BRIGHT STAR 

Photo by Craig Schwartz

Ahmanson Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Either I’m mellowing with age or my ol’ pal Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s journey into the genre of musical theatre defies my personal aversion to sappy American musicals. Although I considered avoiding reviewing—or at least donning a necklace of garlic and borrowing a crucifix from one of the handful of Christians I still know—Bright Star proved me wrong, overcoming my elitist pretensions that usually make me run for the hills long before encountering any real good clambakes or corn as high as an elephant’s eye.

Let me start by saying Martin and Brickell’s plot is about as predictable as Dotard Donnie’s reaction to criticism (“Sad!”), but still their bluegrass-tinged music is gloriously infectious, while Walter Bobbie’s direction is extraordinarily fluid and the simple but effective design elements in the production could not be more impressive. Add to this a wonderful ensemble cast, particularly Carmen Cusack, A.J. Shively,  Jeff Blumenkrantz, and Stephen Lee Anderson all reprising their original Broadway performances, and a worldclass band led by musical director/keyboardist Anthony DeAngelis—showcasing the dynamic George Guthrie on banjo and Martha McDonnell on violin—and even the script’s most predictable and improbable themes can be forgiven. 

The potentially sad tale of Alice Murphy (Cusack) unfolds as it travels back and forth through time and in two locations, first presenting her as a spirited teenager in the 1920s growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and then again in 1945 in the “big city” of Ashville, NC, where Alice has become the crusty, humorless editor of a literary magazine called the Ashville Southern Journal.

It begins just after World War II when Billy Cane (Shively) returns home to find his mother has died, prompting a predictably-timed duet with his father (David Atkinson) called appropriately “She’s Gone,” which features a song lead-in almost as clumsy as when Alan Jones first serenaded Dolores Del Rio in Flying Down to Rio. Of course, Billy also finds his childhood chum and current town librarian Margo (Maddie Shea Baldwin) has blossomed into anything but the feisty tomboy he remembered, but of course it takes until near the end of the musical before he makes his long-overdue move.

Billy’s dream is to become a writer and so, after a turn saying so in the musical’s lovely title ballad, he travels to Ashville to peddle his wares to Murphy’s publication. He’s almost sent packin’ right off the bat by Daryl (Blumenkrantz), Miss Murphy’s delightfully acerbic assistant, but Billy persists until, for some unlikely serendipitous reason, he finds himself standing uncomfortably in front of the boss’ desk who notes, with a world-weary sigh, that it would be easier to blast the face of Abraham Lincoln off of Mt. Rushmore than to get “home” out of the heart of a Southern writer.

The twists and turns in the storyline are, frankly, preposterous and I would be surprised if anyone in attendance didn’t see the outcome looming in about the first 20 minutes of the first act. Still, as I say, the music will set yer toes a’tappin’ and the players, especially Cusack and Blumenkrantz, make you quickly not care much that the dialogue would make Granny Clampett appear to have a degree in English from Harvard.

As designer Eugene Lee’s sparse countrified set pieces travel seamlessly under Bobbie’s leadership, anchored by a moveable barn-like pavilion that houses DeAngelis and his orchestra, this Bright new Star will win you over, especially with songs such as Cusack’s star-making opening number “If You Knew My Story” and later, in my particular favorite tune, “Sun Is Gonna Shine,” in a knockout duet with the magnificently-voiced Alison Briner-Dardenne, sadly underused as her mother.

Opening night photo by Charles Sykes

For me, I’d have to officially admit there’s an added wrinkle to me deciding to review Bright Star that, although hopefully not, might have tested my personal objectivity. See, way back some quickly-moving 47 years ago, I gave Steve Martin his first professional job during my era as Talent Coordinator of the infamous Troubadour folk-rock club here in WeHo and later the Boarding House in San Francisco. There are many things I’m proud to have accomplished in my years swimming through the shark-infested waters of the music industry in that golden age of music and entertainment, but helping to launch the amazingly prolific career of this remarkable, always humble, always grateful friend is right at the top of the list.

THROUGH NOV. 19: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

RESOLVING HEDDA 

Photo by Tim Sullens

Victory Theatre Center

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

It’s become a cottage industry for wily contemporary playwrights to invent sly and often outrageous adaptations of our major theatrical classics. From Aaron Posner’s amazing Stupid Fucking Bird to Tom Jacobson’s inventive The Orange Grove, which memorably transformed, respectively, The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard into brilliantly skewed modern retellings, groundbreaking but sometimes stuffy dramatists like Anton Chekhov must be doing a little spinning in their otherwise well-tended graves—unless, of course, they’re laughing their skeletal asses off right along with the rest of us.

Now noted playwright Jon Klein, first brought to the attention of west coast audiences with the presentation of his HBO Playwrights USA Award-winner T-Bone ‘N Weasel many years ago, championed by Maria Gobetti and Tom Ormeny at their long-prolific Victory Theatre Center, returns home to world premiere his latest comedy Resolving Hedda—which immediately joins the ranks of the brilliant wordsmiths before him determined to turn great literary works of dramatic art on their proverbial ear.

Klein begins by presenting us with that traditionally tragic heroine Hedda Gabler herself (Kimberly Alexander), who tries to directly convince those gathered that she deserves better than to once again be the victim of Henrik Ibsen, that damned Norwegian misogynistic “serial killer” of independent woman at the end of the 19th century. It seems she’s struggled on the sidelines as her story has been told and retold in “over 10,000 performances of this fucking play” since it debuted to shocked audiences way back in 1891.

So once again, Hedda’s story unfolds before us, but not without running commentary from Mrs. Tesman herself, who talks so much she’s getting dry-mouthed from the monologuing and borrows the program from someone in the front row to check out the bio of the actress playing her.

Like a scene from Bill Murray’s Groudhog Day, Hedda watches and then jumps into her own role as once again old Aunt Julia (Alyce Heath) arrives at the Tesmans’ home to welcome the couple back from their honeymoon, only to find the lady of the house has given the maid Berta a personal day since she’s not essential to the plot. “This is the 19th century,” she tells her shocked visitor, “and we can defrost our own dinners.” Besides, she is obliged to show her husband’s sweet little old aunt that she’s hard and wicked and perverse, at least according to Wikipedia. At the same time she tries to defend herself to us, saying maybe she’s not really a bad person but is just written that way.

You get the picture, right? On Evan Bartoletti’s elaborately-appointed set and graced with opulent costuming by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg—although one outfit is assigned to each character, explained specifically in Klein’s constantly tongue-in-cheek text by someone noting they’re all just too busy to change—Gobetti directs a stage full of Ibsen’s well-known supporting characters, from Marisa Van Den Borre as the blank-headed Thea, Chad Coe as a silent movie-starry eyebrow-twitchy Eilert, Ormeny as a wonderfully lecherous Judge Brock, and featuring a rich yet understated turn by Ben Atkinson as Mr. Milquetoast himself, Hedda’s mousey new terminally academic hubby George Tesman.

Then there’s one new character onstage, a hapless stage manager (Sean Spencer) who, by forgetting to put out punch and unable find an outlet when he delivers a paper-shredder to destroy Eilert’s infamous manuscript, is threatened by Hedda to get with it or she will either kill him or turn him in to Equity.

Alexander is a powerhouse as Hedda, although she appears to occasionally be having a hard time knowing how to differentiate her narrations to the audience with the times she’s a part of the action. In general, the supporting players also do seem to be struggling to find a uniform style to solidify their journey as they give Resolving Hedda a try, but all are exceptional players I suspect have since settled into their roles more confidently.

At one point Hedda does assure us that she’s trying to get Ibsen’s play down to two acts and indeed she does. Still, there’s a little more judicious snipping needed to perhaps trim Klein’s refreshing and often hilarious play into a more modern intermission-less single act and not feel obligated to touch on every clumsy plotpoint presented in the original. If someone took a little Cliff Note-ian pruning to Resolving Hedda and gave this splendid cast a wee bit more time to settle into an ensemble performance, a delightfully clever modern classic can surely emerge.

THROUGH DEC. 3: Victory Theatre, 3324 W. Victory Blvd, Burbank. 818.841.5421 or thevictorytheatrecenter.org

STUPID KID 

Photo by Brian M. Cole

Road Theatre Company 

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Poor Chick Ford. The kid not only looks like he would hands-down be voted as the Person Least Likely to Succeed in any contest and against all odds imaginable, but after 14 years in prison for a murder he may or may not have committed, not only does he arrive home to his parents’ shabby clapboard shack on the eastern plains of Colorado to discover his room has been rented out and his mother threw out his Frankenstein statue and Iron Maiden figurines, he is not even physically recognizable to them after all those years.

Of course, GiGi and Eddie Ford (Taylor Gilbert and Joe Hart) haven’t seen their son (Ben Theobald) since, at age 14, he admitted in open court that he had killed his girlfriend and was sentenced to life in prison. DNA evidence, however, has recently surfaced that questions the verdict and so, playwright Sharr White’s Stupid Kid hoists his garbage bag full of chewing gum and a few pair of tightey-whiteys over his shoulder and nervously treks back to the only place he has even called home.

For his pain pill-addicted father, who carries his meds in the pocket of his filthy bathrobe and pops ‘em like Reece’s Pieces, Chickie may just be a stranger “tryin’ to get us to let our guard down so you can steal our stuff,” though considering the condition and resale value of their stuff this would be highly unlikely. Seeing his abrasive mother for the first time isn’t any better, her reaction, after asking how he got there, is to observe to her mate that’s what’s wrong with this country: “They let people like him ride buses.”

GiGi’s reaction comes from the fact that her son’s conviction has made them pariahs in their small rural community, to the point where she lost her job at the local “Bird ‘n Turd” fast food outlet and her husband screwed up his back lifting their Buick LeSabre off the railroad tracks in just the nick of time after discovering his despondent wife trying to end it all. Why, even their mentally-deficient neighbor Franny Hawker (Michelle Gillette) didn’t speak to them for years, the breakthrough in their relationship beginning when she started flipping them off between the slats of her front window blinds.

There to offer advice is GiGi’s brother Unclemike (Rob Nagle), the town’s blustery former sheriff who engineered his nephew’s original confession and is trying to cash in on the monetary compensation Chickie might be entitled to if they decide to sue the state for false imprisonment. Unclemike (not a typo; blame the playwright) rents a room in the Fords’ home as a place he can bring his little chickadees in an effort to forget his wife is undergoing a sex change and would rather be called George than Georgette. This time out, Unclemike announces he’s moving in his reluctant companion Hazel (Allison Blaize), whom he cheerfully treats as his personal sex slave after getting the court to award him custody when she’s convicted for a drug offense.

Unclemike is oozing with a false charm that barely conceals his ominous power-hungry Trumpian streak of sadism and, as much as GiGi and Eddie want the guy out of their house, they’re so impoverished they would have trouble surviving without his $300 monthly rent payment, not to mention the bags of chips and junk foods and diarrhea-inducing cuts of frozen meats he barks at Hazel to bring in from his car with Simon Legree-style glee. Without him life would be nearly impossible, as GiGi’s oven hasn’t worked in six years and she feeds Eddie mostly dry cereal with powdered milk she gets from the local church’s charity bank. “Eat up them lumps, Eddie,” she snaps at her mate. “All the nutrition’s in them lumps.”

Gilbert, co-artistic director of the Road, has contributed some remarkable performances over the years but her GiGi rises directly to the top of the list, alternately as loud and shrewish as any sandpapery Jerry Springer guest and then suddenly soft and heartbreakingly touching, a severely broken woman whose treatment of her own son is obviously and tragically conflicted. Hart is a wonderful foil to Gilbert as the father who has all but given up and Theobald, though occasionally coming off a tad more Appalachian than Coloradan, wins us over as the lost kid who only wants to put his sordid past behind him and regain his life and parents’ love.

Blaize contributes some quietly arresting moments as the zombie-like and horribly abused Hazel, while Gillette, sitting nearby the action on a folding lawn chair greedily chompin’ on her bag of Doritos and enjoying the family’s dysfunction as though she’s watching a reality show falling somewhere between Duck Dynasty and Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, is pure comedy gold as the most annoying neighbor since Zac Efron moved in next to Seth Rogan.

As usual, Nagle is one of those actors it’s hard to take one’s eyes off of, if you’ll excuse the intentionally bad but emphatic grammar. He steals the show in his every scene, his monstrous, oily, physically imposing Unclemike so goddam creepy I asked the actor after the show if he was having any trouble sleeping while playing this role. The fact that he said no with a wide Unclemike grin, relating that he’s been sleeping like a baby these days, may make me a little more apprehensive when greeting the guy at any future point in time, even if he is madly in love with a beloved ancient pug named Roosevelt.

Sharr White is quickly becoming one of my personal favorite emerging playwrights, proving himself to be adept at creating outrageously inappropriate comedies that alternately make the audience roar with laughter and then, like the narrative rollercoaster ride they promise, send their cars careening off the side at a moment’s notice. His Annapurna, in its debut starring Megan Mullaly and Nick Offerman at the Odyssey, was my TicketHolders Award Best Play of 2013 and The Other Place, also starring the amazing Gilbert at the Road, was one of my Top Ten Plays of 2015.

Now with Stupid Kid, White gets even more respect from me with this knockout world premiere which, under the masterful leadership of director Cameron Watson, is simply the best production so far opening in LA this season in a year overflowing with incredible new plays. There are a few holes in White’s script which could easily be filled with a little dab of theatrical Spackle, but quite simply, it could never soar to these heights without Watson and his amazing cast of six brilliant actors at the top of their game. 

THROUGH DEC. 3: The Road at Magnolia, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. 818.761.8838 or www.roadtheatre.org

 

  See?  I'm an angel.