THE UNTRANSLATABLE SECRETS OF NIKKI CORONA 

Photo by Darrett Sanders

Geffen Playhouse

In Jose Rivera's new play The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona, one character tells another, "I hate it when you're cryptic."  This is glaringly ironic since there might be no contemporary playwright as mysterious and enigmatic as Rivera and, on every other occasion listening to his bold and evocatively poetic language chronicling the human condition at this point in our evolution as a species and a planet, I've been right there cheering him on.

This time, however, Rivera's elliptical message is simply confusing, with nothing relatable about the tale besides the leading character's eagerness to move on. By the time the final metaphorical door appears for Orlando (Richard Chavira) to pass through, if relief from the audience is the desired effect, Nikki Corona succeeds splendidly. I was relieved to step into the fresh air and onto the Geffen Playhouse patio, as ready to move on as poor confused Orlando.

The most frustrating thing here is the promise. The fluid directorial hand of Jo Bonney and the work of the actors and designers deserve praise, but just what was the point of putting all that time and energy into delivering a slickly professional mounting of a play obviously not ready for primetime?

Rivera, author of the groundbreaking References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, Marisol, and Sonnets for an Old Century, as well as the underrated screenplay for On the Road and recipient of an Oscar nomination for his film adaptation of The Motorcycle Diaries, has always been someone to whom I pay attention. In Nikki Corona, the first act again portends more of such signature brilliance, especially as it begins with an arrestingly lyrical monologue as the title character’s twin sister Abril (both roles played by Onahoua Rodriguez) leaves a last message on her sister’s phone before jumping to her death from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Nikki, agonizingly troubled for not being there to answer the call, goes to a very special service called A New Orpheus, run by the not-too confident Maren (Cate Scott Campbell), an entrepreneur who links loved ones left behind with someone terminally ill, charging a large fee to potentially have the dying patient deliver a message to someone recently departed when they get to the afterlife. Although Nikki is neither daunted by the enormity of the payment or Maren’s lack of assurances that the whole concept isn’t ridiculous and without guarantees, what she doesn’t reckon with is finding an unnerving affection for the dying patient (Chavira).

When Orlando takes his last breath at the end of Act One, however, anything we feel as audience members is left dangling. Never again do we see Nikki or experience any catharsis about what the death of Orlando changes for her, instead journeying with him into a surreal purgatory governed by giant octopuses and featuring staggeringly psychedelic undulating stage-filling graphic projections designed by Hana S. Kim that are the best thing about this production.

With the help of a Southern trailerparkish guide named Lisandra (Campbell again, clad in daisy dukes and sporting warrior tattoos), Orlando visits several of his dead relatives before finally finding Abril, at which time he whispers the secret Nikki shared with him as he lie dying to relate to her sister. Abril laughs uproariously, a portal to the next “plateau” opens onto the fourth wall, and we all get to go home. End of play—and of my patience.

All the uniformly screwed-up dead people of Orlando’s life are played by Zilah Mendoza and Juan Fernando Villa, including his rigid unfeeling mother who seems to be spending eternity writing letters of contrition to the thousands of people she swindled in a political scheme—the profits of which she left to the Daughters of Ayn Rand Association instead of her children—and his great-great-grandfather who lived off the fact that his greatest accomplishment in life was a sham. Unfortunately, by the time Orlando finds Abril, we couldn’t care less, either about him or his Dr. Livingston or listening to much of anything else Rivera is trying to say here.

If only the playwright had stuck with the situations and questions which ended the first half of The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona and didn’t leave us wondering what religious dogma from his childhood he was trying to exorcise with this play or what he must have been “on” when he wrote Act Two, I might have been less ready to wish I’d left at intermission since the things left hanging there were better left a mystery rather than having to sit through Rivera’s unfathomable and masturbatory second half.

THROUGH OCT. 7: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Av., Westwood. 310.208.5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.org

BEAUTIFUL

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Pantages Theatre

In the Republic, Plato theorized that all art imitates life and, when it comes to the increasingly more popular genre of bio-musicals, it certainly seems those wise old Greeks guys were onto something. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, opens with the ubertalented Sarah Bockel almost eerily channeling the singer-songwriter as she sat at her trusty Steinway onstage in front of a sold-out audience at Carnegie Hall some 47 years ago—her very first solo performance on any major concert stage.

Wearing costumer Alejo Vietti’s faithful replica of the same dress and exhibiting the same nerves, warmth, and incredible talent as the real King gave the world of music, Bockel takes a deep breath, bangs the keyboard fiercely while letting her double's wild mane of curls obliterate her face, and launches into a spot-on recreation of "So Far Away."

Watching the lights come up on Bockel opening night of Beautiful at the equally (almost) majestic Pantages Theatre, it was more than an imitation for me, instantly flashing me back to that night in the summer of 1971 when I sat there in the very front row, my partner Victor Colin and I bookending our dear friend Laura Nyro as we, in something very akin to total awe, observed musical history taking place right before our eyes.

My personal history with Carole goes back two years earlier when, as Talent Coordinator of the Troubadour, the newly transplanted New Yorker would sneak into the Troub during the day to try out her newest compositions on the club's resident grand piano. Our friendship began with my secretary dipping into the closed kitchen to produce a couple of famously juicy (albeit greasy) burgers for Carole and me after she had first been swayed by the cooking smells wafting there during an earlier purloined lunch several days before.

I remember, as we sat on the lip of the stage eating, telling her that the deal for her pal James Taylor to play the club was nearly finalized and, since I knew he has asked her if she would come in as his piano accompanist if that happened, I took the bull by the horns. Since I was knocked out every time I heard her voice drifting up to my office above the stage every time she practiced, I asked Carole if she'd consider being his opening act. It was something I had discussed and conspired to make happen with James, his producer-manager Peter Asher, and her mentor Danny Kirshner beforehand, although all three of them were certain she would most emphatically say no.

Carole did more than say no; she practically spit her Diet Coke across the Troubadour floor. "No, I can't ever sing in front of an audience!" she wailed loudly to the empty room where she would soon make her live performing debut several months later in November, 1970. "I'd have a heart attack!"

It was one of those real art-imitates-life moments for me opening night of Beautiful, when Bockel as Carole says the exact same thing to her friends and friendly rivals Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (played by Jacob Heimer and Alison Whitehurst with the added yammy-yammies of having the legendary songwriting team seated right before them in the Pantages audience) when, back before she left the comfort of her native climes, she's asked to come onstage at the Bitter End in The Village to sing one of her songs. I’m not sure if the reference to impending heart failure is a coincidence, something the Manns told bookwriter Douglas McGrath she’s said, or if that phrase was a standard line Carole used whenever she was asked to perform live back then.

In the era of the bio-musical—and it's not hard to picture this one settling in someplace in Las Vegas like Planet Hollywood in the near future for a long and extended run—McGrath's book doesn't compare to Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice's surprisingly literate work on Jersey Boys, yet it could rival another current LA visitor, Ain't Too Proud, in fulfilling the And-Then-I-Wrote sweepstakes that conveniently makes possible the welcome revisiting of the music of, respectively, Carole King and the Temptations.

Interestingly, as well as I knew Carole, I was fairly unschooled about what had happened in her life before she came into mine in 1970. I knew she and her first husband, the late Gerry Goffin, had already found enormous success and fame in their late teens by writing some of the most popular tunes in the history of pop music, including the Drifters' "Some Kind of Wonderful" and "Up On the Roof;" the Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow;" as well as "Take Good Care of My Baby," written as an ode to the young couple's five-month old daughter Louise; and "Do the Locomotion,"  the classic that made a quickly-flickering star of the Goffins' babysitter (Little) Eva Boyd, whose own goofy dance moves inspired the number and went on to inspire a generation.

Under the fluid leadership of director Marc Bruni, Beautiful is a wonderful diversion, quickly pointing out the indelible groundbreaking music of one of the most successful singer-songwriters in modern history—although for me it was a bit disconcerting to realize most of those in attendance mouthing every lyric looked as though they were wearing Depends under their sequins and carried an AARP card in their wallets. You know; people my age--except I only cop to the AARP card and even that I keep in a desk drawer at home.

Despite the stereotypical behavior of most of McGrath's characters, every performer here takes what's offered and runs with it. On Derek McLane’s versatile and highly kinetic set, the exceptionally talented supporting cast morphs from one 1950s-1960s singing star to the next with lightning speed, aided by the whimsical choreography by Josh Prince and Vietti’s costuming, something that could be included in a Vegas quick-change act.

In the musical's running subplot, Whitehead and Heimer turn in admirable work as King's lifelong friends the Manns, themselves prolific songwriters here also honored by the inclusion of some of their own well-known tunes: "Walking in the Rain," "On Broadway," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," and even "Who Put the Bomp," which Mann recorded and performed himself—and was cowritten with Goffin as a tongue-in-cheek send-up of the then-current do-wap craze.

James Clow and Suzanne Grodner do yeoman's work in the pivotal yet underwritten roles of Danny Kirshner and Carole's undeniably crusty Brooklyn-fueled mother Genie Klein, but it is Dylan S. Walloch who does something amazing here, making his womanizing, increasingly more mentally unstable Gerry Goffin somewhat sympathetic and less of a villain than the character, as written, could come off as the story unfolds.

Then there's Bockel. Although not the original star of Beautiful on Broadway, to say she radiates everything Carole was about is a major understatement. At once shy, vulnerable, loving, and yet subtly charismatic and strong as an ox as her living legend counterpart navigates fame, fortune, and a mess of a personal life, Bockel is miraculous. Add in a voice that reaches the heights, finds the raspy riffs, and still mines the personal depths of insecurity and emotion that made King's music some of the most enduring of all time, and her performance is worthy of any award offered and personally made me want to hug her after the show as though greeting an old friend.

I hope you'll indulge me in relating one last story about my personal history with Carole, something that lets me proudly proclaim my part in getting her to perform her own music for the first time ever in front of an audience all those many years ago.

The Troubadour was of course packed that night. Carole finally got the nerve to leave the club's upstairs dressing room, which forced performers to walk across and in front of the balcony seats, down a flight of rickety wooden stairs, and make their way to the stage by pushing directly through the gathered crowds, eventually sitting down sheepishly at her favorite piano while her already adoring fans left their seats and ominously gathered in front of the stage to cheer and howl.

She pursued the crowd with a warm but obviously terrified smile, sighed deeply, hit the keyboard, and launched into the intro to her first number. She had not gotten past more than the first few bars into the song when Michael Shire, announcing from the Troub's lighting booth, stopped her over the loudspeakers with a tentative, "Uh, Carole..."

A bomb scare had been called in, forcing the West Hollywood Sheriffs to descend on the showroom and start evacuating patrons as quickly as possible. After sweeping the stage and every corner of the club for over an hour, the audience, all of whom had been standing outside crowded together on Santa Monica Boulevard, was let to come back in. However, the crowd had attracted a heap on non-paying additional revelers by that time, as well as a few impatient ticketholders from the now monumentally late second show, making the reseating of the audience another long and drawn-out nightmare.

Finally, Carole again sat at her piano to begin what was supposed to be the first 7pm show, now about to start well after 9:30 if I remember correctly. Just before she began, Michael's voice again came over the sound system to say, "Sorry about that, Carole."

"No, no, it's fine, really!" Carole said with a nervous laugh. "I'm just relieved it was a bomb threat and not my playing."

THROUGH SEPT. 30: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 800.982.2787 or www.HollywoodPantages.com

NATIVE GARDENS 

Photo by Jenny Graham

Pasadena Playhouse

In a country and a world wildly spinning off its axis on a daily basis, it’s a rarity these politically-dominated days when we get to simply laugh and escape the frustrations of ugly reality for a few minutes. This is the major factor that makes Karen Zacarias’ Native Gardens such a welcome diversion at this particular point in time, as it’s a play that, in its west coast debut at Pasadena Playhouse, let's us all sit back for at least a quick 90 minutes and stop thinking of things we never imagined our decency would let our minds conjure.

Interestingly, Zacarias has accomplished something even more crafty, as there actually is a prickly societal agenda lurking just behind the humor, the impact of which might not be completely apparent until one is driving home from Pasadena. On the surface, Native Gardens is a throwback to the old days of the family-friendly 1970s-style TV sitcom as two neighboring couples fight over property lines and the definition of what is beautiful—in an arboreal sorta way. Beyond that, however, is a gentle and hilarious morality tale of how quickly the thin veneer of civilization can wear itself off even for the seemingly most enlightened and educated among us.

Virginia and Frank Butley (Frances Fisher and Bruce Davison) are a… er… mature couple who have been living in their upscale Washington, DC neighborhood for several decades, where the center of Frank's life is the verdant English garden he has tended and cultivated for many seasons in an effort to be chosen over his neighbor across the street as recipient of an annual award for his dedicated horticultural efforts.

A new couple has moved into the “fixer-upper” next door and love their overgrown and long-untended grounds butting against the Butleys’ property. The focus of their ardor is their arbor—the centerpiece of which is a giant and stately 350-year-old oak. Tania and Pablo del Valle (Jessica Meraz and Chrisian Barillas) want to design an ecologically-sound landscape centered around their beloved tree but the Butleys instead think it should be cut down, mostly to stop it from shedding its leaves on their own highly-manicured property.

Things are more than friendly when the couples first meet, complete with the Butleys gifting their new friends with the finest merlot and the best Belgian dark chocolates. Soon, however, the del Valles’ realize that their property line on the survey they initiate before building a new dividing fence between the properties is off by two feet—two feet occupied by Frank’s cherished and well-cared-for flowerbeds.

That lovely air of neighborly graciousness between the new neighbors wears off in layers purdy durn quick, replaced by sharp-tongued bickering and finally physically-enhanced feuding, exposing a long-hidden underbelly of racism from the older couple, the Butleys obviously not used to people not of the WASP variety moving into their staid Republican enclave—especially people of the millennial variety who want to turn their property into an ecological oasis where drought-resistant weeds can flourish and bugs and other unwanted creatures can thrive and multiply at will.

Under the well-practiced comedic guidance of director Jason Alexander and with the veteran skills of Fisher and Davison smoothly driving the storyline forward, what could be a difficult project to pull off in our contemporary culture, where unless a comedy is potentially scandalous and totally off-the-wall and no one would cop to appreciating a return to the days of Mary Tyler Moore and the Golden Girls, Native Gardens rapidly becomes a guilty pleasure. “Do you think we’ll be that out of touch when we’re their age?” Tania asks her husband. “Naw,” says Pablo, “we’re not white.”

While Frank laments that everything they hold dear is now bad, from margarine to white rice to Cat Stevens, Virginia decides a sit-in is possibly the answer as their neighbors plan for a weekend barbeque to impress the senior members of Pablo’s new law firm. “It was very effective to us young folks back then,” she reasons. “Maybe it will work for us old people now.”

On David Meyer’s whimsical outdoor garden set, one side terminally floral-strewn and looking like it was designed for the funeral of a head of state while the other looks like a scene from The Blair Witch Project, these four actors battle it out with one-liner gutbusters so frequent it hurts. The foursome is also joined by a trio of goofy gardeners (Julian Armaya, Richard Biglia, and Bradley Roa II), who enter between scenes to tear down and rebuild fences and pull up flowerbeds as they introduce each new scene with placards hidden cleverly behind trees, set pieces, and unfurling from the oddest places imaginable.

From the very beginning as patrons file into the theatre, these wonderfully spirited gardeners work to engage the audience directly and salsa dance their scene changes in precision moves, something I am told, although not credited anywhere easy to find, was choreographed by assistant director Rhonda Kohl. Whether this concept is part of Zacarias’ original script or was the comedic brainchild of Alexander I know not, but whatever its origins, it’s a charming and welcome addition to the proceedings.

Although it takes awhile to warm up to the initially rather self-conscious performances of Meraz and Barillas, something they both overcame on opening night within the first 20 minutes or so, from the very first beats, watching Fisher and Davison at work effortlessly doing their well-honed thing and bringing an uncanny innate sense of comic timing is a joy to behold. What’s most interesting and, with credit I imagine going equally to the actors, their director, and the playwright, they bring something to the roles of the Butleys I wouldn’t have thought possible at this stage in the virulent daily attacks from our classless Celebrity Appresident and his zombified minions: a kind of forgivable misguided conservative mindset that becomes almost endearing—as long as we have to deal with it from across the footlights and not in real life. 

Pasadena Playhouse is a tough nut to crack when someone is not used to working there, its size and historical majesty bringing a false sense of having to project one’s voice to the back pews at Stratford when, in actuality, with an audience in place, the acoustics stand up for themselves without pushing it—again something I think Meraz and Barrillas realized as the performance continued and will settle into even more successfully during the run.

Karen Zacarias’ play is a lovely little treat and serves as a perfect departure from impending climate change-spawned hurricanes, ugly midterm political drama, and non-presidential fistbumps from a classless clown who himself wouldn’t even fit into a farce such as this without donning a suit of armor. Native Gardens won’t change the world but, while it makes you laugh until the tears are streaming down your cheeks, it also could inspire one thing I hope might result from this production: a TV series of their own for Frances Fisher and Bruce Davison, whose undeniable charisma together as a comedic team rivals Desi and Lucy at the top of their game.

THROUGH SEPT. 30: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Av., Pasadena. 626.365.7529 or pasadenaplayhouse.org

SWEAT 

Photo by Craig Schwartz

Mark Taper Forum

Between my two current Playwrights/Screenwriters classes, my students have studied nine great plays this semester: Long Day's Journey Into Night, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Death of a Salesman, and Glengarry Glen Ross in my BFA class and The Cherry Orchard, The Night of the Iguana, The Shadow Box, Rabbit Hole, and August: Osage County in my AFA class.

Contemplating this review, I realized that of these nine plays, eight are American and seven are past winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This wasn't an intentional decision on my part when it came to choosing my curriculum; what I was going for was the evolution of playwrighting in the 20th century and, if my kiddies realize that in the 100 years between The Cherry Orchard (1905) and August: Osage County (2005) nothing has changed much and our species seems to learn nothing from our mistakes, I've done what I set out to do.

But the point of the annual Pulitzer Prize is to honor that handful of worldclass theatrical contributions chronicling who we are as a people, works original in source and dealing with the mystery, challenges, and traumas of American life. Certainly, all of my play choices to study bring that in spades and so, privileged enough to enjoy the opening night of Lynn Nottage's 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner Sweat in its west coast debut at the Taper, our collective troubled journey through our short stay on this fucked-up planet continues brilliantly.

This is Nottage’s second Pulitzer, the first awarded for her 2009 play Ruined, making her the only woman in history to win the honor twice—and along with her colleague Suzan-Lori Parks, these two great contemporary wordsmiths are the only African-American women to ever be so recognized by the Pulitzer committee.

Sweat follows the harrowing downward spiral of a community of generationally moribund bluecollar laborers toiling their lives away on the assembly line at a failing steel plant in Reading, Pennsylvania between the years 2000 and 2008. The only joy for this bedeviled group of smalltown coworkers seems to be getting drunk and griping about working conditions at the local watering hole after their grueling soul-sucking shifts on the factory floor.

In real life—such that it is these days—Nottage spent time in Reading getting to know and talking to displaced steelworkers before she began to write this play and surely this insight in the conditions they were forced to endure plays a heavy role in why Sweat makes such a powerful statement. The situation, though horrendously awful and morally sickening, is not hard to imagine these dark days, something the writer clarifies by creating exceptionally real dialogue and characters who are the kind many of us avoid when we choose not to go “home” for Thanksgiving.

These people have little in their lives beyond hard work in the dank, unforgiving bowels of the omnipresent local factory and this also rather dim but comforting neighborhood bar run by Stan (Michael O’Keefe), himself a former steelworker before suffering a job-related disability. Stan’s bar is a place where they can hang after work to commiserate with each other and as the play unfolds—albeit not in chronological time—we can see what a true horror their daily lives have been.

Still, as bad as things are, they’re about to get a helluva lot worse. Beginning with a scene unfolding in 2008, Sweat jumps back and forth in time as we are left to wonder what the event was that happened to these people, something only hinted at when the play begins at the end. Under the exceptionally fluid staging of director Lisa Peterson on Christopher Barreca’s bleak but evocative set, Nottage’s characters spring to life beautifully, something made far easier by her ability to create quirky, multifaceted individuals, a gift then sent over the moon by this exquisitely talented and committed cast.

Though playing a smaller character, a former steelworker whose job loss has cost him both his family and his sobriety, John Earl Jelks is the anchor of this production in a role he assayed in the play’s original award-winning New York run. Portia as his long-suffering wife Cynthia and Grantham Coleman as their ambitious but cursed son Chris are also dynamic, as are Will Hochman as his increasingly scarier best friend Jason and Mary Mara as Jason’s loud and abrasive mother Tracey—two characters increasingly more boxed into a corner who eventually lash out like nightmarish Trump supporters at a Maxine Waters rally.

Peter Mendoza is excellent and perfectly cast as Oscar, the young Colombian bar worker whose striving for a better life becomes the target for the play’s most unspeakable act, while Kevin T. Carroll is a standout in the play’s least pivotal role. And as Cynthia and Tracey’s hapless coworker who dresses in junior-sized quinceanera dresses and can’t stay sober enough to tell exactly what’s happening around her, Amy Pietz provides the play’s much needed moments of guilty humor, making her Jessie a memorable cross between a drunken Karen Weston and Chaplin’s Little Tramp.

There are a lot of repetitive dialogue and situations in Nottage’s tale that honestly makes it sometimes hard to sit through—or is that the point?—but trimmed of about a half-hour of drinking and complaining and losing the intermission might not be a bad experiment. Still, what makes her overstated yet riveting masterpiece stand out amongst the well-honored group of classic plays mentioned earlier from misters O’Neill, Williams, Miller, Christofer, Mamet, Lindsay-Abaire, and Letts, is something the playwright clearly shares with Miller and his saga of poor ol’ Willie Loman.

Although most of the works I chose to study in my courses this semester deal with the most frequently tackled premise in all modern dramatic literature, the plight of the dysfunctional family, Sweat and Death of a Salesman both explore the reason why these dysfunctional characters became so dysfunctional: the death of the American dream. Although there may be an argument Glengarry Glen Ross, that infamous story of integrity-challenged conmen Shelley "The Machine" Levine and Ricky Roma, could also fit into that category, the actions of Mamet’s characters are the result of our collective societal demise in this country, while Nottage’s life-tossed Pennsylvanians are still in the process of being caught in the web of it. The state of our country and our society is almost a palpable 10th character here, covering everything that happens onstage like a enveloping shroud.

Rather than already being morally compromised before the tale begins to unfold, Tracey, Cynthia, and Jessie are still victims of the dream they thought they’d been guaranteed by putting in hard work and paying taxes, a delusion further hampered by the limited opportunities offered in their insular and claustrophobic daily existence. Like Willie Loman, these displaced steelworkers have spent their entire lives believing our democratic system was going to save them and reward them, an illusion teased on by the promise of a nice little nuclear family living in a sweet two-bedroom house with a white picket fence and two cars in the garage.

And, as is the case for so many deluded supporters of our current Disaster-in-Chief and his soulless minions, the desperation of these disillusioned characters leads them to go backwards, adopting racism, that easy target, for their woes, eventually resorting to unspeakable violence they never thought was in them. There isn’t even one tiny glimmer of hope in Nottage’s urgently important play that these residents of Reading, Pennsylvania are going to ultimately survive but then, the way things are going in this country, perhaps that will be the fate for all of us.

Hopefully future generations, if there are future generations, will be able to study Sweat and contemplate the questions explored by Lynn Nottage and those other brilliantly insightful Pulitzer-winning playwrights who have helped forge the way to a better world. Art heals, I know, but I wish these days I could say I am as optimistic as I once was that will be the case.

THROUGH OCT. 7: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

AIN'T TOO PROUD

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Ahmanson Theatre

With the slick multi-award-winning director and choreographer of the megahit Jersey Boys onboard, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations is already ahead by miles in its pre-Broadway run here at the Ahmanson.

Based on the memoir by Patricia Romanowski and the Temptations’ founder and last surviving member Otis Williams, the Great White Way’s latest future contender in the jukebox musical sweepstakes has a guaranteed future, surely making anyone in attendance for the glittery and star-studded opening night performance feel as though they were privy to what is about to become musical theatre history.

Unlike the aforementioned Jersey Boys, what Ain’t Too Proud doesn’t have is a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, the one thing that quickly elevated that musical to its continuing heights of success. That’s quickly overcome, however, by the contagiously irresistible and groundbreaking barrage of familiar classic hits by the group which helped define R&B music and became instrumental in putting Berry Gordy’s Motown Records on the map—along the way also coining the phrase “psychedelic soul,” something that proved the quintessential crossover for super-white stoners like me everywhere in the late 1960s.

From their original chartbuster “Cloud Nine,” which won Motown its first Grammy Award in 1969, to the group’s Lifetime Achievement honors from the esteemed Recording Academy in 2013, the Temptations have been around since the dinosaurs roamed the earth—with me right beside them wielding my club—bringing Williams and his ever-morphing troupe worldwide recognition, awards up the culo, and lots and lots of bling, something hard to know how to manage when you’re a troubled ghetto kid who grew up in poverty and strife.

Like Frankie Valli and his boys, the bandmembers who became part of the Temps hardly lived fairytale existences or, as Williams (assayed here in a tour de force performance by Derrick Baskin) tells the audience in Ain’t Too Proud, big heads were as contagious as the flu. This is part of what made Jersey Boys stand apart from other such efforts to chronicle the careers of superstars, Brickman and Elice more than willing to expose all the dysfunction and tragedy that haunted the group along the way.

The same is true here of the journey of the Temptations, the members of the group dropping like flies along the way despite their continuing and ever-growing success. The “Classic Five” (Williams, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks, and David Ruffin) formed the nucleus of the Temps in 1964 and are initially responsible for the monumental appeal which resulted in being chosen by Rolling Stone as one of the top 100 musical groups of all time. Still, by 1968 things were definitely already unraveling.

Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes) went particularly wacko, insisting in riding to and from gigs in a private mink-lined limo with his then-girlfriend, fellow Motown artist Tammi Terrell, and arriving hours late to appearances and recording sessions if he showed up at all. With the agreement of all the other bandmembers—some reluctantly—Ruffin was tossed out of the Temps later that year and eventually, in 1991, was found beaten and unconscious in front of a Philly hospital, dying there of complications of cocaine abuse, his body going unclaimed for a week.

Ruffin was not the only casualty of the Temps’ fame and fortune, however, and along the way to today, 23 different singers have made up their ranks, each and every one of the incarnations performing with Williams as their leader and inspiration. This is not an easy evolution to follow and, for bookwriter Dominique Morisseau, chronicling the revolving door of the group’s bandmembers without confusion and swimming heads is not an easy task.

What of course makes this all work is the music, including so many Temptations and Motown hits that it boggles the mind. McAnuff, a veteran of this kind of diversion, does a masterful job keeping it all moving along, even to the point where, on Robert Brill’s grandly versatile set and with the help of massive projections designed by Peter Nigrini, Temptations come and go in droves—some even exiting on conveyor belts to keep the action flowing.

None of this would be possible without stellar musical performers, of course, and it’s almost hard to believe casting directors Tara Rubin and Merri Sugerman found so many worldclass artists to energize Ain’t Too Proud which, even without the book and continuous narrative by Baskin as Williams, could succeed as an astoundingly perfect concert-style recreation of the music which defined a genre for all time.

Baskin hardly ever leaves the stage and, in a fair world, should win a Tony for his pivotal role, his character whisked from emotional direct storytelling to breakneck onstage musical demands without a chance to even take a breath. Jawan M. Jackson is also a standout as the Temps’ bassist Melvin Franklin, sounding more like his Robeson-voiced real life counterpart than anyone else in the cast.

Rashidra Scott contributes a brief but memorable turn as Williams’ lonely and left-behind wife Josephine, inexplicably but gratefully breaking into a showstopping rendition of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” that brings the house down. Nasia Thomas contributes wonderful cameos as Terrell, as well as Franklin’s formidably protective mother Rose and as Florence Ballard, joining Taylor Simone Jackson as Mary Wilson and Candice Marie Woods as Diana Ross for a knockout rendition of “Baby Love,” among other welcoming Supremes classics.

Sykes has some dynamic moments, especially recreating Ruffin’s lead vocal for “My Girl” and the title “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” but it is his smoothly elfin dance moves that remain the most memorable—which brings me to mention the musical’s greatest and most obvious asset: the brilliant, wildly infectious choreography of Trujillo, both recreating the Temps’ original smooth precision moves while also giving the production a whimsical and brightly joyous new spin.

In all my 32 years writing about theatre in Los Angeles, never before have I seen such a frantic and long-extended standing ovation than at the conclusion of Ain’t Too Proud, but even that was not the end of the revelries as, from the stage, Baskin acknowledged some of the legendary musical figures in attendance on opening night, including Motown honcho Berry Gordy, the Supreme’s original Mary Wilson, the Temps’ hard-hitting manager Shelly Berger (also a creative consultant on the production), and the looming larger-than-life Otis Williams himself who, at 76, still to this day performs with the group he invented and championed for nearly six decades.

I’m still walking around singing “You Can’t Hurry Love” at full volume, something that will hopefully soon dissipate to the relief of all those forced to exist around me. Thank you, Mr. Williams, for making our lives so much richer.

THROUGH SEPT. 30: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

OPENING SPRING, 2019:  Imperial Theatre, New York City

MARIAN, OR THE TRUE TALE OF ROBIN HOOD 

Photo by Darrett Sanders

Theatre of NOTE

Specializing in premiering wildly off-centered original theatrical delights, almost everything presented by the prolific and courageous Theatre of NOTE in its 37-year history is worthy of praise. NOTE has tackled some of the most fascinating new material in the annals of the scrappy El Lay intimate theatre community, instantly making the promise of Adam Szymkowicz’ outrageous Marian, Or the True Tale of Robin Hood a given.

Szymkowicz’ retelling of the familiar classic tale, featuring a distinct twist of repressed sexual curiosity and rampant genderbending happening in and around that infamous Forest of Sherwood, is a perfect concept for our times—and what should have been the quintessential project for this particular company to take on. Unfortunately, the writer’s clever barrage of cultural slings and arrows nearly miss their targets entirely in this mounting, stumbling clumsily under the bewildering directorial choices of Christopher Johnson.

From first entering the theatre, with the spirited residents of Nottingham joined together to sing ancient folksongs and greet patrons in rhyming couplets as they locate their seats, bad decision making runs rampant. The musical prologue would have been a fine idea if perhaps it had been a tad more rehearsed; as is, after silencing the audience with their attention-grabbing antics, there are uncomfortable sections of nothingness where all the castmembers do is converse quietly with one another in small groups while those gathered to watch wait for something to happen.

As is usual for NOTE, the ensemble is golden, especially the performance of the indominable Kirsten Vangsness in the title role—er, roles, as Mr. Hood is indeed Marian in disguise in this version—and Joel Sher as a bejeweled Paul Lyndian Prince John, who can’t keep from screaming out the name of his exiled brother Richard whenever he releases his royal seed into the honeypot his favorite court concubine.

Szymkowicz’ script might be better than it comes off here, but what he has to say is so buried in the bizarrely misfired staging by Johnson that it’s hard to tell. Written almost like a screenplay, with the action flashing from one multi-gendered couple falling in love to another in short filmic takes, these pairings could have been staged with much smoother transitions, melded from one to the next with theatrical fluidity rather than having one set of characters leave the stage totally empty for an extended period of time after they rush off to copulate and before the next couple wanders on and into place to deliver their lines.

There are also many, many stage fights and battles staged by Jen Albert, all of which also look like great fun to perform but less fun to watch. Not only does the sparring go on too long and happen too often, Albert’s suitably impressive and scrappy choreography was not quite ready for an audience, it seemed on opening night, with too many stumbles and awkwardly under-rehearsed moments that made patrons sitting in the proximity of the action in NOTE’s tightly-intimate first row cringe and duck whenever the swords and staffs came dangerously close to their heads. Personally, I would have been gone—but then, if anyone onstage was able to foresee the future and visualize this review, perhaps I wouldn’t have had time to break that ol’ proverbial fourth wall and rush for the exit.

Despite the fact that everyone involved in this production oozes with talent and energy, Marian, Or the True Tale of Robin Hood has a palpable ungainly and graceless air of let’s-find-us-a-barn-and-put-on-a-show-itis. That surely can be forgiven but not overlooked considering NOTE’s body of work, but it is surprising to discover even the amazing artists who support and stay so fiercely loyal to Theatre of NOTE are human, too. Hopefully next time, all those missed-shot arrows will find their mark once again.

THROUGH SEPT. 22: Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. 323.856.8611 or www.theatreofnote.com

JEWS, CHRISTIANS AND SCREWING STALIN 

Photo by Ed Krieger

Matrix Theatre

Well, the title is provocative, the premise heralds something special, and personally I’d love to sit around the living room listening to cowriter/director Mark Lonow reminiscing about growing up in his eccentric Trotskyite grandparents’ home in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 60s. Unfortunately, that pedigree and promise does not add up to a successful transformation to the stage in Lonow and wife Jo Anne Astrow’s Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin, now world premiering at the Matrix.

It’s not difficult to see the affection Lonow has for his transplanted Russian zeyde and bobe, the former already dead but joining his family onstage to narrate the story, the other still glancing at the heavens to evoke his name or declare an occasional “Oy” as she continues to command the family’s Brighton Beach boardinghouse with an iron fist and inedible meals.

The problem is, the highly traditional Murray Grazonsky (John Pleshette) didn’t will the property to his hard-working wife Minka (Cathy Ladman); he instead followed his culture’s lead to leave the house to his LA actor-hopeful grandson Joey (Hunter Milano) rather than someone of the fairer sex. And so when Joey—sorry, Bubby, Joseph—arrives to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with his surprise shiksa fiancée Caitlin (Sammi-Jack Martincak) at his side, the fear is his ice-queen grandmother will freak, possibly in Lizzie Bordenish fashion. Not only is Caitlin half-Irish, you see, she’s also half-German, a fact that causes Minka to react like a leftist Pavlov’s dog by raising her highly convenient butcher knife to ominous heights.

Of course Minka has a surprise for her grandson as well, having also invited his estranged and long-absent loser of a dad (Travis York), a guy who can easily still chip the ice off his mother even as he is begging for a loan of $10,000 to put into his latest scheme and keep The Boys from breaking his legs, all the while downing his sorrows in a massive amount of her well-stocked bar of alcoholic beverages.

Pleshette begins the performance from his spot in purgatory, promising the audience that this will be a light comedy with no McCarthy hearings, no Holocaust, no heartache—amending that with “Well, maybe a little heartache.” As always, Pleshette works wonders with his sorely underwritten character as he continues throughout to appear occasionally to comment on the story’s developments with yet another exotic umbrella-adorned cocktail in hand, surely another indulgent nod to the drinking habits of Lonow’s own grandfather.

As the play continues, however, the ghost of his beloved Zeyde has less and less to do and makes even less comment concerning the unfolding drama as the family’s dilemmas unfold. And although Lonow and Astrow’s band of supporting characters are all fun to meet, none of them is blessed with much of a character arc. Without much difficulty, Caitlin wins over her future bubby-in-law, who even confesses to her that she once schtupped Stalin and most of the Russian army disposing the czar before fleeing to America, Joey suddenly gives up half of his inheritance—possibly bolstered by getting a role on an episode of Ironside—and his dad agrees to stop drinking without so much as a blink of the eye or a pledge to ol' Bill W.

Even the presumably inexplicable reason York’s character weaves in and out a Southern accent is dealt with in Act Two by having someone simply say he “just does that sometimes,” making one wonder if that was a quick fix by the authors backstage during intermission on opening night, another tool to wrap things up with a bright but way-too enormous bow.

Along the way, we are also introduced to several of the boardinghouse’s bizarrely eclectic roomers, including the nosy Lillie Feinstein (Laura Julian), who periodically sweeps in from her room dressed as various movie stars to spill her latest overheard family secret; the stooped-over Mr. Goldman (Marty Ross), who can only see the floor in his ancient gaze, causing the others gathered to bend over to speak with him the one time he appears onstage; and Miss Koppelson (Sally Schaub), who in her only appearance crosses from the front door to her upstairs room loudly passing gas like a guard dog in a baked bean factory.

Yup, the story is interesting, but the play is not. It’s obvious Feinstein, Goldman, and Koppelson are probably based on real boarders at the home of Lonow’s grandparents when he was a kid, but as arbitrarily added to this play and with little to do but wait in the dressing room for curtaincall after their brief time onstage, one must wonder what made them give up their fall evenings to be a part of this tremendous waste of time and talent.

There’s humor, yes, but not much of it is worth sharing, especially when the playwrights resort to a plethora of unfunny jokes about farts, Feinstein’s vocal sucking in of snot, Koppelman’s bowel issues, Minka's youthful sexual randiness, and the Milton Berle-esque dimensions of Murray Grazonsky’s massive schlong. And considering the continuous name-dropping about fading icons from Harpo Marx and Maureen O’Sullivan to Margaret Hamilton, one would have to be the age of most of the firstnighters recruited for the opening night performance of Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin, all of whom seemed to know the authors and one another and were ready to laugh it up for those reviewers present, to make this work.

It didn’t work.

THROUGH SEP. 23: Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Av., LA. 323.960.4412 or www.plays411.com/Matzoballs

YELLOW FACE 

Photo by Megumi Smisson

Beverly Hills Playhouse

Remounted from its award-winning 2016 run at San Francisco’s Firescape Theatre, director Robert Zimmerman’s barebones recreation of David Henry Hwang’s 2007 Obie-winning Pulitzer Prize candidate Yellow Face is a welcome traveler this season to the usually more diverse Los Angeles cultural scene.

Premiering here at the Mark Taper Forum 11 years ago, Yellow Face proved Hwang has no filter when it comes to throwing himself under that proverbial bus—something continuing to this day with his brilliant new musical Soft Power, which debuted at the Ahmanson several months ago before making the Hwang loop to the Firescape’s hometown, that equally diverse City by the Bay.

“No one uses their real name,” Yellow Face leading character DHH notes with indignation, fuming at the bizarre notion that he write himself in as a character in his own play. “It’s self-indulgent.” DHH, of course, are the initials of Hwang and, as in Soft Power (featuring a future-classic score by Jeanine Tesori and now sniffing out a Broadway run), the playwright is not only depicted onstage as a central figure in the tale, but is presented as an egotistical, deeply flawed individual struggling mightily to find his own identity.

Hwang’s two-act no-holds-barred confession deals with the author’s own legendary faux pas when, in the early ‘90s and directly after making worldwide news by passionately protesting the casting of Jonathan Pryce to reprise his West End turn as an Eurasian in the Broadway run of Miss Saigon, he accidentally casts a Caucasian actor in the lead of his new play.

Rubbing salt into the rawness of Hwang’s wounds was the theme of the play itself, since the point of Face Value was to skewer the concept of white actors in “yellow face” always getting hired, like Mickey Rooney as that infamous buck-teethed racial cartoon Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or casting David Carradine over Bruce Lee as Kwai Chang Caine in TV’s Kung Fu series. The play, following Hwang’s soaring acclaim after winning the Tony and many other honors for his 1988 blockbuster M. Butterfly, was a disaster, lasting on Broadway for only 10 performances.

Jeffrey Sun gives a tour de force performance as DHH, seamlessly finding the man’s humanity and exposing his shortcomings with equal alacrity and, even though the actor is required to never sit out even one scene, never once does Sun lose touch with the honesty, intelligence, or most importantly Hwang’s self-deprecating sense of humor.

He is a perfect foil for the work of Roman Moretti as DHH’s nemesis Marcus Gee, the non-Asian actor fired from Face Value who then continues to falsely sell himself as a “Siberian Jewish” Eurasian—a quick fib conjured by Hwang himself while trying to save his own ass after he’s realized his casting nightmare. Gee propels that negative experience into a successful career touring the world in the lead role in The King and I—and I don’t mean playing the I—much to the consternation of Hwang, who feels he has created a monster by breathing life into this “ethnic tourist” who shows up wherever he goes just to drive him crazy.

Although slightly raw around the edges, Moretti is a wonderful new talent who could enjoy a major career as soon as he learns to trust his instincts and not feel the need to show us his character’s emotional state when everything is already right there in the words. We get it, see; Hwang’s dialogue is rich, evocative, and exceedingly clever without any actor having to work so hard to deliver it.

This tendency to overexplain is true in the work of most of Yellow Face’s supporting players even though, when one gets used to the playing style, it can still be said they all do an exceptional job instantly transforming from one character to the next as they step into the action from the simple row of wooden chairs comprising their playing space.

Dennis Nollette is a standout as producer Stuart Ostrow and others, particularly offering a knockout imitation of Frank Rich, while both Jennifer Vo Le and Lisagaye Tomlinson do a yoeman’s job bringing every rather underwritten woman in DHH’s life to fruition. Vo Le is especially heartrending as the writer’s ex Leah Anne, while Tomlinson has great wicked fun assaying the role of a flirtatious Jane Krakowski.

As Hwang’s bigger-than-life banker father, Alfonso Faustino has some touching moments but his performance throughout is the most indulgent—something that could easily be perfected by the actor not overconfidently taking centerstage to deliver almost every line of every character directly out front to the audience as though suddenly performing in his own one-man show.

For most of the performance, John Pendergast has little to do, standing on the sidelines at a lectern announcing the play’s place and time, but in Act Two he comes into his own as a real life reporter whose name is continually replaced by an inserted audio tape of him saying “Name Withheld On Advice of Counsel.” Although an 11th hour scene depicting an interview between Hwang and NWOAOC is one of the most direct and real moments in the play, someone should definitely help both Pendergast and Moretti adjust their booming vocal projection to better relate to the size of the intimate Beverly Hills Playhouse.

Zimmerman does a masterful job navigating the action around the restrictive playing style without detracting from the storyline, the inventiveness of his staging actually adding to the magic of the theatrical experience. Still, it is the rule-defying work of David Henry Hwang, a guy who obviously never feels the need to color inside the lines, that emerges as the most memorable aspect of Yellow Face.

Until the final moments when a major twist is revealed, this particular reviewer, who also teaches History of 20th-century Theatre for a living, couldn’t wait for final curtain to Google an important aspect of the story I didn’t already know and was causing my poor ol’ used-and-abused brain to explode with frustration.

Dirty trick, Mr. Hwang; you and your friend Marcus Gee got me good.

THROUGH SEP. 26: Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd., BevHills. www.plays411.com/yellowface

ARRIVAL & DEPARTURE 

Photo by Ed Krieger

Fountain Theatre

The Fountain’s co-founder and co-artistic director Stephen Sachs has a long history creating and supporting art for the deaf community, including his collaboration with the celebrated Deaf West Theatre Company, which began its evolution when Sachs and his fellow founder and producing partner Deborah Culver offered Ed Waterstreet office space to use before establishing his company's own space in the early 1990s.

As an established playwright, Sachs’ many beautifully realized plays about the non-hearing world performed in ASL stand out mightily in his prolific body of work. His latest effort, now in its world premiere at the Fountain, is an amazingly evocative adaptation of David Lean’s enduring 1945 classic English film Brief Encounter, which of course was blessed by a magnificent screenplay by Sir Noel Coward based on his short play Still Life.

With the indomitable Troy Katsur in its leading role, perhaps the finest non-speaking actor of his generation and a man who can get away with more charming excesses in his performances than French Stewart, cast here opposite his talented real-life wife Deanne Bray in the roles made timeless by Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, Arrive & Departure is simply nothing short of brilliant.

Sachs' script is both austere and accessible, revealing his clear understanding of the fragility of the human condition yet possessed of a poetic lyricism that shines through his down-to-earth dialogue. This is especially admirable in the scenes between Brooklyn-direct Dunkin' Donuts barista Mya (Jessica Jade Andres) and her NYC Transit Authority security guard suitor Russell (Shon Fuller), whose initially clumsy romantic intentions provides a lovely diversionary subplot to counteract Emily and Sam's bittersweet efforts to find happiness.

Sachs also contributes a fine directorial eye, smoothly moving his nine game ensemble members as though pieces on an elaborate chessboard to magically become a city full of strangers. Matthew G. Hill's impressively versatile subway station set is an invaluable asset, as is the eye-catching vision of Movement Director Gary Franco, who marches the actors around between scenes with remarkable precision, traveling in tight circles and in drill team-worthy queues across the stage as typical cellphone and Starbucks-obsessed commuters aggressively navigating the streets of Manhattan.

And as those anonymous city-dwellers squeeze past one another, the essence of the New York experience is further conjured by the rush of Peter Bayne's jazzy, brilliantly urban original music score and Nicholas E. Santiago's spectacularly evocative video projections, which—when not utilized to title the dialogue of the signing deaf cast members—streak behind the action like Koyannisquatsi on steroids.

Stasha Surdyke and Adam Burch do a wondrous job playing a plethora of those aforementioned anonymous commuters and other strangers, becoming almost heroic as they create their own emotional nuance while providing the  speaking voices of Bray and Kotsur, who only communicate with one another in ASL.

Surdyke provides a charming turn as Emily's Long Islandy-whining neighbor Marjorie, who comes into the city to shop 'til she drops, but I was most fascinated watching her surreptitiously try not to react as Emily while inconspicupusly sitting on the sidelines playing a faceless commuter while her alter-ego pleads with her daughter or tries to get through the thickheadedness of her rigidly stuck-in-his-ways husband Doug (Brian Robert Burns).

Arrival & Departure also marks the auspicious Fountain Theatre debut of CHAMPS Charter High School of the Arts' student Aurelia Myers as Emily and Doug's gawky, frustrated daughter Jule, who turns in a sweetly affecting performance full of all the pathos a teenager in our media-smothered society often endures, including an online romance with a boy of 16 who, of course, isn't what he seems. Myers' work is arrestingly confient and full of humor, easily chronicling what it must be like to make it through puberty in our madly accelerated age of electronic domination. 

As a new and unseen entity—I’ll bet during the final rehearsals the boldness of Franco’s choreography provided a few yammy-yammies about whether it would work for an audience—Arrive & Departure has a few minor issues I’m sure will mellow during this initial run like the fine wine it is. These include the emotional journey at the heart of the story, as feelings begin to grow between Emily and Sam, which too quickly morphs from joking and innocent flirting to its intensely passionate depths without the subtlety it needs, especially disconcerting since Katsur and Bray are offstage actually a couple.

Also needing further exploration is what makes Burns’ efforts such a difficult task. Until the final scene between Doug and Emily, there’s not much to like about the guy—although I’ll admit being objective about misogynistic cavemen husbands, especially ones who spout endlessly about born-again Christianity, is perhaps my biggest challenge as a critic and a person. Still, by the end of the play, call me a hopeless romantic but for me, Emily and Doug’s resolution is too little too late, making me frustrated she didn’t choose the more dangerous and less-traveled path, perhaps escaping to the Irish countryside to travel with Sam in a gypsy wagon with two tambourines and a dancing bear.

Aside from these evolving growing pains, however, Stephen Sachs' Arrival & Departure is an innovative and important new take on Sir Noel's enduring classic "modern" love story for the ages, one hopefully able to enjoy a similar journey without losing its impact for as long as the original has stayed a viable example of storytelling at its most accessibly human.

THROUGH SEPT. 30: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Av., LA. 323.663.1525 or www.fountaintheatre.com

CABARET 

Photo by Matthew Brian Denman 

Celebration Theatre

I’m not sure the number of times the groundbreaking 1966 musical Cabaret has been remounted in the world since its Broadway debut 46 years ago, but I would suspect it might surpass most other candidates for Ripley status.

My own affection for the story goes back to my early teens, about the time when I started discovering writers who made my head explode, forever changing my life and sparking my understanding of my place in the world. I dived voraciously into works by Jack Kerouac, Tennessee Williams, Jean Genet, James Baldwin, Ayn Rand (sorry), William F. Burroughs, and especially Christopher Isherwood, whose 1939 highly personal novella Goodbye to Berlin, part of The Berlin Stories, was subsequently the basis for John Van Druten’s play I Am a Camera and, ultimately, for Cabaret.

Full disclosure here: I have always loved the notoriously juicy Kander and Ebb score, yet have also harbored a frustrating underlying disappointment in Joe Masterhoff’s musical adaptation. Under the gloriously rich and clever leadership of director Michael Matthews, however, the Celebration Theatre’s brand new mounting of Cabaret is gorgeously fresh and suitably decedent.

Stephen Gifford’s intimate set design recreates an environmental version of the Kit Kat Club at the pintsized Lex, complete with crystal chandeliers sparkling over the heads of the audience and gilt mirrors and sexy renaissance paintings festooned to the walls. The minute one enters the theatre, we are transported back to 1929 Berlin, where dancers languish in sexy poses in Michael Mullen’s glittery period finery around the stage and a handful of lucky patrons sit at café tables being served by the ensemble while Matthew Brian Denman’s strident and moody lighting plot is accentuated by strings of arcing carnival lights.

The production’s single playing space transforms from the club into the train station where Cliff prophetically first meets his nemesis Ernst, and then morphs into the parlor of Fraulein Schneider’s rooming house with little set changes beyond lighting and sound cues. The dramatic scenes unfold in this shared area, although it’s always exciting to return periodically to the Kit Kat, where the grandly sensuous production numbers choreographed by Janet Roston are the true wonder of this excellent and surprisingly fresh revival.

As the Emcee, Alex Nee is near-perfect as he leads the club’s world-weary performers in some of the best renditions of Cabaret’s infectious ensemble spectacles with consummate skill and just enough gravel in his voice to make his turn in the familiar role truly unique. Talisa Friedman seems not completely comfortable yet allowing herself to totally inhabit the skin of the multi-faceted Sally, but if her rendition of “Maybe This Time” is any indication, I’m quite sure she’s gonna find her sea-legs purdy durn quick as she lives with this hauntingly complex character 24/7 over the coming weeks.

June Carryl is a rock as Fraulein Schneider, delivering the landlady’s two showstopping but thematically diverse ballads, “So What?” and “What Would You Do?”, with phenomenal success. Her scenes with Matthew Henerson as poor doomed Herr Schultz are also golden, but whenever Friedman or any of these other characters have to interact with Christopher Maikish as Cliff, the production flatlines. There’s little chemistry between his Cliff and her Sally, and even less with Tanner Rampton as Bobby, Cliff’s former paramour whose presence makes the guy run to Sally despite the odds.

John Colella has some promising moments as Ernst, but mining a bit deeper into the divide between the man’s friendly demeanor when meeting Cliff and the later reality of what his character represents could be accentuated. It’s fun to see the rather pregnant Katherine Tokarz pose suggestively around her baby-bump as the usually more licentious and intemperate Fraulein Kost, and although she could use a little help with her makeup to keep her from looking so well-scrubbed and healthy, her comedic delivery shines.

The highlight of this Cabaret is the commitment and talent of the out-there eclectic ensemble Matthews has guided to enormous success despite consisting of only six dancers. Although it’s clear this gamely willing team could make the MeToo movement look as though it has failed miserably, it’s a treat whenever Rampton, Jasmine Ejan, Tristan McIntyre, Sarah Mullis, Nicole Stouffer, and Mary Ann Welshans take the stage. None of this could have worked in this limited playing space without the extraordinary vision of this director and his equally extraordinary choreographer, who seems to have a knack for creating vertical movements rather than cramping her dancers' mobility.

Now, my personal druthers. Although I have never performed in a production of the musical myself, I did play the Clifford Bradshaw character, actually still named Christopher Isherwood in Van Druten’s script, about 40 years ago in I Am a Camera opposite two sorely-missed actors, Eileen Brennan as Sally Bowles and Frances Bay as Frau Schneider. Never a big success, the original Broadway production made a star of Julie Harris as Sally yet is most famous for a quote from Walter Kerr’s original review in the New York Times: “Me no Leica.”

I have always preferred the play over the musical, which somehow misses the point of Sally Bowles. I do understand why many people had trouble, when I Am a Camera first debuted in 1951, buying that anyone as outrageously nuts as Sally could really have existed. Obviously, they didn’t grow up in the theatre.

Still, nestled in the nurturing wings of Chris himself and his beloved Don in my early 20s when I first escaped to LA, the great yet most accessible writer assured me his account of Berlin in the Weimar era and the ominous impending disaster soon-to-be inflicted upon Germany and Europe by the Nazi regime was real. And, he assured me, Sally was as just as real as she was bigger than life.

Although Cabaret loudly trumpets the behavior of Sally, making her the wild character we all love, a passage from the original story has always stayed with me: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Yet the reality of Sally, to me, goes far beyond her conduct. In the novella and the play, she is the broadly-sketched embodiment of what hampers the lives of so many people who spend their entire lives continuously trying to be what they think other people believe them to be rather than living for who they are. Ayn Rand (sorry again) called it “Living as second-handers.”

Perhaps if the inherent darkness that overtakes Cabaret still included that warning, something that shows us how easily we as ordinary decent conformist-by-nature citizens can suddenly find ourselves joining Ernst and Kost at the end of Act One for a rousing though chilling march-tempo encore of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” maybe the musical would be even more brilliant—and cautionary—than it already is.

As Schultz tells Cliff during what will surely be his last goodbye, “Mazel—it’s what we all need.” With the world in urgent risk of crumbling around us at the hands of another insane monster bizarrely granted carte blanche to facilitate our inhumane downfall, more than any time before in my long lifetime, I can only hope it’s not already too late to fight the darkness that could smother us all once again like an evil enveloping shroud.

THROUGH SEP. 16: Celebration Theatre, 6760 Lexington Av., Hollywood. 323.957.1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com

TRUMP IN SPACE 

Photo by Joe Funk

Second City Hollywood

It isn’t easy to poke untapped fun at our disastrous Celebrity Appresident when every friggin’ day he continues to expose himself as the biggest joke of our time in history. The creative folks at Second City Hollywood, however, have somehow managed to make Dotard Donnie look almost as ridiculous as he does in real life with their oft-extended new musical Trump in Space, winner of last summer’s Encore Award after its debut at the Hollywood Fringe Festival 2017.

With original music composed by the show’s musical director Tony Gonzalez and Sam Johnides, Trump-ian bookwriters Gillian Bellinger and Landon Kirksey double onstage in roles they surely created for themselves. Bellinger appears as the stone-faced starship captain Natasha Trump, a reluctant descendent of our own current presidential Voldemort, while Kirksey makes a few judiciously planned cameos as The Executive, a faceless, gravel-voiced Darth Vader clone with a patch of blond hair sticking out of his hood and sporting a long red tie nearly reaching the knee area of his mysterious black robe.

Set in 2417, it’s rather scary to think our National Embarrassment might have survived the 400 years since all of us have shuffled off our mortal coils—maybe collectively if somebody doesn’t soon stop the out of control asshole—but it’s instantly crystal clear who The Executive is meant to represent, especially when he tells those gathered he’s the “most just leader in the history of the universe.”

There’s no rocket science employed her—if you’ll excuse the expression—but the hour-long romp through the cosmos is sure to please with constant in-jokes referencing Star Wars, Star Trek, and its most accessible and welcome target: that huuuuuge black hole known as the current administration as it tumbles headfirst through its own shocking and unbelievable trip into its own self-created script for Twilight Zone.

Capt. Trump and her crew (Jim Shipley, Rob Warner, and Joy Regullano) are on a mission traveling through space for the ruling United States of Commerce, fighting to reach a new star system called Polaris IV while hot on their heels are the rebels manning the Starship California (Nicole Pelligrino and Jessie Sherman, led by their commander Scott Palmason). Early in the proceedings, Trump’s followers capture their enemies and, spotting one another, she and Captain Barack “Barry” Sanders (Palmason) realize they are the lovers lost to one another years before, enabling them to break into song as smoothly as Nellie Forbush when she finds her Emile. 

Under Frank Caeti’s whimsical direction, every castmember has his or her own golden moment to shine, both in song and in deed, with the bi-spectacled Regullano proving to be a special standout as the meek and frustratingly overlooked Lt. Joy while Warner, dressed in an homage to Sgt. Dangle on Reno 911!, is hilarious throughout the gayest starship crewmember since the coming out of Mr. Sulu.

Pellegrino creates her own moments, moments reminiscent of a severely stoned Sid Vicious in an old Sex Pistols concert, which the others watch with suitably patient wonder before blaming her overacting as the result of her character’s juice cleanse. There’s also an eleventh-hour surprise from Mary Jo, who suddenly appears out of nowhere as another of the Republicants most jaw-dropping posterchildren, singing her lungs out as a character who, one might assume, thinks she sees Russia from the window of the spacecraft’s galley.

No, there’s not much content here aimed to change the desperate nature of our current world situation, but hey—The Executive does get blown to smithereens at the end, so besides the nonstop laughs of Trump in Space, there is some satisfaction watching him finally leave the universe a better place.

FRIDAYS THROUGH DEC. 14: Second City Hollywood Studio Theatre, 6560 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. www.secondcity.com/shows/hollywood/trump-in-space or 323.464.8542

 

  See?  I'm an angel.