhouse, can make changes on a performance-by-performance basis, whether it be revising the script, restructuring the order of scenes or suggesting different interpretations of the text. Page To Stage makes audiences active participants in the creation of the work.”
This year, the work is I Think I Like Girls, written and directed by Leigh Fondakowski, who was the head writer and associate director of The Laramie Project, the brilliant, award-winning production we were lucky enough to see performed last year by its creators, the Tectonic Theatre Project. The heart-stopping show (about the news-grabbing murder of a young gay student in Laramie, Wyoming), broke all attendance records for a non-musical at the Playhouse.
Fonadakowski’s new piece was created in a similar manner, through interviews, court documents and print media. In an experimental and playful style, text, dance and original songs are used to explore the issues surrounding growing up gay and female in America.
As the playwright puts it, “We are clearly at a point in our culture where gay people possess a degree of visibility never before imagined. I am interested in the relationship between our increasingly mainstream visibility and the forms of discrimination and violence that still exist. My work on The Laramie Project was a wake-up call to both the ways we are more accepted and the subtle — and not so subtle — backlash of homophobia we now face.” Des McAnuff sees this as “a very important and exciting piece; funny, moving and touching.”
Since 1997, I Think I Like Girls has had several readings, in New York and San Francisco. Now we get to see it develop further… and you get to play a part. It’s a rare and unique opportunity; and, you’d be surprised, local theater has lots of them!
Pat Launer is resident theater critic at KPBS radio and TV. Her theater reviews can be heard Fridays at 8:30am on 89.5FM, or viewed online at kpbs.org and gaylesbiantimes.com.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.