GREY NOMAD 

Photo by Adrian Wlodarczyk

Australian Theatre Company at the Skylight

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Australian playwright Dan Lee has chronicled an unusual phenomenon for retirees who inhabit the world’s largest island in the world premiere of his Grey Nomad, a term used to describe his country’s many boomer couples who sell their homes and give up all their earthly possessions to circumvent the country in RVs searching for a bit of “adventure without dementia.”

Lee explains: “I first came into contact with the free-range baby boomers…a couple of years ago when I was living in Broome. Every year in the dry season, they would stream into town in their RVs and camp trailers [and] the town would go from 15,000 to 50,000 in a couple of weeks. They’re a very funny and interesting bunch,” he notes of the eclectic aging adventurers who choose to dedicate the rest of their lives to traveling in loops around the country.

Helen and Jim (Ros Gentle and David Ross Paterson) are just such a couple, deciding to sell their house before any more of their grown children try to move back in. They take to the open road but they’re not as blissfully happy as they expected to be, beginning to feel as though they’re constantly “trying to turn left when we’re actually parked.” Their oddly incongruent sense of motorhome-inspired claustrophobia is especially heightened as they attempt to dodge an extroverted, obnoxious nomadic couple who seem to be haunting them in their travels wherever they land.

As Helen stifles a recurring dream that she croaks while on the road and Jim just opens the passenger door and kicks her out onto the highway with all the other similarly deceased worn out wives and husbands, their stalkers, Val and Tim (Wendy Hammers and Paul Tassone) indeed do show up, stark naked and ready to par-TAY just as Jim is settling into his folding beach chair to watch the sun set over the ocean in long-earned peace and quiet.

It’s quickly clear Val and Tim are hiding their own boredom and exhaustion with putting up with one another in a confined space. No matter how Tim aims to show Helen and Jim how youthfully healthy and physically flexible he is in the most graphic way possible, downward dog included—thank Terpsichore staged facing upstage toward his costars—he and Val are harboring a dark secret they’re running from, along with their fleeting youth, with all their might.

Under the surprisingly kinetic direction of Iain Sinclair on Se Oh’s sparsely empty set that serves as every beach or wet t-shirt competition party on the island, Lee’s script sings, albeit with a mighty old-fashioned song. It’s not entirely necessary for every play produced to have some deep premise to make it worthy of presentation, but here the pickins’, although fun, are also fairly slight. His storyline is akin to one of those classic sitcoms from the golden age of television, long before it was Shameless-ly Always Sunny in Philadelphia, a throwback to a simpler time when Marlo Thomas was still flying kites in Central Park and Lucy had some ‘splainin’ to do.

What especially makes Grey Nomad palpable, however, besides Lee’s sharply quirky dialogue and insight into the process of growing older despite ourselves, are these veteran performers able to make it all work. This is especially true of Gentle, with whom we fall in love in her turn as the curious, frustrated, ever-patient Helen in the first minutes. Every subtly pained expression, every moment of closing her fluttering eyelids to regain her composure, is golden, something that proves even more endearing when Val’s more outrageous free behavior begins to rub off on her infinitely more conservative protégée.

Hammer and Tassone are wonderful foils for their reticent targets, although I do wonder if manscaping is still to be discovered in Australia, something that would improve Tassone’s entrance considerably. After a rather annoyingly broad first act delivery—not to mention prompting non-Australians to long for supertitles to help us get all his dialogue—Paterson grows on you as the typical clueless husband endlessly cloned on film and in TV commercials all our lives.

No, Grey Nomad will not change the world, but it will give you a laugh from way deep down in that place when the world seemed easier to navigate than it does in 2017. And that’s saying something good.

THROUGH OCT. 8: ATC at the Skylight Theatre, 1816 ½ N. Vermont Av., LA. 866.811.4111 or www.australiantheatrecompany.org

Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight

Photo by John Klopping

Greenway Court Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

It is a given that physics also promotes circular behavior, the late controversial figure of the French Enlightenment era Émilie du Châtelet tells the audience as she gets used to being dead while jumping consciousnesses to relive her past exploits right before our very eyes. “And so, here I go again.”

Lauren Gunderson’s intellectually challenging new play Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight quickly shows itself to be a little Aaron Posner, a tad bit Charles Mee, and a lot Tom Stoppard; this could easily have been written by Stoppard somewhere smackdab between the creation of Hapgood and Arcadia.

Our title heroine flashes back and forth through her adult life trying to put together the pieces of her lusty and passionately inquisitive former days on terra firma trying to figure out how balance the quicksilver notions of love and science, both of which obsess her. “Damn the love!” she shouts, showing off her best Jeanne d’Arc on the battlefield at Orléans stance. “And long live the mind!”

In Coeurage Theatre Company’s typically arresting and gorgeously designed production energized by inspired and sweepingly fluid staging of director Julianne Donelle, Sammi Smith assays the demanding role of La Marquise with extraordinary skill, making the difficult journey for any audience member a lot more grounded by her warmth and robust sexuality. This is especially evident considering the uppercrusty manner-driven world of the real life pioneering physicist and mathematician who was, among other things, the married mistress of François-Marie Arouet, the great French poet and political sabre-rattler better known by his nom de plume Voltaire (here played by Marc Forget).

In 1733, to avoid arrest after publication of his anti-government Letters, Voltaire took refuge at La Marquise’s château at Cirey-sur-Blaise, where they cavorted shamelessly under the nose of Emilie’s husband, the Marquis du Châtelet (Nardeep Khurmi), who sometimes left their neglected three children home in Paris and stayed at the château with his wife and her lover.

The relationship between Emilie and her “V” didn’t just revolve around hot and sorted sex, although it seems, in Gunderson’s view, there was indeed plenty of that. But more than only linked in their carnality, the shameless lovers (“The minute I left Paris and go to the country,” Emilie tells us, “is when I go from being an eccentric to being a rebel”) collected over 21,000 books, an enormous number for the time. Together, they studied these books and performed experiments in the natural sciences, including collaborating on an attempt to determine the nature of fire.

Their relationship was fierce: unquenchably sensual and, at times, explosively volatile. “Don’t worry,” Emilie tells the audience, “we fight in English so you won’t miss a thing.” Their conclusions, as their research intensifies, are not a match by any means, especially with La Marquise fighting the perception that women at the time should not be going beyond learning to curtsy and properly unfurl their lace fans, while Voltaire’s stubbornness and high regard for himself intrudes continuously. His paramour scalds his massive ego by snapping at him that he’s like a poet dressed up as a scholar and stating that she’d never met a humble poet. Soon their relationship—but not their deep-rooted respect for one another—is being dashed on the rocks below their chateau.

The production is simply lovely. Donelle’s direction is precise and wonderfully imaginative and the designers weigh heavily in the success of the piece—particularly the incredible sound design by Joseph V. Calarco, which weaves period chamber music in with crescendoing electronic jolts as Emilie goes periodically from live to dead. The game supporting cast is splendidly in on the style, although Forget’s turn as Voltaire—resisting the urge here to make a pun about his surname—is basically competent but too casual and contemporary, too vocally flat, and above all, not remotely sexy. 

The masterpiece of this Emilie is this Emilie. Smith never once leaves the stage, but continuously compels her audience’s attention at every moment despite the actress’ subtle attempts to occasionally let her costars shine a bit and have their own moments. Simply put, Smith gives an indelible tour de force performance, at once magical, boldly sturdy, yet ever-accessible to seduce us to love her character despite La Marquise’s blatant flaws and selfish, self-destructive behavior.

Coeurage’s mounting of Gunderson’s Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight is not to be missed, for an introduction to an amazing new playwright, as a nod to this company’s commitment to create innovative and thought-provoking theatre at every turn, and for the unearthly and stalwart performance of Sammi Smith in the title role.

“Happiness may not be having all the answers,” Smith’s Emilie surmises. “It might be having the time and space… to wonder.” If I take no other lesson away from this sparkling production, it will be that and, I suspect, it will be something that stays with me for some time to come.

THROUGH SEPT. 17: Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Av., LA. 323.944.2165 orwww.greenwaycourtheatre.org/emilie.

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE 

 Photo by Enci Box

Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

I’m sure it was long before 1941 when the term “madcap comedy” was coined, but perhaps at no time in 20th-century theatrical history was there a better choice for that tag then when it was attached to Joseph Kesselring’s enduring old warhorse Arsenic and Old Lace.

Based on the infamous real-life case of Connecticut landlady Amy Archer-Gilligan, who took elderly and chronically ill boarders into her home and poisoned them for their pensions, the delightfully dotty yet murderous Brewster sisters and their certifiable family members took New York by storm in those dark days when another atrociously evil fascist monster was busy screwing up the world and ran for a record 1,400-plus performances.

Despite many topical references that only old-timers like me might get—and even then only by reference, not from actually being there at the time, thank you—Arsenic and Old Lace simply never gets old. There may be lines about the sisters’ world being a little like Strindberg writing Hellzapoppin’ or their evil nephew telling his aunties to get out of their period mourning dresses because they look like Judith Anderson, but still younger audiences will be equally charmed and entertained by one of the silliest farces of all time.

As directed with a huge dose of suitably Marx Brothers-esque humor by Elina de Santos, the Odyssey has portioned out a healthy dose of Arsenic with consummate skill. On a jaw-droppingly detailed two-story set by Bruce Goodrich, complete with the perfect staircase for the sisters’ deluded nephew Teddy (in a wonderfully wacky turn by Alex Elliott-Funk) to scale as he repeatedly charges up San Juan Hill, this is perhaps the most engagingly reverent mounting of a true American classic to hit LA stages in quite some time.

The early black comedy at first gently introduces us to the endearing Brewster family, with ancestors descended from the Mayflower, as the sisters lovingly care for Teddy, who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt during his years as President. 0n the side they advertise for lonely old men to come to them as potential lodgers then poison them with their homemade elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and just a pinch of cyanide.

Unlike the real Miss Archer-Gilligan, however, the sisters don’t off their “gentlemen” for their money; instead, they see it as a Christian act to end their pain that charitably  culminates in giving them a decent burial service in their basement in the graves Teddy digs believing them to be locks on the Panama Canal. See, Abby and Martha Brewster (LA newcomer Sheelagh Cullen and stalwart local theatrical mainstay Jacque Lynn Colton) are just your average American homicidal maniacs next door.

The hero of the story and the one seemingly sane family member is their nephew Mortimer (J.B. Waterman), who actually must be a little off too since he works as a drama critic for an unnamed New York newspaper despite hating the theatre and believing it can’t last much longer. “Don’t think bad things about Mortimer because he’s a dramatic critic,” Martha tells the father of their nephew’s fiancée. “Somebody’s has to do those things.”

Mortimer is all ready to marry Elaine before he finds the body of poor Mr. Hoskins in the living room window box and, after the sisters cheerfully confess to having a dozen others of their “gentlemen” interred in the cellar, in his frantic state to let everything sink in, he debates whether to go through with his promise to marry since everyone in his family is obviously destined to madness. This includes their third long-estranged evil brother Jonathan (Gera Hermann), who arrives unexpectedly with his sidekick Dr. Einstein (Ron Bottitta), a rather sketchy plastic surgeon based on real-life gangland surgeon Joseph Moran, who has just altered his boss’ face for the third time—albeit in a drunken state right after he saw the newest Boris Karloff movie.

Jonathan goes into a rage when people continuously tell him he resembles Karloff, originally a sly in-joke since the horror star himself made his stage debut in the role on Broadway. Jonathan and Einstein arrive with a “stiff” of their own, one Mr. Spinalzo, and when they try to dump the body in the window box, they find Mr. Hoskins is already in repose there and soon the Brewsters are involved in a debate as to who has the most kills under their knickers, Jonathan or his aunts.

Waterman is hilarious as Mortimer, although the worldclass deadpan performance of Cary Grant in the classic movie has always been a hard act to follow. When Grant in his confusion and shock answers the phone when the doorbell rings or states to his editor that he is “feeling a little Pirandello” (ask your elders, whippersnappers), nothing has ever been funnier, but Waterman works hard to come in a close second.

Liesel Kapp as his intended Elaine also does her best with a role that rollercoasters from ingenue to Martha Raye-like on a moment’s notice, culminating perfectly when she decides to dump Mortimer and exits with the personally home-hitting line, “You… you…critic!”  Hermann and Bottitta do wonders as Jonathan and Einstein, gratefully avoiding the trap of getting lost in Karloffville and Peter Lorreland.

Alan Abelew has a trio charming turns as Elaine’s father, the head of the nuthouse where the Brewsters may all end their days, and especially as one of their potential victims saved by Mortimer in the nick of time. As various cops who put up with the Brewsters’ eccentricities and hilariously miss every under-their-noses clue about their friends’ murderous exploits, Yusef Lambert, Darius De La Cruz, and Mat Hayes are perfectly cast, but it is Michael Antosy, the cop who stays the night to persuade the tied-up Mortimer to collaborate on his potential play script, who steals the latterday-Keystone men-in-blue sweepstakes.

And of course, that leaves Colton and Cullen as Martha and Abby to consider. One thing that, even as a kid, made me first fall totally in love with the film version of Kesselring’s madhouse masterpiece was the work of Jean Adair and Josephine Hull, who originated the roles of the Brewster sisters (Karloff, who had a financial stake in the New York production, turned down reprising his turn as Jonathan in the film version since he knew he was the biggest draw on Broadway). Adair and Hull had a chemistry as the sisters that translated beautifully to film and made them the highlight of the movie, even for me eclipsing the smoothly vaudevillian pratfalls of the otherwise suave Mr. Grant.

Colton and Cullen, miraculously, have found that sweetly goofy chemistry like gangbusters, their time whenever they are onstage sure to make anyone smile from ear to ear. Explaining to Mortimer their mission to help poor lonely old creatures find their peace is hysterically funny in its abject seriousness, like two aged homicidal Mother Theresas proudly proclaiming all the good they’ve done and all the lepers they’ve healed.

These two incredible veteran performers often seem to be moving or speaking as one, almost finishing each other’s sentences and nodding conspiratorially whenever the other makes a point. Colton and Cullen could honestly have been living together in the old Brewster homestead for years. Like Adair and Hull, their performances are the heart of this Arsenic and Old Lace and make it one of the premier theatrical events in a rather parched season.

THROUGH OCT. 8: Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West LA. (310) 477-2055, ext. 2 or www.odysseytheatre.com

ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS 

Trans Chorus of Los Angeles at the Renberg Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

It’s been almost 18 months since the amazing David Bowie left us and, as someone whose work I adored and friendship I cherished for a mere 45 years, I have to admit I signed on to see the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles in concert at the Renberg interpreting his The Rise and Fall of ZIggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars mainly out of curiosity. I left, however, deeply moved and bolstered by their courage and talent—especially on the very day when our sick racist Asswipe-In-Chief's need for power and attention led him to sign the backward-moving order to ban transgender Americans from the military.

It was 1972 when I first met David. I had brought Bette Midler to the west coast for her first west coast appearance and, one night while performing at the Boarding House in San Francisco, into our late show walked David clad in his complete Ziggy regalia—bright purple overall shorts, red-orange hair shocked into submission, high silver platform shoes that made him taller than me, face covered in pink glitter. He arrived unannounced directly after knocking out his own performance on his Ziggy world tour at Winterland and, well, sold out or not, who could turn him away?

It was Bette’s birthday and after the show, the two of us took David and his boytoy dancing until the wee hours of the morning. He and his friend argued in an amphetamine-fueled haze throughout the evening’s revelry until finally the guy stormed off into the night and left us with a sobbing and severely stoned superstar on our hands. By dawn’s early light, we pouring the totally wasted Bowie into a cab, clumsily carried him into his hotel, and literally tucked him into bed. He and I remained friends from that night on, connecting whenever we could and whenever he and Iman—whom he met through our mutual friend and haircutter, the also late-great Teddy Antolin who died only a few days after David, were in town.

So, this was my major connection going to see the Trans Chorus of LA perform Ziggy, although I will admit I had also heard they were something not only unique but spectacular. And I heard right. Under the precision musical direction of the troupe’s dedicated and obviously passionate artistic director Lindsey Deaton, the 30 or so members of TCLA began the performance all dressed in dull future drab for The Rise: “Five Years,” “Space Oddity,” “All the Young Dudes,” and “Star Man, among other classics. Bringing on Dali-esque props and performing choreography by Billy Rugh and Michelle Benton, the Chorus instantly won my heart, showing themselves to be far more than a novelty but serious performers whose vocal blend, interpreting the complex arrangements by Jerome Kurtenbach and Tim Sarsany, not only conquered the material but energized it anew.

For the second part, labeled The Fall, the chorusmembers stripped off their Tatooine-wear to reveal brightly glittery par-TAY finery below, knocking out Bowie’s best with gusto and gobs of talent: “Rebel Rebel,” “Star,” Life On Mars?,” the title song, of course, and finally the all-defining “Suffragette City.”

To say it was a magical experience is a major understatement. These are not only courageous, pioneering individuals willing to show us all how passionate they are to embrace life and become an equal part of our society, but these are folks with extraordinary individual talents, as well as wildly self-deprecating tongue-in-cheek senses of humor. With the support of the combo’s leader and keyboardist Joe Lawrence—and including an uber-sexy electric guitarist named Benjamin Fortin who is sure to make any beating heart flutter—this Ziggy would without the shadow of a beard… er, I mean doubt, make David proud if he were only around to see them breath wonderful new life into his musical genius.

Ending the evening with an encore sure to not leave a dry eye in the house, Trevor Project’s heartrending theme song “It Gets Better,” letting all disenfranchised or suicidal youth realize they have our support and are never ever alone in this fucked-up world of ours, made this crusty old critic cry and, unusual for this place in time when we wake up each day wondering what new horror our insane “leader” has forced upon our population and the world, personally giving me a boost of hope for the future that just came to me in the nick of time.

Check for future concerts and engagements at www.transchorusla.org—and please do consider making a donation to keep them opening minds and making our world better despite the Orange Hitler and his soulless minions at www.transchorusla.org/donate.

LEVI KREIS: BROADWAY AT THE KEYS 

Photo by Steven Underhill

Renberg Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

It’s not usual for me to write about shows that have closed or, in this case, one-night events. Still, seeing Levi Kreis in concert at the Renberg has to be shouted to the rooftops, even if it won’t resurrect an evening of pure magic. And then, too, you can go out and buy his new CD, also titled Broadway at the Keys, something which I would wholeheartedly recommend.

Singer/songwriter Kreis was born in the backwater town of Oliver Springs, Tennessee, a place where his ultra-Christian family saw southern Baptists as liberals and, in a high school graduating class of five males, he was named perhaps the only class valedictorian in history who maintained a solid C average. Of course, despite his parents’ horror at his choice to pursue musical theatre as a career, he left for LA soon after, the Devil’s Playground if there ever was one, then went on to achieve Broadway legend status and a Tony Award for his astounding turn playing Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet.

Through the years, Kreis has continued to write and record his own dynamic music, gifting his adoring fans with five albums since 2005, many of which were shared in this too-brief local concert appearance. It wasn’t easy for a kid from such a restrictive family situation to succeed in such an unusual career choice, especially considering one of the themes in his own music is his homosexuality, something which led to a riff between him and his mother despite his growing fame—or perhaps because of it. Calling to tell her one of his first albums was trending third in the country, right behind Byonce and Mariah Carey, her steely response was, “Why must you air your dirty laundry in public?”

The love between his family members eventually prevailed, even progressing to the point where, during a visit home to introduce the love of his life to his parents, his father invited his partner to go hunting with him—a simple but monumental moment that did not go unappreciated by my own boyfriend, raised on a farm in Aztec, New Mexico, who instantly knew what a defining milestone that was.

As a songwriter, Kreis is arrestingly poetic, truly inspirational, and deeply, courageously personal—and yet, with his Yma Sumac vocal range, he is also a gloriously entertaining performer. This somehow leads one to wonder if indeed his whole familial story is fabricated and in truth he is the improbable secret lovechild of Peter Allen and Laura Nyro.

Whether he is singing his own heartfelt material or paying homage to the personal heroes who inspired his life and work, from Stephen Sondheim (“Nothing’s Going to Harm You” from Sweeney Todd, the first musical he ever saw) to Carole King, Ray Charles, and of course Jerry Lee Lewis, his performance is mesmerizing and, miraculously, somehow able to help erase all the other shit in the world that’s unfolding daily before us these days.

The evolution of his music, he tells us with his wide, warm grim that seems to be directed to each and every one of us looking back at him in the dark, clarified for the young Leviticus Kreis that being different, being unique, is not a liability but an honor, as it's artists such as he who help change the opinions and the perspectives of the naysayers who try so hard to tell the rest of us how we should act and who we should be.

CLOSED… but let’s make him return, shall we? And don’t forget Levi Kreis’ new CD, Broadway at the Keys, is now available at record stores and from all those omnipresent Amazonian outlets near you.

BLACKBIRD 

Photo by Jess Nurse

Grove Theatre Center Burbank

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

There are a handful of plays veteran theatre reviewers in our “Industry town” avoid like the plague. This is not because they aren’t great plays—otherwise they would not be mounted with such frequency—but in El Lay, with its endless supply of acting workshops and hopeful newbies arriving intent on self-producing to showcase their own talents, these are the most overexposed contemporary works of our time. For me, this list includes Closer, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Beirut, Proof, and several others probably best not named.

Quickly climbing to the ranks this season of the overproduced is David Harrower’s tense and gritty 2008 Olivier Best Play-winner Blackbird, which has just opened at GTC after a previous run only two months ago at the Los Angeles LBGT Center as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Next month, a third production of the play will open at the Met and you can bet this particular reviewer will not be in attendance a third time—a colostomy without anesthetic as a preferable alternative comes to mind. Can you say “vanity production”? Whomever holds the rights to Blackbird must be one greedy entity.

Were artists I admire profusely not involved in this current mounting of the play, I would certainly not have sat through it a second time. This is not in any way because it’s a bad play—to the contrary—but because it’s a difficult, slap-in-the-face kind of play and twice will prove enough for me for a few years, I suspect.

Una (here played by Candace Hammer) has arrived at the workplace of Peter (Eric Larson), whom she knows as Ray. She demands to see him and he quickly ushers her into the company’s claustrophobic mess of a breakroom, desperately trying to get her to leave or go outside to talk or just simply keep her voice down. Ray has a lot about which to keep quiet, as neither his coworkers nor his current girlfriend know anything about his former life, the life that ended with a prison term after his three-month affair with Una when she was 12 changed both of their lives forever.

Yup. Hard to watch this psychologically traumatizing journey unfold twice in two months but ironically, this second time out proved a fascinating and interesting homage to just how beautifully Harrower’s troubled characters are written. I want to do anything but compare the two productions or two casts but, suffice to say, if you’re a student of theatre, the comparison between the two Blackbird-s is almost instantly apparent.

Let me just say no one in these dueling productions is in any way the same. In the first, the character of Una held all the power over her milquetoast former assailant, while in this version, Ray clearly holds the reigns and Una is the fragile one. Even the direction shows two totally different approaches to the same subject. Where Anna Stromberg’s kinetic staging had her performers constantly circling each other ominously like caged animals, here Jeremy Adrianne Lelliott takes a far simpler, far more cerebral approach to the material, a choice which makes the ending even more devastating than the other. Both directions, amazingly, work beautifully.

So much for not comparing the two, eh?

Still, if you did not catch the first Blackbird, don’t miss this one—and if you did but never stop being knocked out by how many ways a well-written play can be interpreted, see this one anyway.

THROUGH SEPT. 17: GTC (Grove Theatre Center), 1100 W. Clark Av., Burbank. 571.232.9984 or www.blackbirdplay.com

HONKY TONK LAUNDRY 

Photo by Michael Lamont

Hudson Theatre Mainstage

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Producer-director-bookwriter Roger Bean has an amazing track record, with his breakthrough creation The Marvelous Wonderettes springing off from its LA debut into a well-received off-Broadway hit and spawning over a thousand hugely successful productions throughout the world performed in five languages, as well as birthing several cashcow Wonderette-inspired sequels. His second even more inventive musical compilation, Life Could Be a Dream, received LADCC, LA Weekly, and Garland Awards for Best Musical.

That said, maybe it’s me, because Bean’s newest effort, Honky Tonk Laundry, is something of a washout. Keeping in mind I love listening to Wonderette’s nostalgic 1950s pop tunes and Dream’s 1960s doo-wop score, I personally sorta run for the hills when it comes to country music, probably because the father I couldn’t stand listened to it nonstop whenever I was home on a break from my own career. Although I can listen to Willie Nelson or Patsy Cline all day long, most of the genre’s repetitive tunes about standing by one’s man, fallin’ ta pieces, and making your boots go a’walkin’ away from all them rednecks with all them cheatin’ hearts, make me non-Cline-like crazy.

Honky Tonk Laundry is surely an acquired taste. Both the music and the script, featuring two good ol’ big-haired country girls singing their backwoods lungs out while Lana Mae Hopkins (Bets Malone) and her dysfunctional employee Katie Lane Murphy (Misty Cotton) fold endless loads of clothes, slurp Big Gulps, and spout those eye-rolling Hee-Haw-esque pearls of country wisdom, gets really, really old in about the first 20 minutes.

Now, there’s no doubt that Malone and Cotton are two of the most impressive musical theatre veterans gracing us with their considerable gifts on the west coast and both knock the songs they’re given right out onto the street in front of Lana Mae’s Wishy Washy Washateria, but I for one could have used a little less twang and one less intermission (of one).

They say all art is imitation, but there’s not much new in Bean’s slim tale written simply to link together the song cycle of country standards. Lana Mae’s husband and Katie’s boyfriend are of course both doin’ the nasty with some cheap floozy, which somehow leads them to decide to produce a concert at the Wishy Washy—and thus justify the second act.

Even though they’re “cuter than two insects goin’ ta’ the June Bug Ball in July”—yes, you heard me right—even the infectious talents and incredibly powerful voices of Malone and Cotton can’t save this Laundry from puttin’ out the CLOSED sign. As wonderful as it always is to hear both of them sing, having only their two voices to listen to, hugely and inexplicably overamplified overpowering the tiny Hudson’s sound system, eventually makes the evening a two-Ibuprofen event.

Somewhere deep in Honky Tonk Laundry, Lana Mae tells Katie that everyone’s got a good story and “that’s why they invented country music.” Well, for some of us, that’s just not enough. So if you’re able to sit through the CMT Awards on TV or Miranda Lambert in concert, by all means head to the Hudson and stomp those feet of yours until they hurt. You probably haven’t had so much fun since the pigs et yer little sister.

THROUGH OCT. 1:  Hudson Theatre Mainstage, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 323.960.7773 or www.plays411.com/honkytonklaundry

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME 

 Photo by Martha Swope

Ahmanson Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

There’s nothing more challenging than trying to depict what lurks inside someone else’s head, especially if the head belongs to someone with issues most of us have been fortunate enough to not experience personally. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time examines, through incredibly imaginative visual devices, the inside of someone’s brain obviously living precariously with some unnamed condition falling within the crowded autism spectrum. I kept thinking of all those old movies that attempted to depict the use of LSD and other psychedelic drugs which, from my own spectacularly knowledgeable personal worldview, I always felt proved to be grossly inaccurate.

Adapted wondrously by Simon Stephens from the international best-selling novel by Mark Haddon, it’s not hard to understand why The Curious Incident… won seven Olivier Awards in the West End and five Tony Awards on Broadway, including in both contests Best Play, Best Director honors for Marianne Elliott, and Best Choreography for Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett.

On Broadway, Alex Sharp won the Best Actor Tony for his first professional production in the exhaustive tour de force role of that conflicted young man, the classically nerdy 15-year-old Christopher John Francis Boone, a character who never leaves the stage during the show’s breakneck two-and-a-half hour playing time. Christopher is now being played in the west coast debut at the Ahmanson by Adam Langdon, a classmate of Sharp’s at Juilliard who alternates at some performances with Benjamin Wheelwright, whom I understand is also amazing. It’s hard to imagine anyone could be better than Langdon—kudos he must share with the committed and fiercely talented members of Elliott’s precision ensemble cast.

Christopher is a quirky mathematical genius with an aversion to being touched and a puzzlement over all things related to the human condition, something exacerbated when late one night he enters his neighbor’s yard to say goodnight to her dog Wellington, a friend he can more easily understand than the people in his life. Poor Wellington, however, is lying dead on the lawn, a huge “yard fork” protruding from his side.

Although initially Christopher is blamed for the murder, his sweet and honest disposition soon makes the local authorities aware of his innocence. But this is not enough for the boy, who goes on a personal investigation to unearth the real culprit who so brutally ended the life of his canine companion—the tile of Haddon’s novel taken from a quote by that master sleuth Sherlock Holmes himself.

Christopher’s father (Gene Gillette) doesn’t want him to continue his quest for justice, continuously telling his son to keep his nose out of everyone else’s business and warning him to try to stay out of trouble, to which the boy earnestly replies, “But I didn’t know I was going to get into trouble.”

Christopher’s adventures are chronicled Jonathan Safron Foer-style from the boy’s unique viewpoint as he careens through a world that he not only doesn’t understand but continuously terrifies him around every turn. And here’s where the innovation of Elliott (previous Tony winner for directing the unforgettably theatrical and uber-magical War Horse) takes over, turning the massive Ahmanson stage, with the spectacular contribution of Finn Ross’ jaw-dropping projections, into a fascinating largescale Fantastic Voyage-esque E-ticket ride inside the mind of our complicated young hero.

Elliott’s visionary, highly ingenious direction is the true star of this show, something made more palpable by Graham and Hoggett’s spectacular choreography and the contribution of some of the theatre’s most sought-after designers. Recalling the tightly-crowded movements of the townspeople in the original production of Evita, Elliott, Graham, and Hoggett even manage to create an amazing illusion as Langdon is lifted over the heads of a clustered group of ensemble members, transported horizontally across the walls of the stage as though “walking” through the unknown and scary streets of London while searching for his missing mother, the street below his horizontal body moving before him.

There is nothing but praise to heap onto A Curious Incident…, from those indelible first moments entering the auditorium, where Wellington’s body lies sadly lifeless under a spotlight in the middle of the huge playing area—made slightly surreal as the Ahmanson’s usual well-heeled donors and opening night patrons, who typically stand in the front rows air-kissing one another and exchanging animated pleasantries, this time out do so seemingly oblivious to the highly realistic dead dog prop lying behind them with a pitchfork protruding from its side—to the incredibly inventive special treat which unfolds after the final curtaincall, literally stopping the audience in their tracks as they begin to file out the exits.

It always amazes me that I can be so notably inarticulate in person, especially after a performance, and yet, when I write, I create 200-word complex sentences that drive journalistic purists crazy. Leaving the theatre after Langdon’s remarkable post-curtain rant, confetti not yet even brushed off my shoulders, I turned to my friend Michael Michetti seated behind us and all that came out of my mouth was, “I just love art.”

“I just love art”?

What I meant to convey is how privileged I feel to be in a place where I can regularly appreciate the creation of art as innovative and important as what we’d just experienced, not to mention having the honor and responsibility of considering myself to be a dedicated creator of the best art I can conjure. I am often impressed with the ingenuity, imagination, and determination needed to bring a story like this to fruition as a performance piece, but A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time goes far beyond that. This is the stuff that keeps me waking up every morning, switching on the coffee, and facing another day in a world rapidly going to shit around us.

CLOSED at the Ahmanson Theatre; now at the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa through SEPT. 17. 

 

  See?  I'm an angel.