EVERYBODY'S GOT ONE 

CURRENT REVIEWS from

TRAVIS MICHAEL HOLDER 

 

The Children  

Photo by Jenny Graham

Fountain Theatre

I am old enough to remember “Duck and Cover!” drills in our classrooms and sneaking down into the bomb shelter my father had built to get a peek at those ominous shelves full of canned food, bottled water, and batteries, not to mention standing in a long queue in my grade school’s dank basement hoping Dr. Salk’s vaccine would keep me from having to live lying in a metal tube with only my head sticking out.

For a kid living in the shadow of polio and the omnipresent Cold War, hearing continuously that those evil Russians could at any time send those nasty missiles to our shores to blow us all to smithereens, scared the living crap outta me. It felt as though danger existed all around me. Even as a very young kid, after a possibly ill-chosen night of moviegoing dressed in my pajamas at the local drive-in, for years I stared up at any looming city building convinced that the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was going to suddenly break through a brick wall and bury me alive in dust and rubble.

I hadn’t lived with that early paranoid fear of our beautiful spinning planet coming to a violent and cataclysmic end in a long time—that is until March, 2020 when we all went into pandemic mode and I again began to wonder if our world was embarking on a real live version of The Andromeda Strain.

The thing that struck me was how calmly people tried to accept our situation, how desperately we all attempted to ignore the uncertainty and go on living as much of the same life as we had previously as our daily lives began to fall into clumsy new patterns. Except for the lack of toilet paper and wearing stifling hazmat suits after waiting in line outside Trader Joe’s for 45 minutes, living in fear became quasi-routine and I did everything I could to starve it down.

In Lucy Kirkwood’s 2018 Tony-nominated epic play The Children, now making its overdue LA debut at the Fountain, three old friends thrust together in the kitchen of a rural early-Martin McDonagh-style cottage on the east coast of England do their best to maintain such a normalcy, graciously offering day-old tea in a thermos and offhandedly turning on emergency battery-powered lights as the sun begins to set in an effort to save their small allotment of electricity.

The threesome exists with the same kind of lingering fear conjured by growing up in the 1950s in the shadow of The Bomb or more recently when we all dutifully locked ourselves away in our homes as the hospitals filled to overflowing with dying COVID patients. As they make polite though often conflicted and awkward catchup smalltalk about their lives, they work hard to avoid discussing the obviously bad parts:  the severely compromised world outside the cottage reeling from an apocalyptic environmental accident sending a cloud of radiation to settle over their community like an enveloping shroud—and the equally virulent, exceptionally troubled history of their own long-interconnected personal relationship.

In this quiet, bucolic setting, the former colleagues know that just outside the door, potential disaster looms. Long married couple Hazel and Robin (Lily Knight and Ron Bottitta) have taken over the old cottage situated on the edge of what they call the Exclusion Zone after their farmhouse and its livestock were caught in the epicenter of an explosion at the local nuclear power plant and its resultant tsunami. Unexpectedly, after an absence of nearly four decades, their former professional associate and Robin’s former girlfriend Rose (Elizabeth Elias Huffman) arrives as the door so suddenly that Hazel reflexively bashes her in the face, causing a nosebleed and staining her blouse.

Aside from the discomfort soon arising from Robin and Rose’s personal history, something we soon learn was not abandoned 38 years earlier but thrived in secret for many years, there’s the fact that all three of these tentative survivors were employed as nuclear physicists at the plant now sending deadly waves of radiation spreading out into the countryside and beyond. More than that, they were there at the inception of the plant and whether or not their work was responsible for the catastrophe now destroying the once-serene bucolic countryside around them is the elephant in the room. 

Kirkwood is masterful at creating very real, very David Hare-ian dialogue and situations, giving the barest trace of expository information to keep us absorbed and guessing while also somehow almost making the scenes seem fluid when one of the sparing friends leaves the room allowing the two remaining characters to offer a tad more insight into what is going on between them.

This is surely the best play to which we’ve been treated since the world is slowly and tentatively reopening but frankly, without a director as perceptive and supportive as Simon Levy and cast as brilliant and professional as this trio, The Children could become almost as thick and toxic as the air outside Robin and Hazel’s cottage.

Bottitta gives the performance of his career as the conflicted Robin, perilously trying to decide where his affections lie and how they fuck with his life—or what’s left of it—as he contemplates the relationship he shares with each woman. He shields the reality that the beloved cows he pretends to visit each day on their destroyed farm were dead and buried the second day after the disaster from his sentimental wife, something seemingly minor but which provides a significant clue about what he’s also hiding:  the fact that he’s coughing up blood and that, when hit by Rose’s Geiger counter, his body sounds off like a visit to a uranium mine.

Huffman provides a richly multilayered performance as Rose, bravely facing the world but soon making it abundantly clear how broken she is both physically and emotionally, and how steadfastly she intends to attempt righting the wrongs for which she believes she and her former coworkers might be at least partially responsible. Her loveless and unfulfilled life is evident, especially when discovering Robin and Hazel have four children, a detail he had kept from her during their many years of clandestine meetings, her unfailing love and passion for only him leaving her without offspring of her own.

Knight is the glue that holds this all together, infusing her Hazel with so many conflicting emotions that it’s almost dizzying. As the fearful wife wavers from attempting to be the perfect hostess in the middle of all the trauma, this incredible 21st-century Giulietta Masina somehow arrestingly conveys Hazel’s enormous but conflicted love and loyalty to both her husband and her old friend. As the character turns on a dime from sweet trod-upon little wifey to out-of-control banshee to occasionally tell either or both of them how much they are responsible for the upheaval, Knight gives a heartfelt performance that will linger for many moons to come. 

Still, it’s the three of these enormously gifted folks creating magic together under the patient and insightful leadership of Simon Levy that makes this production so enthralling. It’s not easy for three actors to hold our attention through almost two hours of intermissionless talking, but Knight, Huffman, and Bottitta offer a textbook example of generous, giving, electrically charged acting at its best, bouncing off one another so brilliantly I bet one could return to this production again and again and see new and completely divergent sparks fly every time. If I were back teaching this semester, I’d be doing everything I could to get my classes to the Fountain to see what quintessential ensemble performance is all about.   

Above the wonders of this presentation, however, simply The Children is the best new play to hit our poor maligned cultural desert oasis in a long time, introducing to our shores a new playwrighting voice in Lucy Kirkwood that could prove to rival some of the best and most appreciated theatrical wordsmiths of the last century.

THROUGH JAN. 23: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Av., LA. 323.663.1525 or fountaintheatre.com

Tick, Tick... BOOM! 

As many of my handful of trusty readers know, I’m not much of a “film guy.” My loss, I know, but I’ve spent my entire life breathing in the musty air of old theatres and without a live component added to my storytelling, I tend to lose interest rather fast.

So maybe it’s this long period without much live theatre in our lives or maybe I’m just adjusting to what could become the rest of my life, but I have been won over by some amazing filmmaking in the last month. I mean, really: Don’t Look Up, The Power of the Dog, West Side Story, and I could almost even add Being the Ricardos if only Aaron Sorkin hadn’t cast a frozen soulless zombie with a vaguely human face (who granted knows how to find her light) in the leading female role.

But! I loved Tick, Tick... Boom!  when I originally saw it onstage many years ago and now, transferred so brilliantly (and theatrically) to film by Lin-Manuel Miranda, this movie version is revelatory. It made my heart sing, it brought me to tears considering everything Jonathan Larson’s early death stole from us, it renewed my faith in choosing to be an artist despite the ruthlessly soul-crushing odds.

Miranda’s imaginative reinvention is of course infinitely made even better by his staggeringly serendipitous casting. The rich and heartfelt Chaplin-meets-Cummings performance of Andrew Garfield as Larson was wonderfully unexpected for me, especially as supported so splendidly by Bradley Whitford as Stephen Sondheim and surprise cameos from a staggering array of theatrical royalty including Bernadette Peters, Joel Grey, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Laura Benanti, Bebe Neuwirth, Roger Bart, Jason Robert Brown, Adam Pascal, Stephen Schwartz, Andre DeShields, Quiara Algeria Hudes, Jeanine Tesori, Marc Shaiman, Phylicia Rashad, Phillipa Soo, even my beloved friend and that legendary Queen of Broadway Chita Rivera.

Again, I mean, really. I’ve never been able to relate to or understood when people say they could watch a movie over and over, although that’s something I can easily do when a performance is unfolding spontaneously in front of me on a stage and is not served from a can with only one “choice” etched in stone forever.

But...  Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sparkling, touching, brilliantly innovative adaptation of Larson’s sadly autobiographical Tick, Tick… BOOM!  is an immediate and indelible exception. May it live forever in the future of film history—providing, of course, there is a future to live forever into, if you'll excuse the dramatically dangling preposition.

West Side Story: The Movie 

Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Photo courtesy of El Capitan Theatre

El Capitan Theatre

I do not usually review movies. For that matter, I don’t usually go to movies. The thing is, films are stored in a can on a metal shelf in some temperature-controlled cabinet; if a story is not being presented live, I have a tendency to lose interest in about 15 minutes. And yes, Virginia, I do mean all movies. My loss, I know.

The perfect exception to that rule is Steven Spielberg’s massive remake of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical West Side Story, which debuted on Broadway a mere 64 years ago and was first made into an exceptionally reverent feature film in 1961, winner of 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture. My personal history also includes a summer stock turn in West Side at age 17 playing Riff opposite the late-great Dorothy Dandridge as our Anita—that is, sadly, when she was sober enough to go on.

The new West Side quickly overcame my unusual disinterest in film, however, especially with a brand new screenplay by Tony Kushner and featuring LA Phil’s Gustavo Dudamel conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, with arrangements by David Newman and vocal coaching from Jeanine Tesori.

I mean... really.

Spielberg’s reworking of the classic, filmed by our time’s most dazzlingly gifted director of photography Janusz Kaminski, might just become known as the best motion picture version of a Broadway musical since the dawn of the millennium, just as Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ original film was the best film musical of the first century of filmmaking.

Add to that the film is not scheduled to go into worldwide release for another 7 days, yet it’s opening for us lucky Angelenos on December 10 for a limited run through January 2 at that historic 1926 moviehouse the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, complete with the leading actors’ original “Dance at the Gym” costuming on display in the lobby and a Broadway showtune concert presented before the movie begins played by Rob Richards as the venue’s famous Mighty Wurlitzer appears from below the stage. It’s an experience that could not be a better way to celebrate the holidays in our cautiously reopening country.

The film must be seen on a big screen and with the kind of state-of-the-art El Capitan sound system where the Jets’ whistles that begin Bernstein’s “Prologue” in the darkened theatre originate from different corners of the house, a phenomenon that also includes dogs barking from behind as Tony climbs the clanking fire escape to Maria’s “balcony.”

Kaminski’s cinematography is staggeringly brilliant when viewed on this level, sometimes bright and colorful, sometimes gritty and dark and dusty when his camera sweeps past a crumbling piece of concrete rubble as the characters’ doomed upper-west side San Juan Hill ‘hood is being demolished to build Lincoln Center.

As is often in the case in any Spielberg project, all of the Jets and Sharks and most of the other castmembers are unknown, all but a few complete newcomers to the world of film. The startlingly talented 20-year-old Rachel Zegler is a true find as Maria, one of 30,000 candidates from around the world submitted on video after the director put out a worldwide call for undiscovered talent and viewed her performance on tape singing in a high school production of Shrek the Musical.

David Alvarez, who left the business for the Army after being one of the three teenagers to share a Tony for the title role in Billy Elliott, had to be found to audition and is also exceptional as Maria’s brother Bernardo, while Mike Faist from the original cast of Newsies and a Tony nominee for Dear Evan Hansen is the quintessential Riff. As a former Riff myself I may have been less than objective here as I mouthed all of his lyrics behind my ever-present mask, but to me Faist’s performance stood out far more than the early reviews seem to be acknowledging.

Ariana DeBose, discovered on Broadway in Hamilton and who appeared in a leading role in filmed version of The Prom on Netflix, is sure to be featured soon for award consideration as Anita, the role which won Rita Moreno an Oscar in 1961. And of course, Moreno herself could be her competitor when this year’s nominations are announced, appearing in the remake at age 89 as Valentina, the local merchant who in past versions is a kindly old Jewish storeowner named Doc.

Valentina has been reinvented here as Doc's widow, a world-weary survivor of an early mixed marriage who has seen it all and understands predudice firsthand only too well. Kushner's screenplay delivers an especially poignant moment as Valentina sits at her modest kitchen table and sings a delicate a capella version of “Somewhere,” West Side's loveliest and most haunting ballad. 

At one point, the camera scans the room and briefly lands on an old photo of a smiling young Valentina and her Doc, the photoshopped image showimg Moreno during her fiery Anita days and possibly Ned Glass, the original Doc, with his arm protectively around her shoulder. It’s not hard to envision how challenging life must have been for the immigrant Jew and his Puerto Rican bride.

Moreno's perceived transformation from the strong and independent Anita to the fragile elder Valentina is not lost here, elevating Spielberg’s film to astronomical heights—and wouldn’t it be historic if one actor won two Academy Awards for each filmed version of the same play 60 years apart?

Veteran film actor Ansel Elgort of the Divergent films who came to prominence playing in the title role in Baby Driver is the lovestruck Tony and, although his vocals are not as dynamic as his costars, I for one do not understand why so many critics have felt his performance is the film’s weakest link. His Tony is heartbreakingly real to me, a lovely, lyrical turn that I found to be one of the major highlights of the remake. And if Elgort isn’t a world-class singer, that too seems sweetly appropriate to the nature of the character.

Justin Peck, who often performed Robbins’ original West Side choreography as a member of the New York City Ballet during the era when Jerry (who I had the honor to know when he directed me over a half-century ago in Oh Dad, Poor Dad…) served as NYCB’s ballet master, clearly pays homage to the original moves yet also makes them his own.

Perhaps one of my only minor disappointments with the film was how Kasminski too often captured the dance numbers from overhead and afar which, though filmic, made me miss seeing the dancers’ moves in tighter detail. In Wise and Robbins’ film, we got to know each of the gang members and their girlfriends. Here they’re kinda-sorta just a crowd.

Although the soundtrack and Newman’s arrangement stay true to Bernstein’s intent, I also thought somehow, even with Dudamel and the NY Phil performing the familiar score, it seemed to be surprisingly unexciting and even at times disjointed from the film, sounding a little like a locally hired pit band in a small theatre dutifully following the sheet music rather than offering much passion. I’d like to think the problem rests on the shoulders of the film’s sound mixing department, not Mr. Dudamel or his musicians.

Paul Tazwell’s costuming also obviously honors Irene Sharaff's iconic 1961 Oscar-winning designs, but I did miss the Jet and Sharks’ supertight jeans that, even if a tad theatrical, nicely showed off the dancers’ prominent derrieres, something that always deserves appreciative scrutiny.

Steven Spielberg’s epic film will be around a long time—that is if there is a long time for our species the way things are currently evolving. It’s rather disheartening that the musical’s still urgently important message as heralded in Arthur Laurents’ original book has basically gone unheeded for over six decades. Our current set of world powers should all be strapped in a droogie chair Clockwork Orange-style and be forced to contemplate the kind of transforming Ebenezer Scrooge-y moment West Side Story has to offer.

THROUGH JAN. 2: El Capitan Theatre, 6838 Hollywood Bl., Hollywood. www.elcapitantickets.com

Dante and Beatrice in Florence: A New Musical Film 

My prolific friend and extraordinarily multi-disciplined theatrical genius Hershey Felder has been desperately missed on the stages of North America where his one-man celebrations of ther lives and music of famous composers throughout history have become legendary over the last 30 years.

Thankfully, however, Hershey is not the kind of artist who sits around waiting for our challenged world to return to pre-pandemic productivity, having last year initiated his own collection of original self-created theatrically-oriented films shot in and all around his majestic and mysterious adopted city of Florence, Italy.

Beginning with filmed versions of his beloved stage performances playing Gershwin, Puccini, Debussy, Tchiakovsky, Berlin and Beethoven among others, late in the season Hershey started playing around with formats, offering the story of Sholem Aleichem juxtaposed with versions of the writer's enduring folk tales.

Now in his second season, his signature vision has expanded even further with the recently released Dante and Beatrice in Florence: A New Musical Film, featuring Hershey as 13th-century poet, writer, and philosopher Dante Alighieri while also directing his own script—as well as composing and playing the film's richly evocative original score from the city where the piano was invented.

Since I am not bright enough to figgur out how to watch these wonderful films on television (it’s generational), I sat up deep into the night in my office watching the link to this newest entry on my computer. May I say Dante and Beatrice enters another phase of filmmaking entirely as it quite spectacularly, quite gloriously honors one of Hersh's adopted city’s most honored residents.

The cinematography is lush and breathtaking, making me long more than ever to visit this incredible place where art is foremost and civilization has yet to turn the place into quite the chaotic, broken, commercially greedy country into which my own has devolved. The richness of the images, as Hershey and Hila Plitmann not only play Dante and Beatrice but also appear as two modern lovers taking in the same wonders of this ghost-ridden city 700 years later, are quite special.

Still for all the wonder of this, the true stars of Dante and Beatrice in Florence are Hershey's imaginative (and historically fascinating) script and especially, the sweepingly glorious score composed and played by a worldclass musician and one of the greatest creative artists of our time. If you need a lift for your holiday season or any season, check out all of Hershey Felder’s amazing films born and bred in lockdown at www.hersheyfelderpresents.net

 

See? I’m an angel!